North Sea
Ancients EP






North Sea is the Drone-focused electro-acoustic Ambient project of Glasgow-based DJ and musician Graeme Robbie. Following the ever-growing trend (and need) of expressing varying styles by targeting the different preferences of two highly distinctive crowds, Robbie knows the solution and subdivides his music-related predilections into two monikers. I am one of those people who goes all-in when it comes to his North Sea pseudonym: it is here where the Scottish pianist adds deeply thought-provoking auras to lugubrious sceneries full of mournful incidents. When a musician focuses on such winter-compatible moods, there is always the looming danger of exaggerating and overstating the aesthetic condition of the respective medium. Luckily, North Sea is not entrapped in such clichéd fields and frees up the darker contrasts of his music with more sparkling devices. Such is the case in his debut called Bones EP, self-released in October 2012 and available at Bandcamp, the sophomore follow-up Ancients EP of November 2012 which is unsurprisingly reviewed here in this very moment and also right at home under this Bandcamp link, with the third offering called Night Drifts EP having been released in February 2013 on – you've guessed it – Bandcamp. On his Ancients EP, North Sea presents five tracks, all of them variations of a leitmotif loaded with forlorn panoramas, gaseous blurs and a swirling noosphere of flickering particles. Ancients is traversed by many tone sequences on a classic piano, but the crackles and hazy attributes of field recordings as well as the integration of synth strings and chimes elevate this humble release from an all too minimal and purposefully restricted setting. I have chosen North Sea’s Ancients EP due to its progressive arc. Without giving away too much as of yet, the order of events comprises darker, mood-crushing tunes but brightens up ever so slightly until they reach their conclusion. Is this conclusion then blazingly bright and freed from any aggrieving spirit, and do such progressive constructions matter today? I am going to tell you this and additional examinations over the course of this review.


The intrinsic mood of this EP is fully fleshed out and tightly set with Ancient I. During a short segue of tape-like hiss and wodden clicks, the first pompous piano note is unchained and complemented by further tercets in minor which schlep themselves forward in a doleful, unmotivated fashion. Sweeping wind gusts not only hark back to Robbie’s North Sea moniker, but accentuate both the crestfallen aura and the intertwined synth strings further. Since Ancient I and the whole EP in general are piano arrangements at their respective hearts, the minimalism in the form of a gray-scaled background is mostly covered with the gloomy sustain of the piano tones. This coalescence induces a fragile plasticity which refers back to the minimal front cover, created by the Nuremberg-based artist Tilman. Ancient II then opens up with a mosquito-resembling string, a silkened balm of whitewashed sizzles and a piano motif whose graveness is successfully lessened thanks to accompanying undertones that sparkle in brighter colors. The rising maelstrom of arctic gales counterattacks both the whimsical luminosity and the scents of good mood. There is, however, another element which is particularly vibrant, surprisingly majestic and yet adamantly remote: a synthetic ship horn-evoking drone. It is not as abyssal and bone-crushing as in Pjusk’s 2012 hallmark of Norse bleakness called Tele, but the tonal attributes are definitely there. Maybe a synth-related comparison to Leftfield’s solemnly contemplative Song Of Life (1995) is better suited, as it inherits a similar duality of threnody and incandescence. Ancient II fades out comparably sudden, with its frosty atmosphere and the analogous warmth of the legato stream still intact.


The opening structure of Ancient III is now well-known to the listener. Its aqueous haze and distantly wave-like protuberances swirl through the air, but since this tune proves to be the centerpiece of five and a half minutes, their interplay is stretched and prolonged. This, surprisingly, is the only formulaic instance the listener can now pinpoint with ease, for both the textures and the timbres differ: warm synth strings which remind of Gramm’s aka Jan Jelinek’s debut LP Personal Rock (1999) conflate with a bubbling polar light. The tone sequences are sunless and opaque, but curiously entrancing and solacing. The piano is amiss, but not needed anyway, at least not here, for this is a proper Drone track with two layers that are as distinct as they are fissile. This is my favorite track of the EP, especially so since the girdling winds and the granular strata emanate a sense of hope akin to North Sea's Night Drifts EP. The following Ancient IV is back on the mysterious track, at least in its infancy stage, as it launches with a gently oscillating drone and an almost inaudible sine tone of the plinking kind. These conditions do not prepare for the grafted vortex of mellow piano tones. The rhythmic tercets are blurry and perfectly becalming while their brighter foils sparkle and scintillate in blue-tinged higher regions. This is a piano arrangement par excellence in the strictest sense of the word. Striking off the many patterns and surfaces of the prelude, the ensuing gravity is solely maintained, fueled and nurtured by the piano injections. This tune is very delicate and – in the given circumstances and considering the aesthetic arc – the brightest, most uplifting piece due to its lachrymosity, although Ancient V closes the EP with an even greater warmth, but is based on a piercing dichotomy: after the infusion of a rain-soaked field recording, an admixed mean-spirited drone layer creeps in and circumvents the otherwise tenuous beauty with its acidic nature of electricity or electric current. When it fades out for good after approximately three minutes, the remaining 90 seconds glimmer and glisten. Glockenspiel-like bells rev up the crystalline diffraction in unison with the foggy piano droplets. This glistening setup is wonderfully tingling, elicits a strong clarity and generates one final moment of pristine lucidness before the EP fades out for good.


Piano arrangements are the supreme disciplines when it comes to Modern Classical structures. Every producer of Ambient or Drone music wants to showcase his or her talent based on real-world instruments, a skill which is deemed noble and expedient to this day and beyond. After the analogue plastic cyberspace realms of the early 90’s and the British IDM phase which eventually conquered the electronic music scene all over the world, the following years and decades saw musicians interweaving classical instruments into their electronic sound, widening the spectrum of their layers. North Sea’s Ancients EP is part of this ongoing process, probably unbeknownst to Graeme Robbie himself. Still, the Ancients EP resides nowhere near eclecticism. Never does the Scottish producer enforce his unspecific amount of piano lessons upon the listener. The tone sequences and timbres are neither intricate nor convoluted at all, and deliberately so, for the palatial momentousness and sonorous drone capabilities of this instrument are altogether much more important. This kind of dignified minimalism is thankfully lessened with the help of interpolated electronic structures, be it in the form of synth strings, post-processed field recordings or twinkling bells. Minimalism ensues again when it turns out that these three additional ingredients are the only instances in adjacency to the piano that make up the soundscape. Despite the millions of software-related possibilities, Graeme Robbie remains in the endemic realms he conjured himself. Ancients EP is coherent, sure, but chequered and diversified enough to leave room for surprises, be it the dusky setting in Ancient II, the legato Drone washes sans piano in Ancient III or the sudden placement of refractive bells in Ancient V whose illumination literally outshines the hatched color palette which was heretofore present. I am definitely impressed and hope to hear more from the Glaswegian producer’s important side project soon. With Grame Robbie being in the stage of preparing his debut album for an as of yet unmentioned release date, my pleasant anticipation grows. This is one artist to watch. I am recognizing my responsibility as a reviewer regarding his North Sea alias. 




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Ambient Review 191: North Sea – Ancients EP (2012). Originally published on Mar. 6, 2013 at