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."  

Both pieces are likely to haunt me forever, as will the bittersweetly beautiful "With Any Kind of Luck" that follows, in which the protagonist struggles to keep her composure as she laments how lonely she is and how much she longs for her lover's arms around her.  While it features some of the most poignant and lovely music on the album, I am damn glad that the album does not end there, as I would probably be sobbing uncontrollably right now.  Fortunately, it does not, as it is followed by an instrumental reprise of "Monday Afternoon" entitled "Together Again" and a crushingly beautiful final piece ("There's Nothing That Says I Cannot Dream") in which the woman sounds genuinely happy and hopeful ("Fairfax today is looking unusually beautiful...it's one of the days like it was when we first met").  That final piece is probably one of the most moving and hauntingly beautiful pieces of music that I have ever heard, which is fitting given that Fairfax is one of the most moving and hauntingly beautiful albums that I have heard as well.  This is a stone-cold masterpiece from start to finish.  

Samples can be found here.

  647 Hits

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.  

That same feature is central to the "Song of Ropes" trilogy that is arguably the heart of the album, though "Song of Ropes II" is a churning and intense exception. On "Trio (Song of Ropes)" and "Song of Ropes I," however, Moore works wonders with slow, mournful cello motifs that leave ghostly tendrils of harmonics or spectral violin in their wake.  Elsewhere, "Way of the Dead" unleashes an anguished-sounding violin melody over another heartbeat-like pulse, but unexpectedly blossoms into hypnagogically tropical-sounding second half.  It calls to mind a possessed-sounding string ensemble performing in the surreal, half-remembered environs of a dimly lit Hawaiian-themed restaurant that I used to frequent in which the decor was all murals of moonlit palm-trees and glowing neon aquariums.  The closing "Gatekeeper" is yet another divergent pleasure, as Genevieve Lang weaves a sad and lovely harp melody that has the feel of a tumbling, broken ghost waltz.  It all adds up to quite a mesmerizing and inventive album, as Moore and her collaborators consistently transform strong melodies into something that feels wonderfully haunting and enchanted.

Samples can be found here.

  598 Hits

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.  

The epic, slow-burning "Delphinium" is a quiet masterpiece in its own right, however, resembling a ghostly trumpet solo wending its way through gently lapping waves of broken, flickering arpeggios.  Fittingly, the following "August" could easily pass for a cannibalized fragment of its predecessor, as Young again combines shoegaze guitar washes with turntable-esque flourishes of speeding/slowing/warped tape loops.  I am also quite fond of the closing "Bloom/Wilt," which resembles a twinkling constellation of stars scattered across a cold night sky that lazily undulates, bulges, and stretches in a supernatural transcendence of earthly physics.   Nearly every single piece on the album is quite good, however, and I am curious about how much source material Young actually used for these collages.  If I was told that the whole album originated from a single two-minute snippet of guitar improv, I would probably believe it (and be even more impressed by the finished result).  August Tape Sketches truly does not sound like any other "experimental guitar" album that have heard, as Young has an unusually strong melodic sensibility for someone so intent on mindfuckery and I was surprised by how much I loved the clean, resonant guitar sound at the heart of it all.  

At its best, August Tape Sketches feels like some kind of zen masterpiece in which immersive sound worlds blossom forth from just a single chiming and stammering moment suspended in time.    

Samples can be found here.

  456 Hits

My Cat is an Alien, "Music for Phantoms (IV)"

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The Opalio brothers have been reliably surprising me with adventurous detours and evolutions for years, but this latest album is a creative leap into even more unexpected territory than usual.  In some ways, that can be attributed to the unusually sparse gear involved (two glockenspiels and a single condenser microphone), which makes it quite a bit easier on the ears than usual for the dissonance-averse.  In fact, I would not even have immediately guessed that this was an MCIAA album if I had first heard it while blindfolded.  On a deeper level, however, this may very well be one of the duo's defining statements (and a sneakily brilliant one at that).  The Opalios long ago cast aside earthly melodies, harmonies, and instruments in their journey into the furthest regions of the atonal, psychedelic cosmos, so I would be hard pressed to think of something even more outré for the next phase.  As it turns out, however, I would have been asking the wrong question altogether, as the Opalios nimbly sidestepped that stylistic challenge and opted for something far cooler than another intensification of their characteristic otherworldliness: they dissolved into pure light (musically, at least).  Put in their own words, this album represents "the blinding darkness coming from a dying flame and a new light not yet discernible on an increasingly undefined horizon."  Given how rampant dying flames and undefined horizons are these days, Music for Phantoms (IV) feels uncannily tapped into the earthly zeitgeist (particularly for a duo who frequently seem to exist in an alternate dimension).

