The first September post of On Queue is coming to you from the Pacific Northwest. As a Mid-Westerner, it’s hard not to get hypnotized by the mountains, the pines, and the long stretches of water surrounding Seattle. With the fires blazing around the area, there is a slight haziness hanging in the air adding another level of numinous scenery to the picture. It’s drawn my ear to the expansive sounds of some of the recent ambient releases climbing the charts.
Naturally, if we are talking about ambient music I’m sure everyone’s minds go straight to algorithms and software development, right? Ehhh probably not. For Icelandic composer and producer, Ólafur Arnalds, it is the cornerstone of his fourth studio release, re:member.
The album is the product of combining the distinct post-minimalist voice of Arnalds with the Stratus software develop over the course of two years in collaboration with audio programmer, Halldór Eldjárn. The program is used to to trigger a series of robots that connect the voices of three pianos. As Arnalds plays one piano, it triggers two other pianos to respond adding flourishes, sparkling melodies, and harmonies to accompany Arnalds. He is able to control values such as rhythm and tempo to create rich loops played seemingly by ghosts. All aspects of the album revolve around Stratus–even the album art is created through a generative tool connected to the pianos. As Arnalds puts it, “I spent two years making my pianos go bleep bloop.”
The album opens with the title track that acts almost as the window display of a store front for the rest of the album. Presented to the listener are the elements of the album, distinctly separated throughout the track, but strung together through the flowing sound Arnalds is known for. Solo piano, lush string arrangements, the uncertainty of the Stratus pianos, and driving rhythms inspired by hip hop and break beats are layered together pulling the listener in so each of these elements can be further explored.
The third track on the album, “saman,” strips away the electronics, machines, and accompanying strings to feature the solo piano. A series of repeated chord changes and melodic patterns are heard, but the sense of rhythm is not lost. By the end, the conversation between left and right hand has become syncopated and chords begin to grow. It feels like a reduction of the musical algorithm used for many of the other parts of the album. Tucked within blankets of piano textures heard through the rest of the album, “saman” stands in strikingly beautiful isolation.
Much of the magic of this album, for me, is in the mix. The meticulous control and design of the soundscape in this album creates its unique voice and seamless blend between man and machine. The personality of each piano is highlighted in the mix of the album–each piano is given a life and acts as a character. It is a refreshing feeling in a time where music can be so processed and a hyper-perfected sound is sought after. The mechanical systems of the pianos–the levers and hammers brought to life by robots–are given a voice.
The dominant landscape on the album remains in the vast, cold, and quiet sound that has been so present in this Icelandic composer’s work throughout his career. This latest album, however, introduces new voices and new sounds that contribute warmth and rhythm to this landscape. While perhaps sounding simply, this simplicity allows each note to carry an intense amount of weight. It is an optimistic blue sound that perfectly blends sadness and soothing. Arnalds speaks to the title of this album as the opposite of “dismemberment.” It is a journey with the mission of becoming one’s self again. For Arnalds, this means relying on the sounds of his childhood and the music that most influences him giving re:member its uplifting and organic voice.
Keith Kenniff is a prolific composer and multi-instrumentalist heard under a variety of monikers and styles. His most recent release, Veriditas, is heard under Helios, his signature behind melodious ambient and electronic music production. Released on Ghostly International, it is the first album Helios has released on this label, but his 11th project in total under the Helios name. In addition to the ambient and unrushed Helios releases, Kenniff’s music can also be heard as the post-minimalist classical piano music of Goldmund and as the electronic, industrial, and punk rock–inspired band, Mint Julep, that Kenniff formed with his wife, Hollie. Kenniff’s music has been featured in many ads and films and he maintains a library of music tailored for film and media placement. It is safe to say he is a busy man.
