Brainwashed Radio: The Podcast Edition

Steens Mountain by MandaIt's an exciting all-new episode with music from Diamanda Galás, The Soft Pink Truth, Big Joanie, Nailah Hunter, SAULT, Joy Guidry, Taylor Deupree, Noori & His Dorpa Band, Ashley Paul, Benny Bock, Mat Ball, and KMRU.

Thanks to Manda for the stunning photo of Steens Mountain in Alvord Desert in Oregon.

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Marco Shuttle, "Cobalt Desert Oasis"

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This divergent third album from Berlin-based producer Marco Shuttle is my first exposure to his work, but he has released a handful of killer singles over the last decade in a darkly hallucinatory minimal techno vein akin to Lucy and Rrose. While I would have been thrilled to hear another perfectly crafted single like "Sing Like a Bird" (2014) or "Flauto Synthetico" (2016), Cobalt Desert Oasis is nevertheless a pleasant and semi-radical departure for Shuttle, as it is inspired by field recordings and images collected over two years of travel. I suppose Shuttle has always drawn inspiration from far-flung places very unlike Berlin, but the big difference is that this album uses field recordings and acoustic instrumentation as its raw material and focus rather than just a source of ideas for more dancefloor-targeted work. While this album does not necessary cure me of my belief that Shuttle primarily excels as a singles artist, it was definitely a nice surprise to be blindsided in 2021 by something resembling a lost O Yuki Conjugate classic. And, of course, there are a few great singles lurking here as well.

Incienso

This album is billed as "a cinematic listening experience where psychedelia, ritualism, and mysticism weave together in a sort of alien soundscape," which is a reasonably accurate characterization, though to my ears it lands much closer to "cool headphone album" than anything conventionally "cinematic" or strikingly otherworldly. Shuttle does strike an unusual balance of traditional sounds and modern technology though, as the stronger pieces feel like a simmering and hallucinatory drum circle enhanced with a steady kickdrum thump. "Danza De Los Voladores" is representative example of the album's baseline aesthetic, as Shuttle whips up a psych-damaged dub concoction over a slow and deep bass drum pulse: birds happily chirp, synths bubble like a witch's cauldron, indigenous flute melodies wander in and out, and a host of hand percussion sounds subtly pan and morph in the periphery. It is quite a likeable and inventive detour from what I would expect from Shuttle, but the songs admittedly blur together a bit aside from the handful of instances where he tweaks the formula with some kind of inspired twist (most pieces stick to relatively narrow tempo comfort zone and the melodies are all quite understated). The most inspired facet of the album is Shuttle's use of a Persian drum called a Tombak, which is presumably the heart of one of the album's strongest pieces, "Tombak Healer," in which a seething, slow-motion kick drum pulse is enhanced with a skittering and panning tour de force of dubby hand percussion. I am also a big fan of the propulsive "Through the Cobalt Desert," which sounds like a relentlessly forward-moving strain of dub-techno birthed in a deep tropical jungle. My personal favorite is probably the sensuous and blearily dreamlike exotica of “Winds of Cydonia” though. How I feel about the remainder of the album is largely a function of how natural/seamless the balance of traditional instruments and electronics feels: some pieces feel like something cool and distinctive, some feel a bit too smooth and straightforward to leave a deep impression. While Cobalt Desert Oasis probably could have been a flawless EP if Shuttle had distilled it down to its four or five best pieces, it makes for a pleasantly immersive focused listening experience. Shuttle is onto something quite good here, but it might take another album or two before this side of his art feels fully realized.

Samples can be found here.

