As a Means Through Which I Can Speak by Ben Fleury-Steiner

"The three essentials of the English language are: Purity, Perspicuity and Precision."—Joseph Devlin

Ben Fleury-Steiner runs the non-profit record label Gears of Sand. Gears of Sand uses a straightforward and admirable plan. The label releases ambient and Zoviet-France-esque experimental artists in limited edition CD-Rs, featuring solid artwork. Its roster of artists is impressive, and each GoS recoding I have heard has been a worthwhile experience.

Dr. Fleury-Steiner's own work, As a Means Through Which I Can Speak, presents eight pieces which explore the furrowed yet rich field of melodic drone. Recorded between August 2005 and September 2006, the work contains atmospheric pieces which seek to approximate a "journey of discovery." As a Means Through Which I Can Speak opens with "Distance is an Accomplishment of the World (Part One)," a strong piece which uses a mildly ethereal melody and spaces between sounds to achieve a pleasing effect. "As a Means through which I Can Speak (Part One)," the next piece, achieves a resonance I found very satisfying. These two pieces are perhaps the strongest on the CD.

Fleury-Steiner's work is neither synth-happy nor so minimal as to be a mere soundscape for pondering. He instead achieves a balanced sound which, in the main, satisfies both the electronic pioneer and the person who, as I do, enjoys hearing melodic themes elegantly expressed in drone. The decision to break two of the tracks into parts is a wise one. I could easily imagine this release being broken down further from eight pieces into twelve or sixteen. I think this is because what I value in this work is its sense of a crisp moment—a sense that is subserved by shorter pieces. The pieces on this release are not equally effective. The pieces that have a melodic theme embedded effectively in the drones please my ears far more than the pieces which merely achieve a particular drone-riff and settle in for the duration. The release has a solid sense of production values, and the mastering by William Fields is effective.

I've admired Gears of Sand since I acquired one of its initial releases. Its releases consistently illustrate how small labels can do things that large labels are no longer capable of doing. As a Means Through Which I Can Speak provides a rich array of interesting pieces—uneven perhaps, but never unentertaining. Even the least pieces are a solid listen, and the best pieces are sublime. Ambient music, like the English language in the old Joseph Devlin saw, may be about "purity," "perspicuity" and "precision," yet Fleury-Steiner reminds us that ambient music is also about lingering questions, half-dreamt notions, and everyday-ecstatic encounters. As a Means Through Which I Can Speak eschews dronastic bombast and elven song titles in search of a kind of off-kilter yet lovely sonic poetry. It is a meditation without chant, and a question-less evocation of mystery. I'm glad I listened to this mode of speaking.

Available from Gears of Sand.

Review by gurdonark.

Apophasis by Caul

"The spirit of the unattained,
I am to those who seek to name me,
A good desired but never gained:
All shall pursue, but none shall claim me."
—Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Titles of songs and genre labels for artists who create ambient music intrigue me. Bret Smith, who records as Caul, has created an intriguing album, Apophasis, which I will use to illustrate my point. The notes for the album at the Darkwinter site proclaim that: "Apophasis is 'negative theology'—a view of God determined by defining what God is not." This title evokes my interest, and adds a narrative quality to the story. The note also proclaims that the album was "[r]ecorded June-July 2006 at Epiphany Studios, Baldwin City KS." My initial knee-jerk reaction causes me to wonder if the album would sound differently to me if the title of the album had been "Baldwin City, Kansas."

A similar question arises when one considers the artist Caul, who has established himself as a dark ambient artist. Apophasis fits within the genre of dark ambient, but to dismiss it as "another dark ambient drone" would be inappropriate. The album provides a rich but not cluttered landscape of sound, from its minimalist opening section through lyrical but not overpowering melodic sections into a crescendo of quiet noise.

An artist chooses an album or song title for a reason, even if the reason is that the title merely serves as a placeholder. This title seems more than a placeholder. In this sonic context, apophasis, as defined for the listener, gives a springboard from which to contemplate the work. The single piece which comprises this album serves as a kind of metaphor for the spaces between—the places beyond conventional expectation—in the title's illustration, the places where God is not (and which are not God). It features some of the otherworldly sounds and evocative passages one might expect from a quasi-religious reference. The album fails to fall into stereotype, though, providing instead a solid experience which rewards the listener. Ambient devotees enjoy the spaces where the fabric of sound creates music within the silence. Caul's work on this album provides ample joy in this regard.

