Review Summary: Space Is Only Noise is a modest and natural sounding album with a fantastic mixture of field recordings, vocal sampling, and broad instrumentals.
I discovered Nicolas Jaar through word of mouth last year. When I first started listening to his first official full length album, Space Is Only Noise, I wasn't sure what I was hearing, but I was hooked. Space Is Only Noise is a bizarre electronic record with various components that make up its mysterious persona, such as field recordings, meticulous sampling, and strange synthesizers. Using these building blocks to concoct a unified whole, Space Is Only Noise is a seamless and gripping album.
First, the flow of Space Is Only Noise is spectacular, as each track effortlessly transitions into the next. Nicolas makes this flow possible with unique sound recordings and natural sounds, such as water. Listening to the flow of water between tracks sounds like a purely natural phenomenon and displays an interconnectedness with nature itself. However, these field recordings do more than just provide an easy passage from one track to the next. They also build an engaging atmosphere and paint a picture of the listener's surroundings. Many of these recordings sound like they were recorded in a forest or at a riverside. Returning to the album more than once will reveal many hidden elements, like the unsettling squawks of birds in the distance. Nicolas creates an eclectic sound collage on which his synthesizers and other instrumentals rest.
Nevertheless these sounds are never overwhelming or flashy, but they will lull the listener into a strange state of mind without warning. The vocal sampling also brings a personal touch to the album. From the sounds of children playing to adults laughing, the LP covers all aspects of life. Once the album opens with the sound of waves reaching the land, the album feels like a journey through different stages of a person's lifetime. "Etre" uses these sounds to draw the listener into its peculiar environment, while a wispy piano accompanies a loop of sounds coming from a man's mouth. The following track, "Colomb" opens with a supernatural synthesizer that paints a picture of a marvelous light manifesting itself atop a peaceful riverbed. The song is also lightly adorned with clapping hands and a muffled female voice.
One of the most intriguing sounds on the album arises toward the beginning of the album. It is the mentally therapeutic sound of limitless and tiny wooden balls dropping onto a hard surface in a manner similar to raindrops. Quiet sounds like these add an air of utter tranquility to an incredibly unassuming album. Nicolas uses his deep voice to establish the rhythm of "Keep Me There" as a continuum of noises are assembled to compose an unfathomable ambience. After the sound of a man and a woman giggling is heard, Nicolas delves into jazz with screeching saxophones. On songs like "Too Many Kids Finding Rain In the Dust" and "Problems with the Sun", Nicolas Jaar takes the lead on vocals with a voice that is strangely comforting on these self-contained tracks.
The majority of the album is so trancelike that it does not encourage dancing of any kind. An anomaly comes in the form of "Space Is Only Noise If You Can See", which begins with reverberations of Nicolas's vocals before erupting with a piercing synthesizer. While it retains the oddity of the rest of the album, this track engages the listener in a more direct way. My favorite track, "Balance Her In Between Your Eyes", is equally beautiful and stirring. The song opens with a continuous, fuzzy noise that is overlaid by looping instruments like a serene piano. The ghostly vocals, while at first disconcerting, become a source of angelic solace. The song feels unearthly as an unknown woman sings, "You can look into and see the eye that made you."
Nicolas Jaar does not ask much of the listener on this album other than to hear him out. Nevertheless, for songs made on a computer, the music itself is astoundingly potent. The brief, but engaging "Specters of the Future" returns to the jazzy feel of the LP with an impetuous piano and a collage of vocals that come across as both melodious and eerie. One of the most interesting songs is the penultimate track, "Variations", building up with a series of foreboding guitars before an interesting chain of vocal snippets are juxtaposed with spacey electronic soundscapes. The track's inherent darkness delivers an unnerving tone while also presenting a satisfying response to the dance-inducing thrills of the title track.
Listening to Space Is Only Noise does not require a tremendous amount of effort, but it does call for patience and open-mindedness. The overarching sound of the LP is cryptic and often indescribable, yet the balance of sampling, instrumentals, and electronics convey a visionary atmosphere of peaceful seclusion. Space Is Only Noise is easily one of my favorite albums of 2011, and its multitude of surprises keep me coming back for more.
Balance Her In Between Your Eyes
Specters of the Future
Keep Me There