Kyle Bobby Dunn - Ways of Meaning Review

When Brian Eno revolutionized ambient music during the 70s, he sought to create malleable works of art that would evolve over the length of each track. This technique eliminated the limitation of time in conventional artwork—now the artist could adapt the audience’s reaction first-hand instead of relying solely on each individual viewpoint or analysis. But even that was in turn hampered by the limitations of his audience’s ability or desire to sink deep into music that was just as anti-pop as anything coming out of New York’s burgeoning avant garde “no wave” scene around the same time. But while no wave artists sought to challenge the audience abrasively, violently, even confrontationally, Eno’s ambient methods were never unattractive, just initially elusive (or eternally elusive, depending on willingness and opinion). It was an avant-garde approach to tonal mood music that followed La Monte Young and post-war serialism.

Kyle Bobby Dunn carries on that tradition with his third “proper” album, Ways of Meaning. As it usually is with the neo-classical abstract, I cannot figure out what there could be to explore in the first few minutes. Notes seep in, hang for a spell, and then recede. Eno titled some of his ambient albums as being music for films and airports, but a more appropriate description would have been “music for wallpaper” or, at the very least, “music for the background.” And hungrily lunging into Dunn’s material is not the proper plan of attack. It’s subtle and gradual, building slowly and breaking gently, and may be best appreciated from a distance at first before you and the compositions are able to lazily close the divide. Before you even realize what’s happening, the “wallpaper” is shimmering as if sunrays are angling irrationally and sweeping across the room, and the “background” has more fascinating focus than anything in the foreground.

The music is largely comprised of delayed guitar and organ tones; since Dunn’s guitar figures make the untraditional ones I recently discussed for Radiohead’s The King of Limbs sound as basic and conventional as “Smoke on the Water,” it probably goes without saying that he’s treating the instrument as a means of creating a pitch, not a recognizable chord pattern or riff. As such, the music sounds largely filtered through wispy echo, vacated from the instruments as much as produced, and whether yearning or mourning, they freeze and fold at leisurely paces. Much could be made of Ways of Meaning in churches; to me at least, it’s more awakening to the spiritual side because it draws in attention and reflection rather than hammering at screeching pipes to awaken the folks who had forced themselves against their body’s will to get up early that Sunday. Preachy and trite hymnals got nothing on solitary meditation.

The shadowy notes from opener “Dropping Sandwiches in Chester Lake” initially resemble something astral, and whether incidental or not, there are several moments on the album that echo fondly of Eno’s Apollo Soundtracks. But at his best, Dunn doesn’t simply wade in ether or float in oblivion; there’s something nature-like and even humanist about the sensations he coaxes from his machines. “Canyon Meadows” earns its outdoorsy title with some of the most propulsive music he’s ever written, bowing back and forth on both ends of the scale, with clear hints of horns and bass intensifying the density. That shivering thrust finds even more imaginative clarity on “Movement for the Completely F-cked,” which takes its time transforming from an airy whisper to a grand finale—ambient music rarely strives for such naked catharsis, but Dunn is too cautious and crafty to make one think even for a moment that it’s a cheap ploy; the compensation is earned. Insisting that he’s not following a traditional model is “Tuoy’s Theme,” which trails “F-cked” and closes the album, submissive and sorrowful, and as elegant an epilogue as seems possible.

One of the only considerable faults I found on Dunn’s previous enterprise, the double-LP A Young Person’s Guide to Kyle Bobby Dunn was of a personal taste measure. For me, it’s only so long before all of the subtle shifts and elongated notes begin losing their graceful animation and retreat back to a flat, faraway drone, so I was able to appreciate it more when taken piecemeal or converted to, well, ambience as I pursued other interests or tasks. Ways of Meaning is much shorter so the journey is never tedious. His last contained six compositions that wandered well past the double-digit mark, but the fifteen-minute “Movement for the Completely F-cked” is the only track here that stretches beyond seven. It’s strange to declare that electing for more compact movements is beneficial, but it ensures that even the greyest dream stretch is tickled with color and never bleeds into white noise monotony.

Dunn’s greatest weapon in his arsenal is his ability to hypnotize. Since his exercises aren’t immediate and there are no beats to metronome the brain, he needs to fix the attention of the listener with all of his slow but generous advances and recessions in unconventional ways. Saying he succeeds at this task goes without saying. Fans of ambient, neo-classical, drone, and minimalist instrumental music in general should find much to treasure on Ways of Meaning, though the uninitiated may need something a bit more transitional to expect a full-blown conversion. Nevertheless, just about anyone with patience will be thoroughly (though gradually) impressed.

"Ways of Meaning" is on sale May 23, 2011 from Desire Path Recordings.

Matt Medlock


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