loscil // lawrence english, "Colours Of Air"

Colours Of AirThis stellar collaboration springs from a conversation that Scott Morgan and Lawrence English once had about especially "rich sources" for electronic music composition. Unsurprisingly, that discussion led to the inspiration behind much of English's recent solo work: a 19th century pipe organ housed at the Old Museum in his native Brisbane. Colours Of Air is often quite different from English's drone-inspired solo fare, however, as he and Morgan sifted "the swells and drones of the organ for every shivering shade of radiance" and found "flickering infinities in ancient configurations of wind, brass, stone, and dust." In less poetic terms, that means that these eight color-themed pieces "reduce and expand" English's pipe organ recordings into a hallucinatory fantasia enhanced by Morgan's talents for elegantly textured sound design and submerged, slow-motion dub techno pulses. Obviously, promising-sounding collaborations between electronic music luminaries are a dime a dozen, but this is one of the rare ones that feels like an inspired departure from expected terrain and something greater than the sum of its parts. While I suspect my perception is at least partially colored by the album description and the timeless majesty and religious nature of old pipe organs, the best moments of this album beautifully evoke what I would imagine light filtering through stained glass would sound like if I had been blessed with synesthesia.

kranky

The opening "Cyan" is the album's masterpiece, as it slowly builds from the "suspended animation" feel of a single looping organ chord into a slow-motion loscil-style dub techno piece with a gorgeously warm, alive, and shimmering ball of light at its heart. While the remaining pieces admittedly feel a bit less supernatural and transcendent than that initial statement, "Cyan" is nevertheless an ideal illustration of the "rich source" notion that guides the album: the piece is basically just a few chords and a simple bass pattern, but Morgan and English do one hell of a job at luxuriating in the glimmering details of those chords. That is not the duo's only trick, however, as the rest of the album features a number of compelling variations on their sacred-sounding minimalist deconstructions. For example, "Aqua" gradually evolves from a seesawing bed of melancholy yet dreamily aquatic-sounding chords into a smeared, Noveller-esque melody that evokes the haze of a comet slowly streaking through the cold night sky over a mountain range.

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2277 Hits

Duane Pitre, "Varolii Patterns"

Varolii PatternsThis latest cassette/digital release from composer/Just Intonation enthusiast Duane Pitre has its origins in a piece written for the brass ensemble Zinc & Copper a few years back (“Pons”), as he stumbled upon an intriguing process while “experimenting with microtonal electronics.” While those experiments did not ultimately make it into the final piece, they later surfaced as one element within 2021’s Omniscient Voices. That was just a fraction of the material recorded using that process, however, as Pitre had repeated it several dozen times and found himself with a considerable backlog of compelling material that was not an ideal fit for Omniscient Voices. Naturally, that led to the release of Varolii Patterns, which collects six of those process experiments that Pitre deemed strong enough to stand on their own both individually and as an album-length statement. The result is a unique and hypnotic suite of Just Intonation synth pieces that make magic from shifting patterns that “slip in and out of rhythmic focus.”

Important

As every artist knows, finding fresh ways to escape familiar patterns is a constant struggle and there have been countless ingenious strategies devised to subvert creative stagnation since John Cage famously blew everyone’s minds in the 1950s by embracing the I Ching as his guiding force. I have no idea what Pitre’s own process entailed beyond using an eight-voice synth tuned to Just Intonation, but the end product certainly feels more like a living organic entity than a series of compositions. Naturally, the tuning alone ensures that Varolii Patterns is brimming with unfamiliar and otherworldly harmonies, but the rhythm of the shifting patterns is unusual and unfamiliar as well, approximating the shifting, erratic rhythm of ocean waves rather than the rigid time signature of composed music. To my ears, the haunting “Varolii Pattern 10-1” is the most mesmerizing of the album’s variations on a theme, as a steady pulse smears into an undulating and hallucinatory haze of strange dissonances and oscillations. Moreover, it rarely sounds like Pitre is ever doing something as mundane as simply playing notes and chords–it instead feels like an interwoven tapestry of moaning, whimpering, dissolving, and smearing sounds resembling the ambient sounds of an extradimensional aviary where the normal physics of sound no longer apply.

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1913 Hits

Celer, "Selected Self-releases 2006-2007"

Selected Self-releases 2006-2007Given Celer’s incredibly voluminous discography, releasing any kind of comprehensive retrospective would be one hell of a quixotic and cost-prohibitive endeavor, but this collection does the next best thing. Weighing in at 14 discs spanning 10 albums, this boxed set celebrates an especially significant and prolific era in the project’s evolution: the self-released albums that Will Long and the late Danielle Baquet-Long (Chubby Wolf) recorded as a duo before the latter’s passing in 2009. Not all of them, mind you, but this collection seems to at least cover the ones that matter most. Given that Celer is based in Japan and Bandcamp was still in its formative stages back then, I suspect very few people were hip enough to pounce on the duo’s early CD-Rs at the time of their original release, but the world definitely began to take notice soon after, as I remember Celer albums being a very hot commodity sometime around 2008/2009 when they started getting widely re-released. Unsurprisingly, there are some remastered fan favorites from that era included here, such as Continents and Cantus Libres, but I have grown so accustomed to Long’s current elegantly minimalist dream-drone aesthetic that I was legitimately surprised by the wider palette of moods and atmospheres explored at the project’s inception. Naturally, the gorgeously warm ambient dreamscapes that Celer has long been synonymous with are still the main draw here, but they are not the only draw, as I found it very illuminating to revisit the less-remembered noirish and sci-fi-inspired sides of the duo’s exploratory beginnings.

