Nighttide by Swartz Et (Review)

There’s a sense of slow burn here, a sense of movement towards a deeper, darker realm of sound that is only apparent in hindsight.
Nighttide, Swartz et

When you’re a parent, you’ll do almost anything to help your children sleep through the night, and one of the most obvious tactics is playing music. For example, my wife and I have used looped recordings of white noise as well as The Innocence Mission’s Now The Day Is Over. And when I was a child, I listened to old LPs of Switched-On Bach on a beat up turntable.

Steve Swartz (Au Revoir Borealis, For Wishes) took this idea on step further: he set up a guitar and amp in his daughter’s room and played soft ambient tones for her while she slept.

Nighttide is the result of those “sessions,” and as you might infer from both the description above and the album title, the album’s ten songs are perfectly suited for nighttime listening, whether for you or your child. Built around an array of Swartz’s soft, blurry drones, Nighttide lulls the listener from start to finish, and it’s uniformly lovely and affecting. Swartz wasn’t simply content to strum his guitar and let the drones flow, however: as the songs began to take shape, he employed more “experimental” methods of coaxing shimmering, ethereal sounds from his instrument, including playing the guitar with mallets and a household fan.

On “Curtains,” the oscillations of the fan can be heard if one listens close enough, i.e., is listening via headphones. But the result isn’t gimmicky in the slightest. Rather, as the song coalesces over its nearly nine minutes, it conjures up those warm summer evenings when you leave the windows wide open and drift off to sleep to the sounds of the oscillating fan, the brushing of the bedroom curtains, and the diminishing sounds of the neighborhood.

Distant percussion echoes and brushes up against “Late Machines“ s somnabulist bassline and subtle acoustic guitar, like the sounds of a far-off factory working through the night. These more “solid” elements are a nice addition to the sound palette, grounding the otherwise floating music a bit in a manner reminiscent of Zelienople’s more song-oriented work (minus the hushed vocals).

Tracks such as “Midday Bells” and “Warm Current” move into darker, more ominous territory, but not far enough to break the listener’s reverie. On the former, somber bell-like tones toll out against hypnotic guitar loops and brushed percussion, and all three sounds slowly grow noisier and more insistent until they’re nearly omnipresent and possessing of a structure that seemingly appeared out of nowhere. And then, with nary a complaint, they slowly fade back into the void.

The latter track closes the album with subterranean bass rumbles à la Labradford at the height of their powers, while distant atmospherics paint mental pictures of hazy, neon-lit cityscapes at three in the morning. Like the rest of the album, “Warm Current” is really a song for headphones, as closer listening reveals many little layers and details — e.g., the ping of an acoustic guitar, the hallucinatory sounds conjured up by the overlaying of Swartz’s myriad drones — that might otherwise remain buried under the rumbles.

There’s a sense of slow burn here, a sense of movement towards a deeper, darker realm of sound that is only apparent in hindsight. The result is music that feels both static and dynamic, creating a tension that is just as beguiling as the rich guitar tones at the album’s core.

Anyone who has listened to Swartz’s work in Au Revoir Borealis, particularly 2008’s Dark Enough For Stars, will know that his atmospherics are patient and subtle. Even his most “intense” and “fiery” guitarwork never beats you over the head, but rather, slowly enfolds and embraces you. That is even truer with Nighttide. A journey through some truly engrossing sonic territory, Nighttide is an album that fans of ambient/drone material would do well to check out, regardless of whether they have children who need help sleeping through the night or not.

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