The Main Sequence
Ambient music generally has no narrative, no frontman and sometimes no recognizable foreground. This is a genre where practitioners may outnumber the total audience, at least in the U.S. where Americans like celebrity, attitude and a human focal point in their music. Ambient music doesn’t just lack those things, it’s an active rejection of them.
The Main Sequence’s Joel David Palmer and Joshua Alan Weiner make improvised ambient music. Their band name, a term from astronomy, ties these guys to space, a familiar theme in ambient music. Luckily they don’t use cliched samples of astronauts chatting with mission control—they use guitars and effects to explore a slowed-down realm inhabited by echoes and ghosts of echoes.
The opening song “Camelopardalis” is named for the faint Giraffe constellation near the Little Dipper. It is based mostly on sustained guitar notes, played so slowly that each seems to hang suspended in its own space. It’s not so much a song as an extended sound sculpture sprawling over 22 minutes. This will infuriate some listeners, but if you take The Main Sequence on their own terms, it is a fascinating exploration of sounds and harmonies—from the marimba-like plinking at the start, through the long middle section of sustained drones that wanders around a minor tonal center—which create and resolve dissonances.
Of the four tracks on this album, “Camelopardalis” is the most successful. It is an improvisation that maintains focus and forward momentum. The other tracks are anchored—weighted down even—by repetitive rhythmic loops that wear out their welcome. They’re not bad, but “Camelopardalis” is weightless by comparison. The album closer, “Noon to Evening, Dome Sector 4,” does break free after 10 minutes of a busy guitar loop. It slows down and finishes with sustained buzzing guitars that carry a mood of nervous expectancy.
Like Iowa City’s experimental droners, LWA, the appeal of The Main Sequence is that they’ve improvised together enough to find their own unique musical space. Within that space, anything is possible: happy accidents, startling juxtapositions, sustained sequences of almost telepathic unity. They may not know where they’re going when they start playing, but the journey is the destination.