The first time I heard 1 Mile North, I broke into a huge grin. I was listening to “In 1983 He Loved To Fly” on the band’s website, and I couldn’t help it; I just started smiling ear to ear. It wasn’t because the song was infectious or catchy. In fact, the elements of 1 Mile North’s sound — huge, glacial drifts of sound, gentle synth textures, crystalline guitars, sparse basslines — are about as far as you can get from “catchy.” Rather, it was due to the band’s sense of atmosphere and space. It drew me in, enveloping me in a way I didn’t even know I needed to experience until it was already underway.
Traveling through the same expanse as Labradford and Stars Of The Lid, 1 Mile North proves time and again over the album’s 7 tracks that they’re equally proficient at creating vast drifts of sound. Not surprisingly, the group’s soundscapes are quite lovely to behold. However, what truly makes their music so compelling and evocative is the emotion that the duo gently weaves into each of their songs.
The imagery that opens Minor Shadows is of an endless December sky, the silhouettes of leafless, lifeless trees etched into the grey horizon. Early in the album, a sample fades in of a boy describing the joys of flying, concluding that “the only bad thing is you have to come back down to the fucking ground.” Thankfully, the band never comes anywhere close to Terra Firma during the song.
Echoing guitar notes and haunting synths spiral ever higher into the atmosphere, floating over the houses depicted on the album’s sleeve. In the song’s final minutes, the hypnotic bassline fades out, forever severing any earthly ties; the guitar grows even more echo-y, forlorn birdcalls and trumpet notes drift back to the listener, and the song floats away somewhere over the horizon.
See what I mean about “compelling and evocative”?
In contrast to the expansiveness of “In 1983 He Loved To Fly,” the next couple of tracks take on a more introspective feel. Though no less atmospheric, the textures are more muted, the guitars and keys gentler and softer, as if conscious that any wrong move will break the mood they’re trying to create. “Life Indoors” begins with what could be a heartbeat, a gentle pulse that frames the delicate strands of guitar and dreamy keyboard wisps. The song moves carefully and gracefully, the way one would creep through darkened hallways while trying not to disturb anything.
This somnambulistic mood continues on “Return To From Where We Came.” All of the sounds you hear seem fuzzy and intangible and yet strangely comforting, as if the group is trying to lull you back to sleep after accidentally waking you up at 3:00am. Although the track works just fine as an instrumental, the deep, sonorous tones develop a slightly exotic, gamelan-esque air that would lend itself well to a Steve Scott piece.
“The Sick” has a more solid feel, but only barely. John Hills taps and plucks his guitar strings, creating bell-like tones that brush and sweep past eachother, creating a sense of depth and space reminiscent of Aarktica’s finest moments. The tones hardly seem solid themselves, with just enough mass to prevent the cascading guitars and willowy keyboards from dissipating into the ether.
The ambience of “Black Lines” is perhaps the album’s softest gentlest moment, but there’s an amazing darkness in there as well. At one point in the song, we hear the obscenity and violence-laced screams of a man ranting against his family’s dysfunction. However, the juxtaposition works surprisingly well, with the song’s atmosphere providing the warmth and comfort so obviously missing from these broken lives.
“August 8:15,” by contrast, never breaks its peaceful mood. Indeed, any force would probably shatter the delicate latticework of evening sounds, twilit keys, elegant guitar melodies, and sparse programming that begins to form here. A genuine sense of contentment flows through this song, a sense of satisfaction and gratitude one might have as they watch the sun set on the best day of their life.
The album ends with the 13-minute “The Manual,” which heads back to the wintry landscapes that opened the album, only moreso. The opening drones and bass pulses — which are reminiscent of Ágœtis Byrjun’s ambient interludes, minus Jonsi’s ghostly wail — suggest an arctic wasteland waiting for the end of its long winter night. The light appears overhead in the form of Hills’ graceful guitar, joined by soft, fluttering motes of keyboard and dulcimer. The drones eventually evaporate, and the song takes an extended outro as gentle, rolling waves of guitars and synths eventually coalesce into a single, shimmering horizon of sound.
Did I mention this album is “compelling and evocative”?
At its worst, ambient music can be too innocuous and inconspicuous for its own good. It’s rarely interesting, and too drab to function even as background noise. Contrary to popular belief, however, good ambient music is much more than background music. It brings with it a sense of wonder and open-endedness that engages the listener’s imagination, even if they’re unaware.
However, Minor Shadows is a truly great slice of atmospherica. It contains that same sense of wonder, and the expanses the duo creates are well worth delving into. But the warmth and intimacy on display in songs like “Life Indoors” and “August 8:15” ensure that the listener isn’t just left to drift out there amidst huge wells of sound. 1 Mile North is right alongside them every step of the way. There’s a genuine soul residing in this music, a gentle presence that is always welcome.
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I've also written for Christ and Pop Culture, ScreenAnarchy, Filmwell, and Christian Research Journal. I pay the bills by creating beautiful user interfaces and websites for Firespring and Red Bicycle.