The album features a sense of quiet determination—a kind of exploration of sound. Had the album indeed been named "Garden City, Kansas," it would have had the same impact, but perhaps evoked for some listeners different imagery. It is tempting to divert into a discussion of the correlation between Kansas prairie and the things that are not God, but such sarcasm is beside the point.

The point is instead that Darkwinter and Caul deliver here a netlabel free download release of subtle, complex ambient music. Its approach is dark ambient with a minimal bent but whose scope and power are real and evocative. Caul does not answer for us the question of what God is not—or is. Caul challenges us as listeners to become involved in an indirect narrative, told in ambient sound. I enjoyed his storytelling very much, even as the story was without literal plot (other than a single, quickly explained word).

I recommend this album, from its subtle opening sounds to its near-choral interludes, from its satisfying deep drones to its unexpected shocks of unpredictable but never annoying electro-noise. I believe that the search for God lies in the spaces between the obvious truisms. Caul takes us to the musical equivalent of those spaces, to my delight. Nathan Larson's Darkwinter label has distinguished itself by releasing some wonderful dark ambient material. This album is no exception.

Available as a free download from Darkwinter

Review by gurdonark.

Tissue Paper Ghosts by Mikronesia

One thing I enjoy about ambient, noise, and chill music is the way that they have so many little offshoots. They resemble streams in a single river that do not directly converge, but sometimes meet at a huge delta, where this trickles into that. Each stream of ambient listeners travels in a separate but somehow interlocking set of streams and eddies. Each river sells a couple of dozen copies each, to devotees of each sub-genre.

Like small home-based churches of strictest protestant faith, though, listeners of those genres related to ambient sometimes operate with one true vision of the way that music must be created and experienced. To one group, the use of beats in material robs it of its ambient salvation. To another, any sound other than minimal drones becomes suspect. Each group has its own heresies, its own purities, and its own apostles' creed. Sometimes this can be comforting, as with artists who stake out a worthy small niche of sound, pure unto itself, as a charming construct. Sometimes this can be amusing, as with internet articles by ill-informed dance music fans who make statements along the lines that the genre "ambient music" was invented on a techno dance-floor in a pick-up bar in Stoke, UK, in 1995, when Ian and Kevin discovered this old device called the mellotron. Once in a while, it can be just like watching a deep denominational schism in a church with only twenty members—intriguing, but not, ultimately, satisfying. As time goes on, I try to dissolve all my mental rules about what "is" and "is not" ambient music. I wish to live in a wash of sound, not in mere doctrines, deeply cherished, about what sound "should be."

Mikronesia's Tissue Paper Ghosts provides an album not narrowly confined by genre. The first piece, "Slow Bleeding," mixes ambient elements with a panoply of sounds and samples that would ordinarily be found in a piece from the noise genre. Others of the eight pieces range across a spectrum from fairly "traditional" drone ambience into chill with pleasant beats. This is not a "purist" album of hidebound doctrinaire ambience, but instead an eight-ply panoply of ambience, noise, glitch, and chill. To me, the most effective piece is "Del Rio," which I would label in the "chill" category, filled with simple melodic vigor.

Those who attend one of the small, home-based "churches of ambience" may not be attracted to Tissue Paper Ghosts, because it is not a narrow-cast genre piece. Those who, like me, strive to no longer see ambience (and its fellow traveler genres) in such narrow terms will find much to enjoy in Tissue Paper Ghosts. The content is imperfect, though the music is consistently solid. I found some of the dense samples buried in the mixes quite intriguing, but some sounded a bit "been there, done that" to me. Yet the presentation herein is never boring.

They say that hybrids have added vigor. I can certianly attest that hybrid guppies are the hardiest ones. Mikronesia's Tissue Paper Ghosts is certainly a vigorous hybrid, and worthy of attention from those who have left the church of faithless creed, and entered the faith of inner musical salvation.

Available from Gears of Sand records.

Review by gurdonark.

Reduced by Mystified

Reduced by MystifiedWhen they encounter works of art which show that using new media can lead to new experiences and to new consciousness, and expand our senses, our perception, our intelligence, our sensibility, then they will become interested in this music.—Karlheinz Stockhausen

Field recording dates from almost the invention of phonography. The potential of the new recording technology to permit an experience of and documentation for the reality of sound as it is experienced captured the imagination as soon as the imaginative leap of technology manifested itself. In its earliest uses, its utility as an ethnographic device, to preserve passing cultures and languages, became an accepted science. The use of this technology to "capture" birdsong and wildlife noise became a subtle art and demanding science as soon as the idea turned from conception to reality. A visit to the Yahoo Nature Recordists discussion group impresses one with the seriousness and high purpose of the literal recordist's task.

