Florida Man, "Florida Man EP"

cover imageThis EP is the debut release from an "all-female rock band" from South Portland, Maine who are notable for several reasons. The biggest of those reasons is probably that the band's singer/guitarist is Quinnisa Kinsella Mulkerin (one-third of Big Blood's current incarnation), but the fact that all three band members are 15 years old is certainly significant as well. Neither of those things would matter all that much if this EP was not also quite good, but it is a remarkably assured and delightful dose of very cool and distinctive garage rock. Unsurprisingly, there are a few welcome resemblances to Quinnisa's other band, as she certainly shares some of Colleen Kinsella's vocal gifts and the two groups share a similar fondness for guitar noise and the assimilation of classic country influences. For the most part, however, Florida Man is quite a different entity altogether, eschewing most of Big Blood's weirder psych elements in favor of something considerably more raw, stripped down, punchy, and concise.

Self-Released

The opening "Yesterday's Air" is an excellent introduction to the band, as it captures the trio at the peak of their powers. It is primarily anchored by Helen Bonnevie-Rothrock's punky and muscular descending bass line, but it is also beautifully enhanced by a gnarled and howling bit of guitar noise. The shuffling and shambling "Twilight Filter" does not quite reach the same heights, but it does feature a very cool (if brief) passage where the vocals and guitars drop out entirely to leave only the groove and some subtle string noise. The EP's strongest piece is the jangling bittersweet cowpunk of "Lady Thimble," as Quinnisa's vocals are at their most soulful and melodic. Quinnisa's vocals also elevate the simmering and somnambulant-sounding "Lost in the Woods," as they are beautifully layered and harmonized. I also appreciated the fact that it opened with a cryptic sample of a voice (possibly Quinnisa's) saying "I'm lost…in the dark…of the woods," as it injects a small bit of eerie weirdness into the proceedings (a thread that is picked up again for the piano motif in the song's brief fadeout). For the most part, however, Florida Man keep the strangeness and psychedelia to an absolute minimum. In some ways, that means that this EP sounds exactly like three teenagers jamming in a garage: simple song structures, simple riffs, plenty of sincerity and no added polish or self-conscious artiness. On another level, however, this EP is way better than I ever would have expected, as this trio are unusually good songwriters and they seem to intuitively "get it" on a level that most considerably older and more experienced garage bands do not. This project is definitely off to a great start. Hopefully future Florida Man releases allow more some eccentricities to bleed into their songs, but they are already at a place where they seemingly have no problem nimbly dodging wrong moves or clumsy indulgences, which is far more than I could have said about myself at the same age.

Samples can be found here.

  1424 Hits

Vanishing Twin, "Ookii Gekkou"

cover imageI was inexplicably late to the party on this wonderful London quartet, as the presence of drummer Valentina Magaletti is almost always a reliable indicator that something compelling is happening and that is especially true of this project. Fortunately, I realized my mistake when I chanced upon their 2019 single "Magician's Success" and its delightfully surreal video, which scratched exactly the same itch as all my favorite Broadcast and Stereolab songs (two acts that Vanishing Twin is probably damned to be compared to forever). While I would admittedly be thrilled if Vanishing Twin simply picked up where those two other brilliant bands left off, their actual influences are considerably more wide-ranging and endlessly mutating (Morricone, Sun Ra, Martin Denny, and Alice Coltrane are just a few of the band's explicit inspirations this time around). That said, the album does kick off with yet another excellent and welcome single in the vein of prime Stereolab (the title piece), yet the foursome also achieve a similar degree of success elsewhere with more disco- and swinging '60s film soundtrack-inspired fare. For the most part, I look to Vanishing Twin primarily for great singles at this point and Ookii Gekkou includes at least three of those, so I consider it a success. The rest of the album occasionally verges on being too smoothly poppy for my taste, but the omnipresent virtuosic rhythm section of Magaletti and bassist Susumu Mukai goes a long way towards keeping the album groovy and fun enough to keep me interested regardless.

Fire

The lead-off "Big Moonlight (Ookii Gekkou)" certainly kicks the album off on an extremely strong note, as it feels like an arty and pleasantly lilting throwback to classic French pop. That is admittedly quite close to Stereolab territory, but Vanishing Twin put their own distinctive twist on that stylistic terrain, as their grooves are much more muscular and pared down than typical ‘Lab fare. There are also some nice surreal touches like a twangy surf/spy movie guitar motif, a twinkling xylophone theme, and a great flute hook to further flesh out Cathy Lucas's sensuously sing-song vocal melody. The overall feel is akin to a haunted and seductive trip down an Alice in Wonderland-style rabbit hole of breezy psychedelia. Similarly excellent is the simmering and funky disco vamp of "Phase One Million," which is essentially just a killer groove with a neat cowbell stutter (and that is absolutely all it needs). Later on, the album's third and arguably final great single materializes in the form of "In Cucina," which boasts a great rolling groove with plenty of percussion flourishes. It feels like a kindred spirit to "The Snake" from Tomaga's Intimate Immensity, approximating an aesthetic best described as "climactic scene from a '60s spy movie that features a wild dance party at a Moroccan brothel." The remaining pieces are a mixed bag of sorts, but not from lack of inspiration: Vanishing Twin's muse just tends to lead them into some very bizarre and highly specific stylistic niches that are sometimes not my thing. For example, "Zuum" sounds like Silver Apples teamed up with The Fifth Dimension for a spacey rock opera, while "The Organism" feels like a darkly lysergic horror film in which the protagonist is stalked by an infernally possessed marimba or xylophone. Some of those divergent paths do hold some allure for me (the post-punk/motorik groove-fest "Tub Erupt"), while some others simply do not ("The Lift" feels like a Swing Out Sister song interrupted by a jabbering robot). Obviously, I wish I loved every single song on Ookii Gekkou, but I do genuinely love Vanishing Twin, as they are consistently ingenious in both assimilating new influences and crafting killer uncluttered arrangements. When this band hits the mark, they can seem downright untouchable, so I do not mind sifting through a handful of misfires to find a couple of gems that will no doubt remain in my heavy rotation for years.

Samples can be found here.

  1301 Hits

Mary Lattimore, "Collected Pieces II"

cover imageI believe I first started to become beguiled with Mary Lattimore's work with the release of 2016's At the Dam, but the following year's Collected Pieces definitely deepened my interest further, as it featured at least two stone-cold instant classics (and the rest of it consistently flirted with similar levels of greatness). While that first collection sets the bar intimidatingly high for this second cassette of unreleased songs, digital-only Bandcamp singles, and other stray pieces, Lattimore tends to be admirably discriminating in what she chooses to release and she has been on a bit of a compositional hot streak over the last couple years. Needless to say, there is plenty to enjoy here. As a whole, this second volume is probably a bit less uniformly strong than its predecessor, but it too contains a few pieces that most Lattimore fans will consider essential. Moreover, a couple of them are not included on the Collected Pieces: 2015‚Äã-‚Äã2020 double LP slated for release in January. As such, only casual Lattimore fans can safely pass up this stand-alone collection, as serious harp-heads will probably not want to deny themselves the pleasures of "Sleeping Deer" and "Princess Nicotine."

