Album Review: Chris Walla, ‘Tape Loops’
If you approach Chris Walla's second solo effort expecting any traces of what Walla brought to Death Cab For Cutie's sound, you're in for a shock... sort of. His first offering since leaving the Seattle outfit after 17 years as its guitarist and in-house producer, the somewhat misleadingly-titled Tape Loops consists entirely of minimalist ambient instrumentals. (The new material doesn't bear any resemblance to the "four guys in a room" format of Walla's previous solo album, 2008's Field Manual, either.) During the making of Death Cab's newest full-length, this year's Kintsugi, Walla -- at his own urging -- handed the production reins over to an outside producer. It was in that moment that he began messing around with analog tape for his own enjoyment, a process that would eventually take shape as Tape Loops.
Ultimately, Walla decided that it was time to leave Death Cab For Cutie, but he and the band mutually agreed that it made the most sense for him to continue participating until Kintsugi was finished. Knowing that he started Tape Loops with one foot out the door but still saw it through for the sake of closure casts the stylistic departure of Tape Loops in a less drastic light. As radical a change as this music might be -- Walla moved to the Norwegian arctic with his wife, after all -- the transition feels natural even if he hasn't necessarily hinted at this direction in his work to date, whether in Death Cab or producing records by the likes of the Decemberists, Tegan and Sara and Ra Ra Riot. (Walla's first film score for director Matthew Ogens' film North arrives next year.)
It's an over-simplification to describe Tape Loops as a longform solo piano composition, but it does unfold like one. And while it's usually a bad sign when it's hard to distinguish one track from another, listening to Tape Loops plays on the senses much in the same way that a breathtaking landscape automatically stops you in your tracks. In other words, you almost have no choice but to pause and marvel, and it's impossible to take-in the majestic scale of what you're looking at without letting nature remind you that some things are not meant to be appreciated in a hurry.
Taking cues from longtime influence Brian Eno, Walla built this music out of spare ingredients like piano, keyboards, light effects and wisps of atmosphere from various sound sources. The pieces range from four to 25 minutes in length and, in some sections, consist of little more than an insistent drone. But Walla creates such a serene mood that the album doesn't require any effort or even patience to sit through -- a testament to his ability to hit the audience on a gut level even as he essentially throws song structure out the window. On the other hand, this material shouldn't be mistaken for easy listening/new age background fodder either. On repeated listens, details begin to surface out of sounds that initially appear as sonic trimmings at the margins. Meanwhile, though Walla cut and spliced sections of tape as he saw fit, you can listen to the whole album and not notice any repetition or "loops" in the typical way we've come to define them in terms of beat-driven electronic music.
No one would ever mistake Tape Loops for a pop album, but it also wouldn't be fair to regard this as an indulgence project either. Sometimes, when artists deviate from their usual course, one gets the sense they're being contrary on purpose. Tape Loops comes across more as a gift to Walla's fanbase than a curveball. Walla has long helped other artists (most of all Death Cab leader Ben Gibbard) reach for transcendence via traditional, albeit experimental pop. Here, he stretches that transcendence out and, literally, lets it take its sweet time. But his producer's sense for arrangements and his instincts for cutting to the essence of what's necessary still shine through here. As long as these pieces take to develop -- and some of them don't actually "develop" beyond the initial textural impression they make -- Walla doesn't waste a single note. Some people spend their whole careers trying to cram everything they have to say into three-minute pop songs. With Tape Loops, Walla proves he doesn't have to and reminds us that brevity is not always a virtue.