The Humble Bee, "Light Trespassing"

I have a long-running fondness for tape loop artists, yet I had always lumped this Craig Tattersall project together with more conventional ambient fare until last year's reissue of 2009's A Miscellany For The Quiet Hours finally smacked me in the head and made me pay closer attention. I bring that up because Light Trespassing (recorded roughly a decade later) entered heavy rotation in my life immediately after my Quiet Hours obsession and it has been quite interesting to hear how Tattersall's vision has subtly transformed over the ensuing decade. In some ways, it feels like the two albums could have been recorded in the same damn week, but it is also clear that Tattersall has been consciously chasing an even more minimal and lowercase vision than the one he started off with. That tendency makes Light Trespassing a bit less immediately gratifying than some other Humble Bee releases, but I suspect that may very well be the point. In fact, Tattersall's execution remains as mesmerizing as ever—he is simply achieving the same ends with an increasingly reduced palette and even fewer moving parts. In essence, all that truly changed is that I now need to listen a bit more attentively before Tattersall's delicate miniatures reveal their full beauty. It feels akin to witnessing a tightrope walker systemically removing all safety measures as they become more confident in their ability to consistently nail their signature tricks without even the hint of a wobble.

Motion Ward

In keeping with the theme of extreme minimalism, Tattersall and Motion Ward have provided very little background information about this release other than the poetic phrase "like the last embers of a fire burning." As far as album descriptions go, however, that is quite an admirably apt and concise summary (though it does demand some familiarity with Tattersall's previous tape work in order to grasp the full implications). To my ears, it feels like Tattersall decided to expand the ephemeral beauty of the fading final moments of his usual fare (the point where all the added layers fall away to reveal the naked, beating heart of a piece) into an entire album of such "last embers." The first few pieces provide an especially lovely introduction to the possibilities opened up by such an approach. In "A Little Alone Snow," for example, it seems like two harp loops of slightly different lengths create an endlessly transforming melody as their moment of collision keeps subtly changing. Elsewhere, "However Far I Walk" initially sounds like little more than a simple arpeggio fragment played on an acoustic guitar, but then a new loop begins dancing through the spaces between those notes to form a tender melody. Tape noise, recorder clicks, hiss, and room tone also play a larger role than usual on this album, particularly on "When Your Voice Disappears." My favorite pieces on the album tend to be the more fleshed out gems that begin surfacing near the midpoint though ("A Day of Light and Air," "Inside Out Mountains," and "Dotted and Course With"). They each have their own unique character, of course, but they all evoke a similarly elusive and ineffably beautiful scene akin to a half-blissful/half-ghostly dream in which I am waiting outside a train station on a perfect spring day awaiting a long lost love. Those are not the only quietly gorgeous pieces to be found, however, as Light Trespassing has quite a satisfying arc of deepening warmth and soft-focus dreaminess. If there is a caveat with this album, it is merely that it takes a few listens for the full beauty of its sublime spell to sink in, but I certainly got there eventually. In fact, I wish I could dissolve myself into this album. I have not figured out how to do that yet, unfortunately, so I will try to content myself by merely stating that Light Trespassing adds yet another singularly beautiful album to Tattersall's rich and varied discography.

Samples can be found here.

Shane Parish, "Liverpool"

Somehow I have managed to remain largely unfamiliar with Shane Parish's work until now, which nicely set the stage for me to be properly blindsided by this latest release. That said, I am not sure a deep familiarity with Parish's previous albums would have changed all that much, as this album is quite an adventurous departure from his expected fare in some significant ways. The biggest twist, of course, is that Liverpool is essentially an album of old sea shanties. While that probably is not something I would have actively sought out on my own, I am damn glad that this album found me, as Parish's ingenious instrumental arrangements transform an ostensible curiosity into a goddamn revelation. Crucially, Liverpool does not sound at all like an album of sea shanties, as Parish merely borrowed their vocal melodies and made said melodies the backbone for a killer solo guitar album that favorably calls to mind everyone from Tortoise to Richard Bishop to Bill Orcutt (and manages to do it quite seamlessly). In hindsight, it is downright miraculous that other artists have not been making albums in this vein for years, as it is such a perfect and obvious starting point for greatness (in the right hands, at least). Parish essentially just found a bunch of timeless, poignant melodies waiting to be borrowed and he wisely embraced them. With such beautiful raw material as a starting point, it is hard to imagine that any good guitarist could have blown it and made a bad album, but it is similarly hard to imagine anyone else making an album as uniformly stellar as Liverpool: an excellent idea matched with even more excellent execution.

Dear Life

Unlike most traditional sea shanties, the opening "Liuerpool" erupts from the speakers as a squall of guitar noise and cymbal flourishes before settling into a simmering groove that feels like an darkly jazzy strain of post-punk. Naturally, the appearance of Parish's shimmering and hazy guitar melody only makes things better, but I was surprised at the central role that guest drummer Michael Libramento plays in the song's success, as "Liuerpool" sounds more like the work of a tight band of virtuosos than something that is ostensibly a solo guitar album. In fact, Libramento's presence proves to be quite a reliable harbinger of greatness throughout the album. as the tom-driven "Venezuela" and the explosive "Haul Away Joe" are also clear album highlights. Notably, none of the three pieces I have mentioned thus far resemble each other much at all, as "Venezuela" calls to mind Sublime Frequencies-damaged surf guitar, while "Haul Away Joe" feels like the dueling guitar crescendo of an epic psych rock masterpiece. Elsewhere, "Randy Dandy O" delves into incendiary Orcutt territory when its central melody gives way to a flurry of open strings, wild bends, pull-offs, and slashing chords. "Black Eyed Susan" is yet another favorite, as Parish combines ringing arpeggios, muted strums, and a nimbly dancing lead melody with a casual looseness that feels effortless. I am also quite fond of second-tier highlight "Santy Anno," as Parish quickly casts aside the central melody to unleash a likable (if conventional) guitar solo over a chopped and stuttering backdrop that sounds like a helicopter mated with some abstract shoegaze à la lovesliescrushing. The remaining three songs are enjoyable too, but they lack a bit of the pizzazz of their neighbors. However, I could easily see them emerging from Parish's current tour beautifully transformed by some kind of road-tested creative breakthrough. After listening to some of the traditional versions of these pieces and finding them nearly unrecognizable, it seems like major creative breakthroughs must be a somewhat common occurrence for Parish. In any case, Liverpool is a wonderful and oft-surprising release and Shane Parish now joins Orcutt, Daniel Bachman, and Sarah Lipstate in the pantheon of wildly inventive solo guitarists that I will be actively following for years to come.

Samples can be found here.

