Lawton Hall
Spirits Of The Age






Lawton Hall is a Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based sound installer and modeler who first takes a meticulous look at the different, oftentimes very banal things that are found aplenty all around us and then starts to come up with concepts of how these microscopic sounds can unfold their magic in darker Ambient surroundings. If you thought of the Glitch or Microsound subgenres while reading the former sentence, then yes, in a way Hall’s arrangements are very close to these fields as well, but the dedication to the sounds themselves is so overly strong that the artist virtually dismisses melodious tone sequences or catchy timbres, and purposefully so. Spirits Of The Age is one of these seemingly labyrinthine works, released in January 2013 in both a 4-panel digipack CD edition and a download version, the latter of which Hall allowed me to access for reviewing purposes. You can purchase and pre-listen to this album in full at Bandcamp. His newest work concentrates on the well-known and inflationary concepts of nostalgia and remembrance, comparisons to Boards of Canada are close at hand and are explicitly mentioned by the artist himself in a detailed email to me: "The similarities lie in our shared interest in excavating the past and creating evocative, nostalgic moods through the use of outdated electronic equipment." And that’s that. Lawton Hall neither creates a mimicry nor a pastiche of Boards of Canada's famous turquoise-cyan-tinted album that changed the music world at the end of the 90’s, but approaches his subject in a completely different manner: he uses a microphone to capture certain sounds in astonishing detail in order to unravel their microcosmic trait. Thus, even the sound of a common lighter, one of the sources used on this album, sounds humongous and foreign at the same time. 


You can count all of the components that make up the arrangements of this album on one hand! The respective sounds are then electronically perturbed and sometimes even tortured. As it turns out, the result is definitely abstract, melodies – or traces thereof – are coincidental, the constantly black backdrop seems rather frightening. Spirits Of The Age is not easy to digest, but has a remarkable back story, for it is based on Lawton Hall’s own sound installation which gained the opening slot at the Cycling Histories event, an intermedia exhibition of nostalgia and memory that took place in January 2013 at the Sensorium in Milwaukee. 35mm slides were played on projectors, their light and the clicking sounds formed an enthralling experience. It is those slides that are another important source of this album, made by a young artist who is fond of vintage electronic equipment. You will possibly not distill Lawton Hall’s love for such gadgets and machineries in either one of the six tracks – or rather four tracks and two variations –, but the endemic aura is undoubtedly special and traversed by dualistic fissures.


The album opens with Angel Chimes 1, and its state as an opener cannot be belittled, for it introduces important textures and patterns that resurface throughout the album, if not in this exact form, then in an idealistic-transfigured shape. The first track opens in an abrupt fashion, with the characteristically spluttering sibilance of a lighter igniting a candle. Even though both the sound and the procedure are well-known, the closeness of the microphone to the scenery poeticizes this commonplace handling. The whizzing sound could, for instance, also resemble an opened soda bottle. In the first ten seconds already, Lawton Hall exemplifies a crucial marker of the Microsound or Glitch genre by looking very closely at things. Everything around the candle is pitch-black, but once it is finally lit, the emanating gas of the lighter leads to bicycle bell-evoking plinking sparkles whose gelid frostiness and harsh reverb change the arrangement completely, and quite forcibly so. Where do these crystalline artifacts derive from? It turns out that the clicking sound of the lighter has been recorded and then twisted during post-processing. Its alienating chimes blaze in a rather frantic rhythm and augment the tension of this eerie place. The uneasiness only grows when a bass pedal unchains acroamatic drones that waft below the towering sprinkles. It is after three minutes that the characteristic traits of the music box are notably altered and now take the listener to a spectral gamelan performance; the coruscating flecks are chopped, simulate enigmatic Space-Age vesicles and gyrate in a disturbingly galactic way around the ground loop drones. Far away stokehold layers induce passing cars… or is it vice versa? In its final phase, Angel Chimes 1 lightens up somewhat, the bells lose their independent acidity, turning mercurial instead and seem to twinkle more amicably. It is here where a curiously solemn enchantment kicks in that propitiates the listener with the formerly self-contained abstraction. Despite the densely layered arrangement, there is a strong nullity, a void of nothingness omnipresently reigning over this jinxed setting. And this feeling remains the dominant force in every state.


