My, what a dramatic title for a review. You try titling things if you don’t like it! Anyway, it’s not actually that far from reality in this case, as you will find out upon perusing the contents of this album. Fire Temple is the collaborative project of Don Tyler, who in addition to being a mastering engineer of some renown, makes electronic ambient as Phase 47 and with Ascendant, among others, and cellist/composer Christine Hanson, who has a pretty impressive resume herself (including many album credits — Martin Carthy!).
Now, I admit, I am a big-time sucker for strings. You bow it, I like it, that’s how it goes. So technically an album like this is an easy sell. However, when you are a respected (ahem) music writer (ahem), you must be willing to put aside your drooling predisposition to say “this strings have, must be good” and be objective. Well, I have done this, and let me tell you, this is a hell of an album judged by any standard.
This is of course also far from the first time anyone’s used a cello on “ambient” or progressive music, but there aren’t that many albums where the fiddles are the focus of the compositions; there also aren’t many such albums that contain such a subtle variety of pieces. The tone of this album is indeed mystical, ethereal and otherworldy, sorta Lemurian, if you know what I mean. Alien. Like these transmissions are being sent from another dimension altogether.
I assume that cellist Hanson is responsible for this vibe, and it’s an interesting collaboration in that regard because Tyler, who is no slouch himself, seems to have deliberately taken something of a back seat and mostly allowed his electronics to provide the subtle, unobtrusive backing tones, enhancing and never intruding as the cello is bowed or plucked, while occasionally stepping up in a more prominent part.
All this is evident from the get-go on track one, “Amytis Dawning”. Amytis was the name of an ancient Persian princess, and I don’t know if that’s the application here, but it certainly is fitting. This piece of cascading cello lines underscored by a tamboura-like drone feels very much like the Central Asian steppe music, harmonically speaking, that I love so much; if you don’t know what that means, think of Yo-Yo Ma’s compositions in the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon soundtrack or read my post on the subject. Or, even more fittingly, the music of one of my favourite artists, multi-instrumentalist Stephan Micus, on such albums as Darkness and Light, and another favourite, Alio Die, who interprets early and world music in a way that is not dissimilar to this. Music don’t get much more beautiful, really. “The Field”, the fifth track, is similar but is underscored by more prominent celestial electronics.
Another musical reference I’m finding in this album, intended or not, is the droning, monastic minor-key sounds of medieval and early Renaissance music, which is often interpreted with such bowed instruments as vielles and and rebecs and suchlike; that kind of music can also have an appealing otherworldly, droning quality.
“Fragments” sounds more Western in tone, a very melancholy piece that fits well with the mournful Baltic repertoire of composers like Pärt and Vasks, or like the elegiac string music of Somei Satoh, while “Drones” is just that, three minutes of heavenly bowing and delicate electronics.
Some pieces bring Tyler’s ambient expertise to the fore, such as “Journal”, in which Hanson’s plucking blends with delicate pads and synth pseudo-melodies. “Heat” is another abstract ambient piece with mysterious sound art as a backdrop, the cello soloing overtop and some rather desperate-sounding gasping (the only vocal sounds on the recording that I’ve picked out). “The Second Key” is almost a lullaby, with a swaying rhythm and very delicate accompaniment. Things take a brief dark ambient, Robert Rich-ish turn in “Delta”, with throbbing bass pads that blend with the cello in a nocturnal fashion. The album concludes with the most “ambient” piece, “Old Horizon”, where that Mongol-style cello provides a final reprise over really lovely synth backing.
Tyler and Hanson have created a truly wonderful album. It’s unassuming and sticks with its premise, but there’s more than enough subtle variety in the compositions to maintain the listener’s trance-like interest. There’s a great deal of talent on display here, so I do hope this is only the beginning of a long and fruitful musical collaboration that fuses the organic sounds of a “traditional” instrument with the best of cutting-edge ambient music. I admit this was basically a tailor-made album for my tastes, but it would not surprise me if it appealed to yours as well.