Review of Stil. [12k1020]

Ambient Exotica (.COM)

Taylor Deupree can list 50+ albums, EP’s and collaborations on his CV. The prolific head of the New York-based label 12k isn’t only known for his Ambient constructions, but for the discovery and promotion of many multi-talented producers and performers of whom I’ve reviewed a few works on this site and will continue to do so. If you’d ask me about one single album by Taylor Deupree to own, I’d – possibly debatably – point you to Stil., which was released in 2002 and reissued in 2006, the first time in a strictly limited edition of 1000, the second time in an edition comprising of additional 500 copies. I happen to own the original version, and while the second edition was remastered, I don’t presume that the changes are overly bold. Stil. is an eminently special Drone album that is very close to my heart not just because of two particularly favorite tracks out of four, but also due to its entirety. It is the perfect entry to the Drone or Glitch genre, and then again, it is definitely not; the core of each composition is minimalistic, the music meanders along for several minutes, and if there are changes, they are usually akin to microscopic dimensions. They are noticeable, but non-essential, so it seems. But nothing could be farther from the truth! Stil. proves to be the immaculate example for two different phenomena: at first, it is built in an ambiguous way. It is hard to tell whether a track is warm or cold, soothing or harsh, click-driven or synth-nurtured. And if it’s all of the above (hint: it is), how is that even possible? How can a minimal track sound icy and hot at once, given its supposedly limited emotional range? The second phenomenon is a psychoacoustic one, as the smallest change has a huge impact. Even though the listener might not notice a specific change or its careful (re-)introduction – be it the omission of a layer or a transitional tone shift –, it changes the temperature and characteristic trait of the aural architecture. I’m not talking about the tonality here, major or minor keys, but the smallest particles. Stil. succeeds in the delivery of its aesthetic concept as well as in the actual compositions, all of which I bring up in the following paragraphs.

The opener is called “Snow/Sand” and is to this day one of my favorite Ambient pieces ever written, regardless of the subgenre, the artist, the depicted emotions or anything else I could possibly think of. It is a splendid composition of almost 16 minutes and terrifically entrancing, though not much seems to happen, which actually increases the value of this gem. The beginning of the arrangement consists basically of a monotonous synth stream which encapsulates both frostiness and warmth, but is carefully divided into a comprehensible loop via a short clicking indentation and an underlining coruscating pulse. A barely noticeable scent of glittering snares wafts around the nucleus of the loop, but it is so cozy and whitewashed that there is no bile or Glitch-typical coldness attached to it. This is one of those loops that satisfies both the needs of Minimal fans who prefer a spartan, pinpointed atmosphere, and followers of the Drone genre who want to bathe and submerge into creeks of floating synths. The hybrid-synergetic characteristics are already implied in the track title, but Deupree’s realization and will to allow his arrangement the time to breeze and live is a great feat, and since there are no further ornaments added and the track remains largely unchanged from its third second onwards, there is a lot of time to actively reflect or to passively let the music run while you’re doing desk-related tasks. Both ways of consumption feel equally right to me. There are, however, sky-high Glitch fragments injected after five minutes that whoosh in close proximity to the core. Even though they are played in high regions, they aren’t piercing, but soothing to the ears. They can be interpreted as disturbing devices nonetheless, because as soon as they appear, the formerly solemn loop is sped up, but otherwise retains its characteristic qualities. Celestial clicks, frosty fizzles and spectral splutters are added step by step; they are never intrusive or mean-spirited, but add to the plasticity and majesty of the track. And thus ends my devotion about this wonderful piece. It is easy to digest, there’s no mind-blowing trick that changes its attributes all of a sudden, but that’s totally fine, for its seraphic qualities aren’t based on multitextural drone washes rather than tranquility, the maintenance of the main loop and the gentleness of the clicks which prevent “Snow/Sand” from becoming too streamlined to some ears. It’s still my absolute favorite, and I’ve listened to it numerous – undoubtedly more than a hundred – times on my desk.

There are additional arrangements on this album, though. The following “Recur” takes an implicit bow before the mid-90’s work of Oval, as its gelid synthscape is built in a similar way: a heavily pulsating synth frame is expanded by liquid chirps, echoey clave-like droplets and the softest haze of pink noise. The constantly bubbling nature of this calm Ambient piece resembles jitter-harmed discs, but the oxymoronic selling point is once again the glacial heat of the analogue-sounding main loop as well as its ubiquitously reoccurring scheme that is hinted at in the track title. In comparison to “Snow/Sand,” the concept of repetition is still eminent, but further fathomed; even though the characteristic traits are easily perceptible, the constant tone shifts and warbled pulses successfully camouflage the constancy. If “Snow/Sand” is too streamlined for your taste (gasp!), “Recur” may fill the gap with its lively but nonetheless mollifying presentation. It is potentially bustling… and salving. Ambiguity never rests on Stil. and flows through every alcove.

