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The Humble Bee, "A Miscellany for the Quiet Hours"

cover imageIt admittedly took me a while to finally connect all the dots in my head, but it dawned on me recently that The Boats were kind of the Throbbing Gristle of a hard-to-define strain of ambient-adjacent bittersweet melancholia. My case: both Andrew Hargreaves and/or Craig Tattersall have been consistently involved in a host of varied and wonderful projects for more than two decades now (Hood, The Remote Viewer, Tape Loop Orchestra, etc.). The tape loop-focused The Humble Bee is Tattersall's most prolific and consistent endeavor; he has been releasing solo work and collaborations under that moniker since 2009. In fact, this album was the project's debut, but I only recently heard it for the first time, as its initial release was a limited CDr in a handmade case made from repurposed book covers (pictured). Last month, it got a well-deserved reissue on vinyl from the endearingly eccentric Astral Industries with VERY different cover art and it sold out instantly. That gives me hope for humanity, as this incredibly beautiful and absolutely sublime release deserves as much exposure as it can get. A Miscellany for the Quiet Hours is a stone-cold classic.

Cotton Goods/Astral Industries

Given the literary/antiquarian bent of the original packaging, "The Bedside Book" fittingly opens the album on a note of dreamily flickering, sepia-toned wistfulness. It conjures an understatedly gorgeous pile-up of frayed, overlapping, and gently crackling antique music box loops. The hits just keep coming from there, as Tattersall ingeniously weaves sparse melodic fragments into richly textured and sometimes achingly beautiful collages that feel like the work of an enchanted Victrola. I realize that the magic of this album is simply "Craig Tattersall has a great ear for loops and is extremely skilled at collaging them in interesting, soulful ways." However, it is still a genuinely surprising and improbable convergence of different threads. It sometimes seems like Mary Lattimore recorded source material for Everyone Alive Wants Answers–era Colleen, but then Philip Jeck cannibalized their album and teamed up with a jazz guy for an impressionistic and understated accompaniment to a night of classic silent film. In less convoluted terms, that means that Tattersall uses a lot of simple, but lovely harp-like melodies that pop, crackle, and warble in pleasantly languorous fashion, but sometimes a double bass or a trumpet will steer things in a more sensual or noir direction. The album highlight is probably "Technical Press," which punches up Tattersall's already beautiful vision with a cool bass loop and plenty of wobbly and warped psychedelic flourishes. Elsewhere, "With Answers" makes similarly effective use of backwards sounds, but in more throbbing, ambient-minded fashion, while the closing "P209" feels like a killer dub techno classic that's been frayed and hiss-ravaged into something a bit more hypnagogic. While those four pieces are currently my favorites, competition is unusually fierce, as Tattersall's instincts are absolutely unerring on this album.

Samples can be found here.

2438 Hits

Joe Colley, "Trance Tapes"

cover imageBack in 2016, noise/sound art legend Joe Colley returned from a lengthy hiatus to release the solid No Way In on Jason Lescalleet's Glistening Examples, but he has been extremely quiet ever since, surfacing only to release a tape of a durational live performance last year. Happily, he is back again with another major statement and it is quite a monster. It is also unusually accessible at times, as Trance Tapes lives up to its name beautifully (though those trances inevitably curdle into nightmare territory). In some ways, this album resembles a classic noise tape on the more "industrial" side of the spectrum, as each of the four pieces is built from a foundation of relentless, obsessively repeating "machine-noise" to varying degrees. That is merely the starting point, however, as each piece rapidly blossoms into a vividly psychotropic mindbomb of viscerally buzzing frequencies and hypnotically repeating chirps, bleeps, throbs, and looping drones. I suspect many serious noise fans would roll their eyes or spit out their drink in disbelief if I had the temerity to proclaim this a career highlight, so I will refrain from doing that. However, it is extremely difficult to imagine a Joe Colley or Crawl Unit album in which he was able to realize his vision with more clarity and focus than he does with this near-perfect tour de force.

