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Alan Hovhaness,"Opening a Window to Cosmic Love: Private Acetate Discs 1946-55"

https://f4.bcbits.com/img/a3810934024_10.jpgAn ear-opening collection of radio broadcasts, live performance recordings, and sketched works in progress from a prolific period in the life of this highly distinctive American composer. In the 1950s, Hovhaness was composing around 12 major works a year, in addition to extensive traveling for research and teaching. He may well have suffered from hypergraphia - an overwhelming urge to be constantly creating - and it is a wonder he found time to be married six times.

Canary

Born in Somerville, Massachusetts in 1911, to a Scottish mother and Armenian father, Alan Hovhaness had a clear vision and unstoppable determination. From a very young age he loved nature, mountains in particular, and felt the need to compose. Sibelius' 4th symphony was an early inspiration, and Hovhaness' description of the unison melodies in the piece "so lonely and original, [they] said everything there was to say‚ and not only about music" can be applied to many of his own compositions, including on this release. He attended the New England Conservatory at age 22, and actually traveled to Finland in 1935 to forge a friendship with Sibelius. Two years later his 1937 Exile symphony was lauded as the work of a genius by English conductor Leslie Howerd. Yet things did not proceed smoothly: he had four unsuccessful applications for Guggenheim funding, and when he did win a scholarship to Tanglewood, quit after feeling marginalized and humiliated by teachers Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. The phrase "ghetto music" was allegedly bandied about by Bernstein, who you might think would have been sensitive to such tosh, but it apparently doesn't work that way.

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5005 Hits

The Cosmic Jokers

Cosmic Jokers cover imageOver a series of acid-fueled all-night jam parties at Dierks Studio in 1973, Die Kosmischen Kuriere ("Cosmic Couriers") label musicians Klaus Schulze (Tangerine Dream), Harald Grosskopf and Jürgen Dollase (both of Wallenstein), Manuel Göttsching (Ash Ra Tempel), and Dieter Dierks assembled. The result spawned a cosmic barrage of stream-of-consciousness experimentation with immersive sound loops and kinetic rhythms, awash in interstellar guitar sorcery and sound effects. Unbeknownst to the musicians involved, this magic was captured on tape by label head Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser and Gille Lettmann. When a mysterious group called The Cosmic Jokers appeared on the label the following year, the affected musicians took legal action, dissolving the contracts effectively ending the label. Thankfully, the magic was committed to immortality and now exists in its space rock glory. With original vinyl pressings going for hundreds of dollars, this latest reissue -- fully licensed and remastered from the original analog master tapes at the original recording studio -- puts this essential listening in the hands of more listeners.

Kosmische Kuriere

The 48-year-old master tapes remained in excellent condition. With Dieter Dierks himself collaborating, this latest edition truly benefits from modern technology with a marked improvement over bootleg copies and original pressings. Despite being shunned by the original musicians, the music solidly stands as a prime example of the height of freeform creativity without limits, freedom of exploration at the hands of already skilled musicians. Göttsching, influenced by the free jazz movement and already breaking new exploratory ground on electric guitar in Ash Ra Tempel, joins his musical partner Klaus Schulze, fresh from Tempel and Tangerine Dream. Grosskopf had previously partnered with them for Walter Wegmüller's 1973 Tarot, the project initiated by Timothy Leary, who had partnered with Tempel on 1973's Seven Up. Göttsching, Schulze, and Groskopf form a key trio. Göttsching's improvisational guitar work remains central to the album, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Tempel but flowing with, around, and over Schulze's droning organ, with Groskopf exhibiting his practice hand on drums, each embracing their part with controlled abandon within a larger whole. Dollase lends beautiful keyboard work with piano, Farfisa, and mellotron, while Dierks' often dark and ominous bass playing lends just enough rhythmic grounding for music that continuously takes flight.

After years of sub-par reissues, it's terrific to have such a quality release of this cerebral music, not to mention one more easily obtained. Crisply defined drum strokes, rich guitar acoustics, and distinctly audible electronic effects make this a joy to revisit, with the overall sound unmuddied and flawless.

Samples can be found here and here.

4404 Hits

Saint Abdullah, "Inshallahlaland"

cover imageIt is not quite accurate to say that Saint Abdullah completely reinvent their sound with each new album, but is fair to say that Mehdi and Mohammad Mehrabani-Yeganeh are far more interested to exploring meaningful new territory than with building upon their past successes. While that is certainly an admirable trait, it can also be a frustrating one, as I know Saint Abdullah will probably never fully return to the more industrial-indebted aesthetic of their earlier albums (which I love). On the bright side, that also means that every new Saint Abdullah album has the potential to blindside me with a bold leap forward into previously uncharted creative territory. In that regard, Inshallahlaland falls a bit short of being a particularly revelatory album as a whole, yet it does explore some characteristically intriguing and thoughtful themes and features quite a fascinating longform piece ("Glamour Factory"). For me, the appeal of Inshallahlaland begins and ends there, but that one excellent 20-minute sound collage is enough to make the album a significant release that fans will not want to pass over.

Room40

According to the Iranian-raised Mehrabani-Yeganeh brothers, the central themes of their latest release are: 1) how society is less-than-accepting of people with multiple identities, and 2) how we connect with human voices on a uniquely deep level (even when they appear in sampled and deconstructed form).  Both themes are particularly prominent in the opening "Glamour Factory," which borrows part of a speech by "one of Iran's pre-eminent film voiceover artists" about how working in film allowed him to break free of society's deeply ingrained identity prejudices to some degree. Unsurprisingly, that sentiment resonated deeply with the brothers, as they are attempting to achieve a similar liberation through their own work. Also, they drolly note that it "felt fitting to sample the ultimate sampler." That speech proves to merely be a starting point, however, as "Glamour Factory" mostly makes me feel like I am channel surfing Iranian TV on hallucinogens, as it is freewheeling, psychotropic swirl of sampled voices, looped fragments of songs, and street noise that fitfully plunges into passages of wild manipulations, distortions, and stammering edits. In fact, it almost feels like someone pressed a collection of television snippets to vinyl, then handed it off to a avant-garde-minded turntablist for the full chopped and screwed treatment, though there are also some beautifully minimal or melodic passages thrown into the mix too (as well as some flashes of dark humor celebrating "the benefits of mechanized civilization"). If "Glamour Factory" had been stretched out to consume the entire album, I would probably proclaim Inshallahlaland to be an unambiguous triumph, but it is instead rounded out by three shorter pieces of varying quality. My favorite of the lot is "Blurring Of Management Theory," which deftly combines a shivering and shimmering melodic theme with an endlessly shifting backdrop of clicks, pops, squelches, and subdued rumble. It is admittedly more of a snack than a meal though and I remain perplexed by the brothers' love of bloopy synth improvisations exhibited on the other pieces. That said, the successes of Saint Abdullah continue to delight me even if their hit-to-miss ratio is less than ideal, as this project is an endearingly personal, unpredictable, and playfully outré one quite unlike anything else.

sounds can be found here

4473 Hits

Martyna Basta, "Making Eye Contact With Solitude"

cover imageThis Krakow-based composer's debut album was one of 2021's most pleasant late-year surprises, as Making Eye Contact With Solitude is a gorgeously warm and intimate gem of multilayered and masterfully textured psychedelia. Basta describes the album as a diaristic meditation on "domesticity, loneliness, repetitiveness, stubborn patterns of isolated minds and the sonic mysteries all around us" and cites the murderers' row of Cucina Povera, Félicia Atkinson, and claire rousay as key inspirations. While welcome shades of all three artists are certainly evident to some degree on these six songs, Basta's aesthetic already feels fully formed and distinctively her own. In fact, I suspect it will not be long at all before Basta regularly finds herself name-checked as an inspiration by other artists, as her unhurried and dreamlike phantasmagoria of rippling zithers, vividly textured field recordings, and enigmatic domestic sounds feels absolutely revelatory on the album's two strongest pieces.

