I was looking at my iTunes the other day, and it got me thinking about musical abundance… I currently have 233GB of audio in my library, with a total runtime of over 2,882 hours. If I listened for 8 hours a day, every day, that would last me almost a year. And I have an external hard drive that’s got another 500 GB of digital audio on it. And then there’s the Internet, offering a never-ending supply of new music and new artists… there’s always something just waiting out there to be discovered. It can feel overwhelming at times… yeah, I’ve got all this good music, but maybe there’s something super awesome that I’m missing…
Fortunately, plenty of super awesome music does bubble up to the top of all that abundance. One artist who has repeatedly caught my ear in the past couple years is Nathan Smith, aka The Virgance. I don’t remember how I stumbled across his debut album, Lost Continent, but it ended up in my top 10 full-length albums for 2014, and when its follow-up, Hiko Shrine, came out in January 2015, I immediately reserved a spot for it near the top of this year’s best-of list. But now I’m looking at the possibility of a Virgance twofer in the top 10, with the impending release of Paradigm 3 on September 21 in partnership with the El Vals del Conejo label. The full album is currently streaming on SoundCloud, and it will be available for purchase on Bandcamp.
The Virgance’s music is primarily guitar-based and embraces elements of Shoegaze, Post-Rock, Ambient, and Drone. When Smith spoke with Step On in May, he said that the new material felt like a mid-way point between the moods of the first two albums. Lost Continent married soaring guitar shimmer with a thick, soupy jungle of distortion, delay, reverb, and percussion, alternately pulling listeners into the stratosphere and then pummeling them (in the nicest possible way) back down to earth… it was music to lift the spirit and rattle the soul. Hiko Shrine gently twisted Lost Continent’s juxtaposition of dense textures and ambient bliss in new directions. From the driving beat of the aptly named opener “Propulsion Lab Part 1” to the ethereal drift of “Slingshot” that brings the album to close, Hiko Shrine revealed an artist intent on exploring the full spectrum of his sonic palette.
Rather than being somewhere between the first two albums, Paradigm 3 strikes me as a next step beyond Hiko Shrine into a broader and more open musical space. After my first listen, I tried to come up with some adjectives to describe the album, and the first two that came to mind were “expansive” and “spacious”. I then looked at the tags Smith chose for the album on SoundCloud, and they include “atmospheric” and “cinematic”, and I think those hit the mark well.
Opening track “25 Years” spreads a glittering blanket of guitar across the sky and lets it ripple and pulse as drums and bass join the mix, conjuring the soundscapes of old-school Dreampop bands like Scenic and early Lanterna. As on prior albums, the rhythm section plays an important supporting role across Paradigm 3, helping drive tracks like “Epiphony” and stepping to the front of the mix in “Moonolog”, where Smith takes a more painterly approach with the guitar, using it to add highlights, accents, shadows, and fills to the rhythmic lead.
All in all, guitars are still the star of the album, but Smith keeps things interesting in the background – from the unexpected funky little bass breakdown about four minutes into “25 Years” to the way drums & cymbals are treated and manipulated to push the sound beyond standard issue Post-Rock into something more otherworldly. You can hear this well in “Saturnine”, where cymbal sounds smear together and drift across stereo channels, and it’s sometimes hard to tell if the drums are going forwards or backwards.
The album’s greater sense of aural space comes through on tracks like “Sequester”, which unfolds slowly and gently at first and then gradually assembles a denser wall of sound; and on the glistening, churning “Down The River”, which ebbs and flows across its seven and a half minutes like an amped-up instrumental that was too noisy for Cocteau Twins’ Victorialand. It’s followed by the drum-less “Dissipate”, whose opening synth sounds walk a line between ethereal and almost-spooky before the guitars come back in a bright, fuzzy cloud and lead us into the closing “No Return”. This final track opens with a gentle earthquake of hazy, distorted noise, and then takes us on another slowly building ambient ride that would pair nicely as half of a split single with Windy & Carl. After the track fades into silence, a final coda of rumbling low-end fuzz and drone carries us to the album’s end.