In the field of ambient music, however, field recording has served an artistic purpose which long predates the pronouncements of Mr. Eno. The construction of sound collage and the use of morphed sound as a substitute for traditional composition predates musique concrete, but perhaps had its first spring flowering in the musique concrete movement. As contrasted to "abstract music" this musique concrete would use sound samples in service of the musical piece, rather than using the musical piece to define the samples. This was not a new idea, of course, but it marked a departure from an accepted set of western ideas of what music generation "should be to be music." Movements rose and fell like palpitating beats of peripatetic hearts, but, over time, the idea of using sound as an experience of listening all its own became firmly entrenched in that set of varying genres generically termed "ambient music."

Field recording, a precursor of ambient music, thus also became its progeny. The formal and somewhat academic music which resulted from the movements of the 1950s and 1960s shared a mutual osmosis with the electronic music arising in the wake of the great steamship known as the affordable synthesizer. Field recording became its own grandpa, as ambient musicians discovered that the world is a sonic sample, if one merely has the invention and recordingware to serve as sampler.

Thomas Park, who records as Mystified, has proven himself a prolific but never omnipresent creator of solid ambient and experimental music. Field recording is part of his repertoire. This is not birdsong or preserved aboriginal music, nor is it the dry formalism of abstract sound collage artists. Instead, in his new album Reduced, Mystified explores the experience of found sound, both as a musical interlink and also as an experience unto itself.

Field-recording-derived works challenge the listener. They urge a departure from the artist/audience, concert hall/applause, and composition/appreciation mode of western music listening. This is not to say that this is an artless "anything goes" medium. Ambient music based on field recording instead is an open invitation to an appreciation of sound itself. If ambient music features any one religious tenet, it is that sound is an interesting listening experience because it is sound, an experience sans story. One can paraphrase the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who suggested that, in a new era, we must live as if God does not exist—because God compels us to live in this way. Similarly, in field recordings the reader experiences music outside the context of traditonal dervied composition--and yet a trinity of composition informs the reader—a sense of what constitutes music, a sense of the aural context or meaning of the field sounds, and an experience of the creative choices by the artist in sample selection for presentation. The listener lives as if the music were not there—for the sake of musicality itself.

In Reduced, for example, the piece "Cuban Deli" features the voices and noises of a literal Cuban Deli. It's precisely the type of work that might get an ambient artist the ultimate reward of the lay sobriquet "that's not music, that's noise." Yet the sounds all have a curious musicality about them, imposed from the listener's preconception, and noises which themselves are not narrative acquire a narrative quality as the voices say words and the machinery gives rise to imaginative visuals. The pieces in Reduced, sixteen in number, vary from literal basic field recording of events of daily living to processed experiences of traditional ambience expressed through the mechanism of field samples. If "Filling the Tub" explores the hidden musicality of ordinary water flowing, pieces like "AM Stumble," "Dragging Time," and "Continuum" serve as "concrete" compositions in which the sound samples are welded into a themes recognizable to traditional (i.e., latter-day) ambient listeners.

A truism of this type of review is to write that "patience is rewarded in this type of music." I am not sure, though, that it is patience so much as the active listening ear that makes this form of music interesting. Unlike the 1970s constructs, this form of "background music" is presented with the very idea of its escaping the background and entering into an active encounter with the listener. Mystified's work impresses me because it is not laden with "important" (and ultimately cute and somewhat banal) artistic flourishes. These found sounds sometimes serve as unprocessed or lightly processed direct listening experiences, while others sound to my ears very artfully chosen to press into service as something ambient listeners would agree is "music" not "stray environmental noise." One gauge of the success of this type of music is the diversion factor—can the pieces hold the interest of the attentive listener. In the main, the pieces pass this test. The best either feature nearly "pure" field recording of noises or machinery or rather processed use of field sound to create more traditional "ambient music." Those at neither extreme, and in particular those based on human voice recording, do not work so well for this listener.

