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No Mans Land

Release Date:
Reviewed by:
  Brett Spaceman  

Of all the artists rostered onto the impressive n5MD, SubtractiveLAD makes a strong case for flagship status. I can't think of another act that more embodies the labels core ethos of emotional experimentation. No Mans Land is Stephen Hummel's (aka SubLAD) third album for the Californian label, and further showcases his refining compositional process. Rather than embarking with a desired result in mind, Hummel prefers to inhabit a piece, developing and varying until it almost takes on life of its own. The creative outcome is like turning on a tap to Hummel's subconscious and allowing his inner feelings to flow into the music.

What might be less apparent, whilst enjoying this album, is the fact that SubLAD created or at least designed many of his own instruments. After training within Jazz, Hummel became something of an analogue keyboard connoisseur. The long story short - the sounds that we are hearing have never been near any other recording we might deem 'ambient', 'electronica' or 'experimental'. They're his alone - bespoke analogue keys, mainly, plus guitars and the ubiquitous processed percussion. In this tag-obsessed world then, when discussing SubLAD, IDM simply is not an option.

Though it may seem odd to say so, given its electronic origins, I find the music on No Mans Land to be pleasantly naturalistic in style. The rain-splashy key arrangement of opening track The Shell conjures memories of Tubular Bells, though thankfully dispensing with the need of any Exorcist. Next up, Life in a Day imagines a harsh, alien landscape complete with crunching beats and swathes of portent synth. Yet again n5MD deliver an album that works holistically. It's a lovingly sequenced record for which we need never reach for the remote control to skip filler. That aside, there are certainly highlights. The imposing title track is a perfect example of Hummel's 'repeat and refine' style. If forced at gunpoint to pick one favourite, I might have to select Synthetism, a futuristic urban vista simply oozing with confidence. Similar cinematic themes are played out elsewhere. There are touches of Eno (Meditation 17) and Moby (Sun in your Eyes) before the majestic closing track, The Lucky Ones, which is pure Vangelis. I love the way this track begins as a Tyrell Corporation fly-by before disappearing into a Lanterna sunset. Sublime.

Plenty for the chin-strokers to analyze then - the personalized instrumentation, the constant chord restructuring, and the twin techniques of twiddling with amplification and stretching sound. The joy of this record for me is that I hardly consider any of those things. Instead, I'm transported for an hour into the subconscious of a remarkable musician, an experience I find intensely human.

"'More human than human' is our motto."
      (Tyrell, Blade Runner)

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