BILLY YFANTIS – The Nebula Voyager

Following several releases of ambient and light electronic music, experimental composer Billy Yfantis reached peak minimalism with his 2021 album ‘Noises From The Outer Space’. It was so paired down it made even Tangerine Dream’s most ambient sounds seem busy, and so wantonly empty in places that it couldn’t actually be called music in the traditional sense. …And yet, somehow, the blankets of electronic sound – often no more than white noise, taking Eno’s idea of “room colourant” to extremes – managed to conjure various mental images and create something surprisingly effective.

By comparison, ‘The Nebula Voyager’ is a traditional synth-based work and actually has a few obvious tunes, but still manages to lean on the more minimal side of the ambient spectrum. Its sixteen original compositions call back to various points in the world of classic 90s ambient, but presents them through far more of a late seventies/early eighties German minimalist filter. Unlike so many of his influences, though, Yfantis makes the slight ambient sounds more accessible by keeping his arrangements very short, as if presenting them to a new generation of electronic music buffs seeking out works from the KPM music library for the first time.

It’s a collection of instrumental pieces that often goes nowhere quickly, and yet still has obvious standout moments along the way. The first of these, ‘Cat’s Eye Nebula’ works some high toned keys to send out a gentle pulse against a floating counter melody, almost as if extracted from the quietest parts of Tangerine Dream’s ‘Phaedra’, but just as the detached and floaty half melody begins to appeal, it disappears to unveil ‘The Orion Nebula’, which opens with a darker, almost sci-fi inspired melody where deep keys pave the way for a repeated loop that’s so terrifically 80s, it sounds nostalgic from the very first play. By then branching into collide with the quieter moments of Jarre’s ‘Magnetic Fields’ Yfantis gives more of a concession than before to those who want some actual tunes within their blankets of ambient noise, and this quickly becomes one of the disc’s many unassuming highlights.

‘Red Square Nebula’ never offers an obvious tune, but in terms of mind’s eye visuals, it’s as effective as the best bits of ‘Noises From The Outer Space’, since the deep notes that fade slowly in and out of a hazy, cold sheet of sound actually sound like the audio equivalent of a spaceship being threatened by a black hole in a retro sci-fi movie. It’s to Billy’s eternal credit that he manages to make a three minute drone so interesting. For those hoping for something a little quirkier, those “black hole” sounds make a speedy return throughout ‘Boomerang Nebula’ where glass block effects and reverb suggest a journey that’s not going well, or – from a purely audio perspective – an electronic experiment rescued from a stretched audio tape. Despite being far more of an ambient sound than an obvious tune, the way Yfantis repeatedly uses echo and reverb to flesh out the spaces keeps the minimalism on the good side of buoyant, whilst the almost haunting ‘Ring Nebula’ definitely takes cues from mid 80s Vangelis with a flow of quiet electronica that could be extracted from a discarded piece of his ‘Horizons’. If you approach this expecting very little to happen, it somehow becomes all the more striking.

Keeping with the absolutely scaled back, ‘Eagle Nebula’ and ‘Ant Nebula’ occasionally sound as if a small glider is hovering outside of the window while you’re desperately craning your ears to hear a rising and falling sound – both definite throwbacks to ‘Noises From The Outer Space’. Representing almost nine minutes where nothing at all seems to happen, there’s a perverse interest in waiting for climaxes that never come (although ‘Ant Nebula’ makes great use of Billy’s beloved “air lock noise”). The lovely ‘Eskimo Nebula’ does a brilliant job in evoking a detached and cold soundscape through a couple of high toned synth noises, and a wavering, glass-like tone. It’s strange how this appears to do even less than ‘Eagle Nebula’ but seems more interesting.

Although he often aims for the floaty and other-worldly, Yfantis isn’t afraid of the ugly on occasion. ‘Carina Nebula’ works a minor drone intercut with sawing electronic sounds, like an old Tristram Cary score from 70s Doctor Who colliding with the force of a Van Der Graff Generator freak-out. Its repetitive barbs of sound – falling somewhere between synthesized cellos and stabs of genuine anger – begin to challenge the listener after about thirty seconds, and yet the remaining minutes become almost hypnotic in a way, with the chopping noise rising, falling, fading…and eventually dominating again, whilst the dark synths continue to show a fascination with early Vangelis circa ‘Spiral’. As always, if you don’t expect an easy ride, and everything will make far more sense.

Fleshing out this hour’s journey, you’ll obviously find various ambient pieces that merely go about their business in a workmanlike manner, such as ‘Lagoon Nebula’ which is little more than five minutes of electronic sound, rising and falling, constantly threatening to veer off somewhere different and then bottling it at the last moment, or ‘Pelican Nebula’, a quasi-tune so faint it can be disquieting, especially when deep bubbling sounds cut through the reedy drone. For the more patient, there ‘Helix Nebula’, a slow burning five minutes of pure ambient drone that takes Eno’s rule book about “mood and room colourants” absolutely literally, doing almost nothing in the process. These are all lovely in their own way, but so, so slight – even in ambient terms – that they certainly won’t be for the casual listener.

As with a lot of Billy’s work, there isn’t much here for those who seek synthesized works with heavy mechanised cores, or repeated and obvious melodies that genuinely stick. This is purely about the creation of soundscapes to leave behind mood enhancers; quasi-melodic companions that are effective as a backdrop when working, or merely to fill space. Those who enjoy longform works from Eno like ‘Music For Installations’ or Tangerine Dream’s minimalism circa ‘Ricochet’ will certainly find much to enjoy here, despite Billy’s love of shorter compositions. As non-affecting as it at first may well seem, this is an interesting ambient work that almost borders on the timeless.

April 2022