Grouper, "Shade"

cover imageI suppose I have been a devoted Grouper fan since sometime around 2008's Dragging A Dead Dear Up A Hill, but there was a long stretch during The Reverb Years in which I was genuinely mystified by the outsized reverence that people seemed to have for this project (very similar to my experience with The Disintegration Loops, though I love several of Basinski's other albums). In more recent years, however, I have become considerably more convinced that Liz Harris is some kind of iconoclastic visionary (albeit a very slow-moving one), though I am not sure if she is shaping the culture so much as providing a much-needed corrective to its rapidly accelerating and tech-focused trajectory. While my initial impression is that this 12th Grouper full-length is not quite as uniformly strong as some other Grouper albums from recent years, that is less relevant than the fact that it continues Harris's trend towards more intimate, emotionally direct, and beautifully distilled songcraft. In that regard, Shade gives me exactly what I want from a new Grouper album: at least one song that is an absolutely devasting gut punch on the same level of "Parking Lot" and "Living Room." To my ears, that album-defining gem comes in the form of the folky, bittersweet closer "Kelso (Blue Sky)," but there are probably a couple of other sublime and/or unexpected gems destined for semi-permanent heavy rotation in my life as well.

Kranky

I was a bit surprised to learn that Shade collects songs spanning 15 years, as they convincingly feel like they all could have been birthed from a single extended flash of inspiration in a remote cabin (most pieces feature only hushed vocals and an acoustic guitar, though tape murk is definitely a recurring feature too). According to Harris, "this an album about respite" and "the coast," as one of Shade's primary themes is how our memories, experiences, connections, and selves are shaped and framed by place. Fittingly, Shade was recorded at various places along the Northern California and Pacific Northwest coasts (including a "self-made residency" on a mountain).  Stylistically, this is one of Harris's more nakedly "folky" albums, as there is plenty of fingerpicked acoustic guitar, tender vocal melodies, and a minimum of effects (just flesh, steel, and wood, basically). The album is broken up by a handful of pieces that feel more like soundscapes, but that is mostly because they are songs that are so blearily lo-fi and tape-distressed that they cross over into semi-abstraction.

Happily, some of those hiss-ravaged pieces turn out to be surprise album highlights though, such as the opening "Followed the Ocean," which resembles an achingly gorgeous and ghostly '70s country gem heard through a blown-out car radio. Elsewhere, "Disordered Minds" feels like a killer dreampop song absolutely smothered in tape murk and possibly played at the wrong speed, but it still manages to sound like heaven in spite of that (it reminds me of Russian Tsarlag, but warm and beautiful rather than rotted and disturbing). As far as the more "straight" material is concerned, I am similarly fond of "Pale Interior," which feels like a hazy hypnagogic cover of a Vashti Bunyan classic. That said, the inarguable centerpiece of Shade is the aforementioned "Kelso (Blue Sky)," as the tape fog finally dissipates to reveal a moving and sublime near-masterpiece that feels like I died and woke up in a heaven where Nebraska is a Hope Sandoval album rather than a Bruce Springsteen one (and I love that I can hear every single scrape of Harris's fingers moving across the fretboard). Naturally, all of that adds up to yet another great Grouper album, but the real magic is that Harris's recent work somehow feels like something else altogether (something even better), akin to a getting a long unexpected letter from a beloved yet elusive friend that I am never quite sure I will hear from again.

Samples can be found here.

Nation of Language, "Introduction, Presence"

Introductiion, Presence cover imageI can comfortably get into complex music at its most intricate, but not all music needs to be this way to fill my soul. The debut from Brooklyn's Nation of Language is rich with eighties new wave vibes, with uncomplicated and passionate melodies evoking warm summer feelings from a bygone time, all the while belying its forlorn lyrical content. Nation of Language started as an homage to the synth-pop of singer Ian Devaney's youth. The band honed and tested their sound through a series of singles over four years before bringing everything together into their full-length debut Introduction, Presence. The apt title implies an introduction to their sound, exuding a genuine and powerful presence to a band that has taken careful care to honor their past with a sound that stands firm in the future.

Self-Released

Michael Sui-Poi's lush bass is the centerpiece of the group's sound, serving as the foundational melody and providing a deep and driving underlying force. This familiar sound often earns the moniker of post-punk, but there is no mimicry here; listeners may hear inclinations to Joy Division or Human League, but the experience is entirely Nation of Language. Devaney's vocals offset crisp machine-made drum beats and clean synth flourishes, giving every song warmth and passion, a cavalcade of sparkling dream-pop. Yet beneath the dreaminess is a lyrical melting pot of loss and longing, reflecting on the many imperfections of humanity. My favorites "September Again" and "Indignities," are glaring examples of this, and I find myself relating more deeply on repeated listens.

