Dean McPhee, "Witch's Ladder"

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.

2453 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.

Continue reading
5495 Hits

Anne Guthrie, "Gyropedie"

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.

2180 Hits

Thomas Ankersmit, "Perceptual Geography"

Three 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.

2397 Hits

Andrew Chalk, "Paradise Lost"

Newly 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.

2413 Hits

Vladislav Delay, "Rakka II"

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.

2444 Hits

claire rousay, "a softer focus"

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.

2034 Hits

James Welburn, "Sleeper in the Void"

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.

2084 Hits

Midwife, "Luminol"

Midwife is the moniker of multi-instrumentalist Madeline Johnston. She lives and works in San Miguel, New Mexico by way of Denver, Colorado, where she spent the better half of the past decade developing her experimental pop project. As a self taught guitarist and recording engineer, Midwife explores dark subject matter in her anthemic, soft-gaze hits. Self-described as "Heaven Metal," or emotive music about devastation - catharsis.

Continue reading
4812 Hits

Longform Editions 19

Angel Bat Dawid
Harkening Etudes

Continue reading
4589 Hits

Jeff Burch, "Samum Suite"

Important Records' Cassauna imprint has quietly released some woefully underappreciated stunners over the years and the latest one to blindside me is this brief yet near-perfect tape from The Spring Press's Jeff Burch, whose work seems to steadily grow more compelling each time he surfaces. While last year's collaboration with Tres Warren explored similarly heady and timeless "deep psych" territory, Samum Suite takes a very different route to get there, as it was composed and recorded primarily with acoustic instruments at the edge of the Sahara Desert. I am always delighted when acoustic drones, Eastern modalities, and field recordings collide in a pleasing way, but this album feels like it was recorded in an entirely different timeline in which The Theatre of Eternal Music relocated to Morocco and got assimilated into The Master Musicians of Jajouka. Sadly, that is not the timeline I wound up living in, but Samum Suite legitimately feels like the kind of album no one makes anymore. Or maybe ever made. While plenty of artists have borrowed liberally from traditional Middle Eastern sounds in service of their own vision, Burch seems to have achieved full ego death and dissolved into the streets of Morocco only to re-emerge with a beautifully crafted collage that replays his experiences as a hypnotic swirl of sensory impressions.

Cassauna

The heart of Samum Suite is a pair of field recordings that Burch made during his travels back in 2015 (a Khatna procession in Tangier) and 2017 (street musicians in Marrakech). While "Muslim circumcision parade" is certainly an enticing thread to encounter on an album, Burch incorporates the festivities in a purely impressionistic way, evocatively conjuring a vibrant, richly textured, and enigmatically exotic (to me) street scene. The Marrakech musicians likely provide the clattering percussion and winding melody that open the album, yet the magic of this four-part suite lies in how blurry the line becomes between the field recordings and the eclectic host of instruments played by Burch and his guests. Admittedly, the clarity of the recordings provides some differentiation, but it never feels like Burch merely added an organ to some cool sounds and called it a song. Instead, the album feels like an endlessly dissolving fantasia of dreamlike vignettes that grows steadily deeper with each new section. Each segues seamlessly into the next, so the delineation between individual parts is largely academic, but the suite starts to catch fire near the end of "II" when the percussion fades away to leave a lysergically spectral haze of warbling tones in its wake. From that point onward. Samum Suite feels like an organically effortless, gorgeously psychedelic reverie, as haunting woodwind drones appear like a shimmering oasis over a simmering and subdued backdrop of found sounds and twanging baglama. The return of the warbling tones heralds the transition into the fourth and final part, in which blurred, sustained tones lend a soft-focus unreality to the raw, clattering jubilance of the Khatna procession. The whole experience lasts less than twenty minutes, which probably explains why Samum Suite is modestly entering the world as a tape, yet the arc is a perfect one and I am pleased that Burch had no inclination to dilute his sublime distillation into an LP. Had it been recorded by Roberto Musci or Futuro Antico in the '80s rather than by Jeff Burch in 2021, Samum Suite would likely be a much-sought classic that would cause a feeding frenzy when inevitably reissued by Black Sweat.

