NORTH ATLANTIC DRIFT/NORTHUMBRIA (2014) – Polar ambiance

coverObviously, nature is an important influence on ambient musicians, since we take primary inspiration from the various environments that surround us. To some ambient artists, extreme or remote environments can be the inspiration for some pretty nifty conceptual works. It’s a way of visiting places we may never have the time or particularly the money to reach physically.  This inclination to capture the beauty and awe of extreme environments has spawned numerous albums aiming to capture the spirit and atmosphere of the desert, mountains, jungles, and of course the polar regions. There’s a foreboding mystery to the inhospitable, windswept tundra, but a majesty and stark beauty that ambient musicians are drawn to and attempt to channel into musical expression. Scandinavians, Russians and Canadians of course are amongst the leaders in this little field. Artists like Biosphere, and German Thomas Köner with his low-volume Arctic drones, have released a number of polar-based recordings, and there have been some a few good netlabel releases by the likes of Canada’s Nunc Stans.

The Polar Seas label is based in Toronto, from whence, wouldn’t ya know it, Make Your Own Taste doth hail. Our music scene is not known at all for beautiful ambient music, though you can read my rapturous review of the John Puchiele Ensemble for evidence that we aren’t necessarily all about beardie indie rock and roots rock bands around here, despite the image our local media promotes.

Anyway, it’s more than heartening to come across a new label promoting Canadian ambient sound art, and even more heartening to find that this release, which is a split between two Toronto sound artists, is a truly excellent album that exemplifies the best of what current ambient music has to offer.

And yes, to get back to the theme here, it’s an album of Arctic explorations. North Atlantic Drift’s four shorter compositions contain some nice diversity but basically mix the ethereal pad-based sounds of traditional ambient with modern sound-art influenced chiming very pretty post-rock guitar, hoary-sounding piano notes, subtle, non-dancey beats, and field recordings, particularly on the first track, “Ursa Minor”. The melancholy “Polaris” is more at the post-rock end of things, while the sweeping chords and buried Ebow-like guitar leads of “Ursa Major” are like the soundtrack to a moody polar documentary following the path of pack ice across the Bering Sea (I outdo myself with purple prose sometimes, don’t I…). North Atlantic Drift’s contribution closes with an almost symphonic piece, “Perpetual Daylight”, a drifting bliss of undulating pads and lovely sustained guitar tones (they sound guitar-generated, at least). These four tracks collectively represent the best styles of modern ambient in a concise package.

Northumbria’s two longer compositions are at the darker end of things, with the aptly titled “Cold Wind Rising” supplying over ten minutes of roaring, droning, mysterious dark ambient sounds sure to appeal to any aficionado of that genre. “Vanishing Point” is a lighter-toned piece based on broken electric guitar chords that very gradually build in volume and intensity over the course of seven minutes into an ecstatic and mystical shoegaze crescendo. These two tracks are edgy but very beautiful as well.

It’s nice to hear some great 100% Canadian works by two artists we should be hearing a lot more from in the future. You go listen now.

Listen and buy!

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