First Narrows

(Kranky; 2004)

By Scott Reid | 1 June 2004

Vancouver's Scott Morgan, aka Loscil, is back with his third solo effort in under four years, and it's his most accessible record yet--though that really isn't saying much. Morgan's last record, 2002's Submers, was an impressive step up from his 2001 Kranky debut Triple Point (released after his self-released independent debut A New Demonstration of Thermodynamic Tendencies), but both are startling pieces of lap-top ambient techno, combining subtle pulsating beats with very soothing and surreal thick movements of decaying chords and found sound. Submers centered itself around the theme of submarines (go figure) and aquatic ambience, the entire record feeling like a peaceful journey through the depths of the ocean with a faint beat repeating on the surface, resulting in not only one of the best records of the year but also one of the best ambient releases since the turn of the century.

First Narrows is another significant turn for Morgan as this time around he chose to bring in collaborators -- ex-Zumpano/Destroyer/Sparrow member Jason Zumpano on organ, Nyla Raney on cello and Tim Loewen on guitar -- to include live instrumentation. Despite this step toward a more accessible sound, First Narrows was pieced together in a rather interesting process: the collaborators improvised over collections of found sounds and various loops, which was also recorded and then combined and mixed by Morgan into the seven cuts that make up the record. As such, Morgan still retained complete creative control over the project, merely using bits and pieces of the live instrumentation as more flourishes for his slow, atmospheric epics.

"Sickbay" opens the record with a familiar feel that recalls his previous work, but, without Submers' overwhelming saturation, it manages to evolves far more in its production space, as waves of synth and very warm, soothing percussion create an open canvas for sporadic loops and instrumentation to swell and fade. The track isn't by any means his best work to date but it does open the door for the record's best material -- the title track, "Ema" and the beautiful closer "Cloister" -- to take advantage of the kind of slightly altered aesthetic that makes First Narrows exciting despite being, in many ways, a lot like not only the rest of his discography, but endless numbers of other laptop ambient "producers."

The title track is the first to really usurp the best from Submers and truly does stand as one of his best compositions to date, beautifully incorporating the ghostly guitar lines and echoed, rattling percussion into the predictably sparse and ethereal organ progression. As for Nyla Raney's work on the cello, it only really significantly surfaces at the end of the record with the biggest highlight, "Cloister," which builds from a lone crawling organ progression to the gorgeous repetition of more unassuming loops and very subtle reverberated clicks, given a beautiful timbre and feel by Raney's minimalist playing. And though, like most of the record, there is never a real climax or culmination of parts, the remarkably soothing pace by which he repeats and subtly reveals the themes are, for the most part ("Lucky Dub" and "Brittle" being exceptions to a point), perfect executed.

It either says a lot about Morgan or a lot about the musicians that the incorporation of live instrumentation hasn't significantly changed Loscil's sound or direction much in the least, though the few instances that allow the new elements to guide the music -- I'm thinking of the gorgeous "Ema" in particular here, though "Cloister" still has it beat -- certainly speak well for Morgan's ability to use something as commonplace as a guitar to spark a seven minute ambient epic. Perhaps it would've been a little more interesting if he had used the instruments more intensively and consistently, but you can't really argue with results and with First Narrows, Morgan has made his strongest statement to date.