At first glance, James Murray’s The Land Bridge seems like just another ambient album. The kind that are released every other day on limited-run labels with nice, recycled cardboard packaging, a little rough-round-the-edges production and a healthy dose of warmth. And indeed, The Land Bridge has all of these things. But – just as Murray’s last album Floods rarely strayed far from various ambient templates yet was somehow so much more in its invocation of its eponymous natural phenomenon, both literal and metaphorical – closer attention reveals this album’s rich rewards in seconds.
The sonorous clangs of “Every Ringing Bell” come at relatively long intervals, and at first this leaves a lot of time in between for sounds to ring out and go quiet. It takes a lot of confidence for a musician to let their sound drop to nothing, and it is not misplaced here. Each beat is magnificently detailed, with wide, metallic hits, dull clacks and the gentler tone of a glockenspiel coalescing and then separating out as they fade away. Over the course of the piece, Murray begins to fill in the gaps, most brilliantly with some ethereal, tremulous notes that seem to have no beginning or end, eking out a melody. As the gaps slowly become fuller and fuller, the dynamics rise almost imperceptibly until bursts of distortion break the spell and allow the listener to realise they are now entirely enveloped by sound. Murray has a natural grasp of silence and dynamics, which are often forgotten by the most forgettable ambient musicians – which is strange, given that the genre relies so much on stripping down the busy sounds of other music, and on using volume and texture rather than obvious hooks to keep people interested. Half the reason that Petrels, for instance, is so critically adored is that Oliver Barrett knows exactly the power that gathering noise, lingering silence or the punch of sudden activity can have. In his hands dark ambient/drone/whatever-you-want-to-call it is urgent and exciting. James Murray goes some way towards achieving a similar effect.
The ‘resonating note, long space’ pattern reappears, with variations, across The Land Bridge (as motifs go, it’s pretty minimal, but it seems to be all Murray needs) with the same success. The repetition also helps unify the album, another step up from its predecessor, which, although firmly held together thematically, was at times a bit sonically disparate. “Give Blood”, the longest piece on The Land Bridge, is, like the opener, based on the pattern. Here, though, it is even more sparse, with longer silences filled only part way through by a crackling drone. The main beat itself starts out as only timid glockenspiel notes before developing some looming power. The track epitomises the darker side of the album, but the best piece for that aspect is the following “Be Held”, whose seemingly comforting title belies its tense, unsettling music. An insistent, mid-pitched drone carries throughout, unrelentingly thick in texture and refusing to quieten, even when the introduction of melody seems to demand it give way to the newcomer. Instead, the whole piece increases in volume, deliberately and menacingly.
Such subversion of expectations is one of the album’s main attractions. Much of it is comprised of subtle twists on typical ambient sounds. “Closeness”, for example, uses undulating synth washes, flecked with tasteful static, but gradually it is overcome by rumbling noise and the heavy, simple key melody begins to seem hesitant, irregular. “Small Gestures” works in a similar way, the piercing arrival of an electric organ making the ambience unnervingly luscious, like it can hardly hold its own weight any more. Ambient music is often too content with being ‘nice’ or ‘comfortable’, but Murray doesn’t allow his passages to settle too much, or come anywhere close to being mere aural wallpaper. What might usually be pleasant and fluffy turns out to be unstable, changeable and, frankly, a lot more interesting. In fact, The Land Bridge only stumbles on the title track, where the music is allowed to become a little too comfortable and where the shimmering guitars and breathy, wordless vocals too closely recall Hammock.
The Land Bridge is no revolution of the genre, but it is a stark reminder of how it should be done, how much there is to love about it when it’s done well, and how the tired sounds of bedroom ambience need not be so terribly familiar. When the album’s recurring theme returns in the final track it is with triumphant clarity, the bell sound now perfectly defined and the spaces in between filled with a liquid beat (like drips in a cave made into a rhythm) that moves about as if eager to fill in whatever gap comes next. Just as this clarity and motion is a refreshing entry at the end of the album, The Land Bridge is a refreshing album in its field.