I use the word “texture” a lot in my reviews of ambient music. Perhaps it seems an odd affectation, but I do believe that certain ways of manipulating sound can cause a sort of synesthetic response in our heads and create the feel of feeling something that isn’t there. For a prime example of ambient “texture,” look no further than two recent releases from John Broaddus: -afield- and A Strange Mint.
On -afield- Broaddus takes field recordings from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Paris and “tunes” them before playing with various processes to craft them into a musical form. The resultant pieces retain some sonic imagery from their organic origins; Broaddus plays with levels to let these sounds peer out in spots or to be more noticeable in others. Voices taking on a ringing, almost ghostly tone in “Embarcadero Center – Justin Herman Plaza” as a lazy and patient chord structure floats through. I keep thinking I hear a fountain in “Da Vinci – Getty Center.” (Having never been there, I may be quite wrong, but there’s a distinct organic element in there.) Broaddus’ main meme here is to pulse his sounds in a waveform tremolo, which he kicks off immediately with the opening track, “Hotel de Lutece – Paris,” and returns to, almost aggressively, in “SF MOMA – San Francisco.” The dynamics within the pulse create a sense of rhythm and add a sun-on-water shimmer to his sounds that carries, in some form, through all the tracks. His textures here are, for the most part, soft and rounded, sonic curves with the occasional roughened edge.
A Strange Mint takes a similar tack, but differs in its use of gritty micro-textures as a base underneath Broaddus’ pulses, which feel smoother than their -afield- counterparts, and a stronger prominence in spots for non-drone elements. Chimes ring across “Model M4”; waves of glissandi bob and roll through “Model MF2”; rain falls in mists and drips in “MF3c”; twanging, bouncy elastic percussion (I’d love to know the source of this sound!) peppers “Model MF1,” holding its own as Broaddus brings droning tones and near-feedback against it. The texture work is strongest in the distinctly corrugated surface of “MF3a,” a rumble strip of sound that juxtaposes perfectly with the minimalist flow under it. Broaddus notes that the pieces were “created by mucking about with some recordings of organic and man-made materials interacting; fashioning them into something yet undiscovered, a hybrid of the natural and the synthetic…” That idea, paired with Broaddus’ approach to slowly developing, minimalist drifts, gives A Strange Mint a unique identity and turns it into a must-hear piece of music.
Both discs benefit from focused listening. Broaddus keeps his work minimal in its forward motion while at the same time running his layers deep–and, of course, flecking it all with texture. It’s quite easy to fall deeply into his craftsmanship. He’s been away from music for few years, at least as far as releases are concerned, but -afield- and A Strange Mint mark a very welcome return to a trained minimalist ambient voice.
Available at Bandcamp.