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(Alchemy Records 1027 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/16/2013)
The 1980s saw the rise of two almost dietetically opposite styles that were spawned in large part by synthesizers -- New Age music and electronic dance. One was atmospheric and contemplative and the other frequently frenetic. But over the years they have sometimes come close to converging. There are the trance dance music and the more upbeat instrumental styles that grew out of a kind of intermingling of New Age and instrumental fusion styles.
This week, we have an interesting 21st Century example of music that spans ambient electronica with atmospheric fusion. It's by the intercontinental duo of Colin Edwin and Jon Durant, and bears the title Burnt Belief.
Both of the duo have had fairly long careers making this kind of music. Colin Edwin is a British bass player who was in a number of bands, perhaps most notably Porcupine Tree, a group that formed in the 1980s and was influenced by Tangerine Dream with their ambient music ilk. Guitarist Jon Durant, a New England resident, graduated from the Berklee College of Music in the early 1980s and collaborated with fusion guitarist Randy Roos, before taking a turn into the corporate world, working for a series of audio equipment manufacturers, and eventually serving as the principal demonstrator and in-house artist for the Lexicon company with their line of guitar looping devices. But music continued to have a pull for Durant so he resumed his performing career and launched a record label in 1996 called Alchemy Records devoted to progressive rock and such ambient music. His work with Porcupine Tree led to the collaboration with Colin Edwin, and Durant with his own record label, was able to find an outlet for the music.
The recording is an example of contemporary technology. While it does feature some more traditional instruments like acoustic piano and acoustic guitar, Edwin and Durant remained in their respective countries and exchanged files via the Internet, making their collaboration a virtual one. While it's mostly the duo playing multiple instruments, including what sound like some vintage synthesizers, there are a couple of guests: Jerry Leake, who added percussion, a lot of it with Middle Eastern origins, and British flute player Geoff Leigh, another artist with a long history in progressive rock, going back to the 1970s prog cult bands Henry Cow and Hatfield & the North.
The result is a generous hour-long recording that more or less splits the difference between New Age and fusion. Much of the music has an ambient, atmospheric texture, but there are also some cranked up guitar solos. Some of the tracks have more clear melodic and harmonic lines that are typical of jazz-rock fusion, while others are more drone-like with the instrumental textures being the primary focus.
There is a nice collection of sonic qualities on the record. It can sometimes sound retro, to the New Age of the 1980s, while at others being more groove-oriented implying ambient dance. It's nice hearing acoustic instruments being part of the sonic treatments, and the duo manage to avoid most of the cliches of synthesizer-based music. Jerry Leake's Middle Eastern percussion can give an vaguely exotic flavor to the music. Because Colin Edwin is primarily a bass player, the bass plays a prominent role, often serving as the focal point. Edwin most often plays a fretless electric bass. But he is also heard on acoustic bass, and is credited with creating most of the electronic rhythm sequences. Like much of this kind of music, the compositions on Burnt Belief are sometimes thin on melodic lines, but there's enough there to keep things interesting beyond just the nice sounds.
The opening piece, Altitude, sums up the hybrid between the contemplative impulses of New Age with the ambient fusion aspect. Durant solos on cranked-up guitar on the electronic grooves that Edwin sets up. <<>>
Probably closest to the world of jazz-rock fusion on the album is a piece called Impossible Senses. Jerry Leake's Middle-Eastern influenced percussion adds a lot of musical interest. There is also something of a recognizable melodic line in the composition. <<>>
On the other hand, Prism is a much more atmospheric piece, constructed around some small musical fragments. <<>>
One of the longer tracks is called Balthasar's Key which features the guest appearance by Geoff Leigh on flute. The Middle Eastern percussion and the flute lend a decidedly exotic aura. As it unfolds it also develops a bit of a dance groove. <<>>
The CD tends to get more atmospheric as it goes along. Its longest track, Uncoiled is about all ambience, with very little musical movement. But the diverse collection of sounds, including the prominent bass, make the piece an attractive one and can hold one's interest. <<>>
The Middle Eastern exotica is also front and center on a track called Semazen. It's sonically interesting, but there's not much musical content there. <<>>
The closing track Arcing Towards Morning is atmospheric but played primality on traditional, non-electronic instruments with guitar, piano and bass being the main ingredients, making for an interesting contrast. <<>>
Burnt Belief, the new album by the virtual, Internet-connected duo of Briton Colin Edwin and American Jon Durant is an absorbing hybrid of the atmospherics of the New Age scene with some elements of the progressive rock and fusion schools. Like many such ethereal albums, the CD is a little short at times on compositional content in melodic lines, themes and harmonic interest. But it's well done and an album that has a lot of sonic layers that become apparent with each successive listening. The music has a generally dark texture, but it's got a lot more going for it in terms of mood and energy than a lot of the New Age albums from the past.
Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus. The melding of the instruments from three studios, two in New England, and one in the UK, is quite seamless, and the mix creates just the right amount of ambience, without overdoing the reverb. But dynamic range, how well the recording maintains the contrast between loud and soft passages, is mediocre at best, with a fair amount of volume compression being evident in places.
According to their press release, this CD was to be officially released on December 21, 2012, the latest failed doomsday prediction, this one based on the Mayan calendar. The title of the CD, Burnt Belief was inspired by a book about another doomsday promoted by a UFO cult in the 1950s, which of course did not happen either. The music on the album can be dark at times, but it shows a lot of creativity and one can infer from derivation of the title, a degree of optimism.
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