Before Alex Cobb released Passage to Morning–the first full-length solo release under his own name–the overlord of the Students of Decay label was more widely known for the dense, foreboding drones of his Taiga Remains project. Taiga Remains’ 2009 album, Wax Canopy, was heaven for lovers of hellish noise, a cruel screed that dove headfirst into cacophonous storms, as well riding the slipstreams of more serene tendrils.
One could, I suppose, link Cobb’s choice to revert to his own name with Passage to Morning‘s warmer nucleus, because while a touch of grimness is still keenly felt, the album’s melancholic drones glow with the shimmering light of reflective and poignant intimacy. That’s not to imply that Passage to Morning is in anyway wistful, but there’s certainly a sense of benevolence, even perhaps dreamy romance, to the album, which is not a theme you’ll encounter on many drone releases.
Cobb’s minimalist, delicate layering shows acute balance, offering tenderness while retaining all the danger and trepidation that surrounds any emotional risk. “The Habit Body” and “Bewildered by It’s Blue”, the album’s two longest tracks, provide beautiful, expansive journeys, and the gradual infusion of treated guitar, loops, electronics and sheets of analog synthesizer open deep chasms, both tranquil and intense.
Of course, that feeling of affection counterpointed by peril may well be all in my mind, which is the point to Passage to Morning. Cobb himself has his own clear goals, carefully sculpting and arranging the album over many months to suit the theme and tenor he wants to convey. But like all minimalist works of drone and electronica, it’s up to the listener to build their own tale around what are often sparse and spatial sounds. Certainly, there’s no mistaking the overall ambience of Passage to Morning. It conjures up moods both sinister and radiant, but there are no voices or overt crescendos to guide you. It’s a testament to Cobb’s artistry that he’s managed to imbue the album with real emotionality, especially when you consider that so much drone can be clinical and lifeless.
With only five songs, and lasting a mere 36 minutes, Passage to Morning is far too short. Cobb unfurls drones that are gorgeous and graceful, and the brevity of “The Immediate Past” and “Wisp” leave you aching for more. No more is that longing felt, than on the final track, “Landscape Dissolves”, which is a sublime five minutes of fading light that ends all on a decidedly bittersweet note.
Throughout Passage to Morning familiar threads come into play. The tonal pulse of vintage Klaus Schulze nestles alongside a similar aesthetic to the works of William Fowler Collins, Thomas Köner, or the compositions of Kyle Bobby Dunn. While the dark rumination of Nurse With Wound’s ambient works lurks beneath.
However, while comparisons with other artists help to situate Passage to Morning in a pool of comparable works, it’s important to underscore that it’s a deeply personal album, revealing Cobb as an artist capable of simultaneously expressing the shadowy tidings of twilight and the promise of dawn.
Mastering by James Plotkin certainly gives the album fullness and depth, but ultimately, it’s the hypnotic pulse of Passage to Morning that secures its connection–making it well beyond mere background or detached drone. Its blend of dissolving melodic lines, waves of occasional dissonance, crepitating tape noise and harmonious swells touch on the brooding and blissful in all of us. While drone can be icy and inhospitable, Cobb ensures that every picturesque vista that appears (glacial or otherwise) is well lit–whether from on high or from below.
Lulling, introspective and unreserved, and with its heart firmly within reach, Passage to Morning is an exceptional drone album, albeit one that ends far too soon.