Neel (a.k.a. Giuseppe Tillieci) is an Italian producer, DJ, and mastering engineer, not to mention one-half of the vaunted Voices from the Lake project alongside Donato Dozzy. For that group, originally conceived for a live set at Japan's deep techno mecca, Labyrinth, Neel has referred to his duties as "[making] sure our music sounds the best it possibly can." Indeed, the young Italian is said to have a golden ear, having mastered records for Morphine, Prologue, and other serious techno imprints. Still, we haven't yet seen Tillieci lay out his own vision prior to the arrival of the startlingly ambitious Phobos. It's his first full-length, and it finds Neel presenting an epic collection of dense ambient textures, a slowly unfurling space story for the modern hi-fi enthusiast.
Those interested in the elegant dub techno proffered by Voices from the Lake should probably look elsewhere, as most of the rhythms on Phobos consist of subdued synthetic textures. The album seems to score an imagined trip to the doomed Martian moon from which Neel borrows his title (each year, Phobos moves one meter closer to its host planet). He attempts to capture the sound of space in the album's opening two tracks, mainly via Kevin Drumm-style textural experimentation over a howling yet understated synth wash. By the time "Crater Chain Observations" comes along, Tillieci's mastering formatives begin to shine through. He's created THX-style layers of creeping synth by this point, fully aware of where each field recording and creaking spaceship door sits in the mix. It's immersive, best enjoyed while laying down with headphones.
Still, Phobos isn't an easy listen. The label, Spectrum Spools, John Elliot's excellent modern synth music imprint, offers a statement on the record from Labyrinth founder Russell Moench, claiming that the LP is meant to inhabit the thinly populated zone between the works of "Steven Stapleton—space heard as a largely silent void punctuated by the sudden and infrequent arrival of massive objects—and the romantic imaginings of '90s space ambient which filled space with idealistic longings of earth." In fact, Neel spends the first two-thirds of the record attempting to achieve the former, patiently crafting a desolate, ambient version of space with an attention to sonic detail matching Thomas Brinkmann or Oren Ambarchi. Forty minutes in, he finally allows himself a modicum of melodic indulgence, coming in the form of majestic album highlight "Life in Laputa Regio."
The song finds a comfortable common ground between more traditional and outre ambient methods. As usual, Neel is working three of four layers, and he sets loose lumbering sub-bass pulsations, a layer of brilliant modular texture, and notably, some soaring string synths, his first nod to popular ambient masters like Brian Eno and Stars of the Lid. In the album's closing minutes, he adds in a stuttering, delayed kick drum and some alien chimes, finally focusing on supple melodic interplay. It feels like a reward after an arduous journey. The LP's final section is entitled "The Secret Revealed," which might be a reference to some oblique cosmic revelation; however, it could also be a nod to this moment of traditional beauty following a lengthy trek through some austere—albeit expertly produced—material.