William Ryan Fritch, "Freeland OST"

cover imageIt seems like William Ryan Fritch has a new album coming out practically every other month these days and I dearly hope to catch up with his voluminous output someday, as that relentless work ethic does not seem like it has disrupted his near-supernatural hot streak one bit. This latest gem is one of his more high-profile recent releases, billed as a labor of love two years in the making. Normally, soundtrack albums are a bit of a red flag for me, as they are not generally intended to stand alone (by design), but some artists can transcend that restriction beautifully and conjure vivid sound worlds that are satisfying and complete experiences in their own right. Unsurprisingly, Fritch is one such artist and Freeland is an absorbing, inspired, and fitfully mesmerizing album. Granted, some of the strongest pieces are teasingly brief due to their intended context, but the heaving, shuddering, and fluttering rustic drones of pieces like "Devi’s Last Deal" and "The Old Commune" are haunting and memorable enough that I do not lament their brevity much, as I will happily take whatever glimpses of heaven I can get.

Lost Tribe Sound

As the opening piece is the achingly beautiful "Devi's Last Deal," I did not need any added convincing to help me fall in love with the album, but my appreciation for Fritch's vision actually did deepen a bit once I learned more about the film. In broad strokes, Freeland is about "an aging pot farmer" who "finds her world shattered" as the legalized weed industry threatens to destroy her fragile outlaw refuge of hippie idealism (and her livelihood). Given the trailer, the tone of the music, and the choice of the elementally intense Krisha Fairchild for the lead role, it is probably safe to say I will find the film heartbreakingly sad when I finally see it, as powerlessly watching capitalism consume counterculture is certainly a subject that resonates with me. In keeping with that theme, Fritch's music evokes flickering and ghostly memories of distant happier times in a long-abandoned commune. If that spectral commune had a spectral house band, it would probably be a drowned orchestra of moss-covered skeletons rather than more expected "commune fare" like Amon Düül II or the freak folk milieu, as the slow, sad drones are invariably organic, haunted, and haunting. There are also a couple of shimmering and radiant pedal steel-sounding interludes ("Bygones" and "What You've Built"), as well as a tenderly melodic and dreamlike piano piece (the closing "Resurface"). All are likable, but it is definitely the more drone-based pieces that make me think "no one could have made a better soundtrack for this film than William Ryan Fritch, as he is a goddamn textural sorcerer." In pieces like "The Old Commune" and "Dropped," the strings sound like the deep, heaving, and woody groans of an old forest, while the woodwinds breathily sigh and flutter like phantasmagoric birds and butterflies. When Fritch stretches out enough to conjure a sublimely immersive and bittersweet scene in vivid detail, the results are gorgeous. Admittedly, only a handful of pieces linger around long enough to make such an impression on their own, but these fourteen fragments cumulatively make for quite a memorable whole.

Samples can be found here.

Driftmachine, "Spume & Recollection"

cover imageI have belatedly realized that I was an utter fool for sleeping on this unusual electronic duo from Berlin for so long, as an idiosyncratic dub techno-inspired project from a former member of Lali Puna seems like it should be right up my alley. Unfortunately, their debut (Nocturnes) was a bit too indulgent, deconstructed, and eclectic to resonate with me at the time and I filed them away as "mutant techno for people who are way too enthusiastic about modular synthesizers." Whether Driftmachine has gotten better in the ensuing seven years or whether I just caught up to the inspired aesthetic that they had all along is hard to say, but Spume & Recollection instantly sounded great to me, so my guess is that there have indeed been some improvements. While all four of these pieces are definitely still a bit too vamp-like and strange to fit within my personal dub techno comfort zone, I now feel like the quirks and subdued spaciness of the pair's vision make Driftmachine a compelling entity in its own right, as the best moments of Spume & Recollection feel like simmering, surreal, and mechanized psychedelia in perfectly distilled form.

