Album review: "Gleam" by Etherine / Michael Weeks

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This is the second album by Etherine (real name: Michael Weeks). I've commented upon the first album, "24 Days", in my blog - the overall impression was that "24 Days" is a really good electronica album. "Gleam" continues the tradition.

The page on Magnatune states that "24 Days" is, to quote exactly, "etherine in its infancy, growing through the learning process and finding a rhythm of songsmithing and sound design", thereby implying that "Gleam" is the more mature album.
I do not disagree that there are changes since "24 Days". However, to say that "24 Days" is in any sort of infancy is excessive. It seems to me that, while the artist put the two albums together under the same "roof" (the Etherine project), and while there is an unquestionable common undercurrent to both albums, there are a few differences that seem to go beyond any perceived or real gain in maturity.

"24 Days" is more emotional and does not necessarily follows strict canons when shaping the musical landscape. "Gleam" is more orderly and sometimes tightens the reins on the emotional expression in order to achieve a form that's closer to the sought-after ideal. But both albums stand on their own feet. Frankly, i tend to give a slightly higher score overall to "24 Days", but that's just because i'm not particularly interested in the correctness of the form, as long as the content of it is delivered properly. But that doesn't mean i don't like "Gleam".

The opening song, "Lost", builds upon the already-familiar made-in-Etherine "angst". There's a delicate unquietude pervading the soundscape, which is artfully elaborated upon in layers upon layers of ethereal sounds. I believe i hear a bit of the Elektron Monomachine here (a nifty and unusual synthesizer) but i could be wrong. (According to Michael, i was wrong)
Jumping right to the third song, "If" - the feeling is much the same, a bit shadowy, a bit tense, slightly more dynamic than the first song and less delicate.
The fourth song, "Phobos", is an interesting exploration of unusual sounds that begin in a liquid flavour, to be joined to another layer, much harsher, which employs, if i'm not mistaken, Metasonix sound distortion boxes, or something that sounds very similar - the sound is really harsh on occasion (and Michael said i was wrong again w.r.t. the instruments being used). Then the song takes off adding piano-like sounds and other instruments.
"Modulation", song number five, is probably influenced by the other projects by Michael Weeks - the ones that explore styles of music that are less ethereal, more harsh, more down-to-earth. It is really a continuation of the previous piece in that respect.
Number six, "Leaving Ground", reminds me a lot of the spirit of "24 Days". It begins gently and then, well, leaves the ground :-) navigating towards vast spaces. There's a longing and a very emotional stream pervading the song, soft and discreet yet vibrating intensely. Later on, the song becomes too harsh to be counted with the "24 Days" pieces, but it's still fairly smooth. A good one overall.
"Feather", the seventh song, has a similar development. It begins vast and slow and rhythmless, only to grow a structure later on. Very contemplative, but perhaps lacking the emotional punch of the other pieces. Yet, and this is why i like the stuff made by Michael Weeks, there's always a purpose and an identifiable meaning even when there's not a lot of energy and focus. Sadly, that is not true for the majority of the ambient, electronica or new age music.
Number eight, "Still Here", jolts us back from the reverie with another angst-laden current. I typically enjoy more joyous, more solar atmospheres, and perhaps that's why i have a slight bias towards the older "24 Days", but the substance of this latter album, perfectly summarised by the song "Still Here", is nevertheless high-quality and artistically significant.

We're making a big sommersault and going to the song number two, which is the same as the last song (number ten) - "Gleam". Make no mistake, it is a marvel. Listening to either one of the two versions, the more peaceful number two or the more dynamic number ten, you realise just how much meaning Etherine's music has. I've seen countless musicians slapping together a song then throwing a name on it, just for the sake of appearances. Not Michael Weeks.
If the song is called "Gleam", it is for a reason, and the reason becomes apparent when listening to it. There is a beautiful ray of light glittering in a space of peacefulness, like the very embodiment of beauty and love and all things that are pure. There's a fountain of bliss towering luminous in the air, unraveling its structure of marvel into sound. There is this expression of joy and this essence of smile that vibrates in the fabric of the sound and changes the space that's hosting the music, making it purer and higher, a sacred space. And all that is in the music. Glitter. Gleam. Bliss.

Finally, song number nine, "Charon". Perhaps not the emotional peak of the album (that would be "Gleam", of course), it nevertheless caused me a small revelation. And it will make me contradict my own words, pretty soon you'll see why.
Michael Weeks being what he is, and having this unusual gift of finding most appropriate names for his songs, and this song being named "Charon", i duly expected it to have some kind of sepulchral undertones, or to be otherwise related to the myths of the netherworld.
And indeed it has a slightly overcast landscape. But nothing more remote from sepulchral! The song is... well... perhaps best described through a personal experience.
It so happens that i'm a fan of sportbikes, fast high-tech two-wheeled motor vehicles designed to run and win contests on the racetrack. Not your average comfortable and tame motorcycle, mind you, but things that make no compromises in order to run fast and win. And through some weird alchemy, this song reminded me of my rides up in the hills on my sportbike.
At this point, non-riders who listened to this song are probably confused. And maybe rightly so, because, in the minds of the laymen, a sportbike is a screaming thing of metal, ferociously burning high-octane while bursting through the road cannonball-style. The very pinnacle of tension and noise and the epitome of tightly controlled aggression. And maybe rightly so, at least when looked upon from the outside. However, there's nothing like that in the song! Well, that's because the same experience, from the perspective of the rider, is very different.
It is true that there is a large dynamic dimension to sportbike riding. Sitting on the screaming red-hot two-wheeled rocket is bound to pump lots of adrenaline in the system. But the adrenaline is not all - as the experienced riders use to say, the best pilots are the smooth ones. And this smoothness is paramount to riding fast bikes.
I think this is what this song conveys - a combination of dynamic action and perfect smoothness, like a stripe of asphalt running fast underneath you, while you engage the vehicle in a perfect geometric trajectory that's tangent to this present point and, too, to that last point of the turn ahead, while your mind is racing fast but crystal clear projecting trajectories through the as-yet-unseen parts of the road. It's more like flying a fast plane than driving a vehicle on a road, it's all neat trajectories and lots of geometry happening real fast and really fluent. There's a lot of movement, yet a part of you is suspended above, absolutely immobile, witnessing the assault of the speed vectors, dispatching commands, reacting in an instant.
I've seen myself riding the fast bike while listening to the song, and i've seen the gang of fellow riders, suddenly popping up from across the hill, zipping past the observer's vantage point, pursuing their perfect geometries on the road, noisy yet silent, fast yet immobile, locked in the mighty fight with the engine's horsepower yet relaxed and having that quiet smile that, according to the ones in the know, a 'bike will put on your face.
It is this union of opposites that makes this song great. Like i said, not the emotional peak of the album, but nevertheless one of the pinnacles of artistic mastery in Michael Weeks' work.
If i could only figure out why it's called "Charon"... :-)

Michael's answer: "I love your analogy for Charon - Phobos and Charon were written in the same weekend while I was doing alot of reading on, and I had these images of planets moving in clockwork, like a giant sphere of circles out of sync, and started those tracks with visions of space in mind."
Ah, yes, thank you Michael!... Trajectories - that's why i was seeing, in my mind, all those sportbikes engaged in smooth round trajectories at high speeds on the asphalt. And, well, space ships, sportbikes - not a big difference... :-)