Sumner James: I Could Just Go On Forever | ★★★★ | Bathysphere | Jan. 27

If the notion of a member of a local indie pop band named after a character from The Lord of the Rings releasing homemade electronic records on the side doesn’t fill you with overwhelming confidence, I totally get it. Long is the list of tedious side projects from musicians who would be better suited to dedicating effort toward their main band.

But James Phillips’s Sumner James is not such a project. 

Over the years, Phillips and steadfast Bombadil member Daniel Michalak have stuck together in the winningly quirky and deep-thinking Durham band, keeping the project above water during multiple obstacles, including lineup shifts and a period when a nerve condition sidelined Michalak. But Phillips has also spent the past decade-plus in solo work, cutting his teeth on charming electro-pop before moving onto a succession of increasingly engrossing ambient records. 

I Could Just Go On Forever—Phillips’s third ambient album and the first release for Bathysphere Records, a new imprint he is starting with two friends—is a testament to what Phillips has become during his time releasing music as Sumner James: a seasoned electronic musician with a composer’s touch for harmony and melody.

Phillips doesn’t just layer up vistas of arresting, trance-inducing sonic texture; he lets melodies emerge and play out across the various elements. Tunes flit from skittering clicks to airy synths in the way an orchestra might toss from violin to viola, with other themes emerging in the background, giving his music uncommon richness and depth.

The album spans various shades of bittersweet calm—from the apocalyptic chill of “Rainy Friday” and the digitized ennui of the title track and “Hard Drive Detritus” to the expansive yearning of the 14-minute epic “Just the World”—lulling the listener into its reverie and then wowing with the emotion-rich intricacy of each track’s construction.

In other words, it sounds like the work of a fully realized project operating at its highest level. Maybe, after all, we should call Phillips an electronic musician who also has a band. 

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