Two Acorns

This collection is only being released as a limited edition physical boxed set, which makes a lot of sense for a couple of big reasons. The mundane one is that all of these albums are already readily available in remastered form, so this retrospective is very much for the project’s more devoted fans. The more poetic and heartfelt reason is that this boxed set is essentially a memorial to the Dani era and music was merely one facet of the duo’s artistic vision. Obviously, the music is the biggest and most relevant reason for Celer’s continued appeal, but the project has always been something of a multimedia love story/travel diary as well, as the accompanying images and texts often provided important context, clues, and deeper shades of meaning. In fact, I sincerely doubt that Celer would have made such a deep impression if Will and Dani had not found a way to make ambient/drone music feel like something personal and intimate (a feat very few others have achieved). Consequently, making this a collection a physical object with all of Dani’s poems and photos intact seems like the only proper way to celebrate the duo’s shared story. That said, nearly all of the texts, images, and song titles do tend to be teasingly enigmatic. In fact, they almost act like an inversion of the film/film score relationship, as they color my perception of the music without providing much actual information beyond a sense of place and an impressionist glimpse of how Will and Dani were feeling about both life and each other at the time. While I would probably love a Will Long memoir or travel diary, the decision to portray that period instead as an elusive, elliptical, and mysterious collection of dreamlike sounds, images, and words is admittedly the more alluring and Celer-esque path to take. Words and unambiguous meanings are cool and all, but struggling to express the ineffable is a beautiful and noble way to spend an artistic career.

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2172 Hits

Roméo Poirier, "Living Room"

Living RoomThis third album from former lifeguard/Brussels-based electronic composer Poirier may very well be the most beautiful distillation of his gently psychotropic strain of loop-driven, summery, surf-side electronica to date. The same could have been said of 2020's Hotel Nota, of course, but Poirier's work genuinely seems to become more fascinating with each fresh album (and each new detail that I read about his inspirations). Unsurprisingly, Living Room does not dramatically depart from the "Jan Jelinek inspecting a coral reef" aesthetic first debuted on 2016's Plage Arri​è​re, but it feels like Poirier's sundappled, beach-friendly vision of languorously flickering loops is increasingly headed deeper into more exotica-inspired territory, which is almost always a good move in my book. Aside from that continuing stylistic evolution, Living Room is also significant for being the first Poirier album to feature another one of his long-standing fascinations: the innate musicality of the human voice (particularly when de-coupled from language and meaning). Unsurprisingly, Poirier incorporates that new feature in a characteristically compelling and poignant way, as the album is peppered with chopped, screwed, and decontextualized fragments from his musician father's sample collection. The result is not quite "pop," yet it gets surprisingly close to it at times and those ephemeral glimpses of human warmth suit Poirier's swaying and sublime tropical dream beautifully.

Faitiche

The opening "Statuario" is a reasonably representative introduction to the album's multifarious delights, though its lazily sensuous bass pulse creeps more into a loscil-esque strain of aquatic-sounding dub techno than most of the other pieces. Aside from that, however, "Statuario" is a moonlit fantasia of chirping psychotropic frogs, submerged and enigmatic orchestral fragments, blurred and hissing textures, and sophisticated harmonies. That latter bit is a surprisingly crucial part of the album, as Poirier's chord progressions and melodies rarely feel conventional–there are almost always passing shadows of dissonance and hints of uneasy harmonies gnawing at the edges of Poirier's Endless Summer-esque bliss. That element makes Living Room a more complex and mysterious experience than I expected, but Poirier displays an impressive lightness of touch with his more jazz-inspired tendencies. I am tempted to describe the baseline aesthetic of Living Room as "bathtub-recorded Endless Summer" meets "loscil doing a DJ set at a tiki bar," which admittedly sounds very appealing, but there are too many interesting twists throughout the album for that glib assessment to feel right. There are obviously other artists who have made killer recordings in this vein before Poirier, but that does not prevent Living Room from rivaling those earlier classics and Poirier brings an especially fresh and innovative aesthetic to the table.

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2175 Hits

Kali Malone, "Does Spring Hide Its Joy"

Does Spring Hide Its JoyThis latest release from this eternally innovative Stockholm-based composer is a durational tour de force that first began to take shape in empty Berlin concert halls in the early months of the pandemic. While I note with grim humor that the pandemic has itself become an endlessly shifting durational tour de force, Malone’s primary inspiration came instead from the ambient sense of unreality and distorted time that became pervasive as the fabric of normal daily life quickly unraveled. Like many other artists, Malone suddenly found herself with plenty of free time during that period of dread, isolation, and uncertainty, yet she was fortunate enough to get an invitation to record new music at Berlin’s Funkhaus and MONOM and even luckier still to have some extremely talented friends around with newly open schedules themselves. In short, the stars were in perfect alignment for one hell of an avant-drone dream team to form, as Malone (armed with 72 sine wave oscillators) tapped in like-minded souls Stephen O’Malley and Lucy Railton and the expected slow-burning dark sorcery ensued. Does Spring Hide Its Joy feels like an inspired twist on the longform drone majesty of artists like Éliane Radigue, as Malone employed just intonation to layer complex and otherworldly harmonies while her collaborators gamely helped ensure that the crescendos were visceral, gnarled and snarling enough to leave a deep impression.

