Loscil’s ‘Sea Island’ creates lush landscapes of sound

Loscil lets ambiance take listeners on a journey in "Sea Island." Alex Reynolds via Wikimedia Creative Commons

The first track on Loscil’s newest album “Sea Island,” released late last month, isn’t just an exercise in sonic balance — it’s an exercise in physical balance as well. Loscil, the solo project of Scott Morgan, relies as much on the computer-generated sounds it features as on the musical introspection inherent in Morgan’s compilation. The album begins with a two-note exchange on “Ahull,” played out as though it is being delivered through alternating speakers — the repeated note ricochets back and forth for the first minute before being joined by a series of other notes, then chimes and, finally, additional instrumentation.

This strange sonic interplay between sounds originating from seemingly different physical spaces allows the listener to connect to the music on a level that is deeper than simply auditory, as though Loscil has reached through the speakers to pull audiences directly into his world, to feel the push and pull of music with the same uneasy, endless pulse of waves reaching shore. The slow build-up of noise — that sonic creep — is indicative of the rest of the album’s deliberate pushback on the listener, forcing listeners to slow down and observe, to feel powerless and mesmerized as would an observer in the grandstands at Wimbledon, hearing the ball bounce back and force across the tennis courts.

The third track, “Bleeding Ink,” pairs drone-like percussive beats of synth with a softly crooning singer whose voice seems to bleed out monosyllabic notes with an ambient pain. The track doesn’t feel apathetic, but more like a morphine-induced dream. Grinding notes on a stringed instrument add to the air of murky suspense —  are they notes on a violin? Perhaps these sounds are emitted by a foghorn? It is impossible to tell, but the fun lies in the mystery, not in the knowledge. Loscil invites listeners into that drug-induced coma-like state with an outstretched and friendly hand, and, like a top-notch dealer, makes the trip too enticing to resist.

The album could easily drag on — with most tracks near seven minutes in length and the shortest one clocking in at five minutes and 23 seconds — but somehow, the moody lo-fi synth instrumentals prevent any track from dragging. Each song oozes into the next with a methodical and practiced precision. There is nothing lazy in their delivery. Nearly every track seems to tread the line between creating a dream state and clinging to consciousness. Aggressive, perfectly timed notes stop the listener from feeling too comfortable in either mental space.

Lonely piano keys sound off like seamen walking the plank on “Sea Island Murders,” and it’s rare for an artist to so succinctly use his music to create the physical presence described in his songs. It is even more unusual when that physical place is only alluded to in a song title and never addressed directly in six-and-a-half minutes of melancholy instrumentation. But for all that Loscil doesn’t say, the song manages to conjure a place both haunted and occupied, present and hypnagogic. The listener can imagine the murders taking place as fully as though they were being projected on a movie screen.

“Iona,” the album’s longest track — over eight minutes — repeats the sound of a chime systematically and ominously for nearly four-and-a-half minutes before a syncopated beat enters. The track then adds layers until it transforms altogether, clothed again in alternating noises from opposite physical spaces. There is a chaos in the cool tinkling of chimes and the intermittent white noise like waves. Loscil returns to the imagery of the sea without abandoning the steady thump-thump of the keyboard.

A bow skims over the strings of a violin as sporadically as a stone skipping over water in “Holding Pattern.” At every turn, Morgan pulls out another musical trick, reminding the listeners that in this oceanic trance, Loscil is at the helm of the album’s vessel.

The album loses its footing, however, on “Catalina 1943” and “Angle of Loll,” at least momentarily. An excess of negative space in the first several minutes of “Catalina 1943″ leaves the rest of the track struggling to make up for the emptiness in the first part of the track. Meanwhile, “Angle of Loll” uses repetition, but to poor effect — it feels forced and grabbing. Syncopation falters and keys feel a little lost, as though the sea that the album has been sailing has suddenly reached a point of calm and Loscil does not know how to occupy this space.

Thankfully, “Sturgeon Bank” later fills out the end of the album with a lushness that beautifully complements the “Sea Island’s” opening.

Time doesn’t feel real on this album. The constant use of loops break down preconceived notions about a cyclical sense of time. This album wanders and finds itself again. It takes 73 minutes and includes eleven tracks, but after a complete listen, Loscil keeps a hold on audiences past their return to shore. “Sea Island” is an album whose sparse and well-composed beauty pulls listeners back with the relentlessness of an ocean current.


Loscil's “Sea Island” is an album whose sparse and well-composed beauty pulls listeners back with the relentless of an ocean current.

4.5 stars