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Saint Abdullah, "Inshallahlaland"

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

Room40

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

sounds can be found here

2435 Hits

Martyna Basta, "Making Eye Contact With Solitude"

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

Warm Winters Ltd.

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

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

sounds can be found here

3197 Hits

Big Blood, "Fight For Your Dinner II"

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

dontrustheruin

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

sounds can be found here

1935 Hits

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

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

Self-Released

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

sounds can be found here.

2477 Hits

Steve Roden, "Stars of Ice"

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

Room40/New Plastic Music

The album takes its name from a Chinese Christmas carol record that was one of the eclectic pair of pieces that Roden salvaged for his primarily sound sources. The other lucky winner was a song entitled "Snow" from a clearly hit-packed 78 entitled "Songs From the First Grade Reader." Unsurprisingly, I suspect both pieces would be nearly unrecognizable to their original composers in the wake of Roden's radical deconstructions, yet this is not one those albums where the character of the original pieces is completely obliterated into noisy abstraction, as Stars of Ice is an unusually melodic entry in the composer's oft-challenging oeuvre. There were apparently also "various other objects and instruments" involved as well, but they never manifest themselves in recognizable ways, as the heart of Stars of Ice is essentially just snatches of vocal melodies and a crackling and hissing backdrop of pleasantly warm and murky organ chords (or at least something that sounds like an organ after Roden was finished with it). For a while, the piece feels like it is just going to linger in suspended animation forever, which would be apt given the "enchanted snow globe/slowly dissolving into the grooves of a wobbly old record" atmosphere, yet new threads (clipped vocal melodies, plinking and shivering strings, a choir, and a colorful host of coos, mumbles, and warbles) soon appear and begin weaving together in interesting and lovely ways. For the piece's first half, the warm chords, bittersweet central melody, and the flickering and ghostly choral snippets conjure one of the most sustained stretches of sublime, pure beauty that I have yet heard. The piece never stops glacially and subtly transforming, however, so that section is just one particularly exquisite phase of an immersive and hallucinatory journey towards a final stretch that approximates a haunted music box haltingly playing a fragmented, wrong speed recording of a rural Chinese or Eastern European traditional music ensemble. Admittedly, I likely would have been perfectly happy if Roden had just lingered in the most beautiful stretch forever, but the subtly intensifying shadows and sense of mystery that follow are what elevate Stars of Ice to something deeper and more complex than merely a masterfully executed collage of lovely sounds. In that regard, the album is characteristically stellar sound art, but Roden's larger achievement is how masterfully he managed to convey ineffable feelings of beauty, sadness, and longing from just a couple of children’s records that no one has presumably thought about in half a century.  

Samples can be found here.

1935 Hits

Steve Roden, "Oionos"

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

Room40

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

Samples can be found here.

2085 Hits

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

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

Folklore Tapes

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

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

Samples can be found here.

1936 Hits

Elena Setién, "Unfamiliar Minds"

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

Thrill Jockey

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

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

Samples can be found here.

1867 Hits

Meitei, "KofuÃÑ II"

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

Kitchen

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

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

Samples can be found here.

2036 Hits

Tasos Stamou, "Monoliths"

cover imageDiscovering this London-based composer's adventurously psychedelic collages of traditional Greek music was one of 2021's great musical pleasures for me, so I was very eager to hear this ambitious double album follow up to Antiqua Graecia. As expected, it is a characteristically wonderful and unusual release, but it is also marks a detour away from Stamou's impressive run of Greek-themed albums. The theme of the aptly titled Monoliths is instead Stamou's attempt to "collide" the two sides of his working methods: live performances and studio work. By my estimation, it was a very successful collision, but it was mostly a behind-the-scenes one, as I would be hard pressed to determine where one approach starts and another begins. As a result, the more immediate and striking theme of the album for me as a listener is that each piece feels like an extended experiment in crafting an immersive, complexly layered sound world from just a single recognizable instrument. At least, that is how Monoliths unfolds for its first half, as the bottom drops out of the album's hallucinatory feast of bells, organs, and steel drums to reveal a considerably more processed, abstract, and psychotropic second hour of drone-damaged mindfuckery. That approach admittedly makes Monoliths a bit less accessible than some of Stamou’s more conventionally melodic work, but serious heads looking for a deep and sustained dive into otherworldly psych meditations will likely love this immersive tour de force.

