"The Harmonic Series II"

cover imageBack in 2009, Duane Pitre curated a CD entitled The Harmonic Series that brought together an array of artists like Pauline Oliveros and Ellen Fullman for a collection of pieces composed for Just Intonation. Roughly a decade later, Pitre has returned with a considerably more ambitious second volume that enlists "six of the most important emerging voices of contemporary experimental music" for a triple LP extravaganza of longform Just Intonation pieces. To his credit, Pitre truly did assemble an impressive lineup for this release, as artists like Caterina Barbieri and Kali Malone are undeniably leading lights of the current vanguard. In fact, everybody here has a history of making great or provocative music, though I am not sure everyone was brimming with great ideas for a bombshell Just Intonation opus, as it seems like a daunting challenge for anyone attempting melodies. Given that, The Harmonic Series II is more of a fascinating mixed bag than a uniform triumph, though roughly half the artists managed to conjure up something that exceeded my expectations. And regardless of how well some pieces do or do not work, this collection has definitely expanded my idea of what is possible with Just Intonation.

Important

Each of the six artists was given a full side of vinyl to work with, so each composition is roughly between 15-20 minutes long. The first side is devoted to Kali Malone's modest "Pipe Inversions," a duet between Malone (playing a "small pipe organ") and Isak Hedtjärn on bass clarinet. I was expecting Malone to contribute an album highlight, given how much thought went into the harmonies and frequencies of The Sacrificial Code, but "Pipe Inversions" is mostly just a slowly shifting series of chords with bleary harmonies centered around a more sonorous root. As such, its pleasures are more structural and subtly microtonal than some of the other pieces. Conversely, I was not sure how well Caterina Barbieri's strong melodic sensibility would handle this tuning challenge, but her closing "Firmamento" is one of the collection's strongest and most surprising pieces. Admittedly, Barbieri's melodicism did not come along for this trip, but her tense, neon-lit futurism did, as "Firmamento" is an enjoyably spacey and slow-burning drone epic. My favorite piece is Duane Pitre's own "Three for Rhodes," which combines an erratically heaving, herky-jerky pulse with a shimmering crystalline edge. I was also pleasantly surprised by Catherine Lamb's "Intersum," which goes against the grain to reduce Just Intonation harmonies to something akin to a ghostly supernatural fog drifting through a crackling and hissing backdrop of field recordings. The collection is rounded out by the gnarly, nightmarish strings and buzzing horror of Tashi Wada's "Midheaven (Alignment Mix)" and Byron Westbrook's kosmiche-sounding reverie of stammering, sweeping arpeggios ("Memory Phasings"). Aside from Barbieri's piece, which has a definite dynamic arc, the general theme of the album is extending a single interesting motif for the entire duration of a piece (albeit with plenty of small-scale dynamic and harmonic transformations along the way). As a result, how much I enjoy a piece within its first minute is generally a solid indicator of what I will think by the end. However, what I actually hear is just the tip of an iceberg of deeper compositional and conceptual themes, so listeners who are more invested in the details and mechanics of avant-garde composition will likely enjoy The Harmonic Series II on a deeper level than me. In any case, this is definitely an interesting and one-of-a-kind release. While some pieces are more instantly gratifying than others, each of the six artists involved found their own unique and inventive way to face the challenge and expand Just Intonation's historically constrained stylistic niche.

Samples:

 

  1821 Hits

Sarah Davachi, "Cantus Figures Laurus"

cover imageThis five-CD boxed set ambitiously compiles all three of Davachi's interrelated 2020 albums released on her own Late Music imprint. Given that Figures in Open Air alone features two pieces that clock in around an hour each, this collection presents an absolutely overwhelming amount of similar-sounding material. That said, Cantus, Descant seems to be one of Davachi's more beloved releases among fans despite its unswerving devotion to pipe organ-centered minimalism. That makes this collection an inspired idea, as it presents that constrained vision in three differing stages: its "more raw and improvisational" beginnings (Laurus), the polished and meticulously crafted studio album, and some great live performances from the period when this era was taking shape. Each of the three albums features some sublime highlights, which will likely inspire me to curate my own condensed version. That distillation will give me the sustained and focused beauty that I want from a Sarah Davachi album, but Cantus Figures Laurus can also provide a calming five-hour respite in a cathedral of drones. It is not unlike a portable version of La Monte Young's Dream House, if he were into church music instead of psychotropic Just Intonation harmonies. Hell, it can even be an interactive one, as listeners can enhance their experience with their own Marian Zazeela-inspired light shows.

Late Music

The heart of this collection is, of course, Cantus, Descant, which was both the inaugural release for Davachi's Late Music imprint and the culmination of her recent fascination with sacred music and antique church organs. Two organs in particular play a central role: a Van Straten pipe organ from 1479 located at Amsterdam's Orgelpark and a Story & Clark reed organ (1890s) situated in LA's wonderful Museum of Jurassic Technology. Several other antique pipe organs turn up as well, but the Van Staten stands out as unique for reasons beyond its advanced age, as it was tuned to a "sixteenth century meantone temperament" and required the presence of a second person (Hans Fidom) to operate the bellows. The Van Straten compositions form a kind of mini album of their own, as that organ was used for the five numbered "Stations" pieces. Stylistically, however, the "Stations" cycle is fairly representative of the album’s overall aesthetic, which has a feel of floating, dreamlike suspension. The liner notes provide plenty of interesting information about the inspirations and conceptual themes of the album, but the central idea of the album lies in the title: Davachi was primarily interested in the interplay between "cantus" (either unadorned singing or the sometimes improvisatory high voice in a polyphony) and "descant" (the larger structure). Davachi expanded that into approaching the album as a dialogue between the individual and "the larger time and space" that they occupy. In more practical terms, that guiding duality manifests itself in a series of slow-motion, droning reveries that gradually and subtly blossom into something more.

Continue reading
  1595 Hits

Rachika Nayar, "Fragments"

cover imageThis new EP is something of a sketchbook-like companion piece to Nayar's sublime debut album. More specifically, it is a collection of "sonic miniatures Nayar constructed from guitar loops . . . in the familiar comforts of her own bedroom," as well as a glimpse of what her raw material sounds like before it is processed and reshaped into "grander mutated compositions" like those of Our Hands Against the Dark. In theory, that should make Fragments something of a minor release, but these more simple and intimate pieces are often even better than those of Nayar's more formal work, albeit with the caveat that more than half of these pieces end in under two minutes (and the others do not stick around much longer). Nevertheless, Nayar is an incredibly gifted guitarist with a remarkably strong melodic sensibility and this album is quite a sustained hot streak of great (if ephemeral) ideas. As with her previous album, it is not hard to spot Nayar's influences—in fact, some pieces are even intended as homages to folks like Pat Metheny and Steve Reich. That said, the main touchstones I hear are more hook-minded contemporary artists like Mark McGuire and some classic Midwestern emo. That is always welcome stylistic terrain in my book, but the real beauty of Fragments lies in how often Nayar matches or surpasses her influences at their own games.

Commend/Rvng Intl.

The album begins in impressive fashion with two nearly perfect pieces in a row. The first, "memory as miniature," opens with chiming clean arpeggios before revealing a lead guitar melody that hits the breezy, laid back California vibe of prime McGuire before a synth-sounding chord progression pulls everything in a more bittersweet dreampop direction. Everything about it is wonderful, but I was especially struck by the beauty of the intricately chiming arpeggios that form its backdrop. The following "clarity," on the other hand, starts off sounding like a candidate for the best American Football song ever, as Nayar unleashes a gorgeously vibrant and ascending guitar melody. Much like its predecessor, however, "clarity" sticks tenaciously to its perfect opening theme and merely enhances it a bit with shimmering chords and some warm synth-like coloration in the periphery. Both of those pieces are prime examples of the compositional aesthetic that defines Fragments: each piece is essentially just an incredibly cool guitar hook playing out for a couple minutes before fading out or abruptly ending. While it lasts, each theme is subtly fleshed out to add emotional depth and a sense of harmonic development, yet each song is still essentially a single theme that is not allowed to blossom into a fully formed song. In theory, that should be exasperating ("aaaargh, why did you stop?!?"), but it is hard to complain when every too-soon ending only leads to yet another improbably beautiful new theme. In fact, there is not a single moment on Fragments that does not sound like an excerpt from a killer emo classic, an imaginary Slowdive song about to erupt, or the perfect soundtrack for a sun dappled summer drive along the California coast. While I dearly wish this EP was (much) longer, I would be hard pressed to hard to think of many other releases from this year that can match Fragments for sheer wall-to-wall greatness.

