It’s been quite a number of years since I read the Dune series, Frank Herbert’s legendary sci-fi epic depicting the struggle to control the eponymous desert planet and its space travel-enabling spice, but a recent discovery has made me want to read it again. That discovery is April Larson’s album “You Stand in a Valley Between Dunes”, a work conceived as a tribute to the power and imagination of the Dune universe. Louisiana-based Larson has quite an extensive discography up on Bandcamp, including both her own ambient work and her collaborations with Matt Bower as the duo Isobel Ccircle~, but it was her Dune-themed collection that initially caught my ear.
The album displays a preference for classic warm ambient music, but this is classic warm ambient done right: big, expansive chords, gradual changes, simple harmonic progressions, and buried details are here in abundance. Low fluttering rumbles are often used to convey the impression of galaxy-crossing speed onto weighty drones that otherwise shift quite slowly; on the couple of occasions where conventional beats are used, the effect is one of steady progression or even stasis. In ‘Brimstone and Cinnamon (Selim Wormrider)’, a muffled beat and piano-like broken chords are gradually overtaken by a general rumbling and insistent thump (perhaps as the giant worm burrows into the sand). Meanwhile, pieces such as ‘The Hubris of Josef Venport’ and ‘Glittering Flakes of a Shredded Cosmos (A Vision of Leto II)’ use a more ambiguous approach to harmony to create a mysterious, even mystical impression.
Most of the 14 tracks on “You Stand in a Valley” are quite short; some end before I’ve had chance to fully immerse myself in them. But what the album excels at is in drawing out the dialectic common to the desert, to space, and to ambient music: that is, the perception of huge vastness and great intimacy in the same moment. I remember the early days of home digital music production and the huge glut of sci-fi-themed music that could be found on the nascent Internet; how it felt as if the future was accelerating towards us at ever-faster speeds. Now it’s possible to listen to such music in a nostalgic mode, as just another ‘retro’ genre dredged up from the past in order to hide a general stagnation and lack of ideas in the present. By way of contrast, “You Stand in a Valley Between Dunes” encourages the listener to imagine a future big enough to encompass the stars, and as close as the grains of sand in your hand.