This collection of (mostly) acapella field recordings from Kink Gong's Laurent Jeanneau truly emphasizes the "sublime" part of the Sublime Frequencies vision, as this is quite an eerily lovely and mesmerizing album. While the recordings span three different countries (China, Laos, and Vietnam), they are all roughly rooted in a single cultural milieu: the Chinese hill tribes known pejoratively as the Yao ("dog" or "savage"). Understandably, a large number of these tribal folk prefer the name Mien ("people"), but they are a multifarious bunch that have spread beyond China into Southeast Asia and evolved into numerous distinctive and divergent subcultures. The first half of the album is devoted to very pure and simple canon singing ("an initial melody is imitated at a specified time interval by one or more parts"), while the second half offers some compelling and more fleshed-out variations. While the "raw, ethereal, and cosmic" performances that Laurent captured need no additional enhancement to captivate me, the variations are every bit as great as the undiluted essence and give the album an impressively strong dynamic arc.
The opening "Lan Pan Moon" is a haunting and chant-like duet between two Laotian women (Keo and Na) centered upon a droning root tone. While the piece could not be much more simple melodically, the two women achieve an otherworldly beauty in the way they harmonize around the hypnotically cyclical motif. In fact, it feels akin to a harmonic dance, as the two voices keep diverging then reconverging into quavering unison, and the whole thing feels akin to a Lucier-ian feat of phase manipulation. The following "Kai Tian Pi Di" is a similarly unaccompanied duet (from China this time), but it shares some common stylistic ground with old African American work songs (there is even some bluesy note-bending). The album's second half kicks off with another piece from China, but it seems like an especially virtuosic version of the form, as the lead voice embellishes the central melody with a host of unusual bends, stammers, and ululation-like flourishes. The closing "Dao Cham" (from Vietnam) is still more divergent, however, as the heart of the piece is the clanging and rattling percussion of a lively ritualistic street procession. Gradually, the voices of the singers grow more prominent, yet the real beauty of the piece lies in how the various voices (singing and otherwise) lysergically drift in and out of focus. While I am not sure how intentional that was on Jeanneau's part, I certainly enjoy the effect, as it nicely blurs the line between field recording and sound collage. Due to the propulsive rhythm, the metallic physicality of the cymbals, and the surprise psychedelic elements, "Dao Cham" is my personal favorite on the album, but every single one of these pieces could be a revelation for adventurous ears.
Samples can be found here.
This mesmerizing and unique gem from Sublime Frequencies documents some killer field recordings made by Hisham Mayet in the Upper West region of Ghana back in 2019. I knew absolutely nothing about gyril music before hearing this album, but the most salient detail is that the primary instrument is a traditional xylophone used by the Lobi people. That does not even remotely convey how strange and wonderful these recordings are, but SF's description includes phrases like "long form trance music" and "acoustic techno," and those seem to hit the mark in spirit. To me, this album sounds like a ritualistic drum circle, but way more sophisticated, melodic, and psych-damaged than anything I would expect from actual communal percussion. As with a lot of field-recorded Sublime Frequency fare, it is very easy to dismiss this album as just an interesting window into an underheard culture from a cursory or casual listen. Once I listened to Dagara in a focused way, however, it quickly revealed itself to be something quite transcendent, as it seamlessly merges the otherness of great "experimental" music with an almost ecstatic visceral intensity.
This album is ostensibly composed of two separate pieces that each span one side of vinyl, but the digital version is presented as a single 40-minute track, and the latter is exactly what it feels like. You can drop the needle anywhere on Dagara and roughly expect to get the same thing every time: vibrant percussion rhythms and unusual-sounding, interwoven xylophone melodies. That is primarily because no one piece of the puzzle stands out as particularly brilliant or memorable on its own. That said, the insanely complex web of overlapping rhythms and processed-sounding textures is legitimately amazing. And so is the way that the piece subtly and organically transforms like a dense cloud of migrating birds effortless shifting direction in perfect unison. It all cumulatively amounts to something psychedelic as hell, leading me to both envy whatever wavelength these cats are on AND marvel at how they managed to get there in perfect harmony. This is total hive mind, wheels-within-wheels territory in the best way. Beyond that, I would describe the overall aesthetic as "a tropical steel drum band went to India to study classical raga and Eastern spirituality and returned home completely unrecognizable and waaaaaay into psychedelics." That is a compliment (I would totally listen to such a band), but it also feels like that hypothetical band was then grist for a killer sound collage by a great tape artist. While I assume this was recorded entirely live, the smearing, deep vibraphone-like tones and the stammering, hesitating melodies sound alien and hallucinatory, similar to a serendipitous pile-up of unrelated loops locking gloriously in sync. There is much happening and all of it is interesting. In fact, I would be truly hard pressed to think of a "complex polyrhythm" opus from the 20th century avant-garde that could beat this ensemble at that game. Albums like this are exactly why I love Sublime Frequencies, as Dagara is a richly immersive tour de force of constantly shifting, interwoven patterns.
Samples can be found here.
This second album from Milan-based visual artist/electro-acoustic composer Domiziano Maselli can be a disorienting collision of disparate inspirations at times, but it is certainly an intensely visceral and compelling experience when it hits the mark. Opal's description of the album mentions that Maselli possesses an "uncanny skill to create non-conformist drama," which feels like an apt characterization. It is similarly fair to say that Maselli likely has an extreme fondness for the gloomy prime of artists like Haxan Cloak and Raime, as well as a deep appreciation for Emptyset's seismic and intense approach to sound design. Elements of all three are certainly present on Lazzaro, though Maselli proves quite adept at building upon their best bits. That said, there are also a few pieces that radically break from the influences Maselli wears on his sleeve and they are uniformly brilliant. In one case, he approximates a massive contraption of slowly whirling jagged, rusted metal blades, while elsewhere he unleashes something akin to a demonically possessed string quartet hellbent on conjuring the darkest psychedelia. For me, Lazarro is a very strong album for those two pieces alone, but his execution for everything else is quite impressive as well.
