Crate-Digging: Ken Seeno – Invisible Surfer on an Invisible Wave

Throughout August, Crate-Digging will be focusing on recordings that have been given a cassette release.

(NNA Tapes, 2011)

Ken Seeno does New Age. That’s right, I said it, New Age with a capital “N” and a capital “A,” and no, it no longer should conjure images of Yanni and his ridiculous hair and mustache – the kids are doing it too. (To be honest, the “kids” who are “doing it too” aren’t very cool. I’m just saying. It’s still New Age, c’mon!) Seeno does his placid beucidity – or platid beauticity? silent lucidity? – with an array of synthesizer swells and a dab of carefully integrated guitar, letting the ebb and flow of the sonics hint at rhythm, with only a single track possessing even a dusting of percussion (“Driving into Light / Blustery Day,” which, oddly, is a not-so-distant cousin to jazz guitarist Pat Metheny’s “Last Train Home”). It’s peaceful, it conjures images, it probably sounds great on weed, or at least on your back on the beach with a pina colada. The album title, Invisible Surfer on an Invisible Wave, helps with that whole beach thing. It’s kind of hard to separate the two.

NNA Tapes has been specializing in this kind of hazy wonderment for a couple years now, dropping ambient and psych cassettes (only!) periodically and with great care in their curation. See the cover? All the NNA Tapes releases feature a variation on the basic layout. It’s a nice look for them. And their catalog reads like a who’s who of the modern ambient movement, with likeminded planetarium-gazers like Dylan Ettinger, Driphouse, Hobo Cubes, etc., gracing our ears through the NNA spectrum.

Why, then, specifically Seeno? What sets him apart from the rest of the pack? Well, it’s primarily his pedigree – not only is he an ambient maestro, he also wields an ax for extreme battle in Baltimore spazz-punkers Ponytail. No no, that’s OK, double takes are encouraged when discussing this part of Seeno’s career. It seems odd that a band known for whipping its audience into hedonistic frenzies could produce not one but two solo careers hell-bent on not sounding like their parent organization. (Guitarist Dustin Wong also releases his own material.) Perhaps with all that complicated guitar pickery comes a desire to explore the flipside of pop music? Do Seeno and Wong need a breather after all that jumping around and group shouting? Have they taken the title of Ponytail’s most recent album Do Whatever You Want All the Time as a mantra to not give a crap? Has their riffage torn an interdimensional vortex in the fabric of space-time through which they’ve seen the universal truth, and the truth has set them free to explore variations of ambient music? Are they both so tired of powderkeg pixie-singer Molly Siegel that they just need to get away and do their own thing? The truth, I think, is probably a combination of all these explanations.

And yet that raging spasmodic fantasy, when it loses its steam, trickles down into something very tranquil indeed. It’s not surprising then, given the album’s title, that water plays very heavily into Invisible Surfer’s vibe, as even titles such as “Playing Golf in the Woods / Saying Goodbye” (combo er?) are happening not far from the ocean, or other body of water. (Fine, the gorgeous “A Breezy Memory,” which flutters on the air before dissipating like seed pods could happen anywhere, but bear with me on this.) Actually, glittery concoctions like “Nothing Here” and “The Ocean after a Storm” could very well have sprung from the minds of 1980s screenwriter fantasists, those that dreamed the likes of Ladyhawke or Legend to the big screen. Imagine the protagonist of one of these (I know exactly what you’re picturing, I apologize) gazing longingly or purposefully into a lake or pool, hoping against hope for something magical to happen. And then there’s a sword, or a nymph, or a prophecy revealed, instilling a sense of purpose in the hero. Seeno swirls these viscous liquid dreams around his palate, then drools their blue-greenness onto his Korg keys.

I kind of do and don’t mean to make fun of ambient New Age music when I say that “Stained Glass Window” sounds like a representation in the titular medium of an ocean reflecting a real ocean in a stained glass window of an ocean. It’s like an infinite mirror of dim peace, and I hate myself for wanting so much to immerse myself in it. Does that mean that I wish nothing but discomfort on myself? Hardly, even though I’m going to go listen to Ponytail straight away upon completion of this review. It’s still something of a guilty pleasure though, as though someone’s going to catch me ejecting a Pure Moods CD from my car’s stereo. But I should really get over it, since no matter what I say, the blogorati – and no matter how not cool they are, they’re still probably the coolest of the not cool – are still going to champion this new age of New Age, as long as young hipsters keep making it. And I want to be cool. Oh so desperately. Ken Seeno, bring me a dream!

(And yes, Invisible Surfer on an Invisible Wave is a wonderous, and perfectly brief, listen – worth your while if you need to spend some alone time in the afternoon.)

RIYL: Dylan Ettinger, Dustin Wong, Mickey Mickey Rourke

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