"And they pile up / These indignities / On my laptop / With these indignities / In the paper I don't really read / It says what if there's more than binary / And I don't understand / It's not the way it used to be / All I really wanna say is just cut it out."

Indeed, it's not the way it used to be, and Introduction, Presence evokes what felt like a less complicated era. One thing that remains true is that excellent music can help see one through life in any era; the enchanting hooks of Introduction, Presence serve as a musical rediscovery through a sometimes confusing and challenging present.

Samples can be found here.

Trip Shrubb, "Trewwer, Leud un Danz"

https://f4.bcbits.com/img/a3667722917_16.jpgUnder a name (Trip Shrubb) taken from a gravestone in Northamptonshire, Michael Beckett presents a cool subterranean selection from his own 84-track transformation of one of the best records ever released: the Anthology of American Folk Music originally compiled by Harry Smith in 1952. Smith, a painter, filmmaker, and obsessive collector of everything from paper airplanes and string figures, to quilts and Ukrainian Easter eggs, curated the Anthology from thousands of 78 RPM records. Trewwer, Leud un Danz is an appropriate companion piece, which matches the obsessive nature of Smith’s vision, serves as a bizarre reminder that a lot of "old, weird, America" comes from older, weirder, Europe, and could also pass for a great soundtrack to Harry Smith’s simply wild experimental films such as Heaven and Earth Magic.

Faitiche

I am reminded of Eric Cantona, the footballer who faced criminal charges and widespread moral outrage for leaping into a hostile crowd and kung-fu kicking then thumping a particularly obnoxious fan. Asked if he wished to express regret, Cantona replied "I have one regret, I would have loved to have kicked him even harder."  Well, no one is going to accuse Beckett of half-measures. In fact, I suggest that the reason he has sampled and "effected" the living blood, skin, and bone (plus marrow) daylights out of the original source material is because he loves it so much. Either way, he has given it an absolute shellacking. This is no pale representation of the real thing. Nor is it a smug authentication by an earnest arty type in exchange for them basking in reflected glory. The icing on this sauerkraut is that Beckett has even further disguised the material by translating song titles into the "Low German" dialect. Harry Smith himself would not recognize them in a blind hearing. I gave up trying to work out track titles after, possibly, cracking a couple. The psycho jet-lagged juju-dub rendition of "Wake up, Jacob" (originally by Prince Albert Hunt’s Texas Ramblers) lurches and swings so strangely that it could get away with being retitled "Jackie Mittoo’s Shoes In a Tumble Dryer (dub)".

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Adam Pacione, "Any Way, Shape, or Form"

cover image Austin based composer and photographer Adam Pacione's recorded work has been largely digital over the past 10 years or so, which makes this lavish four disc collection all the more significant. Any Way, Shape, or Form complies 2009's Still Life series of subscription only 3" CDRs alongside some other unreleased and rare material from the same era, based around material recorded between 1999 and 2009. In some ways the box is a massive undertaking, though split into comfortably bite sized pieces that perfectly capture Pacione's brand of unique ambient work, it is enjoyable in any listening arrangement.

Elevator Bath

Across these 16 compositions, Pacione works largely with gentle tones that he layers and expands, with a notable amount of consistency from piece to piece. This makes sense given that 14 of them formed a formal series, with two unreleased works from the same era included. Generally speaking the pieces on the first disc have an expansive, gentle drift to them. "A Still Life" and "Dyestuffs" both lead from soft tones, the former transitioning more towards explicit melody in its later segments, the latter from the onset. There are some bleaker, grimier moments towards the end of "They Live By Night" but overall the pieces here are made up of shimmering, beautiful, yet varied tones.

