Title: Sound of Silas
Artist: Cousin Silas
Release Date: 2014 Sept 29
License: CC BY-NC-ND
Label: We Are All Ghosts
[Ed. Note: There are several references throughout this review to the CD release of this album. The CD’s are no longer avilable, however the digital issue is still available.]
If you aren’t already familiar with the work of Cousin Silas, then Sound of Silas is definitely the work you want to start with. But, I would also have to ask, what have you been reading for the last year? I mean, I’ve only posted reviews of The Place It Used To Be and Silas & Friends Volume 3, not to mention reviews of several works Cousin Silas has appeared on: Halla and Nebbie Mattutine, featured him in my 10 CC Musicians To Follow article, published an interview with him, and played him on at least 11 episodes of The CerebralMix (including Candide Parts 1-3). Seriously, search my site for Cousin Silas, there’s more than I have mentioned here…he keeps turning up like a bad penny, except I wouldn’t pay so much attention to his work if it was bad.
So I have had this release in my review queue for several weeks already. I could have chosen to review it at anytime since I first got it. But I didn’t want to do a review before it was released. Why? Well, I am a relative newcomer to Cousin Silas’s works, and this release offered me an opportunity to dip into the cavernous reservoir of his output over the past fourteen years, so I didn’t want to rush to write something that would be superficial or in any way short-change the range of work on this release.
In the meantime several other reviews have come out (no less than Allister Thompson’s Review and the Sonic Immersion Review) and I find myself in the position of having to raise the bar. Not just for myself, but also for providing a review that I feel matches up to what others have had to say, as well as to the work that has gone into this release. So, let’s dive in…
Sound of Silas: Hello Darkness?
You might be tempted to think that the title of this review is just a cheap play on words, equating the title ‘Sound of Silas’ with the Simon and Garfunkel song. Indeed, there has been a joke going around on Facebook regarding the title, whether the pun was intended or not. However, I have chosen to take the play on words a step further on purpose,
The origin of ambient music was based on electronic musicians that felt the need to leave behind much of the entrapments of style they had felt for a long time. One of the widely acknowledged “first shots” in this direction was Klaus Schulze’s ‘Time Wind’ which presented two tracks of layered sounds that seemed to suspend time by not having the rhythmic elements that seemed necessary in musical compositions. This type of work became known as Space Music.
Brian Eno is largely recognized as defining ambient music as “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” (Notes for Music for Airports). And, over time, many other musicians gravitated towards this style including: Vangelis, Steve Roach, Harold Budd, Mike Oldfield and Aphex Twin, to name a few.
As ambient began to grow, a trend of abstraction and minimization started taking place, along with a movement towards darker ambient music. Today a lot of ambient music falls into these categories.
Cousin Silas started back during a time where ambient music hadn’t become the minimal or dark. In fact, several early works on this release, including ‘In One Corner of The Sky’, ‘The End Of Winter’ and ‘Of Passing Days’ are gorgeous, lush melodic pieces. And, ‘Future Tense’ sounds like it could have been produced by Tangerine Dream, or Klaus Schulze in its use of rhythm as a key and central element.
That’s not to say there isn’t dark and abstract works aren’t represented in this release. ‘Into The Dark’ parts 1 and 7, and Mini Dronescape as excellent examples of Cousin Silas at work in more contemporary ambient forms.
If Cousin Silas was just comfortable in these forms of ambient music, that would be enough to warrant a physical CD release (especially given the ten-year gap between CD releases), but there is a lot more to the music of Cousin Silas. For example, the way in which Science Fiction and Fantasy elements find their way into his works, like ‘Artificial Lifeforms’, ‘A Convergence of Leylines’ and ‘Time Flow’.
The works of Cousin Silas take on as many literary and scientific references as they do different forms and styles of ambient music. Anytime you think you have a grasp on what to expect from a particular piece of music, get ready for something else to happen and take the work in a new direction, leaving you to unearth a new dimension within the creative mind of this musician.
One of the things that happens when trying to listen to more contemporary, abstract ambient music is that it is easy to lose focus on the work. The music seems to be wandering along without form, more of a sonic wallpaper which helps to set a mood or atmosphere. However, with the works of Cousin Silas it would be incorrect to feel that this is the case. Instead of just playing loosely along with a drone or a series of shifting tonal structures, there often is a strong form in these pieces, but instead cramming it all into three minutes, the ambient form allows this to stretch to anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour. This allows a musician like Cousin Silas to explore elements of structure, melody and harmonics that would be too dense in a more succinct form,
Sound of Silas was conceived as a release to introduce listeners to the breadth and depth of the artistry of a master of ambient music. The first disc reaches far back into Cousin Silas’s output over the years, and presents newly remastered recordings of the works. The second disc presents a set of new works composed and recorded just for this recording.
One reviewer of Sound of Silas stated that he felt the work needed better mastering, despite the early works having been remastered. I think this is a matter of choice in how the remastering was done. Some artists, especially when moving from analog recordings to digital, taken the option of re-dubbing parts of recordings that didn’t quite stand out the way they wanted. Two notable artists that have done this include Frank Zappa and Alan Parsons. Others feel that it is more desirable to be true to the original recordings, and keep the original parts, only re-mixing and re-equalizing them to bring them out as much as possible.
I understand both approaches, and respect the choice that an artist makes in this area. Yes, there are a few spots I could say I wished some of the sound was a bit better (for example, the drum track on ‘Future Tense’ seems a little washed out compared to the rest of the instruments), but there is nothing so bad about this remastering to really make it a major issue when talking about this recording. Personally, I think that staying away from over-remastering this work has the benefit of showing another dimension of how Cousin Silas has grown over the years.
How to summarize the Sound of Silas in a few sentences? Well, the obvious thing to state is that this is an excellent overview of Cousin Silas’s output over the past fourteen years. It really does an excellent job to providing the listener a starting place for becoming familiar with his work, but it also has the benefit of letting the listener experience the kind of depth that we don’t see in nearly as many artists these days.
The best part about this recording is this: if you find a piece that really grabs your attention, on the first disc, you can find the original recording and listen to the complete release. If you find something from the second disc grabbing your attention, you can check out other more recent Silas recordings to see if they grab your attention. Overall, it’s a win-win situation. No matter how you go about listening to this massive two and a half hours of music, you are likely to find there are many more hours of music from Cousin Silas that will keep you listening to him for years to come.
P.S. If I haven’t mentioned it enough times: there is a physical CD release of this recording. Actually, it’s two CD’s. This is a limited pressing of the CD: there are only one hundred copies. As of this writing they aren’t sold out yet. So, grab your copy quick, or if CD’s aren’t for you, maybe you can send one to a friend who still likes CD’s while grab a digital copy of this release. It will be well worth the investment. [Ed. Note: The physical CD’s are sold out. Not likely there will be another pressing. 🙁 ]