Review: Olan Mill – Variations on the Letter H (Unknown Tone, Oct 31)

Variations on the Letter H, or most of Olan Mill’s work for that matter, is far from what I would consider “my kind” of ambient music. The project, conceived and led by musician Alex Smalley, deals with the intersections of ambient with neo-classical composition and largely produces airy clouds of reverb with a beautiful and slightly haunting atmosphere. Not really my style, but Variations on the Letter H is apparently one of Olan Mill’s last official releases, so I figured I’d give it a shot. I’m glad I did; Variations subverts any tropes about which I’d usually have reservations, swapping out long and indulgent tracks for short, digestible vignettes. The sonic palette on display here is nothing new or terribly exciting, but you’ll be too caught up in the warm, seraphic beauty to really notice. Processed pipe organ melodies, soft warbles of buried field recordings, and even less identifiable elements are layered to create spacious, shifting soundscapes that drift with brevity and purpose. Smalley continues to work with shorter song durations, a decision that complements his compositions well. Each piece takes its own direction; for example, the largely stagnant “E” brings in gorgeous high-pitched tones, and “G” persistently rises to a peak above the clouds. “I” couldn’t have been a better closer, with its throaty low drones pulling everything back down to earth. Recommended for insomniacs.