Samples can be found here.

  1598 Hits

Klara Lewis & Peder Mannerfelt, "KLMNOPQ"

cover imageI believe this is the first formal collaboration between these two Sweden-based artists, but the pair have a long history together, as Mannerfelt's label released one of Lewis's early EPs (2014's Msuic). While I was not sure quite what to expect given the breadth of Mannerfelt's oeuvre and Lewis's continuous evolution, I was reasonably certain that this collaboration would be wonderful no matter what shape it took and I was not disappointed. The closest reference point for KLMNOPQ is probably Lewis's killer Ingrid EP, as nearly all of these five songs feature churning, blackened drones or murky, gnarled loops of some kind. The twist, however, is that Mannerfelt and Lewis take that roiling intensity in an unexpectedly playful direction without sacrificing much gravitas. The closing "Full of Piss and Vinegar" captures the duo at the height of their gleefully mischievous loop mangling, as it resembles a nightmarishly chopped-and-screwed mariachi band, yet this entire EP is filled with endearingly inventive and perversely anthemic variations of obsessively looping and psychotropic sound collage.

The Trilogy Tapes

The opening "Sell Art" nicely sets the tone for the entire EP, as blown-out, heaving drones slowly churn beneath a trilling hook that sounds like a repurposed mariachi trumpet melody. The central melody sounds pleasingly frayed and ghostly like a ravaged tape loop, but the more impressive feat is how Lewis and Mannerfelt seamlessly transformed festive traditional music into something resembling a techno anthem in the throes of a bad break-up. It is quite a neat trick, as there is an underlying playfulness and dark sense of humor, but the result is legitimately poignant and weirdly haunting nonetheless. Another theme in "Sell Art" that recurs throughout the album is the duo's love of obsessively repeating and layered loops, which has long been a realm in which Lewis excels. In the second piece, "My Clementine Is Making Paella Tonight," a repeating chord swell holds the focus as a steadily intensifying undercurrent brings a relentless sense of forward motion and brooding urgency. Near the end, the consistent rhythm dissolves to make room for more freeform percussion, resulting in something that sounds like Z'ev pounding plastic oil drums along with a Fossil Aerosol Mining Project album. Next, "Styrofoam Tone" amusingly wrongfoots me again with something that sounds like the vocal hook of some ‘90s dance hit chopped apart and rebuilt into a seething and hiss-soaked nightmare. The following "You Need to Be Kind" also sounds like an isolated pop fragment telescoped into an unintended new soundworld, albeit one taking a churning, fuzzed-out, and spacey ambient bent. The EP then closes with the aforementioned "Piss and Vinegar," which sounds like a pre-bullfight trumpet fanfare frozen in suspended animation, then erratically allowed to play out a bit more before it locks into a different fluttering loop. From there, it only gets increasingly disorienting and weird, calling to mind Throbbing Gristle DJing a Mexican street festival and doing their best to get fired. My sole caveat with this EP is that every song feels like layers of loops manipulated with real-time mixing as opposed to more formal compositions, but most Klara Lewis fans (myself included) will be more than happy to hear a bunch of great loops being expertly manipulated and imaginatively juxtaposed.

Samples can be found here.

  1609 Hits

Nonconnah, "Songs For and About Ghosts"

cover image

I am kicking myself for not catching up on this post-Lost Trail project sooner, as the alarmingly prolific Zachary and Denny Corsa have a long history of making great music and they may very well have reached their zenith with this latest chapter in their collaborative evolution. That said, Nonconnah is something more than just a husband-and-wife duo, as the Corsas describes the endeavor as a "Memphis dronegaze collective." That is a bit of an understatement, given the far-reaching and eclectic array of luminaries that have turned up on past Nonconnah albums, but the heart of the project is the mingling of Zachary's guitar playing with Denny's field recordings. The "dronegaze" part of "dronegaze collective" is a bit of an understatement too, as it mostly just describes Zachary's sublime guitar aesthetic. Sadly, I cannot think of a glib combination of words that better encompasses what this first vinyl release from the project actually sounds like, but my best attempt is that it sounds like some shoegaze guitar god dropped by the GRM for a series of ecstatic-sounding improvisations with some brilliant musique concrète enthusiast, then wove all the coolest parts together into achingly beautiful and intricately layered sound collages. When Denny and Zachary are at their best, they are damn near untouchable, as I can think of no one else who so organically blurs together naked beauty, go-for-broke psychotropic brilliance, and immersive textural richness.

Ernest Jenning Record Co.

The vinyl version of the album ostensibly consists of four separate twelve-minute pieces, but each of those is further delineated into five separate movements, which makes for quite an unusual structure (the album feels like series of vignettes constantly segueing into different themes). Similarly, it is damn hard to figure out who is doing what on any given piece, as Zachary is credited with quite a wide array of sounds (noise, tapes, field recordings) that blur the lines between his contributions and Denny's. Guest collaborators Owen Pallett (strings) and Jenn Taiga (synths) are a bit easier to find in the mix, but individual performances are largely irrelevant, as one prominent feature of this album is its tendency to regularly blossom into complexly layered and rapturous "wall of sound" crescendos. In those delirious moments, it can sound like a dozen tapes playing at varying speeds in an abstract symphony of swooning, frayed beauty. Given that the album is essentially twenty individual pieces of varying lengths that bleed into one another, figuring out which title those moments of sublime, ecstatic transcendence correspond to is largely a fool's errand. The crucial thing is merely that there are plenty of them and that the more understated moments that bridge them are often wonderfully hallucinatory or strikingly lovely as well. For example, in the first side's "II. Changed In Autumn's Feral Depths" alone, the foursome pass through a dreamily warped and angelic choral passage, an interlude of chirping birds, an eerily poignant spoken word sample, a bittersweetly devastating string theme, and a gorgeously warbling and shivering climax of backwards guitar loops. Listening to it now, it feels like an absolute tour de force of distinctive and absolutely beguiling passages and it probably is not even my favorite of the album's four numbered sections: every single damn piece is a highlight. The digital version also includes two brief bonus tracks identified as excerpts and they are similarly brilliant (especially the roiling and roaring tape loop pile-up "Summer Sparkler Dream Cartridge"). Admittedly, some listeners might be a bit exasperated by the album's unusual structure and may find themselves wishing that certain passages had been expanded into fully formed, stand-alone compositions. Normally I would feel that way too, but the Corsas are making some of the most sublime, absorbing, and vividly textured music on earth right now, so any way they feel like presenting it is just fine by me. This is easily one of the finest albums that I have heard this year.

Samples can be found here.

