Manslaughter 777, "World Vision Perfect Harmony"

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

Thrill Jockey

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

Samples can be found here.

  1490 Hits

Only Rainyday Rainbow, "The Brain Thunk When It Thailed"

Brain Thunk cover imageWhen I first discovered music that expanded commercial radio's boundaries, much of it was found via word of mouth from like-minded people. Music discovery is more accessible these days, but word of mouth is still a powerful discovery tool. I likely wouldn't have learned about this one were it not for a like-minded Facebook group. Swansea musician Edward Hancock's project, The Brain Thunk When It Thailed is the culmination of a host of genres stirred together in a large DIY pot. Honed with a lo-fi aesthetic and honoring experimentation from generations, the album calls up homages to punk, doom, jazz, garage, blues, R&B, and psychedelia. With heavy use of panning and mixing on a simple Portastudio, the album succeeds in sounding like a spaced-out sixties band. That's where the fun begins.

Only Rainbow

The title, a play on a ship sinking after it has sailed, is accurate on multiple fronts. Reggae-sampled into track "Introlude" descends into fuzzed-out distortion and child-like tinkering, segueing into "Birthing Pool." Shifting and swaying, the album provides a mental workout, at times within a single track. Raw and spacey noise a la Chrome can be heard on "Hopeful Child," while shades of Syd Barrett and Ty Segall co-exist beautifully in "Your Nature." Closing track "The Brain Thunk When It Thailed" twists garage punk and R&B into something oddly compelling before breaking apart into madness.

The album offers little reprieve from the barrage, but this is not a bad thing. Intended to be a single loop, the final track boomerangs back on itself by incorporating the beginning track's musical elements. The album's concept album comes from the idea of the creative brain often functioning like the Titanic. The artist develops a vision and attempts to actualize it; the artist either succeeds or fails, much like a ship sinks or sails ("thails"). Ultimately, this ship is a success, and I look forward to exploring the navigator's next journey, as wild as it may be.

Samples can be found here.

  1530 Hits

Mats Erlandsson, "4-Track Guitar Music"

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

Vaagner/Vaknar

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

Samples can be found here.

  1482 Hits

Roxane Métayer, "Éclipse des Ocelles"

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

Morc

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

Samples can be found here.

  1666 Hits

Rachika Nayar, "Our Hands Against the Dark"

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

NNA Tapes

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

Samples can be found here.

  1488 Hits

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

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

Die Schachtel

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

Samples can be found here.

  3913 Hits

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

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

Die Schachtel

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

Samples can be found here.

  1360 Hits

Exael, "Flowered Knife Shadows"

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

Soda Gong

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

Samples can be found here.

  1763 Hits

Spiral Wave Nomads, "First Encounters"

cover imageIn an unexpected flip for their second record, the duo of Eric Hardiman (Rambutan, Century Plants, Burnt Hills) and Michael Kiefer (More Klementines) improvised live. With the self-titled debut being the result of asynchronous file sharing and collaboration, First Encounters was exactly that: the first time the two had actually met in person in any context. That’s anything but apparent from the sound though, as the duo play off of each other perfectly, making for a free form trip through psychedelic spaces with the verve of long time collaborators, even though that is not the case.

Twin Lakes Records/Feeding Tube

Lengthy opener "Evidence of New Gravitation" is immediately indicative of the album: rich guitar, nuanced drumming, and an overall complex sound considering it is only two instruments in play. The sound is clearly loose and free flowing, but it is also deliberate, as if the duo know exactly what they are planning to do next while simultaneously playing off of each other. There is an excellent sense of propulsion via Kiefer's punchy drums and Hardiman's noisy pre-grunge 80s noise rock guitar, with wildly varying dynamics. The same feel runs throughout "Radiant Drifter," where shimmering, chiming guitar is cast out over low rumbling drums that swell up to some excellent freak-outs, which then calm down again. The other two songs on First Encounters feature the duo in a more understated synergy. The less structured "Fitful Embers" is all far away rattling percussion and erratic guitar drills, never coalescing into a solidified rock piece, but never coming off as directionless, either. Lengthy album closer "Of a Similar Mind" is a slower burn, evolving from open spaces, subtle melodies, and sparse cymbals. The growth is slow, but eventually erupts into rapid fire drumming, loud wah-heavy guitar outbursts, and a brilliant heavy psychedelic sensibility.

