Numün is a trio of multi-disciplinary artists and veteran sound explorers: composer, sound/installation artist, and instrument builder Joel Mellin, Bob Holmes (of SUSS fame), whose musical background includes punk, ambient, and country music, and percussionist Christopher Romero, executive director of Gamelan Dharma Swara. Together, these three have extensive experience writing and performing in various styles of (world) music, which explains the direction they’ve taken with their joint project Numün very well.
In the broadest nomenclature (numün-clature?), Mellin, Holmes, and Romero create electro-acoustic music that draws from various international sources. On their latest album Book of Beyond, you will hear hints of gamelan, ambient electronica, Kosmische Musik, jazz, Turkish psychedelia, Americana/country music, and minimalism – an intriguing bouquet of possibilities, if you ask me. All of this is performed by the core trio and some choice guests on a vast array of instruments that ranges from Balinese gamelan and the Turkish cümbüş to more traditionally Western fare such as the slide guitar, mandolin, and violin.
Now that we’ve got the basic expectations covered, I’m happy to announce that the resulting music suffers neither from lack nor surplus of ambition, which would be an understandable concern after reading about the far-reaching influences and abilities behind Numün’s Book of Beyond. Their 2020 début voyage au soleil (‘journey to the sun’) already dispelled any lingering doubts about their qualities and intentions, and their new material is nothing if not a bold step forwards, taken quietly but assuredly. We *are* dealing with ambient music in the broadest sense, after all.
“Beyond” opens these 41 minutes of instrumental music with glassy electronics, gentle acoustic guitar and sincere strokes of violin. Layers upon layers are thoughtfully added, including what sounds like a banjo but is more likely the aforementioned 12-stringed cümbüş, until a guitar motif and more prominent violin melodies snatch the song from its somnambulant beginnings. Building from this exploratory piece of electro-acoustic folk music, “Steps” brings psychedelic effects and soft percussion to the forefront. Holmes’ background in country music seems to shape the progression of this track, albeit with a decidedly more ambient, otherworldly take on the established tropes of the genre. Slow and roomy, “Steps” favors contemplation over variation; “Sideway”, on the other hand, makes for a slightly more diverse experience by giving the spotlight to instruments like the cümbüş and slide guitar, which work like a charm with the underlying electronics and percussion.
From the world music-tinged psychedelia of “Sideway”, we are led into a gamelan-heavy composition called “Eyes Open”, which combines synth drones with violin and traditional Balinese instrumentation to stunning effect – its rich and hypnotic tapestry of sound draws you in effortlessly and keeps you enthralled for its entire duration. The following “Vespers” places the focus back on the elements of Americana that heavily shape Numün’s music, placing them amidst stuttering ambient electronics. There is a healthy balance between these more grounded sounds and boldly explorative takes on Book of Beyond, which helps it develop a clear but adventurous identity. “Voices” is probably the most percussion-heavy track on the album, utilizing it alongside almost birdsong-esque synths, vocalizations, and the occasional country guitar riff. The trio wear their various influences and interests on their sleeves and know exactly how to weave them into their music.
“Lighter” lives up to its name by initially toning down the experimentation for a, well, lighter take on the ambient Americana we heard earlier on Book of Beyond before growing into a similarly detailed, spiritual piece towards the end. To round off the album, the almost 8-minute “Lullaby” does everything but lull you into sleep. Synths and (at times effect-treated) violin engage in a wonderful interplay, waiting for the weighty baritone guitar to act as an anchor for their lofty dance. Occasional drops of piano roll off these sounds like finest beads of water; later on, field recordings, gamelan, and wordless vocalizations come together to formulate a worthy send-off for this incredible record.
Where experimentation does not necessarily exclude accessibility lies a practically unplowed expanse of fertile soil for the savvy musician to till. Managing to hold a listener’s attention even with your most leftfield ideas is a rare gift, but Numün have collectively tapped into it for Book of Beyond. Their forward-thinking does not seek to alienate; rather, it strives to reach out and integrate, to expose their audience to new sounds. As a result, Book of Beyond is a calmly psychedelic journey that leads one from the innermost thoughts of the subconscious mind into the vastness of space and back again. To say I’ve greatly enjoyed it would be a bit of an understatement.
Header image courtesy of Christopher Romero