Moving Furniture

The opening "Bells Drone" sounds deceptively like it could be layered field recordings of wind chimes at first, as bells of different sizes amiably jangle and clang for couple minutes before any real evidence of Stamou's hand starts to emerge. Soon, however, some tones start to linger supernaturally and the mood darkens into uneasy shadows of dissonance. It is quite a wonderfully hallucinatory and entrancing piece, evoking an ancient ritual in a cavernous subterranean temple revealed behind a dissolving reality. While it is the shortest piece on the album at a mere 13 minutes, it is nevertheless a solid representation of the album’s first half: a simple and minimal theme gradually transforms into a vividly multi-dimensional dream world. On "Chord Organ #2," for example, an organ drone slowly evolves into a Catherine Christer Hennix-esque nightmare of dark harmonies before unexpectedly resolving on a note of sundappled transcendence. "Steel Drum Drone," on the other hand, steadily becomes something akin to a lovesick tropical Steve Reich. That one is another favorite, as I am quite impressed with how Tasos weaves together patterns of plinking and bleary steel drum melodies into a thing of woozy multi-layered beauty.  In fact, I love every single one of the opening three pieces, but they turn out to be a mere prelude to two pieces in which Tamou goes totally bananas. In the first, "Supernormal," Stamou mingles a chirping electronic drone with squealing and sliding strings en route to an harrowing mindfuck that calls to mind a goddamn demon summoning (the final stretch of oscillating synth thrum is especially choice). The closing "Synapse" improbably features some even more gnarly sounds, passing though such colorful stages like "menacingly gelatinous bass throb," "an undead gamelan ensemble wanders the deserted streets in search of their next victim," and "a simmering and intense prepared piano performance over quasi-industrial rhythmic loops." This is an absolute feast of an album: five great longform pieces in a row spanning nearly two hours. Most days, I admittedly prefer the more meditative/ritualistic first half to the more nightmarish second half, but Stamou was swinging for the fences with every single piece on this album and the result is a monolithically stellar release.

Samples can be found here.

2164 Hits

Oval, "Ovidono"

cover imageAt this point, I consider myself quite well accustomed to Markus Popp's penchant for bold stylistic reinventions, yet this latest album managed to completely blindside me nevertheless. To be fair, however, Ovidono is not quite a pure Oval album, as Popp is joined by return collaborator Eriko Toyoda and artist/actress Vlatka Alec. The latter, in fact, is responsible for the album's concept: transforming the poetry of Ovid and Ono No Komachi into sound art that evokes "the tactile, immersive quality and intimacy of ASMR." The trio definitely succeeded in that regard, as Ovidono is probably the finest ASMR-inspired album that I have yet heard, but it is also a bit more ambitious than just a hallucinatory swirl of hushed and sibilant voices. Obviously, that would have been just fine by me too, as Popp is an absolute wizard at chopping and reassembling sounds. However, Ovidono is also quite compelling compositionally, as Alec and Toyoda's voices are backed by music that lies somewhere between noirish torch song, deconstructed piano jazz, and the uneasy dissonances of Morton Feldman.

Self-released

The opening "Dormant" does a fine job of setting a suitably bleary, haunted, and hallucinatory mood, as tumbling minor key piano melodies cast a spell of unease beneath a flickering swirl of ghostly whispers. The music reminds me a bit of some of the prepared piano pieces from Aphex Twin's Drukqs, but a more fluid and melodically sophisticated version. If Ovidono was simply nine subtly nightmarish piano miniatures in the same vein, it would probably be a legitimately excellent album, but "Dormant" feels like a goddamn masterpiece with the added layers of Alec and Toyoda's seductively hissing, popping, and clicking voices panning around my head. Wisely, Popp does not make any drastic changes to that winning formula for the other pieces, but he does vary the tone enough to give each piece its own distinct character. For example, the second piece ("Lost in Thought") features ghostly flutes and vocals of a more stammering and fluttering nature that seem to dissolve into a rain of clicks and pops. "As I Do" is a bit more of a departure, however, as it initially feels like I am trapped inside a haunted music box with a conspiratorial Japanese ghostess. As it progresses, however, it becomes increasingly spacy and blossoms into an immersively chiming and quivering fantasia of harp-like sweeps and Gilli Smyth-style space whispers. Yet another highlight is "Feeling," which evokes a melancholy pianist sadly twinkling his way across the keys in a nearly empty, neon-lit bar (a scene nicely enhanced by the hushed and flickering voices burrowing psychotropically into my subconscious). The closing "Over" is another personal favorite, as Popp's piano takes a brighter tone that is further warmed by shimmering and droning strings. It has a simple straightforward beauty that I do not normally associate with Popp's work, but I quite like it and the sibilant swirl of sensuous voices around it makes for good company. The remaining pieces are all similarly strong and offer their own twists, so I expect some of them will someday become favorites as well. Then again, I cannot foresee myself ever having much urge to single out an individual piece, as this entire goddamn album is brilliant.

Samples can be found here.

2334 Hits

Mary Lattimore/Growing, "Gainer"

cover imageThis lovely and unexpected collaboration was quietly released digitally in November with no background information provided at all, but it is probably safe to say that it was recorded quite recently, as it shares a lot of common ground with the radiant drones of Growing's Diptych (2021). That, of course, also means that Gainer can sometimes feel like a welcome throwback to "classic Kranky" era drone artists like Stars of the Lid, though each piece ultimately blossoms into something more ambitious and distinctive by the end. That drone-heavy aesthetic sometimes makes figuring out where Lattimore fits in quite a challenge, as recognizable harp sounds are a bit of a rarity amidst the smoldering bass thrum and ambient shimmer. Then again, recognizable guitar and bass sounds are not exactly rampant either, so maybe all three artists opted for elegantly blurred impressionist abstraction. In any case, whatever they did worked quite well, as Lattimore and Growing's two aesthetics bleed together quite nicely and often feel like something greater than the mere sum of their parts (or at least like a very good Growing album beautifully enhanced with subtle acoustic shadings and flickers of melody).