Ghostly International

There a few things that one can reliably expect from a new Mary Lattimore album: plenty of tenderly beautiful melodies, lightness of touch, and an intuitive genius for dynamics. Consequently, even the lesser pieces on Collected Pieces II are quite good, but the reason I absolutely need to hear everything that Lattimore releases is that she occasionally reaches heights of inspiration that transcend the fundamental limitations of a harp album altogether and I do not want to miss any of those moments. Some of those moments are a more radical departure than others though and one of the less radical ones is the album's lead single "We Wave From Our Boats," which dates from the earliest days of the pandemic (Lattimore found herself waving to neighbors she did not know "in a gesture of solidarity" akin to "how you're compelled to wave at people on the other boat when you're on a boat yourself"). Apparently, it was an improvisation, but the delicate, bittersweet melody is wonderful and I love the way the flutes add a bleary haze of unreality that slowly burns away to reveal a warm, sun-dappled crescendo. "For Scott Kelly, Returned to Earth" is another winning foray into expected Lattimore terrain, as layers of rippling, sweeping, and pulsing arpeggios cohere into a vibrant and twinkling web of sublime loveliness. Both pieces are wonderful, of course, but I am especially fond of two comparative outliers that found their way onto the album. The first is the previously unreleased "Sleeping Deer," which was inspired by an orphaned deer (Lollipop) that Lattimore befriended during a residency on a Wyoming cattle ranch. Despite its adorable inspiration, it is probably the darkest piece on the album, as its tender, sadness-tinged melody is enhanced with stammering effects, backwards snarls, and pitch-bending bass drones. The other surprise gem is the textural tour de force of "What the Living Do," as a simple repeating melody is processed into something glimmering and spectral that calls to mind ghosts slowly dancing in the light of a stained glass window. The album is rounded out with a pair of pieces inspired by silent films (always nice to see a Bill Morrison reference), an unexpectedly radiant breakup song, a home-recorded version of Silver Ladders' "Pine Trees," and a 13-minute epic about "a Charlie Chaplin-like character who lost their glasses." Overall, it is yet another strong batch of songs from Lattimore, reaffirming that her home recordings can be every bit as transfixing as her studio ones (even if she leaves her effects pedals largely untouched).

Samples can be found here.

  1312 Hits

KILN, "Tungsten"

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I have been vaguely aware of this unusual and beloved midwestern IDM/post-rock trio for years, but figured they were probably too conventionally likable for my taste. As it turns out, I was only half-right: KILN are indeed quite fond of straightforward mid-tempo grooves and lovely melodies, but they masterfully balance those poppier tendencies with quite a lot of inspired textural layering and other experimentally minded enhancements. I guess the lesson here is that some great projects have a brilliant vision, but there are also some equally great ones that simply excel in the execution of a more modest vision. KILN are mostly the latter and they are often quite brilliant at what they do, which is why their 2020 return after a seven-year hiatus was greeted with so much enthusiasm despite working in stylistic realm that is no longer particularly in vogue. This latest release is "a digital-only adjunct EP" of pieces recorded at the same time as last year's Astral Welder that "weave syncopated patterns into immersive environments of lost memory and electrified nowness." I was very surprised to learn that Tungsten is arguably comprised of pieces that did not make the cut for the band's triumphant return full-length, as there are some killer songs here that would unquestionably improve just about any album that they landed on. Maybe these songs just needed a bit more tweaking before they were ready to be unveiled. In any case, I hereby decree that 2021 is the year of electrified nowness and that I am now an enthusiastic KILN fan.

Ghostly International

The opening "Drala Ultra" shares a lot of common ground with great dub-techno, as it prominently features some warm and stammering synth swells, but the other elements of the piece (gurgling bass and a slow-motion breakbeat) are considerably more muscular and in-your-face than anything I would expect from a classic Chain Reaction album. While it is certainly an enjoyable piece, it is instantly eclipsed by the following "North Bar Lake," which gorgeously brings together a swirl of sun-dappled pedal steel melodies with dreamily fluttering flutes and a great shuffling groove. It strikes an absolutely sublime balance of gentle swaying psychedelia, strong hooks, crunching physicality, and propulsive forward motion with nary a misstep in sight. The trio also display real knack for more intuitive touches like deftly manipulating dynamics and avoiding any needless clutter, which is a set of skills that can be a rarity outside the realm of top-tier techno and hip-hop producers. Remarkably, KILN somehow manage to pack this modest six-song release with at least two other gems that scale similar heights. The most immediately gratifying of the two is "Argon Pedestrian," which feels like a rubbery, blurting, and lurchingly funky strain of futuristic fusion enhanced with skittering cymbals and a host of subtly hallucinatory touches. It took me a bit longer to warm to simmering and weirdly anthemic-feeling "Bvlb," but the gurgling groove steadily intensifies to a wonderfully stilted, slow-motion funkiness that is hard to resist. As for the remaining pieces, their only flaw is that they are merely less substantial. Aside from a few notable exceptions like People Like Us, there are not a lot of artists that can reliably balance fun, catchiness, and psych-damaged experimentation in a winning way, so it is welcome and refreshing to discover that this threesome is out to help fill that yawning void in such expert fashion. This is a wonderful EP.

Samples can be found here.

  1504 Hits

Catherine Graindorge, "Eldorado"

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This second solo album from Belgian violinist/composer/actress is my first encounter with her work, but it seems like she has been releasing compelling music for quite some time (she has collaborated with ex-Bad Seed Hugo Race, composed film scores, and also plays in a trio called Nile On waX, among other things). Notably, Graindorge's excellent solo debut (The Secret of Us All) was released nearly a decade ago, as the road to Eldorado turned out to be unexpectedly long and prone to extended detours (several of which ultimately shaped this album's more personal direction). One of those course-changing events was the passing of Graindorge's father in 2015 (inspiring her to compose a play about his life), but Eldorado was also shaped by the story of her father's Rwandan friend (Rosalie), Graindorge's own experience hosting Eritrean migrants, and the harmonium performances that she and her daughters gave in nursing home gardens during Belgium's lockdown. Also of note: Eldorado is the first album that Graindorge was able to record with her friend (and longtime PJ Harvey producer) John Parish, who plays several instruments on the album. Now that all the stars are finally in alignment, I can confirm that Eldorado was probably worth the wait, as it is a unique, freewheeling, and oft-gorgeous album, at times feeling like the spiritual descendant of the sophisticated art pop of artists like David Sylvian.

Glitterbeat/Tak:til

For an album that is ostensibly by a violinist (and violist), Eldorado is considerably more stylistically elusive than I would have expected. The darkly psychedelic and elegiac opener "Rosalie" makes for a very impressive (if deceptive) introduction though, as woozily submerged-sounding backwards vocals provide the backdrop for a sad and beautiful violin melody. The following "Lockdown" continues in a similarly hallucinatory and meditative direction, but eschews vocals in favor of minimalist harmonium drones enhanced by slow-motion waves of hazily pulsing violins. And then all hell breaks loose, as the title piece sounds like a chugging, dual-guitar passage from a killer Expo '70 jam (there is even crashing cymbals, rolling toms, and some absolutely feral-sounding violin shredding). In its final two minutes, however, "Eldorado" dissolves into a lovely passage of spoken word (in French) and shimmering ambiance. If it were not for that sublime coda, I probably would have gotten whiplash a second time from the transition into "Ghost Train," as Graindorge unexpectedly materializes as a darkly sensual (and darkly psychedelic) cabaret chanteuse. It is the album's strongest piece by a landslide and it only gets better as it unfolds, blossoming into something resembling a churning and howling tango of the damned. Lamentably, Graindorge is done with singing for the remainder of the album, but there is still one more major highlight to come, as "Butterfly In A Frame" is a roiling and intense soundscape that builds to a demonically volcanic finale of snarling and squealing strings. The closing "Eno" is another noteworthy piece, albeit one with dramatically dialed down intensity, as Parish contributes a quietly lovely, blues-tinged guitar solo over some warm, Eno-style ambiance (though Graindorge spices things up near the end with some sharper textures). The album is rounded out with one more solid drone piece ("Kangaroos in Fire") and a couple of shorter compositions and all of it is strong. Not as strong as "Ghost Train" or "Butterfly," mind you, but Eldorado is nevertheless quite a compelling (and oft-intense) whole. And a very pleasant surprise too, as there are not many classical-adjacent artists who can combine beautiful melodies, fiery intensity, and convincing psych touches as seamlessly and confidently as Graindorge does here.

