In their reasonably few years and few releases, especially by ambient standards, Pausal (the duo of Alex Smalley and Simon Bainton) have been consistently interested in nature. Their last album, Forms, mapped the growth and (unsurprisingly) forms of fauna; the title of 2011’s Autumnal is self-explanatory and their first two releases both had pictures of leaves for covers. Smalley and Bainton’s work outside of Pausal has shown similar concerns: Olan Mill have regularly explored landscape and personal connections with it, and the pieces on Bainton’s debut solo album, Visiting Tides, were all named after different coastal areas. It’s something of a surprise then, to find that the cover of Pausal’s new album, Sky Margin, is of a block of flats.
The musical departure is a little more subtle. “Vapour”, the first track, opens out into its main, thick drone quickly, in contrast to the slower growths in Forms or Autumnal. The field recordings are more metallic, more man-made (Forms opened with the sound of babbling water). Despite these important differences, however, the general feel of the album remains similar. The ambience still shimmers, rolling out of the speakers bright and wide. Field recordings and other sounds perform roughly the same function as before, filling out textural detail and gesturing towards images and subjects, never grabbing attention for themselves. In other words, Sky Margin marks a change in content, not form – like a painter painting buildings instead of flowers, the process remains the same even if the inspiration is different.
And Pausal’s processes turn out to be remarkably suited to their subject matter. Tracks have a tendency to bleed into each other, imitating the large, continuous surfaces of tower blocks. Rougher drones in pieces such as “Celestial” act like roughly painted or pebbledashed walls: smooth from a distance, but on closer inspection they show their imperfections. This concern with the flaws in apparent uniformity – an interest not uncommon to this genre of music – continues throughout the album. The phasing of “Solstice” occasionally borders on piercing and the final track, “Utopian”, ends with a false end and a stuttering 30-second coda.
Pausal, it seems, try to elevate these flaws, and indeed the generally-accepted-to-be-ugly buildings of the cover, with their music. Part of this lies in the drifting of their gaze above the roofs, skywards. Ambient music is frequently described with words like ‘celestial’, or ‘soaring’ and Pausal’s music fits pretty well into those categories. Though imperfections and roughness might be important details to Sky Margin, the music here is never less than beautiful. It is light and airy; it shines with the glow of cool morning sun. The album makes a connection between these descriptors and block architecture through an overwhelming, hypnotic sameness and block colours. The crunch, perhaps of a shoe on gravel, in “Distance” could be equally as well described as the sonic imitation of a fluff of cloud in a clear sky. “Solstice” makes a more direct connection by juxtaposing the chirping of birds with one of the most processed, clearly man-made drones of the album and the metallic echo at the start of “Utopian”.
By taking their signature sound to a new subject, Pausal find a natural beauty in something of an unexpected image, away from nature.