Elliptical Noise/Opax

In characteristically colorful fashion, the Opalios describe the genesis of Music for Phantoms (IV) thusly: "recorded in the middle of the night...in the Western Alps with only 2 glockenspiels, wordless vocals and a single condenser microphone to capture the essence of the screaming silence."  Naturally, the cover art thematically complements that vision, as it comes from a Polaroid that abstractly captured a light installation that the brothers dragged through the snow at night (few artists are as tirelessly committed to finding and creating otherworldly beauty, magic, and poetry as the Opalio brothers).  While nearly everything about this album feels fresh, inventive, and heartfelt, it is nominally a continuation of a side project that began in 2007 and last surfaced a decade ago.  Notably, this album is a radically different animal than the first three installments in both tone and instrumentation, but it does share the series' exclusive commitment to acoustic sounds.  Even acoustic sounds can be very weird in the hands of the Opalios, however, as evidenced by the first two minutes of the opening "Traces of Shooting Stars" (it calls to mind a bunch of marbles dropped on a metal platter).  That is admittedly an enigmatic and curious way to kick off an album this tenderly beautiful, but absolutely everything that follows is quietly and mesmerizingly sublime.  

Given the album's hyper-minimal instrumentation, its three pieces all feel roughly cut from the same cloth, but they each have their own distinctive character.  In "traces of shooting stars," for example, it sounds like an enchanted music box has become untethered from the rigidity of time signatures and drifting into a reverie of dreamlike, gossamer melody.  The following "ocean of iridescent silence," on the other hand, takes a more shimmering and rippling approach, as the endlessly sweeping glockenspiel runs leave a quivering haze of celestial bliss in their wake.  The closing "estranging analog morphologies" initially feels quite similar (sweeping cascades of notes leave behind a blurred and beautiful vapor trail), but it steadily becomes more structured and percussive before unexpectedly dissolving into a quietly lovely and hymn-like final act.  It was a genuine surprise to hear Roberto's voice used in such a naked and melodic way.  I am reluctant to use the word "ambient" to describe the overall feel of Music for Phantoms (IV), as it is constructed from Coltrane-esque sheets of sound, but it does evoke a pleasant state of suspended animation and strong sense of place: this album makes me feel like I have just stepped out of my remote mountain cabin to take in a gorgeously hallucinatory canopy of swirling and shimmering stars.  I cannot think of any other album that successfully casts a similar spell and it is quite a lovely and immersive place to linger, so Music for Phantoms (IV) will probably connect with a hell of a lot more people than My Cat is an Alien's more characteristically challenging vision.  It certainly deserves to reach a lot of new ears, as it feel like one of the strongest and most focused albums of the Opalios' career.  

Samples can be found here.

  437 Hits

Colpitts, "Music from the Accident"

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This is the first album that drummer John Colpitts has released under his own name, but he has been a familiar and almost ubiquitous figure in underground music for years through Oneida, his various collaborations, and his solo work as Kid Millions and Man Forever.  Unsurprisingly, the new name signals a new direction for Colpitt, though the circumstances that inspired his stylistic shift were not exactly pleasant ones, as the album title is a literal one:  this is music Colpitts composed in the aftermath of a car accident that "severely injured his back and left him unable to work or perform for months."  Necessity being the mother of invention, Colpitts enlisted Greg Fox to assist him in "transposing his rhythmic ingenuity to other instruments."  In more concrete terms, that means that Music from the Accident is primarily a (modular) synth album, but Colpitts' imperiled ingenuity comes through admirably well, as this is a synth album like no other and it is a good one too.  Moreover, the three compositions mirror the stages of Colpitt's recovery, "shifting from stasis to toddling and finally transcendence."  My favorite stage is apparently "toddling," as the stumbling, off-kilter return of Colpitts' drumming on "Up and Down" is the highlight of the album for me.