Samples can be found here.

  1480 Hits

My Cat Is An Alien & Joëlle Vinciarelli, "Eternal Beyond III"

cover imageThis is the third and final installment of the Opalio brothers' wild and oft-brilliant collaborations with Talweg/La Morte Young’s Joëlle Vinciarelli, as "according to arcane, ancient cultures, sometimes things must come to an end to be "Eternal."" While something wonderful tends to happen just about every single time these three artists convene, this Arthur Rimbaud-inspired installment is the one that the Opalios personally consider the best of the series (at the moment, at least). I do not think I could choose a favorite album from the trilogy, but the opening "Eternal Fanfare for the Warriors" is definitely one of my favorite MCIAA-related pieces to date. While the trio are currently unsure whether the conclusion of the trilogy is their collaborative swansong or just one phase in their continuing evolution, they can safely lay claim to having conjured some of the most visceral and unique sounds to reach my ears in recent memory. Vinciarelli's intensity and unusual collection of instruments is a perfect foil (and grounding force) for the Opalios' otherworldly psychedelia.

Elliptical Noise/Up Against the Wall, Motherfuckers!

This album combines two separate sessions recorded in Vinciarelli’s studio in the French Alps, which is notable because 2018’s two-part "Eternal Éternité" was spontaneously composed in a very different world than "Eternal Fanfare for the Warriors" (which dates from May 2020). On one level, that makes a lot of sense, as “Eternal Fanfare” has a certain go-for-broke intensity that befits such dark and troubling times, yet that interpretation cannot hold up in light of the similarly feral second half of "Eternal Éternité." In any case, both pieces are memorable for both their volcanic ferocity and their expanded sound palette (as far out as they are, the Opalios' vision inarguably features some eternally recurring and instantly recognizable elements). In the case of "Eternal Fanfare," however, the expected space ritual features a big surprise in the form of strangled trumpet squawking from Vinciarelli (along with some similarly unexpected sleigh bells from Maurizio). It is the exquisite feel of an ancient war procession passing through a rip in the dimensional fabric for a hissing, bleary, and lysergically smeared adventure into the unknown.

Naturally, the first half "Eternal Eternité" offers no respite at all from the cosmic phantasmagoria, as the album only becomes more of a harrowing mindfuck and there are no longer any friendly or familiar sounds like trumpets and sleigh bells to provide solid ground: just fifteen unnerving and unrepentant minutes of howling, dissonantly harmonized drones rising and falling. As radical art, it is admittedly impressive, but I prefer the more human-sounding terrain of the second half (like the dissonance-averse coward that I am). "Eternal Éternité (Pt. 2)" initially returns to more traditional alien fare (Roberto's wordless vocalizations, spacey electronics, and something that sounds like an out-of-tune zither), but Vinciarelli soon joins in with some vocal drones akin to Tuvan throat singing. As the layers accumulate, however, it blossoms into something that resembles an even more nightmarish version of Tarkovsky's Solaris in which the protagonist violently scrabbles at a piano soundboard while being sucked into a roiling maelstrom of static. In short, great stuff (as always). While I am not sure I have a strong enough constitution to revisit the first part of "Eternal Éternité" any time soon, Eternal Beyond III handily meets my criteria for prime My Cat is an Alien: a pair of great pieces, a few new stylistic elements, and the kind of mindmelting deep space cacophony that only the Opalios can channel.

Samples can be found here.

  1403 Hits

Marco Shuttle, "Cobalt Desert Oasis"

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This divergent third album from Berlin-based producer Marco Shuttle is my first exposure to his work, but he has released a handful of killer singles over the last decade in a darkly hallucinatory minimal techno vein akin to Lucy and Rrose. While I would have been thrilled to hear another perfectly crafted single like "Sing Like a Bird" (2014) or "Flauto Synthetico" (2016), Cobalt Desert Oasis is nevertheless a pleasant and semi-radical departure for Shuttle, as it is inspired by field recordings and images collected over two years of travel. I suppose Shuttle has always drawn inspiration from far-flung places very unlike Berlin, but the big difference is that this album uses field recordings and acoustic instrumentation as its raw material and focus rather than just a source of ideas for more dancefloor-targeted work. While this album does not necessary cure me of my belief that Shuttle primarily excels as a singles artist, it was definitely a nice surprise to be blindsided in 2021 by something resembling a lost O Yuki Conjugate classic. And, of course, there are a few great singles lurking here as well.

Incienso

This album is billed as "a cinematic listening experience where psychedelia, ritualism, and mysticism weave together in a sort of alien soundscape," which is a reasonably accurate characterization, though to my ears it lands much closer to "cool headphone album" than anything conventionally "cinematic" or strikingly otherworldly. Shuttle does strike an unusual balance of traditional sounds and modern technology though, as the stronger pieces feel like a simmering and hallucinatory drum circle enhanced with a steady kickdrum thump. "Danza De Los Voladores" is representative example of the album's baseline aesthetic, as Shuttle whips up a psych-damaged dub concoction over a slow and deep bass drum pulse: birds happily chirp, synths bubble like a witch's cauldron, indigenous flute melodies wander in and out, and a host of hand percussion sounds subtly pan and morph in the periphery. It is quite a likeable and inventive detour from what I would expect from Shuttle, but the songs admittedly blur together a bit aside from the handful of instances where he tweaks the formula with some kind of inspired twist (most pieces stick to relatively narrow tempo comfort zone and the melodies are all quite understated). The most inspired facet of the album is Shuttle's use of a Persian drum called a Tombak, which is presumably the heart of one of the album's strongest pieces, "Tombak Healer," in which a seething, slow-motion kick drum pulse is enhanced with a skittering and panning tour de force of dubby hand percussion. I am also a big fan of the propulsive "Through the Cobalt Desert," which sounds like a relentlessly forward-moving strain of dub-techno birthed in a deep tropical jungle. My personal favorite is probably the sensuous and blearily dreamlike exotica of “Winds of Cydonia” though. How I feel about the remainder of the album is largely a function of how natural/seamless the balance of traditional instruments and electronics feels: some pieces feel like something cool and distinctive, some feel a bit too smooth and straightforward to leave a deep impression. While Cobalt Desert Oasis probably could have been a flawless EP if Shuttle had distilled it down to its four or five best pieces, it makes for a pleasantly immersive focused listening experience. Shuttle is onto something quite good here, but it might take another album or two before this side of his art feels fully realized.

Samples can be found here.

  1262 Hits

Grouper, "Shade"

cover imageI suppose I have been a devoted Grouper fan since sometime around 2008's Dragging A Dead Dear Up A Hill, but there was a long stretch during The Reverb Years in which I was genuinely mystified by the outsized reverence that people seemed to have for this project (very similar to my experience with The Disintegration Loops, though I love several of Basinski's other albums). In more recent years, however, I have become considerably more convinced that Liz Harris is some kind of iconoclastic visionary (albeit a very slow-moving one), though I am not sure if she is shaping the culture so much as providing a much-needed corrective to its rapidly accelerating and tech-focused trajectory. While my initial impression is that this 12th Grouper full-length is not quite as uniformly strong as some other Grouper albums from recent years, that is less relevant than the fact that it continues Harris's trend towards more intimate, emotionally direct, and beautifully distilled songcraft. In that regard, Shade gives me exactly what I want from a new Grouper album: at least one song that is an absolutely devasting gut punch on the same level of "Parking Lot" and "Living Room." To my ears, that album-defining gem comes in the form of the folky, bittersweet closer "Kelso (Blue Sky)," but there are probably a couple of other sublime and/or unexpected gems destined for semi-permanent heavy rotation in my life as well.

