Svarte Greiner, "Devolving Trust"

cover imageThis latest release from Erik K. Skodvin's long-running solo project is billed as "zen music for disturbed souls."

Recorded back in 2018 in the bunkers of the "bombed out" Schneider Brewery in Berlin as a solo cello performance (of sorts) in the vein of past longform/(darkly) meditative releases like Black Tie and Moss Garden, "Devolving Trust" was originally intended only as a one-off installation/electroacoustic improvisation.Skodvin describes the space as "wet and hollow with a dark past and long reverb," which seems like an ideal setting for an eerie cello performance (or practically any Miasmah release). While attempting to translate such magical site-specific acoustics into an album intended for home listening can be one hell of a challenge, Skodvin pulled it off beautifully here, as these two pieces make very effective use of visceral, reverberant cello moans and the long decay of notes in the brewery's empty basement hallways.In fact, the recording translated so well that Skodvin was inspired to turn it into a formal album despite being historically averse to releasing live performances.That said, this album is also something more than a faithful documentation of a unique performance, however, as Skodvin ingeniously cannibalized the original 30-minute performance for a more tightly edited and mesmerizing companion piece ("Devolve") that feels roughly like all of the best parts experienced in reverse.Both pieces are great, but I especially enjoyed how beautifully the long decay times transformed into intensifying swells when the original recording was played backwards.

Miasmah

The opening title piece begins with a bassy, reverberating strum that rhythmically repeats, albeit with plenty of space between strums for the long decay to fade into silence.It is a fine starting point, as the chords have a pleasingly woody and hollow tone, yet the piece begins to blossom into something more substantial after a couple minutes when Skodvin starts to introduce new chords and textures between the deep, echoing strums.The slow-motion intensification continues to evolve as the piece unfolds, gradually becoming more gnarled and visceral as echoing scrapes, harmonic squeals, and violently bowed notes become a more regular occurrence.It achieves a fascinating sort of bleak beauty, as new forms to start to appear and an uneasy balance is struck between the slow, heaving pulse of the chords and the more convulsive snarls of bowed melody.By the 15-minute mark, the piece has become something quite wondrous and organic, evoking a haunted aviary of ghost birds mingled with slowly heaving cosmic exhalations. Skodvin leaves one last trick for the final act though, as the crescendo of the piece feels like a spacey free jazz performance by a lone saxophonist in a cavernous cistern. I have absolutely no idea how Skodvin produced such a reverberating storm of blurts, squeals, and howls from a cello, but whatever he did is extremely cool and cathartic.

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4949 Hits

Carmen Villain, "Only Love From Now On"

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This latest release from "US-born, Norwegian-Mexican artist and producer" Carmen Hillestad finds her back on her usual label (Smalltown Supersound), but it otherwise feels like the logical successor to last year's oft-excellent Perlita. That is great news for me, I had been hoping that Perlita would not be a one-off departure for this shapeshifting project. That said, this project had already begun moving away from rock with the "cosmic excursions and dubby ambient-jams" of 2019's Both Lines Will Be Blue, so maybe Hillestad is stylistically here to stay for a while (I hope so, at least). She is nevertheless still a creatively restless artist, however, as this album reveals yet another significant evolution for Carmen Villain's arty, instrumental side: Only Love From Now On feels quite a bit more "Fourth World" indebted than previous releases and that transformation suits the project beautifully. Notably, flautist Johanna Scheie Orellana makes a welcome return after being featured on Perlita's brilliant "Agua Azul" and trumpeter Arve Henriksen now joins the party as well (for one song, anyway). Those more collaborative pieces tend to be the strongest ones, as the presence of a melodic hook almost always deepens the impression left by Carmen Villain's already-wonderful ambient/dub/exotica concoctions.

Smalltown Supersound

According to Hillestad, this album is "fueled by the sense of scale in feeling small in the face of things so large" and the "contemplation of how the biggest impact we can have is in the people close to us." Both are certainly themes that resonate with many these days, but they manifest themselves in fairly abstract ways here, as my main impression is that Only Love From Now On feels intimate and inward-looking, resembling a hypnagogic strain of exotica intended for the tropical grotto of the mind. Sometimes, anyway. Other times, it calls to mind a kosmiche twist on Terry Riley-style minimalism ("Silueta") or a dubby, hiss-soaked collision of loscil and Huerco S. (lead single "Subtle Bodies," which was coincidentally remixed by the latter for the B-side). Unsurprisingly, that single is one of the album strongest songs even if it might err on the side of being slightly too understated (the squelchy beat, water sounds, and breeze-like washes of hiss call to mind a killer rave at a frog pond whose denizens are very concerned about not bothering their neighbors). As delightful as that sounds, there are some other cool touches as well (dubby percussion effects, an actual bass line, buried vocals, etc.).

The album's other top-tier highlight is the closing "Portals," which elegantly combines a hollow and haunting melodic loop with watery exotica touches and bleary melodies that enigmatically drift in and out like ghosts. I quite like the four remaining pieces as well though (even when they delve into stylistic terrain I usually avoid). The title piece is the biggest would-be offender in that regard, as it resembles a smoky, neon-lit jazz-style flute solo in a billowing ambient dreamscape, but the backdrop is nicely frayed and hissing and I dig the stammering chords that emerge near the end. Elsewhere, the opening Henriksen collaboration sounds like a lost '80s classic of Fourth World-inspired desert psychedelia. A persuasive person could have easily convinced me that it was from an imaginary Jon Hassell album and I would probably would have driven myself mad trying to track down that non-existent opus afterward, which I consider a fine compliment (I half expected to see Holger Czukay or Jah Wobble turn up in the credits). Hillestad goes it alone for "Future Memory" (tropical Twin Peaks spin-off meets kosmische synth act) and "Liminal Space" (stammering, deconstructed house music over a panning, uneven rhythm of clacking pool ball-like sounds) with similarly fine results. In fact, there is not a single uninspired piece to be found on this album—just varying degrees of understatedness. There are probably a few small things that could have been changed to give this album more immediate and broad appeal, however, as this album occupies a blurry nexus where songcraft, dub techno, and psych-damaged moonlit palm tree ambiance overlap precariously. Fortunately, none of the inherent compromises involved in realizing such a vision bother me at all, as I love said vision and Hillestad's nuanced execution is extremely impressive. There are definitely a handful of pieces that will immediately connect with more casual listeners (the songs with more pronounced melodies or grooves, unsurprisingly), but this is one of those albums that seems to get better and better the deeper I listen to it.

Samples can be found here.

4709 Hits

The Humble Bee, "Light Trespassing"

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I have a long-running fondness for tape loop artists, yet I had always lumped this Craig Tattersall project together with more conventional ambient fare until last year's reissue of 2009's A Miscellany For The Quiet Hours finally smacked me in the head and made me pay closer attention. I bring that up because Light Trespassing (recorded roughly a decade later) entered heavy rotation in my life immediately after my Quiet Hours obsession and it has been quite interesting to hear how Tattersall's vision has subtly transformed over the ensuing decade. In some ways, it feels like the two albums could have been recorded in the same damn week, but it is also clear that Tattersall has been consciously chasing an even more minimal and lowercase vision than the one he started off with. That tendency makes Light Trespassing a bit less immediately gratifying than some other Humble Bee releases, but I suspect that may very well be the point. In fact, Tattersall's execution remains as mesmerizing as ever—he is simply achieving the same ends with an increasingly reduced palette and even fewer moving parts. In essence, all that truly changed is that I now need to listen a bit more attentively before Tattersall's delicate miniatures reveal their full beauty. It feels akin to witnessing a tightrope walker systemically removing all safety measures as they become more confident in their ability to consistently nail their signature tricks without even the hint of a wobble.

