Chris Corsano & Bill Orcutt, "Made Out of Sound"

cover imageIn theory, any album recorded by the duo of Chris Corsano and Bill Orcutt should be an instant Album of the Year candidate for me, as the pair are easily among my favorite musicians on the planet. However, 2018’s explosive Brace Up! was not quite my thing, calling to mind Orcutt's earlier and viscerally cacophonous Harry Pussy days. I have no doubt that seeing the duo live during that period would have either torn off my head or melted my face, but that album is not the one I reach for when I have an Orcutt craving. Happily, the opposite is true of this latest convergence of the two fiery improv iconoclasts, as Made Out of Sound resembles one of Orcutt's more recent solo albums organically intertwined with some oft-incendiary free drumming. Despite being generally more melodic and less feral than its predecessor, however, the more nuanced Made Out of Sound is nevertheless a radical and intense recording in its own right. It is truly rare to encounter such seemingly effortless and fluid chemistry between two artists with such instantly recognizable and attention-grabbing aesthetics.

Palilalia

In wrestling with how to best describe Orcutt's playing on this album, my mind predictably kept returning to the phrase Ira Gitler once famously used to describe John Coltrane's aesthetic: "sheets of sound." In Orcutt's case, however, most of Made Out of Sound feels more like sheets of rain falling on a pond: individual drops constantly and rapidly changing the rippling patterns with each small splash. There is also the potential to be startled by a surprise duck. Translating that into more musical terms, the drops are the ringing open strings, the rippling pond is a mass of constantly evolving harmonies and dynamics, and the surprise duck is the snarling, snapping, and scrabbling flurries of notes that Orcutt sometimes unleashes. Notably, that metaphorical pond scene also includes a dangerously intense wave machine in the form of Corsano's whirlwind free-form drumming.

Given their collaborative history, it is hardly surprising that the duo's interplay feels so natural at this stage, yet the best moments of the album feel so uncannily instinctive and spontaneous that the wash of sound almost seems like a churning, heaving living organism. Remarkably, the duo recorded their parts separately from different coasts, which makes the “live” intensity and fluid interplay feel almost miraculous, but also allowed Orcutt more space for nuance than usual (as well as the ability to overdub a second guitar track). If I was forced to choose a favorite piece, I would probably pick one of the more melodic ones like the wistful "Some Tennessee Jar" or clattering, tumbling pathos of "Man Carrying Thing," but the whole damn album feels akin to witnessing a pair of magicians flawlessly perform one dazzling trick after another (the trick in each case being "distilling primal/art-damaged blues into a pure, expressionist catharsis that transcends conventional scales, chords, melodies, rhythms, and genre tropes"). Every single one of these pieces feels like a vivid eruption of pure, direct emotion that leaves compelling music in its wake. This is a canonical Bill Orcutt album.

Samples can be found here.

5389 Hits

Sunburned Hand of the Man, "Pick a Day to Die"

cover imageI never delved too deeply into the New Weird America scene during its heyday, so I have probably heard far fewer Sunburned Hand of the Man albums than most people who are constantly seeking out freaky underground sounds. Consequently, I have no idea if there is some CDR from like 2002 lurking among the free rock collective's previous 120+ releases that explores roughly the same stylistic terrain as Pick a Day to Die. I would be surprised if there was though, as this return (of sorts) feels unusually focused, tight, and muscular for the band. To my ears, that approach suits Sunburned Hand quite well, as the collective churn out some impressively killer psychedelia on this release (among other things). That said, they still remain every bit as unapologetically eclectic, perplexing, and occasionally self-sabotaging as ever, resembling a bunch of gleefully mischievous Western Massachusetts underground luminaries (with amazing record collections) spinning a wheel to determine whether they want to channel Captain Beefheart, classic krautrock, Dr. John, or some cool folk, prog, or psych obscurity with each fresh song. Despite that (or, more likely, because of it), this is an unusually fun, strong, and memorable release.

Three Lobed

It feels weird and wrong to describe a Sunburned Hand song as a "single," but the propulsively groovy and synth-driven psych-rock vamp "Flex" surfaced in advance of the album and the band made a hypnotically bizarre video for it, so I guess it counts as one. Whether or not it is the best song here is debatable, but I doubt anyone would feel slighted if the entire album was merely the burbling, futuristic synth pulse and sinuous bass line of "Flex" extended for forty minutes. Naturally, there is absolutely nothing else like "Flex" amidst the other six songs, as they do not call it "free rock" for nothing. Also, some of the recordings that appear date back as far as 2007. In any case, nearly all facets of the chameleonic collective’s aesthetic yield compelling results. For example, the title piece sounds like Neu! reinventing themselves as a BDSM-themed rockabilly band, while "Initials" resembles a bunch of eclectic novelty records played at the wrong speeds over a killer space rock concert. The opening "Dropped A Rock," on the other hand, is a rippling and tender acoustic guitar piece that gradually smears into something resembling a hallucinatory interplanetary zoo. Elsewhere, "Prix Fixe" initially sounds like John Carpenter collaborating with early '80s Venom, then blossoms into a warmly beautiful psych-rock outro that I did not expect at all. Such is the singular genius of Sunburned Hand: I never know whether to expect a drunken barbeque, some intricate folk music, a channeling of classic Pink Floyd, a garage band trying to make a spy movie soundtrack, or some kind of arty contrarianism. All of that (and more!) can be readily found on Pick a Day to Die, but it all works beautifully because the playfully ridiculous, the indulgent, and the tenderly sublime are ultimately swirled together into such tightly edited, song-sized doses.

Samples can be found here.

4710 Hits

Manslaughter 777, "World Vision Perfect Harmony"

cover imageThis auspicious debut brings together The Body's drummer (Lee Buford) with his counterpart from Braveyoung (Zac Jones). Apparently, the pair have been fitfully collaborating since the two bands joined forces for 2011's Nothing Passes, but they have not released anything until now. Unsurprisingly, World Vision Perfect Harmony is an impressively heavy and beat-driven affair, stylistically landing in a place that calls to mind a collision of some cool late '90s Justin Broadrick side project, the industrial-strength hip-hop of early Kareem, and the noise-ravaged techno of Container. Somehow the album is even better than that sounds, however, as Buford and Jones often display an impressively intuition for perfectly balancing bludgeoning force, eerily hallucinatory samples, a head-bobbing BPM, and an occasional well-paced hook or flurry of hyperkinetic percussion. In a few cases, Manslaughter 777's relentless rhythmic assault and constrained palette start to yield diminishing returns, but at least half the album is legitimately excellent and there are a few killer "singles" that will be finding their way into my playlists for years.

