Wil Bolton – Inscriptions

Dronarivm (DR-33), 2015

According to Wil Bolton, his album Inscriptions was inspired by “the melancholy romance of autumn, the reflection of leaves in the rippling surface of a lake, crumbling architectural facades, and faded ink scripts on parchment.” With these words, he proves to be a poet with words as well as music. Beginning with field recordings in and around a town in Estonia, Bolton added layers of acoustic guitar, filtered effects, and various synths to create an album of resounding beauty and profound reflection.

Listening to Inscriptions is much like sitting somewhere quietly, with no particular place to be, and letting the surroundings drift through you. It’s a singular experience, but with tiny incidental details that flicker and fade like a sequence of dimly recalled memories. Bolton has lifted sampled elements from a park, a town square, and a lake (among others), and they’re buried here and there: buzzing insects, birds, wind, and water. Inscriptions is a tribute to the natural world, enhanced by Bolton’s keen eye for detail and deft instrumentation. You can let it buoy you along and lose yourself in its pastoral palette of hazy, washed-out solitude, or dissect its diverse yet cohesive arrangement of sound and flow.

“Hedera” may sound repetitive on the surface, but the looped string drones hide a remarkable array of plucked guitar, piano, and field recording; there’s an ever-changing scenery here, just like there would be if you lingered lakeside for an hour or three. “Seep” samples the distant voices of children and covers them with a coating of guitar and delicate static; it’s almost as if Bolton has found a portal to the past in the corner of some isolated tree-lined field, and has brought back the fluttering shadow of history for us to ponder.

While Inscriptions is conceptually solid and technically excellent, there’s one structural element that I noticed at first listen: the tracks don’t evolve much beyond their opening moments. Bolton brings in his mix of autumnal washes, drifting instrumentation, and environmental samples, but once everything is established, there’s little to no movement. This is clearly by design, true, but I wonder if Bolton’s compositions would be even more effective if they were deconstructed a bit on the fly. The closing moments of “Cathedral Lines” hint at this, with the beds of atmosphere being gradually stripped away until only a fluttering guitar and synth sequence remain; this shows how adept Bolton is at combining his sounds, while also providing a bit of motion and progress to the music. By the time “Cathedral Lines” is reached, the template of Inscriptions has become familiar, and my mind begins to wander. One more thing: at forty-eight minutes in length, Inscriptions has always seemed longer than it really is. I attribute this to the staid and static nature of the album in general; no matter how well-done and effective it is, the selfsame foundation of each of the five tracks does tend to reduce the impact by the album’s close. “Cathedral Lines” does amplify this by being the longest track on the album, too.

All considered, however, Wil Bolton has stolen a fragment of the rural corner of the world and spirited it away, delivering it in the guise of Inscriptions. An album that soothes and inspires in equal doses, it music that is ideal for breaking away from the breakneck pace of modern life, for the forgotten art of lingering, and for a calm regard of the beauty of the small everyday things that we normally take for granted.

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蜃気楼MIRAGE – Hotel By Night

bandcamp, 1999

Upon first listen, Hotel By Night from 蜃気楼MIRAGE appears to be little more than a nice  collection of moody and relaxing electro-jazz tunes. There are light synths and electronic percussion lounging in the backdrop of subdued saxophone and piano; think of a less spliffed-out version of classic Thievery Corporation and you’d be on the right track. Peel back the slyness, however, and you’ll discover there’s quite a bit more going on.

蜃気楼MIRAGE, which translates roughly as “miragesync,” seems to be something of a prognosticator. The release of Hotel By Night contains the sense of place and personality of vaporwave despite predating the style’s birth by more than a decade. There’s an entire sub-genre of vaporwave based on elevator and shopping mall music, drawing from the numbing ambiance of such “muzak” in a tongue-in-cheek, wink-wink manner – sometimes to the point of being dismissively critical of the consumerism involved. While Hotel By Night resembles this type of ironically subtle music, it focuses on the ambiance and half-told stories that also mark a number of vaporwave releases.

蜃気楼MIRAGE includes a variety of Japanese-language samples in a handful of tracks, adding a human element to the music. The horns are never intrusive or manic; the music is clearly intended to be the sound of a jazz quartet quietly creating a luxuriant atmosphere in a corner of a dimly lit hotel bar. The tracks on Hotel By Night are all under two and a half minutes in length, but this creates the sense of the listener passing through the darkened lobby, glimpsing a couple in hushed and intimate conversation, which catching a snatch of midnight music wafting from the open door of the bar. In this sense, 蜃気楼MIRAGE has created a magnificent piece of ambient music, as the sense of identity and place is unusually strong; it’s not just about the music, as well-done as it is, but about how it communicates a larger and more personal fiction.

One particularly effective example of this is “goodbye,” in which a woman whispers what are almost certainly painful departing words to her forlorn and now-former lover, perhaps overheard in pieces from across a near-abandoned lobby at two in the morning. There are no horns here, just minimal lo-fi keyboards and guitar tracing lonely, highly cinematic melody. At the track’s close, the woman breathes “ciao” with a near-palpable combination of heartache and conviction, and we’re left only with that sensation. Our imagination is required to paint the rest of the picture, if we so desire, or we can just let the emotion define it.

A hotel by night is a place of relaxed luxury, and can also be a place of secrets best kept in the shadows of expensive rented rooms and silent corridors. Within this surprisingly dense twenty-four minutes is a world of lazily curling cigarette smoke, half-empty tumblers of scotch, loosened silk ties, and lipstick-smudged napkins. The horns are perfectly pitched and paced, the electronics suitably mixed down, and the atmosphere as thick as the velvet night outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. 蜃気楼MIRAGE is an anonymous project, but it’s fitting: both the project and its music hint at something beyond the surface. At a mere twenty-four minutes, Hotel By Night may be short on content, but it’s a powerfully realized and densely atmospheric sliver of the hidden corners of urban high-rise nocturnal life.