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Amulets, "Between Distant and Remote"

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cover imageRandall Taylor has quietly emerged as one of the most talented and distinctive tape loop artists in the world over the last few years, steadily releasing a prolific flow of cassettes on a variety of labels.  Remarkably, however, Between Distant and Remote is his first vinyl release, which I suppose makes this an auspicious occasion career-wise.  It is also the first time I have personally delved seriously into his oeuvre despite my general predisposition towards warbly loops and obsessive repetition.  I suspect the reason Amulets has eluded me until now is that Taylor uses tapes as a compositional tool to craft warm, dreamlike reveries of processed guitar ambiance rather than making the tapes the focus.  Of course, the tapes very clearly are the focus in Taylor's process, but the finished compositions that ultimately emerge could easily be mistaken for the work of an ambient-minded guitarist with a passion for lush layering.  If Taylor were a lesser artist, that approach would disappoint me, but Between Distant and Remote scratches a similar itch to classic shoegaze-damaged drone artists like Belong (and it gets there in an impressively inventive way).

Beacon Sound

The opening "Process of Unlearning" is quite a beautiful and effective statement of intent, as it begins with a loop of an enigmatic squelching noise and slowly builds into a roiling sea of lovely soft-focus guitar noise.  Plenty of other artists do guitar-based ambient drone quite well, yet Taylor shows a strong intuition for finding interesting and effective ways to make his work stand out as particularly distinctive.  I am especially fond of the wobbly, stuttering tape sounds that become the heart of the piece, yet the more impressive mastery lies in the piece's thoughtful, subtle, and effective dynamic arc.  To his credit, Taylor was not content to simply craft a pretty swirl of shimmering and quivering guitars, as an undercurrent of distorted, sizzling chords steadily drives the piece towards something that feels genuinely epic by the end of its four-minute duration.  I cannot think of any other artists working in similar stylistic territory that share Taylor's knack for constant forward motion and endless subtle shifts in emotional shading, as there is a definite tendency in the genre to linger in a state of floating or submerged bliss.  The latter unquestionably has its appeal, but it is refreshing to encounter such a lull-free addition to the canon.  Moreover, that sense of unwavering purposefulness brings me to the most curious aspect of Amulets: Taylor essentially uses tape loops to make himself a one-man rock band and he does it very well.  He also uses his tapes to give his sounds a warbling and frayed texture that I very much enjoy, but I am struck by how modestly he employs his arsenal of walkmen: almost every loop is designed to seamlessly blend into the quivering haze rather than assert itself.  It feels like Taylor just wanted to make languorously lovely multilayered guitar music that he could play live and the tapes are merely the ingenious way he found to make that work.

While the whole album is quite good, I most prefer the pieces where Taylor balances dreamlike beauty with ragged edges and gnarled textures.  In that regard, "North Coast, Falling" steals the show, as its lazily rippling arpeggios are embellished with a stammering and dissolving melodic loop that feels simultaneously grinding and strangled.  And then a snarling and sputtering tide of guitar noise slowly rises up and threatens to consume everything.  In less assured hands than Taylor's, that is exactly what would have happened, but the noise ultimately dissipates to make way for a tender and lovely coda.  Elsewhere, "Where The Land Meets the Sea" casts a delicately lovely spell with a woozy two-note pulse and a chiming, music box-esque melody before erupting into a seismic crescendo of dense and sizzling power chords.  The following "No Signal," on the other hand, largely eschews Amulets' usual beauty in favor of something that sounds like a howling and mournful guitar catharsis accompanied by roiling static and ringing buoys.  It is quite a quietly incendiary piece, displaying a passion and rawness that I would not normally associate with either tape loops or guitar-based ambient.  Remarkably, that hot streak lasts right up until the end of the album and each piece manages to have its own distinct character.  In "Feigning Night," for example, exhalation-like washes of tape hiss and backwards melodies gradually blossom into a densely shuddering mass of layered guitars, rumbling bass drones, and distantly twinkling piano motifs.  Later, the closing "Like Warm Air (We Rose)" feels like I just unexpectedly tuned into an angelic radio station as the earth shakes and burns around me.

As I listen to Between Distant and Remote more and more, I keep finding new details and nuances to love, so I am hard-pressed to find much to gripe about: there are seven songs on this album and every single one is wonderful in its own way.  That said, I do wish Taylor had used non-musical loops a bit more frequently and prominently than he does, as some buried voices and environmental sounds would have made the album a more mysterious and complex experience.  That is not exactly a shortcoming though–merely an observation about how a great album might have become a somewhat greater one.  Truly iconic artists do not just make music that sounds good–they have something extra that gives their work an instantly recognizable personality and soul.  For example, Ian William Craig works in similar stylistic terrain, but transcends other artists because his voice brings a human tenderness and vulnerability into his soundscapes.  Taylor, for his part, transcends other artists through sheer craftsmanship and unerring songcraft instincts alone.  For someone working in the experimental music milieu (and with tape loops, no less), he has a truly exceptional knack for hooks, concision, and textural dynamics.  While it admittedly took me a few listens to fully appreciate the depth and vividness of the Amulets vision and see Taylor as a uniquely talented loop wizard rather than an unusually good ambient/drone artist, I got there eventually and can now fully appreciate Between Distant and Remote as the understated masterpiece that it is.  This is one of the year's finest albums.

Samples can be found here.

Last Updated on Monday, 28 October 2019 12:58  


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