Strays is another quietly impressive album from Trestle, a label started by a group of four friends with a modest remit to release “new instrumental music”.
John Fahey, blues, roots and improvisation are common Trestle signifiers: Tout’s 3rd of 2015 was a beguiling set of alt./ambient americana, while Adam Coney’s The Fall of the Flamingo Gardens (2014) mixed progressive rock with classic jazz and folk influences. This new set from Ross Downes is slightly harder-edged, blossoming from carefully constructed post rock into another dimension of multihued ambience.
Starting with the more gritty and immediate, lead track “Guided” is a combination of muzzy, multi-tracked ambience with flecks of glitch grit, chain-processed guitar loops, and sporadic, muffled beats. Multiple, richly-textured harmonic layers snag the ear concurrently, working together while vying for attention.
There’s nothing strictly ‘ambient’ about anything on the first half of the album, where the individual tracks are purposefully bounded, but Downes’ ear for textural nuance dresses the bare bones of his multi-tracking and loop processing on these short early pieces nicely.
Pronounced pauses at the end of each track, buffers of silence, lend the album an auricular hardness. With no trace of folk or Americana in the mix, they almost sound process-driven. Stian Westerhus‘ solo music comes to mind, but Downes’ method has little of the Norwegian’s expansive, quasi-orchestral flamboyance.
“TabacRat” invites the first comparison with Tortoise, it’s unfussy but effective combination of repeating bass and guitar figures, loops and electric key sustains working repetition effectively against textural variation. “Outskirts” works similar terrain, marrying hooky guitar to a driving pulse, finding a middle path between Tortoise and pre-Hexadic Six Organs of Admittance but keeping things tighter to the core. “To Hand To Mouth To” is less dense, element chiming against element, loops allowed exposure to highlight their melodic succinctness; but it also has a second act, breaking free from looping momentum to focus on abstractions and patination. It’s a subtle watershed.
The brief “Ambush” is synth-driven, making a Kosmiche connection, and the more complex “Code” is vaporous and otherworldly at first, a speech sample fragment enfolded by a slowly blossoming, effulgent blend of fx’d synthesizer and guitar. After that, the set’s latter half contains deeper, more thoughtful pieces, with synth textures dominant: “Departures” grows from lushness to rhythm-driven drama, the electronic soundscapes of “Body Field”, and “In Packs” suggest Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream as influences.
“Forthcoming Walls” pulls back towards the rhythm impetus of the Düsseldorf School (Cluster, Neu!, then dissolves into ambience, elemental sounds folded into the mix before a fade to a few minutes of silence, then a brief, radiant synth suffusion.
Strays is a beautifully crafted album that punches way above its weight. I’ll certainly be playing it more often than Tortoise’s recent Catastrophist.
Ross Downes guitar, synth, bass, percussion (instrumentation not specified).
Buy Strays direct from Trestle Records.