Thorny, 'See No Sky' | Album Review | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Thorny, 'See No Sky'

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Published July 5, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated July 5, 2023 at 12:01 p.m.


Thorny, See No Sky - COURTESY
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  • Thorny, See No Sky

(Self-released, digital)

I used to think of ambience as an exclusively expansive concept. To be ambient, particularly in music, was to be formless or, at the very least, free. Whenever I listened to Brian Eno or Tim Hecker albums, my mind translated the soundscapes as wide-open vistas, populated by only the ethereal.

Perhaps that was due to lifelong conditioning to the patterns of Western pop music and interpreting the lack of verses, choruses and lyrics as open space. Or maybe it was simply the intention of the artists. Either way, at some point I learned that ambient music is much more complex than I had previously thought. It's capable of being structured even while retaining its expansiveness.

Case in point: Thorny. The solo project of Plainfield musician JD Ryan, Thorny specializes in an especially hazy brand of ambient music that, upon closer inspection, reveals ghostly architecture, like finding the ruins of Machu Picchu through the fog.

His debut record, 2022's Mostly Gray, established his love of vintage and modern synthesizer sounds; the fretless six-string bass; and long, arctic chill-level atmospheric pieces of music. Ryan's latest record upholds those hallmarks and uses ambience to close around the listener rather than open up. See No Sky doubles as a sonic instructional manual for slowing down the mind and leaning into introspection. Veering between hypnagogic passages of barely audible waves of synthesizer and ascending, dreamlike stacks of sound, the album feels at times like an elongated mantra.

Opening track "Inner Space" kicks off with a funeral dirge-like drone, pulsing and shimmering as Ryan works the knobs, pulling, poking and prodding the almost frozen notes. He hangs on each one and lets a chasm open between it and the next note, creating a series of seemingly endless cliffs. Again, those hidden textures peek out, blips of color that briefly light up the void as the track transitions to "For the Now."

What makes ambient music inaccessible for many is its lack of linearity. Beginnings and endings are often moot in the genre, and See No Sky is no exception. It can and perhaps should be listened to as one long piece of music. The songs on the album aren't incredibly long, with the exception of the third track, "Medulla Ephemerata." So Ryan's passages move from one to the next with what amounts — in ambient music, at least — to some sense of urgency.

"To see no sky does not mean to despair," Ryan wrote on the album's Bandcamp page. "It simply means we're looking inward."

Even when the songs get extra glacial, as on "In God's Green Hell," they never lose their meditative quality. And when the record hits its highs, particularly on the title track, the movement and intention of the music meet the raw atmosphere. What was just an exploration becomes something more like a quest.

Listen to See No Sky at witherwillow.bandcamp.com.

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