[30 March 2004]
Noted astronomer-mystic and unapologetic marijuana smoker the late Carl Sagan once remarked on our home planet’s surprising smoothness in this footnote from his 1994 book Pale Blue Dot:
If the Earth were the size of a billiard ball, the largest protuberances would be less than a tenth of a millimeter in size—on the threshold of being too small to see or feel.
Surprising, since it seems weird to our Guinness-record type sensibilities. I mean, come on—what about Everest, Death Valley, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and Puerto Rican Trench and all that impressive shit? But no, fact is, from some perspectives, pretty much anything is unremarkable. Or even remarkable, if you’re the half-full type.
For some reason, listening to Bexar Bexar’s ambient full-length Haralambos puts me in mind of that odd dichotomy. Such instrumental minimalism carries with it, after all, an invitation and even an expectation to be ignored; sounds of a distantly floating orb in the cosmic background chatter displaying few gradations or peculiarities or especially, dammit, character. Taken in isolation, simple electronic melodies, few complex beats, languid guitar strums, none of these elements promises much alone or even in concert. But then, that’s only if you adopt the Mars-or-beyond perspective. Home in on this particular pale dot and a delicate blue eggshell begins to show its jagged peak and shadowy gulf contours—which is something of a (cough) relief (sorry). It’s like the eminently sensible Brian Eno once said:
Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.
So, now that we’ve gotten the weighty quotes out of the way, what about this music? Is it worth the training of our attention at either (or both) a micro or a macro level? Does its initial anonymity ultimately limit its reception? Well, yes, a qualified yes. It would be easy to imagine such burbling electronica and scenic airiness doubling as the soundtrack-backdrop to anyone’s vague and fuzzy life; classic wallpaper music in other words. But wait right there, adjust that super zoom, allow your attention to focus on the gathering mountain ranges and enfolding crevasses, and Haralambos will begin to offer up more than just the half-glimpsed nebulous prettiness it first promised/threatened (and remember, half-glimpsed nebulous prettiness isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself).
Fifteen instrumental pieces drift by in less than 45 minutes, revealing contours, crackle and economy, touching the cerebral, the sensual and the sentimental equally.
Opener “N.R.O.T”, although pleasant enough, barely escapes the soporific; a lazy room temperature blur of low-end beats-and-bass overlaid with some perfunctory guitar glissando and quiet electronic dabs. Which is fine, because “Aidos” is now set up to surprise us. A slightly more corporeal laptop foundation, oddly insistent like the spooling engines of some waiting alien ship in a nearby hangar, is thrown into relief by a neo-Spanish guitar figure. These simple elements together—emotion and its shadow—wind like serpents around each other, and the effect is one of wistful urgency. The glassy analog synth that slips between the guitar notes, completing this affecting trifecta, while still understated, also manages to home in (inexplicably) on the heartstrings. Through subtle rhythm and deft melodicism, infinitely patient yet oddly galvanizing, “Aidos” in particular personifies instrumental music at its most compelling, every bit the equal of fellow travelers Mm, Labradford, Sigur Ros. If nothing else on Haralambos quite matches the second track for emotion (“Memento Mori” comes close with its incremental heartbeat imperative and tiny sorrowful guitar scribbles), the album is nonetheless consistently inventive while remaining partially hidden from view. I mean, you could do the dishes or bathe the dog to this music, and it would feel alright, but when you train your entire focus onto it, there is a disconnect there—pleasant can quite easily turn into melancholy, relaxed into something more sinister.
If the likes of Mogwai and GY!BE represent the sonic equivalent of acrylics or oil paints, Bexar Bexar is emblematic of watercolours, washing like tears or rain behind and between the mundane and the indifferent. Whether that is a good or bad thing depends to some degree on personal taste (much acoustic guitar detailing, distant-ocean synth-swells, and beats too quietly subtle to ever move a dance floor), but even more crucially, on the observer’s literal perspective. In other words, billiard ball or planet?