Mexican Summer · March 5, 2021
Photay’s latest release, On Hold, has rewarding moments but doesn’t quite come together as a coherent album. On Hold falls under the ambient genre, something which is made clear from the very beginning with the first track, “Prelude in MHz,” which consists solely of one tone. Unfortunately, most of the first half of the album feels somewhat wasted as far as ambient music goes. Rather than establishing a tangible atmosphere, the beginning of the album struggles to find a focus, and there is little to take away from it.
Despite this, the album does eventually change pace with the track “Roaming.” This track is centered around a pleasant loop, but considering how repetitive it is, the track lasts for far too long. Still, it does usher in the more pensive and compelling portion of the album. Specifically, it is followed by “How May I Help You?” This track is a highlight of the album by virtue of its ethereal sound design and a sense of movement that allows for emotion to be conveyed. The track is also characterized by an underwater-like atmosphere, perhaps due to low pass filters, which give a sense of disconnectedness. There are also accents of a glimmering bell-like sound, which, in being filtered like the rest of the sounds, further emphasizes the muted mood of the track.
From this point on, Photay successfully connects the tracks on the album into a story-like format. “Peak Bandwidth” has a broader pitch range while still maintaining the disconnected, underwater atmosphere from “How May I Help You?” This time around, the higher-pitched accent synths cut through more clearly. Additionally, Photay seems to have amplified lighter as well as darker sounds. Just as “How May I Help You?” progresses to “Peak Bandwidth,” “Hold On” is carefully crafted to reach the next step up. This track takes on a quivering sound through delay as well as a chorus- or harmony-type effect on the synths. It ebbs and flows in a way that furthers the sense of movement that was established earlier in the album with “Roaming.” Ultimately, “Hold On” lives up to its name – due to the deliberate trembling from the delay effect and the waves of sound rising and dying down again, the song sounds like someone struggling to pull themselves out of a dark place. This goal is also achieved in the track “March 10, 1876,” in which all the sounds are much sharper. Still, there is a shaky sensation that lends the song a fragile quality, as if this newfound peace could fall apart at any second. The song is completed by long, unwavering tones that enter every 30 seconds or so, and beautifully fill the role of a steadying force amid the otherwise uncertain sounds in the track. Named after the date of Alexander Graham Bell’s first successful trial of the telephone, “March 10, 1876” is perhaps the most thoughtful song on the album, both in title and in sound. In fact, Bell is known to have written a letter following the success of his invention, saying that it would allow “friends [to] converse with each other without leaving home.” Fitting to the idea of overcoming isolation, “March 10, 1876” exudes hope.
Unfortunately, the final track “Peace in Perpetuity” is a surprisingly dark conclusion to the album. There is a great deal of static and low bass noises in the background as well as an echoing quality to the static. While the sound of the track is interesting, it is not the ending the rest of the album seems to lead up to. Even the title, “Peace in Perpetuity,” falsely primes the audience to expect more of a tranquil sound. Whether it was intended or not, the song comes across as disappointingly bleak.
Overall, despite a slow start and a disheartening conclusion, several songs at the core of Photay’s On Hold are beautifully crafted and meticulously thought out. These tracks make the album well worth a full and chronological listen.