Earthen Sea, "Ghost Poems"
This latest release from the long-running ambient dub solo project of erstwhile Mi Ami/Black Eyes bassist Jacob Long is stirring up some feelings of regret about how I managed to sleep on this project for so long. While I am not yet sure if Ghost Poems simply caught me at the right time or if Long has been unusually inspired recently, my previous exposures to Earthen Sea left me feeling like the ambient/dub balance was too heavily weighted towards the "ambient" side to leave a deep impression. I suspect the balance has not changed all that much since I last checked in, but Long seems to have made a big leap forward in perfecting his execution with this album (it "further refines his fragile, fractured palette into fluttering arrythmias of dust, percussion, and yearning," according to the label). Apparently, I am very much into fluttering arrhythmias of yearning now, as the first half of this album boasts a handful of pieces that can stand with just about anything in Kranky's rich and influential discography: rather than resembling dub techno that has been deconstructed and dissolved into a soft-focus haze, Ghost Poems often feels like Long has managed to seamlessly combine the best of ambient and the best of dub techno into something fresh, wonderful, and uniquely his own.
According to Long, one of this project's central themes is "the melancholy of 7th chords on a fake Rhodes patch," which feels like quite an apt and self-aware description. In lesser hands, that might be uncharitably viewed as a formulaic approach, but Long seems to instead belong to a more rarified type of artist who is passionately devoted to perfecting a single theme that obsesses him and he seemingly has no trouble finding myriad intriguing ways to keep that theme evolving. Unsurprisingly, blearily melancholy and repeating fake Rhodes chords are indeed the heart of the album, but Long inventively enhances that simple theme with a host of delightful textural and rhythmic elements. Some of those elements are expected ones, such as the presence of deep bass throb, understated kick drum patterns, and subtle cymbal flourishes that give these pieces their physicality and sense of forward motion. Those more conventionally musical touches are just pieces of a larger puzzle though, as Long also gets a lot of mileage from "domestic sounds (sink splashing, room tone, clinking objects) filtered through live FX to imbue them with an intuitive, immaterial feel."
In theory, that is not exactly new territory, but it sure feels like it sometimes (particularly on the opening "Shiny Nowhere," as crackling, shuffling, and dripping sounds gamely replace the expected snare and cymbals in the lurching, slow-motion groove). Given how explosive and cacophonous some of Long's previous bands have been, I was quite surprised by his talent for distilling a piece to its absolute essence and never playing a single wasted or unnecessary note. My favorite piece is the hiss-soaked and sensuously seductive "Stolen Time," but "Felt Absence" and "Snowy Water" help make the whole first half a murderers' row of elegantly frayed and dreamlike hits. To some degree, Long's "variations on a theme" aesthetic unavoidably starts to yield diminishing returns as I get deeper into the album, but some of his best ideas do not surface until later pieces like "Slate Horizon" and "Deep Sky" (both of which make very inspired use of subtly shivering cymbals and clicking drum sticks).