Calling Animism, the ninth solo release by Chinese-American composer Forrest Fang, electronic ambient is a bit misleading, as the hour-long album only occasionally evidences the retiring character of ambient music designed to blend into the environment. And though its album title and theme (the idea that all living and inanimate forms possess a spirit or life force) and track titles (e.g., “Evening Chorus,” “Passing Suns”) invite associations with New Age, Animism is often so dynamic, it makes labeling it ambient or New Age seem inappropriate. World music is the better term, even if it's one derided in some circles, as Fang's music integrates sounds associated with multiple parts of the globe and alchemizes them into a highly personalized and generally harmonious musical vision. Certainly its World Music label is borne out by the instrumental resources Fang draws upon. In addition to acoustic and electric violins and mandolins, echoes of a gamelan orchestra surface, and the sounds of the dan bau (a one-stringed Vietnamese instrument), lavta (a Turkish lute), kulintang (horizontally laid gongs), and cane flutes, among other instruments, also emerge in the album's eight settings. In the long run, however, it might be best for simplicity's sake to think of the recording as some fluid and polyrhythmic distillation of all three genres.
Instead of easing one in gently as one might expect, Fang opens the album in dramatic fashion with “Tailing Wind,” a dream-like swirl of exotic percussion and fortissimo wails that conveys the feel of an hallucinatory spirit evocation being conducted somewhere in the Far East. The album's ‘world' feel emerges even more directly during “The Chameleon's Paintbox” when the pluck of the lavta resounds against a dense backdrop of strings. Yes, there are prototypical New Age meditations (“Evening Chorus” and “Passing Suns”) that form soothing way-stations between the more explorative pieces, and “Resting Point” does close the album with ten beatific minutes of glassy shimmer. But even when a track such as “Islands In The Sky” begins with New Age-styled atmospherics, it quickly grows in intensity and volume once the introductory section is over. Thereafter, the music rises to a level of contained jubilation when double-tracked violins soar sweetly over a bed of swaying hand drum rhythms and glimmering textures. “A Tributary Unwinds” likewise grows progressively more robust when its bells and hand drums enter to lend the sinuous violin playing some added heft.Labels aside, Animism often impresses on two counts especially: for its rich sonorities, obviously, but also for its compositional design. Its more fully developed pieces such as “Islands In The Sky” and “A Tributary Unwinds” stand out for how satisfyingly they work through their respective stages. Fang has taken great care in not only arranging the album material but in shaping the arc of its pieces. In speaking of Animism, the composer himself has described it as his attempt to harmonize ambient, minimalist, and non-Western folk and classical traditions into a new hybrid style; the resultant work argues that, while the hybrid in question might not necessarily be new, it's certainly effectively realized.