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.