Sweet, rosy dreams are pierced by grey, pregnant Pacific clouds that tumble in over Portland, Oregon. These clouds grip the lower altitudes like a mind wracked by an unwelcome and uninvited sleep pattern; entangled, tousled sheets are a suspicion of a fitful night’s sleep, and upon awakening, a cold sweat damps the torso with perspiration like spatters of the sidewalk’s rain. The nightmare reaches the point of no return, and it’s a physical struggle to exit out of the dreaded scenario. Seconds become hours as the desperate sprint becomes static movement. There is no escape route until the climax; thankful for small mercies, the nightmare disappears into the mist, but it haunts the dark room like the terrorizing state storm-clouds coming in off the coast. Daybreak comes, but it still never truly leaves your mind. This region, on the West Coast of the United States, is usually soaked with rainfall, and Matthew Cooper probably owes some inspiration to the inclement weather system that can take hold of Portland’s streets.
Nightmare Ending severs the segments of dark, negative emotions like a rainbow ushering away the last of the storm. For whatever reason, the album has had a long gestation period. This usually doesn’t bode well, but the delay, the meticulous attention and the added ambient finesse has only beautified an already gorgeous sound.
Matthew Cooper has always been successful, no matter where he turns his attention, or wherever the music may lead. Cooper’s earlier works range from vocal-led soundscapes, modern classical pieces, and even an entire album dedicated to the piano; his scope is just as spacious as the musical atmosphere he evokes. Last fall, he went under the pseudonym of Martin Eden and left us with Dedicate Function, a record that saw him ditch his revered, roaming ambient soundscapes in favour of breezy electronic music; although the beats still had a reflective tone underneath, shimmering with thoughtful, gentle atmospheres perceptible under the surface of the harder, concrete rhythms. Nightmare Ending is more of a traditional Eluvium listen. In fact, it’s his most comprehensive album in an already sublime discography; a retreat that encapsulates all of his best work, a role-call of beautiful piano progressions, processed guitar chords and creamy, enveloping atmospheres that shine an exultant light into shady alcoves. His music is a white dove illuminated against the murky grey sky.
‘Don’t Get Any Closer’, and its repetitive, major chord progression kicks off Nightmare Ending. The title suggests a double meaning – is the nightmare coming to an end, or does the very end contain a nightmarish prophecy? The music is a delta-wave of a dream that returns to the classic, ambient style of his past – a shrouded, vague mist with the potential to clear and glint with beauty, a style of music that Cooper himself helped to compose and assemble, and one that others have later used as inspiration, venturing even further out to the ambient shores.
Grander in size and unprecedented in its bravery, Nightmare Ending is Eluvium’s crowning achievement, a double album that sits on a dazzling throne constructed out of those lush, looped chord progressions and hazy tones. While the similarities with his much adored Copia are there – in the sweeping string sections, the pervasive atmosphere that caresses and lingers much as it develops, and in the looping piano melodies, they don’t seem to bear fruit. This isn’t Copia, Volume II, although Nightmare Ending was supposed to be her immediate successor. Copia remains a favourite for many Eluvium fans, but Nightmare Ending is smoother to the touch and the lengthy spell of her creation has left the music to settle and stew, becoming a well-rounded, meditative message of hope and optimism after a long and tiring recurring nightmare.
Nightmare Ending invites the listener in, returning to Cooper’s roots of instrumental, ambient music, absent of vocals – apart from the coda, ‘Happiness’ – marking a departure from its predecessor, Similes, which heavily featured Cooper’s voice, the closest he has come to ambient pop. Portland, Oregon, with its temperamental climate and persistent rainfall, shapes his ambient landscapes in such a way that they are forever soaked in a misty dew, the deep, orchestral swells airborne and left swirling in a continuous, 360-degree spiral. ‘Don’t Get Any Closer’ sounds like a warning, as if the rain-clouds are really thunderstorms concealing daggers of lightning, but as you may have come to expect from Eluvium, it’s a peaceful start. A lovely piano progression trails over subtle loops and a lightly-strummed electric guitar chord becomes a rhythmic backbeat. A tranquil organ melody trails over the bridge section, acting as the archway that flows between the loop and back. Lighter swirls, skirting over each other like feathery voices lost in the air, are added to the music, advancing the track slowly but surely. You sink in quickly.
‘Warm’ is unfathomably deep and wide, a progression that tugs and pulls like an offshore wind unsure of its course, but reeling the air in towards the center and lovingly engulfing the listener in the process. The rotor blade thump of ‘By The Rails’, is a discordant grind against a harmony cloaked in white noise, and it wouldn’t have sounded too out of place on the excellent Static Nocturne. Nightmare Ending shares a couple of Nocturne’s personalities; the music, apart from the opener, is a little darker than initially thought, without ever feeling dangerous – it’s intense and always, always beautiful. ‘Unknown Variation’ has a soundscape that eventually consumes your whole listening experience, and Cooper’s hushed musical development is at its finest.
In ‘Chime’, a lush coating of ambience rings out like a harmonic bell, as deep and as opaque as a distant waterfall in motion; sweeping everything with it, the track unleashes a tidal wave in the soul. Cooper is taking his beautiful music to a whole new level. The sheer, double album size of Nightmare Ending makes for a succulent, gift-wrapped treat for Eluvium fans of old, and this is only the halfway point; if it was a book, it would be a weighty tome. It is ambitious – a lot of the tracks surpass the five-minute mark and stretch into the sevens and eights. It’s an interesting paradox, a catch 22 if you like, because it’s music gifted with subtleties, demanding your full attention at the same time as you tune out. The lengthy pieces allow the music to develop in such a way that tuning out is encouraged…but you risk losing at least some of the subtleties in the process. The album really grows through repeated listens, and by the end of the third or fourth play-through, you’ll likely end up as lovers. When Eluvium is at full throttle, the music doesn’t just surround you – it consumes you. It’s also a perfect stepping stone for newcomers, because every facet of Eluvium’s sound is not only counted for, but makes an appearance of the highest quality.
Nightmare Ending has infinite appeal and infinite layers to discover, but it’s only when you dive into the music, instead of letting it soak over you, that you really experience it. This experience is best described on the track, ‘Covered In Writing’. It’s an absolutely gorgeous progression that is left to wallow in an aquatic-toned ambient shimmer, sailing into view as if it was a boat gently rocking into the docks. There is so much emotion in this track. At this point, it becomes clear that the nightmare is, finally, ending; only an immersion of peace, lit by a white dove, is left. The music floats as if it was a body drifting in and out of sleep, the line between the two crossings indistinct and hazy, where voices seem to become louder and lose definition at the same time. Eluvium’s ambience exists in this very space, where the clarity and precision in an awake, conscious state are lost to a dreamy current of musical bliss. Interspersing these deep immersions are shorter piano pieces that are just as beautiful, so we are always allowed to recapture our breath and return to the surface – ‘Entendre’ kissing the keys in between the lengthy tracks.
In ‘Happiness’, there is no sign of Cooper’s timid, wavering vocals (which is by no means a criticism; the shy vocals helped to support the shy, gyroscopic atmosphere and the kind ambient shards of mercy). The lyrics on Similes, thoughtful, deep and perfectly realised, are only a late addition to Nightmare Ending, as if Cooper was unsure of their intention or purpose on this album. Cooper couldn’t have strayed any further away from the ambient-pop that divided so many listeners, but it is a sweet ending for what will become Cooper’s defining musical work – yes, even above Copia.
Note by note, Eluvium brings a once-frequented nightmare to a close.
– James Catchpole for Fluid Radio