Jerky Oats Records (JOAT030), 2011
Infinity moves inward as well as out. As one journeys into the endless reaches of the universe, so too can one venture past the subatomic level of matter, moving ever further into the internal. Tim Dwyer tackles this two-sided infinity on Microcosm, an eighty-minute collection of minimal ambient fringed with elements of glitch and IDM.
Originally released in 2003 as Microvast under Dwyer’s former alias X:F System, the material has been reworked with the expanded ideas Dwyer developed as Off Land. Regardless of label, Dwyer leans on the idea of the album as concept, resulting in little variance over the thirteen tracks on Microcosm. There’s little in the way of percussion here, the odd bass drumbeat and reduced glitch pattern aside, as Dwyer uses cinematic keyboards that ease along simple chord patterns in an unobtrusive manner. This is the kind of album that you can have drifting along in the background, looping to maintain a consistently calming type of atmosphere, and there’s enough variety to keep it from growing too stale. Vocal drops, distinguishable and otherwise, break up the analog synths and reliance on wobbly reverb in measured places; “Wander” is a good example of how Dwyer keeps things moving without threatening his established mood.
If Microcosm had shifted its content to a wider and bolder palette, it would have transformed into something very close to classic space-faring dark ambient. Here’s where Off Land explores its ever-smaller concept: the music is kept close and warm, on the wondrous side of exploration. The soaring pads of “Orchard” are mixed with a vibrating series of sequences, drawing you down and down, past the leaves and roots, into the endless field of molecules that make up the landscape. The follower, “Concrete,” is darker and colder, befitting the title substance’s artificial nature.
Off Land takes its implosion deeper as the album closes. The final four tracks are the longest on Microcosm , and the extended structure allows Dwyer to develop his concept in a longer format. “Others,” for example, is a slow haunting drift through atomic haze, the pads keeping their distance but still fleshing out the wide-eyed sense of the album. “Solar” is more structured; like the opener “Charon,” it’s given form through skeletal clicks and cuts and looped piano, with the ever-present electronic wobble further connecting it to the rest of the cosmos we’ve been journeying through. This is not a track intended to portray the glory of the sun, at least, not as a celestial body; rather, I get the sense it’s aimed at examining photosynthesis through a microscope. The album comes to a fitting close with “Dual,” an eleven-minute bed of comfortable synths and gentle vibrations.
Listened to actively, Microcosm does wear a bit thin. Many of its tracks are so similar in form and mood, there can be little distinction, especially with so much content. I must admit, too, that the ever-present vibrations do tend to grate on my ears over time; the last thing you want in from music intended to immerse. I don’t think this was Off Land’s plan, however. Microcosm is a catalyst for aided relaxation, a companion for an imagined trip far down the fractal spiral. Approached from this design standpoint, it’s easy to see just how well Off Land has nailed the concept.