Steph Kretowicz, "I hate it here"

cover imageThis unique debut album is definitely one of the year's most pleasant surprises, as art/music journalist Kretowicz assembled a bevy of talented collaborators to craft a poignant and subtly hallucinatory tour de force of autofiction-based sound art. While some of the people involved (Mica Levi, Tirzah, etc.) certainly enhance the initial allure of I hate it here, it is a great challenge to focus on anything other than Kretowicz's sardonic, time-bending narrative as soon as she opens her mouth and things gets rolling. Thematically, the album is billed as a "psychedelic audio narrative" that "wanders through a layered and multi-dimensional notion of existence as suffering," which mostly feels apt, yet it fails to convey how truly charming and blackly funny wandering through that notion with Kretowicz can be. More importantly, this is the rare spoken word album that remains compelling beyond the first listen, as the combination of Kretowicz's deadpan, accented voice and the sound collage talents of felicita & Ben Babbitt make it an absorbing delight long after the meaning and impact of Kretowicz's words dissipate into more abstract and nuanced pleasures like texture and feeling. To my ears, this is one of the most inspired, immersive, and memorable albums of the year.

CURL

The album has the feel of a radio play, as it is centered primarily upon Kretowicz's recounting of a few significant events from her life, but her monologue is fleshed out with other voices, subtle ambient colorings, field recordings, and several surreal intrusions from scene-appropriate songs (such as Polish disco, for example). There is also a bittersweetly lovely piano theme that recurs at key moments throughout the piece. At its core, however, the album is essentially a handful of interwoven narrative threads united by the theme of suffering: an infected tattoo, an uncomfortable van trip to Poland, a desperate visit to a shaman, and the final days and funeral of Kretowicz's grandmother. Given that dark theme, a deep current of sadness, disconnection, and restlessness certainly runs throughout the album, yet Kretowicz wraps her heartwrenching memories in such a colorful, digression-filled, and bleakly amusing storytelling aesthetic that it all feels intimate, transcendent, and beautiful rather than uncomfortably sad. For example, a brief and incomplete list of my favorite moments includes: the tale of the aforementioned tattoo, a discussion of how Polish truck drivers keep themselves entertained, a morbid rumination interrupted with strong opinions about pants, Kretowicz's thoughts during a psychotropic shamanic ritual, and a treasured memory of the fleeting happiness she once experienced at a PJ Harvey concert. While a couple of the album's smeared stabs at psychedelia do not quite hit the mark for me, Kretowicz herself is an unwaveringly interesting and entertaining monologist and the album is masterfully edited and paced from start to finish. Moreover, it all builds up to quite an emotional wallop of an ending, but so far that ending has not been too heavy to deter me from immediately starting the album over again as soon as it ends. My gut tells me that I hate it here is an instant classic.

Samples can be found here.

2374 Hits

Myxomy

cover imageThis is one of those rare collaborations in which I had absolutely no idea what kind of album to expect, as the only obvious common ground this duo shares is a strong interest in sound design, though it is probably safe to say they are both drawn to unusual projects too given their past involvement with Rắn Cạp ĐuôI Collective. Now that I have heard Myxomy, however, I am faced with the fresh challenge of describing a vision that is elusively shapeshifting, kaleidoscopic, and wrong-footing from start to finish. I suppose the most consistent aesthetic is something akin to "half-deconstructed/half-maximalist outsider R&B" or some similarly heretofore nonexistent genre, but the real theme seems to exclusively be one of endless mutation. In fact, the idea for the collaboration originally began with James Ginzburg sending Ziúr some beats from his early techno days, which triggered a dueling exchange of raw material reworkings that rapidly escalated and morphed until the "duo's fragmented sketches and scribbles took on new life" that "developed into anxious, hybridized pop jewels." To be fair, Myxomy is admittedly poppier than I ever would have anticipated, but this project is waaaaay too weird, fractured, and unpredictable to ever be mistaken for actual pop (jewels or otherwise). It mostly feels more like a handful of hooks wandering through a collapsed post-industrial landscape in search of a proper home. I am not sure any of them ever quite found one (seems doubtful), but some of these experiments are impressively visceral and unique in their own right (even if they can sometimes be a real challenge to digest).

