Over a lengthy career arc, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma has explored various facets of ambient music, ranging from the bleary shoegaze distortion of his 2010 debut, Love Is a Stream, to experiments with heavily processed beats and underwater pop melodies on later works like 2017's On the Echoing Green. Tracing Back the Radiance takes a sharp turn away from all earlier approaches, with Cantu-Ledesma and a host of collaborators creating an album of painstakingly detailed minimalistic beauty. Made up of two long pieces bridged by the relatively shorter "Joy," the album is an electro-acoustic take on ambient sound, with live flute, harp, voice, vibraphone, piano, and other elements all being processed electronically by Cantu-Ledesma. Unlike the rolling clouds of reverb and synth drones that grace many albums with the ambient tag, Tracing Back the Radiance is an organic piece with a sharply maintained balance between live instrumentation and ethereal electronics. Opening track "Palace of Time" lingers in subdued melancholy for over 20 minutes, patiently introducing new sounds and letting them fade as others take their place. The scrape of a violin string, floating piano notes, rhythmless drum hits, and moments of phasing electronics all rise up and recede like calm waves on a beach. "Joy" begins with a vibraphone figure and haunted bass clarinet notes. The song never builds as much as it opens up, soft ambience and twinkling music-box tones swelling as other elements fade. Tracing Back the Radiance offers a muted take on the sharpness of musique concrète by deftly arranging a wide palette of instruments into something unified. The hovering title track even places pedal steel guitar licks into an unlikely ambient context, lacing the occasional notes into a web of sustained tone clusters. The immersive album is some of Cantu-Ledesma's best work and speaks to the versatility of his expression. Though it's unlike anything he has attempted before, the ambitious sounds of Tracing Back the Radiance still bear the distinctive stamp of his artistry, one that feels restless, nostalgic, and quietly hopeful regardless of the form it takes.
AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas