At a glance, perhaps Agustín Mena’s music as Warmth resembles some monolith of Ambient sound, something inescapably enveloping. Rather than inviting, his music encloses the listener in some mysterious box within which hides an entirely new environment. Upon finding herself in such a place, she has no choice but to accept this world as reality and then step forward into its comforting abyss. And The Darkest Place is indeed an abyss.
But I would like to move beyond this glance and instead examine how Mena’s work seems at once so texturally uniform while also having so many evidently moving parts. The lushness of Warmth’s music clearly derives from its constantly swirling pads and vestigial melodic sensibility. Here even the title track, which is constructed atop a simple, solid two-chord bass-line foundation, appears to be constantly shifting in and out of shadows, as something impossible to pin down or as nimble as air itself, in spite of its aura of undeniably haunting presentiment. This is an apparent contradiction I find in much of my favorite Drone music: how can something that seems so singularly daunting and substantially consistent be at the same time made of so many dynamically fluid parts? It’s like a mirage vanishing into thin air.
Let us then consider the album’s second track “Wounds” as a typical example of the tonal and compositional qualities I have intimated above. The track is essentially based around a few basic loops that actually develop very little over the song’s four-and-a-quarter minutes. On the bass-end, we hear a four-chord loop enter over the course of the first minute, and it continues throughout. On top of that is a “melody” played by a low-attack echo-panned lead synth. This does little other than harmonize with the bass. There is then an air polysynth that adds chords that correspond to the bass progression. The song is thus, at least in terms of its basic composition and instrumentation, hardly distinguishable from a ’90s Ambient Techno track but even more minimal insofar as it apparently lacks a real melody. However, I think what makes “Wounds” exceptional lies in its details. For example, we hear another airy synth playing something more conventionally melodic low-in the mix throughout, but which becomes more noticeable from the two-minute mark (and especially at 3:25). Occasionally a second lead will overlap the first lead to create a more complex (almost jazzy) chord. Additional white-noise enters at times, flowing and ebbing. There are samples of something reversed that complement the lead once or twice (noticeable at 2:55). These are all small things that deepen the complexity of the song’s substance but being themselves tones apparently lighter than air or softer than light, so that when when we do the arithmetic, the song still appears to be weightless. This legerdemain is accomplished through the deft layering and mixing of all of the layers I’ve listed above (and more)—deft in the sense that Mena never allows any single element to take center stage; whenever a sound or part enters, it withdraws quickly and with only a brief trace of its existence, which leaves the attentive listener grasping a thin air.
I think my only complaint regarding The Darkest Place is its compositional uniformity: every track develops and intrigues in almost the same way I have detailed above, although with different field samples and slightly altered chords played by nearly the same instrumental range of synthesizers. But this narrow palette may actually only enhance the sharpness of the album’s impression: it sounds like some transparent obsidian wall. And at 36 minutes, the album exits well before the technique overstays its welcome.
This is actually the first Warmth album I’ve had the opportunity to listen to from beginning to end, although I’ve heard songs by Mena in the past. I am excited to continue to progress through his discography, but I still wonder where he will go next from this polished gem.
By Isak McCune