Ambience can be a tough thing to pull off effectively with music. Go too far to one extreme and your music becomes a directionless bore that can be appreciated almost exclusively by folks under the influence of mind-altering substances. Go too far to the other side and your music ceases to be ambient, instead sliding its way towards dance music, techno, or even jam-oriented rock. Mirror Eye, the second album from Psychic Ills, manages to find that ambient sweet spot more often than not.
The New York City-based quartet know what they are doing when it comes to this type of music. Atmospheric synth sounds abound, covering most of the songs in a layer (sometimes thick, sometimes thin) of electronic noise. The band know enough to mostly stay away from the drumset. Bass drum beats, snare hits, and even steady cymbal rhythms give ambient songs the kind of propulsion that makes them turn into one of the aforementioned other types of music. Instead, Psychic Ills use a variety of percussion, from hand drums to tambourines and a multitude of shakers, to give their pieces motion while keeping away from steady beats. Elizabeth Hart’s bass playing gives the most substantial of the songs on Mirror Eye a bedrock. Modal, or at least minor-key, bass figures give the listener something to grab onto, although I wouldn’t go so far as to call them catchy. And Tres Warren’s guitar, while used sparingly, is appropriately reverbed out. The guitars on this album never appear without some form of reverb, delay, or echo effect. Like Hart, Warren uses recurring, sometimes even repetitive guitar riffs as a basis for the rest of the song to swirl around. Occasionally these riffs approach actual melodies, but he usually backs off just enough to keep that from happening.
I may be getting a bit snarky here, but I’m also being complimentary. Psychic Ills seem to have chosen a very specific style, and they work hard at it. Mirror Eye sounds loose and at least partially improvised, as if the same songs may sound completely different from one concert to another, or even one recorded take to another. But the moody, hypnotic vibe is present throughout the entire album. The opening “Mantis” rambles along for nearly 11 minutes, starting with wobbling synths, adding simple percussion flourishes, a bassline, and eventually little snatches of echoing guitar. The guitar returns later with a relatively simple riff, and the band works around it for a good five or six minutes. The music doesn’t build up to anything so formal as a climax—this isn’t Explosions in the Sky. The band is content to create sounds around the bassline and guitar riff without going anywhere in particular, and it’s an effective introduction to the rest of the album.
The second track, “Meta”, fades up to what sounds like a song already in progress. Warren is playing a minor-key guitar line while Brian Tamborello adds rhythms on toms. Meanwhile, Hart follows Warren’s guitar with her bass, echoing and building off of his lines, while Jimmy Seitang handles most of the synthesizers. It’s a portrait of the band in the middle of a groove, and it was a smart call to use just four minutes of that improvised jam on the album, because it’s one of the most interesting moments on the disc.
Other tracks don’t fare quite as well. The two-minute “Sub Synth” is nothing more than synth sound effects, but at least it’s short. “I Take You as My Wife Again” is almost ten minutes long, but only stays listenable for about half of that time. The closing pair, “The Way Of” and “Go to the Radio”, blur together in an indistinct morass of sound effects and guitar, and they don’t hold much interest. They run into the problem of going in the other direction from ambience: sheer boredom.
But when the band is on target, these hazy, dark jams provide good atmosphere. Besides the opening two tracks, Psychic Ills hit the mark on “Eyes Closed” and “Fingernail Tea”, both of which have enough focus to hold the interest of a non-high listener. The former is a smoky, groove-less experiment in atmosphere, but at just over three minutes, it doesn’t wear out its welcome. The latter is probably the most composed song on the album, with what sounds like planned-out guitar and bass parts, as well as some moody chanting (incomprehensible, of course—there are no lyrics on the album). The more focused pieces effectively set off the looser jams and make Mirror Eye a trip worth taking, if you are looking for what Psychic Ills are offering.