Caterina Barbieri, "Spirit Exit"

Spirit ExitAfter a handful of teasing and divergent singles, Caterina Barbieri's first full-length on her own light-years imprint is finally here. To be honest, I had some early apprehensions about how well Spirit Exit would stack up against previous releases, as this is an unusual Barbieri album for a couple of significant reasons. The most obvious one, of course, is that this is the first of the Milan-based synth visionary's albums to feature vocal pieces. Equally significant is how the album was composed and recorded, however, as Barbieri's previous releases gradually took shape from her eternally evolving live performances. Spirit Exit, on the other hand, is "100% studio music, written and recorded amidst Milan's infamous, dramatic extremely strict two-month lockdown...at the very start of the pandemic in early 2020." The drama and darkness of the period unquestionably surface a lot on these pieces, but the unraveling of civilization was but one of Barbieri's major influences at the time, as Spirit Exit was also inspired by "female philosophers, mystics and poets spread across time...united in their strength at cultivating vast internal worlds." Barbieri is no slouch at cultivating vast internal worlds herself, as evidenced by the "psycho-physical effects of pattern-based repetition" explored in her earlier work and the second half of the album features several pieces that feel like instant classics. Some of Barbieri's attempts to expand her vision into more pop and dance-inspired places work a bit less well to my ears, which ultimately gives Spirit Exit a bit of a "transitional album" feel, but those pieces may someday dazzle me after being further honed by live performances or inspired collaborations (she previously managed to floor me once with Fantas and again with Fantas Variations, after all).

light-years

In classic “Fantas” fashion, Spirit Exit continues the fine Barbieri tradition of leading off her albums with an absolutely killer opener. In this case, the masterpiece is “At Your Gamut,” which resolves into something resembling beatless deconstructed house music after a brief snarl of sputtering, howling entropy. The heart of the piece is its bittersweet synth melody, however, which leaves psychotropic vapor trails and tendrils of arpeggios and countermelodies in its wake. Aside from being a great song, it is a perfect illustration of why Barbieri is on a plane all her own, as it is a fiendishly complex feast of interlocking melodies, shifting textures, and gleamingly futuristic, neon-lit beauty. Notably, “At Your Gamut” also inspired Barbieri’s first foray into sampling, as “it later gets crushed, accelerated and unrecognizably transformed into the ghostly hook” of yet another stellar piece (“Terminal Clock”). While earlier pieces on the album merely flirt with dance music, “Terminal Clock” is the piece in which Barbieri finally goes all in with absolutely sublime results, as swooning vocal fragments beautifully collide with a lurching kick drum thump, pulsing chords, melodic strings, and some wonderfully gnarled and tortured-sounding textures. To my ears, it is an instant stone-cold classic of outsider techno and an enticing glimpse of where Barbieri may be headed next. Remarkably, however, “Terminal Clock” is sandwiched between two other gems of similarly high caliber: “Life At Altitude” and “The Landscape Listens.”

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John McGuire,”Pulse Music”

Pulse MusicJohn McGuire has an impressive background in the study and evolution of electronic music: not least his time with Stockhausen at Darmstadt summer schools and subsequent commissions for German radio. Pulse Music is a unique and lively collection (1975-79) that skates across similar post-minimalist terrain as Reich and Riley and kills any lingering debate about the merits of serialism. McGuire created pulse layers in the studios of WDR and the University of Cologne, which to this day possess astounding clarity and separation, allied to marvelous tempo changes.

Unseen Worlds

One visual image to explain McGuire’s motivation is the creation of waves coming from left to right and interweaving, waves emerging as if from a fountain and dispersing as if into a bottomless hole. Only the composer himself can know for sure if he achieved his musical goals but God knows he cannot be faulted for the extensive efforts he undertook in pursuit of his vision. I could devote a thousand words to his compositional technique and musical methodology without grasping it fully. On paper, at least, it’s insanely more complex than such successful examples as “record a tramp, loop his singing with minimal orchestral backing”, "Mick Stubbs had read a book called The Dawn of Magic,” or even “hum bits, nap, and write surreal poetry while cowed musicians spend months honing the sounds.”

