Wil Bolton – Amber Studies
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Amber… The very voicing of the word may conjure sand-washed colours bronzed by the sun, or a life, now long extinct, cuddled inside a glass of lucid rock and set in a sleek, glazed finish of gold. Amber may be the tanned afterglow of a sunset, ablaze in its glorious last stand of solar flares, as the arc of the sun is lost to the flat horizon, far in the distance. Amber is an alluring colour, and a beautiful feminine name. It may even be a balmy air of warm conversation with friends on a summer evening. Amber, once fluid, evolves into a dormant rock of resin, holding inside it a precious life, laying perfectly preserved in an eternal inertia. Amber may trap all unintentionally, but it seems that music may also become entangled in a sticky form of amber, soaked in the rock of a recording, instead of a substantially thick rock which one may hold, one that has long been stalled in a stasis spanning across millennia, until further down the line the rock is discovered and extracted.
Amber Studies, Wil Bolton’s latest release on Rural Colours, is its own kind of amber, preserving a moment in its prime, bright-eyed, even though any life has already passed. Bolton sets us in a place which we may never have visited, or may never visit. It’s an appearance of skin-deep beauty that is free from any declining, yet natural, sign of aging as we grow older, preserved in youth as if drank from a fountain’s elixir. The allure of Amber Studies is that it effectively allows us all to feel the detailed, cobbled streets underneath our feet, soak in the buzz of a place that is distant to us, and yet at the same time feel so close that it may only be just a touch away, as we stand underneath the lamp-light, casting long shadows and sunbathing in a flickering, artificial amber.
Wil Bolton is one musician who can expertly extract any scent of nectar that there may be in a location’s air, set it down and add deep washes of drone alongside the atmosphere. In this process, a link is created between the one reality of the recorded setting, and the multiple images that shine in the mind’s eye, wherever we may happen to be. The mind may release a thousand and one possibilities, while the field recordings broadcast only one, real truth. Due to the recorded nature, the events the field recordings detail have long become extinct to their location, two years to be exact. The voices have since moved on in their physical area, but through music they remain encased in their own rock amid the drones. As a residual haunting leaves behind any dramatic events etched into the walls, the voices contained in the field recordings are now soaked into the very fabric of the area on the date they were recorded, forever held invisibly in the air instead of inside physical rock. No flight is needed, and jet lag becomes a thing of the past along with any jittery thoughts of turbulence. Amber Studies isn’t set around an equatorial zone to mirror any red-hot imagery that the colour may suggest. Instead, Bolton takes us to Eastern European territory – Krakow, Poland.
Poland’s second largest city is also one of the country’s oldest, which must be reflected upon as Bolton’s four musical pieces circle around four of Krakow’s distinct squares. Krakow as a city is now coated in its very own amber; a thick, syrupy drone that could be a Polish delicacy, and it tastes just as good as it sounds. Bolton’s use of guitars, effects pedals, keyboards and field recordings have always been the kind to entice with a sense of place, and ‘Rynek Glowny’ is an appropriate place to begin exploring. The opener represents the main market square of the city, possibly approaching the street from the side, and suddenly coming out into a thriving main square. Central to the hustle of the city, we are not immediately thrust into the chaos of multiple conversation. Instead, it’s an entry made smoother by the deep wave of drone as we approach the main square, searching for a cafe in which to sit and become accustomed to our surroundings while observing all of the activity. The field recordings take in enigmatic chatter, footsteps tapping over the streets and the clinking of glasses, but Bolton never really hones in on one conversation, just as if we were an invisible presence sitting centrally in the square.
Rumbles of cars and the tinkling of cutlery lay next to Bolton’s substantial drones, which in turn reflects the low tones any shuddering vehicle’s vibrations may leave behind. While this is unfolding, layers are introduced above the drone, like a trail of multiple conversations left hanging in the air, arising out of one topic. The drones aren’t lost in a flowing conversation, firing off into different directions wherever the talk may lead. They have a real course to follow, which complements the live and unpredictable murmurings of the field recordings. Emerging calmly, the recordings give a substance to the city, and turn the record into a living, breathing city, while never representing the chaos and rush hour that is seen in any major city, or people brushing into each other in small, tight squares. Instead, they seem to hum with an evening buzz, one that is carefree and casual, almost like the after hours of the rush hour, when the city is settling into its own nightly rhythm. A cyclist spins the wheels as ‘Rynek Glowny’ ends, and the evening settles in. You can almost smell the strong scent of espresso carried through the air.
As the music progresses, the listener is invited along the many squares the city enjoys without losing our sense of direction. Through Bolton’s ambience, we are allowed to take the time to pause and observe four distinct areas for each of Amber Studies’ four pieces. And it very much is a study, allowing the listener a highly detailed look through the ancient architecture, breathing in the breeze of the city and the life of its people, without the cliched maps and hotel rooms attached to any type of tourism. Although we are visitors to this city from play to pause, we are also in a place close to our home base, as Bolton’s drones and field recordings ensure that we are never left far from home.
The drones aren’t comforting as such, however. They carry darker shades, which could reflect the ancient walls and older brickwork of the city, or the Eastern European chill brushing over much of the continent when winter abides in its long, persevering months, clinging to the cold. Any historic city does have a weight surrounding it, however; London, Paris or Rome, no matter the modernism that takes shape in unsurpassed skyscrapers or designs of modern engineering, they live underneath a backdrop of history, and as is so often seen, the tides of history influence our modern lives. Through the music of Amber Studies, the weighty historic breath of the city is is displayed, entombed in the music.
‘Ulica Kanonicza’ is lit after sunset, when the light-sapped sky turns black and displays a mirrored surface of the serene evening light, changing to a city at night. The cycling of Bolton’s drones advance to the fore, repeating as streetlamps flicker down abandoned alleyways. The recordings are still active, although they are less chaotic than the opener, sleepily zoning out to the repeating drone. It’s reminiscent of quieter seclusions down lesser known side streets, with black shadows scaling the sides of old buildings, clinging on and never letting go. It may slightly unsettle the nerves of the traveller and anchor all footsteps in their place, like staring down an approaching, dark alley and knowing that we must pass through it.
The drone, and the possibility of dawn, is realised on ‘Ulica Grodzka’, in the old town and one of the oldest streets. A harmony truly ascends for the first time in cycles of healthy light. The drones are enduring, and never romanticise the city in any sentimentality. Beautiful streets and trees line the sides, alongside beige brickwork and the grand architecture of white-walled churches. Bolton is more interested in giving us a slice of reality, instead of a poetic delivery. And yet, the music is poetic, and the reality of the drones relieves Amber Studies of any cliche; placing the listener in the city for what it is, and not for what it dreams it may be.
This is really what makes the music so sublime, but it is the concluding ‘Plac Szczepanski’, lying in the old town and sojourning in the square, that ends on a high, on rising jets of a lengthy drone, like the flowing fountain in the square. A concealed bell rings out in the distance. The imagery of picturesque streets and streetlights which pour out a dull light onto the pavement is one that remains in the eye.
Appreciated for its colour, Amber is an almost immaculate preservation. Like amber, Wil Bolton has preserved Krakow’s own sense of place inside his music, and while it may not be millenia-worn, Amber Studies is effective at fossilizing the mood that comes attached with a certain setting and the evocative breath of place. Amber Studies is musical preservation.
- James Catchpole for Fluid Radio