The Gateless Gate
Heikan No Setsu






Heikan No Setsu is the self-released sophomore album by The Gateless Gate, a producer whose anonymous identity is draped in mysteries. Hailing from or near Toronto, his album is released in April 2013, available as a name-your-price download at Bandcamp and differs entirely from the enigmatic Far Eastern soundscapes on Xinjiang but takes – or rather isolates – one particularly noteworthy ingredient of that debut and blows up its proportions: vocals. In fact, Heikan No Setsu and all of its eight tracks are solely based on male vocals, all sung by The Gateless Gate himself, some of them unprocessed, others bit-crushed, distorted, doubled or tripled in order to create faux-choirs of monks that sound similar to The KLF's Ambient montage Chillout (1990) to just give you a glimpse of an idea; The Gateless Gate also mentions Dead Can Dance and Popol Vuh as influences among other acts.


But Heikan No Setsu, while not being humorless per se, is a serious album full of wordless vocals and one unexpected exception from this self-imposed concept. The producer is an avid and regular practitioner of Zen Buddhism, so listeners who know a thing or two about these tenets or are active Buddhists definitely get the most out of the album. The timbre of the release orbits around Krautrock, Kosmische music, the Far East, Drone and, yes, even Pop. Since the producer willfully limits his possibilities, the actual feat is based on the montage and layering technique of the wordless vocals. This is easy for me to state, for there is firstly anything but vocals and secondly the fact that this particular procedure goes back to the classic Pop formula that was carved out in the late 60's and was nurtured further by the means of Jamaica's Dub movement where processing and fiddling with tapes was as important as the message of Jah. The album hence stands on the shoulders of giants but focuses on the East. 


To be perfectly frank: the only other completely vocal-based album I know of would be Björk's Medúlla (2004), so I do not even dare to ask whether I have missed out on interesting releases or if there is a thriving community who worships and comes up with such albums. Heikan No Setsu is hence a very intriguing release for me, showing me my own close-minded boundaries as a reviewer as well as my will to overcome them, albeit partially. The release would have almost entered the Exotica section of this website. I have decided against it, for Exotica is deliberately transfiguring, paradisiac and plastic, whereas the music of The Gateless Gate might use a few post-processing and voice-enhancing effects, true, but is otherwise clearly dignified-venerable and rooted in Ambient realms. The debut Xinjiang got me hooked thanks to its bold doses of Far Eastern tones, its interplay of translucent and opalescent structures and the many skillfully interwoven chants which allow a form of escapism I only ever encounter very infrequently. Can Heikan No Setsu achieve the same thing without any instrument in the classical sense?


The first physical and innermost location that is aurally visited and connected to the daily reoccurring natural phenomenon is called Sunrise On Mount Shumisen. Launching with a two-tone monk motif of anticipation and contentment, the wordless vocals' decay and fade-out phase softly coalesce with the backdrop of nothingness, eventually illuminating this nullity via their reverberations. A lead preacher then towers above the soothing mantra and sings more effervescently as the imagined sun rises above the titular mountain. Sunrise On Mount Shumisen is the perfect point of origin off Heikan No Setsu, for it is accessible, tremendously euphonious, injects an orange timbre in the ears of the listener and – probably most crucial to the listening experience – draws from a tonality that is Far Eastern yet well-known, be it due to the depiction of monks in Hollywood flicks or the triggering of the arcane instincts and unconsciously collected knowledge in each listening individual.


The Mirror Of Hui-neng is next and built on an entirely different structure, for it is here where the processed vocals are clearly intertwined as such and on top of that link back to the mirror-related part of the title. Right from the get-go, a bit-crushed human beatbox drops an eerie six-part rhythm over warbled space whistlers and deeply acroamatic chants whose oscillation shuttles between various microtonal states. This is a Drone track made of one male voice only. Its profound atmosphere, the shard-like structure of the beatbox as well as the augmented enigma that encapsulates each chant is breath-taking and much more memorable than the designedly easygoing opener. The Mirror Of Hui-neng weaves multiple climaxes into its structure, for instance another loftier apparition of the mantras residing in higher frequency ranges while still inheriting the dark green hue of the endemic color range.


While Eihei-ji returns to the sun-soaked solemnity of the opener and unchains an almost Pop-like midday choir full of looped Occidental harmonies which work all the better on higher volume levels, thus making this the ultimately saccharine yet deeply spiritual artifact of the album, Bodhidharma At Shaolin offers a decidedly less blazingly colorful aura, but succeeds with the deepest om chants and relies as much on the different pitches and vocal-driven landscapes of the mind as it is keen on fathoming out the interplay between sound, sustain and silence. And indeed, the latter part of this trio is not only constantly perceptible even when the actual sound waves reach the ear, but forms a symbiosis with the sustain and after-effects of the vocals. Feeling more vaulted than freely flowing, Bodhidharma At Shaolin is a particularly progressive piece that draws from a wealth of ever-changing vocal ranges which may not be particularly catchy or warmhearted, but fueled by their earthen rhizomes in order to create an ameliorated soil despite the darker edge.


Up next is The Realization Of Dogen Zenji which turns out to be the centerpiece of almost six minutes and the very track where The Gateless Gate tries to mediate between the states of controlled euphoria and an infinitesimally rougher edge. The former is realized by tripled vocal layers whose droning nature becomes awash with light after a rather freezing prelude, whereas the latter appears in the shape of the already well-known bit-crushed beatbox, most likely realized via a few stressed fricatives. Even punchy "drums" made it onto the arrangement. I do not mention the effulgent incandescence of this tune out of the blue: The Realization Of Dogen Zenji marks the first instance where the vocals create wraithlike synth-oid drone strata, they are figuratively paved with gold. Everything gleams and glows.


Nothing can beat the blissful aurora of the centerpiece, so the following Gaki does not even try to mimic the luminescence and instead resides in the deepest realms as of yet. A rather serious and pondering atmosphere is created with murkier tones in minor, but the signature element is nothing short of spacey: flangered, elasticized seesaw vocals twirl and tumble in-between the abyssal mantra. The effect is well-known to both listeners and creators of electronic music, but in the given vocal-based context, these dark matter sound waves are enormously effective in their eldritch erethism. I would even go so far as to call it a proper Space-Age track, and I severely hope to not hurt the feelings of the mysterious producer when I state this. It feels eminently galactic and wide, and I deem the Space-Age comparison a fitting one. Interdependent Coorigination begins in a similar way, and yet again is it the reverb-laden entanglement of the vocal-based sustain with that looming space that creates a cavernous dreamscape. In addition, there are surprisingly jocular doo-doo lyrics twirling around which do not ridicule the collage of coatings, but enhance it with traces of thermal heat and amicability. To top these ingredients off, one vocal apparition is overdriven in such a way that it resembles an electric guitar.


The Gateless Gate goes psychedelic. And as we all know: after Psychedelia follows Pop. It is not clear which of these genres causes the greater cultural shock in the given boundaries of Heikan No Setsu, but be that as it may, the finale is named Light and is a luminous revelation of its own. All the previous talking about accessibility or the implication of Occidental structures is annihilated by this very song. The title is in plain English – and so are the lyrics. "Hidden in darkness, you walk the hills," and "you see the town in the distance, faintly glowing" are but two of The Gateless Gate's unprocessed chants which he presents in his mesmeric voice. The fact that "you are alone" is stressed, but leads to the positive, contemplative kind of loneliness on one's way to an elysian place of placidity and peacefulness, therefore implying a solacing notion. The wordless vocal layers interpolate the meaning of each line, few tones in minor are outshone by the pure rapture of the faux-backing choir. Light ends the album on a genteel note, but its status remains questionable: is it an accomplishment to break the mysterious, partially pentatonic scope of this Far Eastern gem with a composition loaded with English lyrics? The listener, as usual, remains the sole judge. In my opinion, Light breaks the spell of mystery, however important or personal this song may be. It suddenly becomes clear that this is an Occidental artifact.


I have encountered many reviews that were written by people who did not necessarily have the proficiency at or the knowledge regarding the subject their text was about. In those cases, I used to raise a brow or two in disdain and continue to do just that to this day. However, life is circular after all. Now it is me who is writing about a vocal Ambient album whose large impact, complete proportions and innermost core I cannot fully understand. And against all odds, I have written this very review, even though I lack the background knowledge of each song's driving force, for I do not practice the high art of Zen Buddhism. Notwithstanding my limits and limitations, I enjoy the anonymous artist's concoctions based exclusively on multilayered vocals. The iridescent variety of gleaming sunlit sceneries followed by alcove-insinuating dioramas is the actual selling point, or to be more precise: its balance. There are no cheap shockers, thrills or dark mysteries. It is only the shadier, seemingly conspiring timbres and color ranges whose multi-faceted complexion could potentially let the listener shy away from their spiritual superstructure. 


However, I rate the darker pieces among the very best of the album, for the darkness is never frightening or scary, but also relies on the fusion of belly-massaging streams and an overall positively dusky fluxion. Everything flows. As cheesy this may sound, it is a remark you hear quite often from practitioners of Zen Buddhism, this much I know. From the euphony of the opener Sunrise On Mount Shumisen over the imitated synth helix in The Realization Of Dogen Zenji to the cavalcade of hatched hues in Gaki, the album is always serious and allows a submergence into contemplation, but is wondrously benign in the right moments and hence makes me smile. I tend to believe that the third album by The Gateless Gate won't be exclusively based on these multiplied chants and droning mantras, but will weave them into a proper instrumental soundscape at one point or the other. The voice layers will then likely lose much of their power and afterthoughts coated in echoes, but in the end, this is the very strength and signature trait of Heikan No Setsu. This unity of New Age, Drone and quasi-Pop is as unique as it is captivating, although it is not meant for everyone. I was still able to distill something worthwhile for me. Zen Buddhists are going to have a blast with this one.


Further listening and reading:

  • You can download (name your price) and pre-listen to Heikan No Setsu in full at Bandcamp.
  • Follow The Gateless Gate on Twitter: @GatelessGate1.


Ambient Review 216: The Gateless Gate – Heikan No Setsu (2013). Originally published on May 15, 2013 at