For such a high level of musical activity and output in Kenniff’s life, Veriditas suspends time and calms the mind. The music breaths freely offering subtle sonic suggestions to the listener, but leaving more than enough space for individual interpretation and meditation. Kenniff music, this album especially, is rooted in nature. As he explains in the linear notes, “While I’m not a very spiritual person as it relates to a religious belief, I do feel an overwhelming connection between the aesthetics I find pleasing in my experience of nature and my experience of writing music."
Percussion and guitars are put in the backseat on this album creating the static and calm environment that is heard on every track. There is an exceptional amount of attention to texture and harmony as these are the structures explored throughout the album. There is no indication that traditional song forms or structures are being implemented, but the textures heard throughout the album create a cohesive narrative and are just plain stunning–that is enough to keep me coming back every time.
The single and opening track from the album, “Seeming,” shows Helios’ talent for creating seamless evolution within a texture in order to evoke progress and forward motion. A deep and rich organ sound introduces a slow chord progression. Slowly a higher and slightly harsher sound enters and takes over as the chord progression changes and climaxes halfway through the track before returning to the organ as “Seeming” fades out.
There are no formulas to the endings of the tracks on this album. Seeing that traditional song forms are not used, many of the tracks end with fades or at what might seem like surprising times, but it is the evolution of the textures that dictate when each track must end. The result is an album with fleeting moments and other moments that continue on and feel as though they regenerate indefinitely. “Latest Lost” sparkles in a mysterious cloud for only a moment while “Upward Beside The Gale” features some of the most clear melodies over complex and diverse textures for over four minutes.
When you treat yourself to giving this album a listen, be sure to listen with nice speakers or headphones and allow yourself to make this album your only focus in that moment. Projecting your own interpretation to the music and allowing it to transport you is, in my opinion, the most important part of hearing this album in its entirety. Free from distraction and free from the worries of everyday life, Helios’ music quietly calms the mind and opens a connective path between yourself and nature that was previously unexplored.
This is not an ambient release, but I am confident in saying that I am not veering from the theme of this blog post by including it.
Texture based, expansive, rich, simplistic figures within lush sonorities–these are characteristics that the other two releases in this On Queue post contain and are common characteristics of most ambient releases. You Are Here is a genre-bending release containing these characteristics, but adds an infectious groove. It is equal parts folk, soul, hip hop, gospel, and experimental sound design that blend together to create this stunning album.
Producer, Matthew Thompson (who goes by VISTA) and vocalist, April George hail from the DMV and have found a way to gradually penetrate into an industry in which that beginning step carries with it such uncertainty and mystery. While working day jobs, working without a budget, without a label, and with one manager, the two DC musicians have managed to grow a supportive following. For those who have known the duo, this release confirms how underappreciated these musicians have been since the first of their three releases. For those being introduced to the duo for the first time (like myself), it is one heck of a hello.
The album opens with a short statement, “Little Things.” It places the listener in the meditative state that will take over the 18-minute duration of the album. Atonal pizzicato on a violin in a wide stereo field is the first sound heard–it is like the primordial goo of the album and everything grows from this. The next character introduced to the story is the electric piano–this will serve as one of the main voices in each track outlining the sophisticated harmonic changes. Finally, opulent strings provide accompaniment to April’s captivating voice.
“How To Get By” highlights the inventive production techniques this duo utilizes turning a simple voice note recording into a fully arranged and delicate lullaby. Simple drums and soulful bass solos add to the swirling texture of what could be my favorite number on the album.
“Own2” is upbeat with a head nodding bounce laid on top of the keys and synths that drip with reverb and dimension throughout the project. April’s melodies are simple in their composition, but travel so effortlessly up and down her vocal range creating an intriguing vocal layer.
The album closes just as it opened, with a soft symphony of violin pizzicato. Just as in re:member or Veriditas, there is a sense that a single moment in time is greatly expanded to reveal the fine details and sonic treasures hidden in that moment. Although it is a brief album, these moments of violin pizzicato are the beginning and ending signals alerting the listener to sink into meditation.