Motion Ward

In keeping with the theme of extreme minimalism, Tattersall and Motion Ward have provided very little background information about this release other than the poetic phrase "like the last embers of a fire burning." As far as album descriptions go, however, that is quite an admirably apt and concise summary (though it does demand some familiarity with Tattersall's previous tape work in order to grasp the full implications). To my ears, it feels like Tattersall decided to expand the ephemeral beauty of the fading final moments of his usual fare (the point where all the added layers fall away to reveal the naked, beating heart of a piece) into an entire album of such "last embers." The first few pieces provide an especially lovely introduction to the possibilities opened up by such an approach. In "A Little Alone Snow," for example, it seems like two harp loops of slightly different lengths create an endlessly transforming melody as their moment of collision keeps subtly changing. Elsewhere, "However Far I Walk" initially sounds like little more than a simple arpeggio fragment played on an acoustic guitar, but then a new loop begins dancing through the spaces between those notes to form a tender melody. Tape noise, recorder clicks, hiss, and room tone also play a larger role than usual on this album, particularly on "When Your Voice Disappears." My favorite pieces on the album tend to be the more fleshed out gems that begin surfacing near the midpoint though ("A Day of Light and Air," "Inside Out Mountains," and "Dotted and Course With"). They each have their own unique character, of course, but they all evoke a similarly elusive and ineffably beautiful scene akin to a half-blissful/half-ghostly dream in which I am waiting outside a train station on a perfect spring day awaiting a long lost love. Those are not the only quietly gorgeous pieces to be found, however, as Light Trespassing has quite a satisfying arc of deepening warmth and soft-focus dreaminess. If there is a caveat with this album, it is merely that it takes a few listens for the full beauty of its sublime spell to sink in, but I certainly got there eventually. In fact, I wish I could dissolve myself into this album. I have not figured out how to do that yet, unfortunately, so I will try to content myself by merely stating that Light Trespassing adds yet another singularly beautiful album to Tattersall's rich and varied discography.

Samples can be found here.

4337 Hits

Shane Parish, "Liverpool"

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Somehow I have managed to remain largely unfamiliar with Shane Parish's work until now, which nicely set the stage for me to be properly blindsided by this latest release. That said, I am not sure a deep familiarity with Parish's previous albums would have changed all that much, as this album is quite an adventurous departure from his expected fare in some significant ways. The biggest twist, of course, is that Liverpool is essentially an album of old sea shanties. While that probably is not something I would have actively sought out on my own, I am damn glad that this album found me, as Parish's ingenious instrumental arrangements transform an ostensible curiosity into a goddamn revelation. Crucially, Liverpool does not sound at all like an album of sea shanties, as Parish merely borrowed their vocal melodies and made said melodies the backbone for a killer solo guitar album that favorably calls to mind everyone from Tortoise to Richard Bishop to Bill Orcutt (and manages to do it quite seamlessly). In hindsight, it is downright miraculous that other artists have not been making albums in this vein for years, as it is such a perfect and obvious starting point for greatness (in the right hands, at least). Parish essentially just found a bunch of timeless, poignant melodies waiting to be borrowed and he wisely embraced them. With such beautiful raw material as a starting point, it is hard to imagine that any good guitarist could have blown it and made a bad album, but it is similarly hard to imagine anyone else making an album as uniformly stellar as Liverpool: an excellent idea matched with even more excellent execution.

Dear Life

Unlike most traditional sea shanties, the opening "Liuerpool" erupts from the speakers as a squall of guitar noise and cymbal flourishes before settling into a simmering groove that feels like an darkly jazzy strain of post-punk. Naturally, the appearance of Parish's shimmering and hazy guitar melody only makes things better, but I was surprised at the central role that guest drummer Michael Libramento plays in the song's success, as "Liuerpool" sounds more like the work of a tight band of virtuosos than something that is ostensibly a solo guitar album. In fact, Libramento's presence proves to be quite a reliable harbinger of greatness throughout the album. as the tom-driven "Venezuela" and the explosive "Haul Away Joe" are also clear album highlights. Notably, none of the three pieces I have mentioned thus far resemble each other much at all, as "Venezuela" calls to mind Sublime Frequencies-damaged surf guitar, while "Haul Away Joe" feels like the dueling guitar crescendo of an epic psych rock masterpiece. Elsewhere, "Randy Dandy O" delves into incendiary Orcutt territory when its central melody gives way to a flurry of open strings, wild bends, pull-offs, and slashing chords. "Black Eyed Susan" is yet another favorite, as Parish combines ringing arpeggios, muted strums, and a nimbly dancing lead melody with a casual looseness that feels effortless. I am also quite fond of second-tier highlight "Santy Anno," as Parish quickly casts aside the central melody to unleash a likable (if conventional) guitar solo over a chopped and stuttering backdrop that sounds like a helicopter mated with some abstract shoegaze à la lovesliescrushing. The remaining three songs are enjoyable too, but they lack a bit of the pizzazz of their neighbors. However, I could easily see them emerging from Parish's current tour beautifully transformed by some kind of road-tested creative breakthrough. After listening to some of the traditional versions of these pieces and finding them nearly unrecognizable, it seems like major creative breakthroughs must be a somewhat common occurrence for Parish. In any case, Liverpool is a wonderful and oft-surprising release and Shane Parish now joins Orcutt, Daniel Bachman, and Sarah Lipstate in the pantheon of wildly inventive solo guitarists that I will be actively following for years to come.

Samples can be found here.

4040 Hits

Éliane Radigue & Frédéric Blondy, "Occam XXV"

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This is the debut album for Claire M. Singer's Organ Reframed imprint, which will now enable home listeners to experience a bit of her singular music festival of the same name. While the festival itself has been going on since 2016, I can understand why Singer did not make the leap into releasing albums until now, as I imagine it is quite a challenge to translate the site-specific acoustic pleasures of Union Chapel's famed hydraulic organ onto a CD. Also, solo organ albums have only recently begun to come into vogue (and I suspect Singer's efforts played a key role in that). Thankfully, the stars seem to now be in proper alignment for such an endeavor, as artists like Kali Malone, Lawrence English, and Sarah Davachi have spent the last few years turning adventurous ears organ-ward and the reigning queen of minimalism (Radigue) is currently in the prime of her "acoustic instrumentation" era. Unsurprisingly, composing for organ has not resulted in a newly bombastic and maximalist Radigue, as she remains unswervingly devoted to Occam's guiding principle of "simple is always better." In fact, this album is probably a strong contender for one of Radigue's most minimal compositions to date. That may test the patience of some casual Radigue listerers, but those attuned to her slow-burning drone majesty will find much to love, as she is in peak form here.

Organ Reframed

This is not the first album in Radigue's "Occam Ocean" series that I have heard, but this is the first time that I learned about the origin of its curious title. Naturally, the "Occam" part is a reference to William of Ockham's timeless razor (the law of economy), but I did not know that the "ocean" bit was because Radigue is drawing much of her inspiration from water and waves these days. That makes sense and knowing that reveals further depth to this series. Also, given Radigue's history with Buddhism and its focus on mindfulness and the interconnectedness of all things, this series can be viewed as a sort of an artistic culmination of the themes and philosophies that have shaped her life as a whole. In more concrete terms, Radigue's recent work is driven by the "transcendent beauty" that she finds in the "micro beats, pulsations, harmonics, and subharmonics" that result when sound waves interact. Another central belief of Radigue's is that written music is an abstraction and that it is the performer that ultimately breathes life into it She also notes that "no two performers, playing the same instrument, have the same relationship with that instrument," so it was a significant choice that return collaborator/ONCEIM director Blondy was chosen to perform the piece.

Speaking of Blondy, I am quite curious about how technically demanding this piece was to play. My guess is "very," as it could easily be mistaken for a single sustained and droning chord with casual listening, but closer listening reveals that it is endlessly evolving and constantly creating subtle new sonic phenomena despite it being damn near imperceptible to tell when new notes are being added. In fact, the entire mood of the piece sneakily undergoes at least two dramatic transformations over the course of its 44 minutes, slowly moving from a stark, almost futuristic-sounding introduction of shuddering bass throbs towards a surprisingly hallucinatory finale of blearily celestial-sounding drones and insectoid whine. In between those two poles, there are passages that call to mind a surveillance beam slowly sweeping across a desolate wasteland or a gorgeous slow-motion sunrise and it never feels anything less than totally organic and seamless. And, of course, the piece's unhurried, meditative journey continually reveals additional subtle layers of harmonic complexity with deep listening. Given the near-geologic timescale and the ultra-minimal nature of this piece, it probably is not the ideal introductory Radigue album for the curious, but those already attuned to her work will likely be spellbound by the exacting and patient virtuosity on display (I certainly was). Occam XXV sets the bar intimidatingly high for whoever gets tagged for Organ Reframed's second release.

Samples can be found here.

