The Lonely Bell – The Outer Banks (Frosti) review

Scottish dark ambient producer comes down to Earth on this gorgeous, serene two-track EP for Thomas Ragsdale’s Frosti label.

Imagine finding yourself in some lost, deserted small town. Everything is quiet, hushed, still as you explore its clapboard storefronts; its rotting rustic cabins; its decaying church, curling like old linoleum to the heavens. There’s the soft thrum of katydids, the golden bells of thrushes and mockingbirds, the apocalyptic whine of cicadae, becoming more fevered and urgent as the sun sets behind hills gently rolling, like the back of some great dead beast. Or maybe it’s just sleeping…

The Lonely Bell is the dark ambient/drone project of Ali Murray, a producer and composer from the foggy, secluded Isle of Lewis in Scotland. With their moody, mysterious cover art – often captured in crisp black and white – subtle field recordings and detailed, sensitive sound design, The Lonely Bell’s albums are more like soundworlds unto themselves than merely a collection of sounds.

The Outer Banks‘ world is earthier and more grounded than Murray’s last two albums, trading in the nitrogen narcosis of last year’s excellent Kingdoms of the Deep and the small-engine levitation of Night Flights, in collaboration with fellow Scottish dark ambient producer Veryan, for the dust and dirt and sweat of earlier triumphs like the stupendous Ghost Town Burning, a firm fan favorite which helped introduce The Lonely Bell to the wider world. With a similar sense of eerie desolation mixed with peaceful reverie, The Outer Banks stands to broaden that audience even further, with a tighter, more focused and less sprawling structure than The Lonely Bell’s usual output.

The Outer Banks is made up of two shorter, subtle songs that fall somewhere in the hinterlands of pure ambient, dark ambient, and drone, like Steve Roach as heard through a thick fog bank while standing over the fissure at the Oracle of Delphi. It’s peaceful, even tranquil, as buried cellos and whirlwinds twirl and twine around minimalist ’70s sci-fi synths. The title track, “The Outer Banks,” is somatic, almost soporific, bringing to mind the white cube minimalism of 2001: A Space Odyssey even more than the deserted village of the liner notes.

The b-side, “Fires of Dawn” – as The Outer Banks is also available as a cassette – is even airier and slighter, the distant bells and dreamy strings sounding as if coming from far away, like some distant dream. It’s still, timeless, serene, and surprisingly lovely for an album that references Silent Hill as a source of inspiration. There are no murderous nurses in The Outer Banks, just an emerald and aquamarine cavern at the center of all creation where you can drift and dream, listening to oak trees and ferns whisper secrets.

After a string of impressively consistent, high-quality releases, with interesting concepts paired with striking aesthetics, top-shelf production standards, and a unique worldview, all backed with a real sense of musicality, The Lonely Bell is quickly becoming one of the most reliable sources of dreamy, thoughtful ambient music. Whether you’re a fan of clinical, austere ambient; murky, mysterious dark ambient; or meditative, vaguely-mystical drone, each and every The Lonely Bell release is an essential purchase.

The Outer Banks is out now, on cassette and digital download, on Frosti.

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