Ideologic Organ

I have no doubt at all that Kali Malone brought her usual compositional rigor to this “study in harmonics and non-linear composition with a heightened focus on just intonation and beating interference patterns,” but Does Spring Hide Its Joy is more open-ended than her usual fare and leaves some welcome room for spontaneity and improvisation. Malone envisioned the piece as a puzzle of sorts that is assembled from five-minute blocks approximating a ladder that the musicians can choose to ascend or descend. The total number of blocks is fluid as well. For example, the album versions of the piece are an hour long while the live version can sometimes stretch to 90 minutes (note: the CD includes three performances of the piece while the LP includes only two). On top of that inventive structure, Malone deliberately wrote the piece with her collaborators’ styles and techniques in mind, envisioning the composition as a “framework for subjective interpretation and non-hierarchical movement.” In practical terms, that means that this piece is essentially a drone fantasia of bowed strings, smoldering distortion, and shifting harmonies that occasionally blossoms into something more fiery and transcendent. This being a Kali Malone composition, however, the organically evolving harmonies and oscillations are invariably absorbing, sophisticated, and distinctive regardless of the shape the piece takes. Notably, this album is also a bit more earthy, psychotropic and texturally varied than previous Malone opuses. It feels akin to a ghostly ballet or hallucinatory tendrils of smoke, as the sustained tones of the three players languorously intertwine and dissipate in a dreamlike haze of lingering feedback, overtones, and harmonics.

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2150 Hits

Voice Actor, "Sent From My Telephone"

Sent from my TelephoneThis mammoth and category-defying opus is easily the most wildly ambitious debut in recent memory (if not ever) and also happens to be one of my absolute favorite albums of 2022. It was one hell of an enigma at first as well, as Stroom quietly released the album back in October with absolutely no background information provided at all. Given the absolutely bananas volume of material (4 ½ hours) and the consistently high level of quality, I expected that it would be revealed to be some sort of decade-spanning art project involving an all-star cast of sound art luminaries, but I turned out to be spectacularly wrong about most of that. As it turns out, Voice Actor is instead a recent collaboration between Noa Kurzweil (Supertalented) and Levi Lanser (Ludittes), neither of whom I had previously encountered. However, I was at least partially right about the “art project” bit, as Sent From My Telephone collects three years of pieces that the duo originally intended as a radio play (and there are plenty of guest collaborators involved as well). The heart of the project, however, is Kurzweil’s seductive voice and her enigmatic diaristic monologues, which makes Félicia Atkinson a close kindred spirit, yet Lanser’s varied and phantasmagoric backdrops elevate the project into a mesmerizing durational mindfuck that effortlessly blurs the lines between spoken word, plunderphonics, ambient drone, outsider R&B, psychedelia, and Hype Williams’ hypnagogic sound collage side.

Stroom

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4494 Hits

Omertà, "Collection Particulière"

Collection ParticulièreThe French Standard In-Fi label has been one of my casual obsessions over the last few years and this second album from Omertà was my favorite release that surfaced from that milieu in 2022. From what I can tell as an outsider, there appears to be a loosely knit family of artists, psych enthusiasts, and avant-folk weirdos that convene periodically in varying configurations and occasionally an album will eventually surface documenting whatever magic transpired. Omertà unsurprisingly shares key members with other fitfully killer projects like France and Tanz Mein Herz, but this ensemble is an unique animal for a number of reasons. The most striking of those reasons are the breathy, sensuous vocals of Florence Giroud, who I believe is only active in this one project (as far as rock bands are concerned, at least). Giroud’s vocals aside, Omertà is also far more informed by eroticism, dream states, pop music, and chansons than the usual Standard In-Fi fare. To my ears, something compelling almost always seems to happen whenever Jeremie Sauvage & Mathieu Tilly assemble a group of like-minded artists, but Collection Particuli​è​re’s “Amour Fou” and “Moments in Love” are easily among the most beautifully distilled and haunting pieces that the label has released to date.

Standard In-Fi/Zamzam

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1874 Hits

Ak'chamel, "A Mournful Kingdom of Sand"

A Mournful Kingdom of SandThe latest from this shapeshifting and anonymous southwestern psych duo marks both their return to Akuphone and the first proper follow up to 2020's landmark The Totemist. To some degree, Ak'Chamel revisit roughly the same distinctive stylistic terrain as their last LP, approximating some kind of otherworldly and psychotropic collision of Sun City Girls and Sublime Frequencies. That said, Ak'Chamel do sound a hell of a lot more like a mariachi band soundtracking a jungle puppet nightmare this time around and that festively macabre vibe suits them quite nicely. The band might see things a little differently themselves, as this album is billed as "a perfect soundtrack for the desertification of our world," but experiencing this lysergic Cannibal Holocaust-esque mindfuck is probably just the thing for helping someone appreciate the wide-open spaces and solitude of desert life. In keeping with that desert theme, there are plenty of prominent Middle Eastern melodies and instruments on the album, but Ak'Chamel is singularly adept at dissolving regional boundaries (and possibly dimensional ones as well) in their quest for deep, exotic, and oft-uncategorizable psychedelia.

Akuphone

The album opens in deceptively straightforward fashion, as the first minute of "The Great Saharan-Chihuahuan Assimilation" starts with a minor key Spanish guitar and hand percussion vamp. However, subtle signs of unreality gradually creep in (such as the eerie whistle of throat-singing) before the piece blossoms into a spacious and melodic interlude of Tex-Mex-style surf twang. The following "Clean Coal is a Porous Condom" is similarly musical (if unfamiliar), as Ak'Chamel sound like some kind of outernational supergroup trading Latin, Indian, and surf-inspired licks over a pleasantly lurching "locked groove"-style vamp. Both pieces are quite likable, but the album does not start to wade into the psychedelic deep end until the third piece (the colorfully titled "Amazonian Tribes Mimicking The Sound of Chainsaws With Their Mouths"). Unusually, it is a jaunty yet bittersweet accordion-driven piece at its heart, but the central motif is beautifully enhanced by layers of vivid psychotropic sounds (flutes, voices, ululating, eerie whines, pipe melodies), resulting in something that feels like a festive collision between The Wicker Man and a haunted street fair at the edge of the Amazon.

