Tim Gray, in his first full-length work for Kranky as Ethernet, finds the heartbeat in drone.
Loathe as I am to regurgitate press copy in the context of a review, it seems appropriate here for the purpose of allowing for a full understanding of what Tim Gray's first full-length release as Ethernet is trying to do. Here's what 144 Pulsations of Light is, in his words:
Based on my research and experience in using sound for induction of meditative states, I set out to apply trance-inducing sonic effects to drone-ambient music. I recontextualized the deep bass kick sound used in techno dance music as a subdued hypnotic pulse to accentuate the textures...The intent of the album is to produce an introspective sonic environment conducive to self-healing work and voyaging into new states of awareness.
In other words, what we have here is a drone album with a heartbeat.
Sure, it's not much of a gimmick in a crowded electronic landscape largely lacking for innovation, but it's strangely effective in the generation of a pleasing listening experience. One of the hallmarks of even the most beautiful examples of drone is the feeling of being wrapped in an alien blanket, surrounded on all sides by something strange, and discomfiting. That feeling can be made beautiful, repulsive, or anything in between. Common to so much of it is a purely synthetic feel that's almost impossible to avoid, given the genre.
While not every track features the "recontextualized kick" that Gray touts in the clip above, it's the ones that do that truly shine, because the mere presence of this lightly percussive element grounds the drone. Opener "Majestic" lives up to its title, centered on an organ tone playing a minor chord with the seventh added, with that perfect, mid-tempo kick in the background along with some phasing and pulsing chords augmenting it for texture. It's dense but never ominous, and that seventh turns something that could be a depressing drone into a vaguely jazzy one. Rather than feeling alien and unfamiliar, then, it feels like something that could happen in your neighborhood, in your street, as if you're lying on the roof, looking up at the stars, while a party is going on a block down the road.
Or, maybe you hear the pumping of blood. Or footsteps and a passing train. The point is that the rhythm of the kick opens up the interpretation of the sound to the many rhythmic, percussive elements that appear in our everyday lives, allowing for a point of identification amongst all of the typical synthetics.
Where this approach works against Gray is in the times when he leaves the percussion behind in favor of more traditional drone/ambient work. Tracks like "Summer Insects", despite all of the appropriate buzzing and lots of synths in the "blowing across the top of a bottle" vein, are easily forgotten in favor of more tactile pleasures like the equally atmospheric but simply more percussive "Kansai". "Seaside", for all its beauty, sounds like a beatless Depeche Mode instrumental, while closer "Temple", admittedly magestic in its perfectly slow build and release (the entire song is like a 13-minute deep breath), is too easily relegated to the background. None of these beatless wonders are in the least bit abrasive, and in the right context, they're perfectly fine ambient works. The only problem is that they can't help but stand in the shadow of the pieces with the heartbeats.
Despite these minor quibbles, however, 144 Pulsations of Light is a wonderful hello from a very promising artist. That he can find novel ways to approach a subgenre that seems by nature incredibly limiting speaks volumes for his skill behind the boards. "Voyaging into new states of awareness", as Gray suggests, might be a bit of a lofty goal for his first widespread release, but it's a goal that hardly seems out of reach for future iterations of Ethernet.