VA: Expanse at Low Levels

On this hefty eighty-minute, twenty-track Moodgadget compilation, familiar names (Tstewart, Marumari, The Reflecting Skin) and new recruits do their part to make this a wide-ranging and forward-thinking collection of fresh ambient music. Some pieces are mere fragments (Benoît Pioulard's acoustic guitar setting “Sunol,” Viul's swirling vignette “Breath On Empty Avenues”) while others are more fully-developed. In general, the longer pieces make a stronger impact, typically because they offer the contributors a better opportunity to dig deeper emotionally and instrumentally. Though all participants adhere to the album's ambient theme, there's ample diversity on display: certainly Library Tapes mix of piano elegance and vinyl surface noise (“Skiss Av Trad”) is light years removed from Calmer's “Miles Ahead” which sounds like Filles de Kilimanjaro transmuted into a placid, four-minute oasis.

One style that reoccurs on Expanse At Low Levels is heavily-textured, loop-based meditations: Viul's “Belleau Wood,” Will's deeply textured stream of blurry pianos, babbling voices, and electronics (“5ft.2”), Direwires' entrancing sparkle (“Sunkissed”), and A Setting Sun's ponderous synth-clustered setting (“Sunny Side Up”). MIA for years, Marumari re-appears for a two-minute sampling of technicolour synths-and-beats in “Birch Bark Vessel” which is more significant for suggesting Marumari still exists than for the track itself. In addition, Tstewart contributes “Wonders Of Blunders,” a blurry mix of stuttering plucks and willowy vocals, and Rob Theakston assembles a seductive undertow of reverberant swirl and washes in his Basic Channel-styled “Puck.” Praveen gets in two good tracks too: “Tour Around This House,” a shifting kaleidoscope of melting piano playing, glassy tonal shimmer, speaking voice samples, and flickering beats, and “Distant Snow,” a funereal, drum-heavy setting of piano, strings, and electronics. The collection's loveliest moment may be D. R. Casey's “Marino,” which envelops the sweet sparkle of cascading glockenspiel melodies with the surging tick-tock of soft strings and beats.

August 2007