Musician Pascal Gabriel moved from Belgium to London in 1979 and has been involved in the city’s electronic music scene for nearly that long. He’s recorded, produced, or mixed everyone from Wire and Can to Goldfrapp and Erasure. He’s detoured into the pop scene and has Kylie Minogue and Dido on his resumé as well. But Stubbleman is a different sort of project for him. It’s an instrumental album of music that combines analog instruments, electronic sounds, and field recordings. And it’s fascinating.
Gabriel took a long road trip across the United States, making field recordings along the way. Mountains and Plains is the result, 11 tracks, each named for a location in the United States, and weighted towards the wide-open spaces of the American West. The press materials talk a lot about how this album was influenced by 1970s ambient music, and that’s in there. But these pieces have more direction than much ambient, with a bit of drive to them and often include strong melodic figures. Imagine 2000s post-rock bands like Explosions in the Sky and Sigúr Rós, but insert a piano as the lead instrument, and you have a good idea where Stubbleman is coming from.
Those two bands get referred to, intentionally or not, in a pair of the record’s earlier tracks. “Highway Sixty-Something” refers to the other forgotten U.S. Highways that don’t have the reputation of Route 66 but were also replaced by the Interstate system. A melancholy piano theme opens the song with quietly pulsing chords and a simple melody. Slow bass accompanies the chords and gives the song a low end. After a minute of this, a high piano arpeggio softly joins the main theme. Then a pulsing electronic tick, a metal xylophone countermelody, and other sounds build up into a crescendo of music until, just before the three-minute mark, the song explodes into a pounding drum solo. That’s some classic Explosions in the Sky stuff right there, and Stubbleman does it well.
“Abiquiú”, according to the liner notes, is a remote town in Northern New Mexico, with the area famously photographed by nearby resident Georgia O’Keeffe. Stubbleman’s take on the location involves a glacially moving piano melody, all half notes and whole notes, with quiet whirring and pulsing background noise serving as the song’s only accompaniment for its first three minutes. Eventually, other sounds begin to crop up in the background, soft and melodic, but that slow piano remains front and center for the whole piece. This sounds like Sigúr Rós at their most melodic and most restrained.
The rest of Mountains and Plains doesn’t hit those references quite as hard, but that doesn’t make it any less engaging. “Badlands Train”, inspired by the endless drive across the Texas plains, often alongside railroad tracks for hundreds of miles, is intentionally repetitive and very cool. A simple repeating bassline sets the feeling of motion at the beginning and is joined by a little low-end piano echo. An equally simple six-note piano figure serves as the song’s main melody, but as it goes, Stubbleman adds in various departures from that melody that keep it from being as repetitive as the actual driving across Texas. The song never rushes, even as electronic beeps arrive later on. The simple bassline continues inexorably, moving gradually along at the same pace for the full five and a half minutes.
While the piano dominates the proceedings for most of the record, there are moments when Stubbleman emphasizes other sounds. “Taos Twilight” swirls slowly through a haze of ambient sounds. A bassline here, a guitar effect there, subtle synthesizers in the background, and horn-like sounds creeping in the back half of the track combine to give the song a feeling of warmth that belies Gabriel’s description of snow melting at twilight. “Griffith Park”, on the other hand, recalls the synth-based music that Gabriel worked on in the early 1980s. Pulsing synth sounds undergird the slow piano melody that defines the first half of the track. But as the song continues, more synths arrive as Los Angeles passes from dawn to morning to afternoon to evening and into the night. Once the sun goes down, the track gradually loses its momentum and its wash of sounds, leaving just the piano and a pair of synth lines at the end.
Elsewhere, Stubbleman prioritizes melody over atmosphere. “South 61 West 14” is relentlessly melodic, as its multiple bits each have their own riff, from the blooping high background synths to the laser beam effects later on to the main keyboard line to the bass. This one even uses drums to push the straightforward beat of the song.
Overall, though, Mountains and Plains prizes its atmospheric sounds. It’s just that Stubbleman has a strong enough command of melodic songwriting that he doesn’t expect the atmosphere to carry a piece of music by itself. So even “Longwood”, whose description is all about the eerie atmosphere of the titular unfinished plantation mansion, has a solid core melody. And opener “Moonstone Beach”, named after a California location, could theoretically be almost all the crashing waves heard in the background and synth ambiance. But no, it has a simple and compelling piano melody and improvisations. Pascal Gabriel has an exceptionally well-realized album on his hands here, and fans of post-rock would do well to give Stubbleman a shot.