Thrill Jockey

The opening "No Man Curse" provides quite a stellar introduction to the Manslaughter 777 vision, as a gibbering and clattering cacophony of samples gives way to a slow, heavy, and unexpectedly sensuous groove with the ghost of a pop hook hazily floating above the bass-heavy throb. Then, in the final minute, it explodes into a punishing and densely layered finale of electronic noise, ribcage rattling bass, and skittering fills. That visceral catharsis segues into the relentlessly propulsive "Jump and Spread," which simultaneously heightens and derails the more "pop" sensibilities of its predecessor. It kind of sounds like someone laid down a soulful vocal track for a rocksteady album, but the usual Kingston session musicians were busy and Revolting Cocks had to be frantically rushed in as a last-minute replacement. After a solid jungle-inspired detour ("ARC"), the album reaches its zenith with "I Can Not Tell You How I Feel," which sounds like a chopped, screwed, and autotuned R&B jam remixed for an industrial-themed strip club. The duo's love of melodic hooks goes into remission a bit for the album's more abstract and hallucinatory second half, but their weirder side offers some highlights too. I especially like the stammering, spectral, and deconstructed groove of "What Is Joke To You Is Dead To Me" and the thumping, burrowing psychedelia of "Mag Tech." The closer ("Do You Know Who Loves You") is a stunner as well, as a slow, hypnotic throb provides the foundation for a chopped, skittering, and dubwise percussion onslaught that ultimately gives way to a slamming hip-hop beat enveloped in warm, choral haze. I did not expect such a melodic and perversely angelic ending, but I probably should have, as inventive juxtapositions abound here. Manslaughter 777 are definitely onto something good, often resembling some classic WaxTrax! project blessed with strikingly varied, forward-thinking influences and access to modern recording software.

Samples can be found here.

3762 Hits

Mats Erlandsson, "4-Track Guitar Music"

cover image

Originally released back in 2018 on Maria W. Horn and Kali Malone's beloved and quietly influential XKatedral imprint, this gem from one of Sweden's key drone artists has now been remastered and given a vinyl reissue. On one level, 4-Track Guitar Music is exactly what the title implies, as these songs were all composed and performed with just a four-track recorder and an electric guitar. On a deeper level, however, Erlandsson brings the same degree of compositional rigor and conceptual ingenuity to these ostensibly minimal pieces that I have grown to expect from the scene centered around XKatedral, as he wields delay and transposed pitches to create an "ever-evolving cyclical polyphony." Most of the time, that ambitious vision results in an unusually good solo guitar album, but at least one or two pieces achieve something far more memorable and transcendent.

Vaagner/Vaknar

On its face, the opening "Achilles" is initially not significantly different from the work of several other EBow-wielding drone guitarists, as it starts off as a slow-motion reverie of warm, sustained tones. As it unfolds, however, quite a compelling transformation takes place, as the textures gradually become sharper, uglier, and feedback-ravaged. It is quite a neat trick, calling to mind a time-lapse video of a flower blossoming into a demon. Part of that sorcery is likely due to Erlandsson's aforementioned "ever-evolving cyclical polyphony" compositional technique, but he had another trick up his sleeve as well, as these pieces were "re-amplified in the machine hall of StaÃàllbergs Gruva, a disbanded Swedish iron mine." There was some digital modification along the way as well (Erlandsson is not an actual wizard, sadly), but the grainy and organic blackening of "Achilles" seems far more rooted in the mine's natural reverb than in any software. The following "Dali In Sapphire" is ironically somewhat more conventional, as Erlandsson plays relatively clean arpeggios over a crackling, rumbling, and sizzling wake of distortion, but "Famous Last Names" is another slow-motion stunner. For me, it calls to mind a dark sky illuminated by the intertwining, burning trails of a meteor shower. It is beautiful, but it also has a lot of bite, as the notes unpredictably snarl and flare up before they dissolve. The album then reaches its zenith with the epic "Phase Calendar," which vividly fleshes out the half-spectral/half-gnarled drones with ringing harmonics and some impressively visceral metallic textures. Again, it evokes trails of fire slowly streaking across the sky, but it also feels like the ground below has started heaving and cracking as well. Such a haunting display of elemental power is a tough act to follow, but the churning metallic swells and crackling rain sounds of "A Holographic Sky" are a satisfying finale nonetheless. This reissue also includes a bonus track ("Cellar"), but the original album's trio of smoldering, slow-burning delights should be enticement enough on their own.

Samples can be found here.

3768 Hits

Roxane Métayer, "Éclipse des Ocelles"

cover image

There seems to be a hell of a lot of weird and wonderful music coming out of Brussels these days and this debut from violinist/visual artist Roxane Métayer is a welcome addition to that teetering heap of outre delights. Éclipse des ocelles falls within one of my favorite niches, as Métayer uses field recordings and acoustic instruments to evoke a hallucinatory strain of imaginary folk music that feels both ancient and otherworldly. While I suspect Natural Snow Buildings will always reign within that particular shadow realm, Métayer does quite a fine job in staking out her own lovely niche of flickering and timeless rustic ambiance. Moreover, she achieves quite an appealing illusion of organic looseness and spontaneity through a mixture of improvisation and composed themes. Admittedly, I occasionally wish some pieces were a bit more focused and purposeful than they are, but Métayer is exceptionally gifted at casting (and sustaining) a sublime and dreamlike spell. And the album's handful of highlights make for quite a mesmerizing deep listening experience.

