Faded Figures by Silent Travelers, Unknown Observer (Review)
Under the Silent Travelers moniker, New York’s Brian Lee composes ambient music inspired by dreams, metaphysical connections, and fictional narratives. Not surprisingly, the resulting music is bleary and amorphous, with melodies and field recordings alike run through whatever’s the audio equivalent of Photoshop’s “Gaussian Blur” filter. Similarly, Dutch ambient composer Tim van der Kooij (aka Unknown Observer) composes what are essentially soundtracks for imaginary sci-fi films, as was the case with 2021’s Dream Station.
Faded Figures is the first collaboration between the two artists, and it’s a seamless one at that; I dare you to tell me where Lee’s contributions end and van der Kooij’s begin. Each of the EP’s five songs are part of an ambiguous narrative about a “broken spirit… in search of his inner truths” wending his way through a barren wasteland. In other words, the duo take the notion of ambient music as “a soundtrack for films that don’t exist” quite seriously.
Each song features vast washes of sound that, for all of their artificial origins, evoke windswept forests, swirling blizzards, and waterfalls hidden deep in mountain crevasses. Occasionally, more definable notes and melodies can be barely discerned, like barely seen shapes in the mist, before disappearing once again.
While most people would contend that ambient music works best as background music — as Brian Eno put it, ambient music “must be as ignorable as it is interesting” — I find that approach isn’t the best one for Faded Figures. Perhaps it’s due to the EP’s relatively short length, but if I just leave it in the background while I’m working, it becomes too ignorable (to use Eno’s term) and is over far too quickly. But if I take the time for a closer listen, particularly during “The Hideout” (my favorite song on the EP), then it reveals darker, discordant textures that lend a depth and mystery that would be otherwise missed during a more casual listen.