Ian Wellman | Susan’s Last Breath Became the Chill in the Air and the Fog Over the City’s Night Sky
Dragons Eye Recordings (DL)
Ian Wellman’s debut album, Susan’s Last Breath Became the Chill in the Air and the Fog Over the City’s Night Sky, exists at the nexus of the pleasant and the problematic. All breathy ambience and city-scape field recordings, Wellman constructs an entirely palatable sonic tableau, yet it is one that struggles to offer anything new to the already well-marked conceptual path that it treads. Your enjoyment of Wellman’s work will no doubt depend upon whether you view this album as a contribution to the bustling field so dominated by the World Soundscape Project and its ilk (and in particular, the urban-critique of its founder, R. Murray Schafer), or as a derivative that fails to add anything new to this narrative. Indeed, it is perhaps best to overlook its conceptual and contextual field altogether, and to focus instead on the qualities of the album independently of these somewhat defining resonances.
Wellman succeeds in creating a world rich in tension – a pleasant facade ruptured by the rumbling tones of a distant disturbance. A familiar, reassuring soundscape is set against static, simple drones, an effective reliance on a compositional process so favoured by the ambient genre. Much of the album follows the same formula – the listener is introduced to a field recording – a cityscape, some crickets, weather – and then this is contrasted by a series of tones employing a simple melodic pattern, eventually building the track into a minor cacophony of moody ambience. It is not always clear, however, what the compositional merit is to this approach.
Many of the field-recordings are enjoyable enough, and the inclusion of the drones serves merely to frame them with an artificial emotion not present in the original recordings. Conversely, when Wellman reduces the role of the field recordings, his arrangements are provided with a compositional nuance they otherwise lack. It is those moments when the composer breaks from the rigid formula so entrenched within the majority of the album, that things work best. Wind Chill, with its vaguely sinister, lo-fi aesthetic, is a fairly charming piece, feeling both emotionally restrained and notably glum. Likewise, A New Day is reminiscent of Howlround’s hauntological tape-experiments, peaking the interest precisely because of its inherent subtly.
Whilst Susan’s Last Breath… is by no means a bad album, and Wellman displays an occasionally authoritative and well-honed compositional voice, the album as a whole suffers from a lack of critical depth – throughout the majority of the tracks their is only one real idea in play, and it rarely feels as if this is being explored to its fullest. Just as its conceptual theme risk repeating, but not contributing to, a well-established field, there is a sense that the composer could have engaged with his sonic tools in a more insightful and rigorous manner. Where these tracks conjure an effective, faintly romantic tableau of the conflicting tensions of city life, the composers handling of his materials suggest that a deeper, and significantly more nuanced narrative might emerge with further interrogation. That said, this is Wellman’s debut album, and he certainly displays an affection and skill for tense ambience that leaves me intrigued to hear what he might come up with next.