4682 Hits

Pan•American, "The Patience Fader"

cover imageThis latest full-length from Mark Nelson's long-running and unpredictably shapeshifting project is a collection of understated, near-ambient solo guitar instrumentals that Kranky describes as the culminating release of the composer's "romantic minimalism" side. It certainly is a languorously meditative and unrepentantly lowercase suite of songs, blurring the lines between an "ageless, scarred" Americana and dreamlike ambient drift. Significantly, the album was recorded during the first summer of the pandemic, as Nelson views these songs as a sort of "'lighthouse music,'" radiance cast from a stable vantage point, sending 'a signal to help others through rocks and dangerous currents.'" Given its gently minimal, near-ambient "lone guitar in the fog" aesthetic, The Patience Fader is likely to be something of a polarizing release: it falls dangerously close to calming Windham Hill-style prettiness a couple of times, but it can also feel incredibly poignant and sublime if one chooses to listen deeply enough. While it feels weird to describe music this quiet and slow-moving as "a bold move," it is exactly that. It would have been much easier for Nelson to revisit familiar, more fan-friendly territory than to attempt to convey something profound and ineffable while blearily hovering at the edge of perception like a ghost.

Kranky

The wintry, desolate, and fog-shrouded view immortalized in the cover art was both a curiously counterintuitive and impressively apt aesthetic choice for a number of reasons. The most immediately striking collision of themes, of course, is that The Patience Fader is a considerably warmer album than the cover art would suggest (and it was recorded during considerably warmer circumstances as well). However, the image does portray a landscape that feels like it is in a lonely state of chilled suspended animation, which nicely mirrors the music in a significant way: all ten of these pieces feel like they exist in a state of bleary and blurred suspension. That is just the backdrop, however, as Nelson's tender melodies metaphorically transform that "before picture" melancholia into something a bit more sundappled and hopeful. Only a bit, mind you, but in a way that definitely matters—like how a break in the clouds on a foreboding day might allow a few rays of light to stream through the window to share their warmth and possibly illuminate floating dust motes in a lovely way.

In less poetic terms, that means that the baseline aesthetic of this album is basically a slow-motion, art-damaged twist on back porch slide guitar blues reverberating through a soft-focus ambient fog. My two favorite pieces are "Harmony Conversion" and "Just a Story," but it is generally true that all of the longer pieces are excellent and that all of the shorter pieces either feel like transitional interludes or like they end too soon to leave a substantial impression. It is also generally true that these songs all feel like variations upon a single elegantly distilled theme, so the ones that boast a distinctive twist understandably tend to be the ones that stand out the most. For example, the opening moments of the far-too-brief "Corniel" feel like a lost great Tim Hecker piece (and a harmonica-driven one at that), while "Harmony Conversion" combines swooning intertwined melodies with some subtle dub touches. "Just a Story," on the other hand, feels like a heavenly collision between Takoma-style Americana and the slow-motion, minimalist psychedelia of Dean McPhee. It also feels like a heavenly collision between the album's rippling, dreamlike production and Nelson's gift for songcraft, as the wistful melody is legitimately gorgeous and a few of the chord changes will likely elicit gasps or chills in those who appreciate such things. That makes it the album's obvious stand-alone highlight, but the vision as a whole is Nelson's more impressive achievement, as he reduced his music to its most nakedly minimal and intimate and did so with nearly unerring execution. This album feels destined to someday be celebrated as a cult/niche masterpiece in lowercase music circles.

Samples can be found here.

4286 Hits

Saint Abdullah, "Inshallahlaland"

cover imageIt is not quite accurate to say that Saint Abdullah completely reinvent their sound with each new album, but is fair to say that Mehdi and Mohammad Mehrabani-Yeganeh are far more interested to exploring meaningful new territory than with building upon their past successes. While that is certainly an admirable trait, it can also be a frustrating one, as I know Saint Abdullah will probably never fully return to the more industrial-indebted aesthetic of their earlier albums (which I love). On the bright side, that also means that every new Saint Abdullah album has the potential to blindside me with a bold leap forward into previously uncharted creative territory. In that regard, Inshallahlaland falls a bit short of being a particularly revelatory album as a whole, yet it does explore some characteristically intriguing and thoughtful themes and features quite a fascinating longform piece ("Glamour Factory"). For me, the appeal of Inshallahlaland begins and ends there, but that one excellent 20-minute sound collage is enough to make the album a significant release that fans will not want to pass over.

Room40

According to the Iranian-raised Mehrabani-Yeganeh brothers, the central themes of their latest release are: 1) how society is less-than-accepting of people with multiple identities, and 2) how we connect with human voices on a uniquely deep level (even when they appear in sampled and deconstructed form).  Both themes are particularly prominent in the opening "Glamour Factory," which borrows part of a speech by "one of Iran's pre-eminent film voiceover artists" about how working in film allowed him to break free of society's deeply ingrained identity prejudices to some degree. Unsurprisingly, that sentiment resonated deeply with the brothers, as they are attempting to achieve a similar liberation through their own work. Also, they drolly note that it "felt fitting to sample the ultimate sampler." That speech proves to merely be a starting point, however, as "Glamour Factory" mostly makes me feel like I am channel surfing Iranian TV on hallucinogens, as it is freewheeling, psychotropic swirl of sampled voices, looped fragments of songs, and street noise that fitfully plunges into passages of wild manipulations, distortions, and stammering edits. In fact, it almost feels like someone pressed a collection of television snippets to vinyl, then handed it off to a avant-garde-minded turntablist for the full chopped and screwed treatment, though there are also some beautifully minimal or melodic passages thrown into the mix too (as well as some flashes of dark humor celebrating "the benefits of mechanized civilization"). If "Glamour Factory" had been stretched out to consume the entire album, I would probably proclaim Inshallahlaland to be an unambiguous triumph, but it is instead rounded out by three shorter pieces of varying quality. My favorite of the lot is "Blurring Of Management Theory," which deftly combines a shivering and shimmering melodic theme with an endlessly shifting backdrop of clicks, pops, squelches, and subdued rumble. It is admittedly more of a snack than a meal though and I remain perplexed by the brothers' love of bloopy synth improvisations exhibited on the other pieces. That said, the successes of Saint Abdullah continue to delight me even if their hit-to-miss ratio is less than ideal, as this project is an endearingly personal, unpredictable, and playfully outré one quite unlike anything else.

sounds can be found here

4276 Hits

Martyna Basta, "Making Eye Contact With Solitude"

cover imageThis Krakow-based composer's debut album was one of 2021's most pleasant late-year surprises, as Making Eye Contact With Solitude is a gorgeously warm and intimate gem of multilayered and masterfully textured psychedelia. Basta describes the album as a diaristic meditation on "domesticity, loneliness, repetitiveness, stubborn patterns of isolated minds and the sonic mysteries all around us" and cites the murderers' row of Cucina Povera, Félicia Atkinson, and claire rousay as key inspirations. While welcome shades of all three artists are certainly evident to some degree on these six songs, Basta's aesthetic already feels fully formed and distinctively her own. In fact, I suspect it will not be long at all before Basta regularly finds herself name-checked as an inspiration by other artists, as her unhurried and dreamlike phantasmagoria of rippling zithers, vividly textured field recordings, and enigmatic domestic sounds feels absolutely revelatory on the album's two strongest pieces.

Warm Winters Ltd.

The album is comprised of six songs that seamlessly segue into one another, so it was presumably intended as a single longform work. The pieces certainly flow together nicely and share many of the same elements, but a couple of pieces make enough of an impression to easily stand alone. Whether or not the opening "Awakening" falls into that category is currently the subject of some internal debate on my part, but I certainly like it a lot regardless of where it ultimately lands. I am tempted to glibly summarize it as "someone is murdering a saxophone in the nightmare forest," yet it is far too lovely to deserve such a fate. Instrumentally, it is centered upon a blearily twinkling zither motif, yet the smeared and flutteriing psychotropic sounds and crunching footsteps that emerge from that modest theme soon consume the piece and completely steal the show. As with most pieces on the album, the magic lies primarily in the execution, as Basta is remarkably skilled at crafting wonderfully layered and kinetic soundscapes from her field and household recordings.