Reduced can be readily recommended, however, as it suffers from neither affectation nor pretension. The pieces, simply titled, literally "are what they are." They reward the engaged listener, and baffle the listener hunting for easy drones and titles based on fantasy novels. As with any field recording, the casual listener may, indeed, be mystified. But Thomas Park, who records as Mystified, engages the listener with experiences which, while not new, are freshly presented. Reduced plumbs the waterways of pure sound—and the intrepid sailor may wish to join Mr. Park in filling this particular bathtub of sound.

Available from Mystified's site.

Review by gurdonark.

Past Andromeda by Peter Koniuto

Past AndromedaThe rise of the netlabels revolutionized ambient music. Some labels operate in much the same way that traditional labels did, except with a business plan based on internet-only marketing. Others utilize digital downloads in pursuit of sales. The term "netlabel" itself, however, has acquired a secondary meaning, in that a netlabel tends to release its material for free download. A good number of fine ambient labels arose which net-release wonderful material available for free download, including, to name but a couple, Webbed Hand and The use of Creative Commons licenses, which can be structured to give a broad permission to copy the work on a non-commercial basis, places netlabels in the position of seeking to make their impact through recognition rather than through financial renumeration.

The rise of this phenomenon is in part an inevitable outgrowth of the rapid improvement in home recording technology. The distance between what a consumer can do at home and a professional CD still exists, but the chasm is less gaping than in former days. In the field of ambient music, among others, the distance between fan and artist, never entirely remote, has narrowed, as listeners become participants. The ambient music listener base now includes listener participants, a participant audience who better understand the rigors and risks in each pole vault and high jump. The old religion of rock gods and worshipping fans melts in the face of a new egalitarian faith.

Some bewail this evolution of electronic music from a specialist's field to a mass consumption participation field. People worry that a plethora of material drowns out the quality. One sympathizes with the sentiment every time one hears a Casio-esque Moog emulation playing "ambient music" that would not be out of place in a very cheap hand-held video game a decade ago. My own view, though, differs from the "drowning out the quality" view. I believe we are entering a new time in which traditional distribution mechanisms for music, particularly for "niche" genres, are going to disappear. The old construct in which a large (or small) record company signs the artist to a form of financing contract, with a small royalty incentive upon repayment of a disastrously structured loan, will fade. The price-per-unit of compact discs will eventually reduce, particularly as digital downloads make prices of two and three dollars each disc not only possible but economically advantageous for label and artist. I further believe that the more revolutionary concept of donationware music, in which the fan pays the label and artist on a voluntary basis, offers a viable distribution mechanism once people adopt the idea that music distribution can be handled in a new way, consistent with the new technology and Creative Commons ideas arising. I believe in this idea sufficiently strongly to have released my own work (certatinly the work of a listener who creates rather than an "ambient artiste") on, which uses an entirely donationware model for distribution.

The foundation of my faith is established by releases such as Peter Koniuto's Past Andromeda on Past Andromeda is a fifty-nine minute piece which traffics in the intersection where atmospheric space ambient meets systems electro-acoustic music. Mr. Koniuto creates a central melodic drone theme, underlays it with deep and satisfying drones, and then intersperses the piece with samples ranging from piano sections to radio transmission waves. As with the best ambience of this type, the piece repeats its themes with slight variations, creating an effect that is sedate and yet never boring. The term "meditative" is arguably overused in ambient music reviews, but I find that this is ideal background music to soundtrack one's thoughts on an otherwise hectic drive. This is indeed an "ambient" music, because it does not intrude upon one's consciousness in the way that a Motown classic can do, but instead hovers on the edge of one's active attention.

Mr. Koniuto's device is to use the background spaces surrounding his melodic themes to introduce his many small thematic "found samples." In other works, this device proves annoying, as the samples some artists use tend to cloy through their obviousness or tend to have a joke-burdened quality not in keeping with the work. Mr. Koniuto commits neither sin, introducing instead effects and subtle themes that fit well with his main melodic drones. Past Andromeda has its antecedents in 1970s ambient music, from that heady time when the notion of sound as sound had been rediscovered with a tent revival enthusiasm. Yet the work never feels trite or tamed. Instead, this is a subtle, integrated listen—nothing less than the kind of mature, capable work that reminds us why we listen to ambient music.