Samples can be found here.

2561 Hits

Fossil Aerosol Mining Project, "Predicament Recordings Volume II 2‚Äã.‚Äã2021"

In characteristically enigmatic fashion, this inscrutable Illinois collective recorded a two-album series over the winter and opted to release the second part first. The two releases were conjured into existence during a brief "real-time, studio interaction" earlier this year, but the source material actually spans roughly a decade of scavenged sonic ephemera. If this were any other project, cannibalizing old recordings might be considered a "vault clearing" of sorts, but with Fossil Aerosol Mining Project, the whole point has always been to dig up long-forgotten shit from the past and repurpose it into something thoroughly weird and disturbing. Before this album, I was admittedly starting to wonder if this project was in a rut, as there have been a couple recent releases that I was less than enthusiastic about. However, it would be more accurate to say that this project is an unpredictably hit-or-miss one and this album is mostly a hit, as these murky nightmares nicely approximate an aesthetic best described as "what I hope to hear whenever I unearth some incredibly obscure yet revered '80s noise tape."

Self-Released

This particular album does not have an explicit conceptual theme lurking behind it (beyond the collective's usual morbid fascinations), but it does not exactly need one when the project's general vibe is nearly always some variation of "disturbing fever dream set in a George Romero movie." That said, the collective's vision has encompassed a few different strains of disorienting and creepy analog murk over the years and I tend to prefer the albums where some glimpses of melody, kitsch, or black humor brighten the pervasive atmosphere of rot, ruin, and existential horror. The humor this time is limited to the title's droll nod to the pandemic, sadly, but that is not a deal-breaker: if the spectral fragments that billow up out of the slime are compelling, I am always willing to submerge myself in Fossil Aerosol's seething miasma of tape loops and abandoned film canisters. The fragments in this case evoke a mysteriously abandoned secret military base in a malarial jungle, as the recurring themes seem to be ghostly machine hum, enigmatic loops of echoing voices, phantom radio transmissions, and a host of vaguely menacing "natural" sounds like buzzing insects and distant, muffled howls. In the closing "Passage Three" there is even an unexpected and visceral flurry of percussion, but it only emphasizes the existing dread further, resembling the war drums I might hear if I found myself suddenly dropped into Cannibal Holocaust. Fortunately, that has not happened to me yet, so I am free to wallow in the less extreme sensation of watching a cursed video cassette that makes everything around me curdle, wilt, rot, and corrode. Admittedly, few crave such a refined pleasure, but those who do will find an especially focused, tightly edited, and immersive Fossil Aerosol Mining Project experience here.

Samples can be found here.

2208 Hits

rootless, "docile cobras"

This fascinating and inspired album is both the debut vinyl release from guitarist Jeremy Hurewitz and the first Flower Room album that is not a Matt Lajoie or Ash Brooks project. To some degree, that union makes perfect sense, as both Lajoie and Hurewitz are guitarists with healthy appetites for improvisation and psychedelia, but docile cobras takes those appetites into some impressively inventive and unfamiliar territory. While enhancing his acoustic guitar work with flutes, percussion, field recordings, and psychotropic electronic flourishes is nothing new for Hurewitz, this album is the fruit of a two-day collaboration with Mexican musician/folklorist Luís Pérez Ixoneztli, who oversees a "collection of priceless, one-of-a-kind, indigenous instruments from Mesoamerica." This is not a document of a jam with some unusual instruments, however, as Luís Pérez made his contributions only after listening to the pieces and thoughtfully reflecting upon the ideal accompaniment. Sometimes he opted for shakers made of dried cocoons or ancient clay flutes, but his instincts also led him to less traditionally musical sounds like "water poured into a tub" or "Shamanic breathing." To my ears, the result feels like a pleasantly lazy jam around a campfire, except I am wildly hallucinating and a displeased owl god just reawakened to punish me for blundering into his sacred clearing.