Self-released

The album is divided into two longform pieces that each clock in around 16 or 17 minutes. The opening "Flowers in the Center Lane Sway" fades quietly into being with a slow melody of harmonic-like swells. Around the 2-minute mark, however, the piece unexpectedly blossoms into a far more harmonically and texturally rich chord progression. Given that this partially a Growing album, there is a healthy amount of amplifier hum and buzzing drone waves as well, which provides a pleasantly bleary and immersive backdrop for a simple, seesawing melody that evokes the faint streaks of light from the final moments of a vivid sunset. Occasionally, there is a hint of audible harp or the sensation of something harp-like moving amidst the hum, but Lattimore finally appears in earnest for the piece's final third to add rippling and ephemeral arpeggios that feel like glimpses of twinkling stars in the gaps between passing clouds. As all that happens, the piece sneakily accumulates a pleasantly heaving and hypnotic pulse as well, which is a damn neat trick. It is solid piece, but the following "Tagada, Night Rises" is both stronger and more distinctive. Lattimore initially seems to be steering the ship for the piece, as quivering webs of arpeggios streak lazy trails across a smoldering backdrop of bass drone. Rather than feeling like it is evolving toward something larger, however, the piece lingers in a warm and glimmering dreamscape akin to a state of suspended animation (though the bass drone does seem to be stealthily building in intensity throughout the piece). "Tagada" takes a surprise detour around the halfway point though, as it feels like a menacing vibrato has curdled the bass drone and cast a shadow of uneasy dissonance across everything. That darkening paves the way for yet another composition trick, however, as the piece slowly brightens for a warmly lovely crescendo of woozy and quavering guitar and harp motifs before ending with unexpectedly gorgeous outro that feels like dark birds silhouetted by a deep red sunset. While I suspect both pieces will resonate more with fans of Growing's dronier side than with Lattimore's own fanbase, Gainer is both an impressively organic/seamless convergence of visions and a sustained, quietly beautiful reverie.

Samples can be found here.

2098 Hits

Tanz Mein Herz, "Quattro"

cover imageI began 2021 not knowing a single goddamn thing about Jeremie Sauvage, the Standard In-Fi label, or France's fascinating Auvergnat/avant-folk milieu, but I am certainly ending the year as a somewhat obsessed fan. Weirdly, this year was not an especially prolific year for the milieu, though Yann Gourdon and Sourdure had fresh releases, yet this album, the Sourdure album, and a pair of France reissues seemed to reach a lot more ears than usual and two of those ears were mine. The linguistically astute may successfully deduce that Quattro is Tanz Mein Herz's fourth album, but details beyond that are minimal and the recordings actually date from a two-day "public recording session" back in 2016 (the band's entire discography seems to have been recorded between 2014 and 2016, in fact). There is also some poetic information provided in French that makes repeated references to drones, vibrations, resonance, infinity, suspension, immensity, and a "pendulum of dreams," which I found both apt and predictably alluring. Admittedly, many of those descriptors could also apply to a host of disappointing drone albums, but I suspect the "pendulum of dreams" bit is probably the secret ingredient that makes this particular album so transcendent. That said, Quattro can also be quite challenging at times, but it unquestionably captures a very unusual acoustic drone ensemble at the very height of their eclectic and hypnotic powers, so it invariably winds up somewhere compelling no matter how prickly the voyage may become along the way.

Standard In-Fi

I am not sure how constant Tanz Mein Herz's line-up is (or was), but at the time of the Quattro sessions they were a seven-piece ensemble and damn near everyone involved has ties to some other notable project (France, Toad, Sourdure, La Baracande, Faune, Omertà, etc.). I suppose that makes this project some kind of fitfully convening all-star team that brings together all the best threads of a flourishing scene, which seems to unexpectedly be a winning formula these days if one also considers Enhet För Fri Musik. In any case, Quattro consists of six pieces that stretch across four sides of vinyl and most of them are quite long (even the shortest piece ("Outro") clocks in at over seven minutes). In a surprise twist, my favorite piece is among the album's shorter ones, as "Tales From the Middle of the Night" crams a hell of a lot of brilliance into just over ten minutes. The piece is built upon a repeating marimba-like melody and heavy buzzing drones, but it does not take long before it blossoms into a mind-bending phantasia of sliding, smeared, and howling strings that calls to mind La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music trying their hand at exotica (yet another winning formula, for those keeping score). As it unfolds, however, it only gets improbably better and better and burrows deeper into my mind, which is exactly what I want from psychotropic drone (and I would be hard pressed to think of anyone else who does it quite this well).

Remarkably, the only real difference between that highlight and the rest of the album is merely that the other pieces simply take a bit longer to truly catch fire. For example, the 20-minute "Magical Stones and Shiny Mud" starts off on a somewhat unpromising cacophony of bagpipe-y drones and flutes, then detours into a radiant and languorous drone-rock groove. I initially suspected I would not be able to connect with it at all, but then the final five minutes darken into a killer drone rock finale that seamlessly incorporates space rock, dub, and Eastern-tinged melodies. In a perfect world, it would admittedly not have taken fifteen minutes to get to that payoff, but the important thing is that they eventually got there and that it is quite wonderful once it happens. And there is certainly not anyone else who is doing the same thing in more impressive fashion, so I am happy to experience Tanz Mein Herz's singular vision in whatever goddamn shape they feel like presenting it in. Elsewhere, "Spiegel Haus” has a more promising and exotic-sounding central theme, but otherwise follows a similar trajectory, as the band pleasantly treads water in an Amon Düül II-style communal jam vein before eventually erupting in roiling cacophony of bubbling, spacey electronics and howling guitars. The following "96" is a bit more focused, as a looping bass hook steadily builds into a jangling and howling nightmare of sharp drones and ugly harmonies, while the minimal "Alor" sounds like drones from an ancient war horn or something that Yoshi Wada might have built. Given that, it is safe to say that Quattro is a seriously ambitious and oft-"difficult" album, which may throw some listeners who are less forgiving of extended durations and long, slow build ups or those less attuned to Wada-esque dissonance. For those who are unfazed by such rough edges, however, Quattro will likely feel like an absolute godsend, as it beautifully channels the late ‘60s glory days when Eastern drones, freeform improvisation, and heavy psychedelia converged in spectacular fashion (and it throws in some welcome new twists as well).

