The Narrow Garden is a score to a nonexistent film. While beautiful, the album echoes of a grander context that it's lacking.
It was in the dark, cavernous drones of Sunn 0))) and Boris that I first discovered Eyvind Kang. On the much-desired Japanese edition of the Sunn 0)))/Boris collaboration Altar, Kang performed on the bonus track "The Sinking Belle (Black Sheep)", which created an entirely different mood than most of the other tracks on the album did. The track's ambiance was deeply contemplative, and largely free of the subwoofer-testing bass that so dominates drone music. Upon listening to some of Kang's other work, I found myself deeply intrigued. "Avant-garde" is a word that most people would use to describe Kang's brand of classically-tinged jazz music. They wouldn't be far off, but at the same time there's something more to his music than merely deviating from the norms of the genres he plays in. At times it's hard to pinpoint in exact terms what this unique quality of his music is, but suffice it to say that Kang's music is wholly enthralling and challenging. Like any genre-bender, Kang is always looking to create challenging, innovative material.
With that in mind, it's curious how much of The Narrow Garden doesn't sound cutting-edge. Much of it sounds quite familiar, actually. The Eastern melodies of "Forest Sama'i" and "Mineralia" are so familiar, in fact, I'd swear that I've heard them in a movie or videogame before. They're quite lovely to listen to, but the familiarity of these tracks is rather stunning, given Kang's propensity for uncommon musical sounds. This is but one minor curiosity that makes The Narrow Garden such a strange listen.
The greatest of these curiosities is the overall sound of the album. I'm not talking about the Eastern melodies that dominate the many of the tracks, nor am I talking about the dissonant, eerie violins that make up the album's best tracks (the unsettling title track and "Usnea"). The album sounds like the sonic background of something else: a film, an art gallery, etc. The album's electronic press kit says as much; it notes that the album sounds like it was composed for a film in how its mood is played out. While this idea can work in theory, here it makes listening to the album a weird experience. Film scores, for instance, work really well when they can be listened to without of the context of the film in mind (Clint Mansell's masterful score to The Fountain is a great example). The Narrow Garden sounds strange without a film backing it, which is unfortunate, as there is no film to back up the music. "Forest Sama'i," for instance, is more befitting of being the background to a scene rather than to listen to for its own sake. The album's darker pieces, "Usnea" most notably, avoid this problem, but for the majority of the record the songs play out like an unimpressive film score. Very pretty, yes, but lacking the uniqueness necessary for the album to work as a standalone set of songs.
A rather interesting parallel can be drawn between this album and a film score recently released on Ipecac: Mike Patton's score to the Italian film The Solitude of Prime Numbers. Patton's score featured a lot of the dissonant, unnerving violin sounds that appear on The Narrow Garden. But what made The Solitude of Prime Numbers such an exciting listen was that I enjoyed it without having seen the film. Here, I'm left imagining what Kang was imagining in his head
The Narrow Garden is perhaps best described as a "floating album." Taken by itself, it has some pretty tracks, as well as some intriguing ones. Yet for the majority of the album I was left wondering what this music was meant to be used for. This means that even if you are taken by the prettiness of the music while you're listening to it, by the album's end you'll be wondering where the music is supposed to go. Hopefully there is a particular reel of film fitting for the often beautiful songs of The Narrow Garden, but for now we're just left wondering.