Umor Rex

The curiously titled "Albatross follows a killer whale" opens the album with bleary, swaying smears of synthesizer and lazy beeps before a slow and deep bass groove kicks in. From that point onward. Driftmachine continually display a real knack for crafting hypnotically stark and throbbing rhythms, always finding the perfect tempo for their heady, simmering magic to slowly reveal itself. In the case of "Albatross," that magic comes in the form of shuddering, buzzing drones and dubby slashes of echoing percussion. Without the latter, the piece would still be a pleasantly slow-burning dub techno-inspired delight, but the unpredictable violence of those slashes elevate it into something better. The following “The surge at the end of the mind” kicks off with a blurting and lurching off-kilter pulse, resembling some kind of stark, robotic funk (a good summation of the entire album, really). Gradually, however, the strange collection of clicks, pops, swells, and beep coheres into an unexpectedly propulsive groove. Or maybe an expectedly propulsive one, as Driftmachine are unerring in that regard on this album. The duo's rhythms are unconventional though, involving a number of moving parts that rarely seem like they will seamlessly lock together into a precision-engineered, futuristic pulse (and yet they always do). Elsewhere, “Memories of the lakeside" comes out of the gate with an odd, quirky groove that achieves something akin to imagining "Hotline Bling" as a classic Rhythm & Sound single. The final piece, "Soon I will disappear," is an unusually melodic one, as a minor key chord progression of frayed, spectral synths unfolds over a characteristically erratic and bubbling synth pulse. Of course, once the kick drum and the bass come in, yet another smoky, simmering, and heavy groove is born. All four pieces here are legitimately excellent and quite similar to one another, as Spume & Recollection is essentially just a handful of cool grooves allowed to play out in ten-minute doses, yet the duo's surgical exactitude, flawless instincts, and talent for manipulating small details keep the album smoldering from front to finish.

Samples can be found here.

Tomaga, "Intimate Immensity"

cover imageIt is unfortunate that this final album from Tomaga is being released in the shadow of Tom Relleen's untimely passing, as Intimate Immensity probably could have been the London duo's breakthrough release otherwise. I first became aware of the project through a combination of drummer Valentina Magaletti's many other appearances (Vanishing Twin, Raime, Helm, etc.) and stumbling upon Memory in Vivo Exposure while briefly obsessed with exotica-inspired ambiance. While I would not describe this latest album as particularly exotica-inspired for a Tomaga release, Relleen and Magaletti have always had a unique, eclectic, and constantly evolving off-beat vision, so there is no dearth of unusual juxtapositions and unexpected divergences among these ten songs. I suppose Vanishing Twin's Stereolab-esque aesthetic is as good a reference point as any, as the best songs here feel like the soundtrack of an arty European cult film from the '60s or '70s improved with subtle hallucinatory flourishes, exotic atmospheric touches, and muscular dub-wise grooves.

Hands in the Dark

I would not describe myself as particularly drum-obsessed, but there are definitely a handful of drummers and percussionists who are reliably compelling when freed from the constraints of conventional songs and Valentina Magaletti is one of them. She is a bit of an aberration in that regard though, as she tends to churn out killer beats rather than wild, free-form solos. Tomaga has long been the home for those killer beats and Relleen is the perfect foil on Intimate Immensity, enhancing Magaletti's grooves with deep, dubby bass motifs, evocative splashes of color, and eclectic melodic themes. In some ways, Muslimgauze is another one of Tomaga's closest kindred spirits, but if Bryn Jones had not been monomanically obsessed with the Middle East and had instead spent his time in tiki bars watching Serge Gainbourg and Guy Maddin films and obsessively absorbing every weird soundtrack that Finders Keepers reissues.  In that light, the album's best song is a bit of an anomaly, as "Intimate Immensity" has the feel of a bizarrely sensual, tripped-out elegy, as an achingly lovely descending string motif floats above a slowed-down "Funky Drummer"-style beat and rubbery, ping-ponging electronics. The industrial-tinged "British Wildlife" is a delight as well, resembling a Carter Tutti remix of a Martin Denny album, yet the album's most sustained run of greatness occurs mid-album, as "The Snake," "Very Never," and "More Flowers" are all cool as hell. All sound very cinematic and would be perfect for a late '60s spy movie set in Marrakech or my next escape from a haunted tropical island, but the alternately rolling and lurching grooves ensure that they feel like something for more visceral and vivid than a mere pastiche of cool influences. While I have not quite made it through Tomaga's entire discography yet, I would be extremely surprised if any of the duo's previous albums surpass this one, as the highlights here feel impressively revelatory.

