Talk Amongst the Trees

(Temporary Residence; 2005)

By Christopher Alexander | 2 March 2005

With all the ink devoted to the arguable demise of neo-dance punk (well, maybe not ink; more like webspace), I’ve been a little upset that post-rock’s fade from memory never received similar hand-wringing. Journey through the distant past to the end of 2000: Kid A is the most intensely debated album in memory, and no one has any reservations of praising Agætis Byrjun, if only they could pronounce the title. Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Mogwai, and the Dirty Three have all put out exceptional long players, and the adjective “glacial” seems to crop up in every other review in print. At the time, I thought its future looked exciting, but now I realize it was merely the crest of a wave going back since at least 1990. Behind it came New York City, and everyone was so happy to hear words and four-four time again that no one ever bothered to give it a decent burial.

I would not consider Matthew Cooper to be a post-rock artist; or if he is, then only under the loosest, most expansive definition that umbrellas Rachel’s and Max Richter. Cooper works with its often abused though proud older cousin, ambient, under the moniker Eluvium. Like post-rock, ambient requires patience and time for the material to reveal its subtleties. There are also no big crescendos, nor any discernable rhythms, really. It’s shorn, in other words, of any drawing gimmick.

It sounds like a recipe for bullshit, and it very often is. Cooper deserves credit, then, for making music that not only works, but is so extraordinary. 2003’s An Accidental Memory in the Case of Death was universally hailed, an outstanding example of minimalism performed live with just a piano. Talk Amongst the Trees exudes with a newfound confidence, a record that retains a compositional minimalism even as it indulges the tonal density and complexity of his first work, Lambent Material .

“New Animals from the Air" appropriately swoops down from the air and announces the album’s intentions. Over ten minutes and a bosso chord progression (that bears a coincidental resemblance to Sigur Rós’ “Untitled 3”), Cooper displays an attention to the tonal detail lost on many of his peers. Backtracked guitars swell and recede while an alto loop oscillates in free rhythm. I’m reluctant to guess the exact instrumentation on this track, like most of the rest of the album; the upper register sounds vaguely like a backward mellotron, but it whirrs so delicately, consistently and sublimely that it could just as easily be a tuned air-conditioner. (That’s a compliment, by the way.) Cooper closes the album with “One,” which bears a similar motif, but sounds as if “New Animals" has been pulled inside out. It's a stunning way to bookend the record.

The brief “Area 41” is nice despite its humor, fueled by a surge of feedback that fades out as soon as you notice it. I imagine it’s Eluvium’s definition of fun: an ambient version of a rock band doing thirty second hardcore song. (The title, for those of you who don’t remember the X-Files, is a reference to Area 51, a square area of the southwestern United States that is operated by the government, and may or may not be the host of secret experiments with extraterrestrials. Sounds spooky and hokey all at once, and so does the song.) “Calm of the Cast-Light Cloud” tremolos into action immediately, treading water for the song’s first five minutes before a brief organ chord signals its end.

Then we have “Taken.” If I needed to be brief, I’d tell you it’s simply gorgeous. Thankfully, I don’t: Cooper ingeniously uses a simple circular guitar figure as a percussive base for his soundscapes. Strings and a wash of feedback give the song its emotional heft, recalling Kevin Shields’ best moments. He creates a labyrinthine pallet of sounds for the song’s first ten minutes before using slap-back echo on his guitar to build the intensity. It’s a pitch-perfect use of compositional minimalism; I could be very wrong about this, but it doesn’t sound like he adds any instruments aside from the three that begin the song. By its end, it sounds like there are twenty.

The album’s cover is representational of what I feel are ambient music’s best aspects. Dark figures stand in a mist, forcing us to look closer to ascertain what we see. One of the figures is looking up – in a mist? What can that person possibly see? It’s anyone’s guess; the sheer impenetrable density provides us our own Rosarch test. Of course, anyone can stand in a room, record two hours of feedback, and call it art (or Zero Tolerance for Silence). What sets Eluvium apart from the phonies is that his soundscapes are suggestive: the listener is nudged along to a conclusion, without forcing them to project their own feelings on someone’s solipsistic morass. Cooper invites us to engage in his work, and it’s this reason, perhaps more so than the mastery of his craft or his impeccable sense of beauty, that makes his records so good.