We're welcomed once again into the drifting analogue atmospheres of Deepchord's Steve Hitchell with a revised and extended CD edition of his Variant album, 'Setting Sun'. This was previously only available to the download crew, but Hitchell has edited the tracklist to omit the 44 minute epic 'Falling Stars' in favour of a selection of slightly shorter (by his standards) cuts, which thankfully still carry the same intangibly soporific touch. 'As Time Stood Still' gently coaxes the set into life with richly pulsing subbass and delicate atmospheric ephemera shaped from field recordings in Berlin and Japan, before new tracks 'Enchanted' and 'Upon A Dream' ebb away into purely gaseous ambient states sheltering those spectral dub chords he's loved for. 'Someplace Else' briefly returns to a rhythmic format with deeply padded stream of bass, but 'Adrift' soon plunges us back into the hazy cinematic realm with a sound to satisfy fans of Tim Hecker, and Basic Channel. The epic title track is saved for last here, closing this chapter of Hitchell's dream wih Basinski-like pianos degraded into the surface of a shimmering swell of treated analog distortion that's one of his most ambitious tracks to date. Beautifully lush stuff. -Boomkat
Just as yearly resolutions are as much about what you did last year as what you hope to do now, January always brings reviews of albums that we wished we'd gotten around to covering earlier. Given the sheer amount of music we all have to process, these orphans may feel a bit redundant, but the reason we scramble at the beginning of 2010 to shed some light on a few more 2009 records is simply that they're too good to let fall through the cracks.
Not that, if you're at all a fan of ambient or dub techno, it's likely you got through 2009 without hearing at least something from Steve Hitchell. In addition to The Setting Sun, there was his full-length remix of Brock Van Wey's amazing White Clouds Drift On and On and his LP debut as Intrusion with The Seduction of Silence. He might be the busiest man in the genre, but even more singular than his productivity is his talent; all three full-lengths are markedly different in sound and ferociously good.
The Intrusion dubs of White Clouds... are a bit of a ringer, of course, with Hitchell "only" having to reinvent Van Wey's singular achievement in his own musical vocabulary. He did it without a sweat, even as he put out maybe the most classically dubby album echospace [detroit]'s ever released with The Seduction of Silence. But it's his debut as Variant, which he described for RA as an "ambient, acoustic" album, that was the peak of his year.
Here Hitchell's use of field recordings (especially of traffic and other night sounds), acoustic instruments (the closing title track is closer in feeling to a band like Mountains than you'd expect) and subtly melodic elements add up to make The Setting Sun strangely propulsive in both a sonic and emotional sense. From the track titles on down, the record evokes slumber and travel, wrapping the listener in comfortably dense swathes of static and softly pulsing bass; you could call it The Warmest Season.
Hitchell proves here that he's a master at making ambient music that enthralls, that's gentle enough to dream to but involving enough to reward close, intense listening. At its worst, the genre can seem overdetermined, academic or just pointless (qualities that thankfully echospace [detroit] seems determined to avoid), but above all else The Setting Sun is a warm and approachable album. There's not a whiff of crossover or compromise to be found, but Hitchell's grasp of the basic elements involved—his craftsmanship—is so masterful that you could happily recommend this album to someone who has never actually heard Basic Channel, Gas, Pole, etc. It's both immediately ingratiating and deeply satisfying enough that it's a hell of a gateway drug; any novices who stumble on this record are likely to become fans, and—like the rest of us—they can only hope Hitchell continues to be so prolific and so rewarding.
Ambient dub techno is not exactly the most varied field to work in or try and listen to. As with certain rarified subspecies of heavy metal, it’s the kind of music that tends to sound identical to outsiders until and unless they spend some serious time listening to it, and even if they find the deep pulse of the music pleasant, it’s not shocking that a lot of people don’t want to bother. Steve Hitchell’s newest LP as Variant is a clear example of the good stuff.