Flower Room

The album opens with some improvised-sounding variations on a vaguely Spanish or Middle Eastern acoustic guitar theme, which is normally not a promising sign for me. However, before I could start wondering if an actual song was going to appear, I was immediately drawn into the evocative and enigmatic backdrop of echoing drips and deep, whooshing breaths. Eventually "lost at sea" coheres into a kind of desert-psych crescendo, as Luís Pérez joins in with some shuffling percussion while additional layers of guitar weave an intricate web of melodies, but it illustrates an interesting and unusual aspect of Hurewitz's aesthetic: he seems extremely disinterested in songcraft in any kind of conventional sense. That said, the finished pieces each feel like part of an organic, complete, and a vividly realized vision, as the guitar parts serve as a thread guiding me through a phantasmagoric jungle of eerie, unfamiliar sounds pregnant with hidden meaning. However, there is one song ("peculiar travel suggestions") that is structured and melodic enough to approximate a "single," as Hurewitz even goes so far as to include a tender piano melody. Later, the rippling arpeggios of "shared consciousness" come within shouting distance of a conventionally structured song once more, but my favorite piece is the more loose, abstract, and epic "docile cobras." As usual, the most exquisite pleasures are not the chiming minor key arpeggios that act as the piece's backbone, but the rich panoply of mind-bending sounds that bleed slowly into the tableau with maximum hallucinatory impact. In fact, the piece even gets sucked into a still deeper black hole of psychedelia after I thought it had already reached peak mindfuckery, which is quite an impressive feat. The album as a whole is also quite an impressive feat, as Hurewitz and Luís Pérez cooked up one hell of a vibrant and memorably unique deep listening experience.

Samples can be found here.

2181 Hits

Amulets, "Blooming"

No one can say that Randall Taylor is insufficiently committed to analog media, as the Portland-based tape wizard’s discography is teeming with cassettes released on a varied and international host of small labels. This latest release is one of his infrequent high-profile appearances, however, so Blooming can reasonably be viewed as the proper follow-up to 2018's Between Distant and Remote. In the interim, there were collaborations with Drowse and Midwife, both of which actually seem like closer stylistic brethren here than more purist tape projects like Tape Loop Orchestra (not always the case with Amulets). The album's precarious balance of sludgy, "doom-gaze" power chords and blurred, dreamy tape loops sometimes errs too much on the "doom" side to land Blooming a spot in my personal pantheon of favorite Amulet releases, but I am sure my highly subjective weariness of metal is a factor in that. That said, the line between "violent ambient" and "mannered, understated shoegaze-metal" is a blurry one and there is plenty that I love around that convergence. In fact, the occasions when Taylor perfectly hits the mark ("Observer Effect," for example) are damn near spellbinding. Also, it is quite impressive that Taylor has managed to make tape music so song-like and accessible that it could easily appeal to someone who has never heard of musique concrète.

The Flenser

Like many releases these days, Blooming was composed and recorded in isolation during the pandemic, which at least partially explains the album's darker-than-usual tone. More specifically, however, it was inspired by the flowers that Taylor encountered during his daily springtime walks, which triggered some deeper thoughts about how "nothing lasts forever and everything is cyclical." While Taylor is certainly not the first person to have that revelation, he is unusually good at applying that bittersweet wisdom to his art, as Blooming sustains a complex and shifting swirl of melancholy, decay, violence, fragility, and transcendent beauty for its entire duration. "Observer Effect," for example, slowly fades in with warmly dreamlike drones, tender arpeggios, and field recordings of sloshing waves, but ultimately coheres into an elegiac-sounding chord progression beneath a looping and gorgeously anguished-sounding hook. Elsewhere, "Collapse in Memory" is another triumph, as a warm sea of frayed and decaying loops gradually transforms into a considerably more heaving, violent, and stormy sea. The following "Empty Tribute" is also a jewel, as smoldering smears of tortured loops mass over a backdrop of industrial clatter. Even my not-favorite songs have their killer moments though, as the heartache reverie of "Tears in the Fabric" is beautifully ripped apart by an eruption of churning noise, while the closer "Whirl" offers a cathartic crescendo of looping howls. In fact, I suspect that I would absolutely love this album if it was a bit less moodily brooding and a bit more gritty and hiss-soaked. I do love Amulets in general, however, and can easily imagine that other fans of Taylor's work might view this as one of his most focused and powerful releases to date. For me, it is a solid album with two or three sustained flashes of "career highlight" brilliance.

