Billow Observatory: Billow Observatory
Danish producer Jonas Munk brought his Manual project into the world in 2000 with a self-titled twelve-inch on Hobby Industries and since then has issued a large number of recordings, both as Manual and with others under names such as Limp and Causa Sui. Three new releases provide an interesting overview on where Munk has been (a reissue of the Manual EP Isares) and where he is now (a new Manual EP, Awash, and a self-titled collaboration with fellow Billow Observatory member, Auburn Lull guitarist Jason Kolb).
One thing's for sure: Munk and Kolb's choice of moniker is certainly apt, as Billow Observatory's gauzy masses float as serenely as a vaporous cloud. The project's genesis took root in 2004 when Munk first became aware of Kolb's Auburn Lull work, and in the years that followed ideas and audio files were exchanged that would eventually culminate in Billow Observatory. The album's almost exclusively analog sound design is also extremely guitar-heavy, even if the instrument's sound is often camouflaged as a result of extensive treatments—reshaping, reconfiguring, and reprocessing. Munk's comment that a lot of the material sounds “as if it comes from surroundings rather than from hands touching instruments” accurately characterizes the album's stately sound. Moving at a glacial pace, its steely sheets of tones and washes drift into view, the tracks' shifts in character downplayed by the absence of pauses between them. Though a clearly defined style pervades the release, a style that might be described as ethereal ambient-soundscaping reminiscent of Stars of the Lid and others of its kind, Billow Observatory is not without its contrasts. Individual tracks possess individuating qualities, something that came about through the associations the musicians responded to as the material developed and prompting evocative titles such as “Helsinki Radio,” “Odessa,” and “Kronstadt” to be decided upon.
Though the release totals ninety-three minutes, in its single-album form it's about forty-four; that dramatic difference is accounted for by the fact that the six tracks on sides C and D are only available to those who purchase the recording in its double-album, not digital, format. Interestingly, it's on that second album that the recording's longest settings appear, the sixteen-minute “Bergson” and the three-part “Bilocation,” which totals twenty-four; it's also where the guitars are most audibly present, specifically in the chiming ambient peals that illuminate “Ambros” and “Bilocation Part 3.” Most importantly, even a cursory listen reveals that the second album should be seen as an integral part of the release, especially when the ambient serenity of “Bergson” and towering ebb-and-flow of “Bilocation” are factored in.Munk's Awash is likewise aptly titled, given the synth-heavy and atmospheric sound conjured on his new half-hour Manual EP (mini-album, if you prefer). And, like Billow Observatory, it's sometimes serene, as the downtempo title track makes clear. But unlike the duo's album, Awash is more expansive, sonically speaking: drum machines, analog bass lines, and synth washes work together to create succinct set-pieces of soothing splendour, and song titles such as “Floating World,” “Shrine,” and “Water and Light” give some impression of the album's conceptual focus. Though funk-inflected drum grooves make “Glide” and “Saudade” the punchiest of the disc's six tracks, fans of Munk's guitar playing might decry the degree to which the instrument's downplayed on the release, though it's presence is clearly felt in “Floating World,” a cosmic slice of dreamy trippiness that unspools in a series of lulling rhythms and synth and guitar washes, and during the slow dazzle of “Saudade.” Munk's well-honed command of arrangement and melody is evident throughout, making Awash less a radical redefinition of or advancement upon the Manual sound but more an in-progress report that documents the project's subtle evolution and ongoing refinement.
Originally issued on Static Caravan in 2003 and falling in between 2002's Ascend and 2005's Azure Vista, Isares sounds as strong today as it did when it first appeared. The four-track EP shows Munk at his dreamscaping best, with vocalist Maja Maria helping to amplify the music's radiance on three songs. He strikes a satisfying balance, too, in splitting the recording between epic set-pieces and introspective meditations. “A Familiar Place” exudes an epic character that suggests it could pass for an M83 cut, and the song in general traffics in a neo-shoegaze style that anticipates the chill-wave sounds of today. “Wake” moves at a slow tempo, which makes it all the easier to absorb its oceanic mix of angelic vocals and synthetic swirls. Slowdive and bands of that ilk would seem to have been on Munk's mind when he crafted such tracks. The restful “Stealing Through” puts Munk's guitar playing in the spotlight, with tremolo-laden electric guitars voicing the song's plaintive melodies and acoustic guitar adding to its down-home flavour (even if that's offset by grandiose synthetic whooshes). An ambient setting so epic it verges on symphonic, “Horizon” ends the recording with eight dramatic minutes of sweeping strings, synthesizer washes, guitar shadings, and vocal exhalations. Isares is so polished and its sound so timeless that one comes away from it marveling that it's almost a decade old.