  2080 Hits

Anders Br√∏rby, "Constant Shallowness Leads to Body Horror"

cover imageI was not familiar with this Norwegian artist until a few weeks ago, but I find that just about everything on Ireland's wonderfully weird and adventurous Fort Evil Fruit is worth hearing. That seems to be doubly true when an album also features amusingly Cronenbergian child art and a droll Coil reference. Unsurprisingly, Cronenberg and Coil are among Br√∏rby's many influences for this album, but they thankfully do not surface in derivative or unimaginative ways. Instead, Constant Shallowness Leads to Body Horror is an unexpectedly amiable "love letter to taste-defining early influences" presented as a flickering fever dream of Br√∏rby's fond childhood memories of grainy VHS films, surreal late night television commercials, videogames with friends, and the thrill of discovering underground music's weird and shadowy fringes. All of that predictably sounds great to me, but what makes this album even better is that Br√∏rby proves remarkably adept at filtering all of that into a focused, distinctive, and oft-beautiful vision. In its own bizarre way, Constant Shallowness is an outsider pop album, as the heart of these pieces is Br√∏rby's strong melodic sensibility and a real knack for cool percussion. That alone would be enough to make this a strong release, but Br√∏rby went one step further and enveloped his warm, ramshackle, and endearingly lovely pop vignettes in a stammering, obsessive, and phantasmagoric swirl of vividly multidimensional mindfuckery. He is exceptionally good at that last bit, making this one hell of a immersive album.

Fort Evil Fruit

In an amusingly valiant commitment to thematic consistency, the album opens with a bit of "constant shallowness" and closes with a small helping of "body horror." That opening piece ("Baby, You’re Disharmonic") is one of my favorites, as an obsessively repeating and erratically transforming commercial snippet laments hair care woes over a woozy and hallucinatory strain of hypnagogic synth pop. In a broad sense, it sounds like LA Vampires chopped and screwed an Enya/Negativland mash-up, yet it is considerably more haunting and poignant than such a playful collision of aesthetics would suggest. Some more overt nods to other artists appear later, such as the Tim Hecker-esque roiling, distorted majesty of "Imaginary Scene II" or the Oval-esque skipping loops of "Still Warm." To some degree, that makes those pieces a bit less distinctive than others, yet it mostly seems like Brørby learned Hecker's and Popp's best tricks and promptly set about using them in his own way. In any case, "Imaginary Scene II" is unquestionably one of the album's many highlights, as the twinkling piano melody buried in the churning maelstrom is an achingly lovely touch. For the most part, however, I prefer the pieces with beats, as one of the album's greatest pleasures lies in how expertly Brørby manages to transform his simple, warm, and subtly beautiful melodic themes into something wonderfully weird with inventive percussion and vivid intrusions of layered, jabbering psychedelia. The best of that side of Brørby's vision is probably "Dungeon Crawlers Leveling Up," which marries thick, spacey synths with a lurching groove and a host of crunching, crackling, and squealing industrial textures. Elsewhere, "I'm Sorry..." sounds like a jackhammering construction project distantly unfolding in a blissful cloudlike heaven of soft-focus chords and chirping birds, while "Pre-Sports..." sounds like a funky live drummer and a distressed tape of a techno anthem emerging together from a churning nightmare. If there is anything that resembles Coil at all here, it is the smeared, twilit atmosphere of "See No Evil Hear All Evil," but even that ultimately winds up with a simmering, sultry groove. It is admittedly a strong piece, but so is absolutely everything else on this wonderful album.

Samples can be found here.

  1670 Hits

Noveller, "Aphantasia"

cover imageSarah Lipstate's latest opus enigmatically borrows its title from a disorder in which those afflicted lose the ability to create mental imagery and associations (it literally translates as "without imagination"). If there is a polar opposite of that disorder, there is a strong probability that Lipstate has it, as Aphantasia is an absolute tour de force of imaginative, vividly realized visions. In fact, there are twenty-two such self-contained visions on the album and very few of them stretch beyond a minute or two in length. That can be a bit exasperating at times, as the most wonderful ideas are often some of the most ephemeral, but the sheer volume of killer motifs on display could have been the framework for four albums of great fully formed songs rather than one dazzling array of brief vignettes. That unusual album structure was entirely by design, of course, as Lipstate viewed each song as a "a short sharp flash," further noting that "if her usual process brought about cinematic results, these were something new – something swift and intriguing." The "something new" is that the album is intended as something akin to a poetry collection, and it succeeds admirably in that light while still remaining extremely damn cinematic regardless. The fragmentary nature of this album will likely garner a somewhat polarized response from fans, but I doubt that anyone will question whether Lipstate is at the height of her creative powers right now.

Self-Released

The best way to view Aphantasia is as an impressionist funhouse in which each door reveals a fleeting glimpse of something wonderful (or disturbing) that quickly dissolves to make way for the next vision. The darkest vignettes mostly arrive early on, as "Rune (for Silent Guitar)" feels like the soundtrack to a psychedelic folk horror film, while smeared and curdled synth tones of "A Valley of Snakes" call to mind a lurid, art-damaged giallo classic. Elsewhere, the more substantial "The Haunted Man" feels like a great post-rock band adding quietly smoldering accompaniment to an eerily lit Dario Argento film. The darkness resurfaces a few more times near end of the album as well, as "The Gatherer" feels like a creepy, feedback-ravaged faerie tale, while "Night/Heist" briefly resembles a nightmarishly Lynchian rockabilly band. In between and around those more haunted moments, the remaining seventeen songs are like a highlight reel of imaginary dreampop, 4AD, and goth-rock classics from the late '80s and early '90s (though they seldom make it very far beyond the opening hook). The best pieces sound like Lipstate channeled some beloved band from the shoegaze/dreampop golden age, made some sort of ingenious and welcome improvement, isolated the best part, then quickly moved onto the next challenge. In "to love / dream you," for example, she evokes a more tender and burbling Lovesliescrushing, then later repeats that same feat even more impressively with "Annalemma." Elsewhere, "Vanishing" sounds like the achingly gorgeous coda of an imagined Slowdive masterpiece, while "33" feels like a glimpse of an absolutely sublime lost Durutti Column classic. At other times, Lipstate conjures a more psych-minded Bauhaus or Santo & Johnny lost in a phantasmagoric fever dream. Throughout it all, she unleashes a characteristically dazzling host of killer effects and cool textures. I expected that part, obviously, but did not expect her to casually toss off so many gorgeous melodic themes as well. Admittedly, part of me wishes there was at least one perfect, fully realized single akin to "Deep Shelter" here, but the sheer volume of great ideas on display makes for a wonderfully kaleidoscopic and immersive whole.

Samples can be found here.

  1755 Hits

Six Organs of Admittance, "The Veiled Sea"

cover imageMy relationship with Ben Chasny's discography has always been a hit-or-miss one, as some of his albums are very much Not For Me, yet I can think of few other artists who are as intensely committed to endlessly evolving and trying out bold new ideas. This latest release is a prime example of that, as The Veiled Sea can be glibly described as "the album where Ben Chasny unleashes some absolutely face-melting shredfests." In characteristically open-minded fashion, Chasny drew inspiration for this album from an extremely unusual source: "'80s American pop shredder" Steve Stevens, who I knew primarily as Billy Idol's guitarist, but who others may recall from the theme from Top Gun (or Michael Jackson's "Dirty Diana"). Given that Top Gun and contemporary psychedelia seem like a truly deranged collision of aesthetics to bring together, I was a bit apprehensive about this release and expected an audaciously over-the-top album that I would probably only listen to once. Instead, it was something considerably more soulful and compelling than I ever expected, as Chasny swings for the fences on a couple of songs and connects beautifully, crafting a pair of the most perfect pieces of his entire career. There is also a wild Faust cover and some more ambient-minded pieces rounding out the album to varying degrees of success, but the only crucial thing to know about The Veiled Sea is that "Last Station, Veiled Sea" may very well be the "must hear" song of the year in underground music circles.

