Brian Tester, “Spectral Capital 2 & 3”

Not a debut, much less an introduction, Brian Tester’s icy ambient offerings leave more questions than answers.

Though long active among Oakland, California’s electronic music endeavours, Brian Tester has not made much of a name for himself—rather, he’s toiled tirelessly behind the scenes to make a name for pretty much everyone else. The mysterious, meandering tracks on Spectral Capital 2 & 3 feel like they began their conceptual fermentation deep in Tester’s mind a decade ago, when the first of the Spectral Capital oeuvre oozed into the air. These are foggy, nocturnal washes of beats and balms long laboured over, sculpted from a murky sonic clay by introspective hands.

A veteran of his local music ecosystem, F R E A K S label founder Nick Barbeln describes him as “omnipresent” and an “elder statesman” of sorts. Prior to stints in west coast bands such as Ruby Pins, Spaceburn, and Axolotl, Tester honed his synth and guitar work in Minneapolis, largely in the bands Triangle and Busy Signals. These days, he can most often be seen blasting glitchy, erratic thumpers in the duo W.O.E. Tester says his long catalogue of collaborative work informs this album’s soundscapes, but it’s otherwise a deeply personal, isolated piece.

These so-called “Day dreams, schemas, soliloquies” – or, as one track says, “glitches and stitches” – don’t feel like they’re going anywhere, but it’s through their unsteady stasis that each track carries you through haunting journeys. The airy, cinematic guitar loops and billowing synth make the glitchy breakbeats of W.O.E. sound downright austere by contrast.

As with all the best Airports-intended electronic music, there’s an impending tension in the emotional ambiguity on your toes while still lulled into a trance.

Perhaps the closest we get to a bona fide techno banger, “This Could Be (Your Saturday Night)” never quite tells us if this possibility of a Saturday night is supposed to be a party or a nightmare.

“Welcome Winter” is ambiguous along another axis. Is it the exclamation, “welcome, winter!”—or is it a winter described as “welcome” after an unforgiving summer and dreary autumn? There are wobbling webs of drones, near-rhythmic pulses, and psychedelic guitar flangery to suggest all of the above.

The real mystery lies in the unmistakable, singular personality at the heart of these plaintive, polyphonic harmonies. Who is singing to whom, and why? What does Brian Tester think, feel, want, or believe? It’s as if the artist were issuing spiritual credit to us that we can never repay. This capital may be “spectral” in its terms, but its presentation is open-ended enough to enrich us all the same.