For those who did not know, Lycia is a group/project headed by Mike VanPortfleet, a guitarist from Michigan, with his wife Tara Vanflower, contributing textural whispers and wails as well as appearing on record covers, and bassist David Galas. “Cold” was the group’s fifth release and appeared in 1996.
These, though, are not the main performers on this record. Rather it is dominated by two small boxes, an Alesis SR-16 drum machine and a Lexicon LXP-5 digital effects unit, backed by a variety of synthesisers and, probably, an Akai sampler. Guitar and bass are in there somewhere, lost in the mix, as is a piano, but, once again, these are mainly for textural effect.
In fact, the technology makes “Cold” very much a creature of its time, for it had just become possible, in the comfort of your own bedroom, to give the impression that you had hired a symphony orchestra to play at the far end of the catacombs of Rome. Anything that The Beatles aimed at with tracks like “Tomorrow Never Knows” could now be achieved far more impressively with a thousand pounds’ worth of equipment. Lycia are very much a home studio project – gigs were once attempted but VanPortfleet has said “Lycia never truly made the live transition… In retrospect I never should have done it.” He keeps his day job, churns out his CDs and fair enough.
Anyhow, the basic sound of this record consists of ponderous drum-kit loops emerging through a cavernous echo also inhabited by massive textural synthesiser pads and simple repeating bass, guitar and piano parts, along with the mentioned half-audible vocals. All of it. That’s all you get. Do not expect to be able to make out anything like a solo, or even a melody, though a couple of the tracks have chord-changes. As for the lyrics, I had to look them up and, for instance, the track “Polaris”, typically, runs for seven minutes and twenty-five seconds with the following sum lyric content;
“I am loving again
I am loving again
I am nothing again
I am nothing again
So there you are. This is ambient music par excellence – it inhabits your space with a certain mood and that is that. Just like, say, some of the efforts of Terry Riley or Jean-Michel Jarre. Really the only reason there is more than one track is so that it goes on longer. And it does – almost an hour. It is for this reason, my pop-picking friends, that I shall not trouble you with a track-by-track breakdown.
Do I sound dismissive? That’s just my temperament. There’s a place for such records. Despite the titles and the bleak, gothic reputation, it’s not really eerie, edgy, bleak or scary. I mean, you can call it “dark” – there’s very little treble on anything, just a huge wash of nondescript synth tones (also from the far end of the catacombs) – but it’s quite peaceful. Heroin users could love it, because not only does nothing happen, it happens very slowly. A smart-arse might argue that one could just as easily extract a nice, slow, pompous riff from Pink Floyd or someone, make a loop out of it and play it at half-speed while your friends mumble in the bathroom – but “smart-arsed” is neither you nor I, dear reader, as I am sure you partly agree.
No, this record has the slightly chilly immensity of Spirit’s “Clear” or maybe “The Marble Index” (again if you played them at half-speed, or it could get too busy). It’s pleasant. It could suit those who want a musical wallpaper that lacks the conceptualism and minimalism of Eno or who find “New Age” records shallow or hackneyed or the various electro-poppers of Germany overwhelming in their tendency to change mood or tempo after a quarter-hour or to insist upon merry melodies. No such problem here. It just goes on… and on… and on. And I can imagine, given a proper CD and good headphones, all those distant massive echoey synthesisers could be truly immersive, and those repeating piano figures hypnotic. It’s really quite nice. I might buy it if I didn’t own those sorts of machines myself. But one thing I can say – I can’t imagine buying more than one. Why did they do a dozen?
(Thus endeth this review)