Limit‘s cover is a shot of vast, dark mountains with clouded sky overhead, distorted by a sort of mosaic graphic effect (it looks, in fact, rather like a low budget version of the Kid A cover). It’s an appropriate image for EBLAKE’s work, which feels introspective yet spacious, a pretty but somewhat creepy blend of mellow ambient sounds and tweaked-out computer weirdness. Seattle producer E. Blake Davis has done a nice job of capturing his environment: there’s an urban, industrial aspect to his work, but also a sense of the rainy, mountainous Northwest. Listen to Limit and you picture Davis trapped inside on a wet Seattle day, lost in a world of bizarre musical toys.
Comprised primarily of minimal ambient house, Limit opens strong with the title track. With its deep synth funk, piano noodling, subtle 4/4 kick and percussion with reverb out the wazoo, “Limit” is a definite grabber for fans of the chill room. Davis follows up with “I Am the VJ”, which is far less chill-room friendly, but certainly one of the more original pieces on the album. The jump-up organ loop, phaser-effected hats and warm analog feel flirt with uptempo funk, but the delayed chords that Davis introduces halfway through the piece steer “I Am the VJ” in a more relaxed direction. You won’t hear this sort of weird arrangement on more mainstream electronic albums, and this oddball sensibility is one of the more pleasing aspects of Limit. The next couple of house-flavored tracks, “Piper” and “La Luz”, have a more industrial atmospheric feel, relying heavily on airy machine ambience. Both pieces have their moments, though neither quite stacks up to “Limit” or “I Am the VJ”.
Wisely realizing that track after track of stripped house beats can get tiresome, Davis devotes the middle portion of Limit to more outright atmospheric pieces. “San Francisco” may be the weakest of EBLAKE’s songs, a watery, impersonal work that captures some of the prettiness of its namesake but none of the fascinating grit. The gloomy “Bass Ghost” is better, with its deep bass and abstract background cries, but both pieces feel like they should be two-minute interludes rather than full-length songs.
Thankfully, not all of the full-on ambient efforts are for naught, as the fifth track, “Bandol”, is one of the more engaging and cinematic of EBLAKE’s creations. Modulated strings, chugging bass, low animal cries and a strangely disturbing accordion sound combine to create a creepy, mournful and beautiful piece. Back before ambient was pigeonholed as mellow stoner music, its purpose was to create an environment for the listener. And in terms of creating an environment, “Bandol” offers a vivid image of drifting down a river through an unknown wilderness on a moonless night, the way lit only perhaps by a single lantern.
Limit draws to a close with three more house-flavored tracks, “Shen Hua”, “Cribtime”, and “Zookeeper”. “Shen Hua’s” breathy machine sound, synth blips and simple bass give it a similar feel to “La Luz”. It might be another serviceable chill-room piece, but really doesn’t offer much variety from the earlier ambient house pieces. “Cribtime” doesn’t actually have a straightforward 4/4 kick, but it’s so close you wonder if Davis just threw it in there so he could say, “Look, not everything is house!” In any case, the glistening synthesized bells lend “Cribtime” the feel of walking through an icy cavern, and it’s a nice change from EBLAKE’s other sounds, which toward the end of the album do sound just a tad recycled. “Zookeeper” recalls “Limit” with its emphasis on reverb, though the slightly off-kilter percussion loop does drag on a bit long before Davis brings in the swelling pads, breathing noises and jangling high-end sound. It’s a moody, contemplative piece that does a solid, if somewhat overlong job of summing up EBLAKE’s strange ambient world and bringing Limit back to where it started.
Though Limit is certainly an interesting work, it does become a bit difficult to listen to after a while. This is due to the fact that there is a strong focus on sound, and hardly any emphasis on beat or movement. It’s pretty much a few parts looping repeatedly, with a new part occasionally being introduced or removed from the mix. Yes, that’s true of a lot of music production, particularly ambient, but it really sticks out here, and the result is that Limit can lose one’s attention after a while. Despite this flaw, however, it is certainly an original effort, and those sounds that Davis loves so dearly have enough tricked-out effects to make Limit an interesting listen. Those who like the weirdness of IDM but are occasionally turned off by the determinedly busy structure might find EBLAKE’s work to be a relaxing change of pace. And it’s definitely nice to hear a producer who knows that there’s more to ambient music than bird calls and water sounds.
// Notes from the Road
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