Reviews Search

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.

4152 Hits

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.

3882 Hits

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.

4024 Hits

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.

6031 Hits

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.

4134 Hits

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.

3994 Hits

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.

4879 Hits

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.

4141 Hits

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.

3871 Hits

David Berman, 1967-2019

Large_image2

Our hearts go out to the friends and family of David Berman, a beloved cult figure who was one of the most brilliant and poetic lyricists of his generation.  He was best known as the sole constant member of Silver Jews, which he formed with Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich in the late ‘80s.  Though Malkmus and Nastanovich were soon drawn away by the demands of their other band Pavement, Berman kept the band going with a shifting array of like-minded collaborators (1996's The Natural Bridge with New Radiant Storm King is a personal favorite).  Throughout it all, Berman remained a deeply reluctant live performer with an open aversion to touring, though he occasionally did public readings of his writings.  Consequently, he surprised everyone by finally touring with Silver Jews in 2005 in support of Tanglewood Numbers.

Berman released one more album after that tour, then famously ended the band in 2009, vowing "to stop before we got bad" and planned to instead devote himself to undoing the influence of his lobbyist father ("I am the son of a demon come to make good the damage.").  Eventually, however, Berman was drawn back to music, unveiling a new project (Purple Mountains) that debuted on Drag City in July.  At the time of his death, the ensemble was poised to embark upon their inaugural US tour.

Many wonderful tributes have been written about Berman's life and work this week.  This is an especially fine one:

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/postscript/david-berman-made-us-feel-less-alone

7738 Hits

Three New Releases from Richard Skelton

Front Variations (December 2018)

Music for the retreating ice-sheets of Iceland, produced in Seyðisfjörður, Eastern Iceland, in 2016.

Front Variations is composed from sine waves subjected to increasing amounts of feedback in order to simulate the so-called 'ice-albedo' feedback mechanism.

This is the process whereby the action of melting glaciers reduces the global surface area of ice, thereby reducing the amount of solar radiation that glaciers reflect, which in turn increases global temperatures and causes further glacial melting.

Ring modulation and distortion were also used to further deteriorate the sound signal.

A Great Body Rising and Falling and Another Hand (January 2019)

Two new works to add to the catalog of music that Richard Skelton has produced for the landscapes of northern England, including Marking Time (2008), Landings (2009), Limnology (2012), Succession (2013), Belated Movements (2015) and Scaleby (2017).

Both represent different variants in the development of what Peter Meanwell described in The Wire as 'land music,' an endeavor informed by archaeology, ecology, folklore and myth. The first, A Great Body Rising and Falling, explores the idea of agency and sentience within the apparently inanimate, and the second, Another Hand, takes as its inspiration a line from a gloss on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to explore the relationship between the natural and the supernatural.

More information can be found here.

5155 Hits

Earth, "Primitive and Deadly"

Primitive And Deadly is EARTH's tenth studio collection.  Dylan Carlson and long term cohort, drummer Adrienne Davies, manage to pull off the trick of completing an Ouroborean creative cycle, twenty-five years in the making, whilst exploring new directions in their music.  For the first time in their diverse second act, they allow themselves to be a rock band, freed of adornment and embellishment.  As much as Carlson's guitar has always been the focal point of EARTH's music, it's been surrounded by consistently diverse instrumentation. Here the dialog between Carlson and Davies' drumming remains pivotal, underpinned by the sympathetic bass of Bill Herzog (Sunn O))), Joel RL Phelps, Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter) and thickened by additional layers of guitar from Brett Netson (Built To Spill, Caustic Resin) and Jodie Cox (Narrows).  Perhaps the largest left turn on Primitive And Deadly, though, is prominence of guest vocalists Mark Lanegan and Rabia Shaheen Qazi (Rose Windows) who transform the traditionally free-ranging meditations of EARTH into something approaching traditional pop structures.

Out September 2nd.

More information can be found here.

Primitive And Deadly

 

7718 Hits

S. Alexander Reed, "Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music"

cover imageWhile there have been a few excellent books published about individual bands published over the years  (Wreckers of Civilisation and England's Hidden Reverse spring to mind), no one has quite gotten around to writing a definitive history of industrial music yet.  Reed, currently a professor of music at Ithaca College, has certainly made a valiant attempt though (and scored a major coup by getting Oxford University Press to put it out as well).  Assimilate is essentially half of a truly wonderful book: Reed does a spectacular job chronicling both the formative years of industrial music and its ties to radical art movements, but ultimately gets bogged down a bit in theory and some perplexing choices in focus.