The following "Memories of Unwanted" is a considerably more emphatic album highlight, as "Awakening" beautifully morphs into warmly shimmering ambiance enhanced with a host of vividly crackling and sizzling textures before unexpectedly blossoming into a hallucinatory crescendo of murmuring, cooing, and gibbering voices. It calls to mind a flock of psychedelic pigeons crashing one of the more meditative passages on a Tim Hecker album, which is no simple feat. It also kicks off a three-song run of sublime near-perfection, as both "Unknown Reel Tape" and "Walking Around In Circles" are similarly stellar. "Unknown Reel Tape" resembles a killer duet between a warbling, warped, and possibly reversed Dead Can Dance cassette (the murky vocals are very Gerrard-esque) and bunch of clinking glass bottles and other curious sounds, while the dreamy, mantric vocal swoons of "Walking Around in Circles" call to mind an especially strong Cucina Povera song. That would admittedly be a fine stopping point, yet it proves to be only the starting point for a gloriously vivid crescendo that evokes a dreamily reverberating, slow motion rain of crystals. On that piece in particular, Basta's textural wizardry with non-musical sounds is truly on a level that I do not often encounter, as she manages to make familiar sounds feel almost enchanted due to their sheer clarity and physicality. It favorably calls to mind some of Graham Lambkin's singular work, as he seems like the sort of artist who could convincingly make a satisfying album from little more than a shoe and microphone. I get a very similar feeling from Basta, as I would probably still love this album even if all the instruments suddenly vanished to leave behind only clinking glass, clanking metal, crashing waves, and a host of enigmatic crunches and crackles.

sounds can be found here

5125 Hits

Big Blood, "Fight For Your Dinner II"

cover imageI was not expecting 2014's odds n' ends collection Fight for Your Dinner to ever have a sequel, so this latest batch of eclectic covers, one-off experiments, unusual collaborations, and orphaned songs came as a very pleasant New Year's Eve surprise last December. While the covers are a bit less leftfield this time around (no Missy Elliott), they compensate by being even better, as the duo's sublime interpretation of two '80s Prince classics is one of the best goddamn things that they have ever recorded. The album also features one hell of an excellent tribute to the late Jack Rose, reworkings of songs by Pixies and Amon Düül II, a homemade electronics experiment, and a six-year-old's bold vision for the perfect pop song. Given the album's freewheeling randomness and the focus upon previously unreleased pieces, one could be forgiven for thinking that Fight For Your Dinner II is strictly one for the band's most devout fans, but it is extremely rare for Big Blood to release anything that does not feature at least one absolutely essential song and this one has several (as well as some great cover art). Of course, I am admittedly speaking as one of the aforementioned "most devout fans," but I still believe it is an objective fact that there is an impressive amount of revelatory material here. And that anyone left cold by the "When Doves Cry/I Would Die For You" cover should be extremely concerned that their ears may be broken.

dontrustheruin

The album kicks off in somewhat modest fashion with a couple of previously released rarities from the project's substantial discography: the stomping "Half Light Blues" (from a 7” split lathe with Human Adult Band) and the lurching electronic weirdness of "Floating from Xanthi," which was originally issued with a Greek fanzine (LUNG). That second piece is an interesting one, as it originates from a planned/unfinished album of works made using homemade electronics and calls to mind a spirited Big Blood/Silver Apples mash-up. For the most part, however, most of the strongest songs on this collection are covers, which is a bit of a surprise, given how much I love generally Colleen Kinsella and Caleb Mulkerin's songwriting. The pair do knock it out of the park with one original piece though, as "The Fox and The Rose" beautifully memorizes Jack Rose and a hapless fox with a classic Fire on Fire-style feast of vocal harmonies, fingerpicked acoustic guitars, backwards melodies, and psych-damaged guitar noise. I am frankly surprised it managed to elude release until now, as it feels like an instant stone-cold classic in the Big Blood canon. I am less bowled over by the Amon Düül II cover that follows, as the duo excised one of the best parts of the song (the drums) in favor of a straightforward chug, but I may be in minority on that, as I have seen more than one person proclaim it to be the single best song on the album. Unfortunately, that honor was already decisively claimed by the sensuous drone-trance shimmer of the double Prince cover (recorded the night the duo learned of his death, no less). Transforming an unimprovable/brilliant/perfect song ("When Doves Cry") into a completely different great song is quite an impressive feat, yet Big Blood work a different kind of killer alchemy with Pixies' "Velouria," transforming a song I basically remembered only as a pleasantly catchy single into a beautifully frayed, intimate, and poignant piano ballad. By my count, that adds up to three top-tier Big Blood songs buried in a ten-song collection of ostensible vault scrapings, but the album has one more big surprise to offer as well, as it closes with a young Quinnisa's breathless foray into home-recorded autotune disco ("she insisted that I make her sound like the 'robots' she heard on the radio").

sounds can be found here

3446 Hits

Abul Mogard, "In a Few Places Along the River"

cover imageThis latest release from Mogard is something of a modest one, as he describes it as "the result of experimentation with familiar and less familiar instruments available to me in the studio between 2019 and 2022." No further information is divulged about the album's "less familiar" elements aside from an interesting mention of reverb borrowed from the Inchindown oil tanks, which apparently hold the world record for longest reverberation time. If In a Few Places Along the River were a Lea Bertucci or Pauline Oliveros album, that expansive reverb would no doubt be a defining feature, but it seems like Mogard harnessed it in an more unusual and inventive way. The results are admittedly not quite top-tier Mogard (this is a digital-only release, after all), as this album captures him in stark, slow-burning drone mode rather than one of his more melodic and warm moods, but it is still solid enough to be satisfying, as the two bookends are impressively nuanced and substantial.

Self-Released

Mogard was definitely not in a hurry to make to make an impression with this album, as the opening "Against a White Cloud" fades win with blearily smeared drones that evoke the unsettling nocturnal ambiance of David Lynch at his most darkly atmospheric. Gradually, however, it starts to blossom into something less drifting and ghostly, which is a transformation that I suspect is indebted to the oil tank-inspired reverb. At the very least, it feels like a feedback loop of some kind, as each layer of drone added lingers around to provide a frayed and dissolving backdrop for the next. In any case, it is an impressively likable and stealthily heavy piece, gradually snowballing into a smoldering and snarling roar of tightly reined elemental power. The following "In True Contemplation" takes a similar route, as it begins with a quiet, barely perceptible synth drone and steadily intensifies into an engulfing roar. It feels a bit colder and more minimal than its predecessor, which makes it less memorable, but the insistent and rhythmic bass throb is a nice enhancement. The album's entire second half is then devoted to the 21-minute epic "Along The River," which can reasonably be described as both a variation of the same themes as the earlier pieces and the strongest single iteration of those themes. That success is mostly because it has more of a melodic component than the other pieces, but it is also more fluid, tender, twisting, and subtly spacy. Moreoever, the steadily intensifying arc of the piece ultimately ebbs back towards silence, which gives the piece the feel of a lunar eclipse slowing blotting out the sun, then slowly revealing its warmth and light once again. Not that much warmth and light, mind you, as the piece has the ineffable sadness of an elegy, but it feels movingly transcendent as well. A sublime 21-minute highlight is more than enough to carry the album for me, but Mogard fans less enthusiastic about his cold, minimal, and unhurried drone side should proceed with caution. Serious drone connoisseurs will find much to love here, however, as In a Few Places Along the River captures a master allowing himself plenty of room to fully indulge his gifts for elegantly controlled, slow-burning magic.

sounds can be found here.

4625 Hits

Steve Roden, "Stars of Ice"

cover imageBack in 2008, Steve Roden quietly released one of my favorite ambient albums of all time in a signed limited edition of 250. Of course, I did not realize it at the time, so it took another decade or so before Stars of Ice finally made its way to my ears. Happily, however, Room40 has now reissued Roden's hauntingly beautiful collage of obscure and antique Christmas records, which will hopefully nudge many more receptive ears towards this modest, one-of-a-kind masterpiece. While I am sure I would have greatly enjoyed the original album if I had heard it when it was first released, it is worth noting that my appreciation for texture has evolved considerably over the years, so maybe Stars of Ice uncannily got to me at precisely the right time. In fact, I wonder how significant a role Roden himself has (indirectly) played in my shifting tastes, as he has always been ahead of his time in regard to celebrating details and nuances (as well as inventively repurposing "non-musical" sounds) and we seem to be in the midst of a textural renaissance at the moment. That said, most of Stars of Ice is as nakedly beautiful as music can get, so the quavering murkiness, crackling and popping vinyl, and pleasantly lapping waves of hiss are mere icing on an already gorgeous cake. This is an absolutely brilliant and magical album.

