Biosphere, "Angel's Flight"

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

AD 93

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

Samples can be found here.

Jacober, "Sketch for Winter X: Immortal Word"

cover image

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

Geographic North

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

Samples can be found here.

Mouse on Mars, "AAI"

cover image

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.

Roy Montgomery, "Island of Lost Souls"

cover image

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

Grapefruit

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

Samples can be found here.

Massimo Ricci, "Tracey Feels Worse"

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

Elevator Bath

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

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

Samples can be found here.

Rrill Bell, "Ballad of the External Life"

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

Elevator Bath

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

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

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

Samples can be found here.

Chuck Johnson, "The Cinder Grove"

cover image

I can think of few other artists in the midst of a hot streak quite as wonderful as the one Chuck Johnson is currently enjoying, as nearly everything he has released since 2017’s Balsams has been downright revelatory. In keeping with that theme, his return to solo work is yet another sublime stunner and a strong contender for his finest album to date.  While Johnson wisely does not depart much from his winning Balsams aesthetic, he does subtly expand his palette with some help from Sarah Davachi, a small string ensemble, and an endearingly exacting approach to reverb.  For the most part, however, everything beyond his swooningly gorgeous pedal steel playing is merely icing on an already perfect cake: virtually no one crafts warm, achingly beautiful soundscapes better than Chuck Johnson and he seems to only get better at it with each new release.

VDSQ

The album opens with an absolute masterpiece in the form of "Raz-de-Marée," which poignantly combines a lovely descending organ theme with a lazily shimmering haze of pedal steel heaven. Everything about it is damn near perfect, from the melodies to the textures right down to the bittersweetly beautiful mood. It is frankly an impossible act to follow, which makes the more vaporous "Serotiny" pale a bit by comparison, though its floating dreamscape is still a very pleasant place to linger. The strongest pieces tend to be the ones that anchor the sliding, liquid bliss of the pedal steel with something more solid though, as the instrument can start to feel a bit weightless on its own. On "Constellation," that solidity is initially provided by a repeating pattern of warm bass tones, but the structure eventually gets fleshed out further by some reverberant piano chords courtesy of Davachi. The following "Red Branch Bell" is the album's most adventurous and unexpected delight, as Johnson fades into the background while a churning string theme steadily builds in visceral intensity, then reappears to finish the piece with a languorously psychedelic coda. The closing "The Laurel" feels similarly epic, marrying an elegiac string motif with some achingly beautiful pedal steel that evokes vivid steaks of color in a slow-motion sunset—a fittingly great end to a near-perfect album. Johnson hits the mark on nearly every possible detail with The Cinder Grove, but my favorite facet (aside from the songs themselves) is just how incredibly wonderful it all sounds, especially the way the sharper textures of the strings tear through the soft-focus swirl of dreamily sliding melodies. This album is going to be in heavy rotation here for a long time.

Samples can be found here.

Andrew Chalk, "Incidental Music"

cover image

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

Faraway Press

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

Samples can be found here.

Abul Mogard, "In Immobile Air"

cover image

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

Ecstatic

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

Samples can be found here.

Harness, "Encased in Marble/Wrapped in Roots"

cover image This latest CD from the duo of Luke Tandy and Shane Church has all the hallmarks of an old school harsh noise record. With an instrument list consisting only of tapes and pedals, and right up front the obvious use of clattering junk and buzzing instrument cables, I thought it was going to be a mid 90s throwback blowout of distortion. Encased in Marble/Wrapped in Roots is, however, more of an understated work. That rough-hewn production and use of overdriven sound is certainly there, but Tandy and Church deliberate in their use of dynamics and space, giving a perfect sense of tension throughout.

Throne Heap

On "Mind as Stone and Water," the duo use an almost musical phrase looped throughout, covered with layers of lo-fi analog crunch. "Message Infinite" may not have as much in the way of pseudo-melody, but does approximate rhythm via stabbing bursts of static. With a hollow metal hum giving a slightly dark ambient feel to the piece, it is understated and a bit too brief overall. There is also a rhythmic clicking throughout the closing "Clenching Sand," presented alongside windstorm noises and low end rumble. The piece is structurally tight overall, with some looseness towards its conclusion in the form of bent tape passages.

