Faraway yet majestic strings and horns ring out through the static haze intro to “Sunrise Through The Morning Mist,” perfectly encapsulating the song’s title. Before long, subterranean bass throbs and a ringing saxophone can be heard peeking over an ever-building wall of droning miasma. Welcome to A Haunting Sun, the debut offering from both UK-based musician Chris Weeks and Nibbana Records, the new ambient-focused offshoot of IDM auteur Kid606’s Tigerbeat6 label.
Far from monolithic, A Haunting Sun takes its various self-evident reference points — Stars of the Lid’s orchestral maneuvers, Tim Hecker’s beatific noise, Wil Bolton’s electroacoustic sound art, Fennesz’s broken transmissions — and corrals them into a concept album that, according to the press release, concerns the “aesthetics of light; evoking a captivating idyll of cinematic imagery.” Indeed, Weeks captures light’s many moods, from the playful rainbow prisms refracted through a window onto a child’s bedroom wall on “The Sun Key” to its occasionally overbearing presence (like walking out of a darkened movie theater into bright daylight) on “Black River Shimmers.” From dawn to “nautical dusk,” Weeks admirably conjures all sorts of images that reflect the many ways we interact with sunlight, a concept with enough definition to shape the album’s scope but not so esoteric as to make this an overly sentimental affair. And this isn’t simply a paean to daytime, either; album centerpiece “Slow Light” sounds like the oppressive heat of a dry, dreary desert, complete with squiggly feedback tones that bring to mind the wavy lines rippling in front of our vision on a sweltering August afternoon. It’s a slightly more brutal and forthright Slow Heat, Steve Roach’s 1998 single-track ode to his desert surroundings. The difference is that where Roach placidly suggests, on “Slow Light,” Weeks insists.
This is my favorite kind of drone album: one that’s unafraid to explore different tempos, ideas, and feelings; in other words, one that doesn’t really try to “sound like” a drone album. And so “Shadowed By A Haunting Sun” plays with melodic chimes but sets them against a percussive, post-rock backdrop, whereas the next rack, “Cloud Cover,” is more “classically drone,” quite atonal and gray, obscuring its hollow guitar strums with vinyl crackles and a noisy, at times vaguely menacing backdrop that seems instrumentally impossible to place. Weeks isn’t doing anything revolutionary here: chirping birds, choirs, music boxes, and the patter of raindrops are well-worn ambient tropes. But rather than simply mine them for pathos, Weeks instead employs them in a broader, rather circadian context.
Many times, even great drone albums seem to be arbitrarily divided into randomly titled tracks; not so on A Haunting Sun. Each of its fourteen songs brings something different to the table while maintaining a unified heliocentric theme. Each is noticeably unique but never out of place. This variety also works to make the album’s 73 minutes go by more quickly than you might expect. There are tons of unknowns producing all sorts of ambient music these days; rarely does a debut effort sound as confident or evocative as A Haunting Sun.