Steve Brand






Steve Brand is one of those musicians you can genuinely call a lifelong artist. Having released several albums on various labels, it is, naturally, his Ambient work that is definitely best suited for this section. When John Koch-Northrup, runner and curator of the Relaxed Machinery label, offered me to review one of Steve Brand's works – whose work I did not even know beforehand I’m embarrassed to admit –, I was all up for it, but needed to postpone the review due to my editorial reasons of variety. But even after the first listening session of Brand's Catalyst of 2012, it dawned on me that the album mediates between a curious but opposite pairing – or better still, a dichotomy – that is often found in Ambient-related soundscapes: the fusion of cozily warm and rather gelid synths. When their intertwining unfolds, the layers suddenly (ex-)change their nature, until the listener cannot pinpoint exactly whether a certain phase is now entrancing and warm or much harsher and frosty, let alone when the actual clash occurred. It is perfectly suited for a listening session in Winter, even more so since the glacial elements are noticeable in each of the four long tracks. Catalyst is a Drone album with a strong, tasteful New Age influence, slight brezees of Asian tone sequences and several clicks and liquid drops. It contains ritualistic traces and a whirring mystique akin to gentler Dark Ambient tunes, but otherwise injects magnanimous amounts of heavily processed and filtered guitar layers full of snugness and warmth. The many purposeful inconsistencies and ambiguous concepts make it a reciprocating journey.


Steve Brand’s album opens with Amniotic Light, and instead of a slow fade-in phase, the listener submerges in the epicurean incandescence of light beams and thermal heat. Warm guitar-created drone sounds and cloudier layers conflate with each other, and it is the wave-like nature of their slow demise and renewed power that allows the resplendent interplay of sound, sustain and space. After 90 seconds, Brand unchains a particularly glowing, almost piercing synth stream, and it is here where the first signs of frost and coldness can be encountered due to the energetic traits caused by the processing. However, we are not in particularly frosty territories, everything remains fragile. The following cavernous wind gusts in tandem with the prolonged galactosamine twinkles boost the coldness further, but Brand makes sure that the warmer elements are always in the foreground. The crystalline structure of these twinkling shards not only adds plasticity to this lacunar, fissure-scattered Drone track, but realizes the ambiguous subordination of warmth and coldness to the point. After about seven minutes, the track becomes more cherubic and seraphic, with distantly, infinitesimal similarities to synth choir settings. These celestial devices tower in sky-high regions, but are captured by the earthen sound of the guitar washes and reverberated aqueous particles and blebs. It is important that the tonality of the guitar drones resides in major climes, as the peacefulness is expanded, with no traces of threnody, tension or uneasiness. The colder elements thus feel good-natured and amicable as well. Amniotic Light is a fitting title to a shelter-giving, listener-encapsulating Dronescape. Instead of multiple textures and thickets, the concept of space is as important as the actual sound. Due to the warmth which outweighs the hibernal elements in the end, the nothingness becomes cozy as well… if that description makes sense to you.


The eponymous Catalyst follows, and it is this arrangement of synths which caused me to add Brand’s album to the December 2012 roster of arctic albums. Right from the get-go, enigmatic chimes of the gelid kind are unleashed; looming temple gongs and multiple seconds of intertwining reverbs remind of Robert Rich’s and Steve Roach’s New Age sceneries, especially so the sizzling-hot Magma off Strata (1990) and the arcane Seduction Of The Minotaur off Soma (1992). Their respective timbres might be much hotter and more threatening, but their cave-like, machine-evoking brazen nature can be found in Catalyst as well. It is a 17+ minutes long piece of contemplation, and whereas Amniotic Light focused on both the solemnity and deliberate vestige of the melodies, Catalyst neglects melodies altogether, as Brand goes all-in on the texture and processing side, permanently oscillating between the belly-massaging field recordings of Francisco López and Dark Ambient realms that do not crush the souls of their listeners with cheap horror bursts rather than a gradual cumulation of gunmetal-colored noises and misty veils. Be it the gently bustling thunderous drone layers, the unsuspected inclusion of glittering koto twangs or the chime-fueled liquid vesicles which gurgle in that aurally created dripstone cave, Brand fathoms the peacefulness with the help of potentially uneasy devices. The cracks and holes of Amniotic Light were soothing, but here in the title track they boost the mystique and remain much colder. It is after 12 minutes that the synth side is expanded with ethereal strings and a wraithlike transfiguration. Catalyst – the song – provides a fascinating listening experience due to its seemingly haphazard and reciprocating entanglement of accentuating organic bubbles, artificial metallic barriers and a gray silence that is as cold as it is able to cause contemplative rooms. Fans of the aforementioned musicians will rejoice. And I have not even mentioned the life-like placement of the sounds, the unfolding panorama. Usually, such songs strongly suggest headphones, but I also enjoyed listening to it via a Pro Logic II-processed setup, and while Steve Brand probably did not have this in mind, the whole room was filled with plinking particles, grating globs and faint flecks. Magnificent!