Warm Winters Ltd.

The album is comprised of six songs that seamlessly segue into one another, so it was presumably intended as a single longform work. The pieces certainly flow together nicely and share many of the same elements, but a couple of pieces make enough of an impression to easily stand alone. Whether or not the opening "Awakening" falls into that category is currently the subject of some internal debate on my part, but I certainly like it a lot regardless of where it ultimately lands. I am tempted to glibly summarize it as "someone is murdering a saxophone in the nightmare forest," yet it is far too lovely to deserve such a fate. Instrumentally, it is centered upon a blearily twinkling zither motif, yet the smeared and flutteriing psychotropic sounds and crunching footsteps that emerge from that modest theme soon consume the piece and completely steal the show. As with most pieces on the album, the magic lies primarily in the execution, as Basta is remarkably skilled at crafting wonderfully layered and kinetic soundscapes from her field and household recordings.

The following "Memories of Unwanted" is a considerably more emphatic album highlight, as "Awakening" beautifully morphs into warmly shimmering ambiance enhanced with a host of vividly crackling and sizzling textures before unexpectedly blossoming into a hallucinatory crescendo of murmuring, cooing, and gibbering voices. It calls to mind a flock of psychedelic pigeons crashing one of the more meditative passages on a Tim Hecker album, which is no simple feat. It also kicks off a three-song run of sublime near-perfection, as both "Unknown Reel Tape" and "Walking Around In Circles" are similarly stellar. "Unknown Reel Tape" resembles a killer duet between a warbling, warped, and possibly reversed Dead Can Dance cassette (the murky vocals are very Gerrard-esque) and bunch of clinking glass bottles and other curious sounds, while the dreamy, mantric vocal swoons of "Walking Around in Circles" call to mind an especially strong Cucina Povera song. That would admittedly be a fine stopping point, yet it proves to be only the starting point for a gloriously vivid crescendo that evokes a dreamily reverberating, slow motion rain of crystals. On that piece in particular, Basta's textural wizardry with non-musical sounds is truly on a level that I do not often encounter, as she manages to make familiar sounds feel almost enchanted due to their sheer clarity and physicality. It favorably calls to mind some of Graham Lambkin's singular work, as he seems like the sort of artist who could convincingly make a satisfying album from little more than a shoe and microphone. I get a very similar feeling from Basta, as I would probably still love this album even if all the instruments suddenly vanished to leave behind only clinking glass, clanking metal, crashing waves, and a host of enigmatic crunches and crackles.

sounds can be found here

5336 Hits

Big Blood, "Fight For Your Dinner II"

cover imageI was not expecting 2014's odds n' ends collection Fight for Your Dinner to ever have a sequel, so this latest batch of eclectic covers, one-off experiments, unusual collaborations, and orphaned songs came as a very pleasant New Year's Eve surprise last December. While the covers are a bit less leftfield this time around (no Missy Elliott), they compensate by being even better, as the duo's sublime interpretation of two '80s Prince classics is one of the best goddamn things that they have ever recorded. The album also features one hell of an excellent tribute to the late Jack Rose, reworkings of songs by Pixies and Amon Düül II, a homemade electronics experiment, and a six-year-old's bold vision for the perfect pop song. Given the album's freewheeling randomness and the focus upon previously unreleased pieces, one could be forgiven for thinking that Fight For Your Dinner II is strictly one for the band's most devout fans, but it is extremely rare for Big Blood to release anything that does not feature at least one absolutely essential song and this one has several (as well as some great cover art). Of course, I am admittedly speaking as one of the aforementioned "most devout fans," but I still believe it is an objective fact that there is an impressive amount of revelatory material here. And that anyone left cold by the "When Doves Cry/I Would Die For You" cover should be extremely concerned that their ears may be broken.

dontrustheruin

The album kicks off in somewhat modest fashion with a couple of previously released rarities from the project's substantial discography: the stomping "Half Light Blues" (from a 7” split lathe with Human Adult Band) and the lurching electronic weirdness of "Floating from Xanthi," which was originally issued with a Greek fanzine (LUNG). That second piece is an interesting one, as it originates from a planned/unfinished album of works made using homemade electronics and calls to mind a spirited Big Blood/Silver Apples mash-up. For the most part, however, most of the strongest songs on this collection are covers, which is a bit of a surprise, given how much I love generally Colleen Kinsella and Caleb Mulkerin's songwriting. The pair do knock it out of the park with one original piece though, as "The Fox and The Rose" beautifully memorizes Jack Rose and a hapless fox with a classic Fire on Fire-style feast of vocal harmonies, fingerpicked acoustic guitars, backwards melodies, and psych-damaged guitar noise. I am frankly surprised it managed to elude release until now, as it feels like an instant stone-cold classic in the Big Blood canon. I am less bowled over by the Amon Düül II cover that follows, as the duo excised one of the best parts of the song (the drums) in favor of a straightforward chug, but I may be in minority on that, as I have seen more than one person proclaim it to be the single best song on the album. Unfortunately, that honor was already decisively claimed by the sensuous drone-trance shimmer of the double Prince cover (recorded the night the duo learned of his death, no less). Transforming an unimprovable/brilliant/perfect song ("When Doves Cry") into a completely different great song is quite an impressive feat, yet Big Blood work a different kind of killer alchemy with Pixies' "Velouria," transforming a song I basically remembered only as a pleasantly catchy single into a beautifully frayed, intimate, and poignant piano ballad. By my count, that adds up to three top-tier Big Blood songs buried in a ten-song collection of ostensible vault scrapings, but the album has one more big surprise to offer as well, as it closes with a young Quinnisa's breathless foray into home-recorded autotune disco ("she insisted that I make her sound like the 'robots' she heard on the radio").

sounds can be found here

3568 Hits

Abul Mogard, "In a Few Places Along the River"

cover imageThis latest release from Mogard is something of a modest one, as he describes it as "the result of experimentation with familiar and less familiar instruments available to me in the studio between 2019 and 2022." No further information is divulged about the album's "less familiar" elements aside from an interesting mention of reverb borrowed from the Inchindown oil tanks, which apparently hold the world record for longest reverberation time. If In a Few Places Along the River were a Lea Bertucci or Pauline Oliveros album, that expansive reverb would no doubt be a defining feature, but it seems like Mogard harnessed it in an more unusual and inventive way. The results are admittedly not quite top-tier Mogard (this is a digital-only release, after all), as this album captures him in stark, slow-burning drone mode rather than one of his more melodic and warm moods, but it is still solid enough to be satisfying, as the two bookends are impressively nuanced and substantial.

