Available on: Asthmatic Kitty LP
What is ‘ambient’? Or, more pertinently to this record, what isn’t? The Magic Place, the second full-length from New York’s Barwick and her first for Asthmatic Kitty, tests the boundaries of what many consider ambient music: rare is the record that features vocals, especially when they’re not just samples. However, with its banks of melodies and fantastic singing, this is definitely, to these ears, a vocal ambient album, albeit with elements of pop, indie and freak folk.
A lot of ambient records, especially since computer programming took over, have been about layering lovely sounds. This works to varying effect, depending on how well the composer can make us forget the structure we are listening to. The Black Dog’s Music for Real Airports and Biosphere’s Dropsonde were fantastic for that, placing the listener in waiting rooms and queues, and the countryside, respectively. Porn Sword Tobacco’s New Exclusive Olympic Heights was so seductive, I can’t even recall if it used that approach. Albums by Minamo and Hulk mid-last decade took the opposite approach, of utter minimalism, but all too often producers decide to layer sounds, new ones entering the mix every minute or so, til they get to six minutes and end it. It’s a tad lazy.
Julianna Barwick, here, uses the layering approach, but takes it to a grand, and beautiful, level. When The Magic Place begins, with the stoned Animal Collectivism of ‘Envelop’, the layers of vocals could lead anywhere. It’s breathy and pretty, and manages to engage without revealing too much of what is to come. Where Animal Collective then introduce beats and pop structure to their vocal layering, Barwick goes in the opposite direction, and drops some GHB in our collective drink. ‘Keep Up the Good Work’ – a self-pat on the back from Julianna? – recalls Sierra Casady from Cocorosie with its quasi-opera backing. From this, Barwick layers more traditionally ‘pop/rock’ singing, but without words. Backed by a subtle iambic beat, the vocals really create both lead and rhythm on this track.
So, the singing is the thing. There is instrumentation, but it’s peripheral to what is being created by the voice and its manipulation and looping. Where such an approach seemed rather gimmicky on Björk’s Medulla, it’s almost effortless on this album. The title track sees the ‘lead’ vocal follow slightly more overtly ‘songy’ paths through the track, as though a shape is emerging from the aural opiate. Still, the ambiance holds everything together, maintaining a cyclical feel that no one line can strike out from. It’s almost as if you took Treasure-era Cocteau Twins and made them even more ethereal and angelic. ‘Cloak’ introduces piano lines which, again, bed into the mix and provide support to the phantom voices still floating delicately through the mist, still not forward enough to shape words.
‘White Flag’ is overtly vocal-ambient in the way a couple of strands are joined, at intervals, by others. Soft indie-esque singing forms the bedrock, soon to be joined by operatic backing, both eventually met by harmonised voices, somewhere between ‘Hidden Place’ (surely more than a coincidence of nomenclature) and ‘My Girls’. All are soon joined by a stately bassline, before each gradually bows out of the track, ending as minimally as it began. It becomes evident, by this centrepiece, that not only are the songs to an extent working around The Ambient Formula, but so too is the album, on a larger level. Each song is a tad more textured than the last: the mix builds over the course of the album, rather than just the song. But it’s all so lovely that you don’t tend to notice this amid the siren song.
And so it is that ‘Vow’ brings more instrumentation, both to the rhythm and backing, though the vocals never cease to maintain prime real estate in this titular magic place. The production is so good you don’t notice whether it’s good or not; the usual reference points for this type of music aren’t there. Naturally, the album lives or dies by the quality of the vocal, and it’s a pleasure to note quite how sumptuous that particular element is. As opposed to Medulla, with its ‘here’s Björk! And now Rahzel! Don’t look now, but here comes Mike Patton!’, The Magic Place is the star, benefiting from the fact that Barwick is relatively low profile (for now). ‘Bob in Your Gait’ is the closest thing to a traditional song, with the piano foreshadowing the main vocal, and some sorta-words. This song is also possibly the finest example of the main strength of the album: while vocal melodies sit everywhere in the sinew and skeleton of this record, they are always brilliant. They usually contain varying strengths of melancholy, but that only adds to the Romantic, wistful identity of the album.
The song that comes closest to breaking the spell is ‘Prizewinning’, with its dubby bassline introducing and sitting through the song, eventually joined by a jangling rhythm that might be a little too much of a departure from the rest of the sonic palette. It’s sitting more on the ‘conspicuous’ side of the fence than the ‘welcome break from the norm’ that Barwick may have hoped it to be. That the weakest song is still enjoyable is testament to the quality of all 44 minutes, as ‘Flown’ brings us to a close in the style to which we have become accustomed from The Magic Place. Her last full length, Sanguine, was a perfectly fine collection of vignettes in its own right, but compared to the grandeur and beauty of this, sounds in hindsight like a demo, like scraps. But make no mistake, that’s just because this is such a special piece of work. In the same way Mogwai’s Come on Die Young stood apart from all other British rock at the time, so too would The Magic Place, today – if only we could figure out what the Hell genre it’s supposed to be.