Here we are with another non-metal release that I think is interesting and fitting for the physical and emotional climate. Things are starting to warm up over here, piles of snow are melting and the sun is shining brighter and longer as the days go on, and yet, there’s still a vaguely distressing sense of dread that sort of spoils the peace and ambiance that naturally comes with winter standing on its last legs. If you want to know what the exact soundtrack to that feeling is, look no further than Ionophore and their fourth ambient, avant-garde album Knells.
Ionophore is the ambient music trio made up of London, UK, and Oakland, CA, based associates Leila Abdul-Rauf (of Vastum fame), Janek Hendrich, and Ryan Honaker, both of whom perform together in Betterthief. Knells marks the next installment in the group’s discography of ambient electronic meets symphonic arrangements meets acoustic folk releases. This time around, the band chose to go in a direction that is more introspective and experimental than their previous release, the much-lauded Whetter, building a vibe of “late-night stillness and ambiance.” The backbone of their sound remains the mix of dark, ominous electronics and washes of low synth waves, but the band experiments more with acoustic instruments this time around, bringing piano, guitar and horns into a much more prominent role. There are plenty of almost jazzy breaks where trumpet and piano play a loose, ethereal arrangement that lulls the listener into a false sense of security before bursts of electronic glitches shake awake feelings of disquiet and unease. It’s a truly unique take on the formula, and it definitely doesn’t sound like any ambient release I’ve ever heard. The mix of “real” instruments with electronics is not only in a great balance where nothing gets outshined, it also helps to make Knells stand out from the ambient electronic crowd.
“Take Its Course” opens the album with a surprising amount of subtlety, brining in Abdul-Rauf’s vocals swirling around between the headphones in a way that almost reminds me of Imogen Heap a little bit before the synths and the orchestra strings start to swell and build. The first ethereal jazz break of the album shows up midway through the track, featuring a sultry trumpet solo by Abdul-Rauf and gentle piano, but underneath everything is a dark and ominous layer of electronics that actually glitch in and out at the perfect times, never letting you get too comfortable with what’s going on around you. Similarly, “Platelets” features Sigur Rós-like piano before delving into atonal blasts of woodwind and horns, which are just enough out of sync with everything else that they throw off a feeling of almost dread when I hear them. “Our Garden” is a spacey, vocal-driven crawl over the sound of whirring machines and dark electronics, before the album finishes with “Contemplation,” which attempts to bring in some calm and resolution to the ominous feelings that have been brewing through acoustic guitar and lots of open space. It can’t be overstated how well every part and piece fits together to tell a story that is equal parts complicated and engrossing.
Knells is an incredibly cinematic album. It’s the kind that begs to be listened to with high quality headphones, and multiple times over the course of a day. I feel like the music alone is worthy of being the soundtrack to some kind of dark art film, in the best way possible. There is a ton of nuance and thought put into how everything fits together, and I feel like repeated listens are going to unearth more and more. The execution here is extremely high, and there truly isn’t a whole lot out there that is going to sound like Knell, or top it in terms of quality.