Mark Nelson is no stranger to creating spacious, atmospheric music. As one of the members of the trio Labradford (arguably the most famous group in the whole “post-rock” pantheon), he’s turned out 5 albums of wide open musical spaces. Labradford is primarily inspired by the likes of Ennio Moriccone, thus creating soundtracks for spaghetti westerns that were as psychedelic and foreboding as they were haunting and beautiful. However Pan-American finds Nelson embracing more “modern” forms of music, such as dub, trance, and jungle. However, he still approaches them from a Labradford mindset.
Which means that despite its electronic nature, 360 Business/360 Bypass is as slow and mellow an album as you’re likely to hear all year. However, Nelson’s attention to detail means that each sound is explored to its fullest potential. The end result is an album that is captivating, despite moving so slowly. The sounds develop at a solid, stately pace, enveloping the listener in a murky wash of sound. Beats probe the edge of the album, but serve more as points of interest rather than musical propulsion. Nelson’s music sounds like it was run through Photoshop’s Gaussian Blur effect, rendering it intangible and barely recognizable, like a memory that lies just outside conscious thought.
Different vistas jump to mind. Long, unwinding wilderness roads underneath the bluest skies you could ever imagine, but with the dark clouds of a thunderstorm looming off to the side. The Northern Lights slowly playing across vast arctic wastelands, strange alien patterns of light dancing across a million icy mirrors. Or perhaps a futuristic city of glass, where everyone around you moves in slow motion. Their movements are graceful and smooth, and yet there’s something eerie about that very grace as they glide past you, their faces impassive even as they move in perfect balance and poise.
As distant and foreboding as these descriptions may sound, there is a warmth that pervades 360 Business/360 Bypass. Much of it comes from the attention to detail; there’s never a sense that Nelson just pressed the “Record” button and left the room, but rather that he tweaked and perfected each sound and beat you’re hearing.
Although the entire album is consistently captivating, aside from the rare occasion when Rob Mazurek’s coronet looks like its heading towards free jazz territory, the highlight is “Code,” the album’s second track. Here, Nelson is joined by Low’s Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker on vocals. Their voices add an eerie beauty to the song, which sounds like it should be played during some romantic encounter in that aforementioned city of glass. Two lovers move slowly and inexorably towards eachother, completely unaware of everything else around them, their embrace graceful and painfully measured, yet undeniably beautiful.
Just like Pan American’s music.