Daniel Bachman, "Axacan"

cover imageI have been aware of Daniel Bachman's work for quite some time, as he has always been one of the more reliably excellent and virtuosic artists in the post-Fahey "American Primitive" milieu, but I was apparently not paying nearly enough attention to notice how far he had evolved beyond that scene in recent years. I believe Bachman first started to conspicuously head in this more psych-minded and abstract direction with 2016's self-titled release, so I suppose I have some catching up to do, yet Axacan is the album that is currently being hailed as a masterpiece so it seemed like a good place to start. Amusingly, I think it might actually drift too far from Bachman's instrumental prowess to land in my own personal pantheon of masterworks, but it is certainly one hell of a bold, surprising, and radical release. To my ears, it resembles some kind of impressionistic and hallucinatory "found footage" diary of unsettling sound collages far more than it does a guitar album. In fact, Axacan so vividly evokes disjointed, elliptical, and poetic scenes from the aftermath of an apocalypse that it calls to mind a classic George Romero zombie film as reimagined by Terrence Mallick.

Three Lobed Recordings

After experiencing Axacan for the first time, I went back and listened to some other recent Bachman albums, as I was very curious to see when he started making such a decisive break from his earlier work. In doing so, I discovered that Bachman had already released the masterpiece that I was hoping for with 2018's The Morning Star. Having achieved that, he apparently decided to head into far weirder and darker terrain with Axacan, which certainly would have felt appropriate at the time (it was recorded in the first half of 2020). Notably, Axacan does not particularly sound like an album made by a guitarist beyond the churning and chiming tour de force "Coronach." Instead, it feels like a series of enigmatic and fragmented memories from a traumatic period (if not scenes from an actual horror movie) in which someone is occasionally playing or tuning a guitar. That dark and hallucinatory trip starts innocently enough, however, as "Accokeek Creek" opens with the hissing sounds of suburban lawn sprinklers, but an escalating undercurrent of ominous murk soon culminates in a ravaged dictaphone recording of someone announcing the day's date. The descent into nightmare terrain from there is initially somewhat slow and subtle, but "Ferry Farm" transforms a nocturnal chorus of chirping frogs into a lysergic jungle of terror. In fact, it ends with the sound of a car door opening and an engine starting, suggesting that someone is hurriedly fleeing an encroaching horror. Apparently they made it, as the next scene ("Blue Ocean 0") materializes as a droning harmonium on a desolate, windswept beach before the focus shifts to someone paddling slowly out to sea. Once I reach the island, however, it feels like I have been sucked into a wobbly VHS tape of someone's family vacation and everything only grows exponentially more phantasmagoric from there. In the remaining pieces, I am treated to a parade of creepy and surreal sounds alternately resembling ominous radio transmissions, eerie moans of massive shipwrecked hulls, fireworks in a deep cave, a subterranean helicopter, an approaching motorboat, cows startled by a volcano, smoldering ruins, and a chorus of ghostly owls. It all amounts to quite a haunting, vivid, and unsettlingly ambiguous and fragmented mindfuck (and one that sucks me in deeper every time I listen). This will absolutely be the finest headphone album of the year.

Samples can be found here.

  1812 Hits

Colleen, "The Tunnel and the Clearing"

cover imageIt has been nearly four years since the last Colleen album, which is certainly not the first lengthy gap in Cécile Schott's wonderful discography, but she definitely seemed to be thriving and experiencing a creative renaissance since signing to Thrill Jockey. As it turns out, that hiatus was far from intentional, as Schott has been plagued by quite an impressive run of personal misfortunes and upheavals since A Flame My Love, A Frequency was released (some of which certainly inform the album's searching lyrical themes). While I do not subscribe to the "suffering inspires great art" myth, I do think the long break between albums allowed Schott enough time, solitude, and introspection to make The Tunnel and the Clearing far more of a leap forward than it may have been otherwise. It does share its predecessor's conspicuous lack of viola de gamba though, as Schott remains committed to exploring the potential of just a simple synthesizer and a few well-chosen pedals. That similarity aside, this latest opus sounds completely different than any other Colleen album, as it feels like Schott just invented her own incredibly cool strain of organ-driven hypnagogic pop (and one fitfully enlivened by delightful Latin rhythms, no less). In fact, I briefly wondered if she had somehow managed to customize a synthesizer to be played with a bow. This is unsurprisingly yet another excellent Colleen album.

Thrill Jockey

For this latest release, Schott set aside her Critter and Guitari synths and opted for the surprisingly small and inexpensive Yamaha Reface YC, which she primarily uses to mimic an organ. While that warmer tone certainly suits Schott's hushed and understated aesthetic quite nicely, the stars of The Tunnel and the Clearing are frequently the various echo and delay pedals that she so brilliantly employs (and possibly her vintage drum machine as well). That is not to say that the songs are not also strong, but these seven pieces are quite simple, spartan ones and their primary beauty lies in how Schott wields effects to make her melodies organically wobble, ripple, smear, and overlap. That approach makes everything feel hazy and disorientingly out-of-phase in a lovely way that nicely complements the album's fun and sultry drum machine grooves. Most of the strongest pieces come near the beginning of the album, as there is an especially great three-song run after the shuffling and thumping instrumental opener. In "Revelation," Schott quietly sings a tender melody over a pulsing and spacey backdrop, but it slowly dissolves into woozy ambiance that later builds into a beeping psych crescendo. My favorite piece is the charmingly tropical-sounding "Implosion-Explosion," which sounds like Stereolab and Yo La Tengo turned up for all-star beach party jam, while the title piece is a synth instrumental that feels like an Emeralds song freed from its structure and allowed to spiral off into soft-focus bliss. The final three pieces get a bit more eclectic, as the two-part "Gazing at Taurus" initially sounds like an '80s Euro pop chanteuse backed by a shimmering cloud, then becomes a hypnagogic twist on "cruise ship lounge band." "Hidden in the Current," on the other hand, almost veers into proggy indulgence, but is arguably saved by its psychotropic, oscillating drones. While I certainly commend Schott for her adventurousness, the best thing about this album is the same as the best thing about every Colleen album: her singular gift for crafting understated, intimate, and precariously dream-like glimpses of pop heaven.

Samples can be found here.

  1838 Hits

Bombay Lunatic Asylum, "Mad Song"

cover imagePeople often grumble about how music used to be better and that usually just means that they are either looking in the wrong places or not paying close enough attention, but every now and then I get blindsided by something from decades past that makes me concede that there is indeed some truth to that stance. I mention that because Louise Landes Levi is one of the few remaining artists from the late '60s Mills College/NYC avant-garde golden age who is both active and seemingly still in her creative prime. Admittedly, her discography was quite sparse until the last decade or so (much like that of Catherine Christer Hennix), but the woefully delayed appreciation of Levi's work feels like it was less due to sexism and a challenging vision than because documenting her art seems like trying to capture lightning in a bottle. Fortunately, Sloow Tapes' Bart De Paepe was up for the challenge and Bombay Lunatic Asylum is a recently formed trio that brings out some of Levi's best work. In practical terms, that mostly means that De Paepe and Koen Vandenhoudt just hung back, made some drones, and (presumably) watched in awe as Levi unleashed an passionate and fiery sarangi tour de force that calls to mind a Zen Paginini. This album is amazing.