Kranky

I was a bit surprised to learn that Shade collects songs spanning 15 years, as they convincingly feel like they all could have been birthed from a single extended flash of inspiration in a remote cabin (most pieces feature only hushed vocals and an acoustic guitar, though tape murk is definitely a recurring feature too). According to Harris, "this an album about respite" and "the coast," as one of Shade's primary themes is how our memories, experiences, connections, and selves are shaped and framed by place. Fittingly, Shade was recorded at various places along the Northern California and Pacific Northwest coasts (including a "self-made residency" on a mountain).  Stylistically, this is one of Harris's more nakedly "folky" albums, as there is plenty of fingerpicked acoustic guitar, tender vocal melodies, and a minimum of effects (just flesh, steel, and wood, basically). The album is broken up by a handful of pieces that feel more like soundscapes, but that is mostly because they are songs that are so blearily lo-fi and tape-distressed that they cross over into semi-abstraction.

Happily, some of those hiss-ravaged pieces turn out to be surprise album highlights though, such as the opening "Followed the Ocean," which resembles an achingly gorgeous and ghostly '70s country gem heard through a blown-out car radio. Elsewhere, "Disordered Minds" feels like a killer dreampop song absolutely smothered in tape murk and possibly played at the wrong speed, but it still manages to sound like heaven in spite of that (it reminds me of Russian Tsarlag, but warm and beautiful rather than rotted and disturbing). As far as the more "straight" material is concerned, I am similarly fond of "Pale Interior," which feels like a hazy hypnagogic cover of a Vashti Bunyan classic. That said, the inarguable centerpiece of Shade is the aforementioned "Kelso (Blue Sky)," as the tape fog finally dissipates to reveal a moving and sublime near-masterpiece that feels like I died and woke up in a heaven where Nebraska is a Hope Sandoval album rather than a Bruce Springsteen one (and I love that I can hear every single scrape of Harris's fingers moving across the fretboard). Naturally, all of that adds up to yet another great Grouper album, but the real magic is that Harris's recent work somehow feels like something else altogether (something even better), akin to a getting a long unexpected letter from a beloved yet elusive friend that I am never quite sure I will hear from again.

Samples can be found here.

  1520 Hits

Markus Guentner, "Extropy"

cover imageIt has admittedly been a while since I have actively followed this German composer's work, but his 2001 debut album (In Moll) spent quite some time in heavy rotation for me during the early 2000s dub- and ambient-techno boom. In more recent years, Guentner has jettisoned the "techno" part of his previous aesthetic and devoted himself to an acclaimed run of space-inspired ambient opuses on LA's A Strangely Isolated Place. Accordingly to Guentner, Extropy "marks the final chapter in an accidental triptych of astronomy-related exploratory albums" that began with 2015's Theia.  While the previous two epics in the series drew conceptual inspiration from the birth of the moon and the earth's relation to the largely unknown and possibly infinite universe, this latest release focuses on "the indefinite growth of the life we hold so dearly." More specifically, Guentner was fascinated by "a pseudoscientific prediction that human intelligence and technology will enable life to expand in an orderly way throughout the entire universe." While I personally expect nothing but entropy instead and note that this album has more of an elegiac feel than an optimistic one, there is no denying that Guenter knows how to make an absorbing and beautifully crafted album. In fact, he may be a bit too good at it, as Extropy would be a bit more memorable if he allowed more sharp edges and eccentricities to creep into his art. That said, this album still seems like it would be one hell of a challenge to top as far as billowing ambient cloudscapes are concerned.

A Strangely Isolated Place

According to Extropy's description, Guentner views the album as something of a return to "what some may call his early, classic sound." I am not sure how much I agree, as I would describe much of the album as classic/textbook ambient (if unusually well-executed), as most pieces are a feast of frayed, blurred, grainy and billowing synth drones. However, the closing "Here" does break from the pack with a subtle nod to Guentner's techno past, as deep bass tones gradually creep in to provide a sense of structure and forward motion. To my ears, it calls to mind a ghostly abstraction of one of Seefeel's more dubby and vaporous cuts. That is always welcome territory, but I also loved the unexpectedly sharp feedback-like tone that repeatedly burns through the bleary haze of soft-focus droneage.

While easily one of my favorite pieces on the album, "Here" is also significant for helpfully illustrating everything there is to know about Extropy: as far as ambient music is concerned, Markus Guentner is a consummate professional with exacting standards, so the album's baseline level of quality is quite high. However, "skillfully executed" is not the same thing as "memorable," so I especially appreciate the moments in which Guenter veered off-script into more distinctive territory. My favorite of those moments is "Everywhere," which beautifully enhances Guenter's cloud-like swells with slicing harmonic-like streaks, a submerged chorus, and some beautifully harmonizing brass drones. Aside from that, "Everywhere" also nods to Guentner's rhythmic past, as one section feels like warm washes of static breaking up on the shores of a brooding bass pattern. Elsewhere, "Concept of Credence" beautifully tugs at the heart strings with a crescendo of ringing and reverberant church bells that evoke the picturesque square of a cobblestoned dream village. The opening "Nowhere" is yet another favorite, as streaks of sharp feedback carve through a fog of flickering ghost melodies. Nearly all of these seven pieces are excellent though. At the moment, my gut tells me that Extropy is a very solid album with a handful of great pieces, but one that could benefit from more intrusions from field recordings, melodies, and sharper textures. I seem to enjoy it more with each listen, however, so I may belatedly proclaim it to be a masterpiece in another five years or so (when my patience and appreciation for nuanced emotional shadings finally catches up with Guentner's own).

Samples can be found here.

  1372 Hits

Alapastel, "Ceremony"

cover imageThis is the second album from Slovakian neo-classical composer Lukáš Bulko and his first for Lost Tribe Sound (Ceremony is part of the label's "Salt & Gravity" series). Fittingly, Lost Tribe's Ryan Keane was introduced to Bulko’s work by William Ryan Fritch, as the two artists occupy a similar blurry stylistic nexus where film score, classical composition, ambient music, and experimentation meet with oft-unique results. In short, this is a quintessential Lost Tribe Sound album, as Bulko's unusual compositional approach and eclectic choice of instruments elevate this album into something considerably more compelling than most neo-classical albums that find their way to my ears. In that regard, the epic "In The Service of Life" is Ceremony's mesmerizing centerpiece, as Bulko inventively enlivens warm ambient drones with out-of-focus smears of dissonance, gurgling didgeridoo, and surprisingly prominent jaw harp twangs. While not quite everything on Ceremony ascends to the same level, the handful of pieces where Bulko is truly inspired are quite revelatory, as he is in a class by himself as far as compositional fluidity is concerned.

Lost Tribe Sound

The brilliance of this album is a bit understated and sneaky, as Bulko's work can often seem mannered and conventionally lovely in a way that is promising for a bright future in film scoring, yet bodes poorly for attaining my passionate lifelong fandom. However, first glances can be deceptive and Ceremony's stronger pieces take some very inspired detours into rarified terrain, which makes this is an excellent album for deep listening, as Bulko is extremely skilled at allowing an organic psychedelia to bleed into his slow-burning compositions. A healthy amount of Ceremony's inspiration comes from indigenous people, as Bulko has a deep interest in traditional/sustainable cultures and their rituals (he is considerably less keen on humanity's current direction). In fact, the album's first six pieces were actually rooted in ceremonial field recordings and indigenous instrument performances from Richard Grossman and Serena Gabriel (shakers, flutes, etc.). The other secret star of the album is Ján Kruzliak, Jr., who contributed improvised and oft-gorgeous violin and box cello performances to the same pieces. When all of those facets are in perfect harmony and balance, as they are in "New World Healing Center," the results are incredibly compelling and beautiful. Initially, "Healing Center" feels like a slowly heaving and lurching bit of rustic ambient, but it achieves a wonderfully shambling and precarious sense of forward motion en route to a swooningly gorgeous violin crescendo. While I greatly appreciate Bulko's knack for groaning, smearing, breathy and whistling textures, his true genius lies in the organic fluidity of his compositions. Part of that effect is likely due to the underlying field recordings and Kruzliak's improvisations, yet that does not make the feat any less impressive. When Bulko is at his best, his work sounds like it is mirroring the elegant movements of a dancer's body in real time. While he does not achieve that masterful illusion with the entire album, both "Healing Center" and "In the Service of Life" are quietly sublime stunners and several of the other pieces fleetingly reach similar heights. The album's other lengthy pieces (“From Untold Pains” and “Flight Over Utopia”) are deeply immersive too, but "Healing Center" and "In The Service of Life" are the singular gems that make this an album worth seeking out.

Samples can be found here.

  1531 Hits

The Universal Veil, "Helios/Hind"

cover imageThis is one of those albums that is likely destined to instantly become some kind of sought-after cult classic, which is amusingly common territory for both of the artists involved. In any case, The Universal Veil is entirely new to me, which makes a lot of sense in some ways (as far as Discogs and Bandcamp are concerned, the project does not exist) and does not make any sense at all in others (Helios/Hind basically checks every single possible box for "things I like"). As far as I can tell, however, Hood Faire's David Chatton Barker and Sam McLoughlin (Samandtheplants, Tongues of Light, etc.) have been performing live together for years under this guise and this album is something of a culminating event for the project, as the duo have collaged fragments of their past performances into a hallucinatory full-length of ravaged lo-fi tape experiments and something akin to "ethnological forgeries" like Harappian Night Recordings' classic The Glorious Gongs Of Hainuwele (or a chopped and screwed trip through the more outré side of Sublime Frequencies discography). Needless to say, that means Helios/Hind sets a course quite far out into the shadowy psychedelic fringes, which is exactly what I would hope for when two artists this singular come together.

Hood Faire

The first side of the album ("Helios") opens with stuttering, chirping metal strings that feel like the work of some kind of Remko Scha-style contraption, but things quickly settle into a bleary, ramshackle groove of eerie synth atmospheres, hollow-sounding percussion, and loads of tape hiss and murk. Naturally, that section is the album's "single" of sorts ("The Camel"), but it is basically just an unusually melodic 4-minute stretch of a sound collage that spans an entire side of vinyl. As the rest of the piece unfolds, it variously resembles slow-motion exotica, The Gag File-era Aaron Dilloway, The Shadow Ring-style "found footage" creepiness, and a drugged gamelan ensemble collapsing from exhaustion, dropping things, and wandering off. For the most part, I would describe the aesthetic as something akin to fragments of Nonesuch Explorer-esque tribal field recordings filtered through blown speakers and ravaged tape, but occasionally some other elements like laughter and party sounds drift in as well. Unsurprisingly, the "Hind" side offers more of the same phantasmagoric miasma of cool tribal/junkyard percussion motifs, precarious keyboard melodies, and tape ruin, but it seems to have more of an "animal" element than the "Helios" side. At times, it is even weirdly beautiful, as it is when a wonderful stomping and shuffling groove dissolves into a coda of warm, bleary drones. In general, however, "Hind" feels like a ravaged recording of a gamelan procession colliding with a badly worn VHS tape of German Expressionist Horror at a lysergic bird sanctuary. That is certainly quite a compelling illusion to linger in and Chatton Barker and McLoughlin thankfully manage to avoid ever breaking that fragile spell of strange and broken otherworldliness. While there are only a couple of "set piece" moments in which Helios/Hind coheres into an especially focused and striking passage, such interludes are mostly just the icing on a cake of wonderfully immersive, gnawed, and gnarled outsider mindfuckery.

A sample can be found here.

  1495 Hits

Alister Fawnwoda, Suzanne Ciani, Greg Leisz, "Milan"

cover image

PLEASE DELETE. BELATEDLY DISCOVERED THAT DANGERBIRD IS AN RIAA LABEL.

 

  434 Hits

Tomasz Sroczynski, "Symphony n°2 / Highlander"

cover imageThis album was my first exposure to this Polish composer, but this appears to be his sixth album if I include his improv trio and his collaborations. Also, it is the second symphony that he has composed (the first being 2017's Resurrection). Some of his past albums are a bit closer to my own weird/experimental sensibility (Primal and Ajulella, for example), but Symphony n°2 / Highlander is a more straightforward modern classical release and it is one hell of a great one. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Highlander is composed of three very good pieces and one absolutely brilliant one. Naturally, that one absolutely brilliant piece ("Moderato Pastorale") is the best reason to seek this album out, but as the album description notes, "Tomasz Sroczynski is a symphony in his own right." Hyperbole aside, Sroczynski is indeed a genuinely fascinating composer, seamlessly combining influences as disparate as Arvo Pärt, experimental improv, and strains of both classic Detroit techno and contemporary German minimalist techno.

Ici d'ailleurs/Mind Travels

A sane and honest critical assessment of Sroczynski's second symphony could be easily distilled to some variation of "just go listen to 'Moderato Pastorale' immediately." As tempting as that is, it is a bit lean on the details and I would be remiss if I did not mention that Sroczynski's primary tools for this album were just a violin, a sampler, and a harmonizer and that Highlander is a triumph of masterful loop architecture rather than the work of a world-class string ensemble. I was surprised to learn that, as it is hard to imagine the churning, propulsive intensity of "Moderato Pastorale" originating from anything less than a dozen violinists relentlessly bowing away with demonic intensity. Regardless of how it was made, "Moderato Pastorale" is pitch-perfect in every sense, as Sroczynski unleashes a god-tier motif and then nimbly manipulates the tension for ten glorious minutes. I suspect this is where Sroczynski's love of techno manifests itself: he handles dynamic tension the same way a virtuosic DJ might seamlessly assemble and deconstruct a monster groove. Sadly, Sroczynski does not attempt to replicate that deft combination of raw emotion and steadily intensifying trancelike repetition again, but that is mostly because each of these four pieces explores a different shade of moody, epic grandeur. The following "Adagio," for example, gradually transforms from darkly brooding cloudlike swells into a rapturously swooning and heaving crescendo of Romanticism. Elsewhere, "Diablak" combines a chunky rhythm of strummed violin with a mournful, ambiguously exotic melody, but soon takes some strange detours before landing somewhere best described as "wrong-speed psychotic ballroom dance nightmare." The closing title piece then returns to more billowing and cloudlike territory, but does so in a compelling way, as its deceptively amorphous structure is like a living, organic entity that can solidify whenever the need for an emotional crescendo appears. The four pieces add up to an absorbing and dramatic whole, as Sroczynski is very skilled at moving between heaving immensity and emotionally raw snatches of melody. That said, you should probably just go listen to "Moderato Pastorale" immediately.

Samples can be found here.

  2060 Hits

Hugo Randulv, "Radio Arktis (samlade ljud från den norra polcirkeln)"

cover imageBandcamp recently published a feature on one of my favorite subjects (the Gothenburg Underground) and it turned me onto this solo release from an artist they dubbed "the closest you'll get to a traditional musician in the Enhet För Fri Musik circle." That is no doubt accurate, as Randulv has been the guitarist in a couple of popular Swedish indie rock bands (Westkust and Makthaverskan) that bear zero resemblance to the outsider folk of Enhet För Fri Musik, but I am sure literally everyone in that collective has extracurricular interests that would surprise me (they are quite an interesting bunch, after all). In any case, the more ambient Radio Arktis is another outlier of sorts, though it is one still creatively indebted to the Gotherberg free music milieu. Randulv notes that the album was inspired by "a dream that one of us had, that we were going to make an imaginary soundtrack to every place on Earth." While the album's title ("Collected Sounds From The Arctic Circle") offers an explicit clue about the first place he chose to soundtrack, Randulv consciously opted for a more "beautiful and bright" aesthetic than I would normally associate with arctic-inspired ambiance. At its best, Radio Arktis carves out a beautiful and distinctive ambient/drone niche that gives Randulv's field recordings and more experimental tendencies fertile soil in which to subtly blossom.

Discreet

The album's three numbered pieces kick off in impressively strong fashion, as "1" is the piece that feels most like the heart of Radio Arktis. Fittingly, it is twice as long as the other two pieces and Randulv uses that extended duration to pass through several different stages. Initially, "1" is built upon little more than a slow-motion bass buzz, crashing waves, and plenty of tape hiss. That eventually blossoms into a reverie of blurred and shimmering synth-like melodies, but the terrain gets increasingly imaginative and inspired from that point onward, as it soon sounds like a Swedish lumberjack, a fireworks display, a extremely vocal flock of geese, and a melancholy young poet have turned up (as well as a probable cow). Those "non-musical" touches elevate the piece into something quite beautiful, as Randulv has a knack for artfully fading into the background to make something like a cacophony of squawking birds feel like the emotional core and focus. That "bird interlude" is the highlight of the album for me, as it feels like I am on a remote Nordic beach where the sun has just unexpectedly broken through a bank of clouds (exciting plenty of birds in the process). The second piece ("2") is a bit more melodic, as an oscillating shimmer slowly blooms into a dreamy, soft-focus loop of carousel/music box-like melody. It is wonderfully warm and sublime enough to be the album’s other major highlight, yet it too undergoes an interesting transformation. It evokes the feeling of being inside an enchanted snowglobe, then having the spell broken to reveal just battered old piano and a fitful wind-up music box in a sad, empty room. No such magic trick occurs in the final piece, lamentably, but "3" makes for a pleasantly radiant coda nonetheless. Sort of, at least: it feels like a New Age album was dubbed over a noise tape, but the latter remains simmering below the surface, threatening to break through. The noise never breaks though enough to make "3" as memorable as its predecessors, but such a cool climax likely would have ruined the spell of the album, so I must concede that Randulv’s artistic judgment is sound. In any case, I like this album a lot and excitedly look forward to Randulv's imaginary soundtracks for the rest of the globe.

Samples can be found here.

  1627 Hits

Rdeča Raketa, ".​.​.​and cannot reach the silence"

cover imageI believe this is the third album from this Vienna-based duo, but it has been a while (eight years) since they last released anything and they are entirely new to me. Rdeča Raketa is a collaboration between composer/double bassist Matija Schellander and Slovenian singer/artist/force of nature Maja Osojnik and they achieve quite a memorable and compelling collision of aesthetics. At its best, ...and cannot reach the silence feels like a Weimar-era cabaret, a killer noise/industrial show, and gripping performance art all beautifully mashed together. While that seems like an aesthetic that should not work (like Marlene Dietrich fronting Throbbing Gristle), the execution is so masterful that Schellander and Osojnik make that unholy union seem perfectly natural. Admittedly, the train occasionally derails a little bit or a song might take an exasperatingly long time to catch fire, but the album's minor flaws feel completely irrelevant when everything locks in place and Osojnik starts seductively singing and ranting like a classic femme fatale diva gone feral. Given that, Osojnik's magnetic vocal presence is understandably the focal point of the album, but it is also worth noting that the pair are unusually good at crafting wonderfully heavy and gnarled industrial rhythms. This is easily one of the year's most memorable albums.

Ventil

The album is composed of three lengthy pieces whose titles form a poem of sorts ("the night is spilling across the room…like gasoline. waiting it out."). All of the texts come from Osojnik, and the poem abstractly alludes to the album's central theme of rampant misunderstanding and the "tightening of incompatible parallel 'realities.'" I would be hard pressed to come up with a theme that better sums up the current state of the world than "incompatible parallel realities," but it would take a close reading of the lyrics to grasp that overarching theme, as ​.​.​.and cannot reach the silence primarily feels darkly libidinal with a healthy side helping of churning industrial menace. The strongest pieces are the first two, as they are more song-like than the closing soundscape. On "the night is spilling across the room," a ghostly haze of feedback gradually coheres into something like a Birchville Cat Motel gig unsuccessfully attempting to drown out a sultry cabaret chanteuse. As it unfolds, it hits quite a striking balance of eerie beauty, gnarled industrial maelstrom, and smoldering sexuality. It even stays great after Osojnik's fiery central performance subsides, as floating vocals swirl above a heavy industrial beat that feels like one of Downward Spiral-era NIN's more experimental moments. The following "like gasoline" picks up right where its predecessor left off, as a heaving mechanized rhythm is strafed by static and ghostly backing vocals fade in to set the stage for another volcanic Osojnik performance. There are a few moments that feel a bit too intense or bluntly sexual for my taste, but they are handily eclipsed by how much everything else is crushingly brilliant. It's like a great industrial noise band was unexpectedly blessed with a strikingly charismatic, sensual, and spontaneous femme fatale vocalist hellbent on tearing through the scene like an erotic hurricane. Consequently, it is fitting then that the final piece (“waiting it out”) is mostly a howling storm of noise and electronics. It is an impressively nightmarish one too, but the comparative lack of Osojnik's vocals makes it feel less "human" and distinctive than the previous pieces (though I do like the part where her garbled voice fleetingly appears to ask "who are these people?"). The three pieces cumulatively add up to quite a wild, wonderful, and uniquely heavy album, as Schellander and Osojnik seem blissfully immune to any impulses that might dilute or diminish the primal intensity of their art.

Samples can be found here.

  1637 Hits

The Volume Settings Folder, "Pastorage Sights"

cover imageThis prolific ambient project from Italian guitarist M. Beckmann has been a fascination of mine for a couple of years now and I have been patiently waiting for an appropriately excellent major new release to cover. This double album from June fits the bill quite nicely, though Beckmann has since released a trilogy of pieces entitled "Late Summer, Interior" that are similarly lovely. According to Beckmann, these four lengthy pieces are "a very condensed display" of how he is coping with the "pressure, stress, and fear around the corner" as "cities burst with life and everybody is eager to live a life that resembles normality." Stylistically, that coping manifests itself as a gorgeous strain of "rural ambient" akin to Benoit Pioulard's more bleary and blurred ambient work (Beckmann cites Boards of Canada as a big influence), but with some wonderful enhancements from field recordings and processed guitars. I am tempted to call it "shoegaze-damaged," but Beckmann generally achieves his sublime, flickering beauty without ever stomping a distortion pedal. I also dearly wish there was a more appropriate term for music in this vein than "ambient," as Beckmann’s strongest work brings a poetry and intimacy to the form that is every bit as transcendent as masters like Andrew Chalk.

