Below Sea Level
REVIEW: AMBIENT EXOTICA (.COM)
A quote for eternity from Simon Scott: "Day trippers are something I’ve learnt to avoid." Referenced in his diary that comes with his latest three-part release Below Sea Level, those in the know will surely get the full meaning of this supposably flippant remark. The three parts of the album, released in May 2012 on the prestigious 12k label, refer to the media of music, sketches and the diary, all created by Scott himself and cautiously borrowed from the childhood memories-filled Fenland, a nature reserve of thousands of acres in eastern England. The album contains seven Ambient Drone tracks, produced between April 2010 and April 2012, which are traversed by field recordings and filled with guitar layers, synth sweeps and a blurry haze which not only refers back to the halcyon days of Scott’s sweet memories, but inherits the important second meaning of gracefully mimicking the misty aura of this area with the help of aural textures. In stark contrast to his Pop Ambient 2012 entry For Martha with its pulsating core or his 2011 release Bunny on the fitting Miasmah label, the screeching electric guitar strings, gloomily pulsating static noise fragments and classic drums are nowhere to be found, as Below Sea Level provides an entirely different listening experience. With the exception of one show-stopper – which, on a side note, is so magnificent and celestial that I’ve accidentally sent my talkative tweet to the wrong recipient, embarrassingly crediting Simon Scott’s label mate Marcus Fischer who took it humorously – the album is utterly coherent and filled with quiescence, peacefulness and the kind of reflective conviviality that leads to bliss and happiness. This contradiction is hard to explain, but I'll nevertheless try to explicate in the forthcoming paragraphs why a mellow album like this causes my heart to beat quicker than many a 90's Rave tune can accomplish.
_Sealevel.1 is the gateway to the ecosystem of the Fens, and it fades in slowly with the sounds of lapping water plus croaking frogs, an acoustic guitar which is interweaved with a sparkling dripping of a music box, a pink noise drone and the occasional appearance of a vibrant bass string from the distance. Naturally, my description is technical, as it lists the majority of this track’s ingredients and particularities, and yet one has to listen actively to their coalescence in order to grasp the beauty of this introductory track. The juxtaposition of nostalgia, matutinal melancholy and inner peace turns out to permeate throughout the track, and it is only when the golden-gleaming guitar begins to tower above the drone layers that an unexpected vividness and bubbly solemnity enter the Fens, rounding off Scott’s complex but not complicated stream of contentment. _Sealevel.2 moves into different territories, and right from the beginning it becomes clear that its multilayered synth thicket is more luxuriant and much warmer. Bird cries, gurgling water, vinyl-like crackles and a gorgeously floating drone full of buzzes, incisive strings and iridescently pulsating micro eruptions of twinkling droplets make this a rapturous piece that fades out slowly, leaving room for the echoes of the fen birds. Even though its majesty isn’t effervescent, _Sealevel.2 causes related feelings of utter joy in me. The listener is encapsulated in the beautiful drone washes, and best of all, this track feels full, but not heavy or larksome. It’s bound to earth, meandering gently and keeping the positive shine throughout its seven and a half minutes. _Sealevel.3 merges spellbinding aquatic glints with the thermal heat of comforting bass drones. A constant silken moiré lies like a veil over this landscape, softening the higher sound regions by augmenting the blueish shimmers of an underwater atmosphere. The mood is perfectly calm despite the omnipresence of the traversing buzzes which rise, fall and (sub-)merge all the time. Yet again, this track inherits a tremendous happiness from a soul-searching process whose endpoint is this composition. There are no obvious synth stabs or saccharine Pop Ambient remnants, and maybe it’s just my imagination, but _Sealevel.3 is melodious and hymnic. Naturally, the melodies aren’t glitzy, one cannot sing along to them, but still, the cool sparkles of the spectral bells may be cold and frosty on paper, but turn into a mellow coziness within the boundaries of this section of the Fens.
