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Loscil: Clara

The default sound in ambient is a low, legato hum, somewhere between a string section and a choir, the offspring of Laura Palmer’s theme and Popol Vuh’s eerie Aguirre choir organ. It’s easy to achieve on just about any synth that lets you play more than one note at once, even a cheap one for kids. But on his new album Clara, Scott Morgan has gone so far as to source these sounds from an actual string orchestra in Budapest, whose recording he had transferred to a piece of vinyl that he physically scratched and altered. It sounds like the recipe for one of those late-‘90s experiments with physical media conducted by Oval or Philip Jeck, which did for glitches and skips and pops what Jimi Hendrix did for feedback. But as with most of Morgan’s work with his long-running Loscil project, Clara’s surface is spotless. It’d be hard to guess its source, and it mostly just sounds like a Loscil album.

Loscil’s last decade was defined by experiments: the deep, churning drone of Coast/Range/Arc, the app-based “endless music” of Adrift. Clara sounds less of a piece with those albums than with the signature Loscil sound, honed on an excellent mid-‘00s run on the Kranky label: First Narrows, Plume and Endless Falls, give or take a few others. Sequencers ping desolately through the fog as the faintest ghost of a beat bubbles up through the distance. Clara isn’t as imaginative or imagistic as some of those albums, but it’s the fullest and most luxurious immersion into the Loscil sound, with tracks unfurling over seven-plus minutes. And even though it’s a crowd-pleaser, it feels a little obstinate. At 70 minutes, it’s his second longest behind 2014’s Sea Island, but while that album played around with new sounds like human voices within the established confines of the Loscil project, Clara never deviates from its core elements: processed strings, sonar noises, and a kick drum or a hi-hat (but never both at once) to gently nudge things along.

If the real strings accomplish anything, it’s to impart a sense of icy grandeur. On “Flamma” the string section does what you hire a string section to do, swelling and sweeping like a weepy old Hollywood soundtrack. But once you know how it was made, it’s easy to wish for an alternate-universe version of this album where he got a little crazier with the crackles and pops and let a little grit seep into his spotless vision of ambient music. It’s almost endearing how nice he plays it, how the process of “abusing” the record has not freed him from the essentially reassuring tone of his work. Vladislav Delay, another great working in the dubbier end of ambient electronic music, recently revitalized his career with music that made no concessions to the listener or to the concept of “ambient.” It’ll be interesting to see if Loscil ever makes the same leap, but for now, Clara stands comfortably of a piece with the most beloved Loscil albums while reminding us why they’re so beloved in the first place.

The fullest and most luxurious immersion into the Loscil sound.
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