Three Lobed

There are technically six songs on The Veiled Sea, but the party does not begin in earnest until the third piece, "All That They Left You." To my ears, it sounds like Carter Tutti Void and A Certain Ratio are jamming with Appetite for Destruction-era Slash, as it is a feast of jangly post-punk guitars, brooding industrial thump, and indulgently fiery hard-rock shredding. There is a catchy song lurking in there too, as the soloing frequently breaks to make room for a haunting, processed-sounding vocal hook (Chasny sounds a bit like a sultry but lovesick robot). For the most part, though, it is simply Chasny ripping shit up on his guitar over a cool, heavy groove and it rules. A brief and likable interlude of tender piano ambiance follows ("Old Dawn"), then the album hits its zenith with "Last Station, Veiled Sea," which unexpectedly resembles This Mortal Coil at first (languorous drones, vaguely androgynous-sounding vocals, a dreamily melancholy mood, etc.). After about three minutes, however, Chasny unleashes an absolute supernova of a guitar solo that is equal parts movingly gorgeous and viscerally violent (it features plenty of Orcutt-esque scrabbling, slashing, and gnarled flourishes). Sadly, it only lasts about ten minutes, but Chasny sounds absolutely possessed and I am sure he could have gone on for another half hour with absolutely no dip at all in soulful intensity at all. Not much could follow such god-tier brilliance, but the surprise Faust cover that closes the album is quite satisfying nonetheless. The bouncy, playful original version of "J'ai Mal aux Dents" sounds like a bunch of mischievous art weirdos jamming on a fake Velvet Underground song. In Chasny's hands, however, it becomes a heavier, more trancelike juggernaut, as he uses a tumbling drum pattern and chanting backing vocals as a propulsive backdrop for a roiling, spacey guitar solo. It is quite a delight, but the main reasons to hear this album are the twin highlights of "All That They Left You" and "Last Station, Veiled Sea," which unavoidably eclipse everything around them.

Samples can be found here.

  1694 Hits

Beatriz Ferreyra, "Canto+"

cover imageRoom40 continues its campaign to celebrate this Argentinian composer's underheard body of work with a second volume of selected pieces very different from the voice- and field recording-centric fare of last year's Echos+. That said, Canto+ does share its predecessor's curatorial aesthetic of combining pieces from her more prolific ‘70s heyday with more recent work and the differing eras sit quite comfortably together. To some degree, Canto+ feels like a very synth-driven album, as there are plenty of modular synth sounds and textures fluttering and chirping around, but nailing down an overarching vision that unites these pieces is surprisingly elusive, as every piece is full of unexpected and surreal detours into unfamiliar terrain. In fact, that elusiveness is arguably what most defines Ferreyra's work the most here, as a major recurring theme of Canto+ is the organically fluid and oft-surprising way in which these pieces evolve: they never linger very long in familiar melodic or structural territory, yet they always wind up getting somewhere unique and compelling. Of the two Room40 collections, I still prefer Echos+ as a whole, but a piece like "Canto del loco (Mad Man's Song)" would probably be a highlight on just about any release (Ferreyra-related or otherwise). Ferreyra's vision can admittedly be challenging at times, but the rewards make it a journey well worth taking.

Room40

It is always a pleasant surprise when the best song on an album is also the longest and that is the case with the aforementioned "Canto del loco." Happily, it delivers on its provocative title too, resembling the sort of hallucinatory tour de force that could only be brought to life by a mad genius, as Ferreyra alternately conjures a rubbery and rhythmic chorus of psychedelic frogs, an enchanted night meadow of flickering fireflies, an eruption of spectral banshees, and several other equally bizarre scenes over the course of the piece's twelve minutes. Sometimes it also sounds like disjointedly alien and gelatinous synth blatting, but just about everything Ferreyra unleashes feels wildly unique, eerily beautiful, or unnervingly otherworldly. It is definitely a ride that I did not want to end. Fortunately, the pieces that follow are compellingly weird too (if somewhat less unrelentingly dazzling). On "Pas de 3…ou plus," a hushed and hissing swirl of voices turns into something akin to an asteroid field before resolving into a dripping, gurgling, and echoing coda of liquid sounds. Then the following "Jingle Bayle's" sounds like a scene in a whimsically haunted clocktower that blossoms into a full-on Lovecraftian nightmare. I believe both of those pieces are more recent ones (composed nearly four decades after 1974's "Canto del loco"), but "Etude aux sons flegmatiques" returns to the '70s for another fine extended piece. It initially sounds like a deep bell tone is supernaturally transforming into a lysergically bleary haze of shifting feedback, but ultimately blossoms into something resembling a simmering and understated noise guitar performance of amplified squeaks, creaks, and whines (I bet there is probably a Kevin Drumm album in a similar vein lurking somewhere in his vast discography). The final piece then shifts gears yet again, as "Au revoir l’Ami" calls to mind ghosts flitting in and out of the shadows during an electroacoustic improv session in an abandoned and partially submerged factory. All five pieces are impressive feats of mindfuckery, but I was most struck by the twisting and turning trajectories they each took to get there. Beatriz Ferreyra is a composer like no other, as this album is like exploring a funhouse in which a new trapdoor is always poised to drop me somewhere even more unfamiliar.

Samples can be found here.

  2011 Hits

DJ Plead, "Relentless Trills"

cover imageNewly remastered by Rashad Becker and given a vinyl reissue, Relentless Trills first surfaced on cassette as part of Boomkat's eclectic Documenting Sound series devoted to home recordings made during the pandemic. Given those origins, it makes sense that this full-length debut showcases a very different side of DJ Plead's artistry than his impressive run of oft-killer EPs. Given that, curious listeners intrigued by the Australian producer's unique blend of cutting edge UK dance subgenres with Middle Eastern influences like dabke and mahraganat should probably head to 2020's Going For It EP first to experience the "out-of-control Lebanese wedding party" brilliance of prime DJ Plead before exploring this inspired detour. That said, this surprisingly experimental, stripped-down, and post-punk-adjacent departure from his strengths is quite a compelling listen in its own right. Boomkat's description rightly tosses around adjectives like "humid" and "sensual" to describe this bedroom DIY fantasia of floating Middle Eastern melodies and languorously simmering grooves, but that does not paint the entire picture, as Relentless Trills also masterfully dips its toes in hazy psychedelia, plunderphonics, and a hauntingly beautiful beatless synth piece. The latter ("RT6") unexpectedly steals the show, as DJ Plead (Jarred Beeler) has a remarkably great ear for melody and atmosphere, yet this entire release is quite a singular, propulsive, and (of course) sensually humid experience from start to finish.

Boomkat Editions

This album instantly won me over within the first moments of its endearingly weird opener, which ingeniously marries a very insistent and ‘80s-sounding "funk punk" bass line with samples from some kind of Middle Eastern talk show. There is also a cool Arabic synth melody running throughout the song, but my favorite part is how the talk show keeps unpredictably being autotuned into ephemeral melodies. Talk show samples aside, "RT1" is fairly representative of the entire album, as nearly all of the sounds originate from the same Yamaha 'Oriental' keyboard. Beeler's amusingly self-deprecating liner notes also state that he recorded lots of "self-indulgent melodic hooks" and initially set out to make a drum-less ambient album of sorts. At some point, he changed his mind and added some simple rhythmic accompaniment ("I'm praying that this tape doesn't sound like Deep Forest") and ultimately landed upon something that resembles Gang of Four backing a virtuosic Middle Eastern wedding musician. Notably, those "self indulgent" melodies are the best part of the album, as every song has some kind of wonderfully smoky, winding, or soulful hook that fluidly unfold over an obsessively repeating staccato groove (often dancehall-inspired, but more stark and thudding). That "staccato" bit was an odd choice given how adept DJ Plead has been at unleashing vibrant and complex rhythms in the past, but the songcraft is strong enough to make it work despite that (it feels akin to watching a boxer handily demolish an opponent with one hand tied behind his back). That said, "RT3" feels like an instant highlight primarily because the groove is allowed to flow a bit more than usual. Then again, the closer dispenses with a beat altogether to combine a dreamily fluttering melody with a pulsing chord progression that feels like a psychedelically deconstructed house classic and it is absolutely gorgeous. There is not a weak piece in the bunch though, as DJ Plead's melodic and songcraft instincts are remarkably unerring. I cannot even begin to imagine how great the resultant album would be if he ever figures out how to seamlessly combine this side of his work with his usual rhythmic intensity.

