If you follow chill-hop’s underground pulse, the odds are you’ve probably already been hearing some good things about JD Lion, an Austin-originating musician whose ambient works have been raising a few eyebrows among critics since the release of his rookie single, “Attack/Release,” back in 2019. This year, Lion is back with a new EP in the form of Northern Lights that expands upon the themes set forth in his debut while adhering to a classically-stylized creative pattern unique to those who take this genre’s finer points more seriously than most, and in my book, that makes this record quite the find indeed.
“Aurora” is the first song we make contact with in Northern Lights, and it definitely goes a long way towards establishing a trademark tonality for its composer through little more than its stately instrumentation introduction. There’s so much passion to the beat in this track, and while it’s hidden behind a wall of ambient textures (which double for lyrics throughout the whole of this extended play), there’s never a moment where it isn’t contributing to the energy of the music, and more prominently, the creating of a mood that the other two compositions on this disc will embody with even more grandeur than this one does.
There’s not a lot of catharsis to behold in Northern Lights, but I get the feeling that producing a consistent wave of tension here was a deliberate act on the past of JD Lion. It’s easy to build an ascending melody that spits out a potent, emotional release at the climax of its climb, but to forge a composition that relishes in the provocatively tense energy created when two instrumental components grind into each other (the 0:51 mark in “Majic” is perhaps the best example of this) takes a lot more artistic wit and wisdom for sure.
This tracklist is absolutely one of the most fluid that I’ve come across in the ambient genre this spring, and though it consists of only three songs (and runs just under nine minutes total), it feels as stately and powerful as a full-length album and then some. It can be quite challenging to pack as much substance into an extended play as JD Lion did with Northern Lights without coming off as a bit overreaching aesthetically, but if this player’s up and coming competitors were to take a page from his style of attack here, I think ambient music as a whole would be better for it.
You don’t have to be a big chill-hop fan to get swept away by the sonic oasis that is JD Lion’s Northern Lights this season, but for those of us who have been studying the ambient subgenre’s evolution in the last decade, this is one record that you’re going to want on your shelf in 2020. There’s a lot to take apart here, from the construction of the grooves to the very fabric binding the soft instrumental harmonies together, but if you’re as much of an audiophile as I am, it’s an EP that’s just about impossible to put down once it’s been played for the first time.
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