Koen Holtkamp, ‘Motion’

Posted by on May 6, 2014


Thrill Jockey, 3/25/2014

Music that is both intricate and meditative really thrills me. The obvious benefit is the opportunity to sail across lush sonic textures of sound that is usually macroscopically ambient in nature. Listening more closely, however, patterns emerge and blossom, tumble about, break apart and re-form. The effect is like peering into a kaleidoscope. A friend of mine once jokingly referred to this effect as “ADHD drone” but I’m not 100% sold on that notion, as you really have concentrate to feel the full impact of the music. Motion, the second Thrill Jockey release from Koen Holtkamp – who is also one half of the ambient folk duo Mountains – is an album that really embraces the concept of intricate ambient music. Taken at face value it appears to be a very relaxed outing, yet complexity and even a sense of turbulence emerge when we’re allowed to spend some time with the music and let it seep between our neurons.

Motion opens with “Between Visible Things,” which begins as a morphing synthesizer arpeggio that multiplies into a chorus of friendly robots. Sheets of drone smooth out the agitated peaks of sound, creating a fertile bed for Holtkamp to embellish with strange shrieks, chattering synthetic teeth, and a simple yet beautiful melody. Once the piece allows us to ascend into the upper atmosphere – perhaps to mingle with the aurora borealis – the momentum fades and Holtkamp drops us safely back to Earth with one last droning note to linger on. Cosmic pillows of starlight synth dance for us as “Vert” commences, setting the stage for searing comet tails of guitar laid down by Holtkamp like a cattle brand playing across the eardrums. What begins as a relatively simple pattern of arpeggiated notes is multiplied and smeared with static as the wailing guitar arcs gracefully across the sky. Holtkamp doesn’t mind taking us to outer space, as a matter of fact he relishes it: he’s been coaxing his listeners into that deep void – both on his own and with his Mountains co-conspirator Brandon Anderegg – for years now and I’m sure he doesn’t plan on stopping. More power to him.

Whereas a significant chunk of Holtkamp’s recorded output stems from material created during live improvisation, the first three tracks of Motion were totally conceived in a studio setting. The only piece that immediately smacks of studio wizardry is the relatively brief (if at almost six minutes you can call it such) “Crotales.” Named for the disk-shaped percussion instruments that Holtkamp emulates through the use of computer software (he also manages to sculpt a double bass out of ones and zeroes), the song shimmers like the surface of the ocean on a sunny day. Cascading figures ripple, separated only by the laconic stabs of deep bass that are nearly skull-penetrating in their terseness.

As far as epic statements go, you can’t get much more impressive than “Endlessness,” which at over twenty minutes is quite a grand gesture. It really is an album’s worth of great ideas thrust onto a side of vinyl and baked to perfection. The piece commences with a harmonium-like drone which I immediately found fusing to the inside of my skull once it enveloped my auditory organs with its sheer deliciousness. Trickling high-speed synth patterns soon emerge and file across the stereo field like lasers etching shapes into darkness, eventually rising and falling in response to some unseen stimulus. Melodies are sheared off from the overall sonic structure, buoyantly resting atop the drone-filled sea before tumbling downward, encumbered by an increasingly voluminous sheath of static. At just over the half-way mark, Holtkamp begins to strip away layers of sound such that eventually only the drone remains. At this point, the overall form of the piece shifts as hand drums, synthetic string scrapes and wafting trails of smoked-out sound take over. It’s really easy to get lost inside the music, as if in a slipstream created by the contemplative washes of cloud-like material. It’s on this dreamy note that Holtkamp leaves us, lost in our own thoughts and slipping into semi-consciousness. What a wonderful way to end such a fascinating work of art.