Self-Released

Mogard was definitely not in a hurry to make to make an impression with this album, as the opening "Against a White Cloud" fades win with blearily smeared drones that evoke the unsettling nocturnal ambiance of David Lynch at his most darkly atmospheric. Gradually, however, it starts to blossom into something less drifting and ghostly, which is a transformation that I suspect is indebted to the oil tank-inspired reverb. At the very least, it feels like a feedback loop of some kind, as each layer of drone added lingers around to provide a frayed and dissolving backdrop for the next. In any case, it is an impressively likable and stealthily heavy piece, gradually snowballing into a smoldering and snarling roar of tightly reined elemental power. The following "In True Contemplation" takes a similar route, as it begins with a quiet, barely perceptible synth drone and steadily intensifies into an engulfing roar. It feels a bit colder and more minimal than its predecessor, which makes it less memorable, but the insistent and rhythmic bass throb is a nice enhancement. The album's entire second half is then devoted to the 21-minute epic "Along The River," which can reasonably be described as both a variation of the same themes as the earlier pieces and the strongest single iteration of those themes. That success is mostly because it has more of a melodic component than the other pieces, but it is also more fluid, tender, twisting, and subtly spacy. Moreoever, the steadily intensifying arc of the piece ultimately ebbs back towards silence, which gives the piece the feel of a lunar eclipse slowing blotting out the sun, then slowly revealing its warmth and light once again. Not that much warmth and light, mind you, as the piece has the ineffable sadness of an elegy, but it feels movingly transcendent as well. A sublime 21-minute highlight is more than enough to carry the album for me, but Mogard fans less enthusiastic about his cold, minimal, and unhurried drone side should proceed with caution. Serious drone connoisseurs will find much to love here, however, as In a Few Places Along the River captures a master allowing himself plenty of room to fully indulge his gifts for elegantly controlled, slow-burning magic.

sounds can be found here.

4890 Hits

William Ryan Fritch, "Built Upon a Fearful Void"

cover imageThis latest double album from the California-based Fritch is something of a culmination of two separate long journeys, as it took eight misfortune-filled years to complete and it also concludes Lost Tribe's "Built Upon a Fearful Void" series. While I am not necessarily sure that Fritch himself would agree that the end result was worth suffering through the gauntlet of lost hard drives and water-damaged tape reels that he had to navigate to get to this point, Built Upon a Fearful Void nevertheless meets my dauntingly high expectations for any major new statement from the composer. That said, I am certainly curious about how much the album changed between the ruined tape reels and Fritch's decision to abandon "what remained of the salvaged material" and "rerecord the album entirely using only faint flickers of the old tapes and cassettes." On one hand, some magic simply cannot be recaptured, yet that loss is balanced by the fact that Fritch's work seems to only get better and better with each passing year. In any case, anyone who fell in love with Fritch's work from 2019's Deceptive Cadence will likely love this album too (particularly its first half), as Built Upon a Fearful Void is another impossibly rich and vivid plunge into a dreamlike and cinematic vision of bittersweet Americana (and some other very likable other things as well).

Lost Tribe Sound

According to Fritch, Built Upon a Fearful Void is intended as "a two-part record—meditating on lost epochs, feeble mythologies, and the many deep gulfs in human knowledge and perception," which are certainly themes that resonate more than I would like right now. While I am not sure how the shifting vistas of each individual disc are intended to explore the different conceptual themes, it is quite clear that each disc works as a self-contained album with its own thoughtful and satisfying dynamic arc. While the same instrumental palette ("pipe organ, reed instruments, voice, viola da gamba, prepared piano, pedal steel, viola d’amore, and banjo") remains roughly intact for both of the album's halves, the emphasis shifts emphatically towards more drone-inspired pipe organ meditations for the second disc. In broad terms, that means that the more orchestral first disc is a closer relative to Deceptive Cadence than the second one, as Fritch's gorgeous string melodies are the heart of everything (along with his longstanding passion for vividly realized textures, of course). On the strongest pieces, Fritch's ear for poignant melodies strikes a perfect balance with tactile physicality, elevating such pieces into something a bit more unique and transcendent. Of course, business-as-usual Fritch remains perfectly fine by me as well, even if the thrill of discovery has dulled from my reasonable familiarity with his voluminous discography and its various phases. Still, the bookends on the first disc both handily attain some degree of transcendence for me (particularly the closing "Truest of Truisms"), as Fritch tends to go big with his opening and closing numbers. However, some of the album's most sublime highlights fall between those two crescendos too. For example, "Canary" beautifully marries a lovely viola melody with frayed and haunted-sounding feedback and a viscerally crunching and clanging backdrop of unconventional percussion. Elsewhere, the heaving and rippling "Glossolalia" is a tour de force of spectral, ravaged melodies and churning elemental power. That said, "Truest of Truisms" definitely ends the first disc with one hell of an exclamation point, unfolding as an organically heaving dream of widescreen romanticism, crashing cymbals, and elegantly dancing melodies.

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3890 Hits

Steve Roden, "Stars of Ice"

cover imageBack in 2008, Steve Roden quietly released one of my favorite ambient albums of all time in a signed limited edition of 250. Of course, I did not realize it at the time, so it took another decade or so before Stars of Ice finally made its way to my ears. Happily, however, Room40 has now reissued Roden's hauntingly beautiful collage of obscure and antique Christmas records, which will hopefully nudge many more receptive ears towards this modest, one-of-a-kind masterpiece. While I am sure I would have greatly enjoyed the original album if I had heard it when it was first released, it is worth noting that my appreciation for texture has evolved considerably over the years, so maybe Stars of Ice uncannily got to me at precisely the right time. In fact, I wonder how significant a role Roden himself has (indirectly) played in my shifting tastes, as he has always been ahead of his time in regard to celebrating details and nuances (as well as inventively repurposing "non-musical" sounds) and we seem to be in the midst of a textural renaissance at the moment. That said, most of Stars of Ice is as nakedly beautiful as music can get, so the quavering murkiness, crackling and popping vinyl, and pleasantly lapping waves of hiss are mere icing on an already gorgeous cake. This is an absolutely brilliant and magical album.

