Nathan Ward’s pandemic year on Mars

Working under the name Winter Triangle, the longtime Columbus drummer recorded a pair of ambient albums, including the Red Planet-dwelling ‘Slice of Lightning’

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Nathan Ward

Slice of Lightning, the new ambient album musician Nathan Ward recorded under the name Winter Triangle, opens with a low, ominous tone that suggests an all-consuming, planet-shrouding darkness settling in. Fittingly, the plate-setting track is titled “Hymn for 2020 America.”

Written and recorded in a creative three-month burst that immediately followed the March 2020 coronavirus lockdown, the album, already the second Ward has compiled from those sessions, echoes the distance and loneliness that has shaped much of the last year for many, while also offering an escape from the sometimes-crushing nature of pandemic existence. So while the album, due out digitally on Wednesday, March 3, opens under earthly clouds, later tracks such as “Your First Meteor Shower on Mars” unfold on the Red Planet, with Ward seeking shelter amid the distant cosmos.

“Music that can take you to another place, especially in 2020, or 2021, is a really important thing. Since we couldn’t take actual, physical trips, anything that could get us out of this mind state, which can be very stressed out, is a good thing,” said Ward, who came up a drummer in groups such as the American Jobs and Silencio, part of the first-ever Alive Bands to Watch class in 2003. “With the new record, a lot of what I was thinking about was Mars. … One of the ideas that kept going through my head was: Imagine you’re a colonist on Mars and you’re trying to grow plants. What would you name the first tree that grew on Mars? Growing fruit, what would that be like?

"One of the songs specifically mentions a meteor shower. Picture what that might be like, standing there in a spacesuit, on another planet, staring up at the craziest shit you’ve ever seen.”

The related track mirrors this sense of awe, low synthesizer tones stretching out like the endless Mars horizon as pinging electronics streak like glowing orbs across the alien sky.

Ward described his ambient breakthrough in almost accidental terms, saying it emerged when he started to play keyboards and drums in freeform jams with friends, at some point realizing there was a more specific sound within those loose creative sessions that he wanted to explore on his own.

“And when I say it was a sound, it was also a feeling,” he said. “There were these textures and sounds I wanted to create, and you can’t always just look to other people. It’s like a relationship, you can’t expect them to know what you want. And the process of making music by myself was so strange. You don’t have to negotiate, or even talk.”

It helped, of course, that the pandemic largely prevented these group get-togethers. Instead, on most nights Ward would set up his electronic gear in the living room of the apartment he shares with his partner, working solo and manipulating the equipment to try and craft the transportive sounds that swirled in his head. He would then break the gear down and pack it away until the next day.

“Everything about it is so unlikely. I know a lot of people, their creativity suffered this last year, understandably because it was a pandemic/election year,” said Ward, whose day job with a brewery continued unbroken throughout the shutdown. “That’s just not a good environment to create art in, I don’t think. But for me it was the opposite, and I almost feel guilty about it when I see people on social media talking about how difficult the year was. … But I also think that the music I’ve created, it almost had to happen in a stressful year because it’s supposed to put a person in a totally different mind space.”

“I think the art I love most does take me out of my present circumstances,” continued Ward, who credits friend and fellow musician Sean Gleeson with pushing him to release the project (in addition to mixing and mastering both Winter Triangle releases). “And that doesn’t mean I hate my life. But, human beings, we’re made to experience different things, and observe them and feel them. So, yeah, the music taking me or other people to different places is something I see as essential, especially now.”