Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
NPR Music

In ambient music's crowded landscape, Huerco S. commands your attention

Brian Leeds' third album as Huerco S., <em>Plonk</em>, is out February 25.
Kasia Zacharko
Brian Leeds' third album as Huerco S., <em>Plonk</em>, is out February 25.

Ambient music is everywhere in 2022, which makes it difficult for any single artist to stand out. There's so much recorded sound that conceivably falls under this broad umbrella — ambient is atmospheric, usually instrumental. It often works in the background, with moods ranging from warm and healing, to sinister and unsettling. And these styles are conducive to home recording environments where one needs only a computer and software to get started. On top of that, the aesthetics and presentation of ambient music, where cryptic aliases and scant personal details are the norm, tend to render creators invisible. Add it all up, and it's tough for a producer to break through and make a name for themselves.

All of which made 2016's For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have), the second album by Brian Leeds under his Huerco S. alias, such an unlikely proposition. Loaded with pillow-soft drones, a pinch of dissonance, and sneakily engaging melodies, For Those Of You was gentle and contemplative but also disarmingly emotional. It quickly became something that's become increasingly rare in this crowded field: the ambient release you had to hear, even if you don't normally listen to electronic music. Following such a landmark is daunting, and Leeds has taken his time. The Kansas-based artist launched a label, West Mineral Ltd., that has developed a reputation for issuing rumbling, dark, industrial-informed instrumental music both by him — working as Pendant — and kindred spirits. This week, six years since the last Huerco S. full-length, he at last returns with the project's third LP, Plonk.

Plonk is a very different record than its predecessor. For Those Of You was often dreamy and placid, but Plonk, with its onomatopoeic title, suggests a kind of mission statement. The opening "Plonk I" is built from what sounds like the pluck of a digitally generated stringed instrument, and Leeds seems intent on catching the moment of attack — that trebly jolt of energy disrupts silence and each note reveals itself. The tones initially seem random, as if a bucket of pennies were dumped on a harp lying on its side, but as the piece unfolds, you notice weird clusters of recurring melody. The producer assembles much of the rest of the album around busy patterns of pointillist sound whose structures reveal themselves gradually, progressing from nervousness and agitation to passages of deep, reflective calm. It's a work that invites active listening, shifting attention from one squiggly detail to the next and then pulling back to take in the whole.

The "plonks" that comprise the opening piece appear repeatedly through the collection in subtly different ways. And as these sounds disappear and return, one notices how carefully Leeds has sequenced the record. It has a discernible arc, going from crisp specificity into music that's more liquid — little by little, percussion gives way as edges soften and arrangements become more open-ended. Its effect is cumulative, and the meaning of each track depends on what came before and what follows. It's an album that begs to be heard straight through.

Leeds said in a recent interview with the electronic music newsletter First Floor that for his own enjoyment he listens almost exclusively to rap, and he name-checked young producers including Popstar Benny and the collective Surf Gang. The latter's dense and colorful beats are stuffed with strange, busy percussion and blocky videogame gurgles that thrive on SoundCloud. At times, Plonk offers what could be heard as a chillier and abstracted version of some of this production aesthetic. "Plonk III" stitches together fragments of metallic clang, with skittery programmed beats that sound like a solo from a drummer using knitting needles instead of sticks, and then "Plonk IV" has a stutter-stop rhythm reminiscent of the millennial, UK dance style 2-step, complete with a repeated burst that could be a cyborg hollering with its hands in the air.

As the record develops, those percussive tapestries fall away, and Leeds foregrounds his lyrical impulses, and his melodic sense is his secret weapon. "Plonk VI" is based around a crystalline synth line that brings to mind a chandelier refracting light, and it's easy to see how sections of the track could be adapted to fit a hyperpop ballad from the post-SOPHIE universe. Here, Leeds constructs a frame for what could clearly be a "song" but allows the listener to color inside his lines, and the beauty of the production is stunning. The melodies on "Plonk VII" are just as pretty, but he splinters them via the echoes of dub. While his music is loop-based, you never end up at the same place you began. There's always a feeling of movement and change, even if it's sometimes subliminal.

By the end of Plonk the subtle shifts have reached critical mass, and we feel far away from where we started. "Plonk IX" features Washington, D.C. rapper SIR E.U offering dusted, stream-of-consciousness rhymes redolent of MF DOOM at his most fragmented. Leeds' swirling production, filled with thrumming low-end hits that sound like they're coming from a broken machine, complement SIR E.U's voice, and the track is deeply eerie. And then the set ends with "Plonk X," which delivers what those who first encountered Huerco S. via For Those Of You might have expected from this LP. It's absolutely gorgeous, with hints of pulsing melody peeking out from braided drones and then receding — the mixing is superb, keeping each element in perfect balance.

The final song is the album's longest track at over 11 minutes, and when heard in the context of what takes place before, it sounds sublime, even emotionally overwhelming. Plonk is an hour-long experience that works best when you can meet it on its own terms. And after a few listens, all the tiny details, Leeds' clever micro-rhythms and fragments of melody, lodge themselves in your mind. As a thought experiment, imagine if the entire record had been in the vein of its closing piece: Leeds would have given those who discovered Huerco S. in 2016 what they were expecting. But with Plonk, he chose a more challenging and ultimately rewarding path, further expanding the range of the project while maintaining its essence.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.