The word BUCOLIC is defined in one of a million online dictionaries as—Of the countryside: Relating to, or characteristic of, country life. “Bucolica”, the upcoming release from one-man musicmaker Martin Jenkins (of Pye Corner Audio fame and acclaim) performing as The House in the Woods, suggests a rich and varied look not just at the modest and simple country of the senses but also the sometimes dark, vulnerable, formidable country of the soul and puts it all into airy, eerie form for ear and skull to wonder at.
I looked forward to this listen, being mostly unfamiliar with the Ambient-Instrumental genre outside of all the nature sounds/meditation music that now populates a surprising number of apps across the Internet aside from the coffeehouses and new age booksellers that were the beacon of this form decades before. Sweet. Somber. Minimal. Chilled. Moody. Curious. Elemental. Music of this type breeds a thousand adjectives but somehow evades adequate description. Now that I’ve heard “Bucolica”, I can’t say enough.
I could readily see this as a chill-out or even rave album, clans huddled around hookah and iPod docking station gnawing on glow-sticks and/or snapping their fingers out of time like bygone beatniks. This is a work that seems cooperative, needing the listener to complete it with their impressions of what’s heard. You can put one ear on the music and let mind and body experience the rest. I don’t think I’d deem it harmonizing enough for baby-making soundtrack—best leave that to Industrial Metal and Marvin Gaye—but there is a very real human presence etched in.
The frequencies and many of the sounds (sampled or synthesized, only Jenkins knows for sure) used throughout were mantra-like, a wordless chant so settling-but-unsettling it left my temples humming and swimming in imagery:
“Dark Lanterns” evokes ocean breezes blowing; a lighthouse at sea straining, despite its strength, against the wind; buoys—people—that dot the darkness, swaying uniformly with the lull of the water; Lantern lights doorways, eyes. What do they see? What do they say…?
Track three, “Untitled Blacknisss”, is indicative of its title: There is a persistent crackling buzz or hiss that runs throughout coupled with a thin clacking I took to be footfalls on tile growing closer. I had to squint against the sudden strength of fluorescent lights flickering spastically across grimy, lime-colored walls in a hospital corridor or strangely empty parking structure. Then, to my surprise, a mellow flute or recorder line calls out that at once could’ve been snatched from Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and a minute later brings to mind the distant, uneasy howl of a steam whistle on an approaching train—a train headed perhaps for an altogether different kind of “Blacknisss”….
The title track and “Sunlight On Rusting Hulk”, the disc’s fourth cut, employ a filter, effect, or synth setting of some kind that has the simple, pervasive melodies of each warbling as though played on a warped record or an aged cassette tape—You know, the one you left in the hatchback of your ’86 Ford Escort, left to sun-bake like an ant in a magnifying glass in the company of your old Trapper Keeper and a metric ton of fast-food refuse?
“Half-Glimpsed” is similar in part to “Blacknisss”, all sleepy, metallic deep-breathing hiss—Darth Vader taking a nap—and the metronome steadiness of what might be a tennis ball bounced off a wall. This is brought to a head by a moment of volume swelled emphatically, as if the half-glimpsed in question here becomes fully realized, a dawning a-ha on the face of the “viewer”. It’s a satisfying conclusion to the track and a big moment for the album, as overdone dynamics are scarce and bend knee instead to gaps filled by listener’s brain.
“Mountains of the Sea” actually made me laugh in mid-listen. The sole distinguishable sound was like that of a motor running, the motor of a small engine Cessna pontoon plane running on the water, as though Jenkins put a recorder nearby and just let it run. Maybe he did.
The album ends with the tinkling of guitar- or harp-synth rainfall on “The Rain Washed Away”. It’s a kind of cleansing: The journey’s done, and though it’s been a bit exhausting for the senses, it was one worth the taking.
Psychologically, there is something quietly, deeply nostalgic with The House in the Woods—like baseball, the American Dream, and picturesque television families like the Cleavers or Bradys (pardon to those abroad; my frame of reference). But there’s something equally disconcerting running in and around as well, like performance-enhancing drugs lurking in the veins of high-profile hitters, the Dream just a dream after all, or familial and substance abuse the voyeur beyond the screen and into all-too-real life. The album as a whole feels like a series of faded postcards or photographs, albeit pictures where faces, places, features may be blacked out or partially non-existent a la Back to the Future’s disappearing siblings.
Boiled down to base elements—and down to the fewest adjectives I could muster that still do the job—“Bucolica” is restful, powerful, dark, and provoking. The vast interpretive openness of this particular sonic landscape and the songs that comprise it may well be more an indication of the twists and turns of the listener than the music. If my inferences within this writing are any indication of the potential truth of this, I’ll begin the search for a suitable therapist forthwith….
The House in the Woods’ “Bucolica” will be released 30 September, 2013 through Exotic Pylon Records.