Orcas takes its time to accumulate steam. On first listen, it seemed easy to dismiss -- nine songs that add structure to atmospheric drone but fall too far to one side of the ambient divide, not quite resonant enough to register. On further listens, however, this album from the duo of Rafael Anton Irisarri (a.k.a. The Site Below) and Thomas Meluch (a.k.a. Benoît Pioulard) expands into something that sticks. Both Meluch and Irisarri have backgrounds in creating lush settings, but here they’ve endeavored to blend that with more of a pop sensibility. Using the word “weighty” would be inaccurate -- even at their most dense, there’s an airy quality to these songs, something ephemeral that endures, even as instruments and elements are placed and identified.
At times, the ambience heard on Orcas gives way to something approaching a pop structure -- the sort of pop that sits on the borderline of the ethereal, also practiced by the likes of The Dead Texan, Grouper and Aarkitica. “Standard Error” doesn’t really head into verse/chorus/verse territory, but there’s clearly an architecture there, a slow build accrued from its tonal evocation of the intake and exhalation of breath. “High Fences,” which closes out the album, achieves a nicely blissed-out tone over its five minutes. And “Carrion” is an effective mood piece, balancing an arrangement heavy on vocals and piano with walls of an almost choral nature, at times recalling Stars of the Lid’s magnificent (and brilliantly-titled) “December Hunting for Vegetarian Fuckface.”
While Orcas hits on a heavier emotional level than I’d initially expected, that tendency to drift does endure on repeated listens. The slow progressions of “Until Then” and “I Saw My Echo” don’t lead anywhere in particular -- they’re mostly content to set a loose mood. There are worse fates, but it sets up an uneasy tension here between the more structured (and memorable) numbers and those for which atmosphere suffices.