Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Album Review: RUNE by David Helpling

I recall first hearing the music of San Diego based guitarist and ambient composer David Helpling upon discovering his second album, Sleeping On the Edge of the World, which was released on the prestigious Spotted Peccary Music label in 1999. Since then, he’s recorded three collaborative landmark albums with fellow ambient musician and label-mate Jon Jenkins, followed by a solo space-ambient album in 2017 titled A Sea Without Memory.

Having grown up near the Pacific Ocean, its waters were always a source of healing, serenity and wonder for Helpling, hence it’s not surprising that he’s looked to the sea again for the theme of his new album RUNE. Drawing upon Viking mythology, his latest creation is inspired by the Norse rune “laguz”, which translates to “water”. Likewise, the rune's symbol adorns the album’s tantalizing cover image, which Helpling conceptualized with the help of photographer Joseph Abreu and artwork designer Daniel Pipitone.

Spanning almost seventy minutes in length, RUNE features eight compositions that were masterfully sculpted with electric guitars and a custom rig. This impressive feat may come as a surprise to listeners who might otherwise mistake many of these sounds for synthesizers. Comprised of lushly layered guitar melodies and stringed rhythmic patterns, Helpling spins scintillating aural threads into fluidly spiraling arrangements that reverberate all throughout the listening space. Echoingly iridescent tones in the higher range seemingly mimic siren calls amid sustained undercurrents of mellifluous sound textures.

Perhaps a way to illustrate this listening experience is by imagining oneself suspended in water, only every inch of liquid occupying the enveloping environment is comprised of these otherworldly sonic vibrations. Conjuring a sense of both the natural and the mythical – dolphins swimming alongside mermaids, lost underwater kingdoms entwined among the colorful growth of coral reefs – these enchantingly beautiful transmissions seemingly open a pelagic portal and unveil an ancient hidden paradise.

While the technical process of recording, editing and mastering any composition entails logical thought process, the creation of music such as this inherently strikes me as one that more involves ‘channeling’ than it does ‘thinking’. I can only imagine the mental space Helpling entered while composing this breathtaking album.

One of the most sublimely euphoric moments is a piece called “Be”. Majestically unfolding into back-spiraling patterns of shimmering tonal harmonies, it perfectly conveys the song title's notion of freedom and openness. And although the music throughout is nothing short of blissful, there’s a certain sense of melancholy that underlies its sunlight scattered surface, perhaps resulting from the artist tapping into the empathic nature of the water element. 

I recall Helpling citing the band U2 as one of his musical inspirations, and although he creates music of quite a different nature, that influence is certainly detectable at times. Additionally, while there are definite signature style differences between them, fans of both Erik Wøllo’s and Jeff Pearce’s pioneering ambient guitar works might concur that RUNE musically occupies a certain realm between the two.

Watching David Helpling’s musical evolution through the years has been fascinating, and this album is nothing short of another masterpiece among his magnificent body of work. Already one of the year’s top releases, listeners will want to unlock this musical treasure trove and discover the oceanic secrets of the RUNE! ~Candice Michelle

Available at Amazon, Bandcamp, Spotted Peccary and other music retail & streaming platforms. 

You can also check out our insightful interview with David Helpling conducted in late 2018 here