There is no denial that an album title such as Alterations – though used hundreds of times before and ever since – carries a specific, highly personal meaning, a meaning that has lost a lot of its momentum given that ten new genre-spanning albums from all across the world have been uploaded to Bandcamp as soon as you have finished reading this sentence, i.e. now. Who is interested in the circumstances an artist is situated in besides the gossip-crazy concrete jungle tribes? With these thoughts of a spoilsport in mind, there is much delight to be found in Dortmund, Germany-based Earlyguard aka Tom Frühwacht’s latest 45+ minutes sparkler called, well, Alterations. Self-released in June 2014 on iTunes and Bandcamp where it is available to purchase and stream, distinct changes concerning the artistic process lend the key to decipher the album. Without glorifying the new approach, it comes down to this: Frühwacht decides to add real instruments such as vibraphones, guitars and cellos into his ever-synthetic shrines of mystery and journeys through the innermost self. Admittedly, Alterations shifts into an area which is already firmly in place and made up the nuts and bolts of this decade’s Ambient music according to the journalistic consensus. The commentariat applauded the move away from synth-pestered artificial landscapes – a movement which has curiously enough come full circle yet again in 2013/2014 – and noted that each and every Ambient artist will sooner or later succumb to the electro-acoustic world where Jazz vestiges are as frequently embroidered as guitar-driven dronefests and bonfire pluckings. Synths meanwhile are way too commonplace. So how does Alterations fare before this backdrop, and which of Earlyguard's carrying trademark columns have remained?


One of the fragile – and possibly unintended – subthemes of Earlyguard’s music is based on a cautiously churchly nature, and it is this amalgamation of sheltered ecclesiasticism and portentous (ne)science which not only appears in Alterations as well, but manages to be the gateway to its ophidian vestibules. Right from the get-go, a pastoral-choral complexion of benign synth choirs faces a comparatively bellicose helix of haze. Frosty wind gusts and longitudinal airflows blow away the formerly cozy snugness; Isolation (2013) comes to mind. The alteration of Earlyguard’s definition of Ambient, however, is not based on these two countermovements, for the epiphanic incandescence takes place just a few short moments later and comes in one blotchy and one rectilineal shape: a vitreous vibraphone and a stupefyingly sinister ebow/cello are embedded in a pith of nonentity and start to interact with each other.


This comes as no surprise to anyone, for vibraphones and cellos have co-existed in an endless amount of tracks. While this is true, this general sentiment still covers the pompous revelation when Earlyguard’s body of work is taken into consideration. Once this surprise has settled, the interplay of the elemental forces can be thoroughly enjoyed. A big part of the enjoyment is the almost unbearable ebb and flow as well as the intensification of the mystique. The vibraphone, for instance, often resembles brittle wind chimes whose Angkor Wat tonality spawns a gamelan granuloma. These aquatic wisps start to tumble and cling around the 18-minute mark and keep on plinking for a long time in front of a livid ignis fatuus. Here, Alterations is incredibly immersive despite the absence of encapsulating synth erections. These are still there in the form of howling landspouts, but glowing from behind, letting the chromaticity of the coruscating vibraphone reticulation glisten freely…  and portentously.


It is not until after 24 minutes that Earlyguard endorses yet another acoustic instrument, and its appearance adds a completely new layer of interpretation to the scenery. Dangerously chintzy and clichéd but superiorly clandestine in the given context, an acoustic guitar (or similar stringed device, maybe an oud?) is placed amid the whitewashed drone machineries and their lanthanum afterglow of metallization. Resembling a harpsichord, clavichord or even a wonky celesta, Frühwacht plays the guitar in a distinctly Oriental style by first absorbing the dust of dunes and mirages of tent cities and then letting these pictures emanate via each murky chord. The warmth these tones evoke is not of the amicable kind; in fact, Alterations has just become a lot more Lovecraftian than expected. Even though the appearance of this stringed device is more a convulsive fugacity than a firm ctenidium, its mildly apocalyptic ominousness takes the arrangement to a new level and remains the most memorable protrusion of the whole track. As Alterations continues to simmer, float and meander, bumblebee-like cello sinews appear on the horizon, but to no harming avail, for the vibraphone and its scintillating droplets remain the driving factor. The finale is another force which I do not want to spoil. However, two things can be said about it: the texture of the pointillistic devices changes dramatically, and secondly, the finale is quite a bit histrionic and cinematic even for an Earlyguard longform piece. Is this another alteration to be fathomed further in the future?


With Alterations, Earlyguard has added a new force to the endemics of his universe, one which is based on instruments that might have been included in his soundscapes all along, but have heretofore never overcome the camouflaged state due to veneered post-processing. Alterations is a twofold title, referring to both the intrinsic progressions of the very piece it is adhered to, and Earlyguard’s overarching vision. The topic therefore crosses the music-related boundary of this specific track and invites the follower of Tom Frühwacht’s aural assemblies to put them to the test. Enigmatic arcana have always played a big part in Earlyguard’s music, and this emotion remains the well-known pillar in-between the superfluid of newly arranged tone sequences. It is also evident that this is another construction of over 45 minutes and hence a part of the artist’s favorite form of expression: long tracks. In this positively formulaic but well-oiled machinery, the first of many alterations is injected. The cello/ebow and vibraphone/glockenspiel are constituents which clearly amend to the textural coppice. The circumstances are verdured and good, especially so since the synth whorls and windy cataracts work as accompanying devices, not supernatural forces. As the composition progresses, this allusion changes, but all in all, Alterations is keen on presenting these unexpected devices on a figurative silver platter, allowing the listening subject to feast on their oneiric richness and eldritch sustain. And this is the beauty of Alterations at the end of the day: it really does offer Earlyguard's fan base more of the same, the novelty factor is cleverly sewn into the synthetic cascade. This piece is as progressive and prolonged as one expects from Earlyguard. Furthermore, it is highly mystical and even psychedelic. Among these prospering locales, the real-world instruments are just the icing on the cake.


Further listening and reading:


Ambient Review 349: Earlyguard – Alterations (2014). Originally published on Jun. 11, 2014 at AmbientExotica.com.