Liminal Garden isn’t a record that shines.
In the growing trend of new-age-leaning, electroacoustic minimalist records (Bing and Ruth, Kelly Moran, Mary Lattimore), Sage Fisher’s Dolphin Midwives project takes a unique approach with its focus on edgier electronic manipulations. Instead of compositions peppered with low, warm bass tones or light tape delays like her contemporaries, Fisher’s music, especially on Liminal Garden, is soaked in all sorts of digital effects and manipulations. While the main instrumental focus here is on her harp and (less so) her voice, the music’s meaning arises from the new characters these well-worn sounds take on. Despite this, Fisher’s approach to composition and production doesn’t have enough variation or nuance to turn every track into the spacious worlds she strives to build.
The mythic track titles suggest this desire to construct a reality, a feeling furthered by Liminal Garden’s instrumental unity and consistent mood. There’s not much low end, and every sound hangs, suspended in midair. Even at high volumes, Fisher’s harp feels distant, due to both its careful mixing and performance. The pleasantness of the sound design alone warrants a listen through the album, especially as compositions like “Flux” expertly ride the fine line between glitch and ambient. The watery chimes and purring noises that form the track’s bass read as calming enough, but the jittery pitch-shifted vocals add a discomfort to the mix that the track never fully comes back from. It’s just two minutes of music, but it manages to evoke a paradoxical sense of agitated rest that few other tracks here can muster.
The issue is the imbalance between the album’s real strengths and Fisher’s preoccupation with overwrought electronic manipulation. Tracks like “Castleshell” and “Satya Yuga,” at their core, have the potential to morph into an interesting composition. The slow, pulsing rhythms of the former and the arpeggiated melody of the latter showcase the strength of these tracks’ simplicity. Unfortunately, Fisher’s overuse of warping, reversing and looping effects muddy up this clarity and bring the music to the same middle zone that much of the album exists in. It feels almost obligatory that each idea eventually delves into the same type of chaotic disassembly. Other tracks falter in a fixation on novelty, like the quick, stuttering loops of “Labyrinth I” that never open into something more than a purposefully jarring appropriation of computer tools. Instead of displaying faraway fortresses or mind-exploding hallucinations, the tracks only evoke the stark greys of an Ableton screen.
The contrasts to this homogenous electronic treatment result in Liminal Garden’s most rewarding moments. The looping, layered chorus of opener “Grass Grow” is a thrilling introduction into the album’s world. It’s one of the most successful mergers of acoustic and electronic here, especially as a synthetic hum swells below Fisher’s voice and gives it a welcome density. Later, “TEMPLE V” offers up the most distinctive sound palette on the album. The steady clanging percussion that opens the track reads as ritualistic, a composure that eventually disintegrates into pinging high-pitched bells. Not only is the sound mix unlike anything else here, but Fisher’s greater concession to melodic development justifies the track’s lengthier runtime.
Fisher makes an undeniable case for her technical know-how, both as a performer and a producer. Her control of the harp’s timbre and her slick, even electronic sound is noteworthy, but Liminal Garden isn’t a record that shines creatively. While the sound of Fisher’s music would never suggest so, the emotional flavor of this album resembles prog at the height of its opulence. Imbued with great technical force, the music can never rise up from under the weight of its desire to be much more than it is.