Self-Released

The opening "Far From The Crowds And The Pressures Of Time" is the first and best of Pastorage Sights' two half-hour-long epics. It begins somewhat modestly, as a hollowly echoing guitar motif languorously repeats over a hazy, shimmering bed of drones. As it unfolds, additional layers of melodies, textures, and effects sneakily accumulate until the piece becomes an achingly beautiful swirl of twinkling, swaying, and quivering interconnected loops. And from then on, it only continues to transform further, albeit without losing any of that essential character, as Beckmann subtly manipulates the focus with incredible patience and lightness of touch. Once it reaches critical mass, "Far From The Crowds" is an absolutely sublime tour de force of warmly flickering and hiss-soaked ambient drone bliss. In fact, one of my notes was "awesome in roughly five different ways by the time it ends." That makes it a tough act to follow, yet two of the remaining three pieces manage to scale similar heights, and the third is far from disappointing. The following "Leidenfrost Effect" features a similar slow-burning trajectory of steady loop accumulation, initially evoking flickering comets streaking across a lonely night sky before slowly expanding into a widescreen panorama of twinkling shoegaze bliss. It took me a bit longer to fully appreciate the 32-minute "Sparing Of Words And Stern In Her Ways," but that is simply because its pleasure are more nuanced. At one point, it feels like time slows and reality blurs while the hissing sounds of rain drift in from an open window, while another passage calls to mind a painterly sky of slow-moving bruised purple and pink clouds. And there is the final five or six minutes, which feel like angelic choral voices enveloped in subtly psychedelic guitar shimmer. The closing title piece is arguably the weakest of the four, but I might just feel that way because it lacks the shifting, enigmatic arc that makes the other three pieces such a pleasure. Instead, it is built around little more than a frayed and bittersweet slow-motion melody and a haze of ghostly EBow shimmer. As such, it shares some common ground with Celer (a cool loop hypnotically repeating into infinity), but that dreamy reverie is slowly eclipsed by a vibrant host of birds in its final moments. The sole caveat with this album is that it requires more patience than some other TVSF releases, as even the shortest piece hovers around 20 minutes, but the reward is usually proportional to how long Beckmann spends laying the groundwork. While I have no idea if Pastorage Sights is one of the strongest The Volume Settings Folder albums to date (there are currently 60+ releases on Bandcamp), it certainly feels enough like one to make it an excellent starting point for the curious.

Samples can be found here.

  1612 Hits

Bendik Giske, "Cracks"

cover imageI have been quite keen to hear just about everything that this Norwegian saxophonist releases since he damn near stole the show on Caterina Barbieri’s Fantas Variations earlier this year. Thus far, I have yet to be disappointed and this latest solo release beautifully continues Giske's ascendance as one of the most compelling saxophonists on earth. When I first heard Cracks, it reminded me of Pauline Oliveros's hugely influential Deep Listening, as much of it feels like a killer sax solo reverberating around a vast subterranean space leaving dreamlike ghost trails in its wake. As it turns out, that is a masterful illusion, as Giske got to the same place in a very different way (and with very different conceptual inspirations). One of those inspirations was José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia, which suggests that "queerness must strive towards futurity." A healthy portion of Cracks' futurity was provided by producer/collaborator André Bratten, as the album was recorded in "the new 'resonant' space of Bratten's reactive studio tuned to his original sounds." The album's description further notes that Cracks brings Giske "one step closer to the man-machine," but the beauty of the album for me lies in how effectively he combines intimate intensity with hypnotically repeating patterns.

Smalltown Supersound

The opening "Flutter" is aptly named, as it begins with a breathy, fluttering pattern hovering at the edge of audibility. Gradually, a warbling and tender melody takes shape and the piece blossoms into something wonderfully broken and beautiful. "Flutter" is one of the most simmering and understated pieces on the album, as the central pattern feels like little more than breath and flapping keys, but most of the remaining pieces share a very similar structure. "Cruising" soon solidifies what that structure is: Giske unleashes winding, serpentine arpeggios akin to Phillip Glass-style minimalism, but with a twist: those arpeggios almost always spiral outward into something strangled, howling, or tenderly poignant (and sometimes all within the same piece). Bratten's hand plays a crucial role on "Cruising" as well, as the visceral intensity and gnarled textures that Giske wrests from his sax cut through a hallucinatory fog of long, lingering decays. It is quite an effective balance of sharp and soft textures, as the snarling central melodies stand out in stark relief while a deepening spell of unreality slowly intensifies in the background. The title piece is the sole divergence from that aesthetic, as the ghostly fog takes over completely for a long interlude of murky, billowing ambiance. The strongest piece on the album is "Void," which follows the expected arc of repeating arpeggios splintering into howls of anguish, but represents that arc in its most perfect form. Or maybe I just like the central melody more than usual. In either case, "Void" hits quite an effective balance of animal intensity, poignance, and flickering psychedelia. The closing "Matter (part 3)" is yet another strong variation on the album's "unraveling patterns" aesthetic, but it packs more of a throbbing, seething tension than the rest of the album. While I have not yet fully warmed to the title piece, Cracks is otherwise nothing but wall-to-wall greatness. I love the seemingly raw, intimate simplicity of these pieces, as Giske is an absolute genius at transforming a few arpeggios into something howling, unpredictable, and vibrantly alive.

Samples can be found here.

  1656 Hits

Legendary Pink Dots, "Island of Jewels"

cover imageMetropolis Records continues their ambitious LPD reissue campaign with an expanded and remastered edition of this oft-fascinating album from the band's celebrated mid-'80s hot streak. According to the band, Island of Jewels was "the natural successor" to The Tower, but it was chronologically sandwiched between two of the Dots' most beloved albums from the era (1985's Asylum and 1988's Any Day Now). Being eclipsed on either side by arguably superior albums has not been optimal for Island of Jewels' stature within the LPD canon, yet it still captured the band in legitimately inspired form (albeit in service of an especially bleak vision this time around). As I did not start delving into the Dots' oeuvre until the mid-'90s (I was lured in by The Tear Garden), I still find it a bit difficult to embrace some of the conspicuously "'80s" elements from this particular phase, as the synth sounds and slap/fretless bass themes have not aged terribly well. Then again, it seems deeply wrong-headed to take issue with the tools that the band used to craft such a playfully surreal and endearing collection of songs, as only a fool would let passing stylistic trends rob them of their sense of wonder. While I would describe Island of Jewels as a more of an acquired taste than some of the surrounding releases, it is a taste worth acquiring, as this album is a delightfully hook-filled and hallucinatory world to immerse oneself in.

Metropolis

Belatedly delving into '80s-era Legendary Pink Dots is a curious experience, as albums like this one capture an incredibly imaginative and talented group of musicians still somewhat in the thrall of their influences and the popular instrumentation of the time. As a result, a lot of this album sounds like someone from the Victorian era became obsessed with '70s prog and set out to make a half-carnivalesque/half-melancholy concept album armed with a fretless bass and an inexpensive synthesizer. Given that singular vibe, even the weakest songs are compellingly weird, but the tradeoff is that the best songs almost always have some kind of irksome imperfection. Perhaps that latter part works in the band's favor entertainment-wise though, as the dated sounds undercut Edward Ka-Spel's bleakness to create something more charming and fun. The first half of the album is teeming with such skewed delights. My favorite is the wonky, lurching "Dairy," which feels like a unhinged magician with a drum machine leading a dance party on a disturbingly Sid & Marty Krofft-inspired children's show. "The Red and the Black" deserves an honorable mention too, as it sounds like a macabre art-pop ensemble performing a shape-shifting cabaret show, but a mischievous bassist decided to wrong-foot everyone by obsessively playing a cheerily cartoonish riff over and over again.

