(Type; 2007)

By Conrad Amenta | 30 December 2007

2004 saw two poles lodged facing each other in the field of electronic pastiche: the vibrant shivers and static spires of Christian Fennesz's Venice and Jamie LaValle's update of his former band Tristeza's post-rock evocation on the Album Leaf's In a Safe Place. In that same year Keith Kenniff, as Helios, trotted out onto the same field with Unomia and was promptly rendered invisible. Unomia had promise -- with its spare, minimalist tendencies inducing the same atmospheres as Kenniff's twinned contemporaries -- but suffered the unfair fate of being released in the same year as a seminal artist's follow up to a canonical work of ambience (2001's Endless Summer) and a dramatic re-imagining by the young LaValle. Add to Unomia's damning that it sat squarely in between the vast abstracting of one and the precise carving of another, and it had the feel of a compromise, albeit a beautiful one.

Which sets the context that then wrongly casts Ayres as yet another negotiation. Kenniff finds himself scripting, pulling away at the cinematic scope of his former work and contributing, for the first time, hushed and damaged vocals to songs that otherwise maintain his same minimal builds. One could wonder at this sort of imposition: if ambient is the untainted aura of mood, an uncomplicated tool of evocation, then lyrics are a tyranny of meaning, harsh and prescriptive. Even Fennesz, one of our generation's masters of unspeaking, shattered the strength of his unbroken emoting with Venice's gorgeous and yet alienating "Transit." Ambient and electronic artists whose vision outstrips many great lyricists have often reduced majesty to pageantry by mistakenly thinking themselves painted into a corner and littering formerly illimitable landscapes with guesswork and platitude.

Kenniff here, thankfully, sidesteps the pitfall. Vocals are treated, properly, as subsequent instrumentation to each track's underpinning melodies, which are as patient and methodical as the best Unomia had to offer. Opener "A Rising Wind" is particularly successful in how it loops its tremulous exploration into an exposition of fragility. Utterances are here fluttering tendrils of crate paper, mass-less for the gusts of ambient sound, the occasional haunted piano, that are pushed up beneath them. The paradox of a boiling down by addition is also pulled macro; Ayres runs a half-hour and half-dozen tracks to Unomia's hour and thirteen, and it's a much better listen for it. Each chord is given deeper resonance for its fixture in relation to the next, rendered with more definition thanks to Kenniff's tactful decision to eliminate what were a profusion of similarities. That Ayres concludes with "In Heaven," a track from David Lynch's weirdo mission statement of a film Eraserhead, is another false implication that the reigns have been handed over. If the temptation is to stretch too far ambient's impressionistic indulgence of listeners' narrative, then Ayres is a masterful step forward from an artist who first declared that of which he was capable, and then developed the skill of the self-edit -- of which only the best of his craft ever truly seem capable. It could be suggested that the next up-and-comer will have the misfortune of having their grand entrance onto the field defined by the goalposts hammered into the ground by Helios.