Éliane Radigue & Frédéric Blondy, "Occam XXV"

This is the debut album for Claire M. Singer's Organ Reframed imprint, which will now enable home listeners to experience a bit of her singular music festival of the same name. While the festival itself has been going on since 2016, I can understand why Singer did not make the leap into releasing albums until now, as I imagine it is quite a challenge to translate the site-specific acoustic pleasures of Union Chapel's famed hydraulic organ onto a CD. Also, solo organ albums have only recently begun to come into vogue (and I suspect Singer's efforts played a key role in that). Thankfully, the stars seem to now be in proper alignment for such an endeavor, as artists like Kali Malone, Lawrence English, and Sarah Davachi have spent the last few years turning adventurous ears organ-ward and the reigning queen of minimalism (Radigue) is currently in the prime of her "acoustic instrumentation" era. Unsurprisingly, composing for organ has not resulted in a newly bombastic and maximalist Radigue, as she remains unswervingly devoted to Occam's guiding principle of "simple is always better." In fact, this album is probably a strong contender for one of Radigue's most minimal compositions to date. That may test the patience of some casual Radigue listerers, but those attuned to her slow-burning drone majesty will find much to love, as she is in peak form here.

Organ Reframed

This is not the first album in Radigue's "Occam Ocean" series that I have heard, but this is the first time that I learned about the origin of its curious title. Naturally, the "Occam" part is a reference to William of Ockham's timeless razor (the law of economy), but I did not know that the "ocean" bit was because Radigue is drawing much of her inspiration from water and waves these days. That makes sense and knowing that reveals further depth to this series. Also, given Radigue's history with Buddhism and its focus on mindfulness and the interconnectedness of all things, this series can be viewed as a sort of an artistic culmination of the themes and philosophies that have shaped her life as a whole. In more concrete terms, Radigue's recent work is driven by the "transcendent beauty" that she finds in the "micro beats, pulsations, harmonics, and subharmonics" that result when sound waves interact. Another central belief of Radigue's is that written music is an abstraction and that it is the performer that ultimately breathes life into it She also notes that "no two performers, playing the same instrument, have the same relationship with that instrument," so it was a significant choice that return collaborator/ONCEIM director Blondy was chosen to perform the piece.

Speaking of Blondy, I am quite curious about how technically demanding this piece was to play. My guess is "very," as it could easily be mistaken for a single sustained and droning chord with casual listening, but closer listening reveals that it is endlessly evolving and constantly creating subtle new sonic phenomena despite it being damn near imperceptible to tell when new notes are being added. In fact, the entire mood of the piece sneakily undergoes at least two dramatic transformations over the course of its 44 minutes, slowly moving from a stark, almost futuristic-sounding introduction of shuddering bass throbs towards a surprisingly hallucinatory finale of blearily celestial-sounding drones and insectoid whine. In between those two poles, there are passages that call to mind a surveillance beam slowly sweeping across a desolate wasteland or a gorgeous slow-motion sunrise and it never feels anything less than totally organic and seamless. And, of course, the piece's unhurried, meditative journey continually reveals additional subtle layers of harmonic complexity with deep listening. Given the near-geologic timescale and the ultra-minimal nature of this piece, it probably is not the ideal introductory Radigue album for the curious, but those already attuned to her work will likely be spellbound by the exacting and patient virtuosity on display (I certainly was). Occam XXV sets the bar intimidatingly high for whoever gets tagged for Organ Reframed's second release.

Samples can be found here.

Pan•American, "The Patience Fader"

This latest full-length from Mark Nelson's long-running and unpredictably shapeshifting project is a collection of understated, near-ambient solo guitar instrumentals that Kranky describes as the culminating release of the composer's "romantic minimalism" side. It certainly is a languorously meditative and unrepentantly lowercase suite of songs, blurring the lines between an "ageless, scarred" Americana and dreamlike ambient drift. Significantly, the album was recorded during the first summer of the pandemic, as Nelson views these songs as a sort of "'lighthouse music,'" radiance cast from a stable vantage point, sending 'a signal to help others through rocks and dangerous currents.'" Given its gently minimal, near-ambient "lone guitar in the fog" aesthetic, The Patience Fader is likely to be something of a polarizing release: it falls dangerously close to calming Windham Hill-style prettiness a couple of times, but it can also feel incredibly poignant and sublime if one chooses to listen deeply enough. While it feels weird to describe music this quiet and slow-moving as "a bold move," it is exactly that. It would have been much easier for Nelson to revisit familiar, more fan-friendly territory than to attempt to convey something profound and ineffable while blearily hovering at the edge of perception like a ghost.

Kranky

The wintry, desolate, and fog-shrouded view immortalized in the cover art was both a curiously counterintuitive and impressively apt aesthetic choice for a number of reasons. The most immediately striking collision of themes, of course, is that The Patience Fader is a considerably warmer album than the cover art would suggest (and it was recorded during considerably warmer circumstances as well). However, the image does portray a landscape that feels like it is in a lonely state of chilled suspended animation, which nicely mirrors the music in a significant way: all ten of these pieces feel like they exist in a state of bleary and blurred suspension. That is just the backdrop, however, as Nelson's tender melodies metaphorically transform that "before picture" melancholia into something a bit more sundappled and hopeful. Only a bit, mind you, but in a way that definitely matters—like how a break in the clouds on a foreboding day might allow a few rays of light to stream through the window to share their warmth and possibly illuminate floating dust motes in a lovely way.

In less poetic terms, that means that the baseline aesthetic of this album is basically a slow-motion, art-damaged twist on back porch slide guitar blues reverberating through a soft-focus ambient fog. My two favorite pieces are "Harmony Conversion" and "Just a Story," but it is generally true that all of the longer pieces are excellent and that all of the shorter pieces either feel like transitional interludes or like they end too soon to leave a substantial impression. It is also generally true that these songs all feel like variations upon a single elegantly distilled theme, so the ones that boast a distinctive twist understandably tend to be the ones that stand out the most. For example, the opening moments of the far-too-brief "Corniel" feel like a lost great Tim Hecker piece (and a harmonica-driven one at that), while "Harmony Conversion" combines swooning intertwined melodies with some subtle dub touches. "Just a Story," on the other hand, feels like a heavenly collision between Takoma-style Americana and the slow-motion, minimalist psychedelia of Dean McPhee. It also feels like a heavenly collision between the album's rippling, dreamlike production and Nelson's gift for songcraft, as the wistful melody is legitimately gorgeous and a few of the chord changes will likely elicit gasps or chills in those who appreciate such things. That makes it the album's obvious stand-alone highlight, but the vision as a whole is Nelson's more impressive achievement, as he reduced his music to its most nakedly minimal and intimate and did so with nearly unerring execution. This album feels destined to someday be celebrated as a cult/niche masterpiece in lowercase music circles.

Samples can be found here.

Alan Hovhaness,"Opening a Window to Cosmic Love: Private Acetate Discs 1946-55"

https://f4.bcbits.com/img/a3810934024_10.jpgAn ear-opening collection of radio broadcasts, live performance recordings, and sketched works in progress from a prolific period in the life of this highly distinctive American composer. In the 1950s, Hovhaness was composing around 12 major works a year, in addition to extensive traveling for research and teaching. He may well have suffered from hypergraphia - an overwhelming urge to be constantly creating - and it is a wonder he found time to be married six times.