The opening "The Burrow" is the first of Lazzaro's two monster highlights, as it resembles a more malevolent and corroded sister to Eli Keszler's stellar Cold Pin album. It feels more like I am inside a vast, churning and scraping metal installation than like am hearing an electro-acoustic composition performed by a human, which is a neat trick. That said, there is evidence of Maselli's hand in some of the peripheral mindfuckery, as the mechanized intensity is enhanced by waves of seismic sub-bass, something resembling a flock of nightmarish birds, and some stammering and ravaged chords. At one point, I almost felt like I was aboard the Nostromo being menaced by skittering sounds from inside the walls. The following "A Desolation Chant" heads in a very different direction, approximating a soulful, reverberating sax solo in an empty parking garage. However, it often feels seem like the noirish sax licks transform into something menacing and sentient as they echo around their subterranean concrete environment, as there is a dark undercurrent of murky, gnarled dissonance and bass throb. Next, a brief interlude of storm sounds cleanses the palette for the album's second masterwork: the heaving and explosive string onslaught of "Gethsemane." While it has a haunted-sounding melodic motif at its core, the real magic lies in the violently sawing attack of the bow, the squealing harmonics, and the lysergic descending smears that appear in the background around the halfway point. To my ears, the epic two-part closer "Lazzaro" does not quite hit the same heights, but it is not a misfire either, as the diptych calls to mind a folk ensemble blearily emerging from a cave in the smoldering aftermath of the eschaton. That seems like a damn fitting way to end such a wonderfully blackened and intense album.
Samples can be found here.
This solo drone project from Ulan Bator's Amaury Cambuzat has been one of my favorite discoveries of the last few years, as both AmOrtH and W featured moments that induced me to proclaim that Cambuzat was "a goddamn drone shaman." This latest album was a bit of a surprise, however, as Cambuzat casually made it available as a digital-only release on his Bandcamp page with just a simple description of "This is the very first recording of I Feel Like a Bombed Cathedral." Apparently, the recordings date from early 2018 and I am amazed that Cambuzat did not feel inclined to make them public until now, as a handful of these pieces are absolute gems that rank among the project‚Äôs finest work. A few of the other ones admittedly feel like a searching, partially formed vision of the greatness to come, but Œ≥Œ≠ŒΩŒµœÉŒπœÇ is much, much better than its humble "vault clearing" origins suggest. I would not have been at all disappointed if this was a proper new Bombed Cathedral release, as the album is absolutely teaming with beautifully warped guitar sounds and immersive layers of richly textured psychedelia. In fact, Œ≥Œ≠ŒΩŒµœÉŒπœÇ only heightens my expectations for whatever Cambuzat might be working on now, as no sane person would keep music this great on the shelf for three years unless they had something even better in the pipeline.
I have no idea if the opening "Te Deum" was the birth of this project or not, but it certainly does a hell of a job at conjuring up images of a recently bombed cathedral, as the organ-like tones of Cambuzat's guitar feel like rays of sunlight passing through thick smoke and stained glass (a feeling further enhanced by the deep, elegiac chord progression beneath). It is extremely brief, so it does not rank as an album highlight, but there are at least four other pieces that do. The first admittedly takes a while to get going, as "Tibi Omnes" devotes two minutes to a single sharp feedback-like tone that flickers like a candle. Fortunately, it then spends the next fourteen minutes blossoming into a beautiful, dreamlike vision of a mass in an ancient cathedral that has caught in a film projector and begun to burn and bubble in slow motion. The following "Dignare" gamely continues the "organ-like guitar tones collide with the distending fabric of reality" theme with great success. It roughly approximates the organ accompaniment to a silent gothic horror film, but slowed way down until it bleeds into itself while the projector erratically warps the film. Later "Te Ergo Quaesumus" continues another big theme ("nightmarishly crystalline approximations of a pipe organ"), but also sounds like wind chimes played back at such an extremely slow speed that everything is in a grainy, smeared state of suspended animation. I suppose the closing "Œ≥Œ≠ŒΩŒµœÉŒπœÇ" could be the true first Bombed Cathedral piece given its name, but I would be surprised, as it is the most brilliant and sophisticated one on the album. It calls to mind a demonic calliope that acts as a nightmare machine, as "wrong" notes in the melody keep lingering to form sickly, infernal harmonies. All of that amounts to an impressively solid album, but anyone who digs Cambuzat's work will absolutely want to hear that title piece, as it is unquestionably a career highlight of some kind.
Samples can be found here.
Back in 2016, noise/sound art legend Joe Colley returned from a lengthy hiatus to release the solid No Way In on Jason Lescalleet's Glistening Examples, but he has been extremely quiet ever since, surfacing only to release a tape of a durational live performance last year. Happily, he is back again with another major statement and it is quite a monster. It is also unusually accessible at times, as Trance Tapes lives up to its name beautifully (though those trances inevitably curdle into nightmare territory). In some ways, this album resembles a classic noise tape on the more "industrial" side of the spectrum, as each of the four pieces is built from a foundation of relentless, obsessively repeating "machine-noise" to varying degrees. That is merely the starting point, however, as each piece rapidly blossoms into a vividly psychotropic mindbomb of viscerally buzzing frequencies and hypnotically repeating chirps, bleeps, throbs, and looping drones. I suspect many serious noise fans would roll their eyes or spit out their drink in disbelief if I had the temerity to proclaim this a career highlight, so I will refrain from doing that. However, it is extremely difficult to imagine a Joe Colley or Crawl Unit album in which he was able to realize his vision with more clarity and focus than he does with this near-perfect tour de force.
"Program One" kicks off the album with insistent, rapid pulses of machine-like hum that initially feel like a locked groove, but rapidly begin accumulating both momentum and layers of killer mindfuckery. By the time the piece is even one-third through, it has blossomed into a nightmare of gibbering, squirming, and clicking insectoid cacophony. It then dissolves into a throbbing and otherworldly coda of futuristic electronic chirps that accumulate high frequencies that make the air vibrate and my brain buzz. That sensation is an extremely familiar one with Trance Tapes, as Colley is quite adept at luring me into a numbed state with mechanical repetition while sneakily unleashing high frequencies that will relentlessly drill deeper and deeper into my consciousness. Anyone who makes it through that entire song at reasonably high volume will absolutely feel slightly insane by the end. I mean that as a compliment, but I suspect a person could easily be convinced that this tape was leaked from some secret CIA black ops project involving the weaponization of high frequencies. ¬†
"Program Two" gleefully keeps those more brain-burrowing frequency attacks coming (sharper than ever!), but also feels like an army of wind-up toys showed up as well. It is the album's greatest endurance test, but I feel like I am the one at fault for being too mentally weak to withstand the full force of Colley's merciless sensory assault. The second half is thankfully a bit less malevolently sanity-eroding, yet it is every bit as good. "Program Three" resembles a vast futuristic field of hissing sprinklers and robot lawnmowers that grows progressively more smeared and buzzy, while "Program Four" sounds like a couple of '70s synth guys attempting to mimic a (psychedelic) frog pond at night. Surprisingly, that final piece is almost semi-melodic at times, like a small but sweet reward for joining Colley in such a deep plunge down an oft-disturbing rabbit hole.
