Plains Druid
Swag Demon






Swag Demon by multi-instrumentalist Plains Druid aka Jon McIntosh from Flagstaff, Arizona is a debut release of some sort, even though he is a veteran producer by now, grafting many a synthesizer beam and processed cosmic ray onto his electric guitar-accompanied arrangements. This particular release, however, sees Plains Druid succumb to the lovably retrogressive movement of tape lovers. Released on Matthew Barlow’s Asheville, North Carolina-based Twin Springs Tapes label, available as a name-your-price download or in an edition of 25 – already sold out – music cassettes at Bandcamp and comprising five tracks in total, Swag Demon does not feature the elements a skilled Ambient listener might think of. A look at the title, the green goo on the cassette and lilac front artwork, and everything seems to be clear: this is a Dark Ambient album alright. But it is decidedly not. It sits on the opposite side of the spectrum, trying to enchant and embrace the listening subject whenever possible. The tone sequences are delightful and warm, the synths gleam and twinkle, the guitar is well-saturated but usually much more tame than spectral, and even a few processed wordless vocals made it to a few selected tracks. Inspired by several seemingly incompatible things such as reading Nietzsche’s philosophy on the phone, listening to a Hopi radio station and browsing through the Awesome Tapes from Africa blog, Jon McIntosh creates an album which, according to the press blurb, "plays like a night in the Southwest – the experience is cool, serene, expansive; each song ripples with synths, guitars, rhythm, and vocals enfolding the listener in a spell of high desert gloss." I could leave it at that, but want to go in-depth as usual, as there is much to add (and love) about the tape. I have previously described the music of Plains Druid as "astral gamma ray-illumined synth concoctions which propose Paganism in the cyberworld," and believe me, this assembly of coinages was not part of a coronation process during a bullshit bingo party, but truly explicates my feelings that McIntosh's music lives up to this strange description. Be that as it may: let’s experience a transmuted Arizona.


Oozing Ouzo d'Ouroboros? Photo taken by Matthew Barlow.


As a reviewer, I know the states of ambivalence, duality and dichotomy by heart, but my heart itself does not sport a brain, and so it is surprised time and again when an aural embroidery of enchanting textures raises the heartbeat to tachycardia levels. This is undoubtedly the case in the opener Dark Sky City: Days. Right from the get-go, it emits a color and mood spectrum I would describe as crystalline mauve, not unlike the dark purple front artwork. The heavy oscillation of the main aorta unleashes a sense of adventure and joy, an odd warmth which is illumined by pristine synth coils which gyrate and tumble around the heavenly fluxion. Or is it a heavy fluxion? Thickly wadded in spheroidal cloudlets and an elating euphony, this first piece does not last in a respective state for long, always pushing forward, piecing the surfaces together anew without feeling overcrowded or sinisterly bustling. The omnipresence of bliss makes it possible to enjoy the progression as if being placed in a capsule of shelter. After approximately 90 seconds, Plains Druid adds a pumping yet silkened breakbeat and temporarily emaciates the synth wonders in order to allow darker buzzes and astral pigments in the spotlight, but this state, as everything, is fugacious, especially so when highly melodious crystals vesiculate through the atmosphere. Helical alkaline tendrils pierce through the ether while arpeggiated machine sounds round off the soothing elysium. Dark Sky City: Days is anything but mirthfully positive, life-affirming and aquiver with anticipation. 


The follow-up No Such Thing continues to showcase Jon McIntosh’s synth sybaritism, here in a more whitewashed, legatofied gestalt with guitar complexions. Jingle-worthy four-note spirals float through the pearly drones, muffled chants hail from the distance, crunchy-saturated guitar protrusions conflate with a handclap-interspersed percussion stratum and blurred bass drops. It is probably not intended, but the rhythmic scheme faintly resembles ticking clocks. Bouncing static noise tones and scything gyres create a turmoil which feels soothing and benign, as all elements are adamantly polished to embody amicability. Speaking of amicability: Woman approaches. When musicians include female names or related attributes to their respective compositions, it better be worth it. Woman, as a title and in itself, implies a comparably crude use, depending on how the listener stresses the syllable or intones the word, but these things notwithstanding, Plains Druid knows what he is doing, as this tune is indeed a hymnic Dream Rock tune. Featuring the effulgence of crisply reverberated guitars, haunting figments in the form of male and female hums and a laid-back beat structure on a classic drum kit. The electronic globs upfront plus the synth rivers in the background lead to an ecclesiastic, glorifying bow before that woman. Astral New Age Folk? If you say so.


