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Haron - Wandelaar Music Album Reviews

The debut release on Dutch label Queeste is everything you could wish for in an ambient soundtrack to humid midsummer nights, its melodies as graceful as a swallow’s arc.

Small record labels don’t enjoy quite the tastemaking status they once did, but the debut release on the Dutch label Queeste suggests that it will be an imprint worth watching. Queeste is a new venture from one of the people behind the Hague’s Wichelroede, a short-lived mail-order outlet and cassette label that, for a couple years in the middle of this decade, carved out a nice little niche for experimental club sounds. It was an obscure operation, for sure, but their C90s brought together acts like Beatrice Dillon and Ben UFO, or Cloudface and Powder—the kind of names likely to perk up the ears of a certain type of curious househead with a taste for obscurity—on split mixtapes that traced the outer limits of DJ culture.

Haron, too, is Dutch. Not long ago, he was banging out lush yet lo-fi techno, soaked in emotion and tape saturation, in the company of peers like Legowelt and Aurora Halal. But his debut album forsakes beats altogether. For long stretches, Wandelaar is even bereft of electronics. Much of it could be mistaken for a private-press recording from the 1980s; it is both minimalist and sentimental, a pensive descendant of Ryuichi Sakamoto, Harold Budd, the Catalan composer Frederic Mompou. Right now, in midsummer, it sounds like everything you could wish for in a spacious soundtrack to humid nights, its melodies as graceful as a swallow’s arc against a sky the color of a nectarine. It’s safe to say that, come winter, the album’s environmental properties—its ability to both blend in with its surroundings and heighten the senses—will be just as evocative.

It’s not news that ambient, new age, and Balearic styles have recently been solidifying their footholds in leftfield electronic music, despite the fact that each is decades old; it’s no secret, either, that they are all easily caricatured and frequently faked. But Wandelaar (the title translates as “Walker” or “Hiker”) is a reminder that vision and musicianship will always carry the day. It is a quiet, understated album in which compositional rigor and improvisational expressiveness neatly dovetail.

Wandelaar isn’t entirely without electronics. After “Lotuseter,” the searching 10-minute piece that opens the album, in which short, agile runs are bathed in echo and faint synthesizer—a meditative sojourn, a series of questions without answers—the A-side takes a succession of gentle left turns. First there are fluttering string pads, then a tentative electronic glissando that sounds a bit like a pitched-down THX “deep note”—both markers of a distinctly cinematic style, one quite different from the airy naturalism of the opener. As “Maangerij” seamlessly gives way to “Caverne” (though titled separately, they are essentially two parts of the same composition), the sounds freeze and fracture, echoing some of Oneohtrix Point Never’s disorienting strategies. Finally, the short “Selenieten” closes out the record’s first side with dull thuds and digital trickery: an atonal palate cleanser before Haron returns to the unabashedly sentimental style with which he begins the album.

The B-side’s three long tracks all build on the sound and techniques established with “Lotuseter.” An air of mystery prevails. The ghosts of Debussy and Satie hang like a pastel mist over languid, lyrical melodies, as unexpected modal runs keep the music from tipping too far toward the maudlin. Judicious electronic processing lends a subtly surreal touch. Shifting slapback delay suggests a piano recital staged in an auditorium whose architecture keeps morphing; reverb comes and goes in bursts, tugging against the music’s meandering flow and keeping the listener slightly off balance, like the uneven surge of a chemical flashback.

“Music for Elbows” ends the record with a coda of sorts. This time the halting runs of “Lotuseter” play out more like a forearm mashing keys, in quick, unfussy strokes. If you’ve ever seen the experimental director Chris Marker’s moving 1990 short “Cat Listening to Music”—a three-minute video of his cat sleeping on a keyboard, set to Mompou’s “Pajaro Triste”—you will recognize the mood here: calm, unpretentious, peaceful. Restrained, soothing, but never bland, Wandelaar never tries to be anything it’s not. It’s a canny stylistic shift for Haron, and a wonderful first record from Queeste: a minor miracle disguised as a soundtrack to a catnap.

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