Dylan Henner’s first release for the Dauw label “Flues of Disappearing Sand” is actually one of two releases from him in March 2020 – the other being “A Dingo Crossing a Stream”. The two albums are in many ways wildly divergent in their palettes – where “Dingo…” is all dreamy electronic minimalism, “Flues..” is a vibraphone heavy affair. Even when looking at “Flues..” through the lens of the Dauw catalogue, it is an eclectic choice. When thinking of ambient or minimalist music, a percussive instrument is not an obvious choice as the primary sound source, but Henner finds a way to create an immersive album by taking an almost deconstructionist approach to using the instrument.
“Flues” consists of two pieces, each lasting around 20 minutes in length. The first “The Sun Made the Sea Look Like Gold” opens with a persistent refrain – it’s an optimistic and upbeat vibraphone melody. Slowly, a second slower melody works its way in, adding a second element to the narrative playing out for the listener. And this second melody is linked to the quiet electronics in the background which gently percolate underneath much of “Flues…”. This new melody slowly builds the pace, layering itself on top of the refrain. The effect is to create a sort of ominous quality, as if daily life moves on unaware of a grander narrative at play that may eventually consume it – a slow extinction working its way in the background. By 6 minutes in, the piece slows down, as if stilled so that it might be re-born. But what persists is that the vibraphone provides a resilient vitality to the music, even at slower playing. What’s interesting is how Henner plays with pacing where often a faster melody will be accompanied by a slower melody, as if to highlight the sense of movement – a sort of fractal sense of vitality versus the threat of slowing to nothing. As if life knows nothing but urgency, even in the threat of ceasing to be.
Consistently across “Flues…” melodies will be overlayed and one is stripped away to allow another melody to thrive on center stage, and all of it reveals a fragile tapestry – some force continuously at work. By minute 12, the primary melody has returned as if on a loop, but of course what accompanies is new – an evolution. As the piece winds down at minute 15, it slows into some playful trills with gentle electronics in the background. It seems no coincidence that the longest part of the piece is the denouement, which retains that playfulness all the while slowly working its way toward extinction, almost as if due to exhaustion.
“We Turned Off the TV so we could Hear the Birds” inverts the formula and slowly crawls into existence. The slow melody retains an optimism as it lurches into being. Slowly, the piece fills out, growing and growing. Where the first piece worked toward a denouement, “ …TV…” builds up as if all the pieces are somehow working together to grow this organism. And even when the end comes, it is abrupt, but it’s as if there was a vitality that transcended its impending final moments.
Henner approaches his music as a sort of sonic tourist – where others take pictures, he creates audio distillations of the sub-atomic geography of the places he visits. The heavy vibraphone use on the album makes it a unique enterprise for Henner and for what is in many ways an ambient album. But where it works is as a sonic meditation of place and time, and in that there is a reminder that the present can sometimes be haunted by a future slowly distilling away. And where “Flues..” was about a specific time and place, Henner’s work here has already become much more global and prescient than probably even he anticipated. “Flues..” is a great place to get lost in and it somehow manages to give voice to and releasefrom the anxieties it addresses.