The eponymous Spirits Of The Age 1 is next, another significant track whose intrinsic attributes are reused later. Merging staccato chops in the veins of Tetsu Inoue’s Fragment Dots (2000) with the polyphonous particles of Boards of Canada, Spirits Of The Age 1 is built on two main ingredients that could not possibly be more irrelevant to each other, but once they coalesce and form a unison, they make sure that the listener experiences an enthralling – and at first much more mollifying – soundscape which he or she has not encountered thus far. According to Lawton Hall, the arrangement is loaded with coolant fans of projectors which are then intertwined with a music box. While the former tend to be soothing due to the pink noise their airflows inherit, the latter is potentially much more spiky, letting Angel Chimes come to mind, but in their current incarnation, they encapsulate childhood and nostalgia and are hence awash with a much more positive aura that is easier to relate to right from the get-go. Conclusively, Spirits Of The Age 1 starts with rose-tinted blasts of music box memories. Their energy is effervescent, if also a tad piercing, and rest assured that the mild wind gusts deriving from the 35mm projectors are always nearby. Whereas Angel Chimes 1 has been a bubbling track, Spirits Of The Age 1 resides in eminent legato climes with both the music box and additional abyssal bass drones being pulled into the spotlight where their colors become over-saturated. The ensuing drones are of the Shoegaze kind, it almost seems as if electric guitars screech in adjacency to smashing cymbals of a classic drum kit, but both sounds derive from the two aforementioned sources. The ensuing climax in the latter half of the piece is vigorous, aggressively energetic and increasingly dusky, almost post-apocalyptic before the finale features a far loftier fade-out phase of sporadic glints and coolant fan mirages. Spirits Of The Age 1 is enormously dichotomous, first luring the listener with languorous pastel-tinged slivers of childhood, only to then adamantly expand their innocence and turn them into a noise-laden blitz gallimaufry. The message seems clear in the given prospect.


The Future Forest is undoubtedly the mellowest tune of the whole album, but its mystique is nonetheless in place. Lawton Hall meshes the same ingredients as on the former tracks, especially the pleasant stream of the cooling fans seems much more bolstered and larger than before. The wideness increases decidedly, which is a strange remark to make in terms of the meticulously magnifying mélange the artist presents on this album. But here, the setting feels like a vault, with the same electric guitar-evoking drone layers in place again, now encompassing a distantly Oriental timbre of enigma and danger. The expected bifurcation between legato and staccato is in place as well, but it is the strongly euphonious tone sequences which make the difference, as they create a sizzling-hot superimposition in-between which a maelstrom of nostalgic susurration can perfectly unfold. I do not even dare to pinpoint one of the few sources Lawton Hall used for this particular effect, even though it seems so easy on paper since he only uses so few. The Future Forest ends with the mild-mannered gales of the spinning fans and thus make this a surprisingly accessible track that feels less torn and conflictive than the other material. The following Angel Chimes 2 is the clear cut addendum to the opener and sees the Milwaukee-based sound visionary rearranging the exclusively lighter-caused chimes. This version is much milder and less cryptic, the sparks glimmer in a less jumpy fashion and the bass bursts are less forceful. This implies another dominating ingredient, and indeed, it is the nothingness in the background which was already in place in the first track, but now sees its impetus increased. As a result, the mystery wanes and the lushness increases, making this the better choice for Ambient fans with a Glitch preference who like their music well-balanced without too many shifts.


