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Tomasz Sroczynski, "Symphony n°2 / Highlander"

cover imageThis album was my first exposure to this Polish composer, but this appears to be his sixth album if I include his improv trio and his collaborations. Also, it is the second symphony that he has composed (the first being 2017's Resurrection). Some of his past albums are a bit closer to my own weird/experimental sensibility (Primal and Ajulella, for example), but Symphony n°2 / Highlander is a more straightforward modern classical release and it is one hell of a great one. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Highlander is composed of three very good pieces and one absolutely brilliant one. Naturally, that one absolutely brilliant piece ("Moderato Pastorale") is the best reason to seek this album out, but as the album description notes, "Tomasz Sroczynski is a symphony in his own right." Hyperbole aside, Sroczynski is indeed a genuinely fascinating composer, seamlessly combining influences as disparate as Arvo Pärt, experimental improv, and strains of both classic Detroit techno and contemporary German minimalist techno.

Ici d'ailleurs/Mind Travels

A sane and honest critical assessment of Sroczynski's second symphony could be easily distilled to some variation of "just go listen to 'Moderato Pastorale' immediately." As tempting as that is, it is a bit lean on the details and I would be remiss if I did not mention that Sroczynski's primary tools for this album were just a violin, a sampler, and a harmonizer and that Highlander is a triumph of masterful loop architecture rather than the work of a world-class string ensemble. I was surprised to learn that, as it is hard to imagine the churning, propulsive intensity of "Moderato Pastorale" originating from anything less than a dozen violinists relentlessly bowing away with demonic intensity. Regardless of how it was made, "Moderato Pastorale" is pitch-perfect in every sense, as Sroczynski unleashes a god-tier motif and then nimbly manipulates the tension for ten glorious minutes. I suspect this is where Sroczynski's love of techno manifests itself: he handles dynamic tension the same way a virtuosic DJ might seamlessly assemble and deconstruct a monster groove. Sadly, Sroczynski does not attempt to replicate that deft combination of raw emotion and steadily intensifying trancelike repetition again, but that is mostly because each of these four pieces explores a different shade of moody, epic grandeur. The following "Adagio," for example, gradually transforms from darkly brooding cloudlike swells into a rapturously swooning and heaving crescendo of Romanticism. Elsewhere, "Diablak" combines a chunky rhythm of strummed violin with a mournful, ambiguously exotic melody, but soon takes some strange detours before landing somewhere best described as "wrong-speed psychotic ballroom dance nightmare." The closing title piece then returns to more billowing and cloudlike territory, but does so in a compelling way, as its deceptively amorphous structure is like a living, organic entity that can solidify whenever the need for an emotional crescendo appears. The four pieces add up to an absorbing and dramatic whole, as Sroczynski is very skilled at moving between heaving immensity and emotionally raw snatches of melody. That said, you should probably just go listen to "Moderato Pastorale" immediately.

Samples can be found here.

2862 Hits

Hugo Randulv, "Radio Arktis (samlade ljud från den norra polcirkeln)"

cover imageBandcamp recently published a feature on one of my favorite subjects (the Gothenburg Underground) and it turned me onto this solo release from an artist they dubbed "the closest you'll get to a traditional musician in the Enhet För Fri Musik circle." That is no doubt accurate, as Randulv has been the guitarist in a couple of popular Swedish indie rock bands (Westkust and Makthaverskan) that bear zero resemblance to the outsider folk of Enhet För Fri Musik, but I am sure literally everyone in that collective has extracurricular interests that would surprise me (they are quite an interesting bunch, after all). In any case, the more ambient Radio Arktis is another outlier of sorts, though it is one still creatively indebted to the Gotherberg free music milieu. Randulv notes that the album was inspired by "a dream that one of us had, that we were going to make an imaginary soundtrack to every place on Earth." While the album's title ("Collected Sounds From The Arctic Circle") offers an explicit clue about the first place he chose to soundtrack, Randulv consciously opted for a more "beautiful and bright" aesthetic than I would normally associate with arctic-inspired ambiance. At its best, Radio Arktis carves out a beautiful and distinctive ambient/drone niche that gives Randulv's field recordings and more experimental tendencies fertile soil in which to subtly blossom.

