Rarely does a name provide much insight into the philosophy or sound of a musician, but for Moodgadget co-founder Jakub Alexander's ambient work as Heathered Pearls, the moniker seems to drill down to his project's essence. For Loyal, the Brooklyn-via-Poland artist's debut on Ghostly International, Heathered Pearls buries bleary melodies under layers of silt, balancing his more abrasive inclinations with comforting undertones. The result is not particularly easy to unearth, but if the listener takes the time, Loyal is the rare mixture of ambient and drone that's rewarding both aesthetically and emotionally.
From Brian Eno's Music for Airports to Kompakt's Pop Ambient series, ambient music requires more patience from its listeners than most genres, and from the beginning of Loyal, it's clear that the same is true. The LP begins with "The Worship Bell," a title that evokes a call to prayer, but its execution is an undulating mixture of soothing synths atop indistinct atmospherics. The track is both aesthetically calming yet strangely uneasy–a contradictory landscape in which Heathered Pearls thrives. While one can only speculate at what inspired these tracks, it's perhaps telling that the cover of the LP is a picture of Alexander's mother and aunt when they were much younger, and "The Worship Bell" strikes a tone of nostalgia and decay that runs through the rest of the album.
Alexander clearly appreciates classic ambient touchstones like William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops, but he also has no problem bringing things closer to a pop context. With "Beach Shelter," Heathered Pearls recalls Liz Harris' Grouper project more than it does Basinski's work, though it never approaches anything resembling traditional song structure. The track is a more tensely wound production than "The Worship Bell," with soft static hissing balanced out by a looping synth line. Its repetition parallels the uneasiness of giallo horror soundtracks, though the composition is far more stripped down. As the track progresses, one wishes that the melody will further unfurl, but Alexander never allows the listener a release.
The majority of the songs on the record use similar elements to varying degrees of intensity. To return to both the title of the project and that of some of the song titles, Loyal is permeated with the feeling of being submerged and compressed. "Precious Dive" begins with percolating synths that are first quietly then aggressively subsumed by static, while "Steady Veil" is built off of an electronic loop matched with shadowy ambiance that rarely changes throughout its nearly six minutes. Both tracks achieve an ebbing, tidal effect through subtly different means.
While Loyal is a hermetic record meant for quiet listens on headphones, "Ringing Temple (Decreased Version)" breaks Heathered Pearls out of his shell. The track moves away from the usual palette of droning atmospherics and synths and in so doing, sheds the loneliness and unease that define most of the album. The steel drums reach for a tribal intensity that recalls an abbreviated version of something Ricardo Villalobos might release these days. It also happens to be one of the album's most immediately pleasing tracks, and shows Heathered Pearls to be less narrowly focused than he first appears. When put in the context of the rest of the album's droning asceticism, we can't help but wonder what else Heathered Pearls is capable of. As it is, we have to take Loyal for face value: a bleak and beautiful ambient record that occasionally reaches beyond its self-imposed confines.