Morc

The chorus of chirping birds that open the album nicely sets the tone for what is to come, as Éclipse des ocelles has the feel of an ancient pagan ritual occurring in some sacred forest clearing. Or perhaps the mood is more akin to the soundtrack for a somewhat haunting and hallucinatory medieval puppet show. In either case, Métayer seems like she was born to be the highlight of some Folklore Tapes compilation, as she is impressively talented at conjuring the atmosphere of a darkly psychedelic folk tale. For me, that immersive otherworldliness is the primary appeal of this album and the deeper Métayer goes, the better the album gets. In that regard, the organically heaving, multi-layered, and multitextured "Dans un pays de serpents" is the most striking and memorable trip down the rabbit hole. It is not a fluke though, as "Plus brume, que lune" and "Quand l'abeille survient" are similarly absorbing and phantasmagoric. That said, vividly realizing eerily fantastical scenes is not the only realm where Métayer excels, as one of the album's other highlights ("Phaleine Somnolente") is a sublime convergence of production/recording skill, the sounds of an inventively misused violin, and some beautifully soulful, intertwining melodies. In fact, I think Métayer's recording and productive expertise is what elevates this album into something truly memorable and special, as she seems to have captured every single scrape, whine, click, and shudder of her violin with crystalline clarity. It was probably inevitable that I would like this album, as I would happily snap up anything that could be glibly described as "Richard Skelton and Lisa Gerrard took a bunch of mushrooms and made alternate soundtrack to Midsommar with Enhet För Fri Musik," but the sharp details and tactile textures here are on a level far beyond most good albums in the free-/freak-/psych-folk milieu.

Samples can be found here.

4202 Hits

Sandro Mussida, "Decay Music n. 3: Rueben"

cover imageI believe this is my first encounter with this London-based cellist/composer, but that is hardly surprising, as Die Schachtel often tends to be ahead of the curve in unearthing compelling new sound art. As befits the Decay series' mission statement of highlighting "inspired contemporary experimental efforts in ambient, ethereal, and emotively abstract music," Reuben is an album of hazy, dreamlike soundscapes that feel like they were assembled from hissing and blurred tape loops (though I do not believe they were). Regardless of how it was assembled, this is quite an immersive and fitfully gorgeous album, as Mussida displays an impressive lightness of touch, talent for nuanced detail, and a deep understanding of the physics of sound. And it certainly does not hurt that he made full use of the rich acoustic properties of Volterra, Italy's historic Church of San Giusto.

Die Schachtel

It makes perfect sense that Rueben was recorded in an old church, as the warm, languorous drones of the opener are certainly evocative of a picturesque scene involving floating dust motes and shimmering sun rays streaming through cathedral windows (and Mussida definitely seems to be straining towards the divine at times). The album actually derives most of its inspiration from Italian Renaissance paintings, however, which led to something of major creative breakthrough in how Mussida thought about composition. There are also some ideas lurking within Rueben about alternate tunings, how sound interacts with space, and how music can trigger memories. Russian theologian/physicist Pavel Florensky even gets name-checked in the album description in a statement about "reverse time" and how art's capacity for triggering memories is similar to the dream state. While interesting, none of that would normally enhance my appreciation for what is essentially an unusually good drone album crafted from heavily processed cello, electric guitar (Alessandra Novaga), and bass clarinet (Edgardo Barlassina). However, there are a few pieces on Rueben where it legitimately seems like Mussida's deep thinking and non-musical influences have led him to kind of a fascinating place. On the album's second and sixth pieces, for example, it feels like every frequency and oscillation is in complete harmony with the vibrations of the universe or something.  Needless to say, those two pieces are drone heaven for me, but Rueben is generally an enjoyable and immersive album overall too, as Mussida and his collaborators are quite adept at mingling hypnotic thrum with dark clouds of dissonance and an undercurrent of almost "industrial" textures.

Samples can be found here.

3707 Hits

Giovanni Di Domenico, "Decay Music n. 4: Downtown Ethnic Music"

cover imageI believe this is Di Domenico's first appearance on Die Schachtel, but the Brussels-based pianist/composer has had quite a prolific and fascinating career, racking up collaborations with a wildly varied array of iconic artists ranging from the ubiquitous Jim O'Rourke to free jazz sax titan Akira Sakata to Nigerian drum god Tony Allen. Given that pedigree, it is a bit of a surprise to see him turn up in a series of ambient albums, but the strange and eclectic Downtown Ethnic Music is too much of a freewheeling and hallucinatory experience to fit comfortably in that milieu (or any milieu at all, really). That said, the album is something of a spiritual (but not stylistic) descendant of Jon Hassell's "fourth world" vision, as Di Domenico set out to reimagine "the future of urban music" with a varied and eclectic host of collaborators. While I sincerely doubt the future of urban music will be anything like the kaleidoscopic and boundary-dissolving psychedelia of this album, Di Domenico has certainly managed to conjure up some truly unique and alien-sounding gems in the attempt.

Die Schachtel

The opening "Gap-Filling" is a half-great/half-maddeningly teasing introduction to the album’s elusive and chameleonic aesthetic, as it makes me feel like I managed to just catch the final spaced-out minutes of an intense performance by an experimental guitar/free jazz drummer duo. Regrettably, drummer João Lobo never makes a prominent return, but neither does anything else from that opener, as Di Domenico's imagined future cities feel like a surrealist hall of mirrors. For example, the following "Yoghurt to Yoga" resembles a tense nightmare about an exotic ritual in a distant temple, while "SKJ" resembles a tonally unpredictable retro-futurist synth reverie. At other times, the album resembles a haunted and deranged carnival, a stiltedly funky krautrock jam, and a mash-up of old sci-fi film soundtracks. The latter, "Teratology," is definitely the most strikingly bizarre and "outer limits" moment on the album. In fact, it felt even more so once I realized that it was composed and performed (with an actual choir) and NOT merely a collage of samples (not a pure one, anyway). At its peak, "Tetralogy" calls to mind the cacophonous scene one might imagine if The Shining, 2001, and Solaris crashed into a modern dance troupe and a short wave radio enthusiast. Is it good? Possibly. Is it unique? Absolutely. My personal favorite is considerably more conventional, yet eerily beautiful nonetheless: the closing "Soft on Demand," which is basically a mournfully trippy elegy of gloopy classic sci-fi synth tones.  Part of its appeal may be because a relatively unmangled melody feels like a safe harbor in a maelstrom of endlessly shifting moods and juxtapositions, but I liked a lot of the maelstrom too. While not all of the phantasmagoric urban futures conjured within Downtown Ethnic Music quite hit the mark for me, all are certainly imaginative and vividly realized, which makes this is a solid headphone album for those with a taste for the unusual.

