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Surfacing is the début album by A Marble Calm, a loose collaboration between ex-Alias Grace multi-instrumentalist Peter Chilvers and reclusive vibraphone/marimba player Jon Hart. The result, with guests including recently-reviewed woodwind player Theo Travis , No-Man vocalist Tim Bowness, ex-Alias Grace singer Sandra O'Neill and Boo Hewerdine guitarist Rob Jackson, comfortably blends a variety of aesthetics into a 75-minute program that drifts by in an airy and atmospheric fashion.
With clear debts to the ambient music of Brian Eno, the spacious pop of David Sylvian and, farther afield, a nod to the spirit of ECM in terms of its rich sonic clarity, the album opens with the title track, which on first listen could easily fit within the collaborations of Brian Eno and Harold Budd. But whereas Eno and Budd often create somewhat static ambient soundscapes with little in the way of rhythm, Hart's marimba gives the piece a light pulse that develops over the course of twelve minutes to incorporate a simple but compelling harmonic movement, managing to be tranquil and, at the same time, quietly dramatic. While the lineage to Eno is unquestionable, Chilvers and Hart are less about being merely a part of the listener's complete auditory experience; in its subtle and spacious way, this music demands attention.
"Winter's Voice," layering O'Neill's wordless vocal loops and Travis' flute loops and soprano saxophone over Hart's vibraphone and Chilvers' pianos and synths, is more hypnotic. And while improvisation may at first appear to be a low priority on the disc, hearing how O'Neill and Travis work off each other clearly belies that assumption.
Elsewhere A Marble Calm delivers more overtly song-oriented material, in particular the folk-meets-ambient texture of "I Dream a Highway," which features O'Neill's exposed and fragile vocal on a track that, while texturally different, is in the same space as Bill Frisell's recent collaboration with Petra Haden. "Another World" and "The Conquer and Divide" both feature Bowness singing subdued and enigmatic lyrics over musical backdrops where the melodic changes are so masked in the timbral landscapes that they seem to ebb and flow, appearing out of and disappearing back into the ether at random.
What makes Surfacing so appealing is that, trance-like though it may be, it still has plenty to listen for. Chilvers in particular, playing a wide range of instruments including keyboards, bass, drum programming and guitar, creates an array of intriguing combinations that give the album a sound of its own. Hart's vibraphone and marimba are often used to create long-form repetitive patterns or affected trills that are somewhat reminiscent of Steve Reich, but less unsettling, more soothing. In fact, if one word could be used to apply to Surfacing it would be calming. Meditative yet discreetly insistent, with nothing to jar the senses or create any kind of discomfort, Surfacing is the perfect music to de-stress by.
Track Listing: Surfacing; Another World; Winter's Voice; The Conquer and Divide; Starlift; In Flight; I Dream a Highway; Submerging
Personnel: Peter Chilvers (sampler, synthesizer, organ, electric piano, electric guitar, reverse piano, space bass, double-bass, fretless bass, drum programming), Jon Hart (vibraphone, marimba, mbira) Guests: Tim Bowness (vocals, lyrics, acoustic guitar, drone on "Another World," "The Conquer and Divide), Sandra O'Neill (vocal loops, vocal, additional percussion on "Winter's Voice," "I Dream a Highway"), Theo Travis (flute loops, wah-wah soprano saxophone on "Winter's Voice," In Flight"), Rob Jackson (electric and pedal steel guitars on "Starlift," "I Dream a Highway")