Canary

Born in Somerville, Massachusetts in 1911, to a Scottish mother and Armenian father, Alan Hovhaness had a clear vision and unstoppable determination. From a very young age he loved nature, mountains in particular, and felt the need to compose. Sibelius' 4th symphony was an early inspiration, and Hovhaness' description of the unison melodies in the piece "so lonely and original, [they] said everything there was to say‚ and not only about music" can be applied to many of his own compositions, including on this release. He attended the New England Conservatory at age 22, and actually traveled to Finland in 1935 to forge a friendship with Sibelius. Two years later his 1937 Exile symphony was lauded as the work of a genius by English conductor Leslie Howerd. Yet things did not proceed smoothly: he had four unsuccessful applications for Guggenheim funding, and when he did win a scholarship to Tanglewood, quit after feeling marginalized and humiliated by teachers Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. The phrase "ghetto music" was allegedly bandied about by Bernstein, who you might think would have been sensitive to such tosh, but it apparently doesn't work that way.

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The Cosmic Jokers

Over a series of acid-fueled all-night jam parties at Dierks Studio in 1973, Die Kosmischen Kuriere ("Cosmic Couriers") label musicians Klaus Schulze (Tangerine Dream), Harald Grosskopf and Jürgen Dollase (both of Wallenstein), Manuel Göttsching (Ash Ra Tempel), and Dieter Dierks assembled. The result spawned a cosmic barrage of stream-of-consciousness experimentation with immersive sound loops and kinetic rhythms, awash in interstellar guitar sorcery and sound effects. Unbeknownst to the musicians involved, this magic was captured on tape by label head Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser and Gille Lettmann. When a mysterious group called The Cosmic Jokers appeared on the label the following year, the affected musicians took legal action, dissolving the contracts effectively ending the label. Thankfully, the magic was committed to immortality and now exists in its space rock glory. With original vinyl pressings going for hundreds of dollars, this latest reissue -- fully licensed and remastered from the original analog master tapes at the original recording studio -- puts this essential listening in the hands of more listeners.

Kosmische Kuriere

The 48-year-old master tapes remained in excellent condition. With Dieter Dierks himself collaborating, this latest edition truly benefits from modern technology with a marked improvement over bootleg copies and original pressings. Despite being shunned by the original musicians, the music solidly stands as a prime example of the height of freeform creativity without limits, freedom of exploration at the hands of already skilled musicians. Göttsching, influenced by the free jazz movement and already breaking new exploratory ground on electric guitar in Ash Ra Tempel, joins his musical partner Klaus Schulze, fresh from Tempel and Tangerine Dream. Grosskopf had previously partnered with them for Walter Wegmüller's 1973 Tarot, the project initiated by Timothy Leary, who had partnered with Tempel on 1973's Seven Up. Göttsching, Schulze, and Groskopf form a key trio. Göttsching's improvisational guitar work remains central to the album, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Tempel but flowing with, around, and over Schulze's droning organ, with Groskopf exhibiting his practice hand on drums, each embracing their part with controlled abandon within a larger whole. Dollase lends beautiful keyboard work with piano, Farfisa, and mellotron, while Dierks' often dark and ominous bass playing lends just enough rhythmic grounding for music that continuously takes flight.

After years of sub-par reissues, it's terrific to have such a quality release of this cerebral music, not to mention one more easily obtained. Crisply defined drum strokes, rich guitar acoustics, and distinctly audible electronic effects make this a joy to revisit, with the overall sound unmuddied and flawless.

Samples can be found here and here.

Saint Abdullah, "Inshallahlaland"

It is not quite accurate to say that Saint Abdullah completely reinvent their sound with each new album, but is fair to say that Mehdi and Mohammad Mehrabani-Yeganeh are far more interested to exploring meaningful new territory than with building upon their past successes. While that is certainly an admirable trait, it can also be a frustrating one, as I know Saint Abdullah will probably never fully return to the more industrial-indebted aesthetic of their earlier albums (which I love). On the bright side, that also means that every new Saint Abdullah album has the potential to blindside me with a bold leap forward into previously uncharted creative territory. In that regard, Inshallahlaland falls a bit short of being a particularly revelatory album as a whole, yet it does explore some characteristically intriguing and thoughtful themes and features quite a fascinating longform piece ("Glamour Factory"). For me, the appeal of Inshallahlaland begins and ends there, but that one excellent 20-minute sound collage is enough to make the album a significant release that fans will not want to pass over.

Room40

According to the Iranian-raised Mehrabani-Yeganeh brothers, the central themes of their latest release are: 1) how society is less-than-accepting of people with multiple identities, and 2) how we connect with human voices on a uniquely deep level (even when they appear in sampled and deconstructed form).  Both themes are particularly prominent in the opening "Glamour Factory," which borrows part of a speech by "one of Iran's pre-eminent film voiceover artists" about how working in film allowed him to break free of society's deeply ingrained identity prejudices to some degree. Unsurprisingly, that sentiment resonated deeply with the brothers, as they are attempting to achieve a similar liberation through their own work. Also, they drolly note that it "felt fitting to sample the ultimate sampler." That speech proves to merely be a starting point, however, as "Glamour Factory" mostly makes me feel like I am channel surfing Iranian TV on hallucinogens, as it is freewheeling, psychotropic swirl of sampled voices, looped fragments of songs, and street noise that fitfully plunges into passages of wild manipulations, distortions, and stammering edits. In fact, it almost feels like someone pressed a collection of television snippets to vinyl, then handed it off to a avant-garde-minded turntablist for the full chopped and screwed treatment, though there are also some beautifully minimal or melodic passages thrown into the mix too (as well as some flashes of dark humor celebrating "the benefits of mechanized civilization"). If "Glamour Factory" had been stretched out to consume the entire album, I would probably proclaim Inshallahlaland to be an unambiguous triumph, but it is instead rounded out by three shorter pieces of varying quality. My favorite of the lot is "Blurring Of Management Theory," which deftly combines a shivering and shimmering melodic theme with an endlessly shifting backdrop of clicks, pops, squelches, and subdued rumble. It is admittedly more of a snack than a meal though and I remain perplexed by the brothers' love of bloopy synth improvisations exhibited on the other pieces. That said, the successes of Saint Abdullah continue to delight me even if their hit-to-miss ratio is less than ideal, as this project is an endearingly personal, unpredictable, and playfully outré one quite unlike anything else.

sounds can be found here

Martyna Basta, "Making Eye Contact With Solitude"

This Krakow-based composer's debut album was one of 2021's most pleasant late-year surprises, as Making Eye Contact With Solitude is a gorgeously warm and intimate gem of multilayered and masterfully textured psychedelia. Basta describes the album as a diaristic meditation on "domesticity, loneliness, repetitiveness, stubborn patterns of isolated minds and the sonic mysteries all around us" and cites the murderers' row of Cucina Povera, Félicia Atkinson, and claire rousay as key inspirations. While welcome shades of all three artists are certainly evident to some degree on these six songs, Basta's aesthetic already feels fully formed and distinctively her own. In fact, I suspect it will not be long at all before Basta regularly finds herself name-checked as an inspiration by other artists, as her unhurried and dreamlike phantasmagoria of rippling zithers, vividly textured field recordings, and enigmatic domestic sounds feels absolutely revelatory on the album's two strongest pieces.

Warm Winters Ltd.