Oaken Palace

There are technically three songs on Mad Song, but it is very easy forget that anything exists other than the haunting and incendiary opener "The Mental Traveller." Over a backdrop of harmonium drones, Levi unleashes a raw, viscerally cutting, and almost possessed-sounding sarangi showcase that calls to mind a pagan ritual in which a sensuous dance reaches such a fevered intensity that the dancer drops dead afterward. It is incredibly powerful and moving, yet also impressively hallucinatory. In fact, the macabre ballet feels both feral and almost supernatural, as the many animal-like sounds Levi coaxes from her sarangi sometimes feel like an anguished flock of birds dispersing in fear because the dancing, howling melodies are simply too primal and darkly erotic to handle. It also sounds like Levi has a magic homemade effects pedal that makes everything sounds unnaturally and vividly tactile and earthy (quite a neat trick). I believe Vandenhoudt also plays sarangi on that opening piece, as there are some overlapping melodies and drones, but he switches to the shruti box for the more mournful and meditative "Ancient Times." Unsurprisingly, it is yet another gem, but Levi's playing is considerably more lyrically melodic and the drones play much more of a central role, imbuing the piece with a densely buzzing and lazily oscillating seismic heft (they almost sound electronic, in fact). Despite the slight dip in intensity, "Ancient Times" is nonetheless impassioned and unconventional in its own right, as Levi unleashes some mind-burrowing harmonic squeals and the trio's drones seem to conjure the otherworldly harmonies of Just Intonation (though that may just be an illusion). The album ends with a brief vocal coda/comedown in which Levi sings William Blake’s "Mad Song" over another harmonium backdrop, approximating something akin to a lovely but simple Kink Gong piece or great Sublime Frequencies find. It all amounts to a truly wonderful and singular album, as listening to Mad Song feels like an almost ecstatically religious experience.

Samples can be found here.

  2201 Hits

Leven Signs, "Hemp is Here"

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Much like Vox Populi!'s Half Dead Ganja Music, Leven Signs' Hemp is Here first began life as an obscure and deeply weird cassette from the '80s, but eventually found its way to someone who appreciated its warped and singular vision enough to give it a well-deserved second life. In the case of Leven Signs, that someone was Foxy Digitalis's Brad Rose, who reissued the album back in 2013. At the time, I felt it was more indulgent, rough, and self-consciously bizarre than legitimately good, but now that it has been reissued once again, I realize that I was an absolute fool for sleeping on it before and that I was simply not yet attuned to Leven Sign's "fourth world post-punk" wavelength. Admittedly, a few songs still feel a bit maniacal to me, but the album's high points truly feel like some of the most inspired, boundary-dissolving, and near-ecstatic music that I have ever heard. I feel like there should probably be a statue of Pete Karkut somewhere, as he was arguably one of the most wonderful DIY visionaries to ever walk the earth, surfacing for just one absolutely mindblowing tape, then riding off into the sunset (leaving the rest of us to spend the next three decades slowly evolving until we could properly appreciate what he had done).

Futura Resistenza/Digitalis/Cordelia

I believe it was the opening "Our Position Vanishes" that threw me back in 2013, as it sounds like a sped-up loop of 'ethnic music' accompanied by a howling teakettle, a primitive synth bass line, and male vocals that seem to emanate from the bottom of a well. It calls to mind whirling Sufi dervishes, but hypercaffeinated and in lysergic, Day-Glo color. Eight years later, it is still not quite for me, but it is followed by the first of several masterpieces to come, as "Prague Spring" marries a catchy flute hook, chant-like female vocals, and a killer percussion groove that calls to mind a hot dub single recorded by a tropical party band (and one that briefly dissolves into a full-on symphonic mindfuck, no less). The next stunner is "Sedes sapientiae," which sounds a lovely ancient folk song sung over a delirious jam session between a church organist, a funk drummer, and an unusually intense choir of Gregorian monks (and somehow it manages to sound both majestic and vaguely industrial as well). The next flurry of greatness does not come til the end of the album, but the final three pieces are pure outsider-psych nirvana. In "Rumi," Karkut and Maggie Turner conjure up something akin to a ghostly Sybille Baier demo tape and a Middle Eastern-inspired organ jam colliding over a PVC pipe percussion groove, while "Das Seal" sounds like someone threatened to murder a church organist's entire family if he did not nail his audition for a space rock band. The closing "Held in Arms," on the other hand, initially sounds almost "pop," as Turner quietly sings a wistful melody over a great clattering, dubby groove. As it unfolds, however, it starts to feel like a snake charmer just joined the jam and that Karkut went on a wild shopping spree at The Psychedelia Store and cleared the damn shelves. The rest of the album is a fascinating mix of inspired near-misses ("La Luna" sounds like a tipsy Scott Walker crashing a PIL tribute band rehearsal) and second-tier pleasures, but the whole damn thing is a memorably unique and infectiously groove-driven feast of unfettered originality and go-for-broke adventurousness.

Samples can be found here.

  1874 Hits

Jeremy Young, "Amaro"

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This latest release from Montreal-based composer/collaboration enthusiast Jeremy Young is quite an intriguing and adventurously kaleidoscopic suite of songs, as his revolving door of guest artists brought together quite an eclectic array of divergent aesthetics. While most of Amaro's participants were previously unfamiliar to me, all feel like unerringly solid choices, as these ten pieces feel like a single coherent vision that spread its tendrils outward into pleasantly unexpected terrain that beautifully blurs quite a few lines. While Amaro is arguably an ambient/drone album at its heart (Young's main tools are oscillators, tape loops, amplified surfaces, and EMF signals), it often feels like something considerably more compositionally and conceptually ambitious is happening, as there are nods to influences as diverse as Conlon Noncarrow, The Caretaker, and Scanner (as well as some thoughtful inspirations beyond music). As such, Amaro initially drew me in as an unusually good drone album, but it sneakily blindsided me several times once I gave it focused attention and sufficient volume.