Continue reading
19046 Hits

"The Pierced Heart and The Machete"

In the past, I have definitely preferred Sublime Frequencies' musical releases to their cinematic ones, but Olivia Wyatt's follow-up to Staring into the Sun is quite a beguiling exception to that trend.  Naturally, one major reason that this film is so great is the exotic and fascinating subject matter (Vodou pilgrimages in Haiti).  However, Wyatt's skillful execution elevates her footage into something truly wonderful, lushly and kinetically capturing the unique and occasionally disturbing sights and sounds of a world that very few non-Haitians will ever to experience first-hand.

Continue reading
10407 Hits

HTRK, "Rhinestones"

cover imageThis latest release from the long-running duo of Jonnine Standish and Nigel Yang is quite a bombshell, as Rhinestones was "inspired by a recent infatuation with 'eerie and gothic country music.'" To my ears, HTRK drawing inspiration from classic country heartache is already a winning formula right out of the gate, yet Rhinestones is even better than I might have hoped, as the Melbourne-based pair have spiced that new direction up further by filtering it through a "narcotic, nocturnal lens" in order to "map enigmatic badlands of strung out beauty" (count me in!). In less poetic terms, that means that Rhinestones is full of acoustic guitars, heartbreak, and half-sultry/half-ghostly vocal melodies and that every single one of these nine songs attain some degree of greatness. While yet another excellent HTRK album is hardly unexpected territory, I was nevertheless legitimately floored by how masterfully Standish and Yang executed this new vision, as Rhinestones is a beautifully stark, sensual, and effortlessly psychedelic tour de force that somehow also fitfully evokes great '80s pop in the vein of Pat Benatar. That is quite an impressive feat. This album will deservedly be all over "best of 2021" lists next month.

Heavy Machinery/N&J Blueberries

This album is an extremely impressive example of how an absolutely gorgeous album can result from a very stark and simple palette, as Rhinestones is basically just an acoustic guitar, an occasional drum machine click, Standish's breathily sensuous voice, some great songs, and plenty of unerring instincts. While the whole album is wonderful, it starts to become something transcendent at the end of the second piece. "Valentina" initially sounds like a lovesick folkie got the hypnagogic David Lynch/Julee Cruise treatment, but it ends in unexpectedly heavy fashion, as the final line "can you remove it from my finger?" locks into a haunting spiral of looping repetition. That cool surprise then happily seques into a three-song run of absolutely killer songs. On "Sunlight Feels like Bee Stings," what initially sounds like a sadness-soaked breakup song quickly blossoms into something darkly sexual and swirling with understatedly beautiful ripples of echoing psych guitar. The following "Siren Song," on the other hand, only lasts a mere 49 seconds, yet every single one of those seconds rules, as Yang unleashes a phantasmagoric reverie of hollow, wobbly chords and string scrapes augmented with little more than murmured vocals and a slow rhythm of finger snaps.

"Fast Friend" is another quiet masterpiece of psych guitar, approximating a sultry, bleary Pat Benatar cover with a slinky drum machine pulse and host of painterly hallucinatory touches. Some artists make great psychedelia with cool layering and inspired juxtapositions, but Yang is the sort that can make just a single note or chord sound amazing and I am very much into it. The rest of the album is rounded out by a classic HTRK-style single "Real Headfuck" and a few seemingly lesser pieces that are ultimately elevated by great outros. Yang and Standish are truly in peak form on this album, as the vocals seductively dance over a simmering array of cool backdrops and every last hand clap or string scrape is executed with flawless timing and maximum impact. If there is any caveat with Rhinestones at all, it is only that it might feel a bit too melancholy for some, but I found these songs to be a lot like the old joke about New England weather: if a song seems unmemorable or oppressively sad at first, odds are quite strong that something cool and unexpected is about to dramatically change that trajectory for the better. This is a hell of an album.

Samples can be found here.

3339 Hits

Felicity Mangan "Bell Metal Reeds"

cover imageThis is my first encounter with the unique fare of Berlin's One Instrument Records, but I have probably stumbled upon Felicity Mangan's work before, as she released an EP of animal-sourced sound art on Longform Editions back in 2019 and she is also half of the duo Native Instrument.  While it may sound like a stretch to call the multi-directional "quasi-bioacoustic sound piece" of her Longform EP Stereo'frog'ic "normal," it is nevertheless fair to say that frogs and homemade speakers are considerably closer to Mangan's comfort zone than a harmonica album (which is good, as I generally loathe harmonicas). And yet here we are: Bell Metal Reeds is an entirely harmonica-sourced album (Mangan picked one up at a flea market in Hamburg right before the pandemic). In most cases, learning that someone recorded a solo harmonica album over lockdown would—at best—elicit a wince, heavy sigh, or torrent of expletives from me, yet Mangan has somehow managed to wield the instrument so unconventionally and so beautifully that my mind has been properly blown. This is an incredible album, at times recalling everything from classic Kranky fare a la Windy & Carl to Neu! to Chris Watson.