Samples can be found here.

6106 Hits

Rachika Nayar, "Our Hands Against the Dark"

cover imageFour years in the making, this inaugural release from Brooklyn composer Nayar is something of a small, genre-blurring masterpiece that brings together stuttering, laptop-mangled melodies a la early Fennesz and Oval with billowing ambient warmth. Our Hands in the Dark is a bit more inventive and distinctive than a hazy and heavenly homage to the golden age of Editions Mego and Mille Plateaux, however, as it also features some unexpected nods to Rilke, classic Midwestern emo, and Indian mysticism along the way. To some degree, I am the target demographic for all of those things, but this album is wonderful primarily because of Nayar's oft-brilliant execution, as these eight songs are a veritable feast of exacting craftsmanship, tight songcraft, vivid textures, warm harmonies, and immersive atmospheres. If this album had come out twenty years ago, it likely would have become a regularly name-checked cornerstone of the laptop/experimental guitar scene. Since it is coming out now instead, I suppose it will just have to settle for the consolation prize of being an early contender for one of 2021's strongest debuts.

NNA Tapes

The album's lead single "The Trembling of Glass" is an interesting piece, as it immediately made me want to hear the album, yet does not quite capture Nayar's aesthetic at its most distinctive and seamlessly executed. The fact that her influences are so readily displayed ("killer early 2000s laptop guitar album dissolving into American Football-style arpeggios") does not diminish my enjoyment though, as the churning, chopped, stammering, and unpredictable guitar loops of the first two minutes are absolutely gorgeous. To my ears, however, the album fitfully blossoms into something even better and more unique as it unfolds. For example, "Losing Too Is Still Ours" follows the same "one thing transforms into another" theme of the opener, but the motifs are a bit more radical. It starts with a shimmering, flickering bed of processed guitars joined by some intense and haunting wordless vocals from guest Yatta, then evolves into a second act that resembles a chopped, fluttering, and beautifully poignant orchestral loop playing over some unusually warm, shoegaze-damaged space ambient. That piece is definitely a highlight, but there are several others that reach similar heights. In fact, I am probably most fond of the pair of pieces that close out the the album. The first is the epic-feeling "Aurobindo," which blends dreamy synths; a lovely arpeggio progression; swooning, reverb-swathed vocals; and a host of flickering, hissing, and gently warped sounds into a shape-shifting gem of reality-blurring psychedelia. The closing "No Future," on the other hand, sounds like an achingly beautiful cello melody from Zeelie Brown being violently and repeatedly mashed together with I'm Happy, And I'm Singing by a malfunctioning computer before giving way to a lovely and tender coda of unexpectedly unmangled piano. Aside from being a great piece, "No Future" is an especially illustrative example of why Nayar's vision is so instantly and deeply appealing: she excels at finding the precarious nexus where sophisticated avant-garde sensibilities mingle with simple, lovely melodies and genuine human warmth.

Samples can be found here.

3835 Hits

Exael, "Flowered Knife Shadows"

cover image

This latest release from Students of Decay’s eclectic sister label comes from prolific and chameleonic Berlin-based producer Naema. On this solo release as Exael, Naema takes the project in an almost single-mindedly rhythm-driven direction that I would roughly categorize as stripped-down or deconstructed techno, but most of the beats are far too idiosyncratic and viscerally pummeling for that to feel quite right. There are also a handful of warmer, more ambient-adjacent pieces that are more in line with what I would expect from someone in the oft-compelling West Mineral Ltd./Experiences Ltd. milieu, as well as a dreamy closing piece that feels almost like hypnagogic pop. While the leftfield surprise of that last piece ("Reality’s Sweetheart") is the most immediately gratifying and memorable moment, the entire album is quite good and masterfully crafted, as Naema is impressively skilled at unleashing skittering and clattering futuristic beats so vibrant and textured that no further accompaniment is needed.

Soda Gong

As far as I know, Flowered Knife Shadows is not a concept album, but it nevertheless has an arc that would be completely appropriate for some kind of mechanized sci-fi dystopia narrative. That is not to say that it is dark, but it definitely starts off with jackhammering and precision-engineered percussion assaults that feel like they were created by a cyborg with a real knack for forward-thinking dance music. Then, as the album progresses, the songs start to gradually warm as hints of melody and hissing, crackling ambient textures subtly creep into the mix. In theory, it seems like the latter half of the album would appeal to me more, but early pieces like "Quikgel" and "Boneheaded" are explosive and relentless enough to win me over instantly ("Quikgel" in particular sounds like it was composed by a robot woodpecker with an amphetamine problem). Normally, beats that can be described as "manic" or "hypercaffeinated" tend to grate on me, but Naema is uniquely skilled at quickly and seamlessly evolving from "convulsive" or "obsessively looping" to "sophisticated polyrhythmic onslaught" within the span of a four-minute song. Of course, the more melodic pieces near the end of album are quite good as well, particularly the half-skittering/half-sublime "Anc," the hissing ambient dub of "Rotor," and the lushly melodic, blissed-out finale of "Reality’s Sweetheart" (which sounds like a hypnosis tape transformed into swooningly beautiful futuristic pop). Soda Gong is generally not the first label I turn to when I want to hear a total banger, but Flowered Knife Shadows is exactly that (except when it is something else that is similarly great).

Samples can be found here.

4051 Hits

Jacober, "Sketch for Winter X: Immortal Word"

cover image

This latest installment in Geographic North's endearingly eclectic and unpredictable Sketch for Winter series comes from Dope Body drummer David Jacober, who returns to revisit the melodic marimba terrain of his previous tape for the label (2015's The Gray Man). This latest release is considerably more minimal and tropical-themed than its predecessor, however, as Jacober reduces his palette to little more than marimba, kick drum, and a very dub-influenced approach to production. It is an admittedly narrow niche, but it quite a delightful one and Immortal Word is a near-perfect winter album, as it almost makes me forget that it is winter altogether. While I had never considered throwing a hypnagogic beach party before today, any anxieties that I may have had about what the soundtrack should be are now definitively eradicated.

