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Olan Mill: Cavade Morlem

Alex Smalley's latest Olan Mill collection Cavade Morlem is somewhat of a curious recording, at least by ambient-classical standards. Five of its ten tracks are each approximately two minutes in length, which makes them veritable vignettes in a genre that often sees compositions push past the ten-minute mark. It's not an insignificant detail either, as brevity in this case ends up lessening the impact some of the thirty-eight-minute album's material might have had.

Smalley created the tracks specifically for concerts he played near the end of 2014, shows at which he performed armed with processed guitar, violin, and pre-recorded voice and organ samples; violinist Mike Jessop joined him on many of the songs, and sampled contributions of his playing subsequently found their way onto the new release, which includes re-worked recordings from the live shows. In a telling note relating to Cavade Morlem, Smalley refers to the resulting album as “a far calmer experience than the original performances,” an observation borne out by the contrasting impressions left by the album's first nine tracks and its final one, which, based on its title, suggests that it differs from the others in being an undoctored live piece.

The earlier criticism shouldn't be interpreted to mean that the shorter pieces are ineffective as they do leave a strong impression. During “Chort,” ethereal voices exult entrancingly, their drift accentuated by the generous doses of reverb with which they're treated. In addition, “Lighul,” “Feina,” and “Somimes” exude a mystical, almost gothic quality that invites comparison to Popul Vuh; “Tallole” is about as heavenly as a luscious strings-heavy reverie could possibly be; and the miniature ambient-drones “Novnal” and “Byruck” are stirring, too.

But at times the impact of the shorter pieces feels truncated when the opportunity was available to develop them into settings of greater emotional weight. That impression is accentuated by the presence of the strings-heavy “Mussart,” which Smalley lets unfurl for seven engrossing minutes, and even more by “Live at The Millennium Barn,” which shows how effective his material can be when its potential is fully realized. In this closing setting, the music gradually builds from the lull of its dream-like intro into something intensely dramatic as a flood of guitar and strings textures enters to expand its scope. Ascending figures then repeatedly surface to lend the piece a supplicating air and amplify its emotional reach. As the piece nears its end, it's hard to resist imagining what Cavade Morlem might have sounded like had the closer been expanded into a forty-minute form and the album presented as a single stand-alone setting.

October 2015