Steve Brand: Sunprints

Over the course of several releases, Steve Brand has gotten me used to music constructed out of big, far-reaching ambient washes, long and meditative exhalations in sound. So it came as a pleasant surprise to hear acoustic instruments mixing with the flow on his recent re-release, Sunprints. Here, Brand laces together organic and electric, heavy and light, tribal and modern, crafting pieces that variegate from his familiar ambient stylings to pieces that are complex and comparatively challenging. Much of the disc is underscored by excellent field recordings that Brand uses judiciously. One of the recurring elements is the sound of a burbling stream. You’ll hear it on “Return of the Masters,”  its trickling flow  and twittering birds providing the backdrop for patient synth pads and the resonant and reverent voice of chimes. (Late in the track there’s also a recording of a cat [see album cover] and I have to admit that the first time I listened, alone at night in my office, it totally freaked me out.) The stream sound appears again on “The Scent of Olibanum,” which finds Brand somewhat straddling the border between dark-ish ambient and a touch of tribal. This is a moody, slow-moving piece shot through with echoing dissonance. A very Steve Roach-like ocarina finds it way into the mix, providing that tribal ambient hint. The stream’s job here is to gurgle along in a reassuringly soothing way amid the more disconcerting elements.

Aside from the field recordings, Brand’s acoustic sources give Sunprints an even richer depth. Take the way “Return…” starts, opening almost jarringly with a huge note on a conch like an ancient call to prayer. Between that and the deep sound of the chimes/temple bells, Brand establishes an atmosphere that borders on ritualistic, then augments it with his synth tones. Or listen to the barking, almost dissonant notes of didgeridoo on “The Sun is the Mother of the Moon,” like a real-world shout launched into the meditative ether. Brand notes that he uses “Kora [a sort of West African harp], zither, kalimba, shakers, bells, cymbals, gongs, conch, bone, cane and cedar flutes, didgeridoo, whistles, voice, [and] accordion” here, and he puts them all to great use as sonic anchors in the flow. Each of the long tracks here moves through a series of identities, the changes coming naturally and in keeping with Brand’s narrative. The ride through Sunprints is diverse and shifting, and each new form, whether it’s a hushed ambient flow like the closing track, or the more tribal-tinged, rough-edged spaces of  “…Olibanum,” is engaging in its own way. On your first trip through, you may occasionally wonder where Brand is going or why this or that shift is happening. But don’t worry–you’ll be going back into Sunprints enough that you’ll become very at home with the ride.

Available from Relaxed Machinery.

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