Samples can be found here.

2744 Hits

Sun Stabbed, "In Girum Imus Nocte Et Consumimur Igni"

It has been roughly a decade since this French duo of gnarled guitar enthusiasts last surfaced as Sun Stabbed and I have certainly missed them, though Thierry Monnier and Pierre Faure's similarly excellent La Morte Young project helped fill the void nicely. Aside from the different line-ups, the main difference between the two projects is that this one is kind of a direct homage to some of New Zealand's most iconic purveyors of blacked drones and noisy guitars. While no discussion of that subject would be complete without Campbell Kneale, it is The Dead C and the woefully underheard Surface of the Earth that explicitly provide the most inspiration here.  Characteristically, Monnier and Faure are admirably up to the task of continuing that fine tradition, as In Girum Imus Nocte Et Consumimur Igni is a feast of manipulated feedback, burned-out wreckage, and simmering drones. Occasionally it can be eerily beautiful and haunting, but I also like the parts that resemble an onstage brawl between Skullflower and Sunn O))). This is an instant noise/drone guitar classic.

Doubtful Sounds

The album opens with its most slow-burning pleasure, as "Le soleil couchant de cette cité laissait quelques lueurs" opens with a single distorted tone that lazily twists and undulates for several minutes. As that note drones on, a haze of feedback and overtones starts to form around it and the higher pitches begin to resemble Tuvan throat singing. Eventually the central drone is fleshed out a bit, but the piece continues to feel like a single smoldering and gently twisting drone loaded with seething tension. It is a beautifully crafted piece, but I appreciated it even more once I translated the title (roughly "The setting sun of this city left some light"), as I started envisioning all of the slowly unfurling tendrils of sound as streaks of deep red and bruised purple in the darkening wake of a sunset (definitely made me wish I had synesthesia). The following "La sensation de l'écoulement du temps" is another slow-building masterpiece of controlled violence and superhuman patience, as ghost trails of feedback lazily wind across a landscape of drones and gently sizzling and crackling amp noise. The neat twist this time around is that the spectral feedback and the underlying drones both cohere into rhythmic patterns that are as languorously hypnotic as any Indian raga I have heard. Sun Stabbed differ from raga in some very significant ways though, particularly in the passing storm of stuttering, blown-out distortion that soon consumes the song. Yet another perfectly titled piece (roughly "So here is a civilization that burns, capsizes and sinks in its entirety") closes this album with a convulsive catharsis of roiling guitar noise and buzzing, low-end hum. It is not quite on the same level as the previous two pieces, but compensates with its comparative brevity and provides an enjoyably volcanic finale.

Samples can be found here.

2294 Hits

Caterina Barbieri, "Fantas Variations"

I was completely floored by the opening "Fantas" when I first heard 2019's Ecstatic Computation, so I was thrilled to discover that it was unexpectedly getting its own well-deserved album of remixes. Given the brilliance of "Fantas" itself and the circle of talented and unusual artists surrounding Barbieri, I never had any doubt that I would enjoy Fantas Variations immensely, but I was still pleasantly surprised by the unexpected directions that some of these variations took, as the source material is damn near unrecognizable in some cases (especially in Evelyn Saylor's startling opener). Naturally, much of the album's draw for me lies in hearing what reliably great familiar names like Kara-lis Coverdale and Kali Malone could do with Barbieri's intense synth opus and I was not disappointed in that regard. However, it is primarily the more unfamiliar artists (to me, at least) who steal the show, particularly on Bendik Giske's haunting saxophone variation and Jay Mitta's hyperkinetic snare freakout that resembles an unhinged, psychedelic Latin dance party or polka-themed nightmare.

