Tor Lundvall – Empty City

Strange Fortune (SF3), 2006

Here’s quite a wonderful release from the prolific American painter and musician Tor Lundvall, whose discography is quite extensive and varied, as I’ve recently learned.  My preference in ambient music tends toward the dark, and Lundvall’s output seems to skirt on the edge of the abyss, so to speak, so Empty City was my first exposure to him.  I expected something non-intrusive, creative, and introspective, and I got it, but what I didn’t expect was an experience that lies somewhere between Stephen Sawyer’s superlative L’Ombre project and Par Bostrom’s Cities Last Broadcast – two artists I hold in high regard indeed.  Empty City is relatively short, but that doesn’t mean it’s slight on quality; once I finished my first listen, I immediately started it over and ran through again, which I rarely do.

I’m not sure if Lundvall creates his paintings first (some of which decorate the physical album – I urge you to track down the CD for the full experience) or his music, but I suppose it doesn’t matter in this case, as each reflects the other.  The music is sparse, organic, and very personal, in spite of its electronic roots.  Empty City fits its name perfectly, as it practically drips loneliness and melancholy, but Lundvall never allows it to wallow in self-indulgent obsession.  Cities Last Broadcast’s release The Cancelled Earth captured the remnants of a vanished civilization, and  L’Ombre’s outstanding album Simulations 1.0 distilled the urban landscape and molded it to a trip-hop framework, and Lundvall treads similar ground, but with a hightened emotional edge.  This empty city is full of ghosts still going about their industrial business (“Scrap Yard”, “Platform #3”, “Night Work”), and between the echoes and minimal metallic percussion, you might catch a wail of lament or two as these spirits float through abandoned buildings and along silent streets.  It’s not a place of terror and dread, but of mystery and untold stories, tinged with loss and lined with regret.

Empty City contains a combination of humanity and identity that’s rare in the genre.  If Harold Budd didn’t focus on piano, and was more of the brooding silent type, he might very well create something like this.  Empty City isn’t a dark ambient album, but ambient with a dark bent.  It’s an album for rainy nights alone in a sixth-floor apartment, or for solo skyline drives.  The music here is built on melody, and none of the twelve tracks are very long (just one, “Grey Water,” tops four minutes), but since the theme is so strong, and executed with such confidence, anything longer would feel redundant.  Lundvall knows how to construct his tracks efficiently, and despite their brevity, none of the tracks seem too short.  “Wires,” with its strange buzzing, cuts out just as it’s starting to become familiar, and the title track is a three-minute wonder backed by a brief vocal sample that works its way into your consciousness.  The closer, “Clearing Sky,” is the most beautiful piece on the album, showing, perhaps, the sunrise through the fog and between the silent skyscrapers.  If Empty City has a story, it’s one with a good ending.

Ambient music is often subjective, leaving just enough to the listener to create an almost interactive experience.  Empty City falls on the other side of the spectrum, however, with such a carefully created sense of place that the listener is pulled gently along, guided by Lundvall’s effortless vision  It’s the kind of album that washes over and through you, leaving its mark so deftly, you may not realize it until days later, when an odd melody or percussive sequence bubbles into your mind (I still can’t tell if the sample in “Open Window” is a voice, a sax, or a fusion of both).  Haunting without malevolence, dark without blackness, lonely without despair, Empty City is a work of art, created by an artist at the peak of his craft.  It’s unanticipated discoveries like this that make my musical wanderings worthwhile.

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