Home Music r beny: Seafoam & Dust

r beny: Seafoam & Dust

Modular synths and vinyl are two musical endeavors whose appeal this critic doesn’t understand. It costs thousands to build a modular synth rig, and proponents love to boast of the strange sounds they can create on theirs, yet modular music is rarely as evocative as what Loren Connors can accomplish with just an electric guitar or Sarah Davachi on a single organ. Vinyl has a cool ritualistic aspect, and it’s fun to agree on a record with a friend and spend the better part of an hour immersed in it. But the difference in sound quality doesn’t seem worth the extra money, nor does the deeper connection some vinyl proponents believe physically owning a piece of music imparts. For those at the Venn-diagram intersection of these two obsessions, Seafoam & Dust is the perfect money-suck: two and a half hours of modular-synth music split over eight sides of vinyl.

This box set from Belgian label Dauw compiles the first four albums from r beny, who’s probably the most famous face in the YouTube modular-synth rabbit hole. Bearded and serene, the San Jose synth wizard can be seen in many videos poring over arcane thickets of wires, guiding the progression of his cloudy, dragging ambient pieces. But his videos are a lot more likely to inspire a dangerous interest in these tangled machines than anything on Seafoam & Dust.

beny doesn’t record strictly with modular synths, incorporating tape loops and field recordings and occasionally using a Korg or related hardware. But the homogeneity of the music makes it hard to think of much beyond the process of its making. There are few moments that tease the brain, stop the heart or open onto vast and dreamlike realms. Mostly, beny toggles between long, slightly serrated washes of sound and a harp-like twang generated by the Mutable Instruments Rings resonator. Sometimes, he switches between the two over the course of one track. That’s most of what happens here, though gearheads who are able to identify exactly what he’s doing might get more out of this stuff than the casual listener.

Of the four albums, Cascade Symmetry is the strongest. It’s the best-structured, and on tracks like “Crystals & Graves” and “Vestigial,” his trademark harp sound seems to emerge from a vast canyon of fog. Saudade comes second, not because it evokes the sad, transient feeling of the Portuguese word that gives it its title but because its textures are so pleasant; the physical pleasures it imparts are its biggest strength, not least on eight-minute beaut “Palo Colorado.” Eistla, the most recent, sees Beny picking up a guitar for some actual melodies, and it has some of the same alluring darkness as Cascade Symmetry. The least of the four is the first, Full Blossom of the Evening, whose uninspired textures rarely live up to its florid title.

Over the course of several long walks, this music became frustrating: it didn’t add flavor and mystery to the environment the way the best ambient music does but hung loosely over the ears like a pair of earmuffs. Only Cascade Symmetry imparted any sense of foreboding, awe, or elemental terror. Maybe it’s meant to be enjoyed while stationary rather than out in nature, but the pine-scented titles of these tracks suggest otherwise, and besides, Matthewdavid’s recent cassettes or the catalog of the Spanish producer Warmth are much more comfortable to sink into. There might be a good reason to buy this box set, but after listening through, its pleasures remain as elusive as those of modular synths.

Its pleasures are as elusive as those of modular synths.
53 %
Modular, meh

One Comment

  1. umil-25-01

    August 7, 2020 at 2:29 pm

    It seems your goal (whether consciously or not) was to simmer this review in animosity rather than understanding. As someone who doesn’t read many music reviews, maybe this is the norm, something to be anticipated. Seeing as you’re from Portland (from my understanding, there are quite a few modular-ambient artists in the area), perhaps you’ve only been digging for ambient music within the modular world. Modular synths are, as the name would suggest — quite literally modular. Listen to a Richard Devine or Datach’i record or “A Sphere in the Heart of Silence” by John Frusciante and Josh Klinghoffer if you’d like to understand just how varied and multifaceted these instruments truly are. Not mention the fact that they’re widely used to process countless instruments in a manner similar to a pedal-board or studio outboard gear(see: Nils Frahm, Hans Zimmer, Floex, Radiohead)

    As someone who consumes a lot of music made with modular synths, your one-dimensional description of what is essentially a customizable palette of music-making tools seems to heavily lack awareness of a wider musical context. To summarize modular in such a one-dimensional way came off not only as arrogant but journalistically lazy at best. Maybe this all the more reason for why we should take music reviews with a heap of salt. They’re an attempt to convey a purely subjective experience in some grandiose, pseudo-objective manner.

    I spent hours working an extremely stressful (and deeply unsatisfying) job during which Cascade Symmetry, Saudade, and Eistla softly hummed in the background, providing a harmonic framework for my feelings of frustration, anger, sadness, as well as glimmers of hope and calm. In a sense, this was similar to the experience of having a word “on the tip of your tongue”; the music guided lost emotions into my awareness in a benevolent and grounding manner. I actually had to run into the bathroom one day because Saudade brought my to tears during a terribly hard week of my life.

    Something gives me the feeling that if you didn’t know this music was made with modular synths, or that it was being released on vinyl, maybe your efforts as purported music critic would have better attempted to meet this unfamiliar music “halfway” instead of writing it off as another insignificant contribution to the ambient modular scene. Funnily enough, I bet you have a record collection but you’re too chic to admit it now that its actually become popular. If you happen to see this Austin, thank you for making my life more manageable with your music. Much love.


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