On Branches, Philadelphia-based ensemble Square Peg Round Hole creates genre-blending ambient music that melds outward expression with inner pensiveness. The third LP from the percussion-based trio — Evan Chapman, Sean M. Gill, and Carlos Pacheco-Perez — Branches continues in a similar vein to past releases like 2016’s Juniper, a deeply emotional collection of purely instrumental, ambient works. But this time around, they’ve incorporated occasional vocals and a broader palette of instrumentation, choosing a route of subdued intricacy rather than outward revelation.
Imbued with a sense of nostalgia, “Gold Makes Blind,” the upbeat second track of the album, opens with a pulsating drum set that drives a current of anticipation. The keyboard pounds a syncopated, questioning melody and a vibraphone rings like a music box, holding the beat together in the oscillating sound. They make the most of silence in the final rhythmic section, drumset exploding into the final articulations of its recurring rhythm — then nothing.
Melodrama runs as a throughline of the album, but the soundscape remains subdued. Even at the loudest climaxes, like the song “Fever Dream,” which switches between contrasting sentimental melodies and scratching feedback that dissolve into indie pop power ballad instrumentals, the feeling of the music is that of a distant memory resurfacing. The soundscape is sometimes too saccharine, but it’s evident on Branches that Square Peg Round Hole has honed the craft of making music that appeals to the tenderest of senses.
“He(a)r With Me Now” begins with abstract sonic textures and a tense keyboard chord progression that plays in counterpoint with vibraphone, eventually reaching the closest thing to a beat drop on the album. But it never really cuts loose, instead, it basks in its low-key ambiance. A similar path is taken on “Midnight,” which blends a melody reminiscent of a chilled-out Phoenix with rhythmically complex percussion. Much of the pieces on the album sound noticeably alike, following comparable forms and bleeding the same exaggerated, poignant aura. But it’s easy to get lost in the sound world they’ve created; the works are all marked by precise rhythm, yet they feel timeless.
Manipulated vocals without lyrics, sung by contemporary vocal sextet Variant 6 and pop duo Gracie & Rachel, provide new timbral landscapes on “Branches I” and “Branches II.” “Branches I” opens the album in a dreamlike state, layered with trilling violins, electronics, and rhythmically repeating voices echoing across the soundscape, signaling the atmospheric drama to come. “Branches II” is decidedly different, opening with tinny percussion and melodic vocalizations. Here, the spotlight is on the manipulation of the voice — sentimentality bleeds through the layers of sweeping melody and pulsing hums.
The album’s penultimate song, “Heart, Pounding,” is an expansive rumination comprised of swishing claps, abstract sounds, and a simple melody that finally bursts near its end. There’s still no fully outward celebration, but it feels like the music has come to some sort of understanding. “Branches III” solidifies this answer, completing the record with a decided sense of resolution. It’s built up from a steady, hymn-like repeating chord progression in the keyboard. As the piece grows, added emphasis on the original melody drives forward motion, closing out the album with one final melodramatic wash of sound.
Note from the author: Branches was released on National Sawdust Tracks, and I work at National Sawdust (but not with the Tracks department). All opinions expressed here are my own.