Disquietly walking the line between ambient and horror
There’s scant difference between a great ambient album and a forgettable ambient album. By their very nature, they drift into the background of whatever mundane task you’re performing and can be declared a failure if they pull your attention too far in any direction. But the trick is not that it disappears entirely, but rather that it becomes the soundtrack to the activity at hand. It’s as if it were creating a movie soundtrack for your life, and the line it walks is far thinner and far more difficult to balance than one might imagine.
The real trick with ambient is knowing what is and isn’t ambient, which is more difficult than one might think. Incoherent American Narrative, the latest record by Crowhurst, in a collaboration with legendary composer Gavin Bryars, tiptoes the line, particularly towards the front of the record, but by its conclusion it becomes shockingly apparent that subtlety was never their aim.
“Blistered Glaciers” kicks the album off with a blaring foghorn rolling out from behind a deceptively calming drone. This will become a hallmark of the album, cool drones hiding monstrous forces that lurk in the depths of each track. While the song itself is thirteen minutes long, it only slightly begins to wear thin in parts where it occasionally relies too heavily on the same trickery or overly similar loops. Luckily in the world of drone thirteen minutes is a conservative length of time for a record, so Crowhurst and Bryars emerge largely unscathed. The center track “Not Yet Ready For Flowers” is more atmospheric, and ultimately more successful than its predecessor. The track paints an uneasy picture with its wash of pitched up drones and rolling cymbals and gongs. While the narrative itself isn’t entirely coherent (likely intentional given the title of the record) the effect is palpable and disquieting.
The record closes off with “Dead Swans of Dreams” which is easily the strongest track on the record. Where its fellow tracks were awash with full-bodied drones, “Dead Swans of Dreams” has a woozy aquatic feel to it, as if it were recorded in the Marianas Trench, or drowned in amniotic fluid. It’s a primal, upsetting track that taps deep into your psyche whether you are aware of it or not. Perhaps the only complaint one could levy against the excellent offering is that it is not scoring a film by Ari Aster.
That’s the trick with ambient. Most people have a misconception about what it is at its very core. This is plainly a drone record that co-opts the most unsettling elements of dark ambient to create a visceral, haunting reaction in the listener, which it succeeds at with every musical turn. While some tracks drag a little bit here and there, their ability to remain at the forefront of the listeners’ consciousness over their lengthy runtimes is impressive and worthy of applause, even if it might be better served behind a reel of film.