Here’s my first new release review of 2015, and it sets the bar high, at least for ambient artists. I actually (and I think most educated reviewers would agree) find it hard to review ambient music — it’s a very subtle art, this music, and sometimes explaining why one album is a gem, while another similar-sounding one is not as good, is very difficult. But I’ll do my best.
This particular album, released via Preserved Sound, is one of the finest ambient albums I’ve heard in some time (and I hear TONS). At the very first listen, it might seem pleasant, if unremarkable, but a closer listen reveals an intense and subtly varied emotional experience that emphasizes and celebrates, albeit often in a melancholy fashion, our connection to the natural environment.
The album is based partly on field recordings, which are sometimes altered (or “reprocessed”) to make soundscapes. Fragments of musical pieces pop up, sometimes with different flavours presented in one piece. The music is often completely ambient, but piano and guitar sections more redolent of post-rock also make appearances. These sparse, delicate instrumental segments are uniformly gentle and seem more like part of the environmental soundscapes than an imposition on them. Settled over the entire affair is a palpable sense of timeless melancholy, akin to being alone on a hill under partly cloudy skies, viewing a vast landscape devoid of human inhabitants. You know?
The opener, “Signalling”, starts as a blend of subtle synth sounds with peaceful field recordings, not unlike the work of, say, Robert Rich or Rudy Adrian. A normal ambient track would probably just stay the course for the duration, but this one concludes instead with a pretty post-rock guitar interlude of gently broken chords played in a sorrowful progression over some sounds that are more “sound art” than ambient.
“Arrow of Time” sounds hipper in the modern, current sense, with glitchy sounds and widescreen field recordings that would fit well on a Taylor Deupree or Sawako album, before heavily reverbed piano takes over in quite lovely fashion.
“Anāhata” is another spartan, spectral piano piece underscored by droning bass sounds, with environmental sounds moving in and out of the mix, and “Wilderness” continues in this vein, albeit a bit more abstract, augmented by the sound of running water.
Novotny throws a bit of a curveball with “Repeated Oscillations”, which gets all glitchy and experimental and will probably be more appealing to a Fennesz fan than anyone else, but the ominous “Dust to Dust” takes things back to electro-acoustic ambient territory, a throbbing bass drone and fascinating watery field recordings that are soon joined by some nice trebly waves of sound. A very peaceful track.
Finally, “Oscillations, Repeated”, brings back the post-rock guitar with waves of generated sound and some quite mysterious field recordings that thump and thwack (sounds a bit like someone playing ball hockey!).
Overall, what I’ve described probably sounds quite like a typical 12k offering in the electro-acoustic field that currently dominates the ambient world, and yes, this recording would fit very well there, but to my ears there’s an emotional immediacy here that is sometimes missing from the cooler, more modern ambient made by people my age and younger (roughly 40, ahem), and more of a devotion to presenting nature’s beauty in addition to the mysteriousness you often find (over)emphasized in modern sound art; I guess I’m just a hippie, but I’d much rather hear a babbling brook than some muffled thumping and scratching. I sometimes ponder whether the sense of wonder and beauty that characterized the early days of ambient music are getting a bit lost these days behind all the detached scratching, glitching and things that sound like bottles being knocked over.
Novotny’s album, however, has a beauteous ebb and flow and enough instrumental and tonal variety that it has a personality all its own, which is extremely rare in this field. I think it’s a harbinger of more great recordings to come.