Earthen Sea: An Act of Love

The streets of San Francisco at night are the inspiration for Earthen Sea's latest.

Earthen Sea

An Act of Love

Label: Kranky
US Release Date: 2017-02-17
UK Release Date: 2017-02-17

Ambient music is at its best when it has a story to tell. It's not just background music, it's conveying an idea, a feeling, or even a sequence of events. Sometimes the story is for the listener to parse out, but other times, we find the story in liner notes, or interviews, or even pictures associated with the tracks (à la Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works, Volume II).

The story of Earthen Sea's An Act of Love is that of the big city at night. Earthen Sea's Jacob Long cites his time exploring the streets of San Francisco as a particular inspiration for his first album on Kranky, and as soon as one hears of that inspiration, the image of it is impossible to separate from the music.

This is to the music's benefit, providing context to what is at heart a rather cold album, far more treble than bass in its mix, and very light in its beats where they even exist. Most of the music consists of high-pitched synths floating through the air, their movement confined to a constant drift rather than any sort of rhythmic or melodic development. In these synths you hear smoke, you hear fog, you hear lit windows and distant highways, you hear stars, you hear the occasional airplane flying overhead. When chords do appear, they are invariably minor key, augmenting the darkness of the rest of the sound rather than trying to cut through it.

It's when the beats arrive that An Act of Love is at its most vital. After opener "The Present Mist", which sounds exactly as its title would lead you to believe, "About That Time" arrives to give a true sense of the strength of the album as a whole. While white noise pushes through the mix like so many ocean waves and an impenetrable, glassy wall of synths sits to the side, a minimal four-on-the-floor dance beat arrives to give it all a pulse. This is the action behind closed doors, the clubs that are still open, the buses that are still running, the tiny people in the tiny office windows with their tiny lights still on, working well past the hours they bargained for when they got up that morning.

The ease with which Long brings these thoughts to mind cannot be overstated. "Exuberant Burning" actually brings in some lower synths and a slightly more involved beat that give rise to something more sinister creeping in the shadows. The tension ratchets upward about halfway through the track's six-plus minutes as the beats fall away and all we are left with are the elastic synths beneath, but they return for the denouement as whatever threat stopped the track's heartbeat apparently passes. "The Flats 1975", for its part, has the beats right out front, perhaps an acknowledgment that not all of the night's activity is so hidden.

The rest of the tracks are beatless and weightless, often feeling like transitions between the tracks with the beats, even as the time spent with and without beats is basically equal by the end. Of these tracks, closer "Also an Act of Love" offers a proper denouement, a standout among the beatless wonders here largely by virtue of its length; while most of the beat-less offerings hover around the three-minute mark, "Also an Act of Love" is more than six. As a result, its hypnotizing, wave-like washes of noise and synths inspire a peace that allows the eventual fade to silence to feel like a natural extension of the album.

An Act of Love isn't the first album to conjure up images of after-hours, but it's one of the most effective, and without uttering a single word. Jacob Long's ability to paint such a vivid picture with his music is admirable and impressive, setting the sort of standard other electronic artists would do well to aspire to.






PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.


Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".


Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.


The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.


Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.


NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.


South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.


Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.


Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.


Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.


Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.


Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.


Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.