Release date September 30, 2016
By Melanie Stangl
Fans of local ambient dream pop group Sleep Experiments have been waiting four long years for new tunes, but soon their patience will be rewarded. On Friday, September 30th, the new seven-song album, Passages, will premiere, celebrated with a release show at the Ace Hotel Ballroom. Labelmates Host Skull will be the openers, as this is the first full-length record released from the Golden Magnet collective. And they’ve set the bar high: Passages is an immersive, passionate, richly textured gem of a record. Sleep Experiments (comprised of Phil Jacoby, Phil Johnson, and Morgan Stewart) are masters of skillful sonic layering to create atmosphere—a spell that you don’t want to break, and probably couldn’t if you tried. Its sounds (guitar, synths, vocal loops, and the occasional percussion track) are largely effect-heavy and otherworldly, but the emotions they portray are strikingly real. Stewart’s voice is mesmerizing as well: precise yet encompassing, full of emotion but very well-controlled. Fans of acts such as Message to Bears, Sea Oleena, The Appleseed Cast, and even Tycho will find welcome, gorgeous similarities here—this experiment was definitely worth the wait.
The first track, “When I Was a Boy” is a sparse, slower tune. It beautifully captures the bittersweet nature of nostalgic reflection, both musically and with lyrics such as “I didn’t know what was important/And it was all so important” and “Now I see ghosts/wherever I go/and it reminds me of it all.” The song demonstrates one of Sleep Experiments’ key strengths: the smart use of repetition of syllables, melodic patterns, and words to create a world within each song. A deliberate three-note descending guitar riff plays over and over again throughout, but it and its sonic surroundings never feel stale: subtle variations and additions pull you along and carry you through. The heavy use of echo and reverb in the synths/instrumentals is particularly immersive. At times they make the notes physically vibrate, cementing the track’s near trance-inducing effect. Combined with higher, haunting ooh’s from Stewart, you already get a taste of the band’s potential for magic.
A subtle kick-drum-esque pattern at the first song’s end fades into the beginning of “Fixtures” before picking up speed, a cool transition which demonstrates that attention was paid to album continuity. This track shifts from nostalgic longing to present longing, with a slightly faster beat and fuller instrumentals, including less-effect-heavy guitars. Stewart sings, “In the middle of the night/I was wondering/Can I ever really care/for anything beside myself/And could that thing be you?/Could that thing be you?” The stark honesty of the lyrics is enhanced by their melodies: the chorus ascends into a higher, stretched out, multi-note final “you,” while the phrases in the verses walk down with less fuss. The subject of the song, the “you,” is the intentional recipient of the singer’s attention, hope, and confusion. This pattern is reversed in the third verse, though the lyrics stay the same. Descending into “could that thing be you?” literally lowers the possibility from its previous high pedestal into the realm of possibility. It’s another thoughtful, reaching, beautiful track.
“Tree of Life” picks up the pace alluringly, showing the band’s versatility. More emphasis is placed on percussion sounds, especially at the beginning and the end, when a heartbeat-esque kick drum track stands alone with looped shaker sounds in an appropriate nod to the subject laid out in the song title. The guitar and synth riffs play mostly in minor scales, contrasting the more prominent major chords in the previous two songs. Stewart’s voice also stays noticeably higher while crooning “Ooooh, tree of life,” along with additional, textural ooh’s and oh’s. This attention to texture and layering is once again phenomenal: slower-moving low tones and faster-moving high tones dance well together, making the track shimmer.
“Long Way” is introduced with another contrasting pattern: the high notes are steadier now while the lower notes move under them, the sonic equivalent of stable surface waters with strong currents flowing beneath. No drum sounds are found here; instead, certain vibrating, repeating synth notes and patterns provide their consistency and sense of rhythm. The same lyrics are also repeated over and over, further epitomizing the idea of the “long way:” “You should have seen your face/but I know the way home/We’ll take the long way/We’ll take the long way/The long way/If you’re lost, then I’m lost.” Instrumentally, it occupies a nice middle ground between the sparseness of “When I Was A Boy” and fuller backdrop of “Fixtures.” The focus seems to be less on the voice and more on what surrounds it: sometimes the lyrics are tricky to decipher, but this doesn’t hinder or obscure the song’s ability to communicate the underlying emotion. Particularly nice is the gentle instrumental comedown at the end, reminiscent of a steadily darkening sky, which very well could be experienced if you do take the long way.