Discreet

The album's three numbered pieces kick off in impressively strong fashion, as "1" is the piece that feels most like the heart of Radio Arktis. Fittingly, it is twice as long as the other two pieces and Randulv uses that extended duration to pass through several different stages. Initially, "1" is built upon little more than a slow-motion bass buzz, crashing waves, and plenty of tape hiss. That eventually blossoms into a reverie of blurred and shimmering synth-like melodies, but the terrain gets increasingly imaginative and inspired from that point onward, as it soon sounds like a Swedish lumberjack, a fireworks display, a extremely vocal flock of geese, and a melancholy young poet have turned up (as well as a probable cow). Those "non-musical" touches elevate the piece into something quite beautiful, as Randulv has a knack for artfully fading into the background to make something like a cacophony of squawking birds feel like the emotional core and focus. That "bird interlude" is the highlight of the album for me, as it feels like I am on a remote Nordic beach where the sun has just unexpectedly broken through a bank of clouds (exciting plenty of birds in the process). The second piece ("2") is a bit more melodic, as an oscillating shimmer slowly blooms into a dreamy, soft-focus loop of carousel/music box-like melody. It is wonderfully warm and sublime enough to be the album’s other major highlight, yet it too undergoes an interesting transformation. It evokes the feeling of being inside an enchanted snowglobe, then having the spell broken to reveal just battered old piano and a fitful wind-up music box in a sad, empty room. No such magic trick occurs in the final piece, lamentably, but "3" makes for a pleasantly radiant coda nonetheless. Sort of, at least: it feels like a New Age album was dubbed over a noise tape, but the latter remains simmering below the surface, threatening to break through. The noise never breaks though enough to make "3" as memorable as its predecessors, but such a cool climax likely would have ruined the spell of the album, so I must concede that Randulv’s artistic judgment is sound. In any case, I like this album a lot and excitedly look forward to Randulv's imaginary soundtracks for the rest of the globe.

Samples can be found here.

2587 Hits

Rdeča Raketa, ".​.​.​and cannot reach the silence"

cover imageI believe this is the third album from this Vienna-based duo, but it has been a while (eight years) since they last released anything and they are entirely new to me. Rdeča Raketa is a collaboration between composer/double bassist Matija Schellander and Slovenian singer/artist/force of nature Maja Osojnik and they achieve quite a memorable and compelling collision of aesthetics. At its best, ...and cannot reach the silence feels like a Weimar-era cabaret, a killer noise/industrial show, and gripping performance art all beautifully mashed together. While that seems like an aesthetic that should not work (like Marlene Dietrich fronting Throbbing Gristle), the execution is so masterful that Schellander and Osojnik make that unholy union seem perfectly natural. Admittedly, the train occasionally derails a little bit or a song might take an exasperatingly long time to catch fire, but the album's minor flaws feel completely irrelevant when everything locks in place and Osojnik starts seductively singing and ranting like a classic femme fatale diva gone feral. Given that, Osojnik's magnetic vocal presence is understandably the focal point of the album, but it is also worth noting that the pair are unusually good at crafting wonderfully heavy and gnarled industrial rhythms. This is easily one of the year's most memorable albums.