Thrill Jockey

The opening "Bread" is the most synth-centric of the album's three pieces, as Colpitts weaves a meditative state of suspended animation from organ-like drones and stammering, oddly timed chords.  Initially, it feels like a jazzier, organ-driven homage to classic glitch-inspired laptop music à la Oval and Fennesz, but it soon becomes fleshed out by other elements (panning drones, intensifying low-end heft, additional layers of slippery, elusive synth melody) en route to a blooping kosmische soundbath of stuttering, interwoven synth fragments.   The following "Up and Down" began life as "series of complex interlocking rhythms" that Colpitts tried to drum along with, but he ultimately removed the "labyrinth of overlapping meters" to leave only his wonderfully bizarre live drumming.  There is also some spacey and minimal synth accompaniment, which makes the whole thing feel like a willfully naive, outsider art deconstruction of Bitches Brew-style fusion.  I wish it were a bit longer (its the shortest piece on the album), but "leave 'em wanting more" is always a better approach than "flog a good idea to death" or "overstay your welcome," so I cannot complain.  Colpitts does, however, allow the closing "Recovery" to deservedly stretch out for an epic sixteen-minute run.  It is yet another surprising piece on an album full of surprises, as guest Jessica Pavone unleashes a feral-sounding squall of "microtonal viola runs" to steer the album into territory akin to Spires That in the Sunset Rise teaming up with a killer drummer like Chris Corsano (or John Colpitts) for a volcanic set of drone-heavy free folk.  Of the three pieces, "Recovery" is the most substantial and cathartic, but the entire album is packed wall-to-wall with enough interesting ideas and virtuosic execution to feel like a revelation and a significant creative breakthrough (quite a rare feat for any artist already a decade deep into a solo career).

Samples can be found here.

  557 Hits

Svarte Greiner, "Devolving Trust"

cover imageThis latest release from Erik K. Skodvin's long-running solo project is billed as "zen music for disturbed souls."

Recorded back in 2018 in the bunkers of the "bombed out" Schneider Brewery in Berlin as a solo cello performance (of sorts) in the vein of past longform/(darkly) meditative releases like Black Tie and Moss Garden, "Devolving Trust" was originally intended only as a one-off installation/electroacoustic improvisation.Skodvin describes the space as "wet and hollow with a dark past and long reverb," which seems like an ideal setting for an eerie cello performance (or practically any Miasmah release). While attempting to translate such magical site-specific acoustics into an album intended for home listening can be one hell of a challenge, Skodvin pulled it off beautifully here, as these two pieces make very effective use of visceral, reverberant cello moans and the long decay of notes in the brewery's empty basement hallways.In fact, the recording translated so well that Skodvin was inspired to turn it into a formal album despite being historically averse to releasing live performances.That said, this album is also something more than a faithful documentation of a unique performance, however, as Skodvin ingeniously cannibalized the original 30-minute performance for a more tightly edited and mesmerizing companion piece ("Devolve") that feels roughly like all of the best parts experienced in reverse.Both pieces are great, but I especially enjoyed how beautifully the long decay times transformed into intensifying swells when the original recording was played backwards.

Miasmah

The opening title piece begins with a bassy, reverberating strum that rhythmically repeats, albeit with plenty of space between strums for the long decay to fade into silence.It is a fine starting point, as the chords have a pleasingly woody and hollow tone, yet the piece begins to blossom into something more substantial after a couple minutes when Skodvin starts to introduce new chords and textures between the deep, echoing strums.The slow-motion intensification continues to evolve as the piece unfolds, gradually becoming more gnarled and visceral as echoing scrapes, harmonic squeals, and violently bowed notes become a more regular occurrence.It achieves a fascinating sort of bleak beauty, as new forms to start to appear and an uneasy balance is struck between the slow, heaving pulse of the chords and the more convulsive snarls of bowed melody.By the 15-minute mark, the piece has become something quite wondrous and organic, evoking a haunted aviary of ghost birds mingled with slowly heaving cosmic exhalations. Skodvin leaves one last trick for the final act though, as the crescendo of the piece feels like a spacey free jazz performance by a lone saxophonist in a cavernous cistern. I have absolutely no idea how Skodvin produced such a reverberating storm of blurts, squeals, and howls from a cello, but whatever he did is extremely cool and cathartic.

