John Beltran - Espais

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  • It's all too easy to describe ambient music as "cinematic": textural, beatless compositions often resemble film soundtracks, which aim to convey mood and emotion while leaving enough to the imagination so the story can do its part. The term is often used loosely, comparing the music's instrumental sense of narrative to that of most films, and with positive connotations. Consider, however, that a proper ambient album is a standalone piece, void of imagery, characters and dialog. Writing an album as if it were a soundtrack, and without accounting for the non-musical elements that make them work, could result in a record that feels unfocused and incomplete. This issue is at the forefront of John Beltran's Espais, a predominantly ambient album whose cinematic attempts fall short. Beltran has made a long, successful career out of versatility and broad stylistic shifts. After making 10 Days Of Blue, one of the best ambient albums of the '90s, he went on to experiment with deep house and drum & bass, make music for The Oprah Winfrey Show, feature on HBO's Six Feet Under and release music on Four Tet's label, Text. Espais, however, bears little resemblance to Beltran's early work, and is largely rooted in its immediate predecessor, 2013's Amazing Things. The Michigan producer's first album for Delsin relied on flatly bright synth and guitar, familiar genre imitations and strings that sounded canned. To his credit, Beltran wrote 17 fleshed-out songs with that material for Amazing Things; only a small portion of Espais amounts to more than polished intros and interludes. Appropriately enough, tracks "Intro" and "Interlude" bookend a stretch of short sketches that hint at big ideas gone unfulfilled. Those productions, like most of the other nine between them, are versions of the same hackneyed formula: fade into warm, quietly sentimental chords hovering in place as textures glide over the top and flicker on the sides, then fade out. Each one feels more bland than the one before it. When a production shows up with a modicum of direction ("A Child's Place"), humanity ("Descorazonador") or grit ("Raume"), it stands out for the sheer sake of sounding like a proper song. Better examples of what Beltran hoped to accomplish are packed into his album's closing third. "White Space Poetry" purges all remaining romanticism with its delicate piano phrases, after which "Muse" introduces some much needed tension in the form of rumbling sub-bass and dark strings. It finishes with a stormy gust of drums, guitar and atmospherics that halfheartedly reaches for early Godspeed You! Black Emperor—it's a wonder there's no spoken-word sample tacked onto its windswept coda. Beltran even digs slightly into his techno background for "Ruimten," a John Carpenter-esque synthscape underpinned by steamroller rhythms, and then picks apart its underside on the elegiac "Heavy Weather." He manages to wring some authentic emotion out of that piece and its bleary-eyed counterpart, "Dreams Triangle," by letting the music speak directly to the listener, instead of hanging it somberly overhead. Espais is said to be "inspired by film score composers Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, Vangelis, Max Richter, Daniel Lanois and Hans Zimmer," and while those sounds are in place, their purpose is lost. Beltran's musical narrative is built from evoking cinematic memories and remaining suspended in high drama, all of which is counterproductive. Take Symmetry's Themes For An Imaginary Film: Johnny Jewel certainly isn't Beltran's contemporary, but his album nonetheless tackles the faux-OST concept by carving out a relatable, believable space through dynamic continuity and a series of unique emotional arcs. Though Espais aims for a loftier zone (think Interstellar levels of grandeur) than automotive noir, Beltran forgets that any soundtrack has to serve both the film and the people watching it. His productions are expertly crafted, his arrangements are full and his moods are well-articulated, all he's missing is a story to tell.
  • Tracklist
      A1 Intro A2 Espais A3 Many Moments To Come A4 Přestávka A5 A Child's Place B1 Love Suspended B2 Music For Machines B3 Orange Background B4 Descorazonador B5 Raume C1 Interlude C2 White Space Poetry C3 Muse C4 Ruimten D1 Heavy Weather D2 Dreams Triangle D3 The Warning Storm (Outro)