December 3, 2014

Review: Sea Island by loscil

Sea Island

Several years ago, during a visit to Vancouver, I seized the chance to make a musical pilgrimage. Loscil’s First Narrows has long been a favorite of mine, especially the title track. Languorous underlying drones create a dreamy atmosphere, meticulously placed skittering touches keep the surface complex, the bass layer is unobtrusive yet interesting once you focus there, and mid-range acoustic instruments keep a hypnotic almost-melody going to carry the whole thing forward. It’s a remarkable union of stasis and forward motion that relaxes and fascinates equally.

The First Narrows Bridge, pictured on the album cover, is a suspension bridge crossing Burrard Inlet in Vancouver. One sunny afternoon I headed down to the shoreline, chose a spot with a panoramic view of the narrows and the bridge, and cued up First Narrows. I have no idea if what I saw echoed Scott Morgan’s mind’s eye, but that day the scene illuminated his music for me. In the background, a mass of mountains, solid, unmoving against a static blue sky; an anchoring drone. On the water, a few huge industrial ships, one or two anchored, others moving at a pace that required repeated looks to be sure that there was indeed motion; a rumbling bass. Smaller ships traversed faster, while sailboards and small yachts skipped and darted nimbly between the larger shapes. At the water’s surface the wind and sun created a constantly shifting, sparkling, skittering pattern as the inlet rippled. For a blissful stretch of a summer afternoon music and landscape were one, a painting in sound. I still see that panorama when I listen to “First Narrows.”

First Narrows

Plume and Endless Falls followed that album, each delightful, and then the loscil catalog began to diversify. Perhaps it was time to step out beyond the immediately recognizable loscil palette; perhaps some reviewer trotted out the tired old “I’ve heard it before, do something new” and was taken to heart; perhaps there was just more time to explore. Whatever the impetus, the next solidly loscil-esque Kranky album, Sketches From New Brighton, sat amid a flurry of other releases that explored a starker, beatless ambience (Coast/ Range/ Arc)‎, murkier soundscapes (City Hospital), piano accompaniment (Intervalo), remixes (100 Minutes), and collaborations with Bvdub and Fieldhead (Erebus, Fury and Hecla) that added vocals and noise.

There are traces of those explorations to be heard here and there on loscil’s newest album – the drifting ambience of “Angel of List,” the piano accents on “Sea Island Murders” and “En Masse,” an impressionistic touch of female vocals on “Bleeding Ink.” They are used to telling effect within a classic loscil sound world, making Sea Island both a deepening and a return to center-stream. For anyone who loves what loscil most distinctively does, this album is a thing of joy – to my ear the best release since Endless Falls, perhaps his best overall.

The inspiration is again taken from the Vancouver landscape, from an island caught in the tensions of being at once a nature conservation area and the home of Vancouver International Airport, of being home to a little over 700 residents while 16 million travelers pass through each year, of being a traditional Musqueam Indian settlement and the site of a projected designer mall. While I could have gleaned none of this from the music itself, absent the help of Wikipedia, knowing a little background once again adds some depth perception when listening to the restless, wistful ebb and flow of the compositions.

Sea Island works as a cohesive whole. The album opens in classic loscil fashion, underlying serenity overlaid with gradually unfolding patterns of subtle rhythm, never jarring, yet complex enough to fascinate; hypnotic yet detailed. The track title, “Ahull,” refers to weathering a storm by drifting with all sails furled, an image that gestures to the album’s subtle evocation of a landscape patiently and vulnerably enduring attrition and change. There is constant movement within an overriding gentleness that is at once relaxing and invigorating, somewhat in the way that sitting watching the swell and collapse of the waves is more relaxing and refreshing than a photograph of the same scene. There is an overall peacefulness as the tracks unfold that is nevertheless (as the desolate cover art underscores) not quite pastoral – listen closely to the restless rhythms and minor tones and a note of melancholy unease emerges, finding clearer voice as softly lamenting vocalizations emerge in the foreground. Track titles such as “Sea Island Murders” and “Iona” (a peninsula on the island that serves as the site of a sewage plant) offer further hints that the soothing surface does not harbor an idyll. The tone becomes ominously mournful, accented by sad piano. Just as the melancholy settles in the droning opening to “Iona,” rhythm re-emerges like a reassertion of the claims of time and history. I confess that when I first listened to Sea Island I was doing other things and came away with the impression that the album lost steam after an engaging opening. Listening more carefully and attending to the backstory implied in the track titles I realized that the progression was more like the unfolding of a narrative of growing emotional complexity. Scott Morgan’s uncanny ability to generate tension and delicate shifts in mood from minimal rhythmic and tonal resources is on full display through this middle section of the album.

As the album proceeds through its second half, the pattern of restless restraint and resigned hope continues, ebbing and flowing, small sounds swelling and being cut off, timbres shifting and swaying. The structures can be starkly simple – the meandering offset of the two rhythms and the whisper of bass that open “Angle of Loll,” for instance – yet wonderfully affecting. Against the absorbing oscillation of the background, the sudden appearance of a soft flurry of chimes can be a small revelation, piercing and sinking softly back into the undulating flow. The sounds used are often airy, breezes blowing across the deserted beach and the sea’s patient swell. The piano returns in “En Masse,” this time in somewhat more formal meditation as a halting rhythm stutters sadly along. The final track brings us full circle with another evocative nautical reference. “Angle of List” refers to a vessel that is at equilibrium, yet tilted to one side due to flooding or uneven distribution of weight. Is Sea Island, despite its apparent solidity, listing due to imbalances in the stresses we are placing on it? Here rhythm does not carry us along; we finally arrive at an uneasy moment of reflection, serene but with faint, disturbing echoes, that fades away and leaves us to our own response.

To my ear this is one of the best releases of 2014, and while it is risky to compare an album that appeared a couple of weeks ago to albums that I have been enjoying for a decade, I suspect it will stand as one of the best in the loscil catalog. It exhibits Scott Morgan’s mastery of all the subtle touches in the loscil repertoire and harnesses them to a compelling theme. Deeply rooted in both natural and social landscapes, it uses track titles and a delicate sensitivity to rhythm and mood to evoke a complex relationship to our surroundings, offering a musical space to meditate on history and nature, loss and endurance, hurt and calm. It sounds marvelous and carries emotional depth. It also reaches a level of subtle articulateness that sets it apart from much in the genre. Very highly recommended.


Filed under Ambient, Drone, Electronic, Reviews