Espen Lund, "Aetonal"

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

self-released

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

Samples can be found here.

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

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

Geometrik

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

Samples can be found here.

James Ginzburg, "crystallise, a frozen eye"

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

Subtext

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

Samples can be found here.

Die Munch Machine, "MunchRockzZampler"

Die Munch Machine is the side project of Tim Cedar and Jon Hamilton from Part Chimp. While both Part Chimp and Die Munch Machine may perform loud, the similarities extend no further. Die Munch Machine slough off the stoner doom skin in favor of feedback-populated motorik space funk. While not essential listening, this is a fun listen for spaceheads and fans of kosmische rock.

Part Chimp

With the album best heard as a set, each song flows into the next with minimal filler, generally a pair of songs serving as a standout "suite" of sorts. Opener "OperaSeal" kicks things off with a familiar motorik beat, a strong bassline, and a persistent drum rhythm complementing kosmische keyboards, the drum slap immediately echoed in "Aspergerus Assburgers." "Mo+" is a funky slab of keyboard-driven groove that bleeps its way into the slightly less rhythmic but no less danceable "Mongo Inerane." "KarmaLada" slathers on a layer of psyched-out vocals over a driving beat and distorted synths, segueing smoothly into the fuzzy vocals and chunky bassline of "Dumb Down." The album has a noisy end in the final pair of tracks, "Totale Forever" and "Cheeseburger Man," which I prefer to think are homages to The Fall and Throbbing Gristle, respectively. While one cannot mistake Die Munch Machine for either, those who appreciate the former should easily find common ground here.

Sound samples can be found here.

Growing, "Diptych"

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

Silver Current

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

Samples can be found here.

The Strange Strings Ensemble, "One for Ra"

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

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

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

Samples can be found here.

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

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

Akuphone

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

Samples can be found here.

Dean McPhee, "Witch's Ladder"

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

Hood Faire

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

Samples can be found here.

Ulrich Schnauss & Jonas Munk, "Eight Fragments Of An Illusion"

Part of Ulrich Schnauss's musical history is building layers of beautiful electronic imagery, both within his solo work and partnering with others. Schnauss is paired up once again with Danish recording and mastering engineer Jonas Munk, member of space rockers Causa Sui and half of the ambient chill-out duo Billow Observatory. These two equally talented creators produce a lush mélange of extraordinarily hypnotic dreamscapes on Eight Fragments Of An Illusion. Rich kosmische textures, vibrant guitar, and concentrated layers of electronic atmosphere make for an engaging ride, especially when experienced on headphones.

Azure Vista

The third release from the duo expands upon the more restrictive electronic melodies prevalent in the previous efforts, providing for an expansion of musical interplay and greater emotional depth. The previous collaborations leaned heavily towards Causa Sui-style rock rhythms supported by a '90s analog synth template. Eight Fragments moves beyond this mold, bursting forth with glistening textures, consisting of a satisfying interplay of shimmering guitars, awash in ambient synthesizer, evocative melodies spurred by motorik rhythms. "Asteroid 2467" is the album's ear-catching opening, a heart-swelling piece that ebbs and flows like a wave, drawing out and back into the bright and exuberant "Return To Burlington." The majority of the tracks function like independent stories (hence, fragments) over the album's entirety, evoking mental imagery through practiced waves of sounds and layered instrumentation. My personal favorite, "Perpetual Motion," can easily take its rightful place in the immense catalog of classic Kosmische rock; every nook and cranny of the nearly 11 minutes bursts with gemütlichkeit, a pure feeling of warmth and contentment, and filled with diverse ear ticklers. Every fragment here is magical, easily listened to individually but making up a single illusion. "Polychrome" seals the illusion with a choir of cosmic voices, fading into silence to entrance again. Time to repeat.

Sound samples can be found here.

Naturaliste, "Temporary Presence"

Founded as a band in Omaha, Nebraska in 1998, Naturaliste's first release in over 15 years is certainly a drastic departure from the local, improvised shows the group was responsible for. Rather than those frequent, though often dubiously captured recordings, Temporary Presence is not only a highly quality document of fully realized artistry, but also a document of where the band is so many years later.

Almost Halloween Time/Gertrude Tapes/Public Eyesore/Unread Records

The band, consisting of Bryan Day, Christopher Fischer, Charles LaReau, and L. Eugene Methe have mostly departed the Midwest, with recordings captured in Omaha, Beijing, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Shanghai brought in by all four artists comprising a significant portion of Temporary Presence. The record's title not only references the nature of these often found/incidental recordings, but also that the remainder of the album was recorded by the quartet within a rented musical instrument shop in Shanghai.

The result is six pieces of music that encompass a bit of everything sonically, from identifiable, played instruments, to abnormal processing, and a bit of unidentifiable field recordings and ambiguous chaos. The piano and oddly pitched bells/chimes on "The Swallows Have Returned" contrast the rattling vibrations and hard to define noises here and there. Combining expansive spaces to chaotic electronics and slightly rhythmic knocking it is certainly dense, but never feels formless or unstructured. "At the Worst of It" is similar in its piano paired with noise, but the voices (and the monstrous treatments to them) makes it a different matter altogether.

The group turns up the creepy factor on "It's Just the Air Conditioner," which minimizes the howling expansive sound and treated guitar that appear. Compared to other pieces on the record the sound is more streamlined overall, and perhaps that focus is what makes it eerie overall. The mood is similar on "Vitals," which is heavily reverberated pulsing electronics. Mixing in a heavily treated guitar (or bass), knocking objects, and what could be an electronic piano here and there, and the sense of mystery borders on malignancy.

