Album Review: Subliminal Listening by Bob Ohrum

Album cover: Subliminal Listening by Bob OhrumBob Ohrum, whose 2010 release Elevated I recently reviewed, returns with a reissue of his 2005 album Subliminal Listening, also on the Relaxed Machinery label.

This album is Bob’s love letter to his hometown of Buffalo, NY. It plays like an urban version of the Solitudes nature series, built on unprocessed field recordings and mechanical drones, embellished with darklit synth chords whose tone and texture sometimes recall Pink Floyd. The effect is that of a city-noir soundscape at 3am, with your back window open just before (or after) the rain. The sense of urban location is uncanny and – unaccountably – mesmerizing. It doesn’t make sense, it just is.

The opening track, Day of the Locust, was also the first one recorded, and immediately establishes the focus (as it did for the project’s creation). We land suddenly in Bob’s environs and begin taking it all in, getting our bearings. The breathy drone expands and shimmers, pulsing slowly. The place is alive.

As with Elevated, a few simple elements are all Ohrum needs to carve out his cityscapes. Overpass Symphony #1 features a drone slowly oscillating on two notes, punctuated by some resonant rock-on-bridge-girder clanks, with a pair of recurring, climbing notes hinting at something symphonic. Nightwalk has a softer drone with muted sirens and a lightly pitch-bent synth chord used to good effect. This night is bristling with activity, slow but not so quiet.

Subliminal Listening by Bob Ohrum

The two-part, 15-minute title track is my favorite, with a two-part droning chord, birds and thunder. Its second part section is more lit up, with a more energetic drone chord, as we see a break in the cloud cover. To my regret, the two-minute Rain cuts out too soon, just as it was getting nicely established, with its industrial atmosphere and two-tone line.

The closing Super Secret Bonus Track with Crickets, after two minutes of silence, brings a nice, breathy drone chord, light strings and crickets sounding like a big rainstick.

Kevin Pletcher’s photography captures the spirit of the music perfectly; it’s a visceral, intuitive connection. The sculpture is by American artist John Vasser House, a lost piece that Kevin has restored, in a way, by publishing it here.

“Subliminal” means “beneath the threshold of consciousness”; you can listen to this album as quiet background, let it get under your skin and color your space. If you’re in the city – especially if you’re alone, on a rainy night – these urban atmospherics can be your soundtrack, bringing the city’s slow, nocturnal pulse right into your listening space.

Subliminal Listening is available by download from CD Baby, and is coming soon on CDR from Hypnos.

Photos by Kevin Pletcher; sculpture by John Vasser House


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