Jeff Burch, "Samum Suite"

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

Cassauna

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

Samples can be found here.

2561 Hits

New Bums, "Last Time I Saw Grace"

Friends Ben Chasny (Six Organs Of Admittance) and Donovan Quinn (Skygreen Leopards) are fans of each other's work, and so in 2014, they decided to work together out of their respective projects. Last Time I Saw Grace is the second long-player from their union. The latest from the two maintains the feel of the one-take sound of 2014's Voices in a Rented Room with the addition of a rich layering of instrumentation, affording a more lavish sound. All of the lyrical wit from the first album is present, and the emotional intensity of dual acoustic guitars in glorious interplay soars to new heights.

Drag City

Chasney and Quinn are two incredibly talented musicians that know the strength of memorable melody. Quinn's lyrical prowess strengthens the power of the emotional exchange of these two highly proficient guitarists. The album wastes no time in showcasing their muscle, launching with "Billy, God Damn," striking first with slide guitar while Quinn lines up his lyrical attack: "Billy, it's a god damn shame / the strain on our bodies / the stains on our name." "Marlene Left California" is undoubtedly a song Dylan wishes he had written, a story of four people—including the author—tied together in disparate ways, all lost and floundering to find direction. Word to Al Stewart: get busy on a cover of "Onward to Devastation." There is plenty of dark gallows humor within, lightened by lyrical playfulness ("Cover Band") and jangle ("Obliteration Time," "Tune to Graffiti"). I would urge listeners that appreciate bluesy folk, outsider acoustic singer-songwriters a la Robyn Hitchcock, and dual guitarists to give this a listen.

Samples can be found here.

2269 Hits

C-Schulz, "Frühe Jahre"

In 2017, C-Schulz’s late '80s-early '90s work was compiled in this mesmerizing album. Barely in his twenties, Schulz created some genre-defying music which, although clearly located between the kosmische music of 1970s Germany and early techno-electronica, resists easy classification or dating. The compilation is impossible to become bored with since it is memorable and satisfying yet so unpredictable that it is strangely difficult to recall the atmosphere and pace of individual tracks. This sprawling array of shifting sounds can perhaps be understood as the equivalent of a classic neuroscience memory test where the subject tries to recall 20 unrelated items after they have been covered by a cloth. I remember a Dada collage, industrial rhythms, a tiny piece of acid funk, library musique-concrete, heavy breathing, carbonated liquid cracking ice cubes, galloping static and clattering train tracks, looped chanting, economic radio news chatter, giggling children, a growling beast, a racing heart beat, poignant brass and synth tones.

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2455 Hits

Contrastate, "Recorded Evidence II"

Active for over 30 years, with a 10 year break in the middle, Contrastate’s idiosyncratic take on challenging, industrial tinged music has certainly changed and evolved through the years, as this compilation indicates. What has not changed though, is a dark sarcasm that injects just the right amount of absurdity into their otherwise dour works. Collecting various singles, compilation pieces, and unreleased material onto one CD, it makes for an excellent career overview.

Black Rose Recordings

The opening "Taste the Waste for the Human Race," a b-side from 1993, sets the tone for this set of songs pretty well: gently malignant loops meshed with treated guitar and down pitched vocals. There is certainly a conventional music undercurrent here, but bent and twisted into something else entirely. There’s that same broken music feel to "The People Who Control the Information" from 2017's Your Reality is Broken tribute album, which is an odd combination of erratic synths, protest chant like vocals, and eventually an almost hip-hop rhythm loop constructed from noisy fragments. "The Silent Fish," released in 2018 as part of a Troum tribute/compilation continues the dramatic spoken word and sweeping synthesizers, but with a great bass guitar like distorted passage and subtle percussion beneath it all, it makes for a particular standout.

The droning electronics, spoken word, and crying baby recordings on 1994's "English Embers" captures their more challenging style. Similarly abstract is "True Believer," which is all grandiose piano, voices, and a chaotic low-bit rate sheen to it all. "Revolution Sera la Nom de la Civilisation" almost resembles Contrastate's take on traditional power electronics: pulsating electronics, low end rumble, and guttural vocals (albeit in French). All the elements of that genre are there, but there’s a cleanliness to the proceedings that make it sound utterly unique. There is a RLW/Ralf Wehowsky treated unreleased piece from 1999, "From the Opened Red Lips," that represents perhaps the most out there piece: a short burst of sputtering vocal treatments and insect buzzing.