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Markus Guentner, "Extropy"

cover imageIt has admittedly been a while since I have actively followed this German composer's work, but his 2001 debut album (In Moll) spent quite some time in heavy rotation for me during the early 2000s dub- and ambient-techno boom. In more recent years, Guentner has jettisoned the "techno" part of his previous aesthetic and devoted himself to an acclaimed run of space-inspired ambient opuses on LA's A Strangely Isolated Place. Accordingly to Guentner, Extropy "marks the final chapter in an accidental triptych of astronomy-related exploratory albums" that began with 2015's Theia.  While the previous two epics in the series drew conceptual inspiration from the birth of the moon and the earth's relation to the largely unknown and possibly infinite universe, this latest release focuses on "the indefinite growth of the life we hold so dearly." More specifically, Guentner was fascinated by "a pseudoscientific prediction that human intelligence and technology will enable life to expand in an orderly way throughout the entire universe." While I personally expect nothing but entropy instead and note that this album has more of an elegiac feel than an optimistic one, there is no denying that Guenter knows how to make an absorbing and beautifully crafted album. In fact, he may be a bit too good at it, as Extropy would be a bit more memorable if he allowed more sharp edges and eccentricities to creep into his art. That said, this album still seems like it would be one hell of a challenge to top as far as billowing ambient cloudscapes are concerned.

A Strangely Isolated Place

According to Extropy's description, Guentner views the album as something of a return to "what some may call his early, classic sound." I am not sure how much I agree, as I would describe much of the album as classic/textbook ambient (if unusually well-executed), as most pieces are a feast of frayed, blurred, grainy and billowing synth drones. However, the closing "Here" does break from the pack with a subtle nod to Guentner's techno past, as deep bass tones gradually creep in to provide a sense of structure and forward motion. To my ears, it calls to mind a ghostly abstraction of one of Seefeel's more dubby and vaporous cuts. That is always welcome territory, but I also loved the unexpectedly sharp feedback-like tone that repeatedly burns through the bleary haze of soft-focus droneage.

While easily one of my favorite pieces on the album, "Here" is also significant for helpfully illustrating everything there is to know about Extropy: as far as ambient music is concerned, Markus Guentner is a consummate professional with exacting standards, so the album's baseline level of quality is quite high. However, "skillfully executed" is not the same thing as "memorable," so I especially appreciate the moments in which Guenter veered off-script into more distinctive territory. My favorite of those moments is "Everywhere," which beautifully enhances Guenter's cloud-like swells with slicing harmonic-like streaks, a submerged chorus, and some beautifully harmonizing brass drones. Aside from that, "Everywhere" also nods to Guentner's rhythmic past, as one section feels like warm washes of static breaking up on the shores of a brooding bass pattern. Elsewhere, "Concept of Credence" beautifully tugs at the heart strings with a crescendo of ringing and reverberant church bells that evoke the picturesque square of a cobblestoned dream village. The opening "Nowhere" is yet another favorite, as streaks of sharp feedback carve through a fog of flickering ghost melodies. Nearly all of these seven pieces are excellent though. At the moment, my gut tells me that Extropy is a very solid album with a handful of great pieces, but one that could benefit from more intrusions from field recordings, melodies, and sharper textures. I seem to enjoy it more with each listen, however, so I may belatedly proclaim it to be a masterpiece in another five years or so (when my patience and appreciation for nuanced emotional shadings finally catches up with Guentner's own).

Samples can be found here.

Alapastel, "Ceremony"

cover imageThis is the second album from Slovakian neo-classical composer Lukáš Bulko and his first for Lost Tribe Sound (Ceremony is part of the label's "Salt & Gravity" series). Fittingly, Lost Tribe's Ryan Keane was introduced to Bulko’s work by William Ryan Fritch, as the two artists occupy a similar blurry stylistic nexus where film score, classical composition, ambient music, and experimentation meet with oft-unique results. In short, this is a quintessential Lost Tribe Sound album, as Bulko's unusual compositional approach and eclectic choice of instruments elevate this album into something considerably more compelling than most neo-classical albums that find their way to my ears. In that regard, the epic "In The Service of Life" is Ceremony's mesmerizing centerpiece, as Bulko inventively enlivens warm ambient drones with out-of-focus smears of dissonance, gurgling didgeridoo, and surprisingly prominent jaw harp twangs. While not quite everything on Ceremony ascends to the same level, the handful of pieces where Bulko is truly inspired are quite revelatory, as he is in a class by himself as far as compositional fluidity is concerned.