Room40/New Plastic Music

The album takes its name from a Chinese Christmas carol record that was one of the eclectic pair of pieces that Roden salvaged for his primarily sound sources. The other lucky winner was a song entitled "Snow" from a clearly hit-packed 78 entitled "Songs From the First Grade Reader." Unsurprisingly, I suspect both pieces would be nearly unrecognizable to their original composers in the wake of Roden's radical deconstructions, yet this is not one those albums where the character of the original pieces is completely obliterated into noisy abstraction, as Stars of Ice is an unusually melodic entry in the composer's oft-challenging oeuvre. There were apparently also "various other objects and instruments" involved as well, but they never manifest themselves in recognizable ways, as the heart of Stars of Ice is essentially just snatches of vocal melodies and a crackling and hissing backdrop of pleasantly warm and murky organ chords (or at least something that sounds like an organ after Roden was finished with it). For a while, the piece feels like it is just going to linger in suspended animation forever, which would be apt given the "enchanted snow globe/slowly dissolving into the grooves of a wobbly old record" atmosphere, yet new threads (clipped vocal melodies, plinking and shivering strings, a choir, and a colorful host of coos, mumbles, and warbles) soon appear and begin weaving together in interesting and lovely ways. For the piece's first half, the warm chords, bittersweet central melody, and the flickering and ghostly choral snippets conjure one of the most sustained stretches of sublime, pure beauty that I have yet heard. The piece never stops glacially and subtly transforming, however, so that section is just one particularly exquisite phase of an immersive and hallucinatory journey towards a final stretch that approximates a haunted music box haltingly playing a fragmented, wrong speed recording of a rural Chinese or Eastern European traditional music ensemble. Admittedly, I likely would have been perfectly happy if Roden had just lingered in the most beautiful stretch forever, but the subtly intensifying shadows and sense of mystery that follow are what elevate Stars of Ice to something deeper and more complex than merely a masterfully executed collage of lovely sounds. In that regard, the album is characteristically stellar sound art, but Roden's larger achievement is how masterfully he managed to convey ineffable feelings of beauty, sadness, and longing from just a couple of children’s records that no one has presumably thought about in half a century.  

Samples can be found here.

3766 Hits

Novi_sad, "ΚΕΡΑΥΝΟΣ"

cover image The title of the latest Novi_sad work roughly translates to lightning or thunder as related to Zeus and is a wonderfully fitting title for this album. Based on environmental sounds recorded on five different continents, Thanasis Kaproulias’s latest album is neither pure field recordings, nor is it the product of laborious processing and treatments. Instead it sits nestled somewhere between the two: some segments are clearly recordings of rainstorms or birds, but others are shaped into blasts of noise or melody, sometimes within the span of a few minutes, conjuring beauty and fear much in the way a thunderstorm does.

Raster

Right from the opening piece, "Oceania," this dynamic is apparent. Based on recordings taken at the Tarkine Rainforest, Kaproulias leads off with an electronic-tinged swarming sound, resembling processed migrating birds, and a passing rainstorm. Without warning it blasts into a wall of harsh noise, yet there is still the depth and complexity of sounds amidst the harshness. Slowly he transitions from the noise to focus on a melody that slowly drifts in, ending on quite a beautiful note. The harshest moments of ΚΕΡΑΥΝΟΣ lie in "Oceania," while both "Asia" and "Europe" are built from similar components: bass heavy rumbles, water sounds, and far off droning melody. The former features a bit more melodicism overall, wobbling and lying under strange textures, while the latter allows more of the unprocessed natural recordings to shine through.

Throughout "Africa," Kaproulias opts for an almost more traditionally musical dynamic. Insect recordings are reassembled into something resembling bowed strings, and whole thing has an almost rhythmic structure due to his use of looping. The ending is a bit more pure melody and chiming tones, but there is a path of overdriven, harsher sounds on the way there. "America," based on Amazon Rainforest and recordings of Niagara Falls is overall more dense and oppressive in its dynamic. The combination of rain and waterfall recordings is heavy and enveloping, and the aggressive water sounds only relent at the very end, leaving a foundation of dark, muted tones.

Kaproulias may work with a similar approach and dynamic on the five pieces that make up ΚΕΡΑΥΝΟΣ, but each clearly has its own overall feel and identity. His subtle approach to processing and production is a significant asset here, as it so effortlessly blurs the line between source material and processed results, making for a work that is as much field recording as it is musical. Beautiful, harsh, and jarring from beginning to end, the title fits the work perfectly.

Samples can be found here.

4059 Hits

srmeixner, "A Silent War"

cover image Initially intended to be a lockdown project based around recycling (and re-recycling) of sound sources, Stephen Meixner (Contrastate) ended up shifting the theme of A Silent War to a very specific one. Based on the worldwide ripples of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer gave a specific theme to an otherwise conceptually defined record. Featuring contributions by the other members of Contrastate, Ralf Wehowsky, Steve Pittis (Band of Pain) and more, the final product is as enthralling as it is bleak and depressing.

Black Rose Recordings/Oxidation

The opening title piece, featuring sound sources from Rob Fairweather, has a bent music box quality to it, over which the names of victims of unjustified police shootings (Walter Scott, Tamir Rice) are read. With a strange percussion loop anchoring the song, what almost resembles 1970s cop TV show soundtracks are weaved in and out. The gurgling electronics of "Breathe" take on a disturbing color as George Floyd’s last words are spoken, with bits of rhythm popping up throughout. The lush, beautiful electronics are a stark contrast to the otherwise bleakness of the recording.

Both "Virtue Signaling" and "Unfinished Business" are a bit less depressive, with the former having a more traditional synth-based sound within a mass of piano hits and sampled music, with both featuring percussion by Simon Wray and raw materials by Ralf Wehowsky. The latter is overall more spacious, driving by a bassy electronic pulse, although the far off police sirens are appropriately disturbing even at low volumes. "We Demand Tomorrow (Or Business as Usual)" casts droning electronics alongside Wray's unconventional percussion, with buzzing, dense blasts of sound symbolically interrupting the status quo. Closer "Singing About Revolution" features Contrastate member Jonathan Grieve using the words of Nina Simone lyrics, bent and processed within a mix of swirling electronics, feedback, and fragmented sampling. The sum of the parts make for a disturbing, unsettling sound throughout.

As captivating as it is, A Silent War is an ugly, unpleasant record, which was surely Meixner's intent. A strange mélange of existing sounds, absurd attempts at traditional musicality, and heavy subject matter, it certainly is not the type of album that screams for casual listening. This prevailing sense of unease though leads to a thematically unified album that captures the ugliness of 2020 and 2021 very well, and sadly 2022 is not looking to be too different. At least it might result in another fascinating work from Meixner, however.

Samples can be found here.

4466 Hits

Steve Roden, "Oionos"

cover imageI am thrilled that Room40 is digging up and reissuing some woefully underheard gems from Steve Roden these days, as a hell of a lot of fascinating work passed me by in the pre-Bandcamp days of hyper-limited physical releases. Stars of Ice (due for a reissue in February) was especially revelatory for me, but this more modest initial dispatch from Roden's vaults is quite a treat as well. As far as I know, Oionos has not been released previously, yet it dates from a 2006 exhibition in Athens, Greece entitled The Grand Promenade. The premise of the exhibition was to create a "dialogue" between "contemporary site-specific works" and "various archaeological and historical sites in central Athens," but Roden fell in love with the Church of St. Dimitris Loumbardiardis (not among the planned sites) and managed to talk the curator into allowing an exception. Notably, the architect behind the church was the same man (Dimitris Pikionis) who designed the original promenade, so Roden's selection was a thoughtful and inspired decision, as he felt the path leading to the church provided a "stronger impression of Pikionis's vision" than the actual promenade (unlike the main promenade, the path to the church escaped being ‘restored’ in preparation for the 2004 Olympics).

