The latest record from Ben Seretan is both a radical departure from his folksy, faith-reckoning 2020 opus Youth Pastoral and yet arguably the most logical next step after such a nuanced examination of personal spirituality. Recorded during a two week residency in the mountains of Georgia, Cicada Waves is a hushed instrumental album that sounds exactly like its title— plenty of space and humming and buzzing all circling around the central melodies. Its presentation as a bare-bones, unmixed piano record creates a stoically unpretentious feeling of comfort that scans as both timely and universal.
Taking influence from the all-timers of acoustic ambient, Seretan’s take on the genre is oftentimes more about residual sounds and silence than the music itself. While the trope has been played out ad nauseam, there is an earnestness to Seretan’s objective in highlighting nature around his central piano. Working only with an antique Steinway, Seretan settles into a playful improvisational mode, letting each phrase ring out until his fingers figure out where to go next. In the most positive sense, it is the sound of an old player standing over their instrument, idly relearning arrangements long forgotten. Between each upward octave run, there are growing, borderline cacophonic noises from the outside world creeping in, creating new focal points.
Each title is a dryly direct moment and place in Seretan’s residency— there is rain, there are cicadas, and then there is more rain. The songs are vignettes in the most literal sense, forging musical connections to oftentimes mundane stimuli, inviting the listener into the perhaps foreign world of late summer in the southern United States. The titular insects swarm and drone into every corner of the compositions, taking up the majority of available space. At times Seretan’s playing becomes nothing more than a grounding distraction from the sublime, magnified croaks of nature. Even in a setting of such solitude and peacefulness, everything feels bigger than it should, like a disproportionate diorama bursting out of its own box. When the rain starts on “11pm Sudden Thunderstorm,” it pours, and, drifting around slow chord changes, it sounds more authentic and more present than any other rain you could imagine.
Cicada Waves might be more appropriately packaged as a live album, considering the single takes and limited scope of mixing. It succeeds as an unfiltered, unrepeatable experience that cruxes on the listener’s willful suspension of belief that they might as well be sitting in the living room with Seretan in the corner, lost in his piano. There is no possible gimmick or narrative that might distort the record’s honest simplicity. The only necessary context is right there in the titles, providing a gentle nudge into full immersion. Any extra lens to complement the actual sounds becomes unavoidably futile and superfluous. Even reviewing this album feels a bit redundant— everything is already laid bare for the listener, in a uniquely uncomplicated manner for a genre so enticed with obfuscation. In the end, there are only cicada waves, and they sound exactly as you want them to. The strange mystique of full transparency is a beautiful thing to behold. (Josh Hughes)