Thirsty Leaves

The opening "Trafic" is a prime example of Young's inventively boundary-dissolving aesthetic as he is joined by filmmaker Tomonari Nishikawa (who "plays" a 16mm camera & a projector). Naturally, the expected projector sounds are present, yet they are just a small part of a concoction that sounds like a spectral haze of feedback jamming with some garden sheers, a jazz bassist, and a ping-pong game remixed by Pole. The following two pieces are also gems, as "Ballroom Loop #1" sounds like an excerpt from a killer lost William Basinski album, while "Frequenza Bianca" enlists Dolphin Midwife for a lovely harp improvisation that sounds like it takes place inside a shimmering dream mist of quivering droplets frozen in time. Elsewhere, "Electricity Over Mirabel" is another favorite, as violinist Pauline Kim Harris taps in for a gorgeously haunting string motif that is dissonantly smeared, stretched, and atomized. It too coheres into a crackling and popping Pole-style rhythm, but the nightmare happening over it is a malevolently hallucinatory delight. Nearly every single piece on Amaro hits the mark, however, so it was a real pleasure to hear the fascinating places that Young was able to steer his collaborative curveballs. For example, "Mythy" sounds like Alvin Lucier remixed Algebra Suicide's "True Romance at the Worlds Fair," while "The Duchamp Bicycle Wheel Resonator" turns an interview with Vito Ricci into a shifting fantasia of chiming and skittering metal percussion. On the more musical side, "Your Air Smells Like Cinnamon" sounds like an frenzied, out-of-control player piano being soothed with warm drones, while “Carta Vetrata” transforms garbled police radio transmissions into such an achingly beautiful piece that I actually started feeling like the radio was lovesick. That is arguably Young's finest act of sorcery, but it gets strong competition from the closing "Tiny Pine Cones," as Ida Toninato's wordless vocals and crackling pine cones build to a crescendo akin to simultaneously experiencing a haunted house and Disney's "It's A Small World" ride at supernaturally slow and fast speeds. Obviously, I prefer some pieces to others, but it is extremely hard to imagine anyone interested in sound art making it all the through Amaro without being dazzled by at least two songs.

Samples can be found here.

  1844 Hits

Roxane Métayer, "Paroles Cavernicoles"

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I was certainly not expecting a follow up to March's Éclipse des Ocelles to arrive this quickly, yet here we are with Paroles Cavernicoles ("cave lyrics"), which is a very different animal than its predecessor. While this latest release promises still more "dazzling drone-folk hymns," it also promises "ghostly ambient passages," which is definitely the bit where the two albums significantly diverge. While both releases are quite good, it seems fair to say that Éclipse des Ocelles was Métayer's "songs" album and Paroles Cavernicoles is her "fall down a rabbit hole of shapeshifting rustic psychedelia" album. That is admittedly one of my favorite genres, so I am delighted to join Métayer in her journey through the looking glass, but this album almost feels like the work of a completely different artist altogether (like the cool violinist who made Éclipse des Ocelles has a more effortlessly outré twin who considers herself a non-musician, but will occasionally pick up an instrument to add some weird sounds to her hallucinatory vocal collages).

Primordial Void

The album is divided into two longform pieces, "Partie I: Troglophonie" and "Partie II: Grottes Graciles." The first piece initially sounds like a very good Finnish psych-folk album from Fonal, as a tender and lovely vocal melody unfolds over a cool rhythmic choral backdrop. After a couple minutes, however, Métayer dials up the intensity significantly with an interlude of moaning, tortured violin before the bottom drops out entirely and I suddenly find myself lost in a darkly lysergic enchanted forest. Quite a disorienting cavalcade of surprises then ensues, as "Troglophonie" dizzyingly passes through phases that alternately resemble an attempt to summon Pan with an eerie flute melody, a distant thunderstorm played through a chain of effects pedals, a seductive android transmitting a warning from the future, a large wind chime made from old milk bottles, a chorus of ghostly owls, and an avant-garde string ensemble performing while the yawning mouth of hell slowly opens nearby. In a broad sense, "Grottes Graciles" is a continuation of that same trippy free-form free fall right down to its similarly lovely opening (a loop of hazy, swooning vocals gives way to passage of warm drones and a lovely, bittersweet violin melody). In fact, it almost feels like a phantom folk ensemble is teasingly and erratically materializing and dematerializing, but they ultimately fade away to leave me in a haunted cathedral just in time for choir practice. Unfortunately, there was just an avalanche at the experimental music festival further up the mountain, so everything is soon engulfed in a cacophony of jumbled weirdness. Naturally, it all ends with something resembling a brief yet spirited infernal hootenanny (wipes sweat from brow). Needless to say, Paroles Cavernicoles is quite a vividly realized and otherworldly experience, leaving me with the feeling that a supernatural puppet show just swept through my medieval village and nothing and no one can ever be the same again.

Samples can be found here.

  1839 Hits

James Ginzburg, "crystallise, a frozen eye"

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This latest solo album from Emptyset's James Ginzburg completely blindsided me, as it feels like his two of his longtime fascinations have finally converged into one gloriously crushing and intense tour de force. In characteristically cerebral fashion, Ginzburg conceived of crystallise, a frozen eye as an acoustic counterpoint to Emptyset's artificial intelligence-driven Blossoms, but what he ultimately arrived at feels considerably less conceptual than most Subtext albums. Or maybe the concept just feels completely eclipsed by the churning intensity of the music. In any case, this album feels like the most natural direction in the world now that it exists, as Ginzburg essentially just combined Emptyset's viscerally seismic approach to sound design with his deep interest in more traditional and earthy sounds (his previous solo album wove together strains of Gaelic folk music, Iranian traditional music, and Indian classical music). Yet another "obvious in hindsight" move was Ginzburg's leftfield decision to enlist devoted bass enthusiast/past collaborator Joker for the mastering role, ensuring that all of the songs pack some seriously house-shaking low-end heft. All of those seemingly disparate threads combine seamlessly to yield a work of almost elemental force that feels like the culminating achievement of Ginzburg's career. This has to be one of the heaviest and most unconventional drone albums of all time.

Subtext

The album opens with something resembling the chiming of an old grandfather clock, which presumably indicates that it is now time to be enveloped in a churning and heaving sea of massive, buzzing strings. In that regard, "light evaporates" is a resounding triumph as a statement of intent, as it feels like miles of viscerally rattling, thick metal cables tuned to the resonant frequency of the earth are being shaken by a strong wind. That immense, buzzing behemoth is reasonably representative of the album, but Ginzburg is impressively inventive at achieving a similar effect in varied and divergent ways. For example, "on obsidian expanse" sounds like Glenn Branca's "Guitar Trio" if it had been written for an ensemble of cloned Ellen Fullmans (lots of buzzing, rattling strings, and droning unison notes). Unexpectedly, it transforms into an outro that feels like a psychedelic ancient palace ritual, but most other pieces undergo minimal transformation, as there is no reason to evolve further when a piece is an absolute monster right from the first notes. In fact, all eleven songs are legitimately awe-inspiring to some degree and some feel downright revelatory. The most adventurous one is probably "the eyes behind," which sounds like an orchestra trying to tune crystal instruments while broken glass rains down in slow motion and someone strangles a saxophone. However, the vaguely New Age-y "a gate left open disappeared" is an especially strange trip as well, as it sounds like an '80s synth guy trying to simultaneously evoke a giant celestial harp and compose a sequel to Music for Eighteen Musicians. That said, my favorite pieces mostly come near the end of the album and there are quite a few of them: "border, dispersing" (an ancient war procession crossing a mountain pass), "twilight in pierced velvet" (three killer noise guitar bands churning up a roiling cacophony), and "outside, infinite" (Branca reimagined as Eastern-inspired desert psychedelia). Only the latter dips its toes in any attempt at melody, but that is basically just gilding the lily when nearly every damn song is an immense, heaving and oft-rapturous celebration of visceral textures and harmonically rich seismic thrum.