Room40

Originally constructed in the ninth century using materials salvaged from surrounding ruins and described as "likely the most secluded and serene" of Athen's assortment of Byzantine-era churches, the Church of St. Dimitris Loumbardiardis is remarkably still in use. That presented something of a challenge for Roden, as his installation needed to harmonize with and enhance its peaceful environs without disrupting what made the place so alluring in the first place. He eventually decided to hang his sound installation from a large tree and opted for characteristically Roden-esque lowercase sounds that "could blend with all of the insect noises and the overall quiet of the area.” For his sound sources, Roden chose “field recordings and small ‘poor’ objects such as tin whistles, toy harmonicas, and the like." Significantly, the latter were inspired by a basement display case of "non-instruments" located in Athen's museum of musical instruments, as Roden felt the modest items meshed nicely with Pikionis's interest in blending "indigenous culture" with "intellectual and modern culture." In more concrete terms, Oionos is essentially an hour of gently whirring, whining, and crackling suspended animation. There is also a wandering, disjointed melody that calls to mind either a slowed down recording of wind chimes or a malfunctioning music box that emits sparks and feedback as it strains to produce a fitful melody. I suppose that makes Oionos a very "ambient" piece, but it can also be more than that depending on how attentively I choose to listen: sometimes it feels like fragments of a wrong-speed Andrew Chalk album floating above a rich landscape of subtle, shifting textures, while other times evokes a pleasant sense of unreality, as if submerged ghost melodies struggle to surface from a quiet haze of insectoid whines, burbling water, and gently windblown leaves. It is quite a beautifully realized piece, yet I can understand why it was not released until now, as it lingers in delicate stasis rather than undergoing any kind of significant evolution (an approach far more preferable for an installation than an album intended for home listening). Then again, Steve Roden is hardly an artist known for adhering to convention, so listeners already familiar with his oeuvre will likely enjoy basking in this meditative sound world a great deal. For the merely Roden-curious, there are probably better albums to start with, but Oionos is still strong enough to effectively convey why his work remains so revered in sound art circles.

Samples can be found here.

3745 Hits

"Swifter Than the Moon's Sphere - English Fairy Lore"

cover imageThere are a number of fascinating small labels exploring unusual niches these days, which I suppose makes the current era something of a golden age for curious outsiders with deeply arcane interests. My favorite imprint in that vein is unsurprisingly the "open-ended research project exploring the vernacular arcana of Great Britain and beyond" that is Folklore Tapes, as their major releases exist on a plane all their own, elegantly and entertainingly blurring the lines between art, history, folklore, scholarship, music, poetry, visual art and whatever other compelling threads catch their fancy. This latest opus is characteristically another glorious cultural artifact, which is hardly surprising given the fertile nature of the subject. Nevertheless, the label have still outdone themselves, as Swifter than the Moon's Sphere celebrates the hidden history of fairy folk with an eclectic array of fairy-inspired spoken word pieces and sound art, as well as a deep and endearingly witty scholarly dive into fairy class structure and how shifting views of the supernatural mirror our society. In fact, this is one of the rare albums in which the liner notes (courtesy of Jez Winship) are every bit as compelling as the actual music ("there is something oddly impotent about the fairy aristocracy"). Beyond that, Swifter than the Moon's Sphere is a welcome return to familiar territory for the label, bringing together an inspired host of known, unknown, obscure, and enigmatic artists for a freewheeling tour de force of supernaturally charged and backwards-looking folk horror and rural psychedelia.

Folklore Tapes

Like most (or all) great Folklore Tapes compilations, Swifter than the Moon's Sphere features an inspired cast of unique collaborations, house bands, unfamiliar names, and familiar names in unfamiliar roles. In the "familiar" category, we have the usual Hood Faire contingent, as well as artists like Ian Humberstone and Bridget Hayden. All are characteristically strange and wonderful, but Humberstone's "Swinging Lamps in Starlit Globes" stands as a particular highlight, resembling an eerily sliding and smeared underwater vibraphone performance accompanied by a chorus of psychedelic frogs. One of the main pleasures of a great Folklore Tapes compilation is being surprised and delighted from more unexpected corners, however, and this one is particularly rich in that regard. In fact, the opening "Genuine Leaf Fairy Sighted in English Woodland" (credited enigmatically to "DBH") is the first of many such pleasures, as harmonic sparks spray from shivering, tense strings that fitfully resolve into snatches of gorgeous melody. Brian Campbell, Peter Smyth and Carl Turney's "Requiem for the Lost" is another favorite, resembling a warm and wistful strain of post-rock backing a spacy, swooning, and dreamlike swirl of layered psychedelia.

Elsewhere, historian Jennifer Reid sings a haunting folk ballad (“Boghart Hall Clough”) about a farmer who fails to outwit a household boggart, while Emily Oldfield brings a lovely musicality to her poetry reading and Sarah Lundy goes post-everything with a spoken word piece that feels like she is casting a terrible hex on me from inside an echo chamber. Obviously, some ideas work better than others, but the artists are invariably hampered more by the constraining brevity of these pieces than by lack of inspiration (most pieces are only around two minutes long). That hurdle admittedly posed a challenge for individual artists more accustomed to working in more expansive circumstances, but the album as a whole benefits nicely from that approach, as it is a playfully shapeshifting and immersive experience that seldom wanders off course. Moreover, I will probably be quoting the liner notes for the rest of my life ("an emphasis on the grotesque and the foppishly foolish" and "this persistence of hope in the face of experience is oddly admirable" are current favorites). In fact, I was especially struck by the line "the magic power of invisibility results in fairies being more often heard or felt…than seen," as everyone involved seemed admirably devoted to getting the elusive haunted "feel" of a good fairy legend just right (no matter how much academic rigor they brought to the table). I am tempted to say that Folklore Tapes consistently offers one master class after another on how to make a meaningful, memorable, and compelling compilation, but releases like Swifter than the Moon's Sphere actually shoot past that mark to feel more like I just stumbled upon a dust-covered grimoire in a mysterious bookstore that I had never noticed before. This is an instant classic.

Samples can be found here.

3396 Hits

Elena Setién, "Unfamiliar Minds"

cover imageBasque composer Elena Setién’s second album for Thrill Jockey is quite an unexpected leap forward from the more pop-minded Another Kind Of Revolution. While Setién's love of strong melodies and big hooks still remains mostly intact, Unfamilar Minds beautifully balances them with a host of more adventurous and psych-inspired touches, resulting in at least a half of a strikingly brilliant and unique album. The other half admittedly does not suffer from a lack of likable melodies or tight songcraft, yet Setién's work definitely needs a splash of darker, stranger sounds to curdle the wholesomeness of her more straightforward "pop" tendencies. It is an improbable and unusual mingling of stylistic threads evoking a revolving cast of seductive female vocalists getting remixed by a gnarled heavy psych project, yet Setién somehow makes it feel totally organic, natural, and all her own. Also, her throaty purr makes that unholy collision feel way more sensual and soulful than I would have expected. While it would admittedly be nice if I enjoyed the album's second half as much as the more warped and hallucinatory first half, that first half nevertheless feels enough like a revelation to make Unfamiliar Minds feel like some kind of minor masterpiece.