One Instrument

Happily, there is very little on this album that is recognizably sourced from a flea market harmonica, which is a good thing in my book. The even better thing is how transcendently Mangan was able to repurpose her Hohner Echo Harp's sounds and the impressive variety of compositions that resulted. The opening "Echo Harp 1" kicks off the album in especially sublime fashion, as the first half unfolds as sensuous, wobbly drone swells enhanced with flutters of dreampop shimmer that lazily swoop around the drones like an iridescent bat. It almost sounds like Mangan deconstructed drone music and somehow wound up with something languorously sensual instead. Curiously, Mangan opted to shift gears midway through the piece, so the final minutes are more akin to texturally confused drone metal than sexy harmonica ambient. I am bit disappointed by that transformation, as the first half was brilliant, but there is an eerie bent note in the final section that I like, so all is forgiven. "Echo Harp 2" is another big surprise, as it initially resembles an ancient war procession shrouded in a flickering psychedelic haze. Gradually, however, a throbbing drone slowly rolls out of the enchanted fog to launch a final act that resembles a stretched, smeared, and deconstructed motorik rhythm enhanced by the eerie whistle of a passing ghost train. While the first two pieces start off as near-masterpieces and end as merely very good, "Echo Harp 3" manages to sustain its perfection all the way to the finish line, resembling a wonderfully sensuous and spacey instrumental in the Windy & Carl vein (albeit a bit synthier-sounding than that comparison suggests). The album winds to a close with yet another surprise stylistic detour, as "Echo Harp 4" begins life as a pulsing mass of psych drone, but evolves into a compellingly polyrhythmic twist on a jangly drone rock band with an unusual effects palette. That adds up to four surprising, inventive, and beautifully crafted songs in a row, so I guess I am now a raging Felicity Mangan fan. If she can work this kind of magic with the insane constraint of exclusively using a flea market harmonica, her potential must be damn near limitless.

Samples can be found here.

3184 Hits

Natural Snow Buildings: Between the Real and the Shadow

A few years ago, when I lived in Boston, a WZBC DJ nearly made my head explode with his inspired decision to play a full 45-minute side of Natural Snow Buildings' crushing drone epic Slayer of the King of Hell in the middle of the day.  The band sounded like absolutely nothing that I had ever heard before and I immediately resolved to find out absolutely everything I could about them and track down all of their albums.  Both endeavors wound up being much more difficult than I had anticipated.

Continue reading
26652 Hits

Baligh Hamdi, "Instrumental Modal Pop of 1970s Egypt"

cover imageThis latest collection continues Sublime Frequencies' impressive hot streak of releases this year, as Hisham Mayet has curated a selection of elusive instrumental pieces from "a towering figure in Arabic cultural history." Unsurprisingly, I have not knowingly encountered Hamdi's work before, as SF is always way ahead of the curve in digging up revelatory artists unfamiliar to most western ears, but Mayet and the songs he selected make a convincing case that Hamdi was indeed behind "some of the hippest music coming out of the Middle East from the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s." It was rare for Hamdi's work to surface under his own name, however, as most of his success and influence came from composing for a host of famous Arabic singers or scoring films, plays, and television. This collection, however, focuses on a very specific era of Hamdi's career in which Mayet believes the composer and his Diamond Orchestra perfected a modernized "international music" that elegantly combined "Eastern tinged jazz, theremin draped orchestral noir, and mid-east and eastern psychedelic exotica." Naturally, most of the original albums are exasperatingly elusive and expensive, but the rarity of these songs is secondary to their quality. This scratches roughly the same itch as other classic SF "pop" compilations like Bollywood Steel Guitar and Shadow Music of Thailand.