Harness never fully abandon their harsher roots, however. "Replaced Broken Relic" is constructed on a bed of pummeling, overdriven layers with clattering spring reverb tank abuse and wobbling, unstable sounds on top. There is a bit of rhythm via loops, but overall it is a lot of crunching texture punctuated with just the right amount of breathing room. With an opening that sounds almost like a distant chainsaw, "Traveling Along the Knife's Edge" ends up resembling an entire orchestra of power tools. Easily the harshest work here, it eventually relents to a space of heavy sub bass and reverberated clattering, resulting in a conclusion that less harsh, but certainly more unsettling.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Encased in Marble is how Tandy and Church use deliberately lo-fi sounds and production, but in such a way that it adds a massive sense of textural depth and complexity to the sound. The distortion and maximized, but clipped volumes give a brilliant added variety to the sound that, even at its harshest moments, seems carefully nuanced. That depth, and an overall structural dynamic of tension and release, results in an amazingly gripping album that hits all of the notes a good noise album should.

Samples can be found here.

Alina Kalancea, "Impedance"

cover image

This Romanian composer’s second album is quite a wonderful surprise, easily ranking among Important's finest non-reissue releases in recent memory. Far less surprising is the fact that Impedance is Buchla-driven (given the label’s well-documented fondness for modular synthesizers), but this is happily one of those times in which the tools are secondary to the focused and compelling vision that they help bring to life. While the album's best moments tend to be those that resemble a throbbing and seething strain of minimalist, industrial-inspired "noise" akin to recent Puce Mary work, Impedance as a whole is an ambitiously shapeshifting, deep, and legitimately heavy listening experience that grows more expansive and varied as it unfolds.

Important

The opening "Introspection" very effectively foreshadows what is to come, as it slowly builds from beeps and a bass throb into a seismic slab of deconstructed techno that burrows through a barely-there haze of twinkling, smearing, and looping psychedelia. The more haunted-sounding elements evoke the feeling of descending into a nightmare, but it is at least a propulsive and darkly libidinal one (those bass pulses just do not stop). The piece then arguably segues into a more concise, focused, and hallucinatory version of itself with "Walking Through Storm" (mechanized dread with a side helping of "weirdly viscous-sounding"). Delineations between pieces quickly cease to matter though, as the album feels like an extended DJ mix of heavy bass, subterranean woodpeckers, futuristic Kubrickian menace, and plenty of subtle mindfuckery (smearing tones, field recordings, etc.). And it seems to only get better as it goes on, culminating in the stellar one-two punch of "Horizons (After a Silent Walk)" and "Concrete Floor." In fact, "Horizons" damn near steals the show when its seesawing bass thrum blossoms into a darkly surreal finale of echoing voices, densely buzzing oscillations, sinister animal howls, and slow, insistent beeps. While a few pieces feel a bit long (I wish this was not a double vinyl release), Kalancea clearly had more than one LP worth of killer material and it would have been a shame to pare it down to only that (especially since it all flows together so well in its current format). In any case, this album is an absolute monster, as Kalancea repeatedly strikes the perfect balance between raw physicality, simmering violence, and exacting execution (like an Eliane Radigue album that is about to smash a bottle over my head).

Samples can be found here.

Terry Gross, "Soft Opening"

Cover of Terry Gross - Soft OpeningThe name Terry Gross brings to mind the NPR host. This Terry Gross is comprised of music industry veterans guitarist Phil Manley (Trans Am, the Fucking Champs, Life Coach), bassist Donny Newenhouse (Film School, Hot Fog, Buffalo Tooth), and drummer Phil Becker (Pins of Light, ex-Triclops! and Lower Forty-Eight). Where the radio host provides content with an impossibly calm demeanor, the musical trio present three heavy and kinetic tracks that serve up pulsating motorik rhythms, heavy sludge, driving bass, and intense guitars served up at mesmerizing cosmic volumes — all the while, pulling us listeners in with a constant array of melodic hooks.