Geographic North

I proudly stand behind "tropical beach party" as a solid summation of Immortal Word's general ambiance, but Jacober conjures an impressive variety of emotional shadings within that overarching mood. In fact, only the brief Hawaiian-tinged "Flashbacking" can be said to take a particularly straightforward approach to evoking moonlit beachside bliss. Admittedly, it is one of my favorite pieces of the lot, but I appreciate that Jacober nimbly avoids predictability or lapsing into kitsch. As befits his background in noise-damaged and aggressive music, there is a subtle darkness and sense of unreality that imbues many of these songs with legitimate depth and poignancy. In fact, most of this tape more closely resembles an exotica album for ghosts, as everything is elegantly blurred and slowed and leaves a rippling dreamlike haze in its wake. Moreover, Jacober has an appealingly sophisticated harmonic sensibility, avoiding obvious chord progressions in favor of something far more spectral and bittersweet. The stronger pieces tend to fall on the album's first half where the shadowy beachside reveries are enlivened with a propulsive thump, but the closing "Universal Sign" offers a glimpse of something more transcendent, vividly casting a haunting and sublime spell that calls to mind a hallucinatory midnight grotto of dark, swaying palms and slow-motion breaking waves. I could probably listen to that piece in an infinite loop for hours, so I suppose that makes it the album highlight, but nearly every single song on this brief release is cool as hell.

Samples can be found here.

3693 Hits

Mouse on Mars, "AAI"

cover image

I cannot think of any other artist who consistently mystifies and perplexes me quite like Jan St. Werner, which is probably an admirable trait but makes his discography a bit of a minefield for me. This latest opus unsurprisingly continues that trend and even raises the bar a bit, as AAI is an ambitious collaboration with writer/scholar Louis Chude-Sokei and a talented team of programmers and artificial intelligence experts. The result is a complex sci-fi concept album that would likely fry the synapses of even the most devout prog rock fan, as the album attempts to mirror the "sound of an artificial intelligence growing, learning and speaking." Having seen the Matrix and the Terminator films, I am not sure I fully share the artists' thesis that we need to "embrace AI and technology as a collaborator to break out of our current cultural and moral stagnation and ensure our survival as a species," but AAI is certainly a challenging, wild, and unique album. Sometimes it is also a very good one too.

Thrill Jockey

I suppose a radical premise deserves a similarly radical structure and AAI does not fall short in that regard, as these twenty pieces of varying lengths form a fitful and kaleidoscopic narrative of sorts. The words and voices technically originate from Chude-Sokei and Yağmur Uçkunkaya, but things certainly get quite complicated and convoluted along the way, as they were fed into voice modeling software and "played" like a synthesizer by St. Werner and Andi Toma. The accompanying music is stylistically all over the place, ranging from something akin to robot pop ("Artificial Authentic") to deranged-sounding loop collages ("Paymig") with many strange detours in between. The overall feel is definitely a futuristic one, but it is less "this is the blueprint for the next phase of electronic music" than it is "this feels like a disorienting, sensory overload mindfuck akin to drifting through a cacophonous gauntlet of televisions all loudly playing different things." If that sounds weird, nerve-jangling, and uneven, that is because AAI is unapologetically all of those things, but I definitely applaud St. Werner, Toma, and their collaborators for being this wildly adventurous (and Thrill Jockey for releasing something this bizarre). While I cannot say I embrace the entire album, it does feature some strikingly original and compelling individual pieces, particularly near the end, such as the stammering, deconstructed hip-hop of "Cut That Fishernet" and the heavy, lurching groove of "Dead Definition." I also like the obsessive and fragmented gibbering of "Go Tick" quite a bit. Obviously, I would not be terribly interested in this album at all if there were not some good songs, but the larger achievement here is how completely Mouse on Mars shoot past well-traveled territory to craft something that provocatively blurs together art, technology, and philosophy. Someone should definitely give them a pile of money to turn this into a traveling installation.

Samples can be found here.

6313 Hits

Biosphere, "Angel's Flight"

cover imageI believe I have been listening to Biosphere for at least 20 years now, but the project's evolution over the last five years or so has been especially fascinating, as Geir Jenssen's creative restlessness has led him to release one surprise after another. To my ears, 2016's Departed Glories remains the high water mark of this adventurous phase, but I am delighted that Jenssen seems to be actively looking for new challenges and that the results are almost invariably enjoyable and distinctive. This latest release continues that trajectory of endlessly breaking new ground, as the bulk of Angel's Flight was composed for a Norwegian dance production entitled Uncoordinated Dog. More significantly, all twelve pieces were crafted from repurposed fragments of Beethoven's "String Quartet No. 14." Unsurprisingly, much of the album would be unrecognizable to Beethoven, as Jenssen does an admirable job of blurring, stretching, blackening, and chopping his source material into a compellingly hallucinatory neo-classical fever dream.

AD 93

The album instantly descends into darkly phantasmagoric territory with "The Sudden Rush," which conjures a sinister-sounding impressionist swirl of blurred and uneasily harmonizing orchestral fragments. To some degree, that is the tone for the entire album: a series of variations upon the theme of smeared and slowed strings bleeding together and queasily undulating. Both the mood and structure of the individual pieces can vary quite a bit, however. Most of my favorite moments fall in the middle of the album, like the oscillating, slow-motion chord progression of "As Weird as the Elfin Lights" or the dreamlike flutes and viscerally throbbing pulse of the title piece. That said, the album probably reaches its zenith with the stuttering and gnarled closer "The Clock and Dial," which calls to mind several orchestral loops being played at once through a blown-out bass amp. Jenssen treats the hapless Beethoven similarly violently in the heaving "Unclouded Splendor," which achieves an almost operatic intensity from erratically timed and overlapping slashes of strings. There are a number of other fine pieces throughout the album as well, many which call to mind a reincarnated Debussy with a penchant for loops, a newfound love of dissonance and tension, and access to contemporary production software. Or maybe they simply resemble Beethoven as re-envisioned by The Caretaker, albeit considerably more vivid and robust than that sounds. Angel's Flight is not a stroll through the ruins of a haunted and moldering memory ballroom so much as a lush, enveloping, and oft-poignant symphony in which the fabric of reality frays and bulges as time ceases to be predictably linear. Needless to say, that is quite an appealingly disorienting and immersive illusion to linger in. I certainly did not expect Biosphere to ever sound like this, but I am delighted that Jenssen's muse led him to such wonderfully unfamiliar territory.

