We’d like to think that when it comes to instruments, we don’t play favorites ~ but we do. Seeing that Alex Steward (Umber) has included violinist Sophie Green (Her Name Is Calla) on two tracks makes a difference even before we’ve listened to the music. We like HNIC, but we love the violin, whose timbre lends a traditional element to the recording and connects Umber’s ambient post-rock to modern composition. This may be the way forward for ambient music, which is so often stuck in a reverberating rut. Whether improvised or composed, strings provide a maturity that string pre-sets do not.
Steward’s track sequencing is also wise. For the first three tracks, he plays it all; Green then joins him for the fourth and fifth; Good Weather for An Airstrike chimes in on the sixth; and Steward is once again solo for the finale. In other words, he appreciates his friends, but he doesn’t rely on them. A quarter hour into the album, we already like Umber, and everything after that is merely an enhancement.
Umber is one of the quieter artists on the steadily growing Oxide Tones roster, noteworthy for his lack of percussion. His gentle tracks imply rhythm through steady tempos and the type of post-rock passages that would normally be used in introductions and interludes. Imagine drums behind the second half of the title track; they’d fit in, but they’d be superfluous. In their place are the textures that might normally be drowned out by drums, including something that sounds like a tiny train in slippers. Field recordings play a strong role in “All the Ships”, setting the mood for nearly four minutes. When the lead guitar enters at 3:49, the track shifts from contemplative to confident.
Green’s contribution is particularly powerful on “The Warm Calm”, sparking memories of A Winged Victory for the Sullen. The deep emotions conveyed by the violin take the album to a higher, even holier level. The inclusion of Tom Honey (Good Weather for an Airstrike) bears another encouraging message, that of friendship; Steward contributed banjo to one track on Lights and his last album was released on Honey’s label Hawk Moon. If the nature of ambient music is to soothe, then faith and friendship can only aid the process.
Oxide Tones has gone all out with the purchase options, which include t-shirts and tote bags. While Umber is relatively new, Sunshine Young deserves to be his breakthrough disc. (Richard Allen)