Samples can be found here.

  1685 Hits

Rắn Cạp Đuôi Collective, "Ngủ Ngày Ngay Ngày Tận Thế"

cover imageUnraveling the discography and line-up mutations of this Ho Chi Minh City-based collective turned out to be quite an unexpected challenge, as they have been releasing full-lengths and EPs since at least 2014, yet this latest album is being billed as the project's debut. I thought this might be the first release with "collective" appended to the group's name, but that is not the case either. That said, the project now appears to be a trio consisting of original members Phạm Thế Vũ and Jung Buffalo, as well as relatively recent addition Zach Schreier (who ostensibly composed much of the album). In any case, this latest release bears little stylistic resemblance to several of RCD's previous releases. Much of that is likely due to the involvement of Berlin-based producer Ziúr, who alternately punched up the songs to Subtext's exactingly high standards, "reduced them to a cinder," or "beamed them into the fifth dimension." Regardless of how this album took shape, it is quite a dazzling and deliriously kinetic achievement, resembling a freewheeling Carl Stone-esque plunderphonic tour de force of shapeshifting Vietnamese cultural fragments.

Subtext

The title of this album roughly translates "Sleeping Through the Apocalypse," which is a colorful yet remarkably apt description of the trio's dizzying and disorienting vision. The "sleep" part is a bit misleading though, as this album more closely evokes the troubled, jumbled, and cacophonous dreams of an overstimulated and media-saturated mind in an increasingly unraveling world. In more concrete terms, that means the album is a hyper-caffeinated maelstrom of surreal collisions and transformations. I tend to loathe most releases that could be described as "aggressively genre-defying" or "like _____ in a blender," but there is a coherent overarching "sound collage" vision here that weaves all of those jarring shifts into a churning and warping near-masterpiece of mindfuckery. Given that, trying to accurately describe even a single song is hopeless, as my notes are filled with phrases like "the most incredible Terry Riley song ever just became Vietnamese cloud rap karaoke." The closing "Đme giựt mồng" that I just described is one of the album's stone-cold gems, but there are quite a few other highlights to be found as well. Some other favorites are "Aztec Glue" ("dreamy pulsing synth reverie gets violently interrupted by an in-the-red Ben Frost remix") and pair of pieces that feel like they could be the work of a supernaturally possessed radio ("Eri Eri…" and "Infinite"). The former sounds like a deranged pile of overlapping stations or Carl Stone at his most kaleidoscopic and unstable, but the collective further spice things up with psychotically shifting speeds and an unexpectedly rapturous crescendo. "Infinite," on the other hand, sounds like Vietnamese dance pop chopped and stretched into a stammering nightmare. The stammering is especially impressive, as the piece sometimes feels like a cacophony of the world's airwaves is organically shaping into pulsing rhythms. At other times, the album calls to mind free jazz, whale songs, or Popul Vuh and absolutely all of it is vividly fried, as this album is a gleefully shapeshifting feast of wide-ranging and inspired ideas from start to finish. In fact, it feels favorably like channel-surfing through like a dozen different cool albums at once. This is instantly one of my favorite albums in the Subtext canon.

Samples can be found here.

  1992 Hits

TJO, "Dispatches from the Drift"

cover imageAs alluded to in its title, Dispatches from the Drift is something of an accidental album, as it is a collection of keyboard improvisations that Tara Jane O'Neil informally recorded during the pandemic lockdown that were never intended for release. In fact, many were casually recorded on her phone and most "were promptly forgotten," but O'Neil happened to stumble back upon them while digging around for fragments of inspiration that could blossom into fully formed songs. These are not the ones met that criteria. but they amount to something similarly wonderful. As O'Neil herself puts it, these pieces are the ones that "were not looking for a form or seeking to be known," so she decided to present them as they were without further polishing or embellishment ("complete, traveling pieces that resolve or simply end"). In lesser hands, such an album would feel like a series of unfinished sketches, but O'Neil's instincts regarding this experiment are remarkably unerring. For the most part, the "keyboard improvisations" origin ensures that the album tends to linger in pleasantly blurred "ambient" territory, but there are quite a few striking surprises lurking here too (some very "dreampop" and some considerably more outré). The entire album is quite a leftfield delight though, as it feels every bit as strong as O'Neil's more formal work. Her inspiration simply took a different shape this time around.

Orindal

The album unexpectedly opens with a tenderly lovely piece that feels like a great would-be single, as the watery, quavering arpeggios and hushed vocals of "A Sunday 2020" feel plucked from a great This Mortal Coil album. No other piece on the album revisits that particular territory, which is not surprising, as O'Neil notes that it is the one exception where she embellished the original take (with some subtle guitar). She opted to include it anyway, however, as both the vocals and the keyboard part were improvised enough to give it thematic consistency with the rest of the pieces. It also highlights an endearing thread that runs through the album, as Dispatches from the Drift seamlessly mingles warm nostalgia for a particular era of music with contemporary flourishes and a dreamlike timelessness that make everything feel fresh and pleasantly unfamiliar. Moreover, O'Neil is impressively freewheeling in her stylistic inspirations. Sometimes the album sounds like a lost recording from Eno's Apollo sessions, while other times it resembles one of Warren Defever's teenage tapes, an out-of-phase accordion drone piece, a prog-minded bagpipe collective, or a traditional folk ensemble experimenting with Slowdive's gear. In every case, the results are invariably compelling. To my ears, the strongest piece is "Wind With Dog," which is a wonderfully woozy and bittersweetly gorgeous feast of dancing, quivering melodies and ghostly overtones. Elsewhere, O'Neil channels squirming heavy psych drones ("It's Been A Long Time"), a tropical steel drum band trying their hand at ceremonial trance music ("Ventura Tuesday"), and something akin to a stark, tremelo-heavy cover of a lovesick torch song. Naturally, there is an informality and unpredictably loose structure to all of these pieces given their spontaneous origins, but that intimate, imperfect, and searching feel generally suits them just fine. And sometimes I am even ambushed by something that feels like a wonderful premeditated set piece, such as when a haze of decaying notes forms a complex swirl of oscillations. The beauty of the album is that none of those cool textural or harmonic surprises here were planned, as O’Neil essentially tricked herself into approaching music in an entirely different and instinctual way and plenty of happy accidents ensued. In some ways, that approach makes it hard to point to any individual piece as a fully articulated and focused glimpse of perfection, but the album's warmly beautiful soft-focus mood and unexpected twists and turns add up to an unusually inspired, lovely, and immersive whole.

Samples can be found here.

  2271 Hits

Midwife, "Luminol"

cover imageThis latest album from Madeline Johnston takes its title from a forensic chemical that emits a blue glow when it comes in contact with blood at a crime scene. That macabre yet beautiful transformation provides the album's guiding metaphor, as Johnston attempts the similar feat of "turning trial and tribulation into sources of light." That is thematically familiar Midwife territory, of course, but Luminol feels like the beginning of a new phase stylistically, as these songs are simultaneously more anthemic and more starkly minimal than the project’s previous fare. While that is not necessarily an unstable combination, Johnston does tone down her artier tendencies to fitfully showcase a newfound love of tighter songcraft and hard rock-inspired swagger. That approach suits her unexpectedly well, as some of the better moments of Luminol resemble a hiss-ravaged shoegaze deconstruction of a power ballad by someone like Lita Ford, Pat Benatar, or Joan Jett, which is certainly something I was not expecting to encounter here. Luminol is definitely more of an straightforward "rock" record than I anticipated. For the most part, however, Johnston’s hazy, slow-motion, and abstracted homages to ‘80s and ‘90s rock radio work quite well, as this album seems to have instantly become a fan favorite. Some fans of previous albums will likely miss Midwife's sharper edges, but I suspect most will warm to this more punchy and comparatively playful side of Johnston's art.