Samples can be found here.
It admittedly took me a while to finally connect all the dots in my head, but it dawned on me recently that The Boats were kind of the Throbbing Gristle of a hard-to-define strain of ambient-adjacent bittersweet melancholia. My case: both Andrew Hargreaves and/or Craig Tattersall have been consistently involved in a host of varied and wonderful projects for more than two decades now (Hood, The Remote Viewer, Tape Loop Orchestra, etc.). The tape loop-focused The Humble Bee is Tattersall's most prolific and consistent endeavor; he has been releasing solo work and collaborations under that moniker since 2009. In fact, this album was the project's debut, but I only recently heard it for the first time, as its initial release was a limited CDr in a handmade case made from repurposed book covers (pictured). Last month, it got a well-deserved reissue on vinyl from the endearingly eccentric Astral Industries with VERY different cover art and it sold out instantly. That gives me hope for humanity, as this incredibly beautiful and absolutely sublime release deserves as much exposure as it can get. A Miscellany for the Quiet Hours is a stone-cold classic.
Cotton Goods/Astral Industries
Given the literary/antiquarian bent of the original packaging, "The Bedside Book" fittingly opens the album on a note of dreamily flickering, sepia-toned wistfulness. It conjures an understatedly gorgeous pile-up of frayed, overlapping, and gently crackling antique music box loops. The hits just keep coming from there, as Tattersall ingeniously weaves sparse melodic fragments into richly textured and sometimes achingly beautiful collages that feel like the work of an enchanted Victrola. I realize that the magic of this album is simply "Craig Tattersall has a great ear for loops and is extremely skilled at collaging them in interesting, soulful ways." However, it is still a genuinely surprising and improbable convergence of different threads. It sometimes seems like Mary Lattimore recorded source material for Everyone Alive Wants Answers‚Äìera Colleen, but then Philip Jeck cannibalized their album and teamed up with a jazz guy for an impressionistic and understated accompaniment to a night of classic silent film. In less convoluted terms, that means that Tattersall uses a lot of simple, but lovely harp-like melodies that pop, crackle, and warble in pleasantly languorous fashion, but sometimes a double bass or a trumpet will steer things in a more sensual or noir direction. The album highlight is probably "Technical Press," which punches up Tattersall's already beautiful vision with a cool bass loop and plenty of wobbly and warped psychedelic flourishes. Elsewhere, "With Answers" makes similarly effective use of backwards sounds, but in more throbbing, ambient-minded fashion, while the closing "P209" feels like a killer dub techno classic that's been frayed and hiss-ravaged into something a bit more hypnagogic. While those four pieces are currently my favorites, competition is unusually fierce, as Tattersall's instincts are absolutely unerring on this album.
Samples can be found here.
This is the debut album from a Berlin-based foursome dedicated to performing the works of Malaysian-born composer/trombonist Rishin Singh. Notably, Singh is also a member of Konzert Minimal, which is a modern classical ensemble dedicated to performing compositions by the Wandelweiser collective. In a 2016 New Yorker profile of the Wandelweiser milieu, Alex Ross noted that one recurring theme in their work is a "ghost tonality never achieves stability; it will frustrate those who expect one chord to lead logically to another." Singh's own vision shares a lot of similar stylistic terrain, as A Fog Like Liars Loving is nothing if not ghostly (and creepy (and unsettling)). It resembles an alternate universe version of Low in which they were a chamber music ensemble that listened to a steady diet of nothing but Jandek, Scott Walker, Marble Index-era Nico, and warped old folk records played at the wrong speed. That said, Singh definitely has an unusually sophisticated sensibility regarding dissonant harmonies and the entire album has an eerily nocturnal, dread-soaked, and somnambulant feel that is uniquely Leider's own. Purportedly, the album also features an "understated gallows humor," which is also an achievement of sorts, as Singh has managed to cultivate a strain of black humor so bleak that even I often have a hard time detecting it.
I never would have guessed on my own that this album was written by a male trombonist, as the most prominent threads that run throughout these songs are the dual female vocals of Annie G√•rlid and Stine Sterne, the moaning strings, and the curdled, murky flutes. All are abundant in the creeping fog of dread and hanging dissonance that is the opening "The Weeping Wound," but the quartet's blurred gloom is also imbued with a sense of insistent (if glacial) forward motion by a simple drum machine pattern. Ironically, it is often that minimal drum machine element that determines how well a song works, as the compositions themselves are so purposely wraithlike and alienating that even the slightest rhythm feels like a welcome injection of life and physicality (akin to a still-beating heart faintly thumping within a corpse). When that beat disappears, Leider approximate a traditional folk ensemble from an earlier era that has been exhumed, reanimated, and handed rotted, mis-tuned instruments‚Ä¶and then asked to envision what The Wicker Man soundtrack would sound like if it had been an Ingmar Bergman film. That said, one of those beatless pieces is arguably the album's bleakly compelling centerpiece, as "Great Expectations" transforms a few lines of Dickens into a menacing dirge that erupts into a visceral, squealing catharsis. "Colder Underground" is another dirge/highlight, calling to mind a time-stretched Celtic folk ensemble accompanied by a slowly beating heart. It even has a hook, as the repeating refrain of "do you find it funny?" is surprisingly catchy and also feels like the final thing I might hear before being murdered by a coven of forest witches. I suspect I would probably like the rest of the album considerably more if it were less relentlessly dour (it makes for difficult entertainment), but Singh's focused vision feels like a promising success as art, as I can easily imagine an installation based on this album being a macabre sensation at a contemporary art museum.
Samples can be found here.