Hitchell’s a busy man, especially since Rod Modell’s Echospace label has had a resurgence (at least partially based around Hitchell and Modell’s work, especially Deepchord presents Echospace’s The Coldest Season from 2007), and keeping track of his pseudonyms alone takes some doing. That’s him as Intrusion contributing a whole disc of remixes to the excellent new Brock Van Wey album, and while those remixes were a bit underwhelming (mostly just because Van Wey’s work on White Clouds Drift On and On ranks among the finest ambient music), with The Setting Sun Hitchell proves again just how good he is at this stuff. The music Echospace releases comes with a shockingly high average of quality (intrigued newcomers to ambient techno wouldn’t be ill served by checking out Pole, Gas and then anything on this label), it can sometimes get a little monochromatic even for the genre. Seeing as how Echospace is extremely choosey about who they release music by, that’s to be expected, but Variant here offers up something that’s just as richly dubbed out as anything else on label even as it’s just slightly more colourful and varied. In a genre that’s all about minute shifts and subtleties that makes all the difference, and The Setting Sun is an enveloping, aurally rewarding album.
Listening to Variant’s The Setting Sun, it’s easy to imagine Steve Hitchell as a Basic Channel/Rhythm & Sound devotee, albeit one whose exposure to those electro-dub legends was through paper-thin umpteenth-generation cassettes played via speakers with frayed, faulty wiring. The devotion to dub and melody is here, but it’s corrupted and threadbare, tugged from the dancefloors of Berlin and resculpted as a soundtrack to post-industrial Detroit. Further research undercovers deeper divisions: Moritz Von Oswald and Mark Ernestus’ projects injected the organic haze of Jamaican riddims with a digital crackle born of techno’s computer-based programming. Hitchell, on the other hand, favors analog techniques – The Setting Sun was recorded exclusively to reel-to-reel tape and composed without the aid of a computer.
While Hitchell can drop a lung-compressing beat – as he frequently does with his dubbier Intrusion project – it’s the attention to detail he lavishes on ambient passages that set his work aside from that of other slow-mo practitioners. Peels of tape-loop fuzz, squalls of delay, rhythmic swarms and deep-breathing builds of orchestration provide framework for cavernous beats. Yet, unlike many electro-dub releases, The Setting Sun isn’t a bass record with ambient coloring. Here, ambience gets top billing – this record is meant more as a meditative bliss-out companion then black-lit backdrop for a vampiric underground club. When the beats drop away, the fun truly begins.
In this regard, Hitchell more closely resembles William Basinski or a slightly less hostile Tim Hecker. The craft is in manipulating analog sound sources in ways that alter the source material, rendering it gauzed, gouache. Hitchell doesn’t mind broad strokes and he layers his music with many of them. The title track is nearly 25 minutes of padded tones and melodic interplay that would sound at home paired with anything mentioned in the pages of Julian Cope’s Krautrocksampler. When percussive elements slide into the mix, as on "Upon A Dream," they function less as motivation to move than as reminder to breathe.
One note for potential purchasers: The Setting Sun was initially released as a digital-only EP in April. The recent CD release replaces the 40-minute-plus "Falling Stars" with a few shorter cuts. Both versions explore the boundaries of contemporary ambient music and the continuously evolving intersection of electronica and dub.
As if White Clouds Drift On and On, the recently-issued, double-CD release by Brock Van Wey, wasn't enough to keep ambient soundscaping devotees in a state of rapture for at least a month or two, along comes another Echospace release, this one the debut full-length by the label head himself, Chicago-based Stephen Hitchell (aka Intrusion, Phase90, Radius, and Soultek) under the name Variant. The Setting Sun's ambient focus makes it the perfect complement to the Van Wey collection (if the Variant release's title sounds familiar, it may be because it was issued at the end of 2008 as a digital release with a slightly different track listing and sequence), with one of its most fascinating aspects being its “no computers involved” production credo, as Hitchell created the recording's eighty minutes using microphones, portable beta recorders, Linn and sequential samplers, and vintage analog equipment, with all of it recorded onto reel-to-reel tape (recordings of a late-night storm during a winter morning in Berlin and a train ride to Narita Airport, Japan also found their way into the project). Anyone looking for Soultek techno or Intrusion-styled dub is therefore shopping in the wrong department; what's on offer here is ambient soundscaping of the most immersive kind.
