The otherworldly location of Joshua Tree has inspired numerous musicians through the years. Its Martian-esque scenery has featured on album covers, its name has used for record titles, and strange stories regarding burials have been narrated depicting its location. All these events add to the mystique of the area, and it is partly the reason why composers are still moved and inspired by it. The latest to draw inspiration from Joshua Tree is multi-instrumentalist Julie Carpenter, who unveils her ambient project Less Bells. Incorporating an impressive array of both electronic and acoustic instruments, Carpenter produces a true sonic journey through grand progressions and impressive sonic structures while retaining a sentimental and emotive outlook.
Considering Carpenter’s background, it is no surprise that the album features elements akin to classical composition. However, Carpenter is not bound by this element and instead of being confined by its structures and motifs uses it as a point of origin for her ideas. The melodies produced by the violin and cello act as a starting point for her drone explorations, as is the case with the prolonged notes in the majestic “Valentine”. This transition between the classical and the experimental also results in this otherworldly feeling of serenity that dominates in Solifuge. The slow unfolding of the tracks and their glacial progression, mirroring the solitary, unchanging sceneries of Joshua Tree become the perfect vehicle for this experimental trip. The processed vocals also add to the transcendental experience, shining radiantly in the opening track.
For the majority of the record, Carpenter focuses on the melodic aspect of her music, presenting a very distinct and powerful manifestation through her lead work. The final minute of the opening track is the first instance where this quality of Less Bells shines, with the moving violin and the background melodies joining in this wonderful rendition. This theme occurs over and over again in Solifuge, as Carpenter associates the sweeter phrases of her music with the ambient scenery to build this transcendental experience. A perfect example of this effect is “Desert”, which displays the sentimental quality of the record in full effect. And there is also the slight playful element, as is the case with “Bombardment”, where the fleeting melodic themes on the background add to the rich palette of Carpenter.
However, in the longer tracks of the record Carpenter injects a higher dose of experimentalism, causing her vision to become bleaker and more adventurous. The fantastic “Milwaukee Protocol” is an example of this manifestation, projecting a surprising dissonance that rushes to the surface. The serene ambiance suddenly changes to an asphyxiating setting, as if a trip has suddenly taken a turn for the worst. The classical leanings become disfigured in the process and are transformed into a mirrored image of themselves, one that does not project the calm feeling of the record but rather a bitter quality. Similar is the experiment that Carpenter performs in the closing track “The Gills”, but instead of continuing the repressive narrative of “Milwaukee Protocol” the composer produces an overwhelming result. The dissonant edge is harvested to paint the soundscapes in brilliant colors and create a haze of an experience. It is a track that sees the minimalistic tendencies of Less Bells being used for maximal effects, producing an imposing, big and impressive result.
Despite the transition from the more peaceful and ethereal first part of the record to the experimental goodness of the last 20 minutes, Carpenter retains the slow, cinematic quality of her music intact. Through Solifuge the musician displays an impressive grasp on her compositions and her improvisations, producing through controlled effort a wondrous work. The delicate touches in “Forest Ghosts” with their crystalline sounds, the sorrowful melodies and their grand manifestation in “Desert” and the magnificent journey performed in “Golden Storm”, encapsulate the vision of Carpenter. And that is the striking part about Solifuge, in that it is a record of balance, with Carpenter always exploring her ideas in a controlled fashion that allows her never to lose sight of her end goal.