“Keep It Together” is a six-and-a-half minute standout that’s atmospheric, intelligently put-together, and emotionally resonant all at once. The drum sounds are back, providing a steady midtempo rhythm that (along with everything else) increases in strength as the song goes on. The repetition and gradual addition of melodic patterns and layers create an immersive atmosphere which travels from soft, gentle, and sweet to the most intense musical and vocal parts of the album. Each verse grows noticeably in length and in honesty from the previous one. Starting with “We gather here where spirits lay/we hope eternally/We gather here to honor them/We will never understand,” you might not expect to get to the confessional “I hate to think that I’m complicit/But I rarely speak a word of it/I will fight, I have a hard heart/I will fight to know too much…” but this demonstrates just how difficult it can be to ‘keep it together.’ Stewart’s voice grows steadily more powerful throughout the third and final verse, which is striking in its revelation of the desperate, open, heartfelt intention behind the words. The lovely instrumental break after this is a welcome, more familiar comedown, but evokes relief rather than containment.
“Never You,” meanwhile, is a short and sparse two minutes—but this isn’t a bad thing. The very few approach-and-retreat layers of resonant synth and guitar, lack of percussion sounds, and one verse and one chorus show that Sleep Experiments understand something that a lot of bands forget: what isn’t heard can have just as much significance as what is. The smart use of silence and scarcity can focus a listener’s attention and make for greater impact, as it does here. Very soon after Stewart starts the verse with the lower “I was meant to follow you/Your lead, your lead, your lead,” she heads into the higher repeated phrase “Never you.” This highlights the speed with which she must accept that something she felt meant for isn’t going to happen. It’s not every group that can pack a poignant lamenting punch in a spare two minutes, but Sleep Experiments can.
Finally, the incredibly beautiful, seven-minute “To the Shore” takes us home. Both the guitar and piano sound more traditional and less effect-heavy, which suits the gentle contemplative nature of the track very well. Light, syncopated drum sounds make a welcome return, and the lyrics are some of the most sweet, honest, painful, and beautiful yet. In the first verse Stewart confesses, “All that I say and all that I do, has been done before/over and over again;” in the chorus she admits, “I go to the shore, I go to the shore/in search of answers;” and in the second verse she asks, “You’re making me wait, you’re making me wait/aren’t you, darling?” Nearly every lyrical phrase in this song is repeated at least twice, evoking the continual pounding of waves, and highlighting the singer’s struggle to figure out difficult questions and feelings. Pairing this sense with a gorgeous, evocative, high piano riff that also frequently recurs is one of the loveliest choices—not only of the song, but of the record as a whole. The fairly steady rhythm shifts significantly just shy of the five minute mark: drum tracks begin to fade out, while every instrumental part transforms, mushes together, and starts to vibrate, in a way that recalls uncontrollably crowding and contradictory thoughts. Fingerpicked guitar riffs and soft, fading vocal ooh’s appear briefly and blend back in, until the guitar takes on a cello-like sound which also eventually fades into slow-changing, low piano notes. Stewart’s voice re-emerges in a stunning combination of raw emotion and impressive control, alternately low and achingly high: “If it’s in my blood, I don’t know/If it’s in my head, I don’t know.” And a low piano note, alone, is the album’s final sound.
All this to say, Passages is an atmospheric exercise in ambient genius, and definitely worth experiencing for yourself. Check out the Facebook event page for this Friday’s album release show here. You can find Sleep Experiments on Facebook here and on Bandcamp here for more specific info on where to get the album when it drops. If you want a sneak peek at “When I Was a Boy,” “Fixtures,” and “Keep It Together,” check out the band’s recent live performance at The Warhol’s Silver Studio Sessions here.