I know Recorded Evidence II is a singles/compilation/unreleased material compilation, but it melds together like a traditional album, while still giving an overview of nearly 30 years worth of content. At times difficult, and at times almost catchy, Contrastate covers a bit of everything in their sound, and that black humor component (which is also well reflected in the liner notes, and I cannot find any indication there was ever a Recorded Evidence I) makes for a project that I can never predict what they will sound like next, but I know it will be fascinating no matter what.

2392 Hits

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

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

Self-Released

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

Samples can be found here.

2208 Hits

rootless, "docile cobras"

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

Flower Room

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

Samples can be found here.

2181 Hits

Amulets, "Blooming"

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

The Flenser

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

Samples can be found here.

2744 Hits

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

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

Doubtful Sounds

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

Samples can be found here.

2294 Hits

Mission to the Sun, "Cleansed By Fire"

Detroit-based project Mission to the Sun is Christopher Samuels (Ritual Howls) and vocalist Kirill Slavin. For those familiar with Ritual Howls’ catalog, there are brooding melodies and electronic forays akin to that band, but listeners will not mistake this for a Ritual Howls release. Cleansed by Fire’s modus operandi is founded on minimal ambient electronics that serve as the foundational context for Slavin’s bleak lyrics and haunting vocals.

felte

When it works, it does so to significant effect, particularly on "Damaged." Vocals set back in the mix provide a robust and brooding balance between Samuels’ sad synthesizer melody and gloomy lyrics, crying, "I tried to reach the sky, but I burnt out." Instrumental "Mission to the Sun" is a standout track that brokers a hypnotic industrial rhythm splashed with fuzz and interspersed with ghostly and staccato vocals.

Some songs come off as more challenging in that they start slow and straightforward, sounding as if they are building towards a grand finale that never arrives. ("Take Me Back," "Three Crossings") That said, concert rock this is not - far from it - intending instead to invoke a contemplative if darker mood. Consider "The Unbroken Sea," founded on a straightforward underlying synth melody; from here, carefully listen as it becomes embellished with soft static, wind effects, and the occasional ghost chorus. The lyrics match the mood, with Slavin matter-of-factly imploring the listener to "Take all my possessions / Release me from confession / Drain me of ability / In the deepest water / Just waiting for the slaughter." None of Mission to the Sun’s melodies are as direct as those of Ritual Howls, but patience will reward with darker gems of a different sort.

Samples can be found here.

2190 Hits

His Name is Alive, "Hope is a Candle"

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

Disciples

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

Samples can be found here.

2064 Hits

Caterina Barbieri, "Fantas Variations"

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

Editions Mego

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

Samples can be found here.

2441 Hits

Tomaga, "Intimate Immensity"

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

Hands in the Dark

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

Samples can be found here.

2036 Hits

Driftmachine, "Spume & Recollection"

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

Umor Rex

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

Samples can be found here.

2232 Hits

William Ryan Fritch, "Freeland OST"

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

Lost Tribe Sound

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

Samples can be found here.

13589 Hits

RLW, "Agnostic Diaries"

Consisting of raw materials from 2005, but heavily reworked and processed between 2016 and 2017, Ralf Wehowsky's latest work is actually a compilation of unfinished and aborted projects. Mostly centered around voice recordings, the six pieces on Agnostic Diaries represent collaborations that, for one reason or another, fell through or never saw the light of day. That is anything but apparent though; since there is a clear consistency from start to finish, and one that is in line with the style of Wehowsky's recent works.

Black Rose Recordings/Dirter Promotions

The sounds of the human voice are one specific thing that links these pieces together, from the fragmented communications on "Le Ballet" (from George Antheil's Ballet Mecanique) to the processed speeches and deep breathing of "For Gerald," to the less treated dialogues of "Caute!" As intended though, Wehowsky uses these voices, processed or otherwise, as he would any other sound source, so they would not constitute vocal pieces per se.

