One of the most impressive ambient albums to come along in a while.
Ophiuchus is one of the most impressive ambient albums to come along in a while. Not best, not a personal favorite. Impressive. This thing comes on like a jet of tie-dyed water to the skull. The title track, which comprises nearly two-thirds of the record, breaks the cardinal ambient rule of being ignorable to pull us, with unrelenting forward motion, into a constantly changing vortex of hypersonic drone. Most ambient tracks come in slowly and use the crescendo as a shy payoff before retreating into the silence from whence they came. Not Ophiuchus. This thing, you put it on and presto! Goddamn rainbows.
Matthewdavid is the best of the new New Agers. Initially a beatmaker on the periphery of the Brainfeeder scene, he found his calling on the first Mindflight album Trust the Guide and Glide. That was one of the strongest ambient releases of last year, and Ophiuchus is even better despite being less than half its length. It seems inspired by Laraaji’s tape twofers, like Unicorns in Paradise and Essence/Universe, in its structure and flagrant flange and phaser abuse. But while Laraaji’s music drifted contentedly in space, Ophiuchus writhes, twists and squirms, frequently pushing into the red. This is the noisiest album that could still plausibly pass for new age.
If that doesn’t sound like it’d make for pleasant listening, no fear. It’s got muscle, but it’s never abrasive or aggressive; it’s like a blue whale, serene but still powerful enough to be inherently terrifying. It corresponds with your mindset. You can fall asleep to it if you’re in the right mood, but it also rewards full attention, and it’s great fun to map its twists and turns. In that, it’s like Gas’s Pop, which comes on like a pillow of clouds but is so intricately designed that it’s as much of a treat to listen to in an analytical mindset.
Recent new age releases usually display at least some awareness of how the genre’s perceived. Sometimes they err on the right side of the line between self-awareness and irony (International Feel’s articulate smoothness); sometimes they don’t (the wretched Pacific Visions of Martin Glass from earlier this year). But Ophiuchus seems beamed in from a universe where there’s nothing funny about new age. Certainly it buys into new age tropes—the title is a star sign used in some alternate Western astrological traditions—but it doesn’t rely on them and, more importantly, it doesn’t make fun of them. There’s not a hint of irony on the record, no cheeky references for the casual listener to smirk at.
Matthewdavid, who claims Michael Stearns’ Planetary Unfolding saved his life, sees new age as an art form worthy of being discussed on the same page as rock, jazz, hip hop and other sacred cows. Lofty, yes, but not an unreasonable ambition, especially when you’re this good at it. This is the kind of album that could have lent rock-crit cred to the genre had it been released in its heyday: it’s challenging, it’s bold in its sound design, and it takes us on a journey like a concept album from vinyl’s golden age.
The title track is the album’s main selling point. The other track is “Geddes,” which runs sixteen minutes but still feels like a perfunctory footnote to its sibling—sort of like “Colors” to “The Creator Has A Master Plan” on Pharaoh Sanders’ comically lopsided twofer Karma. That’s not to say it’s bad. Au contraire, It’s gorgeous, much more stagnant than the title track, content to hang like a heavy, low-lying fog. It lets us drift slowly back to earth, and it’s a testament to how tight this album is that after it’s over we’re still not sure what just hit us. How many new age albums can you say that about?