Zoë Blade






As an old saying goes that can probably be nailed down to the success of The Beatles: "The best songs are always B-sides… and way too short." At least the latter part of this assertion is oh so true when it comes to Zoë Blade's hibernal (or is it?) album called Winter, self-released by her at the beginning of 2011, available at her Bandcamp page and ennobled with another wonderful artwork by Aiko aka Javiera Roa Fonseca. The shortest pieces of this album are among the best as well. The deep nucleus of this album is definitely of the Ambient kind, but when I write deep, I do not refer to piles of layers the listener has to unravel in order to push forward to that nexus, no, Winter is another one of the London-based artist’s works that is entirely honest, modest and basic. These attributes are seldom found in electronic music, be it because an artist fluffs the soundscape with a jungle-like thicket of layers which are then processed and altered ad infinitum, or because a kind of reverse engineering takes place that squeezes every characteristic trait or unwanted pattern out of a sound until the result is horrifyingly jittery and harsh… tally ho, Glitch genre! Zoë Blade's music differs from both – admittedly extreme – examples in that its Ambient core belongs to the Pop genre without ever crossing the junction to the soulmate called Pop Ambient. The 13 compositions are definitely crunchy and perfectly carved out, an aesthetics-related phenomenon I also distilled in my review of Zoë Blade's Hello Calm of 2012. Synth choirs, related washes, bells and beats are the main ingredients, and they are largely unprocessed. Echoes, flangers, warped decays, granular cut-offs? None. The ensuing sounds seem surprisingly dated at times, as if they were taken off a 90’s video role playing game. But this nostalgia layering technique is in fact a boon and experienced quite a revival in recent times if the complete works of Christelle Gualdi's cyberspace-oid Stellar OM Source moniker or Matt Cutler's Hip-Hop and Rave-spiced Lone tracks are any indicator, even though their works are of the filtered, processed kind. Zoë Blade's sound differs. The innocence of the tone sequences, their interplay with the little ornaments is purified. Winter provides a different listening experience, and its glacial topos is not maintained or nurtured by high-pitched sounds or looming particles, but by the strongest force of post-primitive music: melodies. In minor.


Winter launches with its warm (!) opening segue of Glimmer. Snugly, distinctly churchly synth washes – here in major – oscillate gently and in a saturated manner around the distant nothingness. This beatless piece may only be 45 seconds in length, but the euphoria and mellowness it evokes are decidedly cozy. A typical Winter feeling is non-apparent, but this is corrected by Healing With Time and its delicately late-80's synthscape full of alternating spectral three-note retrogressive drops, plinking ice crystals and a steady shaker-underpinned 4/4 beat aorta which pumps in adjacency to the gloomy circumambient synth backdrops and glacial piano dots in higher regions. No further processing takes place, once the beat is injected, the track has reached its conclusion. It is a catchy tune with a focus on the Ambient side of things and the eerie synth textures which are reminiscent to the early Rave anthems of LFO or Orbital, but bolstered here in silkier surroundings. Up next is the magnificent Arizona in which Zoë Blade lets another nostalgia layer unfold, for its melodramatic legato hook reminds of ancient depictions of cyberspace. The 80's hit the listener with full force yet again, as a gentle downbeat is elevated by another electric guitar-resembling three-note motif full of dole and yearning. Everything in this song is overexposed, and I don't criticize this kind of production at all, for every lacunar pattern or surface is eliminated due to the ubiquitous synth streams. These three tracks already provide a glitzy Pop start, synth-based Ambient music cannot be much catchier with less chords than Zoë Blade's concoctions, and sure enough does the album continue this way, be it on the eponymous title track Winter with its polyphonous square lead evening melody, the dry bass bursts, the retro hand claps-based percussion and the pole star ignis fatuus, or the phantasmagorically twinkling Ice Cave with its bass-fueled serpentines, fizzling cymbals, sped-up downbeat and a cyan-tinted melancholia.