Thrill Jockey

The songs that Setién wrote for Unfamilar Minds actually date from before the pandemic, but when she revisited them after a collaborative detour with Xabier Erkizia, she felt "disconnected from the incomplete pieces made in a different reality." Consequently, she set about radically transforming her earlier ideas to reflect her "reconfigured sense of mood and perspective" and drew significant inspiration from both Emily Dickenson and conversations with Terry and Gyan Riley. That Dickenson influence manifests itself both directly and indirectly throughout the album. For example, album highlight "I Dwell in Possibility" borrows its lyrics from the poet, though it is what Setién does with them that makes the piece such a stunner. The most striking bit is the creepily autotuned vocal hook, which makes me feel uneasily like I am being serenaded by a malfunctioning android wrestling with stormy new emotions. In most other ways, however, "I Dwell in Possibility" is a representative example of the themes present in all of the album’s strongest songs: killer pop hooks blossoming out of starkly minimal chord progressions and gorgeous smears of phantasmagoric color. And, of course, it does not hurt that Setién has an absolutely wonderful voice and knows exactly how to use it.

Amusingly, Dickenson may have actually inspired the album's more psychedelic aspects as well as its lyrical themes, as Setién felt a heightened fascination with small details ("the beauty of birds, the smells from the kitchen") from our current lonely time. The swirl of delirious and hallucinatory sounds in the periphery of pieces like the warmly elegiac "2020" channel those fondly half-remembered details beautifully, transforming an already lovely song into something that evokes a flickering flock of ghostly birds.  Elsewhere, "Situation" weaves pure magic from little more than a gorgeous hook and two simple piano chords before blossoming into half-swooning/half-proggy crescendo that I did not see coming at all. My other favorite pieces are even stranger still. For example, in "Such a Drag," a seductively melancholy mantra ("it’s such a drag to be alone") languorously winds through a blackened and shuddering landscape of heavy drones to unexpectedly transcendent effect. The smoldering "This Too Will Pass," on the other hand, abandons language altogether, as Setién conjures an utterly sublime gem from warm organ drones, a frayed and wobbly melody, and swooning vocal layering. The remaining songs are a bit of a mixed bag for varying reasons, but the main theme is that the balance of poppiness and prettiness with gnarled mindfuckery was not to my liking. Perhaps those pieces will someday grow on me, but it does not matter if they do, as Unfamiliar Minds' weaker bits are easily eclipsed by its five absolutely perfect would-be singles.

Samples can be found here.

3384 Hits

Hany Mehanna, "Music For Airplanes - Instrumental Showpieces & Scores for Egyptian Films and TV‚Äã"

https://f4.bcbits.com/img/a0473231558_10.jpgHany Mehanna is a key figure in the development of keyboards in Asian music. As a young man he played accordion, organ, and synth in the orchestra of legendary singer Umm Kulthum and—along with Ammar Al-Sheriyi—learned to create quarter tones by using oscillators. In a later prolific period composing music for 93 films and 38 television series, Mehanna forged his own distinctive sound: a balance of traditional Arabic melody types or maqams and hypnotic experimental electronics. Remastered from his personal reel-to-reel tapes, this album showcases that balance on 19 otherworldly tracks. I like the fact I can never predict what any piece will sound like based on how it starts, even on very short tracks. Mehanna’s only other solo album, The Miracle Of The Seven Dances, was reissued in 2018 after being rediscovered in a record shop in Casablanca.

Souma

The album kicks off with “Hanady” blipping along like a wheezing, psychedelic, video game belly dance augmented by electric violin and the guitar of Omar Khorshid. On this track, and on the entire album, nothing is allowed to limp along into over-repetiive normality or to descend into an indecipherable mess. "Haya Ha’ira” is more raw, blasting into being with a razor blade guitar-like slashes and dazzling percussion and it’s over too soon. Bizarrely, the precisely chopped rhythm of "Walad Wa Bint” is virtually a compete blueprint for the verse singing on the early Stiff Records 45 “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea.”

“Rhela” has the kind of galloping rhythm and lustrous twang often associated with doomed British producer Joe Meek, as Mehanna throws hypnotic organ phrases over a frenzied beat. His breathtaking ability to layer electronics, strings, and solo instruments is evident on the library robo-funk of "Less Al Thulata” and the spaced out "Al Qina’ Al Za’ef” with (I think) twinkling synth, a lonely horn, smooth strings, and what sound like wah wah imitation vocals. There are actual vocals on "Dal Al Omr Ya Waladi,” an impressive dusky moaning which is a good counterpoint to the intriguing reedlike instrument which shares carrying the melody. Again, the mix is fabulous and the atmosphere beautifully relaxed.

On the cover Hany Mehanna almost looks like one of the heroic resistance fighters from Gillo Pontecorvo's documentary The Battle of Algiers, except—rather than a machine gun—he’s got an accordion strapped over his shoulder and stands in front of a small Farsifa organ. It is worth remembering that Farfisa organs have been used by everyone from Reich and Glass to Suicide and Cabaret Voltaire, as well as Giorgio Moroder, Pink Floyd, Sly Stone, Miles Davis, Percy Sledge, XTC, Sam The Sham, K.Frimpong, and Stereolab. Back on this album sleeve, Mehanna looks for all the world like he is sending a message on an early 1990s fax machine. In the top right a plane heads East across a circular object which might be a representation of the sun, or a piece of exotic garb I don’t recognize. The image is reminiscent of the cover from the cassette release Relaxation Tape For Solo Space Travel by The National Pool, the concept of which purports to be an actual aid for would-be cosmonauts. Music For Airports stays within the earth’s atmosphere but it definitely travels to some subtle and glamorous places. The album fell between the cracks a little with its December 2021 release date.

I haven’t had time to research the films and TV shows for each track, but the imagination may quickly run to mustachioed detectives, flared trousers, glamorous girls fallen in with a bad crowd, cool cars, cocktails, speedboats, nightclubs, ill-gotten gains, spies, shortwave radio, fistfights, heat and dust, baba ganoush, gloriously melodramatic day time soaps, switchblades, Sid James, cigarette holders, white dinner jackets, and all that jazz. The album title makes sense in the context of the modernizing of Egyptian economy in the 1970s, with a jet-set, Operation Nimbus Moon, and President Sadat standing on a destroyer when reopening the Suez Canal. Hany Mehanna's tunes fit in with any concept of freedom, and his rhythms showed up in popular songs which soundtracked the Arab Spring of 2010-12. This collection ends on a real high with the thrilling and poignant "Damat Alam" sandwiched between the Opening and End themes to “Al Dawarma.” No need to round up the usual suspects such as Basil Kirchin or eden ahbez. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

listen here

3881 Hits

Meitei, "KofuÃÑ II"

cover imageMeitei’s plunderphonic exploration of “lost Japanese moods” has been an intriguing and unusual project right from the start, but it started to blossom into something truly great with 2019's Komachi and only got better with the beat-driven breakthrough of 2020's Kofū. As it turns out, that creative leap forward was also quite an intensely prolific period and a lot of tough cuts needed to made to distill the resultant mountain of songs into a single album. As I loved Kofū, I have no qualms at all with Meitei's ruthless culling choices for that album, but it did leave a lot of finished and semi-finished pieces on the cutting room floor (somewhere around 50, in fact) and many definitely deserved a far better fate. Meitei's original plan was to just keep moving forward with new material in the wake of Kofū's success, yet "when it came time to begin his next album, he found that it had been sitting in front of him all along" and "realized his work wasn’t over yet." In that regard, Meitei's judgment proves to be unerring once again, as this selection of Songs That Did Not Make The Original Cut is every bit as poignant, wonderful, and deliriously fun as its predecessor.

