Test Card: Start Up Close Down
Symbolic interaction

The third release in Symbolic Interaction's ‘CLR' series is Start Up Close Down, whose CD-and-postcard presentation seems even more minimal than the ambient-electronica content produced by Vancouver resident Lee Nicholson under the Test Card name. Originally from the UK and a one-time member of Preston's Formula One (a quintet that issued a number of singles and album between 1996 and 2000) and Brighton's Domestic4 (which grew out of Formula One and released an album and two EPs of its own), Nicholson resurfaces with nine settings that are in places so serenading, they lull one into a semi-hypnotic state and send one's thoughts adrift, until, that is, one re-focuses, snaps back to attention, and leans in closely to appreciate anew the sophistication of his arrangements and the subtle charms of the music.

Calling it ambient-electronica isn't off-target yet the label doesn't do justice to what Nicholson's doing here. There's a considerable artfulness to the way he shapes the material, specifically in the way he layers guitars, bass, synthesizers, wordless vocals, basic drum machine beats, and an occasional field recording into enveloping set-pieces. Attend closely to the opening tracks, “Marble Index” and “Cassette Ears,” for example, and you'll likely find yourself transported by their aromatic blends of pealing guitars and synths; in such cases it makes more sense to describe the music as instrumental dream-pop than anything ambient-related. As effective as those tracks are, they're bettered by “Porpoise Bay 72,” whose radiant melodies Nicholson buoys with a gentle gallop, and “Wah My Valley,” an even more transporting exercise pitched somewhere between tropicalia and psychedelia. At album's end, “Something in the Water” upholds the recording's dream-like character with six soothing minutes of plangent, guitar-heavy swoon.

If there's one word for Start Up Close Down, it might be sneaky for the way it slyly gets under your skin. I have no idea whether such a move was deliberate on Nicholson's part, but there's no denying the material works its quiet magic stealthily. Not that any evidence was necessarily needed, but the recording certainly demonstrates that music need not be loud to be powerful.

December 2016