Subtext

I suspect the title of the opening "Sloppy Attempt" provides some self-deprecating insight into the mindset that Ginzburg and Zi√∫r brought to the Myxomy vision, as it seems like the pair genuinely delighted in breaking and stretching each other's work and all other concerns were purely secondary. That is not intended as a disparagement, but the primary pleasures of this album are definitely in the vein of "this is a playground where songs convulse and break in interesting ways" rather than "check out all these hot new singles we wrote." Helpfully, "Sloppy Attempt" is also one of the more representative pieces on the album, as a blooping synth hook seems to keep wandering off course rather than locking into a groove. Nevertheless, a groove eventually does take shape (albeit fitfully) and the piece blossoms into a seething and moody song of sorts. In the rare moments where the beat does not collapse and the bass line is allowed to unfold naturally, it is not hard to see the ghost of a much catchier song lurking inside it all, but the overall impression is one of a remixer purposely stretching and pushing that hapless piece past its breaking point to see what happens.

The following “A Little Opaque” takes a similar trajectory, as a squirming and glistening synth pile-up sluggishly lurches forward along with spectral vocals and thudding, slow-motion drums. Naturally, every time it threatens to catch fire, it quickly gets pulled apart, ravaged by static, smeared, or broken in some way. "Make self-sabotage an art form" definitely seems to have been a guiding principle here. That said, the following three-song run can be quite impressive at times. The hot streak begins with "In and until," which sounds like a howling, junkyard percussion variation upon the massive rattling metal strings of Ginzburg's last solo album (Crystallise, A Frozen Eye). Next, "It is it everything" unleashes an absolutely killer motif that sounds like a haunted, lysergically smeared vibraphone enhanced with lots of wonderfully clattering and ringing metallic textures. It is a bit too sizzling and erratic to make a strong single though, which seems like a real missed opportunity. In fact, I strongly feel it deserves its own remix album (collaborative cannibalization is in Myxomy's DNA, after all). Elsewhere, the heavy industrial crunch of the following "Toxin Out" admittedly feels closer to earthquake than groove, but it is damn hard not to be charmed by the rousing chorus of "eat the rich and throw up on the fuckbois." The closing "Nuance Unseen" (another self-deprecating title) is also quite enjoyable in a seething/clattering/industrial-damaged R&B way and makes some more fine use of howling violin. If someone threatened to kill me if I did not choose a single for this album, I would probably pick that one. For the most part, however, Myxomy's pleasures lie primarily in hearing Ginzburg and Ziúr inventively mangle each other's work and veer quite far off course from their expected terrain (though fans of Ben Frost-style seismic intensity will likely find much to appreciate in that regard too).

Samples can be found here.

2502 Hits

Monokultur, "Ormens Väg"

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This is the second full-length from the Swedish minimal wave/post-punk duo of JJ Ulius (Skiftande Enheter) & Elin Engström (Skiftande Enheter/Loopsel). Significantly, Monokultur spawned from the same fertile milieu that brought us Neutral, Enhet För Fri Musik, Treasury of Puppies, and every other great Gothenberg project, so it is not particularly surprising that Monokultur are excellent as well. While I suspect that Enhet För Fri Musik will remain securely ensconced as my favorite emissaries from Sweden's thriving underground scene for the near future, Monokultur definitely craft some of the strongest singles of anyone in that scene. In fact, they almost resemble a variation of Neutral in which Sofie Herner and Dan Johansson suddenly realized they could celebrate hiss-soaked grayscale murk and write catchy, hook-filled songs at the same time. That is not meant to disparage Neutral (whom I also enjoy), but Monokultur definitely have less of a scorched earth approach to human warmth and lovely undestroyed melodies. In any case, this album is excellent, as Monokultur are getting very close to perfecting a vision in which gnarled post-industrial artiness, bedroom pop, and 4AD-style romanticism can seamlessly intertwine and enhance each other.

Ever/Never & Mammas Mysteriska Jukebox

The wobbly, bleary, and hypnagogic/somnambulant opener "Decennium" offers a fairly representative crash course in what to expect from Ormens Väg: hushed, intimate, and melancholy lo-fi pop songs that feel like they were recorded alone in a small apartment in a cold, bleak city at 3am in 1982. In fact, Monokultur capture urban alienation so exquisitely that it is legitimately surprising that they are a duo, as it is damn hard to imagine two people on such a dark wavelength ever connecting with one another. It is similarly surprising that Engstrom and Ulius are able to articulate their deep malaise in such a tenderly melodic and charmingly ramshackle way, sometimes approximating a promising minimal wave duo that discovered hard drugs, heartache, and Throbbing Gristle to disastrous impact on their commercial prospects.

To my ears, “Demokrati” is probably the piece that captures Monokultur at their best, as it combines a simple, lovely organ melody with a slowly, chugging rhythm and hushed male/female vocal harmonies, but there are several similarly successful pieces that veer off in divergent directions. For example, the Ulius-sung "För Sent" sounds like a rough late-period Joy Division demo for another "Atmosphere"-style hit, except Ian Curtis is uncharacteristically sleepy, distracted, and Swedish. The effect is weirdly charming, which is likely due to the quietly lovely backdrop of quivering, hallucinatory synth melodies, warped guitar shimmer, and a languorously sensual pulse. Elsewhere, "Pennan i handen" sounds like a ghostly DIY country song or a sleepily sexy, ennui-soaked inversion of The Cramps who were more inspired by brutalist architecture and Ingmar Bergman films than classic rockabilly and sleaze. My other favorite pieces are "Vårdagjämning" and "Människor och träd," which respectively enhance the Monokultur aesthetic with heavy, haunted-sounding industrial loops and a lovely spoken word performance from guest Charlott Malmenholt. The latter piece comes as a quite a surprise at the end of the album, as it feels almost upbeat and tropical (think "Cocteau Twins make an impressionist exotica album…but with poetry!"). The only real caveat with this album might be that it will probably be too gloomy for some, but I think Jack Rollo nailed Monokultur's appeal in his liner notes ("sudden moments of heart-wrenching familiarity"), as it seems like there is always an unexpected melody, poignant chord change, or cool twist just around the corner with this album.

Samples can be found here.

2254 Hits

Zpell Hologos, "Birmania"

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This is the debut of a new project from Babe, Terror's Cl√°udio Szynkier, who has apparently undergone quite a dramatic creative upheaval over the last couple years. Then again, it is quite hard to tell what would constitute expected terrain for an artist who seems to seamlessly bounce between being a killer techno producer and channeling Morton Feldman-esque neo-classical abstraction. Nevertheless, something radical is definitely happening with Szynkier, as he is following 2020's acclaimed departure Horizogon with a pair of fresh and different departures: Birmania is intended as the companion piece to an intriguing feature-length film set for release next year (A Princesa de Rangoon). The film's unique premise ("apparitions, mystical presences and lost stories from S√£o Paulo and Rangoon are discovered over the course of a summer in the future") provides some helpful insight into the unusual vision that guides Birmania, as Szynkier is deeply interested in both how civilizations rise, fall, and transform and how traces of the past haunt the future. Of course, Szynkier is also the hapless sufferer of a chronic ear problem, so perhaps filmmaking and a softer, more abstract strain of music is primarily an ideal way to remain creatively vital without subjecting oneself to seismic bass and thumping kick drums. In any case, Szynkier is an increasingly fascinating and unique composer and Birmania is a fitfully wonderful album. While not every piece quite hits the mark for me, the ones that do can feel quite revelatory.

Self-Released

The first of the "quite revelatory" pieces on Birmania is the opening "Mandalay Moulmay," which begins as a disorienting and haunted-sounding classical piano performance in which melodies seem to constantly overlap and drunkenly stumble into one another. It calls to mind a more melodic Morton Feldman due to its murky dissonances, but also feels like a sublime feat of dissolving loop architecture. Amusingly, it additionally sounds like curdled, rotted, and deconstructed cover of "What a Wonderful World," which is darkly appropriate for these times. As it unfolds, however, things grow steadily more surreal, as pitches and speeds start unexpectedly shifting and synth/rave elements starts to bleed in or blurtingly intrude. For the most part, I am less keen on Birmania's futuristic elements than I am on Szynkier's artfully frayed and distending string and piano themes, but the gorgeous synth break at the center of "Mandalay Moulmay" was the hook that first drew me into the album, so I suppose Szynkier’s instincts are probably solid.

The following "Cocokyoun" is another highlight in a somewhat similar vein, though the blearily descending piano melodies feel more like the haunted ballroom territory of The Caretaker this time around. Again, the blurting intrusions of artificiality (the synths) are an interesting choice, but they increasingly feel like they serve an important role texturally (and they always serve a role conceptually, given the album's theme of interweaving past and future). The overall feel is akin to a film loop of a classical piano performance that gradually starts getting snagged and burning up until a gnarled backwards string motif supernaturally fades in for an unsettling finale. To my ears, the most perfectly realized piece on the album is "Pyapoon," which feels like a dusty 78 of a piano/harp duet is eerily smearing, dissolving, unraveling, and fading in and out of focus. And then it seems like Tangerine Dream's Phaedra suddenly crash lands in the middle of it all, which is definitely not something I anticipated Once it recovers from that shockwave, "Pyapoon" continues its original trajectory towards a fever dream crescendo of heaving, churning, and time-stretched classical loops. While those three pieces feel like the strongest ones on the album to me, the remaining ones are all in a similar vein and the same themes continue to appear throughout the album. As such, Birmania is quite an absorbing whole and a great headphone album rather than a collection of discrete individual pieces. It also feels like the sort of album that is too weird and singular to have an unconflicted opinion about, which probably means that Szynkier is doing something very right. I suspect I just need to catch up to whatever wavelength he is currently on, as he seems to be nearly peerless at constructing sad, beautiful, and soulful loop collages when he sets his mind to it.

Samples can be found here.

2561 Hits

Gnod, "La Mort Du Sens"

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The latest opus from this shapeshifting Salford collective is a welcome return to the punk- and hardcore-damaged brutality of 2017's Just Say No to the Psycho Right-Wing Capitalist Fascist Industrial Death Machine, which makes perfect sense, as there has certainly been plenty to get enraged about over the last few years (appropriately, the album's title translates as "The Death Of Meaning"). Interestingly, however, these pieces were actually recorded back in 2019 "in an old mill in Manchester" in an attempt to capture the intensity of the band’s live sets ("two drummers and a load of cabs in a room pushing each other forward"). As founding member Paddy Shine notes, “this record is a really strange beast because of the big change that happened between mixing and recording” in which "confusion was king for us all." Given that, I definitely wonder how much the collapsing outside world crept into and shaped both the mixing aesthetic and the album's ultimate form, but the only thing that actually matters is that La Mort Du Sens is yet another killer Gnod album and it is one that can be roughly (and accurately) described as "one the best Swans albums ever made by a band that is not actually Swans."

