My first exposure to Hidden came while I was going through some galleries on File Magazine’s website, specifically Bob Stevens’ “Sublime Spaces.” If there’s one genre that lends itself especially well to soundtrack-like moments and cinematic thoughts, it’s dark ambient when it’s done right, and Brett Smith (who has been recording under the Caul moniker for a number of years) proves once again that he does it quite well.
While listening to Hidden single 59-minute track, Stevens’ photos of ordinary vistas and scenes — an electrical tower at the edge of an empty field, an aluminum shed in the middle of an orchard, four strange structures off in the distance on some hills — though beautiful in their own right, took on a strange, otherworldly cast. Despite being shots of ordinary American vistas, they came to more closely resemble something out of Tarkovsky’s Stalker or Attila Janisch’s After The Day Before. (Indeed, many of the distant rumblings that serve as Hidden’s foundation immediately brought the amazing sound design of Janisch’s film to mind.)
It’s always amazing to me how much an enveloping sound can completely alter your perspective. Chances are, even a picture of some cute little puppies would suddenly seem ominous, alien, and foreboding were Caul’s music playing in the background.
Some may be turned off by the fact that Hidden is a single, nearly hour-long track, and I can’t blame them. They’re probably imagining an hour of mindless drones, perhaps a few monk chants, some ominous factory rumbles, maybe a horror movie sample or two, some bone-rattling low end frequencies, some disturbing samples — you know, the sort of stuff one might expect from a, well, dark ambient disc. Smith does employ many of those elements, to be sure. There’s hardly a minute on the disc that isn’t awash with blackened waves of drone and drift, eerie scrapings and ringings, and whatnot.
However, despite the fact that Hidden isn’t as “focused” or “song-oriented” as some of Caul’s other releases, this isn’t merely a case of Smith leaning on his synth keys for minutes on end or just slapping on some evil-sounding samples here and there for creepy effect. Listen closely, and you might hear a few surprises.
Occasionally light does pierce through the clouds. Lighter, flute-like melodies can be heard slowly emerging during the first 5 minutes or so, as if seeking to bolster the listener before they begin traversing the darker territories of the next 50+ minutes. About midway through the disc, a solitary cymbal begins measuring out a solemn step as reverent atmospherics drift all around. As is the case with much of Caul’s music, the mental picture conjured forth is that of ancient religious ceremonies performed in ruined, ivy-covered temples — the cymbal setting the pace, the atmospherics drifting about like incense.
The mournful synths reappear in the disc’s final movement. Reminiscent of Les Joyaux De La Princesse’ Die Weisse Rose, they’re undoubtedly sorrowful and yet, there’s something slightly off about their sadness, something distant and alien that leaves you as apprehensive as you are soothed.
Although, given its running time, it’s unavoidable that the disc occasionally meanders and loses focus, it’s these little details and nuances that I’ve always enjoyed about Caul’s music, and always make his discs a compelling listen.