So long as artists like Peter Koniuto make subtle ambient music for netlabels, this movement will thrive. My own hope, and belief, is that the day will soon arise when we spend our dollars in donations and small-per-unit-sale quantities. The end of the Recording Industry Association of America labels should not be attempted through civil disobedience, but through mass diversion of resources to places like netlabels and net artists. When the day comes that the ambient community has devoted it resources in this more targeted way, then ambient artists rather than corporate artist marketing departments will receive the economic benefit of the work that ambient artists do.

While we wait and work for this halcyon day, however, I commend to you Peter Koniuto's Past Andromeda as a subtle soundtrack for the conceptualization of this velvet revolution.

Available at Stasisfield.

Review by gurdonark.

Mellow Stasis by Solyaris

Mellow Stasis by SolyarisIn ambient music criticism, one is often tempted to box the work under review into a sub-genre, so that it can be matted, pinned, and placed in some elegant butterfly box of the critic's devising; a curious form of styrofoam-bordered box in which the critically defined boundaries overwhelm the colorful and delicate wings of the ambient works themselves. Yet ambient pieces are not wikipedia entries, but breathing expressions of artistic vision. When one places the butterfly in the cyanide jar, the wings may be preserved, but the life is drained inexorably.

In "Mellow Stasis", Giorgio Robino, who records as Solyaris, tackles issues of melody and intonation with a style that is more "light" than "dark," more "space" than "tribal," and based on treated guitars rather than merely synthesizers alone. Yet all those defining descriptors fail to convey what it is to listen to Solyaris' work.

Solyaris creates shimmering melodic soundscapes, but they are soundscapes not confined by diatonic scales. He experiments with alternative intonations, with varations from traditional scales, and with a variety of electronica effects devices to achieve an album which is consistently technically interesting.

An album, though, is more than its production values. Rather than give some play by play explanation of perceived audio innovations and imitations, I'd rather describe the experience one gets from listening to "Mellow Stasis." Solyaris creates a work which is consistently quite listenable. The listener has the feel of "sounds rising"—in pitch, in the texture of sounds, and in the progress of each piece. The melodies are all accessible, but not all easy to pin down. In "Despair Dissolution," the sounds are liberating, despite the sombreness implied by the title, and yet one can hear the tonal variations which hint at darker things. In my favorite piece, "Frogs Fall from the Sky in the Magnolias' Dales," one gets a sense of transport, as if the piece seeks to take the listener from headphones to heaven.

The array of guitars used in this album builds a wall of sound which makes for a rich, full-textured feel to the album. Although some pieces are long, the work is never boring. There is some repetition of musical ideas among the pieces, but the effect is, overall, one of a series of inter-related pieces rather than of needless repetition. I found less than ideal the way that sounds tend to rise in pitch in some "stairway upward" effect, which I thought might have been leavened with more "movements down," to create a richer palette of sonic choices. Still, I found this album to be of consistently high quality, with solid production values, made by an artist with a sure compositional style.

Solyaris is a good choice for one who wishes ambient work more on the "light/space" side of the spectrum, although he should not be dismissed as merely another "space ambient" guy. This is music with a lightness of touch but a seriousness of purpose. His music will not appeal to all—those who prefer only dark dissonance might be disappointed in the somewhat more formalistic and fundamentally "light," modest tonal experiments underpinning this work. For me, though, the test is a simpler one—I enjoy putting Solyaris into the CD player, because the melodies he writes are interesting and not trite. On a Wednesday night before a business trip, that seems to me to be an accomplishment indeed.

Available from the Solyaris website.

Review by gurdonark.

Signals from the Great Beyond by Oöphoi

Signals from the Great Beyond
You know that I never take up my pen to support a system, or to draw, whether wrongly or rightly, certain conclusions. I give myself up to the natural flow of my ideas, allowing myself in good faith to be led from one consequence to another. Therefore, till my work is finished, I never know exactly what result I shall reach, or if I shall arrive at any.—Alexis de Tocqueville
Ambient music sometimes attracts from the non-ambient listener a reference to either of two quite different yet similarly confining stereotypes. One stereotype heard expressed is the saw that ambient music serves as a thing divorced from human emotions—a cold music of the machines. The fact that ambient music often uses electronica in non-traditional melodic structures equates in the popular imagination with a lack of warmth or human interconnection in the form. The second confining stereotype is that ambient musicians are inevitably lost in a kind of new age trance consciousness, inaccessible to any but fellow devotees, and somewhat limited in any event. In this latter charge, ambient artists sometimes serve as unconscious co-conspirators. Ambient pieces from some artists receive song titles derived from science fiction themes and from spiritual traditions whose terminology puts some in mind of either progressive rock in specific, or of the Aquarian Bible and the Book of Urantia in general. Ambient artists therefore face contradictory but strongly held preconceptions in the popular imagination that they simultaneously teach a course in robotics and A Course in Miracles.

