[9 July 2001]
The Hermit is Hamish Thomson. He is a Canadian, which may be relevant, but I doubt it; he is a percussionist who loves electronic music, which is much more relevant; and he has released a wonderful little gem of a first album, which is extremely relevant. He’s never going to set the world on fire, but who wants a world engulfed in flames? Just Alec Empire, and he seems less relevant these days than ever. No, this is a minor masterpiece at best, but it’s still a masterpiece.
Here’s the deal, people. The whole “ambient” label means nothing, nothing, nothing. Ambience is all around us—we don’t listen to music in a vacuum, nor do we live in a vacuum without music and noise and sound hovering everywhere. When Brian Eno started the modern phase of the whole “movement” back in the 1970s—with John Cage and Sun Ra and Karlheinz Stockhausen looking over his shoulder—that was his whole point: an artist shouldn’t ignore the found sound that is all around.
But somewhere “ambient” became synonymous with “floating keyboard washes and little beeping sounds hanging around on the periphery in one speaker with maybe some kind of undefined weird noises in the other that kind of come in sometimes and other times don’t”. Which is kind of pathetic. In the same way, it’s pathetic that Nutone has to call this “ambient electronica”, because Flying Out of Solitude has about as much to do with John Cage as Exile on Main Street had to do with Burt Bacharach.
The Hermit’s sound is simply adorable in its accessibility. He’s no synthesist; he either sounds like late ‘70s krautrock jazz (“Driving in Solitude”) or he sounds like a DJ Shadow tribute artist (“Pulse”) or a Mike Post TV theme song with breathy female vocals by someone called Twi*light (“Swallow the Stars”), but he hardly ever tries to put genres together. That’s a good thing. It means he’s more committed to the song than to any kind of outdated techno notion—technotion?—of “I Must Meld Disparate Musicks Together!” This has been done to death, and I’m frankly tired of it. And yes, Air and Daft Punk and Basement Jaxx, I’m talking to you.
No, Thomson is looking at something else here: electronic music that sounds good. He’s hella handy with a melody, as he proves on track after track. “Ohio” is just as pretty as a tiramisu—and gains extra points for (perhaps unconsciously) referencing Supertramp’s “Dreamer”—and “Estuary”, which at first seems like it has no melody at all, is revealed on third listen as a sweet echoplex elegy, eight minutes of dub hush that sticks with you like oatmeal.
I think that Thomson’s drum background is important here. Unlike DJs, who carry the whole “dance music” baggage, he is a musician first and an “artist” second, and is therefore freer to think about moving the song along without getting all caught up in “what’s my motivation here?” the way a lot of other similar artists tend to do. Any melodic drive in “Sunset Trail” comes from the rough buried drum sound and the New Order bass line, so when the synth line comes in it sounds perfect rather than contrived. The Hermit gets funky, too, but “Trap9” doesn’t really have any brothers or sisters in that regard, at least until we get to the Squarewaves/Telefuzz remix of “Second Wave” that closes out the disc. The original song was fashioned out of the sounds of a toaster oven and an air organ, but this remix turns it all Big Beat; I’m not really sure it’s danceable, but it’s interesting enough for me.
I guess it’s all just a matter of taste, this critical business. I’m usually all about pushing the boundaries, moving ahead even at the risk of falling on one’s ass, and I’ve taken fine albums to task for non-ambition. The Hermit doesn’t really try to do anything weird or cool or unusual, and I’m not sure we need this album like we need another hole in the head or another recess appointment by Dubya. But sometimes it’s just about beauty and fun and friendliness, and that’s why I like Flying Out of Solitude very much. If my 20-year-old Husker-Du-and-Public-Enemy-loving self heard me saying that, he’d punch me right in the head . . . but I’m not sure I wouldn’t punch him first for not liking stuff like this. What was wrong with that kid, anyway?
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/hermit-flying/