Another RLW trademark throughout many of these is a use of digital sounds processed into low fidelity bitrates. On the aforementioned "Le Ballet" they form the framework that computer blips and shrill, painful electronics are then grafted on to. There is a ghostly sense to the piece overall and, with a mix of swells, jump cuts, and heavy bass frequencies; the whole piece is rather strange and disorienting. "July 2006" feels like a continuation, albeit one with erratic reverbs, cricket-like chirps and what could even be a Geiger counter.

On "For Gerald," what sounds like collaborator Anla Courtis's contribution of squalling electric guitar shines through clearly alongside spacy electronics and what almost resembles a spate of kick drums, or perhaps someone transitioning from walking into running on a hard surface. Either way, it makes for the piece with the most traditionally musical sounding elements, but chopped up and processed into something else entirely. Concluding piece "Monotype #6" is another notable standout with its multi-layered fragmented voice (courtesy of Dylan Nyoukis) and stabbing horror strings, creating a complex, yet menacing end to the record.

Even though these pieces were all created for different purposes, Wehowsky did an excellent job in the reworking process to bring them all together into a consistent album. It is not that far removed from its predecessor on Black Rose/Dirter, Flurry of Delusion, but the emphasis on vocal elements makes it stand out on its own. Like any RLW album, Agnostic Diaries is disorienting, confusing, and at times painful, but never fails to fascinate.

2345 Hits

Manslaughter 777, "World Vision Perfect Harmony"

This auspicious debut brings together The Body's drummer (Lee Buford) with his counterpart from Braveyoung (Zac Jones). Apparently, the pair have been fitfully collaborating since the two bands joined forces for 2011's Nothing Passes, but they have not released anything until now. Unsurprisingly, World Vision Perfect Harmony is an impressively heavy and beat-driven affair, stylistically landing in a place that calls to mind a collision of some cool late '90s Justin Broadrick side project, the industrial-strength hip-hop of early Kareem, and the noise-ravaged techno of Container. Somehow the album is even better than that sounds, however, as Buford and Jones often display an impressively intuition for perfectly balancing bludgeoning force, eerily hallucinatory samples, a head-bobbing BPM, and an occasional well-paced hook or flurry of hyperkinetic percussion. In a few cases, Manslaughter 777's relentless rhythmic assault and constrained palette start to yield diminishing returns, but at least half the album is legitimately excellent and there are a few killer "singles" that will be finding their way into my playlists for years.

Thrill Jockey

The opening "No Man Curse" provides quite a stellar introduction to the Manslaughter 777 vision, as a gibbering and clattering cacophony of samples gives way to a slow, heavy, and unexpectedly sensuous groove with the ghost of a pop hook hazily floating above the bass-heavy throb. Then, in the final minute, it explodes into a punishing and densely layered finale of electronic noise, ribcage rattling bass, and skittering fills. That visceral catharsis segues into the relentlessly propulsive "Jump and Spread," which simultaneously heightens and derails the more "pop" sensibilities of its predecessor. It kind of sounds like someone laid down a soulful vocal track for a rocksteady album, but the usual Kingston session musicians were busy and Revolting Cocks had to be frantically rushed in as a last-minute replacement. After a solid jungle-inspired detour ("ARC"), the album reaches its zenith with "I Can Not Tell You How I Feel," which sounds like a chopped, screwed, and autotuned R&B jam remixed for an industrial-themed strip club. The duo's love of melodic hooks goes into remission a bit for the album's more abstract and hallucinatory second half, but their weirder side offers some highlights too. I especially like the stammering, spectral, and deconstructed groove of "What Is Joke To You Is Dead To Me" and the thumping, burrowing psychedelia of "Mag Tech." The closer ("Do You Know Who Loves You") is a stunner as well, as a slow, hypnotic throb provides the foundation for a chopped, skittering, and dubwise percussion onslaught that ultimately gives way to a slamming hip-hop beat enveloped in warm, choral haze. I did not expect such a melodic and perversely angelic ending, but I probably should have, as inventive juxtapositions abound here. Manslaughter 777 are definitely onto something good, often resembling some classic WaxTrax! project blessed with strikingly varied, forward-thinking influences and access to modern recording software.

