Characterizing Dawn Treader as “contemporary progressive ambient music” (a description included in the accompanying press release) isn't off-base, but it would be perhaps more accurate to describe it as a collection of instrumental songs. Jeffrey Ericson Allen, the Oregonian composer and cellist who operates under the Chronotope Project moniker, does more than fashion deeply textured ambient-electronic environments on this hour-long recording; what he does is create compositions of luscious sonic design and melodic sophistication. The album's seven pieces tell their unique stories by way of arrangements that enrich the customary genre-related sounds of digital and analog synthesizers with Haken Continuum Fingerboard (imagine a touch-sensitive fingerboard that allows for fluid, Theremin-like effects), cello, Irish whistle, recorder, koto, hand percussion, and Tibetan and quartz crystal singing bowls.
Though Dawn Treader is Allen's first Chronotope Project full-length on the Spotted Peccary label, it isn't his debut release under the name as other full-lengths and EPs have appeared since 2012 as self-releases and on Relaxed Machinery and Udana Music. All of that previous production work has culminated in a recording of exceptional quality, a collection whose individual settings transport the listener into realms of contrasting stylistic character. Narnia fans will recognize immediately the titular reference to C. S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and consistent with the book's story-line, Allen's album unfolds in accordance with a journey narrative, too. A mystical quality permeates the recording's content and that too is appropriate, given the literary and mythological allusions of the track titles.
Synthetic pulsings give “Dawn Treader” intimations of a journey being undertaken, especially when they seem to emerge as if from afar and gradually come closer. Allen's methodical layering of material is handled expertly, with minimal guitar-like accents punctuating the swelling textural mass and the whole growing ever more insistent as the eight-minute piece develops. Taking inspiration from a line by Japanese haiku poet Matsuo Basho, “The Scent of Evening Flowers” places the listener within a verdant garden where waters fall and distant flutes resound amidst the stillness and serenity. The literary reference continues into “Basho's Journey,” where a recorder's plaintive song is heard alongside the pluck of the Japanese koto and the poet's sojourn is evoked by the plodding tempo and the music's ponderous tone. Smothered in ghostly vapours, “Omphalos” is earmarked by the haunting ping of Tibetan singing bowls, while “Canticle for the Stars” murmurs, its gentle electronic burble warmed by a wordless choir's soft exhalations. Ending the album on an expressively robust note, “She Who Hears the Cries of the World” derives its rhythmic insistence from a Balinese gamelan-styled base of mallet percussion and bells.
Eschewing grandiosity and excess for tasteful understatement, Allen's recording exudes something of the feel of an ambient-electronic and World Music fusion but does so in seamless manner. Regardless, Dawn Treader is superior ambient-electronic music-making that elevates craft to a high level of artistry, whatever the genre designations in play.