Lost Tribe Sound

The brilliance of this album is a bit understated and sneaky, as Bulko's work can often seem mannered and conventionally lovely in a way that is promising for a bright future in film scoring, yet bodes poorly for attaining my passionate lifelong fandom. However, first glances can be deceptive and Ceremony's stronger pieces take some very inspired detours into rarified terrain, which makes this is an excellent album for deep listening, as Bulko is extremely skilled at allowing an organic psychedelia to bleed into his slow-burning compositions. A healthy amount of Ceremony's inspiration comes from indigenous people, as Bulko has a deep interest in traditional/sustainable cultures and their rituals (he is considerably less keen on humanity's current direction). In fact, the album's first six pieces were actually rooted in ceremonial field recordings and indigenous instrument performances from Richard Grossman and Serena Gabriel (shakers, flutes, etc.). The other secret star of the album is Ján Kruzliak, Jr., who contributed improvised and oft-gorgeous violin and box cello performances to the same pieces. When all of those facets are in perfect harmony and balance, as they are in "New World Healing Center," the results are incredibly compelling and beautiful. Initially, "Healing Center" feels like a slowly heaving and lurching bit of rustic ambient, but it achieves a wonderfully shambling and precarious sense of forward motion en route to a swooningly gorgeous violin crescendo. While I greatly appreciate Bulko's knack for groaning, smearing, breathy and whistling textures, his true genius lies in the organic fluidity of his compositions. Part of that effect is likely due to the underlying field recordings and Kruzliak's improvisations, yet that does not make the feat any less impressive. When Bulko is at his best, his work sounds like it is mirroring the elegant movements of a dancer's body in real time. While he does not achieve that masterful illusion with the entire album, both "Healing Center" and "In the Service of Life" are quietly sublime stunners and several of the other pieces fleetingly reach similar heights. The album's other lengthy pieces (“From Untold Pains” and “Flight Over Utopia”) are deeply immersive too, but "Healing Center" and "In The Service of Life" are the singular gems that make this an album worth seeking out.

Samples can be found here.

The Universal Veil, "Helios/Hind"

cover imageThis is one of those albums that is likely destined to instantly become some kind of sought-after cult classic, which is amusingly common territory for both of the artists involved. In any case, The Universal Veil is entirely new to me, which makes a lot of sense in some ways (as far as Discogs and Bandcamp are concerned, the project does not exist) and does not make any sense at all in others (Helios/Hind basically checks every single possible box for "things I like"). As far as I can tell, however, Hood Faire's David Chatton Barker and Sam McLoughlin (Samandtheplants, Tongues of Light, etc.) have been performing live together for years under this guise and this album is something of a culminating event for the project, as the duo have collaged fragments of their past performances into a hallucinatory full-length of ravaged lo-fi tape experiments and something akin to "ethnological forgeries" like Harappian Night Recordings' classic The Glorious Gongs Of Hainuwele (or a chopped and screwed trip through the more outré side of Sublime Frequencies discography). Needless to say, that means Helios/Hind sets a course quite far out into the shadowy psychedelic fringes, which is exactly what I would hope for when two artists this singular come together.