Kitchen

The more I learn about Meitei, the more I am convinced that I am only able to appreciate a mere fraction of his fascinating vision, as the layers and layers of social commentary and satire lurking in his work are hopelessly lost on me as a non-Japanese person. Consequently, I can only appreciate an album like this one on an almost purely stylistic level. Fortunately, the wistful longings and other bittersweet emotional shadings are not lost on me, yet it is a unique experience to appreciate Meitei's inventively repurposed vocal hooks, twinkling piano runs, soaring flutes, and propulsive grooves while knowing that I am probably missing many interesting allusions and celebrations of the marginalized. Then again, maybe I actually DO get everything that truly matters, as Meitei strongly believes in Hayao Miyazaki's adage "Beyond logic speaks of human nature" (I sincerely hope my subconscious is tenaciously filling in some blanks).

Meitei apparently also has a "Mizoguchi-like approach" to mingling "unimaginable pain with tenderness," which I can definitely see, as the best pieces from the two Kofū albums can feel downright ecstatic or at least beautifully cathartic: it is easy to imagine someone dancing to the crescendo of "Happyaku-yachō" or "Shinobi" with complete abandon and tear-streaked cheeks. The album's other highlights take a number of divergent directions, however, as the main stylistic thread that holds everything together is merely a passion for chopped, stammering, and warbling samples of crackling and hissing traditional music records and that seems to be very fertile creative territory indeed. "Tōkaidō," however, is yet another gem in the vein of the aforementioned two pieces, though it initially feels very "traditional" due to its central plucked string motif before the shuffling groove and ascending flute melodies kick in. The absolutely gorgeous "Kaworu," on the other hand, is quite a departure from the album's other fare, as Meitei intimately distills his vision to just a tender harp-like melody and quiet washes of tape hiss. It might actually be the single most beautiful piece on the album, but there is some additional fierce competition from the broken piano melodies and frayed ascending flutes of "Shurayuki hime" and the part in "Arinsu" where backwards melodies and an obsessively looping vocal snippet gloriously converge. Sadly, "Arinsu" is only about a minute long, which leads me to the most savage critique of Kofū II that I can muster: it may be packed floor-to-ceiling with imaginative ideas and killer unconventional hooks, but a couple of these twelve songs are admittedly shorter than the others. Hopefully that is not a deal-breaker for anyone, as this project is singular, brilliant, and seems to only get better and better with each new release.

Samples can be found here.

3662 Hits

Rrill Bell, "False Flag Rapture" & "Blade's Return"

cover image With two different releases in 2021, Jim Campbell (as Rrill Bell) follows up 2020's Ballad of the External Life going in two very different thematic directions. A cassette, False Flag Rapture, is a personal, intimate work based around a recording of his grandmother, while the digital (available with printed material as well) Blade’s Return is a narrative tale about a saw (I am not sure if it is truly meant to be anthropomorphic or not). Both feel rather different from each other, but both also feature the heavy tape manipulations of Campbell, reducing instrument recordings to raw material that he shapes into entirely different and unique forms.

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4070 Hits

Robert Haigh,"Human Remains"

https://f4.bcbits.com/img/a2112077871_10.jpgWith apologies to Laurie Speigel after whose album the label takes its name (and Sylvia Tarozzi), it must be said that solo piano is at the core of Unseen Worlds. Their standards are high, as evidenced by recent releases such as James Rushford's Musicá Collada/See The Welter and "Blue" Gene Tyranny’s Detours. Human Remains is Robert Haigh’s third (and best) release for the label. His composition and playing superbly balance immediacy and detachment. This balance places a subtle disguise or mystery over these compositions. I detect a similarity with the approach of Werner Herzog in many of whose films the audience is allowed to feel and react without heavy-handed close ups.

Unseen Worlds

Robert Haigh is well known to brainwashed, of course, as a veteran of the UK underground since around 1980 via Nurse With Wound, Omni Trio, Silent Storm, Sema, and Truth Club. He is a natural fit for Unseen Worlds since, as he has said, piano is at the root of all his compositions. My view is that his solo piano works should have him up to his ears in film commissions, as they are jammed to the gills with poignant and unfussy (or anti-virtuosic pieces) and imbued with an essential immediacy and detachment. On earlier records, Haigh has borrowed titles from film, such as "Juliet of The Spirits” and “Ipcress Girl,” so I am guessing that he would take on the right project. An excellent longer piece on Human Remains titled “Signs of Life” got me thinking about Werner Herzog—since he made a film of that name. Herzog has argued, in one of his more believable utterances, that filmmaking is about creating immediate and profound connections with people. Robert Haigh certainly makes music according to that axiom and seems also to follow another choice of the master filmmaker. In the book A Guide For The Perplexed, Herzog mentions his decision to not move the camera in too closely to an actor’s face, since it will be “more fascinating to the audience if they see you as big as an ant in the landscape.” He adds “I have never wanted to see an actor weep. I want to make the audience cry instead.”

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4139 Hits

Oval, "Ovidono"

cover imageAt this point, I consider myself quite well accustomed to Markus Popp's penchant for bold stylistic reinventions, yet this latest album managed to completely blindside me nevertheless. To be fair, however, Ovidono is not quite a pure Oval album, as Popp is joined by return collaborator Eriko Toyoda and artist/actress Vlatka Alec. The latter, in fact, is responsible for the album's concept: transforming the poetry of Ovid and Ono No Komachi into sound art that evokes "the tactile, immersive quality and intimacy of ASMR." The trio definitely succeeded in that regard, as Ovidono is probably the finest ASMR-inspired album that I have yet heard, but it is also a bit more ambitious than just a hallucinatory swirl of hushed and sibilant voices. Obviously, that would have been just fine by me too, as Popp is an absolute wizard at chopping and reassembling sounds. However, Ovidono is also quite compelling compositionally, as Alec and Toyoda's voices are backed by music that lies somewhere between noirish torch song, deconstructed piano jazz, and the uneasy dissonances of Morton Feldman.

Self-released

The opening "Dormant" does a fine job of setting a suitably bleary, haunted, and hallucinatory mood, as tumbling minor key piano melodies cast a spell of unease beneath a flickering swirl of ghostly whispers. The music reminds me a bit of some of the prepared piano pieces from Aphex Twin's Drukqs, but a more fluid and melodically sophisticated version. If Ovidono was simply nine subtly nightmarish piano miniatures in the same vein, it would probably be a legitimately excellent album, but "Dormant" feels like a goddamn masterpiece with the added layers of Alec and Toyoda's seductively hissing, popping, and clicking voices panning around my head. Wisely, Popp does not make any drastic changes to that winning formula for the other pieces, but he does vary the tone enough to give each piece its own distinct character. For example, the second piece ("Lost in Thought") features ghostly flutes and vocals of a more stammering and fluttering nature that seem to dissolve into a rain of clicks and pops. "As I Do" is a bit more of a departure, however, as it initially feels like I am trapped inside a haunted music box with a conspiratorial Japanese ghostess. As it progresses, however, it becomes increasingly spacy and blossoms into an immersively chiming and quivering fantasia of harp-like sweeps and Gilli Smyth-style space whispers. Yet another highlight is "Feeling," which evokes a melancholy pianist sadly twinkling his way across the keys in a nearly empty, neon-lit bar (a scene nicely enhanced by the hushed and flickering voices burrowing psychotropically into my subconscious). The closing "Over" is another personal favorite, as Popp's piano takes a brighter tone that is further warmed by shimmering and droning strings. It has a simple straightforward beauty that I do not normally associate with Popp's work, but I quite like it and the sibilant swirl of sensuous voices around it makes for good company. The remaining pieces are all similarly strong and offer their own twists, so I expect some of them will someday become favorites as well. Then again, I cannot foresee myself ever having much urge to single out an individual piece, as this entire goddamn album is brilliant.

