t times it feels like the market for soaring, instrumental guitar music is vastly overcrowded. The slight variations are near-endless but only rarely compelling, and the sons and daughters of Slint, Mogwai, Godspeed et al too often stay rigorously faithful to their parents. When an act does manage to break through and make an impression it's often hard to put across in words how they've managed; on paper not a lot separates the success from the failures in this field.
Italian quasi-collective Port-Royal are an excellent example; “Jeka” starts out on a very Young Team direction, slow piano and sweeping guitar/synth ambience colouring the air above some quiet sampled discussion. It's not bad, and certainly fares better once you've heard the rest of Flares, but the listener is apt to settle back in their chair when they hear “Jeka,” content that the rest will be predictably epic.
And in terms of length it certainly is—“Zobione” and “Flares” take up three tracks and more than twenty minutes apiece, and “Spetsnaz/Paul Leni” and “Karola Bloch” each tip the scales at more than ten. But once the drum loop kicks in beneath the beginning of “Spetsnaz/Paul Leni,” things subtly shift around; you've heard these ingredients before, but Port-Royal are exceptionally skilled chefs. The closest Flares comes to startling innovation is the way “Zobione Pt. 3” opens with a harsh burst of distorted beats washing over the same guitar figure the band has been toying with for fifteen minutes already, but when your debut is as enjoyable and striking as this album is we can settle for refinement instead of innovation.
And even leaving aside the question of whether innovation is always desirable, it's hard not to be glad that Port-Royal are currently working more on wringing every scrap of beauty out of this set-up. The result is ambient in the best sense; this is utterly “ignorable” if you're busy, the perfect soundtrack to 70 minutes of necessary drudgery. But when you focus in on it, some of the music here is breathtaking, the sort of instrumental, wordless communication that usually spurs writers on to mountains of metaphors, each more baroquely beautiful and unlikely than the last.
Most pertinently, Port-Royal manage the difficult trick (mastered by only a few, including Jesu and Luomo) of stretching songs out to ten or twenty minutes and keeping the structure fairly simple but never losing your attention. There's plenty of repetition, sure, but there are always enough new elements being introduced so that the ear has something to follow. It helps that the record is well sequenced, saving the more placid title track until near the end to slowly wind the album down. “Stimmung” (German for “Tendency”) then provides an even more lulling coda, the kind of music that seems to hang gleaming in the air in front of you. These sounds are almost tactile, and especially on headphones they seem to condition the space you exist in.
At times it seems as if every sound here is either floating or chiming (or both), but Flares never succumbs to the kind of uplift fatigue Godspeed You Black Emperor's work occasionally suffers from. Part of it is that Port-Royal is, again, closer to ambient music than Mogwai, although their tools have more in common with the latter than many practitioners of the former. Most instrumental guitar music like this has a ferocious sense of drive or urgency or anger, but Port-Royal strip all that away to make something more peaceful and comforting. Usually you get shoved forward by the guitars; here you are swimming in them, in no hurry to get anywhere else. If every good album deserves its own absurd comparison, we could say that Port-Royal sounds like Eluvium messing around with The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place. The result is probably too boundless and too glacial for some, but anyone looking for music to drown in should seek this out.