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  1408 Hits

Carmen Villain, "Only Love From Now On"

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This latest release from "US-born, Norwegian-Mexican artist and producer" Carmen Hillestad finds her back on her usual label (Smalltown Supersound), but it otherwise feels like the logical successor to last year's oft-excellent Perlita. That is great news for me, I had been hoping that Perlita would not be a one-off departure for this shapeshifting project. That said, this project had already begun moving away from rock with the "cosmic excursions and dubby ambient-jams" of 2019's Both Lines Will Be Blue, so maybe Hillestad is stylistically here to stay for a while (I hope so, at least). She is nevertheless still a creatively restless artist, however, as this album reveals yet another significant evolution for Carmen Villain's arty, instrumental side: Only Love From Now On feels quite a bit more "Fourth World" indebted than previous releases and that transformation suits the project beautifully. Notably, flautist Johanna Scheie Orellana makes a welcome return after being featured on Perlita's brilliant "Agua Azul" and trumpeter Arve Henriksen now joins the party as well (for one song, anyway). Those more collaborative pieces tend to be the strongest ones, as the presence of a melodic hook almost always deepens the impression left by Carmen Villain's already-wonderful ambient/dub/exotica concoctions.

Smalltown Supersound

According to Hillestad, this album is "fueled by the sense of scale in feeling small in the face of things so large" and the "contemplation of how the biggest impact we can have is in the people close to us." Both are certainly themes that resonate with many these days, but they manifest themselves in fairly abstract ways here, as my main impression is that Only Love From Now On feels intimate and inward-looking, resembling a hypnagogic strain of exotica intended for the tropical grotto of the mind. Sometimes, anyway. Other times, it calls to mind a kosmiche twist on Terry Riley-style minimalism ("Silueta") or a dubby, hiss-soaked collision of loscil and Huerco S. (lead single "Subtle Bodies," which was coincidentally remixed by the latter for the B-side). Unsurprisingly, that single is one of the album strongest songs even if it might err on the side of being slightly too understated (the squelchy beat, water sounds, and breeze-like washes of hiss call to mind a killer rave at a frog pond whose denizens are very concerned about not bothering their neighbors). As delightful as that sounds, there are some other cool touches as well (dubby percussion effects, an actual bass line, buried vocals, etc.).

The album's other top-tier highlight is the closing "Portals," which elegantly combines a hollow and haunting melodic loop with watery exotica touches and bleary melodies that enigmatically drift in and out like ghosts. I quite like the four remaining pieces as well though (even when they delve into stylistic terrain I usually avoid). The title piece is the biggest would-be offender in that regard, as it resembles a smoky, neon-lit jazz-style flute solo in a billowing ambient dreamscape, but the backdrop is nicely frayed and hissing and I dig the stammering chords that emerge near the end. Elsewhere, the opening Henriksen collaboration sounds like a lost '80s classic of Fourth World-inspired desert psychedelia. A persuasive person could have easily convinced me that it was from an imaginary Jon Hassell album and I would probably would have driven myself mad trying to track down that non-existent opus afterward, which I consider a fine compliment (I half expected to see Holger Czukay or Jah Wobble turn up in the credits). Hillestad goes it alone for "Future Memory" (tropical Twin Peaks spin-off meets kosmische synth act) and "Liminal Space" (stammering, deconstructed house music over a panning, uneven rhythm of clacking pool ball-like sounds) with similarly fine results. In fact, there is not a single uninspired piece to be found on this album—just varying degrees of understatedness. There are probably a few small things that could have been changed to give this album more immediate and broad appeal, however, as this album occupies a blurry nexus where songcraft, dub techno, and psych-damaged moonlit palm tree ambiance overlap precariously. Fortunately, none of the inherent compromises involved in realizing such a vision bother me at all, as I love said vision and Hillestad's nuanced execution is extremely impressive. There are definitely a handful of pieces that will immediately connect with more casual listeners (the songs with more pronounced melodies or grooves, unsurprisingly), but this is one of those albums that seems to get better and better the deeper I listen to it.

Samples can be found here.

  1149 Hits

The Humble Bee, "Light Trespassing"

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I have a long-running fondness for tape loop artists, yet I had always lumped this Craig Tattersall project together with more conventional ambient fare until last year's reissue of 2009's A Miscellany For The Quiet Hours finally smacked me in the head and made me pay closer attention. I bring that up because Light Trespassing (recorded roughly a decade later) entered heavy rotation in my life immediately after my Quiet Hours obsession and it has been quite interesting to hear how Tattersall's vision has subtly transformed over the ensuing decade. In some ways, it feels like the two albums could have been recorded in the same damn week, but it is also clear that Tattersall has been consciously chasing an even more minimal and lowercase vision than the one he started off with. That tendency makes Light Trespassing a bit less immediately gratifying than some other Humble Bee releases, but I suspect that may very well be the point. In fact, Tattersall's execution remains as mesmerizing as ever—he is simply achieving the same ends with an increasingly reduced palette and even fewer moving parts. In essence, all that truly changed is that I now need to listen a bit more attentively before Tattersall's delicate miniatures reveal their full beauty. It feels akin to witnessing a tightrope walker systemically removing all safety measures as they become more confident in their ability to consistently nail their signature tricks without even the hint of a wobble.

