Level is the latest work of the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based duo of Dominic Coppola and Theodore Schaeffer who are better known for their glacial-polygonal Drone constructions they create as Cestine. Released in November 2014 on Gavin Catling’s Twice Removed Records and one of the last batch of artifacts before the label transmorphs into something different, the five tracks of Level can be purchased and fully streamed at Bandcamp. Limited to 30 copies that come with a photo insert, the rose-tinted front artwork, while seemingly generic at first sight, reveals more about the duo’s aesthetics and arrangements as one might think, and no, I’m not grasping at straw here. If one looks more closely, a few things come to mind, all of them applicable in terms of the endemic soundscapes: whether it is the soothing aura of the rosé-beige mélange or the granular static unrest that harms the creamy atmosphere, these visible things are indeed aurally transferred to music. From mellifluous cascades over careful jitter prisms to adamantly droning machine cesspools, Level keeps the pace, encloses the innermost peace and remains genuinely amicable and benign as Cestine’s layering embroidery is unraveled. Synth-like guitar drones, wonderful melodic patterns, sustained reverberations and masked field recordings make for a great album whose biggest boon will be further analyzed below, but can already be summed up in advance and serve as the last signal term of this introductory paragraph: coherence.


Launching an album – no matter its crisp shortness – with a title that is called Relief is actually a good sign for followers of the soothing-susurrant sinews which the duo of Cestine is primarily known for. The gateway to their cautiously wadded circumambience is actually fragile, and quite strikingly so. If the volume isn’t turned up, chances are that one misses the thunderstorm/wind gust aureole, the reversely played argentine sweeps and distant afterglows of an airplane engine. It is only during the sixtieth second that the diorama opens up, revealing Coppola and Schaeffer’s mauve-colored micro cloudlets and their viscoelasticity. A pentatonic three-note pattern wafts through the vanillarific air, the rain is pouring, pink noise cataracts serve as caproic moirés of a deeply content corker. The arrangement is perfectly balanced, delineating a superb unison of catchy melodies and languorously texturized cloudlets. Be it synth-based or guitar-driven, Relief is a magnificent piece. The adjacent Crest meanwhile clocks in at eleven and a half minutes, making it a progressive force of the album no matter how ubiquitous and superfluous a term such as progression tends to be. After the crystalline prelude with its softly oscillating sustain photometry, Cestine augment the glacial titration with a warmhearted, fittingly seraphic ecclesiasticism that reminds of the warmer New Age hymns of the late 70’s. Sporting the physiognomy of a proper Drone track, Crest sees its aural-albuminoid lactase interpolated by infinitesimally portentous counterharmonies. Feeling snugly and aeriform at once, the duality of petrifying coldness and formless thermal heat results in a cajoling incertitude.


Up next is Grade, the album’s centerpiece. Only a few seconds shy of the seventeen-minute threshold, this long-form piece presents a setting that feels like a foreign substance amidst the endemic lilac lure. The tone sequence itself is beautiful, a towering lavabo-like superfluid that protrudes out of a processed guitar sanctuary. The partially alienating twist of this arrangement is found in the granular alloy that entraps the majesty of the prolonged moment. Prickly, scraggy, almost arpeggiating, the moiré serves as a compunction device, threatening the saccharified and increasingly droning chromaticity. This quandary remains unresolved, better still: it is increasingly cataleptic. Stokehold turmoils, mephitic machines, metalization processes, raucous rivulets, rhizomatic paroxysms… Grade genuflects before the pother, and while it never lets its cherubic core out of sight, one can feel the stern relentlessness of this industrial braiding as it approaches the pith of purity with its recondite tentacles. In our modern times, this would be the end. Luckily, Cestine favor a refreshingly retrogressive approach and resolve this unrest in a wonderful way. The cloudy convulsion wanes, making room for a stupefyingly bleepy synth serenade made of wadded polyhedrons. Juxtaposed with this harmonious epithelium is the eponymous Level, a short Drone mirage with multiplexed strata of malleable rapture and a guarding placidity. It is a streamlined, sun-dappled effort in the best sense of these terms, stringent in its focus, coherent in its effulgence. The endpoint Patiently, however, turns out to be a different plasticizer. Chlorotic shadows of demonic voices are serrated with rotatory wisps, crackling clicks, polar illuminants and liquedous droplets. The growing melody pulsates mellowly within this quasi-friendly bedlam and is the last light to flicker before the album fades out for good.


The simultaneity, interpolation and connection between the polished surfaces and granular interim states is what make Cestine’s Level a great Drone work whose absorption is undoubtedly worthwhile if one takes the melodies into account as well. Dominic Coppola and Theodore Schaeffer’s album reminds me in all the good ways of the pre-millennial Glitch movement and subsequent Clicks & Cuts analogies. Naturally, Level does not inherit the rhythms, let alone the beats from this particular time and genre, but what it willfully lacks in these regards, it gains all the more in terms of the harmonious sequences. Open to scrutiny, easy to spot, these seemingly diaphanous entities are nonetheless enchanting due to the duo’s layering technique and choice of textural arrays. In lieu of cheesy synth patterns, it is the heavily – or rather heavenly – processed guitars whose grainy twangs and elasticized shapes unfurl moments of coruscating clarity. All the better that Cestine make sure to soften the potentially harsh machinery and let it appear as an ignis fatuus to worship. After all, this is what the duo’s artifacts do have in common with the potentially ill-cited reference to 90’s Glitch works: the anticipation for the scything jitters and turbulent bursts is as noteworthy and rewarding as the euphoria that arises once the zoetropic intermixture of beautiful tones outnumbers the more bellicose countermovements. With these things in mind, Level is streamlined in the best possible way, contingently connecting its intrinsic vestibules to create a mellow reticulation of embracingly heartwarming glaciers.


Further listening and reading:


Ambient Review 387: Cestine – Level (2014). Originally published on Nov. 5, 2014 at AmbientExotica.com.