The 14th solo release from the ambient musician and 12k label head is a refined display of his impeccable devotion to his craft.
If the title of Ambient Musician Laureate existed in the United States, Taylor Deupree would be a shoo-in. He’s not an indie-crossover success story like Grouper or William Basinski, nor does his work tend to challenge preconceptions of what ambient music can be, but he’s one of the genre’s most consummate professionals. As founder and head of the 12k label and engineering studio in New York, he’s the guy that people who master ambient albums hit up to master their own records. You can also find him working with David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto, composing music for photography installations and outdoor tea gardens, or releasing pristine-sounding, artfully crafted ambient albums united by his faded, organic visual aesthetic.
Harbor is the 14th and latest of these releases, and Deupree’s sound design ensures it feels as pristine as anything he’s released while creating an intriguing wrinkle. The surfaces of these eight tracks sparkle with effervescent leads clearly played on a synth but not far removed from the Rhodes pianos beloved by the Album Leaf. Meanwhile, a heavy, ominous low end weighs these tracks down and keeps them from floating into the ether. It adds fearful tension to this largely optimistic music. If Harbor is meant to evoke its title, it’s easy to imagine an idyllic surface of beaches and sailboats perched above the murky depths of the ocean.
But Harbor is less effective as a travelog than as a sculptural object, and the way the different layers of sound interact is more interesting than what they’re supposed to represent; it’s easy to marvel at all the individual noises as they flit about the stereo field. There are some wonderful effects here, like the fleck of Pastorian bass on “Mihto” and the moment when the gnarly low end takes over “Desaturation” and turns it into a rather vicious noise-drone. You get the sense that Deupree has been doing this for so long that sound is like bread and butter in his hands.
Deupree loves textural grit, and each track has a slightly different assortment of burbles and hisses emanating out of the depths of the mix. The effect is less to make it sound as if it’s glitching, as in the work of fellow Y2K-era sound explorers like Vladislav Delay and Oval, and more to capture “the imperfect beauty of nature” Deupree cites as essential to both his music and his photography. It’s as if Deupree has taken these eight finely-sculpted objects and left them outside for a while so the rain and wind can work their magic. (Leave this stuff outside for a little longer and you’d have Mike Cooper.)
At times, Harbor sounds uncannily similar to some of the music currently being put out by the West Mineral stable of musicians, especially last year’s self-titled debut from Picnic. But while those artists emphasize mystery and obscurity, as if their music is concealing all manner of shadowy secrets, there’s the sense with Harbor that what we’re hearing is what we’re seeing. This music is so high-definition, each element so precisely mixed and clearly emphasized, that there’s never a sense of anything hidden or left to the imagination. Luckily, what’s already there is more than sufficient to stir it.