There’s a new sound coming out of Portland, and Visible Cloaks are a big part of it. I want to know if it’s something in the water, magnetism, or some other geological feature that makes this region crank out hypnotic ambient sounds. Two similar Portland bands I can think of are Sun Hammer and Sceptre Fretpen. This isn’t commercial ambient music for your periodontist's office—it’s avant-garde experimental ambient music, and it’s unique.
Out now on RVNG Intl., Visible Cloaks’ Reassemblage is a synthesizer and mixing masterpiece. I’d guess there are hundreds of unique synthesizer sounds on this album, freshly appearing from track to track. The music is incredibly dense and lush at times, while somehow remaining spacious. It is formally experimental, but there is a clear modality at work in the palette. Throughout the album, the mood sometimes orbits a tad close to a sonic dose of Zoloft, but it would be a huge discredit to call it just that. Let's start with mixing and synthesizer masterpiece and go from there.
Visible Cloaks—a two-man group: Spencer D and Ryan Carlile—often use quick, abnormal rhythms, which come across like organic splashes of sound. The music features short melodic fragments in more regular rhythms, as well as slow drones, with plenty of long silences between phrases. The mix manages to steer clear of the arbitrary wild panning that is so often employed in experimental releases, but is rather carefully and thoughtfully balanced. Some elements are front and center, with reverb tails in the center rear, while other synths have their bass content mixed to the sides, while their mid or upper frequency bands are placed in varying depths in the center and rear. With so much variety, somehow Visible Cloaks avoid the dizzying and distracting side effects that so often accompany rich sound design—everything is in its proper place.
The attack and decay of the sounds are often slow and expressive. For example in “Terrazzo (Ft. Motion Graphics),” a digitized brass instrument carries the listener into the tune. Modular synth sounds surround a minimal smooth jazz line, and the full sonic effect is very, shall we say, underwater chill-out. Pizzicato sounds only add to the mellow blanket of sound.
In tracks like “Screen,” densely layered software instruments often share certain characteristics. Random-sounding, diffuse rhythmic attacks eventually settle into some coherent chordal sound, which then fade into fiercely spatial sound design elements or field recordings. This sequence repeats with continuous variation, particularly in the long tails of the sounds. They blend in a way that sounds like twelve perfectly synchronized polyphonic presets of a Moog Voyager XL. In many of the tracks, I could imagine someone playing the main washes of sound with a single press of a key, but only in the sense that it would trigger an impressive synthesizer patch that was carefully programmed in advance.
Let’s just say that if Visible Cloaks released custom synthesizer presets, I’d definitely want them. As such, the bulk of this album is something that needs to be experienced in a good audio environment or on high quality headphones. Though the record is comprised mostly of abstract yet pleasant ambient music, there are a few tracks that are written in a standard tune and arrangement form, such as “Valve (Revisited).” This reprise was made in collaboration with Dip in the Pool, featuring the vocals of Miyako Koda. Catchy melodies carry the lyrics over a standard chord progression. This is one track that would sound good on my four-inch emergency radio, mono, with only a single hi-lo switch for an EQ. The fancy sound design is just icing on this one, while it’s often the main event on the rest of the release.
In some tracks, like “Bloodstream,” the pleasant chords remind me of the harmonies of old church music—lots of parallel fifths. There are vocoder words atop this one, but it has more of a meandering prose quality. They are rhythmically free and loose. Pitched bell sounds plod about in the back of the mix, and move the progression forwards.
“Mask” retains the element of surprise in production, despite relying heavily on ostinato pentatonic patterns in the bass and bell parts. In this track, as in a few others, the voice plays more of an instrumental role, again through a vocoder. The carrier synth sound for the vocoder reminds me of the Calvin Harris pop song where he’s singing something about a cookie, but I much prefer the sound as it is used here.
One of the most uplifting tracks on the album, without relying too heavily on an established pop structure, is “Neume.” I can’t recall having heard anything quite like it before. There are heavily processed environmental sounds in the background, and a dense morphing synth that fades in and out. The harmonic progression is loosely carried forward by these morphing synthesizer sounds, while anchored in deep vocoder bass, along with the occasional quick staccato bass pulses.
All in all, for me this album was best enjoyed in short listening sessions. And though it is a body of work produced by highly-skilled musicians, I still think its natural home would be in chill-out rooms everywhere, soothing exhausted ravers, and also giving sober concertgoers some respite from noisy club music.