Synth Album Review: "Cairn" by The Institute '91

Updated on February 20, 2020
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Karl has been a freelance writer for over 10 years. He's passionate about music, art, and writing!

Album cover art for "Cairn," by The Institute '91
Album cover art for "Cairn," by The Institute '91

Cairn, by the Institute ’91, is a sonic journey, a ride through landscapes that can seem full of shimmering light or dark threats and menace. The tracks each generate an interesting emotional ride that travels from moments of tranquil flow to dark tension, from delicate shimmering synths to the Stygian depths of the deepest bass rumble. The tracks seem to work best in order and I suspect that The Institute 91’ carefully considered their order to produce this aural journey.

There is no doubt that Cairn is a bass-heavy album. The Institute 91’ has worked to produce intensely deep, heavy and rumbling bass that moves underneath the tracks with tectonic force. It turns out that bass can have many moods. On some tracks, it serves as river that carries the lighter synth elements smoothly over it and on others it is a terrifying black maw that reaches out to engulf the listener and drag them down into an endless abyss.

All of the various moods that synths can produce are also on display on Cairn. There are passages of crystalline shimmering synth that sparkle delicately and also moments of grinding, crunching aggression that smash and shudder through the tracks with ferocity. The variety and complexity of the synth sounds is part of what drives the sensation of being taken on a journey. The ear never gets tired but all of the sounds fit together in a way that feels very cohesive and coherent.

One unique musical touch that I wasn’t sure of at first was the sax. It seemed incongrous to me initially. However, the more I listened, the more it grew on me. It provided a useful counterpoint to the high wound tension of some of the tracks and a smooth flow of sound that emphasized the calm on other tracks. The Institute ’91 seems to have used it only when there was a reason to do so.

I felt that there was a real sense of narrative in the tracks on this album. Each of them was a self-contained story that became a piece of the bigger mosaic of Cairn. On a track like “Hold Fast”, I felt like I was traveling between the ethereal realms with a gentle melody and a much more solid reality anchored by that endless bass, but on a track such as “For The Lack of Understanding” it was a nerve-wracking trip through dark passages. As a whole, each of these tracks contributed to a roller coaster ride through a fractured landscape.

I’m going to run through Cairn now and do a breakdown of the tracks that I found most enjoyable to listen to.

The first track that I’ll talk about is “Hold Fast.” The deep bass and solid rhythm are the anchors for a melody that feels a bit wandering and unmoored, as though drifting in open space. There are flying arps that wheel and turn like galaxies through the piece and that endless bass heartbeat keeps that meandering melody anchored. This track creates a good balance between the ethereal and the solid as it unfolds itself.“

Shimmer” is a track fully of breathy synth sounds that are soft and spacious. A melody begins to form out of the airy float accompanied by downtempo drums that tap out the rhythm. I do like how The Institute 91’ allows his synths to be more free roaming. There is structure there, but it’s not something that straightjackets the sound. As the various synths move through the track, the moods shift from jazzy to buoyant to slightly dark. I enjoyed how much was going on with this track.

The darkest track on the album, in my view, is “For the Lack of Understanding.” It has a sense of simmering tension created by discordant notes in the background, tightly wound high synths and a deep abyss of bass. In the midst of all this, a smooth very retro ‘80s sax comes through, providing a rather surreal and bizarre contrast to all that high wound tension lurking behind it. I was a fan of that mixture of tension and smoothness.

“Time” is a track full of delicacy and warmth with its chiming synths, light drumbeat and deep synth chords that flow through it. This track shows a lighter touch from The Institute 91’ and again we hear the somewhat disembodied sax, playing a minor and exotic melody, adding a certain mystique to the sound as well as touching on the retro vibe, without overdoing it. I also enjoyed the clock-like quality of the chimes that open the track.

I enjoyed the danceable nature of “Keep Your Head Down.” It has a cool groove with a real retro feel to it from that fun, moving bassline that keeps it gliding along. It’s saxalicious too and the lead synth plays a catchy tune that ingrained itself into my head. This is a track that was a bit of a palate cleanser after some of the heavier elements of the album.

Ultimately I was drawn to the variety and complexity of Cairn. It was another innovative synth album that was able to create a whole range of emotions and images on which I was carried away. I lost track of time listening to this album and simply took pleasure in being transported by and immersed in the sonic world that The Institute 91’ created.

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