M. Sage: Paradise Crick

The hills of the Front Range cast long shadows over M. Sage’s music. Reared in Fort Collins, Colorado—an unassuming mid-sized city tucked into the northern foothills of the state—Sage grew up riding boats with his family in mountain reservoirs, taking in the sun, the bug bites, the adventure. In his music, trees flicker supernaturally in the morning light, the sky takes on impossible hues of amber and green, and time seems to expand and contract with liquid ease. His ambient work is often preoccupied with a sense of place, but in its many digitally processed effects and minute edits, it ends up feeling like the product of another dimension entirely.

When Sage moved to Chicago in the mid-2010s, he brought that same sense of expanse to his now-retired Patient Sounds label and his own shapeshifting work, which has grown from glacial slabs of environmental tape hiss to glitchy experiments in plunderphonics. Across his releases for Orange MilkGeographic NorthNoumenal Loom, and about a dozen other tentpole labels of the American electronic underground, Sage has quietly flowered, never pausing to engage in self-mythology. Paradise Crick, his latest release (and first for RVNG Intl.), was conceived as a kind of fictional soundtrack for Sage’s Midwestern camping trips. Taking notes from Richard Brautigan’s dissonant hippie-era staple Trout Fishing in America, the album doesn’t so much contrast electronic with acoustic elements as fuse them in often seamless ways—a sonic embodiment of venturing into nature to clear one’s mind before returning home to city life to make sense of it all. Bringing the many shades of Sage’s output together into one unfurling panorama, its psychedelic scenery is an ode to all that is wild and wandering.

Maybe you’ve seen a UFO while staked out on an empty plain in the middle of the night, and maybe it sounded something like the modulating laser-beam synths that materialize in the album’s opening seconds. From the start, Paradise Crick is hardly just pastoral nostalgia: There’s an alien undercurrent to these tracks that consistently leads Sage down strange and unexpected roads. When “Bendin’ In” begins to swell with yawning, earthy guitar chords, his strumming is slowly encased in electronic chimes that shimmer like rock candy. The jazzy piano that sets off “Crick Dynamo” appears at first to pull the track into a chasm of aquatic folktronica, but then everything glitches out, and we’re left with short-circuiting signals echoing into the ether.

Though Sage has recently begun to embrace a more acoustic sound—whether as a member of the Fuubutsushi jazz quartet or collaborating with a cadre of flutists, slide guitarists, and harmonium players on 2021’s The Wind of Things—here he honors the spirit of the outdoors using the most computerized sounds imaginable. “Map to Here” deploys a high-pitched buzzing tone to create a singing bed of crickets, while “Backdrif” is filled with synthetic, skipping keyboard loops that tumble over themselves as smoothly as pebbles being drawn down a riverbed. Even the music’s busiest textures are peaceful.

As amorphous as it sometimes seems, Paradise Crick contains Sage’s most songlike creations yet. Rhythm seems to be of particular interest: In between passages of scattershot electronics that vibrate in all directions, Sage occasionally pulls a full-fledged beat from the churn. On “Mercy Lowlands,” it comes in the form of a hi-hat that weaves its way around a serpentine melody and playfully bouncing synth notes. “Evenin’ Out” brings the beat back in a steady handclap, this time as the bedrock for a whinnying breeze of campfire harmonica. Best of all is “River Turns Woodley (for Frogman),” where Sage plays a soft penny-whistle melody as if gazing out upon a new-agey vista, until his flute leaps into the air, and a reverberating drum stomp carries the song up and away.

Paradise Crick probably doesn’t resemble any campsite you’ve ever stayed at before, but in its artificial glow, it transcends the bucolic clichés so common in music inspired by the outdoors. “I’m always interested in how instrumental music is this form of communication,” Sage said in a 2021 interview. “It’s like, ‘Here’s three and a half minutes of wiggling air. Maybe it’ll tell you a story.’” Since finishing Paradise Crick, he has returned to Colorado to be among the mountains that raised him. Listening to the album, you can hear the upheavals of technology and the gentle permanence of the wider world, and the ways in which each might resemble the other more than we realize. In negotiating these tensions, Sage breathes life into an ecosystem that’s all his own.

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