Variant: The Setting Sun

As if White Clouds Drift On and On, the recently-issued, double-CD release by Brock Van Wey, wasn't enough to keep ambient soundscaping devotees in a state of rapture for at least a month or two, along comes another Echospace release, this one the debut full-length by the label head himself, Chicago-based Stephen Hitchell (aka Intrusion, Phase90, Radius, and Soultek) under the name Variant. The Setting Sun's ambient focus makes it the perfect complement to the Van Wey collection (if the Variant release's title sounds familiar, it may be because it was issued at the end of 2008 as a digital release with a slightly different track listing and sequence), with one of its most fascinating aspects being its “no computers involved” production credo, as Hitchell created the recording's eighty minutes using microphones, portable beta recorders, Linn and sequential samplers, and vintage analog equipment, with all of it recorded onto reel-to-reel tape (recordings of a late-night storm during a winter morning in Berlin and a train ride to Narita Airport, Japan also found their way into the project). Anyone looking for Soultek techno or Intrusion-styled dub is therefore shopping in the wrong department; what's on offer here is ambient soundscaping of the most immersive kind.

Which isn't to suggest that there isn't a rhythm-based dimension to the material. Certainly the opening setting, “As Time Stood Still,” receives a subtle push from an insistent pulse, even if it's largely subliminal. The focus, however, isn't so much on the slow-motion beat flow as it is on the track's oceanic atmospherics and mix of thunderous rumble, rainwater dribble, and whistling winds (a gently plodding skank in the later “Someplace Else” also proves lulling). The even-deeper “Enchanted” drenches the listener with blinding wind swirls, thick slabs of crackle and hiss, and clangoruous chords that echo and shudder for fifteen rain-soaked minutes. And there is a dub dimension too, albeit of the production as opposed to rhythmic kind, as shown when “A Silent Storm” and “Adrift” melt their streams of liquidy chords into oblivion. Hitchell often gravitates towards long-form tracks and The Setting Sun is no exception, with the zenith reached in the closing title piece, a twenty-three-minute dreamscape where stately, softly glimmering electric piano melodies stretch out for seeming minutes on end. Like much of the album's material, the piece suspends time in the most seductive way imaginable, entreating the listener like a Homeric siren to be drawn ever further into its orbit. At the fifteen-minute mark, percussive accents briefly puncture the stillness, after which the material retreats even deeper into womb-like quietude, its melodic elements growing ever more distant from one another. Hitchell's gradually building up a pretty awesome catalogue of Echospace releases, and The Setting Sun does nothing but enhance it.

October 2009