Motion Ward

In keeping with the theme of extreme minimalism, Tattersall and Motion Ward have provided very little background information about this release other than the poetic phrase "like the last embers of a fire burning." As far as album descriptions go, however, that is quite an admirably apt and concise summary (though it does demand some familiarity with Tattersall's previous tape work in order to grasp the full implications). To my ears, it feels like Tattersall decided to expand the ephemeral beauty of the fading final moments of his usual fare (the point where all the added layers fall away to reveal the naked, beating heart of a piece) into an entire album of such "last embers." The first few pieces provide an especially lovely introduction to the possibilities opened up by such an approach. In "A Little Alone Snow," for example, it seems like two harp loops of slightly different lengths create an endlessly transforming melody as their moment of collision keeps subtly changing. Elsewhere, "However Far I Walk" initially sounds like little more than a simple arpeggio fragment played on an acoustic guitar, but then a new loop begins dancing through the spaces between those notes to form a tender melody. Tape noise, recorder clicks, hiss, and room tone also play a larger role than usual on this album, particularly on "When Your Voice Disappears." My favorite pieces on the album tend to be the more fleshed out gems that begin surfacing near the midpoint though ("A Day of Light and Air," "Inside Out Mountains," and "Dotted and Course With"). They each have their own unique character, of course, but they all evoke a similarly elusive and ineffably beautiful scene akin to a half-blissful/half-ghostly dream in which I am waiting outside a train station on a perfect spring day awaiting a long lost love. Those are not the only quietly gorgeous pieces to be found, however, as Light Trespassing has quite a satisfying arc of deepening warmth and soft-focus dreaminess. If there is a caveat with this album, it is merely that it takes a few listens for the full beauty of its sublime spell to sink in, but I certainly got there eventually. In fact, I wish I could dissolve myself into this album. I have not figured out how to do that yet, unfortunately, so I will try to content myself by merely stating that Light Trespassing adds yet another singularly beautiful album to Tattersall's rich and varied discography.

Samples can be found here.

  1115 Hits

Shane Parish, "Liverpool"

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Somehow I have managed to remain largely unfamiliar with Shane Parish's work until now, which nicely set the stage for me to be properly blindsided by this latest release. That said, I am not sure a deep familiarity with Parish's previous albums would have changed all that much, as this album is quite an adventurous departure from his expected fare in some significant ways. The biggest twist, of course, is that Liverpool is essentially an album of old sea shanties. While that probably is not something I would have actively sought out on my own, I am damn glad that this album found me, as Parish's ingenious instrumental arrangements transform an ostensible curiosity into a goddamn revelation. Crucially, Liverpool does not sound at all like an album of sea shanties, as Parish merely borrowed their vocal melodies and made said melodies the backbone for a killer solo guitar album that favorably calls to mind everyone from Tortoise to Richard Bishop to Bill Orcutt (and manages to do it quite seamlessly). In hindsight, it is downright miraculous that other artists have not been making albums in this vein for years, as it is such a perfect and obvious starting point for greatness (in the right hands, at least). Parish essentially just found a bunch of timeless, poignant melodies waiting to be borrowed and he wisely embraced them. With such beautiful raw material as a starting point, it is hard to imagine that any good guitarist could have blown it and made a bad album, but it is similarly hard to imagine anyone else making an album as uniformly stellar as Liverpool: an excellent idea matched with even more excellent execution.

