Cassette on Love All Day Records, July 2012
"Blue Grotto by Seattle-based sound artist, designer and guitarist Norm Chambers aka Panabrite has written New Age all over it, and here it is mostly the pristine psychoacoustic kind that promises listeners the return to a primeval state where instincts and feelings melt and reunite. This is one possible meaning of New Age, the other meaning referring to the opposite prospect, a movement through time until a technocratic and futuristic would-be cyberspace is reached which is awash with light, VHS diffusion artifacts and computer graphics. Released in July 2012 in a limited edition of 100 cassettes on the Love All Day label and available to purchase and listen to in full at Bandcamp, Blue Grotto tends strongly to the first – and original – meaning of the genre. The eponymous caverns are aurally painted with the help of analogue synth erections of the whitewashed, purest kinds as well as aquatic drops of balmy verdure and strengthening sinews. Last but not least, the occasional guitar layer is also part of this cavity. Nine tracks are presented, all of them enormously cohesive. The structures are figuratively set in stone, i.e. the very stone of the grotto. Many tracks feature dripping bubbles and other related drops, the synths gleam and drone in similar hues and timbres, only occasionally is a hint of computer-generated retro landscapes grafted onto the endemic aura. Blue Grotto is a good example of a dualistic album – earthen and heavenly – that is generally not perceived as such. I rarely review New Age works that mimic the arcane Age of Aquarius, but Norm Chamber’s work sounds fresh and is too intriguing even when considering the tightly, self-imposed niche it resides in. The famous question of the internet, “will it blend?,” is applicable here. Does Panabrite oscillate between the different meanings, is there some kind of evolvement, a circular existence or even a sense of progression that is not related to the passing of time in the real world?
The blending of both meanings of the New Age genre is already perfectly delivered in the opener Dawnscape. The term dawn already wears a connotation of pristine purity, a new beginning, the clean start of a new cycle. On top of that, it appears time and again in the titles of Norm Chambers' material and is hence a signal term par excellence. Panabrite decides to slowly build these cathartic feelings up by means of a gentle fade-in phase and an inreasing plasticity of the synth- and guitar-fueled riverbed. Monotonous angelic drones and a soft dark shrapnel of shimmering currents face galactic-aqueous sparkles whose tonal range is crystalline and glitzy. These are not mere drops. They are playfully bubbling and feel deep yet gaseous. Plinking synth melodies accentuate the limewashed fluxion, but otherwise do not disturb the effervescence of the vesiculating droplets which, interestingly enough, are the last things that remain when all other layers have already faced the abyss. Dawnscape depicts an antrum that lives up to the album title and functions as the poignant preface of the things to come. The following Garden Interlude is a tad more bucolic due to its gently arpeggiated synth prongs, but relies on the same droplets and glitters whose texture tends to be torn between a windier and more robotic look. Synth choir-like runlets cover the looming darkness. Passing, on the other hand, carves out these synth streams to greater effect. Comprising of several two note schemes, their refreshing iciness is underlined by heavily reverberated dripstone driblets. Norm Chambers’ album has become formulaic after three tracks already, but the essence of these tracks sets the intrinsic tone of the depicted cavities. The listener knows what to expect.
Notwithstanding the listener’s adjustment, the titular Blue Grotto is blazingly bright. Its vivacious synth nebulas are thin and seraphic at first but are soon bolstered with a second aorta that boosts their vigor and health. Helixes of rotor particles gyrate around this voluminous elysium, kinetic wind gusts waft through the grotto. The omission of any kind of aqueous drops during most of its runtime creates an eminently efficient feeling of drifting along. The bubbles continue to glow in Reflections, a poignant title due to the coruscating clicks and chirping birds. The synths submerge in New Age mannerisms, emanating melancholia, tranquility and heaviness at the same time. Synthetic xylophones loops round off the dreamscape. It is Glass Corridor that returns to Panabrite’s 80’s sound in all its glory. Like a fairy tale, its pointillistic dark matter pad becomes entangled with a time-shifted support of glacial glass globs and sugar-coated drone washes. It is too kitschy for my taste, too sugar-sweet in its appearance, but surface-wise, it can win me over indeed.
Up next is Golden Drape, a superblue-colored isolated wasteland whose essence is anything but golden. Dark matter pads conflate with a glowing polar light whose afterglow is strangely enough much more multilayered than its actual core. The mood is arcane and serious, the polar light synth simulates a Pagan flute, oscillating crystal molecules meander gently around the forsaken world. All elements feel heavy and deep, this is a New Age song whose definite mood is hard to define, as it is submerged in a yearning melancholia. One of the pondering, deepest tracks. Relief, however, revs up every structure and synth line it gets hold of. Launching with a sanguine duskiness which is united with ancient flutes, clearly recognizable acoustic guitars and joyful bubbles of all kinds, its constantly whirling stratosphere of 8-bit bleeps and green-tinged wind chimes becomes all the more eclectic the more saturated and voluminous the backing synths become. An intense New Age tune with a designed retrogressive aura. The closer Distance is a heavily arpeggiated lilac fanfare of positivism. Uplifting warmth and bliss are the prime ingredients, even the faintly mechanic wonkiness of the liquedous splinters and blebs nurtures the sublime rapture and turns this state into a mercilessly sweeping euphoria. Distance creates a superb flow which, in contrast to its title, is nearer to the listener than all the other tracks. The subject is encapsulated in a delightfully gaseous, lofty way. Blue Grotto therefore ends in an elysian, freeing and transcendental way, breaking the melancholia of its New Age nucleus and inviting the listener to bathe in its hymnic light.
No matter how Blue Grotto is approached: this is a clear cut New Age album. Both the meaning of a figurative reincarnation of the innermost self through synth-driven analogue billows, and the prospect of a virtual cyberspace with all of its flamboyant colors and bedazzling neon lights is depicted in Panabrite’s work. This time, though, the artist does not venture into alienating locations with effulgent landmarks. The setting is tightly narrowed down to the titular grotto. This is the album’s biggest flaw and greatest boon at the same time. Due to the cohesive arc and sequence of events, Blue Grotto feels balanced and perfectly streamlined in a good way. The depiction of the cavernous walls is a given, as are the reoccurring water drops and liquid flecks. Their texture and depth always change gradually from track to track. Attentive listeners benefit from these small changes. The arpeggiated staccato pads are another signature element of Norm Chambers’ music, and here their appearance is on the agenda too, although they lack the acidic energy levels of his cyber-oid New Age material. Those who want to be surprised in each and every track should be aware of these boundaries which are always in close proximity to the listening subject. Glass Corridor and the outro Distance unite both meanings of New Age in favor of the virtual reality-driven one, but the rhizomes of the remaining material function as canals for recreational spaces and a cleansing process of the soul. If this seems too esoteric or antediluvian in the twenty-first century, skip this work, for Norm Chambers has a wealth of material to offer that specifically targets the potential affection for the 16-bit culture. Blue Grotto, however, is a faux–70’s work, a trip down a farther memory lane created with today's possibilities. Not to the fluxionary future we go; it is the tripping past."
-Ambient Exotica (June 2013)
released July 1, 2012
Written and produced by Norm Chambers, 2011-2012
analog synth, guitar
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