Spirits Of The Age 2 is revisiting the coolant fan-fueled music box aura of the first part in line with expectations. And the tendency of Angel Chimes 2 is again reapplied here: the second incarnation tends to be the flattering, beatific one. Here, the slide sounds of the projectors are transformed into – I’m not kidding – sunset-colored Balearic harpsichords! Their warmth is lachrymose but reciprocates between this incandescent state and a more hazardous, aggressive behavior. The textural quality and the ever-shifting setup make this tune a huge surprise because of the listener’s expectance. The music box which kept a low profile throughout the duration of the song is then prominently featured near the end, its whitewashed scintillae glowing in a spellbinding, truly inculpable light. Nostalgia follows. It is the apotheosis of the album and thematizes the personal concept in a glaring fashion via its title alone. The music itself, however, does not live up to the title, for it feels overly threnodic due to the music box clangs that echo into the black distance with no additional layer other than the sweeping fans of the projector and a few clicks of changed slides. The incessantly pulsating winds, the stop-and-go notion (or motion?) of the sounds serve a strictly conceptual purpose rather than succumbing to traditional music-related structures, and so Nostalgia bubbles, cuts and stomps along in an all too close proximity to the threatening darkness that seems to swallow the reverb of each layer very quickly, hinting at its closeness. A cold last breath for a thought-provoking album.


Spirits Of The Age is an intensive album in the true senses of the word. Yep, it is two senses Lawton Hall’s album targets. Regardless of the track that is running, one can always perceive a grave, crestfallen heaviness that I tried to circumscribe as nothingness, emptiness, void or pitch-black dimensions. Of course there is a much easier and familiar term, namely silence, but this does not describe the capacity and clout of this supercharged ingredient. That clinically sterile stream is ubiquitous and near, and the reason why it triggers the sense of perception is found in the nucleus of the conceptual arc: Lawton Hall watches his sounds in a metaphorical sense through magnifying glasses or microscopes, maybe even of the scanning tunneling kind. The focus lets the sounds shine in the brightest light. Not that their brightness can be equated with friendliness, but the sounds shimmer and are perfectly audible nonetheless. The result of such tremendously close looks and a clear focus is the tendency to create a blurry or even black background which macro photographies depict all the time. Transform the medium of photography to the medium of music, and you get Lawton Hall’s Spirits Of The Age where the silence coalesces with the diffuse backdrop of extreme close-ups. Vignettes are created. Hence the sense of perception is engrossed.


Naturally and unsurprisingly, the sense of hearing is needed as well, but Hall’s album is – as mundane and platitudinous this sounds – experienced and not heard. The first three arrangements are quite brusque and craggy, a feeling that is only enlarged by the short bursts of euphony or even euphoria. Once the sounds of the fans and changed slides grow to gargantuan proportions, the sheer force of the Shoegaze-like blasts is jaw-dropping and definitely bewildering, especially in the given context of nostalgia. It is only in the latter half that the album remains in a decidedly motionless state, with the whimsical melodies and whistling chimes floating around a thought line in a regular, steady manner. This contemplative phase might be seen as the more accessible one, and from a compositional viewpoint, I can definitely agree to this, but the careful adjustments, ideas and surprising surfaces of the first half imply a much more youthful, exciting journey into the unknown. This impression in tandem with Lawton Hall’s clear cut concept make Spirits Of The Age a pompous, dedicated and ambitious work which is further ennobled by the manifold post-processing tweaks and adjustments that carve out the many outlandish frequencies that were heretofore hidden, but then freed from their camouflaged existence. Fans of concepts and textures, i.e. the Glitch clientele, ought to be impressed by this album. Drone or Ambient fans in general who favor strong melodies, New Age décor, nature-based field recordings and multiple layers should stay away from this release though. It is in the end convoluted and eclectic despite its infinitesimal amount of different sources and patterns; a remarkable feat!



Further listening and reading:

  • You can purchase and listen to Spirits Of The Age in full at Bandcamp.
  • Follow Lawton Hall on Twitter: @lawton_hall.





Ambient Review 195: Lawton Hall – Spirits Of The Age (2013). Originally published on Mar. 20, 2013 at