Samples can be found here.

4111 Hits

My Cat is an Alien, "The World That IS and IS NOT"

cover imageThe Opalio Brothers somehow managed to release three strong albums last year, but I believe only this one was (spontaneously) composed and recorded during the pandemic. It was also inspired by it, as The World That IS and IS NOT is billed as a concept album of sorts: an "existential reflection" on a scenario "where everything seems to vanish into the void." That admittedly sounds like a recipe for a bleak album, but the Opalios arguably went the opposite route, heading in a warmer direction to illustrate how music and art can help us transcend the "spiritual disquiet and moral despair" of the current age. To new or casual fans, that increased warmth will probably be nearly imperceptible, as it will be largely eclipsed by the fundamentally outré and mind-meltingly psychedelic elements of this project. Longtime fans will definitely notice a difference though, as this is an unusually meditative album with a satisfying and purposeful arc. While I tend to enjoy the comparative unpredictability of MCIAA's collaborations the most these days, this one captures Roberto and Maurizio in especially inspired form on their own, as I would be hard-pressed to think of a more perfectly distilled example of their warped and wonderful vision.

Elliptical Noise

This three-song suite deceptively opens with an extended piece that explores somewhat familiar alien terrain, as rattling, discordant, and broken arpeggios from Maurizio's self-made double-bodied string instrument erratically tumble through the dreamlike haze of Roberto's wordless vocalizations. The execution is unusually wonderful, however, as the increasingly sliding, scraping, and bleary strings create a deepening sense of immersive otherworldliness. That sets the stage nicely for the album’s centerpiece, "Whispers of Hope and Illusions," which calls to mind a ramshackle, post-apocalyptic structure of rusted metal wires being violently shaken by a passing storm of extradimensional psychedelia. It is probably one of my favorite MCIAA pieces to date, casting an immersive spell of rattling, undulating, and semi-curdled heaven. Granted, it is still a surreal mindfuck beyond earthbound tonality, but it is complex, nuanced, and weirdly beautiful enough not to feel like a lysergic nightmare (though the storm does get kind of intense). The album closes with yet another unusual (if brief) piece entitled "Prayer For A New Aurora," which feels like a window into a ritual or religious ceremony from an alien planet or alternate dimension. I especially liked whatever sounds like a homemade synthesizer dissonantly attempting to replicate a vuvuzela being strangled. Together, the three pieces flow into quite an absorbing and memorable whole and not a single theme ever overstays its welcome. While I sometimes pine for the days of incredibly long MCIAA albums, I am similarly enamored with beautifully focused and concise statements like this one. If there is another album by the Opalios that strikes a better balance between bold outsider vision and repeat listenability, I certainly cannot think of it.

Samples can be found here.

3764 Hits

Ashley Paul, "Ray"

cover imageI am not sure which is more impressive: that Ashley Paul managed to compose a focused, inventive, and challenging album like this while living with a toddler or that she somehow managed to (remotely) form a tight new trio of like-minded collaborators during a pandemic lockdown. Admittedly, I was a bit apprehensive about the latter development, as the fragility and uneasy intimacy of Paul's past work has always been one of its more endearing aspects, but her instincts thankfully proved to be characteristically unerring, as Ray continues her recent streak of great albums. In fact, this is probably an ideal entry point to Paul's singular aesthetic, as it beautifully balances her more "broken" and discordant tendencies with an increased warmth, as well as a side that approximates a hallucinatory cabaret as envisioned by the Quay Brothers. It all works wonderfully, as this more varied approach yields some instant career highlights while sacrificing none of the precarious magic that made her work so unique and mesmerizing in the first place.

Slip

Any doubts I had about a trio potentially diluting the eerie beauty of Paul's art were immediately erased by the opening "Star Over Sand," which makes me feel like I just stumbled into a jazz club in a nightmarish inversion of the Muppet universe. It is quite a impressive feat, as the piece somehow manages to be fun, catchy, and propulsive while also sounding artfully strangled, clattering, and ramshackle. Later, "Light Inside My Skin" hits similar heights, as the intertwining sax and clarinet melodies, plinking and lurching groove, and Paul's vocals combine to approximate a sultry jazz chanteuse performance that would be right at home in Twin Peaks. Notably, I was taken aback when I realized that Paul's new bandmates were actually a clarinetist (Yoni Silver) and a bassist (Otto Willberg), as I was absolutely certain that she had recruited a killer drummer instead. As it turns out, Paul herself was the killer drummer, which bodes very well for future albums, as the unusual percussion is probably my favorite of Ray's new innovations. That said, Paul is still quite a compelling presence with even the most minimal backing, as evidenced by the languorous, tender beauty of "Choices." I also like the similarly intimate and slow-moving "Blue Skies Green Trees" quite a lot, yet Paul's vision alone would be spellbinding enough without any stand-out songs, as she occupies a truly fascinating nexus where emotional directness, fragility, strong songwriting, childlike creepiness, stellar musicianship, and radical harmonic and melodic sensibilities not only intertwine, but somehow feel perfectly natural and unforced together. No one but Ashley Paul could have envisioned and successfully executed an album like this one, but Willberg and Silver certainly ground and flesh out her aesthetic quite nicely. This trio format turned out to be quite a fine idea.

Samples can be found here.

3851 Hits

Chuck Johnson, "The Cinder Grove"

cover image

I can think of few other artists in the midst of a hot streak quite as wonderful as the one Chuck Johnson is currently enjoying, as nearly everything he has released since 2017’s Balsams has been downright revelatory. In keeping with that theme, his return to solo work is yet another sublime stunner and a strong contender for his finest album to date.  While Johnson wisely does not depart much from his winning Balsams aesthetic, he does subtly expand his palette with some help from Sarah Davachi, a small string ensemble, and an endearingly exacting approach to reverb.  For the most part, however, everything beyond his swooningly gorgeous pedal steel playing is merely icing on an already perfect cake: virtually no one crafts warm, achingly beautiful soundscapes better than Chuck Johnson and he seems to only get better at it with each new release.

