First Narrows evokes anywhere technology opens onto something natural and vaster.
Ambient music is full of love stories between people and places: Wolfgang Voigt and his German forest; Geir Jenssen and his mountains. For Loscil’s Scott Morgan, it was his home city of Vancouver, a love affair that began on 2004’s freshly remastered and reissued First Narrows.
It’s safe to say this is the album wherein Loscil truly became Loscil. That’s not to say his two prior albums were bad; Triple Point was solid, Submers excellent. But they felt detached and their themes could have been taken from a Nova documentary: Triple Point was inspired by the laws thermodynamics; Submers by submarines and deep-sea exploration. These are not subjects most non-scientists know intimately, and the way Morgan evoked them wasn’t always convincing. By bringing us to the surface with First Narrows – named after a Vancouver bridge – Morgan landed on something homier, more relatable, and ultimately better.
His ensuing work has not strayed far from home: Strathcona Variations and Sea Island are named after places in his hometown; the tracks on the underrated Coast/Range/Arc were named for nearby landforms; and Endless Falls found its muse in the Pacific Northwest’s notoriously wet weather. They’ve also felt more lived-in and less fanciful than Triple Point and Submers, easing up on the darkness of those records and suggesting the comfort of home. First Narrows is the template for the direction Loscil has taken and rarely strayed from since.
First Narrows evokes anywhere technology opens onto something natural and vaster. Even a construction as mighty as the First Narrows bridge looks puny next to the great natural expanse it spans. The same goes for docks, ships and seaside cities like Vancouver; all are massive, man-made constructions that shrink next to the enormity of the sea. First Narrows suggests this by placing the obviously mechanical elements of its sound in the front of the mix while the more organic sounds dwell somewhere deeper. Treated with reverb to emanate sounds originating miles away, they dwarf the more familiar elements in front.
Take opener “Sickbay”: The first sound we hear is a snatch of skittering drum, supported by a bit of bass. Out of the distance rises a single, sustained, crystalline tone, the reverb snaking and weaving within the stereo field. At the exact moment the sound hits, First Narrows blooms into widescreen. It’s one of the most evocative opening moments in ambient since Gas’s Pop; where most ambient albums start slow and easy, First Narrows bursts into color.
This is also the first Loscil album with live instrumentation: Fender Rhodes (Jason Zumpano), cello (Nyla Raney), and guitar (Tim Loewen). But it doesn’t make a show of it. Mostly, the three musicians improvise deep within the mix, creating swirling textures rather than calling attention to themselves. It’s often hard to tell they’re there at all. Loewen’s Morricone-esque guitar work is the most prominent of the live instruments, subtly suggesting open, desolate spaces.
Yet throughout, Morgan’s electronics dominate, is approach informed by dub’s use of effects and repurposing of sounds and ideas. “Sickbay” is built around the same drone as the 10-minute title track, showing up again – albeit pitch-shifted down –on closer “Cloister.” The intersection of ambient and dub was decades old at that point and had arguably been perfected by the artists on Basic Channel’s Chain Reaction label. But while those artists used dub effects to obfuscate and distort, Morgan used them to give his sounds depth and clarity. This is a resolutely hi-fi album and a good candidate for a vinyl remaster.
This remaster comes courtesy of Rafael Anton Irisarri, a fellow ambient artist and Pacific Northwesterner (from Seattle) who likewise started out doing passable ambient techno before happening upon a more distinctive sound with albums like The Unintentional Sea. Many of the changes are probably most noticeable on vinyl, but the remasters available for download on Bandcamp are crisp and vivid, the way the sounds slosh around the stereo field more obvious than ever.
The reason for the remaster is unclear; First Narrows isn’t celebrating an anniversary or milestone. But turn-of-the-millennium post-club ambient music is experiencing a remarkable resurgence: Gas’s Box reissue from last year gave his lesser-known records a boost; Demdike Stare’s Shinichi Atobe compilations are indispensable; and young guns like Huerco S. and Earthen Sea have found critical success imitating the sounds of labels like Mille Plateaux, Chain Reaction, and Kranky (home of Loscil, and on which Earthen Sea released the fantastic An Act of Love last month). Someday, First Narrows might go down as a milestone of ambient music. But for now, it’s just a great record and one of Loscil’s best.