This is the debut release from the duo of Loscil's Scott Morgan and classically trained cellist Mark Bridges. The pair met while at a residency in Alberta, then convened for two weeks of winter recording in renovated schoolhouse in Wyoming. Consequently, High Plains is quite an apt name for this project, succinctly capturing both the windswept isolation of the region and the project's deeply melancholy aesthetic. Being unfamiliar with Bridges, I expected High Plains to be a rather Loscil-esque endeavor, but the only truly significant similarity is that this album continues the bleak trajectory of Monument Builders: Cinderland mostly feels like a neo-classical soundtrack to an art film or perhaps like a stark and drone-damaged homage to Dirty Three.
Notably, Cinderland is not the first time Bridges and Morgan recorded together, as Bridges was featured on Loscil's adventurously experimental Adrift release, which was a 2015 app that offered "endless" ambient pieces inspired by ghost ships. This time around, however, Bridges gets equal billing and deservedly so–in fact, he often seems like the guiding force behind Cinderland, though that is probably just because he is the one playing all of the actual melodies. Scott Morgan's contributions are a bit more subtle and abstract, though no less important. While the more Loscil-esque elements are unwaveringly relegated to a background role, Morgan's somber piano arpeggios and swelling synth chords very much set the prevailing mood. Also, Cinderland proceeds at a glacially Loscil-esque pace and additionally features Morgan's distinctively dub-informed production style. "The Blood That Ran the Rapids" is a representative example of the High Plains aesthetic at its best, as a hollow percussion groove slowly carries an elegiac chord progression besieged by washed of tape hiss and eruptions of echoing and gnarled studio flourishes. The meat of the piece, however, is an achingly beautiful and ghostly cello melody embellished with all kinds of bleary after-images. Bridges has an impressive knack for conjuring up strong and haunting melodies. Curiously, however, there are not many other pieces on the album that stand out, as Cinderland primarily feels like a series of brief atmospheric vignettes of forlorn brooding and vague dread. Bridges and Morgan certainly do a fine job at that and the pieces are mostly short enough to avoid overstaying their welcome, but the monochromatic mood and lack of more substantial fare make this a difficult album to get enthusiastic about.
There is one wonderful exception to that trend, however: "A White Truck." Built upon a darkly unfolding, slow-motion two-chord progression and some lovely guitar shimmer, the piece is elevated above the rest of the album by Bridges' prolonged and sinister-sounding upward slides. Then the piece unexpected explodes into a harsh crescendo of snarling, distorted chords that completely rips the gloomy reverie of the previous pieces apart. Much like “Blood,” however, it feels like it is over all too soon. Thankfully, the strong closer "Song for a Last Night" is a bit longer, standing as another (albeit more subtle) highlight. While Bridges' emotionally resonant and languorous cello melody is as melancholy as always, Morgan's backdrop of a single wobbly and repeating chord lets in a bit more light than usual, as does the evocative layer of field recordings of birds and flowing water. As a composition, it is not necessarily stronger than the rest of the album, but the slight shift in mood makes a huge difference. The addition of field recordings is especially significant, as Cinderland is an album that feels extremely tied to a specific time and place. Most of the time, that time and place feels like the claustrophobic interior of a remote cabin, so stepping out of that simmering discomfort feels both dramatic and liberating. It makes me wish the duo had used a lot more field recordings, but I suspect they deliberately saved them for "Last Night" to end with a poignant and striking finale.
Sadly, the few wonderful pieces on Cinderland have the unintended side effect of calling attention to how much better the album could have been. Part of my lukewarm reception is due to my highly subjective and unshakable personal apathy towards anything that resembles a decontextualized soundtrack, but the monochromatic gloom of Cinderland is still objectively a tough sell, as is the incidental/vignette-like nature of most of these pieces. This album has the tense and restless feel of two people going slowly mad from cabin fever (but never actually snapping, which probably would have made for a far more intriguing affair). That said, Bridges and Morgan seem to have a real chemistry, even if it is colored heavily by their surroundings. I hope that this is not a one-off endeavor and that the two can someday work together in a less bleak and isolated setting, as there is a lot of potential here that I would like to hear realized in more accessible form. Grumbling aside, Cinderland does seem to have succeeded at exactly what High Plains set out to do, so it is not the execution that I have a problem with so much as the fundamental vision: this album sounds exactly like a landscape reduced to cinders. While I am not personally in the market for such a feast of stark melancholy, those of a different disposition will find plenty of that to embrace here.