As dreary skies gloom and the patter of rain percolates outside my window, I figure it’s good a time as ever to review some calming ambient music. But first, we’re going to get a little nerdy with synthesis talk. Blame the rain, I suppose, for it brought to mind this particular esoteric technique within music programming. The past few days, we’ve covered a wide range of albums that utilize analog synths, 80s digital synthesizers, sampling, and glitch. But what we haven’t covered yet is something known as granular synthesis. Simply put, it’s based on the same principles of the latter two syntheses, but it works on a micro-sound level where the samples are split up into extremely short “grains.” The grains can be layered on top of one another and manipulated in different ways to create a variety of timbres (such as, if you saw it coming, something that sounds like random beads of falling rain ricocheting off the street).
While this may sound extremely technical, you’ve definitely heard these granular sounds before (so long as you haven’t been hiding under a rock). One of the co-creators of Ableton Live, Robert Henke, has been using this synthesis technique for years within both his solo work and minimal techno project Monolake. Electronic music producer Brian Transeau (or BT, for short) has popularized the stutter edit, which often works within the range of micro-sounds. But perhaps the most practical and infamous example is not one, but thousands of slowed down pop songs on YouTube. Many of these pop songs are processed with a software called Paulstretch, which essentially utilizes a form of granular synthesis to create its distinctive smeared sound. In other words, granular synthesis and ambient music go together hand in hand, and on Leigh Toro’s latest album, “Layers of Ash,” the combination makes for an especially calm and interesting journey.
Leigh Toro is an English musician who has been producing music for 20 years now. He previously recorded under the alias Flotel and released albums with labels like Expanding Records (also home to Benge, who has probably amassed the largest collection of analog synthesizers in the world). Recently, he has been recording under his own name on labels like Eilean and Handstitched, and is now being released through Hibernate Recordings‘s sister label, Rural Colours. Both Hibernate and Rural Colours are not newcomers to the site, as some of their albums from Good Weather for an Airstrike, Clem Leek, and Lowered have been reviewed here before. But Leigh Toro’s “Layers of Ash” is perhaps the most abstract and experimental album I’ve heard yet from the label, as Toro’s music brims with multi-layered drones, digital distortion, and crackling timbres.
The album solely consists of two 20 to 30-minute long-form compositions: “Layers of Ash” and “All is Equal.” On the former title track, distorted piano tones ping and drone over hypnotic layers of clicks and fizzes. Although the music does indeed click and distort at times, it is always a soothing effect and never distracts from the overall mood. As the piece takes its toll, the piano seems to morph between its tape-recorded acoustics and a mellow square synth tone. Evolving is the best way to describe this music, as although it’s slow and abstract, it firmly shows a contrast between glassy resonances and randomized clicks. Around the 10 minute mark, the piece takes a darker turn as the plucks seem more pronounced, and the clicks fly around the listener’s head with abandon. Halfway through, there are moments of beautifully detuned synths and Terry Riley-like melodies floating above the ashen layers. 20 minutes in, gorgeously minimalistic tones a la Brian Eno soar as the distortion increases and slight washes of feedbacked cymbals and tom drums fill out the empty spaces. In the final few minutes, polyrhythmic strings flow like wind chimes against the micro crunches and crackles, bringing a satisfying ending to the relaxing piece.
In comparison to the variety of tones showcased on the first track, “All is Equal” takes a more meditative and subdued approach in exploring this intriguing soundworld, although it’s perhaps the most active piece of the album. The second shorter track fades in with beating high-pitched tones against low washes of chords. A melancholic melody begins to play underneath the gritty layers, slowly poking its way out from time to time. After the first 5 minutes, the glitches of computer parts and electricity humming softly beneath the deliciously melodic drones become increasingly focused and distorted. Within later sections, the melodies, drones, and glitches interplay with one another, allowing the listener to dive headfirst into the soothing soundscape. Around 12 minutes, the rumbling resonances of what sounds to be orchestral strings roll in waves underneath the glittery synth melodies, bringing an intensely cinematic feel to the piece. These waves only continue as further layers of bowed, chordal strings replace the earlier melodies. The atmosphere overall is as professional and haunting as any soundtrack for any documentary or drama. In the finale, the low drones and piano from the beginning re-enter as vocal-like hums slowly meander over top, leading to a mellow slowdown of this beautiful soundscape.
Whether the album uses granular synthesis or not ultimately does not matter, as regardless of how these sounds were coaxed, Leigh Toro’s “Layers of Ash” is a meditative voyage that demands your patience. The sounds throughout are a unique combination of glitchy, distorted electronics and droning tones that rival the best of early ambient and modern classical music. In fact, the album reminds me of yet another erratic and cinematic masterpiece: Ulver’s “Teachings in Silence.” But while the sounds from that album were famously used in the horror film “Sinister,” the music here is calm and relaxing. It’s perfect music for sleeping and chilling, or merely playing in the background and letting the musical colors wash over the room. Those who are not used to such abstract drone soundscapes will be tempted to turn off the album after the first ten seconds, but I urge you not to. It’s indeed a slow listen and requires your ears to be re-tuned. But if you simply let the music play, I promise you that the payoff is absolutely rewarding.
Title: Layers of Ash
Artist: Leigh Toro
Genre: Modern classical/abstract ambient/glitch/drone
Available to purchase either as a limited edition CD or digital download at https://ruralcolours.bandcamp.com/album/layers-of-ash!