It’s difficult to communicate what makes a piece of ambient music good or bad. Ambient doesn’t play by the same rules or serve the same purpose as most other forms of music. There are no catchy hooks to catch your attention. Vocals are rare: discernible lyrics even rarer. Rhythm is almost nonexistent. It’s not something you can sing or dance along to. And it’s not meant to. Brian Eno, in the liner notes for his groundbreaking Ambient 1: Music for Airports said the goal was to be “as ignorable as it is interesting.”
I’m not sure if last part applies to IV, the latest release from NYC based ambient project Witnesses. There are plenty moments of wispy, unassertive atmosphere that’s no more attention grabbing than the air in the room where you’re reading this. Cloud-soft synths hang in the air like water vapor, occasionally joined by a guitar line that’s more reverb than instrument. Strings rise and fall without much ado, Danish vocals float like a passing breeze.
But then there are moments where Witnesses taps you on the shoulder, clears their throat, and speaks up. Moments of moaning saxophone or plinking keyboard or pounding drums that break through the tranquil haze of the record and demand your attention. And given the quietness of the tracks around them, these more present moments are practically deafening. After the near nothing-ness of the tracks before it, the moment that “The Discovery” introduces a quiet drum beat sounds nearly aggressive. For a moment, the quarter-note drum beat and low horns of “The Note With the Misspelled Words” feels like heavy metal. The electric guitar and saxophones of “Revenge” mourn more loudly than if they had words.
On “The Plea,” the vocals, which had previously only sung in wordless vocalizations or Danish turn to English accompanied by a hypnotic overdriven electric guitar line that feels like maximalism. “ᚾ” punctuates two tracks of gorgeous formlessness with a sparse guitar line and an honest-to-God drumbeat fighting for dynamic dominance over a single chord orchestral swell. For a second, “Farewell” becomes a trip hop song, complete with a hip-hop-ready piano figure and bass-heavy drum machine. You might even be able to call the vocal part a verse—if it didn’t fade into sonic haze almost as quickly as it starts. Out of context, these moments are delicate and tranquil, but alongside the rest of the tracks they feel positively manic.
One of the other things that makes this record unique among ambient works is that the tracks don’t indulge themselves with long run times. There are twenty tracks here, but the record just barely breaks past the forty-five minute mark. Only a handful of them go longer than four minutes—many of them sit at around two minutes. The band has stated that the album was meant as a journey through Nordic inspired landscapes. And given the short track lengths, it often feels like watching out the window of a bullet train, catching brief glimpses of landscapes as they pass by. And while you might wish you had a little longer to enjoy the scenery, there’s no denying that it’s one hell of a view.