Poignancy with brevity. That about sums up the ambient chamber duo Olan Mill, a pair from England who compose strictly in the winter time. “Bleu Polar” picks up right where their debut Pine left off with gorgeous etchings of violins and guitar (and some voice!) slowly drifting through the seams. It’s a lovely and sombre connection between the two albums, making way for some different approaches. “Springs” opens with sober and lush piano work and is the only track to feature this instrument. Pine featured a bit more piano, but the story goes that Paths is a product of two live performances that Alex Smalley and Svitlana Samoylenko recorded: one was with Peter Broderick, the other with Hauschka. Smalley admitted being intimidated by these two impeccable and talented pianists, so Olan Mill ended up dropping piano almost all together for the show. Perhaps the self-imposed limitation helped them step up their compositions a notch.
Smalley spent many years working as a music therapist in a maximum security mental institute, and the music he creates is more of a personal respite (in the summer he works on the euphoric drone project Pausal). In listening to Paths, one might detect a bit of the dread and madness that accompanies such a profession. “Amber Balanced” ratchets up the anxiety with a rough edged drone peppered with heart wrenching violin work. Field recordings and backward plucks and errata help grant the piece a sense of helplessness in the face of devastation. As the ending to side A, this track essentially razes the landscape and wipes the slate clean before having to turn the record over.
Each track on Paths delivers a decisively different feeling, and that is its greatest strength. The album can drift by as one song, but the details are full of lush stories to discover. “Eye’s Closed (for Rube)” is an ode to Smalley’s late grandmother, and is apparently the first Olan Mill song written in the summer time. It has much more of a Stars of the Lid vibe due to its multiple layers of vibrant violin melodies intermingling. It makes for dynamic listening to hear the confident swing from despair to optimism occur several times over the course of one album. There is no doubt that though Olan Mill’s overall sound is one of sobriety, pause, and deep emotional memory, it expresses a desire to connect, to break down barriers in the listener’s mind. Above all Paths is ridiculously gorgeous and cannot be missed by the lovers and poets of the listening world. (Nayt Keane)