Not that, if you're at all a fan of ambient or dub techno, it's likely you got through 2009 without hearing at least something from Steve Hitchell. In addition to The Setting Sun, there was his full-length remix of Brock Van Wey's amazing White Clouds Drift On and On and his LP debut as Intrusion with The Seduction of Silence. He might be the busiest man in the genre, but even more singular than his productivity is his talent; all three full-lengths are markedly different in sound and ferociously good.
The Intrusion dubs of White Clouds... are a bit of a ringer, of course, with Hitchell "only" having to reinvent Van Wey's singular achievement in his own musical vocabulary. He did it without a sweat, even as he put out maybe the most classically dubby album echospace [detroit]'s ever released with The Seduction of Silence. But it's his debut as Variant, which he described for RA as an "ambient, acoustic" album, that was the peak of his year.
Here Hitchell's use of field recordings (especially of traffic and other night sounds), acoustic instruments (the closing title track is closer in feeling to a band like Mountains than you'd expect) and subtly melodic elements add up to make The Setting Sun strangely propulsive in both a sonic and emotional sense. From the track titles on down, the record evokes slumber and travel, wrapping the listener in comfortably dense swathes of static and softly pulsing bass; you could call it The Warmest Season.
Hitchell proves here that he's a master at making ambient music that enthralls, that's gentle enough to dream to but involving enough to reward close, intense listening. At its worst, the genre can seem overdetermined, academic or just pointless (qualities that thankfully echospace [detroit] seems determined to avoid), but above all else The Setting Sun is a warm and approachable album. There's not a whiff of crossover or compromise to be found, but Hitchell's grasp of the basic elements involved—his craftsmanship—is so masterful that you could happily recommend this album to someone who has never actually heard Basic Channel, Gas, Pole, etc. It's both immediately ingratiating and deeply satisfying enough that it's a hell of a gateway drug; any novices who stumble on this record are likely to become fans, and—like the rest of us—they can only hope Hitchell continues to be so prolific and so rewarding.