Ventil

The album is composed of three lengthy pieces whose titles form a poem of sorts ("the night is spilling across the room…like gasoline. waiting it out."). All of the texts come from Osojnik, and the poem abstractly alludes to the album's central theme of rampant misunderstanding and the "tightening of incompatible parallel 'realities.'" I would be hard pressed to come up with a theme that better sums up the current state of the world than "incompatible parallel realities," but it would take a close reading of the lyrics to grasp that overarching theme, as ​.​.​.and cannot reach the silence primarily feels darkly libidinal with a healthy side helping of churning industrial menace. The strongest pieces are the first two, as they are more song-like than the closing soundscape. On "the night is spilling across the room," a ghostly haze of feedback gradually coheres into something like a Birchville Cat Motel gig unsuccessfully attempting to drown out a sultry cabaret chanteuse. As it unfolds, it hits quite a striking balance of eerie beauty, gnarled industrial maelstrom, and smoldering sexuality. It even stays great after Osojnik's fiery central performance subsides, as floating vocals swirl above a heavy industrial beat that feels like one of Downward Spiral-era NIN's more experimental moments. The following "like gasoline" picks up right where its predecessor left off, as a heaving mechanized rhythm is strafed by static and ghostly backing vocals fade in to set the stage for another volcanic Osojnik performance. There are a few moments that feel a bit too intense or bluntly sexual for my taste, but they are handily eclipsed by how much everything else is crushingly brilliant. It's like a great industrial noise band was unexpectedly blessed with a strikingly charismatic, sensual, and spontaneous femme fatale vocalist hellbent on tearing through the scene like an erotic hurricane. Consequently, it is fitting then that the final piece (“waiting it out”) is mostly a howling storm of noise and electronics. It is an impressively nightmarish one too, but the comparative lack of Osojnik's vocals makes it feel less "human" and distinctive than the previous pieces (though I do like the part where her garbled voice fleetingly appears to ask "who are these people?"). The three pieces cumulatively add up to quite a wild, wonderful, and uniquely heavy album, as Schellander and Osojnik seem blissfully immune to any impulses that might dilute or diminish the primal intensity of their art.

Samples can be found here.

2590 Hits

The Volume Settings Folder, "Pastorage Sights"

cover imageThis prolific ambient project from Italian guitarist M. Beckmann has been a fascination of mine for a couple of years now and I have been patiently waiting for an appropriately excellent major new release to cover. This double album from June fits the bill quite nicely, though Beckmann has since released a trilogy of pieces entitled "Late Summer, Interior" that are similarly lovely. According to Beckmann, these four lengthy pieces are "a very condensed display" of how he is coping with the "pressure, stress, and fear around the corner" as "cities burst with life and everybody is eager to live a life that resembles normality." Stylistically, that coping manifests itself as a gorgeous strain of "rural ambient" akin to Benoit Pioulard's more bleary and blurred ambient work (Beckmann cites Boards of Canada as a big influence), but with some wonderful enhancements from field recordings and processed guitars. I am tempted to call it "shoegaze-damaged," but Beckmann generally achieves his sublime, flickering beauty without ever stomping a distortion pedal. I also dearly wish there was a more appropriate term for music in this vein than "ambient," as Beckmann’s strongest work brings a poetry and intimacy to the form that is every bit as transcendent as masters like Andrew Chalk.

Self-Released

The opening "Far From The Crowds And The Pressures Of Time" is the first and best of Pastorage Sights' two half-hour-long epics. It begins somewhat modestly, as a hollowly echoing guitar motif languorously repeats over a hazy, shimmering bed of drones. As it unfolds, additional layers of melodies, textures, and effects sneakily accumulate until the piece becomes an achingly beautiful swirl of twinkling, swaying, and quivering interconnected loops. And from then on, it only continues to transform further, albeit without losing any of that essential character, as Beckmann subtly manipulates the focus with incredible patience and lightness of touch. Once it reaches critical mass, "Far From The Crowds" is an absolutely sublime tour de force of warmly flickering and hiss-soaked ambient drone bliss. In fact, one of my notes was "awesome in roughly five different ways by the time it ends." That makes it a tough act to follow, yet two of the remaining three pieces manage to scale similar heights, and the third is far from disappointing. The following "Leidenfrost Effect" features a similar slow-burning trajectory of steady loop accumulation, initially evoking flickering comets streaking across a lonely night sky before slowly expanding into a widescreen panorama of twinkling shoegaze bliss. It took me a bit longer to fully appreciate the 32-minute "Sparing Of Words And Stern In Her Ways," but that is simply because its pleasure are more nuanced. At one point, it feels like time slows and reality blurs while the hissing sounds of rain drift in from an open window, while another passage calls to mind a painterly sky of slow-moving bruised purple and pink clouds. And there is the final five or six minutes, which feel like angelic choral voices enveloped in subtly psychedelic guitar shimmer. The closing title piece is arguably the weakest of the four, but I might just feel that way because it lacks the shifting, enigmatic arc that makes the other three pieces such a pleasure. Instead, it is built around little more than a frayed and bittersweet slow-motion melody and a haze of ghostly EBow shimmer. As such, it shares some common ground with Celer (a cool loop hypnotically repeating into infinity), but that dreamy reverie is slowly eclipsed by a vibrant host of birds in its final moments. The sole caveat with this album is that it requires more patience than some other TVSF releases, as even the shortest piece hovers around 20 minutes, but the reward is usually proportional to how long Beckmann spends laying the groundwork. While I have no idea if Pastorage Sights is one of the strongest The Volume Settings Folder albums to date (there are currently 60+ releases on Bandcamp), it certainly feels enough like one to make it an excellent starting point for the curious.