Samples can be found here.

His Name is Alive, "Hope is a Candle"

cover imageDisciples' wonderful series of resurrected home recordings from Warren Defever's precocious teenage years winds to a close with this third album (coinciding with the release of A Silver Thread, which compiles all of Defever's recently issued early home recordings in one place). In one way, it can be said that the best was saved for last, as Hope is a Candle features remastered versions of some material from the demo that fatefully landed His Name is Alive on 4AD (which has circulated as a bootleg for years). To my ears, however, it does not quite rival the pleasures of All the Mirrors in the House, but that makes sense since Mirrors was the revelatory bombshell that unveiled this treasure trove in the first place. That said, the "songs" are sometimes a bit longer and more fleshed out this time around, making Hope is a Candle feel like an enjoyable outtakes collection from the project's earliest albums. While that is certainly enough to satisfy me as an HNIA fan, the album also boasts quite a lovely and sublime closing piece.

Disciples

Now that this wonderful series of archival finds is (probably) at an end, it occurs to me that its appeal often lies more in hearing what a bored teenager with limited resources can achieve with sufficient vision than as a window into how the early His Name is Alive aesthetic took shape. After all, there are already several great HNIA albums out in the world, but getting a glimpse into how the young and extremely resourceful Defever worked around his limitations is considerably more instructive and inspiring. As Defever himself put it, "I wanted to do my own Music For 18 Musicians. But I didn't know 18 musicians; I barely had two friends, and even they couldn't stand me." While nothing on Hope is a Candle is in any danger of being mistaken for a classic Steve Reich composition, the album does feature an impressively varied and inventive series of song sketches. The strongest is the aforementioned closer, "Insiders," which is a warmly lovely and slow-moving procession of shimmering chord swells. "Liadin," the album's single of sorts, is a gem as well, as Defever deftly combines slow, chorus-heavy washes of chords with airy, jangling strums. Elsewhere, the swirling, reverb-swathed orchestral loops of "Nearby" are another sublime delight. That said, while Hope is a Candle does feature some song-like moments, it still does not quite reach the "songs" stage, so it has the feel of a collection of ephemeral highlights plucked from a mountain of improvisations (which is exactly what it is). At various times throughout this series, some unearthed pieces have transcended those origins beautifully, but the bulk of this album falls more within the "cool vignettes" category. Some of those vignettes ARE quite good though, particularly the all-too-brief harmonized acoustic guitar interlude of "Never" and the droning bowed strings and sharp harmonics of "Still."

Samples can be found here.

RLW, "Agnostic Diaries"

cover imageConsisting of raw materials from 2005, but heavily reworked and processed between 2016 and 2017, Ralf Wehowsky's latest work is actually a compilation of unfinished and aborted projects. Mostly centered around voice recordings, the six pieces on Agnostic Diaries represent collaborations that, for one reason or another, fell through or never saw the light of day. That is anything but apparent though; since there is a clear consistency from start to finish, and one that is in line with the style of Wehowsky's recent works.

Black Rose Recordings/Dirter Promotions

The sounds of the human voice are one specific thing that links these pieces together, from the fragmented communications on "Le Ballet" (from George Antheil's Ballet Mecanique) to the processed speeches and deep breathing of "For Gerald," to the less treated dialogues of "Caute!" As intended though, Wehowsky uses these voices, processed or otherwise, as he would any other sound source, so they would not constitute vocal pieces per se.