Thrill Jockey

Soft Opening it is most definitely not, as the appropriately named “Space Voyage Mission” comes blasting out of the gate with pulsating, interstellar fuzzadelic intensity, diving into an onslaught of guitars before floating away into motorik beauty of shimmering guitars. Nearly 20 minutes of booming rhythms and guitar-driven melodic madness does not feel too long for this massive slab of heavy beauty. Manley’s work with Trans Am can be sensed, bringing a particular lightness and groove to the kraut-driven tracks, yet perfectly capable of metallic sludge. “Worm Gear” kicks off with persistent kraut beats and cascading, guitar distortion that finds all three musicians merging into a slathering of Sabbath-worthy heaviness.

Much of the album is instrumental, letting the instruments work their magic, but it is not devoid of vocals. “Specificity (Or What Have You” finds the trio providing a united chorus over an incredibly catchy rhythm and a memorable bass line that ends on an explosion of fuzzed-out rock and roll. This is a perfect candidate for radio play, but as amazing as that track is, it doesn’t begin to serve as the pinnacle of the album, the other tracks masterworks of their own.

Tight play between guitar, bass, and drums reveals obvious chemistry between the three, honed over time with practice and experimentation. Just how much practice was required to achieve this near-seamless integration between genres remains unknown; there’s always a risk of such projects becoming one-offs. I’ll go on a limb and suggest there’s more to look forward to from this talented trio, each a component of the whole.

Sound samples available here.

Carmen Villain, "Sketch for Winter IX: Perlita"

cover image

This latest installment of Geographic North's frequently wonderful Sketches for Winter series is a new album from Oslo's restlessly evolving Carmen Villain and it is a fitfully (and strikingly) brilliant one. While the general aesthetic of Perlita is roughly akin to the more psych-minded side of private press new age, it is inventively mingled with an evocative and enigmatic array of field recordings, submerged beats, and hallucinatory flourishes to achieve something truly vivid, distinctive, and absorbing. In fact, the closing "Agua Azul" completely blindsided me, approximating an unexpectedly sensual, dubwise, and almost tropical-sounding update of Apollo-era Brian Eno.

Geographic North

This album joins the pantheon of releases that I would have described as "pretty good, I guess" before I threw on some headphones and belatedly experienced its full depth and clarity. In my defense, the first two pieces could easily be mistaken for deconstructed Enya on their face, but there are hints of greater emotional depth and mystery in even Perlita's most overtly tranquil pieces. In the opening "Everything Without Shadow," that side quietly manifests in drones that lazily hiss, fray, and bleed as a corroded vocal sample repeats below the surface. In the following "Two Halves Touching," however, the full extent of Villain's vision starts to become apparent, as a lurching "outsider dub" groove emerges from a miasma of deep bass, rhythmically sloshing waves, and a repeating, hallucinatory vocal loop. From that point onward, the album only descends into increasingly poignant and pleasantly phantasmagoric territory. Listening to Perlita feels like entering a blissful and dreamlike floating world where someone else's flickering, non-linear childhood memories are being projected. That experience is further enhanced by the intrusion of enigmatically meaningful outside sounds that drift in and lazily reverberate around until they fade away. Successfully casting and sustaining such a reality-dissolving spell is achievement enough, yet Perlita culminates in a final piece ("Agua Azul") that takes the album to a transcendent new level with a smoky flute melody and a slow, sensual groove…then tops it all off with a rain of slowly falling synth tones that feels like a sky full of slow-motion fireworks. Is that what heaven is like? I sure hope so. While it is currently only January, I am certain "Agua Azul" will absolutely be one of the most gorgeous pieces that anyone releases this year, as envisioning what could surpass it strains the limits of my imagination.

Samples can be found here.

Kara-Lis Coverdale, "A 480"

cover image

Newly reissued on vinyl on her own Gate imprint, A 480 was Coverdale's formal debut (originally issued on Constellation Tatsu back in 2014). When I first heard it a few years back, I believed it was not nearly as strong as her breakthrough 2017 EP Grafts, but I have since revised and reversed that opinion as A 480 has its own (very different) flashes of brilliance—they just require a bit more focused listening to reveal themselves. This is both a unique album within Coverdale's discography and a unique album in general, approximating a slow-burning strain of loop-driven kosmische-style psychedelia assembled from ingeniously manipulated vocal loops.