Since I am already asking questions, I notice that Flagstaff’s Ambient druid does so too: Heaven Or The Clouds? is the fourth song and an eminently luring one as it seems to be more dun-colored. There are no ecstatic emotions of utter joy, but still enough energy to warm up the hearts. Much more echoey and diffuse than even the preceding songs, this piece presents an amalgamation of chuggling Space-Age sine tones, New Jersey-esque handclaps, foggy layer undulations and admixed, heavily processed vocals. The blur is intended, I believe. It is much more about the interplay of the textures rather than their distinctive characteristics. This causes a welcome quasi-enigmatic potpourri whose gentleness shimmers through the thickly wadded layer entanglement. Heaven Or The Clouds? closes in a revelatory fashion as McIntosh rather abruptly mutes the majority of the layers, thereby uncovering a golden-shimmering seraphic gossamer vertebra that was there all along, but veneered by the girdling infusions. On this piece, cavalcades of colors are meshed, and the result of this procedure, at least in the real world, is usually a grayish-grizzly liquid. This observation is transferable to this particular song only in terms of the diffusion factor, not the color of the mood itself. One cannot recognize all of the formerly separable parts anymore, but the more ingredients or colors are used, the hazier the result becomes. There is anything wrong with intended haze and camouflaged layers, and so Heaven Or The Clouds? succeeds as well.


The gargantuan apotheosis comes in the shape of Swag Demonic, a brute of no less than 24+ minutes which only knows one adage: forwards ever, backwards never. The most progressive piece of the tape needs to show the very power of progression at all costs, and it so happens that once one looks onto the construction from a bird’s eye perspective, one notices the revved up bile, acidity and sinews of the partaking elements. The prelude to Swag Demonic already emanates Plain Druid’s rougher, more raspy approach; the tribal three-note loop on a faux-marimba may be perfectly moist and soothing, but the surrounding vortex of quavering stardust glints and otherworldly protuberances is already spiky and jagged to begin with. Once the electric guitar cuts through the definitely epicurean soundscape and creates multitudinous crevasses, calcined contemplation is traded in for strengthened superimposition. Fathoming out mercurialism in sound form, Plains Druid injects plinking, clinging and glinting flecks aplenty. Everything feels dazzlingly bright but not fully embracing due to the missing low frequencies. These appear before the seven-minute mark via abyssal beats, but the drone layers themselves are all residing in mid-frequency ranges. This leads to the impression that the listening subject watches this turmoil from afar, not yet fully sucked into the void of galaxia. McIntosh even thins out the arrangement decidedly after 13 minutes, letting the arpeggiated guitar and the classic drum kit interact before a black backdrop. From this point onwards, this state is complemented with incisive sine twangs, cosmic vestibules, bended gales and an evocative luminosity overall. Frosty and glacial but filled with blitheness and gratification, Swag Demonic schleps itself forward to reach the fulminant metamorphosis of a star child. This is the most galactic ayre, not demonic at all. It is not even a guttersnipe. Blotchy and multiplexing tumular and aerose strings, the grand finale never looks back, but the listener should, as the material is worth it.


Swag Demon carries a cool title, and this, in tandem with the front artwork, suggests a Dark Ambient-oid album akin to Twin Springs Tapes material such as Matthew Barlow’s and Andy LoebsNorthwest Passage or Derek M. Poteat’s Guilt (both released in 2013), but this is decidedly not the case! Plains Druid’s first tape bursts at the seams with vertiginous joy, technicolor epitheliums and only the occasional admonitory contravention in the shape of Shoegaze licks. The dropped beat and rhythm structures are no recalcitrant antipodes to the ambience and thus do not distract from the almost besotted synth formations. There is anything surreptitious, no iniquitousness, everything is aglow, awash with light. Jon McIntosh’s maelstroms feel doubly intense: they are astonishingly saturated and designedly overdriven on the one hand, and feature exclusively benign tone sequences on the other. Swag Demon is similar to the music of Ulrich Schnauss, but thrown into ethereality, with the colors, reverberations and frequency-bending effects being more colorful and spatial. While the patterns and surfaces are the actual stars of this tape, I have to applaud the frequent use of beat-driven schemes. It is hard to describe for me, but Plains Druid somehow manages to make his utterly compatible with jogging and workout purposes, but without succumbing to the commonplace 4/4 structure. Sometimes, the beat is masked and too blurred to note during jogging, but at home, the oomph is indeed relevantly revelatory. It is potentially risky to fill Drone fans with enthusiasm for beat-driven music, true, but Swag Demon is only beat-accentuated, not driven by these layers, for there is too much going on above the riverbed of rhythms. The melodies are polished and never lead astray from the texture-related adulation. This is Ambient music that begs you to stand up and move. And since this is potentially embarrassing, the least disconcerting pattern of movement would be jogging or running. The polyphonic overtones work well and even augment the experience out in the field. I have found my niche that allows me to frequently revisit Swag Demon. It is a majestic release, completely life-affirming and supercharged with honesty and happiness.



Further listening and reading:  

  • The album is available at Bandcamp. The initial run of 25 tapes is sold out. Demonic!
  • Unsurprisingly, the Twitter handle of Plains Druid is @PlainsDruid.
  • And Twin Springs Tapes boss Matthew Barlow's handle is @MattCBarlow.



Ambient Review 271: Plains Druid – Swag Demon (2013). Originally published on Oct. 9, 2013 at