The sense of the “otherness” of the ambient form is another aspect of this perceptual equation. Both ambient artists and the general public speak of the ways in which ambient ideas can differ markedly from mainstream rock and pop. The cry “that's not music, that's noise!” arises from the casual stranger as to even the most structured and melodic dark ambient sounds. Similarly, some ambient listeners and fans speak of ambient music as if its concepts are wholly new, taken from the air by Brian Eno, made fortuitously possible only by enhanced technology.

Yet so many ambient concepts and ideas have their antecedents in folk and popular music. The concepts of sound as sound, meditative resonance and the musical virtue of silence date back centuries upon centuries. In the music of the west and of the Near East, the drone qualities of chant provide a direct influence upon modern ambient. Classical music of the Indian subcontinent features numerous concepts and performance dynamics which anticipate and influence ambient music. The use of African, Asian and Australian aboriginal sounds in ambient music has become at least one sub-genre unto itself.

Even in American popular music, ambient and drone concepts were firmly lodged hundreds of years before their antecedents visited the thinking of musique concrete and Ipswich School of Art circles. The mountain dulcimer, an American version of a well-known European instrument, features diatonic “drone strings” which add an atmosphere of sound to a piece played in the traditional Appalachian fashion Even that most American and carefree of inventions, the kazoo, adapts the tribal mirliton drone horn, and releases it upon the carnival stage. From the Shakers to Sacred Harp, the antecedents of ambient can easily be discerned. In this sense, ambient is a modern folk music.

When one approaches a complex and important ambient artist like Oöphoi, therefore, one must be wary of ascribing to his ideas the imprimatur of the new or revolutionary. In this particular case, such a label of “new” or “avant garde” might disserve Oöphoi's key strength—he is a synthesis of ideas, and a weaver of sonic stories.

It might be argued that story is inescapable in any musical work, as people are inherently story-telling animals. Even the title, “untitled,” or the least descriptive, numerically titled remote atonal piece conveys a story, if only the story of the lack of a title. In Oöphoi, the use of sonic devices to tell a story is his key strength.

On the face of things, Signals from the Great Beyond commits an oft-told ambient sin. Its liner notes announce that it is inspired by the concept of “crop circles.” For this reviewer, the mention of “crop circles” carries the baggage of particularly sentimental new age ebullient magazine articles, coupled with recollections of grinning local United Kingdom farmers, explaining how they pulled off the hoax. On the face of it, a “crop circles” album plays into the stereotype that ambient artists remain adrift on some New Age topographic ocean. Oöphoi, after all, has another piece entitled “Lord of the Starfields.”

In this instance, though, the title should not play into the stereotype. For one thing, if Oöphoi has a song entitled “Lord of the Starfields,” then it must be pointed out that the Canadian folk singer Bruce Cockburn has also used that title, a common appropriation from an earlier literary work for both artists. More importantly, Signals from the Great Beyond is not a meditation piece about how to contact alien beings in one's hops field. Oöphoi's work instead evocatively creates imagery for untold, but hinted at, exciting tales. It is a soundtrack for a movie never to be made, although it is not written as soundtrack music. It writes a wordless poem, using both melody and a kind of pleasant noise.

The work is comprised of four tracks. The first track, “Kolenhaar,” combines an array of subtle sounds and pitches, invading the senses insidiously but pleasantly with waves of effective sound. As with many ambient artists, the old boundaries between “dark” and “light” ambient are of no real use in evaluating this work. Oöphoi borrows from traditional western melodic structures, but does not hesitate to deviate into unique sounds and aural experiences. Oöphoi is in this respect an artist of sound rather than of “music,” and, in my thinking, more of an ambient artist than a songwriter. The thing that makes his work so enchanting is that he seems to marry sound and story. He does not have a literal plot to spring upon the reader—and the song titles are, if anything, misleading. Rather, each piece has a sense of introduced sound, with the intention of creating a gauzy, half-remembered sense of familiarity. The concept of ambient music as “dream-like” is frankly far too narrow and confining. Oöphoi does not speak to the listener's dreams, but instead engages the listener's active attention in a search for alternative lines of inquiry. But the inquiry leads to hidden pathways, and quiet, affirming alleyways.