Room40/New Plastic Music

The album takes its name from a Chinese Christmas carol record that was one of the eclectic pair of pieces that Roden salvaged for his primarily sound sources. The other lucky winner was a song entitled "Snow" from a clearly hit-packed 78 entitled "Songs From the First Grade Reader." Unsurprisingly, I suspect both pieces would be nearly unrecognizable to their original composers in the wake of Roden's radical deconstructions, yet this is not one those albums where the character of the original pieces is completely obliterated into noisy abstraction, as Stars of Ice is an unusually melodic entry in the composer's oft-challenging oeuvre. There were apparently also "various other objects and instruments" involved as well, but they never manifest themselves in recognizable ways, as the heart of Stars of Ice is essentially just snatches of vocal melodies and a crackling and hissing backdrop of pleasantly warm and murky organ chords (or at least something that sounds like an organ after Roden was finished with it). For a while, the piece feels like it is just going to linger in suspended animation forever, which would be apt given the "enchanted snow globe/slowly dissolving into the grooves of a wobbly old record" atmosphere, yet new threads (clipped vocal melodies, plinking and shivering strings, a choir, and a colorful host of coos, mumbles, and warbles) soon appear and begin weaving together in interesting and lovely ways. For the piece's first half, the warm chords, bittersweet central melody, and the flickering and ghostly choral snippets conjure one of the most sustained stretches of sublime, pure beauty that I have yet heard. The piece never stops glacially and subtly transforming, however, so that section is just one particularly exquisite phase of an immersive and hallucinatory journey towards a final stretch that approximates a haunted music box haltingly playing a fragmented, wrong speed recording of a rural Chinese or Eastern European traditional music ensemble. Admittedly, I likely would have been perfectly happy if Roden had just lingered in the most beautiful stretch forever, but the subtly intensifying shadows and sense of mystery that follow are what elevate Stars of Ice to something deeper and more complex than merely a masterfully executed collage of lovely sounds. In that regard, the album is characteristically stellar sound art, but Roden's larger achievement is how masterfully he managed to convey ineffable feelings of beauty, sadness, and longing from just a couple of children’s records that no one has presumably thought about in half a century.  

Samples can be found here.

3610 Hits

Steve Roden, "Oionos"

cover imageI am thrilled that Room40 is digging up and reissuing some woefully underheard gems from Steve Roden these days, as a hell of a lot of fascinating work passed me by in the pre-Bandcamp days of hyper-limited physical releases. Stars of Ice (due for a reissue in February) was especially revelatory for me, but this more modest initial dispatch from Roden's vaults is quite a treat as well. As far as I know, Oionos has not been released previously, yet it dates from a 2006 exhibition in Athens, Greece entitled The Grand Promenade. The premise of the exhibition was to create a "dialogue" between "contemporary site-specific works" and "various archaeological and historical sites in central Athens," but Roden fell in love with the Church of St. Dimitris Loumbardiardis (not among the planned sites) and managed to talk the curator into allowing an exception. Notably, the architect behind the church was the same man (Dimitris Pikionis) who designed the original promenade, so Roden's selection was a thoughtful and inspired decision, as he felt the path leading to the church provided a "stronger impression of Pikionis's vision" than the actual promenade (unlike the main promenade, the path to the church escaped being ‘restored’ in preparation for the 2004 Olympics).

Room40

Originally constructed in the ninth century using materials salvaged from surrounding ruins and described as "likely the most secluded and serene" of Athen's assortment of Byzantine-era churches, the Church of St. Dimitris Loumbardiardis is remarkably still in use. That presented something of a challenge for Roden, as his installation needed to harmonize with and enhance its peaceful environs without disrupting what made the place so alluring in the first place. He eventually decided to hang his sound installation from a large tree and opted for characteristically Roden-esque lowercase sounds that "could blend with all of the insect noises and the overall quiet of the area.” For his sound sources, Roden chose “field recordings and small ‘poor’ objects such as tin whistles, toy harmonicas, and the like." Significantly, the latter were inspired by a basement display case of "non-instruments" located in Athen's museum of musical instruments, as Roden felt the modest items meshed nicely with Pikionis's interest in blending "indigenous culture" with "intellectual and modern culture." In more concrete terms, Oionos is essentially an hour of gently whirring, whining, and crackling suspended animation. There is also a wandering, disjointed melody that calls to mind either a slowed down recording of wind chimes or a malfunctioning music box that emits sparks and feedback as it strains to produce a fitful melody. I suppose that makes Oionos a very "ambient" piece, but it can also be more than that depending on how attentively I choose to listen: sometimes it feels like fragments of a wrong-speed Andrew Chalk album floating above a rich landscape of subtle, shifting textures, while other times evokes a pleasant sense of unreality, as if submerged ghost melodies struggle to surface from a quiet haze of insectoid whines, burbling water, and gently windblown leaves. It is quite a beautifully realized piece, yet I can understand why it was not released until now, as it lingers in delicate stasis rather than undergoing any kind of significant evolution (an approach far more preferable for an installation than an album intended for home listening). Then again, Steve Roden is hardly an artist known for adhering to convention, so listeners already familiar with his oeuvre will likely enjoy basking in this meditative sound world a great deal. For the merely Roden-curious, there are probably better albums to start with, but Oionos is still strong enough to effectively convey why his work remains so revered in sound art circles.

Samples can be found here.

3612 Hits

"Swifter Than the Moon's Sphere - English Fairy Lore"

cover imageThere are a number of fascinating small labels exploring unusual niches these days, which I suppose makes the current era something of a golden age for curious outsiders with deeply arcane interests. My favorite imprint in that vein is unsurprisingly the "open-ended research project exploring the vernacular arcana of Great Britain and beyond" that is Folklore Tapes, as their major releases exist on a plane all their own, elegantly and entertainingly blurring the lines between art, history, folklore, scholarship, music, poetry, visual art and whatever other compelling threads catch their fancy. This latest opus is characteristically another glorious cultural artifact, which is hardly surprising given the fertile nature of the subject. Nevertheless, the label have still outdone themselves, as Swifter than the Moon's Sphere celebrates the hidden history of fairy folk with an eclectic array of fairy-inspired spoken word pieces and sound art, as well as a deep and endearingly witty scholarly dive into fairy class structure and how shifting views of the supernatural mirror our society. In fact, this is one of the rare albums in which the liner notes (courtesy of Jez Winship) are every bit as compelling as the actual music ("there is something oddly impotent about the fairy aristocracy"). Beyond that, Swifter than the Moon's Sphere is a welcome return to familiar territory for the label, bringing together an inspired host of known, unknown, obscure, and enigmatic artists for a freewheeling tour de force of supernaturally charged and backwards-looking folk horror and rural psychedelia.

Folklore Tapes

Like most (or all) great Folklore Tapes compilations, Swifter than the Moon's Sphere features an inspired cast of unique collaborations, house bands, unfamiliar names, and familiar names in unfamiliar roles. In the "familiar" category, we have the usual Hood Faire contingent, as well as artists like Ian Humberstone and Bridget Hayden. All are characteristically strange and wonderful, but Humberstone's "Swinging Lamps in Starlit Globes" stands as a particular highlight, resembling an eerily sliding and smeared underwater vibraphone performance accompanied by a chorus of psychedelic frogs. One of the main pleasures of a great Folklore Tapes compilation is being surprised and delighted from more unexpected corners, however, and this one is particularly rich in that regard. In fact, the opening "Genuine Leaf Fairy Sighted in English Woodland" (credited enigmatically to "DBH") is the first of many such pleasures, as harmonic sparks spray from shivering, tense strings that fitfully resolve into snatches of gorgeous melody. Brian Campbell, Peter Smyth and Carl Turney's "Requiem for the Lost" is another favorite, resembling a warm and wistful strain of post-rock backing a spacy, swooning, and dreamlike swirl of layered psychedelia.

Elsewhere, historian Jennifer Reid sings a haunting folk ballad (“Boghart Hall Clough”) about a farmer who fails to outwit a household boggart, while Emily Oldfield brings a lovely musicality to her poetry reading and Sarah Lundy goes post-everything with a spoken word piece that feels like she is casting a terrible hex on me from inside an echo chamber. Obviously, some ideas work better than others, but the artists are invariably hampered more by the constraining brevity of these pieces than by lack of inspiration (most pieces are only around two minutes long). That hurdle admittedly posed a challenge for individual artists more accustomed to working in more expansive circumstances, but the album as a whole benefits nicely from that approach, as it is a playfully shapeshifting and immersive experience that seldom wanders off course. Moreover, I will probably be quoting the liner notes for the rest of my life ("an emphasis on the grotesque and the foppishly foolish" and "this persistence of hope in the face of experience is oddly admirable" are current favorites). In fact, I was especially struck by the line "the magic power of invisibility results in fairies being more often heard or felt…than seen," as everyone involved seemed admirably devoted to getting the elusive haunted "feel" of a good fairy legend just right (no matter how much academic rigor they brought to the table). I am tempted to say that Folklore Tapes consistently offers one master class after another on how to make a meaningful, memorable, and compelling compilation, but releases like Swifter than the Moon's Sphere actually shoot past that mark to feel more like I just stumbled upon a dust-covered grimoire in a mysterious bookstore that I had never noticed before. This is an instant classic.

