A Journey of Giraffes is a solo project from Baltimore musician John Lane (EXPO). Lane has been prolific in his output. Empress Nouveau, the subject of today’s review, is Lane’s sixth release from the project since 2019. Ambient music often struggles to balance musical dynamism and movement with a meditative tone. On Empress Nouveau, Lane leans heavily toward the more dynamic and melodic side of ambient music, using streamlined melodies and brief songlengths alongside a wide variety of neoclassical, New Age, jazz, and electronic instrumentation to craft a relaxing release that never feels static.
Ambient music often commits to longform tracks and consistent tonalities. Empress Nouveau takes an alternate approach, with most of the record’s fourteen tracks spanning between 90 seconds and three minutes. However, the record opens with its longest offering: “Ztnu”. Most of the nearly six minute track is based on a repeating harp motif, but is expanded upon with some unique instrumental choices such as what I believe is a saxophone and a mallet instrument. While an outlier in length, this opener establishes a unique, late ’80s ambient production style that is consistent throughout the record.
Shorter track lengths are used to cover a great deal of ground on Empress Nouveau. Previously released track “Little Flower on A Stone” uses string pads and plucks and occasional voiceover samples to flesh out a recurring key motif. “Ambient Gold Fudge” utilizes many New Age soundscapes and swells as the basis for the track, creating an atmosphere that would not be out of place on a meditation or acupuncture playlist. Elsewhere, “Every Swan Goes Until Its Gone” uses piano and upright bass as a fresh and jazzy texture. “Baroque Filigree” incorporates instrumentation from all over the world to create fantastical soundscapes that could suite a video game or a guided meditation. “Bubble Credo” adds some saturation to the mix, alongside a perhaps too on-the-nose field recording of bubbling water for a track that comes dangerously close to cheesey territory. Nonetheless, even on a track like this, Lane shows a strong command of creating complementary sonic textures.
As the album unfolds, so too does a pattern – a recurring motif, often on keys or harp, extrapolated or improvised upon with various melodic and percussive instruments for the duration of the piece. However, it’s difficult to critique this approach for being repetitive, especially in a genre that is based much more on texture and tone than melodic development.
With his outlet A Journey of Giraffes, John Lane demonstrates his ability to create variety in a minimalist medium like ambient music, which is no small feat. The mixture of brief track lengths and instrumental variety effectively supports this goal. Yet, despite this variety, much of the music here feels constrained by the tropes of ambient music from days and decades past. Building on self-identified influences like Harold Budd, Susumu Yokota, Kazumichi Komatsu, Ryuichi Sakamoto & David Sylvian, Andrew Heath, and Brian Eno is a respectable approach.
Nonetheless, I would be interested to hear A Journey of Giraffes move forward musically into some more adventurous and innovative territory, especially six albums into the project. With that said, if you’re looking for some consistent, calm ambient music grounded in influences from some giants of the genre, Empress Nouveau will offer you a gentle and enjoyable journey.