Up next is “Temper” which is my second favorite of Stil. It is torn between the auroral peacefulness of the opener and the relatively hectic activity of Recur. It is the most dynamic track of all four, not because of a potential harshness, for there isn’t any, but due to the clear-cut division into two equipollent phases. The first phase combines a time-shifted two-note bell loop of bright-blue colors, staccato-like bonfire crackles and Glitch cicadas which croak along to the balmy synthscape. After more than five minutes, the second phase of the composition launches with an unexpectedly punchy bass drum that is repeated incessantly during the remaining ten minutes. The former chime loop of two notes becomes a monotonous incarnation that is pitched down a bit and consists of several half-tones due to its flickering nature. It also resembles the main synth loop of “Snow/Sand”, probably the reason why I might like this track so much. The bass drum itself is accompanied by Geiger counter-like shadowy scintillae that lack the abyssal depth of the drum, but augment the mellowness further. It is almost imperceptible, but there is a molecular change in phase two as well, namely the forthcoming omission of a Glitch fragment that was part of the panorama all the time, but once it is gone, the track gets deeper and silkier. It is a remarkable metamorphosis for two reasons: on the one hand, there is just one high-pitched Glitch element missing, but this very element on the other hand induced much of the moderate coldness. The moment it vanishes, “Temper” changes into an aquatic shape. It provides a good example for an explication about psychoacoustic phenomena, I believe.

The final track is the eponymous “Stil.” and can be denominated as the centerpiece of the album because of its duration of over 23 minutes. Considering the timespan and the textural ingredients that allow its existence, this is the boldest example of a minimal track that is stripped off any ornament or surprising hi-hat. “Stil.” launches with a drone par excellence, a thin but multilayered, monotonously deep-blue stream which has a heavily trembling crystalline structure towering on its top. This is proper minimalism, as the drone doesn’t change for several minutes and is already perfectly in place from the first millisecond onward. It is only after over six minutes that a noticeable change takes place, and it’s once again a careful tweak whose impact is grand: the warbled nature of the crystalline texture is now flattened and almost smoothed away entirely, and it later turns out that the trembling loop and the silkened loop are now interchanged every so often throughout the track. Two final alterations are applied often, and they have firstly to do with slight tone shifts that once again add deepness and warmth to the track, and secondly with an added test tone-resembling sine wave that builds up ever so slowly and is unleashed at different times. In its final phase, “Stil”. gets rid of its textures and becomes thinner and thinner before it fades out for good.

Stil. is Taylor Deupree’s most minimal Drone album to this day, and while there are different thoughts and viewpoints about minimalism and even the implied temperature of a release, I am of the opinion that Stil. is an album that oscillates between – and then thankfully meshes – coldness and warmth. While all tracks are definitely similar in scope, buildup and coherence, there are difficulties aplenty: “Snow/Sand” is still my favorite after all these years, and I see it as a pitch-perfect example of a synergetic arrangement, entangling the very best elements of Drone music and Glitch particles in a, well, Ambient superstructure. It shows the immense power of a good loop, and I could listen to this song for hours. Despite its minimal approach, there are enough changes to keep me entertained; and despite its changes, it is consistent enough to allow a dedicated listening session as well as a great background listening experience in a think tank. And finally, it is warm while it is cold. It’s the pinnacle of the album, and the remaining tracks borrow its characteristic traits and change a few nuts and bolts here and there: “Recur” mimics the sound of jitters and artifacts, but does it in a good-natured, entrancing way. “Temper” is all about (a sudden) change, as it is divided into two phases, with many interspersed Glitch clicks and hazy crackles, while the final “Stil”. takes the concept of minimalism to new levels, especially considering the time when it was released. The co-occurrence of its runtime and the stripped-down appearance make this a composition for the strong-minded who are patient enough to soak in the microscopic differences. The album remains a great favorite to this day, and it sounds as fresh as it did back in 2002. No surprise there, for clicks and cuts that aren’t purposefully bit-crushed keep on sounding crisp and crunchy forever. Drone fans need to listen to Stil., as it is an essential album, both on its own as well as for the 12k label. Everyone else who is fond of hybrid Ambient tracks and of coherent antonyms should give it a spin as well. While its soundscape is slightly more efficient in Winter, there’s no seasonal backlash in the end. Highly recommended.

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