Loscil Equivalents

[Kranky; 2019]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: ambient, drone, minimalism
Others: Stars of The Lid, Christina Vantzou, Eluvium, Deadbeat, Pop Ambient, Dedekind Cut

Steadily active since 2001, Vancouver musician (and VG sound director) Scott Morgan’s Loscil project has given us one immaculate ambient album after another. Although it still sounds amazing (“Emma” in particular remains a potent, solace-instilling slice of brain raki), First Narrows and its skittering dub have since nearly folded into a templated sort of bed/study music role. But so has Eno’s ambient work. Both artists make albums that are somewhat utilitarian in a fashion that befits their chosen genre. Loscil albums do get denser and less overtly melodic as they go, but they are always a sturdy source of calm (with space for muted wonderment) when needed. The differentiation as Morgan has gone along is subtle enough that this reliable relaxation/sleep aid aspect could potentially overshadow what is an immersive, diffuse micro-thicket of wide-eyed synaptic charge.

The arc of Loscil’s recorded material is not dissimilar to the slow-eroding procession of The Caretaker’s Everywhere at the end of time. “Warm” may be an operative word for the first three albums, but the project has never been exactly blissful. The music is more reflective of a swelling hum of massive, focused industry. Its tickling pops and tactile clicks contentedly skim along fathomless oceans of pulsing, drifting drone. This warmth begins to seep out on 2006’s Plume, where those percussive pips start to retain a soft menace, like a faded, dusty daylight rendering of Brad Fiedel’s Terminator score. In addition to showing the aforementioned monstrous industry for its actual monstrousness, Plume’s lone billowing smokestack cover marks a notable aesthetic shift from the electronica 101 presentation of the preceding three. This gloom descent resumed on the rain-streaked Endless Falls, where all manner of machinations great and small got subsumed in the gloaming. Even with the slight return of 2012’s Sketches from New Brighton, this sense of vast, uncertain space crept in and never left, while Morgan’s command of alluringly transportive atmosphere has never flagged. When present, Loscil has blended live instrumentation in a seamless way that never takes it out of its textural spell into something too placid or soundtrack-y (that said, Morgan’s work has been both composed for and featured in TV and film for years, most recently alongside Markus Fjellstrom’s striking soundtrack for The Terror).

Equivalent 6 from loscil on Vimeo.

Equivalents is similar to a lot of the post-Coast/Range/Arc material, but decidedly reduced. The faint stuttering high organ sounds that pepper the opener feel curiously threadbare, with none of that contented percussive effervescence swimming up to give it any harmonic sweep. In this light, the album’s a bit of a carryover from his ghost ship-inspired 2015 app Adrift, which used “structured random selection” to produce infinite variations on each infinite play. As on the material in the app, this music evokes a low, keening desolation. It evokes a perpetually lost seabird or a lone crab clinging to a buoy. The album frames this oceanic vastness as an ungraspable oblivion rather than as something with unlimited potential, though the learned aching passion of seeking ever gnaws at the listener’s periphery. Like the Alfred Stieglitz photographs that inspired it, the tracks on Equivalents are vaguely pastoral, yet opaque enough to allow for a more intrinsic engagement with its trace elements. The dreary temperament that often prevails is too essential to be draining. It is one that recognizes not only grim inevitabilities, but also that there is not few enough reasons for them to provide a clear course. A hard-won frustration that sees myriad potential patterns of delusion and procrastination, realizing that it is sound in and of itself, rather than something to be dispelled.

If that sounds like “wallowing” gussied up, well, I guess that notion could also could also serve as a pithy sell for this music. One could also go with “pining,” “portrait as still life,” or maybe “molasses ekg.” But the truth is that there is a great deal of intrigue to this album. For being one of the shorter entries, “Equivalent 5” has a breathtaking incremental suspense to it. The sub bass here and throughout is impeccably infused, sneaking up on you like a head rush. Speaking to the virtue of a work that mines the elusive midpoint between wallowing and moving purposefully through one’s dimension as is, Equivalents is a prime example. To borrow a bit from his second album’s title, “submerged” seems the better brevity with which to regard what Loscil excels at. Your underwater temperament may be one of serenity, but your finite compatibility with the environment sounds faint but insistent alarms. The closing “Equivalent 4” is the only track here to feature the aforementioned percussive style, but rather than an incorporation of that oeuvre touchstone, it gives the track’s steady pulsing a sense of calmly insistent urgency. So when we ultimately come to the surface, it’s not necessarily a rude awakening. Listeners get lost in Loscil’s world, sure. But one can find much of themselves there as well.

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