In the summer of 2012, I passed through Philadelphia on tour with a friend and had the privilege of a casual evening set with my usual Philly show-mates Northern Valentine. We played in ferocious thunderstorm weather at a delightfully cramped tea house, The Random Tea Room, spread out in the entryway with our various pedals and mixers and amps for a small but interested crowd, and it was the kind of evening I’ve always treasured on tour: simple, laid-back, communally expressive.
Joining the constantly-shifting Northern Valentine live setup that night was Ben Fleury-Steiner, on various effects. I’d been familiar with Mr. Fleury-Steiner as a record label head, his Gears of Sand having released one of my very favorite albums from another friend, P.D. Wilder (the still-breathttaking “F/M”). Watching this unassuming father from Delaware man the noise controls with subtlety and careful nuance that night made me appreciate him as a sound artist, as well. His new full-length for Rural Colours, Clearings, only solidifies high impressions of his work.
This is harrowing stuff at times. “Glade” builds to a whirlwind of terrifying sound before decaying into a low, sated hum in its closing minutes, while ‘Parallax’ is dreamier, all blissed-out synth tones riding a current of rushing air. The real stunner here is ‘Wind-Up Bird’s Lament’, a gracefully shifting collage of colors and shades that feels all too brief at just under ten minutes. Do I detect thumb piano lurking in the piece’s outer periphery? These three works are anything but minimalist. At their grandest heights they’re bursting shoegaze firecrackers, erupting and fizzling back to earth weathered and torn. At their quietest, they’re imbued with a sense of dread and plaintive doom that forewarns of the gathering storm lurking over the horizon.
In a genre that can often feel cold and clinical, Ben Fleury-Steiner’s work is bursting with raw, bloody, vital life. This is music too big to be confined to margins, shattering the frames around it and making you forget that frames exist in the first place. This is not ambient as background music, this is ambient as something alive and kicking that demands your utterly undivided attention. I know I’ll be looking forward to crossing paths with Ben again on treks northward, but for the rest of you, Clearings should be more than enough to convince you of this man’s merits. (Zachary Corsa)