Designed for Reading by The Sound Gallery (Review)

Designed for Reading retains a consistent cinematic feel, full of dramatic drones, haunting vocal pieces, and dark slabs of ambience.
Designed for Reading - The Sound Gallery

Herb Grimaud Jr has worked with several atmospherically-minded artists in the past, including his former band Raspberry Jam (whose Oceanic album has been raved about elsewhere on the site) and The Violet Burning. However, I think it’s pretty safe to say that he hasn’t done anything quite as ethereal and blissed-out as his solo (sort of) work under The Sound Gallery moniker.

I say “sort of” because Designed for Reading actually features a number of contributors, including Eric Campuzano (Cush, Charity Empressa), Steve Elkins (The Autumns), and Leslie Dupre-Grimaud. However, even with the various contributors throwing in their two cents, Designed for Reading retains a consistent cinematic feel, full of dramatic drones, haunting vocal pieces, and dark slabs of ambience.

Indeed, the album is much darker than I had initially thought it might be. On a message board that we both frequent, Grimaud expressed a fascination for the music of Lustmord and other likeminded artists. Having only known him through his work on Raspberry Jam — which, admittedly, was years ago — that was something of a surprise to me. However, listening to the disc, a similar sort of industrial ambient can be heard, darkening the disc’s edges, hinting at an abyss just beyond the disc’s rim.

The album opens with the aptly-titled “The Silent Ghost of Regret.” Miranda Van Holland recites a spoken word passage in some European language against industrial rhythms, Leslie Grimaud’s wordlessly operatic vocals, and towering electronics the like of which one might expect to hear on a Les Joyaux de la Princesse disc, or perhaps something in the Eibon discography. Gasping drones and subterranean rumblings form the foundation of “Floating Through the Fields,” creating the sense of some alien landscape full of strange geothermal activity, while the keys drift high overhead like methane clouds.

“Origami” is a disorienting blend of guitar drones, disembodied voices, flute-like trills, and whistles that all blend together as if they were recorded in one of the Deep Listening Band’s cisterns. And “Coil” combines the clanging industrial rhythms of some long-forgotten, moss-enshrouded factory with E-bowed guitars, keening feedback, and a stately bassline.

Of course, it’s not all darkness and abysses. Those lamenting the passing of the Cocteau Twins, or yearning for some good classic 4AD in general, will find much to like within the glittering, icy soundscapes, echoing guitars, and hushed female vocals of “Replicant.” Same goes for the murky “Red Mosaic,” where the bassline slowly snakes its way below Leslie’s vocals (which resemble those of a sleepwalking Liz Frazier) and moonlit guitars in a manner reminiscent of Writ on Water’s classic Sylph album.

And despite being the longest track on the album (clocking in at just under eleven minutes), “Alice in December” is the most song-like of any of the tracks. As its name implies, the song’s ominous percussion, slowly strummed acoustics, and fuzzy drones invoke a surreal, haunting winterland through which the listener slowly drifts until the final half or so, when the various elements finally coalesce into a dreamy duet featuring Jan Johansen and Sarah Hepburn (Glorybox) on vocals.

There are parts where the album gets a little too dreamlike and drifty, and begins to meander a bit. This is most noticeable on the album’s other epic track, “The Web Outside Her Window.” Which isn’t a bad track — anything that reminds me of The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus can’t be all bad — but it alternates between tense, atmospheric passages and fierce percussive moments in a manner that feels rather arbitrary. And “1956 – 1980,” which was written as a tribute to Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, does a very laudable job of transposing Joy Division’s gloomy sound into a more ambient/industrial direction, but at seven and a half minutes, the track becomes a bit too ponderous.

I’ve listened to this disc quite often at work, where it makes for excellent background music. But there’s enough detail and nuance that the album easily holds up to more active listening. And though the influences are obvious — and Grimaud has been quite upfront about them in interviews such as this one — that doesn’t detract one bit from the songs’ beauty and loveliness. I feel a little late to the game on this one, seeing as how it came out last year, but Grimaud has a new Sound Gallery album titled Phos coming out later this year on Republic of Texas Recordings and Somewhere Cold Records, for which I definitely plan to keep my eyes peeled.