Wednesday, March 19, 2008

REVIEW: NELSON FOLTZ and TOM LYNN - Still Life Volume Three

Still Life Volume Three
Self-released (2007)
1 track, 43:43
Grade: A+

Nelson Foltz and Tom Lynn are the men behind the curtain for Still Life, a series of recordings of which this is Volume Three although actually the fourth in the series (there was a release entitled Interlude which came between Volume One and Volume Two). Sadly, this was the first one of the collection which I was fortunate enough to hear, although based on a little reading on the Internet, I gather they are all of a piece, even if they are dissimilar. Obviously, I thought highly enough of this album that I gave it a spot on my Best of 2008 listing, so you already know this review will be a rave.

Comprised of a single track nearly 44 minutes long, Still Life Volume Three (hereafter just Volume Three) moves patiently through several distinct movements, not unlike an ambient overture (although longer than your standard overture, obviously). What will most likely raise the eyebrows of some listeners is that no electronic instruments were used in making this music. Instead, found sounds (manipulated and altered through studio magic) and real instruments (notably trombone, played in a relaxed bluesy fashion) are melded, resulting in some of the most blissful yet somber and perhaps somewhat melancholic drone-type music I’ve heard in quite a while. In fact, this is one of those relatively rare ambient recordings that, as far as I’m concerned, you’re going to enjoy more by immersing yourself in, although when played in the background it exemplifies what makes ambient music, well, ambient (i.e. pleasantly ignorable but resonating with the listener on an unconscious level).

Volume Three is a quiet recording. Its charms may even sneak up on you. Things start off with a muted warm drone and soon other elements fade in gradually, musical tones with a reverberating quality, an occasional brief solo from the aforementioned trombone, and at about the two minute mark, the first emergence of a beat comes into play. It’s organic in nature, heartbeat-like, and fades away quickly but emerges more pronounced later on. What sounds like orchestral string samples lend an air of beauty and sadness, mixing with the innate bluesiness of the horn, both of these being balanced by the unmistakable ambience of the drones and textures so that it all coalesces into a deeply felt yet never overbearing or overpowering auditory sensation.

Later, when the heartbeat rhythm becomes more prevalent, a radar-like blooping echo shares center stage, pinging softly into the distance. It’s at this point that I realized what a masterpiece Foltz and Lynn had crafted. To make music this “subtly” beautiful, this organic in feel, yet also obviously displaying the engineering know-how of the 21st century, well, it’s mind-boggling, frankly. As I listened time after time, more background touches revealed themselves as layers of effects came and went, always adding something to the “whole.” There is no waste here, nothing is superfluous. Despite all the “stuff” going on, what it really sounds like is a single musical entity, hence why I refer to it as organic (that and the fluid nature to the tones and drones and textures).

The second half of the recording becomes more drifting, sometimes comparable to vintage spacemusic, featuring drones that are even warmer than the previous ones. The tones stretch out and change their sonic characteristics with near glacial patience. On their website, the artists use the terms “levitate” and “float” in describing this last passage and those are apt descriptors.

Throughout all its phases, Volume Three finds a way to introduce comfort and warmth in the music but never loses touch with the core ambient aesthetic. Foltz and Lynn have tapped into something very special on this disc. They have created an ambient music that resonates deeply with the listener but in a way that never really “points” to any emotion (i.e. the way dark ambient might elicit fear or foreboding). While I mention the terms somber and melancholic above, I’m using them to describe the music more than my reaction to it. If anything, this music pleases me to no end. I finish hearing it and feel content and at peace, yet intellectually stimulated and alert - quite the paradox. I can’t imagine any self-professed fan of ambient music who wouldn’t love this, unless that person so hated the occasional use of trombone that it would destroy any mood the music was attempting to establish in him/her. My highest recommendation.

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