So much ambient music suffers from a successful attempt to be interesting sonic wallpaper that finding an ambient album about something in a recognizable way is deeply refreshing. Giancarlo Erra‘s Departure Tapes eulogizes a father, and it feels like it. Opener “Dawn Tape” grapples with loss. Long tones morph and fade. The piano’s ostinato melodic motif is fragmentary, seemingly collapsing partway through, only to immediately repeat. The strings waver with uncertainty. It feels sad. It is ambient, but for a reason: doesn’t grief feel ambient? Isn’t it fragmentary? Partial? All-encompassing? Ever-present? Repeating?
“Previous Tape” meshes a gentle burble of keys with a morse-code-staccato rhythm and a mournful lead horn. “169th Tape” is a mass of swelling strings and subtle radio distortion. “Unwound Tape” puts a thick drone out, plays a fleet keyboard line over it, and then has the drone attempt to subsume the keyboard line (somewhat successfully). I too feel like I have gotten over grief before I have actually gotten over it. All of these lead up to the two pieces that compose the core of the record: the 16:49 of “Departure Tape” and the 7:31 of “A Blues for My Father.” “Departure Tape” starts off with a wordless aria sung in a reverent style, then brings in dramatic church organ; this is absolutely a funeral. The rest of the fourteen minutes of the piece are an elegant, moving journey. It is beautiful. “A Blues for My Father” starts off with layers of cloudy pad synths before re-introducing the singer of the wordless aria from “Departure Tape” reprising the melismatics in a new atmosphere. The vocals don’t distract from the work: instead, they lend weight and gravitas to the ambient work.
Departure Tapes is a rare collection of ambient pieces that feel like they genuinely go together as a collection and that speaks to a larger concern that the mood itself. It is an impressive, evocative, memorable album. Highly recommended.