VDSQ

The album opens with an absolute masterpiece in the form of "Raz-de-Marée," which poignantly combines a lovely descending organ theme with a lazily shimmering haze of pedal steel heaven. Everything about it is damn near perfect, from the melodies to the textures right down to the bittersweetly beautiful mood. It is frankly an impossible act to follow, which makes the more vaporous "Serotiny" pale a bit by comparison, though its floating dreamscape is still a very pleasant place to linger. The strongest pieces tend to be the ones that anchor the sliding, liquid bliss of the pedal steel with something more solid though, as the instrument can start to feel a bit weightless on its own. On "Constellation," that solidity is initially provided by a repeating pattern of warm bass tones, but the structure eventually gets fleshed out further by some reverberant piano chords courtesy of Davachi. The following "Red Branch Bell" is the album's most adventurous and unexpected delight, as Johnson fades into the background while a churning string theme steadily builds in visceral intensity, then reappears to finish the piece with a languorously psychedelic coda. The closing "The Laurel" feels similarly epic, marrying an elegiac string motif with some achingly beautiful pedal steel that evokes vivid steaks of color in a slow-motion sunset—a fittingly great end to a near-perfect album. Johnson hits the mark on nearly every possible detail with The Cinder Grove, but my favorite facet (aside from the songs themselves) is just how incredibly wonderful it all sounds, especially the way the sharper textures of the strings tear through the soft-focus swirl of dreamily sliding melodies. This album is going to be in heavy rotation here for a long time.

Samples can be found here.

4048 Hits

Andrew Chalk, "Incidental Music"

cover image

In characteristic fashion, Andrew Chalk quietly released this cassette last fall and it is damn near impossible to find out anything about it other than the fact that it compiles pieces recorded between 2008 and 2016 and features regular collaborators Timo von Luijk and Tom James Scott on one piece. All outward signs suggest that Incidental Music was intended as a modest and minor release, so it was quite a pleasant surprise to find that it is actually one of the stronger Chalk releases from the last few years, roughly approximating the slippery, shivering, and floating bliss of 2015's A Light at the Edge of the World in more bite-sized form. While there is enough variety to periodically remind me that this is indeed a collection of orphaned songs rather than a focused and complete new statement, the quality of these treasures from the vault is high enough to make such a distinction feel quite irrelevant.

Faraway Press

The album immediately dissolves into sublime impressionist heaven with the opening "Fallen Angel," which captures Chalk at the height of his textural and harmonic powers. It is the sort of piece that people tend to describe with terms like "ambient drift," but it makes me think of water droplets quivering on a gently swaying spiderweb: there is an underlying structure, but the true beauty lies primarily on how the individual notes linger, shiver, and bleed together. It also highlights Chalk's singular talent for making extremely nuanced and sophisticated music feel organic and effortless, as "Fallen Angel" feels loose and spontaneous, yet delicately shifts moods while deftly avoiding any straightforward melodies or chords at all. While several of the following pieces return to roughly the same aesthetic with varying degrees of success (perfectly fine by me), the second half of the album is a bit more diverse and offers some more unexpected and rare pleasures. While I am still not entirely won over by the warm synth reverie of "Solas," I absolutely love "Sparkled in My Eyes," which sounds like a fever dream organ soundtrack to some masterpiece of German Expressionist cinema a la The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. Elsewhere, "From Mountain Tops The Dusky Clouds" crafts a languorously undulating fog with gentle drones and subtle wah-wah effects, while "To Many A Harp" conjures a wonderfully haunted and tender scene with a slow-motion melody of wobbly sustained tones.  At least two or three of those pieces are stone-cold gems, but the entire album sustains a wonderfully immersive and absorbing spell.

Samples can be found here.

3784 Hits

Abul Mogard, "In Immobile Air"

cover image

The latest album from this enigmatic Serbian composer is a significant departure from his previous work, as these five pieces were primarily composed on an old upright piano during lockdown. While the usual synthesizers are conspicuously relegated to a background role, In Immobile Air is nevertheless still very "Mogard" in both its central theme (memory) and its meditative and melancholy mood. It admittedly took me a bit longer to warm to this side of Mogard's artistry than usual (the piano is not my favorite instrument), but a few pieces capture him in especially inspired form and feel like significant breakthroughs in the manipulation of harmony and overtones. The other pieces are intriguingly adventurous as well, inhabiting a murky shadow realm somewhere between Harold Budd and blackened, desolate dronescapes.

Ecstatic

Partially inspired by an unnamed Italo Calvino story, both the song titles and the general mood of In Immobile Air evoke the bleak grandeur of a rocky beach on an overcast day. For the most part, Mogard paints the album's various somber scenes with a balance of gently rippling minor key piano melodies and deep, brooding drones, but that balance can shift quite a lot between songs. The darkly beautiful title piece is probably the most equal balance of the two elements, as a sad, tumbling piano motif lazily repeats over a gnarled and heaving backdrop of synth swells. The following "Clouds," on the other hand, abandons any recognizable piano in favor of dense, blown-out, and downright seismic waves of drone. Nevertheless, it is an unexpectedly melodic piece, as the roiling miasma cyclically resolves into a repeating bass tone. As befits the title, "Clouds" calls to mind a sky full of dense black clouds that periodically breaks to reveal faint rays of warming light. It is quite a mesmerizing piece, but it is later eclipsed by the album's centerpiece "Sand." Like "In Immobile Air," it is centered upon a tender, minor key piano melody, but the brilliant bit slowly emerges from the background, as massive, buzzing oscillations swell from the murky swirl of lingering decay to steal the spotlight. The album's two more drone-based pieces are a bit less memorable, but In Immobile Air's highlights are impressive and unique enough to make it a strong album.

Samples can be found here.

3915 Hits

Alina Kalancea, "Impedance"

cover image

This Romanian composer’s second album is quite a wonderful surprise, easily ranking among Important's finest non-reissue releases in recent memory. Far less surprising is the fact that Impedance is Buchla-driven (given the label’s well-documented fondness for modular synthesizers), but this is happily one of those times in which the tools are secondary to the focused and compelling vision that they help bring to life. While the album's best moments tend to be those that resemble a throbbing and seething strain of minimalist, industrial-inspired "noise" akin to recent Puce Mary work, Impedance as a whole is an ambitiously shapeshifting, deep, and legitimately heavy listening experience that grows more expansive and varied as it unfolds.