Samples can be found here.

1941 Hits

Sunburned Hand of the Man, "Pick a Day to Die"

I never delved too deeply into the New Weird America scene during its heyday, so I have probably heard far fewer Sunburned Hand of the Man albums than most people who are constantly seeking out freaky underground sounds. Consequently, I have no idea if there is some CDR from like 2002 lurking among the free rock collective's previous 120+ releases that explores roughly the same stylistic terrain as Pick a Day to Die. I would be surprised if there was though, as this return (of sorts) feels unusually focused, tight, and muscular for the band. To my ears, that approach suits Sunburned Hand quite well, as the collective churn out some impressively killer psychedelia on this release (among other things). That said, they still remain every bit as unapologetically eclectic, perplexing, and occasionally self-sabotaging as ever, resembling a bunch of gleefully mischievous Western Massachusetts underground luminaries (with amazing record collections) spinning a wheel to determine whether they want to channel Captain Beefheart, classic krautrock, Dr. John, or some cool folk, prog, or psych obscurity with each fresh song. Despite that (or, more likely, because of it), this is an unusually fun, strong, and memorable release.

Three Lobed

It feels weird and wrong to describe a Sunburned Hand song as a "single," but the propulsively groovy and synth-driven psych-rock vamp "Flex" surfaced in advance of the album and the band made a hypnotically bizarre video for it, so I guess it counts as one. Whether or not it is the best song here is debatable, but I doubt anyone would feel slighted if the entire album was merely the burbling, futuristic synth pulse and sinuous bass line of "Flex" extended for forty minutes. Naturally, there is absolutely nothing else like "Flex" amidst the other six songs, as they do not call it "free rock" for nothing. Also, some of the recordings that appear date back as far as 2007. In any case, nearly all facets of the chameleonic collective’s aesthetic yield compelling results. For example, the title piece sounds like Neu! reinventing themselves as a BDSM-themed rockabilly band, while "Initials" resembles a bunch of eclectic novelty records played at the wrong speeds over a killer space rock concert. The opening "Dropped A Rock," on the other hand, is a rippling and tender acoustic guitar piece that gradually smears into something resembling a hallucinatory interplanetary zoo. Elsewhere, "Prix Fixe" initially sounds like John Carpenter collaborating with early '80s Venom, then blossoms into a warmly beautiful psych-rock outro that I did not expect at all. Such is the singular genius of Sunburned Hand: I never know whether to expect a drunken barbeque, some intricate folk music, a channeling of classic Pink Floyd, a garage band trying to make a spy movie soundtrack, or some kind of arty contrarianism. All of that (and more!) can be readily found on Pick a Day to Die, but it all works beautifully because the playfully ridiculous, the indulgent, and the tenderly sublime are ultimately swirled together into such tightly edited, song-sized doses.

Samples can be found here.

2571 Hits

Steve Kilbey and Martin Kennedy, "Jupiter 13"

Jupiter 13 cover imageAll India Radio's Martin Kennedy and The Church's Steve Kilbey are making beautiful magic again, this time on their sixth full length in just slightly over a decade. Kennedy works solo, weaving his audial spells before Kilbey hears any of the tracks. The fact that maestro Kilbey then extemporizes his lyrical magic in a matter of mere days makes their mixology more astounding. Their current incantation is given away by the cover, showing space oddity Kilbey untethered from his life-sustaining suit, landed on a barren planet with helmet cast aside. Kennedy's musical inspirations look to space, grounded by Kilbey's uniquely soulful and world-weary vocals. Voyaging through Kilbey's lyrical landscape provides openings to new dimensions, navigating through the shadows of 2020, giving even greater poignancy to Kennedy's musical spellcraft.

