Koen Holtkamp - Motion

by Ethan Ranis Rating:5.5 Release Date:2014-03-24

The very first sound on Motion is an arpeggiated synth-squiggle, repeating ad infinitum, twinkling slightly as it modulates. It's an apt sign of what's to come. Koen Holtkamp is apparently in love with arpeggiators - they're slathered liberally all over this, his fourth album. The first track, 'Between Visible Things', eventually supplements this with shrieking feedback, droney pads, and most effectively, a choral synth-line which recalls a 70s space opera, or alternatively the Mass Effect soundtrack.

Unlike the trend towards haziness in modern electronic music (cf Oneohtrix Point Never), Holtkamp favors cleanly delineated sounds for most of Motion. Whether or not you enjoy the result will depend on either your taste for nostalgia or simple sine and square waves. These are very much your grandpa's synthesizers, offset by one or two unusual elements per track. 

For 'Between Visible Things', it's that squeal of echoey feedback. For 'Vert,' it's a shockingly abrasive sound which the promo materials label electric guitar, though it sounds as synthetic as anything else on display here. And on 'Crotales,' it's a backbone of jazzy, upright bass.

Like most ambient music, Motion is designed to create a hermetic environment, forging hypnotic loops that build to expansive soundscapes. However, the overall effect of the album is oddly claustrophobic. This is partially due to those aforementioned arpeggiators, which never quite fade into the background, and blanket each track without changing significantly. Rather than provide the titular motion, they generally enforce oppressive stagnation. Compositionally, they're just plain lazy.

Another significant issue is lack of structure. Classic ambient albums typically have some overriding mood, motif or sense of progression. The best Tangerine Dream albums, for instance, provide a constant sense of forward momentum, and Eno's ambient works feel almost inevitable in their steady repetition. Motion, in contrast, wanders about aimlessly, piling on elements to thicken the sound without ever making actual changes or finding a coherent direction. 

This lack of structure is clearly illustrated by sidelong closing track 'Endlessness,' which begins with almost bagpipe-like sustained chords, dollops on hyperactively oscillating arpeggiated burbles, and hits an early peak when it introduces a soaring, smeared synthline. However, the progression loses steam around halfway through the 24-minute track, when it disintegates into fuzzy distortion and eventually bare percussion - the omnipresent arpeggiators providing most of the accompaniment. The last third of the track is consumed with ethereal, echoey synth washes that gradually fade out - giving the impression of an epic closer without actually earning that sustained release.

Perhaps the most fundamental problem with this album is a simple lack of novelty. Everything accomplished here has been done better and with more ingenuity elsewhere. If you're looking for 70s-style ambient, there are better albums to listen to.

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