Maps and Diagrams has always been prolific, and 2013 has been no exception with five releases so far – and a few more under Tim Martin’s Atlantis moniker. Of all these releases, In Circles is the richest, and one of the longest at over an hour. It’s also Maps and Diagrams’ second album on Time Released Sound, after 2011’s Get Lost.
In Circles is something of a thematic sequel to Get Lost. They share a wandering, aimless feeling. The found sounds often suggest travelling: one in “Ten Black Cards” could be the sound of rifling through paper on a train; one in “Valargo” could be the crunch of footsteps. But, then again, they could be something else entirely. This is often the case with such recordings and, here, it contributes to the vagueness of the album, its drifting feeling, unwilling to settle on one specific place or sound. The rest of the music takes the same approach. The meandering melodies of “Ten Black Cards”, for instance, are steeped in delay, looping themselves into circles. Or there are the broad swathes of ambience of “A Bump in the Night” and “1895 (Moth Evolution)” that stretch on and on without purpose or direction. If those are two of the criticisms often levelled at ambient music, then Maps and Diagrams revels in them, creating an entirely rootless world where time is no object.
In Circles fits appropriately with Eno’s theory that ambient music must be “as ignorable as it is interesting”. Much like wandering, it’s easy to phase in and out. During the lulls it is easy to let the album slip into background music, such as the soothingly deep ebbs and flows of “Locus (AB)”. But then a track like the immediately following “Madrid (Orion)” comes in with a nudgingly insistent polyphony, jolting you comfortably back to attention. This immediacy rests on In Circles’ prominent melodicism, frequently foregrounding defined patterns – the firm plodding of “Batika (Rust)” is almost infectious – over the usual washes of ambience. The variation is particularly helpful given the album’s length. It allows the listener to drift in and out, along with the album itself, without ever getting bored or feeling like they’ve missed anything.
The album’s power is subtly cumulative, at least in part because of its slipping in and out of the foreground; in those passages where it is out of the listener’s direct consciousness it can work on them without them realising it. From the very first piece In Circles begins a slow immersion. “Talavera” opens cool and quiet, three or four layers of drone shifting over each other, gathering undulations and shimmers. “Bosque” continues the building up of texture, and really this carries on throughout the album, adding various melodies and the dense sweeps between them. The steady progression sucks you in, until Maps and Diagrams hits you with the final and most dramatic (if the word can really be used of ambient music) jolt of the album.
Closing track “Yesterday” initially strips the sound right back, to little more than a crackle of static and a repeated, two-note whistling figure. Then the vocals pierce the fabric of the music with a clarity unseen up to this point. Sung by Spanish artist I Am Dive – whose voice is pristinely pleasant, if nondescript – the lyrics mirror the music in their repetitions, unhurried delivery and casually unspecific references to ‘the path and the oaks, the fjords and the lakes’. The song rounds out the album perfectly, the sudden clarity revealing just how immersive its world has been, giving voice to its aimless spirit and yet also, with the vocals’ newness and difference, giving the feeling that after all that wandering, you’ve actually arrived somewhere.