Various - The Ambient Expanse

Year of Release: 1999
Label: Mirage (division of Oasis Productions Ltd.)
Catalog Number: MIR 306
Format: CD
Total Time: 68:02:00

As the disk info says, this is a "five movement collaborative work created by two generations of ambient artists?" Those artists are Patrick O'Hearn, Vir Unis, Stephen Bacchus, Vidna Obmana, and Steve Roach. Now, the problem with ambient disks is that there is a tendency for them to all sound the same. At the very least, the words used to describe the sounds heard become the same - washes, waves, undulations, etc. It becomes very hard to find a comparative sound. And so, in many respects, this sounds like many other ambient releases - the differences are subtle, a pitch here, a modulation there, the arc of the sound wave? but by its very nature, ambient music isn't designed to call attention to itself, unlike say a guitar riff or drum tattoo. With ambient music what characterizes it is mood, setting, evoking visual imagery? more subtle than even incidental music in film, and yet it serves the same purpose.

For me at least, this makes this a very subjective review. I like The Ambient Expanse; I think it effectively evokes the mood it is trying to create - the sense of expansiveness, openness. You are but a speck in this thing we call the universe. How small a speck? We are submicroscopic compared to the vast universe. And, since we've not yet measured the size of the universe, to my knowledge, we may be even smaller. Actually, trying to mentally encompass the universe is hard task for creatures so used to putting things into a box. Room, home, street, town, county, state, country, continent, planet, solar system? these all have boundaries, arbitrary though they may be (except for planet, of course). We can conceptualize all these things, though the further out you get the harder it is.

Anyway, perhaps it has something to do with the cover, but from the first note (so to speak), you are carried on gentle synth washes - tones swirl and fold like clouds on the breeze. O'Hearn begins this suite with "35th Parallel" on which Roach also contributes - in fact, Roach contributes to each movement until the last, when it is all Roach, who also conceptualized, produced, and mixed this album.

The second movement "The Undivided Flow" is darker in tone, with percussion being one prominent element, though used sparingly - water sound-effects drip for a good part of this track. Imagine a journey through a shoreline passageway - a cave say, where crystalline stalactites and stalagmites provide a natural obstacle course. Your boat gently bobs along. Each turn brings new wonders, new beauty. Like O'Hearn's section, the rhythm flows outward, undulating, something over itself. I said clouds, but also like smoke. All this backed by a deeper drone that is so subtle that unless you really listen for it, you aren't consciously aware of it - the ambient "music" behind the ambience - but if it were to fade out, the absence would be felt, or heard.

"Point Of Safety" (Bacchus) follows the same motif, though the tones swell deeper and wider. "The Space In-between" begins with a dark, haunting, yet tentative swell of keys - quite, um, spacey in many respects. In another take on this album, imagine concentric circles - orbits, if you will - stretching up from the earth to stars. O'Hearn is the inner layer, the surface layer; Unis is the lower atmosphere (troposphere), Bacchus the stratosphere, Obmana the mesosphere, and Roach all that which lies beyond. The mesosphere is the layer that lies "between" open space and us (essentially, as it's the last layer of the earth's atmosphere*). This becomes, for a long stretch, very subtle, slowly rebuilding as we rise up through layer, the earth getting further and further away (oh, say about 50 miles away). It ebbs again as our orbit takes us away from the sun, into "night".

"The Eternal Expanse" picks up where "The Space" ends? we are turning away from earth and casting our gaze to the stars. From here, above the atmosphere and away from the pollution, we can see a million stars?rather, make that "billions and billions" (as Sagan says). Wave upon gentle wave of synths mimic our movement forward (our "spaceship" is making course corrections)?

And so we are left in boundless space, we are but one tiny little speck in this universe, our planet but one white-swirled marble of a possible hundred, thousand, million, in the universe. And yet, the only one we will ever know.

Of course, if we follow the first thought - of water, which is suggested if not depicted on the cover - then that great expanse is our other not fully explored mystery: the earth's oceans.

*I'm sure the experts there will quibble with me if I've got that wrong :)

Patrick O'Hearn - '35th Parallel' (11:55) / Vir Unis - 'The Undivided Flow' (13:31) / Steven Bacchus - 'Point Of Safety' (11:54) / Vidna Obmana - 'The Space In-Between' (12:44) / Steve Roach - 'The Eternal Expanse' (18:02)

Patrick O'Hearn - synthesizers and sampler
Vir Unis - synthesizers and 'Sound Forge'
Stephen Bacchus - synthesizers and sampler
Vidna Obmana - synthesizers, processed bamboo flute, fujara
Steve Roach - atmospheres, processing, analog drone, synthesizers, live environmental sounds, sampler


Genre: Ambient

Origin VA

Added: April 23rd 2000
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow
Hits: 1042
Language: english


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