Thom Brennan






Satori is a – or rather the – glorious long-form piece of 71+ minutes by the Seattle-based synth wizard and Ambient musician Thom Brennan, recorded in December 2001 in the artist's Rain Garden home studio and released in 2002 on his same-named own Rain Garden label. The importance of this piece cannot be overestimated, at least not when one contrasts it with the complete body of the artist’s works. Satori is improvised live in the studio and recorded “as is,” thereby poignantly spreading the meaning of its Japanese title which translates to enlightenment, or literally awakening. Although subsequently reissued and readily available on CD and download versions, it is one of the most sought after Brennan pieces due to its compelling structure: Satori is meant to be one single track and finally realizes the most important marker that is already envisioned right from the get-go in Brennan’s debut Mountains (1987), namely that the vast majority of his output comprises of one single track which is only spliced into titled movements for the purpose of convenience. It is always wise to listen to the respective pieces in one go, but as I have previously mentioned in my review of Mist (2001), this is not easy to achieve, given the sensory overload listeners face – and fully embrace – nowadays. On Satori, Brennan begs to differ, and strongly so, possibly in the most adamant way of his whole oeuvre. It is a very intense and vigorous composition, but seems to be much more softened and better balanced than all of his preceding works. Brennan does a lot of things differently on this work, with the appearance of the album as one single track only being the tip of the iceberg. I wanted to review Satori for a long time, but was not ready during the infancy stages of AmbientExotica. I still lack the necessary skills in terms of distilling the innermost logic of each layer, but really want to write a review about my favorite work by Brennan. Therefore it comes down to this: what follows is a curiously and admittedly fuzzy in-depth review in which I try to feel the concepts, as I cannot possibly explicate them in precise clarity, with the reasons given throughout this piece.


During the opening phase of his albums, Brennan always uses the same well-known procedure of a slow fade-in, but even though this sentiment is shared with thousands of Ambient artists, the effect this has on the Seattle-based artist’s music is eminently dreamy, almost phantasmagorically so, as it draws the listener into the realm of music. Sure, it does not take a genius to make this assumption, but it is oh so true in terms of Satori: whereas the listener submerges into cold cloudy waters in Vibrant Water (2001) or faces a pristine frostiness in the surprisingly polyhedron Silver (2005), Satori sits in-between these artifacts and enchants with an aerose-aeriform ether of bliss which does neither sound warm and mellow nor icy and light blue. It merges these timbres instead. This layering technique is ameliorated with whispering airflows as well as crystalline glints and vitreous droplets, the latter of which do not mimic New Age-oid wind chimes rather than opalescent wisps of wonders.


Satori is not completely improvised, all textures have been carefully chosen in advance and are then allowed to unfold and diffuse aurally and spiritually. The base frame or main aorta of it is realized via pallidly mauve-tinted synth pads whose elasticized, prolonged tone sequences and softened steps create the heavily wadded encapsulation process Thom Brennan is known for. This time, however, they literally invite the listener to bathe in their enchanting beauty, as this is Brennan’s first album based on a philosophical concept rather than a natural phenomenon or related observation. The cleanliness and eternal fluxion of enlightenment can either be seen as artificial and manmade… or enforce the opposite revelation, that this state of mind is one of the ultimate steps in understanding one’s surroundings and place in the universe. How are these rambling thoughts transformed into music? For one, Brennan grafts benign dark matter streams onto the sylvan layer entanglement. Secondly, there is a constant process of genteel oscillation which maintains and even nurtures the elysian progression. This is probably the primary reason Brennan’s music is situated beyond the recent Drone movement: Satori does not drape the listener in its enthralling veils via positively tiring frequencies, but with the construction and maintenance of a strong wideness.


Wideness equals plasticity. This semi-erudite shorty, however, contains an important marker, for Brennan’s work is neither lacunar nor fissured but depicts the interdependency on the layers which float and twirl ad infinitum, only stoppable by the listener or the physical time-related boundaries of its aural existence. Despite the ongoing fluxion, said sense of wideness can still be embroidered. Reverberations and hall effects are indeed on board, but they work in a different way here. The interplay between sound and silence is usually the best surrounding for hall effects. If there was one beat, immediately followed by silence, the latter then allowed the afterglow of the applied effect (reverb, echo, sustain etc.) to float into the pitch-black distance. Satori, meanwhile, has no beats and does not feature any particular darkness. And yet Brennan manages to not only apply these effects to the coruscating coils and spheroidal runlets, he accomplishes to make them audible in-between the thickly wadded cavities of rupture.


Occasionally, Satori becomes partially cinematic and grows into something larger for a few seconds. These short protrusions tower above the silkened strata and thermal gales but are still integrated enough to not feel de trop or like contravening antibodies. Around the mark of 33 minutes and 45 seconds, additional riverbeds run across the bolstered vaults, and shortly before the mark of 38 minutes, mildly acidic gunmetal schemes of the ophidian kind scintillate amidst the auroral synth superstructure, but apart from these instances – which are, I tend to believe, always noticeable, no matter how tranquilized and relaxed the listening subject is – everything feels perfectly in order. Satori is by no means a fragile or cautious entity. Every respective layer feels enormously saturated and vivacious, and once Brennan creates a wave-like nature or organic physiognomy within the piece, it is done by simply decreasing the volume of the layer. Texture-wise, the pool of surfaces remains stable and coherent until the arrangement reaches the state of an even more colorful, cherubic effulgence. After 71 minutes, Satori fades away and fathoms out the unspecified distance.


To be honest, an in-depth review of Satori takes things too far, and yes, I am telling you that right now in the final paragraph. Foul play! But still: it has to be experienced and felt, and that is exactly what this review is about. Instead of pinpointing its attraction and interpolation on the interplay of the braiding in precise clarity, I try to explicate the contrastive elements and sub-themes that set it apart from the artist’s other works. Thom Brennan’s Satori could be considered his masterpiece in terms of many particularities and attributes, be it due to its long-form appearance of 71+ minutes, the exciting flumes of planned contingency and controlled coincidences or the balance of the synth patterns and complexions which is next to a perfect state. This is still an archetypical Thom Brennan record, but one which proposes the unison of the artificial, clearly sage trains of thought with the organic traits of his previous works. I do not know whether Satori is a splendid album for Zen meditations per se, but during the years since its release, I found out that the album works equally well at lower volumes and cranked up levels. If all is quiet in the room and Brennan’s work is played at a moderate volume, it easily manages to fetch the listener’s attention, a potentially strange remark, for it is primarily created in order to create a trance-like state of enlightening contentment. However, if it is played aloud, the magnitude of its depth pushes itself to the foreground, revealing the overwhelming power of its synth rhizomes, a power which becomes ever stronger when one realizes that this is no mere New Age album but a splendidly crafted opus eximium where every tone and timbre is just right. It is hard to describe, but even though Satori is no exhilarative or joyful release, it feels enormously satisfying and sumptuously wraithlike. It is by far my favorite work of Brennan’s oeuvre and glorifies every desk-related writing task I can think of. The album is available with all of Brennan's other material on iTunes, Amazon and cohorts as well as



Ambient Review 264: Thom Brennan – Satori (2002). Originally published on Sep. 25, 2013 at