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Kali Malone, "Living Torch"

Living TorchThis long-awaited follow up to Malone's 2019 cult masterpiece The Sacrificial Code is an unexpected blend of the familiar and the unfamiliar, as the Stockholm-based composer trades in her now signature pipe organ for "a complex electroacoustic ensemble." While that new approach certainly features an ambitiously expanded instrumental palette (trombone, bass clarinet, boîte à bourdon. sinewave generator, and ARP 2500 synth), Living Torch is still instantly recognizable as Malone's work both stylistically and structurally. Notably, the piece was "commissioned by GRM for its legendary loudspeaker orchestra," which makes a lot of sense in hindsight, as Living Torch sometimes improbably feels like the work of a drone-obsessed medieval organist who somehow managed to get ahold of Sunn O)))'s gear and some ancient battle horns. Given those enhancements, Living Torch can reasonably be described as a more conspicuously doom-inspired release than The Sacrificial Code. Admittedly, that takes this particular album a bit out of my own personal comfort zone, but I love it anyway and remain firm in my belief that Malone is one of the most singular and fascinating composers of her generation.

Portraits GRM

This piece, which is split into two parts to accommodate the vinyl format, premiered in "complete multichannel form at the Grand Auditorium of Radio France in a concert entirely dedicated to the artist." I imagine it was quite an immersive and amazing performance for those lucky enough to be in attendance, yet I suspect my home-listening experience is but a pale shadow of the intended one, as my sound system falls a bit short of the GRM's Francois Bayle-designed Acousmonium (a "utopia devoted to pure listening"). Given that the loudspeaker orchestra's entire raison d'etre is to facilitate "immersion" and "spatialized polyphony," I cannot think of a more deserving commission recipient than Malone, as few contemporarily composers are more devoted to understanding and maximizing the physics of sound than Malone. In fact, I suspect there is at least one notebook packed with details about how the various frequencies of the shifting sustained tones interact to create a vibrant host of intentional overtones and oscillations. There are a number of other intriguing and cerebral things colliding here as well, as Living Torch draws from "multiple lineages including early modern music, American minimalism, and musique concrète" and also explores "justly tuned harmony," "canonic structures," "the polyphony of unique timbres," "the scaling of dynamic range," and "the revelation of sound qualities." Admittedly, I will just have to take Malone's word for some of that, but I can definitely appreciate the endlessly shifting, slow-motion beauty of the finished piece.

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Matmos, "Regards / Ukłony dla Bogusław Schaeffer"

RegardsOn this latest full-length, the perennially eclectic and boldly adventurous duo of Drew Daniel and MC Schmidt take a break from mining weird and esoteric source material to focus their energies on paying homage to underheard Polish composer and Krzysztof Penderecki associate Bogusław Schaeffer. Matmos were given full access to work their mindbending magic on Schaeffer's complete recorded works and the resultant album is as characteristically unpredictable and hard-to-categorize as ever: instead of remixing or reinterpreting the Polish composer's work, Matmos instead took "tissue samples of DNA from past compositions" and "mutated them into entirely new organisms that throb with an alien vitality." Put another way, Regards/Ukłony dla Bogusław Schaeffer attempts to create a conversation or bridge between the "utopian 1960s Polish avant-garde" and "the contemporary dystopian cultural moment." That is certainly intriguing and fertile terrain for a Matmos album, but the resultant songs wound up somewhere even more delightful and confounding than usual, often approximating a collision between fragmented exotica, kosmische, and a Kubrickian sci-fi nightmare. Naturally, that will be very appealing territory for most long-time Matmos fans, as this album is an especially inspired "everything and the kitchen sink" tour de force of quite disparate stylistic threads woven together in playfully disorienting and mischievous fashion by an talented international cast of virtuousos, eccentric visionaries, and plunderphonic magpies.

Thrill Jockey

My knowledge of Bogusław Schaeffer's work is quite minimal, which makes sense, given that he is not particularly well known outside of Poland. However, I have previously encountered fragments of his ouevre through Bôłt's "Polish Radio Experimental Studio" reissue campaign (as well as an unknowing exposure via David Lynch's Inland Empire). Fittingly, Bôłt founder Michał Mendyk was the spark behind this endeavor (as well as providing some presumably much-needed translation assistance). To Mendyk's credit, reshaping and cannibalizing Schaeffer's work turned out to be an ideal project for Daniel and Schmidt to throw themselves into, as the end result is quintessential Matmos. Granted, the duo's characteristically morbid and/or gleefully ridiculous sound sources are absent here, but Regards checks a lot of other boxes on my personal checklist for an inspired Matmos album (kitsch colliding with high art, rigorous scholarship and compositional vision colliding with plunderphonic mischief, etc.). The opening "Resemblage" provides a representative window into the album's baseline aesthetic, approximating a squelchy strain of post-modernist exotica that evokes the feeling of being serenaded by an all-cyborg Xavier Cugat Orchestra in a psychedelic cave. My favorite pieces all follow soon after, as Regards boasts quite a killer first half.

