For the Records | Private Experiences and Traveling on Land Observations’ “The Grand Tour”

For the Records is a series of articles by special guest writer Mike McCubbins on his favorite albums of the 2010s. Click here to read the entire series. Photo credit: screenshot from the album’s YouTube trailer.

There’s a proprietary aspect to my love of some music. Some music belongs to everyone. Some songs and albums are a social experience. They live on that bigger cultural stage which we can all see from our nosebleed arena seating. If I count myself, it is only as one among a crowd.

Then there are albums that feel like a little corner that only I know about. I want to invite you there, but if I found you occupying them already, I might as easily be surprised and dismayed to have lost the privacy of my experience than be delighted to have perhaps found a kindred spirit. Land Observations’ 2014 album The Grand Tour has been one of these experiences. It’s the only album on this list that doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia entry.

Land Observations is the solo work of musician James Brooks, who previously headed the experimental post-rock trio Appliance. The Grand Tour is the spiritual if not literal sequel to Land Observations’ 2012 album Roman Roads IV-XI. The presentation of LO’s two albums lend them the sterile chin-stroking stature of a fine-art ambient release. Both are limited instrumentally to a single undistorted, looped, and layered guitar. Their passages are spare and minimal. Beyond their mechanically numeraled and dusty historical variations-on-a-theme context, the name of the project itself—“Land Observations”—feels coolly scientific.

Academic trappings aside, I would count The Grand Tour just to the post-rock side of the line that divides it from ambient. Its title references its relatively serious concept album conceit. Its tracks are built around the European Grand Tour, a rite-of-passage arts and culture tour for European (and later American aristocracy) that dates all the way back to the 16th century. Brooks uses the tour’s relatively consistent itinerary of travel passages as the foundation on which he builds the albums eight propulsive tracks, as evidenced by titles such as “Nice to Turin” or “The Brenner Pass.”

While I can’t attest to whether the album actually evokes its specific geographical markers, I will say that the album thoroughly succeeds in capturing the feeling of travel. Its more percussive loops wheel forward like the clank of a train car, while its lighter melodies create a softly parallaxing landscape of hills and valleys, forests and fields. Other tracks like “Walking the Warm Colonnades” guide the listener through the cavernous halls of architectural wonders, while still gathering momentum.

But The Grand Tour’s greatest feat may be the way it evokes the interior space of travel, the way the expansion of the landscape outside the window eventually moves inward to expand the landscape of your private thoughts, a place where your worries, preoccupations, and ambitions can shift around and perhaps realign, where the highlights of the last stop shine new light on old ideas, a waking dreamstate you didn’t even know you were in until with a sharp breath, two blinks, and a dilation of the pupils you notice the conductor has finally come around to see your ticket. | Mike McCubbins

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