Rocket Recordings

The album amusingly opens with a voice asking "do you want to tell us anything about this record in particular?" followed by a cacophony of overlapping voices and radio waves. And then an ugly snarl of noise cuts through it all and Gnod launch into one of the most perfectly brutal songs that they have ever recorded ("Regimental"). As with most pieces on La Mort Du Sens, "Regimental" is essentially just a killer groove with some barked vocals over it, but the beauty lies in the details and in how masterfully the band distill their various influences into something seamlessly perfect and crushing. For instance, "Regimental" feels like the best moment from some great metalcore band's discography combined with top-tier No Wave guitar ugliness, a ribcage rattling bass tone, and the righteous anger of a great crust punk band. Those six glorious and unbroken minutes of focused, unrelenting ferocity and violent snarls of guitar noise are heaven to me, but Gnod admirably spend the rest of the album gamely trying to top that opening bombshell. While I do not think they quite succeed, they managed the next best thing: releasing a five-song album in which there is probably a five-way tie for "best song" (or at least something damn close to it).

On "Pink Champagne Blues," for example, an explosive and crashing intro gives way to a punky double-time groove of pounding toms, muscular strummed bass, and howling guitar noise. Elsewhere, "The Whip and the Tongue" feels like the missing link between a thuggishly repetitive Swans classic and Era-era Disappears (and with a wild sax solo thrown in for good measure). The following "Town" is probably the piece closest to my heart, however, as its lurching, snarling, and stumbling groove is beautifully enhanced with sneeringly sarcastic lyrics about all the "real jobs" and "factories" in Gnod's "fucking great town." It's a level of blunt, well-aimed biliousness that probably would have made Mark E. Smith nod approvingly. In keeping with the album's theme of punishing repetition and crushing heaviness, the closing epic "Giro Day" basically feels like the burning wreckage of some classic Relapse album like Times of Grace-era Neurosis: just relentlessly insistent locked groove-style tribal toms, squalls of ugly noise, and pure aggression. For those keeping score, all of that amounts to five rippers in a row, which makes La Mort Du Sens one of Gnod's all-time finest albums to date. As much as I enjoy Gnod's artier and more psych-inspired tendencies, I have to concede that they seem like an absolute force of nature when they leave all that behind to single-mindedly focus upon rolling over me like a goddamn bulldozer.

Samples can be found here.

2511 Hits

Daniel Wyche, "Earthwork"

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This is my first encounter with this Chicago-based composer/guitarist/improv enthusiast, but it seems like Earthwork may unexpectedly be the optimal place to start with Wyche's art, as it feels like the culmination of a number of meaningful threads that extend deep into his past. For example, the album's most immediately gratifying piece is built from a guitar riff that Wyche wrote in high school and the album itself was (at least partially) edited and assembled as a "spiritual exercise" in the wake of his grandfather’s funeral. Also, the album's title and a healthy portion of its vision were inspired by Wyche's childhood in a New Jersey family of working class contractors and construction workers. For the most part, however, those inspirations are abstracted into unrecognizability, as Earthwork sounds more like it was composed by someone who grew up in a darkly lysergic jungle or in the center of some kind of Zen bell ritual. That stylistic variety admittedly makes it somewhat challenging to pin down "The Daniel Wyche Aesthetic," but Wyche is one hell of a composer for someone who is primarily known an intense improv artist.

American Dreams

The opening "This Was Home" spans the entire first side of the LP and documents an ensemble performance at the 2015 Oscillations Series in Chicago. It opens with gently rippling vibraphone motif over a backdrop of cello drones and something resembling shortwave radio noise. Gradually, it becomes a twinkling and heaving sea of subtly spacey psychedelia. It then lingers as a pleasantly simmering and phantasmagoric soundscape for awhile, but things quickly start to become more compelling around the 7-minute mark, as the three guitarists start to mimic eerily whistling nightbirds and some kind of demonically possessed leopard or puma (probably the best possible use of a wah wah pedal, as far as I am concerned). In the final stretch, the piece gradually evolves from swirling, frayed, and shadow-ravaged surrealism into something considerably more warm and radiant. The following title piece is similarly lengthy, but dates from two years later and is a solo work recorded in a silo at a residency in Wisconsin. Initially, it feels like an exploration of how feedback, string noise, and various clatters and creaks reverberate around the space (Wyche credits himself as playing the actual silo), but it gradually blossoms into a pleasingly layered and texturally compelling reverie. I especially love how it is so understated and spacious that I can hear every single string scrape or slide of Wyche's fingers, which is a neat place for the focus to be (though it is later eclipsed by some violent slashes of chords). Lastly, the short, catchy and Tortoise-esque closer "The Elephant-Whale II" is unavoidably the album's immediate stand out, but it bears little resemble to the two immersive slow burns that proceed it. It almost feels like a different artist altogether, but I like that artist too. Hopefully, Wyche will someday make an entire album in that vein, as it is a damn near perfect piece: just an awesome riff, a killer squall of electronic chaos, and a great free jazz-esque crescendo from bass clarinetist Jeff Kimmel. While there is not a single weak piece on the album, "The Elephant-Whale II" is an ideal distillation of the niche where Wyche truly excels: seamlessly mingling the beautiful and the melodic with the fiery spontaneity of noise and go-for-broke improv.

