Sometimes when I listen to music from the drone, ambient, and noise continuums, my confidence in the artists’ creations wavers. This isn’t a reflection of a poor view of the musicians’ craft, whoever may be behind it, and this certainly isn’t something born from envy. No, without fail, those who enjoy labored timbres, subtle layerings, and carefully considered harmonic content find (with ease) plenty to immerse themselves in and to respect when encountering sound sculptures of this stylistic umbrella. As a fan, I’m no different.
What can be bothersome, however, is finding something unique and interesting within these creations. Obviously this doesn’t have to be something radical and dominating, as the worlds of ambient and drone music (more so than noise) are seemingly more suited to subdued and tactful reworks of existing staples (for a moment, ignore La Monte Young’s stepping-outside-of the law I’ve just laid out). This can reveal itself in works that don’t stray too far from existing norms but do offer a hint of a fresh persona that, with the right environment, pacing, and decisions, can manifest as an affecting and rich experience for the audience.
Rafael Anton Irisarri’s The Unintentional Sea offers a detailed ambient microcosm that leaves radicalism at the wayside in favor of crafting sounds that shift between contained, minimal relics and vast meanderings through desolate landscapes. Springing to mind are the deep-space, post-human drones of Oneohtrix Point Never’s Returnal and the dense, warped not-quite-right “dance” of Actress’ R.I.P — not for sonic similarity (as these two acclaimed releases are indeed more extreme deviations from the norms I’ve set out above), but for raw evocative power.
Amidst the crackling opening of the album, deep drones and scalped found sounds evoke a terrain not desolate, but worn, cold — populated figures that move with a calm fluidity more involving than the lifeless husks that frequently pop up in this area. There’s no denying that it’s still territory well trodden by both Irisarri and by others, but the manner in which these devices are placed and interact is a well-executed trio of sound design, composition, and engineering, with considerable attention to space, delicacy, and deftness of combination. Where others may be tempted to imbue their creations with scant minimalism or lush maximalism, Irissari builds from quiet clicks and watered-down hisses to vast, affected synth tones that cut with an icy bite and then back down again, from the gigantic to the cellular.
It can be hard to articulate what exactly differs one ambient/drone artist’s creation from another’s — in fact, it’s unlikely that it can be perceived in the elements of its construction, bar personal tendencies. But that’s what is so shatteringly exciting about The Unintentional Sea. The distant moans on “The Witness,” the crushed yawns of “Daybreak Comes Soon,” the roaring of “Fear and Trembling,” the mesmerizing harmonic transitions on “Her Rituals”: Irisarri’s abilities as a composer and sculptor are highly evident on a musical level, but they are most powerful on a base level. Confidence is restored in a wholesome body, one that takes in so many disparate colors yet disperses a concentrated, unsettling, and incredibly affecting listen.