What a difference two years can make. In 2002, Pittsburgh-area electronic musician Jeff Kowal (a.k.a. Terra Ambient) debuted on a Nashville-based label with a slice of powerfully ominous ambient music called The Darker Space. Dense, brooding synth drones dripped from the speakers like stalactites, while spacey blurps and electronic rhythms pulsated gently in the blackness. With a hint of danger, madness and the abyss, that work could favorably be compared to Brian Lustmord (who recently collaborated with the Melvins, so we're not talking obscure reference here), while excluding most of the quasi-New Agey, crystal-vibe trappings one might find on the syndicated "Echoes" radio show, except for an occasional tasteful didgeridoo.
Not so with The Gate, Kowal's sophomore effort from this past fall, released on his own label. Almost immediately, within the first few minutes of the initial track, it becomes clear that this CD travels a well-worn road, mapped out through the desert by the past decade of output from his ambient idols, such as Robert Rich and Steve Roach.
On the title piece, and also on "Westerly Prayer," the flute and didgeridoo are emphasized, while the darkness undulates quietly in the background. "Majoun" is based on a kalimba motif and a slow, deliberate beat. "Sandstorm Dreaming" propels the meditative drone with an insistent dumbek rhythm. And "Serpent and Stone" juxtaposes a mournful oud line against a tribal thump spanning Africa and the Middle East in one fell swoop.
Has Kowal been shopping so liberally in the world's musical-instrument supermarket as a result of some influence by his aforementioned heroes? Or maybe he's caught onto the trance-inducing aspects of local peers such as Life in Balance (which uses Tibetan bowls) or Rusted Root's Jim Donovan? (No shortage of hand drums there.) Possibly, but although Terra Ambient still inhabits a far deeper soundworld than any facile contributor to some coffeehouse world-beat compilation, his new direction is not so much for experimental purists of space-music atmospheres as it is for those techno-safari adventurers who pile into their Land Rovers, searching for a hybridized terrain to ultimately reconcile themselves with what postmodern cultural theory affectionately terms "The Other."