This latest release from Scott Morgan‚Äôs long-running loscil project is a bit of a conceptual detour from his usual fare, as the entire album was "sourced from a single three-minute composition performed by a 22-piece string orchestra in Budapest." That is not all, however, as that brave composition's unconventional journey also included an intermediate stage in which it was "lathe-cut on to a 7-inch, then 'scratched and abused to add texture and color.'" Despite those unusual origins, Clara still sounds exactly like a loscil album, as Morgan is nothing if not consistent. In this case, that basically translates as "a slow-motion dub techno album lurking behind a grayscale ambient fog," but the magic lies in the execution (as always) and Morgan has never been a slouch in that regard. In fact, he succeeds on two fronts with this release, as Clara is both another fine loscil album and an impressive feat of inventive de-/ re-construction, as Morgan managed to transform three minutes of music into a varied, absorbing, and dynamically satisfying album-length statement (and he made it all seem effortless and natural to boot).
The opening "Lux" rolls in like a thick fog of slow-motion melancholy, as deep, exhalation-like chords swell and dissipate around a steadily intensifying core of shimmering drones. It is exactly the kind of piece I expect from loscil, which is generally a good thing, but there are a handful of other pieces that feel like something considerably more transcendent. The first such piece is "Lumina," which is basically feels like the rough draft of ‚ÄúLux‚Äù heard several drafts later, as it is centered around a similar theme of slowly billowing clouds of ambient murk. This time, however, there is a hissing and shuffling rhythmic undercurrent and a quietly bubbling arpeggio melody to elevate it into something far more memorable. It also seems to get better and better the more I listen to it, as Morgan is a master of textural nuance, as the bleak grandeur of "Lumina" is a feast of frayed, rippling, hissing, and billowing sounds that complement each other beautifully. The following "Lucida" is also noteworthy, as it delves into a brighter, warmer strain of glacial dub-inflected ambiance, but also has a subtly disorienting pulse that feels like a lonely buoy fading off into the distance of a sun-dappled sea. It is the two-song run that comes next that feels like the heart of the album, however, as "Stella" feels like an especially cinematic and noirish incarnation of Clara's themes, calling to mind a lovesick John Le Carre character brooding at a desolately beautiful beach in the winter, while ‚ÄúVespera‚Äù is unexpectedly sensual and twinkling. Later, "Orta" is another strong candidate for the album‚Äôs best piece, as slow, beautiful chords form a languorous, dreamlike pulse while submerged field recordings subtly enhance that blissful sense of unreality. Elsewhere, "Flamma" feels like another glimpse into the same haunting beach noir as "Stella," while the radiant thrum of the closing title piece feels like an angel giving a drone performance from inside a cloud. Clara is more than a fresh batch of strong individual songs though, as the various pieces form a beautifully meditative and constantly evolving whole that feels akin to watching distant thunderstorms darken the skies (and then slowly dissipate) from the inside of a cozy seaside home.
Samples can be found here.
The recent news of the death of Franco Battiato drew me to Giusto Pio‚Äôs solo debut album, a classic of Italian minimalism. Produced by Battiato in 1979 and first released on Cramps records, Motore Immobile was generally ignored before languishing in obscurity. The Soave label reissued the album on vinyl in 2017, the year of Pio‚Äôs passing, and issued a vinyl repress shortly before Battiato died: an appropriate symmetry for two men who worked so beautifully together. The quality of their musicianship and compositional skill is such that, with simple organ drone, modest voice, delicate violin, and resonant piano, a vivid and sacred impression is created.
There is no law against trying to describe the subtle mystery and calm in this magnificent recording, but there probably ought to be. Let me first, then, defer to an expert writer on minimalism to succinctly describe those elements that Pio uses to achieve so much. As Alan Licht says "on the first side/title track, he uses a droning organ and moves very calmly from triad to triad, superimposing the next one briefly before moving on, occasionally expanding the sound with octave doubling and then just as quickly subtracting the lower tones. Intermittent humming and violin provide additional notes. On the second side, 'Ananta,' he uses a piano flourish to introduce each triad, landing on the tonic note each time."
The organ on the title track is played by Danilo Lorenzini and Michele Fedrigotti. Giusto Pio himself adds violin, and Martin Kleist doesn‚Äôt so much sing as hum almost beneath the surface of consciousness. Pio's violin playing has the care and precision of a sculptor or surgeon, shaping the music, and paring it down to bare bones. Matching the human voice with the organ drones produces a profound and spiritual harmony. Earlier in life I found the organ (in church) overpowering. It seemed at times to obliterate the congregation, as might a tool of class-based domination. While achieving a stunning musical purity, Motore Immobile also preserves the importance of the human voice. I have now come to love the organ, and recent works such as Kali Malone's The Sacrificial Code, where the instrument appears to be alive and breathing, have helped with that. For Pio's second piece, "Ananta," Lorenzini plays organ and Fedrigotti switches to piano. It too is an unforgettable work, dazzling as sunlight hitting colored glass objects in a Venetian shop window. Motore Immobile has a place among other classics of the period, such as Roberto Cacciapaglia's Sei note in logica (1979), Luciano Cilio's Dialoghi Del Presente (1977), and Franco Battiato's L‚ÄôEgitto Prima Delle Sabbie (1978) that is assured for all time.
In theory, this album was released last September (which feels like a hundred years ago), but the LP only recently made its way into stores and distros, which is an increasingly familiar story these days. Fortunately, that long delay inspired me to revisit the album with fresh ears and I discovered that I actually liked it quite a lot more than I remembered. That statement deserves an asterisk though, as my earlier issue with Stolen Car was merely that I had already played the amazing Au Jus/The Jugged Hare and Ganci & Figli singles to death and those are probably the four best songs here. That unsurprisingly made the actual album a bit of an anticlimax, as my expectations were absolutely sky high and only those singles could meet them. Had I not already been extremely familiar with those four pieces, however, I suspect Stolen Car's release would have inspired me to run out into the street to grab random strangers by the shoulders and demand to know why they were just going about their mundane lives when they could be listening to this delirious, rapturous swirl of kaleidoscopic pop brilliance instead. On the bright side, not doing that may have spared me a night in jail, so I guess it all ultimately worked out. Admittedly, I still think this is a bit of an uneven album, but it is at least half of a masterpiece too, as I am hard-pressed to think of many people who can touch Carl Stone at the height of his powers (which he is frequently at here).
