Album Review: Wayne Robert Thomas & Isaac Helsen - RÁS

If you go back through the myriad reviews I’ve put together since this site’s inception that are about an album that I’ve classified as ‘ambient droning’ or ‘experimental,’ there’s a very good chance you’ll find many of the reviews say the same thing—that this kind of music is, more than likely, difficult to make, and it’s even more difficult to write about it with any kind of grace.

There’s a lot of pretty bad, or at the very least, forgettable instrumental/ambient music out there in the world. There’s also a fair amount of pretty good ambient music—good enough, sure, but does it stick? Does it stay with you? Do those drones that cascaded over you while you listened linger after the album is done?

Is the kind of ambient music that gives you a visceral, very real emotional reaction—does it make you feel sick with a sadness that you can’t shake? Does it set a somber, pensive tone for your 15-minute walk to work, as you listen to the same, short, three-minute piece on loop on your headphones?

Of all the music like this that I have surrounded myself with, this latter kind—the kind that haunts, or worse—is very rare.


For a label that launched just last year, Past Inside The Present have certainly been ‘in their moment.’

Located in Indiana (of all places), PITP regularly—at times with a frightening frequency—issue new titles, both physical as well as digital, from a cavalcade of artists working within the ambient and experimental genres.

Outside of an ambient and experimental label being housed in Indianapolis, much to my surprise, the Midwestern city is also, apparently, a hotbed for ambient composers and performers as well—including the label’s own co-founder Isaac Helsen—it’s his arresting 18 minute composition “In Which We Hold Our Breath to Gather Light” that is found on one side of a split vinyl release shared with another Indianapolis performer, Wayne Robert Thomas.

I had been introduced to Thomas last year, through his contribution to a split LP with the Canadian performer Kyle Bobby Dunn, and since then, I have been eagerly anticipating new music from Thomas—two new pieces, “Cantus in Memoriam Mark David Hollis” and “A Grey Morning, Lovely Sunshine Later” are found on his side of RÁS.

Derived from a Faroese word, RÁS roughly translates to ‘a strong current in a narrow passage which links two seas.’

Gorgeous, haunting, and evocative in their own ways, the press materials for this effort state each side of RÁS mirrors the other—and yes, I can certainly hear that, but what comes through even clearer in listening to each composition is how they are continuations of one another—as well as the foundation for a connection between two artists, who worked independently on their contributions, but were both chasing the same sound—and more importantly, the same feeling.


“Cantus in Memoriam Mark David Hollis” is exactly what it sounds like based on the title—a piece written and recorded in memory of Mark Hollis, the reclusive and iconic singer and songwriter behind the storied ‘art rock’ outfit Talk Talk. Hollis, who had more or less retreated from the public eye, passed away at the end of February, 2019.

At nine minutes in length, “Cantus in Memoriam” burns as slowly, and somberly, as you could imagine, with Thomas gently layering long, cascading pulls of the electric guitar, alternating ethereal higher strings that create a sense of something bittersweet, with a rumbling, unnerving inclusion of lower notes used to add a minor flicker of something troubling. The entire piece, as it very slowly unfolds and swells around you, is like coming face to face with a ghost—not, like, something horrific, but something from your past that you’ve tried to out run; a memory that you know you shouldn’t be revisiting, but you find yourself ruminating on it regularly regardless.

“A Grey Morning, Later Lovely Sunshine,” arriving at less than seven minutes, is slightly less emotionally draining, though no less impactful.

Though they may be similar in atmosphere, “Grey Morning” moves a little more glacial of a pace, and Thomas exercise total control over the long, distended drones he manages to pull from the guitar, keeping them slowly swirling in roughly the same tone, occasionally shifting into some minor dissonance before bringing in the resolve. It’s an icy piece—not less ‘inviting,’ per se, when compared to the catharsis he moves through on “Cantus in Memoriam,” but here, those warm (and albeit somber) textures are replaced with something much more lonely in sound.

Isaac Helsen’s contribution to the release is something else entirely.

Spread out across 18 minutes, Helsen’s “In Which We Hold Our Breath to Gather Light” is structured like a ‘composition,’ as it were, complete with very specific movements running throughout.

Opening with a faint scratching noise, not unlike the needle of a turntable hitting a vinyl record, the word ominous doesn’t do justice to just how unsettling, and full of tension Helsen’s composition is, almost right out of the gate.

Roughly the first five minutes of “In Which We Hold Our Breath” builds a very creeping tension, magnified by the low, rippling synthesizer that radiates just below the other atmospheric layers—the main layer being howling, otherworldly guitar squalls that eventually give way to a sustained, all encompassing drone—indicating the arrival of the second movement.

Exponentially less ominous, the second portion of “In Which We Hold Our Breath” has much more of an emotional pull to it—perhaps it’s, in part, to the incorporation of a string arrangement, composed by Jeffrey Niemeier. The strings, mixed underneath the warbled cacophony, begin slowly, but then oscillate around to a point of catharsis until, roughly about six or seven minutes, later, everything begins to pull back—in its execution, its reminiscent of some of the best work from Andrew Hargreaves’ finest work with his loop based project, the Tape Loop Orchestra.

The transition between the piece’s second and third movements is deliberate, with the conclusion to “In Which We Hold Our Breath” coming at around the 15 minute mark in the form of a rickety, old piano, a plaintive sequence of chords being plunked out with the faintest notion of the dizzying, undercurrent of noise from the previous moment still ringing out underneath the piano’s ancient sounding keys. It’s a fascinating way to end the piece, bringing the listener in through a palpable sense of dread, and pulling them through to a melancholic, chilling end.

Between both artists and their respective contributions, RÁS shows the kind of places ambient music can be pushed—in shorter, self-contained compositions, as well as in longer pieces that involve multiple movements and growth as it unfolds. Thomas and Helsen have created fascinating and evocative work—with both sides of this split release lingering long, long after the music has stopped.

RÁS is out now on vinyl as well as a digital download, via Past Inside The Present.