Sublime Frequencies

While Hamdi is technically the star of the show here, he is actually only one of two legends on these recordings, as Sublime Frequencies favorite Omar Khorshid was one of the many luminaries recruited for Hamdi's Diamond Orchestra. Naturally, there are plenty of cool guitar parts as a result, but no one member of the Diamond Orchestra stands out as particularly virtuosic or essential. Instead, the beauty of these pieces primarily lies in their deft blurring of modern and traditional styles, their inventive arrangements, and the tightness and fluidity of the ensemble. The opening "Ghada" provides an especially impressive example of Hamdi's "modal pop" vision, achieving a delightfully propulsive and swinging blend of surf guitar twang, Bollywood dance party, and bittersweetly soulful Arabic melodies. Obviously, getting all of those elements to fit seamlessly together in the first place was the most revolutionary part of Hamdi's vision, but the execution is also rather dazzling in a general sense, as melodies are constantly traded between instruments while the band nimbly navigates exacting rhythmic variations without breaking a sweat.

For the most part, "Ghada" is very representative of everything that follows, so if that one does not connect, the rest of the album will probably hold no further appeal. Similarly, anyone who loves "Ghada" will likely be thrilled to find eighteen more bangers in a similar vein awaiting them. Within that rich vein lie some delightful variations, however, such as the swooningly romantic strings of "Mawal," which approximates the soundtrack to a imagined Bond film where he teams up with sexy Egyptian dancer/double agent. Elsewhere, "Chaka Chico" initially sounds like the theme for a Spaghetti western ghost story due to its theremin melody, but fluidly shifts tones until it sounds like a love story set in an Middle Eastern cabaret. The closing "Love Story" is another surprise, as Hamdi and his ensemble gamely spice up Francis Lai's famous melody with Arabic instrumentation and inventive fluorishes until it resembles an Egyptian mariachi band crashing an Italian wedding. Beyond that, I was also delighted by the pieces where the orchestra abandon rock rhythms in favor of more Arabic-inspired percussion, as they do on "Gazairia." Just about everything here is great (and fun) though, as Instrumental Modal Pop of 1970s Egypt sounds like some of the coolest and most forward-thinking musicians around teamed up to unknowingly make a flawless and hook-filled surf/exotica/Bollywood masterpiece. I can certainly understand how Hamdi came to be so revered in the Arab world if he brought this level of heat to even his non-hits.

Samples can be found here.

4279 Hits

Saint Abdullah, "To Live A La West"

cover imageI am a bit late to the party with this project from "NYC-based, Iranian-Canadian brothers" Mohammed and Mehdi Mehrabani-Yeganeh, as they have been steadily releasing oft-killer music since 2017. This is their first album for Important, however, and it makes for a perplexingly unrepresentative introduction to their work, taking their more industrial tendencies in an unconventionally jazz-inspired direction with mixed results. That said, the brothers make a conscious point of attempting to "present new ideas" with each fresh release, so a truly representative album may never exist. Instead, each album is a snapshot of their thoughts and inspirations at one particular stage of their evolution. Similarly, the brothers are unswervingly devoted to making their music personal by rooting it in their own stories. Conceptually, that makes To Live A La West the Saint Abdullah album inspired by the time the brothers were allowed to attend a dance after their sixth grade graduation. The album is quite a bit harder to define stylistically, however. While the brothers cite Jon Hassell's Fourth World aesthetic as one major source of inspiration, I cannot think of any artists who explore similarly eclectic territory to this album’s curious mixture of free jazz and industrial-tinged experimentation mingled with shades of electronic pop and Iranian music. To my ears, this album could not be much further from the sights and sounds of a middle school dance (even filtered through psychedelic sensibility), but the best moments achieve a kind of strange beauty akin to Carter Tutti Void teaming with up some Egyptian jazz guys to record a very strange and unconventional film soundtrack. The other moments are considerably harder to explain, as they resemble industrial jazz vamps made by an AI whose primary influence is '80s arcade game sounds.