No Rent

"Program One" kicks off the album with insistent, rapid pulses of machine-like hum that initially feel like a locked groove, but rapidly begin accumulating both momentum and layers of killer mindfuckery. By the time the piece is even one-third through, it has blossomed into a nightmare of gibbering, squirming, and clicking insectoid cacophony. It then dissolves into a throbbing and otherworldly coda of futuristic electronic chirps that accumulate high frequencies that make the air vibrate and my brain buzz. That sensation is an extremely familiar one with Trance Tapes, as Colley is quite adept at luring me into a numbed state with mechanical repetition while sneakily unleashing high frequencies that will relentlessly drill deeper and deeper into my consciousness. Anyone who makes it through that entire song at reasonably high volume will absolutely feel slightly insane by the end. I mean that as a compliment, but I suspect a person could easily be convinced that this tape was leaked from some secret CIA black ops project involving the weaponization of high frequencies.  

"Program Two" gleefully keeps those more brain-burrowing frequency attacks coming (sharper than ever!), but also feels like an army of wind-up toys showed up as well. It is the album's greatest endurance test, but I feel like I am the one at fault for being too mentally weak to withstand the full force of Colley's merciless sensory assault. The second half is thankfully a bit less malevolently sanity-eroding, yet it is every bit as good. "Program Three" resembles a vast futuristic field of hissing sprinklers and robot lawnmowers that grows progressively more smeared and buzzy, while "Program Four" sounds like a couple of '70s synth guys attempting to mimic a (psychedelic) frog pond at night. Surprisingly, that final piece is almost semi-melodic at times, like a small but sweet reward for joining Colley in such a deep plunge down an oft-disturbing rabbit hole.

Samples can be found here.

2904 Hits

I Feel Like a Bombed Cathedral, "γένεσις" (Genesis)

cover imageThis solo drone project from Ulan Bator's Amaury Cambuzat has been one of my favorite discoveries of the last few years, as both AmOrtH and W featured moments that induced me to proclaim that Cambuzat was "a goddamn drone shaman." This latest album was a bit of a surprise, however, as Cambuzat casually made it available as a digital-only release on his Bandcamp page with just a simple description of "This is the very first recording of I Feel Like a Bombed Cathedral." Apparently, the recordings date from early 2018 and I am amazed that Cambuzat did not feel inclined to make them public until now, as a handful of these pieces are absolute gems that rank among the project’s finest work. A few of the other ones admittedly feel like a searching, partially formed vision of the greatness to come, but γένεσις is much, much better than its humble "vault clearing" origins suggest. I would not have been at all disappointed if this was a proper new Bombed Cathedral release, as the album is absolutely teaming with beautifully warped guitar sounds and immersive layers of richly textured psychedelia. In fact, γένεσις only heightens my expectations for whatever Cambuzat might be working on now, as no sane person would keep music this great on the shelf for three years unless they had something even better in the pipeline.

Self-Released

I have no idea if the opening "Te Deum" was the birth of this project or not, but it certainly does a hell of a job at conjuring up images of a recently bombed cathedral, as the organ-like tones of Cambuzat's guitar feel like rays of sunlight passing through thick smoke and stained glass (a feeling further enhanced by the deep, elegiac chord progression beneath). It is extremely brief, so it does not rank as an album highlight, but there are at least four other pieces that do. The first admittedly takes a while to get going, as "Tibi Omnes" devotes two minutes to a single sharp feedback-like tone that flickers like a candle. Fortunately, it then spends the next fourteen minutes blossoming into a beautiful, dreamlike vision of a mass in an ancient cathedral that has caught in a film projector and begun to burn and bubble in slow motion. The following "Dignare" gamely continues the "organ-like guitar tones collide with the distending fabric of reality" theme with great success. It roughly approximates the organ accompaniment to a silent gothic horror film, but slowed way down until it bleeds into itself while the projector erratically warps the film. Later "Te Ergo Quaesumus" continues another big theme ("nightmarishly crystalline approximations of a pipe organ"), but also sounds like wind chimes played back at such an extremely slow speed that everything is in a grainy, smeared state of suspended animation. I suppose the closing "γένεσις" could be the true first Bombed Cathedral piece given its name, but I would be surprised, as it is the most brilliant and sophisticated one on the album. It calls to mind a demonic calliope that acts as a nightmare machine, as "wrong" notes in the melody keep lingering to form sickly, infernal harmonies. All of that amounts to an impressively solid album, but anyone who digs Cambuzat's work will absolutely want to hear that title piece, as it is unquestionably a career highlight of some kind.

