Longtime fans of Steven Wilkinson’s output as Bibio, including myself, have always lovingly regarded his music as a project starting from the premise posited by Boards of Canada’s criminally underrated The Campfire Headphase and going from there—at the very least this has been, for years, my in-joke with everyone I know who likes Bibio. His first three albums for Mush Records meld folk guitar and ambient experimentation with extremely dated-sounding lo-fi production; parts of Hand Cranked sound like Wilkinson recorded his guitar parts to a phonograph before adding textural elements. Most of his output since signing to Warp Records in 2009 could be called album-length explorations of various genres as seen through Folktronica lens: 2009’s Ambivalence Avenue is his Trip Hop album; 2016’s A Mineral Love is his R&B album. But Bibio’s new record, Phantom Brickworks, differs considerably from all of his previous work—in a sense it’s a return to the pastoral ambient vision of his Mush albums, except entirely beatless, vocalless, guitarless, Folkless, electronicaless. That’s right: it’s a minimal ambient album. It’s not a Drone album per se—if it is, it’s in the vein of Star of the Lid or Kyle Bobby Dunn’s sense of Melodic Drone or Contemporary Classical Drone. And from start to finish, it’s a brilliant, pure, lustrous statement of singular minimalist vision.
From the first pure tones of the opener “1899-12-30” (called “09:13” on streaming services), the listener gets the sense of being placed in the same melodic space as The Caretaker’s work or William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops—a rich swirling wash synth slowly surrounds you, but the ambient space feels much more along the lines of something like Stars of the Lid’s Avec Laudenum than anything the former two artists have created. The effect is complete absorption and repose, not uneasiness or sorrow. The production plays with its melody’s timelessness just as The Caretaker does, but instead of using time as a force of corrosion or memory loss, Bibio links his music to eternal narratives of comfort: not in the sense of a womb, more like how taking a walk in a park or along a country road or through a forest will inevitably bring forth feelings of peace.
The album’s second track, it’s first title track, moves in a more elaborate direction—some string instrument and three piano parts play spiraling, pointillistic melodies, shifting in phase for several minutes until the gradual entrance of two double bass drones. The mix dims and drops considerably over the course of several minutes, eventually giving rise to samples of children playing by a river on some sunny day from the days of yore.
From this point the album takes a turn for the more melancholy. “Pantglas” deals in foreboding drones in spades, steadily multiplying like storm clouds on the horizon. “Phantom Brickworks II” lays its groundwork on several yearning, wistful, rainy-day drones over which several circling piano loops move like doves looking for cover from the damp. It’s worth remarking that, in this track, Bibio uses reverb and tape delay to transform pianos into synthesizer-like sounds—their increased decay and pure tones completely detach them from the context of typical piano music—an effect I’ve only heard previously achieved on Aphex Twin’s Syro track “XMASEVE_T10”. “Capel Ceyln” meanders along with its tired greyness much like labelmate Mark Pritchard’s track “Sad Alron” from last year.
The shorter (read as: less than 10-minute-long) songs of the album’s final stretch move the tone into more haunting territory. The mysterious chords and ghostly choral voices of “Phantom Brickworks III” give the listener a sense of being in the wrong time or being in a place where time has stood still—this is much more like The Caretaker, but without the same lo-fi production. The disorienting flute melody of “Ivy Charcoal” erases any remaining memory of the album’s early sense of comfort—we have entered the dark forest at this story’s center. The song samples heavy rain washing up in pulses of dark obscurity. “Capel Bethania” closes the album with a now-speeding-up-now-slowing-down piano melody that seems to usher in more sunlight and part the clouds of the prior tracks.
So we’re left with a fantastic journey of an ambient album, effortlessly moving from delicate scene to delicate scene. Its 73-minute-long run time goes by in the blink of an eye—it’s a consistently enveloping and interesting record. It’s composed with enough complexity that, if you sit down and try to listen to it closely, you’ll think it isn’t changing much, until you realize a part that was once there no longer sounds; you realize you’ve lost your grip on the song’s composition; you realize you’re lost in the music’s rushing streams of lighter-than-air melody and blacker-than-night darkness. Perhaps Phantom Brickworks will not be a widely influential album, and perhaps it draws too much from its influences without contributing enough of its own voice—yet it remains an album only Wilkinson could’ve created. Bibio is always fixated on owning and exploring every bit of his aesthetic as it changes with each record—and on Phantom Brickworks, he does this most effectively: he impresses the listener with a sound outside of context, outside of the world around you; he makes you forget your place and time. If this is what the best ambient music is meant to do—provide an ambient space—Phantom Brickworks must be a perfectly executed ambient album.