Terra Ambient is Jeff Kowal
- Pilgrim's Road
- The Gate
- Sandstorm Dreaming
- Westerly Prayer
- Serpent and Stone
Jeff has been an active musician for over a decade. Both formally trained and self-taught, Jeff's musical interests and influences span a wide spectrum of cultures. This crossover of electronic, ethnic, acoustic and experimental sounds has become the foundation of his work, and can be heard in his solo projects, as well as in collaborations with other artists, television and independent movie scoring, and gallery installations.
The name sums it up – spacious electro/ethnic/ambient soundscapes, complete with moody, Porcupine Tree-like architectural cover imagery. Terra Ambient is Pittsburgh based Jeff Kowal’s solo studio project, and "The Gate" his second album.
Jeff is trained as a graphic designer and visual artist, and this may inform his approach to tonal coloring and layering.
He begins with cavernous electronic and (real) didgeridoo drones, ornamenting with Indian Bansuri, Chinese Pipa lute, overtone vocals and processed guitar, all put through a suitably humongous reverb algorithm. A diversity of (again thankfully real) mainly African hand percussion emerge and recede into the mix to provide a shifting, loose and atmospheric pulse.
The music is fairly homogeneous throughout the album, moving fluidly from one soundscape to another, the journey remaining essentially in the same emotional place. The result is too dark for new age, but nevertheless remains safely within a tonal realm. Robert Rich is an obvious comparison, and Kowal credits Rich in his liner notes for friendship and counsel. This may point to my only small reservation with the album; it is understandable that an artist may want to emulate their heroes, but personally I would like to hear more individuality, personality and imagination in this music, especially considering that is a second album.
That said, this is hypnotic, spacious, and sensitively composed music that fulfills its intention of providing deep night spaces for drifting.
In 2002, Jeff Kowal, a.k.a. Terra Ambient, made quite a name for himself with his debut CD - A Darker Space. That exquisite blend of dark ambient, tribal ambient and space minimalism was a mainstay on many "Best of the Year" lists.
His long-awaited and eagerly-anticipated follow-up is finally here! The Gate is every bit as awesome as his debut and then some! Jeff has found greater confidence and his tendencies to perfectionism have paid off handsomely on this CD!
The seven movements in this processed acoustic symphony (no synths) weave tales of unknown strength and deep emotionalism. The moods range from dark and sinister to contemplative and healing to rhythmic tribal. Jeff handles each style expertly. His virtuosity on a large array (over 20) of acoustic and ethnic instruments (including one garbage can lid) is amazing. He mixes processed sounds and acoustic sonorities adroitly. The segues are seamless so the disc plays as a single long soundscape.
This disc works best on continuous play with the old style headphones that cover the listeners’ ears completely. A dark room with burning incense and candles enhances the experience tremendously.
Mood altering chemicals are never necessary.
This disc is extremely psychoactive on every level! It is also jeff’s ticket to the perpendicular universe!
2004. Jim Brenholts
I purchased a copy of The Gate not knowing what to expect. I thought, perhaps, it would be a dark ambient soundscape in the mode of Terra Ambient's first CD, The Darker Side. I did not expect... THIS!!
When Bill Beck wrote that The Gate would appeal to fans of TUU, he hit the mark...in fact, the opening minutes of track 1, "The Pilgrim's Road", sounds very like the next, long awaited TUU CD....as I continued listening, however, I heard sounds morph into other sounds..what sounded like a processed bansuri flute slowly became a didgeridoo, which flowed into a section of electric guitar, all supported by an impressive percussion section (which turns out to be Jeff overdubbed on everything from dumbek to garbage can lid!) I was not expecting an ethnic sonic voyage of this breadth and detail. I started to listen to the music cinematically as a kalimba chimed in my direction...from a corner of the musical screen came (I think) a Chinese lute called a pipa, then flutes again appeared (I had no idea that Jeff was so proficient on so many instruments).
Like all great cinema, visual or musical, there is a Grand Finale in which the processed sounds of a digeridoo, a majestic electric guitar, overtone vocals, percussion, and God knows what else summarize what you have just heard.
The last track,"Blood", is not big for the sake of being big; Jeff needed to make a final musical statement that would encompass all of what had come before, no easy task, but he pulls it off. As the final sounds of a didg fade to a whisper, you hope... maybe there's a hidden track at the end? Perhaps next CD.
There's a wonderful world music track by the late jazz musician Don Cherry called "Moving Pictures For The Air", and that's my personal subtitle for The Gate. Whether you listen cinematically, or as a musical journey (what lies behind that gate?), there is so much here to fascinate..and enjoy.
In just his second CD, Jeff Kowal a/k/a Terra Ambient has subsumed his influences (Rich, Roach, Parsons, TUU) and has established his own musical identity.
