Review of Shoals [12k1060]

Giraffe Kingdom (BLOG)

I’ve had relatively less time to digest this album than the other ones this high on my list, but I could tell from the first 30 seconds of my first listen to it that it’s special. Taylor Deupree – ambient artist, photographer, software designer and head of the consistently great label 12k Records – was given a pretty much ideal situation to make this album. He was afforded the full resources of the University of York Music Research Center, which presumably means he was allowed to use top equipment to make anything at all he could reasonably envision. When presented with such a multiplicity of options, an artist is often wise to set up some strict creative limitations to work within, which is what Deupree did: all of the sounds comprising Shoals are digitally enhanced recordings of Balinese and Javanese gamelan instruments.

With this stringent compositional decision in place, it’s wondrous how much the album sounds like somebody placed a very tiny microphone in a natural setting, admist dripping branches, chattering insects, snapping twigs, distant bird cries, clattering rocks and rotting tree trunks. The lovely cover photograph and titles such as “Shoals”, “Rusted Oak”, and “Falls Touching Grasses” enforce this overall naturalistic aesthetic, and like habitats, the songs evolve, slowly, continuously, and organically. However, now and again sounds intrude that are clearly electronic and processed (especially on the more ambiguously titled “A Fading Found”), thwarting any attempt to categorize this as one of those sounds-of-nature ambient albums. In reality Shoals is a complex electroacoustic work, beautifully juggling sounds of polar opposite qualities – wood/metal, transient/stable, warm/cool, natural/fabricated – and contemplating the sole source of all those sounds richly deepens the experience.

In terms of Brian Eno’s criteria for effective ambient music (that it should be as ignorable as it is engaging), Shoals strikes an almost perfect middle ground, but more often than not ends up being too engaging to ignore (certainly not a strike against it). Although there are not really any discernible melodies or harmonic progressions to hold on to, its diverse array of lush timbres and textures makes Shoals one compelling listen.

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