REVIEW: Cloudland Canyon - An Arabesque

Laura Kerry

It’s possible that you have never have heard of Cloudland Canyon, or maybe you have just forgotten about them since their last album more than five years ago (2010’s Fin Eaves). Many, though, are not so quick to forget, including The Flaming Lips, who have collaborated with them, and Owen Pallett, who has listed the band among his favorites. Recently, the list of Cloudland Canyon fans has grown to include Peter Kember, AKA Sonic Boom of Spacemen 3, the producer of the last two Panda Bear albums and other greats—who co-produced the band’s new album.

All of that name-dropping is to say: If you don’t know Cloudland Canyon, now is a good time to work on that. Headed by Kip Uhlhorn since 2002, the band has released four full-lengths incorporating elements psych rock, drone, krautrock, and shoegaze with a hypnotic touch and a surprising amount of playfulness. After the half-decade hiatus that included some jittery electronic solo work, he returns with An Arabesque, an album that is as graceful as its title suggests.

That doesn’t mean that it is always as pretty. On songs such as “Staying Awake,” harmonies that would be melodious are muffled under vocal effects and a mass of instrumental voices that blend into a muddy, propulsive drone. Sonic Boom is a natural pairing for Cloudland Canyon, which shares with Spacemen 3 and Panda Bear the effect of one of those posters in which a random smattering of psychedelic dots come into focus in a 3D image. Up close, the music dissolves into chaotic textures of synth, but if you step back and let your eyes glaze over, the sounds will consolidate into recognizable shapes.

When Cloudland Canyon consolidates its constituent parts, though, the shapes it produces are mostly abstract. True to Uhlhorn’s past work, An Arabesque is more concerned with texture than the pop structures that Sonic Boom has constructed on his other projects—likely in part the outcome of a kind of Dadaist method of working from found sound from YouTube (“I really enjoy removing myself from the songwriting as much as possible,” Uhlhorn says in an interview for Self-Titled magazine). He converted clips—birds, bells, other songs—into synth voices and wrote around them.

The result is an album that deals in moods and ideas more than narratives. The opener, “Where’s The Edge,” is anxious and frenetic; “Try Faking It” provides the kind of psychedelic transcendence of strobe lights;  “An Arabesque” and “Psychic Insistant” paint a warm landscape; and the low, driving bass in “Faulting Fate” would provide a good soundtrack to an '80s techno-thriller. And then there are the vocals, which hover lightly and evenly above the background or sink into the instrumental textures, occasionally finding the clarity to deliver psychologically probing lyrics, like “Breathing’s just an idea.”

Five years in the making, An Arabesque is not only worth the wait, but it also promises to keep on working. It’s an album that gives more the more it demands, which includes second and third listens, seeking out its forebears (Kraftwerk, Jesus and Mary Chain, Spacemen 3, etc.), then fourth and fifth listens, and so on. That should be plenty to keep Cloudland Canyon fresh in our minds until next time.