Means of Ascent Reviews

A review from Rick at Ping Things:

With the release of their latest disc, "Means of Ascent", Synthetic Block have crafted a thoughtful study in long form ambience that skillfully blends both electronic and organic ideals. Surely another excellent addition to the Gears of Sand catalog, "Means of Ascent" is a fine example of the impressive talent associated with the label.

The disc begins with the slow pulse of "In Transit", a melodic space piece with a decidedly retro feel. Instruments and tonal choices have a very smooth sixties space age sound. Pads move and intertwine with small phrases and tunes, slowly building in clarity and form ultimately becoming a complex and intricate weave of sounds. Yet despite it's complexity, it never seems overpowering, never seems crowded, each part retains a certain clarity and sense of purpose, a distinct voice in a chorus.

The long form title track "Means of Ascent" follows, a centrepiece for the disc and a long form work of great beauty divided into three parts. The first movement begins with a series of drones that wind in and out of the soundfield, a sparse piano playing haunted melodies in the background There's a hypnotic feeling to the track, a spiraling form that draws the listener deeper into it's spell. As the track progresses new melodies and tones appear overtop the drone, each one having a distinct voice and interaction as if to suggest a series of conversations floating through the ether. It's quite an engaging effect, quite mesmerizing. A second movement removes the drone element and replaces it with a steady percussive track that plays along with an oscilating analog synth notable in that while it sounds completely fresh and new in the context of the piece, it still retains the same sense of rotation and spiral from the track's earlier section. A shorter third movement closes the piece with the sound of bells and a distant drone, the sound of faraway galaxies spinning in the cosmos. Truly an impressive work.

The third piece, "Proximity", ends the disc, a melodic analog work with deep and lush synth sounds that ring and chime throughout the senses. It's an impressive track (and would have to be after the mastery of the previous piece), bringing a particular organic element to the disc despite it's deep electronic origins.

As a whole, "Means of Ascent" is a powerful disc that impresses on many levels. I strongly recommend it to both listeners already familiar with Synthetic Block's work, and to those who aren't already aware of them who are looking for something new to listen to.

A review from Sonic Curiosity:

This CD from 2006 features 67 minutes of ambient electronics.

There are only three tracks on this release, and the title track is 41 minutes long, which affords Block ample opportunity to explore a long-form compositional format.

This epic piece begins with a pensive passage of bass-heavy drones from which stately harmonies gradually rise with comfortable ease. Piano notes embellish this eloquent ascension, generating a soft drama that is laced with tinkling chimes. This atmospheric mood becomes a steadfast backdrop for textures of gentle construction that seep into the flow. The music maintains an introspective demeanor, layering ambient cloud strata until the tune is dense with vaporous substance. Only during its last section does the piece exhibit any force with lazy tempos and pulsating electronic threads. A calm disposition remains, though, as these more demonstrative elements fall into an easygoing procession along with the ambient foundation. Delicate keyboards establish a sedate melody for the finale.

Framing this long track are two shorter pieces (11 and 15 minutes respectively). The first one exemplifies a soft pep with bopping synthetic bongos and languidly airy tonalities seasoned by melodious keyboards that provide a tasty nucleus for this tune. In the second piece, crystalline chords achieve a buoyancy which is given a fair degree of vitality by crisp e-perc. Grittier electronics provide an uplifting boost that marches toward a gripping coda.

A review from Guts of Darkness:

Synthetic Block is the American synthesist and poet, Jonathan Block. As an independent artist, he has worked in the musical sphere for more than 20 years. Means of Ascent is the kind of album which we listen to, as we read poetry, with the passion of discovery.

In Transit starts with a feline, sensual suppleness. A floating synth progresses to a beautiful bass and a hardly-perceptible mellotron violin, which gives cultural nobility to In Transit. Pushed by this violin, the movement undulates with a suggestive slowness. The arrival of the congas and percussion scent the atmosphere of a movement even more carnal, then a keyboard diverts with electronic jazz lounge sonority. A very beautiful synth plays astonishing solos over a minimalist rhythm, which becomes more corrosive after the levitation of the serpentine synths. This passage becomes a bubble of undisciplined segments that converge towards its end.

The title track, Means of Ascent, is a synthesized fresco most ambient. A heavy pad settles and extends with the harmonious complicity of a synth to discrete breaths and chords. A static environment covers us with strange and sweet harmonies, which reflect in nothingness and oscillate on hesitant notes; a beautiful and quiet moment that can lead to reflection as well as dreaming. Not ambient enough to be insipid, unless floating on the top of a dream. Long, quiet solos zigzag in the atmosphere, like serpentine weightlessness, among lost guitar and piano chords. At about the 30-minute mark, rotary sequence enters with splendid slowness. An electric piano strews this rotary sphere with lounge chords, supported by soft percussion, as if we were in a bar where invertebrates are the masters. On these harmonious keys float strange droning pulsations, which blow on sound effects as brilliant as attractive.

Chimes split temporal inaction to shake our state of mind with clear, limpid and detached keys, which actuate a heavy rotation on a fat bass with the sound of wild bumblebees. The movement is rough and dry, and is connected in an absolutely astounding sequenced echo.

Solos take the structure of Proximity by storm, which spreads out its power with a deterrent force. A robotic intensity hammers a rhythm shaken by sharp keys, a movement which exchanges its rough force against the melodious softness of flutey mellotrons.

Means of Ascent is part of a category of albums that charms and astonishes as we listen to it, and listen again and again. Complex? Not necessarily! But very beautiful. A beauty which we knew at first hearing and which we notice more and more, simply by hearing it.

And now, a contrarian review, from Alan Lockett at E/I Magazine:

Jonathan Block has apparently been involved in electronic music for over 20 years. And frankly, Means of Ascent, production values apart, might well have emanated from a mid-80s time warp, were it not explicitly stencilled with the legend 2006. Block, we're told, created the term "progressive ambient music" to describe "his explorations of the ambient, space and progressive domains." The term falls as dully uncreative as its attributive object yawns with exploratory insufficiency. "Progressive ambient," both as signifier and signified, hums with a dull air of slot-filler, content possessed of all the substance and resonance of the preset culture associated with that period. The ambiometer barely registered an above zero AQ (ambient quotient) throughout. Parts of the interminable (okay, 41-minute) title track might have passed for ambient were it not for their "ignorability" potential being compromised by a paucity of "interestingness." Block's is a concept and realization that is "progressive" only in the emptiest categoric sense. Aurally picture those ponderous 70s instrumental tracts with solos-cum-extended themes widdling up and down the keyboard; now extend wall-to-wall over CD length, with the occasional thematic redirect, throw in some boxed up beat ploddage, and Means of Ascent is served: a stodgy flavorless repast which in fact eschews the ascent that refresh and recon might bring, content to fiddle in the foothills of retro and revivalism. It's almost a return to the days when the ever-"stretching out" keyboardist was king, sound color was forever horizontal, and grain was for the birds. Slim slivers of timbres, the sonorities deployed by Block, drawn mainly from insipid New Age fused with a vapid Berlin school Emusic derivative. These are hung on to the least engaging aspects of the warmed-up corpse of "prog," being notably meandering, noodling, and sub-trainspotter absorption in "Gear," to the neglect of the diminished resonance of tone color generated. Musical methadone to provide poor-relative placation to those shivering in a 30-year-old cold turkey purgatory, post-Berlin School break-up, this recording seems oddly situated on the customarily Now-voyaging Gears of Sand label, for which it represents a rare false step.