Wednesday, March 19, 2008

REVIEW: MANITOU - All Points North

All Points North
Slo-Bor Media (2007)
19 tracks, 68:26
Grade: A

(I’ll preface this review by stating that I have no info on how the sounds on this CD were made, whether through guitar, keyboard, synth, or manipulated sound sources, so take my comments with some laxness as far as my interpretation of what I’m actually “hearing”)

Manitou’s All Points North finished in a three-way tie as Best Ambient Album of the Year on my list over at New Age Reporter, and for good reason. For me, this recording epitomizes what makes ambient music so appealing. While musically the content here is relatively sparse and minimal (comprised of mostly tones, drones, reverberations, and textural synth applications) there is great emotional depth at this CD’s core. If I was prone to pretentious puffery, I’d label it “truth.” Manitou’s inspiration are the artist’s physical surroundings, evidenced by track titles such as “Dirty Streets of Winter,” “Woodward Avenue Serenade,” “Snowy Night Riding the Peoplemover” and “Hart Plaza Rainstorm.” The music contains deep-rooted evocations of a gentle melancholy (not over-bearing but palpable), moments of calm resignation, the sensation of memories floating in and out of recognition, both happy and sad remembrances, and a gentle flow of somber warmth, all of which makes All Points North the stunner it is.

I can’t overstate how much I appreciate the artist’s decision to record “miniatures,” i.e. only one of the nineteen tracks clock in at over 4:31 and six are under three minutes long. While with some kinds of ambient music this might be interpreted as a lack of thematic development in the music, such is not the case here. In fact, I’ll hazard a guess that this is the artist’s intent, i.e. these pieces are meant to be mere “glimpses” or better yet, “snapshots.” As I wrote over at NAR, “Manitou's masterpiece of intimate minimalism features brief ambient sketches comprised of warm drones, tones and textures that ‘sounds like’ the emotions evoked by perusing the faded photograph album of a good friend.” These beautiful yet short tone poems are ambient musical “snapshots” of places and times that, for the artist, have personal meaning.

For the sake of those who need the music described, read on for details on selected tracks. “Dirty Streets of Winter” blends reverberating echoed whistling tones with an underlying soft bassy drone. “Just North of Eight Mile Road” has what sounds like echoed textural electric guitar set against slow arrhythmic effects with a crystalline quality. “Woodward Avenue Serenade” is a deep dense yet musical drone that ebbs and flows with a circular sensation. “Snowy Night Riding the Peoplemover” is darker but not oppressive and more like deep spacemusic in its long stretches of rumbling tone. “Listening to Classical Music, Sipping Tea on Your Veranda - Time Stood Still” blends looped synth strings with altered choral samples, while the singular lush/dense tone on “Things Are Different Now, but the Street Signs Haven’t Changed” undulates fluidly. The closing “Looking Up Grand River, From Here All Points North” layers several synth washes together, weaving a beautiful tapestry of autumnal evocation, overflowing with a profound sense of heartrending loss married to contemplative serenity.

Sadly, album packaging is a bit lackluster, although I may be in singular disagreement with most folks who enjoy the idiosyncratic methodology employed by the folks at SloBor Media. The relatively plain brown cardboard sleeve adorned with a barely discernible silver ink block print of something or other doesn’t begin to convey the beauty or emotional resonance of the music contained within. However, it is the music that counts after all. On that front, All Points North belongs in any drone or minimalist ambient fan’s collection. It’s a brilliant recording. I’ve played it at least ten times and it never fails to transport me away from whatever I am doing.

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