Ralph Kinsella - In The Lives That Surround You (Album Review)

Johann Sebastian Bach once quipped: "It's easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time, and the instrument will play itself." While this tongue-in-cheek statement is technically true, instruments can be utilised creatively, and even an instrument as ubiquitous as the guitar, in the right hands, can occasion auditorily unique worlds. Ralph Kinsella is not your average guitarist. Instead of flexing with complex rhythms or shredding on lead, he prefers to extract strange and otherworldly sounds from his guitar. With a musical history of playing in "mostly lo-fi rock" bands, the Dumfries and Galloway musician has sculpted experimental ambient music with a touch of industrial since 2020's Abstractions EP. On his sophomore album, In The Lives That Surround You, Kinsella utilises a bottomless barrel of effects and layers his spacious notes with buzzy electronics and glacial ambience, framing them in an emphatically vague narrative. His playing style is much more expressive than performative, though there is a sense that Kinsella is in complete control of the capricious sounds he births.  

While the guitar is Kinsella's primary armament, he applies touches of piano, harmonium, and field recordings to his delicately balanced recipe. Treated notes from his grandmother's old piano open the album on "Holding On To Memory Devices", though these are quickly replaced by an ominous screech and soothing slabs of reverb that escalate from low in the mix. The album's raison d'ĂȘtre is palpable from this introduction: an exploration of the relationship between fragility and destruction. This theme is recurring, like on "Old Manse, Wild Garden", where Kinsella smears delayed acoustic fingerpicking with far-reaching distortions, or the multifaceted "An Ocean In The Pines" with its harsh gnarls blending with arpeggiated accentuations and patches of hushed acoustic intimacy. 

Another contiguity present on this album is the storyless compositions giving rise to high-concept themes; at once, these tracks mean nothing and everything. Even when the euphoric buzz of "Wakeful Life" rattles with intrigue, there is little discernible melody as the loose structure develops into robotic drones. Likewise, the accessibility of "Mt Florida", which sees a minimal guitar sequence repeated over blankets of liminal soundscapes, is contrasted by the eight-minute "Aporia", the twisted vocalisations of which operate as a harbinger for the darkly-doomsday guitars that come. 

Despite the deceptively minimal arrangements on offer, In The Lives That Surround You has a profundity that inspires deeply introspective and quietly epic listening.