Nonconnah, "Don't Go Down To Lonesome Holler"

Don't Go Down To Lonesome HollerIn general, releasing a three-hour album is a highly dubious endeavor, as such an extreme length usually turns even very good music into an endurance test and virtually guarantees that few people will ever listen to the entire opus more than once.  When "Memphis dronegaze cult" Nonconnah do it, however, it feels like an absolute godsend.  Part of that is because the husband/wife duo of Zachary and Denny Wilkerson Corsa lead what is possibly the most consistently fascinating and wonderful shoegaze/drone project around, but there is an equally important second part as well: the Corsas seem to be constantly collaborating with a host of talented guests.  Unsurprisingly, that generates an ungodly amount of material and each major new Nonconnah album feels like a mere tantalizing glimpse into the innumerable killer jams and recording sessions that led up to the release.  When I say that Don't Go Down to Lonesome Holler could have probably been an equally brilliant six- or nine-hour album, it is not hyperbole: there are over 50 credited performers involved in this album including folks from heavy hitters like Archers of Loaf, Swans, and No Age (as well as more than 60 instruments ranging from singing saws to cats).  My guess is that the only limiting factor was how much time the Corsas could spend culling and editing their mountain of killer material without starting to lose their goddamn minds.  This album is an absolute revelation ("Nonconnah's most comprehensive vision yet for the American halfpocalypse," according to the label).

Ernest Jenning Record Co.

Given Nonconnah's unusual compositional techniques (an endlessly shapeshifting series of themes that blur and bleed into each other), the extended song durations (nothing clocks in under 20 minutes), and the fact that this album is the culmination of six years of recordings made in many locations (silos, graveyards, overpasses, etc.) involving several dozen participants, any attempt to concisely describe a single piece is absolutely hopeless.  The overall effect, however, feels somewhat akin to being adrift on a sea of shoegaze-y guitar noise in a boat with no oars so I am completely at the mercy of wherever the waves decide to take me.  Sometimes the guitar sounds are sun-dappled and beautiful, sometimes they are quivering and hallucinatory, and other times they are roaring and gnarled.  Other times, however, the shimmering shoegaze tides roll back out to sea and leave me somewhere else enchanted and dreamlike. Occasionally, I catch myself wishing that a particular theme stuck around longer or had been expanded into a stand-alone piece, but those thoughts tend to immediately dissipate when said passage bleeds into something else that is every bit as gorgeous. 

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Andrew Anderson, "Vagrancies"

VagranciesFollowing a multitude of self-released tapes and digital releases, Vagrancies is Austin, Texas's Andrew Anderson's first CD based work. Ostensibly created by the instrumentation and sources listed in the disc's liner notes, Anderson's treatment renders them largely unidentifiable, instead using them to construct something else entirely. Consisting of four long-form pieces connected with shorter interludes, Vagrancies covers a lot of ground, with an impressive amount of variety from piece to piece, but still a strong sense of continuity from one piece to the next.

Elevator Bath

Anderson sets the tone for the disc with the opening "Dressed in No Light." It's a massive, tumbling avalanche of reverberated clicks, with a foghorn-like sound giving a ghostly approximation of a melody. The entirety is bleak and dour, with a fascinating density peppered with spinning and sputtering passages of sound. "Shadows Are Roots" differs in what almost sounds like an indistinct twang of an instrument expanding through a bassy hum. The metallic twang stands out and cuts through, but not in a jarring manner. With Anderson throwing in some percussive knocks, scrapes, and a few wet thuds, there is a lot going on, but never does it come across as unfocused. 

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Širom, "The Liquified Throne of Simplicity"

The Liquified Throne of SimplicityI feel like I got into this Slovenian "imaginary folk" trio a bit late, as 2019’s A Universe That Roasts Blossoms For A Horse was the first Širom album that I picked up.  However, it also seems like each new album is the perfect time to discover Širom and those who join the party with this latest release are in for a real treat.  Along with Belgium’s Merope and the scene centered around France’s Standard In-Fi and La Nòvia labels, Širom are one of the leading lights in a new wave of imaginative and adventurous international folk ensembles and this fourth album is their most expansive to date (“for the first time the trio…ignore the time constraints of a standard vinyl record to fashion longer, more fully developed entrancing and hypnotizing peregrinations”).  Aside from making stellar use of their newly expanded song lengths, it feels like some delightful jazz influences have crept deeper into Širom’s DNA as well, as a couple of pieces feel like the various members trading wonderfully wild, visceral, and hallucinatory solos over strong, unconventional vamps (the album description also explicitly notes that Širom “echo the borderless, collective spirit of groups like Don Cherry's Organic Music Society and Art Ensemble of Chicago”).  Obviously, that is enviable and excellent company to be associated with, but Širom’s influences transcend perceived boundaries of time and space so fluidly that trying to forensically determine the contents of their record collections is both hopeless and entirely beside the point.  When they are at their best (which happens often here), Širom feel like a glimpse into an alternate timeline where the freewheeling adventurousness of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s never ended and everything just kept getting weirder, cooler, and more sophisticated forever (and record labels were delighted to foot the bill for anything that could potentially be the next The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter).

