Stepping somewhat outside his role as the frontman and guitarist for Toronto psychedelic pasture-izers Quest for Fire, Chad Ross is the sole figure behind the unsurprisingly more minimal Nordic Nomadic. He released a self-titled album under the moniker after starting the project in 2007 and makes his debut on Tee Pee (also Quest for Fire’s label, by odd coincidence) with Worldwide Skyline – an album whose title speaks to its breadth. Fans of the bedroom neo-folk of Comets on Fire guitarist Ben Chasny’s ongoing Six Organs of Admittance will recognize and delight in at least some of what Ross has on offer with these nine songs, the drone and subtle interweaving of electric and acoustic guitars and still somewhat lush feel undercutting the notion of Nordic Nomadic as a “solo project.” It is that, though, on the most superficial level; Ross is the only one in the band and is responsible for all the material. Anyone who was touched by Ross’ gentle melodicism on either Quest for Fire’s 2009 self-titled or last year’s Lights From Paradise will find spiritual companion in his work here, as the vocals are brought even more to the forefront by the inherent lack of other layers surrounding. Nordic Nomadic, for its relative want of personnel, does still sound lush, and could just as easily be branded psych as folk. As such, no reason to limit it to one or the other: Psychedelic folk.
There’s a self-consciousness at play on Worldwide Skyline, or at very least some self-awareness in how it’s structured. Ross opens the album with its title-track, which in turn is introduced by large swinging gates of distorted guitar that seem to open to the field of the acoustic song itself. It’s hard to imagine the grandeur of the electrified opening wasn’t intentional on Ross’ part. To his credit as a songwriter, he blends the acoustic and electric guitars gorgeously throughout, playing them off each other in well-constructed, well-mixed layers beginning right with “Worldwide Skyline.” His vocals follow a similar course, somehow managing to sound lush and humble at the same time on the shorter, more solo-feeling “The Future’s Fear” (2:30). Like most of the work here, it’s not upbeat or hooky enough to really qualify as “catchy,” but the standout quality (and surprising diversity) of the songwriting makes some of these tracks genuinely memorable. That might be true of “Worldwide Skyline” more than “The Future’s Fear,” but the finger-plucked strings of Ross’ acoustic toll like bells and excellently transition back into the droning electrics of “Growin’ Horns,” which highlights the major ambient crux of Worldwide Skyline with an atmosphere that’s open to interpretation either as bright, sunny and sepia or lonely. The wistful melody in the vocals comes through strikingly in the verse, but the soft inclusion of synth and the memento mori of effected electric guitar does well to add an element of darkness. It’s a sunset over some landscape that never existed, and Ross takes time with “Growin’ Horns” that he didn’t on “The Future’s Fear” to revel in the instrumentation.
“Bite to Chew” opens with the line “I read the news today,” which inevitably sets off the Beatles alarm (Quest for Fire showed some Beatles influence in the guitar work late on Lights From Paradise as well), but the song is altogether more psychedelically lush and less poppy than “A Day in the Life” or anything else from that era of the band’s discography. Interestingly, the song forms a sort of linear progression to Worldwide Skyline of longer tracks that begins with the opener and ends with later album highlight, “Listen to the Leaves.” The three are Ross’ only cuts over five minutes in length, and each sets a kind of landmark for the rest of the songs to hinge themselves upon; it’s easy to listen to the songs surrounding in the context of their position relative to the longer songs, in other words. The runtime disparity isn’t so huge – apart from “The Future’s Fear,” everything is within the three-to-five-minute range – but Ross fleshes the longer material out more (maybe this is obvious, since he’s taking extra time to do it, but the arrangements seem more complex as well) and really hones in on a creative vibe with these three tracks in a way that the rest of Worldwide Skyline seems to complement. And if that’s true, then the two-song to three-song ratio between “Worldwide Skyline” and “Bite to Chew” and “Bite to Chew” and “Listen to the Leaves” speaks to Ross’ expectation of the listener being that much more engaged in the album by the time it shifts through its sweetly bluesy “Summer Friends” centerpiece. That turns out to be precisely the case.
Echoing xylophone-esque (I suspect it’s effected synth or maybe even mellotron) notes pepper “Summer Friends” and commune with the sustained electric lead notes while lower-register acoustics play out a bouncing progression. It’s not quite as complex in its layering as some of what’s around it, but it’s with songs like “Summer Friends” and “The Soft Way,” which follows, that Worldwide Skyline affirms the musical personality Ross is driving at with Nordic Nomadic. The pre-“Listen to the Leaves” stretch sounds rich without being overdone, and as with Quest for Fire, the current of songwriting underneath the layers is what stands out the quality of the material. “The Soft Way” and “Take Your Heart to the End,” would seem to be Ross’ most Chasny-esque pairing, but the charm of the electro-acoustic interplay that was introduced right at the start of the album is firmly reestablished on “Take Your Heart to the End,” and seems to be at the core of what makes Nordic Nomadic most its own entity, and that holds true for “Listen to the Leaves” as well, which brings a subtle drum plod into the mix, giving the listener all the more of a landmark to coincide with the fluctuations of guitar. The solo Ross plays in the intro to “Listen to the Leaves” feels reborn out of some ‘70s arena much the same way Earth’s latter day output has molded those influences into alternately Americana and jazz-inspired imagery. Nordic Nomadic is more active arrangement-wise (there are vocals, for one) than Earth if somewhat similarly paced, and “Listen to the Leaves” seems to speak to potential avenues for development to come. The way the last minute or so of the song seems to hold on is one of Worldwide Skyline’s most striking moments.
Following that, I half-expected closer “The Things You Lost” to be instrumental, but Ross adds soothing verse to his acoustics, gradually developing a layered chorus that affirms Nordic Nomadic’s tonal sweetness and ability to be striking in both simplistic and lush stretches. It’s among Worldwide Skyline’s most natural tracks, and appropriate to close the record on that level, with Ross adding a fitting lack of ceremony to the ending of what’s an indulgent but not necessarily pretentious collection. If the four years between Nordic Nomadic’s self-titled and this album are any indicator of the frequency with which Ross plans to visit these grounds, it’s suited to the lush-yet-sparse feel of the songs. Worldwide Skyline is the kind of album that seems in listening to be giving off Vitamin D, but there’s something lonely underlying it as well that serves to enhance the artistry and the admirable nature of the arrangements. Ross asked last year on Quest for Fire’s “Greatest Hits by God” the question “What’s another word for being alive?” With Nordic Nomadic, he seems to be providing his own answer.
Tags: Canada, Nordic Nomadic, Ontario, Tee Pee Records, Toronto