Dear Life

Unlike most traditional sea shanties, the opening "Liuerpool" erupts from the speakers as a squall of guitar noise and cymbal flourishes before settling into a simmering groove that feels like an darkly jazzy strain of post-punk. Naturally, the appearance of Parish's shimmering and hazy guitar melody only makes things better, but I was surprised at the central role that guest drummer Michael Libramento plays in the song's success, as "Liuerpool" sounds more like the work of a tight band of virtuosos than something that is ostensibly a solo guitar album. In fact, Libramento's presence proves to be quite a reliable harbinger of greatness throughout the album. as the tom-driven "Venezuela" and the explosive "Haul Away Joe" are also clear album highlights. Notably, none of the three pieces I have mentioned thus far resemble each other much at all, as "Venezuela" calls to mind Sublime Frequencies-damaged surf guitar, while "Haul Away Joe" feels like the dueling guitar crescendo of an epic psych rock masterpiece. Elsewhere, "Randy Dandy O" delves into incendiary Orcutt territory when its central melody gives way to a flurry of open strings, wild bends, pull-offs, and slashing chords. "Black Eyed Susan" is yet another favorite, as Parish combines ringing arpeggios, muted strums, and a nimbly dancing lead melody with a casual looseness that feels effortless. I am also quite fond of second-tier highlight "Santy Anno," as Parish quickly casts aside the central melody to unleash a likable (if conventional) guitar solo over a chopped and stuttering backdrop that sounds like a helicopter mated with some abstract shoegaze à la lovesliescrushing. The remaining three songs are enjoyable too, but they lack a bit of the pizzazz of their neighbors. However, I could easily see them emerging from Parish's current tour beautifully transformed by some kind of road-tested creative breakthrough. After listening to some of the traditional versions of these pieces and finding them nearly unrecognizable, it seems like major creative breakthroughs must be a somewhat common occurrence for Parish. In any case, Liverpool is a wonderful and oft-surprising release and Shane Parish now joins Orcutt, Daniel Bachman, and Sarah Lipstate in the pantheon of wildly inventive solo guitarists that I will be actively following for years to come.

Samples can be found here.

  873 Hits

Éliane Radigue & Frédéric Blondy, "Occam XXV"

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This is the debut album for Claire M. Singer's Organ Reframed imprint, which will now enable home listeners to experience a bit of her singular music festival of the same name. While the festival itself has been going on since 2016, I can understand why Singer did not make the leap into releasing albums until now, as I imagine it is quite a challenge to translate the site-specific acoustic pleasures of Union Chapel's famed hydraulic organ onto a CD. Also, solo organ albums have only recently begun to come into vogue (and I suspect Singer's efforts played a key role in that). Thankfully, the stars seem to now be in proper alignment for such an endeavor, as artists like Kali Malone, Lawrence English, and Sarah Davachi have spent the last few years turning adventurous ears organ-ward and the reigning queen of minimalism (Radigue) is currently in the prime of her "acoustic instrumentation" era. Unsurprisingly, composing for organ has not resulted in a newly bombastic and maximalist Radigue, as she remains unswervingly devoted to Occam's guiding principle of "simple is always better." In fact, this album is probably a strong contender for one of Radigue's most minimal compositions to date. That may test the patience of some casual Radigue listerers, but those attuned to her slow-burning drone majesty will find much to love, as she is in peak form here.

Organ Reframed

This is not the first album in Radigue's "Occam Ocean" series that I have heard, but this is the first time that I learned about the origin of its curious title. Naturally, the "Occam" part is a reference to William of Ockham's timeless razor (the law of economy), but I did not know that the "ocean" bit was because Radigue is drawing much of her inspiration from water and waves these days. That makes sense and knowing that reveals further depth to this series. Also, given Radigue's history with Buddhism and its focus on mindfulness and the interconnectedness of all things, this series can be viewed as a sort of an artistic culmination of the themes and philosophies that have shaped her life as a whole. In more concrete terms, Radigue's recent work is driven by the "transcendent beauty" that she finds in the "micro beats, pulsations, harmonics, and subharmonics" that result when sound waves interact. Another central belief of Radigue's is that written music is an abstraction and that it is the performer that ultimately breathes life into it She also notes that "no two performers, playing the same instrument, have the same relationship with that instrument," so it was a significant choice that return collaborator/ONCEIM director Blondy was chosen to perform the piece.