Constellation Tatsu/Gate

The album's brief opener amusingly feels like a targeted assault on my personal sensibility, but the cheerily artificial textures and manic repetition of "A 480 are admittedly quite an effective illustration of the album's overarching vision. In essence, A 480 was crafted entirely from vocal pieces that have been "unpersonally sourced, downloaded, then disembodied, disfigured, and displaced over forty times." At various points throughout the album, those vocal loops approximate a human choir, but they far more often sound like a synth album from the '70s that has been chopped up by an Oval-esque mad genius. While both the album's conceptual basis and its source material are certainly intriguing, what truly matters is that the three pieces at the heart of the album all belong in the headphone album hall of fame (sadly still imaginary at this point). That incredible hot streak begins with the half-heavenly/half-futuristic epic "A 479," which sounds like it could have been a lost Tangerine Dream or Popul Vuh soundtrack for Solaris. That feat is then followed by the darkly hallucinatory "A 478" and the alternately playful and poignant otherworldliness of "A 477." Each piece offers its own bit of fiendishly clever compositional sleight of hand, but the thread uniting them all is Coverdale's virtuosic skill at maintaining a consistent sense of forward motion and structure in an endlessly evolving and oft-gorgeous sea of phase-shifting loops. In the passages where everything clicks fully into place, A 480 feels like an almost supernaturally rich and immersive tour de force of subtle rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic mastery. I cannot believe that this was a debut album.

Samples can be found here.

Meitei, "Kof≈´"

cover image

Over the last few years, Daisuke Fujita's Meitei project has carved out an intriguing and hard-to-describe niche that brings together several seemingly disparate threads I never expected to see intertwined. The vision at the heart of the project is an attempt to recreate what Fujita calls the Lost Japanese Mood, which makes his work a conceptual kindred spirit to The Caretaker. Meitei can be considerably more eclectic and inventive than that comparison would suggest, however, as there is a subtle sense of playfulness that approximates chopped, screwed, and deconstructed exotica even when the ostensible subject matter is something creepy like Japanese ghost stories.

KITCHEN

Before now, Meitei's work has primarily lingered in fairly "ambient" territory, crafting surreal soundscapes of hazy, crackling loops and enigmatic snatches of dialogue. This latest release, on the other hand, captures Meitei in unexpectedly rhythmic and melodic form and marks a truly revelatory leap forward. It is tempting to describe Kofu as Meitei’s “party album,” as the best moments call to mind the delirious fun of Carl Stone’s recent pop music collages, but there are a lot of haunted, phantasmagoric, and mysterious interludes that would make it one very unsettling party. Both sides of Meitei’s vision have their share of highlights though, as the warbling, hiss-soaked beauty of "Manyo" is every bit as compelling as the propulsive, rapturous left-field beat tape fare of the two-part "Oiran." A handful of pieces feel a bit too incidental to leave a deep impression of their own, but I certainly have no qualms with the eerie, dreamlike spell that they help conjure. If Kofu offered only that, it would still be an appealingly immersive and unusual album, but the most inspired pieces elevate it into something truly sublime and memorable.

Samples can be found here.

William Basinski, "Lamentations"

cover image

I suppose I am predisposed to enjoy any major new statement from William Basinski, given my undying love of both hypnotic repetition and tape loops, but I was still a bit blindsided by the dazzling heights he sometimes reaches with this latest opus. That said, the heart of Basinski's vision remains mostly unchanged, as Lamentations is yet another album lovingly assembled from his seemingly bottomless archive of distressed tapes ("over forty years of mournful sighs meticulously crafted into songs"). The mood and structure this time around are fairly far from Basinski's usual comfort zone, however, as these twelve eerie miniatures feel like a hallucinatory stroll through a haunted and rotting opera house.

