The spirit of vintage 4AD lives on in Pieter Nooten. The one-time Clan Of Xymox man has, in theory, evolved from his goth rock roots and muscles up to the ambient gods on Surround Us, for this his fourth solo release.
Nooten has history in the field. While Clan of Xymox were still a going concern in the mid-’80s, Nooten branched out with Canadian composer Michael Brook on 1987’s marvellous Sleeps With The Fishes album, a languidly majestic exposition of dark, synth romanticism and finding its mainstream appeal via their oft-stated influence on U2‘s The Edge. After a stop-start career in the music industry since the ’90s, Nooten has adapted a somewhat more regular output since signing to Rocket Girl and Surround US follows 2010’s Here Is Why, a similarly fragile take on modern ambient.
Nooten has claimed that he “never listens to any pop music” and the ethereal, cello-laden compositions on Surround Us are about as far away from modern popular music as possible, instead displaying all the tropes which would have Ivo Watts-Russell reaching for the record button during his own heyday. In fact, the spectre of This Mortal Coil imbues the record which boasts guest vocals from half a dozen collaborators, all tied together with Nooten’s layers of lushly produced, baroque foundations.
There is, however, an unsettling dichotomy at play here. The non-instrumentals sound like vaguely edgy Eurovision entries from anytime over the last twenty years. This is not a good thing. Soothing Dust has a reverberating and frankly irritating vocal track which itself is not helped by the dreadful lyrics, imploring the listener to “follow the hardest path…which makes the journey alright”. In a similar vein, Anybody sounds like Enya fronting the Pan Pipes Orchestra while This World resembles Dido on a collision course with a jaw-droppingly tedious monotone synth. A nadir is reached with Secret Room, containing a ridiculously portentous narration concerning forbidden chambers and a man whom apparently invented marbles.
On the other hand, the instrumentals are skilfully crafted, executed with grace and precision, recalling Stars of the Lid at their most sublime. Opening track Ode provides the early highlight, the swathes of cello sawing their way through the minimalist piano stabs while the follow-up Drone, is self-explanatory and all the better for it, a more restrained response to the cut and thrust of the opener. Romanz is all pitch-shifting violins dancing and caterwauling their way across the frisky piano atmospherics. And, hard as it may be, if one ignores the appalling vocals on Around Us, what’s left is a modulating, pulsing electronic throb of racing percussion and gently building strings.
Pieter Nooten can certainly lay claim to crafting some marvellously seductive moments of ambient bliss on Surround Us. However, align this with his predilection for soldering some truly dreadful vocal appendages to his works and you have an album of extremes – one genuinely moving and beautiful, the other utterly nullifying and unworthy.