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2147 Hits

Carla dal Forno, "Come Around"

Come AroundThis latest album from Carla dal Forno is her first since relocating to a small town (Castlemaine) in her native Australia and that dramatic change in environment has understandably made quite an impact on her overall vibe (as the album description puts it, she "returns self-assured and firmly settled within the dense eucalypt bushlands"). Fortunately, it seems like the transformation was an entirely favorable one, as literally everything that made dal Forno's previous work so wonderful and distinctive (ghostly pop hooks, stark bass-driven post-punk grooves, tight songcraft) remains intact. Now, however, her bloodless pop songs are charmingly enhanced with an understated tropical feel as well. For the most part, Come Around is still light years away from anything like a conventional beach party, but songs like the title piece at least come close to approximating a hypnagogic one. Aside from that, dal Forno also displays some impressive creative evolution on the production side, as these nine songs are a feast of subtle dubwise and psych-inspired touches in the periphery. That said, the primary appeal of Come Around is still the same as ever, as dal Forno remains nearly unerring in churning out songs so strong that they truly do not need anything more than her voice, a cool bass line, and a simple drum machine groove to leave a deep impression.

Kallista

The opening "Side By Side" is a damn-near perfect illustration of dal Forno's distinctive strain of indie pop magic, as crashing waves give way to a rubbery, laid-back bass line and a bittersweet, floating vocal melody. Lyrically, dal Forno still seems to be in the throes of heartache, but also comes across as very clear-eyed, confident, and sensuous. That turns out to be quite an effective combination, as these nine songs radiate deadpan cool and wry playfulness while still maintaining palpable human warmth and soulfulness at their core. That alone would be more than enough to carry this album (along with all the great hooks and bouncy slow-motion bass grooves), but dal Forno is also unusually inventive with beats, psychotropic production touches, and the assimilation of unexpected influences this time around. The album's stellar title piece is a prime example of the latter, as it feels like dal Forno seamlessly mashed together The Shangri-Las and Young Marble Giants to soundtrack a surf movie for ghosts.

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3298 Hits

Julia Sabra and Fadi Tabbal, "Snakeskin"

SnakeskinThis is the first full-length collaboration between Sabra and Tabbal, but it is apparently also the sixth collaborative release between Portland's Beacon Sound and Lebanon's Ruptured Records (which was co-founded by Tabbal). While Tabbal's solo work has been a very enjoyable recent discovery for me, this is my first encounter with Julia Sabra, who is normally one-third of the excellent Beirut-based dreampop trio Postcards. The pair do have a history of working together, as Tabbal has co-produced several Postcards releases, but their creative union only began to take shape in the aftermath of Beirut's massive 2020 port explosion (which destroyed Sabra's home, badly injured her partner/bandmate Pascal Semerdjian, and displaced a whopping 300,000 people). Unsurprisingly, one of the primary themes of Snakeskin is the precarious concept of "home" and the "the disappearance of life as we know it" in a volatile and oft-violent world. Those are admittedly more urgent themes in Tabbal and Sabra's neck of the woods than some others (the album was also inspired by the 2021 Palestinian and the invasion of Armenia), but loss and uncertainty eventually come for us all and they make a universally poignant emotional core for an album. And, of course, great art can sometimes emerge from deeply felt tragedies and Tabbal and Sabra are a match made in heaven for that challenge, as Julia's sensuous, floating vocals are the perfect complement to Tabbal's gnarled and heaving soundscapes.

Beacon Sound/Ruptured

The first piece that Sabra and Tabbal wrote together was "Roots," which surfaced last year on Ruptured's The Drone Sessions Vol. 1 compilation. That piece is reprised here as the sublimely beautiful closer, which was a great idea as it is one of the strongest songs on the album. However, it also illustrates how this collaboration has evolved and transformed, as "Roots" has the feel of a dreamy, bittersweet synth masterpiece nicely enhanced with hazy, sensuous vocals. Execution-wise, it is damn hard to top, but the duo's more recent work feels like a creative breakthrough that is greater than the sum of its parts. Put more simply, the pair previously merged their two styles in an expected way to great effect, but then they started organically blurring into a single shared style and the results turned into something more memorable and transcendent. The first major highlight is "All The Birds," which calls to mind a collision between the murky, submerged dub of loscil and what I imagine a bossa nova album by Julee Cruise might have sounded like. As cool as all that sounds, however, the reality is even better due to the muscular, snaking synth undercurrent and surprise snare-roll groove.

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2756 Hits

Angelo Harmsworth, "Singe"

SingeI was a bit later to the Angelo Harmsworth party than I would have liked, but the Berlin-based American composer has been fitfully releasing very distinctive blown-out "ambient" albums for about a decade now on an array of hip and discriminating small labels (Opal Tapes, Vaagner, enmossed, Psychic Liberation, etc.). Harmsworth's latest is his first for Students of Decay and marks a rare vinyl outing, as most of his previous physical releases have been limited to cassette. According to the label, Singe "may be the high water mark" of Harmsworth's career to date, which does feel like a completely plausible claim, but one that is very hard to confidently echo given how many killer Harmsworth pieces already exist. Even if Singe fails to conclusively eclipse all of Harmsworth's past triumphs, however, it does seem to be one of his most consistently strong releases and an ideal starting point for the curious. Notably, describing Harmsworth's vision as "ambient" or even "power ambient" feels cruelly reductionist, which is probably why he amusingly titled a 2020 release Fully Automated Luxury Ambient. That imaginary subgenre feels much closer to the mark, as the intensity and textural inventiveness that Angelo brings to these compositions shares far more common ground with artists like Tim Hecker or Fennesz (or collapsing power lines during a live volcano) than it does with anyone trafficking in droning, meditative loops.

Students of Decay

Those craving the aforementioned "collapsing power lines" vibe will have a mercifully short wait, as the opening "Igniting the Periphery" calls to mind buzzing high tension wires swayed by a deep seismic shudder as the surrounding buildings collapse in slow motion. There are some other elements as well, like fragments of twinkling piano and warm waves of frayed drones, but the viscerally heaving, buzzing, and gnarled wreckage at the heart of the piece is the showstopper—everything else is just there to color the mood. That balance holds true for the rest of the album as well, as the Singe experience feels akin to wandering through six cataclysmic yet weirdly beautiful natural disasters. For example, the crackling and hissing "Frothed" evokes slow jets of magma breaking through a buckling, blasted landscape, while "Drip Motion" has the feel of a storm slowly forming and then slowly dissipating. In short, Harmsworth harnesses the proverbial "force of nature" and wields it beautifully. That said, "Drip Motion" is an album highlight for more conventionally musical reasons as well, as it resembles the burning and heaving wreckage of a killer Porter Ricks cut fading in and out of focus. "A Twofold Excess" then ends the album's first half with yet another gem, as it feels like slowed-down footage of a tornado ripping apart a sawmill before dissolving into a sublime coda of sputtering static, tender piano, and warbling, whimpering streaks of psychedelia.

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2683 Hits

Lucrecia Dalt, "¡Ay!"

¡Ay!I was caught completely off guard by this latest opus from Dalt, as much of it sounds more like a three-way collaboration between Astrud Gilberto, Perez Prado, and Walter Wanderley than anything resembling the warped and stark electronic pop mutations that the Colombian composer has become synonymous with. After my initial disbelief subsided, however, I quickly decided that ¡Ay! may very well be the strongest album of Dalt's career to date. I suspect Dalt herself would probably agree, as it would be fair to say that her vision remains as compelling and innovative as ever, but she has merely kicked her self-imposed artistic restraints to the curb and embraced the warmer, more sensuous, and melodic sounds that she grew up around. Or, as the album description colorfully puts it, "through the spiraling tendencies of time and topography, Lucrecia has arrived where she began." In any case, the end result is a wonderfully sultry and evocative collection of seductive vocals and tropical rhythms beautifully enhanced with a host of psychotropic and industrial-damaged touches. And she somehow makes it sound like the most natural thing in the world. I definitely did not expect Dalt to secretly be a tropical pop genius at all, which makes her previous albums all the more fascinating now that I know that they were made while pointedly suppressing some of her greatest strengths.

RVNG Intl.

The opening "No Tiempo" initially evokes a "late-night cable" fever dream vibe in which a Bela Lugosi vampire movie blurs into an organ-happy televangelist, but it quickly transforms into swaying tropical bliss once the flutes and the lazily sultry groove make the scene. It has the feel of a Wanderley/Gilberto collaboration that has been punched up (and sexed up) for contemporary ears by an intrepid DJ (though I was still startled by the brass finale). It is a great piece, but it is immediately eclipsed by the following "El Galatzó," which masterfully combines hushed, confessional-sounding vocals with bass strums, trilling flutes, cooing backing vox, swelling strings, industrial scrapes, strangled feedback, and killer hand-percussion to cast a sustained spell of noir-ish, cinematic seduction. While "El Galatzó" would be my personal pick for the album's reigning highlight, the album is not hurting for other hot contenders for that honor. In "Contenida," for example, a hallucinatory fog and a jazzy double bass motif cohere into some kind of humid and dubby bossa nova mindfuck, which then beautifully erupts in a viscerally clattering metal percussion frenzy. If the whole album sustained a similarly perfect balance of ambitious dub/industrial production brilliance and sultry songcraft, I would have no hesitation at all about proclaiming ¡Ay! to be the album of the year.

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2642 Hits

Raphael Loher, "Keemuun"

KeemuunThis may be Swiss pianist/composer Raphael Loher's first solo album, but he has crossed my path before with his Baumschule trio (featuring Julian Sartorius and Manuel Troller). I am much less familiar with Loher's other trio (KALI), but the importance is that he has spent time improvising with inspiring musicians and has accumulated some very intriguing compositional ideas along the way. Interestingly, Keemuun is itself a bit of an improvisatory collaboration with inspiring (if unwitting) musicians, as Loher often played along with albums by other artists while experimenting with his rapid-fire piano patterns (Beatrice Dillon's rhythmically adventurous Workaround was a particularly central touchstone). In fact, just about everything about this album's evolution feels like fertile grist for a "galaxy brain" meme: a prepared piano album…limited to only ten notes spanning two octaves…improvised against cutting edge techno rhythms…but with all of those foundational rhythms totally excised from the final recording. Needless to say, all of those factors make for a very cool album concept in theory, but I am pleased to report that Loher's brilliant execution has made this a killer album in reality as well.

three:four records

The album consists of four numbered pieces, the first of which is considerably more subdued and minimal than the others (and shorter too). To my ears, the opener lies somewhere between bleary Morton Feldman-style dissonance and a dying, slightly out-of-tune music box performing its own elegy. It makes a perfectly fine (if understated) introduction, but I doubt I would be writing about Keemuun if it did not catch fire with the second piece and sustain that white-hot level of inspiration for the remainder of the album.

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2407 Hits

Cosey Fanni Tutti, "Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes"

Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary TapesWe seem to be in the midst of a long-overdue Delia Derbyshire renaissance at the moment due to the efforts of filmmaker Caroline Catz, Cosey Fanni Tutti, BBC Radiophonic Workshop's Mark Ayres, and others. Fittingly, this unusual and inspired album was commissioned back in 2018 as a score for Catz's similarly unconventional feature-length documentary. Sadly, it seems damn near impossible to see Catz's film at the moment (outside the UK, at least), but this soundtrack was released earlier this year to coincide with Cosey's own foray into telling Derbyshire's story (Re-Sisters: The Lives and Recordings of Delia Derbyshire, Margery Kempe and Cosey Fanni Tutti). The book, film, and album were all inspired by research into Derbyshire's archive and the voluminous recordings and writings that became available after the visionary electronic artist's passing in 2001. Apparently, copyright issues are preventing much of Derbyshire's unearthed work from seeing an official release (there are some great unofficial ones like Inventions For Radio/The Dreams out there), but this album is a compelling consolation prize: using Derbyshire's notes on her compositions and techniques, Cosey has achieved a sort of posthumous homage/collaboration in which her own aesthetic is co-mingled with Derbyshire's singular and groundbreaking techniques and sounds.

Conspiracy International

While Delia Derbyshire is far from a household name, it is something of a miracle that she ever managed to be revered at all, as her musical career only spanned 15 years and took place at a time when neither women nor electronic music were taken particularly seriously. On top of that, she also had an eccentric personality, a tendency towards alcoholism, and an employer (the BBC) who did not consider her work to be "music" enough for her to be credited as a composer. Fortunately, she was both motivated and fucking brilliant, so she still managed to make a profound impact on the evolution of music despite those incredibly long odds. And it did not hurt that she was responsible for the Doctor Who theme, which made a sizable cultural dent of its own. It is hard to say whether or not there would have been a Throbbing Gristle had Derbyshire and her Radiophonic Workshop colleagues not forced weird electronic music into the mainstream, but I do think Derbyshire might have traumatized the general populace to a Gristle-y degree in the early '60s if her gear had been more portable. Obviously, bloody-minded persistence in the face of disrespect and hostility is a relatable theme for Cosey as well, so it is hard to think of another artist who could be more naturally suited for a project such as this. In short, Catz needed appropriately "Derbyshire" music for her film, but there were very few usable Derbyshire recordings available. Introduce Cosey Fanni Tutti, who immersed herself in the archive's collection (267 reel-to-reel tapes found in cereal boxes, I believe) and Derbyshire's notes and set about casting a Delia-esque spell in her own way on her own gear (though Delia's actual voice does make some appearances). As an aside, this is not Cosey's first homage to Derbyshire, as Carter Tutti's "Coolicon" took its name and inspiration from a metal lampshade that Delia regularly used to make sounds.

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The Soft Pink Truth, "Is It Going To Get Any Deeper Than This?"

When I first heard the thumping house/disco EP Was It Ever Real?, I had a very hard time believing that it could possibly be a teaser for something more substantial, as much of that EP felt like top-tier Soft Pink Truth that leaves very little room for improvement. If those songs did not make the cut for the full-length, I felt the album surely had to be either absolutely brilliant or absolutely wrong-headed with no possible middle ground. As it turns out, I was at least right about the "little room for improvement" bit, as Is It Going To Get Any Deeper Than This? is not noticeably stronger than the preceding EP. Instead, it feels more like a lateral move, taking Drew Daniel's star-studded house party in a more kaleidoscopically arty and eccentric direction. Unsurprisingly, Deeper features roughly the same international cast of talented guests as the EP, but there are some noteworthy new additions as well, such as Nate Wooley, Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner, and Jaime Stewart (Xiu Xiu). The result is a bit less "all killer, no filler" this time around, but the trade-off is that Deeper is an appropriately deeper and more immersive plunge into Daniel's psyche, touching upon everything from Barry White to George Bataille to krautrock while still managing to be functional, forward-thinking, and archly fun dance music.

Thrill Jockey

The album kicks off in style with its first certified banger, "Deeper," which deceptively fades in with bleary drones before launching into a straight up classic disco groove with all the requisite hand claps and funky guitars. There is enough subtle dissonance to give it a somewhat delirious and unreal feeling right from the jump, but things do not get truly art-damaged until an unexpected church bell passage subsides. While the groove remains unswervingly propulsive for a bit longer, the insistent sexy thump is increasingly mingled with generous helpings of kitschy string stabs, tropical-sounding guitars, hazy flutes, and a host of other inspired psych touches before it all dissolves into smeary abstraction. I suppose the extended running time and ambient comedown preclude "Deeper" from being a hot single, but several of the pieces that immediately follow gamely rekindle the dancefloor fire. "La Joie Devant La Mort" is one of the album's more "perverse pop moments," as Jaime Stewart sings a George Bataille line about being in search of joy before death over an endearingly weird groove that calls to mind Coil's Love's Secret Domain album colliding with "A Fifth of Beethoven" and a chorus of tiny frogs. Wasner then takes the mic for the breezily sensuous "Wanna Know," which milks the album title's question for all its worth over a groove that could have been plucked from a Love Unlimited Orchestra album. The following "Trocadero" then pays homage to the "sleaze" disco subgenre synonymous with the titular SF club before "Mood Swing" ends the first half with a killer slow-building disco fusion of spiritual jazz, gurgling psychedelia, and Reich-ian piano patterns.

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Darkroom, "Fallout 4"

Fallout 4This is my first encounter with this UK-based improv unit, but Fallout 4 is the latest installment of a series of live documents that began all the way back in 2001. The band/collective itself has existed since 1996, though it seems like there's been at least one decade-long hiatus and the ensemble's members have all been active in other projects ranging from prog to ambient to art pop (while Andrew Ostler has been busy building modular synth hardware, among other things). Notably, Darkroom has recently reactivated and released some new material, but the performance documented here dates back to 2012 and the aesthetic lies somewhere between slow-burning Tarentel-style post-rock and Tangerine Dream-inspired space ambient (though Can was apparently a significant inspiration as well). On a related note, the album was mastered by Jono Podmore, who played a significant role in yet another fine vault project (Can's The Lost Tapes). I suspect Podmore had a challenging task on his hands, as the band tellingly state that he was chosen both for "his ability to control sonic forces" and "to make sure it was finally done." While this album and the Fallout series in general capture the band in a more noirish and shadowy mood than usual, I can see why they were so keen to get these recordings out into the world even a decade late, as much of this album is spacey, slow-motion psych magic.

Expert Sleepers

At the time of the recording, Darkroom were pared down to just the core duo of Michael Bearpark (guitars) and Andrew Ostler (synths) and two of the album's three pieces are taken from the final date of the pair's 2012 tour. Amusingly, Bearpark and Ostler note that some of that performance happened "even after most of the audience had left," as they found themselves in an unusually inspired mood that night and were in no hurry to stop playing. The album's third piece is culled from other recordings from the tour, though it is not specified whether "Tuesday's Ghost" is from a different gig or a rehearsal tape. Regardless of where and when it was recorded, "Tuesday's Ghost" is one hell of a killer piece. It slowly fades into existence with hazy synth drones and a languorous bass pulse, which is a very common theme for the album, but the beauty lies in how the duo organically transform that gently spacey ambient into a hypnotic, immersive, and shoegaze-damaged epic. Each of album's three pieces gets to that place eventually, but "Tuesday's Ghost" captures the pair in especially fine form, transcending their usual fare with inspired touches like a warbling, supernatural-sounding loop; a quavering feedback howl; and a simmering, charmingly Latin-influenced beat (once it all properly catches fire, at least).

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Ellis Swan, "3am"

3amThis Chicago-based singer-songwriter is a bit of an enigma to me, as details about his discography are quite slim. As far as I can tell, however, 3am is his second solo album, which is noteworthy given that it has been 8 long years since Swan’s similarly excellent debut (I'll Be Around) surfaced. What he was up to during that hiatus is mostly unknown to me (aside from "drawing the night in around his private, unnerving vigil," of course), but one thing I do know is that he formed a duo with James Schimpl called Dead Bandit that released their debut on Quindi last year (the same label behind this album). In any case, 3am is one hell of an aptly titled album, as it very much has the feel of a hushed, late-night confessional via four-track. The overall aesthetic calls to mind the "desolate outsider folk" blurring of an insomniac Elliott Smith or Zelienople with the homespun intimacy of early Iron and Wine, yet the pervasive mood of late night sadness is beautifully balanced with cool production tricks and shades of more lively and eclectic influences like Suicide and Charlie Megira.

Quindi

The album’s description insightfully notes that Swan’s aesthetic plays “on the natural distortion and delirium which occurs at the farthest end of the night,” which is an excellent way to explain how this album differs dramatically from ostensibly similar artists exploring the “after late night television pain” vein such as Russian Tsarlag or Matt Christensen. Swan has some darkness to exorcise, to be sure (check out “Hospice”), but 3am feels more like a batch of poignant and hook-filled gems that were handed off to the night itself for a “late night delirium” production overhaul. Obviously, that is not what actually happened, which makes Swan a bit of a visionary production-wise: he uses the same roughly instrumentation as everyone else, but those instruments are inevitably veiled in hiss, buried deep in the mix, or distorted by their lo-fi recording process (Swan apparently “drags the music through layer upon layer of tape fuzz” as part of his process). Significantly, he goes the opposite route with his vocals, as they sound close mic’d in a way where it feels like Swan is whispering directly into my ear. Rather than hiding himself in a fog of reverb and hiss, he expertly wields murk to weave a haunted and hallucinatory backdrop for his stark, emotionally direct songs. The album’s lead single “Puppeteers Tears” is an especially fine illustration of Swan’s inspired strain of ghostly Americana, as it feels like something from The Creek Drank the Cradle eerily enhanced with a haunting whistle loop, a buried organ motif, and a primitive drum machine groove.

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Andrew Chalk, "The End Times"

The End TimesKeeping up with Andrew Chalk’s discography has always been an amusingly challenging endeavor, but the challenge has shifted from pouncing on limited edition physical releases to vigilantly ensuring that he does not quietly surface with a substantial new opus of some kind without my notice. The most recent substantial new opus is this one on Colin Potter’s ICR label, which is billed as Chalk’s “first new solo album in five years.” It certainly feels like a major statement to me, though the meaning of terms like “new” and “album” can be quite blurry and elusive given Chalk’s singularly minimalist approach to providing album details. In any case, The End Times was (perhaps prophetically) recorded earlier this year and marks a rare CD release after Chalk’s recent run of cassettes. Beyond that, further details are quite slim. That is just fine by me, as the only thing that actually matters is that Andrew Chalk is still making incredibly beautiful and distinctive music, as The End Times is a characteristically sublime and immersive dreamscape of tender melodies, elegantly shifting moods, and vividly detailed textures.

