At first glance, and coming into it with no previous knowledge of Paul Ellis’s prior work, one might expect Moth in Flames to be a dreary song-delivery-machine era Pink Floyd derivative. That it isn’t is only one of its pleasures.
Those already familiar with Ellis’s work will have a better idea of what to expect: ambient, sequencer-based cosmic electronica that draws most heavily on the Berlin school (think Klaus Schulze, Manuel Göttsching, Tangerine Dream) and its offspring, tempered with a dash of Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack and a pinch of Jean Michel Jarre. Painting with sound is the order of the day, and Ellis paints very effectively.
One way in which Moth in Flames avoids mere imitation is in its brevity. Only one of the ten tracks here (the near fifteen-minute Between the Trees; Mount Hood) runs at over nine minutes, and one (Coeur de lion) doesn’t reach four. The sprawling soundscapes that tend to typify the Berlin school (and some of Ellis’s other releases) are entirely absent, and while the hour-plus epics have their own charms, the brief nature of much of Moth in Flames is another of its joys.
The defining characteristic of this album, in fact, may very well be its precision. For creating a style of music that is given to dreamy contemplation and immersive abstraction (track titles such as ‘Birds Migrating over the Prison’ and ‘Lights of a Departing Train’ indicate the impressionism that is the main order of the day, with the evocation of mood and emotion being paramount) that may perhaps seem contradictory, Ellis is too skillful a composer and too masterful of his technical craft to allow the results to be anything but seamless.
As a whole, the soul of Moth in Flames is in its clarity. There is so much space among the sequencer patterns, the ambient synth washes, the counterpoints, and the pulsing bass patterns, that the effect is almost vertiginous. Listening to this album in the dark on headphones, Ellis’s soundscapes open up into the expanses that lesser artists can only achieve strictly through the droning nature of long duration. Ellis’s use of breadth of sound to achieve the same result is very effective, with complex harmonic patterns and even (dare I say it…) melody.
Forward momentum is very seldom percussive (‘Oh Well, Dear Silence’ being a rare albeit temporary exception) and usually relies on bass and counterpoint to be effective. Indeed, some tracks (such as the stand-out ‘She Walks in Beauty’) have almost no movement at all, simply drifting into the final minute when another rare rhythmic pattern lasts a bare thirty seconds before fading away again.
On the whole, Moth in Flames is a gold-standard example of its genre. Visceral it is not. Calm and contemplative, this is music for the head rather than the body.
01) In flagrante delicto
02) Moth in Flames
03) Birds Migrating over the Prison
04) Oh Well, Dear Silence
05) She Walks in Beauty
06) Lights of a Departing Train
07) Coeur de lion
08) Waves for Durga
09) Stained Glass Observatory
10) Between the Trees; Mount Hood