Ambient musician redefines what a guitar can do
Sarah Lipstate’s latest album as Noveller is a dark, perplexing body of work that speaks volumes without reaching for a single word. It is an exercise in imagery, guiding all who dare the journey through grim, barren landscapes with a suspicious allure. Arrow, a collection of eight defiantly abstract songs, will lead listeners into the myriad of nooks and crannies dotting Lipstate’s imagination, none of them comforting; the album’s opener, “Rune,” twists a single morose pitch until it winds upon itself like a villainous viper. Nevertheless, while Arrow may be hypnotic and unsettling, it is also brave, complex and inexplicably beautiful. Lipstate is tethered to her guitar by a sort of obsessive loyalty, and she exclusively uses the instrument to communicate her vision. The dedication shows, as she did before with 2017’s A Pink Sunset For No One, she has once again carved out a place for herself in the ambient arena, and she now comfortably sits in a seat she can call her own.
“Zeaxanthin” is arguably the record’s most astounding track; at over eight minutes long, it never quite bursts into a climax, even though the swelling guitars suggest it’s coming. Instead, Lipstate layers rich, quivering tones on top of one another and alternates between the sensations of soaring and falling, perpetually teasing a payoff. She demonstrates a patience reminiscent of Steve Reich’s best work, focusing on a brooding atmosphere rather than a story. Her guitar work is remarkably deceptive, taking the form of a string section as easily as a full orchestra could. The mood is enhanced by eerie sound effects. The fact that Lipstate can replicate the sound of running her fingers along the rim of a wine glass is as puzzling as it is effective.
Lipstate is also proudly independent of a drum set. “Pattern Recognition” is an intense, urgently paced leap into the void, impeccably produced with a sense of dreaded direction. The track is alive with percussion, albeit anxiously so. Just as easily as she acquires structure in “Pattern Recognition,” she pivots away from it in the dreamy song that follows, “Canyons.” Grinding static pierces through the initial silence before giving way to acrobatic guitars, fluttering in circles through the air. The screeching instrumentals give the track a mysterious touch, as if they have been procured from the haunting depths of canyons themselves.
Arrow is a mighty achievement, one that pushes the Noveller moniker even deeper into technical and musical maturity. The album’s closer, “Remainder,” is a symphony of mimicry; echoes of opera singers, crashing waves and sirens fade in and out of the peripheral, defying the very notion that this could all be recreated by a couple strings. Lipstate weaves a treacherous web of anti-melodies, but underneath, she challenges the perceptions of what an instrument can and cannot do. Arrow may be voiceless, but it is not without language.