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The Graham Album Review #2161

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Dren McDonald: Pterous

(Appearing Records as broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/19/2023)

Most people, in listening to music, usually associates it with an artist or group’s name on the record or performance. But probably a majority of working musicians serve in a supporting capacity, as sidemen or studio musicians. And many composers write and create music for other, let’s say, applications. Film and television scoring is a prime example, with a number of skilled composers basing their careers on creating music that supplements the actions or emotions of films, dramatic productions, and even such things as commercials and movie trailers. In many cases, the artists are satisfied with their names in the credits, and the royalty checks. Occasionally, those scoring composers will step forward with a solo album. A while back we featured a recording by composer-synthesist Michael Whalen in this album review series.

Another burgeoning area is the creation of music for video games, and this week, we have a new solo album by a composer whose principal output has been in the world of video games. It’s Dren McDonald, and his new solo release is called Pterous, and rather than the, somewhat dramatic-sounding electronic music that might expect, this new instrumental album consists of multiple layers of guitars, in something of an ambient setting, influenced by the minimalist music of artists like Steve Reich or Philip Glass.

Dren McDonald’s video game composing can be heard on Counter Strike Counter Offensive and a title called Gunman Taco Truck. He has also created music for museum installations, and scored the video for the introduction of Google’s Occulus virtual reality device.

For his last album. McDonald collaborated with other musicians under the same Polyhedren, on an album called Psychic.

The new album Pterous on the other hand is very music a solo album, with hundreds of guitar parts painstakingly recorded to create sonic layers. According to the information sheet about the album, McDonald used what he called a “completely inefficient” method of recording, using over 35 different instruments, including electric and acoustic guitars, baritone guitar, ukulele, fretless bass and others, and recorded each of them at 3 different distances from the microphone, in his home studio, and mixed then in a way to simulate the sound of many different players. He draws on the influence of the minimalist composers like Reich and Glass, and creates six fairly long instrumental pieces, each of which was in memory of a someone he was close to who passed away recently. The result makes for pleasing, atmospheric listening, which like the minimalists, is rather short on melody but the sonic textures and the way the multiple lines interact and overlap gives the music its distinctive character. I am also reminded of early Mike Oldfield, whose classic Tubular Bells was also constructed painstakingly layer by layer by one could say, in an almost obsessive way by a determined solo artist.

Each of the titles of McDonald’s album is a letter, presumably the initial for the person for whom the piece was dedicated. Opening is J which typifies the album, with its minimalist-style repeating phrases, with the textures gradually evolving. One is also reminded of the late guitarist Michael Hedges who also created similar pieces, though with fewer layers than McDonald has done here. <<>>

The track called D Pt. 1 features layers of higher-strung instruments, resembling a mandolin orchestra at times. The piece again features gradually evolving textures and musical moods, with a kind of uneasy-sounding feeling dominating. <<>>

The composition called H continues the exploration of the multiple guitar textures, with some electric guitars being added to the mix. <<>>

D Pt2 builds on the melodic lines, if you could call them that in this minimalist context, from D Pt.1, and brings in some other sonic textures. <<>>

Taking a more ominous mood is a piece called PT which features come interesting lines from a fretless electric bass. <<>>

The concluding piece called J2 takes on a more folky sound with, so to speak, a happier more melodic aura. <<>>

Video game and scoring composer Dren McDonald’s new album Pterous, is a pleasing journey into the kind of minimalist musical world pioneered by people like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, but with layers of guitars and other string instruments hinting at the late Michael Hedges, or Mike Oldfield’s very solo work from the 1970s, with the kind of obsessive layering of instrumental sounds that lends a distinctive texture to the work. Though short on melody, it makes for some very nice ambient music for background listening or a mindfulness session.

Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” The painstaking way it was recorded in layers pays off. The sound is generally clean and the layering adds to the subtly varied textures which makes for one of the album’s strong points.

The result is the kind of recording that many will find intriguing, and will likely draw many comments inquiring as to what it is.

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This page last updated July 23, 2023