Important Records

This is one of those albums that starts out extremely strong, then gradually unravels and yields diminishing returns as it unfolds. If To Live A La West began and ended with "A Lot Of Kings," however, it would be damn near perfect. The duo are joined by trumpet player Aquiles Navarro and someone named Kol for a wonderfully simmering and smoky reverie of industrial-damaged and static-strafed jazz noir. The first hints that something has begun to go awry appear as early as the second piece, however, as it sounds like someone is throttling a modular synthesizer over an erratic, subdued, and ramshackle drum machine beat. It still ends up being a strong piece, as it is achieves a kind of jabbering, go-for-broke catharsis of squiggling electronic bloops, but I definitely felt that lack of a solid melodic component. The brothers next hit the mark again with the stomping, mechanized juggernaut of "Like A Great Starving Beast," as guest John Butcher enlivens the proceedings with a fiery sax solo. From that point onward, however, the brothers are on their own and they definitely chose a mystifying sound palette. Historically, Saint Abdullah are at their best when they aim for something akin to an Iranian Esplendor Geométrico with a strong taste for dub and sample collage, but they largely repress those tendencies on To Live A La West. In more concrete terms, that means that this album has plenty of cool grooves and foundational motifs, but they are almost always pushed to the background to focus on trilling sprays of blooping and bleeping melodies that elude any familiar scales or patterns. While the mechanized dance menace of "Furthermost" is a notable exception, the rest of the album lies somewhere between "chromatic free jazz shredding on a keytar," "someone loudly playing theremin over a '90s Aphex Twin album," "a Herbie Hancock album jarringly interrupting an S&M show," and "a modular synth player trying to mimic bird songs." Strange choices one and all and rendered even stranger by the existence of companion cassette of the same name on Cassauna. I am not sure why the brothers chose to release two similarly uneven albums in the same vein rather than a single solid one or why they did not enlist more collaborators for their ambitious jazz foray, but I do not feel they put their best foot forward here. In any case, Saint Abdullah is a great project and "A Lot of Kings" is a great song, but this is probably not the best place to start for the curious.

Samples can be found here.

3588 Hits

Centrum, "För Meditation"

cover imageI probably do not follow the contemporary psych-rock scene as closely as I should, so this 2019 side project from Sweden's Hills managed to elude me for a couple of years. On one level, the leap from Hills to Centrum is not exactly a dramatic one, as För Meditation arguably resembles a Hills album with the electronic guitars and jammier tendencies excised. On a deeper level, however, the spell that Centrum casts is very different from that of most modern psych bands, as För Meditation feels like a lost classic from the late '60s/early '70s nexus where hallucinogens, Pandit Pran Nath, and eastern religion collectively transformed the more adventurous fringes of rock forever. In more practical terms, that means that För Meditation is full of droning, chanting, and raga-damaged psychedelia great enough to earn Centrum a place in my personal pantheon of Swedish psych/free music titans like Parson Sound and Träd, Gras och Stenar. They clearly also learned a trick or two from more recent bands too though, as they do an impressive job of sidestepping the genre's more indulgent tendencies and beautifully channel the killer ride cymbal grooves of classic Om (albeit opting more for hypnotic repetition than muscular intensity and virtuosic flourishes).

Rocket Recordings

The album's description begins with a quote from David Lynch about transcendental meditation and its tenet that "true happiness lies within," but Centrum seem to enthusiastically embraced the Zen ideal of ego death as well, as the band's enigmatic line-up is given only as "members of Hills and Weary Nous." That anonymity admittedly makes sense here, as the focus is not on individual performances so much as it is on the band members seamlessly converging in perfect harmony for a series of great droning grooves. Or, as the label puts it, "beguiling tapestries of drone-based hypnosis, mantric vocal chants and ritualistic folk along with field recordings" (the latter made by the band in India). The opening "Vid Floden" is a representative introduction to that aesthetic, as a slow, heady groove of pulsing Shruti box swells, muscular bass riffage, hazy chanted vocals, and a cool flute hook unfolds for ten straight minutes with minimal evolution. There are some subtle effects and a decent amount of guitar soloing (both clean and distorted), but the magic primarily lies in how the various musicians interact and embellish the groove without ever breaking the spell with indulgent missteps. Instead, elements like the smoldering guitar solo in the following "Sjön" serve more of a textural and dynamic purpose than a cathartic or melodic one. That said, that solo does inject a soulful intensity that plays a significant role in making "Sjön" one of the album's strongest pieces. Of course, the warbling wah-wah improvisations and heavy ride cymbal beat play crucial roles as well (especially once the tambourine kicks in).

The remaining two pieces are unsurprisingly devoted to variations on the same themes. The brief "Stjärnor" is the closest thing to a single, as it distills the Centrum vision to a tight five minutes and enhances it with a melodic violin theme, but it also breaks the hypnotic spell a bit with a very prominent wah-wah solo in its final moments. The closing "Som En Spegel," on the other hand, heads in the opposite direction and stretches out for twelve epic minutes with little threat of derailing. Initially, it feels a bit too fast and too muscular to quite hit the raga/drone comfort zone, but it gradually blossoms into a masterful slow burn with the addition of tambourine, serpentine flute melodies, and a very cool finale of dub-inspired percussion flourishes. Aside from the mixed success of "Stjärnor," För Meditation is a damn near perfect album in my book. While it is not terribly hard to find other psych-rock bands who look to the east for inspiration, very few are able to match the natural chemistry and sublime execution that Centrum bring to the form.

Samples can be found here.

3100 Hits