Of course, there are some legitimate Dots classics here too, such as the neo-classical goth-pop balladry of "Shock of Contact." To some degree, it feels like a prog band doing a spacey electric cover of an old harpsichord piece, but that aspect is eclipsed by an especially haunting and beautiful vocal performance from Ka-Spel. The other big highlight comes in the form of the "Our Lady" trilogy near the end of the album. The first part, "Our Lady In Chambers," feels like a darkly lysergic piano ballad plucked from a fairy tale, but one propelled by a thudding drum machine, liquid fretless bass riffage, harmonized lead guitar, dramatic violin flourishes, and occasional stabs of fake horns. Ka-Spel's vocals are wonderfully tender, poetic, and beautiful, so it is easy to imagine a contemporary live version of the piece being an absolute stunner. I was also impressed by "Our Lady of Darkness," which initially sounds like an absinthe-drunk mad genius performing a one-man opera in his mountain castle, but unexpectedly erupts into a very cool and intricate instrumental outro. Notably, the vinyl and digital versions of this reissue enhance the original twelve-song album with eight freewheeling bonus pieces, and they make this latest incarnation considerably more fascinating than the original. My notes on the bonus material are full of phrases like "terrifying German expressionist puppet show set in space" or "sounds like a disco-era erotic vampire musical on rollerskates," and those are not even the pieces identified as "Version Ridiculous" (an honor reserved solely for “No Bell No Prize"). Needless to say, those are exquisite experiences that are impossible to find elsewhere, but the biggest surprise was "This Could Be The End (Alternative)," which radically transforms Asylum's closer into a ghostly folk gem with Attrition's Julia Niblock on vocals. I would not have a expected a bonus track with Ka-Spel on the sidelines to steal the show, but the timeless "folk horror" feel makes it one of my favorite outliers in the LPD canon.

Samples can be found here.

  1604 Hits

Enhet F√∂r Fri Musik, "√ñmhet & Skilsmässa"

cover imageThis latest release from my favorite Swedish free music collective is apparently "a concept album on relationships, family values and broken promises." I will have to take their word on that, as I do not understand Swedish, but Ömhet & Skilsmässa ("Tenderness & Divorce") does have a very different (and possibly more wholesome) feel than some previous releases. How truly wholesome an album can be when it features Sewer Elections' Dan Johansson is up for debate, but I do not doubt the collective's commitment to carrying on the grand tradition of freeform Swedish psychedelia a la Pärson Sound, Träd Gräs Och Stenar, and others. That said, Enhet För Fri Musik have their own wonderful thing going and I would be hard pressed to think of any other artists this devoted to guileless simplicity and organic spontaneousness. Admittedly, I was secretly hoping the quintet would revisit the sound collage territory of "Fragment Av En Midsommarnattsdröm" this time around, but my consolation prize is that the Jandek-ian discordant acoustic guitars are kept to a minimum. Instead, this album feels like the impressionistic audio diary of a teenage girl who is growing up in a pleasant rural commune, as it uncannily evokes the wonder and openness of someone totally indifferent to popular trends and not yet hardened by the endless disappointment and inhumanity of the outside world.

Discreet Music

It took me a bit longer than usual to fall in love with this album, as I was initially exasperated by the extreme brevity of several of the best songs and the fragmented, kaleidoscopic nature of the album. I am probably a fool for coming to an Enhet För Fri Musik album expecting a hot single, but I do like it when a band's best ideas are expanded into complete, fully formed statements. That sort of thing was not on the agenda with this album, but it eventually dawned on me that something considerably more interesting and unique was happening instead. Obviously, "Swedish noise artists reclaim their childlike naivete to transform into an oft-brilliant free-folk ensemble" is an impressive feat too, but I was already expecting that part. Consequently, I was more struck by how this album feels like a VHS tape of enigmatic found footage fragments that capture flickering tender, beautiful, intimate, and uneasy moments spanning many years and many miles. There are a few pieces that feel dark, such as "Opus 6 – Sommarljus" (crunching footsteps in a desolate moonlit shipyard, then a ramshackle, Wicker Man-esque folk procession) and "Kärlekens Nöjen" (woman humming a sad melody by the seaside as storm clouds gather). If the album was entirely in that vein, it would feel like a series of clues to an unsolved murder, but the amiable musicality of Sofie Herner's voice makes the album feel like I am being led through a bittersweet phantasmagoria by a trusted and charming friend. It also helps that there are some genuinely lovely song vignettes strewn throughout the album. My favorite pieces are the ones in which Herner haltingly and casually chatters over a simple pretty melody, such as "Idag Är Det Bra" (featuring an endearingly wobbly-sounding synth melody) and the hesitant, finger-picked folk of "En Bra Dag." The closing piano ballad "Skilsmässa" is another delight in that simple melodic vein, but there is also one excellent sound collage-style piece on the album as well ("Flytten"). In fact, "Flytton" is probably the album’s most surreal and absorbing piece, as it sounds somewhere between an accordion-driven sea shanty and a murky, hallucinatory cabaret. Or maybe like a melancholy noir film about the French Resistance, except the club's femme fatale chanteuse has lost interest in singing and is just conversationally chattering in Swedish as a grinding, supernatural roar slowly envelops everything. I would be thrilled if there were a few more songs like that on Ömhet & Skilsmässa, but I genuinely love the spell that the collective casts on this album. Enhet För Fri Musik are channeling something truly radical: a simpler pre-internet era before regional character, emotional directness, and intimacy were nearly wiped off the map by advances in production technology and all-consuming international trends. And they seem to be confidently climbing farther and farther out on that limb with each new release.

Samples can be found here.

  1683 Hits

Scanner, "Earthbound Transmissions"

cover imageThis latest release from Robin Rimbaud is hopefully the first of many deep dives into the Scanner archives, as he ambitiously spent part of his lockdown digitizing and mixing his unreleased work from the '80s. The big story, of course, is that Earthbound Transmissions features some of Rimbaud's early work with appropriated phone conversations that predates Scanner's 1993 eponymous debut. Those scanned calls are only one facet of these recordings, however, as this album documents a formative experimental stage immediately after Rimbaud's acquisition of a "luxuriously expensive" Fostex 280 four-track recorder, which he combined with a Digitech RDS 7.6 Time Machine to make looping, layered sound collages. For the most part, Earthbound Transmission feels like an unusually strong release from the '80s DIY noise cassette scene (albeit more on the "murky ambient" side of the spectrum), but there are also a handful of pieces that legitimately feel like lost Scanner classics.

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The opening "The Canonization" is a solid and representative example of the baseline aesthetic of Earthbound Transmissions, as it unfolds as a roiling and murky sea of grayscale drones. As a composition, it is not particularly memorable, but the actual notes played are secondary to the hissing, clouded, and frayed textures that Rimbaud conjures. That is not quite enough to make it an album highlight, but it is a damn good starting point for some of the other pieces, as one or two imaginative touches can easily transform that foundation into something hauntingly beautiful. Such welcome innovations start to appear with the following "Comus," which uses clattering metal, an obsessive ticking rhythm, and voice fragments to evoke a tense and enigmatic scene from a gloomy Cold War-era train station in Eastern Europe (like a John Le Carré novel, but artier and more hallucinatory). "Split Substance" is better still, as a chopped and garbled male voice combines with pulsing string samples for something resembling a haunted radio broadcast. The next run of hits kicks off with "His Begging Bowl," in which a found recording recounts the poignant final moments of a beloved family dog over a backdrop resembling a smearing music box melody. Weirdly, it sounds like it is about to become a Daft Punk anthem at one point, but instead veers into trance-like, Oval-esque repetition. The two "Drones Places" pieces that follow are mesmerizing as well. The first is a pitch-perfect dose of shuddering industrial menace, while the second features static-drenched voices (some funny, some sad) crackling across a warmly, billowing ambient dreamscape. "Soft Endclose" is another scanned phone call gem, as a chaotic squall of noise and colorfully accented conversations fitfully unfolds over a minimal ambient shimmer. My other favorite pieces are the languorously melancholy and grinding industrial textures of "River Whispering Run" and the wryly amusing plunderphonic groove of "Unhelpful." The remaining pieces are solid too, but there are probably four or five songs that rank among Rimbaud's finest work, which is not something I was expecting to find lurking in dusty thirty-year-old tapes of unreleased music.

Samples can be found here.

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