Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re fully aware that the new La Sudar album, The Debussy Loops, is available to stream and download now. Some call it post-drone. Some call it space elevator music. We don’t know. We’re glad it’s finished. So for the next couple of weeks, while we bask in the post-release glow, we’re going to shift the spotlight over to some of the artists we’ve discovered on Bandcamp this year.
This week: Alaskan Tapes: For Us Alone
Alaskan Tapes‘ brilliant new album “For Us Alone” starts in a typically ambient way. Synths fade in, with soundscapes layering in on top of them. Are they field recordings of waves? Some keyboard sound effect distorted and washed out? There’s a crest, a falling, and then another wave of synths come in. It’s very pretty, calming, and was very quickly edging its way to the front of my after-work walk playlist. This is beautiful, I thought. There’s nothing crazy happening, nothing too crowded, just beautiful space. From the beginning it’s clear the artist has a wonderful sense of composition.
Track two, “Floating, Completely” starts in a very similar way, but those soundscapes are a little clearer this time. Sounds like… a ride cymbal? Then very clearly, a bass note, way up the neck, and finally, something I never expected to hear surfing the ambient channel: a snare drum. There’s a full kit here, anchoring a full trio. It’s perfect, actually. Strings come in supporting the main melody, and just like that, everything drops out, leaving just the ambient sounds that have been present throughout.
Curious, I scroll through the album to find the other tags the artist uses to describe the record I’m enjoying. The normal ones are there: ambient, drone, chillout, but also some new ones I quickly click on and follow: focus, lowercase (??) and compositional ambient, a term I hadn’t heard before. It seems to fit: the trio, which comes and goes throughout the album, is the source of a lot of the album’s power, but the heart of the album flows through the very deliberate construction of the music and the artist’s gift for soundscaping.
There’s other field-recording stuff worked in throughout: phone-in-pocket style capturings of jingling keys, fence creaks, faraway voices. Synth tones suggest elevator dings. Floorboards creak. Piano phrases loop mournfully. But as the album rushes towards its incredible climax, the band trio pushes back towards the front of the stage.
It’s worth considering the band dynamic and the simple, gorgeous string arrangements in the context of ambient music. What separates what’s happening in “ambient” music from what’s happening in music stuck with the odd “post-rock” label might be the subject of another column. But when I think of “post rock” bands like Godspeed You Black Emperor and Explosions in the Sky, I think of tension and release, I think of storytelling using samples and themes to build a narrative. But to combine that urgency with what Eno calls the “ignorable” quality of great ambient music is quite an achievement. I’m not sure if that’s what the artist means by “compositional ambient”, but it shines through on this record.
Don’t believe me? Check out the monumental, heroic finale, “The Sky Sings Its Chorus (For Us Alone)” parts 1 & 2, which is some of the most beautiful music I’ve heard all year. The album fades out much the way it came in – inconspicuously – but front to back, this is one of the most satisfying listening experiences I’ve had in a while.
Big Congratulations to JOHN PAVLOU, the winner of the most recent Songwriting Prompt Contest! We’ll be featuring his song “Undo” in a column in the near future, so watch this space. In the meantime make sure you GET ON THE MAILING LIST so you don’t miss the next one!!