I was struck the other day by how often I had seen the word “intense” used to praise music while browsing recent reviews. Perhaps it was just the particular reviews I happened to sample. Perhaps it was an appropriate celebration of the passion invested in those recordings. Or perhaps it was a reflection of the ongoing quest for the next, even-more-vivid experience in a media-weary culture. Whichever it was, there certainly seems to be no shortage of music designed to fill the horizon and the frequency range without remnant, built to hook the ear within seconds and keep it wriggling helplessly until exhaustion sets in.
Tiring of the fray, I find myself at the moment more inclined to celebrate releases that make me smile with quiet surprises. I rejoice when gently touched by music that is not going for the arresting, big-screen effect, but is instead chasing small moments of beauty wrested from the noise. Already Gone, the sophomore release by Google-proof band En, is such an album. Released on Students of Decay, it is the latest of a series of small wonders distributed by Experimedia. Stream it here as you read on.
En’s debut album, The Absent Coast, used a variety of instruments and tones, but the overall emphasis was squarely on densely layered drones. Already Gone keeps the tonal richness but works with a broader palette of ideas. Anyone expecting nothing but dronescapes will be caught unawares by the opening track, Lodi, which within its brief two-minute-plus duration morphs from cascading off-kilter plucked notes above a simple, emergent bass pattern to a gentle buzz and more tunefully chiming processed guitar notes. “The Sea Saw Swell,” a little longer and more centered, picks up on the chiming tone that closes “Lodi,” opening with dreamy, sparkling sounds. These soon turn woozy, however, and a gently strummed guitar and that somnolent bass take over. By now a pattern is established of gentle comings and goings, an overall tone with instruments arriving and departing to add details and colors, each carrying its unassuming part of the tale. We’re headed somewhere, but the pace is unhurried and the destination unclear.
The next two tracks are quite similar in design: drifting, warm drones, now soft, now grainy, with a faint scratching of percussion and bowed strings, a fragile tracery of dissonance over a gently enveloping bed of sound. Both tracks are pleasant rather than exceptional, but they provide further steps on the journey. The observant listener will have noticed that a kind of ascent is taking place; each track is longer and more focused than the last, as if the ear is gradually being trained, drawn from the disturbed, dislocated fluttering of the album’s opening sounds into a more resonant center. It is hard to avoid the sense that the first four tracks are quietly building towards and preparing the way for the 20-minute closer, “Elysia,” and it’s in Elysia that we really arrive at delight.
Elysium was the isle of the blessed in Greek mythology, originally the place where a select group of honored mortals got to engage in an afterlife of gardening, athletics and music amid cool breezes and free from tears. The notion of heaven as an island where a few of the elite get to play golf in an endless summer evening may not be particularly mature theology, but the yearning for a place where the world stops demanding and instead caresses has always retained a legitimate allure. En’s version of Elysia opens with gentle birdsong, soon joined by a repeating, subtly varying sequence of softly descending chimes, a simple combination that evokes peace, space, and motion. The track lingers here, but after a couple of minutes this turns out to have been the start of a languid panorama that draws upon sounds we have heard earlier in the album. Skittering flurries of strings flutter by, chased by soft, breathy drones that are in turn punctuated with gently dissonant details and choral overtones. We drift here for a while before a layer of grainier noise gradually encroaches, like clouds across the sun, eventually reaching a modest crescendo that subsumes all else. As it subsides, we return to descending, chiming tones, swifter and less regular now, like a pattering of raindrops in the aftermath of a storm, glistering in the sun. The track is a dream-like pastoral idyll, resting on patient motion and quiet melody. Its length is the only respect in which it is super-sized; its shifting movements are ultimately all gentle. It feels almost like a reward for slowing down and learning the sound-world of the preceding tracks. It won’t bowl you over, but it might just bring you a modest serving of sonic refreshment, a quiet surprise.
Find Already Gone in the format of your choice and at prices that won’t break the bank at Experimedia.
David Smith currently lives in the Midwestern United States, where he teaches, writes, and enjoys a very wide range of music, with regard to which he claims no expertise whatsoever beyond that of a dedicated and appreciative listener.
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