And as Jeff gains increasing technical prowess on the rather amazing array of instruments that he gathered for The Gate… he is a musician to watch.
2004. Gordon Danis
This CD from 2004 features 50 minutes of arcane ambience.
Terra Ambient is Jeff Kowal. Electronic textures fuse with didgeridoo and other ethnic instruments to produce an ethereal dose of ambience tempered with lazy tempos and sighing woodwinds. Voices and guitars undergo extreme processing, entering the mix as tenuous sounds that enhance the overall haunting tuneage.
Languid harmonics drift like thick fogs that refuse to merge. Relaxed beats and pensive wheezings flicker amid these clouds, connecting air and soil in a union that literally transcends conventional styles to resound with a global demeanor celebrating a human spirit devoid of nationality.
While nationality plays no part in this music, geography does. The songs evoke arid climates shrouded in twilight and seething with mystic implications. Listeners are ushered through a cerebral gate to witness antediluvian ceremonies involving natural forces and mute stone.
Sandstorms rise in the distance, creeping slowly forward to engulf the audience in their breathing resonance. The eerie didgeridoos and shuffling rhythms generate a mild urgency that escorts you safely through the dry tempest.
Desert flutes waver and tremble, calling to the night.
This CD will definitely appeal to fans of Steve Roach's tribal music.
2004. Matt Howarth / Sonic Curiosity
On The Gate by Terra Ambient, electronic musician Jeff Kowal leaves the ranks of his synthesizer absorbed brethren to relate his personal musical story through performances on a range of exotic acoustic instruments. With this move, Kowal does achieve multi-instrumentalist status, but does not stray too far from the technology associated with more overtly electronic sounding mind-music. Kowal brings to this genre of "Forth World" tribal-ambient soundscapes an enthusiasm and accessibility that is demonstrated in his album's energetic melodic content and virtuoso musicianship.
The mood emanating from The Gate is ceremonial, primordial and enigmatic. Leading the listener across a range of musical terrain, from minimal and dark to powerful and celebratory, The Gate is a dynamic cerebral journey to an internal place defined by the individual.
2004. Chuck van Zyl / STAR'S END
This is a HUGE departure from 'The Darker Space'. In place of the dark droney and ghostly curiosities of that wonderful work is a rhythmic, percussive, didgeridoo soaked canvas of tribal free-floating mystery. These are the sounds of a confident musician spreading his wings, daring himself to go where he hasn't gone before.
"The gate" is a very apropos title for this set both figuratively and literally-- as each track seems to cross into another uncharted sonic space.
This is the soundtrack for a mystical journey into an multicultural-- indeed, aboriginal, latin, chinese, and Tibetan-- infused maze of ambient wonder... Very organic sounding: lots of breathy PROPULSIONS of flute and voice. The latter coming out vividly in the deep harmonic overtone singing on track 5 "Westerly Prayer" .
The various combinations of breath or string propulsions and the accompanying congas are at the core of The Gate's energy, for sure...But there is a really hypnotic quality to all 7 tracks and thus the work as a whole...On additional listens, I am even beginning to notice other interesting details that I hadn't picked up on before-- like the engrossing and breathy background drone on the epic "Serpent and Blood". I think the standout, however, might be the closer "Blood". I love how early into the track the digeridoo vibrates and bleeds, often subtlety, into every ounce of the audio field....And then the percussive propulsion once again moves us forward towards another "gate"!
Jeff also plays a nice, very airy, sky HIGH sounding guitar on this track...And we move onward-- straight through to sunrise-- into the distance riding on the vibrations of a winding did.
The new cd by Terra Ambient called "The Gate", is a ethno-ambient journey into lost persian deserts and mindscapes. The flute tones are rich and deep, and the drums stand out clear and strong. There are deep drones on most of the tracks that seem to be like pillers of support as Terra Ambient takes us on these desert dreams.
This is Jeff Kowal’s second CD and he seems to be getting better with each one. The attention to detail puts him up there with the best.
This CD puts me into the desert space and it is a good space to spend an hour in.
I highly recommend it.
2004. Robert Carty
"The Gate" is the second CD from Jeff Kowal, aka Terra Ambient, which took over two years to complete. In the meantime, Jeff established the new label LotusPike with two companions.
"The Gate" is the first release from this label. Well, the new album is a welcome one and a strong one as it offers 50 minutes of a mystical journey into ethno-ambient territory. While all hand-forged loops comprise the backgrounds on all seven tracks, the main course is filled with a variety of tribal percussion and strong, rich sounding flutes.
The overall organic content is attractive and accessible. Musically, it moves somewhere between Robert Rich (especially "Majoun" leans towards "Rainforest") and the mystifying sound sculptures that Steve Roach has visited in the last decade or so. This is a strong effort, by all means.
