Nate Scheible, "Fairfax"

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

Warm Winters Ltd.

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

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

Samples can be found here.

  646 Hits

Kate Moore, "Revolver"

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This is my first exposure to Netherlands-based composer Kate Moore, but I probably would have encountered her much sooner if I paid more attention to the modern classical music scene,  as she released a well-regarded album of piano compositions on ECM back in 2014.  Revolver is an entirely different animal though, as Moore composed for a small string ensemble augmented by a percussionist and a harpist.  The album draws inspiration from the "kinetic physicality and aesthetics" of Australian artist Ken Unsworth, which Moore (a fellow Australian) attempted to translate into a "feeling of suspension between movement and stasis."  The few Unsworth pieces that I have seen certainly share that feeling, but translating a vision of hanging rocks in an art gallery into eight strange and beautiful string pieces is not a simple and linear path, which is where the album title comes in: Moore attempted to recreate the same feeling of suspension through "evolving and revolving melodies, poised skilfully in polyrhythmic structures.  To my ears, the result shares plenty of common ground with the repeating arpeggio patterns of modern classical minimalists like Reich and Glass, but enhanced with a considerably lighter touch, more human-scale intimacy, and a healthy appreciation for subtle psychedelia.

Unsounds

The title piece kicks off the album with quite an impressive statement of intent, as violinist Anna McMichael unleashes a sad and lovely melody over a repeating two-chord backdrop of xylophone and harp arpeggios.  It is elegantly simple and uncluttered and occasionally feels like some kind of zen meditation on water and the transitory nature of all things, but it ultimately builds into a swirling and intense finale of ascending violin patterns that feels wonderfully out of phase with xylophone motif beneath.  While my favorite pieces on the album all fall in a stellar four-song run on the second half, "Revolver" is an excellent piece that showcases Moore's distilled vision of strong melodies and shifting patterns beautifully.  The second piece ("The Boxer") showcases further exquisite pleasure, as a mournful violin melody slices nicely through a gently hallucinatory backdrop of harp, xylophone, and a kick drum pulse that calls to mind an erratic, slowed-down heartbeat.  I especially love how Moore balances the sharp physicality of the violin with soft-focus arpeggios that feel like harmonics that dreamily linger in the air.  

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

Samples can be found here.

  597 Hits

Jeremy Young, "August Tape Sketches"

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This latest release from Jeremy Young is quite a different album from last year's eclectic Amaro, which is not surprising given the adventurous array of collaborators involved in the latter.  This time, however, Young keeps things simple and solitary and the result is similarly stellar.  In fact, this album amusingly calls to mind a sort of more punk/DIY/lo-fi Tim Hecker or Fennesz, as it is similarly fragmented and flickering, yet also sounds like Young just plugged a guitar straight into his amp and wove pure magic in his garage.  In reality, the magic was a bit less spontaneous and supernatural, but that does not make the album any less beautiful.  Much of the secret lies in the album's admirably literal title, as August Tape Sketches transforms Young's guitar sketches into complex and hallucinatory tape cut-ups that could reasonably be mistaken for the rough demo of a Kevin Shields ambient project.  While I am not yet ready to proclaim that Young is a one-man My Bloody Valentine, I do feel confident in proclaiming that he is very good at stretching, bending, and warping guitar sounds in extremely cool ways.  

meakusma

The opening "Untitled (For Ernst)" provides a largely representative introduction to the album's aesthetic: stammering chord swells and a fragmented melodic hook languorously convulse and flicker for roughly two minutes, then vanish.  The overall effect is quite "ambient," as the looping nature of the compositions lends itself nicely to hypnotic repetition, but the construction/deconstruction of Young's loopscapes is quite inventive and fascinating.  On pieces like the opener and "Untitled (For Kelly)," the raw material seems like little more than a single chord or arpeggio pulled apart and exploded into its own artfully blurred and stuttering micro-galaxy.  Those two pieces are both wonderful, but the strongest pieces tend to be the ones in which Young allows himself to stretch out into more song-like territory.  To my ears, the centerpiece of the album is "Earlier Than Energy," which casts a warped and blissed-out spell evoking a Phllip Jeck cut-up of a great Slowdive outro.  

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

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

Samples can be found here.

  456 Hits

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

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

Elliptical Noise/Opax

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

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

Samples can be found here.

  437 Hits