Samples can be found here.

2331 Hits

Klara Lewis, "Live in Montreal 2018"

cover imageKlara Lewis has been a unique and consistently interesting artist ever since she first surfaced, but 2020's Ingrid felt like a massive breakthrough and just about everything that she has released since has been stellar (live albums included). Unsurprisingly, Live in Montreal 2018 does nothing to derail that streak, but there are a couple of somewhat big surprises with it too. The first one is the date of the performance, as I had no idea that Lewis was on this plane two years before Ingrid came along. That is not to say that Live in Montreal would have necessarily eclipsed 2016's excellent Too had it been the follow up, but the Lewis of 2016 was an artist who seemed categorically disinterested in doing anything the conventional/expected way. And the comparative melodicism of 2018's fitfully great collaboration with Simon Fisher Turner (Care) felt like a one-off experiment in applying her non-musical found sounds to a more traditionally musical vision rather than a change in direction. As it turns out, however, Care was merely a tease of greater things to come and the lucky attendees of this performance got a sneak preview of those greater things long before the rest of us. The second big surprise is that this album is composed of seemingly all new material rather than variations on Lewis's existing work—it feels aesthetically akin to a proto-Ingrid, but a stage before that piece was distilled to just a single perfect motif. Obviously, that narrowing of focus yielded great results, but this more varied and shapeshifting approach yielded some legitimately great results too, elegantly blurring the lines between drone, noise, spacy synth explorations, and pop plunderphonics.

Editions Mego

As with a lot of live albums these days, the only significant difference in sound quality between Live in Montreal and one of Lewis's more formal recordings is that it feels like there is a thin veil between me and the full harmonic richness, clarity, and crunching physicality of the music. Obviously, that is less than ideal, but that loss is presumably offset by a more significant gain like "it was not possible to reproduce the magic and spontaneity of this performance in a studio." In any case, this album consists of a single 47-minute piece "with three distinct discernible sections" and an overarching theme of "permanent collapse" in which "strange sonic elements introduce themselves, rise to the fore, threaten the fundamental discourse only to recede on the brink of destroying the work itself." While I sometimes have a hard time determining which elements constitute "the work" and which ones are the threatening interlopers as the piece unfolds, the trajectory of the opening section is quite easy to grasp: an intense choral sample plays over a subdued, gurgling, and crackling industrial rhythm, becomes erratic, then settles into a looping and haunted-sounding melody just as a visceral assault of white noise erupts. In a rough sense, it resembles a killer noise set tenaciously trying to tear its way through a classical requiem with only moderate success, which is a very appealing aesthetic given the fine balance of beauty and violence that Lewis achieves.

I am not sure if the noise element necessarily wins in the end, but the original choral theme is eventually reduced to a bleary drone augmented by woodland sounds like chattering birds while the noise/industrial elements rhythmically continue onward to steer the piece into a fresh passage of flanging drones over a heaving, crunching sea of roiling white noise. Gradually, however, it starts to feel like me and my chirping avian buddies are now at the seaside (along with some quivering feedback ghosts) as large waves relentlessly crash upon the shore, yet that too proves to be an ephemeral interlude, as Lewis soon starts to segue into her next dazzling set piece. While the next section could reasonably be described as "warm ambient drones," they are vividly enhanced by a shapeshifting host of dissolving and hallucinatory new elements (hiss, submerged backwards melodies, glimpses of Spanish guitar, Whitney Houston belting out (nearly) unrecognizable fragments of "I Will Always Love You," etc.). All of those other elements gradually vanish, however, leaving a gorgeously psychotropic and crystalline drone palace in their wake. For her final trick, Lewis ends the pieces with frayed, shivering synth swells that spectrally wobble over a stark backdrop of crackling textures. It is an appropriately beautiful conclusion to the set, but Lewis's more impressive achievement is how organically fluid and compelling the journey to get there was: this album flows along wonderfully and the bridges between its major events never lull, nor does it ever feel like Lewis artfully stitched together a trio of different pieces into one. There is a definite arc to this album and it is a thoughtful and satisfying one with no missteps or unnecessary detours to be found. While live albums outside the improv/jazz milieu are historically not my favorite thing, this one is a rare and notable exception, easily ranking among the finest releases in Lewis's already impressive discography.

Samples can be found here.

