Swartz: Nighttide
Utter East

It would be, I think, safe to say that Steve Swartz's Nighttide is an experimental ambient-drone recording like no other. That's because Swartz, a Detroit, Michigan-based member of both Au Revoir Borealis and For Wishes, purposefully designed the album's material, in its initial form at least, to help ease his young daughter off to sleep and actually went so far as to set up a guitar and amp in her room so that his meditative guitar textures could help induce slumber. But lest anyone get the wrong idea, let it be clear that Swartz's first solo instrumental outing isn't an exercise in subliminal micro-sound but a rich and expansive excursion into guitar-generated sound sculpting; it's far from one-dimensional too, as Swartz coaxes a broad range of sounds from his six-string and expands upon that foundation by manipulating the guitar using oscillating fans, mallets, curtains blowing in the wind, and so forth.

At times soft tinkles, phase-shifted pings, and myriad other accents filter through the dense scrim Swartz builds up from layers of electric and acoustic guitars. It's easy to imagine him playing “Late Machines” in his daughter's bedroom, so lulling is the track's peaceful blend of acoustic guitars, bass tones, ambient washes, and percussive smudges; the closing piece, “The Blue Light of Morning” captures those precious moments of pre-dawn calm before the stress of the workday arrives in full frenetic measure. And on “Curtains” a bedside fan murmurs so softly it resembles a softly snoring adult, an effect in keeping with the gauzy track itself, which drifts so placidly it feels as if time has been suspended altogether. Slightly more animated is “Night Ships,” where a cymbal accent adds a rare rhythmic propulsion to the album.

Nighttide is best appreciated via headphones for the simple reason that Swartz decided early on to record, mix, and master the album in high-resolution audio so as to preserve the music's subtleties and dynamics. As a result, the album's pieces play like immense sound clouds speckled with sharply defined details that one can easily zoom in on, even when the elements flow into one another like liquids. That the first track is titled “Warm Current” is in itself telling, as Nighttide's material often undulates in a manner that proves both enveloping and calming. Furthermore, the fact that it eschews abrasiveness merely makes the collection all the more endearing. In short, it's a beguiling listen from start to finish, and well worth the sixty-eight-minute investment of one's time.

December 2010