The Flenser

The album's release was preceded by a pair of singles that beautiful illustrate two of the divergent stylistic directions in this somewhat transitional-feeling phase. My favorable is the ultra-minimal slow burn of the opening "God is a Cop," which is based upon little more than a descending keyboard melody and a repeating, hiss-soaked refrain of "I can't kill the evil thoughts." Eventually Johnston expands upon those lyrics, but the most impressive facet of the piece is how she creates such a perfect simmering tension that every newly added note or embellishment feels like a glimpse of a tightly restrained underlying storm. The closing "Christina’s World" is similarly minimal, but feels unexpectedly radiant and gospel-inspired, as it builds to a repeating group refrain of "show me the way" over some simple piano chords (though it is spiced up with some winding harmonized guitar parts in the periphery). In between those two poles of dark and light lie a curious array of emotional shades and varying degrees of greatness.

The more accessible end of the spectrum is represented by the slowly chugging "Enemy" (akin to a shoegaze-damaged mutation of '90s grunge) and another uplifting piano-driven piece in the vein of "Christina’s World" ("Promise Ring"). The latter has some appealing twists though, as Johnston sweetly sings "love will break your heart forever" like a fatalist mantra while a cool undercurrent of trippy guitars gradually intensifies. It also features some very "hard rock" riff flourishes that are amusingly effective. Aside from "God is a Cop," the strongest piece is probably the sole throwback to Midwife's earlier seething intensity, "Colorado," which uses the mantric repetition of a couple of rueful phrases as a foundation for killer guitar pyrotechnics somewhere between Pink Floyd and grinding noise. Elsewhere, "2020" is the most fascinating piece, as Johnston jacks a chorus from The Offspring to approximate Joan Jett-style pop on a sleazy, druggy bender. It sounds like the imaginary band that would be playing at an extremely hip club in an arty, neon-soaked cult film, which is a very cool niche to land in. It also makes me wonder if there are other layers of pop culture appropriation happening elsewhere, as Luminol may very well be a bittersweet love letter to the ambient sounds of Johnston's past (she notes at another point that she is "born to run," for example). Than again, maybe I am projecting all of that. In any case, Luminol is yet another solid album from Midwife. It does not quite rank among my personal pantheon of stone-cold Midwife masterpieces, but the great moments remain as powerful as ever.

Samples can be found here.

  1643 Hits

Julian Sartorius, "Locked Grooves"

cover imageWhen I first found out about this album, I was not quite sure how to feel about its ambitious structural premise, as the idea of a vinyl record with 112 locked grooves felt suspiciously like a willfully annoying conceptual art statement. That said, I am unable to ever resist the allure of a killer drummer in an indulgent mood, so I was still quite eager to hear what Sartorius had planned for his unique format. My first impression was a favorable one, as I have been on a bit of a Niagara bender and the shifting beat patterns here called to mind a slowed and deconstructed kindred spirit to the tour de force of "Sangandongo." My next impression was mild exasperation, as I was not thrilled that every amazing beat lasted a mere minute before giving way to something new. That revealed the appeal of the physical release though, as this album is packed full of hypnotic rhythms that would make absolutely trance-inducing infinite loops. Naturally, that opens up a host of compelling interactive ways to experience the album, as it is a Pandora's box of multifarious percussive delights. To some degree, I expected something in that vein (as far as gimmicks go, this is a very cool and well thought-out one), but I was still blindsided by both the sheer imagination of Sartorius's rhythms and the way the album as a whole feels like a transcendent psychedelic epic by the end. As La Monte Young and others have decisively proven, sustained immersion in a very insistent and focused vision can feel like a remarkably profound and mind-rewiring experience.

-OUS

I listened to this album in its digital form, which doubtlessly provided a radically different experience than the vinyl. Nevertheless, the building blocks are identical, as each numbered piece is essentially a 1.8 second loop allowed to play out for exactly one minute and one second. Each piece segues seamlessly into the next with no space in between and all feel like they are roughly the same tempo, so the whole album has a hypnotically consistent flow. At first, the beats seem cool but fairly straightforward, but indications that Sartorius has something more ambitious in mind begin to appear quickly, as he starts sneaking increasingly adventurous sounds, patterns, and flourishes into the insistent pulse. I believe I was first hooked by skittering, off-kilter rhythm of the fourth piece, but that loop was soon eclipsed by even more killer beats, which themselves became eclipsed by still others as the album unfolded. It is hard to nail down an overarching pattern to the sequencing, but there are occasional runs where Sartorius unleashes a flurry of dazzling loops in rapid succession and it all seems to cumulatively build into something wonderful.

Part of the album's brilliance is that those clusters tend to all be compelling for different reasons, as sometimes Sartorius works in a virtuosic fill, while other times he locks into an especially lurching, tumbling, or downright weird time signature without the slightest dip in the album's propulsive forward motion. Sometimes it feels like I am being swept along by a tide, while other times it feels I am descending like an almost ritualistic rhythmic trance, which is an impressive feat for an album this ostensibly one-dimensional and purposely fragmented. Notably, Sartorius used a "prepared" drum kit, which enables a surprisingly varied range of sounds and levels of textural complexity. For example, "Locked Groove 084" feels like a killer hip-hop beat tape, while "Locked Groove 051" feels like it could be plucked from a Sublime Frequencies album and "Locked Groove 047" sounds like a futuristic industrial banger. Other times, Sartorius locks into something that feels like Indian techno, a free jazz drummer going wild in a junkyard, or something absolutely alien-sounding, like the gurgling and clanging "Locked Groove 011." Anyone looking for a great drummer showcasing a wildly imaginative array of beats will not be disappointed here, yet I was most surprised by how masterfully Sartorius overshot that mark to craft something considerably larger than the sum of its parts. Sartorius's stated goal was that "listeners will experience these compositions like they would explore a painting," and he succeeded far beyond my expectations in that regard. Locked Grooves is a deliciously rich vein that succeeds both as a whole and as a collection of compelling fragments that can be isolated and recontextualized into something equally fascinating. As far as solo drummer albums go, Locked Grooves is high art that masterfully raises the bar for what is possible.

Samples can be found here.

  1877 Hits

The House in the Woods, "Spectral Corridor"

cover imageThis appears to be the first major release for this long-running (if fitful) Pye Corner Audio side project, as Martin Jenkins' previous albums under this alias have all been limited CD-Rs. It certainly feels like a suitably strong statement for such an occasion. In the words of Ecstatic, Spectral Corridor "treads the line between occult soundtrack and zonked out space jam," which is a fairly apt characterization of Jenkins' latest aesthetic evolution even if it does not quite do justice to the sublime beauty of some of these pieces. According to Jenkins, this project draws its inspiration from "field recordings of walks through forests wielding finger chimes, long slow tape loops, treated guitars, elegiac organ tones, free running oscillator banks and chance operations," which mostly translates into slowly pulsing drones, subtle psychedelic touches, and a pervading air of shadowy mystery. That said, Spectral Corridor sounds considerably different from its more lush 2013 predecessor Bucolica, as Jenkins clearly took the "spectral" part of the album title very seriously, distilling his synth-centric ambient/drone to a wonderfully haunted-sounding and elegantly brooding suite of gently phantasmagoric soundscapes.