Another RLW trademark throughout many of these is a use of digital sounds processed into low fidelity bitrates. On the aforementioned "Le Ballet" they form the framework that computer blips and shrill, painful electronics are then grafted on to. There is a ghostly sense to the piece overall and, with a mix of swells, jump cuts, and heavy bass frequencies; the whole piece is rather strange and disorienting. "July 2006" feels like a continuation, albeit one with erratic reverbs, cricket-like chirps and what could even be a Geiger counter.

On "For Gerald," what sounds like collaborator Anla Courtis's contribution of squalling electric guitar shines through clearly alongside spacy electronics and what almost resembles a spate of kick drums, or perhaps someone transitioning from walking into running on a hard surface. Either way, it makes for the piece with the most traditionally musical sounding elements, but chopped up and processed into something else entirely. Concluding piece "Monotype #6" is another notable standout with its multi-layered fragmented voice (courtesy of Dylan Nyoukis) and stabbing horror strings, creating a complex, yet menacing end to the record.

Even though these pieces were all created for different purposes, Wehowsky did an excellent job in the reworking process to bring them all together into a consistent album. It is not that far removed from its predecessor on Black Rose/Dirter, Flurry of Delusion, but the emphasis on vocal elements makes it stand out on its own. Like any RLW album, Agnostic Diaries is disorienting, confusing, and at times painful, but never fails to fascinate.

Chris Corsano & Bill Orcutt, "Made Out of Sound"

cover imageIn theory, any album recorded by the duo of Chris Corsano and Bill Orcutt should be an instant Album of the Year candidate for me, as the pair are easily among my favorite musicians on the planet. However, 2018’s explosive Brace Up! was not quite my thing, calling to mind Orcutt's earlier and viscerally cacophonous Harry Pussy days. I have no doubt that seeing the duo live during that period would have either torn off my head or melted my face, but that album is not the one I reach for when I have an Orcutt craving. Happily, the opposite is true of this latest convergence of the two fiery improv iconoclasts, as Made Out of Sound resembles one of Orcutt's more recent solo albums organically intertwined with some oft-incendiary free drumming. Despite being generally more melodic and less feral than its predecessor, however, the more nuanced Made Out of Sound is nevertheless a radical and intense recording in its own right. It is truly rare to encounter such seemingly effortless and fluid chemistry between two artists with such instantly recognizable and attention-grabbing aesthetics.

Palilalia

In wrestling with how to best describe Orcutt's playing on this album, my mind predictably kept returning to the phrase Ira Gitler once famously used to describe John Coltrane's aesthetic: "sheets of sound." In Orcutt's case, however, most of Made Out of Sound feels more like sheets of rain falling on a pond: individual drops constantly and rapidly changing the rippling patterns with each small splash. There is also the potential to be startled by a surprise duck. Translating that into more musical terms, the drops are the ringing open strings, the rippling pond is a mass of constantly evolving harmonies and dynamics, and the surprise duck is the snarling, snapping, and scrabbling flurries of notes that Orcutt sometimes unleashes. Notably, that metaphorical pond scene also includes a dangerously intense wave machine in the form of Corsano's whirlwind free-form drumming.

Given their collaborative history, it is hardly surprising that the duo's interplay feels so natural at this stage, yet the best moments of the album feel so uncannily instinctive and spontaneous that the wash of sound almost seems like a churning, heaving living organism. Remarkably, the duo recorded their parts separately from different coasts, which makes the “live” intensity and fluid interplay feel almost miraculous, but also allowed Orcutt more space for nuance than usual (as well as the ability to overdub a second guitar track). If I was forced to choose a favorite piece, I would probably pick one of the more melodic ones like the wistful "Some Tennessee Jar" or clattering, tumbling pathos of "Man Carrying Thing," but the whole damn album feels akin to witnessing a pair of magicians flawlessly perform one dazzling trick after another (the trick in each case being "distilling primal/art-damaged blues into a pure, expressionist catharsis that transcends conventional scales, chords, melodies, rhythms, and genre tropes"). Every single one of these pieces feels like a vivid eruption of pure, direct emotion that leaves compelling music in its wake. This is a canonical Bill Orcutt album.