Samples can be found here.

3293 Hits

Elena Setién, "Unfamiliar Minds"

cover imageBasque composer Elena Setién’s second album for Thrill Jockey is quite an unexpected leap forward from the more pop-minded Another Kind Of Revolution. While Setién's love of strong melodies and big hooks still remains mostly intact, Unfamilar Minds beautifully balances them with a host of more adventurous and psych-inspired touches, resulting in at least a half of a strikingly brilliant and unique album. The other half admittedly does not suffer from a lack of likable melodies or tight songcraft, yet Setién's work definitely needs a splash of darker, stranger sounds to curdle the wholesomeness of her more straightforward "pop" tendencies. It is an improbable and unusual mingling of stylistic threads evoking a revolving cast of seductive female vocalists getting remixed by a gnarled heavy psych project, yet Setién somehow makes it feel totally organic, natural, and all her own. Also, her throaty purr makes that unholy collision feel way more sensual and soulful than I would have expected. While it would admittedly be nice if I enjoyed the album's second half as much as the more warped and hallucinatory first half, that first half nevertheless feels enough like a revelation to make Unfamiliar Minds feel like some kind of minor masterpiece.

Thrill Jockey

The songs that Setién wrote for Unfamilar Minds actually date from before the pandemic, but when she revisited them after a collaborative detour with Xabier Erkizia, she felt "disconnected from the incomplete pieces made in a different reality." Consequently, she set about radically transforming her earlier ideas to reflect her "reconfigured sense of mood and perspective" and drew significant inspiration from both Emily Dickenson and conversations with Terry and Gyan Riley. That Dickenson influence manifests itself both directly and indirectly throughout the album. For example, album highlight "I Dwell in Possibility" borrows its lyrics from the poet, though it is what Setién does with them that makes the piece such a stunner. The most striking bit is the creepily autotuned vocal hook, which makes me feel uneasily like I am being serenaded by a malfunctioning android wrestling with stormy new emotions. In most other ways, however, "I Dwell in Possibility" is a representative example of the themes present in all of the album’s strongest songs: killer pop hooks blossoming out of starkly minimal chord progressions and gorgeous smears of phantasmagoric color. And, of course, it does not hurt that Setién has an absolutely wonderful voice and knows exactly how to use it.

Amusingly, Dickenson may have actually inspired the album's more psychedelic aspects as well as its lyrical themes, as Setién felt a heightened fascination with small details ("the beauty of birds, the smells from the kitchen") from our current lonely time. The swirl of delirious and hallucinatory sounds in the periphery of pieces like the warmly elegiac "2020" channel those fondly half-remembered details beautifully, transforming an already lovely song into something that evokes a flickering flock of ghostly birds.  Elsewhere, "Situation" weaves pure magic from little more than a gorgeous hook and two simple piano chords before blossoming into half-swooning/half-proggy crescendo that I did not see coming at all. My other favorite pieces are even stranger still. For example, in "Such a Drag," a seductively melancholy mantra ("it’s such a drag to be alone") languorously winds through a blackened and shuddering landscape of heavy drones to unexpectedly transcendent effect. The smoldering "This Too Will Pass," on the other hand, abandons language altogether, as Setién conjures an utterly sublime gem from warm organ drones, a frayed and wobbly melody, and swooning vocal layering. The remaining songs are a bit of a mixed bag for varying reasons, but the main theme is that the balance of poppiness and prettiness with gnarled mindfuckery was not to my liking. Perhaps those pieces will someday grow on me, but it does not matter if they do, as Unfamiliar Minds' weaker bits are easily eclipsed by its five absolutely perfect would-be singles.

Samples can be found here.

3251 Hits

Meitei, "KofuÃÑ II"

cover imageMeitei’s plunderphonic exploration of “lost Japanese moods” has been an intriguing and unusual project right from the start, but it started to blossom into something truly great with 2019's Komachi and only got better with the beat-driven breakthrough of 2020's Kofū. As it turns out, that creative leap forward was also quite an intensely prolific period and a lot of tough cuts needed to made to distill the resultant mountain of songs into a single album. As I loved Kofū, I have no qualms at all with Meitei's ruthless culling choices for that album, but it did leave a lot of finished and semi-finished pieces on the cutting room floor (somewhere around 50, in fact) and many definitely deserved a far better fate. Meitei's original plan was to just keep moving forward with new material in the wake of Kofū's success, yet "when it came time to begin his next album, he found that it had been sitting in front of him all along" and "realized his work wasn’t over yet." In that regard, Meitei's judgment proves to be unerring once again, as this selection of Songs That Did Not Make The Original Cut is every bit as poignant, wonderful, and deliriously fun as its predecessor.

Kitchen

The more I learn about Meitei, the more I am convinced that I am only able to appreciate a mere fraction of his fascinating vision, as the layers and layers of social commentary and satire lurking in his work are hopelessly lost on me as a non-Japanese person. Consequently, I can only appreciate an album like this one on an almost purely stylistic level. Fortunately, the wistful longings and other bittersweet emotional shadings are not lost on me, yet it is a unique experience to appreciate Meitei's inventively repurposed vocal hooks, twinkling piano runs, soaring flutes, and propulsive grooves while knowing that I am probably missing many interesting allusions and celebrations of the marginalized. Then again, maybe I actually DO get everything that truly matters, as Meitei strongly believes in Hayao Miyazaki's adage "Beyond logic speaks of human nature" (I sincerely hope my subconscious is tenaciously filling in some blanks).

Meitei apparently also has a "Mizoguchi-like approach" to mingling "unimaginable pain with tenderness," which I can definitely see, as the best pieces from the two Kofū albums can feel downright ecstatic or at least beautifully cathartic: it is easy to imagine someone dancing to the crescendo of "Happyaku-yachō" or "Shinobi" with complete abandon and tear-streaked cheeks. The album's other highlights take a number of divergent directions, however, as the main stylistic thread that holds everything together is merely a passion for chopped, stammering, and warbling samples of crackling and hissing traditional music records and that seems to be very fertile creative territory indeed. "Tōkaidō," however, is yet another gem in the vein of the aforementioned two pieces, though it initially feels very "traditional" due to its central plucked string motif before the shuffling groove and ascending flute melodies kick in. The absolutely gorgeous "Kaworu," on the other hand, is quite a departure from the album's other fare, as Meitei intimately distills his vision to just a tender harp-like melody and quiet washes of tape hiss. It might actually be the single most beautiful piece on the album, but there is some additional fierce competition from the broken piano melodies and frayed ascending flutes of "Shurayuki hime" and the part in "Arinsu" where backwards melodies and an obsessively looping vocal snippet gloriously converge. Sadly, "Arinsu" is only about a minute long, which leads me to the most savage critique of Kofū II that I can muster: it may be packed floor-to-ceiling with imaginative ideas and killer unconventional hooks, but a couple of these twelve songs are admittedly shorter than the others. Hopefully that is not a deal-breaker for anyone, as this project is singular, brilliant, and seems to only get better and better with each new release.

Samples can be found here.

3546 Hits

Tasos Stamou, "Monoliths"

cover imageDiscovering this London-based composer's adventurously psychedelic collages of traditional Greek music was one of 2021's great musical pleasures for me, so I was very eager to hear this ambitious double album follow up to Antiqua Graecia. As expected, it is a characteristically wonderful and unusual release, but it is also marks a detour away from Stamou's impressive run of Greek-themed albums. The theme of the aptly titled Monoliths is instead Stamou's attempt to "collide" the two sides of his working methods: live performances and studio work. By my estimation, it was a very successful collision, but it was mostly a behind-the-scenes one, as I would be hard pressed to determine where one approach starts and another begins. As a result, the more immediate and striking theme of the album for me as a listener is that each piece feels like an extended experiment in crafting an immersive, complexly layered sound world from just a single recognizable instrument. At least, that is how Monoliths unfolds for its first half, as the bottom drops out of the album's hallucinatory feast of bells, organs, and steel drums to reveal a considerably more processed, abstract, and psychotropic second hour of drone-damaged mindfuckery. That approach admittedly makes Monoliths a bit less accessible than some of Stamou’s more conventionally melodic work, but serious heads looking for a deep and sustained dive into otherworldly psych meditations will likely love this immersive tour de force.