Tak:til/Glitterbeat

The album opens with one hell of a bombshell in the form of “Wilted Superstition Engaged in Copulation,” as the trio unleash an impressive run of killer solos over a pleasantly clattering, oddly timed percussion vamp.  Given the exotic nature of the instrumentation and the multiple roles that each of the band members play, it can be quite a challenge to figure out who is doing what at any given moment, but Ana Kravanja’s alternately droning and gnarled viola themes are a definite and recurring highlight.  The other highlights are a bit more challenging to wrap my mind around, as one stretch sounds like a buzzing, psychotropic duet between a strangled bagpipe and some Peruvian flutes, while another sounds like a rattling, delay-enhanced cacophony of violently jangled metal chimes.  Naturally, there are some other inspired, hard-to-describe moments along the way as well, giving the piece the feel of a 20-minute performance in which a magician pulls increasingly weirder and more surprising things out of his hat.  The band then shifts gears a bit for the more subdued “Grazes, Wrinkles, Drifts into Sleep,” as Kravanja unleashes a lovely melancholy viola melody over a quiet backdrop of intertwining balafon and banjo themes.  There are plenty of compelling twists early on (sharp and/or ghostly harmonics and warbly, wordless vocals from Kravanja), but the big payoff comes when it shoots right past “psychotropic aviary” and intensifies into a buzzing and heaving crescendo of heavy acoustic drone. 

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Félicia Atkinson, "Image Langage"

Image LanguageThis latest album from the consistently fascinating Atkinson is yet another plunge into a vibrantly textured and otherworldly dreamspace, this time drawing inspiration from an abstract dialog between house and landscape. Or more specifically, "Inside and outside, different ways of orienting a body towards the world." In keeping with that theme, Atkinson "revisited twentieth-century women artists who variously chose, and were chosen by, their homes as a place to work." Naturally, there are some other conceptual layers as well (this being a Félicia Atkinson album, after all). One of the more interesting ones is the decision to give the album a name that resembles a "fake title of a fake Godard film." In an obvious sense, that is apt given how Image Langage feels like a film with no actual images, but Godard's mischievous meaning-dissolving weirdness is also manifested in how Atkinson wields and repurposes her sounds. In more concrete terms, that means that Atkinson deliberately used instruments alternately like field recordings or characters in a murky, surreal narrative and often reduces her voice to an unpredictably drifting and elusive presence. The overall effect is like being lost in a beautiful dream where an unreliable narrator periodically drifts in with riddle-like non-clues that only lead me deeper into Atkinson's eerie, soft-focus enigma.

Shelter Press

This album is billed as “an environmental record” about “getting lost in places imagined and real.” Naturally, one of the real places central to the album is Atkinson’s home on the “wild coast of Normandy” where much of the writing and recording took place (the rest occurred at a lakeside residency in Switzerland). I bring all this up because Image Langage has an unusually enigmatic and slippery aesthetic that blurs the line between songcraft and more abstract/outré fare. At times, the album can feel very “ambient,” but it is actually chasing something akin to impressionistic clairvoyance/clairaudience. While fully grasping the shades of meaning lurking within a Félicia Atkinson is often a tall order, Thea Ballard crafted quite an illuminating statement for the album’s description, noting that Image Langage evokes a visit to Atkinson’s seaside home in which we are “invited to witness Atkinson’s acts of seeing, hearing, and reading in a sonic double of the places they occurred.” In more practical terms, that means that the overall impression left by Image Langage is that of staying in a benignly haunted cottage populated by whispered voices, bleary drones, ephemeral flickers of piano melody, and hallucinatory manipulations of nature sounds. Unsurprisingly, I find that to be characteristically immersive and fascinating Atkinson territory, but Image Langage also has a handful of great individual pieces that transcend the baseline “ASMR-inspired ambient for well-read seaside ghosts” aesthetic. Amusingly, a case could be made that this is Atkinson’s “dub album,” as two of the strongest pieces share some common ground with artists like Pole and loscil.

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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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