Samples can be found here.

2474 Hits

Bendik Giske, "Cracks"

cover imageI have been quite keen to hear just about everything that this Norwegian saxophonist releases since he damn near stole the show on Caterina Barbieri’s Fantas Variations earlier this year. Thus far, I have yet to be disappointed and this latest solo release beautifully continues Giske's ascendance as one of the most compelling saxophonists on earth. When I first heard Cracks, it reminded me of Pauline Oliveros's hugely influential Deep Listening, as much of it feels like a killer sax solo reverberating around a vast subterranean space leaving dreamlike ghost trails in its wake. As it turns out, that is a masterful illusion, as Giske got to the same place in a very different way (and with very different conceptual inspirations). One of those inspirations was José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia, which suggests that "queerness must strive towards futurity." A healthy portion of Cracks' futurity was provided by producer/collaborator André Bratten, as the album was recorded in "the new 'resonant' space of Bratten's reactive studio tuned to his original sounds." The album's description further notes that Cracks brings Giske "one step closer to the man-machine," but the beauty of the album for me lies in how effectively he combines intimate intensity with hypnotically repeating patterns.

Smalltown Supersound

The opening "Flutter" is aptly named, as it begins with a breathy, fluttering pattern hovering at the edge of audibility. Gradually, a warbling and tender melody takes shape and the piece blossoms into something wonderfully broken and beautiful. "Flutter" is one of the most simmering and understated pieces on the album, as the central pattern feels like little more than breath and flapping keys, but most of the remaining pieces share a very similar structure. "Cruising" soon solidifies what that structure is: Giske unleashes winding, serpentine arpeggios akin to Phillip Glass-style minimalism, but with a twist: those arpeggios almost always spiral outward into something strangled, howling, or tenderly poignant (and sometimes all within the same piece). Bratten's hand plays a crucial role on "Cruising" as well, as the visceral intensity and gnarled textures that Giske wrests from his sax cut through a hallucinatory fog of long, lingering decays. It is quite an effective balance of sharp and soft textures, as the snarling central melodies stand out in stark relief while a deepening spell of unreality slowly intensifies in the background. The title piece is the sole divergence from that aesthetic, as the ghostly fog takes over completely for a long interlude of murky, billowing ambiance. The strongest piece on the album is "Void," which follows the expected arc of repeating arpeggios splintering into howls of anguish, but represents that arc in its most perfect form. Or maybe I just like the central melody more than usual. In either case, "Void" hits quite an effective balance of animal intensity, poignance, and flickering psychedelia. The closing "Matter (part 3)" is yet another strong variation on the album's "unraveling patterns" aesthetic, but it packs more of a throbbing, seething tension than the rest of the album. While I have not yet fully warmed to the title piece, Cracks is otherwise nothing but wall-to-wall greatness. I love the seemingly raw, intimate simplicity of these pieces, as Giske is an absolute genius at transforming a few arpeggios into something howling, unpredictable, and vibrantly alive.

Samples can be found here.

