Wind and Wire

Synthesist Meg Bowles underscores the brilliance of her return to ambient and spacemusic (the acclaimed 2011 recording, A Quiet Light) with The Shimmering Land. After a 12 year absence from music, Bowles reemerged in 2011 and immediately took her place among the finest practitioners of floating, atmospheric electronic music recording today. With The Shimmering Land, Bowles ascends to the plateau of preeminent and essential artists in the genre. I don’t believe this to be mere opinion, but more or less fact. Her body of work is relatively small compared to some other notables (e.g. Roach, Serrie, et al.), yet her artistry, whether one listens to her earlier works, such as Blue Cosmosor From the Dark Earth or her recent albums, makes it difficult to dismiss her stature in the genre. While some might deem it important to emphasize that Meg is, after all, a woman in a predominantly male field of music, that actually devalues her music (although I believe her "femaleness" contributes something special to her style). Falling back on "she is one of the few women in this genre" demeans her, making it seem that being a woman somehow makes her music more special. The truth is that Meg Bowles' music stands apart from so many other artists not because it's crafted by a woman but because it is so damn good! Not just good, but singularly unique and expertly executed. With that said, I do not ignore the issue that Bowles is relatively alone in the spacemusic genre as a woman musician, but her gender neither adds nor detracts from her brilliance as an artist in this field populated by repetitive drone-meisters.
Bowles' flawless production, engineering, and mixing talents are in evidence throughout The Shimmering Land – the album sounds fantastic on headphones – while her husband, Richard Price, did an excellent job mastering the six tracks. One aspect in which Bowles excels is layering her assorted synthesizer shadings, washes, pads, and various rhythmic textures and effects. While The Shimmering Landcan be enjoyed played in the background, it shines under direct listening where every detail of placement and balance of the synthesizers can be deciphered and appreciated. The spaciousness of the soundfield in the final mix, the detail of the assorted synths, the overall encompassing effect of the assembled parts is staggeringly beautiful, and that is the word to use when describing Bowles' music – beautiful. She has the unique ability to make music that flows with an organic humanity while also brimming with cosmic wonder and awe. Never truly dark or foreboding, yet also not saccharine or too "pretty," these soundscapes also are not "neutral" in essence. It's difficult to put into words the emotional resonance of this music…mysterious, haunting, and other usual descriptors seem both cliché and inadequate. More than anything else, what the astute listener will discern from Bowles' music is the sense of humanity at work under the surface, which is startling when one realizes the overt electronic nature of these six pieces, i.e. no easily recognized sampled elements, e.g. strings. This is pure spacemusic, whether one subscribes to the Jonn Serrie school definition (outer space) or the Stephen Hill version (inner space).
Describing the music itself is problematic because words are too limiting, yet this being a review, here are some snapshot observations. "Undulant Sea" with its ebbing and flowing washes and warm tones, imparts the evocation of being adrift on an ocean under a canopy of stars (the emergence of an interesting clacking percussive effect is not out of place, despite the sonic resemblance to a train rolling down the tracks), and the overall mood is somewhat sad, as if one is leaving something which one is fond of behind. "The Sweetness of Mist" is noticeably lighter at the outset, the pads and washes are relatively amorphous at first and the embracing comfort of warmth and serenity seem palpable. Isolated bell tones pepper parts of the track as if fireflies pop into and out of view. "Venus Rising" epitomizes celestial spacemusic with its wide-vista opening drones and washes, as if one were witnessing the planet come into view with the darkening night sky. Radar-ish blooping pulses lend even spacier evocations to the music, as if satellites were beaming their signals direct to you (but then, I'm from the generation which watched crude animation of satellites on black and white TVs with those same sound effects, as if satellites themselves made such noises in outer space). Even though the track is fourteen and half minutes long, the subtle variations that Bowles creates within the framework of the song make the time fly by (this is something she displays on every track, i.e. the morphing of each composition to evolve and vary over its playing time). "Into the Gloaming" begins in a brooding mood, with bass pulses amidst a lower pitched drone. At the outset, I was reminded of James Reynold's sublime piece "Leaving the Bonds of Earth" from his soundtrack to The Mind's Eye video. This piece shares the same sense of movement and more than a hint of shadow (this is the closest that Bowles gets to being "dark"). "Beneath the Radiant Stars" reverses the somewhat shadowy nature of the preceding track and installs a sense of gentle awe and wonder. Around the 2:30 mark, Bowles introduces an interesting rhythmic effect, comprised of a clicking sound married to electronic tonalities which over the course of the track's nearly eleven minutes subside into the background and occasionally make their presence subtly known. The closing track is "Nightwalk Across The Isle of Dream" and rather than detail it, suffice it to say that the title says it all.
Is The Shimmering Land Meg Bowles' masterpiece? I am reluctant to state that because her talent, in my opinion, is limitless. Surely this album represents a pinnacle of sorts for her. On the other hand, who knows where this artist is headed in the future. The Shimmering Landis essential spacemusic (and, as far as I am concerned, a top ambient release from 2013 as well). It's majestic but human, beautiful but not overpowering, warm but not cloying, inviting yet also somewhat intimidating in how it makes the listener feel (appropriately) insignificant in comparison to the wonders of both the universe and our own planet. One thing I can state definitively about both the CD and Meg Bowles is borrowed, somewhat strangely, from the last line of the film The Color of Money starring Paul Newman, when his character states emphatically to his antagonist (Tom Cruise), "I'm back!" Fellow ambient and spacemusic artists take note…Meg Bowles IS back! 

