Blood Moon (Beyond Beyond Is Beyond)
Ambient music is a fart in an elevator for some people. Whether it’s distaste for background noise or a trained expectation of action when you press play, for some listeners ambient combines antipathy and drowsiness in a single aural experience. For those with a bigger set of ears, though, it’s music that’ll stir your brain pool and really get your pyramid-eye shining. It’s rumored that Einstein conceived relativity while plastered to his bedroom floor, vibing to the heavy thrum of a Harmonia record.
Ancient Ocean is the project of Brooklyn-via-Louisville musician J.R. Bohannon, who’s recorded several years worth of limited-release CDs, cassettes, and split LPs to date (limited to the point that one entry in his online discography just lists “???” for the catalog number). His 2014 EP Through the Fear of Aging was a sparse, stripped-down affair, consisting mostly of short pieces performed on sustained, humming guitar. Blood Moon is Ancient Ocean’s full-length debut and coming-out party—four songs over forty-one minutes—that expands on past efforts with enveloping synth, strings, and other instruments that are at times unrecognizable.
Ambient’s unofficial creator, Brian Eno, said the music must be “as ignorable as it is interesting,” which is a definition that Ancient Ocean hews to on Blood Moon. Eno looms large over the album, in particular his mid-’70s and early-’80s albums Discreet Music, Ambient 4: On Land, and Apollo. There are moments that remind me of Popol Vuh’s mellow side, and the La Monte Young and Terry Riley influence is evident in Blood Moon‘s spare instrumentation. Ancient Ocean differs from these “monsters of ambient” in that Bohannon’s music is more personal and lonely, in a way that alternates between pleasantly affecting and monolithically burdensome for the listener. Both headphones and uninterrupted listening are necessary—turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream. The album creates a physical listening experience, as it slowly washes over you in an eerie psychedelia that pairs well with introspective spiritual haggling. If that sounds pretty New Age, well, it kind of is. But this ain’t Yanni, and with compositions based in heavy religious themes and dark existential quandaries, I’d caution against listening to it before your next float in the sensory deprivation tank.
Blood Moon opens with the title track, a cosmic and pretty ominous paean to the lunar harbinger of End Times. The song opens with distorted, grumbling guitar that’s soon joined by deep space exploration synths. A strong dystopian vibe, one apparently foretold in Joel 2:31: “The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood before the great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.” Woof. It’s a song well-matched to the cover art—whether it’s stormy weather ahead or a mushroom cloud, there’s certainly going to be some rough sailing.
On “Beargrass Creek,” Bohannon is joined by Aaron Martin on cello and bowed banjo, Craig Schenker on sax, and Destruction Unit’s J.S. Aurelius on processed piano. The song is smooth and shimmery, and comes across as a chamber music version of Austria’s Fennesz. Over fourteen minutes, the multiplayer setup allows the individual instruments to combine in strange ways, to the point where you’re not always sure what you’re hearing. (As I was listening to this song, my wife entered the room and said, “Bagpipes!”) It’s disorienting and a work out.
Written in a church, “Absolution” is another dive into sin and the conflict between man’s choices and his responsibility to a higher power. As Bohannon told the Wall Street Journal, “‘Absolution’ came from an internal struggle over the idea that one can be absolved from all their sins in one fell swoop. The idea that one’s moral dilemma can be defined by a religious establishment, then ultimately relinquished, was something that left me pondering over the true value of the act of absolution. It always seemed like a double-edged sword.” That quandary is a lot to chew on throughout this long, haunting track.
The album closes with “Winter Half-Light,” a hopeful, exploratory piece comprised of long, sustained string tones that eventually morph into an electric guitar, while atmospheric synths provide an “orbiting Pluto” sense of distance. It feels like a celestial escape after being trapped within the limits of mortality and judgment for several songs, and a welcome release.
Blood Moon is the first time Bohannon has stretched out over a full album, with ample sonic terrain to develop these sounds. While I believe the world always needs more weird and challenging music, I worry that Bohannon may be shooting himself in the foot with Blood Moon in terms of finding an audience. His vision is a fine one, albeit one that feels conceptually maxed-out by the album’s end: this is as minimal and droning as ambient music gets. Songs of this length and quietude are going to attract ambient freaks and adventurous listeners, but that’s a self-selecting group at best. The album makes for a fine introduction to Ancient Ocean, but the modus operandi should be expanded on the next release. Personally, I’d prefer an album of more varied moods and sounds, not by junking the current musical palette but by breaking it down into digestible sound pieces. Either that, or use the space provided by fourteen and fifteen minute compositions to take the listener somewhere—if we’re thinking in nautical terms, pull up the damn anchor.
When considering the religious and existential themes that inspired these pieces, though, it seems clear that Bohannon has a lot on his mind. Maybe this insular, exhausting album is just something he had to do? It’ll be interesting to see how future releases vary, and whether Blood Moon was some form of musical absolution. It’d be cool to hear Bohannon incorporate additional textural layers, to provide more from the relief the impenetrable synth fog in which these songs reside. It’s possible that Bohannon is just getting his feet wet in the LP format, and the amount of open space led to a lack of economy. I also get the sense that an Ancient Ocean live show can be pretty visceral and tooth-rattling, so my maw is still wide open.
With added contrast and the ability to engage with the music on multiple levels, the prospect of spinning Blood Moon on a regular basis would be a lot more appealing. In the project’s current form, it’s something I’ll likely file and forget. Still, it makes for a provocative opening statement, with almost limitless possibilities for where to go next. Build for me a bonny boat, that on the wide ocean I may float.