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Music Review: RL/VL – Chagrin

Just who is RL/VL? What does it stand for? What does the title of the debut album Chagrin actually mean? These were the questions that I had in my mind when I opened this intriguing CD.

I was even more confused when I saw that the album had taken a far from straight journey.  I found the CD, originated in Belfast and had arrived here in France via Perth in Western Australia. To confuse the issue even more Chagrin had been inspired by a trip taken by a 16 year old Irish lad to America.

RL/VL is the invention of electronic composer Jack Hamill, who is all of eighteen. It stands for ‘real life/virtual life’. He first began to form musical ideas back in 2006 when he spent a sun-soaked autumn in the US. His style of experimental, ambient, electronica has now resulted in Chagrin.

The Hidden Shoal label tell me that the verb ‘chagrin’ means to ‘vex by disappointment’. It comes from the French ‘sorrow’, and in its English use it means ‘annoyance or shame at having failed’. It is also a village in Cuyahoga county, Ohio, America. None the wiser, I reached for the CD.

Intriguingly there is a further clue on the album's cover. A brief newspaper account entitled ‘Walking Irishman Vanishes’ relates to a true story of an unknown man who was found, or rather not found, walking down Route 306 from Russell to Cleveland Hopkins Airport in America. When the Bainbridge Police went to look for him, he had simply vanished.

How was that inspiration transferred into the recording? Is any of this revealed in the music? Chagrin is sparse and minimalistic in the same way a Frank Stella work of art might be referred to as such. However peer deeper and the canvass, or in this case the recording, begins to reveal it’s hidden depths.

The secret is to look. Do you remember those magic eye 3D images that had people squinting at them at the recommended six inches distance whilst on crowded trains? After a period of going cross eyed a sudden  ‘Eureka’ moment would arrive. Listening to Chagrin is a similar, musical, experience.

The track titles just add further mystery to the experience. “Unity”, “Dinosaurs”, “Four Piece Suite”, “Part Covered Flags”, “Double Bed Sleep Pain Away”, “Kweens”, and “A Lake You Could Walk On” give tantalizing glimpses of where we are going.

However quite often it is best to lie back, in a dark room, and allow your own experience to take you. The album creates a well of ambiance to slowly lower yourself into.

It is a sparse landscape. It has no distractions. There is nothing visible on the horizon to head towards. Yet it is rich with colour, rather like swimming in water colours, and it has a myriad of doors, and mirrors to choose from.

There is something triumphantly ageless about the landscape it conjures up. We, the listener, are invited to float above it, looking down as we travel across the scenery. Chagrin is a musical out of body experience. It is music for the mind. It is meditation.

What isn’t played, or created fascinates as much as what is. This is a young man whose electronic explorations into Synth ambiance aren’t lost by layering too deeply. He remains loyal to the minimalistic art form that inspired him, and is all the stronger for it.

So were my questions answered? Certainly Real Life/Virtual Life, achieves precisely that vision. A graying of reality, to fantasy. Blurring that which exists to that which is temporarily created. It successfully blurs the line between the two elements. All of this is achieved by the use of oceans of space. It invites the mind to venture inward and explore.

About Jeff Perkins