Editions Mego

Evelyn Saylor’s hazy and cooing a capella opener sets the bar quite high for bold and audacious interpretations of Barbieri's work, as it almost sounds like it could be a lost vocal movement from Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, but with a more pronounced vocal jazz influence and some surprisingly intense wails near the end. Later on the album, however, Baseck turns up with the infinitely more bananas "Fantas Hardcore," which sounds like it should be the soundtrack to sped-up footage of some first-person shooter video game or a supernaturally intense rave. Neither of those left-field surprises rank among my favorite pieces on the album, but they certainly illustrate how adventurous and wild some of Barbieri's collaboration choices can be. On the more "safe" end of the spectrum, Walter Zanetti seamlessly transposes "Fantas" for guitar to approximate something akin to a mesmerizing Emeralds demo tape, while both Kali Malone and Kara-lis Coverdale beautifully adapt the piece to their own aesthetics (a breathy, slow-motion pipe organ reverie and a delicate, spidery solo piano performance, respectively). Carlo Maria, on the other hand, turns the piece into a driving bit of thumping synth-driven psychedelia that arguably recalls Emeralds again, but a considerably sexier and more dancefloor-driven incarnation of the band. As great as all of that can be, it is unquestionably Bendik Giske's smoldering and serpentine "Fantas for Saxophone and Voice" that stands as the album’s most obvious and instantly gratifying masterpiece, though I am also greatly charmed by Jay Mitta’s half-brilliant/half-ridiculous vision of simply playing the original song, but adding some crazily over-the-top and relentless snare rolls to it. While I never expected Fantas Variations to eclipse Ecstatic Computation, I am nevertheless surprised at how well it succeeds as a weirder and more fun sister album.

Samples can be found here.

2441 Hits

William Ryan Fritch, "Freeland OST"

It seems like William Ryan Fritch has a new album coming out practically every other month these days and I dearly hope to catch up with his voluminous output someday, as that relentless work ethic does not seem like it has disrupted his near-supernatural hot streak one bit. This latest gem is one of his more high-profile recent releases, billed as a labor of love two years in the making. Normally, soundtrack albums are a bit of a red flag for me, as they are not generally intended to stand alone (by design), but some artists can transcend that restriction beautifully and conjure vivid sound worlds that are satisfying and complete experiences in their own right. Unsurprisingly, Fritch is one such artist and Freeland is an absorbing, inspired, and fitfully mesmerizing album. Granted, some of the strongest pieces are teasingly brief due to their intended context, but the heaving, shuddering, and fluttering rustic drones of pieces like "Devi’s Last Deal" and "The Old Commune" are haunting and memorable enough that I do not lament their brevity much, as I will happily take whatever glimpses of heaven I can get.

Lost Tribe Sound

As the opening piece is the achingly beautiful "Devi's Last Deal," I did not need any added convincing to help me fall in love with the album, but my appreciation for Fritch's vision actually did deepen a bit once I learned more about the film. In broad strokes, Freeland is about "an aging pot farmer" who "finds her world shattered" as the legalized weed industry threatens to destroy her fragile outlaw refuge of hippie idealism (and her livelihood). Given the trailer, the tone of the music, and the choice of the elementally intense Krisha Fairchild for the lead role, it is probably safe to say I will find the film heartbreakingly sad when I finally see it, as powerlessly watching capitalism consume counterculture is certainly a subject that resonates with me. In keeping with that theme, Fritch's music evokes flickering and ghostly memories of distant happier times in a long-abandoned commune. If that spectral commune had a spectral house band, it would probably be a drowned orchestra of moss-covered skeletons rather than more expected "commune fare" like Amon Düül II or the freak folk milieu, as the slow, sad drones are invariably organic, haunted, and haunting. There are also a couple of shimmering and radiant pedal steel-sounding interludes ("Bygones" and "What You've Built"), as well as a tenderly melodic and dreamlike piano piece (the closing "Resurface"). All are likable, but it is definitely the more drone-based pieces that make me think "no one could have made a better soundtrack for this film than William Ryan Fritch, as he is a goddamn textural sorcerer." In pieces like "The Old Commune" and "Dropped," the strings sound like the deep, heaving, and woody groans of an old forest, while the woodwinds breathily sigh and flutter like phantasmagoric birds and butterflies. When Fritch stretches out enough to conjure a sublimely immersive and bittersweet scene in vivid detail, the results are gorgeous. Admittedly, only a handful of pieces linger around long enough to make such an impression on their own, but these fourteen fragments cumulatively make for quite a memorable whole.