2509 Hits

Legendary Pink Dots, "Island of Jewels"

cover imageMetropolis Records continues their ambitious LPD reissue campaign with an expanded and remastered edition of this oft-fascinating album from the band's celebrated mid-'80s hot streak. According to the band, Island of Jewels was "the natural successor" to The Tower, but it was chronologically sandwiched between two of the Dots' most beloved albums from the era (1985's Asylum and 1988's Any Day Now). Being eclipsed on either side by arguably superior albums has not been optimal for Island of Jewels' stature within the LPD canon, yet it still captured the band in legitimately inspired form (albeit in service of an especially bleak vision this time around). As I did not start delving into the Dots' oeuvre until the mid-'90s (I was lured in by The Tear Garden), I still find it a bit difficult to embrace some of the conspicuously "'80s" elements from this particular phase, as the synth sounds and slap/fretless bass themes have not aged terribly well. Then again, it seems deeply wrong-headed to take issue with the tools that the band used to craft such a playfully surreal and endearing collection of songs, as only a fool would let passing stylistic trends rob them of their sense of wonder. While I would describe Island of Jewels as a more of an acquired taste than some of the surrounding releases, it is a taste worth acquiring, as this album is a delightfully hook-filled and hallucinatory world to immerse oneself in.

Metropolis

Belatedly delving into '80s-era Legendary Pink Dots is a curious experience, as albums like this one capture an incredibly imaginative and talented group of musicians still somewhat in the thrall of their influences and the popular instrumentation of the time. As a result, a lot of this album sounds like someone from the Victorian era became obsessed with '70s prog and set out to make a half-carnivalesque/half-melancholy concept album armed with a fretless bass and an inexpensive synthesizer. Given that singular vibe, even the weakest songs are compellingly weird, but the tradeoff is that the best songs almost always have some kind of irksome imperfection. Perhaps that latter part works in the band's favor entertainment-wise though, as the dated sounds undercut Edward Ka-Spel's bleakness to create something more charming and fun. The first half of the album is teeming with such skewed delights. My favorite is the wonky, lurching "Dairy," which feels like a unhinged magician with a drum machine leading a dance party on a disturbingly Sid & Marty Krofft-inspired children's show. "The Red and the Black" deserves an honorable mention too, as it sounds like a macabre art-pop ensemble performing a shape-shifting cabaret show, but a mischievous bassist decided to wrong-foot everyone by obsessively playing a cheerily cartoonish riff over and over again.

Of course, there are some legitimate Dots classics here too, such as the neo-classical goth-pop balladry of "Shock of Contact." To some degree, it feels like a prog band doing a spacey electric cover of an old harpsichord piece, but that aspect is eclipsed by an especially haunting and beautiful vocal performance from Ka-Spel. The other big highlight comes in the form of the "Our Lady" trilogy near the end of the album. The first part, "Our Lady In Chambers," feels like a darkly lysergic piano ballad plucked from a fairy tale, but one propelled by a thudding drum machine, liquid fretless bass riffage, harmonized lead guitar, dramatic violin flourishes, and occasional stabs of fake horns. Ka-Spel's vocals are wonderfully tender, poetic, and beautiful, so it is easy to imagine a contemporary live version of the piece being an absolute stunner. I was also impressed by "Our Lady of Darkness," which initially sounds like an absinthe-drunk mad genius performing a one-man opera in his mountain castle, but unexpectedly erupts into a very cool and intricate instrumental outro. Notably, the vinyl and digital versions of this reissue enhance the original twelve-song album with eight freewheeling bonus pieces, and they make this latest incarnation considerably more fascinating than the original. My notes on the bonus material are full of phrases like "terrifying German expressionist puppet show set in space" or "sounds like a disco-era erotic vampire musical on rollerskates," and those are not even the pieces identified as "Version Ridiculous" (an honor reserved solely for “No Bell No Prize"). Needless to say, those are exquisite experiences that are impossible to find elsewhere, but the biggest surprise was "This Could Be The End (Alternative)," which radically transforms Asylum's closer into a ghostly folk gem with Attrition's Julia Niblock on vocals. I would not have a expected a bonus track with Ka-Spel on the sidelines to steal the show, but the timeless "folk horror" feel makes it one of my favorite outliers in the LPD canon.

