Ambient Exotica Review – Landfall by Peter James

8 May 2013

Landfall is a synth-driven Ambient album by the Cumbria-based artist Peter James, released in April 2012 on Steve Brand’s and John Koch-Northrup’s Relaxed Machinery label, the latter of which provided me with a digital copy of this three-track journey for review purposes. Landfall is prototypical Peter James material, but unlike his warm organic 2011 release Memento, this album does not feature any field recording, nor is it loaded with ornaments. James concentrates on the purest Ambient aesthetics, slowly wandering synth layers and slow sequences of monotony with admixed half-tone jumps. The title track was actually self-released in 2009 already, but is now accompanied by two companion pieces, each of them having their own distinct flavor and mood while being based on the same formula. The term formula oftentimes leaves a stale aftertaste, but I use it to stress the conceptual arc, the cohesion which traverses through Landfall as the golden thread. While there are few changes and coalescing layers in each track, the album as a whole features enough variety to not make the presentation feel tiresome or all too focused. The concept of Landfall is, according to Peter James, a journey. As noble this concept seems, it is, I have to admit, tremendously banal and commonplace. It might be filled with memories and heartfelt emotions, but they remain opaque to the listener, a problem I encounter time and again in synth-fueled Ambient pieces. The quality of the music, the surfaces and layers is thus all the more important. These luminescent markers have to glow from within their nuclei, especially so if the listener does not know the true origin of the concept, either because it is all too vague or highly personal to the artist. Luckily, Landfall is a particularly deep and intense album even if you strip off the opaque context in which it is embedded.

Relocation is the entry point of Landfall and proves to be a more easily digestible piece, but not because it is shallow or streamlined, but due to its duration of over seven minutes. It is a pastel-colored piece with a lesser focus on ethereality in favor of a blurrier haze. Peter James first introduces a softly oscillating drone stream full of warmth and a certain dryness which is accompanied by a cavalcade of blissful clouds; their echo fades in and out and gyrates around the semi-clear moiré of monotony. The atmosphere is becalming and soothing, but is intensified in the latter half when the misty clouds whirr in higher tone regions, introducing a lofty scent of iciness that was formerly camouflaged by the fuzziness of these celestial entities. Relocation is deliberately laid-back and surprisingly loop-based. Peter James maintains the state of affairs throughout the runtime, with the blueprint comprising of the monotonous dry stream and the reoccurring appearance of the cloud-shaped synth washes. No further particles or glistening entities are interwoven, making Relocation a track that focuses more on the surfaces, innermost textures and positively stolid fluxion rather than effect-laden distractions which may admittedly augment the wideness, but eventually deflect from the purposefully repetitive setup. Although James cites Relocation as “part of that same journey [as Landfall],” I cannot sense a progression, let alone a forward movement. The opposite is the case: Relocation feels like a tranquilizing stay in an ever-repeated shelter-giving place.

The second track is of course the main attraction, the “real deal,” the 35+ minutes long apex of this album. The titular Landfall turns out to be the referential journey which is the essential nullspace and connecting piece. The point of departure is covered in blackness. Dark matter drones float pompously through the cavernous location but are soon enough illuminated by the crystalline lucency of sparkling synth pads which fade in and out time and again. When they are mute, the cold darkness returns and makes the atmosphere feel acroamatic, abyssal and inapproachable. By no means is this a Dark Ambient piece, though! The grey-tinged shadiness, as monotonous it may seem, is the actual aorta or floating river which allows the other sounds to (re-)enter and permeate through the foggy structure. The accompanying synth strings are whitewashed and somewhat erudite if such an adjective is deemed suitable for synthetic structures. After approximately ten minutes, brazen but silkened clangs whirl in the distance, the angelic synth streams glow brighter while still retaining their sublime solemnity. There is no perceptible euphoria, only a state of transcendental grandeur is fueled and nurtured. And so the tune floats along; added bass drones form the occasional counterpart to the brighter inclusions, but not much changes over the course of the composition. Landfall is another track where Peter James concentrates on the subsistence, innermost nexus or thereness of a particular state. No curlicues or ornaments such as wind chimes, plinking slivers or galactic spirals are ever advected. Only the short appearance of the softened clangs adds pinches of metallic molecules to the soundscape. The listener is encapsulated, swallowed and allowed to submerge. The depth of field is remarkable. Landfall (the track) offers a total stasis, a state of contemplation and tranquility which the opener could not build due to its dualistic nature.

The final piece is called Separation and drones for over 17 minutes. Its selling points are the incredibly bolstered and densely layered masses of fog. While there were traces of melodies and serpentine tone sequences in the preceding compositions, Separation is a proper Drone track, and a dark one it is, too. The wideness of the perceived area is even larger, there are first and foremost only wind gusts, gales, blizzards, you name it, with faint flares of temple bells and softly screeching train-like brakes in the far distance. There may be no distinct melodies, but there are phases which are less layered, resulting in the impression of this track as an organic, breathing brute. The atmosphere is crestfallen and filled with gloom. However, its earthen physiognomy does not lead to austere presentiments or portentous shivers. Depending on the personal background or current mood of the listener, the incessant washes of fog are either purified waves stripped off any emotion, or cryptic harbingers of a forthcoming incident. This might furthermore be the ultimate zone-out track to get lost in, as there is really anything music-related in it but fizzling airflows. Separation remains a curious final point in that it is both the most reduced track with the most glaring wideness and impetus.

No field recordings, glitzy particles or euphonious surprises: Peter James’ Landfall is accessible due to its decisive omissions and reduced ingredients, and equally daunting because of its strong depth. It seems to be independent of any prerogative of interpretation. This is another catch-22, for how difficult can it be to describe an Ambient album that is so purposefully attenuated and composed of about nine or ten different textures? I would not, to answer the question, call it difficult per se, but neither can I pinpoint certain shifts or progressions. Two elements cause this impression: the density and exuberant proportion of the layers on the one hand, and the long durations of the compositions on the other. The arrangements float along on their own, not depending on any particular wizardry or sudden shifts. This is Ambient at its best, beatless and pure, tremendously abated but cleverly camouflaged. To maintain a certain mood for over half an hour as in the eponymous centerpiece without succumbing to the millions of possibilities a hardware synthesizer or software-based solution can provide, takes a strong will and knowledge. But even though the attention span of today’s Ambient listener decreases and shrinks, Peter James has a solution: a variety’s variety. All of the three tracks are built in the same way, but present different patterns and sound palettes, one of the boons that make it easier for the listener to adjust to them. As nice as the even stricter synth-driven Ambient albums such as the works of Thom Brennan are, it is the alternation of Peter James’ tracks which allow a glimpse of pastime to enter. Landfall is such an album. It is recommended to every listener of synth-heavy Ambient music, with the final track being particularly suitable for Dark Ambient or Drone lovers as well.

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