Moving Furniture

The opening "Bells Drone" sounds deceptively like it could be layered field recordings of wind chimes at first, as bells of different sizes amiably jangle and clang for couple minutes before any real evidence of Stamou's hand starts to emerge. Soon, however, some tones start to linger supernaturally and the mood darkens into uneasy shadows of dissonance. It is quite a wonderfully hallucinatory and entrancing piece, evoking an ancient ritual in a cavernous subterranean temple revealed behind a dissolving reality. While it is the shortest piece on the album at a mere 13 minutes, it is nevertheless a solid representation of the album’s first half: a simple and minimal theme gradually transforms into a vividly multi-dimensional dream world. On "Chord Organ #2," for example, an organ drone slowly evolves into a Catherine Christer Hennix-esque nightmare of dark harmonies before unexpectedly resolving on a note of sundappled transcendence. "Steel Drum Drone," on the other hand, steadily becomes something akin to a lovesick tropical Steve Reich. That one is another favorite, as I am quite impressed with how Tasos weaves together patterns of plinking and bleary steel drum melodies into a thing of woozy multi-layered beauty.  In fact, I love every single one of the opening three pieces, but they turn out to be a mere prelude to two pieces in which Tamou goes totally bananas. In the first, "Supernormal," Stamou mingles a chirping electronic drone with squealing and sliding strings en route to an harrowing mindfuck that calls to mind a goddamn demon summoning (the final stretch of oscillating synth thrum is especially choice). The closing "Synapse" improbably features some even more gnarly sounds, passing though such colorful stages like "menacingly gelatinous bass throb," "an undead gamelan ensemble wanders the deserted streets in search of their next victim," and "a simmering and intense prepared piano performance over quasi-industrial rhythmic loops." This is an absolute feast of an album: five great longform pieces in a row spanning nearly two hours. Most days, I admittedly prefer the more meditative/ritualistic first half to the more nightmarish second half, but Stamou was swinging for the fences with every single piece on this album and the result is a monolithically stellar release.

Samples can be found here.

3554 Hits

Oval, "Ovidono"

cover imageAt this point, I consider myself quite well accustomed to Markus Popp's penchant for bold stylistic reinventions, yet this latest album managed to completely blindside me nevertheless. To be fair, however, Ovidono is not quite a pure Oval album, as Popp is joined by return collaborator Eriko Toyoda and artist/actress Vlatka Alec. The latter, in fact, is responsible for the album's concept: transforming the poetry of Ovid and Ono No Komachi into sound art that evokes "the tactile, immersive quality and intimacy of ASMR." The trio definitely succeeded in that regard, as Ovidono is probably the finest ASMR-inspired album that I have yet heard, but it is also a bit more ambitious than just a hallucinatory swirl of hushed and sibilant voices. Obviously, that would have been just fine by me too, as Popp is an absolute wizard at chopping and reassembling sounds. However, Ovidono is also quite compelling compositionally, as Alec and Toyoda's voices are backed by music that lies somewhere between noirish torch song, deconstructed piano jazz, and the uneasy dissonances of Morton Feldman.

Self-released

The opening "Dormant" does a fine job of setting a suitably bleary, haunted, and hallucinatory mood, as tumbling minor key piano melodies cast a spell of unease beneath a flickering swirl of ghostly whispers. The music reminds me a bit of some of the prepared piano pieces from Aphex Twin's Drukqs, but a more fluid and melodically sophisticated version. If Ovidono was simply nine subtly nightmarish piano miniatures in the same vein, it would probably be a legitimately excellent album, but "Dormant" feels like a goddamn masterpiece with the added layers of Alec and Toyoda's seductively hissing, popping, and clicking voices panning around my head. Wisely, Popp does not make any drastic changes to that winning formula for the other pieces, but he does vary the tone enough to give each piece its own distinct character. For example, the second piece ("Lost in Thought") features ghostly flutes and vocals of a more stammering and fluttering nature that seem to dissolve into a rain of clicks and pops. "As I Do" is a bit more of a departure, however, as it initially feels like I am trapped inside a haunted music box with a conspiratorial Japanese ghostess. As it progresses, however, it becomes increasingly spacy and blossoms into an immersively chiming and quivering fantasia of harp-like sweeps and Gilli Smyth-style space whispers. Yet another highlight is "Feeling," which evokes a melancholy pianist sadly twinkling his way across the keys in a nearly empty, neon-lit bar (a scene nicely enhanced by the hushed and flickering voices burrowing psychotropically into my subconscious). The closing "Over" is another personal favorite, as Popp's piano takes a brighter tone that is further warmed by shimmering and droning strings. It has a simple straightforward beauty that I do not normally associate with Popp's work, but I quite like it and the sibilant swirl of sensuous voices around it makes for good company. The remaining pieces are all similarly strong and offer their own twists, so I expect some of them will someday become favorites as well. Then again, I cannot foresee myself ever having much urge to single out an individual piece, as this entire goddamn album is brilliant.

Samples can be found here.

3875 Hits

Mary Lattimore/Growing, "Gainer"

cover imageThis lovely and unexpected collaboration was quietly released digitally in November with no background information provided at all, but it is probably safe to say that it was recorded quite recently, as it shares a lot of common ground with the radiant drones of Growing's Diptych (2021). That, of course, also means that Gainer can sometimes feel like a welcome throwback to "classic Kranky" era drone artists like Stars of the Lid, though each piece ultimately blossoms into something more ambitious and distinctive by the end. That drone-heavy aesthetic sometimes makes figuring out where Lattimore fits in quite a challenge, as recognizable harp sounds are a bit of a rarity amidst the smoldering bass thrum and ambient shimmer. Then again, recognizable guitar and bass sounds are not exactly rampant either, so maybe all three artists opted for elegantly blurred impressionist abstraction. In any case, whatever they did worked quite well, as Lattimore and Growing's two aesthetics bleed together quite nicely and often feel like something greater than the mere sum of their parts (or at least like a very good Growing album beautifully enhanced with subtle acoustic shadings and flickers of melody).

Self-released

The album is divided into two longform pieces that each clock in around 16 or 17 minutes. The opening "Flowers in the Center Lane Sway" fades quietly into being with a slow melody of harmonic-like swells. Around the 2-minute mark, however, the piece unexpectedly blossoms into a far more harmonically and texturally rich chord progression. Given that this partially a Growing album, there is a healthy amount of amplifier hum and buzzing drone waves as well, which provides a pleasantly bleary and immersive backdrop for a simple, seesawing melody that evokes the faint streaks of light from the final moments of a vivid sunset. Occasionally, there is a hint of audible harp or the sensation of something harp-like moving amidst the hum, but Lattimore finally appears in earnest for the piece's final third to add rippling and ephemeral arpeggios that feel like glimpses of twinkling stars in the gaps between passing clouds. As all that happens, the piece sneakily accumulates a pleasantly heaving and hypnotic pulse as well, which is a damn neat trick. It is solid piece, but the following "Tagada, Night Rises" is both stronger and more distinctive. Lattimore initially seems to be steering the ship for the piece, as quivering webs of arpeggios streak lazy trails across a smoldering backdrop of bass drone. Rather than feeling like it is evolving toward something larger, however, the piece lingers in a warm and glimmering dreamscape akin to a state of suspended animation (though the bass drone does seem to be stealthily building in intensity throughout the piece). "Tagada" takes a surprise detour around the halfway point though, as it feels like a menacing vibrato has curdled the bass drone and cast a shadow of uneasy dissonance across everything. That darkening paves the way for yet another composition trick, however, as the piece slowly brightens for a warmly lovely crescendo of woozy and quavering guitar and harp motifs before ending with unexpectedly gorgeous outro that feels like dark birds silhouetted by a deep red sunset. While I suspect both pieces will resonate more with fans of Growing's dronier side than with Lattimore's own fanbase, Gainer is both an impressively organic/seamless convergence of visions and a sustained, quietly beautiful reverie.

Samples can be found here.