Hypnagogue

Elegant, calming spacemusic awaits in your journey to Meg Bowles’ The Shimmering Land. This is Bowles’ sixth release, and her second in two years following a long hiatus, and it reinforces that she is an important voice in the genre. Across six tracks, Bowles barely raises her musical voice above a whisper, opting instead to make its impression via depth and dimension. With a practiced hand, she places airy layers one atop the next, mixing the pure simplicity of ambient structures with nicely understated melodic elements. “Nightwalk Across the Isle of Dreams” showcases that blend, the melody drifting in via woodwind and plucked-string sounds. When she opts to add rhythm to her flows, it’s with subtle pulses from the sequencer; they arrive not to intrude but to lightly amplify the sensation. You hear it in “Beneath the Radiant Stars,” a present but distant ripple in her spacey, panoramic drifts. On the lush and serene “Venus Rising,” the sequencer heads into a higher register, casting star-shine glimmer across long string pads. This has a classic spacemusic feel to it, a bit of nostalgia pinging at your long-time-listener pleasure centers.

The Shimmering Land quietly invites itself into your listening space. It makes no demands as it patiently fills your head and works its soothing, aural-imagery magic. The feel is always warm and utterly calm as Bowles spreads out her vistas before you and floats you through them. This is a wonderful disc to have playing at the end of the day and into the evening, helping you wind down and re-center. An absolute must-hear from this (quietly) powerful voice. Let it loop.

Zone Music Reporter

After way too long an absence from the ambient music scene (her last release was 1999's brilliant From the Dark Earth), Meg Bowles has made her triumphant return with A Quiet Light, and she has not missed a beat. If anything, her time away seems to have sharpened her focus and increased her ambient and spacemusic chops. A Quiet Light is an excellent album and heralds Bowles reemergence into well-deserved prominence as not only one of the few women recording and releasing ambient and spacemusic but as a major player in the arena as well. Fans of her last two releases, Blue Cosmos and the aforementioned From the Dark Earth will recognize some of Bowles' signature touches scattered throughout the six tracks on A Quiet Light but there are plenty of new wrinkles here as well. 

The CD is superbly engineered by the artist's husband, Richard Price, who also co-produced the album. The sound is sumptuous yet subtle, full of nuance if listened to intently on headphones; but the CD is equally enjoyable (as all good ambient should be) played in the background during quiet times of relaxation or contemplation. 

Bowles drew inspiration for the music on A Quiet Light from her fascination for "liminal space" which, for example, is typified by the threshold we cross as day becomes night and light changes our perceptions of our surroundings. She refers to these times as "...moments of pure grace, where one can suddenly become transported into a greater, deeper reality that exists parallel to, yet outside of, ordinary awareness." 

Track titles paint an accurate picture of the music contained on the CD: "Nocturnal Flight," "Forest Glade," "Beyond the Far Shore," and "A Quiet Light," to name four of the six selections. The mood is equal parts serene and mysterious, haunting but not dark or foreboding except in the subtlest ways. To say the music has a fluid quality is understating the case, as Bowles’ synth washes, pads, and chords seem to flow and ebb with an almost organic sensibility.

