The final leg of my return from my Christmas break had me catching a train back to London from Leeds. The snow that had been covering the country for much of the festive period seemed to have turned into a icy, foggy suspension, hiding the Yorkshire countryside from view. It felt eerily still, particularly with headphones in; only a faint mechanical chunter told me that I was in fact travelling. My attention was caught, however, by the occasional sudden appearance of a tree through the haze, its blackness picked out against the brooding grey behind. And another, hard edges amongst soft textures. And another, crisp shapes contrasted against a diffuse background. Gradually, I found the album I was listening to on those headphones, Pearls by Cory Allen, and the outside world, were seeping into one another, it was as if the pure tones were becoming immersed in the fog, and the trees were emerging from static. The sounds adding new colour to the sights, and the sights adding fresh harmony to the sounds.
A happy accident of time and place, surely. However, accident isn’t a word that is used often in describing the work of Cory Allen. There is a reason the label he jointly runs with Mike Vermusky is called Quiet Design, after all. Allen’s solo work for the label has tended towards the scientific, being formulated from precisely measured combinations of ambient textures and tones, carefully set up to experiment with notions of perception. The range of frequencies he uses, so I’ve read, even include the imperceptible, the ultrasonic. You clearly aren’t supposed to engage with this on all levels, all of the time. His last album, Hearing Is Forgetting The Name Of The Thing One Hears, was a collection of glistening sine waves inspired by a neighbour’s set of wind chimes; always there, always musical, always beautiful, but somehow not always noticed, drifting in and out of aural focus. Ambient music in the sense that Eno would approve of, as ignorable as it is interesting in its own right.
Allen’s new release Pearls is similarly unassuming, but it is a sonically richer experience, full of contrasts. Acoustic and electronic. The light and the dark. The real and the unreal. “Strange Birds” rolls sleepily down from the hill at dawn and immediately diverges. The tension of a pulsing river of glitchy static is broken by delicate Fender Rhodes droplets, soft minimal melodies playing on the surface, becoming increasingly diffuse with each rippling repetition. Throughout the track, and the album as a whole, a slow undercurrent of bass notes tries to drag you out of your seat and into its fluid depths; the combination of frequencies, as well as the meticulousness of their assembly, reminding me of the electronic constructions of Oren Ambarchi.
While initially it feels still, you begin to perceive the sensation of slow movement, of calculated progression. The tracks run into one another, those recurring bass and Rhodes sounds leaking across the divides, pushing you almost imperceptibly forward into new misty landscapes which are shy about revealing their beauty. As well as sharing sounds with each other, the tracks trade them with the outside world; at the end of the album is a field recording of sorts, as if someone has accidentally called you when their mobile phone is in their pocket, and you are listening in to them going about their crackly business. You find yourself tuning out from your world and into theirs, these dislocated sounds distracting you from the wondrous scenery: the ruined majesty of “Isoyazi Clouds” with its looped, greyed-out classical samples is only gradually apparent, as if it is approached by train through the fog. Or, quite possibly, via some other means. You probably don’t need to invest in a ticket to/from Leeds to get the most from Pearls. It will add a delightful tint to your environment, wherever you are.