Horchata – Isolated House

Dark Winter Records (dw047), 2008

At first, I thought I was experiencing a new classic. Ruins are not a new topic for dark ambient, but Horchata’s offering, Isolated House, examines its abandoned building from a new angle. This is a house that appears to be unoccupied, but as we soon discover, this is misleading.

We approach through the “Yard,” in which we can hear the songs of insects and birds, with the brooding aura of the house itself slowly becoming audible as we near it. The sounds of the yard fade away as we enter the “Hall,” and it’s here where we learn that this is no ordinary abandoned house. There is emotion here, caked on as thick as the dust coating the walls, and everywhere, the echoes of the former occupants and what they did while dwelling within, now reduced to alien snatches of sound, tucked away in the still corners of the house.

Michael Palace has been recording as Horchata since 1998, and in the opening moments of Isolated House he displays a keen grasp of the tools of dark ambient. Palace has also tapped into the eerie sense of place and sonic identity that marks the genre at its most effective. The “Hall,” and the “Kitchen” we visit next, reach a high level of immersion and artistry. Palace’s drones intertwine with enviable ease, but what makes these tracks so unsettling is the series of subtle samples that tap into your imagination and create a near-tangible space that leave you breathless with wonder and anticipation. In these tracks, you’ll hear snatches of the world outside – sirens, vehicles, wind – that is only on the other side of the house’s wall, but you may as well be light years away. Hums, creaks, and tiny rattles surround you; these could be the sounds of the house itself, reacting to your presence, or the quiet motions of the remnants roaming these empty rooms. What Palace has done here ranks among the best examples of the sounds of urban haunting I’ve yet come across.

It was quite sobering, however, to realize that Horchata doesn’t maintain the established atmosphere. “Dining Room” and “Bedroom” try to continue the unnerving tour, but the spell wavers. A piano plinks forlorn notes in the bedroom, but it’s too obvious now, and I can feel the effects of the entrance begin to fade. With “Stairs,” “Basement,” and “Backyard,” Palace had an opportunity to ratchet up the unease to otherworldly heights (or depths), to take us on a narrative journey into the strange heart of the shunned house. He could have increased the supernatural presence drifting through the rooms, perhaps providing insight – implied or otherwise – into what happened to the house, and why it remains abandoned.

Unfortunately, Isolated House does none of these things as it winds toward its end. The final half removes the hypnotic series of samples, relying strictly on expanded drone that don’t really evolve enough to maintain the power of what’s been established. The final three tracks are the longest; curious, as they are the least kinetic. Perhaps Palace is symbolizing a crossing into places unknown, but if so, I’d hope he’d have populated these places with the same kind of character as the opening moments.

For all the excellence of its beginning, Isolated House as a whole is a disappointment. Palace seems to lose his way mid-album, moving away from what made the house’s early rooms such a thrilling place to explore. He clearly understands the genre, and possesses loads of technique, but the initially magnetic concept fizzles before the tour is over. The house begins as an entity unto itself, brimming with portent and complexity, but in the end, it’s just another empty building, its potential unfulfilled.

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