The following Deep Into It seems to intermediate between the soundscapes of the previous two compositions. Launching with the spiraling ebb and flow of blizzard-evoking pink noise clouds, Brand makes sure to add Far Eastern tone sequences and warmer drone sections to the windy nexus. However, the created diorama nonetheless features iridescent molecules and percussion-like devices. The main attraction consists of the clashing setup between the auspiciously serene but freezing cold synth strings and a darkly rumbling drone layer that sometimes underlines the celestial scheme in harmony, but otherwise detaches from the respective motif and floats back into its counteractive mode. There is another clear-cut motif of meshing two formerly separate notions: the main melody itself shifts incessantly, resembling golden-shimmering states of bliss only to make a U-turn into winterly territories in minor. These changes are all too sudden, I believe, for they clash with the otherwise solemn peacefulness of the arrangement. But this is not a flaw per se! It continues to carve out the catalyst incitement of the title and projects a rather dynamic unison of the heretofore presented themes. The final 18+ minutes of The Track Of The Moon On Water rely once again on the opposite spectrums of warmth and coldness, but get rid of the particles in order to successfully stress the beauty of the wafting melodies. Calm and tranquility are omnipresent in this arrangement. What launches with a spacey, frosty superimposition of mesmeric crystal shards in tandem with an equipollent fragility is exchanged and complemented by deeper, warmer synth washes and high cyber flute tones. My favorite section starts around the ten-minute mark when the composition moves into ecclesial realms with the help of an organ and mellow pulsar bleeps. This final section fades out for minutes, making this long good-bye almost doleful.


Is Steve Brand's Catalyst a winterly album? I tend to believe so, for its microscopic, seemingly nocturnal and arcane structures tend to focus more on the various textures and the interplay between reverberation, conflation and sustain rather than fully fleshed-out melodious synth hooks that are otherwise found in Pop Ambient realms. The New Age factor of the album is noteworthy, with the titular Catalyst being the pinnacle in this regard as it consists of many field recording-evoking vignettes and seconds-long reverb phases, altogether depicting a dreamy dripstone cave or a man-made vault with buzzing machines in the distance. But the other three tracks succeed in their own ways: the literal concept of space and the various states of cold colors and warm illumination in Amniotic Light, the ubiquitously ever-changing tonalities in Deep Into It that add a curious amount of tension and immediacy in an otherwise majestic Ambient take, and the ultimate arrangement The Track Of The Moon On Water in terms of textures and different sound layers. Catalyst interweaves the New Age flair in a skillful way, Brand never succumbs to overly esoteric hooks or settings, i.e. your average clichéd dolphin cries and Native American flutes, both of which being just two examples that would have hurt this specific soundscape tremendously. The only genre-specific remnants in this regard are the large amount of hall effects and an erudite contemplation in the title track. Depending on your viewpoint, the Winter atmosphere is either boldly perceptible or just a negligible insinuation of simply another mood-filled layer. To me, the – oftentimes celestial – coldness is clearly audible, but soon afterwards meshed with warmer patterns, making for a balmy yet deep listening experience.



Further listening:

You can listen to samples of Catalyst at Steve Brand's SoundCloud page.




Ambient Review 161: Steve Brand – Catalyst (2012). Originally published on Dec. 19, 2012 at