Gloria de Oliveira & Dean Hurley – “Oceans of Time”

Gloria de Oliveira and Dean Hurley‘s Oceans of Time is out now via Sacred Bones.

Every decade has its curious musical outliers where a micro-trend gets hot for a few weeks and gains a foothold in the zeitgeist that seems unexplainable in the future. Maybe I’m biased because I was a teenager discovering music at the time, but the ‘90s had the weirdest mix of sounds that somehow became popular. Sure, it’s easy to make fun of how post-grunge led to nu metal, and yes, ska is a convenient punching bag, but it takes a special decade to have Gregorian Chant, Blues Traveler, and Chumbawumba all go platinum. But one trend from that era has experienced a curious resurgence over the past few years, and it’s not one I would have ever expected – New Age ambient.

The stuff was everywhere, and it made zero sense to me as someone who listened to mostly to guitar-heavy alternative rock. Some of it had lyrics (most of which I couldn’t understand because of the pitch and timbre), some of it barely had recognizable melodic structures (because it felt like you were floating aimlessly through the clouds), and it all seemed to feature banks of keyboards, penny whistles, and uncommon percussion instruments. At the time, I couldn’t understand the appeal of acts like Enya and Yanni – where were the guitars, angst, and energy?! – but now, after more than a decade of deep dives into various strains of experimental electronic music, I totally understand why people both make and enjoy this genre.

So when I came across Oceans of Time, the new album from German-Brazilian multidisciplinary visual artist and musician Gloria de Oliveira and longtime David Lynch collaborator Dean Hurley, I recognized exactly what was happening. Released on Sacred Bones, this sumptuous record delivers 12 tracks of symphonic ambient packed with synths, strings, and sensitivity. It’s as if one of M83’s soundtrack projects has been fused to the experimental electro of Sarah Davachi and the chilled-out shoegaze of Pale Saints. This is immaculate and elegant songcraft that compels you to sit down a spell so you can focus on the overlapping nuances of the lush music.

I imagine a room filled with banks upon banks of synths and processors looped, dubbed, and spliced together. Thick applications of delay and tremolo coat nearly every single sound, sample, and patch. The songs feel expansive and nearly limitless, but just when you get lost in the instrumental miasma, just enough motion appears to give a clear sense of direction.

Like most ambient artists, de Oliveira and Hurley deftly walk the fine line between mood and execution. Their gorgeous compositions swirl with spacey ambience and dreamy pop affects. Rich synth pads form floating minor-key melodic progressions while plucked strings deliver essential texture and the occasional batch of minimalist hi-hat and snare offer enough rhythmic essence. On top of it all, de Oliveira’s beautiful soprano sings alternately in French, German, Italian and English, providing a focal point for the listener’s attention at crucial junctures.

For example, “Ashore of the Cosmic Sea” sounds like it could have appeared on nearly any 4AD from the ‘90s. From de Oliveira’s glistening vocals that stretch, coo, and soar as exactly the right juncture to the delicate blend of airy synths and sensitive rhythm section, the song immediately draws you into a caring embrace and guides you thoughtfully in a slow dance. “Caring Gardens” inverts those musical ideas with a pastoral tune that has me swimming among the clouds. Gauzy keyboard pads ebb and flow at a languid tempo that conjures up images of floating down a lazy river or simply lying on a grassy hillside to stare into the horizon.

The outstanding “Eyes Within” drips with emotional resonance as de Oliveira’s voice guides the listener through soupy swathes of synths. The entire effect feels remarkably extroverted for such a relaxed pace (and song title), as the steady rhythm created by the syncopated snare snaps and thick kick drums encourages consistent forward motion. “Further Than the Stars” closes out the album with a mountaintop experience akin to a crescendo-friendly instrumental post-rock song. For every bit of slow trudge evincing incremental progress through a trial, listeners enjoy glorious exultations akin to sunshine bursting through the clouds to promise relief.

When it comes to the overarching mood of Oceans of Time, I’m struck by the in-betweenness of it all. If the album truly wanted to be meditative or monastic, it would have intentionally created space for unbroken focus. Instead, I believe it’s more contemplative in tone and approach because it allows for progression and evolution. I found myself to be entranced by the amniotic or transitional nature of the record – yes, you might be in a specific place right now, but you should just relax with the music and see where it takes you as it grows and develops.

Much like the truly popular New Age artists of the ‘90s, the album possesses a welcoming warmth, especially when it indulges in occasional pop dalliances and English lyrics. However, it’s also not afraid to embrace the nebulous and liminal, specifically when de Oliveira and Hurley proffer elegiac soundscapes that are both attractive and uncomfortable. Thus, the title is almost too obvious of a metaphor, and I mean that as a good thing because this is the sort of hazy, reflective, third-eye-opening mid-afternoon mood music that I didn’t know I needed in my life.

Adam P. Newton