My biggest problem with writing a review of Steve Brand’s The Great Hoop is that, having done so, now I have to stop listening to it and move on to other discs. Easier said than done, because this is a disc I have deeply enjoyed. On this release Brand pulls inspiration from Native American culture and the landscape of the American Plains (in particular, the Cahokia Mounds in Illinois), but does not set out to make a Native American music disc per se. It’s more the artist’s interpretation of how his own interest in and connection to the subject manifests in music. So, yes, there are flutes, shakers and rattling bones that call up the impression and which also lend an air of ritual in places as the five pieces here move along, but their role is to act as a perfectly placed accent to Brand’s big, deep ambient soundscapes. The flute, particularly, works as a tether for your floating spirit. Brand’s playing is elegant and spirited, and I like the way he varies between full-voiced playing and occasional wispy, breathy whistlings. The latter brings a bit of a ghostly touch, especially in a darker piece like “Hoop of the Earth.” It’s wisely played against low-end pads, the thrum of a frame drum, and the crisp sound of the rattles. The drama gets ramped up on this track as Brand alternately thickens and thins his sounds in superb measure. It’s an interesting blend of potency and peacefulness. This is something I really enjoy about Brand’s work; he knows how to create impact either with a minimal amount of sound or a heavy dose of it, so his more hushed passages still leave an impression. Definitely the case here. Fans of Steve Roach are sure to hear echoes of his influence throughout The Great Hoop, and perhaps nowhere more so than in the fantastic “Medicine Bag Ghosts,” with collaborator Frore. This is the centerpiece for me. It’s seriously powerful medicine that’s ready to take you very, very deep. Layers of flute swirl and spiral, echoing off into the distance; throaty drones beckon from somewhere below; a whisper of wind eases through the sound. Halfway into it we enter into Roach’s established territory, marked by slow tribal beats and a humid sonic atmosphere. This is pure ritual in action, evoking a primal, gut-level response. This track alone is worth the price of admission. When I first listened to The Great Hoop, I felt like the last track, “Suspension Vision,” had something of a mis-step. Brand whistles on this track, a sort of wayward, almost haphazard whistling. It struck me as odd at first, but after some repeat listens I came to see it as a very personal, connecting touch. It echoes the songs of the flute we’ve been hearing across the disc, but this is the song without the external instrument. This is the breath that makes it happen. This is a reminder that, in the end, all of our music begins with us and in us.
The Great Hoop is a brilliant release. It may very well be Brand’s best. It digs into the listener and doesn’t let go. Its organic parts are wonderful, down to the simplest shaker. It manages to embrace tribal and Native American musical themes, but they’re always tied directly to the ambient spaces Brand is known for–vast, moving, and impressive. Steve Brand is a genuine force in the ambient sphere, and this disc helps to solidify that position.
Available from Relaxed Machinery.