The second piece, “Lightwaves,” and the third piece “Geometry,” differ from the first piece in that they have an almost elegiac sense of ritual and ceremony. Sounds and instrumental “voices” appear in the work in vignette form, as well as in shimmering waves. Silence is used to emphasize that the listener is being shown the potential of music as a spiritual vehicle. But no mantras are shared, no divinities sermonized—we are left only with the sensation of sound, washing, defining, explaining, and yet remaining ineffable. I thought of funeral dirges, of eastern meditation bells, and of European urban-jazz landscapes, yet the work is not derivative of any of those things. Oöphoi's gift is evocation, a non-linear storytelling not bound by the “plot” of his song titles.

The fourth piece, “Sculpting the Fields,” adopts a sonic device which gives me pause. Silence is an important component of many ambient works, and effective use of silence benefits the first three pieces of Signals from the Great Beyond. Yet, in “Sculpting the Fields,” a good bit of the piece of punctuated by extended silence and extended introduction and exit of barely heard sound. While I applaud the experimental reach of the work, the brass ring remains elusive. To my ears, “Sculpting the Fields” loses its way in its extended silence conceit. This is the only real flaw in the album from my point of view.

I long for the day when ambient artists don't name their songs “Sculpting the Fields.” I believe that Oöphoi, an Italian musician named Gianluigi Gasparetti, might have found similar prompts from the “great beyond” of the dust before a coming rain, or the feel of a warm hand in his on a frozen morning. But I recognize that each artist must choose his or her own muse and amusements. Yet, I caution that if the story is too oft-told in the song titles, it can obscure the story in the music itself.

I recommend Signals from the Great Beyond as a wonderful piece of ambient music. It asks all the right questions—and it wisely fails to answer most of them. The questions are posited without words. The music speaks volumes. I congratulate both Oöphoi and Gears of Sand on this fine work.

Available from Gears of Sand.

Review by gurdonark.

Review Index

Okay, the Review Index is finally "live." I didn't realize I wrote so many reviews.

If you find, through your browsing, that any of the links in the index go to the wrong reviews, drop me a line. Thanks!
  • Current Music
    v/a—From Here to Tranquility 5: The Silent Channel

Twilight in the Offing by Chad Hoefler

Chad Hoefler Twilight in the Offing"We may laugh down the dream, For the dream breaks and flies; And we trust now the gleam, For the gleam never dies;— So it's off now the load, For we know the night's call, And we know now the road And the road leads us all."–from the Edwin Arlington Robinson poem "Twilight Song."

Is twilight in the offing? This question plagues ambient listeners nowadays. The second and third generation of any new movement face the problems of complacency. The rich and vital movements of barely yesterday–minimalism, tribal fusion, dark ambient, for example–become the stock genres of today. Thus, the early Quakers moved from religious ecstasy and radical notions to fervent shop-keeping and regular meetings. Thus, punk calcified into three chord lounge jazz, albeit jazz with mohawks. A visit to the ambient message boards yields glimpses of fervent debate about whether a work falls into "this box" or "that box." Heaven deliver we who seek out the new from actually experiencing any. After the calcium builds sufficiently, the risk of blockage ensues.

From the heady days when "sound as sound" seemed more a mantra than a brand slogan, ambient movement personnel–musicians, fans, promoters and academics–sought to create a "new" movement, which redefined how music is experienced. This is a tall order, particularly as the sun still fails to provide due deference to new things, shriveling the new grapes into raisins as surely as it has always done the old ones. Ambient became a genre, a pull-down menu item when one wishes to name a .wav track–a known quantity which formerly eschewed all of the ability to be known. We set out to experience a revolution, and we discovered product instead. The guillotine snips off our cigars, and lights them for us.

The Hypnos label remains my favorite ambient label. Ironically, this is because it provides a set of known quantities. That's not to say, as some suggest, that Hypnos releases have a sameness about them. To the contrary, Hypnos releases a solid band of disparate works, which encompass dark, light, and minimalist ambient. Yet when one buys a Hypnos release, one is reasonably well-assured that one will get a CD that will err on the side of understatement rather than excess, that will feature production values neither over-ripe nor lo-fi, and will neither embrace pop sensibility nor leave behind entirely western melodic conventions. From the artwork to the silver disk to the subtle artistry, one knows what one gets with a Hypnos release.

