During his seventeen years as the guitarist and producer of Death Cab for Cutie, Chris Walla has gone from playing club shows and sleeping on floors to being part of one of the most critically and commercially successful indie rock bands of the 2000’s. However, despite this lasting success, Walla announced in August of 2014 that he would be leaving the band following the production of their eighth record, Kintsugi (2015). Naturally, the announcement was met with dismay and confusion from many longtime fans who were naïve to any conflict between the band members. Quelling speculation, Walla cryptically explained his seemingly abrupt departure in Seattle’s The Stranger: “I think I long for the unknown. It might be that simple.”
After the completion of Kintsugi, Walla relocated from Seattle, WA to Norway with his wife, immersing himself in a body of work he had begun while still a member of Death Cab for Cutie. The final product of that work, Tape Loops, is Walla’s first release since his departure. The change in perspective that must have come with leaving a highly active rock band and moving to the Arctic is highly evident throughout the record. Tape Loops’ forty minutes of running time are divided into five ambient pieces, marking a drastic shift from the dynamic indie rock present in Death Cab for Cutie’s work and in Walla’s first solo record, Field Manual (2008). Despite this difference, the album contains the same kind of melancholic soundscapes that made Death Cab for Cutie’s albums Transatlanticism (2003) and Plans (2005) so affecting. Rather than serving to support and complicate Ben Gibbard’s songs, Walla’s production unfolds in cyclical arrangements free from the structural constraints of pop and rock music.
There is little tension in the record; the songs seem to begin, develop, and end in whispers that exhibit power in their restraint. The songs share so many similarities that they can be difficult to discern from one another; warm synths, shimmering textures, and solemn piano chords persist throughout the album, while percussion, vocals, and clear transitions are absent. “Kanta’s Theme” introduces the album with icy piano hits and ghostly synth pads that convey just a hint of restlessness. “I Believe In the Night”, simultaneously the album’s shortest piece and its most sonically rich, evokes Brian Eno’s atmospheric work with its saturated walls of electronic tone. The final track, “Flytoget”, elegantly closes out the album with light washes of reverb and minimal guitar lines that feel almost conversational despite the lack of language.
Tape Loops moves at a glacial pace, granting listeners’ minds free reign to wander. Although this tranquil quality makes it a fitting companion for work or study, Tape Loops is perhaps best suited to late nights and early mornings, existing as it does somewhere between wakefulness and dreaming. In its meditative placidity, Walla seems to have successfully found a piece of the unknown that he left his band to search for.
Tape Loops is out October 16th through Trans Records. You can stream the album in full via NPR.
Article by Brendan Gibson