Review: Oren Ambarchi – Simian Angel
National Music Reviews
Oren Ambarchi = David Behrman + Suzanne Ciani + Gavin Bryars
Even though it’s billed as an Oren Ambarchi solo project, Simian Angel more closely resembles the musician’s recent collaborative releases: albums with Jim O’Rourke, crys cole and U-zhaan. The manic qualities of 2016’s Hubris, Ambarchi’s last solo release, are entirely forgone in favor of a more ambient, synth and guitar–driven sound. However, Ambarchi uses this laid-back sonic and emotional approach as a springboard for the same level of compositional intricacy that his more forthright albums utilize. If anything, Simian Angel contains even more intrigue than a contrastingly busy album would, as it shows the benefits of roomy playing and simplistic layering.
The only collaborator on Simian Angel is Brazilian percussion Cyro Baptista, and the combination of the minimal music and the reduced ensemble forces places a special emphasis on his contributions. Not only is he the only hard foil to Ambarchi’s liquid-smooth playing, but much of the structures on these two long-form tracks follow Baptista’s rhythmic and instrumental choices. Right at the opening of “Palm Sugar Candy,” his steady hand percussion guides Ambarchi from harmony to harmony, with each double hit signaling some significant moment. While there is plenty of purposefully non-synchronous playing, beginning with a perfect match-up helps to ease the listener into this strange synth-percussion sound world.
As this first passage demonstrates, rhythm is still the driving force on Simian Angel, albeit in a more reserved fashion. Especially in the drifting middle section of “Palm Sugar Candy,” the absence of these steady rhythms is felt. Contrasting this airiness is Baptista’s shaker that opens and closes the title track, which underlies some of the most vibrant music on the album. Since the music is so uncrowded and unhurried, the minorest of gestures feel all the more important. On top of the second metronomic shaker pattern toward’s the track’s end, Ambarchi’s guitar delivers its busiest phrases as tiny rhythmic additions counter his melody. Each note is a colorful bubble of sound, and these few moments before the album’s slow fade-out show the true playfulness behind any improvisational music, especially when mixing what could be awkward sonic partners as Ambarchi and Baptista do here.
This conclusion is a slight return of the material that opens “Simian Angel.” This initial groove feels derived from—or at least tangentially related to—music for dancing, and the duo’s complete synchronicity makes this one of the most physically moving sections on the whole album. It’s less than five minutes into the track, however, that the music comes apart into more harmonious droning before entering fully new age territory. Impressionistic piano glides across the mix, which is even more sparse here than on “Palm Sugar Candy.” Baptista mostly lays out, and giving this dreamy ambient section room to breathe only heightens the effects of the bombast that surrounds it.
Simian Angel is another success for Ambarchi, and one that feels more approachable and compassionate than much of his work this decade—taking into account both solo and collaborative releases. The album makes a case for musical malleability, as its strengths lie not in Ambarchi’s individual ideas as much as in his ability to respond and adapt to each new challenge that faces him. While certain guitar tones or harmonic tricks will always bear his touch, the joy of being a fan of Ambarchi’s music comes from the constant upending of expectations: Each new album is an exercise in stretching his musical identity into unheard forms. –Connor Lockie