Samples can be found here.

2648 Hits

Leider, "A Fog Like Liars Loving"

cover imageThis is the debut album from a Berlin-based foursome dedicated to performing the works of Malaysian-born composer/trombonist Rishin Singh. Notably, Singh is also a member of Konzert Minimal, which is a modern classical ensemble dedicated to performing compositions by the Wandelweiser collective. In a 2016 New Yorker profile of the Wandelweiser milieu, Alex Ross noted that one recurring theme in their work is a "ghost tonality never achieves stability; it will frustrate those who expect one chord to lead logically to another." Singh's own vision shares a lot of similar stylistic terrain, as A Fog Like Liars Loving is nothing if not ghostly (and creepy (and unsettling)). It resembles an alternate universe version of Low in which they were a chamber music ensemble that listened to a steady diet of nothing but Jandek, Scott Walker, Marble Index-era Nico, and warped old folk records played at the wrong speed. That said, Singh definitely has an unusually sophisticated sensibility regarding dissonant harmonies and the entire album has an eerily nocturnal, dread-soaked, and somnambulant feel that is uniquely Leider's own. Purportedly, the album also features an "understated gallows humor," which is also an achievement of sorts, as Singh has managed to cultivate a strain of black humor so bleak that even I often have a hard time detecting it.

Beacon Sound

I never would have guessed on my own that this album was written by a male trombonist, as the most prominent threads that run throughout these songs are the dual female vocals of Annie Gårlid and Stine Sterne, the moaning strings, and the curdled, murky flutes. All are abundant in the creeping fog of dread and hanging dissonance that is the opening "The Weeping Wound," but the quartet's blurred gloom is also imbued with a sense of insistent (if glacial) forward motion by a simple drum machine pattern. Ironically, it is often that minimal drum machine element that determines how well a song works, as the compositions themselves are so purposely wraithlike and alienating that even the slightest rhythm feels like a welcome injection of life and physicality (akin to a still-beating heart faintly thumping within a corpse). When that beat disappears, Leider approximate a traditional folk ensemble from an earlier era that has been exhumed, reanimated, and handed rotted, mis-tuned instruments…and then asked to envision what The Wicker Man soundtrack would sound like if it had been an Ingmar Bergman film. That said, one of those beatless pieces is arguably the album's bleakly compelling centerpiece, as "Great Expectations" transforms a few lines of Dickens into a menacing dirge that erupts into a visceral, squealing catharsis. "Colder Underground" is another dirge/highlight, calling to mind a time-stretched Celtic folk ensemble accompanied by a slowly beating heart. It even has a hook, as the repeating refrain of "do you find it funny?" is surprisingly catchy and also feels like the final thing I might hear before being murdered by a coven of forest witches. I suspect I would probably like the rest of the album considerably more if it were less relentlessly dour (it makes for difficult entertainment), but Singh's focused vision feels like a promising success as art, as I can easily imagine an installation based on this album being a macabre sensation at a contemporary art museum.

Samples can be found here.

2715 Hits

loscil, "Clara"

cover imageThis latest release from Scott Morgan’s long-running loscil project is a bit of a conceptual detour from his usual fare, as the entire album was "sourced from a single three-minute composition performed by a 22-piece string orchestra in Budapest." That is not all, however, as that brave composition's unconventional journey also included an intermediate stage in which it was "lathe-cut on to a 7-inch, then 'scratched and abused to add texture and color.'" Despite those unusual origins, Clara still sounds exactly like a loscil album, as Morgan is nothing if not consistent. In this case, that basically translates as "a slow-motion dub techno album lurking behind a grayscale ambient fog," but the magic lies in the execution (as always) and Morgan has never been a slouch in that regard. In fact, he succeeds on two fronts with this release, as Clara is both another fine loscil album and an impressive feat of inventive de-/ re-construction, as Morgan managed to transform three minutes of music into a varied, absorbing, and dynamically satisfying album-length statement (and he made it all seem effortless and natural to boot).