It is hard to not appreciate the backwards way that Michael Kiefer and Eric Hardiman have approached Spiral Wave Nomads. Waiting until the second record to actually meet in person is certainly not a strategy most artists would attempt, but they manage it perfectly here. Given how different its inception was from the first album, First Encounters has a rawer feel, but there is still a strong sense of consistency, and it is certainly the work of the same duo. With two LPs that complement each other so well, I am curious what collaborative approach a third will bring.

Samples can be found here.

  1812 Hits

Camila Fuchs, "Kids Talk Sun"

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The first few seconds hearing Camila de Laborde's child-like, playful vocals may suggest an airy Scandinavian pop direction for duo Camila Fuchs. Assumptions are quickly shattered as the start of Kids Talk Sun gives way to world-weariness. Ghostly vocals stand against a spectral kaleidoscope of tempered electronics, crafted partly by Pete Kember, aka Sonic Boom (Spacemen 3, Spectrum and E.A.R.). Kember lends his finish to hazy and spacey melodies punctuated by luminous pop moments, resulting in an ornate tapestry of emotion woven with reverberation and electronics, sewn together by de Laborde's expressive voice.

Felte

Portugal-based Camila Fuchs consists of vocalist Camila de Laborde and Daniel Hermann-Collini. The album is a reflection on the interactions between humans -- particularly children -- and nature. Case in point, de Laborde laments, "There was no way, no need to be careful" in "Moon Mountain," suggesting a hearkening back to a time of fearlessness and innocence. The album itself was recorded near the sea and wilderness around Lisbon; the band's transition between nature and the studio encouraged mimicry of their environment through sonic experimentation. Listen closely to the ascending vocals in "Pool of Wax," supported by a steady and comforting rhythm, before being swallowed in a tide of reverberation. In instrumental "Gloss Trick," one of my personal favorites, there can be heard the biomimicry of seabirds, ship horns -- wait, is that a whale call, or some nighttime creature? Ultimately it really doesn't matter. The point is to "dial up the magic" and reconnect with yourself and your surroundings, summed up nicely in "Roses:"

Dial up the magic, dial the magic up anytime you want
Allow yourself to be the bell tower
Make some noise, feel the noise
On your body, on your nose
Connecting you to the earth

Samples can be found here.

  1608 Hits

Mouse on Mars, "AAI"

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

Thrill Jockey

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

Samples can be found here.

  3888 Hits

Jacober, "Sketch for Winter X: Immortal Word"

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

Geographic North

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

Samples can be found here.

  1418 Hits

Ashley Paul, "Ray"

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

Slip

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

Samples can be found here.

  1420 Hits

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

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

Elliptical Noise

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

Samples can be found here.

  1426 Hits

Biosphere, "Angel's Flight"

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

AD 93

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

Samples can be found here.

  1782 Hits

Roy Montgomery, "Island of Lost Souls"

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The magic of New Zealand-born singer and guitarist Roy Montgomery is his fearlessness to explore any sonic territory. He has done so across 40 years of collaborative and solo musical landscape. Island of Lost Souls is the first album of a 4-disc series to honor his extensive career, the future releases due to be issued in increments through to November 2021. With compositions steeped in rich guitar effects, the four extended instrumentals suggest communion and isolation, channeled through four island residents’ musical memorials: Sam Shepard, Adrian Borland, Peter Principle, and Florian Fricke. The ambiance across songs wavers between being majestically sad yet with a power mimicking hope, encouraging remembrance and honor without pain.

Grapefruit

I was generally familiar with each person honored, but the musical translations made me curious why Montgomery chose these particular four. If there were indeed such an island, what would make each one a resident? Opening track “Cowboy Mouth (For Sam Shepard)” took me to research Shepard, whose honor seems to stem from both his playboy lifestyle and the elements of his plays, “Cowboy Mouth” being a collaboration with his then-lover Patti Smith, abandoning both lover and play after the opening night. “Soundcheck (For Adrian Borland)” is a shimmering tribute to the late lead singer of The Sound, who jumped in front of a train at the age of 41 following years of struggle with severe depression. The ache of “Soundcheck” soars in waves, incorporating sound elements The Sound used in their music, expressing the tragic loss more deeply yet producing a majestic atmosphere that was also Borland’s life. “Unhalfmuted (For Peter Principle)” focuses on the late musician and rhythmic pulse of Tuxedomoon, the song’s title a reference to the band’s classic debut “Half-Mute.” The album leaves the island with “The Electric Children of Hildegard von Bingen (For Florian Fricke),” a track that honors Fricke not only as Popol Vuh’s synthesist but showcasing the spiritual reverence in his work, especially within the band as well as soundtracking the films of his close friend Werner Herzog. The album continues to offer up further tidbits to research, both in sound and titles -- Wikipedia took me down a rabbit hole -- but I'll leave that to the curious listener. Kudos to someone who not only continues to entertain my ears after 40 years, but to grow my mind as well.

