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Review: Secret Boyfriend Unlocks Your Brain’s Filing Cabinet on ‘Memory Care Unit’

7
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: February 26, 2016
Label: Blackest Ever Black

Memory is a burdensome thing. Our limited recall ability means that the more agonizing experiences are the ones we tend to remember in greater detail. Memory Care Unit, the sophomore full-length by the reclusive ambient musician (and noise-oriented Hot Releases label owner) Ryan Martin, is a meticulous composition that explores the sense of helplessness that comes with retrospection. A mostly instrumental affair, the few lyrics on hand are questions that feel more like fumbles in the dark: “How do you make me sad?” Martin asks, his voice lost deep within the muddled overdubs in “Stripping at the Nail.”

But memories are cloudy; the languishing synths and faraway snares of “Little Jammy Centre” are wisps of pure cerebral energy in the marbled liquid of a Pensieve. “They’re Playing Themselves” conjures up a descent down an eerie rabbit hole, a reminder that recalling one moment can branch off into several more, with fractals multiplying and growing more bewildering. And “Paean Delle Palme,” the album’s finest song, is a disquieting composition for chimes. It slowly decays into trembling bells of wretchedly low timbres, like a haunted church heralding an arrival of the dead  a faster death than Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, anyway, but no less sobering.

Secret Boyfriend’s work has always had a sense of precision, even throughout his long string of appearances on the works of collaborators such as Dreamcrusher and Russian Tsarlag. There’s refinement in the North Carolina native’s mitigated feedback, which serves as an aesthetic touchpoint rather than a damning sonic hell. The dynamic range is constrained but remarkably efficient  there are mountains and hills, and ambient music relies on them to hold interest. A single, well-mixed kick drum pulses uncomfortably through “Memorize Them Well,” the album’s chilling endpiece, as though a rush of adrenaline has worn off, slowing the heart into a morose acceptance.

But what the album is lacking is intimacy. Its minimal framework demands a certain act of projection from the listener. And while most fans of dark ambient music thrive on this projection, there’s little sense of Martin’s own personal impressions beyond the childlike use of those distant chimes. Ultimately, Memory Care Unit poses more questions than it can answer: Where do the gentlest memories live within our psyche, and how can they be systematically accessed? Where is the balance between suffering that lingers and suffering that eventually can clear? A memory is a powerful file within our database, but cynicism is a potent force that can devour a mind. Secret Boyfriend flirts with that cynicism, but always brings his audience back to what they loved about the youth he evokes in the first place.