Thom Brennan
Vibrant Water






There is a certain vocabulary every reviewer of Ambient music is fond of, yours truly included, as you surely have encountered the repetitive usage of striking adjectives on this website. One of these adjectives is ethereal, and while it is indeed used a gazillion times in Ambient reviews all over the internet, there is one artist whose music is virtually composed ethereally and is at the same time traversed by the antonymic adjective, earthly. Thom Brennan from Los Angeles is one of this megacity's Ambient pioneers who almost entirely relies on the vigor and creative use of his synthesizers. Even though Ambient music belongs to the overarching Electronic genre, most artists branch off and put real instruments such as folk guitars or pianos into the mix nowadays, as if they wanted to teach narrow-minded genre-spoil sports a lesson. Paradoxically, it is therefore all the more refreshing to listen to a real electronic Ambient album like Vibrant Water, produced around the millennium and released in 2001 on Brennan's own label Raingarden Music. There is no sign of organic ingredients on this long synth-laden 3-track album – hence the adjective ethereal –, but the topos of the ocean and endless amounts of water is literally grounded and well-adapted in music – hence the adjective earthly. Brennan's work is significant for two reasons: firstly, it consists of multiple synth layers. So far, so usual. Most Ambient users put layers on top of each other. However, these layers don't form a fuzzy mixture; instead, each element is distinctive and yet perfectly ingrained in the soundscape. Secondly, even though every layer is detailed and each track is very long, Brennan doesn't spend time with slow introductions. All these layers merge and morph comprehensively most of the time, making each album and especially Vibrant Water a glitzy, synth-wadded and, yes, ethereal affair. As a result, Vibrant Water is no quiet or fragile album, but is composed of dominant, sweeping and vibrant (sic!) formations shrouded in mystery.


Submergence starts in a typical fashion by introducing one-note synth washes that slowly fade in but already reach a first peak after three minutes: a dominantly cold and inapproachable synth string overlooks distant bells, reverberating wind chimes and sounds similar to the chirping of crickets or the croaking of frogs. Like waves in the ocean or ebb and flow, the formations rise and fall. After around 8 minutes and 30 seconds, a brighter and more soothing layer is added and causes a certain contentment and confidence, but soon again adds a colder, mysterious undertone that is perceptible till the end, where Submergence is surprisingly similar to drone music in a few places. The second track is called Blue Depths, and as its title already gives away, one shouldn't expect sunny landscapes on there. In fact, more of the same croaking and chirping effects are featured in the mix, but the soundscape now resides in darker territory with deeper faux-choir synth strings and echoey frizzles. Surprisingly, the synthscapes in Blue Depths aren't as dominantly energetic as in Submergence, but form a frowning and chilling, but less voluminous omnipresence. Only after almost 14 minutes, the song reaches its crescendoing peak for a minute, while the last minute consists of an especially liquid and soothing synth layer which, as it is common on the album, fades out quickly. The title-giving Vibrant Water is the last, calmest and longest track with a runtime of over 24 minutes. It adds a more peaceful, ever so slightly tranquil and erratic string to the mix with a remote Asian feel to it. Overall, this last track is again similar to the aforementioned ones, but only inherits their quietness and imperturbability, not their motif of upswells and downswings.


Brennan's 100% electronic Vibrant Water is a powerful album with a predominant theme of mystery, elemental force and elusiveness. Sometimes the sounds shift to a more brighter and calming influence, but this is only a temporary counterpoint to the endemic veil of arcanum. While all the tracks are very similar to each other, there is a marked difference in their raw power: Submergence, for one, is loaded with loud and towering synth washes and thus pressures the listener to pay attention, Blue Depths delivers technically more of the same, but adds colder, darker and deeper synths to the mix, and lastly, Vibrant Water is the calmest entity with bright but not cheerful strings and a consistent volume level. This album is for Ambient fans who want their rooms to be overloaded with synths due to the wideness of each mix. This is a cold but strong and almost intimidating release, suitable for underwater documentaries and listeners who want to enter a vastly bleak world full of water, echoey sounds and layers upon layers of synthesizer sounds. The effect on the listener's mood is huge, for Brennan delivers a heavy release that you probably cannot listen to en passant, but need to experience rather than consume. 




Ambient Review 017: Thom Brennan – Vibrant Water (2001). Originally published on Dec. 21, 2011 at