James Johnson & Aperus: Ecotone

By John Shanahan, Hypnagogue

Ecotone is an intriguing collaboration that takes its listener through several zones of sound, all along the way cleaving just enough to Eno's definition of ambient music, without being immovably adhered to it, to make the comparison valid. James Johnson and Aperus center their work in that same gracefully deliberate delivery of each note, the sense of airy sparseness that manifests in keeping a respectful if not meditative distance from one note to another. It can be played at an innocuous volume and still retain its strong emotional force, and reveals in close and focused listens an amazing amount of depth and small-sound detail. And on top of all that, it's flat-out gorgeous, whatever form it happens to be taking at any given moment. The duo improvised and recorded two hours of material in the studio, after which Aperus (aka Brian McWilliams) went back in to work a little remixing/restructuring magic. And so we get, on one hand, Eno-esque explorations like "Crow Over Walnut Canyon," with echoing piano, a soft underscore of pads, and hints of thunder; or "The Long Goodbye," with its patient Thursday Afternoon-style keys, raspy punctuations of guitar, and subtle field sounds, all floating on rich pads that roll in like a textbook ambient swell. On another hand, the opener, "Descending Arc," exists a bit on the shadowy and near-dissonant side in spots. Chimes reminiscent of gamelan clatter and call as bass notes, piano and bird songs fill the space. "The Moth Jar" somewhat follows suit, using a clashing metal sound in places to add that air of dissonance to play against wavering, dream-haze keys. It's an effective use of the sharp in the midst of the soft, and it's not overdone.

Ecotone is an amazing piece of work. You need to dedicate several listen to just tuning in to the small stuff, the random sounds and field recording, the clicks and hums and clatters that form a sort of sonic scrim hanging in the back. The intricacy at work here is stunning, and more so for the fact that it works at low or normal volume. As a background listen, the pervasive calm-even in the darker spots-works its way into you, and there are points that just make you need to stop and be in that moment. It has a lyrical quality that's slowly and beautifully meted out. You will end up keeping this on loop. If Ecotone doesn't make every "Best Of" list out there this year, it can only mean that whomever didn't include it simply never heard it.

by Bert Strolenberg, Sonic Immersion

In the genre of organic-infused ambient music, ambient sound sculptors James Johnson and Brian McWilliams (aka Aperus) have made a new offering centred on deeply textured environmental sound.

"Ecotone", a strong statement of appreciation and concern for the natural world and its current fragile state, is a factory-pressed cd featuring deep ambient musings meant for attentive listening. The 54-minute outcome, a deeply textured environmental sound study using an expansive canvas of fine field recordings, minimalist piano, synths and organic instruments, was derived from a lengthy session that saw the duo improvise and handle a wide variety of compositional techniques.

Both composers gave a lot of attention to detail, while implementing percussive samples, contact microphone recordings, many surprising animals sounds and vocal tones. It s a slow moving and profound organic offering of sensitive environmental sight and sound paintings venturing into dense, darker but always spacious territory. Its minimalist, melodic nature and introspective impact occasionally remind of some older stuff by Robert Rich, Brian Eno or the gamelan works by Loren Nerell.

But then again, it digs deeper as the lush, mesmerizing textures and surreal sound patterns spread their wings and take off. To me, the most impressive are the two tracks opening ("Descending Arc", "Cycle 17") and the three pieces closing the album ("The Moth Jar", "Transmigration" and "Traces"), as they really run underneath your skin, evoking a hypnotic state.

The soundings on the contemplative and cinematic "Ecotone" simply resonate the clear voice and the many dimensions of the natural environment. It ends up even more impressive when heard with good quality headphones.

All in all, "Ecotone" (a limited edition release coming with great art work) makes most interesting and intense listen. Highly recommended to all who appreciate deep-listening ambient.