2603 Hits

Fluxion, "Parallel Moves"

cover imageAs far as I am concerned, Konstantinos Soublis earned a lifetime pass as dub techno royalty with his early Chain Reaction work (the likes of which enjoyed a well-deserved renaissance when Type reissued Vibrant Forms in 2013). Much like fellow visionary Moritz von Oswald, however, Soublis has a creatively restless spirit that has led him in a number of different directions since that scene's late '90s/early '00s golden age came to an end. While I cannot say that I have been a fan of all of Fluxion's various detours over the years, Soublis's unpredictably hit-or-miss discography has continued to surprise me with a legitimate hit every few years. In fact, Fluxion has been in unusually fine form recently and that upswing seems to have culminated in this album, which is unexpectedly one of the most uniformly strong and inspired releases in the project's entire oeuvre. Part of that success is likely due to Soublis's decision to take his vision in a more intimate and inwardly inspired direction (the album was inspired by "real life moments, people, expectations, joy, dreams and disappointments"), but the primary appeal of Parallel Moves is that his new inspirations manifested themselves in quite a killer batch of unusually sensual, soulful, and melodic songs. To my ears, this is a very strong contender for the best Fluxion album ever released.

Vibrant Music

At its core, Parallel Moves still very much feels like a Fluxion album, as the usual dub techno elements are all in place (propulsive grooves, dub-wise production shadings, a fondness for minimalism, and a warm, repeating pulse), but it also feels elevated in a way that is difficult to pin down. I have seen it described as jazz-tinged and "almost balearic," however, and that seems reasonably accurate: it certainly feels breezy and tropical at times, yet is also feels like a lot of other things as well. The deeper transformation seems to lie in the execution rather than the style, as the best songs feel organic, nuanced, and casually effortless in the best way possible. For example, the album’s zenith is "Orange Sky," which is essentially just a stomping, off-kilter beat, a simple two-chord pulse, and some warm, bleary drones, yet the magic lies in the details and the dynamics (finger snaps, flickers of spectral guitar, etc.). Moreover, Soublis somehow makes it all feel effortless. It feels a bit like the heavily reggae-influenced dub techno of Rhythm & Sound, yet this is one of the rare instances where someone can match that celebrated project in quality, as Soublis steers that aesthetic into more sun-dappled territory with impressive lightness of touch and no loss of depth.

The title piece is even closer to the classic R&S sound at first, but the austere reggae groove proves to be merely the foundation for a smokily beautiful and soulful electric piano melody. And it only gets better from there, as an echoey dub breakdown steadily builds into a thumping and vaguely noirish finale. Elsewhere, "Correlation" beautifully transforms a warmly bittersweet synth reverie into a surprisingly sensual and thumping house banger, while "In Limbo" takes that four-on-the-floor kick drum into neon-lit noir-jazz territory (if Nicolas Winding Refn made a hyper-stylized Raymond Chandler adaptation with lots of slow-motion night driving scenes, this would absolutely be the appropriate soundtrack). "Blue and Yellow" is another highlight, as what feels like an improvised vamp steadily evolves into a nuanced, shapeshifting juggernaut that seems like it would have only continued to get better and better if it had been allowed to extend for the entire album. Naturally, there are plenty of other excellent grooves and delightful stylistic twists among the remaining pieces, as Soublis rarely (if ever) misses the mark here. More than that, however, he regularly blows up the goddamn mark with a seemingly supernatural gift for subtly incorporating new elements at precisely the right time to make a song catch fire. I have had this album in heavy rotation for months and I have yet to start growing tired of it, as there is a seemingly endless host of details and shadings to newly appreciate with each listen. Parallel Moves is instantly canonical dub techno.

Samples can be found here.

2292 Hits

't Geruis, "Various Thoughts and Places"

cover image

Released back in the spring, this debut full-length from cryptically named Belgian composer 't Geruis has gradually blossomed into my favorite Lost Tribe Sound release not made by William Ryan Fritch or Andy Cartwright. According to the composer, Various Thoughts and Places is "an exercise in finding the balance between beauty and what is broken," which is a concise and poetic way of saying that this album shares a healthy amount of common ground with the more sublime side of tape loop artists such as Craig Tattersall and Andrew Hargreaves. Admittedly, few stylistic niches scream "Anthony D'Amico will like this” more than that one, but this album is also unexpectedly psychotropic and otherworldly in a way that is quite unique to 't Geruis. My best stab at describing that vision is that Various Thoughts and Places sounds like it was crafted from a handful of fragments of gorgeous and impressionistic-leaning classical albums and enhanced with strangled animal-like howls (I think there may also be a cannibalized pop song that I cannot place lurking in there too). Moreover, the execution is absolutely transcendent. Anyone looking for a slow-burning and immersive phantasmagoria of hissing loops and tenderly bittersweet melodies can basically begin and end their search here, as it is damn near impossible to imagine anyone surpassing this modest masterpiece once it hits its stride.

Lost Tribe Sound

The opening "Tree Weeping (Lacrima)" nicely sets the gently hallucinatory mood with a one-finger piano melody wandering through a landscape of subtle string drones, crackle, and hiss before blossoming into a lovely and bittersweet violin melody. In a rough sense, both the opener and the album as a whole could be described as "classical-adjacent," as the primary building blocks are simple piano and string melodies, but the album starts to feel considerably more unique and inspired with the third piece ("Een Deur Ergens In De Vallei"), as the full depth of 't Geruis's vision starts to quietly reveal itself. It evokes a flickering, slow motion silent film accompanied by a crackling supernatural Victrola that imbues every sound with a dreamlike melancholia that feels gnawed, vulnerable, and lovesick. From that point onward, the album settles into a sustained run of absolutely beautiful pieces that makes it clear that 't Geruis is probably some kind of textural genius/master loop architect. On "Where Birds Resonate," for example, a simple plinking melody gradually starts tumbling into itself while a cricket-like textural backdrop hypnotically pulses and pans in see-sawing fashion, while "Le Cadeau d'Alice" calls to mind the gossamer folktronica of early Colleen enhanced with a corroded-sounding bass loop that feels half "industrial" and half "slowly heaving cosmic exhalation."

