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Ambient: the Circular Ruins, Robert Rich, the Sub-Terra project

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THE CIRCULAR RUINS: Conjunction (double CD on Data Obscura)

This double CD from 2003 offers 129 minutes of alluring electronic ambience.

The Circular Ruins is: Anthony Paul Kerby.

The first CD (subtitled "Penumbra") offers 62 minutes of lighter ambience.

Kerby's style of "ambience" often employs soft beats pattering amidst clouds of delicate electronic textures. Keyboards convert some of these electronics into sparkling passages that transcend a conventional textural definition. This mixture of atmospheric and rhythmic results in music that shimmers with an almost lively illumination, tickling the subconscious and forebrain at the same time.

Fragile tones hover in the dry air, while intermittant gurglings and hissing enunciations wax and wane to achieve engaging diversions amid the solemn stability. Not all these embellishments are cyclic, often demonstrating themselves as sub-melodies cavorting through the even-tempered soundscapes. All of the sounds, though, remain sedate and unaggressive, barely audible hints that merge to generate a subtle tension of mellow disposition.

These compositions often display more substantial melody than most "ambient" music, delivering harmonies that go beyond the elongation of drifting riffs. Kerby has a way of arranging basic tonalities into a pleasant structure that evokes vivid essence. His manner of tweaking these atmospheric tides with sidereal garnishes creates a moody weave that is restful yet vitalizing.

The track "Chasing Shadows" utilizes some fascinating noises of adamantine character that inject an exceptional distinction to the glittering glacier of pensive ambience.

On the second disk ("Umbra"), Kerby explores the darker side of ambience for 67 minutes.

These soundscapes are more ominous, evoking desolate territories bathed in fading sunset. Shadows scurry in the form of watery beats, while melancholy tones wind through steep crevices. The audience is escorted deep inside the Circular Ruins, where the passages are furtively haunted by spirits of bygone generations. In these ill-lit corridors, the air is heavy with pulsating notes that hover like vibrating dust particles.

Spoken words are utilized on a few tracks.

Electronic beats chitter like concealed insects. Stoical textures sigh like weathered breezes, exposing the listener to forgotten memories. Washes of gentle tonalities cascade like an aerial surf that refuses to recede.

While lacking in any overt optimism, these darker tracks shy away from gloom and despair, though, regarding the shadows with dispassionate consideration. The overtone becomes grittier, entwining rasping percussions with the whispering thunderheads. The listener becomes infused with a sense of mystery that hints at ambitious possibilities lurking in the immediate future.

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ROBERT RICH: Temple of the Invisible (CD on Soundscape Productions)

This CD from 2003 features 60 minutes of acoustic ambience.

Joining Rich (who this time restricts his own instrumentation to percussion, flute, and zither) on this recording are: Sukhawat Ali Khan (the son of the great Indian vocalist Salamat Ali Khan), Percy Howard (from Meridiem) and Tom Heasley on voice, Forrest Fang on baglama and gu zheng, and Paul Hanson (from Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, Wayne Shorter, Zenith Patrol) on bombard and bassoon.

Fans of Rich's electronic music will find this release to be quite a departure from his normal output. Although still low-key and minimal, this time the instruments are exclusively acoustic, which changes the sound quite drastically...but not the temperament.

Ethnic percussives patter softly, describing rhythms akin to a ghost staggering through the temple. Mournful flutes drift like a reverent oriental fog. Voices (of a non-lyrical nature) are employed to produce languid chants which ennunciate thought-provoking laments in accompaniment with the unpredictible percussion and spiraling eastern horns. At times, these voices utilize versatile tonal acrobatics, flittering up and down the scale like a hummingbird confused by a wall of nectar-bearing blossoms. The flutework resonates with an inner strength, filling the air and transforming the average living room into an ancient temple. Ethereal zither vibrations enhance this antediluvian disposition.

Despite these differences, the tuneage retains Rich's signature atmospheric quality, unhurried and serene. The application of acoustical instruments has afforded him the opportunity to focus his compositional sense in a far eastern template

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VARIOUS ARTISTS: Sub-Terra (CD on the Foundry)

This release from 2003 features 61 minutes of collaborative electronic ambience.

The project was initiated by Interstitial (aka John Koch-Northrup), who created a basic theme that was then provided to a selection of notable ambient synthesists who elaborated on the original template.

The CD begins with Interstitial's original theme. An assemblage of ethereal tonalities congeal to generate a distinctly subterranean harmony of subtly varying textures, often pitching shrill enough to emulate horns echoing from cavernous strata.

Then Vir Unis (aka John Strate-Hootman) applies whispering beats and a dreamier sense to the caverous reverberations. While those beats start out as barely noticable, their soft patter rises to more definable status, evoking an anticipatory tension to the mix. Soon, the rhythms evolve into an engaging enhancement that rivals the basic template for the audience's attention.

The next track finds VidnaObmana embellishing the template with ghostly undertones that accentuate the echoing quality of Interstitial's melody, changing the mix into a haunting procession through underground tunnels.

Then Saul Stokes takes a shot at mutating the basic theme, transforming Interstitial's caverous mood into an interstellar medium full of twinkling stars and breathing nebulae. Rhythms emerge to attribute more body to the infinity, and those tempos continue to grow, overwhelming the underlying structure.

Which leads to a remix by Michael Bentley (aka eM), who dissembles the template into quite a different sonic creature. Textures become more elongated, creating a more suspenseful ambience punctuated by horn-bursts of utmost clarity. The introduction of quasi-radio emissions render the piece into a pulsating deconstruction.

The finale belongs to Interstitial, who blends elements from all these collaborators together to produce a magnum opus of ambient proportions. (While the basic template and the other remixes are between 8 to 11 minutes long, this piece clocks in at over 16 minutes.) Expert manipulation infuses aspects from each earlier treatment into the basic theme, producing a lush track that flourishes with variations while taking a more introspective tact.

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