Kranky

The opening "Lux" rolls in like a thick fog of slow-motion melancholy, as deep, exhalation-like chords swell and dissipate around a steadily intensifying core of shimmering drones. It is exactly the kind of piece I expect from loscil, which is generally a good thing, but there are a handful of other pieces that feel like something considerably more transcendent. The first such piece is "Lumina," which is basically feels like the rough draft of “Lux” heard several drafts later, as it is centered around a similar theme of slowly billowing clouds of ambient murk. This time, however, there is a hissing and shuffling rhythmic undercurrent and a quietly bubbling arpeggio melody to elevate it into something far more memorable. It also seems to get better and better the more I listen to it, as Morgan is a master of textural nuance, as the bleak grandeur of "Lumina" is a feast of frayed, rippling, hissing, and billowing sounds that complement each other beautifully. The following "Lucida" is also noteworthy, as it delves into a brighter, warmer strain of glacial dub-inflected ambiance, but also has a subtly disorienting pulse that feels like a lonely buoy fading off into the distance of a sun-dappled sea. It is the two-song run that comes next that feels like the heart of the album, however, as "Stella" feels like an especially cinematic and noirish incarnation of Clara's themes, calling to mind a lovesick John Le Carre character brooding at a desolately beautiful beach in the winter, while “Vespera” is unexpectedly sensual and twinkling. Later, "Orta" is another strong candidate for the album’s best piece, as slow, beautiful chords form a languorous, dreamlike pulse while submerged field recordings subtly enhance that blissful sense of unreality. Elsewhere, "Flamma" feels like another glimpse into the same haunting beach noir as "Stella," while the radiant thrum of the closing title piece feels like an angel giving a drone performance from inside a cloud. Clara is more than a fresh batch of strong individual songs though, as the various pieces form a beautifully meditative and constantly evolving whole that feels akin to watching distant thunderstorms darken the skies (and then slowly dissipate) from the inside of a cozy seaside home.

Samples can be found here.

2643 Hits

People Like Us, "Welcome Abroad"

cover imageI was a bit surprised to see this album getting the "10-year-anniversary deluxe vinyl reissue" treatment, as I did not remember it making a particularly big splash when it was first issued on Illegal Art back in 2011. Then again, I would be hard-pressed to think of any album in the "plunderphonics" milieu that has made a big splash in the last two decades, as existing in a legal gray area in a litigious world is not exactly optimal for promoting records. In any case, I missed this album the first time around because I mistakenly thought that I was already reasonably familiar with Vicki Bennett's work and found it charming, fun, and clever, but not quite something that destined to deeply move me or blow my mind. As it turns out, I was very wrong about that, as this album reaches some truly dazzling and remarkably poignant heights. While I do regret that I could have spent the last decade regularly enjoying this magnum opus, Welcome Abroad actually feels like a perfect album to experience for the first time in 2021, as it was recorded while Bennett found herself unexpectedly stranded in the US due to the Iceland volcano's impact on air travel. Consequently, Bennett was preoccupied with themes of "displacement" and "a longing for elsewhere," which are themes that feel especially universal and powerful in light of the last couple years. And, of course, there is no one better at transforming recontextualized fragments of pop culture ephemera into a life-affirming phantasia of mischievous joie de vivre than Vicki Bennett.

