Both as a soloist and alongside Maxwell August Croy in the duo En, James Devane makes ambient music soft as moonlight and hard as a bell struck. The drone has usually been its common thread, piercing through a luminous haze that feels like the sum of all frequencies vibrating in a shimmering chord. But the San Francisco musician’s new album for Croy’s Umeboshi label is different. His first solo album in 14 years, beauty is useless retains the pastel hues and creamy swirl of his previous work; its undulating atmospheres could still pass for one of the nebulous seascapes of the romantic painter JMW Turner. But this time, he drops a heavy, rhythmic anchor in the storm-tossed harbour.
beauty is useless‘ nine tracks are all based on a single idea, combining undulating synthesizers with driving rhythms. They remain imbued with the essence of the drone, but where movement in Devane’s music was once a matter of imperceptibly drifting micro-particles, these tracks are propelled by muscular bass drums and shimmering hats. As rhythmic as they are tonal, the chords pulsate at regular intervals, like bursts of flame from an industrial oven.
The division between tone and groove is usually blurred. It’s unclear exactly what he does to his sources, but his processing tricks tend to blur the distinctions between every element of his songs. In the opener “In Your Time,” a slow-motion riff on classic dub techno, the hi-hat motif manifests itself in pinpricks of light puncturing the gathered fabric of Devane’s chords. “Sudden Oak Death” arrives like a rumor from the other side of a drainpipe, its lumpy highlights shrouded in mud. On one track, “Fences In”, drums, bass and pads obviously seem to emanate from different devices; for the most part, its textures are vague like serious rubbing.
beauty is useless can inspire a sense of deja vu. Devane seems determined to invoke a style of ambient techno that flourished between the late 1990s and mid-2000s. Taken as a whole, the album feels like an investigation into the tropes and trends that were then in vogue; some of its benchmarks are remarkably specific. In the slow motion of “In Your Time” and the elliptical loops of “Sudden Oak Death” there are echoes of Wolfgang Voigt’s M:I:5 alias – a highlight of Kompakt’s predecessor Profan – and also Kompakt-by Dettinger, both of whom used sampling to generate dizzying, off-kilter loops. The stained chords and muffled kicks of “Bygone Trouble” are reminiscent of Voigt’s more famous GAS alias, while the controlled ecstasy and winding forward motion of “Somatic Marker” and “Fences In” are reminiscent of another Kompakt artist, The Field. “Can’t Be Here,” meanwhile, suggests a tantalizing fusion of Vainqueur, an underrated alchemist from Berlin’s Chain Reaction stable, and Luomo, Vladislav Delay’s deep house alias, pairing the ethereal wash from the former to the twisted bass lines of the latter.