Reviews Search

Ak'chamel, The Giver Of Illness, "Totemist"

cover image

This singular album was released back in February 2020 right before the pandemic upended everything, so I sadly never got around to writing about it. I am attempting to right that wrong now, however, as this inscrutable and anonymous Texas duo is the most consistently fascinating psych project around and this album has been in fairly heavy rotation for me since it came out. Granted, "consistently fascinating" is not quite the same thing as "consistently great," but Totemist is an unusually accessible release for the creepily costumed pair, as this vinyl debut ostensibly "marks a new direction" for the project. That mostly just means that these "fourth world post-colonial cultural cannibalists" wrote a more melodic and focused batch of songs than usual and took a break from "the oppressively lo-fi sound" of their previous tapes. Happily. all of those changes suit the band quite well, but Ak'Chamel still basically sound like a haunted, shambling pile of Sun City Girls and Sublime Frequencies albums that has been possessed by the spirit of an ancient shaman. Which, of course, is exactly how I would want them to sound.

Akuphone

It is impossible to speculate on the identity of Ak'Chamel without instantly thinking of the Bishop brothers, as Totemist feels like a perfect blend of Sir Richard's Eastern-influenced guitar virtuosity and the warped vision and dark humor of Alvarius B. Also, Sublime Frequencies regulars Robert Millis and Mark Gergis are both explicitly involved. Case closed! That said, if the Bishops are behind Ak’Chamel, it only raises more questions ("so why was Ak’Chamel briefly a black metal band?" being one that springs to mind). In any case, Totemist would have made a truly killer follow up to Funeral Mariachi regardless of who was involved, as Ak’Chamel are legitimately quite good at making droning, Middle Eastern-inspired desert psychedelia. The real magic of the album, however, lies in how those perfectly good desert-psych jams regularly dissolve like a mirage to reveal something considerably darker, weirder, and more hallucinatory. At various points, Totemist calls to mind heavy trance-inducing harmonium drones, a wrong-speed field recording of an ancient tribal ritual, a chorus of sinister puppets, a cannibalized Phurpa album, and a fever dream about an all-Muppet mariachi band. Needless to say, it is a hypnotically creepy and surreal journey indeed, but considerably less nightmarish than some of the duo's previous releases (parts of which would seem perfectly at home in an evidence bag labeled "Dyatlov Pass Incident" or an alternate reality where The Blair Witch was actively involved in the early 2000s cassette underground). There are admittedly still some traces of that dark and murky terrain here, but Totemist is wonderful largely because of how effortlessly and organically the two poles of the bands' vision bleed into each another like an increasingly malfunctioning reality simulation. If I had to choose a favorite song, I would go with the colorfully titled "The Funeral of a Woman Whose Soul is Trapped in the Sun" or "Phallus Palace," but Totemist's phantasmagoric vision quest is best experienced as a sustained immersion.

Samples can be found here.

5020 Hits

Dean McPhee, "Witch's Ladder"

cover image

At this point in his career, each new Dean McPhee release feels like a legitimate event, as he surfaces quite rarely and always hits me with at least one absolutely stunning piece when he does. Consequently, this review could probably be condensed to merely "Dean McPhee has a new album," as that would convey everything necessary to perk up the ears of most people already familiar with his body of achingly beautiful, slow-burning guitar magic. Unsurprisingly, Witch's Ladder does nothing to dash those dauntingly high expectations, as it picks up right where 2017's Four Stones left off and that one was a very strong contender for McPhee’s finest album. And now Witch's Ladder is a strong contender for that honor as well. Beyond that, the only salient details are that the cover art comes from visionary symbolist painter Agnes Pelton and that the album's second half is a near-perfect two-song run of hauntingly sublime beauty.

Hood Faire

Given his association with the Folklore Tapes milieu, McPhee's unusual choice of cover art is not a surprise, but it is a telling detail that provides some insight into what he seems to be reaching towards with his own work. When reading The Whitney's description of last year's Pelton exhibition, I was repeatedly struck by phrases like "meditative stillness," "shimmering veils of light," and "awareness of a world that lay behind physical appearances." All of those phrases are apt for the five songs of Witch's Ladder as well, but McPhee admirably finds an ingenious array of ways to get there. That said, the pieces do all share a rough foundational aesthetic of "fingerpicked 'folk music' played on an electric guitar," though each either ultimately builds into something considerably more transcendent or blossoms into quietly beautiful psychedelia in the margins. All are excellent and feature emotively smoldering or lyrically melodic solos at their core, but the most interesting twists occur in the final three pieces (in ascending order of brilliance, no less). In "Red Lebanese," for example, the winding and languorously smoke-like melody fitfully evokes a trippy synth spiraling off into space, while "Eksdale Path" unexpectedly coheres into a killer "dual-guitar harmony" passage. As much as I love "Eksdale Path," however, it is immediately eclipsed by the epic closer, as "Witch's Ladder" is basically three songs' worth of killer ideas seamlessly blended into one. In fact, I had not even finished typing "sounds like the twin-guitar attack of classic Iron Maiden just dropped by for a surprisingly tasteful cameo" before it turned into a hallucinatory duel between intertwining forwards and backwards guitar melodies (or at least a convincing illusion of it). It is a characteristically mesmerizing bit of show-stealing slow-motion sorcery, but the show already quite wonderful beforehand, as there truly is not a single wasted note on this album. Witch's Ladder is another instant classic from Dean McPhee.

Samples can be found here.