The album is comprised of six songs that seamlessly segue into one another, so it was presumably intended as a single longform work. The pieces certainly flow together nicely and share many of the same elements, but a couple of pieces make enough of an impression to easily stand alone. Whether or not the opening "Awakening" falls into that category is currently the subject of some internal debate on my part, but I certainly like it a lot regardless of where it ultimately lands. I am tempted to glibly summarize it as "someone is murdering a saxophone in the nightmare forest," yet it is far too lovely to deserve such a fate. Instrumentally, it is centered upon a blearily twinkling zither motif, yet the smeared and flutteriing psychotropic sounds and crunching footsteps that emerge from that modest theme soon consume the piece and completely steal the show. As with most pieces on the album, the magic lies primarily in the execution, as Basta is remarkably skilled at crafting wonderfully layered and kinetic soundscapes from her field and household recordings.

The following "Memories of Unwanted" is a considerably more emphatic album highlight, as "Awakening" beautifully morphs into warmly shimmering ambiance enhanced with a host of vividly crackling and sizzling textures before unexpectedly blossoming into a hallucinatory crescendo of murmuring, cooing, and gibbering voices. It calls to mind a flock of psychedelic pigeons crashing one of the more meditative passages on a Tim Hecker album, which is no simple feat. It also kicks off a three-song run of sublime near-perfection, as both "Unknown Reel Tape" and "Walking Around In Circles" are similarly stellar. "Unknown Reel Tape" resembles a killer duet between a warbling, warped, and possibly reversed Dead Can Dance cassette (the murky vocals are very Gerrard-esque) and bunch of clinking glass bottles and other curious sounds, while the dreamy, mantric vocal swoons of "Walking Around in Circles" call to mind an especially strong Cucina Povera song. That would admittedly be a fine stopping point, yet it proves to be only the starting point for a gloriously vivid crescendo that evokes a dreamily reverberating, slow motion rain of crystals. On that piece in particular, Basta's textural wizardry with non-musical sounds is truly on a level that I do not often encounter, as she manages to make familiar sounds feel almost enchanted due to their sheer clarity and physicality. It favorably calls to mind some of Graham Lambkin's singular work, as he seems like the sort of artist who could convincingly make a satisfying album from little more than a shoe and microphone. I get a very similar feeling from Basta, as I would probably still love this album even if all the instruments suddenly vanished to leave behind only clinking glass, clanking metal, crashing waves, and a host of enigmatic crunches and crackles.

sounds can be found here

Big Blood, "Fight For Your Dinner II"

I was not expecting 2014's odds n' ends collection Fight for Your Dinner to ever have a sequel, so this latest batch of eclectic covers, one-off experiments, unusual collaborations, and orphaned songs came as a very pleasant New Year's Eve surprise last December. While the covers are a bit less leftfield this time around (no Missy Elliott), they compensate by being even better, as the duo's sublime interpretation of two '80s Prince classics is one of the best goddamn things that they have ever recorded. The album also features one hell of an excellent tribute to the late Jack Rose, reworkings of songs by Pixies and Amon Düül II, a homemade electronics experiment, and a six-year-old's bold vision for the perfect pop song. Given the album's freewheeling randomness and the focus upon previously unreleased pieces, one could be forgiven for thinking that Fight For Your Dinner II is strictly one for the band's most devout fans, but it is extremely rare for Big Blood to release anything that does not feature at least one absolutely essential song and this one has several (as well as some great cover art). Of course, I am admittedly speaking as one of the aforementioned "most devout fans," but I still believe it is an objective fact that there is an impressive amount of revelatory material here. And that anyone left cold by the "When Doves Cry/I Would Die For You" cover should be extremely concerned that their ears may be broken.

dontrustheruin

The album kicks off in somewhat modest fashion with a couple of previously released rarities from the project's substantial discography: the stomping "Half Light Blues" (from a 7” split lathe with Human Adult Band) and the lurching electronic weirdness of "Floating from Xanthi," which was originally issued with a Greek fanzine (LUNG). That second piece is an interesting one, as it originates from a planned/unfinished album of works made using homemade electronics and calls to mind a spirited Big Blood/Silver Apples mash-up. For the most part, however, most of the strongest songs on this collection are covers, which is a bit of a surprise, given how much I love generally Colleen Kinsella and Caleb Mulkerin's songwriting. The pair do knock it out of the park with one original piece though, as "The Fox and The Rose" beautifully memorizes Jack Rose and a hapless fox with a classic Fire on Fire-style feast of vocal harmonies, fingerpicked acoustic guitars, backwards melodies, and psych-damaged guitar noise. I am frankly surprised it managed to elude release until now, as it feels like an instant stone-cold classic in the Big Blood canon. I am less bowled over by the Amon Düül II cover that follows, as the duo excised one of the best parts of the song (the drums) in favor of a straightforward chug, but I may be in minority on that, as I have seen more than one person proclaim it to be the single best song on the album. Unfortunately, that honor was already decisively claimed by the sensuous drone-trance shimmer of the double Prince cover (recorded the night the duo learned of his death, no less). Transforming an unimprovable/brilliant/perfect song ("When Doves Cry") into a completely different great song is quite an impressive feat, yet Big Blood work a different kind of killer alchemy with Pixies' "Velouria," transforming a song I basically remembered only as a pleasantly catchy single into a beautifully frayed, intimate, and poignant piano ballad. By my count, that adds up to three top-tier Big Blood songs buried in a ten-song collection of ostensible vault scrapings, but the album has one more big surprise to offer as well, as it closes with a young Quinnisa's breathless foray into home-recorded autotune disco ("she insisted that I make her sound like the 'robots' she heard on the radio").

sounds can be found here

Abul Mogard, "In a Few Places Along the River"

This latest release from Mogard is something of a modest one, as he describes it as "the result of experimentation with familiar and less familiar instruments available to me in the studio between 2019 and 2022." No further information is divulged about the album's "less familiar" elements aside from an interesting mention of reverb borrowed from the Inchindown oil tanks, which apparently hold the world record for longest reverberation time. If In a Few Places Along the River were a Lea Bertucci or Pauline Oliveros album, that expansive reverb would no doubt be a defining feature, but it seems like Mogard harnessed it in an more unusual and inventive way. The results are admittedly not quite top-tier Mogard (this is a digital-only release, after all), as this album captures him in stark, slow-burning drone mode rather than one of his more melodic and warm moods, but it is still solid enough to be satisfying, as the two bookends are impressively nuanced and substantial.