Samples can be found here.

  1945 Hits

Esplendor Geométrico, "40 a√±os nos iluminan"

cover imageThis is definitely one of the more confounding Esplendor Geométrico releases in recent memory, as it is ostensibly a celebration of the project's 40th anniversary (the title translates as "40 years illuminate us"), but is also ostensibly all-new material that somehow feels like at least three different bands. There is a logical explanation for that, as the album features several collaborations, some recent compositions, and a number of noisy, pummeling throwbacks to EG's early years (presumably revisiting that style with the benefit of four decades of illumination). An impressively honest additional explanation can be found in the liner notes, however, as the duo note that neither member makes a living from music, which frees them to "do what they want without even thinking of what their fans and followers expect." As a longtime EG fan, I can confirm that this album was definitely made without any consideration for whether or not I would like it (or whether it even makes complete sense). Then again, anyone who has been releasing great albums for several decades is entitled to celebrate with a go-for-broke, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink epic if they feel like it. It is all perfectly fine by me, but anyone simply searching for a good recent EG album should give this one a wide berth and head towards Cinética instead (also from 2020). That said, there are definitely plenty of bludgeoning percussion assaults here that fans of the project's noisier side will enjoy (as long as they do not mind sifting through an unusually prickly, blunt, eclectic, and overwhelming batch of songs).

Geometrik

For better or worse, Arturo Lanz and Saverio Evangelista definitely did not exert themselves coming up with anything beyond just beats and textures for this album. Given EG's considerable prowess in those regards, however, that is hardly a deal-breaker and may even be considered an "all killer, no filler" back-to-basics treat (depending on one's perspective and appreciation for well-executed brutality). In theory, all the best pieces should be on the first disc since the second one is composed of pieces omitted from the vinyl. In reality, however, there are gems scattered fairly liberally across both halves. On the main album, there are a few enjoyable collaborations and a number of EG's standard bulldozing rhythmic juggernauts, but there are some real surprises too. The biggest one is probably the psychotropic sound collage "Buenos Días," which sounds like loops of machine noise jamming with ducks, bullfrogs, and a language tape, but my notes for other songs are filled with phrases like "a herd of cows and a bad metal guitarist just crashed band practice," "Muslimgauze with the intensity dialed up too high," "wrong-speed party anthem," or "a churning, unstoppable industrial groove just rolled through a playground and crashed into an arcade." That last piece ("Vuelve A Jugar") is one of the album’s best, though I also enjoyed "MokBa" quite a bit (massive primitive robots transform a political march into a delightfully lurching dance party). Weirdly, the second disk probably has the better hit-to-miss ratio and the wildest twists. For example, "Avanti" sounds like NWW went completely feral while recording "Rock’n’Roll Station," while "Hungry" resembles a power electronics guy and a black metal band collaborating on an absolutely scorching drone album. Elsewhere, "Trans" evokes a heaving half-gelatinous/half-mechanized horror, while "Tribuna Del Trabajo" sounds like an weirdly sensual and industrial-damaged festival parade shimmying its way through a vintage arcade. Admittedly, trying to listen to the entire album in one sitting makes me feel a bit psychologically mauled, frazzled, and exhausted, but there are quite a few songs here that make their impact deeply felt when experienced by themselves. If anybody ever asked me which album I would absolutely want on my side in a brawl, it would most likely be this one.

Samples can be found here.

  1917 Hits

Espen Lund, "Aetonal"

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It has admittedly been quite a long time since the theatricality and ferocity of proper black metal held any allure for me, but the genre has certainly birthed quite a few fascinating mutant strains in the drone and psych realms over the years. The latest one to blindside me is this blackened drone leviathan from Norwegian trumpet visionary Espen Lund. Gleefully mangling the sound of his hapless trumpet is hardly new territory for Lund, but this album (his third) takes that approach to an ingenious extreme. As Lund himself put it, "The trouble with amplifying instruments that don't want to be amplified is the amount of feedback produced. On this album, the thought process was to incorporate the feedback and make it an integral part of the music." While I do believe that modest quote is factually correct, Aetonal instantly makes it feel like an almost cartoonishly massive understatement, as Lund and his ring of straining amplifiers unleash a crushing, snarling, and blown-out nightmare that is absolutely unrecognizable as a trumpet. If I heard this album completely blind, I would absolutely think I was hearing some killer Surface of the Earth, Campbell Kneale, or Southern Lord album that had somehow eluded me.

self-released

The opening "As Above, So Below" slowly rolls in like an moonlit fog enveloping an ancient Druidic ritual before dissolving into a brief, simple trumpet solo. And then all hell breaks loose, as the piece erupts into a roiling, ritualistic, and treble-ravaged channeling of recent Skullflower. It is a wonderfully face-melting assault (particularly for a lone trumpet), but it also surreptitiously evolves into something almost meditative (think "Sunn O))) as the house band at a Tibetan Buddhist temple"). Next, "For a Thousand Tongues to Sing" takes a somewhat similar path, approximating a doom metal band attempting to mimic a bagpipe ensemble, but then a war horn heralds a transformation into something best described as “sci-fi tribal meets a trippy '70s synth album being played through a noise band's gear." Aetonal does not truly catch fire until the grinding horror of the third piece, however, as "Speak Into His Good Eye" gleefully mashes together animal-like howls, maliciously weaponized feedback, machine-like rhythms, and an imagined duet between a calliope and rusty Ferris wheel in a nightmarish abandoned amusement park. "The Creator’s Voice" then steals the show, initially resembling a doom metal band soundtracking slow-motion footage of an avalanche, but ultimately passing through some mind-meltingly phantasmagoric stages such as "the world is burning and molten metal is dripping from the sky" and "a howling robot Tyrannosaurus just turned up and seems mad." It feels like the sort of scorched earth blow-out that nothing could follow, yet the closer is yet another stunner, ingeniously evolving from shrill, shimmering drones to "a terrifying feedback demon just materialized" to an unexpectedly beautiful and smoldering comedown. Generally, Aetonal is great because Lund and his trumpet unleash something resembling an absolutely essential masterpiece of late '90s New Zealand noise guitar, yet a few pieces hint at something more transcendent, like a faint rainbow appearing in the wake of an apocalyptic storm. That said, it also sounds like a copy of the Necronomicon mysteriously turned up at Lund's studio with a bookmarked page titled "Summon A Drone Album So Unholy That It Will Kill God." Aetonal is a towering achievement.

Samples can be found here.

  1792 Hits

Growing, "Diptych"

cover imageIt has been quite a long time since these shape-shifting drone stalwarts from Kranky's golden age last surfaced with a major release, aside from the gnarled, bass-heavy Disorder LP that teasingly appeared on Important back in 2017. While I am certainly happy to have them back, this latest release from the core duo of Joe Denardo and Kevin Doria takes a somewhat unexpectedly minimalist and meditative direction. I am tempted to call Diptych a "return to form," but Growing have several different appealing forms they could potentially return to and this one arguably feels like a mis-remembered return to the pair's Kranky era, as these radiant slow-motion reveries pieces feel more akin to Stars of the Lid than any Growing album I recall. Whether that is a step in the right direction or not is hard to say, as a strong case could be made that project's killer run of weirder, spacier releases in 2007 & 2008 was its zenith and that this latest opus sands away all of the duo's distinctive quirks and sharp edges. From a purely artistic perspective, however, Diptych is quite an impressive achievement, as Doria and Denardo distill drone to its purest essence with an almost supernatural degree of control and patience.