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Talweg, "Des tourments si grands"

Des tourments si grandsThis is my first deep immersion into Joëlle Vinciarelli & Eric Lombaert's deeply unconventional "free metal" duo, but I have long been a fan of the pair's noise/drone band La Morte Young (as well as Vinciarelli's repeat collaborations with My Cat is an Alien). Notably, there is absolutely nothing recognizably "metal" about this latest release, as the closest kindred spirits are probably outer limits psychonauts like the LAFMS milieu or Borbetomagus. However, even those signposts are inadequate at conveying how far Talweg have descended into their own personal rabbit hole with this album, as these four pieces feel both unstuck in time and decidedly pagan/occult-inspired (which makes sense, given Vinciarelli's passion for collecting unusual and ancient instruments). Further muddying the waters, this album arguably captures the duo in "soundtrack mode," as two of the pieces are early/rehearsal versions of pieces composed for a Monster Chetwynd exhibition, while a third borrows a nursery rhyme from Marcel Hanoun's "Le Printemps" as its central theme. While "rehearsals for an exhibition soundtrack" admittedly does not sound all that appealing on paper, these recordings are quite compelling in reality, as Des tourments si grands often feels like a remarkably inspired and deeply unconventional stab at outsider free jazz. Fans of Vinciarelli's work with MCIAA will definitely want to investigate this one, as it journeys into similarly alien territory, but the addition of Lombaert's killer drumming takes that aesthetic in a far more explosive and visceral direction.

Up Against the Wall, Motherfuckers!

The album is divided into four separate longform pieces that always extend for at least fifteen minutes of shapeshifting psychotropic magic. Picking a favorite is damn near impossible, as every single piece eventually gets somewhere wonderful, but my current feeling is that the closing "où l'on souffre, des tourments si grands que..." is the highlight that best captures the duo at the height of their powers. It initially calls to mind a duet between a free jazz drummer and an orchestra of demonic air raid sirens, but the howling maelstrom is soon further enhanced by the sing-song nursery rhyme at its heart, resulting in something that sounds like a somnambulant French Vashti Bunyan loopingly intoning the same lines over and over again inside a gnarled extradimensional nightmare. Somehow the piece only gets better from there, as a descending chord progression and a stomping, crashing beat take shape as Vinciarelli unleashes a viscerally feral-sounding trumpet solo. Notably, it is the only piece on the album where I can hear any real trace of the pair's metal inspirations, as it feels like a heavy doom metal jam played on the wrong instruments (coupled with a pointed avoidance of all genre tropes, of course). In short, it rules, but the other three songs all come quite close to scaling similarly lofty heights.

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Zemi17, "Gamelatron Bidadari"

Every now and then, I stumble upon a singular artist whose work has somehow managed to remain largely undocumented and entirely under the radar all but the most devout underground music fans. Aaron Taylor Kuffner is the latest visionary to fall into this category, as his Zemi17 project has been around for a quarter century now and he has only just gotten around to releasing his full-length debut. Notably, Gamelatron Bidadari is quite a departure from Zemi17's previous two EPs on The Bunker's house label, as Impressions (2014) and Zipper (2016) were an attempt to integrate Taylor Kuffner's techno past with more natural and timeless sounds originating from his time spent studying gamelan in Indonesia. On this latest release, all traces of Zemi17's dancefloor past have disappeared to showcase another side of Taylor Kuffner's unique artistry: the Gamelatron project that he co-created in 2008, which is billed as "the world’s first fully robotic gamelan orchestra." Since the project's inception, Taylor Kuffner has built more than 70 site-specific kinetic sculptures and provided his signature "immersive, visceral experience" to more than a million people across the globe. The Gamelatron Bidadari captured here is but one of those sculptures and originally debuted as part of an exhibit entitled "No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man" at The Smithsonian's Renwick gallery. While a lot of site-specific installations understandably do not translate terribly well to home listening, this one is a delightful exception, as the resultant recordings feel like an ingenious twist on a timeless favorite, taking traditional gamelan music into an even more loopingly hypnotic direction than usual.

