Uncertain Designs // Modal Voices
April 29th, Safety Records
The transformative effect of music is largely something that seeps into our subconscious when a song is playing. Thusly, the idea of music criticism now extends widely beyond the technicality of musical understanding precisely for writers’ abilities to transcend and interpret the emotions, intentions, and elevated reactions of music. This isn’t a revelation that’s been remotely untapped; we universally acknowledge the differences necessary to “evaluate” Young Thug from Deafheaven from Philip Glass. It’s ridiculous to try and find common ground between the three, but each, in its own respect, invites interpretation based on the way that their compositions shift and make logical sense in regards to the artist’s vision (even if that vision is lack of logical sense). Simply because you’ve played piano for a decade doesn’t mean you can dismiss the effect “Constantly Hating” on someone, just as it’s equally ignorant to disregard the compositional intricacies of “Dream House” because of a lack of musical understanding.
Enter Chicago’s Joel Ebner into the musical continuum, and within his last two years of work alone, there’s almost a disconnect between projects that proposes a complex variety of musical interpretation. Having followed his four debut albums under different monikers, it could originally be jarring to hear the digital pop soundscape of City States against the harsh edges of Contretemps. Yet, given context around his works and the time that comes with exploring them, there arise overlapping themes and musical understandings that merely manifest in different corners of the endless abyss of genre. Modal Voices is the final installment of these projects, and it’s closest counterparts are the ambient and melodic drone soundscapes of Tim Hecker and Ben Frost. In place of distinguishable points and moments, Uncertain Designs flirts with glacially slow transformations and propulsive arpeggios to articulate its vision in the spectrum of Ebner’s musical presence.
Harkening back to the method of understanding music as transformative, a metamorphosis of sound collages and musical palettes, Uncertain Designs seeks to bleed sounds together and gradually add or remove textures to what’s ultimately one long, continuous piece. I’ve fully listened to the record some six times, but I couldn’t, for the life of me, analyze the way in which segments transition and become something entirely different from its original framework. While the last trio of songs culminate in the most exciting thirteen minutes of the album, most of it drifts (assuredly drifts, but still drifts) in and out of a delicate fuzz and what largely sounds like rhythmic loops of organ and keys. The record plunges itself into the hypnotic, in a state of flux that sparks questions of how it should be dissected— or if it should be dissected.
Before delving more into the record, this brings up an integral point to the angle at which I’ve listened to most of Uncertain Designs. My first venture into anything remotely ambient was discovering the subdued beauty of Talk Talk’s 1991 masterpiece Laughingstock. I vividly remember listening to that record nearly every night before I went to sleep for a good month, but after that month I still couldn’t tell you which song was which or what even happened in the ten minutes of “After The Flood”. It invited me to appreciate sonic palettes that transformed and behaved like that of a gradient instead of immersing myself in the distinguishable hues and colors. This soon became a template I followed for listening to many an “ambient” album; I originally approached Uncertain Designs with this mindset of getting absorbed in the music so much that I get lost in its rougher edges.
That brings me to here, where, after several plays, I can distinctly recognize its melodies and expect its chord changes, but little else remains perfectly intact of my specific knowledge of the album. It’s this sense of intentional haziness that makes the transition into piano on “Here, and Not Here” a dazzling display of emotion and elevation on a splendidly homogenous record. Ebner has name-checked some artists in promotion of the record, including the aforementioned Tim Hecker, Steve Reich, and Merzbow. The way that these songs delicately tangle with each other and avoid blunt textural changes then makes even more sense in regards to his influences. The climactic moments seem even more deserved and uplifting when they finally arrive, and they still arrive in a wave of subtlety (here’s where the record differs from artists like Ben Frost). The jolts of rhythm never rise above a steady, natural flow, but instead Ebner relies on melodic variations to compel reactions from the quietly beautiful composition. I use the term “compel” lightly here, because nothing on Uncertain Designs rubs off as forced or placed to illicit a specific reaction. In fact, there’s a vagueness to the types of feeling that the record seeks to divulge in. Sometimes the music soaks in quiet melancholy, other times fantastic revelation.
If Ebner has proved anything in these last years, it’s underlying versatility as an artist within a certain scope. Modal Voices, as a project, takes some of the more defined edges of his electronica tinged world and blurs them into a puddle. Compositionally, Uncertain Designs remains as engaging and multi-dimensional as his previous efforts, but the ideas found here seem to be coming closer to a full on sense of cohesion as an artistic statement. While it’s not necessary to visit his older work to appreciate Modal Voices, it adds interesting context to the varying hues and shades that Uncertain Voices taps into.