Discrepant

The best way to describe the Welcome Abroad experience is that it feels like a once-great Broadway director bottomed out and attempted to make a comeback with a razzle-dazzle, star-studded extravaganza about homesickness. Unfortunately, they needed cash and all of the willing investors had VERY strong and VERY specific opinions about the tone of the production. Miraculously, the director somehow succeeded in making something dazzling and beautiful, but it absolutely bulged with disorientingly absurd and kitschy leaps between '70s pop hits, vintage cartoons, Weimar Republic cabaret, cowboy movies, easy listening crooners, family sing-a-longs, Bond movies, and campy children's television. And while the show may not perfectly hit the mark with every single number, its many showstoppers are deliriously kinetic, fiendishly clever, and sometimes hit much harder than one would expect from their deceptively cheery tone. The first such gem is "Happy Lost Songs," which sounds like a community theater tribute to John Denver that was infiltrated by a vocal jazz ensemble and several delightful Looney Toons characters. "The Look" is more of a slow burn, but the reward is well worth the journey, as a sultry cabaret chanteuse bleeds into a wistful '60s surfsploitation scene, then it all unexpectedly erupts into a spectacular celebration of AM Gold hits (with plenty of overlapping along the way). Elsewhere, "Ever" feels like a delirious swirl of classic ‘60s girl group heaven, while "Push The Clouds Away" resembles a heartbroken cowboy restlessly playing records while lamenting his loneliness. It is predictably strange and disorienting, but when the right record comes on, it feels crushingly poignant and soulful too. The closing "The Atlantic Conveyor" is yet another emotional depth charge, as the kitschy collision of The Beatles and a schmaltzy Las Vegas crooner melds into a surprisingly moving finale. Nearly everything about this album is both great and fun though, as my notes are riddled with phrases like "The Muppets throw a Mardi Gras Party," "someone gave Piper at the Gates of Dawn-era Syd Barrett a variety show," "Satie on Bald Mountain," and "a singin' and dancin' temper tantrum extravaganza." I think Vicki Bennett might be my favorite artist now. This album is brilliant.

Samples can be found here.

2558 Hits

Carl Stone, "Stolen Car"

cover imageIn theory, this album was released last September (which feels like a hundred years ago), but the LP only recently made its way into stores and distros, which is an increasingly familiar story these days. Fortunately, that long delay inspired me to revisit the album with fresh ears and I discovered that I actually liked it quite a lot more than I remembered. That statement deserves an asterisk though, as my earlier issue with Stolen Car was merely that I had already played the amazing Au Jus/The Jugged Hare and Ganci & Figli singles to death and those are probably the four best songs here. That unsurprisingly made the actual album a bit of an anticlimax, as my expectations were absolutely sky high and only those singles could meet them. Had I not already been extremely familiar with those four pieces, however, I suspect Stolen Car's release would have inspired me to run out into the street to grab random strangers by the shoulders and demand to know why they were just going about their mundane lives when they could be listening to this delirious, rapturous swirl of kaleidoscopic pop brilliance instead. On the bright side, not doing that may have spared me a night in jail, so I guess it all ultimately worked out. Admittedly, I still think this is a bit of an uneven album, but it is at least half of a masterpiece too, as I am hard-pressed to think of many people who can touch Carl Stone at the height of his powers (which he is frequently at here).

Unseen Worlds

Carl Stone has certainly had a lengthy and fascinating career, but his recent work feels like it is on a different plane altogether and that plane is quite an endearingly fun and gleefully deranged place to be. In fact, it is a challenge to wrap my mind around the fact that the same man whose "jazz rock" band auditioned for Frank Zappa's label in the late '60s is also responsible for the opening "Pasjoli," which sounds like an Egyptian disco album being pulled apart by a black hole in the middle of an '80s hip hop block party. While it is not the best song on the album, "Pasjoli" does quite a fine job of laying down all of the album's themes in impressively vivid and dizzying fashion: from the first note to the last, Stolen Car is a manic, stammering, go-for-broke culmination of Stone's unique approach to cultural appropriation (absolutely everything is fair game and disorienting juxtapositions are both welcome and rampant). Aside from the four songs previously released as singles (the swirling, delirious pop cut-up "Figli" being the best), my favorite piece is "Bojuk," which feels like a soulful contemporary dance hit chopped into an unintelligible fragment language coupled with an anthemic hook that feels like it should have its own line dance. In general, the poppiest songs on Stolen Car are the best, but Stone's eccentric vision of "pop" feels like the entire history of The Eurovision Song Contest condensed into a single wild hallucination. Or perhaps like someone crammed Dexy's Midnight Runners, a classical quartet, a dance diva, a turntablist, and some yodelers into an elevator and told them they couldn’t leave until they recorded a hit together. I also enjoyed the divergent "Huanchaco," which resembles a tight fusion band remixed into jackhammering psychedelic lunacy by a maniac. Admittedly, there are also a handful of songs that do not quite hit the mark, but they are decisively outweighed by the great ones and Stolen Car as a whole sounds like a wildly pixelated and accelerated version of Jon Hassell's Fourth World aesthetic beamed back from twenty years in the future.

