Imagine you’re in an empty theater. You’ve just come in from the daylight and it takes a minute for your eyes to adjust; but soon after the door closes behind you, you realize that you’re in complete darkness. Blinking and feeling your way down the aisle, you search for the stage and climb up. The darkness is thick, almost palpable. It engulfs you as you become aware of your breath, feeling your chest rise and fall.
Warren Hildebrand of Foxes in Fiction has delivered another powerful album with Ontario Gothic, and like darkness in an empty theater, the sound is overwhelmingly enveloping and meditative. It allows you to focus and relinquish expectation. It invites you to be still. However, the aesthetic itself isn’t dark at all. Hildebrand paints with vivid colors on this album, starting small and using sweeping brush strokes to reveal the music in time.
Take a closer look at “Shadow’s Song,” which starts out with a soft fingered guitar melody, wobbling in the silences in between each phrase. The hesitant, minor start to this song is then ripped open with a wave of sound. Hildebrand strikes a chord on the guitar and lets it resonate across the space he has created, anchored by a thumping beat and synchronized lyrics. Each strike is like breaking through a new layer, rippling deeper into the rich colors and patterns of a kaleidoscope. The song also features Owen Pallet on violin, adding a soaring melodic layer to the otherwise low and misty aesthetic. It widens the color spectrum and leads into the title track, where the same violin and guitar melodies continue to develop.
On “Ontario Gothic,” Hildebrand reuses the guitar pattern from “Shadow’s Song” as an ostinato, a small melodic motif that repeats on a loop. However, it takes on new life with different instrumentation, articulation, and tempo, all of which give it a stronger direction and energy. Despite the song’s more upbeat and optimistic tone, the lyrics relate to a dark and tumultuous period in the artist’s life. Hildebrand writes, “lyrically, ‘Ontario Gothic’ is written about a close friend named Cait who died in 2010 and to whom the album is dedicated … getting to know, open up to and spend time with Cait during those first years helped open me up to kinds of happiness and a love for life that I didn’t think was within the realm of possibility at that point in my life.” This context provides a fascinatingly intimate insight into Hildebrand’s emotionality and inspiration. His technique and aesthetic definitely lend themselves well to the subject matter – after such a trauma, wouldn’t your mind be cloudy, too?
The trademark fuzziness of Foxes in Fiction comes from Hildebrand’s various tools and processors, including an old reel-to-reel tape machine. He’s previously stated that pure, unaltered sound is too clean, too digital for his taste. Instead, he’s attracted to the warmth, haziness, and imperfection that results from multiple processors, a practice that stems from pioneers in experimental pop and ambient music, like Brian Eno and Atlas Sound.
With Ontario Gothic, Hildebrand has added another phenomenal work of art to the Foxes in Fiction oeuvre, and the strong melodic quality of most of the tracks is definitely a welcome departure from some of his earlier, more purely experimental ambient projects. Despite being at least partially inspired by tragedy, I think this record represents a joyful new direction for the project.