bvdub — Yours are Stories of Sadness

As mentioned in our last post, we are focusing on Sound In Silence, "a small diy record label based in Athens, Greece" that specializes in ambient, drone, shoegaze and other quiet sounds. I'm working on putting something a little bigger together on SIS, so in the meantime I wanted to take a look at the label's other recent release to go along with Andrew. This second CD from the December batch takes the microlabel into the bigger time, featuring one of the better known and most prolific artists in the ambient music world today, bvdub. For those that don't know, bvdub is the moniker of Brock Van Wey, a San Francisco based producer who began as a DJ in the early SF rave scene. It wasn't until a move to China last decade that he began to make his own music, picking up the ambient techno thread that the 1990s Bay Area helped define.

It’s funny, as I had just recently said to myself that I should do a few posts focused on the work of bvdub, after hearing one of his tracks on Sam Hockley-Smith’s Discreet Music, his excellent RBMA Radio show. As he described it, bvdub’s music feels like the soundtrack for the period after your pet has passed away. While it was used as the reason why someone didn’t want to listen to his music, I thought of it as a great little blurb to make people want to listen. One of the great appeals to me of bvdub’s music is its ability to conjure up neither the darkness nor the tranquility that ambient usually evokes; instead, a sadness and melancholy emerges from his tracks, two emotions that ambient music is not known for, but which we need spaces for as well. While we tend to love the artists and works that imagine or interact with physical space, bvdub reminds us that ambient music is just as powerful when it explores those inner, mental spaces.

Right on cue, bvdub’s recently dropped Yours Are Stories of Sadness, a fittingly melancholic title for the emo chill king. This record was actually self-released digitally by Van Wey in September of last year; in spite of its recent vintage and digital only status, it has garnered a good deal of acclaim, landing on Rafael Anton Irisarri's superb #NOT THE BEST AMBIENT ALBUMS OF ALL TIME list that compiled some of the genre's essential releases. Sound of Silence stepped in and gave this one the physical release it deserved. Befitting its digital beginnings, it is an album that is stuffed to the gills, featuring 19 tracks and 1 hour and 20 minutes of music. While I am not a bvdub scholar by any means, this one seems to eschew his recent tendency to compose long, hour-plus tracks, condensing those epics into 3 and 4-minute miniatures.

Across the range of 19 tracks, there are a few distinct templates that emerge. At times, it harkens back to Selected Ambient Works-era Aphex Twin, with soft keyboard notes and simple patterns looping in and around one's head. Check out "06", as it's gentle music box sound makes it feel like the perfect song to fall asleep to, the highest compliment here at Pound for Pound. At other moments, a Huerco-like smog descends on things, as woozy synths take hold and obscure the small sounds and details happening. Suddenly, the haze lifts to reveal a cosmic bliss, with waves of textured pads sweeping you up to float in the ether. At its most interesting, it sounds like a screwed and chopped trance or opiate EDM; anthemic synths are slowed down and . What makes these tracks and moments so interesting isn't the glacial pacing, but rather the absence of an underpin to those traditionally joyous chords; there is no arpeggiated bass or big kick drums or a trippy vocal sample. This absence evokes an intense melancholy, as one slowly realizes those sonic signifiers of anthems and peak hours and ecstasy are empty ones. There is no climax, just 

Van Wey's own description of the album provides a perfect lens through which to read these tracks. As he explains, the title comes from something that a hired girl told him at Shaoxing karaoke bar in the wee hours of the morning. This unsettling comment would provide the inspiration for the 19 tracks, which "are flashes of memories from that time... broken fragments, and spaces in-between... each a portrait of instances I have remembered that moment, each its own place and time. Every time I remembered that moment in the years that followed, I made a brief tribute to the beginnings of that realization, and the starting point for my mental wanderings that followed... putting that initial realization to sound, before going the rest of the journey in my own head." He goes on to add that "Unlike all my other works which are meant to be in the foreground, these are meant to stay in the shadows... to be the quiet and subconscious soundtrack... each not a story, but just a moment... that moment you realize."

Listen to the excellent "02," which strikes me as a a sonic memory of forgone rave days. The track begins with a layers of deep, gorgeous chord that sing and swell and breeze, creating a soft, lush backdrop. After repeated listens, those chords gradually come to sound more and more like human breaths or murmurings, everyday noise. Out of this quiet racket, around the 1:40 mark, you hear the faint emergence of what sound to me like glacial, echo-y trance stabs, those simple yet anthemic chords that have defined dance music's most popular genres over the last two decades. However, placed on top of that ambient backdrop, they lose their sharpness, their vitality, their joy; instead, it feels like you are listening to a 30th generation mixtape from some long-forgotten rave, as the sounds and clarity have been deteriorated, leaving one with only this warped artifact and faint memories. It's wonderful and heartbreaking at the same time,

I've come to think of bvdub's sound as a psychedelic ambient, playing off of the mind-altering aspect of that word, as it brings you into inner space more than the world itself itself. They can be thought of as instrumental ballads, songs that remind us of loss, whether it is of a Chinese club, love, our youth, a lost space, dance music's history. Perhaps bvdub's music is a space to mourn, a soundscape that lets each of us remember and in doing so put those memories behind us, to move on to build new ones.

This one is a no-brainer for anyone interested in ambient music today, a unique take on that speaks to the genre's ability to construct mental spaces as well as physical ones. For those who like what they have just read and heard, head over to the Sound In Silence's Bandcamp store, where you can get a copy of the limited edition CD (300 total) the label released at the end of last year. It's a lovely and lovingly constructed package, well worth the $12.81 (€12). I'd also highly recommend taking a look through bvdub's own Bandcamp, as Van Wey is as prolific as they come and releases much of his music digitally himself.