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: HOTEL NEON
Texture. It’s easy enough to understand the concept when talking about physical objects. If someone speaks of the texture of sandpaper, or the bark of a tree, you know what they’re referring to. When it comes to music however, it’s a little harder to define. Clearly the word is thrown around when describing how a piece of music, especially ambient music, sounds. But what does it mean? Is it describing the way a certain tone hits your ear? Is it calling out the way the music approaches the subject it’s meant to evoke? It’s easy enough to say “I know it when I hear it” when talking about musical textures, but a little harder to pin down. Which makes it all the more impressive when we hear an artist with a firm grasp on texture and how to use it in minimalist music.
This brings us to All is Memory, the most recent album by Philadelphia, PA artist Hotel Neon. The album is a masterclass in ambient texture and how to use it effectively. We know personally, from our own forays into ambient composition, how difficult it is to apply texture to instrumental music. One track might sound great, but lacking. So other sounds are built on top of it. These might sound nice on their own, but added to the original track, the textures clash and the piece falls apart.
There’s no such clashing on All is Memory. The soundscapes presented here are “dense” and layered, but completely harmonious. Every track has a lot going on, but never becomes busy. Every note or tone has ample room to breathe, even as other elements swirl in and out. The first two tracks introduce these themes gently, and as the album progresses, there are callbacks to tones and certain textural elements. One example is a specific crackling tone that depending on the song’s context, evokes several different things: a campfire, crumpling a piece of paper, trees rustling, or rain falling. The overall effect of playing this album is like being in a room with many windows, and each track is like a window opening. As you look out the window, the sounds rush in. You hear the clouds, the buildings, the rolling hills. Then with the next window, you’re looking at a lot of the same landscape, but it’s a different perspective. Shifted slightly. In this sense the album is perfectly sequenced: by the time you’ve reached the fifth or sixth window, your experience of the other windows informs the current one.
All is Memory rewards close and return listens. And we don’t want to give the impression it’s just textures and sounds. They just happen to be the effective canvas on which this music is drawn. Out of these textures, music emerges: breathy synths on standout track “The Hope of Becoming”. The crisp plucked piano strings on “Blossom in Ruin” give a suggestion of space (this is the track that inspired the room-with-many-windows metaphor) as they slap off the walls of some small room, and get tighter and closer. The textures overwhelm. On what is, for us, the emotional centerpiece of the album (track 6 “Tidal”) an actual field recording of running water is used to evoke a riverside stroll, which builds to a fantastic moment which recalls the intense sensation of the sun peeking out from the clouds for the first time on an overcast day. It’s deeply moving in every respect.
This is what the best instrumental music does for us. It guides us to a place where we can use its story to inform our story. While All is Memory is exemplary ambient music, its effect is not limited by genre. While we were a little late getting on the bus (it was released in December 2020), this is not a record you want to miss.
We’ll be back next week with another review. Until then don’t forget about our Songwriting Prompt Contest!! Entries are closing soon so get them in!!
Finally- here’s another picture of Astoria’s most beautiful cat, Maple. She loves our record cabinet! I like to think she’s trying to get me to whip out those Bartok quartets. It’s been a while.