Ambient artists aren’t typically noted for their brevity. When an artist is putting together a piece of music that one would call ambient, it’s usually an excuse to fill a CD to capacity, not wasting an ounce of the time that could easily be filled with just a few more noises, evenly and precisely spaced. Drones can go on forever; minimalist techno-flavored ambience can take a loop and run with it. It’s as if artists are afraid that they’re not giving listeners their money’s worth if they’re not using every second of available digital real estate.
Given this trend, Eluvium’s latest work, Similes, runs the risk of making its listeners feel a bit ripped off. At only 42 minutes and change, Similes is one of the shorter albums marketed as “ambient” music that you’ll ever hear.
Listen, however, and you realize why it had to be this way. Eluvium’s Matthew Cooper has found a place to be concise, a way to create ambient music without it sounding like it’s being padded for the sake of offering more atmosphere per pound than it might necessarily have to.
He begins the album by coming oh, so close to leaving ambient behind altogether. The opening pair of tracks, “Leaves Eclipse the Light” and “The Motion Makes Me Last”, feature vocals, which tends to be a big no-no in the world of ambient music—after all, once you have something to hold onto, something to sing along to, it ceases being ambient and actively engages the listener. To compound matters, this isn’t just a matter of someone adding ooohs and ahhhs to a tapestry of sounds. Cooper wrote actual lyrics, which he sings in an almost matter-of-fact baritone, something like New Order’s Bernard Sumner crossed with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody. “Leaves Eclipse the Light” and “The Motion Makes Me Last” even feature structures that have discernible verses and choruses. These are songs, and Cooper is not shying away from them at all.
Granted, there is something of a theme of existential self-examination that actually makes the case for ambience. When you hear words like “I’m a vessel between two places I’ve never been”, you’re not emotionally attaching yourself to the music so much as you’re using it to drift inward. The repetitive, instrumentally ambiguous backing tracks seep their way through the speakers, facilitating this inward journey, reminding us that for all its songcraft, we’re not going to be hearing it on the radio anytime soon.
After “The Motion Makes Me Last”, something interesting happens. True ambience makes its way into the mix in the form of short instrumentals. “In Culmination” recalls Eluvium’s 2004 effort An Accidental Memory in the Case of Death with its short wash of twinkling pianos that ends up sounding like so much rain, and “Nightmare 5” is all of the ghostly synth tones (à la Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, Vol. 2) you’d typically equate to the genre. In between these short bits of pure ambience are more vocal tracks, but they’re vocal tracks that are slowly moving away from songwriting. Rather than verses and choruses, the vocals are simple repeated melody lines, no more or less interesting than the looped backdrops they’ve been placed on top of.
All of this is leading up to something, of course, and that something is 11-minute closer “Cease to Know”. Despite its status as one final track featuring vocals, it’s also the one track on the album to pull the ambient trick of riding a loop into the sunset, letting it linger for minutes upon minutes as it slowly fades away. It’s escape; the words cease to matter, the music eventually ceases to matter, and all that is left is peace.
Eluvium is no stranger to the brief side of ambient albums; the aforementioned Accidental Memory is a mere 26 minutes, and he’s never produced an album that’s broken the 60-minute mark. Still, never has he put together something as perfectly formed and structured as this. It’s a journey from the inside out; it slowly unravels its form until the pieces are mere threads, floating in the breeze. It’s what ambient music could be, if artists were only a little more willing to trim the fat.