Carl Stone has certainly had a lengthy and fascinating career, but his recent work feels like it is on a different plane altogether and that plane is quite an endearingly fun and gleefully deranged place to be. In fact, it is a challenge to wrap my mind around the fact that the same man whose "jazz rock" band auditioned for Frank Zappa's label in the late '60s is also responsible for the opening "Pasjoli," which sounds like an Egyptian disco album being pulled apart by a black hole in the middle of an '80s hip hop block party. While it is not the best song on the album, "Pasjoli" does quite a fine job of laying down all of the album's themes in impressively vivid and dizzying fashion: from the first note to the last, Stolen Car is a manic, stammering, go-for-broke culmination of Stone's unique approach to cultural appropriation (absolutely everything is fair game and disorienting juxtapositions are both welcome and rampant). Aside from the four songs previously released as singles (the swirling, delirious pop cut-up "Figli" being the best), my favorite piece is "Bojuk," which feels like a soulful contemporary dance hit chopped into an unintelligible fragment language coupled with an anthemic hook that feels like it should have its own line dance. In general, the poppiest songs on Stolen Car are the best, but Stone's eccentric vision of "pop" feels like the entire history of The Eurovision Song Contest condensed into a single wild hallucination. Or perhaps like someone crammed Dexy's Midnight Runners, a classical quartet, a dance diva, a turntablist, and some yodelers into an elevator and told them they couldn‚Äôt leave until they recorded a hit together. I also enjoyed the divergent "Huanchaco," which resembles a tight fusion band remixed into jackhammering psychedelic lunacy by a maniac. Admittedly, there are also a handful of songs that do not quite hit the mark, but they are decisively outweighed by the great ones and Stolen Car as a whole sounds like a wildly pixelated and accelerated version of Jon Hassell's Fourth World aesthetic beamed back from twenty years in the future.
Samples can be found here.
I was a bit surprised to see this album getting the "10-year-anniversary deluxe vinyl reissue" treatment, as I did not remember it making a particularly big splash when it was first issued on Illegal Art back in 2011. Then again, I would be hard-pressed to think of any album in the "plunderphonics" milieu that has made a big splash in the last two decades, as existing in a legal gray area in a litigious world is not exactly optimal for promoting records. In any case, I missed this album the first time around because I mistakenly thought that I was already reasonably familiar with Vicki Bennett's work and found it charming, fun, and clever, but not quite something that destined to deeply move me or blow my mind. As it turns out, I was very wrong about that, as this album reaches some truly dazzling and remarkably poignant heights. While I do regret that I could have spent the last decade regularly enjoying this magnum opus, Welcome Abroad actually feels like a perfect album to experience for the first time in 2021, as it was recorded while Bennett found herself unexpectedly stranded in the US due to the Iceland volcano's impact on air travel. Consequently, Bennett was preoccupied with themes of "displacement" and "a longing for elsewhere," which are themes that feel especially universal and powerful in light of the last couple years. And, of course, there is no one better at transforming recontextualized fragments of pop culture ephemera into a life-affirming phantasia of mischievous joie de vivre than Vicki Bennett.
The best way to describe the Welcome Abroad experience is that it feels like a once-great Broadway director bottomed out and attempted to make a comeback with a razzle-dazzle, star-studded extravaganza about homesickness. Unfortunately, they needed cash and all of the willing investors had VERY strong and VERY specific opinions about the tone of the production. Miraculously, the director somehow succeeded in making something dazzling and beautiful, but it absolutely bulged with disorientingly absurd and kitschy leaps between '70s pop hits, vintage cartoons, Weimar Republic cabaret, cowboy movies, easy listening crooners, family sing-a-longs, Bond movies, and campy children's television. And while the show may not perfectly hit the mark with every single number, its many showstoppers are deliriously kinetic, fiendishly clever, and sometimes hit much harder than one would expect from their deceptively cheery tone. The first such gem is "Happy Lost Songs," which sounds like a community theater tribute to John Denver that was infiltrated by a vocal jazz ensemble and several delightful Looney Toons characters. "The Look" is more of a slow burn, but the reward is well worth the journey, as a sultry cabaret chanteuse bleeds into a wistful '60s surfsploitation scene, then it all unexpectedly erupts into a spectacular celebration of AM Gold hits (with plenty of overlapping along the way). Elsewhere, "Ever" feels like a delirious swirl of classic ‚Äò60s girl group heaven, while "Push The Clouds Away" resembles a heartbroken cowboy restlessly playing records while lamenting his loneliness. It is predictably strange and disorienting, but when the right record comes on, it feels crushingly poignant and soulful too. The closing "The Atlantic Conveyor" is yet another emotional depth charge, as the kitschy collision of The Beatles and a schmaltzy Las Vegas crooner melds into a surprisingly moving finale. Nearly everything about this album is both great and fun though, as my notes are riddled with phrases like "The Muppets throw a Mardi Gras Party," "someone gave Piper at the Gates of Dawn-era Syd Barrett a variety show," "Satie on Bald Mountain," and "a singin' and dancin' temper tantrum extravaganza." I think Vicki Bennett might be my favorite artist now. This album is brilliant.
Samples can be found here.
The latest run of releases from Albany NY‚Äôs Matt Weston have been growing consistently in scope and length. After a slew of 7" releases, there was the 2019 12" EP A New Form of Crime, the LP Tell Us About Your Stupor from last year, and now this double record. Four Lies is an excellent progression, as Weston has filled the expanding formats with even more creative and unique sounds. On Four Lies his use of varied electronic treatments continues, but the integration of more of his percussive expertise makes it all the better.
Weston comes out heavy with "We Are Armed," with laser bagpipe electronics and erratic cut up drum recordings rushing to the forefront. It is extremely kinetic, full of cut and paste sound layers and clattering incidental noises throughout, but there is clear order to the chaos, as Weston shifts from tumbling drums to layered non-traditional rhythms and haunted house moods. "Celluloid Caller" has a recurring, oddly bouncy melody throughout, as processed voices and harsher noise explosions cut through a massive wall of reverb, mixing heavier moods with almost jaunty melodies.