Samples can be found here.

2292 Hits

Enhet F√∂r Fri Musik, "√ñmhet & Skilsmässa"

cover imageThis latest release from my favorite Swedish free music collective is apparently "a concept album on relationships, family values and broken promises." I will have to take their word on that, as I do not understand Swedish, but Ömhet & Skilsmässa ("Tenderness & Divorce") does have a very different (and possibly more wholesome) feel than some previous releases. How truly wholesome an album can be when it features Sewer Elections' Dan Johansson is up for debate, but I do not doubt the collective's commitment to carrying on the grand tradition of freeform Swedish psychedelia a la Pärson Sound, Träd Gräs Och Stenar, and others. That said, Enhet För Fri Musik have their own wonderful thing going and I would be hard pressed to think of any other artists this devoted to guileless simplicity and organic spontaneousness. Admittedly, I was secretly hoping the quintet would revisit the sound collage territory of "Fragment Av En Midsommarnattsdröm" this time around, but my consolation prize is that the Jandek-ian discordant acoustic guitars are kept to a minimum. Instead, this album feels like the impressionistic audio diary of a teenage girl who is growing up in a pleasant rural commune, as it uncannily evokes the wonder and openness of someone totally indifferent to popular trends and not yet hardened by the endless disappointment and inhumanity of the outside world.

Discreet Music

It took me a bit longer than usual to fall in love with this album, as I was initially exasperated by the extreme brevity of several of the best songs and the fragmented, kaleidoscopic nature of the album. I am probably a fool for coming to an Enhet För Fri Musik album expecting a hot single, but I do like it when a band's best ideas are expanded into complete, fully formed statements. That sort of thing was not on the agenda with this album, but it eventually dawned on me that something considerably more interesting and unique was happening instead. Obviously, "Swedish noise artists reclaim their childlike naivete to transform into an oft-brilliant free-folk ensemble" is an impressive feat too, but I was already expecting that part. Consequently, I was more struck by how this album feels like a VHS tape of enigmatic found footage fragments that capture flickering tender, beautiful, intimate, and uneasy moments spanning many years and many miles. There are a few pieces that feel dark, such as "Opus 6 – Sommarljus" (crunching footsteps in a desolate moonlit shipyard, then a ramshackle, Wicker Man-esque folk procession) and "Kärlekens Nöjen" (woman humming a sad melody by the seaside as storm clouds gather). If the album was entirely in that vein, it would feel like a series of clues to an unsolved murder, but the amiable musicality of Sofie Herner's voice makes the album feel like I am being led through a bittersweet phantasmagoria by a trusted and charming friend. It also helps that there are some genuinely lovely song vignettes strewn throughout the album. My favorite pieces are the ones in which Herner haltingly and casually chatters over a simple pretty melody, such as "Idag Är Det Bra" (featuring an endearingly wobbly-sounding synth melody) and the hesitant, finger-picked folk of "En Bra Dag." The closing piano ballad "Skilsmässa" is another delight in that simple melodic vein, but there is also one excellent sound collage-style piece on the album as well ("Flytten"). In fact, "Flytton" is probably the album’s most surreal and absorbing piece, as it sounds somewhere between an accordion-driven sea shanty and a murky, hallucinatory cabaret. Or maybe like a melancholy noir film about the French Resistance, except the club's femme fatale chanteuse has lost interest in singing and is just conversationally chattering in Swedish as a grinding, supernatural roar slowly envelops everything. I would be thrilled if there were a few more songs like that on Ömhet & Skilsmässa, but I genuinely love the spell that the collective casts on this album. Enhet För Fri Musik are channeling something truly radical: a simpler pre-internet era before regional character, emotional directness, and intimacy were nearly wiped off the map by advances in production technology and all-consuming international trends. And they seem to be confidently climbing farther and farther out on that limb with each new release.

Samples can be found here.