Ecstatic

The album opens with a plinky yet insistent drum machine pattern that is quickly joined by a seesawing pulse of deep drones. Eventually, the piece ("Tone Intervals") gets fleshed out with warmer harmonies, submerged melodic fragments, and a woozily oscillating thrum. It is a perfectly executed slow burn, as Jenkins masterfully weaves together a handful of simple themes into a hypnotically swaying reverie that slowly builds in intensity and rhythmic complexity. For that one piece, Jenkins seems like he is operating on a plane of inventive minimalism that few others can touch, as the purring, quavering, and gently heaving rhythm elevates a good piece into quite a great one. The following "Spectral Corridor Part 4" is another highlight, albeit a very different and far more dramatic one. For me, it evokes a cold sky full of eerily pulsing and twinkling stars, but it also sounds like some killer early '70s space synth guy scoring a film about a macabre bit of forest folklore. Yet another gem is the tenderly languorous dreamscape "Quadratic," which unfolds like warm waves lapping the shore of an enchanted grotto. It is by far the most nakedly beautiful piece on the album and feels like a perfectly crafted loop that could extend forever, but Jenkins also performs some neat textural sleight of hand, as it steadily takes on a more hissing and quivering character as it folds. To my ears, the rest of the album does not quite hit the same heights, but it is impressively solid nonetheless, as Jenkins alternates between more minimal drone pieces and something akin to Tangerine Dream scoring a scary and intense film set in a space station or futuristic city (a description that applies to much of the four-part title suite). Fans of retro-futurist synth atmospheres will especially dig the latter, as that is one realm where Jenkins truly excels.

Samples can be found here.

  1465 Hits

Aaron Dilloway & Lucrecia Dalt, "Lucy & Aaron"

cover imageThe underground/experimental music world is full of promising-sounding collaborations that yield underwhelming or half-baked results, but Lucy & Aaron is a wonderfully refreshing exception to that recurring phenomenon. Part of that success is likely due to the pair's long history together, as they have been fans of each other's work (and close friends) since meeting at a festival in Madeira back in 2010. Moreover, Dalt and Dilloway have actually inspired and impacted each other's work over the years, which probably went a long way in setting the stage for such a natural-sounding and symbiotic blurring together of visions. As Dalt puts it, "we crossed our signals, sometimes his affecting mine, or the other way around, we just wanted to make a fun, weird and inevitably emotive record that somehow captured so many things we love about music." Naturally, Dilloway's endearingly disorienting and creepy tape loops tend to be the foundation for much of the album, as Dalt's own backdrops tend to be quite stark and minimal. The mood of the album is quite a bit different from typical Dilloway fare, however, as Dalt's melodic influence transforms his obsessively repeating fragments of simmering psychotropic weirdness into a broken and playfully warped "pop" album like no other.

Hanson

The best summation I can come up with for this album's aesthetic is that it sounds like Lucrecia Dalt's already frayed and alien-sounding pop was fed through a nightmare machine set somewhere between "Kafkaesque" and "arty Giallo film." There is nothing that feels outright malevolent or violent, but there is also nothing familiar and nearly all of it feels unsettling and disturbingly tactile. The songs are roughly structured like pop songs, as there are vocal melodies, grooves, and sometimes even hook-like approximations of a chorus, yet all of it feels unrecognizably grimy, broken, and obsessive in a host of intriguing ways. The entire album is a creepily surreal delight, as it is hard to imagine a single piece that could not be someone's favorite, but my current personal favorites are "The Blob," "Niles Baroque," and several of the weirdly beautiful psych-inspired pieces that come near the end of the album. "The Blob" is probably the album’s most unexpected surprise, as it sounds like Pat Benatar made a dreampop album for 4AD but a deranged dub producer got his hands on it and replaced the entire rhythm section with one of those little wind-up monkeys with a drum. "Niles Baroque" is similarly melodic (there are even dual vocal harmonies), but the groove is centered on a lurching bass throb that feels viscerally gelatinous. Those two pieces, along with treble-ravaged and industrial-damaged single "Demands Of Ordinary Devotion," are the ones where Dalt and Dilloway's aesthetics most seamlessly combine into curdled pop pleasures, but I am also a huge fan of the outliers that feel like something I would not expect from either artist. The best of those is probably "Tense Cuts," which sounds like a collaboration between a factory, a locked groove of church organ motif, an ASMR recording, and a broken speaker, but there are some even more unlikely moments that approximate a grim Russian ballroom dance ("Voyria") or fleetingly resemble '80s Legendary Pink Dots ("The Tunnel"). I could easily write a paragraph about every single piece here though, as each slithering tendril of this unholy pop union is memorable, unique, and unexpected in some way. Lucy & Aaron is absolutely going to be all over "best of 2021" lists this December (my own included).

Samples can be found here.

  1601 Hits

Robert Gerard Pietrusko, "Elegiya"

cover imageThis is Pietrusko's first solo album under his own name, but sound art enthusiasts will likely remember his previous outing as Six Microphones (2019). Elegiya is a radically different release, however, as it comfortably fits within the more ambient/drone side of Room40's aesthetic on its surface. Beneath the surface, however, lies a roiling emotional intensity that sometimes becomes downright volcanic. As befits the album's title, Pietrusko drew his inspiration from elegies, but does so in a very unconventional way, as he was most fascinated by themes of repetition and shifting context. As he himself puts it, "the creation and performance of an elegy, however, is not an experience of this original sorrow but is instead its repetition." The more interesting part, however, is that Pietrusku "attempts to capture the contradictory condition of a macro-level stasis versus a tumultuous interior." In more practical terms, that means that Elegiya transforms five piano motifs into a suite of beautifully melancholy ambient pieces that self-destruct into frayed, blown-out eruptions of emotional catharsis.

Room40

The album kicks off in supremely crushing fashion with the epic "Pershing Red Skies," which sets an impossibly high bar for everything that follows. The piece deceptively opens with warm swells of billowing chords, but that proves to be a mirage, as everything gradually becomes sharper, louder, and more frayed en route to being ripped open by seismic waves of juddering synth-like tones. At times it favorably calls to mind Oval or Tim Hecker, but it mostly feels like an great ambient piece whose wake of overtones unexpectedly refracted back something roaring, alive, and all-consuming (like a feedback monster attacking heaven). While "Pershing Red Skies" is unquestionably the album's zenith, the other eight pieces offer similarly deft variations of the same nightmarish inversion. For example, "Iru Descent" sounds like a ghostly factory that manufactures clouds of menacing dissonance, while "UTM 39N" feels like thick, viscous drones slowly undulating and oozing across a desolate prairie towards a distant train. The latter is my second favorite piece on the album, but just about everything on Elegiya blossoms into a memorably intense crescendo of some kind. Usually that crescendo resembles something akin to a Tim Hecker album getting sucked into a gnarled, curdled, and squirming extradimensional horror, which is just fine by me. That said, Pietrusko proves impressively inventive in finding cool news ways to ravage beauty, such as transforming heavenly choruses into snarling, infernal roars or materializing a demonically possessed Victrola inside a quietly churning, hissing soundscape. Given how unrecognizably mutilated some passages feel, I have no idea which instruments Pietrusko's palette included beyond piano, but the whole album feels like someone opened a Pandora's Box of corroded classical music fragments and enigmatic field recordings that transform a somber occasion into something far more visceral and unpredictable. Pietrusko has achieved something truly impressive with Elegiya, crafting a poignant, haunted-sounding drone opus that is repeatedly torn apart from within by a clawing, thrashing elemental force.

Samples can be found here.

  1888 Hits

Kleistwahr, "Winter"

cover imageBack in 2019, Helen Scarsdale celebrated its 50th release with a ten-cassette wooden box, On Corrosion, that immediately sold out. While I did manage to pounce on that landmark release in time to get one, I have not spent nearly enough time with it, as absorbing ten full-length albums is quite a herculean time commitment. Consequently, I was delighted to see that the label had embarked upon a campaign to reissue some (or all) of its contents and that they were starting with this bombshell from Gary Mundy's long-running Kleistwahr guise. Being a casual fan of Ramleh and the Broken Flag milieu, I thought I had a solid idea of what to expect from this project (noise, possibly involving guitars), but the striking and unique beauty of this album completely blindsided me. It is fitting that Winter debuted on a release entitled On Corrosion, as it has the feeling of an achingly gorgeous drone album that has been corroded and ravaged into something texturally complex and viscerally soulful.