Samples can be found here.

Sunburned Hand of the Man, "Pick a Day to Die"

cover imageI never delved too deeply into the New Weird America scene during its heyday, so I have probably heard far fewer Sunburned Hand of the Man albums than most people who are constantly seeking out freaky underground sounds. Consequently, I have no idea if there is some CDR from like 2002 lurking among the free rock collective's previous 120+ releases that explores roughly the same stylistic terrain as Pick a Day to Die. I would be surprised if there was though, as this return (of sorts) feels unusually focused, tight, and muscular for the band. To my ears, that approach suits Sunburned Hand quite well, as the collective churn out some impressively killer psychedelia on this release (among other things). That said, they still remain every bit as unapologetically eclectic, perplexing, and occasionally self-sabotaging as ever, resembling a bunch of gleefully mischievous Western Massachusetts underground luminaries (with amazing record collections) spinning a wheel to determine whether they want to channel Captain Beefheart, classic krautrock, Dr. John, or some cool folk, prog, or psych obscurity with each fresh song. Despite that (or, more likely, because of it), this is an unusually fun, strong, and memorable release.

Three Lobed

It feels weird and wrong to describe a Sunburned Hand song as a "single," but the propulsively groovy and synth-driven psych-rock vamp "Flex" surfaced in advance of the album and the band made a hypnotically bizarre video for it, so I guess it counts as one. Whether or not it is the best song here is debatable, but I doubt anyone would feel slighted if the entire album was merely the burbling, futuristic synth pulse and sinuous bass line of "Flex" extended for forty minutes. Naturally, there is absolutely nothing else like "Flex" amidst the other six songs, as they do not call it "free rock" for nothing. Also, some of the recordings that appear date back as far as 2007. In any case, nearly all facets of the chameleonic collective’s aesthetic yield compelling results. For example, the title piece sounds like Neu! reinventing themselves as a BDSM-themed rockabilly band, while "Initials" resembles a bunch of eclectic novelty records played at the wrong speeds over a killer space rock concert. The opening "Dropped A Rock," on the other hand, is a rippling and tender acoustic guitar piece that gradually smears into something resembling a hallucinatory interplanetary zoo. Elsewhere, "Prix Fixe" initially sounds like John Carpenter collaborating with early '80s Venom, then blossoms into a warmly beautiful psych-rock outro that I did not expect at all. Such is the singular genius of Sunburned Hand: I never know whether to expect a drunken barbeque, some intricate folk music, a channeling of classic Pink Floyd, a garage band trying to make a spy movie soundtrack, or some kind of arty contrarianism. All of that (and more!) can be readily found on Pick a Day to Die, but it all works beautifully because the playfully ridiculous, the indulgent, and the tenderly sublime are ultimately swirled together into such tightly edited, song-sized doses.

Samples can be found here.

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.

Steve Kilbey and Martin Kennedy, "Jupiter 13"

Jupiter 13 cover imageAll India Radio's Martin Kennedy and The Church's Steve Kilbey are making beautiful magic again, this time on their sixth full length in just slightly over a decade. Kennedy works solo, weaving his audial spells before Kilbey hears any of the tracks. The fact that maestro Kilbey then extemporizes his lyrical magic in a matter of mere days makes their mixology more astounding. Their current incantation is given away by the cover, showing space oddity Kilbey untethered from his life-sustaining suit, landed on a barren planet with helmet cast aside. Kennedy's musical inspirations look to space, grounded by Kilbey's uniquely soulful and world-weary vocals. Voyaging through Kilbey's lyrical landscape provides openings to new dimensions, navigating through the shadows of 2020, giving even greater poignancy to Kennedy's musical spellcraft.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.