Self-Released

Mogard was definitely not in a hurry to make to make an impression with this album, as the opening "Against a White Cloud" fades win with blearily smeared drones that evoke the unsettling nocturnal ambiance of David Lynch at his most darkly atmospheric. Gradually, however, it starts to blossom into something less drifting and ghostly, which is a transformation that I suspect is indebted to the oil tank-inspired reverb. At the very least, it feels like a feedback loop of some kind, as each layer of drone added lingers around to provide a frayed and dissolving backdrop for the next. In any case, it is an impressively likable and stealthily heavy piece, gradually snowballing into a smoldering and snarling roar of tightly reined elemental power. The following "In True Contemplation" takes a similar route, as it begins with a quiet, barely perceptible synth drone and steadily intensifies into an engulfing roar. It feels a bit colder and more minimal than its predecessor, which makes it less memorable, but the insistent and rhythmic bass throb is a nice enhancement. The album's entire second half is then devoted to the 21-minute epic "Along The River," which can reasonably be described as both a variation of the same themes as the earlier pieces and the strongest single iteration of those themes. That success is mostly because it has more of a melodic component than the other pieces, but it is also more fluid, tender, twisting, and subtly spacy. Moreoever, the steadily intensifying arc of the piece ultimately ebbs back towards silence, which gives the piece the feel of a lunar eclipse slowing blotting out the sun, then slowly revealing its warmth and light once again. Not that much warmth and light, mind you, as the piece has the ineffable sadness of an elegy, but it feels movingly transcendent as well. A sublime 21-minute highlight is more than enough to carry the album for me, but Mogard fans less enthusiastic about his cold, minimal, and unhurried drone side should proceed with caution. Serious drone connoisseurs will find much to love here, however, as In a Few Places Along the River captures a master allowing himself plenty of room to fully indulge his gifts for elegantly controlled, slow-burning magic.

sounds can be found here.

William Ryan Fritch, "Built Upon a Fearful Void"

cover imageThis latest double album from the California-based Fritch is something of a culmination of two separate long journeys, as it took eight misfortune-filled years to complete and it also concludes Lost Tribe's "Built Upon a Fearful Void" series. While I am not necessarily sure that Fritch himself would agree that the end result was worth suffering through the gauntlet of lost hard drives and water-damaged tape reels that he had to navigate to get to this point, Built Upon a Fearful Void nevertheless meets my dauntingly high expectations for any major new statement from the composer. That said, I am certainly curious about how much the album changed between the ruined tape reels and Fritch's decision to abandon "what remained of the salvaged material" and "rerecord the album entirely using only faint flickers of the old tapes and cassettes." On one hand, some magic simply cannot be recaptured, yet that loss is balanced by the fact that Fritch's work seems to only get better and better with each passing year. In any case, anyone who fell in love with Fritch's work from 2019's Deceptive Cadence will likely love this album too (particularly its first half), as Built Upon a Fearful Void is another impossibly rich and vivid plunge into a dreamlike and cinematic vision of bittersweet Americana (and some other very likable other things as well).

Lost Tribe Sound

According to Fritch, Built Upon a Fearful Void is intended as "a two-part record—meditating on lost epochs, feeble mythologies, and the many deep gulfs in human knowledge and perception," which are certainly themes that resonate more than I would like right now. While I am not sure how the shifting vistas of each individual disc are intended to explore the different conceptual themes, it is quite clear that each disc works as a self-contained album with its own thoughtful and satisfying dynamic arc. While the same instrumental palette ("pipe organ, reed instruments, voice, viola da gamba, prepared piano, pedal steel, viola d’amore, and banjo") remains roughly intact for both of the album's halves, the emphasis shifts emphatically towards more drone-inspired pipe organ meditations for the second disc. In broad terms, that means that the more orchestral first disc is a closer relative to Deceptive Cadence than the second one, as Fritch's gorgeous string melodies are the heart of everything (along with his longstanding passion for vividly realized textures, of course). On the strongest pieces, Fritch's ear for poignant melodies strikes a perfect balance with tactile physicality, elevating such pieces into something a bit more unique and transcendent. Of course, business-as-usual Fritch remains perfectly fine by me as well, even if the thrill of discovery has dulled from my reasonable familiarity with his voluminous discography and its various phases. Still, the bookends on the first disc both handily attain some degree of transcendence for me (particularly the closing "Truest of Truisms"), as Fritch tends to go big with his opening and closing numbers. However, some of the album's most sublime highlights fall between those two crescendos too. For example, "Canary" beautifully marries a lovely viola melody with frayed and haunted-sounding feedback and a viscerally crunching and clanging backdrop of unconventional percussion. Elsewhere, the heaving and rippling "Glossolalia" is a tour de force of spectral, ravaged melodies and churning elemental power. That said, "Truest of Truisms" definitely ends the first disc with one hell of an exclamation point, unfolding as an organically heaving dream of widescreen romanticism, crashing cymbals, and elegantly dancing melodies.

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Steve Roden, "Stars of Ice"

Back in 2008, Steve Roden quietly released one of my favorite ambient albums of all time in a signed limited edition of 250. Of course, I did not realize it at the time, so it took another decade or so before Stars of Ice finally made its way to my ears. Happily, however, Room40 has now reissued Roden's hauntingly beautiful collage of obscure and antique Christmas records, which will hopefully nudge many more receptive ears towards this modest, one-of-a-kind masterpiece. While I am sure I would have greatly enjoyed the original album if I had heard it when it was first released, it is worth noting that my appreciation for texture has evolved considerably over the years, so maybe Stars of Ice uncannily got to me at precisely the right time. In fact, I wonder how significant a role Roden himself has (indirectly) played in my shifting tastes, as he has always been ahead of his time in regard to celebrating details and nuances (as well as inventively repurposing "non-musical" sounds) and we seem to be in the midst of a textural renaissance at the moment. That said, most of Stars of Ice is as nakedly beautiful as music can get, so the quavering murkiness, crackling and popping vinyl, and pleasantly lapping waves of hiss are mere icing on an already gorgeous cake. This is an absolutely brilliant and magical album.

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Novi_sad, "ΚΕΡΑΥΝΟΣ"

The title of the latest Novi_sad work roughly translates to lightning or thunder as related to Zeus and is a wonderfully fitting title for this album. Based on environmental sounds recorded on five different continents, Thanasis Kaproulias’s latest album is neither pure field recordings, nor is it the product of laborious processing and treatments. Instead it sits nestled somewhere between the two: some segments are clearly recordings of rainstorms or birds, but others are shaped into blasts of noise or melody, sometimes within the span of a few minutes, conjuring beauty and fear much in the way a thunderstorm does.

Raster

Right from the opening piece, "Oceania," this dynamic is apparent. Based on recordings taken at the Tarkine Rainforest, Kaproulias leads off with an electronic-tinged swarming sound, resembling processed migrating birds, and a passing rainstorm. Without warning it blasts into a wall of harsh noise, yet there is still the depth and complexity of sounds amidst the harshness. Slowly he transitions from the noise to focus on a melody that slowly drifts in, ending on quite a beautiful note. The harshest moments of ΚΕΡΑΥΝΟΣ lie in "Oceania," while both "Asia" and "Europe" are built from similar components: bass heavy rumbles, water sounds, and far off droning melody. The former features a bit more melodicism overall, wobbling and lying under strange textures, while the latter allows more of the unprocessed natural recordings to shine through.

Throughout "Africa," Kaproulias opts for an almost more traditionally musical dynamic. Insect recordings are reassembled into something resembling bowed strings, and whole thing has an almost rhythmic structure due to his use of looping. The ending is a bit more pure melody and chiming tones, but there is a path of overdriven, harsher sounds on the way there. "America," based on Amazon Rainforest and recordings of Niagara Falls is overall more dense and oppressive in its dynamic. The combination of rain and waterfall recordings is heavy and enveloping, and the aggressive water sounds only relent at the very end, leaving a foundation of dark, muted tones.