The Bunker New York

It admittedly took me a few listens to fully warm to Gamelatron Bidadari, as I quite like Zemi17's earlier beat-driven aesthetic and Taylor Kuffner's kinetic installations unavoidably suffer the same curse as every modular synth album: once an artists comes up with a killer patch or loop, it is damn hard to evolve beyond the inherent lattice of repeating patterns, resulting in a lot of motifs that play out for a few minutes, then simply fade away before they wear out their welcome. To his credit, however, Taylor Kuffner navigates that predicament quite well within individual pieces by adding and subtracting countermelodies and seismic bass throbs at well-chosen moments. In fact, there are a handful of pieces that I would not mind hearing stretched to album length. In general, the longest pieces tend to be the most compelling. In "The Ring Is Satu," for example, an insistent metallic pulse blossoms into a simple four note pattern that leaves a resonant, quivering, and eerily beautiful vapor trail in its wake (a feat later enhanced further by the nimble insertion of a chiming melody in the spaces between those sustained tones). Elsewhere, Kuffner revisits that approach on "Contours" with an increased sense of spatial depth and stronger shades of melancholy and subtly dissonant harmonies (as well as a steadily snowballing intensity).

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The Plastik Beatniks, “All Those Streets I Must Find Cities For"

All Those Streets I Must Find Cities ForOriginally a musical radio play, these twelve tracks excavate and spotlight the life and work of original Beat poet Bob Kaufman; and with Kaufman the life and the work are genuinely inseparable. A mentor to Kerouac, and dubbed the Black American Rimbaud, Kaufman endured savage SFPD brutality, electroshock treatment, and incarceration, before his young and obscure death in abject poverty. Kaufman had purposefully stilled his own voice with a vow of silence stretching from the JFK assassination until the end of the Vietnam War, yet here it still resounds with the speed and spirit of surrealist jazz, forever “lost in a dream world, where time is told with a beat.”

Alien Transistor

The Plastik Beatniks, alias Andreas Ammer, Markus and Micha Acher of The Nowist, and Leo Hopfinger aka LeRoy) formed for that September 2020 radio play, “Thank God For Beatniks.” There is also a bit of Ginsberg and Patti Smith, but it’s the contributions from Angel Bat Dawid and Moor Mother which really breathe life into this project. Angel Bat Dawid has consistently exceeded the high expectations generated by her debut The Oracle, and her vocals and clarinet have a perfect air of improvisation, joy, and pain, especially on “West Coast Sound 1956.” Similarly, Moor Mother drives Kaufman’s "War Memoir" with empathy and passion to match the wild, slithering, Eastern-tinged guitar lines. There’s a note of defiant optimism, too, in the simple act of changing the final word of Kaufman’s “O-JazzO War Memorial: Jazz, Don’t Listen To It At Your Own Risk” from “die" to “live."

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Nate Scheible, "Fairfax"

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Originally released on cassette back in 2017 on London's seemingly now defunct ACR label, this absolutely brilliant album failed to reach enough ears to make much of an impact the first time it surfaced.  Thankfully,  the Slovakian Warm Winters Ltd. label has now reissued this obscure masterpiece (now remastered by Lawrence English) to appropriately universal acclaim.  The premise of the album is admittedly a modest one on paper, as Scheible simply presents some excerpts from a cassette scavenged from a second-hand store over a minimal backdrop of ambient/drone music.  The crucial detail, however, is that the appropriated recording feels like a strong contender for the greatest thrift store find of the century, intimately documenting the joys and heartaches of a lonely but irrepressibly hopeful middle-aged woman as she waits to be reunited with the love of her life.  Beyond that, virtually nothing is known about the album's anonymous heroine or what series of circumstances led to something so personal winding up in a Virginia thrift store.   Everyone loves a good mystery, of course, but that aspect of this album feels almost irrelevant once the unknown woman starts talking, as her openness and vulnerability pack one hell of an emotional wallop.  Sadly, life was not easy at all for the album's unwitting protagonist, so there are some truly heartbreaking passages to be found, but they are mingled with some others that fill me with an uncharacteristic sense of warmth and connection for the rest of humanity.  In short, Fairfax essentially distills all of the joy and pain of life's rich pageant into one perfect record.  

Warm Winters Ltd.

The album opens with quite an emotion gut punch, as a simple message of "good morning, my love" immediately turns dark, as the unknown woman immediately realizes that she has confused October and April and announces that she is "not well" (a message furthered darkened by Scheible's minimal backdrop of brooding drones).  Things initially seem like they are brightening a bit in the following "After Work on Monday Afternoon," as she talks about how excited she was to receive a letter from her love, but the situation quickly becomes unsettling once more when she mentions that she has read the letter over and over again and gently chastises the letter writer for being "about nine letters behind" (there were some letters that she forgot to number).  She then fades away to leave behind a gorgeous coda of swaying, spacey ambiance with frayed, hissing edges.  It feels like reality has unexpectedly dissolved into some kind of immersively hallucinatory state of suspended animation.  Thankfully, our heroine briefly brightens up for "Our Doubts Are Traitors," as she recites an inspirational poem over some pleasant ambient shimmer.  That shimmer gradually becomes curdled and darkened by ugly harmonies and gnarled textures though, which paves the way for next two devastating gut punches: the stand-up bass jazz noir of "Made to Feel Special" and uneasy spectral drift of "Thrilled to Death."  

