henever a lush, romantic ambient album surfaces, the word “cinematic” is sure to follow. Like most terms (especially those employed in the dubious business of describing music), “cinematic” has no clear referent. Interpreted most literally, it suggests a synthesis between vision, motion and music, in which the mood and direction of sound correspond meaningfully to possible actions onscreen. Such a rigorous definition would be beneficial. It would force artists to deeply consider the difficulty of a synaesthetic relationship. How can one model a human relationship in sound? Or convey the nuance of landscape? We all find reflections of our lives and selves in music, but such parallels are not often scripted.
But writers are not (and maybe cannot) be so direct. Pragmatically, “cinematic” arises when a critic in need notes a similarity to Morricone.or Badalamenti. As such, any brooding, lyric-free work can merit the tag. Recently, it seems that the term has been applied largely to the noir-inflected end of the spectrum. And so the difficulty of defining cinematic has given rise to the narrowest definition of all, one that limits the tonal range of the work.
Which results in the cinematic new Deaf Center album, Pale Ravine. Predictably stately and blandly ominous, Pale Ravine wills itself into background music, despite the compositional skills of its composers. Erik Skodvin and Otto Totland boast a profusion of influences: minimal modern classical ala Johann Johannsson, musique concrete, a dose of Satie—but they insist on blurring their creations into a soggy wash. For the life of me, I can’t understand why they’d choose to open the album with the non-descript “Lobby.” Piano-inflected ambient as shapeless as a sheet and as dark as pastel brown. And the opening minutes of “Thread” don’t redeem: faint pressure-pop beats fail to enliven the violin swells, and the looped field recording adds unwelcome texture.
Such devotion to the current cinematic paradigm proves doubly frustrating when Skodvin and Totland escape it. “Thread” closes with an intriguing piano coda that segues nicely into the gorgeous “White Lake,” a heady blend of drag-ass old-blues bassline with glittering ivories and respiratory synth work. Both of these tracks succeed because they are focused and minimal. They let their instruments breathe and they don’t attempt to immerse the listener in a sound world that hasn’t been fully imagined. They switch off the movie and let the music talk.
“Path to Lucy” provides the hopeful sunrise for the soundtrack, though the two-dimensional painted purples, pinks, and oranges are definitely peeling. “Stone Beacon” darkens the mood again to mixed results. The field recordings are truly haunting, but by this time one has grown tired of foggy atmospheres.
“Thunder Night” finds the duo reformed. Amidst martial strings, bells scurry with digital haste, coalescing into a hynoptic melody weaving through the mix. A foghorn attempts to drown the track in Deaf Center’s usually spy-flick murk, but the bells persist and carry the track to an clear, peaceful end.
“The Clearing” gets by because the flies and frogs are recorded perfectly, but otherwise Deaf Center finishes the album the way they started.
Skodvin and Totland clearly have talent. Pale Ravine is pleasing and professional, and when it breaks free of its celluloid tangle, it shines. But it doesn’t do so often enough. If Deaf Center wants to be cinematic, fine, but maybe they should score a different movie.
Reviewed by: Bryan Berge
Reviewed on: 2005-09-26