22:30 is undoubtedly the coldest track on the album: the beatless opening phase consists of ghostly synth choirs whose infinitesimal reverb fades into the pitch-black distance, followed by literally eupeptic iridescent sparks, faux-marimbas and a beat that does not work overly well with the solemn atmosphere. But beats are one of the driving forces of Winter, so they have to be expected. In this particular case though, I would have wished for a softer, hazier structure that kindles the lucency rather than swallowing it. The following Dreams makes my wish come true, as it is a completely beatless interlude of less than a minute. And what a pity, for it is actually as great as the glowing opener, for the lilac luminescence of the spacey synth pads illuminates the blue mood and makes this a catchy little dob. This could have been a great opening phase of a track, but once the listener adjusts to the greatness of this gracefully vivacious diorama, it is already fading out, leading into the all too retrograde Stream (Mellow Mix) that does not do anything for me; a five-note melody on the synthetic harp provides the base frame for this arrangement, an accelerated Trip Hop beat on steroids gyrates around a warm-hearted but all too thin synth choir. Neither does this piece invoke a winterly feeling, nor are the melodies – which themselves are actually great – properly texturized. If the synths were just a bit more blurry and the tempo way slower, this could have been a majestic anthem with a less syrupy presentation. For the first time, great melodies fall prey to the clearness and sharp focus of the artist's vision.


Sunrays almost seems like a reprise to Stream (Mellow Mix) in that it features a rather eclectic beat in front of an ecclesial organ backing and positively weird crystal droplets. What makes Sunrays more interesting is the interdependence of these droplets on the organ background, as neither are particularly catchy or melodious, but work surprisingly well in unison. It is almost a childish track, and I am using this term in order to stress its good implications, as the track delivers an innocence that crushes the gloominess of the other tracks. Autumn Leaves In Wind unfortunately features an encore of the fake harp twangs I so despise. On the plus side, it meshes these with a much better flute melody and a brightly lit second layer which wafts around the flute. In contrast to the previous melodies, Autumn Leaves In Wind provides a rather complex set of tone sequences which are once again texturized in a less effective way, I believe. The next song, Gentle Wind, causes no complaints whatsoever. Refreshing retro bells scintillate around a deep belly-massaging organ accentuation, an additional Trip Hop beat boosts the danceability of this tune. It is here where the surfaces succeed, as the two bell layers sound so audaciously bleepy that they are the signature elements not just of this song, but the whole album. While the short and last interlude Faded Memories is solely built on a misty seraphic choir that seems to come straight out of a transistor radio and begs for good headphones or speakers to let its effect come through properly, the outro Gender Crash (Winter Mix) brings the first chilled wind gust to the table and juxtaposes it to astonishingly effective and tone-shifting earthquake snare drums that have to be heard to be believed. These elements are embedded in-between a grand scope, namely a cinematic string outset and an acoustic guitar synth that lets the connoisseur think he or she is listening to a Final Fantasy VIII track: the MIDIsphere is well done, making Gender Crash (Winter Mix) the unsuspected gargantuan outro. It shifts between pompous flourishes and a crestfallen timbre. A great outro!


At times, one cannot believe that this album has been created in 2010 and released right at the beginning of 2011. All of the ingredients sound so dated and yet so pristine and clear that the thought of being in an ethereal video game of the 90's grows with every composition. The three short Ambient interludes are the cream of the crop, delivering large amounts of warmth, thermal heat and density, while the remaining ten tracks are all of the beat-fueled, but not necessarily beat-focused or beat-driven kind. Whether it is the transcendental Rave realm called Healing With Time, the coruscating cymbal antrum named Ice Cave or the wonderful 70's charm of the quirky bells and chimes as depicted in Gentle Wind, Zoë Blade's Winter has its very own deliberately limited soundscape that is reached without the usual overdose of post processing and ginormous filters, a feat that runs as a golden thread through all of her works. It is only the outro that expands the wideness to large levels and breaks the wondrously intimate aesthetics, a surprise that has not been expected by me. It is quite easy for me to enjoy most of the tunes on Winter, but it is not made for everyone, as the audience can decisively be pinpointed and narrowed: fans of Transcend With Time and followers of retro synthscapes and Ambient music should love the nostalgia trip that is definitely doleful, but never frightening or eerie. However, be warned that there is basically no processing involved, no hall effect, modulator or echo is stacked onto any layer, which makes Winter an unvarnished, truthful listening experience that is all about the melodies and textures, the latter of which are oftentimes wrongly chosen to my mind, but this depends on the listener and how much nostalgia layers he or she is able to take.



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Ambient Review 160: Zoë Blade – Winter (2011). Originally published on Dec. 19, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.