Hood Faire

The first side of the album ("Helios") opens with stuttering, chirping metal strings that feel like the work of some kind of Remko Scha-style contraption, but things quickly settle into a bleary, ramshackle groove of eerie synth atmospheres, hollow-sounding percussion, and loads of tape hiss and murk. Naturally, that section is the album's "single" of sorts ("The Camel"), but it is basically just an unusually melodic 4-minute stretch of a sound collage that spans an entire side of vinyl. As the rest of the piece unfolds, it variously resembles slow-motion exotica, The Gag File-era Aaron Dilloway, The Shadow Ring-style "found footage" creepiness, and a drugged gamelan ensemble collapsing from exhaustion, dropping things, and wandering off. For the most part, I would describe the aesthetic as something akin to fragments of Nonesuch Explorer-esque tribal field recordings filtered through blown speakers and ravaged tape, but occasionally some other elements like laughter and party sounds drift in as well. Unsurprisingly, the "Hind" side offers more of the same phantasmagoric miasma of cool tribal/junkyard percussion motifs, precarious keyboard melodies, and tape ruin, but it seems to have more of an "animal" element than the "Helios" side. At times, it is even weirdly beautiful, as it is when a wonderful stomping and shuffling groove dissolves into a coda of warm, bleary drones. In general, however, "Hind" feels like a ravaged recording of a gamelan procession colliding with a badly worn VHS tape of German Expressionist Horror at a lysergic bird sanctuary. That is certainly quite a compelling illusion to linger in and Chatton Barker and McLoughlin thankfully manage to avoid ever breaking that fragile spell of strange and broken otherworldliness. While there are only a couple of "set piece" moments in which Helios/Hind coheres into an especially focused and striking passage, such interludes are mostly just the icing on a cake of wonderfully immersive, gnawed, and gnarled outsider mindfuckery.

A sample can be found here.

Alister Fawnwoda, Suzanne Ciani, Greg Leisz, "Milan"

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PLEASE DELETE. BELATEDLY DISCOVERED THAT DANGERBIRD IS AN RIAA LABEL.

 

Tomasz Sroczynski, "Symphony n°2 / Highlander"

cover imageThis album was my first exposure to this Polish composer, but this appears to be his sixth album if I include his improv trio and his collaborations. Also, it is the second symphony that he has composed (the first being 2017's Resurrection). Some of his past albums are a bit closer to my own weird/experimental sensibility (Primal and Ajulella, for example), but Symphony n°2 / Highlander is a more straightforward modern classical release and it is one hell of a great one. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Highlander is composed of three very good pieces and one absolutely brilliant one. Naturally, that one absolutely brilliant piece ("Moderato Pastorale") is the best reason to seek this album out, but as the album description notes, "Tomasz Sroczynski is a symphony in his own right." Hyperbole aside, Sroczynski is indeed a genuinely fascinating composer, seamlessly combining influences as disparate as Arvo Pärt, experimental improv, and strains of both classic Detroit techno and contemporary German minimalist techno.

Ici d'ailleurs/Mind Travels

A sane and honest critical assessment of Sroczynski's second symphony could be easily distilled to some variation of "just go listen to 'Moderato Pastorale' immediately." As tempting as that is, it is a bit lean on the details and I would be remiss if I did not mention that Sroczynski's primary tools for this album were just a violin, a sampler, and a harmonizer and that Highlander is a triumph of masterful loop architecture rather than the work of a world-class string ensemble. I was surprised to learn that, as it is hard to imagine the churning, propulsive intensity of "Moderato Pastorale" originating from anything less than a dozen violinists relentlessly bowing away with demonic intensity. Regardless of how it was made, "Moderato Pastorale" is pitch-perfect in every sense, as Sroczynski unleashes a god-tier motif and then nimbly manipulates the tension for ten glorious minutes. I suspect this is where Sroczynski's love of techno manifests itself: he handles dynamic tension the same way a virtuosic DJ might seamlessly assemble and deconstruct a monster groove. Sadly, Sroczynski does not attempt to replicate that deft combination of raw emotion and steadily intensifying trancelike repetition again, but that is mostly because each of these four pieces explores a different shade of moody, epic grandeur. The following "Adagio," for example, gradually transforms from darkly brooding cloudlike swells into a rapturously swooning and heaving crescendo of Romanticism. Elsewhere, "Diablak" combines a chunky rhythm of strummed violin with a mournful, ambiguously exotic melody, but soon takes some strange detours before landing somewhere best described as "wrong-speed psychotic ballroom dance nightmare." The closing title piece then returns to more billowing and cloudlike territory, but does so in a compelling way, as its deceptively amorphous structure is like a living, organic entity that can solidify whenever the need for an emotional crescendo appears. The four pieces add up to an absorbing and dramatic whole, as Sroczynski is very skilled at moving between heaving immensity and emotionally raw snatches of melody. That said, you should probably just go listen to "Moderato Pastorale" immediately.

Samples can be found here.