As Earthen Sea, Jacob Long spent more than a decade pulling his music gradually into focus. The erstwhile post-hardcore bassist began recording under the alias sometime after the turn of the millennium, but the project hit its stride in the early years of the 2010s, when the dissolution of the D.C. scene veteran’s groups Black Eyes and Mi Ami led him to concentrate his energies on a foggy, idiosyncratic take on lo-fi ambient. At first, it was a vaporous, secretive sound. “He had two Casio keyboards with the preset beats run through a bunch of pedals so it made these rhythmic rumbling textures,” Long’s former bandmate Daniel Martin-McCormick (aka Ital and Relaxer, and a Pitchfork contributor) recalled of an Earthen Sea live show. “It felt really private, but just with one more step that could go into this whole other area.”
Long began taking those steps on 2014’s Mirage and 2015’s Ink, both for Martin-McCormick’s Lovers Rock label, crafting airy, spacious ambient tracks that warily circled the reassuring pulse of dub-techno. With 2016’s The Sun Will Rise, for Nicolas Jaar’s Other People, and 2017’s An Act of Love, on Kranky, his beats continued to assume shape and gather strength. To follow the arc of those records was to trace a slow but unmistakable coming into being. But Grass and Trees, his first album in more than two and a half years, takes a step back into vapor. His music is beginning to dissolve again.
All seven of the album’s tracks have similar contours. Most songs consist of just one or two chords run through dub delay until the echoes flicker like a candle in the half-breeze of a humid night. Long’s synthesizers are unfussy, little more than a metallic glint in the darkness. Minor triads predominate, standard for dub techno, but occasionally he strays into unexpected major keys, adding extra color to his dusky sound. Sometimes he drifts outside conventional tonality altogether with synths more like church bells or wind chimes wrapped in muggy, muffled dissonance.
If there’s a barely there quality to Long’s tonal register, that goes double for his rhythms. Dub techno’s grounding pulse is largely notional—it seems to exist as a kind of muscle memory, connecting scattered drum hits and glancing chords. He traces a number of different pulses across the course of the album. The opener, “Existing Closer or Deeper in Space,” is propelled by a bassy, deep-diving downbeat; “Window, Skin, and Mirror” is fluid and easy moving, with faint hi-hats run through rapid-fire delay. “Spatial Ambiguity” and “Living Space” have almost no pulse at all—synths and isolated drum hits eddy in place, aimless and uninterested in moving forward. Never does Long indulge the straight-ahead boom-tick of his heaviest tunes, and sometimes his rhythms play tricks on you. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to parse the cadence of “A Blank Slate,” which feels like a normal 4/4 groove until you begin counting it out; some black magic seems to govern the relationship between synths and hi-hats.
Even at just 34 minutes long, Grass and Trees can get a little samey. There’s not much variation in the tonal palette or sound design, and there’s very little development within any given song—just synths, drums, filters, and delay tumbling in circles, like pebbles in the tide. And the production lacks the fullness of previous albums. These are snapshots of stillness made of moving parts; they are shallow pools reflecting pewter skies. But there is one sound that cuts through the murk of several tracks, providing a surprising through-line to the album: a simple handclap, seemingly human, rather than machine-made. It’s as though you were sitting alongside Long in his studio, listening to this nebulous, otherworldly music hissing from the speakers while he clapped along absent-mindedly. The sound is dry and close in the intimacy of the room.
The claps assume a particularly important role on the closing track, “Less and Less.” In the absence of any discernible downbeat, these loose, unquantized claps do their best to provide an anchor, a center of gravity. Gradually, they are met with other claps; the overarching feel is almost but not quite haphazard, like a rhythm unraveled. Eventually, the chords fade out, leaving just a smattering of smacked palms keeping precarious time against a backdrop of silence. Grass and Trees is an exercise in reduction, and eventually, it bumps up against minimalism’s limits. But “Less and Less” is a potent reminder of how much can be burned away without losing the distilled essence of a groove.