Samples can be found here.

2577 Hits

Container, "Creamer"

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This latest EP from Ren Schofield's reliably intense Container project feels somewhat less like being flattened by an out-of-control train than usual. According to Schofield, his "intentions and goals for this record were to make it way more 'rock' oriented than 'techno,'" but Creamer ultimately landed quite far from anything resembling a recognizable rock album. Schofield also set out to “incorporate some potentially awkward sounding time signatures," but "disguise them as something digestible." There is plenty on Creamer which suggests that Schofield succeeded admirably in that regard, but it is damn near impossible to think about anything as academic as a time signature when a Container album is playing, as the overall impression is invariably bludgeoning, brutal, and ruthlessly shorn of any arty or conceptual pretensions. Like every Container release, Creamer feels like being repeated smacked in the face with a 2x4 by a man who is constantly tweaking and focusing his technique for maximum impact. That said, this EP does feel a bit less hyper-caffeinated than usual and I actually do find that to be "more digestible." It would be a stretch to call Creamer softer than usual though, as this release crams a truly a remarkable amount of innovation and white-knuckle ferocity into a lean, mean, and damn near perfect fifteen minutes.

Drone

This EP is comprised of wall-to-wall hits, but the opening title piece feels like its raison d'être and most laser-focused statement of intent. It also makes for quite a bracing opening salvo, as it sounds like Renfield affixed a contact mic to a psychotic electronic bee, then enhanced that splattering and distressed synth blurting with an impressively seismic bass throb. And the crushingly heavy, head-bobbing groove that follows is absolutely top-tier Container. I suspect Schofield is quickly bored by any sustained dip in tension or weirdness though, so "Creamer" soon detours into a pummeling kick drum assault/gnarled squall of synth noise for a minute before locking back into the groove for a final exclamation point. The following "Rippler" is closer to business-as-usual, as it features a hyperkinetic, off-kilter groove and an explosive array of stuttering, laser-like synth splatters. It basically sounds like an out-of-control train barreling into a Pink Floyd tribute light show, which is probably something the world could use more of. Later, "Shingles" feels like an electro-punk pulse erupting from a machine-like locked groove. The beat itself initially feels unusually straightforward, yet Schofield quickly ratchets up the craziness with some truly gnarly electronic mayhem and shifting cymbal patterns to yield a relentlessly clattering, splattering, and malevolently buzzing juggernaut. Naturally, the closing "Sniffers" is yet another monster, as it feels like a stuttering and too-fast breakbeat is constantly threatening to derail while thick synth bubbles violently effervesce in sync with the buzzing bass throb. All of Creamer's four pieces are characteristically great and I continue to be amazed at what Schofield can achieve with such a simple and constrained sound palette. When he is at his best (as he often is here), Schofield achieves a truly singular marriage of ruthless precision, go-for-broke intensity, and endlessly boiling unresolved tension. And he is also a man who knows exactly how to distill a statement to its necessary essence without ever lingering, spinning his wheels, or overstaying his welcome, which I greatly appreciate with music this relentless and physical.

Samples can be found here.