Which isn't to suggest that there isn't a rhythm-based dimension to the material. Certainly the opening setting, “As Time Stood Still,” receives a subtle push from an insistent pulse, even if it's largely subliminal. The focus, however, isn't so much on the slow-motion beat flow as it is on the track's oceanic atmospherics and mix of thunderous rumble, rainwater dribble, and whistling winds (a gently plodding skank in the later “Someplace Else” also proves lulling). The even-deeper “Enchanted” drenches the listener with blinding wind swirls, thick slabs of crackle and hiss, and clangoruous chords that echo and shudder for fifteen rain-soaked minutes. And there is a dub dimension too, albeit of the production as opposed to rhythmic kind, as shown when “A Silent Storm” and “Adrift” melt their streams of liquidy chords into oblivion. Hitchell often gravitates towards long-form tracks and The Setting Sun is no exception, with the zenith reached in the closing title piece, a twenty-three-minute dreamscape where stately, softly glimmering electric piano melodies stretch out for seeming minutes on end. Like much of the album's material, the piece suspends time in the most seductive way imaginable, entreating the listener like a Homeric siren to be drawn ever further into its orbit. At the fifteen-minute mark, percussive accents briefly puncture the stillness, after which the material retreats even deeper into womb-like quietude, its melodic elements growing ever more distant from one another. Hitchell's gradually building up a pretty awesome catalogue of Echospace releases, and The Setting Sun does nothing but enhance it.
It’s been a heck of year for the kind of music I love and two of the highlights so far have come on CD from the Echospace stable. Following Brock Van Wey’s stunning album comes this new project from label main man Steve Hitchell. Having been responsible for so many awesome tracks over the years, collaboratively or in a solo capacity, it’s really refreshing to find Steve coming to the fore with this style of deeply atmospheric music.
You could, in some ways, call it ambient I suppose, but it has way too many hints of his rhythmic background to be 100% beatless. On the contrary he uses percussive elements in such a keen way that they serve to accentuate what we all know he’s so good at: those chords and melodies. Another big feature of this album is the inclusion of a wealth of field recordings made whilst experiencing a late night storm in Berlin and a train journey in Japan. These recordings perfectly fit the ambience of Steve’s work, particularly the train journey elements. There’s something about his tracks that gives you a sense of movement – I can vouch for the fact that this album sounds utterly amazing whilst gazing out of the window sitting on a train.
There’s a captivating spaciousness and mood that instantly clicks with the melancholy side of me and I’m still not 100% sure what it is. The layers, pads and chords are probably mostly responsible, but it’s also the little touches of melody that fade in and out, never overwhelming, just complementing the sound. The other big key is the pure emotion that drips from every moment of every track - you can feel the love that has gone into this, even when it sits on the darker side. The care and attention that pervades the production and structures of the tracks is gorgeous and the title track itself is nothing short of divine, clocking in at a healthy 23 minutes which really allows the artist to give you an intimate and personal sense of how he’s feeling.
Ranging, as it does, from pure ambient / drone through to organically inclined guitar moments (yes, that’s right, guitar) via some uber-chilled out dub-inflected moments you’ll discover that this is a listening album of absolutely the highest calibre. I’m glad the label has this avenue of music to explore and I can’t think of many other people that I’d enjoy hearing do it quite so much.
This is a must for fans of not just Echospace, but beautiful, deep electronic music in general. Pure gold and something you’d be well advised to grab as soon as possible. -Smallfish, London
Album of the year mentions in iDJ, honorable mentions in The WIre, Textura and Headphone Commute.
released September 17, 2013
Written + Produced by Stephen Hitchell. Recording of a late night storm captured in the early months of winter in Berlin, Germany and during a train ride to Narita Airport, Japan. All music recorded using a various range of Microphone's, Portable Beta Recorder's, Emu, Linn and sequential samplers and vintage analog equipment. All recorded onto reel to reel base tape. No computer involved.
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