Elsewhere, "Rendit l'Âme" uses a simple, pretty piano loop as the backdrop from a gnarled, warbling melody that sounds like it is struggling to emerge from the spirit realm. There is a definite "séance" vibe to the piece, but it also feels more visceral than that, as if 't Geruis built a homemade microphone that could pick up the sadness of eternity and that it manifested itself as a loop of tape-ravaged, heartbroken moans. Despite that, the piece and the album are not particularly dark one on their surface, as the central focus is almost always on light, lovely melodies rather than brooding atmospheres—the melodies just happen to be corroded, crackling, and hiss-chewed to such a degree that they always feel haunted and otherworldly. I suppose I would be remiss if I did not also mention that "Wanneer Alles Even Stil Staat" and "De Waarnemer" are highlights as well, but the album feels like a series of elegant variations on the same themes and its true magic lies in the sustained and beautiful spell that it casts as a whole. At its best, Various Thoughts and Places scratches roughly the same itch as some other contemporary tape music melancholia luminaries (always welcome territory), yet it also feels like it is being somehow channeled from an earlier century, which is quite a neat trick (and a tough illusion to sustain). While it admittedly took me a few listens before the full beauty of 't Geruis's vision began to fully bleed into my consciousness, I certainly got there eventually and this has since become one of my favorite releases of the year.

Samples can be found here.

2097 Hits

Old Saw, "Country Tropics"

cover imageThis is the debut album from a "network of New England string pluckers, organ drivers and bell ringers" centered around composer/pedal steel guitarist Henry Birdsey. This is my first real encounter with Birdsey's work, though I was vaguely aware of his duo Tongue Depressor with Crazy Doberman's Zach Rowdan. While I do not get the usual otherworldly "Just Intonation" vibe from Country Tropics' buzzing and layered harmonies, unconventional tunings have historically been a central theme in Birdsey's work, so that may be an element here too. Then again, Old Saw seems like a very different project than Birdsey's usual fare in one very significant way, as Country Tropics is billed as a unique strain of devotional music. I believe it is a secular one, however, as the album description claims "Old Saw points our gaze downward towards the terrafirma unconsidered, and guides our hands into the dirt" rather than towards a "fantastical, celestial vision of understanding." Regardless of their inspirations, Old Saw is an ensemble like no other, approximating a rustic drone or free folk ensemble like Pelt or Vibracathedral Orchestra in an especially warm and transcendent mood (albeit not so warm and transcendent as to preclude some welcome sharp edges, shadows of dissonance, and heavy buzzing strings). This is quite an excellent and unique album.

Lobby Art

Aside from the strangely beautiful and poetic cover art of a dirt bike soaring over the clouds, Country Tropics is the sort of album that could easily be mistaken for an old private press release from a rural religious commune. I would definitely find it challenging to guess where that commune was located, however, as the vibe feels like a quaint, historic small New England town was dropped onto a sundappled Pacific coast. Regardless of where that hypothetical commune is based, Old Saw seem to be channeling something beautiful and magical in a way that is quite singular, as these four drone reveries feel simultaneously dreamlike, homespun, and earthy. Knowing that Birdsey is a serious avant-garde composer helps explain how the album ultimately turned out so texturally compelling and languorously hallucinatory, but it also feels like he consciously set out to make something pure, semi-traditional, and organically collaborative. This is kind of a "best of both worlds" situation, as the compositions themselves are simple, beautiful, and devoid of self-conscious artiness, yet they definitely sound like they were ultimately produced by someone who knows how to craft richly textured and harmonically interesting sound art.

Each of the four pieces is quite lovely in its own way, but the first two feel like the most gorgeous incarnations of Old Saw's devotional dreamscapes of bygone Americana. I honestly do not know how the ensemble conjured the buzzing backing drones for the opening "Dead Creek Drawl," as none of the instruments I think I hear (shruti box, tampura) are listed in the credits, but it all certainly sounds great nonetheless. As the piece unfolds, however, the gently churning and buzzing acoustic drones are subtly enhanced with rippling banjo arpeggios, woozily sliding pedal steel, moaning strings, and fleeting glimpses of a very cool guitar motif. The piece has a very unhurried and meditative feel that suits it well, as I do not feel like Old Saw are headed toward a destination so much as fading in and out of focus from a place of sublime bliss that I am quite content to linger in. "The Mechanical Bull at Our Lady of the Valley" initially has a more propulsive feel due to Harper Reed's rapidly rippling nylon string arpeggios, but otherwise sticks to roughly the same territory as its predecessor until some inspired new elements creep into the reverie, as it feels like someone starts prying the top off a Pandora's Box of subtle and warm psych textures (flickers of backwards melodies, twinkling and clanging bells, etc.). The remaining two pieces are cut from roughly the same cloth, which is just fine by me, as the real magic of Country Tropics is that Old Saw manage to cast and sustain a mesmerizing and immersive spell of soulful, subtly hallucinatory tranquility for nearly forty minutes. This is a quiet and modest masterpiece—the kind of album that I wish I could live inside.