"You Tried to Fix the Paranoia," the opening of the second disc, is a bizarre mix of gurgling electronics and sharp, chirpy outbursts. Weston presents grinding string sounds and insectoid passages with bent voices and heavy reverbs once again, resulting in an extremely alien, unnatural sounding work. The following "Solitary Vulture" is the opposite: a wide expanse punctuated by a far off pleasant tone, then watery passages of calmness. Things are all well and good until Weston decides to add in some jarring feedback stabs, however.
All of the final side is taken up by "Fear of Insomnia," which is fitting given the dramatic nature of the piece. Dramatic drums and what sounds like horns (or an approximation thereof) appear immediately within the expansive, spacious mix. Grinding low end and shimmering passages nicely blend the dark and the light elements of Weston‚Äôs sound. Eventually an untreated drum passage becomes the focus, anchoring everything in a perfect krautrock complex rhythm. Drifting, droning electronics supplement the driving beat, culminating in an intense beauty. Later on he adds just a bit of delay that throws everything off kilter, turning up the intensity and making for even more chaos as the set concludes.
I would hesitate to use the term "sprawling" to describe Four Lies, but Weston covers a lot of bases across all four sides of the album. Historically, his work covers so much ground, from jazz influenced structures to heavy electronics to rhythmic experimentation, and all of that can be found within this one release. Defying categorization, Weston channels a bit of everything: playfulness, malevolence, tone, texture, noise, melody and so much more, and manages to distill it all into one album with a virtuoso‚Äôs touch.
Samples can be found here.
Recordings of sound art installations are always a bit troublesome, since it is an attempt to distill a spatial experience into a (usually) two channel stereo recording, meaning something is lost in translation. The latest work from the trio of Steven Hess, Joseph Clayton Mills, and Adam Sonderberg combines the intent and structure of an installation, but in the form of a live performance where each performer performed within their own specific space, and specifically intended for an external listening experience. While that may sound convoluted, it results in a tape that features an amazing sense of space and movement, even if it is just a recording.
The spatial element of this material is undeniable from the opening moments of "Some Gravity." The trio cover subtle electronic tones with churning static and deep blasts of three-dimensional sound. It is extremely active, complex, and challenging without being harsh or oppressive. The use of droning tonal elements on "BTWN 65, 52" beautifully contrasts the reversed stutters and fragments that are all covered by what sounds like the deep rumble of a passing train.
The trio leans heavier into rhythmic elements on the other side of the cassette, albeit in the most abstracted form possible. "Lost My Shape" is a multilayered noise experience that is distinctly anchored by clicks, thumps, and dull thuds that certainly sound percussive in nature, but hardly resemble anything close to a drum. The final piece, "Surrogates" has the ambience of being within a large idling machine, complete with external banging and clattering, but a subtle piano motif stays prominent throughout, providing an excellent contrast.
Pandemic recordings are a concept that is already becoming clich√©, but Haptic (intentionally or not) have created a perfect one with Weird Undying Annihilation. By so deftly capturing the experience of both live recordings and dynamic sound installations into a format that can be fully appreciated in complete isolation. It is an excellent substitute while standing completely on its own strengths, and never just seeming like a "best approximation" of the live, spatial context. The depth and complexity of these recordings is astounding, and the trio do an unbelievable job of capturing both place and motion in only two channels of sound.
Samples can be found here.
It has been nearly four years since the last Colleen album, which is certainly not the first lengthy gap in C√©cile Schott's wonderful discography, but she definitely seemed to be thriving and experiencing a creative renaissance since signing to Thrill Jockey. As it turns out, that hiatus was far from intentional, as Schott has been plagued by quite an impressive run of personal misfortunes and upheavals since A Flame My Love, A Frequency was released (some of which certainly inform the album's searching lyrical themes). While I do not subscribe to the "suffering inspires great art" myth, I do think the long break between albums allowed Schott enough time, solitude, and introspection to make The Tunnel and the Clearing far more of a leap forward than it may have been otherwise. It does share its predecessor's conspicuous lack of viola de gamba though, as Schott remains committed to exploring the potential of just a simple synthesizer and a few well-chosen pedals. That similarity aside, this latest opus sounds completely different than any other Colleen album, as it feels like Schott just invented her own incredibly cool strain of organ-driven hypnagogic pop (and one fitfully enlivened by delightful Latin rhythms, no less). In fact, I briefly wondered if she had somehow managed to customize a synthesizer to be played with a bow. This is unsurprisingly yet another excellent Colleen album.
For this latest release, Schott set aside her Critter and Guitari synths and opted for the surprisingly small and inexpensive Yamaha Reface YC, which she primarily uses to mimic an organ. While that warmer tone certainly suits Schott's hushed and understated aesthetic quite nicely, the stars of The Tunnel and the Clearing are frequently the various echo and delay pedals that she so brilliantly employs (and possibly her vintage drum machine as well). That is not to say that the songs are not also strong, but these seven pieces are quite simple, spartan ones and their primary beauty lies in how Schott wields effects to make her melodies organically wobble, ripple, smear, and overlap. That approach makes everything feel hazy and disorientingly out-of-phase in a lovely way that nicely complements the album's fun and sultry drum machine grooves. Most of the strongest pieces come near the beginning of the album, as there is an especially great three-song run after the shuffling and thumping instrumental opener. In "Revelation," Schott quietly sings a tender melody over a pulsing and spacey backdrop, but it slowly dissolves into woozy ambiance that later builds into a beeping psych crescendo. My favorite piece is the charmingly tropical-sounding "Implosion-Explosion," which sounds like Stereolab and Yo La Tengo turned up for all-star beach party jam, while the title piece is a synth instrumental that feels like an Emeralds song freed from its structure and allowed to spiral off into soft-focus bliss. The final three pieces get a bit more eclectic, as the two-part "Gazing at Taurus" initially sounds like an '80s Euro pop chanteuse backed by a shimmering cloud, then becomes a hypnagogic twist on "cruise ship lounge band." "Hidden in the Current," on the other hand, almost veers into proggy indulgence, but is arguably saved by its psychotropic, oscillating drones. While I certainly commend Schott for her adventurousness, the best thing about this album is the same as the best thing about every Colleen album: her singular gift for crafting understated, intimate, and precariously dream-like glimpses of pop heaven.
Samples can be found here.
