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Following his outfit Blue Glass’s 2019 second LP Pale Mirror — whose synth-bedded guitar art-pop with suave, goth-tinged vocals reminded our Jack Rabid of The Moffs, The Church, The Durutti Column, Section 25, and A Certain Ratio in issue 84 — Seattle’s Michael Shunk confounded expectations in 2021 by releasing a one-man, out-of-left-field ambient instrumental album, Jardin des Étoiles. Not surprisingly, the “chilling mood-pop, as strangely still as David Bowie’s Low and Heroes, side twos” (again per Rabid, issue 88) of that third LP is present on this similarly “jardin”-titled fourth, inspired by Shunk’s studies of the French language, director Chris Marker’s elusive, narratively obscure 1962 still-image film La Jetée, and the works of classical composer Claude Debussy. But whereas Jardin des Étoiles was characterized by glacial, scarcely deviating synths and guitars, Les Jardins Éternels features more varied, contrasting instrumentation — most notably, a somber, alluring Kawai digital piano that pervades nearly every track — and fluctuating, precarious arrangements, allowing each composition to convey a disparate range of colors and textures.
“Le Son La Nuit”
As an example of this modified approach, look no further than the high-pitched kaleidoscopic pulsations, flittering radio static, and mono-chord piano trills that assertively compete with each other on the opening “Le Son La Nuit” (“Sound at Night”), before giving way to delicate, twinkling wind chimes and a hushed, late evening tranquility. Or the calming, sedate keyboards and mournful, submerged piano that evoke the feeling of floating through space on the eight-minute “L’Endroit Étrange” (“The Strange Place”). Or the elongated, scraping keyboard drone that opens the ten-minute “Les Trois Coins” (“The Three Corners”) — which oddly resembles the muted din of honking auto traffic in a tunnel — before a sudden burst of distorted, splattered feedback interrupts the soothing ambience, eventually softening back into what sounds like far-off, clanging church bells. Or the wobbly, disjointed piano dirge that creaks ominously through the haunting “Carré,” as if being played by a ghostly phantom in an abandoned fun house. Or yet another off-kilter piano, this one stately and deep-toned, that gracefully adorns the melancholy, ruminative closer “La Neige Qui Tombe sur la Mer” (“Snow Falling on the Sea”).
“Retour à la Mer”
Elsewhere, the alternating inhaling and exhaling effects on the terse “L’Hiver à la Mer” (“Winter By the Sea”) mimic someone puffing into a hollow, metallic pipe, while on “Un Endroit Lointain” (“A Distant Place”), an overamped, vacuum cleaner-conjuring buzz almost engulfs a murky, repeated piano line, with the latter growing louder and more pronounced in the piece’s final third. Only “Retour à la Mer” (“Back to the Sea”), with its strident, piercing synthesizer hum overlaying faint wine glass-evincing clinks, feels like it could’ve fit on Jardin des Étoiles. Whether you’re drifting around space or firmly planted here on Earth, Shunk’s entrancing, pacifying tone poems can act as soundtracks to a limitless number of scenarios you can devise in your head. (tworoadsrecords.bandcamp.com)
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