There was a time, not long ago, when music like this was virtually impossible to find outside of a college radio station. Needless to say, it’s a new world, and accessible experiments abound. OMBRE combines the psychedelic Latin folk of Helado Hegro (aka Roberto Lange) with the celestial vocals of Julianna Barwick. The result is spacious electronic dream-pop that could easily act as a soundtrack to contemplating the universe. A rich wall of ambience is invoked and sustained over the course of ten tracks that last just over 35 minutes.
The richness of this EP comes not so much from the complexity of its sonic layers, but from the way the layers are arranged. It is well balanced and sensitive. This is due, in part, to the unique way in which these two artist retain their individuality while contributing to a broader aesthetic. Their melded language creates a space that, in some ways, reaches beyond their individual work as solo artists.
From the opening strains of “Noche Brilla”, the combined musical personalities of Julianna Barwick and Roberto Lange work together in a yin yang type relationship. Trumpets reminiscent of Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis are set against cascading harp arpeggios. The heavenly strains of the harp are gentle and reassuring. The trumpet is a call to active contemplation, the place where transcendence meets the mundane, beckoning beyond the ordinary in a gentle way. Perhaps this is religious music? Whatever it is, it is searching and unresolved, exactly as one might expect it to be given the track record of these two artists.
The architecture of Believe You Me takes the form of a sacred space, setting the listener loose to wander on a rainy mid-day afternoon. Gloomy light pierces through the stained glass, as something, or someone, calls through Julianna Barwick’s voice. She is an angel who is adept at electronically manipulating her vocals, inviting the listener to explore a soundscape; and Roberto Lange’s grounded instrumentation is the tether that keeps her from flying away. His guitar tones are pure and unassuming on tracks like “Weight Those Words” and “Noche Brille Pt. 2”, and his use of percussion on “Tormentas” and “Cara Falsa” balance Barwick’s reverb-drenched vocals. The music morphs into a soundtrack for a dystopian gothic western when these elements effectively mix with Julianna Barwick’s trademark sound. Not all of the tracks find such a refreshing mix of influences, but Believe You Me still fits nicely into the Asthmatic Kitty catalogue as a worthy experiment that does justice to the reputation of the label. One can even hear the influence of Sufjan Stevens’ electronic pallette on “Cara Falsa” and piano delay on “Sense”. The pilgrimage is cut short at just over 35 minutes, the juxtaposition of the sacred and ordinary climaxing on the ninth track “Pausa Primera”. A full chorus of Julianna Barwick vocals call like sirens floating above the sounds of children in a playground.
Experimental ambience is a risk that can easily drown in coma inducing over-indulgence. Believe You Me is not that. It is subtle, non-sentimental, and it forgoes anthemic cheese. A pleasant escape that certainly deserves a good pair of headphones. The kind of reflection and experience that it offers may even tempt some to wade into deeper streams of modern classical Minimalism, a gateway drug into masterpieces like Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, or Arvo Part’s Fratres. These are the strengths of an experiment like this. The weakness is that only time will tell if this particular musical fashion has any staying power, or if it slowly develops into a hipster version of the New Age genre, something that will be heard in a dentist office ten years from now. Who knows, maybe a future SNL skit featuring an elderly Christopher Walken will contain the punchline, “More reverb!,” in lieu of “More cowbell!”
Regardless of what the future holds, the art of Julianna Barwick and Roberto Lange hits upon a relevant zeitgeist. The cultural significance of an album like this is that it asks, “Is anybody out there?” We certain live in a time when echoing reverb is more appropriate to the cultural climate than a self assured rim shot. Does the space created by the reverb represent emptiness or openness? The answer is left up to the interpretation of the listener. Whatever the conclusion, Believe You Me is a most lovely palette cleanser that beckons not to be overly explained. It is about the search for transcendence that takes place in the mundane. Of course, I could be wrong.