Samples can be found here.

13589 Hits

Driftmachine, "Spume & Recollection"

I have belatedly realized that I was an utter fool for sleeping on this unusual electronic duo from Berlin for so long, as an idiosyncratic dub techno-inspired project from a former member of Lali Puna seems like it should be right up my alley. Unfortunately, their debut (Nocturnes) was a bit too indulgent, deconstructed, and eclectic to resonate with me at the time and I filed them away as "mutant techno for people who are way too enthusiastic about modular synthesizers." Whether Driftmachine has gotten better in the ensuing seven years or whether I just caught up to the inspired aesthetic that they had all along is hard to say, but Spume & Recollection instantly sounded great to me, so my guess is that there have indeed been some improvements. While all four of these pieces are definitely still a bit too vamp-like and strange to fit within my personal dub techno comfort zone, I now feel like the quirks and subdued spaciness of the pair's vision make Driftmachine a compelling entity in its own right, as the best moments of Spume & Recollection feel like simmering, surreal, and mechanized psychedelia in perfectly distilled form.

Umor Rex

The curiously titled "Albatross follows a killer whale" opens the album with bleary, swaying smears of synthesizer and lazy beeps before a slow and deep bass groove kicks in. From that point onward. Driftmachine continually display a real knack for crafting hypnotically stark and throbbing rhythms, always finding the perfect tempo for their heady, simmering magic to slowly reveal itself. In the case of "Albatross," that magic comes in the form of shuddering, buzzing drones and dubby slashes of echoing percussion. Without the latter, the piece would still be a pleasantly slow-burning dub techno-inspired delight, but the unpredictable violence of those slashes elevate it into something better. The following “The surge at the end of the mind” kicks off with a blurting and lurching off-kilter pulse, resembling some kind of stark, robotic funk (a good summation of the entire album, really). Gradually, however, the strange collection of clicks, pops, swells, and beep coheres into an unexpectedly propulsive groove. Or maybe an expectedly propulsive one, as Driftmachine are unerring in that regard on this album. The duo's rhythms are unconventional though, involving a number of moving parts that rarely seem like they will seamlessly lock together into a precision-engineered, futuristic pulse (and yet they always do). Elsewhere, “Memories of the lakeside" comes out of the gate with an odd, quirky groove that achieves something akin to imagining "Hotline Bling" as a classic Rhythm & Sound single. The final piece, "Soon I will disappear," is an unusually melodic one, as a minor key chord progression of frayed, spectral synths unfolds over a characteristically erratic and bubbling synth pulse. Of course, once the kick drum and the bass come in, yet another smoky, simmering, and heavy groove is born. All four pieces here are legitimately excellent and quite similar to one another, as Spume & Recollection is essentially just a handful of cool grooves allowed to play out in ten-minute doses, yet the duo's surgical exactitude, flawless instincts, and talent for manipulating small details keep the album smoldering from front to finish.

Samples can be found here.

2232 Hits

Tomaga, "Intimate Immensity"

It is unfortunate that this final album from Tomaga is being released in the shadow of Tom Relleen's untimely passing, as Intimate Immensity probably could have been the London duo's breakthrough release otherwise. I first became aware of the project through a combination of drummer Valentina Magaletti's many other appearances (Vanishing Twin, Raime, Helm, etc.) and stumbling upon Memory in Vivo Exposure while briefly obsessed with exotica-inspired ambiance. While I would not describe this latest album as particularly exotica-inspired for a Tomaga release, Relleen and Magaletti have always had a unique, eclectic, and constantly evolving off-beat vision, so there is no dearth of unusual juxtapositions and unexpected divergences among these ten songs. I suppose Vanishing Twin's Stereolab-esque aesthetic is as good a reference point as any, as the best songs here feel like the soundtrack of an arty European cult film from the '60s or '70s improved with subtle hallucinatory flourishes, exotic atmospheric touches, and muscular dub-wise grooves.

