Ben Barrett
A Onda






Save the synths! Donate your organs, Mr. Hammond! 2013 continues the tendency of Drone musicians to unleash works of guitar prowess that are second to none, fluidly morphing, 100% guitar-focused and always fathoming out the soothing entanglement of various layers and textures. How so? Why can guitars sound so entirely different in this electro-acoustic subgenre? I am struggling to come up with a quasi-answer for quite some time now, and rest assured that the guitar washes of London-based Ben Barrett enchant and bewilder me simultaneously for this very reason. Originally hailing from Auckland, New Zealand, Barrett's second full-length album A Onda is self-released in mid-February on his Nhoeen Records label in a limited edition of 60 digipack CD's and can be purchased or listened to in full at Bandcamp. I have been provided with a digital copy in advance by the artist himself, but ordered my physical copy at the release date. What is so striking about A Onda and the expected balance of high-plasticity drones and accentuating bass runlets is its snugly warmth in adjacency to the many bolstered layers. All seven tracks are meandering along in the most positive sense of the word, and the created loops have a generous duration and uncover synaesthetic figments which Barrett calls phantom harmonies; it is the listener who pieces the parts together in his head, an admittedly banal assertion to make since this has always been the case in terms of multilayered works. Here however, one is honestly rewarded with a wealth of euphoria and bliss, both ingredients that are not necessarily baked into the soundscapes in a glaring fashion, but feel all the more satisfying because of their semi-opaque luminescence. A Onda even features tracks that were recorded live, with only marginal post-processing filters applied, while others are built on various loops that were (re-)assembled via software. A guitar, a pedal and digital filters form the triptych of A Onda's endemic elements… and once they meet the mind of Ben Barrett, aural mirages arise.


If Ben Barrett did not spill the beans via Twitter, my in-depth song analysis would have kicked off in a different way, with me praising the synth work the artist is injecting in the opener Layers Cells Constellations. But nope, this is an exclusive guitar arrangement played live. This is hard to believe, though. After a fade-in section with rather thin guitar strings that oscillate between a contemplative loneliness and nostalgic figments, a warm breeze of analogue vintage trade winds whirrs through the scenery, all the while rhythmical hints of bass pedals and screeching square lead sequences coalesce, the latter of which are comparably dynamic markers of a live performance. In the given boundaries of the Drone genre, Layers Cells Constellations is a decidedly melodious opener, of course not in the Pop sense, but a much more transfiguring one: the surfaces are given room to breathe, the sustain of each cusp meshes with the following tone, resulting in the aforementioned phantom harmonies whose innermost base morphs and twists as the decay becomes thinner. It is hard to explain, but the actual tones are as important as their inheritance and finish. This tune keeps its atmospheric state until the end. The following SDY3313, on the other hand, is one of the most progressive pieces of the album, shaping its shift and shifting its shape time and again. From the pristine purity of the insinuated New Age-oid dripstone antrum at the point of departure, over the whale song-resembling guitar cascades in tandem with an acroamatic haziness, to the warp engine panorama that augments the duality of the dreamy-tense state of affairs, SDY3313 offers a fantastic Space Ambient journey par excellence. Made solely with ye olde guitar. Beyond belief!


The Space Between Two Opposites is much less mystifying, for Ben Barrett ventures into saccharine elysian fields by unchaining an enormously beatific cloud of arpeggiated sine wave-accompanied guitar protuberances which ebb and flow through the ecclesiastic organ-esque location. Each and every note and half-tone of the layers is supercharged with resplendence. The curious fact, to me, lies in the gracefulness of the layers. They literally float along in peace, devoid of any interpretational sovereignty, encapsulating happiness and felicity. The Space Between Two Opposites sequaciously presents an oxymoron, namely a grandiloquent humbleness that bubbles and foams due to the heavy amounts of rapture. A divine zone-out track that is perfectly grounded in ethereal climes (another weirdly twisted description). It is lofty and rhizomatic, an island in the sky. Speaking of skies: Cosmo invites the listener to the outer boundaries of the former track, but does not execute the allusions of its title; Cosmo offers no galactic revelation. It feels more like spring. A delicate verdure of over-saturated layers in major is carefully permeated by potentially counteropposing strings of the glacial kind. They loom below the wraithlike warmth and enter the scenery repeatedly, thus elucidating the wave-like nature of the loops. The admixed sine tones glow like polar lights, but such tones always bring remainders of frostiness with them and hence interpolate the polar (!) opposites which waft through the arrangement. Cosmo is torn between the timbres. It camouflages its conflicting flecks with every harmony-related track its intrinsic color palette allows. Cosmo is both the blueprint and hallmark of this oppresive intertwining. Phantom harmonies indeed.