Samples can be found here.

2305 Hits

Body/Dilloway/Head

cover imagePast experience has taught me not to get too excited about promising-sounding collaborations between great artists, but the allure of this particular project was admittedly damn hard to resist: Body/Head is consistently the most provocative and intense of Sonic Youth's descendants and Aaron Dilloway seems absolutely incapable of releasing a disappointing album these days. Still, there is never any way to predict which threads will assert their dominance when distinctive visions collide, so there are a number of possible shapes that this album could have taken. To my ears, it is Dilloway's broken, murky, and obsessively looping aesthetic that mostly steers the ship, but the balance between the three artists is sufficiently unpredictable and shifting to make this trio feel like something quite different from either Dilloway's solo work or past Body/Head releases. Matt Krefting already did a fine job of summarizing the trio's shared vision with "over and over one gets the sense that the music is trying to wake itself from a dream," but it is also more than that, as this trio have a real knack for slowly transforming gnarled and challenging introductory themes into unexpected passages of sublime beauty.

Three Lobed

The album is comprised of two longform pieces separated by a shorter piece ("Goin' Down") and each one feels like a different direction or even an entirely different band. In fact, the album art does a remarkably great job at conveying what the music is like: a handful of recognizable elements chopped up and re-assembled into a nearly unrecognizable abstraction. The opening "Body/Erase" is the most "Dilloway" of the three songs, as it features a long, slow fade in of subtly oscillating drone and warped tape warbles that feel like an unsettling dream where conversations are slowed and smeared into something inscrutable and vaguely sinister. Gradually, the gnarled tape loop fragment become more frequent and violent, blossoming into a jabbering, splattering phantasmagoria that starts to become even more unhinged shortly after the nine-minute mark with the appearance of an ugly repeating buzz and an insistent pedal tone from Nace's guitar. Once all the elements are in place, "Body/Erase" becomes a massive, seething juggernaut of layered cacophony.

In the wake of that slow-burning tour de force, some more recognizable and expected elements surface with "Goin' Down," which initially sounds like a classic Sonic Youth single that has been stretched and deconstructed into abstraction. I dig the repeating howl of warbling guitar noise, but the real payoff is the squelching, wobbly, and ruined reverie of the final minute. The album then ends with its wildest, most go-for-broke piece, as the shapeshifting 13-minute epic "Secret Cuts" alternately sounds like the slow boinging of a massive cosmic spring, a noise guitar show frozen in looping suspended animation, and the hushed voice of an angel speaking from inside my head ("do you want?" is the only phrase that I can reliably make out). Some of the transitions between segments can be a little jarring (purposely, I presume), but all of the segments themselves are compelling and lead to a lovely set piece of warm, swelling drones and flickering voice fragments. It is damn lovely while it lasts, but an earlier noise guitar motif unexpectedly claws its way back from the grave to end the piece on an ugly, gnarled note. I cannot say that I am particularly surprised that Nace and Gordon were so game to let Dilloway drag their vision through a meat grinder or that the end result was so good, yet I was legitimately caught off guard by the ephemeral oases of beauty that occasionally surface. While this can admittedly be a prickly, difficult, and potentially room-clearing album at times, it is also a singular and unusually memorable release for all involved (no mean feat, given the massive, highlight-filled discography of the trio).

Samples can be found here.

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Emeka Ogboh, "Beyond the Yellow Haze"

cover imageThis bombshell release is the first album from Nigerian sound and installation artist Emeka Ogboh, but it sounds like the assured work of killer dub techno producer at the height of their powers. On its surface, Beyond The Yellow Haze admittedly (and probably unintentionally) shares a lot of common ground with prime Muslimgauze, as a central theme of Ogboh's art is his passion for capturing the ambient city sounds of Lagos. Consequently, these five pieces are nicely enhanced with layers of street noise, conversations, and passing snatches of melody, yet Beyond The Yellow Haze is primarily a great album because Ogboh is a goddamn wizard at crafting heavy, shape-shifting grooves with elegant dubwise percussion flourishes. I suppose the beats also creep into Muslimgauze territory at times, as Ogboh is similarly quite fond of slow and hypnotic grooves flavored with African and Arabic rhythms, yet the two artists differ dramatically when it comes to focus and exacting execution (among other things), as nearly every song here is a flawless diamond of immersively layered textures, slow-burning dynamic transformation, and crunching physicality. This is probably the strongest beat-driven album that I have heard all year, debut or otherwise.

A-Ton/Ostgut Ton

This is technically a reissue, as the album first surfaced as a limited vinyl release of 150 hand-numbered copies as part of Ogboh's 2018 exhibition at Galerie Imane Farès in Paris. I suspect very few people outside the visual art world noticed or heard that initial release, however, so it is a minor miracle that Berlin's influential Ostgut Ton picked up the baton to give Beyond The Yellow Haze a well-deserved second chance to make an impact three years later. It certainly made an impact on me within its first minute, as "Lekki Aiah Freeway" is a feast of deep dubby grooves, stuttering woodblock flourishes, and dreamlike rave pads. The ghostly synth bits quite beautiful and unexpected, but they are also basically just icing on an already perfect cake: I could listen to Ogboh build and dismantle a beat all goddamn day.

