VA: Camp Blue Pines
Sparkwood Records

While compilations typically offer a diverse range of styles due to the participation of multiple contributors, they also generally suffer from a lack of cohesiveness; often it feels as if a random selection of tracks has been compiled as a way of showcasing a label's artists. Camp Blue Pines distinguishes itself, then, in not only providing an encompassing portrait of the Sparkwood roster but in doing so with a degree of cohesiveness rare for such a presentation. After listening to it, one could conceivably come away from the experience convinced that all of the artists involved assembled in some boardroom at the project's outset to discuss team strategy and then adjourned to craft their respective parts. That impression of unity is enhanced strongly, too, by the classic narrative arc the album adheres to as it advances through its thirteen pieces; each successive track seems to position itself as the next logical stopping point along the collection's continuum.

Camp Blue Pines is no bucolic campsite, by the way, but a dark neck o' the woods heavily populated with goblins, owls, and other macabre creatures; further to that, it's a place where gloom rather than sunshine reigns (Scyye's opening track, after all, is titled “We Died That Night”), where dread-filled forays by Everyday Dust (“Aspen Gateway”) and (“Between the Peaks”) keep the nerves on edge and fingernails bitten to the core, and where campers emerge under the moon's glow rather than risk exposure to daylight. In these detail-rich sound paintings, cellos quietly moan as insects chirp, birds howl, and stalkers trudge, all cloaked in darkness and invisible to the eye. Some settings are less disturbing than others—one pictures Utu Lautturi serenading birds with marimba and kalimba at a forest's center during his Gamelan-styled “MäSän Laakso,” while Kelbach graces the collection with a disarmingly lovely guitar-and-woodwinds-styled meditation in “We Survived the Winter”—but the mood for the most part leans in the direction of darkness.

A few influences suggest themselves along the way, Boards of Canada during [MIIIIM]'s “Owls at My Window,” Budd and Eno in Mike Hill's “Among Soil and Stumps at Midnight,” and Twin Peaks elsewhere; little attempt is made to conceal that Lynchian connection, by the way, which is overtly referenced in track titles such as “Between the Peaks” and “Fire Watch With Me,” the latter registering as a veritable homage by Above, Convenience Store! to Angelo Badalamenti. It also will come as no surprise to listeners bowled over by the self-titled [MIIIIM] album Michael Iannon issued in 2015 and the Mansfield Reformatory EP a year earlier that his contribution to the compilation is a standout, even if the presence of voice samples and old-school synthesizers lends the track an undeniable Boards of Canada quality. Influences aside, Camp Blue Pines never feels overly derivative; the listener leaves the campsite impressed by the quality of the work produced by Sparkwood's artists and their talent for mood sculpting of the most evocative kind.

December 2016