With Orbital Planes & Passenger Trains Vol.1 Serein – a label based in Wales and specialising in ambient electronica – have provided a masterclass in what the compilation should be. As a rule, I always approach compilations with suspicion: either too diverse or lacking in variety; no visible unity or a monosyllabic rigidity; hackneyed themes or straight up cash-ins – it’s easy to find reasons to steer clear. Here, my initial cynicism regarding the ‘musical tour guide’/‘music for journeys’ concept gave way completely. I found myself wanting the invisible hand of the curator lead me forward, to steer me toward their next carefully selected vista.
The strength of Orbital Planes… lies in its juggling of two impulses: on the one hand there’s a unifying tone to the release; on the other it never tips over into uniformity. The sound isn’t permitted to grow stagnant – there’s a sense of genuine development and clear structure across the first half of the record which leaves you entirely open to what this label and these artists are doing. Otto A. Totland’s solo piano piece ‘Selon’ is a stark, head-turning introduction striking a balance between space in which to appreciate the sonorous sound quality of the instrument, as well as the dexterity and visible skill of the player. ‘Petrichor’ by Brambles builds on that, taking acoustic instrumentation and meshing it with delicate strokes of electronic sound. Next, with Ametsub and Hidden Rivers, the listener finds themselves deep in the hushed territory colonised by Boards of Canada.
There’s skill both with pacing and with the carefully deliberated deployment of surprise that is vital when sustaining something of this length – the compilation is over 75 minutes long. It’s visible in the way Dan Abrams’ ‘Floating City’ pars the sound back to piano just for a minute – creating a moment of stasis five tracks in. Again in the way Imprints’ ‘Roy’ introduces, then keeps a firmly gripped leash on what sounds like post-rock surges of sound; or how the scrapes unsettling Strië’s ’87 Billion Suns’ call to mind Coil’s work for the film Hellraiser but dissipates any potential menace via choral voices and a blissful air.
This constant kindling of intrigue persists whether it means the introduction of Colorlist’s hustling jazz-inflected percussion or Donato Wharton’s sonorous processional echoes that, in other company, might be deemed dark ambient. It’s a stellar balancing act – bringing in the new while never losing the path from track to track. Quality selections, a deep attention to detail, a reason for everything to be here. Orbital Planes & Passenger Trains Vol.1 is a worthy travel companion as well as an expedition all of its own.