February saw the release of this split cassette, a collaboration between Brianna Kelly of the Cincinnati band Soften and Sympathy Pain, a Salt Lake City duo led by Skyler Hitchcox featuring Casey Hansen of the band Cult Leader on keyboard. This comes as the third in a series of splits released by the Experimental Ambient label Whited Sepulchre Records, each of which, in its juxtaposition of two contrasting forms of ambient music, seems to demonstrate the sheer breadth of the genre. Brianna Kelly and Sympathy Pain’s contrasting methods are no exception to this trend. Kelly mostly works with her soft voice, understated guitar, and pure keyboard tones, all of which are blurred by layers of reverb and delay manipulation. While Sympathy Pain uses similar instrumentation and production methods, they choose to let their sounds develop over longer periods of time in incremental waves of emotion. All of this makes for a startlingly pretty, immensely calming album—but not exactly a revolutionary release.
The cassette’s first half moves smoothly between its four tracks, each revealing a different side of Kelly’s sound—and each consequently betraying a different influence in her inspiration. “When You See It” almost certainly takes much from Grouper’s delicate acoustic-shoegazing elegance, but by the time we reach “Santus”, Kelly’s reversed vocal samples and droning tones invoke something closer to early Sigur Rós, perhaps tracks like “Untitled 2” from ( ) or the title track from Von. Her side gets progressively more experimental and less lyrical as it progresses, but even in its second half’s most avant-garde moments, I wouldn’t call her sound particularly innovative or groundbreaking; however the way it organizes its influences generally evinces its particular feeling of nostalgia, and the way it basks in the reminiscence of bygone halcyon days, even in its musical tone, ends up proving its value as more than just a sum of its influences. We can hear early signs of originality and a desire to push her sound into previously unknown territories, and if there were a hypothetical fifth track in which Kelly pushed her sound further from the safe, well-trodden territory of contemporary Ambient Shoegaze, this side could be really incredible.
Sympathy Pain, as previously noted, takes a more progressive approach to composition and ultimately tends more toward Drone than anything else, in spite of the slight percussion in both of their tracks. If Sympathy Pain’s main intersection with Brianna Kelly could be called the influence of Sigur Rós, their interpretation seems to take more from the Valtari era of undulating guitar drones and acoustic detail. But it may be more fruitful to compare Sympathy Pain with guitar-Drone acts like Final and Stars of the Lid because of their songs’ loop-based progressive development. Though even considering these similarities, I think Sympathy Pain is probably a more original act than Kelly. The inclination to mix wash synths and acoustic guitar with tape-manipulated industrial percussion speaks to their affinity for sounds that fall slightly a bit beyond the bounds of most “mainstream” Drone music, and their penchant for bit-crushed distortion pedals seems to exhibit a greater degree of Post-Rock influence than most Modern Classical acts are willing to admit. This is particularly true of “Bless This Ugly Heart”, which begins with strikingly distorted synths limping through seemingly dilapidated tones rented into ruins—ruins not altogether different from those painted in the guitar distortion of Mogwai or Mono. These distant influences seem to imply the stronger propensity of Sympathy Pain for experimentation, and I took more pleasure in their side for that reason.
That isn’t to say that Brianna Kelly’s tracks let me disappointed—I simply mean to say that hers tended to stay on the safer side of ambient music. She clearly establishes her adept ability to write excellent Ambient Shoegaze tracks over the course of only four songs. Sympathy Pain’s two tracks provide an excellent foil to her side and act well as the album’s denouement and conclusion. This is a fine record, but I’m much more interested in seeing how these two artists continue to push their sound in the future and whether they can shake off their influences.