April Larson: Up Below
Polar Seas Recordings

James A McDermid: Ghost Folk
Polar Seas Recordings

It would be difficult to imagine two more contrasting releases from a label specializing in ambient-styled material than these. On the one hand we have a half-hour set of wispy, ethereal soundscaping by April Larson, on the other a seventy-one-minute collection of twenty-five vignettes by James A McDermid. Both have been made available by the Toronto-based Polar Seas outfit in small runs of fifty copies, their CDs housed in photography-enhanced booklets.

Up Below by Larson, whose work previously has appeared on Wist Rec, Assembly Field, and Soft Bodies, features eight indexed tracks but plays like a long-form soundscape. Though it was “(i)nspired by the subterranean,” the material could as convincingly pass for the muffled roar of an aircraft whistling at high altitude or ghostly transmissions from the spirit world; further to that, track titles such as “Subsoil,” “Floating,” “Cast Out of Your Tomb,” and “The Excavation” would seem to accommodate all three readings. Larson's processing of the material lends it an open-ended quality, such that its softly rumbling masses could be taken for the wordless utterances of a heavily treated choir or the muted reverberations of a drifting cloud mass. Only the closing “The Boiler Room” parts company with the others in opting for a rather earthy industrial-ambient-styled design, though the difference is not so great that it disrupts the overall complexion of the release. With the sharp definition of its contours so repeatedly blurred, Up Below sounds like nothing less than the aural equivalent of a Gerhard Richter painting.

Whereas Larson's release largely hews to a consistent style, Ghost Folk ranges widely, so much so that it's difficult to get a handle on it. It's one of those recordings where perhaps it's better to simply relax and enjoy the ride rather than attempt to draw definite conclusions about the creator's intentions. With a few exceptions, the tracks, which McDermid recorded in Portugal and England during 2015 and 2016, are in the one- to three-minute range, which makes for a constantly shifting presentation. One of the prettiest is undoubtedly “Estou,” a strings-drenched exercise in pastoral classical-folk, but there's no shortage of lovely ambient-electronic settings on offer, too. Standing out from the becalmed soundscapes-in-miniature are “Tula,” “Vertigo,” and “Florentine,” and the fluttering guitar textures of “Agirc” and warbly explorations of “Cutter” are also memorable. “Sepastia” and “Sun” present beat-based industrial-ambient swirl that suggests successful channelings of the spirit world, while “Valentin,” the longest piece at six minutes, stretches its sleepy guitar figures across a flickering ambient-electronics backdrop. McDermid is joined on five tracks by Veronika Zakonjšek, who's heard speaking during “Moje Misli” and elsewhere becomes part of the ambient fabric in “Cine,” “Cecjle,” and “AV City.” Whether accurate or not, the impression left by Ghost Folk is that McDermid, having produced the tracks over a twenty-month period, gathered them into a satisfying running order once the dust settled and sent them out into the world with Polar Seas the beneficent midwife.

June 2017