Ambient music is generally at its best when it functions well in both background and foreground contexts, allowing the listener to either enjoy it from a distance, or to step inside it and experience sound as a sort of immersive environment. Ultimately, it’s a matter of how much attention one is willing or able to pay to the music, which determines the depth and scope that it will take on. Brian Eno, firmly acknowledged as the father of Ambient music, has said that he designs his works with this duality in mind, seeking to balance these two extremes so that listeners might explore any portion of this spectrum at any given time. In his most effective pieces, the textures are rich enough to allow one to discover different layers in the same works over repeated listens under different circumstances.
The electronica movement of the last two decades has spawned a considerable amount of music which owes a great deal to Eno both in sound and in theory, from early ’90s classics such as Aphex Twin’s early ambient works and the KLF’s seminal Chill Out to more recent gems from Fennesz and Tim Hecker. Harmony in Ultraviolet is Canadian sound artist Hecker’s latest opus, an affecting suite of lovely sounds which finds him refining the techniques that made 2004’s Mirages such a blissful treat. In a genre which has become somewhat over-saturated by the easy access to computers and music software, it’s rare to find voices with the kind of vision and grace that Hecker displays here.
If one were to try to find a parallel with a single Eno album, it would most likely be On Land (also known as Ambient 4), the 1982 masterpiece that envisions each piece as an audio portrait of a specific location. To my ears, it’s the most organic record Eno ever made, and Harmony in Ultraviolet is equally organic if also considerably more digital (I don’t think the two have to necessarily be seen as opposites). While On Land sought to portray a series real or imagined places on earth by incorporating a wide array of natural sounds, Hecker’s work here more often evokes outer space… it’s easy to imagine vast arrays of distant galaxies filled with shimmering stars, such is the cosmic beauty of his incandescent audio sculptures. Additionally, his use of space in the sonic sense (echo, decay, stereo spatialization, etc.) is nothing short of masterful, giving the album a true sense of depth lacking in many records within this genre.
On an album of this nature and of this quality, it’s hard to choose standout tracks, but it seems that the music is sequenced so as to highlight a few lengthier pieces toward the end of the record. One of these, a piece entitled “Radio Spiricom,” sounds like an ocean of massive keyboard-waves trying to burst through the speakers, with splashes of synth-generated foam washing ashore and leaving trails of glistening sand behind on the windswept shore. “Whitecaps of White Noise II” is another gem, a lovely drifting melodic figure covered in a fuzzed-out glaze. This granular coating gradually dissolves, revealing a clearer version of the melancholy keyboard notes, which in turn begin to drift away into a sort of weightless void, ringing out into the distance until they can be heard no more.
Harmony in Ultraviolet is a dense record saturated with several layers of texture, and it easily fills the role of providing either a great focused listening experience or a pleasant background listening environment. More importantly, there’s a unified sound throughout, which is definitely not to say that it all sounds the same. On the contrary, it’s fairly diverse in both texture and mood, and it flows well from one piece to the next, keeping most pieces short enough that they never begin to drag. Even toward the end of the album, where there are several longer pieces, it’s nearly impossible not to get lost in the sheer beauty of Hecker’s kaleidoscopic haze. This album shows that he is one of the most important artists working within his field, and sets the standard even higher for those who follow in his footsteps.
Fennesz – Endless Summer
Kiln – Thermals
Brian Eno – Ambeint 4 : On Land