Review Summary: Maximal quality from minimal compositional means.
A common misperception is to liken musical ability to a positive arithmetic spectrum. In this analogy, the plotted variables closest to zero would represent the rudimentariness of a composition, while the variables that stretch towards positive infinity would represent technical virtuosity. The showmanship of technical playing is easily lauded for its ability to wrest attention, but to praise it as the endgame of a musician's studies would not be completely just. While it is simplest to insert objectivity into musical analysis by only acknowledging the positive end of said spectrum, (consider of the flurry of notes played by a Chopin or Liszt), the negative end musn't be ignored. "Music" itself has such a malleable definition that the silence between notes must be considered as, if not more crucial than, the actual struck pitches. Minimalists will never attain the laudability of technical virtuosos due to the acute attention often required to experience a piece, but with proper attention, their works can be just as effective.
This brings me to Ensemble Pearl, an ambient & drone-based supergroup including members of minimalist stalwarts such as Sunn O))), Ghost, and Boris. Their self-titled debut LP is made up of six slow-burning tracks that seldom accelerate beyond a crawling pace, and definitely do not entice with traditional alacrity. Also in keeping true to the drone template, the six presented cuts amass a total runtime over an hour in length, with the final three tracks all eclipsing the ten-minute mark. Ensemble Pearl is certainly the type of album that can be left to rumble along inoffensively in the background, but as is the case with all great pieces of minimalistic composition, the music flickers brightest when apt attention is given.
Despite the leaden pace the album trudges along in, each track has multiple salient events that act as beacons of light in the aural mist. The drone that creates the mist, however, is just as critical to creating and maintaining Ensemble Pearl's atmosphere. Michio Kurihara's wailing guitar leads are easily the most attention-grabbing aspect of "Ghost Parade", but it's the spaced-out clean guitar picks and droning soundscapes that elevate the track into something truly chilling. "Painting on a Corpse" is driven by Atsuo's pounding tom rhythms, but is punctuated by intermittent electronic swells that slowly crescendo to a deafening roar before fading back to nothingness. Each track has little nuances such as these that give themselves identity, and give the album a surprising amount of variety for the type of genre it lies in.
It's pressing to note that despite the suffocating wall of distortion that Boris, and more notoriously, Sunn O))) are wont to implementing, Ensemble Pearl is distortion-free. This helps create a very breathy atmosphere that remains pertinent throughout the album's entirety. That's not to say that the album isn't at times overwhelming, however, it's just a slightly different variant of it. Instead of persistent sonic buffeting, the intensity on Ensemble Pearl is given room to breathe. This creates a much more subdued type of tension that is akin to watching a psychological horror movie; the ambiance sets up for something truly horrifying, but the jump-scare never actually occurs. Despite all of the musical fuses that are lit, there isn't a single moment where the album explodes. It certainly could have, but Ensemble Pearl clearly understand that restraint holds more meaning given the correct parameters.
It may drag slightly in the latter half, but overall Ensemble Pearl's debut LP is incredibly absorbing. There's enough nuance in the composition for it to be more than just another wall-of-sound album, but not so much for it to feel weighted down. It shouldn't be surprising given its members' collective experience that Ensemble Pearl have managed to create an incredibly effective atmospheric drone release, but what may be surprising is that what they've created eclipses a good deal of their previous material in terms of artistry. For all its slowness, Ensemble Pearl is at times frighteningly tense. This is attaining maximal quality with minimal composition.