4 out of 5 stars

By Rik MacLean, Hypnos Forum

I think that James Johnson and Brian McWilliams (aka Aperus) are both very talented musicians, each having produced some truly stunning work over the last few years. So it would stand to reason that by working together they would make something even more stunning in collaboration, right? "Ecotone" by James Johnson and Aperus is a beautiful and brilliant release that proves that theory, capturing all the best qualities of each artist and building on their separate gifts to create a truly impressive album.

"Descending Arc'' opens the disc with metallic percussion and other percussive sounds, a feeling of mysticism that plays over top a subtly droning pad. As the track progresses other elements are added, slowly building an engaging and involved aural landscape for the listener to explore.

"Cycle 17" follows, with oscillating tones running in randomly spaced sine waves. It makes for an interesting aural experience with a number of short patterns and appealing motifs being randomly formed throughout the course of the track. A very interesting example of generative music.

"Nostalgia and Memory" is a short track that uses a distorted warble as an anchor for a number of sounds and moods. Add some sparse piano playing a rather forlorn melody and you end up with a particularly emotional piece of music, a decidedly moody track that I quite enjoy.

"Crow Over Walnut Canyon" is another piano piece, slightly more melodic in character with a slightly brighter feel to it. There's some nice use of echo and delay here that give the track a vaguely haunted feeling, but more of a pleasant haunt, the feeling of being watched over, taken care of. A really lovely piece of music...

"Long Goodbye" features a number of nicely elongated pads paired with some struck metallic objects that naturally reverberate, a combination that results in some very tasty dramatic moments. I really enjoy the way this track illustrates the musicality inherent in the unexpected, and that sense of discovery that plays throughout really connects with me as a listener.

"Ancestral Voices" has a vaguely unsettling feel to it, a disorienting swirl of sounds and voices that rotate around the soundscape alternately building and falling in volume. That's not to say that it's not a good track though, I actually find it to be quite impressive in it's ability to inspire unease.

By contrast, "The Moth Jar" has a very delicate beauty to it, lovely piano matched with percussive metallic tones and treated electronics, all working together to create a very beautiful piece of music. Definitely my favorite track on the album.

"Transmigration" has a large cinematic quality to it, a big sound that suggests vast open spaces and long panoramic vistas. Certainly an excellent piece of work for use as a soundtrack or perhaps as the inspiration for a short film.

"Traces" closes the album, a quick don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it ambient piece that really embodies the ideal of active listening. There's a lot to discover in this two minute track, a wealth of ideas compressed into a very tiny space. If you choose to listen passively you're sure to notice some of it's charms, but if you actively involve yourself in the track I'm sure you'll be suitably rewarded for your efforts.

There's no question that Johnson and McWilliams compliment each other brilliantly on this album, and the end result is an impressive collaboration that's already circling around the top spot on my year end list of groovy music. Take some time to explore "Ecotone", you'll be glad you did.

By Matthew J Harris, Hypnos Forum

I just received this in the mail on Friday. It's been so long since there has been a release from James and I treasure the various Cube CDs I have, so I was really looking forward to this. My feeling is that James has been one of the best at long or short-form, seemingly "organic", gorgeous environments. Not simply droney, but subtle, quiet, and beautiful. My six-year old daughter often falls asleep to his Cubes and not everything fits that bill. His being dormant has seemed a shame. I have also been familiar with and impressed by McWilliams' music so the pairing was promising.

The first thing I noticed was the very attractive and tasteful packaging. But beautiful packaging will annoy me in the end if the music doesn't live up to it.

Happily, the music is wonderful. This music is varied. At times it is benevolent, lighter, and gorgeous. At other times it has a darkness, a doubt, a discomfort. But be clear, while these tracks clearly can challenge the listener in ways, it is never difficult to listen to. Even in the darker sections it is beautiful, not jarring, and very listenable. While most ambient music is created by single musicians I think this CD is a testament to the benefits of collaboration. It feels more rounded, it feels like someone was there to cover the blind spots of each musician.