Saltern‚Äôs latest Yoshi Wada reissue unhappily coincides with the composer's unexpected passing, but at least he managed to live long enough to see his work get some wider appreciation in recent years. Or at least managed to see some of his major albums finally get remastered and released outside Japan, as "wider appreciation" is very relative when one's vision is as unapologetically challenging as Wada's. In fact, I always viewed him as a Final Boss in the appreciation of difficult and adventurous music, as it takes a lot of immersion in dissonant and outr√© sounds before one reaches the "I crave a deep dive into avant-garde bagpipes" stage. In fact, I am not sure I am yet there myself. Given that, The Appointed Cloud is probably more for devout connoisseurs of sound art's more prickly fringes than, say, the heavy drone of Wada's 2009 triple LP Earth Horns With Electronic Drone. However, this album was one of Wada's personal favorites, as it documents the "memorable" opening performance of his "first large-scale, interactive installation" at the Great Hall of the New York Hall of Science in 1987 (which featured "spaceships hanging from the ceiling so people felt like they were traveling in outer space"). That certainly seems like a suitably disorienting environment for sounds this fascinating and unique. I dearly wish someone had thought to film some post-concert audience reactions, as I bet they were quite something.
Saltern/EM Records/Edition Omega Point
There are some artists who seem like that they have absolutely no influences other than themselves, but there are also some equally rare visionaries who combine such bizarre and seemingly clashing influences that they seem equally unique. Yoshi Wada was arguably the king of the latter camp, as he began his creative life studying sculpture in Kyoto before moving to New York in the '60s and falling in with the burgeoning Fluxus scene there. He also studied composition with La Monte Young, North Indian classical singing with Pandit Pran Nath, and Scottish bagpipes. That impressive collision of jarringly divergent impulses makes sense if one simply accepts that Wada was a deeply curious person though. And The Appointed Cloud similarly makes sense if one understands that sculpture was Wada's first love and that Fluxus showed him a path to applying those talents to music, as one of its primary themes is emphasizing the artistic process over the finished product. Appropriately, process lies at the heart of this performance, as it is a based around "a custom pipe organ, among other homemade instruments, controlled by a computer equipped with a customized interface and software designed by engineer David Rayna." The ensemble is further rounded out by four bagpipe players (one of whom was Wada) and a percussionist. All of those elements make their presence strongly felt at various points, but most of the album sounds like a very tight and professional bagpipe ensemble with one rogue member who keeps steering them towards crescendos of squalling dissonance (and it also sounds like he may have invited some friends from a gagaku ensemble along). It also occasionally sounds like a pipe organ jam at a Zen retreat, an air raid drill during a mass at a cathedral, a flock of crazed geese fleeing a storm, or an appealingly frayed and out-of-phase Philip Glass homage. Needless to say, that makes for quite a wild and unpredictable ride and it is not one for the timid: Yoshi Wada was truly a one-of-a-kind artist and The Appointed Cloud is exactly the sort of ambitiously challenging and strikingly unfamilar album to (emphatically) affirm that.
Samples can be found here.
People often grumble about how music used to be better and that usually just means that they are either looking in the wrong places or not paying close enough attention, but every now and then I get blindsided by something from decades past that makes me concede that there is indeed some truth to that stance. I mention that because Louise Landes Levi is one of the few remaining artists from the late '60s Mills College/NYC avant-garde golden age who is both active and seemingly still in her creative prime. Admittedly, her discography was quite sparse until the last decade or so (much like that of Catherine Christer Hennix), but the woefully delayed appreciation of Levi's work feels like it was less due to sexism and a challenging vision than because documenting her art seems like trying to capture lightning in a bottle. Fortunately, Sloow Tapes' Bart De Paepe was up for the challenge and Bombay Lunatic Asylum is a recently formed trio that brings out some of Levi's best work. In practical terms, that mostly means that De Paepe and Koen Vandenhoudt just hung back, made some drones, and (presumably) watched in awe as Levi unleashed an passionate and fiery sarangi tour de force that calls to mind a Zen Paginini. This album is amazing.
There are technically three songs on Mad Song, but it is very easy forget that anything exists other than the haunting and incendiary opener "The Mental Traveller." Over a backdrop of harmonium drones, Levi unleashes a raw, viscerally cutting, and almost possessed-sounding sarangi showcase that calls to mind a pagan ritual in which a sensuous dance reaches such a fevered intensity that the dancer drops dead afterward. It is incredibly powerful and moving, yet also impressively hallucinatory. In fact, the macabre ballet feels both feral and almost supernatural, as the many animal-like sounds Levi coaxes from her sarangi sometimes feel like an anguished flock of birds dispersing in fear because the dancing, howling melodies are simply too primal and darkly erotic to handle. It also sounds like Levi has a magic homemade effects pedal that makes everything sounds unnaturally and vividly tactile and earthy (quite a neat trick). I believe Vandenhoudt also plays sarangi on that opening piece, as there are some overlapping melodies and drones, but he switches to the shruti box for the more mournful and meditative "Ancient Times." Unsurprisingly, it is yet another gem, but Levi's playing is considerably more lyrically melodic and the drones play much more of a central role, imbuing the piece with a densely buzzing and lazily oscillating seismic heft (they almost sound electronic, in fact). Despite the slight dip in intensity, "Ancient Times" is nonetheless impassioned and unconventional in its own right, as Levi unleashes some mind-burrowing harmonic squeals and the trio's drones seem to conjure the otherworldly harmonies of Just Intonation (though that may just be an illusion). The album ends with a brief vocal coda/comedown in which Levi sings William Blake‚Äôs "Mad Song" over another harmonium backdrop, approximating something akin to a lovely but simple Kink Gong piece or great Sublime Frequencies find. It all amounts to a truly wonderful and singular album, as listening to Mad Song feels like an almost ecstatically religious experience.
Samples can be found here.
I have been aware of Daniel Bachman's work for quite some time, as he has always been one of the more reliably excellent and virtuosic artists in the post-Fahey "American Primitive" milieu, but I was apparently not paying nearly enough attention to notice how far he had evolved beyond that scene in recent years. I believe Bachman first started to conspicuously head in this more psych-minded and abstract direction with 2016's self-titled release, so I suppose I have some catching up to do, yet Axacan is the album that is currently being hailed as a masterpiece so it seemed like a good place to start. Amusingly, I think it might actually drift too far from Bachman's instrumental prowess to land in my own personal pantheon of masterworks, but it is certainly one hell of a bold, surprising, and radical release. To my ears, it resembles some kind of impressionistic and hallucinatory "found footage" diary of unsettling sound collages far more than it does a guitar album. In fact, Axacan so vividly evokes disjointed, elliptical, and poetic scenes from the aftermath of an apocalypse that it calls to mind a classic George Romero zombie film as reimagined by Terrence Mallick.
