Musical collaborations can be a brier patch, especially when it comes to the realms of the avant-garde. Team-ups are common here, with artists’ stage names, releases, record labels, and lineups typically going through numerous iterations and modes. This communal recorded output, though, typically serves as an offshoot to the main line of the artists’ discographies. The main challenge seems to be convincing the listener that this particular recording session resulted in more than simply playing around with a buddy in a soundproof cave.
For Noveller and Thisquietarmy, part of that proving ground seemed accomplished right out of the gate: both artists command a dramatic presence with the scope and volume of their multi-timbral guitar-driven soundscapes, so that they were able to breach whatever psychic shell that may have formed around their respective third eyes long enough to work together seems, without actually knowing a single thing about either artist personally or their work process, pretty impressive. Sure, there’s no way to tell how they operate as composers. I’ll bet they’re nice people, and they might be the most gregarious and outgoing folks to sit across from in a recording studio. But functionally, Sarah Lipstate (Noveller) and Eric Quach (Thisquietarmy) make music that seems to emanate from a very personal, very solitary place. There are many similarities in their sound and a few significant differences I’ll get into below, but I imagine it was a challenge to combine their own influences into a product that illuminated what’s special about each artist while managing to stand as its own statement.
There’s something uniquely powerful about the image and sound of a solo ambient guitarist, especially in contrast to the lone laptop musician commanding columns of samples with a single button on a plastic MIDI controller. Artists like Lipstate and Quach hug their sleek slivers of wood and metal behind rows of quietly blinking boutique effects units, pumping their creations through warm, glowering tube amplifiers. They seem spiritually rooted to the world of lacquered maple, satisfyingly clicking switches, and coiling rubber cables connecting them to trembling speakers: the charm is undeniable.
On the flip side of all this inherent cool, much like abstract artists of other art forms, musicians like Noveller and Thisquietarmy are required to validate their own style by displaying they have enough compositional acumen and creative spark to best the random swells of the average loner strumming minor seventh chords behind a reverb/delay unit and volume pedal. For Noveller’s Lipstate, these moments occur when the deliberately-fingered crystalline melodies of her vintage Fender Jaguar pierce through the blankets of noisy decay blossoming from her myriad delay pedals. In doing so, she adds dashes of melody and structure to her pieces, which give the waves of sonic texture a skeleton with which to bind. Thisquietarmy’s Quach typically sets himself apart with swaths of powerful, intimidating distortion, which punctuate and animate his expansive drones. Unfortunately, Reveries overwhelmingly displays these impressive artists amputating their own distinctive attributes in pursuit of an aesthetic on which they can coexist.
I could give a track-by-track breakdown of Reveries, but it probably wouldn’t be very interesting. Effectively, all four tracks or “movements” of Reveries accomplish the same goal and, honestly, sound very similar. Waves of waxing/waning sound (there’s that volume pedal) slowly build, lattices of shimmering effervescence bubble skyward, occasional bouts of grandiosity shout out and inspire ping-pongs of reverberation against the towers and buttresses of decibels that the duo boil skyward. It’s all very competent, at least, and I’m sure I’m supposed to use words like “monolithic,” “vast,” and “desolate” while I describe it. Truthfully, as an exercise in basking within the great expansiveness yet isolating reflection of ambient sound, Reveries is mostly successful. What’s disappointing is how much more it could have been.
Listening to Reveries, for me, is like when one of your friends starts dating one of your acquaintances. You feel generally positive toward both and hope everything turns out well, but if shit hits the fan, you solidly know which party you’ll stick with. The fact is, I like Noveller more than Thisquietarmy. Not that Quach’s music isn’t powerful in its own right — it is — it’s just I personally find Lipstate’s more interesting and elevating. Absent from Reveries are Lipstate’s defining guitar melodies, which might string a piece together, call back to a prior moment, or otherwise differentiate one movement from another. Also missing, for his part, are Quach’s stabs of overbearing distortion, which could have introduced an invigorating sense of dread or intimidation. Both sides of the spectrum are lopped off, while Lipstate and Quach languish in their collective middle-ground. The listener is expected to be content with their pleasant but hesitant swells and drops, occasional shimmerings of gliss and twinkle, and the sounds of two strong artists basically trying to avoid stepping on each other’s toes. The final result is like a mountain of soap bubbles building to impressive heights before, inevitability, popping and collapsing under the weight of each neighboring identical iteration.