The Sight Below's Uncontainable Ambient Atmospheres
The Sight Below was never supposed to put Rafael Anton Irisarri in the spotlight. Originally, the multifaceted Seattle musician meant for the Gas-inspired ambient project to be anonymous, but his cover was quickly blown—The Stranger published a mystery-maintaining profile of the Sight Below in November 2008; the next day, someone posted Irisarri's name in the article's comments.
"I didn't want people to have a preconception of what the Sight Below was all about," says Irisarri, who also releases more melodic music under his own name. "Like, if you listen to the music I've released on Miasmah or Immune, it's quite different."
Still, it would have been hard for Irisarri to maintain that low profile anyway, given how busy the Sight Below's debut album, Glider (out on esteemed Michigan label Ghostly International), has made him in the past year and a half. In that time, Irisarri has toured the U.S. with Lusine, he's toured to Europe four separate times, and he's performed at such world-renowned festivals as Barcelona's Sonar, Montreal's MUTEK, Detroit's Movement, and Seattle's own Decibel (for which he also works as a volunteer). "Other than this, I'm quite a recluse when I'm home in Seattle," he demurs.
Earlier this year, the Sight Below released sophomore effort It All Falls Apart, and the album both reiterates the submersive ambient sound of Glider and expands upon it in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
The first noticeable difference is the beat. Seven of Glider's 10 songs kept a soft but steady pulse beating underneath Irisarri's long smears and vapor trails of processed guitar. It All Falls Apart goes 11 minutes and two songs before a muffled bass drum finally kicks in on "Through the Gaps in the Land"—and even then the beat flutters in and out, more of an echo amid other echoes than a solid anchor or propulsion for Irisarri's sounds. (Which is not to say the predominantly beatless tracks here are without rhythm, but it's more the gentle, amorphous rhythm of lungs inflating and deflating than the solid sound of a heart beating.)
A more striking difference is the presence of vocals, sung low and hollow by Jesy Fortino of Tiny Vipers, on a slow and spacious, reverb-heavy redux of Joy Division's "New Dawn Fades." (Irisarri, a huge fan of old Factory Records and 4AD mope, abhors Moby's cover of the same song.)
"We had talked for the longest time about doing something together," says Irisarri of the Tiny Vipers collaboration. "At one point, we were hanging out at a coffee shop and 'New Dawn Fades' was playing in the background. She mentioned how it was her favorite Joy Division track, so I said, 'Hey, maybe we should do a version.' It wasn't intended for the Sight Below album, we were just doing the track for the fun of it, but I sent it over to Sam [Valenti IV of Ghostly International] and he really liked it, so we decided to include it."
Another collaborator on It All Falls Apart is Simon Scott of shoegaze heavyweights Slowdive.
"I'm a huge, huge Slowdive fan," says Irisarri. "They provided a soundtrack for those lonely and miserable teen years, so for me it feels like coming full circle in a way. I would have never guessed in a million years I would be working with a member of a favorite band.
"Simon and I never were in the studio together," Irisarri continues. "I would record something, send it to him, and he would add more guitar parts. Or he would send me a guitar idea, and I would develop a song based on that. It felt very much like a 'band.'"
While Fortino's singing stands out, Scott's contributions fold seamlessly into the Sight Below's nebulous Gas clouds of sound, and Irisarri similarly absorbed other added elements into the album's recording.
"For Glider, I only used a guitar with loop pedals, delays, and reverbs. I recorded everything live, too. For the new album, I also used samplers, synths, horns, voices, etc. Of course, these are all elements that form part of a wall of sound, so it's hard to distinguish them as such, but they are there."
The album begins with "Shimmer," which emerges gradually out of silence, accumulating elements both recognizable and vague—first with what sounds like bowed strings (a cello, maybe, or an EBow'd guitar?), then a low-filtered hum, then a distant blare that might be brass, then billowing white noise. Everything ebbs and flows for six minutes, only briefly pierced by some static, scratches, and squeals possibly produced by a synthesizer. "Fervent" continues in much the same vein, only with a slightly brighter tone.
"Through the Gaps in the Land" and "Burn Me Out from the Inside" are the album's only two tracks with beats, both irregularly threaded with the same smothered 4/4 kick-drum throb, the former's offset by a faint shaker. On "Through the Gaps," deep currents of sound are crested by glossy, glassy tones, leaving an insubstantial impression of a mallet instrument tinkling away under obscuring layers of delay; on "Burn Me Out," the highest note of a bassy four-note melody just barely surfaces out of the surrounding swirl, following the beat with a slight shuffle.
The title track sounds like how you'd imagine a field recording of a howling wind might turn out (instead of just sounding like a microphone rustling around in your pocket)—a constant gust occasionally gathering into roundly ringing peaks, and then blowing away. Like all of the Sight Below's songs, its appeal is in its almost imperceptible variations in tone, its glacially paced but snowflake-small shifts.
"New Dawn Fades" dispenses with Joy Division's martial rhythm section, atomizes its aggrieved guitar riffs, and sedates its anxious vocals, all of which uncovers and amplifies the original's more funereal aspects. The album ends with "Stagger," a 13-minute-long song whose drawn-out oceanic vibe is broken up by dubby, ping-ponging echoes of guitar; a shushing percussive sound; and a crackling, granular noise.
Irisarri is hitting the road as the Sight Below this month, but for his tour kickoff at the Triple Door, he'll be performing new non–Sight Below material with a trio featuring Kelly Wise on piano and Phil Petrocelli on percussion. Irisarri describes the music as "heavily influenced by David Lynch/Angelo Badalamenti, Bohren & Der Club of Gore, and Arvo Pärt. A friend heard the rehearsal and described it as if Amon Düül II had recorded Phallus Dei while taking loads of Vicodin."
Beyond that, Irisarri has been working on another side project with Fortino, for which he was recently tracking drums, and he's also sitting on much unreleased material from his sessions with Scott.
"Ultimately, we created almost 45 minutes of music together," says Irisarri. "There were lots of beat-driven tracks on the first draft of IAFA, including some tracks where Simon either sang or played the drums. After I got back from touring in the summer, I started to write more music, and it was leaning heavily toward the ambient side, so I removed a lot of the tracks with drums or beats, 'cause I wanted an album that flowed from start to finish. Maybe we'll release those at one point or they'll become part of a third studio album. Who knows..."
Some way of staying out of sight.