In a recent interview with Pitchfork, glam veteran-turned-mega producer-turned-ambient philosopher Brian Eno offered a glimpse into his music making process. Detailing his new album Reflection, the 54-minute ambient soundscape he released earlier this year, Eno talked about his studio habits, sonic proclivities, and how he achieves the studied minimalism that has become his trademark sound. “As soon as you think of something as a film soundtrack, you’re thinking of something that is behind the action, that is not the action itself,” he said, explaining how he moves “toward minimalism”. If this is the case, and ambient music is at its best when accompanying a film that isn’t there, a film flickering along the outskirts of your subconscious and nowhere else, then what do we make of Visible Cloaks’ new ambient LP Reassemblage? What kind of film are they scoring? What kind of score are they hoping to create?
There’s no easy answer to any of these questions. The soundscapes presented here all seem to belong to a barren alien landscape where machines talk and muted light suffuses even the remotest of places. Listening, you’re confronted with sounds that are at once imminently strange and deeply familiar: beeps, blips, burbles, sudden whooshes of color, errant droplets of mercury, the chatter of wind-up insects, the yawning of empty space. However, this is no generic sci-fi reality populated by computerized doorways and unidentifiable creatures feeding on carnivorous plants; this is something else entirely. On Reassemblage, Portland’s Spencer Doran and Ryan Carlile have soundtracked a film set in a reality where cameras have no jurisdiction and people are not allowed — a reality, in other words, that cannot be seen, that can only be suggested by sounds scraping through the known and subverting the knowable.
For a debut release, it’s a record of remarkable restraint that never feels overly restricted. Combining Japanese instrumentation with a straightforward electro-ambient aesthetic, Doran and Carlile craft a unique sound that exalts silence just as much as it values surprise. “Bloodstream” begins with a collage of bio-mechanical gibberish — clicks, whirs, words transmitted from some unreachable plane — before stopping suddenly; it’s as if the song has malfunctioned as if it has disappeared or fallen off a cliff it didn’t see ahead of it. But then it soars upward again: a long, momentous exhalation breaks into view, surging out of that uncanny valley between the human voice and synthesizer that can be so disorienting. Here, though, the effect is not disorientation. It’s exhilaration, weightlessness, a feeling that one is flying through clouds spitting bursts of lightning that pose no threat and offer amazing spectacles of light.
Like “Bloodstream”, some of the LP’s tracks are too striking to let slip into the background. “Terrazzo”, for instance, revolves around an Eastern woodwind melody that summons up images of tranquil waters lifting into the air and forming cryptic shapes. Meanwhile, cuts like “Screen” and “Neume” feature such interesting sound-play that it’s nearly impossible to concentrate on anything else while they’re unfurling before your ears. On the other hand, Doran and Carlile also know how to make music that is “as ignorable as it is interesting,” which is an objective that Eno laid out for himself as well. “Wintergreen” speaks through drones and dings entirely. “Mimesis” drifts and drifts until it becomes the aural embodiment of drifting itself. Regardless of the mode they’re operating in, though, Visible Cloaks understand the same rules underlying ambient music that Eno does; the key difference is: because of their youth or in spite of it, they’re willing to break a few more.