The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2023

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APRIL 2023 Issue

Ambient Awareness

The Necks. Photo by Alan Murphy.
The Necks. Photo by Alan Murphy.

There’s a theatrical expression—“mood is doom”—that suggests too much emphasis on atmospherics will obscure the dramatic thrust of a play. But music is different. Sometimes the mood is doom, or at least some inchoate but powerful feeling. This may be best expressed by phrases that loop and mutate slowly, thickly, allowing for extended immersion in a kind of amniotic environment. Here, the repetition, the lack of typical progression or resolution, the indeterminacy, becomes a path to freedom or release. Recent releases by musicians who travel in the ambient sphere—veteran Australian trio The Necks, reconstituted country band SUSS, and two new groups, pensive guitar trio Scree and the dense sound creators Mute Duo—explore different aspects of this surprisingly supple and (like all the good ones) hard-to-define category.

The Necks have been together since 1987, and pioneered a searching style of composition and performance that they continue to draw strength from on their nineteenth recording, Travel (Northern Spy Records). The four long tracks, each around twenty minutes—“Signal,” “Forming,” “Imprinting,” “Bloodstream”—take simple phrases and let them simmer and stew. The compositions derived from the group’s habit of starting rehearsals with relatively fixed-length improvisations. The results come across as meditations, though comparatively short ones for The Necks, who originally became known for hour-plus sonic journeys. Tones are set against one another and cooked down, reduced. The high register piano rides atop a roiling acoustic bass and tamped-down percussion, as these sometimes single-minor-chord vamps transmogrify over time. This isn’t music that races forward, instead, it plunges down into different layers, the mottled sedimentary textures revealing shifting colors as the listener descends into it. Bassist Lloyd Swanton often sets the core tone; his patient, powerful way of digging into the sound and finding a fundamental beauty recalls Dave Holland. Keyboardist Chris Abrahams adds captivating shimmers of Hammond organ, and drummer Tony Buck has a way of raising the intensity without increasing the volume. The final results are subject to some overdubbing, but the overall sensation is of a natural, visceral event. The Necks have pursued their particular sonic strategies for decades, playing with diligence and passion—on this latest recording, the music feels especially clarified and resolved.

Another group of veterans is SUSS, though its three members made their mark with different groups ranging from the B-52s to the Lonesome Debonairs and Rubber Rodeo. What its three members—Pat Irwin, Jonathan Gregg, and Bob Holmes—have alighted on here is another side of ambient, one with Americana, and even country, overtones. Their self-titled new recording (Northern Spy Records) is a billowing evocation of parched, craggy landscapes that feels fundamentally cinematic; this is music for an unwritten Western, music as an unwritten Western. Titles evoke distant places—“Ashfork, AZ,” “Needles, CA”—and speak open-endedly of the vistas they contain. The American Southwest doesn’t seem the likeliest location in which to situate ambient music, much of which seems to exist in no particular place. But adding this sense of landscape helps define the music, giving it a specific context.

Synthesizer washes set the scene, while pedal steel flourishes give the music a localized flavor. Time moves deliberately and seems to give way almost completely to a series of hazy textures. The air is full of portent; it’s as though something is happening or has happened, though there are no clues as to what. This seeming mystery gives the pieces some of their drama. SUSS will play a series of weekly performances this month at Culture Lab in Long Island City, the group’s home base. Each Friday, they will play one extended track from their latest recording: “Heat Haze,” “Winter Was Hard,” and “Across the Horizon.” These evenings promise to be immersive explorations, late-night drives across a hypnotic, edgeless landscape.

If ambient country is a thing, why not ambient metal? Chicago-based Mute Duo bring a fine sense of thrash to their new recording, Migrant Flocks (American Dreams). The lead single, “Night Guides,” emerges from a dark murk into surging, overdriven electronic lines. As with SUSS, the instrumentation is led, surprisingly, via pedal steel. Sam Wagster possesses an irresistibly woozy lead voice on the instrument. He takes the pedal steel in a new direction, making it sound far removed from its sometimes tender and sentimental shadings. He rolls out swirls of melismas, then pushes the instrument even further until it stutters violently. His sound is cossetted in chunky beats created by percussionist Skyler Rowe. The full, relentless attack swarms the composition, which concludes in a thickened drone. The effect is mesmerizing and makes me want to hear more.

The trio Scree investigates a series of Middle Eastern modes on its new recording Jasmine on a Night in July (Ruination Record Co.). Led by guitarist Ryan El-Solh, who is joined by bassist Carmen Rothwell and drummer Jason Burger, the compositions draw on Arabic music and poetry, while also pursuing various askew directions. The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish inspired the compositions; his work often expresses a plaintive longing, and that comes through in the music. Darwish’s “The Horse Fell Off the Poem,” excerpted here, carries notes of whimsy and sensuality, intimacy and surprise, that El-Solh picks up on:

The horse fell off the poem
and the Galilean women were wet
with butterflies and dew,
dancing above chrysanthemum
The two absent ones: you and I
you and I are the two absent ones
A pair of white doves
chatting on the branches of a holm oak…

The music occasionally gestures toward a more jazz oriented style, though a fine ambient mist pervades the compositions. On “Questions for the Moon,” El-Solh’s guitar moves with a lightly surging danzón feeling, while on the title track the melody meanders down alleyways, landing in surprising places and resolving unexpectedly.

It's worth considering how ambient music relates to the idea of ambient awareness, which refers to the social media environment and our participation in it. In the cyber-world version, we are dimly aware of events taking place around us, not fully engaged with any one of them but cognizant enough so that a buzz of information wafts in and out of our overloaded brains. There is something vaguely dystopian in this concept. We derive meaning from being around a mass of shifting material, while bearing no responsibility for committing to any of it. The result is a world that is a million miles wide, but an inch deep. With ambient music, we have the chance to experience something broad and all-encompassing in a far more positive way. Without the linear progressions of most Western music, we can give over to the sound, take notice of slight variations, lose ourselves in free-floating awareness. As with Minimalist art, the reduction in the number of elements gives the perceiver a better opportunity to fuse with the music. Listening to The Necks’ latest recording, I lost track of all time, even lost the sense that I was listening to something. Instead, the music seemed to facilitate passage into another state, one of clarified, unspecified consciousness. In a world of directed actions, of do-this-now/be-this-now/buy-this-now, it seemed to offer a wondrously simple command: just breathe, just be.


Scott Gutterman

Scott Gutterman has written about art and music for Artforum, GQ, The New Yorker, Vogue, and other publications. His most recent book is Sunlight on the River: Poems about Paintings, Paintings about Poems (Prestel, 2015). He is deputy director of Neue Galerie New York and lives in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2023

All Issues