- An eye-opening, occasionally mind-melting redefinition of illbient.
- For someone who represents a key part of the new ambient music world, American producer Jake Muir takes a pretty old-school approach to the form. One of his primary inspirations is illbient, a '90s subgenre that focuses on layering samples on top of samples until the source material is largely unrecognizable.
It's not obvious at first, but records like 2018's Lady's Mantle were made entirely from samples—what could come off as gorgeous synth lines or underwater murmurs were actually sounds from surf rock records, pulverized and reformed. The reason this tried-and-tested method sounds fresh in Muir's hands is because of his strong compositional instincts, and his ability to blend unrelated sounds into something moving and personal. His latest album, Mana, lands on Ilian Tape—one of the most forward-thinking labels in techno—and takes a denser, darker tack. It's more "illbient" than ever before, a teeming world of microscopic sounds, spine-tingling frequencies and barely-there rhythms that delights and confounds in equal measure.
Mana begins with a glossy, gaseous drone, a bit like the atmospherics of a dub techno track scooped out and splattered on a blank canvas. From there, the opener "Tonic" is an alluring ecosystems of strange sounds—rustling, creaking, groaning, what sounds like the singing of crickets—that create an immersive, gripping world. The music reminds me of turntablists like Marina Rosenfeld, who make these sorts of soundscapes live, but something about Muir's style is different: more composed, less improvised.
With the eerie ripples of "Cauldron" or the occasionally distorted, almost Stephen O'Malley-like tones of "Dancing Vapours," you can hear a more patchwork style at play on Mana. The seams in Muir's sonic quilt are more apparent than on smoother records like Lady's Mantle, though what each piece is made of is still impossible to discern. It's almost like alchemy: what sounds like insectoid chirping at one second can morph into an electrical buzz at the next. Everything we're hearing is raw material constantly being shaped and refinished in real time, morphing just as we start to get the hang of things.
Though there is plenty of prettiness on Mana—"Forest Of Whispers," a collaboration with Caveman LSD, sounds like what I can only describe as feeling your wave through a dark cave lit only by twinkling fireflies—the mood is dark and sometimes sinisterly ambiguous. We only hear sounds when they catch the light, so there's a silvery sheen to it that makes the loud, bassy tones of tracks like "Dancing Vapours" all the more startling. This culminates in the stunning closer "Grotto," which is almost like Muir's version of doom metal, with hollowed out atmospherics and a thrumming drone that makes for one of the loudest, if most obtuse, moments in his catalog.
Tracks like "Grotto" also feel, admittedly, a little retro. Muir is wearing his '90s influences on his sleeve, without a care for aesthetics or en vogue sounds. (One could argue he's always been that way.) But instead of a homage, Mana feels like a continuation of a dialogue, where the old communes with the new. By sampling from his extensive CD collection—Muir is a devout evangelist of the compact disc format—and working with artists like Caveman LSD, he's drawing a direct throughline from unfashionable subgenres of the past and the new, borderless ambient that has a hold on the electronic music world right now. It's tempting to call Mana a clever update of illbient, but in reality it's something else: a record that attests to the endless artistic possibilities of sampling, where, with enough imagination and skill, one sound can bloom into thousands of new ones.
02. Forest Of Whispers feat. Caveman LSD
03. Twilight Transmissions
04. Siren's Call
05. Spectre's Bonfire
08. Smoke And Mirrors
09. Dancing Vapours