One of the characteristics I found most captivating about Temporary Presence is the way Naturaliste combines the use of instruments that were obviously recorded in a group/combo setting with the far more ambiguous processing and recordings done independently. It is an excellent balance of identifiable layers with the mysterious that at times might seem like pure chaos on the surface, but a deeper listen indicates a clearer sense of unity from all four performers.

Samples Available Here

Parashi, "Against Eugenic Massacre"

Mike Griffin, as Parashi, is one of the most prolific noise artists in the upstate New York region, both on his own and in collaborations with others, such as John Olson (as Spykes) and Noise Nomads. Against Eugenic Massacre features him doing what he does best: a murky combination of psychedelic electronics, incidental rhythms, and mysterious ambiences that perfectly balances between harsh experimentation and complex environments.

Half-A-Million Records

Right from the first moments of "(No Consequence for) Glacier Burner," Griffin's artistry is obvious. Opening from a mass of ray gun pulses and crunchy fragments that vaguely imitate a rhythm, that blend of sci-fi electronics and organic textures are clearly on display. Shifting the mix to the occasional open, haunted space, erratic outbursts o what sounds like helicopters and off-kilter pitched tones add to the cavernous mystery of sound. With "Glacier Burner" covering the bulk of the A side of the tape, the brief "Klangermann" almost resembles a coda with its brevity and subtle mix of unidentifiable sounds and manipulated cassette tapes.

On the other side, "Rats in Paradise" is at first a blend of echoing loops and stuttering clicks that could almost be a woodpecker adding the foundation to which Griffin builds. Layer by layer he constructs a denser mix, adding layers over a ghostly, drifting backdrop. Fuzzy squalls and squeaks appear, but the obscurity of sounds and processing give a bit of menace to the work. With some weird buzzing and less distorted tones appearing towards the end, the mood lightens near the conclusion. For the concluding "Ingress" though, Griffin brings things back into the haunted house via random knocking and clattering sounds bathed in reverb and filtering. Static waves and swells in sound, and what almost could be a horn of some sort end the tape perfectly.

Parashi has always exceeded my expectations with every new release, and Against Eugenic Massacre is yet another example of this. Abstraction and weirdness always abounds, but there is a complexity and nuance to his work that sets it apart from being just "noise." Another great Parashi tape, and an excellent release from the newly established Half-a-Million Records, (the house label for Belltower Records in North Adams, Massachusetts and one of the top record stores in the region).

Phew / John Duncan / Kondo Tatsuo, "Backfire of Joy"

This short release captures the only performance from the trio. Recorded at Hosei University, Tokyo, on John Duncan’s first visit to Japan in 1982, it is a fascinating document both in the context of that visit but also in terms of the creativity, emotion, technique, and improvisation. The participants are meeting here for the first time, although they were familiar with each other’s work through tape exchange. Duncan is finding and processing shortwave radio signals, Tatsuo using piano, tape loops, and synth textures, and Phew vocalizing in English and Japanese. 

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Anne Guthrie, "Gyropedie"

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

Students of Decay

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

Samples can be found here.

Thomas Ankersmit, "Perceptual Geography"

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

Shelter Press

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

Samples can be found here.

Andrew Chalk, "Paradise Lost"

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

Faraway Press

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

Samples can be found here.

Magic Castles, "Sun Reign"

Minneapolis-based Magic Castles make a glorious return with their fourth release on Anton Newcombe's label, weaving together jangly hooks and minor chords and slathering it with fuzz. The release is triumphant in that it was released at all, following the band's 2016 hiatus and songwriter Jason Edmonds' near-fatal car accident in 2019, not to mention contending with a pandemic. Sun Reign is a lush and dreamy masterpiece of layered musical intensities, awash in evocative imagery and heartful melodies.

'A' Recordings Ltd.

The music grabs hold with the plaintive "Sunburst" and never lets go, producing a perfume of joyful wistfulness atop minor chords, dropping low to rise airborne in exuberant joy, vocals low in the mix in favor of musical atmosphere and jangle onslaught. Hazy vocal harmonies interplay with sparkling guitar, ethereal violins, and a gentle yet encouraging rhythm section, preferring to drift comfortably through a paisley landscape but unafraid to cross into pop or folk territories. Case in point, "Lost Dimension" would appear to be the most blissed-out title, but at its heart is a song of longing: "Feeling so torn in two / caused me to lose time and space / gotta leave this empty space / Lost in another dimension without you." Many of the tracks reference a certain nostalgia for sixties folk, brought firmly to modern terra firma riding on a darker, but not despairing, energy. "Ode to the Wind," "Valley of Nysa" and "Surmise" are particularly reminiscent of that timeframe, suggestive of bands like Pentangle or Fairport Convention but with a thick topcoat of distortion and a paisley pop sensibility dialed to the maximum. The result is a masterful blend of evocative atmosphere and memorable melodies fueled by fuzzy guitars and passionate musicians.

The video for "Lost Dimension" can be found here.

Vladislav Delay, "Rakka II"

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

Cosmo Rhythmatic

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

Samples can be found here.

claire rousay, "a softer focus"

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

American Dreams

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

Samples can be found here.

Rokurokubi, "Iris, Flower of Violence"

Forthcoming.

Time Spun

Ready later today.

Sound byte.

Samples can be found here.

James Welburn, "Sleeper in the Void"

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

Miasmah

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

Samples can be found here.