Atomic Skunk – Portal (2010)

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by Mark Saleski

“Subtlety” is not a word to be used lightly in a music review, mostly because it’s likely to scare off the listener before even a single particle of the music has entered their ear parts. The sad fact is that “subtle” and “entertaining” are often thought of as mutually exclusive things. People don’t want subtle, they want to be entertained. This is of course, a big challenge when reviewing electronic or so-called ambient music, as a certain percentage of readers are bound to make their exit decision early.

Why is that? Was Aldous Huxley right? Has our own brave new world of amusements so fractured our attention span that we can no longer absorb the small details that surround us? Droplets of water on a fallen leaf? The commonality between a bird’s song and a set of ringing bells? These are meaningless events?

Atomic Skunk‘s Portal provides both an antidote and a challenge to this situation. This collection of electro-acoustic pieces sets up an environment that can — if the listener is willing — focus those taxed thought channels via graduated immersion in a multi-hued sound landscape. The challenge? To allow the subtlety in. To be witness to their contributions.

Contructed with software sources (Ableton Live), samples, voices, and real instruments, Portal has a very organic feel. This is due to Richard Brodsky’s (aka Atomic Skunk) masterful integration of compositional elements — from the chiming bell arpeggios echoing the bird chirps that introduce “Dhaland,” to the desert wind that frames the Middle-Eastern vibe of “Osiris,” a track featuring haunting vocals, percussion, and the oud (real or sampled, not that that distinction is important here.)

My own ear parts say that the standout songs are: the bonus “Ambartsumian’s Knot,” a trippy, 25-minute ride through space that makes great use of gradually-morphing textures, blippy electronics, and a few spooky samples of those mysterious shortwave number stations; and the absolutely gorgeous cover of the Grateful Dead’s “China Doll.” Here, Brodsky avoids mere “electronization” of the song, instead paying tribute to the melody by enhancing its stately nature.

Are we about to be done in by our growing addiction to our amusements? On my darker days, I’m inclined to agree. But then I experience recordings like Portal and realize that somebody is still listening to life’s details.

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