Samples can be found here.

2821 Hits

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.

2543 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.

2602 Hits

Yoshi Wada, "The Appointed Cloud"

cover imageSaltern’s latest Yoshi Wada reissue unhappily coincides with the composer's unexpected passing, but at least he managed to live long enough to see his work get some wider appreciation in recent years. Or at least managed to see some of his major albums finally get remastered and released outside Japan, as "wider appreciation" is very relative when one's vision is as unapologetically challenging as Wada's. In fact, I always viewed him as a Final Boss in the appreciation of difficult and adventurous music, as it takes a lot of immersion in dissonant and outré sounds before one reaches the "I crave a deep dive into avant-garde bagpipes" stage. In fact, I am not sure I am yet there myself. Given that, The Appointed Cloud is probably more for devout connoisseurs of sound art's more prickly fringes than, say, the heavy drone of Wada's 2009 triple LP Earth Horns With Electronic Drone. However, this album was one of Wada's personal favorites, as it documents the "memorable" opening performance of his "first large-scale, interactive installation" at the Great Hall of the New York Hall of Science in 1987 (which featured "spaceships hanging from the ceiling so people felt like they were traveling in outer space"). That certainly seems like a suitably disorienting environment for sounds this fascinating and unique. I dearly wish someone had thought to film some post-concert audience reactions, as I bet they were quite something.

Saltern/EM Records/Edition Omega Point

There are some artists who seem like that they have absolutely no influences other than themselves, but there are also some equally rare visionaries who combine such bizarre and seemingly clashing influences that they seem equally unique. Yoshi Wada was arguably the king of the latter camp, as he began his creative life studying sculpture in Kyoto before moving to New York in the '60s and falling in with the burgeoning Fluxus scene there. He also studied composition with La Monte Young, North Indian classical singing with Pandit Pran Nath, and Scottish bagpipes. That impressive collision of jarringly divergent impulses makes sense if one simply accepts that Wada was a deeply curious person though. And The Appointed Cloud similarly makes sense if one understands that sculpture was Wada's first love and that Fluxus showed him a path to applying those talents to music, as one of its primary themes is emphasizing the artistic process over the finished product. Appropriately, process lies at the heart of this performance, as it is a based around "a custom pipe organ, among other homemade instruments, controlled by a computer equipped with a customized interface and software designed by engineer David Rayna." The ensemble is further rounded out by four bagpipe players (one of whom was Wada) and a percussionist. All of those elements make their presence strongly felt at various points, but most of the album sounds like a very tight and professional bagpipe ensemble with one rogue member who keeps steering them towards crescendos of squalling dissonance (and it also sounds like he may have invited some friends from a gagaku ensemble along). It also occasionally sounds like a pipe organ jam at a Zen retreat, an air raid drill during a mass at a cathedral, a flock of crazed geese fleeing a storm, or an appealingly frayed and out-of-phase Philip Glass homage. Needless to say, that makes for quite a wild and unpredictable ride and it is not one for the timid: Yoshi Wada was truly a one-of-a-kind artist and The Appointed Cloud is exactly the sort of ambitiously challenging and strikingly unfamilar album to (emphatically) affirm that.

Samples can be found here.

2729 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.

3013 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.

2652 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.

2504 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.

2619 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.

2744 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.

2722 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.

2469 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.

2558 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.

2490 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.

2768 Hits