Hands in the Dark

I would not describe myself as particularly drum-obsessed, but there are definitely a handful of drummers and percussionists who are reliably compelling when freed from the constraints of conventional songs and Valentina Magaletti is one of them. She is a bit of an aberration in that regard though, as she tends to churn out killer beats rather than wild, free-form solos. Tomaga has long been the home for those killer beats and Relleen is the perfect foil on Intimate Immensity, enhancing Magaletti's grooves with deep, dubby bass motifs, evocative splashes of color, and eclectic melodic themes. In some ways, Muslimgauze is another one of Tomaga's closest kindred spirits, but if Bryn Jones had not been monomanically obsessed with the Middle East and had instead spent his time in tiki bars watching Serge Gainbourg and Guy Maddin films and obsessively absorbing every weird soundtrack that Finders Keepers reissues.  In that light, the album's best song is a bit of an anomaly, as "Intimate Immensity" has the feel of a bizarrely sensual, tripped-out elegy, as an achingly lovely descending string motif floats above a slowed-down "Funky Drummer"-style beat and rubbery, ping-ponging electronics. The industrial-tinged "British Wildlife" is a delight as well, resembling a Carter Tutti remix of a Martin Denny album, yet the album's most sustained run of greatness occurs mid-album, as "The Snake," "Very Never," and "More Flowers" are all cool as hell. All sound very cinematic and would be perfect for a late '60s spy movie set in Marrakech or my next escape from a haunted tropical island, but the alternately rolling and lurching grooves ensure that they feel like something for more visceral and vivid than a mere pastiche of cool influences. While I have not quite made it through Tomaga's entire discography yet, I would be extremely surprised if any of the duo's previous albums surpass this one, as the highlights here feel impressively revelatory.

Samples can be found here.

2036 Hits

His Name is Alive, "Hope is a Candle"

Disciples' wonderful series of resurrected home recordings from Warren Defever's precocious teenage years winds to a close with this third album (coinciding with the release of A Silver Thread, which compiles all of Defever's recently issued early home recordings in one place). In one way, it can be said that the best was saved for last, as Hope is a Candle features remastered versions of some material from the demo that fatefully landed His Name is Alive on 4AD (which has circulated as a bootleg for years). To my ears, however, it does not quite rival the pleasures of All the Mirrors in the House, but that makes sense since Mirrors was the revelatory bombshell that unveiled this treasure trove in the first place. That said, the "songs" are sometimes a bit longer and more fleshed out this time around, making Hope is a Candle feel like an enjoyable outtakes collection from the project's earliest albums. While that is certainly enough to satisfy me as an HNIA fan, the album also boasts quite a lovely and sublime closing piece.

Disciples

Now that this wonderful series of archival finds is (probably) at an end, it occurs to me that its appeal often lies more in hearing what a bored teenager with limited resources can achieve with sufficient vision than as a window into how the early His Name is Alive aesthetic took shape. After all, there are already several great HNIA albums out in the world, but getting a glimpse into how the young and extremely resourceful Defever worked around his limitations is considerably more instructive and inspiring. As Defever himself put it, "I wanted to do my own Music For 18 Musicians. But I didn't know 18 musicians; I barely had two friends, and even they couldn't stand me." While nothing on Hope is a Candle is in any danger of being mistaken for a classic Steve Reich composition, the album does feature an impressively varied and inventive series of song sketches. The strongest is the aforementioned closer, "Insiders," which is a warmly lovely and slow-moving procession of shimmering chord swells. "Liadin," the album's single of sorts, is a gem as well, as Defever deftly combines slow, chorus-heavy washes of chords with airy, jangling strums. Elsewhere, the swirling, reverb-swathed orchestral loops of "Nearby" are another sublime delight. That said, while Hope is a Candle does feature some song-like moments, it still does not quite reach the "songs" stage, so it has the feel of a collection of ephemeral highlights plucked from a mountain of improvisations (which is exactly what it is). At various times throughout this series, some unearthed pieces have transcended those origins beautifully, but the bulk of this album falls more within the "cool vignettes" category. Some of those vignettes ARE quite good though, particularly the all-too-brief harmonized acoustic guitar interlude of "Never" and the droning bowed strings and sharp harmonics of "Still."

Samples can be found here.

2064 Hits