Signal Hill: Alturas (AM 800 Sound, 2016)
All the members of Signal Hill originally hailed from Los Angeles, California. Now the band is split up between Los Angeles, New York, and London. The band consists of Tim Cooper (drums), Dave Masters (guitar), Rishi Arora (keys, guitar), and Brian Vasallo (bass). As you will see below, it is impressive that they are able to produce such brilliant music given their distances. Alturas is their third full-length and demonstrates a maturity in both playing and composing their music. They combine ambient moments with post-rock finesse that results in masterful compositions that are both sparse in places but also complex in others. Now, to the heart of the matter: the music.
“Wild Were the Waves” opens the disc and, quite frankly, I was in love at first note. It begins with bright synth and a guitar glimmering over it. This is quickly joined by galloping drums and a very subtle, perfect bassline. Xylophone type vibes begin to accent the song and play a counter melody to the guitar. This track raises the bar very high for the listener in terms of expectations of what is to follow. It’s just spacious, gorgeous, and structurally perfect. “Map Space”, the longest track on the disc clocking in at 7:08, is just as gorgeous as the first track and, given the title, really moves the listener into the meat of the journey Signal Hill is constructing. This band is patient, filing pockets of their soundscapes with blissful fuzz and Rhodes type organ. The guitar, once again, picks a melody that plays off against the organ. The drums and the bass work create a subtle yet evocative foundation for the rest of the instruments to dance upon. About halfway through the song, the drums and bass drop out, the song breathes with only organ and then guitar and the rest of the band enters. It’s subtle but impressive arranging.
“Map Space” runs into “OMS Burn” without a break. The electronics float the listener into a beautifully crafted melody that has some sampled talking sitting under it. The bass work on this track is particularly distinct because, as before, the organ and guitar play off one another in a conversation but this time the bass enters as a third voice. The drums shuffle underneath keeping time and structure. Then, two minutes in, the band begins an Unwed Sailor/post-rock vibe. They slide from ambient soundscapes to post-rock structures with ease. “Microbe” uses similar vibraphone sounds as other tracks as it bounces through the speakers. The guitar weeps in the background while the bass and drums once again lay a firm and subtle foundation. Cooper doesn’t just keep time. He plays the drums like they are a part of the music, providing brilliant accents along the way. Vasallo is just as adept at bass. It’s wonderful to hear a bass player that allows space in a track, letting silence between notes happen, not feeling the need to fill every space with a low rumble. His choice of accents and moments of silence are impeccable.
“Metropolis” begins with meatier synths, creating a vibe that might suggest the opening of a movie as a camera soars over a beautiful landscape. This atmosphere remains as the rest of the band come into the mix: drums, keys/organ, guitars, and bass. The build in this song is complex, layered, and a joy to hear. The hopeful tone at the center of the disc makes for a lovely transition to its second half. “Cloud Drift” then begins with beautiful ambient textures. Twinkling, metallic sounds float across keys. This track just allows the listener to rest peacefully for a bit, moving into the next track entitled “Wanderers”. This is a slow paced track that lulls you into a relaxed state and just floats the listener along on a journey.
“Amber Lantern” is the penultimate track and begins with about a minute of synths that lead into the full band joining. For the first time on the album, it sounds like acoustic guitar joins in, presenting some new tones amidst the bass, drums, and keys. Signal Hill is expert at choosing gorgeous tones, textures, and sonics that blend together to make an intricate soundscape. At 5:05, the guitars erupt and they build a slow moving wall. The guitar plays off the melody line. It’s a powerful moment on the disc. As the guitar fades out, the keys take over once again and the finale begins. “Edge of Forever” is definitely their most post-rock track on the album. However, about 2 minutes into the shortest track on the disc, the guitars begin to feedback and a rumble begins to build. This rumble ushers the listener to the edge, or the end, of the album.
I don’t like to throw “masterpiece” around that much. We’ve used it on the site to describe albums by Bark Psychosis, Slowdive, and the like. If the reader will indulge me, I have no qualms with dropping the descriptor here. Alturas is a post-rock, space-rock, ambient masterpiece. Signal Hill have produced an inspired piece of art and anyone who loves music should buy a copy of this album.
Buy Signal Hill: Alturas at https://signalhill.bandcamp.com/
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