Silver Current

This album initially seemed very straightforward to me, but sneakily became more and more interesting with repeat listens and a bit of idle reflection upon its mysteries. One such mystery is Growing's decision to call a three-song album Diptych, which caused me to wonder if the two things being referenced were Doria and Denardo or the sun and moon from the album's eclipse cover art. Then I realized that the eclipse provided a flawed but insightful Rosetta Stone for grasping the essence of this latest direction, as each piece feels like slow-motion footage of a mesmerizing celestial event: seemingly nothing happens for a long time, then something subtly rapturous begins to reveal itself. The flaw with eclipse imagery is merely that nothing here undergoes a particularly dramatic transformation nor is there much perceptible darkness to speak of (though a dissonant undercurrent does briefly appear in the closing "Swallow Turn"). Instead, these pieces feel more like solar flares blossoming from the surface of the sun in extremely glacial fashion. Of the three pieces, "Swallow Turn" is my favorite, as it is the most condensed and varied: it is half the length of the others, yet still feels epic and it even includes some bird songs and spacey synth-sounding flourishes near the end. The other two pieces offer their own compelling twists though: "Variable Speeds" culminates with an unexpected heavy and pulsing bass buzz, while "Down + Distance" initially sounds like a shimmering organ drone but dissolves into a vapor trail of low-end thrum and smears of sculpted feedback. Aside from that, it is also very cool that these sounds mostly emanate from just a bass and a guitar and that Doria and Denardo have seemingly achieved total ego death (or at least become obsessive Eliane Radigue fans). Diptych may be an album that requires significant patience and attention to fall in love with, but it is ultimately one worth loving.

Samples can be found here.

  1833 Hits

The Strange Strings Ensemble, "One for Ra"

cover imageIt fair to say that any album involving the Opalio brothers is destined to be memorably bizarre, but this Sun Ra-inspired EP takes My Cat is an Alien's vision even further out into fringes of outsider psychedelia than usual. For one, it is almost entirely acoustic, so there are no alientronics or psychotropic drones to be found and Roberto's queasily floating vocals seem (mostly) absent as well. Obviously, that eliminates nearly everything "familiar" about MCIAA's vision, so it makes a lot of sense to give this project a fresh name. In lieu of the expected alien terrain, the ensemble (rounded out by writer Philippe Robert & Joëlle Vinciarelli) "spontaneously composed" a visceral, churning, and jagged eruption using the "ancient, mostly ethnic, acoustic string instruments from Vinciarelli's vast collection." In keeping with the Sun Ra theme, the instruments were purposely untuned in homage to the late jazz icon's 1967 Strange Strings album, which Ra dubbed "a study in ignorance" (the Arkestra were given an eclectic array of oft-foreign string instruments that they did not know how to play). Unsurprisingly, critic Sean Westergaard's assessment of that polarizing Sun Ra opus is even more true of its spiritual heir: "If you don't like 'out,' stay clear of this one." I, however, am quite fond of "out," so I very much enjoyed this brief, singular, and synapse-frying detour.

Opax/Elliptical Noise/Up Against the Wall, Motherfuckers!

This album is the result of two different collaborations that unexpectedly and happily converged into one, as the Opalios and Robert worked together on the recently published Free Jazz Manifesto, which is a compendium of "must-have classics" and "indispensable curiosities" from that adventurous, forward-thinking milieu. Naturally, Saturn's most famous son is featured therein, so Sun Ra's wildest and most outré moments were likely something that the Opalios were revisiting and consciously thinking about around the time that Eternal Beyond II was being recorded at Vinciarelli's studio. Consequently, it made perfect sense to pull in Robert (a non-musician) for a spirited tribute to Sun Ra's classic study in ignorance. The scraping, scrabbling, and sawing cacophony that ensued calls to mind a post-apocalyptic junkyard band armed with little more than a broken grandfather clock, a piano soundboard strung with rusted barbed wire, and some metal files. That ragged and squealing maelstrom is arguably anchored by some looped, wordless vocals from Vinciarelli and a pulsing pedal tone for a while, but it ultimately becomes an untethered runaway train of heaving, churning, and squealing intensity. Fans of sharp, metallic harmonics take note, as this album is very much for you. While I suspect One for Ra is not intended as a major release given that the whole convulsing and screeching mindfuck barely lasts 17 minutes, that duration feels just about right for such a gleefully challenging and dissonant free-form firestorm. Sun Ra would be proud.

Samples can be found here.

  1761 Hits

Ak'chamel, The Giver Of Illness, "Totemist"

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This singular album was released back in February 2020 right before the pandemic upended everything, so I sadly never got around to writing about it. I am attempting to right that wrong now, however, as this inscrutable and anonymous Texas duo is the most consistently fascinating psych project around and this album has been in fairly heavy rotation for me since it came out. Granted, "consistently fascinating" is not quite the same thing as "consistently great," but Totemist is an unusually accessible release for the creepily costumed pair, as this vinyl debut ostensibly "marks a new direction" for the project. That mostly just means that these "fourth world post-colonial cultural cannibalists" wrote a more melodic and focused batch of songs than usual and took a break from "the oppressively lo-fi sound" of their previous tapes. Happily. all of those changes suit the band quite well, but Ak'Chamel still basically sound like a haunted, shambling pile of Sun City Girls and Sublime Frequencies albums that has been possessed by the spirit of an ancient shaman. Which, of course, is exactly how I would want them to sound.

Akuphone

It is impossible to speculate on the identity of Ak'Chamel without instantly thinking of the Bishop brothers, as Totemist feels like a perfect blend of Sir Richard's Eastern-influenced guitar virtuosity and the warped vision and dark humor of Alvarius B. Also, Sublime Frequencies regulars Robert Millis and Mark Gergis are both explicitly involved. Case closed! That said, if the Bishops are behind Ak’Chamel, it only raises more questions ("so why was Ak’Chamel briefly a black metal band?" being one that springs to mind). In any case, Totemist would have made a truly killer follow up to Funeral Mariachi regardless of who was involved, as Ak’Chamel are legitimately quite good at making droning, Middle Eastern-inspired desert psychedelia. The real magic of the album, however, lies in how those perfectly good desert-psych jams regularly dissolve like a mirage to reveal something considerably darker, weirder, and more hallucinatory. At various points, Totemist calls to mind heavy trance-inducing harmonium drones, a wrong-speed field recording of an ancient tribal ritual, a chorus of sinister puppets, a cannibalized Phurpa album, and a fever dream about an all-Muppet mariachi band. Needless to say, it is a hypnotically creepy and surreal journey indeed, but considerably less nightmarish than some of the duo's previous releases (parts of which would seem perfectly at home in an evidence bag labeled "Dyatlov Pass Incident" or an alternate reality where The Blair Witch was actively involved in the early 2000s cassette underground). There are admittedly still some traces of that dark and murky terrain here, but Totemist is wonderful largely because of how effortlessly and organically the two poles of the bands' vision bleed into each another like an increasingly malfunctioning reality simulation. If I had to choose a favorite song, I would go with the colorfully titled "The Funeral of a Woman Whose Soul is Trapped in the Sun" or "Phallus Palace," but Totemist's phantasmagoric vision quest is best experienced as a sustained immersion.

