Sleep Whale – Little Brite EP

Sleep Whale - Little Brite EP

Sleep Whale - Little Brite EP

Melding together the disparaging worlds of electronic and acoustic music is not a task easily assumed. Many times, a disproportionate amount of either one will result in some sort of New Age drivel that’s better left on the shelf of your local Hallmark store. Thankfully, the post-rock underpinnings of Denton, TX-based Sleep Whale are far removed from those banal and vapid stylings. Yet rock, these dudes surely do not, and you shouldn’t listen to the band’s new EP, Little Brite, expecting anything that would warrant a devil horn to be thrown haphazardly into the air. This isn’t Explosions in the Sky, after all.

With chilling string drones, deftly played acoustic guitar, and skittering electronic flourishes, the only other artist that comes close to matching the transparent and occasionally wistful beauty of this band’s music would be Stars Of The Lid (coincidentally, also from the Lone Star State). Truth be told though, Sleep Whale is comprised of just two musicians: Bruce Blay (violin, sequencer), and Joel North (cello, guitar). Formerly known as Mom (a name change seemed like a good call here), these multi-instrumentalists cite everyone from Brian Eno to the Penguin Café Orchestra as an influence.

To officially commemorate their name change, the band has release a six-song set on the venerable Western Vinyl label, and the music is indeed worthy of celebration. You needn’t be concerned with the fact that there are sounds of trickling water on the opener, “Skipping Stones.” Whereas ambient nature music – the stuff that typically gets played as a masseuse kneads your ailing joints – will use bird calls or falling rain as the focus of a soundscape, it is just part of the overall texture here. What truly impresses is that the conglomeration of electronic twitters, hand percussion, and gurgling H2O in “Skipping Stones” actually create the perception of small rocks ricocheting off the surface of a pond. With softly moaning synths and strings that you’d be likely to here on a Björk or Sigur Rós record, the song fades away as if it’s traveling to the bottom of the ocean.

The cello and violin play a much more prominent role in “A Pebble Garden; their drones are brought up front in the mix with a tone that has considerable bite. It’s an arresting three and a half minutes of glittering ambience. Steve Reich’s presence is strongly felt on the next track, “Josh Likes Me.” With adroit guitar playing set to cascading electronic loops, several auxiliary percussion instruments propel the song along while keyboards hypnotize with an incessant pulse. The tune has the slightest touch of melancholy, but still it manages to convey an airy and effervescent message of hope.

The following track, which goes by the same name as the band itself, is laden with effects. As a delay-treated guitar lines bounce back and forth, manipulated tape loops gradually shift the groove to something completely different. For a time, the metallic chimes of a music box and the string instruments lead the proceedings. Shortwave radio squelches and shards of static can be occasionally, until the song drones in a squall of feedback.

The album’s final two songs are heard best as a pair. “Airplane Arms,” like “Skipping Stones” before it, utilizes text painting to get its message across. With the intermittent rumble of electronic percussion and the razor-sharp howl of the strings, you can’t help but wonder if it’s all meant to sound like you’re standing on the middle of a tarmac. On final cut “Little Brite,” the guitar is heard playing fully realized chords for the first time. The sparseness of the performance is surprising, given Joel North’s fluidity with more complex arrangements. By the end of the song however, the percussive pummeling of the previous track has been taken over by the guitar, now doing battle with a clamorous wave of drones and electronic dissonances. The song ends confidently with a major chord, validating all that came before.

If this is indeed some sort of New Age music, it harkens back more succinctly to the music of Steve Reich or La Monte Young than it does Yanni or George Winston. Joel North said recently in an interview that Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians is among his favorite works. If you know and love that piece of music (or honestly, even if you have no idea what it is), pick up a copy of Little Brite as soon as you are able.