3705 Hits

Tanz Mein Herz, "Quattro"

cover imageI began 2021 not knowing a single goddamn thing about Jeremie Sauvage, the Standard In-Fi label, or France's fascinating Auvergnat/avant-folk milieu, but I am certainly ending the year as a somewhat obsessed fan. Weirdly, this year was not an especially prolific year for the milieu, though Yann Gourdon and Sourdure had fresh releases, yet this album, the Sourdure album, and a pair of France reissues seemed to reach a lot more ears than usual and two of those ears were mine. The linguistically astute may successfully deduce that Quattro is Tanz Mein Herz's fourth album, but details beyond that are minimal and the recordings actually date from a two-day "public recording session" back in 2016 (the band's entire discography seems to have been recorded between 2014 and 2016, in fact). There is also some poetic information provided in French that makes repeated references to drones, vibrations, resonance, infinity, suspension, immensity, and a "pendulum of dreams," which I found both apt and predictably alluring. Admittedly, many of those descriptors could also apply to a host of disappointing drone albums, but I suspect the "pendulum of dreams" bit is probably the secret ingredient that makes this particular album so transcendent. That said, Quattro can also be quite challenging at times, but it unquestionably captures a very unusual acoustic drone ensemble at the very height of their eclectic and hypnotic powers, so it invariably winds up somewhere compelling no matter how prickly the voyage may become along the way.

Standard In-Fi

I am not sure how constant Tanz Mein Herz's line-up is (or was), but at the time of the Quattro sessions they were a seven-piece ensemble and damn near everyone involved has ties to some other notable project (France, Toad, Sourdure, La Baracande, Faune, Omertà, etc.). I suppose that makes this project some kind of fitfully convening all-star team that brings together all the best threads of a flourishing scene, which seems to unexpectedly be a winning formula these days if one also considers Enhet För Fri Musik. In any case, Quattro consists of six pieces that stretch across four sides of vinyl and most of them are quite long (even the shortest piece ("Outro") clocks in at over seven minutes). In a surprise twist, my favorite piece is among the album's shorter ones, as "Tales From the Middle of the Night" crams a hell of a lot of brilliance into just over ten minutes. The piece is built upon a repeating marimba-like melody and heavy buzzing drones, but it does not take long before it blossoms into a mind-bending phantasia of sliding, smeared, and howling strings that calls to mind La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music trying their hand at exotica (yet another winning formula, for those keeping score). As it unfolds, however, it only gets improbably better and better and burrows deeper into my mind, which is exactly what I want from psychotropic drone (and I would be hard pressed to think of anyone else who does it quite this well).

Remarkably, the only real difference between that highlight and the rest of the album is merely that the other pieces simply take a bit longer to truly catch fire. For example, the 20-minute "Magical Stones and Shiny Mud" starts off on a somewhat unpromising cacophony of bagpipe-y drones and flutes, then detours into a radiant and languorous drone-rock groove. I initially suspected I would not be able to connect with it at all, but then the final five minutes darken into a killer drone rock finale that seamlessly incorporates space rock, dub, and Eastern-tinged melodies. In a perfect world, it would admittedly not have taken fifteen minutes to get to that payoff, but the important thing is that they eventually got there and that it is quite wonderful once it happens. And there is certainly not anyone else who is doing the same thing in more impressive fashion, so I am happy to experience Tanz Mein Herz's singular vision in whatever goddamn shape they feel like presenting it in. Elsewhere, "Spiegel Haus” has a more promising and exotic-sounding central theme, but otherwise follows a similar trajectory, as the band pleasantly treads water in an Amon Düül II-style communal jam vein before eventually erupting in roiling cacophony of bubbling, spacey electronics and howling guitars. The following "96" is a bit more focused, as a looping bass hook steadily builds into a jangling and howling nightmare of sharp drones and ugly harmonies, while the minimal "Alor" sounds like drones from an ancient war horn or something that Yoshi Wada might have built. Given that, it is safe to say that Quattro is a seriously ambitious and oft-"difficult" album, which may throw some listeners who are less forgiving of extended durations and long, slow build ups or those less attuned to Wada-esque dissonance. For those who are unfazed by such rough edges, however, Quattro will likely feel like an absolute godsend, as it beautifully channels the late ‘60s glory days when Eastern drones, freeform improvisation, and heavy psychedelia converged in spectacular fashion (and it throws in some welcome new twists as well).

Samples can be found here.

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Klara Lewis, "Live in Montreal 2018"

cover imageKlara Lewis has been a unique and consistently interesting artist ever since she first surfaced, but 2020's Ingrid felt like a massive breakthrough and just about everything that she has released since has been stellar (live albums included). Unsurprisingly, Live in Montreal 2018 does nothing to derail that streak, but there are a couple of somewhat big surprises with it too. The first one is the date of the performance, as I had no idea that Lewis was on this plane two years before Ingrid came along. That is not to say that Live in Montreal would have necessarily eclipsed 2016's excellent Too had it been the follow up, but the Lewis of 2016 was an artist who seemed categorically disinterested in doing anything the conventional/expected way. And the comparative melodicism of 2018's fitfully great collaboration with Simon Fisher Turner (Care) felt like a one-off experiment in applying her non-musical found sounds to a more traditionally musical vision rather than a change in direction. As it turns out, however, Care was merely a tease of greater things to come and the lucky attendees of this performance got a sneak preview of those greater things long before the rest of us. The second big surprise is that this album is composed of seemingly all new material rather than variations on Lewis's existing work—it feels aesthetically akin to a proto-Ingrid, but a stage before that piece was distilled to just a single perfect motif. Obviously, that narrowing of focus yielded great results, but this more varied and shapeshifting approach yielded some legitimately great results too, elegantly blurring the lines between drone, noise, spacy synth explorations, and pop plunderphonics.

Editions Mego

As with a lot of live albums these days, the only significant difference in sound quality between Live in Montreal and one of Lewis's more formal recordings is that it feels like there is a thin veil between me and the full harmonic richness, clarity, and crunching physicality of the music. Obviously, that is less than ideal, but that loss is presumably offset by a more significant gain like "it was not possible to reproduce the magic and spontaneity of this performance in a studio." In any case, this album consists of a single 47-minute piece "with three distinct discernible sections" and an overarching theme of "permanent collapse" in which "strange sonic elements introduce themselves, rise to the fore, threaten the fundamental discourse only to recede on the brink of destroying the work itself." While I sometimes have a hard time determining which elements constitute "the work" and which ones are the threatening interlopers as the piece unfolds, the trajectory of the opening section is quite easy to grasp: an intense choral sample plays over a subdued, gurgling, and crackling industrial rhythm, becomes erratic, then settles into a looping and haunted-sounding melody just as a visceral assault of white noise erupts. In a rough sense, it resembles a killer noise set tenaciously trying to tear its way through a classical requiem with only moderate success, which is a very appealing aesthetic given the fine balance of beauty and violence that Lewis achieves.

I am not sure if the noise element necessarily wins in the end, but the original choral theme is eventually reduced to a bleary drone augmented by woodland sounds like chattering birds while the noise/industrial elements rhythmically continue onward to steer the piece into a fresh passage of flanging drones over a heaving, crunching sea of roiling white noise. Gradually, however, it starts to feel like me and my chirping avian buddies are now at the seaside (along with some quivering feedback ghosts) as large waves relentlessly crash upon the shore, yet that too proves to be an ephemeral interlude, as Lewis soon starts to segue into her next dazzling set piece. While the next section could reasonably be described as "warm ambient drones," they are vividly enhanced by a shapeshifting host of dissolving and hallucinatory new elements (hiss, submerged backwards melodies, glimpses of Spanish guitar, Whitney Houston belting out (nearly) unrecognizable fragments of "I Will Always Love You," etc.). All of those other elements gradually vanish, however, leaving a gorgeously psychotropic and crystalline drone palace in their wake. For her final trick, Lewis ends the pieces with frayed, shivering synth swells that spectrally wobble over a stark backdrop of crackling textures. It is an appropriately beautiful conclusion to the set, but Lewis's more impressive achievement is how organically fluid and compelling the journey to get there was: this album flows along wonderfully and the bridges between its major events never lull, nor does it ever feel like Lewis artfully stitched together a trio of different pieces into one. There is a definite arc to this album and it is a thoughtful and satisfying one with no missteps or unnecessary detours to be found. While live albums outside the improv/jazz milieu are historically not my favorite thing, this one is a rare and notable exception, easily ranking among the finest releases in Lewis's already impressive discography.

Samples can be found here.

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