Caul: Let the Stars Assume the Whole of Night
Seren Ffordd & Oophoi: The Martian Chronicles
A new trio of Hypnos releases is a cause for celebration in these parts. The label never disappoints in terms of quality and has over the years established a clear and immediately recognizable identity, both visually and sonically. Two of the releases are very much in the tradition, so to speak, being comprised of long-form soundscapes, while the one by Caul not only features shorter pieces but also stylistically ranges into terrain not generally associated with Hypnos.
Not surprisingly, Urbs, the debut Hypnos CD by Barcelona, Spain-based composer-musician Bruno Sanfilippo, draws extensively upon the urban environment for much of its source material. Field recordings, most of them gathered using an iPod Touch from train stations, streets, bars, subway platforms, and other public settings (in various European cities as well as Grand Central Station in Manhattan) are transformed liberally as they're threaded into the dense fabric of the CD's four compositions. Urbs is not a pure field recordings-based collection, then, but one which uses them in conjunction with Sanfilippo's samplers and his Korg Radias synthesizer. What results is an interesting fusion that merges the everyday city environment that is so indelibly a part of many peoples' lives (and to which they therefore become sonically desensitized to as a result) and ambient-drone synthesizer music. “Urban Flow” alchemizes field recordings gathered from various environments into a nightscape of powerfully evocative character. Footsteps, buzzings, creaks, and clatter are some of the real-world sounds Sanfilippo integrates into the setting, though they're never merely sandwiched together and left untreated. Instead, they're heavily dosed with reverb and merged with synthesizer and sampler-generated elements until a dream-like, slow-motion drone is the provocative result. In “The City Reflected,” muffled voices and crystalline shadings drift across a central mass of echo-drenched haze, with everything moving at an even slower pace than in the opening piece. In a not unwelcoming move, Sanfilippo strips the material back in isolated moments so that a single sound predominates, whether it be water sounds or synth washes—something the track's twenty-minute duration can easily afford to accommodate. That sense of drift isn't displeasing either, as it's used to establish an overall harmonious ambiance that's easy for the listener to embrace. In having softly whistling tones float alongside the muted noises of the city, the slightly longer “Chaotic Order” unfolds in unexpectedly serene manner for its opening ten minutes before glitchy textures extend the piece into rougher territory. The moment passes quickly, however, after which “Chaotic Order” assumes a noticeably extraterrestrial character when lunar transmissions, rumblings, and whooshes grow ever more dominant. The seven-minute “The Gray Umbrella” can't help but feel like a coda when it's so short compared to the other pieces, yet it nevertheless tells a complete story in its melding of synth patterns and reverberant voice mutterings.
Speaking of extraterrestrial, The Martian Chronicles, the first collaboration between long-time Hypnos contributors Seren Ffordd & Oophoi, takes its name from a story collection by Ray Bradbury (by the way, Seren Ffordd, the alias adopted by Andy Benford is Welsh for Star Road, Way of Stars, or Milky Way, while Italian ambient-drone composer Gianluigi Gasparetti is the man behind Oophoi). The seventy-four-minute set elaborates on its sci-fi connection in seven ethereal moodscapes the duo recorded between 2006 and 2009 using synths, samples, percussion, and field recordings as the primary sources (the album was mixed at Benford's StarWeb studio, aptly enough). The journey is mysterious, deep, and immersive, especially when the settings flow uninterruptedly from one to the next. The second track, “Dead Cities,” already finds us inhabiting deep space, as suggested by the lulling ebb and flow of the gaseous exhalations that dominate its early goings. A choir seems to faintly intone alongside the instrumental sounds (also during “Canals”), though that could simply be a hallucinatory response to the alien sounds in play. Cavernous rumblings convincingly conjure the vast emptiness of space before “Blue Fire” brings a rather more serene mood to the album. An occasional real-world sound, such as the chirping birds and rain downpour in “Flamebirds Waiting for the Storm,” adds a more concrete dimension to the generally abstract character of the sound design. Regardless of mood, the tracks unfold slowly, a move that in turn heightens their immersive potential, and there's a grandiosity to the pair's material, not to mention drama and depth. Though it's very much in the deep ambient tradition, The Martian Chronicles is also a superb example of the genre and one aficionados would do well to investigate.
It's Brett Smith's Caul collection Let the Stars Assume the Whole of Night that's the wild card of the three releases. The fact that only one of its dozen pieces ventures past the six-minute mark differentiates it from the others, but the differences are more stylistic than technical. The typical Caul setting is a melodic moodpiece, often downcast in character, and is more song-structured than the long-form ambient epics that dominate the other two releases. Acoustic instruments (guitar, drums, piano, glockenspiel) and synthetic sounds seamlessly merge in Smith's pieces, which play like soundtrack excerpts for a variety of film projects. “A Clear Eye Loves the Shadows as Well,” a melancholy setting for cello (synthetically simulated, presumably), opens the album, after which electric guitars and drums in a number of tracks (“Radiance Falls,” “Words of Praise Arise, Like Flowers”) lend a post-rock feel to the recording. A morose guitar-based piece like “We Are Like Heartless Shadows” makes Caul feel closer in spirit to Set Fire To Flames or Mogwai than your average Hypnos artist, while “She is Holy to Those Who Are Lost or Dead,” with its smoky lounge jazz arrangement of acoustic bass, drum brushes, and piano, nudges the album into Badalamenti-Lynch territory. One imagines “Upon the Vines” as material produced for a gothic horror film, given its plodding drums and raw guitar playing; spookiest of all is “Bells Ring Softly in the Twilight Air,” which seems to portend the imminent death of some unsuspecting character. The album is, if anything, resolute in its embrace of its darker vision, with even the closing piece, “The Kindness of Exalted Night,” opting for the gloomier side of things. One might thus look upon the oft-sombre Let the Stars Assume the Whole of Night as a dramatic counterpart to the Bruno Sanfilippo and Seren Ffordd & Oophoi collections.