John Beltran – The Season Series (2020)

Despite hailing from Lansing Michigan, rather than techno’s heartland in nearby Detroit, John Beltran could nevertheless be considered a member of US techno royalty. His CV boasts early releases on legendary imprints such as Derrick May’s Transmat label, Peacefrog Records and R&S, both under his own name as well as various aliases and collaborations. His 1996 release, Ten Days of Blue is often cited as the cream of the crop of so-called ‘ambient techno’, and seeing it frequently namechecked as such was what prompted me to check out his latest release.

The Season Series is in fact a compilation, gathering the highlights of four EPs – each named for a particular season. I only became aware of this after having got to know the release, and in no way does it impact the flow or overall experience. All the tracks are drawn from the same lush musical palette with Beltran applying a consistently gentle production touch, and an almost classical melodicism throughout. 

More than a little new-age influence can be heard in Beltran’s take on techno, and despite the label, none of these tracks are truly dancefloor material and there isn’t a 4/4 kick drum to be found. Instead, the emphasis is very much on melody, atmosphere and texture. Much like the seasons which inspired the music, everything feels as though composed from such basic elements as wind, water and sunlight. All this means The Season Series feels closer to the work of a composer like Mike Oldfield, rather than Carl Craig or Derrick May.

As always with anything that has a whiff of new-ageism, Beltran treads a fine line between prettiness and cheesiness. Thankfully he just about stays on the right side, and only overstepped the mark when it came to naming the tracks – Lustrous Orb, I Must Have Dreamt About You, and Euphoric Dream Ocean are a couple of descriptively eyebrow-raising examples. And though there are a few moments where the touchy-feely wholesomeness can feel a tad cloying, it’s ultimately impossible not to love a record that’s so damn beautiful. 

Touch the Blooms is a particularly outstanding example, its twinkling synth intro and barely there pitter-pattering beat gives way to sumptuous piano chords, which call to mind Teardrop by Massive Attack (though this track overall is much more light-footed). Everything surrounding the arrangement – the gentle strings and finger-tip conga drum hits – feels fragile and delicate, appropriately enough like a flower, unfurling its petals to bloom for a few short days in spring.

Lustrous Orb is probably the closest thing to anything resembling techno, driven by an endlessly cascading hi-hat and synth arpeggios – like a winding waterfall it feels like a giddy rush towards a drop that never quite arrives. It’s archetypal of the collection as a whole, which seems to inhabit a transition state, an in-between stage where everything is neither one thing nor another. And rather than static states of being, the seasons themselves are transitions; in a sense, spring is simply the end of winter, which then flows into summer, soon to become autumn as everything changes in preparation for winter. Using deceptively simple elements – piano, guitar, synths and the occasional angelic vocal sample, John Beltran has done a majestic job on The Season Series of channeling the beauty and fragility of nature, as well as capturing its state of constant flux.

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