Set In Sand :: Return (Abandon Building/Symbolic Interaction)

This is mutant music, a one-off experiment that transforms a few tinny notes and gear sounds into an orchestra of phantom marimbas.

Set In Sand 'Return'

Return is a new full length from Set in Sand, co-released by Abandon Building (US) and Symbolic Interaction (JP). While this album continues SIS’s track record of dope abstract electronica, it flips the script on their usual sound template. Return forgoes the use of stringed instruments, going back to Set in Sand’s roots as sample based music. This is a delightful turn of events because as lovely as the band-oriented foktronica of Set in Sand’s past few albums is, there is something special about that older SIS material. Back in the day Set in Sand made electronic music that joyfully celebrated its own electronicness, experimenting in ways that are only possible with the assistance of digital editing. Return revisits this approach to composition with a more mature sensibility, resisting the temptation to sample everything and the kitchen sink, instead taking on a non-disclosed thematic restriction. This limitation ends up adding a lot to the tunes, stitching them with implied narratives of found sound and unifying the album into an organic entirety.

While the album credits never specify what sources SIS sampled, the chiming melodies and ticking rhythms give the impression that Return was pieced together from a variety of thrift store music boxes. These playful and quirky instruments give the album a hand made and precocious feeling. Under the guidance of a less thorough producer, 40 plus minutes of this limited sound pallet could quickly become tiresome. Thankfully, do to Set in Sand’s distinct fillterization and digital alchemy these relatively simple sound structures are to transformed into sci-fi skylines of humming minarets spotted with flying jalopies, each as delicate and ornate as a clock work emerald.

The over arching feeling generated by this music is one of friendly regard, sometimes almost rambunctiously so. These songs tend to spill out of speakers and charge around the house like a herd of border collie puppies, sliding across the floor and upsetting the geraniums. Return is also fond of hiding your keys when your late for work, then sneak up from behind and kissing the back of your neck while handing you a glass of orange juice. This whimsical ambiance comes primarily from the melodies decidedly bright and expressive phrasing, a collection of IDM lullabies. A cool trick SIS pulls off is juggling short pitch shifted vocal tones, bell sounds and heavily produced blurbs and bleeps so fast that they blur into a single ever evolving expression. This multi-partner marriage of voice, instrument and digital atmospherics is a recurring motif in SIS’s catalogue and Return is in many ways its most seamless realization yet.

The percussive elements are largely spun out of winding cranks and clicking cogs punctuated by crunchy electronics and well placed static. This is were SIS shows off their adroit programming skills, jumping from one improbable rhythm to the next several times within each song but knitting them all together with micro-edited glitches and robot beat boxing. All though Return is easy to bob your head to, there is no denying that the drum work is incredibly dense and often disjointed, bouncing around itself like some sort of Jan Svankmajer designed pinball machine. These stampedes of abstract rhythms sometimes seem in danger of falling into chaotic abandon, before being reined in at the last second by the crib friendly melodies. This balancing act of wild and woolly rhythms against bright and shiny tones is repeated through Return, most eloquently on “Seize the Daiseys” (audio clip below). Peep the spot two-thirds through where the beat falls out and the melody undergoes a metamorphosis into an awesomely cheesy synth line before crashing back into an Afro-Cuban interpretation of electronic gamelan music. Impressive.

While there are many similar high lights worth mentioning, discussing them seems to somehow miss the point. Return isn’t about individual moments, it’s about an entire world of labyrinthine shanty towns that go on as far as the eye can see, all built out of music boxes stacked on music boxes stacked on music boxes and so on into infinity. This is mutant music, a one-off experiment that transforms a few tinny notes and gear sounds into an orchestra of phantom marimbas.

The only complaint I can find with Return is that after multiple listens, it lacks some of the emotional range that Set in Sand captured on previous releases. Compared to the guitar and nature driven anthems of “Mid Summer at The Winters,” Return comes off as a little gimmicky after the novelty erodes. This is one of the inherent limitations of sample based music, despite my earlier hyperbole. No matter how much love and attention a producer has to offer, it seems impossible to electronically mimic the communicative intimacy of an instrument being caressed by human hands. Perhaps that’s the story behind Return‘s lovely, if somewhat puzzling, cover art; a pair of hands cradling a brain, maybe offering it up to the listener? It is as if Set in Sand was saying “This one is all mind, a concept album in the strictest sense of the word.” I think that might be over stating the case a bit. While Return may be a smidgen overly cerebral, it contains quite a lot of heart and soul thrown in as well. (AW)

Return is out now on Abandon Building and Symbolic Interaction.

[audio:|titles=Set In Sand “Seize The Daiseys”]
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