As Brian Eno once wrote in the liner notes to his eponymously titled Ambient 1: Music For Airports, “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” Of course, actively ignoring artistic output wasn’t really the intent of Eno’s manifesto, as ambient music was also “intended to create calm and a space to think”. Such ideals have continued to hold true over the thirty-some-odd years since “ambient” and all of its manifold subgenres were officially territorialized as a definable genre, and the often embedded and liminal states generated from successive generations of aural expeditionists continue to push the boundaries of what is both interesting and, often, overlooked.
Erik Austin Deerly’s LP Parable of the Poison Arrow (2011, Tonmeister US) fits well into this socket; the album is an extended sonic reflection that is both minimalist and yet full, droning and melodic, and choreographed as well as content to occupy space beyond the scope of rational consciousness. Deerly’s artistic and musical credentials run deep; a veteran of the fertile 90’s Chicago post-rock/jazz landscape, Deerly fronted indie-outfit Every Good Boy (along with members of Red Red Meat and Tortoise), holds an MFA in and is an assistant professor of New Media, is publishing editor of Burning World Literary Journal, is a working visual artist, and has been granted a number of awards for his various efforts with soundtracks, scores, installation pieces, and all sorts of other stuff. With the Parable of the Poison Arrow, Deerly’s constructions are more squarely in the purely ethno/naturalist ambient camp than previous solo releases such as Biomes (2010) and Children of the Ocean (2011) or recent release Limbic (2012), all of which boast myriad rhythmic and melodic influences from various far-flung sources as well as more readily discernable electronic and jazz inflections.
Rather, Deerly’s focus here is on a consistent, charged piece of ambient exotica that is dense with both outside influence and personal flourish, and one can hear strains of earlier space/organic/dark ambient pioneers as diverse as John Cage, Robert Rich, Tetsu Inoue, Lustmord, Popul Vuh, and of course Eno. Parable of the Poison Arrow is thematically centered and holds a certain gravitas in check all the way through. The album’s five tracks mesh into a near-seamless meld suggestive of lush and foreign landscapes that yet manage to avoid the obvious pitfalls of post-orientalist ethnotronica, instead fashioning something that sounds more extraterrestrial than “third-world” (a plus for all involved). Layers are organic and full, the tone stays warm and variegated, and the use of natural instrumentation intermingled with the electronic adds a lot of depth shot through the entire album. As with all good ambient, headphones amplify the cocoon-like effect and add to the feeling of sensory displacement necessary to experience full-on envelopment.
Parable of the Poison Arrow is divided into five numbered tracks. Some, such as bookends “One” and “Five” tend to remain static and controlled, while “Two” and “Four” comport themselves as restrained and yet brandishing a loose melodic/rhythmic structure vaguely reminiscent of a hazy world music fusion overtone. “Three”, on the other hand, is content to reside somewhere in the upper atmosphere, calling to mind the layered, fade-into-oblivion space lustre of Robert Henke’s phenomenal Layering Buddha. Where at points tracks seem just about to open further into a more metered and cohesive arrangement, Deerly does a good job of keeping the prow of the vessel always slightly adrift, and various instruments and sounds bleed into and out of the primordial stew from which they arise rather than hanging around too long. In all, Deerly’s work here has the restraint and requisite sense of timing (yes, timing) necessary to pull off engaging ambient fodder, and as such Parable of the Poison Arrow is manifestly applicable to any number of outlets, be they meditation sessions, art installations, film soundtracks, or of course, late-night headphone auditory excursions. Simply put, like ambient music in general, this record isn’t for everyone, but for fans of the genre, Deerly’s work here is competent and able to deliver the goods.
So if this is simply music to be ignored, then let the ignorant walk on by. They’ll be none the wiser. —Reed Burnam