Up next is End which is the fifth of seven tracks and therefore does not live up to all of the implications of its title. On this one, Ben Barrett merges powerful boilerroom drones with Shoegaze particles and whirling gales, creating a carefully balanced monotony of raspy machine-like layers and a sumptuously iridescent placenta that floats like a river under this thicket. Even though the abyssal bass streams and pink noise engines are intimidating, the composition never feels threatening or acidic. The beauty of the partially hidden rose-tinted aurora is omnipresent and illuminates the otherwise hatched colors with its bloom; while it is almost swallowed by the other drones, its textures are complex and constantly reciprocating. This is a proper Drone track, strongly silkened and all the more benign. The following Standing Wave is definitely moist, shimmers in blue colors and seems to depict a location covered in misty veils. There are crystalline three-note backing layers that sound so unlike a guitar that I can only shake my head in disbelief. Their lachrymosity is underlined by energetic bass drones and a hodgepodge of darker guitar strata. All in all, Standing Wave feels chilly and very fresh. Its layers comprise of stretched tones in major, but the patterns and surfaces are glaringly frosty and evoke the pictures of lighthouses on isolated islands in winter. The aptly titled Finale is the second shapeshifter of A Onda, an exhibition of the different micro-moods and textures that were used in all preceding tracks. Barrett does not succumb to lackadaisical recycling sessions though. He lets the track grow. The opening phase is almost cheesy due to its pulsating double bass-resembling blebs which mimic the tense Ambient backdrop themes used in game shows or atmospheric documentaries. Luckily, Finale outgrows this calamitous state and integrates thin yet euphoric guitar layers that tower above the slowly growing blurriness. The strings become increasingly diffuse and celestial, and after roundabout five and a half minutes, they change their color scheme to golden-shimmering sparkles. The euphony grows, a faux-church organ grows larger and larger until a pompous crescendo of bliss and utter joy is reached. Finale is bursting at all seams, it is a glorification of life, excitement and adventure, the perfect dronescape to an ankh-like out of body experience.


A Onda is majestic. I can see me listening to this album forever, it triggers my synapses and all the right spots that let me enjoy it. There is no dud on this work, no dull boredom-enhancing stasis, everything feels right, and if slightly questionable layers occur that provoke a potentially imbalanced state of a formerly perfectly streamlined arrangement, it is done on purpose, with Cosmo being the prime example of Ben Barret's aesthetic approach. If there is one flaw in A Onda, it is the lack of a narrative structure. The concepts themselves are clear: this is a guitar-based Drone work that enthralls the listener due to Barret's phantom harmonies, or better still, phantom synthesizers, for there aren't any in this work, although there must be, right? These highly skillful and gorgeously encapsulating sound sculptures are a feast for the ears, but the raison d'être, an overarching theme or larger topic are not explicated, even though they would undoubtedly ennoble the polylayered appearance of Barret's sound sculptures further. This does not prevent A Onda from exuding its mesmeric scents, for it puts the title of the album and the respective naming conventions of the tracks even more into the spotlight. A Onda is Portuguese for the wave. And waves you shall receive. Not only is the aqueous nature of this album referenced, but its galactosamine Space-Age particle sweeps are prominently revealed in SDY3313 as well. Regardless of whether the album is embedded in a story arc – a step the artist ought to take sometime in the future anyway –, A Onda sparkles and glows thanks to its carefreeness and upright gentle amicality. And indeed, the majority of the tracks and phases feels liquid and moist, offers opportunities to dive and submerge into. It feels complete and cohesive even though it is pieced together by differing textures and noticeably shady undertones, especially so on the gloomy End whose slightly harsher timbre puts the murkier accents into the spotlight, i.e. the very streams and vesicles that are included on each and every track, but which my brain curiously enough is able to single out and isolate. It is me who alleges that A Onda is a warm, mollifying, embracing Drone work by a skilled artist that is not to be missed. This is not an ulterior explanation. It's the phantom harmonies. And they let me recommend this album big time.




Further listening and reading:

  • You can purchase a physical (plus digital) copy and listen to A Onda in full at Bandcamp.
  • Follow Ben Barrett on Twitter: @Benbbbbbbbb.




Ambient Review 189: Ben Barrett – A Onda (2013). Originally published on Feb. 27, 2013 at