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Variant - The Setting Sun

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Artist: Variant

Album: The Setting Sun

Label: Echospace

Review date: Oct. 2, 2009

Listening to Variant’s The Setting Sun, it’s easy to imagine Steve Hitchell as a Basic Channel/Rhythm & Sound devotee, albeit one whose exposure to those electro-dub legends was through paper-thin umpteenth-generation cassettes played via speakers with frayed, faulty wiring. The devotion to dub and melody is here, but it’s corrupted and threadbare, tugged from the dancefloors of Berlin and resculpted as a soundtrack to post-industrial Detroit. Further research undercovers deeper divisions: Moritz Von Oswald and Mark Ernestus’ projects injected the organic haze of Jamaican riddims with a digital crackle born of techno’s computer-based programming. Hitchell, on the other hand, favors analog techniques – The Setting Sun was recorded exclusively to reel-to-reel tape and composed without the aid of a computer.

While Hitchell can drop a lung-compressing beat – as he frequently does with his dubbier Intrusion project – it’s the attention to detail he lavishes on ambient passages that set his work aside from that of other slow-mo practitioners. Peels of tape-loop fuzz, squalls of delay, rhythmic swarms and deep-breathing builds of orchestration provide framework for cavernous beats. Yet, unlike many electro-dub releases, The Setting Sun isn’t a bass record with ambient coloring. Here, ambience gets top billing – this record is meant more as a meditative bliss-out companion then black-lit backdrop for a vampiric underground club. When the beats drop away, the fun truly begins.

In this regard, Hitchell more closely resembles William Basinski or a slightly less hostile Tim Hecker. The craft is in manipulating analog sound sources in ways that alter the source material, rendering it gauzed, gouache. Hitchell doesn’t mind broad strokes and he layers his music with many of them. The title track is nearly 25 minutes of padded tones and melodic interplay that would sound at home paired with anything mentioned in the pages of Julian Cope’s Krautrocksampler. When percussive elements slide into the mix, as on "Upon A Dream," they function less as motivation to move than as reminder to breathe.

One note for potential purchasers: The Setting Sun was initially released as a digital-only EP in April. The recent CD release replaces the 40-minute-plus "Falling Stars" with a few shorter cuts. Both versions explore the boundaries of contemporary ambient music and the continuously evolving intersection of electronica and dub.

By Ethan Covey

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