Steve Brand, Sanctuary

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This is what you call a deep dive. Sanctuary is a pair of full-length long-form releases from Steve Brand, who must be setting some kind of record with the quantity and quality of the work he’s turning out.As with most of Brand’s outings, this one blends strong electronic tides with natural, organic elements and breath-based instrumentation. The first part, “Place of Honoring (Inner Temple),” gives off a kind of tribal-ambient vibe, opening in the lower registers and emerging through a swirl of aural fog. These first few steps are tenuous, built with a carefully balanced tension. Brand brings a familiar array of sounds into the mix, the percussive clatters and the dry rattle of shakers, to punctuate the slowly flowing washes. Wonderful attention is paid to the level and placement of all the sounds here, opening a space that is rich, surrounding, and darkly meditative. This gives way to a spacey drift, whispering and reaching, anchored with a strong low end. It may be a minute or two before you fully register the shift in tone; the changeover is effortless. The piece’s third expression brings in flute. I have always enjoyed Brand’s flute work. To me there is a rawness to it, a beautiful edge of simple imperfection that comes off as very human, very organic. Here he loads it with echo, letting the notes crash and entwine into a soaring mosaic. Moving toward the end, Brand steers us into a star-bright vista filled with big, sparkling pads, the far opposite of the crawling, darkened place where we began. So it’s appropriate—and, I would imagined, planned this way—that the second part, “Place of Unconditional Love and Acceptance (Valley)” opens, after a minute of quietly rumbling drone, in those shinier registers. Brand is a storyteller, and this tale gets taken up here. The slowly evolving, broad sounds laid out early in the track will draw inevitable comparisons to Steve Roach, but the patient flow is go engaging, no one’s going to mind. Your head will be too mushy. Plus, as with “Place of Honoring…” it’s just the first face of this journey. It becomes very much its own thing by the 15-minute mark, grabbing a spacemusic feel packed with high notes that almost threaten to be too harsh. The next shift brings back the flutes, and the stretch beginning around the 20-minute mark becomes a dazzling, moving knot formed by the flute and those shining notes. They coexist and play off one another in a way that sets my head spinning—but very pleasantly so. It’s like an aural endorphin rush, with all the feel-good that suggests. The next phase is underscored with a field recording of a stream, and from the moment everything falls away except the sound of water, we’re brought to a remarkably peaceful place. Breathing slows to match the relaxed cadence of well-spaced rise-and-fall pads. This is the kind of stuff that hooked me into drifting ambient in the first place, and it’s expertly done. And because balance matters to Brand, we rise up from there, with the water sounds fading, to be brought back to a more shadowed and primal locale, driven by a moan of wind and the rough call of didgeridoo. The circle closes, and we take a deep breath.

I find Sanctuary to be a stunning album, nicely balanced and perfectly dynamic. The changeovers between ideas are absolutely smooth, making for a well-managed narrative that spools out organically and with nothing to interrupt the flow. If you don’t care for the primal/tribal stuff, the beginning and end may not appeal to you, but you will likely appreciate the way Brand steps off from there (and returns to it) as a means of exploring a truly vast ambient space. And I must again mention Brand’s always-exquisite detail work. From the careful placement of rattle sounds in the mix to the decision to make the nasal inhalation of the didge’s circular-breathing technique audible and integral to the moment, his work demands your full attention and instantly rewards it.

I have given up on trying to keep pace with Steve Brand’s output, but with every release, he just seems to get even better. I could say that Sanctuary is among the best, if not the best, of his releases, but I know I’ll have to weigh it against the stuff I’m behind on. In the meantime, I cannot recommend this release highly enough. This is landmark-quality work from Steve Brand. Get this now.

Available at Bandcamp.

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