Kaproulias may work with a similar approach and dynamic on the five pieces that make up ΚΕΡΑΥΝΟΣ, but each clearly has its own overall feel and identity. His subtle approach to processing and production is a significant asset here, as it so effortlessly blurs the line between source material and processed results, making for a work that is as much field recording as it is musical. Beautiful, harsh, and jarring from beginning to end, the title fits the work perfectly.

Samples can be found here.

srmeixner, "A Silent War"

Initially intended to be a lockdown project based around recycling (and re-recycling) of sound sources, Stephen Meixner (Contrastate) ended up shifting the theme of A Silent War to a very specific one. Based on the worldwide ripples of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer gave a specific theme to an otherwise conceptually defined record. Featuring contributions by the other members of Contrastate, Ralf Wehowsky, Steve Pittis (Band of Pain) and more, the final product is as enthralling as it is bleak and depressing.

Black Rose Recordings/Oxidation

The opening title piece, featuring sound sources from Rob Fairweather, has a bent music box quality to it, over which the names of victims of unjustified police shootings (Walter Scott, Tamir Rice) are read. With a strange percussion loop anchoring the song, what almost resembles 1970s cop TV show soundtracks are weaved in and out. The gurgling electronics of "Breathe" take on a disturbing color as George Floyd’s last words are spoken, with bits of rhythm popping up throughout. The lush, beautiful electronics are a stark contrast to the otherwise bleakness of the recording.

Both "Virtue Signaling" and "Unfinished Business" are a bit less depressive, with the former having a more traditional synth-based sound within a mass of piano hits and sampled music, with both featuring percussion by Simon Wray and raw materials by Ralf Wehowsky. The latter is overall more spacious, driving by a bassy electronic pulse, although the far off police sirens are appropriately disturbing even at low volumes. "We Demand Tomorrow (Or Business as Usual)" casts droning electronics alongside Wray's unconventional percussion, with buzzing, dense blasts of sound symbolically interrupting the status quo. Closer "Singing About Revolution" features Contrastate member Jonathan Grieve using the words of Nina Simone lyrics, bent and processed within a mix of swirling electronics, feedback, and fragmented sampling. The sum of the parts make for a disturbing, unsettling sound throughout.

As captivating as it is, A Silent War is an ugly, unpleasant record, which was surely Meixner's intent. A strange mélange of existing sounds, absurd attempts at traditional musicality, and heavy subject matter, it certainly is not the type of album that screams for casual listening. This prevailing sense of unease though leads to a thematically unified album that captures the ugliness of 2020 and 2021 very well, and sadly 2022 is not looking to be too different. At least it might result in another fascinating work from Meixner, however.

Samples can be found here.

Steve Roden, "Oionos"

I am thrilled that Room40 is digging up and reissuing some woefully underheard gems from Steve Roden these days, as a hell of a lot of fascinating work passed me by in the pre-Bandcamp days of hyper-limited physical releases. Stars of Ice (due for a reissue in February) was especially revelatory for me, but this more modest initial dispatch from Roden's vaults is quite a treat as well. As far as I know, Oionos has not been released previously, yet it dates from a 2006 exhibition in Athens, Greece entitled The Grand Promenade. The premise of the exhibition was to create a "dialogue" between "contemporary site-specific works" and "various archaeological and historical sites in central Athens," but Roden fell in love with the Church of St. Dimitris Loumbardiardis (not among the planned sites) and managed to talk the curator into allowing an exception. Notably, the architect behind the church was the same man (Dimitris Pikionis) who designed the original promenade, so Roden's selection was a thoughtful and inspired decision, as he felt the path leading to the church provided a "stronger impression of Pikionis's vision" than the actual promenade (unlike the main promenade, the path to the church escaped being ‘restored’ in preparation for the 2004 Olympics).

Room40

Originally constructed in the ninth century using materials salvaged from surrounding ruins and described as "likely the most secluded and serene" of Athen's assortment of Byzantine-era churches, the Church of St. Dimitris Loumbardiardis is remarkably still in use. That presented something of a challenge for Roden, as his installation needed to harmonize with and enhance its peaceful environs without disrupting what made the place so alluring in the first place. He eventually decided to hang his sound installation from a large tree and opted for characteristically Roden-esque lowercase sounds that "could blend with all of the insect noises and the overall quiet of the area.” For his sound sources, Roden chose “field recordings and small ‘poor’ objects such as tin whistles, toy harmonicas, and the like." Significantly, the latter were inspired by a basement display case of "non-instruments" located in Athen's museum of musical instruments, as Roden felt the modest items meshed nicely with Pikionis's interest in blending "indigenous culture" with "intellectual and modern culture." In more concrete terms, Oionos is essentially an hour of gently whirring, whining, and crackling suspended animation. There is also a wandering, disjointed melody that calls to mind either a slowed down recording of wind chimes or a malfunctioning music box that emits sparks and feedback as it strains to produce a fitful melody. I suppose that makes Oionos a very "ambient" piece, but it can also be more than that depending on how attentively I choose to listen: sometimes it feels like fragments of a wrong-speed Andrew Chalk album floating above a rich landscape of subtle, shifting textures, while other times evokes a pleasant sense of unreality, as if submerged ghost melodies struggle to surface from a quiet haze of insectoid whines, burbling water, and gently windblown leaves. It is quite a beautifully realized piece, yet I can understand why it was not released until now, as it lingers in delicate stasis rather than undergoing any kind of significant evolution (an approach far more preferable for an installation than an album intended for home listening). Then again, Steve Roden is hardly an artist known for adhering to convention, so listeners already familiar with his oeuvre will likely enjoy basking in this meditative sound world a great deal. For the merely Roden-curious, there are probably better albums to start with, but Oionos is still strong enough to effectively convey why his work remains so revered in sound art circles.

Samples can be found here.

"Swifter Than the Moon's Sphere - English Fairy Lore"

There are a number of fascinating small labels exploring unusual niches these days, which I suppose makes the current era something of a golden age for curious outsiders with deeply arcane interests. My favorite imprint in that vein is unsurprisingly the "open-ended research project exploring the vernacular arcana of Great Britain and beyond" that is Folklore Tapes, as their major releases exist on a plane all their own, elegantly and entertainingly blurring the lines between art, history, folklore, scholarship, music, poetry, visual art and whatever other compelling threads catch their fancy. This latest opus is characteristically another glorious cultural artifact, which is hardly surprising given the fertile nature of the subject. Nevertheless, the label have still outdone themselves, as Swifter than the Moon's Sphere celebrates the hidden history of fairy folk with an eclectic array of fairy-inspired spoken word pieces and sound art, as well as a deep and endearingly witty scholarly dive into fairy class structure and how shifting views of the supernatural mirror our society. In fact, this is one of the rare albums in which the liner notes (courtesy of Jez Winship) are every bit as compelling as the actual music ("there is something oddly impotent about the fairy aristocracy"). Beyond that, Swifter than the Moon's Sphere is a welcome return to familiar territory for the label, bringing together an inspired host of known, unknown, obscure, and enigmatic artists for a freewheeling tour de force of supernaturally charged and backwards-looking folk horror and rural psychedelia.

