Review Summary: Somewhere out of time.
The term “ambient”, as it is understood generally and not with any direct application to music, is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as, “of or relating to the immediate surroundings of something”. Now, using definitions in an attempt to understand how words function in a pragmatic sense rather than a purely semantic one is a slippery slope, especially because definitions are by nature meant to define linguistic function and not necessarily to delegate meaning. Regardless, the nature of how “ambient” is defined for linguistic purposes affords a unique way to understand how the term functions when used to define a genre of music. Ambient music is generally understood to be formless, oftentimes beat-less arrangements of sound that can come from a variety of sources ranging from electronic and traditional instruments to incidental and environmental noises, sometimes captured and other times synthesized. Still, even with a definition like this, it seems inept to define exactly what ambient music is, and whether it is defined by its structural nature, the sources of its sounds, or the effect it has on the listener.
Aux Field’s Imaginable Layers
, part of the new batch of music released in 2015 by the ever-brilliant Umor Rex records, works wonderfully as a test subject to further tease out this idea of exactly how ambient music functions in its most essential form. Imaginable Layers
falls comfortably within the boundaries of electronically synthesized ambient sketches with an aesthetic informed largely by the growing catalogue of Umor Rex, who function as a label less interested in simply releasing music and more so in curating an output of thematically similar releases that expand upon a set of basic themes. In keeping with this tradition, Aux Field’s initial release for the label consists of a series of arcane ambient themes coaxed out of an array of modular analog synthesizer equipment, juxtaposing radiant pads and metallic pulses of sound to create a synthetically crafted but structurally organic series of ambient compositions. While this sort of thematic approach is generally typical of Umor Rex releases, each artist approaches this aesthetic with their own unique perspective and vision, breathing new life into the kinds of musical ideas the label itself is interested in.
As it stands, Imaginable Layers
is perhaps one of the most fully realized and successful collections of music the label has yet released. The kinds of ambient, synthetic sketches Aux Field presents are far more restrained than much of the music Umor Rex has previously released, placing emphasis on melody and rhythm in their less abstract, and more generally accessible, forms. With distant pads and clearly defined melodic motifs dominating the recording, Imaginable Layers’
compositional style is less interested in simply displaying the sound design capabilities of the modular systems it was born from and more so in actually composing cohesive, evocative aural landscapes. It is also uniquely interested in teasing out the rhythmic qualities that exist within the context of this kind of formless, ambient music. Tracks like "Drain Dub", with a constant, percussive bass pulsing beneath the track for its duration, represents some of the more overtly rhythmic elements unique to this release. However, all of the tracks here consist of themes constantly in dialogue with the idea of rhythm, using undulating washes of sound and rhythmic pulses to create a steady undercurrent of rhythmic movement that pervades each individual composition.
At times, Imaginable Layers
almost seems to hearken back to the formative years of this kind of ambient synthesizer music. While never quite embracing the futuristic optimism of many of the early German composers, the emphasis on both melodic and thematic content as opposed to the largely post-modern sound-collage techniques of many of the genres contemporaries sets Aux Field’s first release in a league of its own. With an aural landscape dominated by melancholic visions of distant cityscapes and industrial aesthetics, Imaginable Layers
seems content not to look forward into some sort of utopian future dominated by smooth color palettes and clean atmospheres but rather to look back and consider how the weight of modernity might compress our current times into a future populated not simply ideas, but by people and the ideas they bring with them. It emphasizes the unique quality of the analog synthesizer to inhabit spaces totally removed from its physical location, allowing it room to breathe within its own sphere of aural architecture free from chronological associations or generational trappings.
It is the combination of both the thematic elements and compositional techniques contained on Imaginable Layers
that makes for a record that is almost solely interested in the idea of being spatially evocative, creating an aural environment that engulfs and transports the listener into the world where the idea
of the music exists instead of filling up the physical space the listener inhabits. It highlights the unique perspective in which the linguistic definition of the word “ambient” can be applied to the practice of creating ambient music and understanding how it functions both in an ideological and physical sense. If ambiance is defined as, “of or relating to the immediate surroundings of something”, then ambient music by extension is interested in transporting the listener into the space in which the music itself inhabits. It is music that exists in limbo between fully-present and totally absent, simulating the environment from which the inspiration for the album came and synthesizing space both aurally and physically. The kinds of hypermodern, melancholy futurist environments the analog contortions of Imaginable Layers
evoke are the perfect example of this essential quality of ambient music. Not only is it a worthy addition to the catalog of music that precedes it, but is a wonderfully realized ambient record that is as evocative as it is compositionally sound. Fans of Umor Rex, and ambient synthesizer music in general, will find much to enjoy with Aux Field’s first offering of 2015.