The New York psychedelic ambient trio numün’s sophomore release is, for me, a grower. I like it more each time I listen to it. Their debut Voyage au Soleil was one of my favorite albums of 2020, and on the first couple of listens I didn’t think I’d like Book of Beyond nearly as much. The more I listen to it, though, the better it gets!
The members of numün are Bob Holmes of the groundbreaking ambient country band SUSS, and Joel Mellin and Christopher Romero of Gamelan Dharma Swara. They create a unique mix of Eastern and Western musical stylings and instrumentation: classic Americana instruments like slide guitar, baritone guitar, mandolin, violin, and banjo. Not actually a banjo, though, but a cümbüş, a 12-string Anatolian fretless banjo-like oud. Add some synthesizers and an array of gently deployed rhythm instruments, and you have the unique sound that is numün.
For a little background on the group, here’s what I said in my review of Voyage au Soleil:
Aptly, this record began as part of a project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. The third track, “tranquility base,” was featured on the compilation The Moon and Back – One Small Step for Global Pop and released on the London-based alternative label WIAIWYA (“where it’s at is where you are”) in 2019. It grew from Holmes improvising on his guitar to a 45 rpm single of the recordings of the astronauts’ transmissions from the lunar surface. The group then filled out the album with an exploration of what the period around 1969 means to them, using a combination of American and Balinese instruments, synthesizers and loops.
This time out the musical pieces are, well, more grounded and internal, quite a bit less spacey, actually. The album was mastered by a well known producer and engineer who goes by Kramer at his Shimmy-Disc Studio in Florida, and it’s a lovely auditory experience.
The album opens with “Beyond,” which itself begins with a section like a raga’s introductory alap movement to a raga; it might remind you of listening to the orchestra tune up before a concert. Slowly, guitar twangs and strums emerge from the droning murk, a few taps on a hand drum like a tabla, and a light, repetitive melody begins on violin. It builds from there to a cinematic Western meets Eastern song complete with occasional riff on the cümbüş.
The ensemble adds one instrument that wasn’t present on its debut, the Balinese gender wayang, which is featured on the fourth track “Eyes Open.” It’s played by Tori Lo Mellin, who also performs in Gamelan Dharma Swara with Joel Mellin and Christopher Romero. This instrument looks like metal tubes in a wooden frame, and sounds rather like an orchestral set of tubular bells. “Eyes Open” definitely draws on the other gamelan instruments for their unique percussive, bell-like sound, and Lo Mellin plays the wayang in a repeating circular pattern, with Trina Basu’s violin improvising snippets of melody over it.
The individual tracks all have their own sound, from the desert drone with spacey synth of “Steps” to the pastoral waltz of “Sideway,” which features the cümbüş and comforting drones; the Americana vibe of “Vespers” with its shimmering synth and strummed acoustic guitar, to the airy psychedelia of “Voices” with its soulful wordless vocalizing, burbling and bleeping synths, Dobro twang and distorted electric guitar fuzz. Whoever is playing the bass guitar, particularly on the penultimate track “Lighter,” has an exquisite touch. It provides a gentle but insistent rhythmic pulse on that track, coupled with a variety of percussion. What sounds like a Melotron provides a very melodic droning that accompanies a looping cümbüş and languid baritone guitar. To me, this piece and “Sideway” are the standout tracks.
None of the pieces overstay their welcome, which I find a good practice for ambient recordings. It leaves me wanting more, rather than droning on so long that my attention strays. The longest at just shy of eight minutes is the final, “Lullaby.” As you’d expect from the title it’s the softest piece and very meditative, a gently swaying setting featuring Willa Roberts’ violin (that was her vocalizing on “Voices”) and more of that slowly plucked baritone guitar.
Book of Beyond is available (Jan. 27, 2023) digitally or on a limited edition “Serene Cerulean Blue” vinyl via Bandcamp.