Like it’s a secret he’s kept his whole life, Dash Lewis hesitantly confesses he is not the biggest fan of harsh noise, of punishing dins that offer aggression without the suggestion of quarter. But Lewis—who has made atmospheric drones for much of the last decade as Gardener—understands now that it has a place within his glittering music. It is the anchor point that creates tension with all the radiant tones that otherwise unspool inside his songs, from his yearning falsetto incantations to the entrancing synthesizer sequences. And that friction—between anxiety and elation, between contentment and angst, between splendid days and seasons suddenly spent indoors—is the frisson of life and the key to Calm Down, Gardener’s timely but timeless new album.
A lifetime musician long interested in immersive minimalism, Lewis stumbled into the world of synthesizers almost a decade ago now, when he landed a job at the then-fledgling modular manufacturer Make Noise. He embraced the technology’s low learning curve and started borrowing synthesizers for weekends. Suddenly, Lewis had a way of speaking musically that was more intuitive and infinite than anything else he’d played. “You’re creating a conversation between these circuits,” says Lewis. “And, soon, that began to feel like an extension of my own thoughts.”
For the six-track wonder Calm Down, those thoughts center around the title’s edict: making slowly shifting pieces that help alleviate Lewis’ own anxiety. But as he built these melodies and loops by distilling live improvisations to their absolute essence, Lewis realized that elaborate strata of merely beautiful sounds felt empty and disingenuous, an idealized fantasy of life rather than a meaningful expression of it. He began adding layers of crackling distortion, sheets of strained vocals, hints of electric hiss. His ululations beneath the overwhelming “Kudzu Claimed It,” for instance, feel like guarded paeans to the natural world’s duality. These elements remind Lewis—and, in turn, us—of the complexity of existence and the way our own resolve can sustain us inside of what may feel like an abyss.
Notice, for instance, the way that the gentle tick-tock of “Boudreaux in the Woods”—a heartbeat, or footsteps—pushes past the dissonant rays that seem to attack it, one click at a time. The piece blossoms into a vocal drone that relishes in that distortion, a reminder of the way you only notice the break in the clouds by first noticing the clouds themselves. Or track the rise of “Hit by a Car,” which climbs from a slumber of low, gurgling cycles to a symphony of productivity. Its Harmonia-like keyboard line pulls delicate webs of soft beats and fragile hums behind it, suggesting GAS basking in the glow of a repurposed Philip Glass motif. It’s gorgeous but eerie, comforting but cautious—the ethos of Calm Down as a whole.
A longtime Richmond resident, Lewis actually grew up in North Carolina, often attending services at Duke University’s iconic gothic cathedral. As a child, he noticed the way the choral music would reverberate through the intricate space, reflecting a deep human need for solace—not necessarily from god but from community or even from the very act of making music. “We are just asking for something we’re never going to really get,” says Lewis. The pieces he’s built for Calm Down share that sense of eternal longing, of reaching up and out even when circumstances would seem to push us down.
- Grayson Haver Currin
released May 15, 2020
All sounds, mixing, photo by Dash Lewis
Mastered by Travis Thatcher
Layout by Rae Whitlock
Recorded 2017-2019 in Richmond, VA
Thanks to Rae Whitlock, Kyle Landstra, Colin Blanton, Boudreaux, Grayson Haver Currin, and you
I love this album! It helps me imagine the micro and macrocosms in the earth and in the soil and in space! a multi-scalar, multi sensory experience of ecosystems across time and space. Warm golden light, slow crystal growth over eons, geological forces and deep time, walking through woods, looking at plants and the smell of petrichor (the earthy scent produced when rain falls on dry soil) jen-du-chatsein