Important

The opening "Introspection" very effectively foreshadows what is to come, as it slowly builds from beeps and a bass throb into a seismic slab of deconstructed techno that burrows through a barely-there haze of twinkling, smearing, and looping psychedelia. The more haunted-sounding elements evoke the feeling of descending into a nightmare, but it is at least a propulsive and darkly libidinal one (those bass pulses just do not stop). The piece then arguably segues into a more concise, focused, and hallucinatory version of itself with "Walking Through Storm" (mechanized dread with a side helping of "weirdly viscous-sounding"). Delineations between pieces quickly cease to matter though, as the album feels like an extended DJ mix of heavy bass, subterranean woodpeckers, futuristic Kubrickian menace, and plenty of subtle mindfuckery (smearing tones, field recordings, etc.). And it seems to only get better as it goes on, culminating in the stellar one-two punch of "Horizons (After a Silent Walk)" and "Concrete Floor." In fact, "Horizons" damn near steals the show when its seesawing bass thrum blossoms into a darkly surreal finale of echoing voices, densely buzzing oscillations, sinister animal howls, and slow, insistent beeps. While a few pieces feel a bit long (I wish this was not a double vinyl release), Kalancea clearly had more than one LP worth of killer material and it would have been a shame to pare it down to only that (especially since it all flows together so well in its current format). In any case, this album is an absolute monster, as Kalancea repeatedly strikes the perfect balance between raw physicality, simmering violence, and exacting execution (like an Eliane Radigue album that is about to smash a bottle over my head).

Samples can be found here.

5906 Hits

Carmen Villain, "Sketch for Winter IX: Perlita"

cover image

This latest installment of Geographic North's frequently wonderful Sketches for Winter series is a new album from Oslo's restlessly evolving Carmen Villain and it is a fitfully (and strikingly) brilliant one. While the general aesthetic of Perlita is roughly akin to the more psych-minded side of private press new age, it is inventively mingled with an evocative and enigmatic array of field recordings, submerged beats, and hallucinatory flourishes to achieve something truly vivid, distinctive, and absorbing. In fact, the closing "Agua Azul" completely blindsided me, approximating an unexpectedly sensual, dubwise, and almost tropical-sounding update of Apollo-era Brian Eno.

Geographic North

This album joins the pantheon of releases that I would have described as "pretty good, I guess" before I threw on some headphones and belatedly experienced its full depth and clarity. In my defense, the first two pieces could easily be mistaken for deconstructed Enya on their face, but there are hints of greater emotional depth and mystery in even Perlita's most overtly tranquil pieces. In the opening "Everything Without Shadow," that side quietly manifests in drones that lazily hiss, fray, and bleed as a corroded vocal sample repeats below the surface. In the following "Two Halves Touching," however, the full extent of Villain's vision starts to become apparent, as a lurching "outsider dub" groove emerges from a miasma of deep bass, rhythmically sloshing waves, and a repeating, hallucinatory vocal loop. From that point onward, the album only descends into increasingly poignant and pleasantly phantasmagoric territory. Listening to Perlita feels like entering a blissful and dreamlike floating world where someone else's flickering, non-linear childhood memories are being projected. That experience is further enhanced by the intrusion of enigmatically meaningful outside sounds that drift in and lazily reverberate around until they fade away. Successfully casting and sustaining such a reality-dissolving spell is achievement enough, yet Perlita culminates in a final piece ("Agua Azul") that takes the album to a transcendent new level with a smoky flute melody and a slow, sensual groove…then tops it all off with a rain of slowly falling synth tones that feels like a sky full of slow-motion fireworks. Is that what heaven is like? I sure hope so. While it is currently only January, I am certain "Agua Azul" will absolutely be one of the most gorgeous pieces that anyone releases this year, as envisioning what could surpass it strains the limits of my imagination.

Samples can be found here.

4021 Hits

Kara-Lis Coverdale, "A 480"

cover image

Newly reissued on vinyl on her own Gate imprint, A 480 was Coverdale's formal debut (originally issued on Constellation Tatsu back in 2014). When I first heard it a few years back, I believed it was not nearly as strong as her breakthrough 2017 EP Grafts, but I have since revised and reversed that opinion as A 480 has its own (very different) flashes of brilliance—they just require a bit more focused listening to reveal themselves. This is both a unique album within Coverdale's discography and a unique album in general, approximating a slow-burning strain of loop-driven kosmische-style psychedelia assembled from ingeniously manipulated vocal loops.

Constellation Tatsu/Gate

The album's brief opener amusingly feels like a targeted assault on my personal sensibility, but the cheerily artificial textures and manic repetition of "A 480 are admittedly quite an effective illustration of the album's overarching vision. In essence, A 480 was crafted entirely from vocal pieces that have been "unpersonally sourced, downloaded, then disembodied, disfigured, and displaced over forty times." At various points throughout the album, those vocal loops approximate a human choir, but they far more often sound like a synth album from the '70s that has been chopped up by an Oval-esque mad genius. While both the album's conceptual basis and its source material are certainly intriguing, what truly matters is that the three pieces at the heart of the album all belong in the headphone album hall of fame (sadly still imaginary at this point). That incredible hot streak begins with the half-heavenly/half-futuristic epic "A 479," which sounds like it could have been a lost Tangerine Dream or Popul Vuh soundtrack for Solaris. That feat is then followed by the darkly hallucinatory "A 478" and the alternately playful and poignant otherworldliness of "A 477." Each piece offers its own bit of fiendishly clever compositional sleight of hand, but the thread uniting them all is Coverdale's virtuosic skill at maintaining a consistent sense of forward motion and structure in an endlessly evolving and oft-gorgeous sea of phase-shifting loops. In the passages where everything clicks fully into place, A 480 feels like an almost supernaturally rich and immersive tour de force of subtle rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic mastery. I cannot believe that this was a debut album.

Samples can be found here.

3893 Hits