Temporary Residence

Such an aesthetic is generally just fine by me (though not my favorite of Basinski's album-length visions), yet Lamentations feels legitimately brilliant when it transcends mere mystery- and sadness-soaked ambiance, as it does on the swooningly operatic centerpiece "Please, This Shit Has Got To Stop." With that piece, Basinski attains a level of heavenly melodicism and emotional intensity that I have not encountered in any of his previous work. The rest of the album, on the other hand, generally feels like an atypically murky, brooding, and subtly nightmarish twist on his usual loops of ravaged tape. However, there are also a few second-tier highlights like the swooningly angelic "All These Too, I, I Love" or "O, My Daughter, O, My Sorrow," which approximates the strains of a great This Mortal Coil song drifting through a supernatural fog. As such, Lamentations lies somewhere between a somewhat uneven album and a significant creative breakthrough. For now, Basinski has not fully mastered how to craft short loop-driven compositions as consistently mesmerizing as his classic longform work, but I suspect he will get there soon: adding chopped classical vocalists to his arsenal was definitely a welcome and wonderful flash of inspiration. More importantly, "Please, This Shit Has Got To Stop" may very well be the finest piece that he has ever released. While I suspect I could happily listen to variations of El Camino Real or 92982 forever, I am absolutely delighted that there are still some fresh ideas lurking in all those decaying tapes.

Samples can be found here.

Mouchoir Étanche, "Une Fille Pétrifiée"

cover image

The main reason that I follow Marc Richter's career is simply that he keeps releasing great albums, but he deserves a lot of credit for being one of the most restlessly creative and consistently adventurous artists in the electronic music underground. In keeping with that theme, this latest Black to Comm side project is arguably another experimental playground akin to Jemh Circs, yet Mouchoir Étanche's first full-length unveils a surprisingly focused vision best described as "somewhere between a chopped & screwed opera and a fever dream about an imaginary Dario Argento film set in a cathedral."

Cellule 75

The delirious intensity of the opening "Enter Mirror Hotel" is probably the perfect distillation of this latest direction, but it has some tough competition from a few other pieces deeper in the album, such as "Sécheresse," which brings together an achingly gorgeous descending organ theme with an evocative host of found sounds (children playing, ringing metal chimes) that overtake the original motif and transform into a smeared nightmare. "Le rêveur illimité" is yet another favorite, as overlapping layers of a woman speaking in French tumble over each other while eerie drones mass and slowly undulate beneath. It sounds a hell of lot like what would happen if Félicia Atkinson decided to create her own alternate soundtrack to Suspiria (which I sincerely hope she someday does). Admittedly, some of Une fille pétrifiée's other pieces are occasionally too indulgent for my taste, but Richter is generally in fine form, as he sustains a unbroken mood of haunted and bleary hypnagogic ambiance while still playfully stretching and twisting samples far beyond recognizability. In theory, Richter's finest work will always wind up on his more formal and "composed" Black to Comm albums, but he clearly has too many excellent ideas for just one outlet and some of those ideas work quite beautifully in this more spontaneous and collage-inspired incarnation.

Samples can be found here.

break_fold

cover image With three albums in as break_fold, Tim Hann’s approach to complex, yet catchy electronic music has become even more diversified. Sure, the dense production and processing alongside heavy programmed rhythms can be found throughout these eight compositions, but there seems to be an expansion to the ambient elements of his work, balancing the more aggressive and commanding moments adeptly with space and mood.

Continue reading

Dennis Young, "Bella"

cover image Compared to the funk tinged sound of the seminal Liquid Liquid, founding member Dennis Young’s solo trajectory has been notably different in sound, and extremely difficult to compartmentalize. While some of his previous works have continued the use of rhythm and percussion, Bella is a substantially different beast from start to finish. There are no beats or loops or even electronic instrumentation here, it is entirely a work of solo guitar excursions that feature enough pedal usage to give it variety, but never losing focus on the instrument at hand.

Continue reading

Simon Scott, "Apart"

Cover of Simon Scott - ApartCOVID-19 has torn people apart and brutally impacted lives. Having lost his father to the disease in April, Apart is Scott’s musical release of his grief entwined with the natural tumult of a much-loved nature preserve spent traversing in youth with his father. These protected wetlands house species that are slowly disappearing, comprising a distinct sonic environment that changes with its inhabitants’ demise. By capturing his current environment as part of his grieving process, Scott harnessed his awareness of temporality in all things as a musical expression to allow him to heal. Scott captures ten representations of this ephemeral world through field recordings centered around a piano, with electronic treatment to achieve an expressive and emotional musical ride.

Continue reading