2428 Hits

ESP Summer, "Kingdom of Heaven"

cover imageBack in the mid-'90s, His Name is Alive and Pale Saints were labelmates on 4AD and a seemingly one-off studio collaboration between Warren Defever and Ian Masters called ESP Summer was born. While that debut album arguably felt like a too-smooth and straightforward blend of the two artists' aesthetics, it did not take long for deeper eccentricities start appearing, as the project soon started varying its name (ESP Neighbor, ESP Continent), omitting crucial information from album credits, and exclusively releasing limited releases on odd formats. Aside from that, they also went on a 25 year hiatus that finally ended with a pair of releases on Osaka, Japan's Onkonomiyaki label in 2020. Both were quite weird (Here is composed of minimal, vocal-free sound collages), but one of them was also quite good and this is that one: originally a 5" lathe cut vinyl release entitled 天国の王国, the EP is now getting a second life with the translated and apt title Kingdom of Heaven. More specifically, this EP is comprised of four very divergent covers of a single song from the 13th Floor Elevators' 1966 debut (and one written by Powell St. John rather than the band, no less). While the original "Kingdom of Heaven" is a perfectly fine song that was not exactly begging for further enhancements, its strong hooks make it a perfect and sturdy melodic center for Masters and Defever's freewheeling dreampop and psych experimentation. Given the project's oft-inscrutable trajectory, Kingdom of Heaven is an unexpectedly focused, memorable, and compelling release.

Disciples/R.A.T.S.

Amusingly, the opening "Tengoku no ōkoku" sounds like something that would have made quite a splash if it had been released by a 4AD superduo back in 1995, as it resembles a spacier, more dreampop-inspired Joy Division (stark drums, meaty chorus-treated bass, etc.) enhanced with more soulful, melodic vocals. Very few of those traits make the trip into the album's second piece, yet "Kumamushi" is nevertheless another "classic 4AD"-sounding single, albeit one with an asterisk, as it is only an actual song for two of its eight minutes (it dissolves into a bleary ambient outro of reverb-drowned piano and soft-focus wordless vocals). Before that point, however, "Kumamushi" is absolutely gorgeous and opens with a killer early HNIA-style guitar melody. Masters contributes some tender, languorous vocals for his part, but they are more like an additional instrument than the focus. The actual focus of the song comes slightly later, as it unexpectedly explodes into a wonderfully stomping and propulsive passage of dual-guitar harmony. The long wake of ambient shimmer that it leaves behind is enjoyable too, but it is unavoidably eclipsed by the perfect two minutes that proceed it.

In keeping with the EP's theme of endless reinvention, "Taishōgoto o ōkoku" plays "Kingdom of Heaven" fairly straight, as Masters and Defever reduce the song to little more just the lovely vocal melody, a strummed acoustic guitar, and the cool eastern-sounding lead guitar hook. Naturally, the closing "Uchu" dramatically shifts gears once more, stretching out for nearly fifteen ghostly, lo-fi minutes and opening with a virtuosic and nimbly dancing guitar theme that intertwines with a fluttering and serpentine flute melody. Gradually, the expected vocal and guitar melodies appear, but the textures play a crucial role, as the piece has an appealingly hissing, frayed, and lysergic feel. That ghostly atmosphere suits the piece quite nicely, but it is just one facet, as there are also live drums, subtle layers of psychedelia, and a final stretch that feels like a stretched and blurred classical requiem. While a few pieces on this EP could be considered indulgent to a self-sabotaging degree to someone hunting for a perfectly crafted single, I would be hard pressed to find any fault with the release as a whole, as its four songs add up to a soulful and immersive experience and the whole thing is grounded in strong hooks that regularly resurface like a mantra or an inescapable gravitational pull.

Samples can be found here.

2277 Hits

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.

2441 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.

2204 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.

2117 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.

2314 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.

2344 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.

2234 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.

1991 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.

2441 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.

2181 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.

2261 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.

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

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

 

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