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3318 Hits

Chris Corsano & Bill Orcutt, "Made Out of Sound"

In theory, any album recorded by the duo of Chris Corsano and Bill Orcutt should be an instant Album of the Year candidate for me, as the pair are easily among my favorite musicians on the planet. However, 2018’s explosive Brace Up! was not quite my thing, calling to mind Orcutt's earlier and viscerally cacophonous Harry Pussy days. I have no doubt that seeing the duo live during that period would have either torn off my head or melted my face, but that album is not the one I reach for when I have an Orcutt craving. Happily, the opposite is true of this latest convergence of the two fiery improv iconoclasts, as Made Out of Sound resembles one of Orcutt's more recent solo albums organically intertwined with some oft-incendiary free drumming. Despite being generally more melodic and less feral than its predecessor, however, the more nuanced Made Out of Sound is nevertheless a radical and intense recording in its own right. It is truly rare to encounter such seemingly effortless and fluid chemistry between two artists with such instantly recognizable and attention-grabbing aesthetics.

Palilalia

In wrestling with how to best describe Orcutt's playing on this album, my mind predictably kept returning to the phrase Ira Gitler once famously used to describe John Coltrane's aesthetic: "sheets of sound." In Orcutt's case, however, most of Made Out of Sound feels more like sheets of rain falling on a pond: individual drops constantly and rapidly changing the rippling patterns with each small splash. There is also the potential to be startled by a surprise duck. Translating that into more musical terms, the drops are the ringing open strings, the rippling pond is a mass of constantly evolving harmonies and dynamics, and the surprise duck is the snarling, snapping, and scrabbling flurries of notes that Orcutt sometimes unleashes. Notably, that metaphorical pond scene also includes a dangerously intense wave machine in the form of Corsano's whirlwind free-form drumming.

Given their collaborative history, it is hardly surprising that the duo's interplay feels so natural at this stage, yet the best moments of the album feel so uncannily instinctive and spontaneous that the wash of sound almost seems like a churning, heaving living organism. Remarkably, the duo recorded their parts separately from different coasts, which makes the “live” intensity and fluid interplay feel almost miraculous, but also allowed Orcutt more space for nuance than usual (as well as the ability to overdub a second guitar track). If I was forced to choose a favorite piece, I would probably pick one of the more melodic ones like the wistful "Some Tennessee Jar" or clattering, tumbling pathos of "Man Carrying Thing," but the whole damn album feels akin to witnessing a pair of magicians flawlessly perform one dazzling trick after another (the trick in each case being "distilling primal/art-damaged blues into a pure, expressionist catharsis that transcends conventional scales, chords, melodies, rhythms, and genre tropes"). Every single one of these pieces feels like a vivid eruption of pure, direct emotion that leaves compelling music in its wake. This is a canonical Bill Orcutt album.

Samples can be found here.

3197 Hits

Only Rainyday Rainbow, "The Brain Thunk When It Thailed"

When I first discovered music that expanded commercial radio's boundaries, much of it was found via word of mouth from like-minded people. Music discovery is more accessible these days, but word of mouth is still a powerful discovery tool. I likely wouldn't have learned about this one were it not for a like-minded Facebook group. Swansea musician Edward Hancock's project, The Brain Thunk When It Thailed is the culmination of a host of genres stirred together in a large DIY pot. Honed with a lo-fi aesthetic and honoring experimentation from generations, the album calls up homages to punk, doom, jazz, garage, blues, R&B, and psychedelia. With heavy use of panning and mixing on a simple Portastudio, the album succeeds in sounding like a spaced-out sixties band. That's where the fun begins.

Only Rainbow

The title, a play on a ship sinking after it has sailed, is accurate on multiple fronts. Reggae-sampled into track "Introlude" descends into fuzzed-out distortion and child-like tinkering, segueing into "Birthing Pool." Shifting and swaying, the album provides a mental workout, at times within a single track. Raw and spacey noise a la Chrome can be heard on "Hopeful Child," while shades of Syd Barrett and Ty Segall co-exist beautifully in "Your Nature." Closing track "The Brain Thunk When It Thailed" twists garage punk and R&B into something oddly compelling before breaking apart into madness.

The album offers little reprieve from the barrage, but this is not a bad thing. Intended to be a single loop, the final track boomerangs back on itself by incorporating the beginning track's musical elements. The album's concept album comes from the idea of the creative brain often functioning like the Titanic. The artist develops a vision and attempts to actualize it; the artist either succeeds or fails, much like a ship sinks or sails ("thails"). Ultimately, this ship is a success, and I look forward to exploring the navigator's next journey, as wild as it may be.

Samples can be found here.

1899 Hits