Folklore Tapes

Like most (or all) great Folklore Tapes compilations, Swifter than the Moon's Sphere features an inspired cast of unique collaborations, house bands, unfamiliar names, and familiar names in unfamiliar roles. In the "familiar" category, we have the usual Hood Faire contingent, as well as artists like Ian Humberstone and Bridget Hayden. All are characteristically strange and wonderful, but Humberstone's "Swinging Lamps in Starlit Globes" stands as a particular highlight, resembling an eerily sliding and smeared underwater vibraphone performance accompanied by a chorus of psychedelic frogs. One of the main pleasures of a great Folklore Tapes compilation is being surprised and delighted from more unexpected corners, however, and this one is particularly rich in that regard. In fact, the opening "Genuine Leaf Fairy Sighted in English Woodland" (credited enigmatically to "DBH") is the first of many such pleasures, as harmonic sparks spray from shivering, tense strings that fitfully resolve into snatches of gorgeous melody. Brian Campbell, Peter Smyth and Carl Turney's "Requiem for the Lost" is another favorite, resembling a warm and wistful strain of post-rock backing a spacy, swooning, and dreamlike swirl of layered psychedelia.

Elsewhere, historian Jennifer Reid sings a haunting folk ballad (“Boghart Hall Clough”) about a farmer who fails to outwit a household boggart, while Emily Oldfield brings a lovely musicality to her poetry reading and Sarah Lundy goes post-everything with a spoken word piece that feels like she is casting a terrible hex on me from inside an echo chamber. Obviously, some ideas work better than others, but the artists are invariably hampered more by the constraining brevity of these pieces than by lack of inspiration (most pieces are only around two minutes long). That hurdle admittedly posed a challenge for individual artists more accustomed to working in more expansive circumstances, but the album as a whole benefits nicely from that approach, as it is a playfully shapeshifting and immersive experience that seldom wanders off course. Moreover, I will probably be quoting the liner notes for the rest of my life ("an emphasis on the grotesque and the foppishly foolish" and "this persistence of hope in the face of experience is oddly admirable" are current favorites). In fact, I was especially struck by the line "the magic power of invisibility results in fairies being more often heard or felt…than seen," as everyone involved seemed admirably devoted to getting the elusive haunted "feel" of a good fairy legend just right (no matter how much academic rigor they brought to the table). I am tempted to say that Folklore Tapes consistently offers one master class after another on how to make a meaningful, memorable, and compelling compilation, but releases like Swifter than the Moon's Sphere actually shoot past that mark to feel more like I just stumbled upon a dust-covered grimoire in a mysterious bookstore that I had never noticed before. This is an instant classic.

Samples can be found here.

Elena Setién, "Unfamiliar Minds"

Basque composer Elena Setién’s second album for Thrill Jockey is quite an unexpected leap forward from the more pop-minded Another Kind Of Revolution. While Setién's love of strong melodies and big hooks still remains mostly intact, Unfamilar Minds beautifully balances them with a host of more adventurous and psych-inspired touches, resulting in at least a half of a strikingly brilliant and unique album. The other half admittedly does not suffer from a lack of likable melodies or tight songcraft, yet Setién's work definitely needs a splash of darker, stranger sounds to curdle the wholesomeness of her more straightforward "pop" tendencies. It is an improbable and unusual mingling of stylistic threads evoking a revolving cast of seductive female vocalists getting remixed by a gnarled heavy psych project, yet Setién somehow makes it feel totally organic, natural, and all her own. Also, her throaty purr makes that unholy collision feel way more sensual and soulful than I would have expected. While it would admittedly be nice if I enjoyed the album's second half as much as the more warped and hallucinatory first half, that first half nevertheless feels enough like a revelation to make Unfamiliar Minds feel like some kind of minor masterpiece.

Thrill Jockey

The songs that Setién wrote for Unfamilar Minds actually date from before the pandemic, but when she revisited them after a collaborative detour with Xabier Erkizia, she felt "disconnected from the incomplete pieces made in a different reality." Consequently, she set about radically transforming her earlier ideas to reflect her "reconfigured sense of mood and perspective" and drew significant inspiration from both Emily Dickenson and conversations with Terry and Gyan Riley. That Dickenson influence manifests itself both directly and indirectly throughout the album. For example, album highlight "I Dwell in Possibility" borrows its lyrics from the poet, though it is what Setién does with them that makes the piece such a stunner. The most striking bit is the creepily autotuned vocal hook, which makes me feel uneasily like I am being serenaded by a malfunctioning android wrestling with stormy new emotions. In most other ways, however, "I Dwell in Possibility" is a representative example of the themes present in all of the album’s strongest songs: killer pop hooks blossoming out of starkly minimal chord progressions and gorgeous smears of phantasmagoric color. And, of course, it does not hurt that Setién has an absolutely wonderful voice and knows exactly how to use it.

Amusingly, Dickenson may have actually inspired the album's more psychedelic aspects as well as its lyrical themes, as Setién felt a heightened fascination with small details ("the beauty of birds, the smells from the kitchen") from our current lonely time. The swirl of delirious and hallucinatory sounds in the periphery of pieces like the warmly elegiac "2020" channel those fondly half-remembered details beautifully, transforming an already lovely song into something that evokes a flickering flock of ghostly birds.  Elsewhere, "Situation" weaves pure magic from little more than a gorgeous hook and two simple piano chords before blossoming into half-swooning/half-proggy crescendo that I did not see coming at all. My other favorite pieces are even stranger still. For example, in "Such a Drag," a seductively melancholy mantra ("it’s such a drag to be alone") languorously winds through a blackened and shuddering landscape of heavy drones to unexpectedly transcendent effect. The smoldering "This Too Will Pass," on the other hand, abandons language altogether, as Setién conjures an utterly sublime gem from warm organ drones, a frayed and wobbly melody, and swooning vocal layering. The remaining songs are a bit of a mixed bag for varying reasons, but the main theme is that the balance of poppiness and prettiness with gnarled mindfuckery was not to my liking. Perhaps those pieces will someday grow on me, but it does not matter if they do, as Unfamiliar Minds' weaker bits are easily eclipsed by its five absolutely perfect would-be singles.

Samples can be found here.

Meitei, "KofuÃÑ II"

Meitei’s plunderphonic exploration of “lost Japanese moods” has been an intriguing and unusual project right from the start, but it started to blossom into something truly great with 2019's Komachi and only got better with the beat-driven breakthrough of 2020's Kofū. As it turns out, that creative leap forward was also quite an intensely prolific period and a lot of tough cuts needed to made to distill the resultant mountain of songs into a single album. As I loved Kofū, I have no qualms at all with Meitei's ruthless culling choices for that album, but it did leave a lot of finished and semi-finished pieces on the cutting room floor (somewhere around 50, in fact) and many definitely deserved a far better fate. Meitei's original plan was to just keep moving forward with new material in the wake of Kofū's success, yet "when it came time to begin his next album, he found that it had been sitting in front of him all along" and "realized his work wasn’t over yet." In that regard, Meitei's judgment proves to be unerring once again, as this selection of Songs That Did Not Make The Original Cut is every bit as poignant, wonderful, and deliriously fun as its predecessor.