Samples can be found here.

  5713 Hits

Massimo Ricci, "Tracey Feels Worse"

cover imageMuch like the prolific music criticism on his Touching Extremes website, Massimo Ricci's first ever recordings to be released are a unique combination of ambiguity and pure no-bullshit bluntness. Consisting of material sourced from 1984 and heavily reworked in the four decades that followed, there is a purity in his approach that makes bleak, repetitive structure all the more fascinating.

Elevator Bath

Tracey Feels Worse is a single 35 minute piece that structurally remains constant throughout: wave-like swells of indeterminate sound come and go hypnotically, with consistent, though microscopic, changes occurring throughout. Ricci opens with metallic low-end sweeps with slow evolution apparent from the start. He expands the sound with reverberations liberally applied throughout and increasing over time. There an overall bleakness throughout, but never does it come across as overly depressive or plodding. The sound becomes more enveloping, the intensity builds, resulting in an excellent sense of disorientation. The change seems so slow at first but by the end the difference seems dramatic. Not to draw too many comparisons to other artists, but the purity of sound and the approach to repetition is not so far removed from some of David Jackman’s more recent works.

From his style of writing and the sound and presentation of the disc, I do not believe the ambiguity that runs throughout Tracey Feels Worse is necessarily intentional, or at all essential, to the album. It strikes me as being a work of pure sound exploration, without any sort of hidden theme or social commentary or conceptual intent. Given that approach to sound rarely exists outside of the world of harsh noise, it is refreshing to hear it in something more understated and nuanced. Of course I had natural curiosity throughout of what the source recordings were, how they were being processed (since no loops or samples were used), but in the end that knowledge is in no way needed to justify or appreciate the work.

Samples can be found here.

  1554 Hits

Rrill Bell, "Ballad of the External Life"

cover imageWith only a handful of releases so far (as Rrill Bell and as The Preterite), the American born, German based composer Jim Campbell and his arsenal of various tape machines, is already doing amazing work. Layers of processed field recordings, various incidental tapes, and who knows what else come together in these two extremely dynamic and complex compositions that at times seem like completely alien, yet utterly fascinating worlds.

Elevator Bath

Campbell opens "Like Heavy Honey…//Wie Schwerer Honig…" with a mass of stacked erratic electronics; complete with bent (at times melodic) tones and abrupt tape stops and starts. He balances the denser, heavier segments with calm, peaceful passages of gentle field recordings punctuated with birds and other inviting bits. There are even some hints of melody, albeit subtle, that seem to be generated from live tape manipulations. Some of the sections have a ghostly feel via echoing empty spaces, and others resemble submerged, aquatic excursions. Closing with a bit of menace and bizarre wet echoes and subtle crackles, it never stays in one place too long.

On the other side, "…From the Hollow Comb//…Aus Den Hohlen Waben" begins with a significant amount of open space and heavy reverb. What obviously sounds like field recordings (though what they are actual recordings of remains a mystery) fill in that space, resulting in a bit more of a foreboding vibe. Campbell generates some synth-like pulses and shimmering, crystalline sounds, but the sense of menace never fully relents. Towards the end he does an excellent bit of juxtaposition balancing manipulated Morse Code like beeps with crackling analog textures.

Ballad of the External Life has such an amazing sense of depth and complexity that it is hard to fathom that this is his first full length vinyl release. This is all the more impressive knowing that this is almost exclusively manipulated cassettes and processing. Jim Campbell’s ability to generate such variations in tone and texture from tape manipulation is rather impressive, and that constant flow from one section to the next without ever really staying in one place too long manages to stay engaging without seeming in any way unfocused. It is an album I immediately loved, and listening to it more unveiled even more depth and variety.

Samples can be found here.

  1604 Hits

Andrew Chalk, "Incidental Music"

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

Faraway Press

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

Samples can be found here.

  1588 Hits

Abul Mogard, "In Immobile Air"

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

Ecstatic

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

Samples can be found here.

  1631 Hits