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Har & Altus: Shadow District

September 13, 2012

Nothing remains in shadow for long. It’s the nature of shadow. It’s not darkness, it’s variances of shifting light, a constant movement of states. And so it is with Shadow District, the first collaboration between Chapman stick/8-string guitar artist Har and ambient craftsman Altus. Between the title and the ominous, clattering start of the first track, it would be easy to quickly dismiss this as a dark–or reasonably dark–ambient release. But that’s barely scratching the surface. Yes, “Descent to Street Level” is moody and grim, with death-march drums (actually Har banging on his Chapman stick, then processing the sound), a plodding rhythm, and occasional wails that sound like they were recorded in a sewer tunnel. But then the light changes and a rather unexpected piano takes the forefront for “Abandoned Playground” and the tone becomes a sort of nostalgic, almost tear-jerking melancholy. This is a slow ballad played out in musical imagery, our mental camera pulling inexorably back and away as the tune works its way to its last sad note and thicker clouds coat the sky for “Borough of Shadows.” This, along with its followup, “Victims of a System,” dwells well within ambient territory, spooled out in slow-motion churns of pads and tones. “Borough…” is the darker of the two, a bit on the claustropobic side. “Victims…” eases off slightly, its scope widening and lightening, the pads feeling broader and brighter but still wrapped in a quietly pensive fog. Working through another shift, Har’s guitar takes center stage for “Burning While They Watched” and carries into “Along the Shattered Waterfront.” Again, the pairing of tracks come in a sort of dark-to-light variance; “…Waterfront” works its way down to a quiet, drone-like drift as Har gently tosses a repeating phrase into the darkening air. The closer, “Betrayal at Twilight” bring us back around to a somewhat more worrisome space. The tones feel sharper, the narrative more tenuous, the atmosphere far less certain. And then in the middle of it comes Har’s echoing guitar work, like a gleam of post-rock light briefly splitting the clouds.

Shadow District succeeds because of the power of its emotional content as well as the superb quality of the music and the production. It’s not a passive listen; each track carries its own through-line, its own tale, and between the two composers they manage to drench each one with an overflow of honest feeling. Headphones naturally improve the experience as you take in the rich detail, but the emotion hits home at any volume. From worrisome to mildly optimistic (we never rise up quite so far), the feel is there. Given that this is a first-time collaboration, one also has to appreciate the immediate, effective chemistry at work here. It promises more good stuff to come–or at least, we can hope so.

Available from Earth Mantra.

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