This is not a retreading of the earlier work of either musician. The sound of the disc as a whole feels like a clear statement of intention to do something new, but it is still familiar. With the tremendous quantity of ambient music available, I find that there is a small percentage that I really, really value. This will certainly be in that category.

By Richard Gurtler, Bratislava, Slovakia

Wow, this is a very impressive joint effort involving respected veteran ambient composer James Johnson and gifted sound sculptor Brian McWilliams known as Aperus or Remanence (together with John Phipps). While James Johnson is equipped with vast discography, mostly releasing on AtmoWorks or on his Zero Music label, Aperus has recorded highly treasured works such as "Tumbleweed Obfuscated By Camera Failure" (now newly reissued!!!) or "Hinterland" released on mPath Records about 10 years ago. What was mPath Records before, now became Geophonic Records, run by Brian McWilliams, and "Ecotone" is a premiere CD on this label published at March 31st, 2013.

Although released in ordinary jewel case, the artwork looks totally stunning!!! Both protagonists are indeed highly accomplished photographers, so besides 4-panel insert there is included also a vellum envelope with 4 additional pictures, randomly selected from 9 available shoots. The visual presentation of this release immediately gets extra points and that was the case with all previous works of Aperus and Remanence. But that's just the beginning, because gorgeous images are soon joined as the opening piece, "Descending Arc", blossoms with its deeply evocative mood. Natural environments, assorted primordial tinkles and rumbles (evoking Gamelan), and gentle drone cascades reveal all their tranquil allure and magic, 11 minutes of purely contemplative sonic bliss!!! But the duo keeps on excelling, "Cycle 17" invites with graciously warm, panoramic washes melted with raising and falling, briskly shimmering embellishments. Deep immersion immediately guaranteed, what a journey!!! Shorter "Nostalgia And Memory", as indicated by its title, returns to calmer terrains, enriched by sparse, but expressive, sad piano passage and other elliptical, smoothly disharmonious fragments. Quietly minimal and pleasingly displaying its title. "Crow Over Walnut Canyon" is another beautifully entitled track, it attracts with its gorgeously serene symmetry between modern classical elements, background subtleties and slightly rougher hums and organics. A music of sheer brilliance that will top any of the giants bridging modern classical textures with ambient soundscapes!!! The longest piece, clocking to nearly 12 minutes, "Long Goodbye" dives into deeply reflective realms filled with haunting piano and string expressions, warmly drifting tapestries, assorted high-pitched metallic squeaks and outbursts and distant natural sounds. Amalgamated in absolutely masterful way, painting wonderfully wide-screen sceneries of harmoniously heartening introspection. Another virtuoso performance!!! The next piece, "Ancestral Voices", unites all kinds of rumbles, tinkles, rings and other traceries in one, quite cacophonous sculpture guarded by ceremonial chants. Uniquely distracting, transporting the listener to a pilgrimage site!!! "The Moth Jar" moves into piano-fragmented, reverberant terrains, again intermingled with razor sharp, discomforting metallics and processed, richly flavored arrangements. Uniquely mesmerizing escapade!!! "Transmigration" is a quite eclectically built texture, flavored with voice-like drones, few modern classical ingredients evoking nostalgic moments and ebbing infusions, softly buzzing, beating, vibrant and swirling. Adventurously distinguishing journey continues!!! Shorter outro "Traces" consists of gentle Gamelan-like tinkles and buzzing resonations, achieving a deeply meditative state. Brief, but strongly effective!!!

"Ecotone" is enormously fruitful, all-inclusive collaboration between two efficient aural and visual hikers. The synergistic wizardry of both these Americans is just amazing on "Ecotone", where broad palette of atmospheres and sounds is expertly navigated into spectacularly complex and harmonious form, precisely polished in every detail. Audiophile sound quality included, so get ready your headphones too. "Ecotone" is a huge monument paying splendid tribute to Earth's magics!!! Unquestionably one of the pinnacles of 2013, hats off to James Johnson & Brian McWilliams!!!