Kitchen

The more I learn about Meitei, the more I am convinced that I am only able to appreciate a mere fraction of his fascinating vision, as the layers and layers of social commentary and satire lurking in his work are hopelessly lost on me as a non-Japanese person. Consequently, I can only appreciate an album like this one on an almost purely stylistic level. Fortunately, the wistful longings and other bittersweet emotional shadings are not lost on me, yet it is a unique experience to appreciate Meitei's inventively repurposed vocal hooks, twinkling piano runs, soaring flutes, and propulsive grooves while knowing that I am probably missing many interesting allusions and celebrations of the marginalized. Then again, maybe I actually DO get everything that truly matters, as Meitei strongly believes in Hayao Miyazaki's adage "Beyond logic speaks of human nature" (I sincerely hope my subconscious is tenaciously filling in some blanks).

Meitei apparently also has a "Mizoguchi-like approach" to mingling "unimaginable pain with tenderness," which I can definitely see, as the best pieces from the two Kofū albums can feel downright ecstatic or at least beautifully cathartic: it is easy to imagine someone dancing to the crescendo of "Happyaku-yachō" or "Shinobi" with complete abandon and tear-streaked cheeks. The album's other highlights take a number of divergent directions, however, as the main stylistic thread that holds everything together is merely a passion for chopped, stammering, and warbling samples of crackling and hissing traditional music records and that seems to be very fertile creative territory indeed. "Tōkaidō," however, is yet another gem in the vein of the aforementioned two pieces, though it initially feels very "traditional" due to its central plucked string motif before the shuffling groove and ascending flute melodies kick in. The absolutely gorgeous "Kaworu," on the other hand, is quite a departure from the album's other fare, as Meitei intimately distills his vision to just a tender harp-like melody and quiet washes of tape hiss. It might actually be the single most beautiful piece on the album, but there is some additional fierce competition from the broken piano melodies and frayed ascending flutes of "Shurayuki hime" and the part in "Arinsu" where backwards melodies and an obsessively looping vocal snippet gloriously converge. Sadly, "Arinsu" is only about a minute long, which leads me to the most savage critique of Kofū II that I can muster: it may be packed floor-to-ceiling with imaginative ideas and killer unconventional hooks, but a couple of these twelve songs are admittedly shorter than the others. Hopefully that is not a deal-breaker for anyone, as this project is singular, brilliant, and seems to only get better and better with each new release.

Samples can be found here.

Hany Mehanna, "Music For Airplanes - Instrumental Showpieces & Scores for Egyptian Films and TV‚Äã"

Hany Mehanna is a key figure in the development of keyboards in Asian music. As a young man he played accordion, organ, and synth in the orchestra of legendary singer Umm Kulthum and—along with Ammar Al-Sheriyi—learned to create quarter tones by using oscillators. In a later prolific period composing music for 93 films and 38 television series, Mehanna forged his own distinctive sound: a balance of traditional Arabic melody types or maqams and hypnotic experimental electronics. Remastered from his personal reel-to-reel tapes, this album showcases that balance on 19 otherworldly tracks. I like the fact I can never predict what any piece will sound like based on how it starts, even on very short tracks. Mehanna’s only other solo album, The Miracle Of The Seven Dances, was reissued in 2018 after being rediscovered in a record shop in Casablanca.

Souma

The album kicks off with “Hanady” blipping along like a wheezing, psychedelic, video game belly dance augmented by electric violin and the guitar of Omar Khorshid. On this track, and on the entire album, nothing is allowed to limp along into over-repetiive normality or to descend into an indecipherable mess. "Haya Ha’ira” is more raw, blasting into being with a razor blade guitar-like slashes and dazzling percussion and it’s over too soon. Bizarrely, the precisely chopped rhythm of "Walad Wa Bint” is virtually a compete blueprint for the verse singing on the early Stiff Records 45 “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea.”

“Rhela” has the kind of galloping rhythm and lustrous twang often associated with doomed British producer Joe Meek, as Mehanna throws hypnotic organ phrases over a frenzied beat. His breathtaking ability to layer electronics, strings, and solo instruments is evident on the library robo-funk of "Less Al Thulata” and the spaced out "Al Qina’ Al Za’ef” with (I think) twinkling synth, a lonely horn, smooth strings, and what sound like wah wah imitation vocals. There are actual vocals on "Dal Al Omr Ya Waladi,” an impressive dusky moaning which is a good counterpoint to the intriguing reedlike instrument which shares carrying the melody. Again, the mix is fabulous and the atmosphere beautifully relaxed.

On the cover Hany Mehanna almost looks like one of the heroic resistance fighters from Gillo Pontecorvo's documentary The Battle of Algiers, except—rather than a machine gun—he’s got an accordion strapped over his shoulder and stands in front of a small Farsifa organ. It is worth remembering that Farfisa organs have been used by everyone from Reich and Glass to Suicide and Cabaret Voltaire, as well as Giorgio Moroder, Pink Floyd, Sly Stone, Miles Davis, Percy Sledge, XTC, Sam The Sham, K.Frimpong, and Stereolab. Back on this album sleeve, Mehanna looks for all the world like he is sending a message on an early 1990s fax machine. In the top right a plane heads East across a circular object which might be a representation of the sun, or a piece of exotic garb I don’t recognize. The image is reminiscent of the cover from the cassette release Relaxation Tape For Solo Space Travel by The National Pool, the concept of which purports to be an actual aid for would-be cosmonauts. Music For Airports stays within the earth’s atmosphere but it definitely travels to some subtle and glamorous places. The album fell between the cracks a little with its December 2021 release date.

I haven’t had time to research the films and TV shows for each track, but the imagination may quickly run to mustachioed detectives, flared trousers, glamorous girls fallen in with a bad crowd, cool cars, cocktails, speedboats, nightclubs, ill-gotten gains, spies, shortwave radio, fistfights, heat and dust, baba ganoush, gloriously melodramatic day time soaps, switchblades, Sid James, cigarette holders, white dinner jackets, and all that jazz. The album title makes sense in the context of the modernizing of Egyptian economy in the 1970s, with a jet-set, Operation Nimbus Moon, and President Sadat standing on a destroyer when reopening the Suez Canal. Hany Mehanna's tunes fit in with any concept of freedom, and his rhythms showed up in popular songs which soundtracked the Arab Spring of 2010-12. This collection ends on a real high with the thrilling and poignant "Damat Alam" sandwiched between the Opening and End themes to “Al Dawarma.” No need to round up the usual suspects such as Basil Kirchin or eden ahbez. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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Rrill Bell, "False Flag Rapture" & "Blade's Return"

cover image With two different releases in 2021, Jim Campbell (as Rrill Bell) follows up 2020's Ballad of the External Life going in two very different thematic directions. A cassette, False Flag Rapture, is a personal, intimate work based around a recording of his grandmother, while the digital (available with printed material as well) Blade’s Return is a narrative tale about a saw (I am not sure if it is truly meant to be anthropomorphic or not). Both feel rather different from each other, but both also feature the heavy tape manipulations of Campbell, reducing instrument recordings to raw material that he shapes into entirely different and unique forms.

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