Transgression opens much like many another ambient album. There’s a crackling sound somewhere between radio-static and footsteps on a stony beach. There’s some more crackling that’s closer to light rainfall. There’s an open, almost choral-sounding drone whose undulations fade in and out. The first crackling develops a steady, somnambulant pulse. A noisier wave, possibly of guitar origin begins panning across the speakers.
Equal Stones’ third album is released on Hidden Vibes, a net label that has made little enough of a splash for me to have never heard of it. That doesn’t necessarily say much, but in a genre crowded with net labels releasing albums by reasonably prolific, low-profile musicians, it’s certainly difficult to stand out. Transgression, though, manages to hold its own. Its relative outsider status might have something to do with it – Hidden Vibes is based in Ukraine, while Amandus Schaaps, the man behind Equal Stones, is from the Netherlands, neither of which are countries you’d particularly associate with the genre. More importantly, there’s something more to the music than appears in the first couple of minutes.
“Set Free”, the opening track, picks up about half way through, when a more determined fluttering joins the pulse and a hollow, two-note vocal pattern is introduced. It’s nothing dramatic, nor is it all that different to what comes before in the track, the change being done entirely seamlessly. But is enough to propel the music forwards, to give it a reason to cycle on for five more minutes, and reason enough to pay attention to Equal Stones for the forty-minutes-or-so of the album.
Schaaps’ influences are never far away. Imaginary Country-era Tim Hecker is a strong presence in the expansive, synthesised waves of “We all Fall”. The darker, more distorted moments recall Evan Caminiti (solo and with Barn Owl, although in fact some of the more ritualistic moments, like the knells at the end of “Reject All You Have Learned” are a little more Jon Porras). Mix that with some of the percussive sounds and there are hints of Aquarelle, particularly in the middle section of “Set Free”. The key thing is, though, that Transgression never feels plagiarised. If you’re going be influenced (and who isn’t?) it may as well be by the best, and Schaaps patches all of his reference points together into an engaging, enjoyable – if in no way original – genre piece.
That’s the best way to think of Transgression really. “Death at Both Ends”, the closing track, is the best on offer because it distils all the various elements of the music into a tighter, seven minute package. The opening even gets a little bit experimental (in the vein of The Haxan Cloak and others) with a swelling of crushed, industrialised drums. The following drone is more oppressive and insistent, allowing in little but a stretched background squeal and more industrial crackle.
Come at Transgression without any particular expectations, without putting any pressure on it to be ground-breaking, and it will reward you. It’s a genre piece that builds up a convincing individuality – even if it does that through piecing together a few personal favourites – and it’s a pleasing reminder that the tropes of ambient and drone music, pulled off with just a little bit of flair, can still actually be quite entertaining.