1 Mile North: Minor Shadows

Pensive electric guitar has a limited history, which makes sense: it’s a limited mode of expression. In the ’70s, Fripp and Eno brought cosmic rock and new age down to earth, stopping short of total academia a la John Cage, but their guitar works — No Pussyfooting (1973) and Evening Star (1975) — were tainted by glam showmanship. Their work would inspire a gaunt, neurotic Mancunian named Vini Reilly, who as the Durutti Column married virtuosic talent and discreet music with help from the gruff, northern rejoinder to Eno: Martin Hannett.

Reilly’s nascent experiments on 1979’s Return of the Durutti Column flowered on LC and Another Setting, but much as they inform the lineage of ambient guitar, 1984’s Without Mercy is the template for how far this genre can be pushed. Partly responsible for Talk Talk’s change of direction, it’s a work of modern classical composition and electric atmosphere driven as much by piano and horns as the flickering leads that weave throughout. It can’t be coincidence that Minor Shadows’ cover is all but color-matched to the 1998 Factory Too reissue of Without Mercy.

A host of early ’90s artists on the Kranky imprint brought the Durutti Column through to a new generation of American fans. Groups like Pan American and Labradford combined Vini Reilly’s echoing delay with hollow, menacing space, dub nostalgia and the modern ambience of Aphex Twin. One of this movement’s crowning releases, Aix Em Klemm, was a one-off collaboration between Stars of the Lid’s Adam Wiltzie and Labradford’s Robert Donne; if Vini Reilly is an encouraging father figure, Aix Em Klemm is 1 Mile North’s older brother. He’ll be amazed to see how things have changed since he left the house.

“Black Lines” and “Life Indoors” owe the most to Aix Em Klemm (2000), but outstrip that influence thanks to a teardrop guitar sound as reminiscent of the Cure as Reilly, and expertly attenuated keyboards from fanatical analog synth collector Mark Bajuk (seek out photos of his collection online). Bajuk is ubiquitous on Minor Shadows, but never overstated, his presence a welcome complication of the band’s debut, which was in essence a solo performance from guitarist Jon Hills.

1 Mile North’s 2001 debut Glass Wars traded online, at shows in Brooklyn, and out of my apartment in Boston. To this day, we still hear from people who can’t believe such a complete, confident record was essentially given away. It’s a much simpler work than Minor Shadows, of straightforward guitar and gorgeous melodies, but it was remarkable insofar as it used very few effects.

239 Banker, 1997

With natural reverb from the dilapidated Brooklyn sweater factory Hills called home in the late ’90s, Glass Wars showed his focus was on songwriting: on resonance, rather than ambience. There’s a meeting of minds here, with Bajuk, on Minor Shadows; the space is painted, swirling with brilliant primary colors — some kind of 8mm art-house short film from the 1960s — but the sound is more inviting and memorable than the washed-out waves of digital effects used by so many of their peers.

It’s not easy for talented, trained musicians to write patient music, because it’s predicated on suppression, of all they’ve learned; of every neural impulse that fires as their hands do the work. That’s a talent in and of itself, albeit one hard to convey to a passive listener.

Another suppressed urge — one that’s overtaken most instrumental work of late — is the use of dialog samples, cinematic and otherwise. 1 Mile North employ them for “In 1983 He Loved to Fly” (from the out of print 1984 documentary Streetwise) and “Black Lines” (Gary Oldman’s crushing Nil By Mouth), but their subtle footprint and melancholy tone work as tone rather than structure. In the case of “Black Lines,” you see a child, ears covered, hiding under the bed as its drunken, lunatic father smashes up the living room. It’s a hugely disturbing contrast for such peaceful, insistent music to be broken by maniac outbursts like, “YOU’RE BREAKING THIS FUCKING FAMILY UP.”

One could point to more recent influences — DJ Shadow’s “Stem,” Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s best material — but 1 Mile North’s compositional detail conveys a much deeper understanding of the past. “In 1983 He Loved to Fly” is the duo’s most ambitious move, a monumental work of fogged-in Bowery nostalgia that along with the record’s closing opus “The Manual” serves as a direct response to the two compositions that made up the Durutti Column’s Without Mercy. Spare electronic percussion drifts in and out as guitar chords fire like synapses, a slide show of memories both personal and societal. A muted midrange trumpet wails in the distance of its second half, a more literal reminder of the history at hand; 1 Mile North stare out over teetering cityscapes, but their response is sympathy, born of seeing these blocks rebuilt time and again. The so-called ambience of infinite delay pedals and thoughtless glitches feels plastic and drop-shipped by comparison.

“The Manual” is even more sprawling than “1983,” a thirteen-minute tribute to both Reilly and Brian Eno, openly harking back to Discreet Music and his work with Cluster (and, more than likely, using the same vintage keyboards). Its introductory guitar movement gives way to the twinkling, doleful synths of old, astutely recalling the beauty that still lies in those instruments, which never should have been buried for their misappropriation by prog pretenders.

Minor Shadows makes no secret of its inspirations, reaching out across decades of music to arrive at a synthesis of electronic sound, classical composition and spare ambience that raises the bar on recently lauded artists like Keith Fullerton Whitman, Boards of Canada and the increasingly monotonous Morr imprint. 1 Mile North aren’t interested in definitions, in easily identifiable or “current” sounds that tend to run a temporal course: this is a band that demands more of music than sequences and tones, invoking pasts their contemporaries are ignoring. This sonorous instrumental album reclaims the oft-wasted potential of ambient music’s legacy. In a word: merciless.

This essay was gifted to Pitchforkmedia.com on 29 May 2003. It has been reclaimed by the author as a result of the site’s 2015 sale to Condé Nast.