Helen Scarsdale

Due to its original cassette format, Winter is roughly presented as two twenty-minute sides, but each side features two pieces that segue into each other. "We Sense It Through the Even Snow" kicks off the album with the first of its two god-tier highlights, as buzzing, shifting, and smearing organ drones unpredictably form knots of dissonance while harpsichord-like melodies make me feel like I am imprisoned in a darkly enchanted music box. It becomes incredibly gorgeous at some points, but its mesmerizing dream-like trajectory nearly becomes consumed by an engulfing roar of roiling noise (imagine heaven suffering through a brief plague of psychedelic locusts). That piece segues into the more infernal mindfuck "Rust Eats the Future," which sounds like Purple Rain-era Prince's evil twin unleashing ugly, gnarled shredding over a sinister bed of deep, dissonant bell-like tones. Things only continue to get weirder, but the album returns to more beautiful and melodic terrain as the second side opens with another masterpiece, "The Solstice Will Not Save Us." It is built upon a looping semi-melodic howl, but that hook is surrounded by an absolutely feral-sounding maelstrom of noisy guitars and chords that seem to catch fire and burn away. It feels like a hallucinatory fireworks display over a dying world and easily rivals anything I have heard from other celebrated purveyors of fucked-up guitars. Amusingly, the piece I love the most is immediately followed by one called "Everything We Loved Is Gone." However, that closer is quite strong in its own right, as Mundy makes the air come alive with buzzing high frequencies while evoking a lonely, clanking train slowly chugging through a shimmering and spectral dreamscape. All four pieces are excellent, but at least two of them reach a level of sublime brilliance that absolutely floored me. I had no idea that Mundy's art had evolved to this level.

Samples can be found here.

  2113 Hits

Tasos Stamou, "Antiqua Graecia"

cover imageThis London-based electroacoustic composer/instrument builder/DIY electronics enthusiast has been engaged in projects and activities for more than a decade now, but this latest album is the first time his singular vision crossed my path. Antiqua Graecia is the final release of a Greek-themed trilogy that began with 2018's Musique con Crète, though there is also a fourth related work that surfaced on Chocolate Monk last year (Greek Drama). The series is the fruit of an extended creative research project that initially began with a residency, but blossomed into repeat summer visits to Crete to hunt for traditional music albums, perform with local musicians, and make field recordings. While I have not fully absorbed the entire series yet, Antique Graecia feels like a significant creative leap forward from previous installments, as Tamou's earlier Greek forays resemble a Sublime Frequencies album dissolved into a fever dream: there was a clear reverence for the source material, yet Tamou's sound collages imbued traditional music with a murky, spectral character. With Antiqua Graecia, Tamou decided to go for broke, gleefully chopping and layering folk songs in a wonderfully psychotropic fantasia. I find all of the strains of Tamou's Greek series to be compelling, but this album is the one that most beautifully transcends tradition to feel like something wonderful and new.

Ikuisuus

This is an album of top-tier psychedelic mindfuckery from start to finish, which makes it very hard to describe with any concise generalizations, but a rough summary like "a supernatural fun house at the center of a Greek street fair" is probably a solid starting point. There is a distinct arc, however, as the first few drone-based pieces steadily deepen my immersion in Tamou's otherworldly fantasia to prime me for the wilder plunges to come. For example, "Madoura" sounds like a nightmarishly insectoid cacophony of buzzing bagpipe-like drones, while the following "Poor Mum" sounds like mid-90s Dead Can Dance made a lysergic soundscape from Nonesuch Explorer classics. We then pass through something akin to a flickering and phantasmagoric Scottish parade in a haunted jungle ("Oil Wrestling"), a phantom rembetiko song with an electronic doppelganger ("Taki’s Sorrow"), and a Lisa Gerrard-sung DCD classic consumed by a sickly, dissonant delirium of smeared chimes ("A Woman's Moan"). All are a delight, but the album fully catches fire with the sixth piece, "Just Pagan." It begins as a psychotropic throb of heavy electronic drones and surreal, jumbled, and haunting layers of melody and field recordings, but gradually transforms into a heartsick folk dance. The following "Epitaph" is yet another highlight, as the gong of a church bell leaves a ringing, bleary haze of high frequencies that morphs into a squirming, menacing electronic buzz mingled with a chanting street procession. The final piece brings that trend of escalating otherworldliness to its curious crescendo, as it feels like a cathedral is invaded by a churning, honking, and squawking cacophony (and a cow) before everything dissolves into a disarmingly sweet and calm rustic oasis. Tamou truly outdid himself with this tour de force, as all of these eight songs seamlessly blur sacred and traditional sounds with vivid, multilayered psychedelia in impressively singular fashion.

Samples can be found here.

  1645 Hits

Don Zilla, "Ekizikiza Mubwengula"

cover imageThis debut full-length from Ugandan producer Zilla is something of a much-anticipated event, as his Boutiq studio is a crucial part of the killer underground music scene centered around Kampala's Nyege Nyege Tapes. Ekizikiza Mubwengula was additionally anticipated because it is the follow up to an absolute monster of a single that Zilla released in 2019 on Nyege Nyege's club music-themed sub-label Hakuna Kulala. While this latest release is on that same imprint, these songs are considerably wilder and weirder than the more straightforward (and relentlessly, viscerally danceable) "From the Cave." With Ekizikiza Mubwengula, Zilla shoots right past the cutting edge of contemporary dance music and lands somewhere akin to an industrial-damaged dance deconstruction of Rashad Becker's deeply alien Music for Notional Species. Predictably, I am the exact demographic for such a gleefully unhinged tour de force, and this would be the ideal soundtrack for a party occurring exclusively in my head. Yet it is quite a challenge to imagine songs this pointedly hookless and aggressively outré packing the floors of any but the craziest clubs on earth. Granted, there are a handful of more straightforward pieces here too (Zilla's production is as exacting and punchy as ever), but those will not be the ones that people most remember.

Hakuna Kalala

If Ekizikiza Mubwengula has anything at all that could be considered a follow-up single to "From the Cave," it would be the killer closer "Ekivuuma." It even caused some spontaneous dancing to erupt in my apartment, as it remains infectiously rhythmic despite its many nightmarish and darkly hallucinatory elements. Zilla is something of a virtuoso at crafting heavy industrial-inspired grooves, and "Ekivuuma" is one of his finest creations in that regard, as a skittering, lurching beat and woodpecker-like percussion drag a rumbling bass throb through a lysergic jungle of otherworldly animal howls. It is the best song on the album, but it takes that honor primarily because it feels like the most fully formed. It would admittedly be nice if the other eight pieces felt less like cool percussion vamps, but the consolation prize is that said vamps are invariably inventive, unique, and intensely physical. I am especially fond of "Full Moon," which sounds like a strangled tuba leading a shambling parade of cartoon monsters. Lamentably, it is probably too brief to make my personal highlight reel, but the jackhammering, seismic onslaught of “Entambula” is not. I particularly enjoyed the chopped and stammering vocal hook, as it is one of the rare flashes of human warmth or melody on the album (albeit in brutally mangled form). For the most part, Ekizikiza Mubwengula feels like a broadcast from the dance floor of an alienating, futuristic dystopia where all melody has been replaced with air raid sirens, ominous machine hum, and broken, gnarled, and unrecognizable deconstructions of samples. It is an incredibly striking and instinctive aesthetic for sure, but it is best experienced in bracing, single-song doses, as the relentless industrial bludgeoning starts to yield diminishing returns as an album-length assault.

Samples can be found here.

  1615 Hits