“Albatross” – North Atlantic Drift
The musical fine line between dull and hypnotic is never as evident as when venturing into the uncharted territory of the rock’n’roll instrumental. With no words to guide us, an instrumental often makes no effort to engage the conscious mind at all; there are, indeed, any number of thriving sub-genres in which obvious melodic movement takes a big backseat to texture and ambiance. Such sub-genres, alas, do not typically register with me. My conscious mind is a demanding beast. I happily go about my life pretending that ambient music doesn’t really exist.
Every now and then, however, an odd hybrid slides into my field of awareness. Each of the two gentlemen in Toronto-based North Atlantic Drift has a background in electronic, “post-rock” music, and they surely love their processors and loops and all those digitally manipulative tools of the trade. They are not out here to thrill you with their intricate melodies. They are here to captivate you with mood and texture. And yet they bring a secret weapon: archetypal melody. “Albatross” is grounded in one three-note, minor-key descent, played on a reverbed guitar. Note how offhanded the melody’s entrance is, at 0:12, how it emerges shyly from the gently pulsing mist. Note too how slippery the middle note is, and will remain—we hear it only in slurred combination with the previous note. The song develops patiently from the ground of this slightly blurred three-note motif, itself just an inversion of the two-note bass line, with the middle note filled in. The motif is repeated four times, without hurry, before the a higher, slightly varied descent is heard, leading to one last repeat of the original melody. The song involves four repetitions of this “verse,” with three short interstitial sections in between. Subtle layers are added via percussion, guitar, and synthesizer. The whole thing passes like a dream, like a forgotten thought, like a stately idea; I find it hypnotic, never dull, and pin its success on the musicians’ willingness to combine the subtle flavors of electronic texture with the deep allure of simple melody. Your mileage may vary.
“Albatross” is from the debut North Atlantic Drift album, Canvas, which was released digitally in March, then with a limited run of CDs in June. It bears no obvious relation to the classic Fleetwood Mac instrumental of the same name, but perhaps there is a subtle connection nonetheless.