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Pan•American - The River Made No Sound

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Artist: Pan•American

Album: The River Made No Sound

Label: Kranky

Review date: Apr. 16, 2002

For all the time critics will spend hedging bets on the collapse of a given genre, the means of achieving said sound are generally safe from scrutiny and extinction. A process may not be necessarily infallible, but any malleable technique, such as dub, fits easily enough into numerous contexts to portend its own survival. Hence the erstwhile revival of King Tubby-era reggae, the twenty five year evolution of dub-infused punk spanning from the Pop Group to GoGoGo Airheart, and, finally, the digital manifestation of the genre in modern electronica.

Pan•American, the solo project of Labradford’s Mark Nelson, has more than this precedent alone to its advantage. A preemptive antiquarian of the IDM aesthetic, Nelson controls everything from dub effects to minimal beats and glitch elements with startling dexterity, and yields them with a certain wary perfection on his new recordings. The previous Pan•American full-length, 360 Business/360 Bypass, was a great record, but grew lost at times in its own architecture, and proved to be anything but minimal by virtue of its diverse contributors, which included Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker, Rob Mazurek, and Casey Rice. The River Made no Sound, the third Kranky release for the project, presents Nelson at the height of his prowess, perhaps best defined as a synthesis, shifting but never truncated, of mood and effect.

The most interesting achievement of The River Made No Sound is its ability to derive varied and complex atmospheres from its sparse, albeit layered, components. If Pan•American shares anything with the Labradford material, it’s the ability to control process for the sake of emotional content. On an aural level, the material is as conducive to a bedside manner as to the shifting throng of daylight humanity, yet its references, in the transrational brilliance endemic to most Kranky recordings, move within and beyond the parameters of the strictly musical. Beats and dark textures emerge from silence throughout, but the space is as pregnant with word and image as with sound, ideas implied and realized, but never specifically defined.

Stretching through the first four tracks is a bleary anxiety, a sentiment not far removed from waking to the nascent guilt of an evening experienced but not retained, obscured by clouds and laudanum. Opening with “Plains,” this first movement mines with occasional redundancy the synth-drenched style of earlier material, but with a clear delineation between ambient soundscapes and minimal techno. But even without percussion, sparse in the opening of the record, Nelson adds layer of effect and texture to create a rising sentiment, like a patient and eventual ascension.

“For a Running Dog,” with its sci-fi bass, steady syncopation, and washes of jittery color, hints at the transition in mood and material to come. Nelson works best on his dub tip, when the bass bleeds deepest and the drum loops double back on themselves, an effect he sustains for upwards of nine minutes on the album’s best tracks. In what would seem to be the dawn of its second movement, the record peaks on the brilliant “Red Line,” when minimal dub meets processed piano and droning synths in perfect proportion. The mood shifts decidedly, brimming with the sullen confidence and swagger of evening, as if the nocturnal action preceding the recording has returned, only now with foreknowledge made prescient by the earlier material.

From here, The River Made No Sound expands on its sound palette still further. “Raised Wall,” perhaps the most interesting track on the disc, opens with a scraping glitch track evocative of LSR noise terrorism, only to give way to gently looped piano, while “St. Cloud” piles layer upon layer of spitfire drum taps onto static harmony, as if to signal the record’s departure to a purely surreal remainder. It is precisely this, Mark Nelson’s ability to conflate the fantastic and the everyday, the beat-riddled and the barely audible, in such a purely innocuous manner, that makes Pan•American worthy of the time and space it lays claim to. Merging the conceptual, the sentimental, and the technically innovative, The River Made No Sound establishes the timeless relevance and inauspicious grandeur of Nelson’s vision, whereby dimensions of sound, feeling and rhythm collide in a manner so unapologetic as to demand reaction, and awaken visceral consciousness.

By Tom Roberts

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