The isolation of the past year gave many musicians time to hone their craft, but allowed Michael Fay the time to dive into a world entirely new. Fay, who has recorded with several Tucson bands including Prom Body, took the time to explore the capabilities of modular synthesizers: complex electronic instruments that can be custom-built from the ground up, often resembling something out of science fiction. As a result, music created with them is virtually limitless.
Fay’s latest release under his solo recording moniker Pollution Salute is an exploration of modular synthesizers, and while the song structures most align with ambient music, there is enough exploration and genre-hopping to extend it beyond the bounds of simple “background music.”
His first album in a planned series exploring modular synths, Heavy Meadow was recorded throughout 2021 partially as a result of Fay being unable to play music with others in Tucson. Although the project stems from solitude, exploring the unique synthesizers also led Fay to a broad community of musicians throughout town and the internet.
“I’d kind of always seen modular synths as this wall of geeky technology,” Fay said. “I really didn’t understand it. It just looked like math to me, so I had no interest. Plus, I never thought of it as a style I could apply to the music I was already making. But there are artists out there who are incorporating acoustic instruments and different sounds. It’s a whole wealth of new territory. Not that modular synths are new at all, but it was like a light switch went off for me.”
The four tracks on Heavy Meadow are progressive, atmospheric explorations far beyond the “bleeps and bloops” that Fay originally ascribed to modular synthesizers. The opening song, “Timpani In A Beehive,” opens with a quiet drone that is slowly built up by crystalline electronics with a meditative new age style. The following song, “Light Rain On A Sofa,” is a bit busier, with incidental chirps and some synthetic hits serving as a kind of percussion. The low drones are reminiscent of fellow Tucsonan Steve Roach, while the brighter keyboards more align with the ambient style of Hiroshi Yoshimura.
Fay explains the album, and its anticipated sequels, will serve to document his journey into the wide world of modular synthesizers and pedals. While he plays in multiple more straightforward bands, Fay is no stranger to electronic music, releasing another album under the Pollution Salute name in 2020. However, Heavy Meadow is far more abstract and spacious than anything he’s previously released due to his exploration of new instruments.
“When I have a parameter like that, it gives me an incentive to dig, and modular synths are dense. There is so much functionality. It really is limitless,” Fay said. “If you want to gear your sounds a certain way, there are thousands of options. And if you don’t like it, you can pop it out and trade it online… I’ve always liked stand-alone keyboards, but the flexibility you can get with modular synths just isn’t there.”
The title Heavy Meadow (a pun on heavy metal) is in line with his other releases, such as 2017’s Ethereal For Breakfast. But the title also works to describe the music: very open and free-flowing, but with darker textures throughout. Even the title track features some uplifting guitar notes mixed with harsher glitches as a mix between the grounded and the abrasive. More and more layers of synthesized organ build on, making the song the grandest of the whole album.
“The difference in the way I make music with this, as opposed to writing a bass line and then playing drums over it, is that I have the capability to have bass, percussion, leads, swells, samples and then I have a ton of modulation that can take that stuff into a territory that I’d never realized I could before,” Fay said. “It’s all about happy accidents.”
Fay insists ambient music is not an end goal for this overall project. He plans to experiment more with rhythm and movement on subsequent releases, stating that the next installation is already more percussive. Conceptually, he says he wants this series to be used “almost as an excuse” to dig into these instruments.
Of course, hearing someone toy and experiment with complex instruments is not going to be for everyone. But the results are much more soothing than the unconventional approach might seem. However, considering it’s Tucson we’re talking about, Heavy Meadow should lend itself to a fair amount of interested ears.
“Tucson has always had a pretty welcoming art scene. People come out to shows and always have a good time,” Fay said. “There are a bunch of ambient artists in town like Ryan Chavira, Karima Walker and all sorts of people who are making ambient music, which at first glance seems like a very basic tenet. But there’s a wide variety of subgenres within it, and it takes this focus off structure and lends itself to a musical freedom.”
Fay is also part of Tucson’s own synthesizer and audio/visual arts community, Inner Freq, which hosts meet-ups and information about modular synthesizers. More information can be found on Instagram (@innerfrq) and YouTube.
“I think the desert is really unique. It has a special draw and is so open. People ascribe spirituality to the desert, and the whole Southwest has a vibe of introspection and landscapes that look otherworldly. There’s a vibe to living here that people gravitate towards,” Fay said. “I’m not a super spiritual person in that sense, but I do think Tucson lends itself to creativity and art in general.” ν