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Diamondstein and Sangam team up for striking dark ambient duet

| Thursday, September 7, 2017

diamondstein(3)Cristina Interiano | The Observer

Be skeptical of ambient music; that’s rule number one.

As a devout fan of the genre, it’s easy for me to spot the posers — and the heavens know they come a dime a dozen — but the untrained reader should be careful. Anyone can slap a synth onto a drone — disregarding harmony, atmosphere and texture — and call it a day. But that’s hardly legitimate; it’s time to stop talking about ambient music as though it were simple or basic.

You do see that kind of laziness everywhere, though; worst of all on SoundCloud. But other democratic websites like Bandcamp fall into similar trappings. With great power comes great responsibility, and with free access to thousands upon thousands of cutting-edge records, it’s up to the listener to parse the talents from the wannabes.

So, I suppose you could say that when I stumbled upon Diamondstein and Sangam’s split ambient record my ears squinted. But quickly enough my mind relaxed, as I was swallowed into the glacial depths of a tragic and solitary scene.

Not that “Lullabies for Broken Spirits” — issued last week on Doom Trip Records — is at all calming. The record’s front side features Diamondstein’s music, and features Sangam on the back; in addition, the first and last track are collaborations. But while starkly different in approach, both sides are crowded with gripping tension all their own. The greatest ambient records boast transporting atmospheres, and don’t require the listener to fill in the blanks; this record, then, is like a dive into a mournful virtual reality.

The partnership gets everything right. Harmony: check; atmosphere: check; texture: check. And don’t let the monochrome album art mislead you: They pass with flying colors.

Opener “I Wish I Had More to Offer” is on the hectic side of ambient music, but the track functions as the record’s cinematic lead. It is theme music for stormy nights, frenetic percussion tapping the wet ground like heavy droplets, electric pads buzzing like echoes of thunder. If that’s not good atmosphere, I’m not sure what is.

Other tracks follow similar themes. Sangam’s first solo track on the record, “Knowing Loss,” features dense field recordings yet returns an eerily faceless facade. Melancholy drones soundtrack vehicles driving over wet roads; there are human voices and vague exultations too, but nothing is precisely discernible. The moment only soaks you nebulously, like a fading memory. Try to grasp at anything and it’ll evaporate from your hands.

Fortunately, the record amounts to more than ephemeral moments; not only is the record thematically airtight, but it remains dynamic throughout.

Diamondstein’s “Don’t Please No” will chill your spine with its mournful strings and oblique harp. The track would be at home on Tim Hecker’s orchestral record “Virgins” — and that says a lot. Experimenting with his approach, “Together Not Together” is one of Diamondstein’s most impressive cuts, plunging the listener into a vortex of dissonant droplets before sinking down titanic, oceanic depths.

The record’s second half is Sangam’s territory; at this point, a tangible transformation takes place. Sangam turns down all the dials, shifting the record into a meditative mood. “I Wonder If You Think of Me” is particularly enveloping: enigmatic, but with synth flourishes that sound eerily elated.

One of ambient musicians’ great struggles is how to engage the listener without being obtrusive. Sangam expertly navigates the solution: Don’t fade into the background, but embody it altogether. Close your eyes while listening to “Finding You” and you’ll wonder whether you’re not frozen in time, standing in the middle of a street with the diaphanous moon exposing the rain like a spotlight.

Maybe it’s my own judgment, but labels often seem to split records when artists can’t hold their own over the course of a full forty-plus minutes. Fortunately, that’s not the case with Diamondstein and Sangam. Both sides of “Lullabies for Broken Spirits” should leave the listener wanting more — that is, more individual releases by each producer soon. For this pair, the future holds great promise.


Artist: Diamondstein / Sangam

Album: “Lullabies for Broken Spirits”

Label: Doom Trip

Favorite Track: “Together Not Together,” “I Wonder If You Think of Me”

If you like: Tim Hecker, Hol Baumann, Puce Mary

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

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