Samples can be found here.

  1899 Hits

Dean McPhee, "Witch's Ladder"

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At this point in his career, each new Dean McPhee release feels like a legitimate event, as he surfaces quite rarely and always hits me with at least one absolutely stunning piece when he does. Consequently, this review could probably be condensed to merely "Dean McPhee has a new album," as that would convey everything necessary to perk up the ears of most people already familiar with his body of achingly beautiful, slow-burning guitar magic. Unsurprisingly, Witch's Ladder does nothing to dash those dauntingly high expectations, as it picks up right where 2017's Four Stones left off and that one was a very strong contender for McPhee’s finest album. And now Witch's Ladder is a strong contender for that honor as well. Beyond that, the only salient details are that the cover art comes from visionary symbolist painter Agnes Pelton and that the album's second half is a near-perfect two-song run of hauntingly sublime beauty.

Hood Faire

Given his association with the Folklore Tapes milieu, McPhee's unusual choice of cover art is not a surprise, but it is a telling detail that provides some insight into what he seems to be reaching towards with his own work. When reading The Whitney's description of last year's Pelton exhibition, I was repeatedly struck by phrases like "meditative stillness," "shimmering veils of light," and "awareness of a world that lay behind physical appearances." All of those phrases are apt for the five songs of Witch's Ladder as well, but McPhee admirably finds an ingenious array of ways to get there. That said, the pieces do all share a rough foundational aesthetic of "fingerpicked 'folk music' played on an electric guitar," though each either ultimately builds into something considerably more transcendent or blossoms into quietly beautiful psychedelia in the margins. All are excellent and feature emotively smoldering or lyrically melodic solos at their core, but the most interesting twists occur in the final three pieces (in ascending order of brilliance, no less). In "Red Lebanese," for example, the winding and languorously smoke-like melody fitfully evokes a trippy synth spiraling off into space, while "Eksdale Path" unexpectedly coheres into a killer "dual-guitar harmony" passage. As much as I love "Eksdale Path," however, it is immediately eclipsed by the epic closer, as "Witch's Ladder" is basically three songs' worth of killer ideas seamlessly blended into one. In fact, I had not even finished typing "sounds like the twin-guitar attack of classic Iron Maiden just dropped by for a surprisingly tasteful cameo" before it turned into a hallucinatory duel between intertwining forwards and backwards guitar melodies (or at least a convincing illusion of it). It is a characteristically mesmerizing bit of show-stealing slow-motion sorcery, but the show already quite wonderful beforehand, as there truly is not a single wasted note on this album. Witch's Ladder is another instant classic from Dean McPhee.

Samples can be found here.

  2251 Hits

"Sisters with Transistors: Electronic Music's Unsung Heroines"

SISTERS WITH TRANSISTORS is the remarkable untold story of electronic music's female pioneers, composers who embraced machines and their liberating technologies to utterly transform how we produce and listen to music today.

The film maps a new history of electronic music through the visionary women whose radical experimentations with machines redefined the boundaries of music, including Clara Rockmore, Daphne Oram, Bebe Barron, Pauline Oliveros, Delia Derbyshire, Maryanne Amacher, Eliane Radigue, Suzanne Ciani, and Laurie Spiegel.

The history of women has been a history of silence. Music is no exception.

As one of the film's subjects, Laurie Spiegel explains: "We women were especially drawn to electronic music when the possibility of a woman composing was in itself controversial. Electronics let us make music that could be heard by others without having to be taken seriously by the male dominated Establishment."

With the wider social, political and cultural context of the 20th century as our backdrop, this all archival documentary reveals a unique emancipation struggle, restoring the central role of women in the history of music and society at large.

With Laurie Anderson as our narrator, we'll embark on a fascinating journey through the evolution of electronic music. We’ll learn how new devices opened music to the entire field of sound, how electronic music not only changed the modes of production but in its wide-ranging effects also transformed the very terms of musical thought.

SISTERS WITH TRANSISTORS is more than just the history of a music genre: it's the story of how we hear and the critical but little-known role female pioneers play in that story.

More information can be found here.

  5284 Hits

Anne Guthrie, "Gyropedie"

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Anne Guthrie's third album for Students of Decay continues her trend of significantly transforming her vision with each new release, though the arc of her albums does consistently suggest an increasing aversion to conventional structure and musicality. In practical terms, that means that Gyropedie was primarily assembled from field recordings, though Guthrie's French horn does make a few ghostly and well-timed appearances. Notably, the sounds that Guthrie collected are entirely diaristic in nature ("quite literally a record of pilgrimage from East to West"), as she recorded and collaged a host of ephemeral and meaningful moments from her move from New York to California (birds, crunching snow, instruments that she had to sell, etc.). As Guthrie wryly notes in the album description, she found herself "becoming an impressionist." I heartily concur and believe that approach suits her work remarkably well. Given the deliberately abstract and elusive nature of the material, it took me a bit longer to become drawn into Gyropedie than it did for Guthrie's previous releases, but the album's second half contains some of the most tender, distinctive, and quietly beautiful work that she has yet recorded.

Students of Decay

The opening "Threading A Closed Loop" is a bold and interesting way to introduce the album, as it slowly rolls in like a mysterious fog of ambient outdoor sounds, plinking strings, distant woodpeckers, murmured voices, bees, and an occasional strangled sound from Guthrie's French horn. It is frankly about as understated and impressionistic as an album can get, but it does gradually cohere into something quite intriguing and evocative (I especially like the part where it sounds like the bees bought a distortion pedal). The following "Hill, Mountain" undergoes a similar trajectory, initially sounding like someone fumbling with a microphone while a woman recites poetry over a distorted radio, but eventually it blossoms into an enigmatic scene that seems to capture the time-stretched sounds of a train passing through a gently hallucinatory landscape of singing birds and metallic drones. I believe the "broken synth" mentioned in the album description makes an appearance as well. Both it and its predecessor are subtly beautiful in their own ways, yet my favorite pieces are the ones that follow. In "Variation on Coral," Guthrie paints a lovely seaside scene, as a slow, lovely French horn melody lazily unfolds over a backdrop of gently gurgling and lapping waves, lysergically smeared chimes, cooing vocals, and a host of other curious sounds. The closing "The Goldbeater’s Skin," on the other hand, sounds like a duet between a quietly plinking and fitfully operational music box and a lovelorn French horn player in a particularly bittersweet mood, but it is further enlivened by an evocative array of breath-like textures and wounded-sounding squeaks and warbles. To my ears, it is unquestionably Gyropedie's most lovely and memorable piece, as the unexpectedly poignant horn melody feels like the beating heart of the album finally being revealed, yet it would not make nearly the same impact without the languorous and dreamlike journey beforehand. Granted, Gyropedie is an album that demands some patience and attentive listening to reveal its full beauty, but its fragile and tender fantasia of memory fragments is well served by that steadily deepening immersion.

