AVANT MUSIC NEWS, September 3rd 2016 :
What we have here is a combination of 70’s and 80’s synth-heavy electronic music, the 90’s colder, sparser ambient, as well as field recordings. The amalgam thereof is a distinctive and compelling sound – retro without being derivative, modern without feeling unfamiliar. Dave Ball founded the pop band Soft Cell in 1979. On Photosynthesis, he teams with electronic musician Jon Savage for eight tracks that form an hour-long suite. Apropos to its title, the album brims with organic textures, perhaps due to use of analog instrumentation. As stated in the liner notes, “[s]itting in the garden surrounded by trees and plants on a sunny day, the idea of organisms using sunlight to synthesise nutrients from CO2 and water became an inspiration to us. This idea, juxtaposed with mankind’s destruction of the planet through pollution and war gave us the inspiration to compose this soundscape.” The putative centerpiece of the album, a sixteen-minute track titled One Night in Helmand Province, covers both these yin and yang aspects. Sequencers provide sweeps, percolations, and effects, while the rhythm is driven by dark, shifting drones. Unintelligible voices fade in and out of the foreground, as do washes laden with static. Both beautiful and menacing in tone, Photosynthesis, stakes its claim as an original work in a crowded field.
COMPULSION ONLINE, 2016 :
Intriguing collaboration this. Dave Ball was of course one-half of sleazy electro-pop duo Soft Cell and latterly performed with Richard Norris in the electronic group The Grid. On Photosynthesis he teams up with Jon Savage, no not the author. Jon Savage is responsible for the Roland Fantom X6 synths, East West keyboards, Cubase programming and digital recording here, while Dave Ball lists the Mini Moog, Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 and other analogue instruments and pedals as his equipment of choice for Photosynthesis. Dave Ball gave a clue to how Photosynthesis might sound in a recent interview when asked by The Electricity Club as to what floats his boat musically these days, he responded “Messing about with modular synths”. Photosynthesis picks up on this updating synthesizer music from the seventies and eighties using modern recording technologies. I’m really impressed by the sound the duo create here. There’s a concept behind Photosynthesis too. As they told Cold Spring, “Sitting in the garden surrounded by trees and plants on a sunny day, the idea of organisms using sunlight to synthesise nutrients from CO2 and water became an inspiration to us. This idea, juxtaposed with mankind’s destruction of the planet through pollution and war gave us the inspiration to compose this soundscape”. The music in itself acts a process; indexed as 8 tracks it plays as one continuous soundscape. ‘One Night In Helmand Province’ drifts with waves of deep reverberating synths, oscillating synths and glistening sparkles. Distant transmission samples surface, muffled and unintelligible, amidst the enveloping spacey textures that are dark and dystopian. You can hear it in the murky, industrialised tones shot through with the roar of jet fighter engines. Even the flickering sequences resemble the whirl of helicopter blades. Apocalypse Now seems an obvious reference point but here it is carefully subdued and more akin to an ambient vision of a cinematic warzone. The tension in the air doesn’t last long and is quickly dispelled by the tonal tweets approximating the sound of singing birds alongside the tranquil chiming synths and buzzing drone of ‘ATM#1’. While there’s hope to be found in the atmosphere created by ‘ATM#1’, a sense of desolation runs through the drone hover and pulsing hollow tones of ‘ATM#2’; capturing an austere greyness similar to the eighties industrial sounds of Konstruktivists and TG at their bleakest. ‘Hypodermic’ is even more spacious; its dark, shifting drones, giving way to shivery sequences that burrow deeper into airy blank tones and a stillness interrupted by synthesizer fluctuations. Electro drum rhythms surface for the first time on ‘Liquid Skyliner – Zeitgeist’ but in keeping with the overall theme; they’re subdued and unhurried. As synths moan and waver in high registered frequencies, static in the form of an electronic sequence fizzles in the air, closing on an extended passage of disembodied keys. Although Photosynthesis runs as one long 56 minute soundscape, the splits in the following tracks are almost indiscernible, segueing seamlessly into each other bringing to the surface the “quasi pop/classical pieces” that initiated the collaboration. ‘Passing Cloud Factory’ opens to a rush of queasy, processed electronics, shifting from dive-bombing abstract analogue sweeps into solemn orchestrations and further into the quiet melodic chimes and oscillating textures of ‘The Process’. The final piece, ‘Dead Neon’, casts melodic strings dripping with an enchanting watery allure, against a subtle buzz drone. It is serene and quite beautiful, and that’s before the swell of gentle orchestrations adds another layer of grandness. The entire things is filled with a sense of tranquility and reverence. ‘Dead Neon’ acts as a lament for nature, a beautiful world marred by pollution and war. Photosynthesis is something of a masterclass in sound, constantly drawing you in on its enveloping textures. It develops with a restraint and ingenuity. There’s nothing cold or emotionless about Photosynthesis, the analogue synthetics are enlivened and engaging. The concept may be difficult to articulate at times but overall Photosynthesis is a great album. Dave Ball and Jon Savage have created something special here, the world may have turned to shit but you can revel in its layers of beautiful analogue electronics. All in all, it’s a surprising and worthwhile release that is certainly deserving of your attention. Nice scoop for Cold Spring too.
THE SOUND NOT THE WORD, October 4th 2016 :
One of the most wonderful things about artistic creation is that you never really know where it will take you. Even though Photosynthesis started out as an attempt to write some quasi pop/classic pieces, you’d never know that from the finished product. What the duo of Dave Ball and Jon Savage have created instead is a haunting, delightfully organic album of ambient and experimental electronica. This is a record to sink in to, letting it take you on its journey to some other place, and it has a refreshing, almost cleansing feel to its retro soundscapes. There’s a warmth to Photosynthesis that many other albums of this sort lack, aided by the use of analogue sources, and it’s this warmth that gives the album such a special feel. Even if there are moments when it verges upon the haunting and unsettling, as during “ATM#2” with its ominous bass drone and piercing, warbling frequencies, it never feels like a dark ambient album; rather, these are moments of contrast that fit in well with the organic nature of the album. After all, nature is often a violent, destructive force, and that is captured in tracks such as this one, and that side of humanity is demonstrated here too, as it is in song titles such as “One Night In Helmand Province”. Photosynthesis is also an album that makes clever use of space. “Passing Cloud Factory” and “The Process” are relatively sparse tracks, with elements drifting in and out over a foundation of subtle drones and strings, and the space created is just as effective as any individual sound or other element. And the way one track flows in to another creates a sense of narrative, not necessarily in the sense of a linear story, but of a cohesive whole; it feels as if the album has something to say, raising it above being a simple collection of tracks and giving it an extra sense of importance and weight. When a more obvious melody or movement does come to the fore, as on closer “Dead Neon”, the effect is all the stronger for how well it contrasts with the more sparse, ambient sections. Not that any of this may be readily apparent. Photosynthesis is an album that requires multiple listens and proper attention to fully appreciate, but the rewards are more than worth it. It is an album full of depth, with an engaging character and atmosphere that is more than worth losing several evenings exploring.