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Sofie Birch - Island Alchemy Music Album Reviews


The Copenhagen composer’s second album this year, and her first for Oakland’s Constellation Tatsu, offers a dynamic take on ambient music, one meant for active listening.

For the better part of the past decade, the Oakland label Constellation Tatsu has put out experimental electronic music in accordance with a simple motto: “adventurous with spiritual artistic sensibilities.” They’ve collected a lot of different sounds under that umbrella—the catalog includes austere drone pieces, downtempo techno, and windswept shoegaze, among a whole lot of other stuff—but most releases are united around a similar disposition. Steven Ramsey, the label’s founder, said that the music is meant to take people outside of their comfort zone, then give them “space to breathe.”

Even before Constellation Tatsu released the Copenhagen composer Sofie Birch’s new album Island Alchemy, she has long been a steward of similar ideas about how to approach slow, sad, synth-led music. Both under the moniker Birch and her full name, she’s released pieces that feel complex and studied—full of labyrinthine arpeggiations, collagist textural work, and dizzying melodies—as well as intentionally peaceful and welcoming. Island Alchemy, Birch’s second album of 2019, shows just how engaging this approach can be.

The album’s second track, “Myg,” is its longest, and over the course of its 10-minute runtime, kosmische synth arpeggios overlap and intersect with wheezy, stretched-out samples, seasick bass drones, crunchy found sounds, and what might be the distorted ringing of an outgoing phone call. It’s dense but it moves freely from one idea to the next; each layer is a new hook for your brain to latch onto.

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The record’s shorter pieces aren’t as grand or sweeping, but they offer their own pleasures. As a synthesist, Birch wields a palette that is varied and playful. On “Net (Neverendingthing),” she dabbles in a misty style associated with recent new-age revivalists like Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Emily A. Sprague, along with the tape label Sounds of the Dawn. But elsewhere, her sounds are more unpredictable and otherworldly. “Loph” is both Baroque and surreal; the animated opening harpsichord-like melodies could soundtrack a Saturday morning cartoon, followed by what might be a classical guitar strung with rubber bands. Each individual element feels deliberately colorful and bright, to an overwhelming degree. It’s vibrant in a way that’s almost hard to process, like you’re staring at a Magic Eye poster a mile wide.

Ambient music is often heralded for its functional purposes. It is self-consciously soothing; it comes with an implicit invitation to drift away. And Island Alchemy can offer that, if that’s what you’re after. The pieces are paced methodically and meditatively. The melodies are elliptical and hypnotic. But like many Constellation Tatsu artists, Birch seems to have more active listening in mind. You can hear it in the movement and diversity of the sounds she chooses, in the thought put into the way textures overlap. If this is music for dreamers, it’s for the ones who pay close attention to the details in their nighttime reveries, for whom every small moment is full of meaning.


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About Udara Madusanka

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