Samples can be found here.

  1941 Hits

Thomas Ankersmit, "Perceptual Geography"

cover imageThree years after the mesmerizing Homage to Dick Raaijmakers, Thomas Ankersmit is back with yet another bombshell inspired by an underappreciated electronic music visionary. In this case, that visionary is Maryanne Amacher, who also happens to be the person who fatefully introduced Ankersmit to his Serge modular synth. Naturally, the Serge retains its central role from the Raaijmakers album and Ankersmit masterfully wields it again to conjure up another hallucinatory swirl of phantom sounds and strange aural phenomena. The conceptual themes are bit different this time around, however, as Ankersmit explores the ideas laid out in Amacher's "Psychoacoustic Phenomena in Musical Composition: Some Features of a Perceptual Geography" essay. Unsurprisingly, Ankersmit does a stellar job psychoacoustically mapping out his own compelling perceptual geography with this release, but his most striking bit of sorcery actually occurs off the album, as the piece was engineered to trigger otoacoustic emissions, which are "sounds emanating from inside the head, generated by the ears themselves."

Shelter Press

The album fades into existence with a quietly oscillating electronic hum that gradually becomes increasingly disrupted by squelches, blurts, crackles of static, swells of feedback, and something resembling shortwave radio transmissions. That is admittedly not radical territory for a vintage modular synth album, yet each sound feels like a meaningful building block that incrementally moves the composition closer and closer to one of Ankersmit's beguiling set pieces. The first of those starts taking shape around the 9-minute mark, eventually reaching a crescendo that sounds like asteroids slowly smashing into the hull of my spaceship while I fight off a swarm of psychedelic crickets. Things only get wilder and more intense from there, as the simmering brew of abstract electronic sounds repeatedly blossoms into striking new forms, at times even resembling a killer noise guitar act. The first truly "wow" moment hits around the 16-minute mark, as a haze of beeps, buzzes, and other squiggling and squirming electronic sounds starts to feel like it is actually burrowing into my goddamn mind. That is a hell of a trick, as the piece seems to transform as I turn my head from side to side. I suspect the live experience is even more transcendent, as Ankersmit always "tunes his instrument to the resonant characteristics of the performance space, so that the sounds activate the structure." He clearly takes the physics of sound very seriously and it pays off beautifully. Naturally, there are more dazzling climaxes as the album unfolds, including one that starts forming around the 26-minute mark in which Ankersmit sounds like the best damn noise artist on the planet. I easily could throw around some more colorful terms describing what transpires ("lysergic space aviary" and "gibbering, squelching cacophony" spring to mind), but the only thing that matters is that Perceptual Geography contains some of the most challenging, absorbing, and masterfully executed sound art that I have ever heard.

Samples can be found here.

  2165 Hits

Andrew Chalk, "Paradise Lost"

cover imageNewly reissued on vinyl (and digitally) with beautiful new artwork, Paradise Lost was originally released as a cassette back in 2019. As is the norm for many Chalk releases, additional details beyond the fact that it exists are quite thin, but this one takes that to an amusing extreme, as the Discogs entry for the original cassette notes "label and artist name are not listed on the release." That said, I believe I can say with moderate certainty that these two longform pieces were recorded on an 8-track reel-to-reel between 2016 and 2018 and that Chalk primarily played a synthesizer. Also, his Ghosts on Water bandmate Naoko Suzuki contributed some very well-hidden vocals and created the artwork for the original tape. To some degree, it makes sense that this album originally surfaced as a very limited-small run tape, as it does not feel like one of Chalk's more significant opuses, but it is quite an enjoyable and interesting release nonetheless. In fact, the title piece feels like legitimately prime Andrew Chalk material to me, though I suspect many longtime fans will be more fascinated by the surprising and divergent "This Pendent World."

Faraway Press

One interesting bit of information that I stumbled upon while researching this album was a blurb from Daisuke Suzuki's Siren Records noting that this album "strongly recalls the atmosphere of home recording in the '80s." I got exactly the same impression myself from the opening "This Pendent World," as I had scribbled down that it felt like a duel between two very different artists from the golden age of private press New Age: one kosmische-inspired synth wizard hellbent on taking me to space and another guy who just wants to lull me into a blissful, bucolic reverie with some pretty string swells. There are also some traces of a third guy who closely resembles contemporary Andrew Chalk, as there is a loose melodic theme of wobbly, liquid tones likely originating from an electric piano. While that is certainly an odd collision to encounter on a Milton-themed Andrew Chalk record, it works surprisingly well, amiably and amorphously drifting and curling like a trail of smoke. The following "Paradise Lost" is similarly form-averse, but in a much more compelling way, as its frayed and smeared swells of warm synth tones feel teasingly just out of focus. Additionally lurking within the artfully blurred dream-fog are a slow-motion tumble of acoustic guitar fragments, ghostly traces of Naoko's lovely singing, and probably some pedal steel too. I am tempted to make a wince-inducing pun on the album title here, but "Paradise Lost" is simply too beautiful of a piece to deserve such an indignity, vividly evoking the slowly streaking and shifting colors of an especially gorgeous sunset.

Samples can be found here.

  2142 Hits

Vladislav Delay, "Rakka II"

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The return of Sasu Ripatti's beloved and long-dormant Vladislav Delay project last year was quite a well-received one, suggesting that fans were unfazed by the fact that Rakka marked a sharp detour from the work that made the project so beloved in the first place. Naturally, that warranted a sequel and Rakka II sticks with roughly the same aesthetic as its predecessor, though Ripatti envisions this latest release as "a romantic summer vision full of hope and optimism," which is theoretically a very different tone from the cold "brutalist vibes" of the previous installment. To be fair, Rakka II does feel somewhat less like an pummeling assault from start to finish, yet Ripatti's "romantic summer vision" is still quite an intense ride. It roughly approximates what I imagine a Tim Hecker live set would be like if he wound up on an extreme metal bill and was hellbent on whipping up a mosh pit. I am not sure if that is an unambiguous compliment or not, but I genuinely do think Ripatti is onto something quite good here (sublime beauty faintly radiating from oversaturated textures and punishing, obsessively looping rhythms). While Rakka I was likely the bolder and more distinctive artistic statement, I feel like this successor is ultimately a bit more enjoyable, immersive, and amenable to repeat listening.

