While Strands subverts none of your expectations, it is also a gorgeous and well-executed record.
Strands is a very sad, elegiac ambient record. Based on this sentence alone, you probably already have a fairly accurate guess as to what Steve Hauschildt's latest album sounds like. You perhaps imagine something like, oh I don't know, endless slow washes of melancholy synths that evoke forgotten, deserted landscapes stretched out to the horizon. And you would be exactly right. The sonic evocation of such imagery is a hallmark of ambient music at this point, and Hauschildt adheres to this tradition reverently and faithfully on the follow-up to 2015's Where All Is Fled.
If the album suffers for anything, it is that it is a largely predictable and unsurprising affair, one that will not alter your understanding of what ambient music can or should be. Nonetheless, Hauschildt's hand is steady and artful throughout, and he clearly carries a deep understanding of how to use the ambient format to craft compelling, evocative, and emotional music. While Strands subverts none of your expectations, it is also largely devoid of missteps.
Though the album is largely monochromatic in its palette, Hauschildt knows how to inject just enough variety to keep the listener alert and attuned to subtle changes. The first four songs alternate between languid cinematic tracks and relatively -- and I mean very relatively -- more extraverted numbers. Tracks like "Horizon of Appearances" are like watching a globe spinning slowly but endlessly on its axis, hypnotized by the familiar geography drifting by again and again. It establishes a bare foundation of sound that future tracks build upon. "Same River Twice" adds a grooving synth-bass line that gently massages the brain, while "Ketracel" whirs and sparks with faint electricity. Comparisons to Aphex Twin's first two albums are nearly inescapable, but in Hauschildt's defense, the demand for music to be constantly new and novel may be slightly overrated anyway. In the 2010s in particular many artists traffic primarily in nostalgia and studied fandom but nonetheless make beautiful and memorable music, as is the case here.
While attributing direct meaning to instrumental pieces can be tricky, through both the languorous mood and on-the-nose song titles like "Transience of Earthly Joys", Hauschildt provides ample clues that this is an album about loss and mortality. In fact, Strands seems to move backwards through time in describing the experience of loss. Whereas the first half evokes a forlorn and unpeopled landscape, like a planet that has lost all traces of life, the album becomes more human as it progresses. "Time We Have" uses the same general technique as earlier tracks but introduces an almost tender element; unlike "Horizon of Appearances", it feels more like the anticipation and awareness of future loss rather than the aftermath. Title track "Strands" extends this emotional trajectory further with gently lilting keys that flit and spin like snowflakes, eschewing the drawn-out synth cascades for something even more minute and delicate. The track seems full with a love for human life, transient though it may be -- our fleeting but most powerful antidote to despair.
The album's second half is also more varied and inventive than the first, helping to address possible charges that Strands lacks originality. While the title track introduces a slightly new sonic texture, "Transience of Earthly Joys" is essentially a classical piano piece produced in such a way that it fits neatly alongside all the analog synths. It is more stoic and austere compared with the more sentimental tracks surrounding it. "Die in Fascination" leaves us on a resolute, courageous, yet unabashedly vulnerable note. Following as it does from the vast emptiness preceding it, the track is like a memory of life floating through the plains of death, if not quite a rebirth.
It's hard to imagine why a fan of the genre wouldn't find much to enjoy in this gorgeous and well-executed record. At the same time, you could be forgiven for wondering whether it's truly a necessary addition to one's catalog, retreading as it does the conventions and expectations that ambient music has developed in the time since Brian Eno released Music For Airports in 1978. If the implicit thematic content of Strands feels relevant or compelling, however, or if you're feeling particularly existential these days, it may well be the album for you.