The North Shore (Bliss Out, Volume 20) by Manual (Review)

From the very first delicate wisps of sound to the last atmospheric that fades over the horizon, The North Shore rarely disappoints.
The North Shore, Manual

As an afficianado of all things swirly and ethereal, I love the concept behind Darla’s long running “Bliss Out” series. Gather together a bunch of indie-pop and electronica artists and have them compose albums full of lush, spacey music, the musical equivalent of “om.” I haven’t heard all of the series’ entries, but the ones that I have heard, such as Amp’s Perception and Windy & Carl’s Antarctica, are definitely as “blissed out” as music can get. But with the transcendental The North Shore, Manual has easily produced one of the best entries in the series, as well as one of the finer pure ambient releases I’ve heard in a long time.

Although I’ve read plenty of raves concerning the music of Manual (aka Jonas Munk), much of it courtesy of Aaron over at Almostcool, it wasn’t until he gave me a copy of Into Forever that I finally heard for myself. A collaboration with Icebreaker International, Into Forever was a truly celestial album, right down to its sleeve art. So much so that it almost bordered on cheesy at times, and yet it had an real sense of emotion and wonder that made the album far more captivating than it could have been.

Then I heard Manual’s gorgeous contribution to the Winter 2004 edition of Darla’s “Little Darla Has a Treat For You” series. Titled “Seleva,” it was easily one of the best tracks on the comp. When I saw that Manual would be creating the next “Bliss Out” album, I immediately thought back to that track, and knew that if Munk were to produce an album full of similar material, it’d be something very good indeed. And so it is. From the very first delicate wisps of sound to the last atmospheric that fades over the horizon, The North Shore rarely disappoints.

“Always Alone” quickly sets the mood, but also does so gently and subtly. As is the case with much of the album, the song is more reminiscent of Vidna Obmana’s classic The River of Appearances; Brian Eno also comes to mind, as does Pieter Nooten and Michael Brook’s oft-discussed (at least, within these pages) masterpiece, Sleeps with the Fishes. Soft, delicate layers of melancholy synth slowly begin forming, but hesitantly, as if unwilling to jar the listener in any way. The faint tinkling of bells, disturbed by a gentle spring breeze, can be heard in the background, as can disembodied voices and oceanic washes of sound.

The following track, “1986,” is equally lovely, with a number of shimmering and sparkling tones, like hundreds of tiny silver bells, fluttering across the listening environment. Listening to it stirs up some vague sense of longing, an evocative pull for some place more tranquil and peaceful. The effect is such that, like “Seleva,” it’s almost heartwrenching when the track begins it’s slow fade, even though Munk introduces darker, deeper synth layers to help ease the transition into “Dawn Changes Everything.”

“Burn” revisits some of the same cosmic vistas that Into Forever explored, only setting them in a more terrestrial context. The listener is greeted by the sounds of chirping crickets and cicadas as the song begins, conjuring up the image of a fine, lazy summer evening. Meanwhile, majestic nebulas of sound begin to unfurl high overhead. Soon, your eye is drawn to the vast night sky above, where all manner of cosmic phenomena seems to be revealing itself. By song’s end, those summer noises are far behind you, the celestial music somehow having pulled you away from Terra Firma with you even realizing it.

On the other hand, “Ica” (co-produced with Munk’s Limp cohort, Jess Kahr) inverts the journey, heading towards more intimate, internal soundscapes à la 1 Mile North. Long stretches of uneasy silence fill the track, washed away only by the gentle, trilling cascades of soft, grey-tinted filigrees that Munk occasionally allows to emerge from his synth. It’s a truly haunting song, and it’s subtle nature and exotic textures make it all the moreso.

One thing I’ve always appreciated about good ambient music (and not that “New Age” pabulum that ambient music is often lumped with) is how evocative it is. Although ambient music, by its very definition, is fairly ambiguous and shapeless, eschewing a more structured form often allows it to have a greater, even primal impact. And that’s very true of The North Shore. While the sound palette that Munk employs is uniformly gorgeous, what really impresses me is how it seems to spur my imagination. Perhaps too much so.

While writing this review, I actually removed some of the more detailed descriptions of what came to mind while listening to the album, for fear of sounding too preposterous — after all, I’d like to be taken seriously when I describe music as beautiful, serene, and evocative. But rest assured I would’ve meant every single one, even the one about “Ica” inspiring mental pictures of mist-enshrouded shrines in distant forests. (Seeing as how I likely drew a few snickers with what I didn’t remove, such as “Burn“ s cosmic-themed description, it’s probably a good thing I took those out.)

It’s true that ambient music often fades into the background, becoming aural wallpaper, and this album is no exception. But should you ever find the time to truly engage The North Shore, even if you’re just trying to relax, you’ll find it to be truly captivating experience that outdoes anything I’ve heard from the “Bliss Out” series to date.