2017 has been a stellar year for ambient and experimental music in general, with excellent projects emerging across the spectrum: be it via the compilations of PAN (Mono No Aware) and Optimo Music (Miracle Steps), or the atmospheric albums of Bing & Ruth and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe. Here to stake their claim in the territory, Island People, a four-way collaboration between mastering engineer Conor Dalton, Grammy Award winning producer David Donaldson, DJ producer Graeme Reedie, and guitarist Ian MacLennan, have united as a collective of astute and experienced musicians, producing their debut self-titled album, a thoroughly cinematic and panoramic take on the ambient and post-rock genres which demonstrates a proficient grasp of depth, power and subtlety.
While each of these musicians share a common history via their affiliation with the Soma Quality label, it’s clear that geographic distance has influenced, even defined the way in which their densely layered music has taken form. Split primarily between Glasgow and Berlin, recordings were shared digitally between members, in a process described as “reflecting their continuous way of working, but also incorporating their different and individual backgrounds.” Certainly, the manner in which the album melds heavily processed field recordings, widescreen synthesisers, and tactile micro-detail, suggests a varied yet cohesive range of approaches; from film, to techno to rock.
At its core, Island People explores the dichotomy between the natural and the mechanical. Tracks often resemble vast metallic sound sculptures, left to decompose, engulfed and consumed by untameable ecosystems. Often the sensation is of both harsh and tranquil sound moving through these imaginary spaces: ‘Thought I Knew You’ brings to mind a sunken ship, creaking under the weight of an ocean, the listener drifting through it’s rusted bowels, the musicians somewhere unseen. Similarly, the humid ‘From the Sky’ evokes the sensation of sub-canopy shelter, as the listener observes hissing tropical rainfall from a dystopian forest floor. Repeatedly, the sensation is not one of linear musical development but of climatic stasis – a fixed point within a vast, all-encompassing terrain, meditating on the throbbing non-linearity of some imaginary zone.
Undoubtedly a key, if occasionally elusive, element of the ensemble, MacLennan’s guitar is at its best mirroring the abstract, impressionistic nature of the soundscapes. On standout ‘Shadows and I’, for instance, he ruptures the mix like an ocean-liner through ice, yawning and bottomless as if amplified to induce a tsunami. In contrast, during the appropriately aquatic ‘Song for the Sea’, it soars high above the surface, dipping in and out of obscurity, echoing the cosmic sensations of Cluster or Ash Ra Tempel. While it suffers from the occasional trip into figurative clunkiness – as on the underdeveloped ‘Sonde’ – it’s these moments of volcanic force and microbial nuance which leave the lasting impression on the listener and serve as testament to MacLennan’s intuitive sense of restraint.
Whilst the album’s beat-driven moments provide a welcome change of pace, they are perhaps slightly less engrossing than their ethereal counterparts. Opener ‘Ember’ is by far the most successful of these percussive forays, the steady yet syncopated chugging fusing symbiotically with the shifting, dissonant strands of sound, amorphous yet tactile. Nevertheless, ‘Kindling’ and ‘Sonde’ sound jarring in comparison, their somewhat awkward percussive arrangements and alien textures not quite acclimatising to the transcendent atmosphere of the project – even as the design of the sounds themselves remain assuredly realised.
These gripes are minor, however, Island People is an incredibly confident and well realised debut. It’s remarkable, yet perhaps unsurprising, that a group of disparate and distanced musicians have crafted a thoroughly borderless and bottomless sound – one that remains excitingly ripe for future exploration.