Samples can be found here.

3996 Hits

Tasos Stamou, "Monoliths"

cover imageDiscovering this London-based composer's adventurously psychedelic collages of traditional Greek music was one of 2021's great musical pleasures for me, so I was very eager to hear this ambitious double album follow up to Antiqua Graecia. As expected, it is a characteristically wonderful and unusual release, but it is also marks a detour away from Stamou's impressive run of Greek-themed albums. The theme of the aptly titled Monoliths is instead Stamou's attempt to "collide" the two sides of his working methods: live performances and studio work. By my estimation, it was a very successful collision, but it was mostly a behind-the-scenes one, as I would be hard pressed to determine where one approach starts and another begins. As a result, the more immediate and striking theme of the album for me as a listener is that each piece feels like an extended experiment in crafting an immersive, complexly layered sound world from just a single recognizable instrument. At least, that is how Monoliths unfolds for its first half, as the bottom drops out of the album's hallucinatory feast of bells, organs, and steel drums to reveal a considerably more processed, abstract, and psychotropic second hour of drone-damaged mindfuckery. That approach admittedly makes Monoliths a bit less accessible than some of Stamou’s more conventionally melodic work, but serious heads looking for a deep and sustained dive into otherworldly psych meditations will likely love this immersive tour de force.

Moving Furniture

The opening "Bells Drone" sounds deceptively like it could be layered field recordings of wind chimes at first, as bells of different sizes amiably jangle and clang for couple minutes before any real evidence of Stamou's hand starts to emerge. Soon, however, some tones start to linger supernaturally and the mood darkens into uneasy shadows of dissonance. It is quite a wonderfully hallucinatory and entrancing piece, evoking an ancient ritual in a cavernous subterranean temple revealed behind a dissolving reality. While it is the shortest piece on the album at a mere 13 minutes, it is nevertheless a solid representation of the album’s first half: a simple and minimal theme gradually transforms into a vividly multi-dimensional dream world. On "Chord Organ #2," for example, an organ drone slowly evolves into a Catherine Christer Hennix-esque nightmare of dark harmonies before unexpectedly resolving on a note of sundappled transcendence. "Steel Drum Drone," on the other hand, steadily becomes something akin to a lovesick tropical Steve Reich. That one is another favorite, as I am quite impressed with how Tasos weaves together patterns of plinking and bleary steel drum melodies into a thing of woozy multi-layered beauty.  In fact, I love every single one of the opening three pieces, but they turn out to be a mere prelude to two pieces in which Tamou goes totally bananas. In the first, "Supernormal," Stamou mingles a chirping electronic drone with squealing and sliding strings en route to an harrowing mindfuck that calls to mind a goddamn demon summoning (the final stretch of oscillating synth thrum is especially choice). The closing "Synapse" improbably features some even more gnarly sounds, passing though such colorful stages like "menacingly gelatinous bass throb," "an undead gamelan ensemble wanders the deserted streets in search of their next victim," and "a simmering and intense prepared piano performance over quasi-industrial rhythmic loops." This is an absolute feast of an album: five great longform pieces in a row spanning nearly two hours. Most days, I admittedly prefer the more meditative/ritualistic first half to the more nightmarish second half, but Stamou was swinging for the fences with every single piece on this album and the result is a monolithically stellar release.

Samples can be found here.

3675 Hits

Mary Lattimore/Growing, "Gainer"

cover imageThis lovely and unexpected collaboration was quietly released digitally in November with no background information provided at all, but it is probably safe to say that it was recorded quite recently, as it shares a lot of common ground with the radiant drones of Growing's Diptych (2021). That, of course, also means that Gainer can sometimes feel like a welcome throwback to "classic Kranky" era drone artists like Stars of the Lid, though each piece ultimately blossoms into something more ambitious and distinctive by the end. That drone-heavy aesthetic sometimes makes figuring out where Lattimore fits in quite a challenge, as recognizable harp sounds are a bit of a rarity amidst the smoldering bass thrum and ambient shimmer. Then again, recognizable guitar and bass sounds are not exactly rampant either, so maybe all three artists opted for elegantly blurred impressionist abstraction. In any case, whatever they did worked quite well, as Lattimore and Growing's two aesthetics bleed together quite nicely and often feel like something greater than the mere sum of their parts (or at least like a very good Growing album beautifully enhanced with subtle acoustic shadings and flickers of melody).

Self-released

The album is divided into two longform pieces that each clock in around 16 or 17 minutes. The opening "Flowers in the Center Lane Sway" fades quietly into being with a slow melody of harmonic-like swells. Around the 2-minute mark, however, the piece unexpectedly blossoms into a far more harmonically and texturally rich chord progression. Given that this partially a Growing album, there is a healthy amount of amplifier hum and buzzing drone waves as well, which provides a pleasantly bleary and immersive backdrop for a simple, seesawing melody that evokes the faint streaks of light from the final moments of a vivid sunset. Occasionally, there is a hint of audible harp or the sensation of something harp-like moving amidst the hum, but Lattimore finally appears in earnest for the piece's final third to add rippling and ephemeral arpeggios that feel like glimpses of twinkling stars in the gaps between passing clouds. As all that happens, the piece sneakily accumulates a pleasantly heaving and hypnotic pulse as well, which is a damn neat trick. It is solid piece, but the following "Tagada, Night Rises" is both stronger and more distinctive. Lattimore initially seems to be steering the ship for the piece, as quivering webs of arpeggios streak lazy trails across a smoldering backdrop of bass drone. Rather than feeling like it is evolving toward something larger, however, the piece lingers in a warm and glimmering dreamscape akin to a state of suspended animation (though the bass drone does seem to be stealthily building in intensity throughout the piece). "Tagada" takes a surprise detour around the halfway point though, as it feels like a menacing vibrato has curdled the bass drone and cast a shadow of uneasy dissonance across everything. That darkening paves the way for yet another composition trick, however, as the piece slowly brightens for a warmly lovely crescendo of woozy and quavering guitar and harp motifs before ending with unexpectedly gorgeous outro that feels like dark birds silhouetted by a deep red sunset. While I suspect both pieces will resonate more with fans of Growing's dronier side than with Lattimore's own fanbase, Gainer is both an impressively organic/seamless convergence of visions and a sustained, quietly beautiful reverie.

Samples can be found here.

3877 Hits