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Kate Moore, "Revolver"

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This is my first exposure to Netherlands-based composer Kate Moore, but I probably would have encountered her much sooner if I paid more attention to the modern classical music scene,  as she released a well-regarded album of piano compositions on ECM back in 2014.  Revolver is an entirely different animal though, as Moore composed for a small string ensemble augmented by a percussionist and a harpist.  The album draws inspiration from the "kinetic physicality and aesthetics" of Australian artist Ken Unsworth, which Moore (a fellow Australian) attempted to translate into a "feeling of suspension between movement and stasis."  The few Unsworth pieces that I have seen certainly share that feeling, but translating a vision of hanging rocks in an art gallery into eight strange and beautiful string pieces is not a simple and linear path, which is where the album title comes in: Moore attempted to recreate the same feeling of suspension through "evolving and revolving melodies, poised skilfully in polyrhythmic structures."  To my ears, the result shares plenty of common ground with the repeating arpeggio patterns of modern classical minimalists like Reich and Glass, but enhanced with a considerably lighter touch, more human-scale intimacy, and a healthy appreciation for subtle psychedelia.

Unsounds

The title piece kicks off the album with quite an impressive statement of intent, as violinist Anna McMichael unleashes a sad and lovely melody over a repeating two-chord backdrop of xylophone and harp arpeggios.  It is elegantly simple and uncluttered and occasionally feels like some kind of zen meditation on water and the transitory nature of all things, but it ultimately builds into a swirling and intense finale of ascending violin patterns that feels wonderfully out of phase with xylophone motif beneath.  While my favorite pieces on the album all fall in a stellar four-song run on the second half, "Revolver" is an excellent piece that showcases Moore's distilled vision of strong melodies and shifting patterns beautifully.  The second piece ("The Boxer") showcases further exquisite pleasure, as a mournful violin melody slices nicely through a gently hallucinatory backdrop of harp, xylophone, and a kick drum pulse that calls to mind an erratic, slowed-down heartbeat.  I especially love how Moore balances the sharp physicality of the violin with soft-focus arpeggios that feel like harmonics that dreamily linger in the air.  

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Jeremy Young, "August Tape Sketches"

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This latest release from Jeremy Young is quite a different album from last year's eclectic Amaro, which is not surprising given the adventurous array of collaborators involved in the latter.  This time, however, Young keeps things simple and solitary and the result is similarly stellar.  In fact, this album amusingly calls to mind a sort of more punk/DIY/lo-fi Tim Hecker or Fennesz, as it is similarly fragmented and flickering, yet also sounds like Young just plugged a guitar straight into his amp and wove pure magic in his garage.  In reality, the magic was a bit less spontaneous and supernatural, but that does not make the album any less beautiful.  Much of the secret lies in the album's admirably literal title, as August Tape Sketches transforms Young's guitar sketches into complex and hallucinatory tape cut-ups that could reasonably be mistaken for the rough demo of a Kevin Shields ambient project.  While I am not yet ready to proclaim that Young is a one-man My Bloody Valentine, I do feel confident in proclaiming that he is very good at stretching, bending, and warping guitar sounds in extremely cool ways.  

meakusma

The opening "Untitled (For Ernst)" provides a largely representative introduction to the album's aesthetic: stammering chord swells and a fragmented melodic hook languorously convulse and flicker for roughly two minutes, then vanish.  The overall effect is quite "ambient," as the looping nature of the compositions lends itself nicely to hypnotic repetition, but the construction/deconstruction of Young's loopscapes is quite inventive and fascinating.  On pieces like the opener and "Untitled (For Kelly)," the raw material seems like little more than a single chord or arpeggio pulled apart and exploded into its own artfully blurred and stuttering micro-galaxy.  Those two pieces are both wonderful, but the strongest pieces tend to be the ones in which Young allows himself to stretch out into more song-like territory.  To my ears, the centerpiece of the album is "Earlier Than Energy," which casts a warped and blissed-out spell evoking a Phllip Jeck cut-up of a great Slowdive outro.  

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