Review of Shoals [12k1060]

Tokafi (.COM)

Wanting good things to last forever is a part of human nature. Having to cope with the fact that they won’t is part of everyday life: Decay, fleetingness, death, evanescence and loss surround us even as we tread on beds of beauty. It is up to the arts, as the invisible link between reality and the fantastical, to bridge the divide. Taylor Deupree’s oeuvre, discounting early exercises in Minimal-Techno such as 1998-full-length Comma, has accordingly often been about the way our lives are ruled by memories and the unique ability of nature to heal the wounds inflicted upon them. In the consoling whiteness of his acoustic winterscapes, the cool clarity of his sonic hillsides or even within the tiny world delineated by the image of a leaf embedded into the surface of a frozen lake, bitterness is replaced by acceptance and the pain of “never again“ subsides into hope. It wasn’t merely his continually refined compositional technique which lent these aural images their entirely uncliched charm, but above all personal experience: Having fled the noise and turbulences of the big city, Deupree found a spiritual home in the rural town of Pound Ridge, his house bordering the very pastoral spaces his musical inventions are taking place in.

With Shoals, Deupree is taking the possibly most radical step in his career, as he crosses the river of last conventions into a deeply personal land, whose exact topology may not even be known to himself. The step may on paper look more logical and consequential than his prior move from foremost beat-driven work to quietly moving glacial soundscapes. And yet, at the time, there was an easy permission to do so, as Ambient, House and Techno were caught in a general process of raprochement, their borders turning porous and permeable. This time, though, barring a few like-minded spirits, he’s on his own.

Of course, there were precedents. Deupree has named Microstoria and Vladislav Delay as just two examples for acts adept at creating similarly open sonic environments. What sets Shoals apart is how, in these environments, space and musical motives are inseparably connected to each other and how their functionalities have been reversed. Rather than propelling the narrative, drones, hums and harmonics span threedimensional zones, in which the organic resonances, deep bass waves or occasional rhythmic pulses of a variety of Gamelan instruments as well as their processed clicks, fragmented noises and gentle glitches are turning into the real thematic protagonists. Some of the progressive soundscapes in the mid-90s would pursue a similar paradigm shift, but they deliberately did not aim at a fully-fledged integration of these two layers, merely implanting the one on top of the other. What Deupree is suggesting here instead is a style informed by the ideal of universal harmony, of turning up the natural frequencies around us until a hidden world of music comes to the surface, of placing the listener inside the music rather than confronting him with it.

These pieces are thus not just blurring the border between composition and installation, they are also changing the relationship between the composer and his audience. Rather than being presented with a definitive result, one is actively invited to navigate and find a personal path. There is, at various points of „Shoals“ a conscious overload of events, with myriads of tiny semblances superimposed on each other into vertiginous constructions seven to eight layers high. No one could process all of this information at once and so each visit turns into a new journey, depending on where one decides to focus one’s centre of attention. Even though Deupree has left markers along the way, subtly signalling where the main trajectory might be, there is really no need to follow him: Just standing still, marking time and trying to glimpse down this friendly abyss is a satisfying act of listening in itself – but so is the more traditional route of observing and marveling at the constantly changing constellations of harmonies and sounds revolving around it. Perhaps this far into his career, Deupree simply sees no need for grand, general – and thereby implicitly superficial – statements any more, regarding his job mainly as creating an inspiring world of sound and fully trusting his listeners to use it to their own advantage. The challenge no longer lies in the conclusiveness of a predetermined storyline but in imbuing even near-silent particles with emotional resonance capable of triggering powerful bouts of nostalgia.

This is why a review can only hint at what these tracks can mean to a listener. From the floating tranquility and tender immersiveness of the title track and the sentimental tides of “Rusted Oak“ to the ambiguous calm of “A Fading Found“ and the resting undulation of “Falls Touching Grasses“, they embody the very fleeting nature of the moment: A sudden electronic bleep turns into an epiphany, but it never returns. A melodic twist seems to offer a clue, but it disappears into the ether. Everything about them suggests they could go on forever but inevitably, they of course fade away into the whispering void of silence in the end.

At the same time, their finiteness is what differentiates these works from traditional ambient soundscapes and lends them their full emotional weight. In this sense, an exquisitely packaged 7-inch-edit of Shoals, rightly because of its improbable shortness, may be the even stronger statement: It is only by accepting the transience of the moment that one can truly appreciate its beauty, after all.

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