Loscil – Sea Island (Kranky, 2014)


For the past 15 years of so, Scott Morgan’s loscil has been a consistent and reliable force through the Ambient world, carving out his own specific niche of delicate, drone tinted Dub Techno and carefully, with each successive release, tightening his production, introducing supporting artists and ensconcing himself in the position of undisputed master of his craft. Looking back across his discography a striking abundance of aquatic themes can be seen; whether it’s the subaqueous turnings of mysterious early effort Submers, the ethereal and diffuse explorations of Plume or the rainy melancholia of my personal favourite Endless Falls, and his latest effort Sea Island is not one to break this trend. It glides along as easily as a ship on still waters but displays a distinct uneasiness of the ocean it traverses, its track titles subtly referencing precarious situations seamen might find their floating home in and reminiscing of the safety of firm ground.

With the inclusion of instruments like the vibraphone, Sea Island could have come straight out of 2006 and followed up on the gorgeously effortless Plume, the first time we saw loscil fold other musicians into his musical arms and with staggering results; opener “Ahull” weathers the storm of which its title references by simply allowing itself to drift in its silky chaos, with clipped and idiosyncratic electronic oscillations coupling the smooth chimings of the vibraphone before slipping into a dim drone darkness. “Holding Pattern” a little ways along is a similar entity, and perhaps even more familiar in its established sound than the opener, rotating on tuffets of fluffy electronica and vibraphone and bright, tinkling nothings as it waits for its turn. Along with “Angle of Loll” and closer “Angle of List” it feels almost as though Scott has ordained a particular and slowly decaying idiosyncratic sonic style to all those pieces that explicitly refer to our ship’s condition; “Angle of List” closes the album on its serene and almost resigned drone sequences with just a hint of melody awash in its melancholic reverb as though it’s allowing itself to succumb to its unsustainable tilt in some glassy pond, while “Angle of Loll” is more resistant as it rolls with the lapping electronic waves to try and break free from its instability: slow at first but growing stronger and denser with each moment and textural snippet added, faint voices tumbling through the wash as they fight back.

The other side of the album feels like the more emotional part of this wholly conceptual release, tying itself to places and people rather than the cold, lifeless mass of a boat. The gorgeous effort “Bleeding Ink” finds itself caught in wavelets of reverb, its oscillating heart smeared into a smooth and deceptive fugue that lapses into uneasy sequences of growling guitar(?) snippits and hushed female vocal coos, while “Sea Island Murders” advances on dark and morbid drones that slowly unfold into delicate and striking piano strokes suspended in fog, some creaking synth line deep in the backfield deepening its elusive and mysterious atmosphere. We slip even further into darkness in the ruinous “Iona”; the longest track of the album, clocking in at 8:35, sees us sail pass this beautiful mirage in slow motion, a careful and loving journey that witnesses the Sun glimmer on the water in its still bays during the first half, before switching on the empowered oscillations to push this lump of solid ground behind us; our honeymooning and wist are over, it’s time to get to work.

Our feelings for sea and land are clearly defined later in the album with “Sturgeon Bank”; there’s no romance of the sea to be found in the way that we defined a love for land in “Iona”, its repetitive sequences of delicate backing piano and default beat polyrhythms cast an unimpressed eye over the unremarkable seascape, no definable feature to attach to this one point for miles and miles around. It works methodically and tirelessly but feels nothing; the juxtaposition is felt strongest when “En Masse” arrives afterwards, its sparse drone void a melancholic dawn fundamentally at war with itself as thin piano tinklings eak themselves painfully and slowly out of the darkness. It feels trapped and desirous, yearning for the comforts of home as though it’s just one voice in many.

It’s difficult to talk about a loscil record without being repetitive and esoteric, and I must confess that I’ve been putting off this review for longer than I’d care to admit; the fact remains that while I do think this is a deeply thought provoking, transportative and empathetic record (and indeed one of his strongest efforts to date), I’m worried there will come a point very soon where I will no longer find his work engaging simply because of its relatively shallow diversity. I’m glad he brought back the vibraphone for this release; Plume really is a very special record, and I’d like to believe future productions will display a little of the boldness and variety that that album had on his discography since I feel things may be approaching staleness for me here. A really excellent record but could well be the last I’m interested in unless things change.