ICR

The opening “House of the Holy” provides an appropriately representative introduction to the album’s overall aesthetic, as a vaporous melody of blurred, lingering notes unfolds over a gently gurgling pulse. As the album unfolds, a few subtle new details emerge that set The End Times apart from some of Chalk’s other recent work, but the most prominent features throughout are the quivering, liquid-like character of the notes and the ephemeral brevity of the pieces. Rather than evolving and expanding, these 13 pieces instead feel like a series of enigmatic mirages that offer a fleeting and flickering glimpse of heaven before dissolving back into nothingness. Given all the gentle, blurred sounds and the tone of meditative reverie, it is deceptively easy to mistake The End Times for ambient music, yet it reveals itself to be considerably more than that for those willing to fully immerse themselves in Chalk’s slow-motion fantasia of beautiful details and small yet significant events. I view it as somewhat akin to looking through a rain-streaked window–it is easy to gaze through the glass and simply think “today is a wet and overcast day,” but it is also possible to appreciate how the individual droplets quiver and roll down the glass or how the streaks of water subtly bend and warp the appearance of the outside world. Albums like this are the reason why the genre term “lowercase” needed to exist, as Chalk’s compositions are incredibly rich, but the size of the reward is directly proportional to how closely one listens.

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2842 Hits

Oren Ambarchi, "Shebang"

Shebang Few artists have consistently fascinated and perplexed me quite like Oren Ambarchi, as I absolutely loved his early solo guitar albums like Grapes From the Estate, then witnessed him spend the next 15 or 20 years exploring improvisatory and rhythmic-driven detours to continually intensifying and breathless acclaim. I imagine it feels somewhat akin to being a Velvet Underground fan encountering unanimous rapturous praise for their post-Cale albums–I get the appeal, but that would not be my personal go-to era if I wanted to illustrate that band's greatness. Then again, maybe my perspective on Ambarchi's evolution would shift dramatically if I just liked jazz fusion more. In any case, I can certainly understand the unusual trajectory from Oren's viewpoint, as few would pass up a chance to form a trio with Jim O'Rourke and Keiji Haino and jamming with talented friends over mutant krautrock/fusion grooves seems like a hell of a lot more fun than making slow-motion guitar magic by yourself (can't fault a guy for loving spontaneity and challenging new collaborations). Both spontaneity and inspiring guest performances abound on Shebang, as Ambarchi enlisted quite a killer (virtual) ensemble, resulting in one of my favorite of his albums in recent memory (2016's Hubris being the other serious contender).

Drag City

The album is essentially a single 35-minute piece, but there are four numbered sections that segue seamlessly into one another. The first begins with a quirkily rhythmic and twinkling electric guitar motif that is soon joined by additional layers that bring unpredictably interwoven melodies and a stilted, oddly timed funkiness. It does not take long before the sheer intricacy and rhythmic sophistication of its various moving parts starts to feel dazzling and virtuosic, but the piece soon gets even better as it becomes more bass-heavy while bleary shades of psychedelia begin to bleed in. The second section announces itself when Joe Talia's skittering, shuffling drums emerge from a haze of feedback and shimmer. Curiously, all of the prominent themes from the first section fall away for a very stripped down palette of drums, subtle piano, rhythmic palm-muted guitar, and an occasional bass clarinet skwonk, but that downshift into simmering spaciousness nicely set the stage for me to be completely wrong-footed by the inspired appearance of BJ Cole's Hawaiian-sounding pedal steel.

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Horace Andy, "Midnight Rocker" and "Midnight Scorchers"

I am a big fan of Adrian Sherwood's passion for luring the greatest luminaries in Jamaican music history into late-career collaborations, as it is hard to imagine a better deal than working with On-U Sound's murderers' row of killer musicians and having a contemporary dub visionary at the console. Midnight Rocker (released in April) was the first fruit of Sherwood's union with Horace Andy and (unsurprisingly) focuses primarily on Andy's legendary voice while putting a new spin on a few of the Jamaican tenor's signature jams (along with a nod to his more recent work with Massive Attack). Given the caliber of everyone involved, Rocker is a predictably likable album and an impressive return for Andy, but a big part of the fun with classic Jamaican music is the inevitable wave of dubs and variations that follow, so I connected much more deeply with the newly released companion album, Midnight Scorchers. Wisely, Andy's voice remains a central focus, so it is easy to recognize the hooks and melodies from the previous album in their new context, yet Sherwood allows himself to go a bit wild in the studio for a "sound system" take on the material. To my ears, the same songs are the strongest on both albums, but the weaker songs from Rocker benefit significantly from the more adventurous arrangements and production on Scorchers.

On-U Sound

Midnight Rocker borrows its title from the opening line of Massive Attack's "Safe From Harm," which was the lead song on their 1991 debut Blue Lines. Notably, that album was the beginning of Andy's recurring involvement with that project, but "Safe From Harm" is a curious song to revisit, as Andy did not sing on the original and it has a darker, more dramatic tone than the rest of Midnight Rocker. Given how wildly successful that album was, I imagine its inclusion here was a savvy choice, but its killer bass and tambourine groove plays far more to Sherwood's strengths than the lyrics and tone do to Andy's. The album's other trips down memory lane are a handful of contemporized resurrections from Andy's own sprawling discography such as "This Must Be Hell, "Materialist," and "Mr. Bassie." Of that lot, "Mr. Bassie" fares the best, as it boasts a strong melodic hook and wades into increasingly dubby territory as it unfolds.

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