Bert Strolenberg / SonicImmersion.org
This is the second release by Jeff Kowal a.k.a. Terra Ambient, and like the first it treads ground previously walked by Steve Roach, Robert Rich, Loren Nerell and other contemporaries, but steps off the path enough to explore new nooks and crannies in the tribal ambient genre. In the aforementioned list, I hear a bit more of Nerell’s sound than the other two, Kowal leaning toward ethnic and world influences as opposed to creating synth atmospheres.
The liner notes list an impressive array of instrumentation, mostly of the primitive variety such as bansuri, Chinese gongs, Tibetan singing bowls, frame drums, and the like. The result is an organic soothing heady brew of sounds. Soft smooth drones are accompanied by gentle tribal beats and fluty sounds.
"Majoun" is almost fully percussion, with a subdued, slightly mournful lead instrument that sounds similar to vidnaObmana on his fujara.
"Sandstorm Dreaming" features didgeridoo and richly textured layers of other native sounds.
Most tracks have at least a gentle rhythm rolling through them, but "Westerly Prayer" floats on the tranquil air.
"Serpent and Stone" combines drumbeats, drones, and stringed instruments in a cool collage.
"Blood" contrasts primal rhythms with electric guitars and more didgeridoo, and brings The Gate to its conclusion.
Phil Derby / Electroambient Space
If ever a sub genre was in need of a transfusion, it's ethno-tribal ambient. With The Gate, a new recording from Terra Ambient (the alias of one Jeff Kowal), that transfusion has arrived and the patient is now not just healthy, but vibrantly alive! The Gate is among the finest recordings released in this genre since the turn of the century, and can placed alongside albums such as o yuki conjugate's undercurrents in dark water, Tuu's All Our Ancestors, Steve Roach and Robert Rich's Soma, as well as the recordings from Suspended Memories or Kenneth Newby. Yes, it is that good.
What astounded me was how Kowal accomplished this feat without the use of synthesizers. Instrumentation on the album includes his voice (harmonic overtone singing and other vocals), electric guitar, bansuri flute, didgeridoo, and more ethnic percussion than I will\ bother to list here, except to say it's a lot! Most of those are subject to some sort of processing (not the percussion, though) and that is how Kowal achieves such superb textures without using a keyboard of any type whatsoever. The Gate is an amazing achievement in sound design and recording wizardry.
Many of the tracks feature ethno-tribal percussion, yet the music carries a wafting sense of primal sensuality, even when there are rhythms present. Other apt descriptors would be: haunting, surreal, mysterious, earthy, shadowy, entrancing, and rapturously beautiful. Make no mistake about it, despite the darker tint to most of the music here, it is still utterly beautiful.
Kowal apparently excels at everything. His Bansuri flute work is wondrous, as it floats over the didgeridoo, carrying the main melody along as if it was a wisp of incense borne by a gentle wind. Speaking of his didgeridoo, he uses it in refreshingly subtle ways, so that it adds muted colors to a selection without overpowering everything else going on (a frequent complaint I have with that instrument on most albums). However, it's his percussion work that impresses me the most, as well as how he integrates his various vocal abilities among the rest of the assembled parts.
Allow me to detail some of this fantastic album's highpoints. "majoun" is a Gamelan-type number and it's simply stunning, dominated by examples of that genre's tuned percussion beating out a steady pulse over assorted deep dark textures that ebb and flow, and Kowal's eerie yet intoxicating flute work, echoed as if being played in a huge underground cavern.
Then there's the title track, wherein flute and didgeridoo slowly circling and taunting one another, before assorted hand drums and percussion slowly emerge from the shadows, along with a swelling of background vocal textures.
"sandstorm dreaming" opens in a hazy whirlpool of growling and barking didgeridoo and slowly introduces desert-like rhythms on hand drums before evolving into a subdued but undeniably powerful number that evokes a flight over a landscape consumed by massive sand dunes, with the distant ground racing underneath you and a sense of urgency pumping through your veins.
"serpent and stone", an overt world fusion soundscape, contains Middle Eastern/North African textures and modalities, but still maintains a solid underpinning of ambient "feel." Kowal layers his assorted percussion and drums with a combination of surgical skill and poetic vision. On headphones, the mix is staggeringly intimate yet also wide and expansive. His use of electric guitar on this track is also highly original. I love the flow and energy of this song, as it churns along with the sensation of a person running from a nameless fear that is following right behind, pressing the pursued soul to go faster and faster, until the track subsides as his foe finally fades from his view.
The Gate stands as, dare I say it, a monumental achievement on the part of Jeff Kowal.
This is an absolutely essential recording in this sub genre and should land on many "best of the year" lists, guaranteed.
It merits my highest recommendation with no reservations whatsoever.
2004. Bill Binkleman / Wind & Wire