Olan Mill’s latest album “Orient” opens with the heavy sound of static but quickly turns to lush string sounds. It’s the equivalent of something distorted and blurred becoming cleared: It’s the ice being removed from the windshield so you can see the road ahead, or the poor reception of a telephone line becoming cleared so you can actually hear the voice on the other end. And that voice on the other end is distinctly Olan Mill’s. Some 6 plus albums into his career as Olan Mill, Alex Smalley has carved out a niche for himself with his ability to blend lush classical sounds with electronic touches that can capture almost fantastical narratives.
“Orient” is no exception and after that moment of electronic interference is over, those Olan Mill thick drone-swells and big strings enter in a grand way. And grand is the word – this is lush, heavy stuff. It’s a wonderful tactic to get the listener fully immersed in the world at play in as short a timeframe as possible. All of “Orient” feels like the listener is being transported to the Land of Narnia or some other magical world. But what’s interesting is that it feels like a collection of moments building a narrative rather than some steady through line. Tonally the music is consistent in invoking it’s feeling of something not only otherworldly, but of seeing that world through the eyes of a child.
There’s something open and inviting about taking that point of view but Smalley can also capture that objective sense that dread too can inform part of the child’s view of the world. And while perhaps the dread induced is not proportional to the actual magnitude of the threat, it can feel all-consuming through young eyes. For example, second song “Arpon” is made up of overlapping harp sounds. It’s a kaleidoscopic effect where similar phrases seem to be overlapping. But among all those similar phrases, something just out of focus makes the song feel somehow ‘off ‘enough so as not to be completely welcoming. By the time third song “Molanet” begins, that source of dread seems suffocatingly present. The song itself is made up of male voices throat singing coupled with heavy drone elements. It’s the first prominently human moment to figure into the story by that point. Un-coincidentally, it’s probably the most fear inducing as well
Fourth song “Birove” is made up of terse, quivering strings – but it’s as if we’ve stared the darkness in the face by now, and have mercifully been allowed to move on from it. From there, fifth song “Lapiya” is made up of quivering strings and female voices that feel like angelic waves rolling in to offer relief. Five songs into “Orient”, the narrative has taken the listener on an emotional rollercoaster of sorts.
And from there? “Alve” bring back those male voices again, but instead of throat singing, it’s falsetto voices that seem to be whispering for the listener to find calm. If you listen closely, those terse strings are still present on the verge of breaking into something foreboding. Although the tools vary from song-to-song, there’s a constant tactic of overlaying sounds repeated in various layers, but subtle differences in a phrase may give the compositions a feeling that they verge on the explosive.
The final three pieces of the cassette feel like a denouement – a slow come down. There’s a similarity in tone to the rest of the album, but the approach is different – that kaleidoscopic overlay is much more sparse, making it easier to tease out the individual parts of the songs. The effect is one of coming back to Earth, a return of sorts. But being the narrative that it is, “Orient” doesn’t let the listener escape unscathed – because once you see something you can’t un-see it. And taking that childlike view that the album invites, it’s compounded by the fact that a significant thing newly seen can shape an overall world view and linger forever.
And, when all is said and done, lingering is something “Orient” does well. It’s a series of vignettes where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s an immersive experience but when it’s done, it doesn’t quite let go – it stays with you. Few albums can tell a story so well and even fewer can invite a point of view on the story they are telling when they do. “Orient” is an achievement.