The term “ambient country” – applied to artists like SUSS, Mute Duo, and Labradford, among others – is meant to describe a musical style that is rich in contradiction. The spacey atmosphere of ambient music is traditionally married to synthesizers, sequencers, and other “modern” machines. Meanwhile, in its strictest terms, country brings out acoustic guitars, pedal steel, and more organic forms of percussion. What makes this genre so interesting is its ability to pull out so many different sonic possibilities from these disparate forms of instrumentation.
The trio known as numün certainly have roots in ambient country. Multi-instrumentalist Bob Holmes of ambient country pioneers SUSS joins forces in this band with Joel Mellin and Chris Romero (both of Gamelan Dharma Swarma). While they do a wonderful job of combining Eno-leaning minimalism with traditional instruments, they take it a step further – by taking it into space. voyage au soleil means, literally, “trip to the sun” in French, and this inventive trio pulls off the neat trick of creating music that evokes space travel while also sounding refreshingly grounded to Earth’s atmosphere.
The sessions for voyage au soleil came out of a multi-artist project meant to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. The Moon and Back – One Small Step for Global Pop was released on the London-based WIAIWYA label and features the numün track “Tranquility Base”. It combines the interstellar droning of synthesizers and sequencers with electric guitar twang, percussion, and NASA transmission samples. “Tranquility Base” not only pays appropriate musical tribute to the inaugural lunar mission, but it also helped set the template for voyage au soleil (the song appears on this album, along with five other numün tracks).
While “Tranquility Base” (which also includes inspiring violin work from Trina Basu of Brooklyn Raga Massive) seems intent on almost overstuffing itself with a variety of musical ideas, other tracks on voyage au soleil come off as more leisurely and deliberate. The opening track, “Tranceport”, unfolds lazily with comforting drones and an odd but beautiful combination of instruments: entering the mix are a cümbüş (fretless Turkish banjo), mellotron, acoustic guitar, violin, and Balinese gongs. While it seems strange on the surface to have this exotic confluence of sounds on an album that pays tribute to space travel, it makes perfect sense. Musical travelers from Earth should bring with them a total of the sounds that make up their planet, and voyage au soleil has a feel that is warm and soothing, but also globally all-encompassing.
“First Steps” is appropriately titled as it seems almost tentative, with a bit of nervous uncertainty. The tempo moves cautiously, but the instruments hang beautifully all around the beat. Again, the combination of contemporary synth droning and almost funky sequencing clicks well with the stringed instruments and percussion. Modernity and traditionalism never sounded quite so good together.
But it’s not all soothing, trippy space vibes. On “Mission Loss”, a sort of warning klaxon provides the spine of a track filled with tension and danger. It’s perhaps a sonic representation of space travel as a potentially perilous excursion into uncharted territory. Eventually, the warning sounds subside as guitar strumming takes over, indicating that the mission may be salvaged after all. Holmes, Mellin, and Romero possess an uncanny knack for creating a musical climate that perfectly encapsulates the mood of humans in space – full of wonder, fear, and spine-tingling trepidation.
voyage au soleil can be best compared to recent albums like Mute Duo’s gorgeous Lapse in Passage and Quindar’s quietly thrilling Hip Mobility. It takes the best aspects of these albums – loping, exotic instrumental twang, and interstellar synth ambience – into one beautiful package that sounds warm, inviting, a little strange, and best of all – unlike any other music out there. It’s a thrilling, otherworldly ride.