Matt Evans' Ambient Soundscapes Transcend the Genre on 'New Topographics'

Photo: Walter Wlodarczyk / Courtesy of Clandestine Label Services

New York-based percussionist/composer, Matt Evans brilliantly infuses his spacey sonic landscapes with the sounds of everyday life on New Topographics.

New Topographics
Matt Evans

Whatever's Clever

17 April 2020

The term "New Topographics" was coined in 1975 by William Jenkins, who curated an exhibition of American landscape photography with that title at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. The subjects of the black-and-white prints exhibited at the show included streets, warehouses, industrial sites, and suburban houses. The exhibition seemed to marry the sophisticated aesthetic of photography with banal, everyday subject matter.

There is a parallel between this type of exhibition and the striking new album of the same title by percussionist and composer Matt Evans. The basic foundation of the album's nine tracks – recorded in December 2018 during a month-long artist residency program at the Brooklyn art space Pioneer Works – is ambient soundscapes, often a droning, buzzing, or humming backdrop. But Evans peppers the tracks with a variety of exciting and unique sounds: percussion, synthesizers, or noises from everyday life that we likely take for granted.

Exhibit A: "Full Squid", the album's opening track. A high-pitched drone, almost like a slightly subdued alarm tone, provides a low-key but slightly tense bed for the playful percussion and spacey keyboard chords that dance all around. It sets the scene for the rest of the album perfectly: both experimental and imminently playful, it's the kind of experimental soundscape that can provide something of a calming effect without lulling you into a "background music"-inspired slumber. This music is alive.

"An Infinite Cybernetic Meadow" uses the same type of sonic road map, but it's more leisurely and stretched-out, almost like a more relaxed alternative to the caffeinated jitters of the first track. But "Spinning Blossoms" is where Evans' imagination and brilliance truly come to life, elevating the concept of "found sound" to new heights. The sounds of computer keyboard typing weave into the fabric of the song, alongside steel drum patches and soaring bits of synth lines that are fully formed and blur the lines between arty conceptualizing and engaging melodies.

"Cold Moon" takes the "typing" sounds a step further by incorporating the sounds of a pencil scribbling furiously on paper and blending it with a droning, tense wall of noise, tumbling percussion, and alien-like computerized blips and burps. It's a unique listening experience that can sound jarring and off-putting at first. But eventually, the sounds all blend in a weirdly calming manner, as if you've stumbled upon some extraterrestrial civilization that you don't want to escape for fear that they might have something useful to share.

Then there's "Data Fog", fueled by exotic percussion and eventually joined by an insistent, sustained metallic chord. The song then descends into noisy distortion, creating some of the album's more exhilarating moments of unhinged chaos. There are times when the noise inspires a bit of otherworldly rhythmic din, as on the clattering, syncopated "Ongongos". Something like a distorted steel drum pounds out a stuttering funk beat while other bits of percussion and ambient synth chords and fall in line. It's an odd but gently intoxicating three-minute ride.

New Topographics concludes with "New Moon", which borrows a few concepts from the album's previous tracks – the droning sound is similar to that of "Full Squid", and that scribbling sound also resurfaces. Odd bits of percussion come out of nowhere, in a manner that is strange and unfamiliar but not at all foreboding. Matt Evans is a tremendously talented sonic architect, and with New Topographics, he can take the strangest musical concepts and make them seem exciting, accessible, comforting – even consoling.

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