The opening Nocturnal Flight opens with expansive synthesizer textures flowing into each other and breaking apart (sampled overtone vocals are understated). Sparse bass notes provide counterpoint to the sustained tones and warm drones/washes. Very slowly over the twelve-minute track, the bass notes begin to accelerate in tempo until a distinct midtempo beat is achieved, accented by a series of bell tones, while the main synth melody begins to attain a more specific sensation of flight and soaring, hence the cut's title, obviously. Glacial Dawn, which is next, also merits its title as the drones and textures evoke barely any movement whatsoever as well as containing a perceptible element of "cold (despite the presence of some synth chorals in amidst the assorted other sounds). A crescendo effect at the six-minute mark seems to convey the moment the sun finally appears in full above the icy blueness of the glacier.Forest Glade opens with music that may evoke emerging from an arboreal landscape into a clearing. The subtle enhancement of the introduction of what sounds like running water, accompanied by gentle organ-like tones, paints the track with an especially lovely pastoral calmness. As with “Nocturnal Flight,” after about four minutes, Bowles introduces an overt rhythmic element, this time a series of sequenced notes, laid over the lone and forlorn sounding lead synth line (which has a strong horn-like characteristic). “Chant for a Liquid World” introduces fuller synth chorals and even a solo vocal line, sung in a distinctly church-like fashion. These angelic voices are counterpointed at the outset by an assortment of burbling sounds which eventually dissipate and are replaced by overlapping synthesizer tones, washes and textures. 

I could continue describing the remaining two tracks (Beyond the Far Shore and A Quiet Light) but by now you should have an accurate picture of what the album holds in store. Bowles excels at crafting long ambient pieces (the shortest selection is 8:22) that evolve over their running course, but in such gradual ways that, while the changes are perceptible, they are never in the least bit jarring. Her juggling of the various layered synthesizers is formidable and displays her supreme artistry. A Quiet Light heralds Meg Bowles return to prominence in ambient and, in particular, the subgenre of classic-era spacemusic. I frankly can’t think of a more essential album to buy this year than this one.

Hypnagogue

 

Seductively graceful and contemplatively hushed, Meg Bowles’ return to music, A Quiet Light, is a classic spacemusic disc that’s extremely easy to get completely lost in. In her liner notes, Bowles talks about the concept of liminal space, “a territory between the worlds which can feel intensely private yet vast.” A Quiet Light becomes the key to that territory, like gates easing open in front of you as you listen. It’s a deep relaxation disc, but it has passages that percolate with subtle energy–like the delightful, unexpected moment when the opener, “Nocturnal Flight,” suddenly shifts from gossamer drifts to rise just slightly under a cool, upbeat melody. In every track, Bowles’ long, soft pads absolutely teem with emotional phrasing, and her atmospheric touches, like the stream running under “Forest Glade,” are laid in with a perfected mastery to elevate the overall effect. Bowles is at her best here with “Chant for A Liquid World.”  This is, quite simply, a stunning track that heads directly to your soul. With sacred-music overtones provided by sampled voices and a breath-slowing pace, this prayer in sonic form is, for me, the centerpiece of the disc. It eases into the horizon’s-edge feel of “Beyond the Far Shore.”  Sighing chords and a gently played melody dance quietly together and the overall feel is like watching the onset of twilight.

The six tracks here glide by in exactly one hour, and it is a perfect hour of listening. Bowles knows how to pull at your emotions with sound, and she spends the time guiding you through her ideas and intentions. You will feel every note here. I genuinely cannot say enough about this disc.

Calm, beautiful and superbly affecting, A Quiet Light is a Hypnagogue Highly Recommended CD.

Star's End

 

With each album release Meg Bowles discloses more depth and complexity. The CD A Quiet Light(64'13") creates an aural realm alluringly suspended between heaven, earth and space. A wonderful interplay of contrasting harmonies, gentle textures and a most benevolent bearing, this work has its own natural almost tidal rhythm. The mesmerizing swirl of synthesized tones bestows a dreamy inwardness upon the listener. Moments of shear musical power may be felt within the sonic sheen of ethereal voices, warm strings and breathing waves of muted electronic forms. There is a delicacy to this music that gives it a measure of beauty very rare in the field of Electronic Music. From its long sustaining tones, to the quiet patterned pulsing of bleeping notes, and the slow reveal of each dark passage - A Quiet Light rings with the truth of deep human feelings. Bowles' music conjures space, light and a sense of scale - and has evolved beyond its obvious influences. With an ear for consonant sonorities and a practiced sense of composition, Bowles creates a vivid and emotional musical experience.