January 20, 2012

Review: Underneath the Stars by Good Weather for an Airstrike

Underneath the Stars, the engaging new release from Tom Honey’s Good Weather for an Airstrike project, is immediately pleasing to the ear even as it perhaps takes some risks with its image. The release notes remind us that Honey began recording in connection with his aim of relieving his own tinnitus, and the tone of the new album is consistently soothing and almost entirely free of dissonance. The Goldberg Variations notwithstanding, if music was composed for therapeutic purposes it’s easy to wonder if it will also succeed as art. Add to that an ambient concept album based around the phases of sleep and including field recordings of gentle rain and thunder, and casual associations with faceless New Age collections of nature sounds and insomnia aids rather than serious listening might be forgiven. The fact that the album is released on the estimable Hibernate label, however, is considerable cause for optimism, and indeed there is more here than might first meet the eye (or ear). You can stream it below as you read.

‘Theta Waves’ opens the album with an aural mobile of shifting textures. Done badly, this kind of thing can result in the sonic equivalent of a grey day – murky and featureless. When it’s successful, however, the sky opens up and textures shift across one another like clouds, creating depth perception and spacious, stately movement. This is one of the latter kind, a promising opener. The sky metaphor, it turns out, is not out of place, as sounds of rain and thunder mark the transition to ‘Another Way Out’. This is the most active track – continued rumblings of thunder yield to a lightly sparkling atmosphere from which piano and strings emerge in languidly hopeful melody. Having begun with a sense of story grounded in sounds from the outside world, the album settles into a structured alternation between stasis and flickering rhythm (presumably echoing the sleep cycle) in which the sensory world is gradually relinquished. The third and fourth tracks move from soft tones, children’s voices and a pensive fuzz of static into an austere space of high-pitched drones and gaseous atmospheres. We have been drawn from the sensory world into a place far more ethereal and ascetic.

In the fifth track, ‘Aurora’, the sense of life and motion returns. The track uses a simple but effective structure. It begins with pulses of treated guitar that create an understated, looping rhythm. Cleanly plucked guitar notes slowly emerge against this background, joined by faint strings, then piano, and these gradually supplant the initial pulse, giving a gentle sense of journey and resolution, before the piano too dies away on a questioning note. Without disrupting the overall sense of operating just below active thought, we have been taken on another small journey.

When ‘Frozen in Thought’ leads us back into the timeless depths, however, we have moved a little further still from the senses – discrete notes and instruments are left behind and we drift through a rarified, unearthly stasis. Then the guitar pulse returns and ebbs again, and we reenact the journey of ‘Aurora’, though with a deeper drone and a more soft-edged destination. ‘Aurora (reprise)’ briefly brings the guitar back a final time, sharper edged, as if we might awaken, but the steady rhythm quickly submerges again. ‘Delta Waves’ lets go, offering a pair of soothing, alternating tones, simple at first listen but with a slightly grainy texture. These carry us into the long final track, to my ear the best on the album. The gorgeous ‘Theroux’ leaves us firmly in the ethereal, though the atmosphere is a little less austere than some of the earlier episodes (we do now seem to have arrived at peace). It carries forward some of the opening track’s sense of gently shifting motion in layers of subtly changing incorporeal drones. It is a rich, luminous track that finishes in beauty.

If you want to play this album as background for work, or just to relax to, or even fall asleep to, it will likely serve those purposes admirably, and its creator seems entirely comfortable with making music to soothe. But if you pay closer attention, it also has texture and plot and narrative motion – each track has its own distinct moment to contribute, and they all lead to the peaceful yet elevated finish. I can testify that listening to the album for several hours straight is not wearying, and also that listening to the final track on good headphones while walking through the snow at night is an enchanting experience. This is Good Weather for an Airstrike’s best work to date, staking a claim that music can be both thoughtful and therapeutic. After spending time with it I am left with the sense that it has come to me as a kindness. Stream it and buy it at bandcamp.

Related Article: When Ambient gets Festive.

Filed under Ambient, Drone, Electronic, Reviews