Cosmo Rhythmatic

The roiling and sputtering roar of the opening "Rakkn" unavoidably calls to mind the blown-out soundscapes of Tim Hecker or Ben Frost, as Ripatti shares a lot of aesthetic terrain with the two this time around (corroded textures, enthusiastic maximalism, endless sizzle, etc.). As the piece unfolds, however, it starts to feel the hissing, roaring soundscape is merely a sample in a larger piece that is slowly taking shape. While it never quite reaches full transcendence, the whooshing electronics and oddly lurching bass drum pattern Ripatti mixes in are nevertheless a very enjoyable enhancement. For me, however, this phase of Vladislav Delay is most compelling and distinctive when Ripatti unleashes a complex polyrhythm, as he does with "Raaha." In fact, I think my dream late-period Vladislav album would be just a longform collage of idling engines and other machines periodically syncing into cool patterns (someday, perhaps). Interestingly, there is one piece on the album that heads in the complete opposite direction ("Rakas"), as Ripatti dispenses entirely with percussion to craft a beautifully half-vaporous/half-rumbling dronescape. The other extreme is represented by the closing "Rapine," which sounds like an absolutely apocalyptic assault of crash cymbals, stuttering loops, and throbbing bass rumble. To my discerning ears, the best pieces are "Rakas," "Raaha," or the dub-techno-meets-engulfing-roar of "Raato," but every piece is compelling if you happen to enjoy stuttering, crackling, hissing, and disrupted textures. Ripatti clearly loves those textures himself, but his production talents are the real star here (along with Andreas Lubich's mastering), as this album feels like one visceral, richly textured, full frequency assault after another. If Rakka I felt like being repeatedly hit by a truck in the arctic tundra, Rakka II feels more like occasionally noticing some flowers while getting repeatedly hit by a truck in the springtime.

Samples can be found here.

  2163 Hits

claire rousay, "a softer focus"

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This latest release from the prolific claire rousay has been deservedly getting quite a lot of attention, as it can reasonably be called a creative breakthrough of sorts. At the very least, a softer focus documents an especially accessible and melodic strain of rousay's singular (if understated) vision. Obviously, most of the credit for that goes to rousay herself, as her work has always been on a upward trajectory, but this album was also significantly influenced by the involvement of visual artist Dani Toral, who is the creative force behind the album's non-musical content (cover art, videos, song titles, album title, etc.). While the artists' two visions seamlessly combine beautifully into one, some of the best parts as a pure listening experience involve the participation of less-central contributors, as my favorite pieces are warmed by violin and cello accompaniment from a trio of guest musicians. While I have always found rousay's work generally intriguing and unusually intimate, the more melodic and organic elements here definitely enhance her aesthetic wonderfully. This album genuinely feels like it is on a completely different level than most of rousay's previous releases.

American Dreams

After a brief and enigmatic introduction that sounds like a dictaphone recording of someone moving around a room and using a typewriter, the album begins in earnest with the absolutely gorgeous "discrete (the market)." It is essentially a continuation of the sounds from the opening "preston ave," but they are now joined by slow, beautiful drone swells and a shifting host of other elements (wind chimes, a tender piano melody, and an intensifying low-end surge). It evokes the sensation of blissfully lounging in an apartment on a perfect spring day while sunlight streams in, curtains gently sway, and sounds drift in from neighboring apartments and the street below. The following "peak chroma" is similarly excellent, as it feels like home videos of childhood vacations are flickering across a shimmering dronescape while an autotuned R&B jam plays on a fitfully operational radio. While "peak chroma" is ostensibly the album's hot single since it has a video, the next two songs are every bit as good, which adds up to an impressive four-song run of near-perfection. I especially enjoy how "diluted dreams" sounds like a reprise of the heavenly "discrete (the market)," but with added playground sounds and the impressive aural illusion of making me feel like I am slowly submerging in a bathtub. I also greatly appreciate the honesty and simplicity of rousay's overarching vision (using the mundane sounds of daily life as the building blocks for a deeper, more poignant whole), but it is the execution that makes this album such an immersive and wonderful delight, as the best moments feel like a warm and dreamlike fantasia of overlapping memories playing at different speeds. Rousay and Toral have done quite an impressive job of blurring the lines between sound art, visual art, poetry, drone, and pop in a pleasing and soulful way here, which is a definitely not a feat that many other artists could convincingly pull off so gracefully. I probably do not need to say this, but I will anyway: a softer focus is unquestionably destined to be all over "Best of 2021" end-of-year lists.

Samples can be found here.

  1837 Hits

James Welburn, "Sleeper in the Void"

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Miasmah celebrates their 50th release with this second solo album from Norway-based bassist/composer James Welburn. In some ways, this is a perfect album to add an exclamation point to that milestone, as Welburn and his collaborators take the label's "shadow music" aesthetic in an uncharacteristically epic and aggressive direction (though the same could be reasonably be said about 2015's Hold as well). Notably, Swans were invoked as a rough kindred spirit for Hold when it was released and that comparison seems apt here too, as Welburn certainly shares early Swans' love of raw textures and pummeling repetition. The similarities mostly end there, however, as Welburn's vision is considerably more abstract, deconstructed, and stylistically fluid and the individual pieces on Sleeper in the Void are significantly shaped by the collaborators involved. While I sometimes wish Welburn would take his aesthetic in a less texture- and rhythm-centric direction, he has a definite talent for bringing a blackened, visceral intensity to his brooding and gloom-soaked soundscapes. This is an impressively heavy album.

Miasmah

The fact that Welburn partially identifies as a bassist came as quite an amusing surprise to me, as I would have guessed that he was a drummer: not because the drumming here is conspicuously better than the bass playing, but solely because the heart of this album seems to be slow, punishingly primal percussion. That said, I do not question Welburn's love of bass frequencies, as rumbling low-end heaviness is recurring theme too. His style has been described as "reductionist, monolithic, and raw" and it is certainly all of those things, yet the best songs on this release tend to be the less reductionist and monolithic ones, which is why the collaborators loom unusually large. Drummer Tomas Järmyr turns up most frequently, enlivening "Raze" with a thunderous crescendo of rolling toms and supplying the killer doom-lurch of the album's best song ("In and Out of Blue"). Vocalist Juliana Venter appears on the latter as well, contributing a layered climax of chopped and manipulated wails and warbles. I believe Welburn himself is responsible for the awesome gnarled guitar hook though, as well the piece's sheer seismic force. Venter returns once more on the closing "Fast Moon," as her voice drifts through the violent shoegaze of its surroundings like a ghost. Hilde Marie Holsen, on the other hand, only appears once, contributing a tenderly undulating pulse of dreamlike drones to the album's least hostile piece ("Parallel"). While Welburn is only completely solo on a single piece ("Falling From Time"), that one is admittedly a hell of a banger, beautifully combining psychotropic smears of darkly twinkling organ and a wonderfully pummeling and machine-like rhythm. "Fast Moon" is similarly industrial-tinged and those looping, machine-like rhythms definitely suit Welburn's aesthetic quite well. I hope they stick around for the next album. I hope Welburn's collaborators do too. In fact, I wish the foursome would just form a damn band, as Welburn's greatest gift lies in simply making everything sound crushingly heavy and it would be nice to hear him do that with a more varied palette of sounds and textures. For now, however, Sleeper in the Void is an impressively bracing dose of bass-heavy brutality.

Samples can be found here.

  1899 Hits