The Use of Ashes: White Nights: Glowing Lights

Listening to The Use of Ashes' White Nights: Glowing Lights, I'm reminded of nothing less than songs such as “The Gnome,” “Matilda Mother,” “Scarecrow,” “Bike,” and “See Emily Play” from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the 1967 debut album by Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd (that's a compliment, by the way). In White Nights: Glowing Lights' eighteen short songs, The Use of Ashes members Peter van Vliet, Simon van Vliet, and Maarten Scherrenburg instill a similarly trippy and psych-folk vibe into their own oblique song constructions (song titles alone—“The Sky-Cracked Children,” one example of many—convey as much all by themselves). Like prototypical Barrett songs, the album's settings veer off on unexpected melodic tangents, and do so with gentle vocals accompanied by eccentric instrumentation (tabla, organ, sitar, mellotron, flute, glockenspiel, analogue synthesizer, zither) as well as more conventional guitar and keyboard sounds.

The first song alone, “Morgenstern (the Umbrella Jigsaw Man),” tells the tale. After an opening oboe melody, the vocalists sing “Take off your hat / Take off your hair and skin / Let me see what's within” while kettledrums pound and a mellotron whispers in the background. The gentle vocal harmonies heard in “Stranger in Paradise,” “Forever Comes With the Morning,” “The Prince With the Golden Hair,” “White Dream,” and many other songs make clear that the group's sound has little in common with the freak-folk of Animal Collective and its ilk; instead, The Use Of Ashes feels closer in spirit to Simon & Garfunkel (on vocal grounds) and Daevid Allen-era Gong than to any contemporary psych-folk ensemble. “Lazy Daisy Day” is as pastoral and peaceful as its title suggests, the brief diversion “White Night” offers a field recordings-and-organ sound collage, and “9 Glowing Lights” unspools nearly eight droning minutes of ambient swirl. Needless to say, the album (preceded by The Hand of Tzafkiël, the new collection is the second volume in a cycle of interconnected releases) also comes as a surprise for being issued by Tonefloat, the Netherlands-based label best known for its Dirk Serries and Fear Falls Burning releases. Certainly those albums, as distinguished as they are, include little of the luminous and floating qualities that give White Nights: Glowing Lights such a refreshingly dream-like character.

December 2009