Speaking of Blondy, I am quite curious about how technically demanding this piece was to play. My guess is "very," as it could easily be mistaken for a single sustained and droning chord with casual listening, but closer listening reveals that it is endlessly evolving and constantly creating subtle new sonic phenomena despite it being damn near imperceptible to tell when new notes are being added. In fact, the entire mood of the piece sneakily undergoes at least two dramatic transformations over the course of its 44 minutes, slowly moving from a stark, almost futuristic-sounding introduction of shuddering bass throbs towards a surprisingly hallucinatory finale of blearily celestial-sounding drones and insectoid whine. In between those two poles, there are passages that call to mind a surveillance beam slowly sweeping across a desolate wasteland or a gorgeous slow-motion sunrise and it never feels anything less than totally organic and seamless. And, of course, the piece's unhurried, meditative journey continually reveals additional subtle layers of harmonic complexity with deep listening. Given the near-geologic timescale and the ultra-minimal nature of this piece, it probably is not the ideal introductory Radigue album for the curious, but those already attuned to her work will likely be spellbound by the exacting and patient virtuosity on display (I certainly was). Occam XXV sets the bar intimidatingly high for whoever gets tagged for Organ Reframed's second release.

Samples can be found here.

  1463 Hits

Pan•American, "The Patience Fader"

cover imageThis latest full-length from Mark Nelson's long-running and unpredictably shapeshifting project is a collection of understated, near-ambient solo guitar instrumentals that Kranky describes as the culminating release of the composer's "romantic minimalism" side. It certainly is a languorously meditative and unrepentantly lowercase suite of songs, blurring the lines between an "ageless, scarred" Americana and dreamlike ambient drift. Significantly, the album was recorded during the first summer of the pandemic, as Nelson views these songs as a sort of "'lighthouse music,'" radiance cast from a stable vantage point, sending 'a signal to help others through rocks and dangerous currents.'" Given its gently minimal, near-ambient "lone guitar in the fog" aesthetic, The Patience Fader is likely to be something of a polarizing release: it falls dangerously close to calming Windham Hill-style prettiness a couple of times, but it can also feel incredibly poignant and sublime if one chooses to listen deeply enough. While it feels weird to describe music this quiet and slow-moving as "a bold move," it is exactly that. It would have been much easier for Nelson to revisit familiar, more fan-friendly territory than to attempt to convey something profound and ineffable while blearily hovering at the edge of perception like a ghost.

Kranky

The wintry, desolate, and fog-shrouded view immortalized in the cover art was both a curiously counterintuitive and impressively apt aesthetic choice for a number of reasons. The most immediately striking collision of themes, of course, is that The Patience Fader is a considerably warmer album than the cover art would suggest (and it was recorded during considerably warmer circumstances as well). However, the image does portray a landscape that feels like it is in a lonely state of chilled suspended animation, which nicely mirrors the music in a significant way: all ten of these pieces feel like they exist in a state of bleary and blurred suspension. That is just the backdrop, however, as Nelson's tender melodies metaphorically transform that "before picture" melancholia into something a bit more sundappled and hopeful. Only a bit, mind you, but in a way that definitely matters—like how a break in the clouds on a foreboding day might allow a few rays of light to stream through the window to share their warmth and possibly illuminate floating dust motes in a lovely way.

In less poetic terms, that means that the baseline aesthetic of this album is basically a slow-motion, art-damaged twist on back porch slide guitar blues reverberating through a soft-focus ambient fog. My two favorite pieces are "Harmony Conversion" and "Just a Story," but it is generally true that all of the longer pieces are excellent and that all of the shorter pieces either feel like transitional interludes or like they end too soon to leave a substantial impression. It is also generally true that these songs all feel like variations upon a single elegantly distilled theme, so the ones that boast a distinctive twist understandably tend to be the ones that stand out the most. For example, the opening moments of the far-too-brief "Corniel" feel like a lost great Tim Hecker piece (and a harmonica-driven one at that), while "Harmony Conversion" combines swooning intertwined melodies with some subtle dub touches. "Just a Story," on the other hand, feels like a heavenly collision between Takoma-style Americana and the slow-motion, minimalist psychedelia of Dean McPhee. It also feels like a heavenly collision between the album's rippling, dreamlike production and Nelson's gift for songcraft, as the wistful melody is legitimately gorgeous and a few of the chord changes will likely elicit gasps or chills in those who appreciate such things. That makes it the album's obvious stand-alone highlight, but the vision as a whole is Nelson's more impressive achievement, as he reduced his music to its most nakedly minimal and intimate and did so with nearly unerring execution. This album feels destined to someday be celebrated as a cult/niche masterpiece in lowercase music circles.

Samples can be found here.

  1253 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

  1210 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

  1752 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

  928 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.

  1176 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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  956 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.

  933 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.

  1073 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.

  1090 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.

  900 Hits