The very stability of ambient music, though, as it is performed today, poses a challenge for new artists such as Chad Hoefler. One can no longer pretend to be the first person to run sunspots through the sequencer, or the first to make a sine wave sound like the embers of a dying flame. How does an artist go new places in a world of "been there, done that"? Chad Hoefler solves this dilemma capably. In Twilight in the Offing, he provides seven pieces which recognize what has gone before, and synthesizes it into something interesting. Mr. Hoefler does not seek to dwell in the house of one particular genre of ambient. His music instead features elements of dark and light, of tribal and minimalist, and of shimmering melody without needless pop detritus.

The CD begins with "Crimson Lost," a solid pulse of melodic electronica, leavened with an unexpected and slightly unsettling simple percussion line. "Enveloping Shadow" and "Substrata" both feature dark ambient finesses, including the familiar ambient conceit of "Substrata" of creating a soundscape consistent with the exploration of things underground. But Mr. Hoefler declines to be bound to one style of ambient music. The CD's best piece, "Refugia," is a gorgeous wash of shimmering melody, which would not be out of place rendered in guitar on a Jeff Pearce CD. Hoefler shows throughout these pieces that he knows what has gone before, he has learned from the "ambient catalog," but that he seeks to make new sounds from the blending of the old.

Hoefler's work therefore tends to draw together elements from different ambient genres, seeking to achieve a synthesis which references each sub-genre rather than imitate any one sub-movement of the broad field of ambient music. The darker sections, as is customary with Hypnos works, tend to stay more on the minimal side of the spectrum than on the noise side. The lighter sections, also as is customary with Hypnos artists, tends to be melodic but not poppy or saccharine. Hoefler's work blends in percussion and the stray tribal element, but this work does not have an "agenda" to create one particular soundscape. Its key virtue is that it creates a workable blend of things old in an effort to create things new. It is a solid, effective, well-done old-fashioned good listen. Robert Rich capably produces the album, and, not surprisingly, his influence is felt in its pieces. The album's title "Twilight in the Offing," sounds artificially archaic, when a simpler title such as "Almost Twilight" or "Nearly Dusk" would have, to my somewhat poetry-attuned ears, have sounded less mock-grandiose. Otherwise, though, the CD has every shimmer and hum of well-turned ambient music. But it is music for a third generation–the revolt gone past style and displayed on the store shelves.

In a way, the appearance of a Chad Hoefler signals yet another sign that ambient is no longer a movement, but merely another commercial genre. There is nothing wrong with commerce or genres, but this seems a long distance from the theories of the novel and distant places which we all hoped ambient would transport music. Yet I enjoyed this album very much–and if it is to take me no further than my tract home, but provide me with an appreciation of an insightful artist, then I am content.

Available from Hypnos Recordings.

Review by gurdonark.

Please welcome our new Ambient Reviewer: Gurdonark

I want to make a special announcement for ambient_review readers. This website has long been my own "solo project," of a sorts, in writing about ambient music, so I had never considered, seriously or otherwise, featuring the review work of another. Since, however, my own output of ambient reviews must, by necessity, be perhaps one or two reviews per month these days, I decided to use the site to provide a place for my good and longest LJ friend, gurdonark to publish his own excellent reviewing work—partly to aid him in publishing his own excellent reviews on an already established site, but also to provide more frequent content for you, the readers, since I cannot spit out reviews with the consistancy of "yesteryear."

I hope you'll be as excited as I am when you read gurdonark's first review, that of the Hypnos release Twilight in the Offing by Chad Hoefler. gurdonark is, as you would expect if you read his LJ, a salient and wide-ranging reviewer; his appreciation for the ambient form longstanding, and I am very, very proud to have his material featured here.

So, without further ado, I will post his latest review with the preface that I only hope we see more excellence from him in the near future.

* * *
Also, in site-specific news, you may have noticed that the domain name now sends you directly to the LJ blog page. This is my intention. I have retired the actual site, in favor of the blog aspect, which I find more sympatico to my own sensibilities. It's a lot easier to manage, I can assure you—I was no webmaster, even at the best of times. I hope to have a complete Review Index, of all ambient_review material, available for browsing quite soon.

Thank you all so much for your patience and support, and, most of all, enjoy the reviews!
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