Unsurprisingly, an opening salvo that resembles a giant woodpecker stomping his way Godzilla-style through crowded Lagos streets on his way to the club is quite hard to top, yet Ogboh nevertheless manages to surpass that killer opener at least once with "Everydaywehustlin" (and arguably a second time with the more ambient-inspired "Palm Groove").  In a rough sense, "Everydaywehustlin" is quite similar to "Lekki Aiah Freeway," but with the beautiful synth pads mostly swapped out for layers of street noise and voices. As far as I am concerned, however, the salient point is that "Everydaywehustlin" is a monster groove for the ages, as it sounds like a great Muslimgauze album and a chopped & screwed Notorious B.I.G. tape crash landed in the middle of a busy Lagos street (and the woodpecker is back too). It is, quite simply, an endlessly shifting juggernaut of industrial-damaged heavy dub brilliance. The album's other beat-driven piece ("Danfo Mellow") does not quite hit as hard for me, as a gently burbling synth motif is entrusted with a bit too much heavy lifting, but it may be a good entry point for those looking for a bit melody in the balance. The album's final major piece, "Palm Grove," unexpectedly abandons drums entirely in favor of bleary, rainswept ambiance that evokes a sensual, hallucinatory, and neon-soaked tour of late-night Lagos streets experienced through the window of a slow-moving cab. Remarkably, even the extremely brief "Outro" that concludes album is kind of great, as Ogboh manages to turn 90 seconds of finger bells and distant street noise into an immersive and gently psychotropic reverie. To my ears, this album is at worst two or three instant classics in the span of just five songs, but it comes extremely damn close to being a wall-to-wall tour de force.

Samples can be found here.

2344 Hits

Phương Tâm: Magical Nights – Saigon Surf, Twist & Soul (1964-1966)

cover imageThis collection, which I hereby deem an instant Sublime Frequencies classic, is devoted entirely to the long-unheard and elusive discography of one of the most magnetic singers of Saigon's "golden music" age. Part of the reason why Ph∆∞∆°ng T√¢m's work has languished in undeserved semi-obscurity is grimly predictable, as most of her music was destroyed during Vietnam's great purge of American-influenced culture in 1975, but T√¢m also abruptly ended her singing career in her prime to pursue forbidden love instead (an acceptably cool reason, I feel). According to her daughter Hannah H√†, Phương Tâm remained something of a highly localized karaoke supernova in the years since her stardom days, but H√† did not discover how truly famous her mom actually was until late 2019. One thing led to another and H√† found Mark Gergis after discovering his beloved Saigon Rock and Soul compilation. Gergis and a handful of like-minded crate-digging luminaries then set about tracking down as much of Ph∆∞∆°ng T√¢m's rare and often mistakenly attributed oeuvre as they could find, much of which even T√¢m herself had not heard since the recording sessions. While the journey to this album is undeniably a fascinating and heart-warming one, the best part is the songs themselves, as this album is a treasure trove of fun, soulful, and sexy genre-blurring gems from the golden age of swinging Saigon nightlife. Moreover, I was legitimately gobsmacked to learn that these songs were all recorded by the same person in such a brief span, as T√¢m channels everything from Brenda Lee to Ella Fitzgerald to the kind of impossibly cool, sexy, and ahead-of-their-time numbers that feel like would-be highlights from Lux Interior and Poison Ivy‚Äôs oft-anthologized record collection.

Sublime Frequencies

Fittingly, the story of Phương Tâm's rise to stardom is nearly as strange and improbable as the story of this compilation, as her passion for music was first ignited by the ambient sounds of the courtyard where she played with friends as a child ("from one particular house, all sorts of American music seeped into the courtyard"). Once Tâm was thusly "introduced to a new world beyond traditional Vietnamese music," she proved to be a natural at assimilating the rapidly evolving cultural forces of the era ("musical trends with wild, ephemeral dance crazes were being thought up weekly; the twist, hully gully, the mashed potato – none of them a problem for Phương Tâm."). I dearly hope the same can someday be said of me. Fatefully, Tâm entered a singing competition at age 16 and soon became a fixture at various legendary Saigon nightclubs (often performing at multiple venues in a single night). Unsurprisingly, she quickly caught the attention of all of Saigon's most influential record labels and composers, as she was a "commanding presence" as well as "one of the very first singers to perform and record rock and roll." Demand for Tâm was such that she recorded "almost 30 known tracks" between 1964 and 1966 that seemed to effortlessly channel every fun twist- or rockabilly-esque trend of the time. Most (or all) of those hits are here and they are invariably a delight, yet the real magic of Magical Nights is the handful of less "bubblegum" pieces that feel like a killer surf band, a Bollywood dance party, a James Dean-style teen exploitation film, and a sensuous cabaret chanteuse all blurred together in a perfect cocktail of soulful, kitschy, and hip-shaking fun. One such gem ("Có Nhớ Đêm Nào") kicks off the album in style, but that is only the first of many bombshells to come. My other personal favorites are currently the slinky-sounding "Ngày Phép Của Lính" and the rolling lurch of "Anh Đâu Em Đó," but there is also an extremely generous helping of second-tier highlights destined to keep growing on me, as Tâm was almost always backed by musicians who knew how to whip up a hot groove. This entire album is pure pop bliss.

Samples can be found here.

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