There’s a heavy beat but somehow it is pounding softly, as if from behind a cinderblock wall, muffled, escaping from a cell deep within the collective mind. Floating above is a warm haze of synth, blanketing the beat like an ambivalent cloud.
Such is the feeling when listening to the Album Leaf, the organic electronic project of San Diego musician Jimmy LaValle. For two and a half decades, the Album Leaf have built their career on a succession of layered sound and skill.
Earlier this month, the band released Future Falling, their eighth full length and first collection of originals since 2016. This weekend, they bring the album tour to The Ritz, playing San Jose for the first time in their lengthy career.
To understand Future Falling, we should first understand ambient music. The genre that would come to be called ambient emerged from the new synthesizer technologies of the ’60s and ’70s. Studio advances of the ’80s (sampling, specifically) allowed for the creation of endless soundscapes and further defined the genre. As the sophistication of electronic musicians grew into the ’90s, ambient reached popularity through a variety of sources, piped into chillout rooms at raves and reaching wider audiences through film scores.
On Future Falling, the Album Leaf toy with all eras of ambient for a kind of electro-cosmic vision of life and death. Here, very mellow tunes hum with existential threat, like Valium reacting with alcohol. Heartbeats thump and fade away at the same time as crisp flanges spark across the stereo space, inviting the listener to let go of resistance and let the future fall.
As rock music collapsed under the weight of grunge and nu metal at the end of the last century, ambient bands offered a bold alternative with an innovative live experience. Along with bands like Icelandic giants Sigur Rós, the Album Leaf added live players to translate ambient soundscapes into a full band experience. It was an evolution that came suddenly in 2001, when Sigur Rós heard LaValle’s music and invited him on the road. He got a band together to tour with the Icelanders, even recording his next three albums at their studio on the subarctic archipelago.
Live, LaValle plays from behind a setup he calls “a spaceship,” a master control base comprising synthesizer, laptop, midi-controller and more.
“In the process of creating sound, my Novation Peak is probably one of my favorite synthesizers to toy with,” he says, describing his polyphonic synthesizer. “It’s like the basis and the beginning of everything. I love to create and shape [the] sound.”
In addition to LaValle on synths and various electronics, a drummer (David LeBleu), trumpeter (Brad Lee) and violinist (Matt Resovich) flesh out the band’s vibes and beats. On stage, brightly colored neon lights wrap around the players like a scene out of Tron.
“Hopefully it’s a very engaging show,” LaValle says. “There’s a lot of live production and visual aspects, eye candy that will keep you nice and entertained, and, and…guessing. It’s just a completely different show than if you’ve seen us in San Francisco ever.”
As influences, LaValle cites titans of ambient and electronic music, including Aphex Twin, an artist he calls “techno’s Jimi Hendrix.”
“I always go back to, you know, Brian Eno, the originator of the ambient genre of electronic music,” he says.
Though, recently, it has been the modern sounds of electronic music holding his attention.
“Lately, actually, there’s a lot of German techno that I’ve been really into. Contemporary German techno has been pretty fantastic,” he says. “You know, you’re not going to hear straight up techno in my music, but the approach to this kind of tone and vibe that has been created with a lot of the newer techno—it’s really exciting.”
And though he’s now more than 20 years into his career as the Album Leaf, LaValle is still finding new things to be excited about.
“New record, new show, new band, new energy,” he says. “Just excited to be back out again with something new and, yes, a new place. It’s not very often that I play a new city, it’s kind of nice to be in a new place.”