After experiencing Axacan for the first time, I went back and listened to some other recent Bachman albums, as I was very curious to see when he started making such a decisive break from his earlier work. In doing so, I discovered that Bachman had already released the masterpiece that I was hoping for with 2018's The Morning Star. Having achieved that, he apparently decided to head into far weirder and darker terrain with Axacan, which certainly would have felt appropriate at the time (it was recorded in the first half of 2020). Notably, Axacan does not particularly sound like an album made by a guitarist beyond the churning and chiming tour de force "Coronach." Instead, it feels like a series of enigmatic and fragmented memories from a traumatic period (if not scenes from an actual horror movie) in which someone is occasionally playing or tuning a guitar. That dark and hallucinatory trip starts innocently enough, however, as "Accokeek Creek" opens with the hissing sounds of suburban lawn sprinklers, but an escalating undercurrent of ominous murk soon culminates in a ravaged dictaphone recording of someone announcing the day's date. The descent into nightmare terrain from there is initially somewhat slow and subtle, but "Ferry Farm" transforms a nocturnal chorus of chirping frogs into a lysergic jungle of terror. In fact, it ends with the sound of a car door opening and an engine starting, suggesting that someone is hurriedly fleeing an encroaching horror. Apparently they made it, as the next scene ("Blue Ocean 0") materializes as a droning harmonium on a desolate, windswept beach before the focus shifts to someone paddling slowly out to sea. Once I reach the island, however, it feels like I have been sucked into a wobbly VHS tape of someone's family vacation and everything only grows exponentially more phantasmagoric from there. In the remaining pieces, I am treated to a parade of creepy and surreal sounds alternately resembling ominous radio transmissions, eerie moans of massive shipwrecked hulls, fireworks in a deep cave, a subterranean helicopter, an approaching motorboat, cows startled by a volcano, smoldering ruins, and a chorus of ghostly owls. It all amounts to quite a haunting, vivid, and unsettlingly ambiguous and fragmented mindfuck (and one that sucks me in deeper every time I listen). This will absolutely be the finest headphone album of the year.
Samples can be found here.
Best friends Valerie Green and Paige Shedletsky have collaborated across the heartland of the United States in various projects since 2009, the latest as Karate, Guns & Tanning. With the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the duo took the time to complete their debut album Concrete Beach. The band name, taken from a strip mall sign, serves as a hint of the variety of musical content within, ranging from teenage garage-tinged pop to fuzz-driven rock with '90s sensibilities. Green and Shedletsky, as musicians with self-professed eclectic musical tastes, make waves large and small for nearly any kind of sound surfer.
I'm a sucker for categorization, and this one took me a couple of listens through before I realized that Concrete Beach refuses this. Karate, Guns & Tanning consists of Shedletsky (keyboards) and Green (bass and lead vocals), with mean guitar work from Joy Caroline Mills and tight drumming from Daniel Guajardo. The musicians explore a wide gamut of music styles, so it's easy to move on from one song when the mood doesn't suit. My first exposure to the album was through the video for "Artifacts," filled with wailing guitars and haunting keyboards as fuzzed-out vocals exclaim, "We‚Äôre gonna fly high / we‚Äôre gonna get out, get out of here." Karate, Guns & Tanning have indicated that much of the album was an expression of frustration in lockdown, and like other albums from 2020, I expected the rest of the album might follow suit. Yet "Clockwork" oozes exuberance, sprinkled with disco and topped off with twee, making this song an undeniably catchy earworm suitable for the dance floor. I found further comfort in the ethereal, heart-rendering "Zenith," full of angelic vocals, guitar jangle, and plenty of dreamy fuzz. The album is wonderfully balanced, riding out on an apocalyptic SciFi vision of robots overtaking humanity with "Hot Bots," a punk girl garage slab of fuzz that tickled my old Riot Grrl sensibilities. "Fight kick bite scream, heart beats living machine, tell them we‚Äôre losing steam." Hell yes! It took a few tries to catch a wave, but the variety of surf allowed me to get into the line-up and crest.
This set all too briefly demonstrates why, from Henry Cowell to Tim Hecker, via La Monte Young, Alan Hovhaness, Olivier Messiaen, Lou Harrison, Benjamin Britten, and √Åkos Nagy, many Western composers have been inspired by the sacred other-wordly elegance of gagaku music. Based on the tracks by Suenaga Togi and gagaku musicians from the Imperial Household Orchestra, a whole album by them is high on my list of coveted items. There are a variety of other styles here, with dazzling twangy sounds from the three-string samisen, Zen-meditative bamboo flute, a xylophone made of stones, boisterous songs from puppet theater, and enough surface noise to satisfy any connoisseur of hiss and crackle.
Anyone familiar with¬†Victrola Favorites will have an inkling of what to expect from this set of ultra-rare early 20th century recordings from Japan, collected by Robert Mills: 78 rpm-related exotica in the form of intriguing photographs, a variety of sounds, with good information concerning the instruments, plus cultural and historical context. Sound Storing Machines is nowhere near as lavishly packaged as Victrola Favorites (few releases are) but it comes with enough generous and intriguing information to distract from the listening process. This is not a criticism, but I decided to approach it with several full listens without reading any background, without concern for like or dislike, and merely with openness, and the spirit of ‚Äúdisinterestedness.‚Äù John Cage has suggested that for the making of music to have the possibility for complete and fulfilled moments one should make music ‚Äúas the Orient would say‚Äù for the love of making it, as opposed to the pursuit of fame or wealth. Listeners and musicians alike should approach music disinterestedly, in order to integrate the personality - which is "why we love the art." Without much thought I first listened at low volume on tiny inbuilt laptop speakers. I began to think that this music is the perfect pitch for earbuds,which I don't possess, and only later I tried using good quality headphones at even lower volume. I will never play this album loudly through speakers.