Coast / Range / Arc

(Glacial Movements; 2011)

By Calum Marsh | 13 July 2011

The official press release for Coast / Range / Arc describes it as an exploration of the “timelessness of mountainous elevations,” and as far as I can tell this is not a joke. It goes on to explain that the real Coast Range Arc is populated by “mountains and valleys, their dynamics nearly imperceptible,” because apparently the arctic-themed Windows-desktop-background-preset album cover and theme-by-numbers track titles just weren’t clear enough on their own. Loscil doesn’t want you to miss the point: this is his mountains album (but not his Mountains album; it’s not that dynamic), much in the same way that he has his rain album (Endless Falls [2010]) and his submarine album ( Submers [2002]), which also flagged their respective thematic conceits with helpful contextual markers.

I’ve written about the usefulness of identifiable concepts for otherwise faceless ambient albums before, and so in a way the earnestness with which Coast / Range / Arc bears its overriding motif is admirable; it at least elevates it above total anonymity, rendering its white-canvas surfaces superficially evocative. It’s easy to buy into the atmosphere it aims to establish. And, to Loscil’s credit, the thematic link it draws between its own glacial slowness and the comparative rapidity of our own mortality is poignant, if perhaps too similar to the considerably more resonant argument posited by The Disintegration Loops (2003-2004), still the preeminent work of the genre.

And yet it plainly doesn’t work. What lends the record a sense of substance is the connection it forges between our own subjective perception of time and the inconceivably longer periods borne by the fixtures of nature, but what strikes me as problematic is the utter ease with which that connection is forged. The issue, I think, is a lack of specificity: Coast / Range / Arc, once the right contextual push has been provided, is indeed evocative of mountain landscapes and glacial peaks—but so is a lot of ambient music, including all of the Loscil records that were in their own time intended to evoke rainfalls and capitalism and u-boats. Coast / Range / Arc builds its potential for greatness on a set of ideas that are ultimately absent from it, and all that’s left over is an album of pleasant but totally innocuous music with aspirations to meaning.

I thought that the last track on Loscil’s last album, the spoken-word essay “The Making Of Grief Point,” was a sophisticated disavowal of Loscil’s own feeble attempts to imbue ambient music with internal themes and conspicuous arguments. It seemed to me like an explicit acknowledgement of the problem of dealing in a genre so fundamentally blank and abstract, and I was impressed by its candor and willingness to ask broad questions. But given that Loscil has regressed once more into a process I assumed he was deconstructing—and given that “The Making Of Grief Point” later made an appearance on, and actually made more sense within the context of, Destroyer’s Archer on the Beach 12” last year—I think I may have simply been misreading the piece. Which is too bad, really, because it’s clear from the ideas Loscil wants to broach with his work that he has interesting things to say; I just hope he someday learns to say them with music instead of press kits.

:: loscil.ca