Earthen Sea, "Ghost Poems"

Ghost PoemsThis latest release from the long-running ambient dub solo project of erstwhile Mi Ami/Black Eyes bassist Jacob Long is stirring up some feelings of regret about how I managed to sleep on this project for so long.  While I am not yet sure if Ghost Poems simply caught me at the right time or if Long has been unusually inspired recently, my previous exposures to Earthen Sea left me feeling like the ambient/dub balance was too heavily weighted towards the "ambient" side to leave a deep impression.  I suspect the balance has not changed all that much since I last checked in, but Long seems to have made a big leap forward in perfecting his execution with this album (it "further refines his fragile, fractured palette into fluttering arrythmias of dust, percussion, and yearning," according to the label).  Apparently, I am very much into fluttering arrhythmias of yearning now, as the first half of this album boasts a handful of pieces that can stand with just about anything in Kranky's rich and influential discography: rather than resembling dub techno that has been deconstructed and dissolved into a soft-focus haze, Ghost Poems often feels like Long has managed to seamlessly combine the best of ambient and the best of dub techno into something fresh, wonderful, and uniquely his own.

Kranky

According to Long, one of this project's central themes is "the melancholy of 7th chords on a fake Rhodes patch," which feels like quite an apt and self-aware description.  In lesser hands, that might be uncharitably viewed as a formulaic approach, but Long seems to instead belong to a more rarified type of artist who is passionately devoted to perfecting a single theme that obsesses him and he seemingly has no trouble finding myriad intriguing ways to keep that theme evolving. Unsurprisingly, blearily melancholy and repeating fake Rhodes chords are indeed the heart of the album, but Long inventively enhances that simple theme with a host of delightful textural and rhythmic elements.  Some of those elements are expected ones, such as the presence of deep bass throb, understated kick drum patterns, and subtle cymbal flourishes that give these pieces their physicality and sense of forward motion.  Those more conventionally musical touches are just pieces of a larger puzzle though, as Long also gets a lot of mileage from "domestic sounds (sink splashing, room tone, clinking objects) filtered through live FX to imbue them with an intuitive, immaterial feel." 

In theory, that is not exactly new territory, but it sure feels like it sometimes (particularly on the opening "Shiny Nowhere," as crackling, shuffling, and dripping sounds gamely replace the expected snare and cymbals in the lurching, slow-motion groove).  Given how explosive and cacophonous some of Long's previous bands have been, I was quite surprised by his talent for distilling a piece to its absolute essence and never playing a single wasted or unnecessary note.  My favorite piece is the hiss-soaked and sensuously seductive "Stolen Time," but "Felt Absence" and "Snowy Water" help make the whole first half a murderers' row of elegantly frayed and dreamlike hits.  To some degree, Long's "variations on a theme" aesthetic unavoidably starts to yield diminishing returns as I get deeper into the album, but some of his best ideas do not surface until later pieces like "Slate Horizon" and "Deep Sky" (both of which make very inspired use of subtly shivering cymbals and clicking drum sticks).

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334 Hits

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

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

Ernest Jenning Record Co.

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

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479 Hits

Širom, "The Liquified Throne of Simplicity"

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

Tak:til/Glitterbeat

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

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331 Hits

Félicia Atkinson, "Image Langage"

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

Shelter Press

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

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481 Hits

Caterina Barbieri, "Spirit Exit"

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

light-years

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

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467 Hits

Kali Malone, "Living Torch"

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

Portraits GRM

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

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527 Hits

Matmos, "Regards / Ukłony dla Bogusław Schaeffer"

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

Thrill Jockey

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

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643 Hits

Talweg, "Des tourments si grands"

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

Up Against the Wall, Motherfuckers!

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

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406 Hits

Zemi17, "Gamelatron Bidadari"

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

The Bunker New York

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

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432 Hits

Nate Scheible, "Fairfax"

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

Warm Winters Ltd.

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

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1371 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.  

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1352 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.  

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1072 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 drifted 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.

1069 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 Colpitts, 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.

1133 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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2052 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.

1861 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.

1629 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.

1367 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.

2129 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.

1684 Hits