If ever a subgenre was in need of a transfusion, it's ethno-tribal ambient. With The Gate, a new recording from Terra Ambient (the alias of one Jeff Kowal), that transfusion has arrived and the patient is now not just healthy, but vibrantly alive! The Gate is among the finest recordings released in this genre since the turn of the century, and can placed alongside albums such as o yuki conjugate's undercurrents in dark water, Tuu's All Our Ancestors, Steve Roach and Robert Rich's Soma, as well as the recordings from Suspended Memories or Kenneth Newby. Yes, it is that good.
What astounded me was how Kowal accomplished this feat without the use of synthesizers. Instrumentation on the album includes his voice (harmonic overtone singing and other vocals), electric guitar, bansuri flute, didgeridoo, and more ethnic percussion than I will bother to list here, except to say it's a lot! Most of those are subject to some sort of processing (not the percussion, though) and that is how Kowal achieves such superb textures without using a keyboard of any type whatsoever. The Gate is an amazing achievement in sound design and recording wizardry.
Many of the tracks feature ethno-tribal percussion, yet the music carries a wafting sense of primal sensuality, even when there are rhythms present. Other apt descriptors would be: haunting, surreal, mysterious, earthy, shadowy, entrancing, and rapturously beautiful. Make no mistake about it, despite the darker tint to most of the music here, it is still utterly beautiful.
Kowal apparently excels at everything. His Bansuri flute work is wondrous, as it floats over the didgeridoo, carrying the main melody along as if it was a wisp of incense borne by a gentle wind. Speaking of his didgeridoo, he uses it in refreshingly subtle ways, so that it adds muted colors to a selection without overpowering everything else going on (a frequent complaint I have with that instrument on most albums). However, it's his percussion work that impresses me the most, as well as how he integrates his various vocal abilities among the rest of the assembled parts.
Allow me to detail some of this fantastic album's highpoints. ‘majoun’ is a Gamelan-type number and it's simply stunning, dominated by examples of that genre's tuned percussion beating out a steady pulse over assorted deep dark textures that ebb and flow, and Kowal's eerie yet intoxicating flute work, echoed as if being played in a huge underground cavern. Then there's the title track, wherein flute and didgeridoo slowly circling and taunting one another, before assorted hand drums and percussion slowly emerge from the shadows, along with a swelling of background vocal textures. ‘sandstorm dreaming’ opens in a hazy whirlpool of growling and barking didgeridoo and slowly introduces desert-like rhythms on hand drums before evolving into a subdued but undeniably powerful number that evokes a flight over a landscape consumed by massive sand dunes, with the distant ground racing underneath you and a sense of urgency pumping through your veins. ‘serpent and stone,’ an overt world fusion soundscape, contains Middle Eastern/North African textures and modalities, but still maintains a solid underpinning of ambient ‘feel.’ Kowal layers his assorted percussion and drums with a combination of surgical skill and poetic vision. On headphones, the mix is staggeringly intimate yet also wide and expansive. His use of electric guitar on this track is also highly original. I love the flow and energy of this song, as it churns along with the sensation of a person running from a nameless fear that is following right behind, pressing the pursued soul to go faster and faster, until the track subsides as his foe finally fades from his view.
The Gate is the debut recording from a band new label, Lotuspike Records. If this CD is any indication of the quality we can expect in the future, then I'd say Lotuspike will quickly make a name for itself (the next Darshan Ambient release is slated to come from this label, and soon).
The Gate stands as, dare I say it, a monumental achievement on the part of Jeff Kowal. This is an absolutely essential recording in this subgenre and should land on many ‘best of the year’ lists, guaranteed. It merits my highest recommendation with no reservations whatsoever.
- Bill Binkelman, Wind and Wire