If you’ve ever taken a rowboat out on a tree-lined lake on a calm night where the moon is reflected in the water, you already know what the first track off the Shallow Waters EP sounds like. Even if you haven’t, Row Boat, UK musician Mark Wardale’s post-rock/ambient project, does an incredible job in ‘Ever After Memories’ with capturing and transcribing that strange, lonely tranquility that comes in those kinds of moments. There’s a lot going on under the surface – twinkling bells, soft piano, deep percussion, breathy vocals, vibrato strings and everything else that’s packed in there – yet Row Boat deftly blends each element, folding them carefully into one another and tucking any loose ends out of sight to create a peacefully gentle yet dark and interesting opening to the album.
While ‘Even After Memories’ evokes a certain loneliness with its sound, it never drags or turns depressing. Shallow Waters isn’t melancholy, exactly, but much of the music falls within the darker end of the spectrum. ‘Orkan’, for instance, strays into that darker territory, beginning low and innocuous and then building gradually towards an expansive finale. This track isn’t in a hurry to get to the big guns; it’s content to introduce its tone and evolve only when good and ready. Listen for the vocal motif midway through that’s echoed by some of the instrumentation – it’s one of my favorite aspects of ‘Orkan’.
The third track, ‘kärleksbrev’, is more in the vein of ‘Ever After Memories’, but Row Boat creates the same feelings of longing and tranquility with both a different instrumentation (in this case, a quiet mix of piano, brass and strings) and a less effects-heavy approach. What I love about this one is the way the lightly arpeggiated chords resolve and the simple brass line resonates against the empty space; it’s nice to see someone effectively use silence.
‘Inertia’, for me, is where things stagnate a bit. The atmosphere Row Boat has been carefully cultivating on this EP is still present, but this track isn’t as complex or gripping as the ones that came before it. It’s not bad; there are definitely moments that are attention-catching, but for a nearly seven minute song, there’s not enough going on. Ultimately, ‘Inertia’ just fades into the background a little too much to really offer the listener anything to hold onto.
Speaking of background, some of the tracks, like ‘Midnattsol’, wouldn’t be out of place in a horror film soundtrack, but while Shallow Waters can be unsettling, that doesn’t make it uncomfortable to listen to. ‘Midnattsol’ feels like maybe there’s something lurking nearby that’s eerie or vaguely sinister, but isn’t outright evil. Row Boat’s use of effects and percussion are particularly notable – honestly, the percussion work on this track is some of my favorite on this album. If I have one complaint, it’s that one weird, almost whining noise that comes in sometimes – you’ll know the one – which kind of gets to me after awhile, but I have a sneaking suspicion that’s just a personal problem. Regardless, ‘Midnattsol’ is intriguing and makes full use of small flourishes and effects.
Shallow Waters ends with ‘Prova’, which is not my favorite track but is nonetheless a smart choice. There are more major chords than minor, and the whole thing is a bit uplifting, courtesy primarily of the vocal work and strings. There are a few grating effects going on, but if that doesn’t bother you, then ‘Prova’ is a nice track, especially when it reaches its final burst at the end.
‘Prova’ ends Shallow Waters without getting saccharine, which again is smart because the strength of this EP is in its quieter, darker sound and ability to create such an emotionally-charged atmosphere, a talent that’s mandatory for any successful ambient artist. It’s probably not an EP I’ll be throwing on at a casual get-together any time soon, but it’s a beautiful listen, and there’s a wonderfully introspective quality to Shallow Waters that’s awfully compelling…8.7/10