Nathan was kind enough to answer a few questions about the album for us:
1) While working on the review for Paradigm 3, I listened to all three of your albums multiple times. As a body of work, they share enough sonic similarities to clearly be products of the same artist, but each one also has its own distinct personality. How do you see Paradigm 3 as standing apart from its predecessors?
This one is a bit softer, shinier, and more spacious as you say. The drums are the most detailed so far. Guitar is mostly more atmospheric this time due to an extra reverb unit and is not quite as dominant in the mix. In terms of melody and emotion, the contrast of euphoria and melancholy is greater than before. So overall, it is probably the most definitive of the three, and a good place to start for new listeners. To me, personally, it symbolizes a strange period of intense hard work desperately carried out during a difficult time in the face of life’s troubles and pressures, whereas “Hiko Shrine” was pretty business-like but relaxed and pure fun all the way. And before that there was “Lost Continent”, a murky and seemingly endless age of sketches, false starts and poor monitors.
2) What were the influences, inspirations, and/or musical aspirations that informed this newest batch of compositions?
There is a little less emphasis on a theme as such this time, but “Paradigm 3” and its titles are mostly meant to represent my own psyche at the time each of the original ideas came about, like a series of mental photographs translated onto guitar and then built upon from there. “Paradigm” means mindset or way of thinking, and this is a third document of my particular paradigm in a musical as well as psychological sense. For a while it was going to be called “Inner Sense”. Anyway, I’d been thinking a lot about the mind and the soul, mortality, spirituality, intuition, fear, conditioning, all sorts of things. I wanted some kind of concept for the new album if possible, in the hope that it would fit with the other two as part of a trilogy of sorts. Thematically we had traveled from the ocean floor to deep space, it seemed to me the only place left to go was…within!
“25 Years” refers only in very small part to Twin Peaks, but more to my memory in general of 25 years ago, being aged 14 around ’90 and ‘91, when I first picked up the guitar and first did many things, and finally started to feel any kind of sense of identity. Also a nod to the lasting influence of the pop culture of that time, and for me at least, a sobering realization that such a length of time – a quarter of a century – has since passed. Some of my titles are a little ambiguous, but they are all unimportant anyway. The sound of the music itself is all I’m really concerned with. Speaking of which, there is a slight Angelo Badalamenti influence in some places, after recently taking in a season of David Lynch. There is a touch more Cocteau Twins and Slowdive this time, as opposed to MBV and Ride. “Moonolog” started out quite Neu and became distinctly Who, hence the title amendment to acknowledge dear Keith.
3) Did you make any notable changes to your writing and/or recording process this time around? What are the key pieces of gear and technology that you used to build the album’s varied tones and textures?
I have very few guitar pedals, but for this album I added an old Boss RV-3 reverb to the usual Line 6 Pod’s distortion and delay. I think “Slingshot” is the only previous track that uses both, and fortunately so, as it closes the last album to lead naturally into the new one, because of the similar reverb. Apart from that, the process was exactly the same as before. I record it all onto computer in an old version of Audition. Synths are done in Reason by Propellerhead.
4) Musically, where would you like to see The Virgance go from here?
Future releases may well be EPs and probably no earlier than 2017. I would like this trilogy to remain quite separate from anything new, which will hopefully have a different sound as well as format. For the next batch I want less emotion and perhaps some darker, more sinister or spooky elements, while continuing the trend of prominent, more complex drums, and guitar/synth vocals becoming less important, possibly quite stripped back if the idea is strong enough. At the moment I am spent. After three LPs in a year-and-a-half, the barrel is pretty well scraped. I will need a long time away from it before trying for new ideas again.
5) The Virgance has been exclusively a studio project so far, but if you were to take it on the road as a live act, what other current bands or musicians would you love to share a bill with?
It’s funny but true… actually a night with label mates Flying Cape Experience and my more local friends So Called Humans would offer a pretty cool mix of colour, atmosphere, noise, energy, and darkness.
6) Is there anything else you’d like to share with Step On readers about Paradigm 3, or The Virgance, or anything else that’s on your mind?
Just to say thank you to those who’ve supported me thus far, from hard copy customers to likers and tweeters, it all gives encouragement.
Review and interview by phil locke