_Sealevel.4 is the liveliest track so far and is divided into two parts. It is still flowing gently, but launches with the organic pulses of animal field recordings, welcome pops and crackles, a permanent wind gust in the far distance and the warming unison of filtered guitar strings whose sustain mingles with synthetic drone layers. The drones fade out in the middle section, leaving the Fen landscape to itself. The various animals can be clearly heard on the moist ground. The drones come back a second time, and this time their characteristic traits are explicated much clearer, they glow and shine and sound almost feisty in contrast to their original appearance. As these entities fade out, Nature is taking over once more, and this particular closing vignette reminds me of the dynamic field recording works of Chris Watson and Francisco López. The lakes and ponds get rougher as strong wind noises and gurgling bursts appear. All of a sudden, the still life turns into an ephemeral maelstrom; this is an important stylistic device to present the rougher times of Nature. I for one am glad that these elemental forces only rise in _Sealevel.4, as I prefer the gentleness in Drone music over the rougher edges. Thankfully, _Sealevel.5 returns to sunny lands, and here the acoustic guitar melodies, glockenspiel-esque music boxes and whistles are perfectly carved out, reminding of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports, but also containing scattered Far Eastern keys whose tonality is an unexpected but welcome expansion of the motif. The interplay between sound, sustain and space makes this song so great: the sustain of the twangs is allowed to fade out, intermixing with the space and merging another time with the following note. This is probably the most reduced track off Below Sea Level, as it is pruned of its Drone layers. The majesty and picturesque sunny landscape prevent this composition from being linked or reduced to a lackluster bonfire ditty. Coming up next is _Sealevel.6 which is the awe-inspiring offering that I’ve hinted at in the first paragraph. Providing a totally different take on the Fens, this song is bubbling over of ethereal synth washes and seraphic eruptions! Its ambiguity is the unique selling point: it feels like an underwater track, and yet there are chirping birds and airy textures. The listener is washed away by the sublime superstructure of this successful synthesis, and yes, this one has to be heard to be believed. The song fades out after four minutes, presenting a hazy field recording in its last minute. It is as if the wildlife was intimidated by the resplendent sweeps and pulsating stabs that were encountered just seconds ago, and only coming back to life after a cautionary moment. The final _Sealevel.7 closes this album with the impression of a Glitch Drone setup: pulses, clicks and crackles entangle with water drops and small creeks, and even the fragile nocturnal melody and the accompanying guitar strings resemble and mimic the adjacent staccato stream of fizzles. The result is a concoction of rapid-firing movements between space and sound. But Simon Scott manages it once again to camouflage the constant movement and hectic bustle as a balmy Ambient track where every element meshes with the other harmoniously. _Sealevel.7 is a sinuous noise track, but streamlined and whitewashed in order to retain the endemic cachet of the album.
At the end of the listening session, after reading Scott’s diary and looking at his art book, Below Sea Level lies wide open before the listener. This is not just a field recording-related Drone album that is linked to a specific place in the post-processing stage only, but a work that is created right from the proverbial spot with the respective atmosphere already in mind. Scott’s meticulous preparation and documentation are unusual in regard to such projects. I even felt dizzy about the fact that I adore the works of so many other artists whose intertwining of various field recordings, movie samples and BBC Radiophonic Workshop fragments tends to be poignant, but also quite a bit soulless and arbitrary in comparison to the purposeful, detailedly elaborated way in which Scott approached this project. I can see and feel how important the Fens are to him. That this project came to fruition and is brought to life even further by the delicate packaging after two long years is astonishing. The music remains the most important part for me, but Scott’s given background information elevates the sound waves and wafts them into a bold context. The following sentence states a very obvious fact, but I feel the need to stress it once again: Scott’s devotion to this project results in a fantastic journey through the Fenlands of England. And even though the term fantastic is more than a bit problematic in this regard, I want to exemplify why I am using it nonetheless. All of the seven tracks – even the stand-out ethereality of _Sealevel.6 – paint the feeling of tranquility, quiescence and contentment in accordance to the sketches and prints of the diary. So the music itself isn’t fantastic per se, it’s down-to-earth, majestic and solemn. But the feelings that are evoked by this humble pompousness can be called fantastic. I can, of course, only speak for myself, but I’m overjoyed by the various distinct and yet cohesive takes. In the best case, music in general correlates with your feeling. A Synth Pop song causes you to sing along with it (or turn it off altogether), pumping club tracks let you dance in a state of trance when the circumstances are right, and picayune Eurodance offscourings cause rolling eyes, maybe even the occasional malicious grin. But Below Sea Level works on another level way above these dubious artifacts: while it is peaceful, my heart is still pumping when I encounter the sumptuous warmth of _Sealevel.2, the aquatic caverns of _Sealevel.3 and the auspiciously auroral washes of _Sealevel.6. Hence, the music is fantastic to me – it works in ways one doesn’t expect. Drone tracks usually tuck you in, and Below Sea Level accomplishes the same, but the setting, devotion and timbre of Scott’s compositions cause an euphoria which cannot be explained easily. I give up in this regard and can only stress that it is a mighty fine album, and Simon Scott proves that the third time is the charm. Visitors of the Fens or local residents in close vicinity will be blown away, but even Drone fans in far away places who have an interest in nature and its landscapes full of reeds, tarns, plants and animals will find Below Sea Level to be soothing and comforting, with lots of moments of utter joy where their hearts will hopefully jump. Wholeheartedly recommended.
Below Sea Level