Northcape :: Exploration and Ascent (Sun Sea Sky)

Northcape raised his sights beyond the realm of cultural plundering so there are no Tibetan/Nepalese samples or “world music” modal influences in evidence. Instead, the tracks aspire to capture timeless characteristics of the Himalayas and high, mountainous, (strangely?) isolated places more generally.

Since 1999, Charleston Illinois-based Sun Sea Sky Productions has been quietly releasing independent music with an electronic and post-rock flavor. I first learned of them due to their much-welcome remastering of Temporary Oceans by Boc Scadet, which I promptly ordered through their Bandcamp page. The package I received contained not only the coveted reissue but also a special bonus: Captured From Static by an artist new to me, Northcape.

That 2010 release quickly fell into heavy rotation because Northcape, neé England’s Alastair Brown, ably walked a delicate line with this album, his first for Sun Sea Sky. His trip-hop and IDM influenced tracks never felt too harsh but managed to avoid the cloying, sickly-sweet trap that ensnared half of Ulrich Schnauss’ A Strangely Isolated Place album. Tracks like “Shinkansen to Kyoto” and “First Day in a New Town” exhibited great compositional skills, engaging melodic sense and straight-up dope grooves in equal measure.

So, with that background established, my excitement at reading Sun Sea Sky’s announcement of Northcape’s new release Exploration and Ascent should be entirely understandable. Conceptually, Exploration and Ascent is “inspired by Himalayan exploration, and in particular by Bill Tilman and Eric Shipton’s 1934 search for a way into the Nanda Devi Sanctuary,” according to the press release. Wisely, Northcape raised his sights beyond the realm of cultural plundering so there are no Tibetan/Nepalese samples or “world music” modal influences in evidence. Instead, the tracks aspire to capture timeless characteristics of the Himalayas and high, mountainous, (strangely?) isolated places more generally.

Due to the delight of modern digital distribution, I didn’t even have to wait for the physical delivery of my CD and mini-poster (both of which turned out be lovely) to start taking in the sounds. “Cleaning the Glass” begins with reversed, layered swells and gradually introduces a downtempo trip-hop beat, which mixes straight into “Trailhead,” gradually intensifying with fuzzed guitar washes and chiming synths. By the time “Potentilla” enters with its intricate, panned side-stick snare work it’s clear Northcape has refined and advanced his sound in the three years since Captured From Static. The songs have a wider dynamic range, stretch out each new idea, and contain an interesting variety of instruments and effects.

“The First Crossing of the Watershed” embodies the aesthetic perfectly and is perhaps my favorite song of the album. Its eight minute running length sees it evolve from shifting washes of e-piano chord into a solid mid-tempo kick-snare skeleton and this chiming, uplifting melody suggesting possibility and promise. Each subsequent track extends the theme in additional directions: faster, complex layers as on “Arrive Ruttledge Col” and the last half of “High Mountain Record”, or ambient and pensive on “Another Endless Morning.”

The album’s flow and pacing is impeccable, such that by the time the last track “Carbon” trails off into a crackle of static that evokes a dying campfire, we feel we have traveled to the high places, then been brought safely home by a skilled and compassionate guide.

Exploration and Ascent is available on Sun Sea Sky. [Release page]

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