2466 Hits

Scanner, "Earthbound Transmissions"

cover imageThis latest release from Robin Rimbaud is hopefully the first of many deep dives into the Scanner archives, as he ambitiously spent part of his lockdown digitizing and mixing his unreleased work from the '80s. The big story, of course, is that Earthbound Transmissions features some of Rimbaud's early work with appropriated phone conversations that predates Scanner's 1993 eponymous debut. Those scanned calls are only one facet of these recordings, however, as this album documents a formative experimental stage immediately after Rimbaud's acquisition of a "luxuriously expensive" Fostex 280 four-track recorder, which he combined with a Digitech RDS 7.6 Time Machine to make looping, layered sound collages. For the most part, Earthbound Transmission feels like an unusually strong release from the '80s DIY noise cassette scene (albeit more on the "murky ambient" side of the spectrum), but there are also a handful of pieces that legitimately feel like lost Scanner classics.

Room40

The opening "The Canonization" is a solid and representative example of the baseline aesthetic of Earthbound Transmissions, as it unfolds as a roiling and murky sea of grayscale drones. As a composition, it is not particularly memorable, but the actual notes played are secondary to the hissing, clouded, and frayed textures that Rimbaud conjures. That is not quite enough to make it an album highlight, but it is a damn good starting point for some of the other pieces, as one or two imaginative touches can easily transform that foundation into something hauntingly beautiful. Such welcome innovations start to appear with the following "Comus," which uses clattering metal, an obsessive ticking rhythm, and voice fragments to evoke a tense and enigmatic scene from a gloomy Cold War-era train station in Eastern Europe (like a John Le Carré novel, but artier and more hallucinatory). "Split Substance" is better still, as a chopped and garbled male voice combines with pulsing string samples for something resembling a haunted radio broadcast. The next run of hits kicks off with "His Begging Bowl," in which a found recording recounts the poignant final moments of a beloved family dog over a backdrop resembling a smearing music box melody. Weirdly, it sounds like it is about to become a Daft Punk anthem at one point, but instead veers into trance-like, Oval-esque repetition. The two "Drones Places" pieces that follow are mesmerizing as well. The first is a pitch-perfect dose of shuddering industrial menace, while the second features static-drenched voices (some funny, some sad) crackling across a warmly, billowing ambient dreamscape. "Soft Endclose" is another scanned phone call gem, as a chaotic squall of noise and colorfully accented conversations fitfully unfolds over a minimal ambient shimmer. My other favorite pieces are the languorously melancholy and grinding industrial textures of "River Whispering Run" and the wryly amusing plunderphonic groove of "Unhelpful." The remaining pieces are solid too, but there are probably four or five songs that rank among Rimbaud's finest work, which is not something I was expecting to find lurking in dusty thirty-year-old tapes of unreleased music.

Samples can be found here.

2456 Hits

"The Harmonic Series II"

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

Important

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

Samples:

 

2696 Hits

Rachika Nayar, "Fragments"

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

Commend/Rvng Intl.

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

Samples can be found here.

2378 Hits

Klara Lewis & Peder Mannerfelt, "KLMNOPQ"

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

The Trilogy Tapes

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

Samples can be found here.

2518 Hits

Nonconnah, "Songs For and About Ghosts"

cover image

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

Ernest Jenning Record Co.

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

Samples can be found here.

2909 Hits

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

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

Fort Evil Fruit

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

Samples can be found here.

2500 Hits

Noveller, "Aphantasia"

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

Self-Released

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

Samples can be found here.

2573 Hits

Six Organs of Admittance, "The Veiled Sea"

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

Three Lobed

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

Samples can be found here.

2502 Hits

Beatriz Ferreyra, "Canto+"

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

Room40

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

Samples can be found here.

2785 Hits

DJ Plead, "Relentless Trills"

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

Boomkat Editions

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

Samples can be found here.

2467 Hits

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

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

Subtext

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

Samples can be found here.

2845 Hits

TJO, "Dispatches from the Drift"

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

Orindal

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

Samples can be found here.

3018 Hits

Midwife, "Luminol"

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

The Flenser

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

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

Samples can be found here.

2476 Hits