4595 Hits

Ulrich Schnauss & Jonas Munk, "Eight Fragments Of An Illusion"

Eight Fragments Of An Illusion cover imagePart of Ulrich Schnauss's musical history is building layers of beautiful electronic imagery, both within his solo work and partnering with others. Schnauss is paired up once again with Danish recording and mastering engineer Jonas Munk, member of space rockers Causa Sui and half of the ambient chill-out duo Billow Observatory. These two equally talented creators produce a lush mélange of extraordinarily hypnotic dreamscapes on Eight Fragments Of An Illusion. Rich kosmische textures, vibrant guitar, and concentrated layers of electronic atmosphere make for an engaging ride, especially when experienced on headphones.

Azure Vista

The third release from the duo expands upon the more restrictive electronic melodies prevalent in the previous efforts, providing for an expansion of musical interplay and greater emotional depth. The previous collaborations leaned heavily towards Causa Sui-style rock rhythms supported by a '90s analog synth template. Eight Fragments moves beyond this mold, bursting forth with glistening textures, consisting of a satisfying interplay of shimmering guitars, awash in ambient synthesizer, evocative melodies spurred by motorik rhythms. "Asteroid 2467" is the album's ear-catching opening, a heart-swelling piece that ebbs and flows like a wave, drawing out and back into the bright and exuberant "Return To Burlington." The majority of the tracks function like independent stories (hence, fragments) over the album's entirety, evoking mental imagery through practiced waves of sounds and layered instrumentation. My personal favorite, "Perpetual Motion," can easily take its rightful place in the immense catalog of classic Kosmische rock; every nook and cranny of the nearly 11 minutes bursts with gemütlichkeit, a pure feeling of warmth and contentment, and filled with diverse ear ticklers. Every fragment here is magical, easily listened to individually but making up a single illusion. "Polychrome" seals the illusion with a choir of cosmic voices, fading into silence to entrance again. Time to repeat.

Sound samples can be found here.

4825 Hits

Naturaliste, "Temporary Presence"

cover image Founded as a band in Omaha, Nebraska in 1998, Naturaliste's first release in over 15 years is certainly a drastic departure from the local, improvised shows the group was responsible for. Rather than those frequent, though often dubiously captured recordings, Temporary Presence is not only a highly quality document of fully realized artistry, but also a document of where the band is so many years later.

Almost Halloween Time/Gertrude Tapes/Public Eyesore/Unread Records

The band, consisting of Bryan Day, Christopher Fischer, Charles LaReau, and L. Eugene Methe have mostly departed the Midwest, with recordings captured in Omaha, Beijing, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Shanghai brought in by all four artists comprising a significant portion of Temporary Presence. The record's title not only references the nature of these often found/incidental recordings, but also that the remainder of the album was recorded by the quartet within a rented musical instrument shop in Shanghai.

The result is six pieces of music that encompass a bit of everything sonically, from identifiable, played instruments, to abnormal processing, and a bit of unidentifiable field recordings and ambiguous chaos. The piano and oddly pitched bells/chimes on "The Swallows Have Returned" contrast the rattling vibrations and hard to define noises here and there. Combining expansive spaces to chaotic electronics and slightly rhythmic knocking it is certainly dense, but never feels formless or unstructured. "At the Worst of It" is similar in its piano paired with noise, but the voices (and the monstrous treatments to them) makes it a different matter altogether.

The group turns up the creepy factor on "It's Just the Air Conditioner," which minimizes the howling expansive sound and treated guitar that appear. Compared to other pieces on the record the sound is more streamlined overall, and perhaps that focus is what makes it eerie overall. The mood is similar on "Vitals," which is heavily reverberated pulsing electronics. Mixing in a heavily treated guitar (or bass), knocking objects, and what could be an electronic piano here and there, and the sense of mystery borders on malignancy.

One of the characteristics I found most captivating about Temporary Presence is the way Naturaliste combines the use of instruments that were obviously recorded in a group/combo setting with the far more ambiguous processing and recordings done independently. It is an excellent balance of identifiable layers with the mysterious that at times might seem like pure chaos on the surface, but a deeper listen indicates a clearer sense of unity from all four performers.

Samples Available Here

4747 Hits

Parashi, "Against Eugenic Massacre"

cover image Mike Griffin, as Parashi, is one of the most prolific noise artists in the upstate New York region, both on his own and in collaborations with others, such as John Olson (as Spykes) and Noise Nomads. Against Eugenic Massacre features him doing what he does best: a murky combination of psychedelic electronics, incidental rhythms, and mysterious ambiences that perfectly balances between harsh experimentation and complex environments.

Half-A-Million Records

Right from the first moments of "(No Consequence for) Glacier Burner," Griffin's artistry is obvious. Opening from a mass of ray gun pulses and crunchy fragments that vaguely imitate a rhythm, that blend of sci-fi electronics and organic textures are clearly on display. Shifting the mix to the occasional open, haunted space, erratic outbursts o what sounds like helicopters and off-kilter pitched tones add to the cavernous mystery of sound. With "Glacier Burner" covering the bulk of the A side of the tape, the brief "Klangermann" almost resembles a coda with its brevity and subtle mix of unidentifiable sounds and manipulated cassette tapes.

On the other side, "Rats in Paradise" is at first a blend of echoing loops and stuttering clicks that could almost be a woodpecker adding the foundation to which Griffin builds. Layer by layer he constructs a denser mix, adding layers over a ghostly, drifting backdrop. Fuzzy squalls and squeaks appear, but the obscurity of sounds and processing give a bit of menace to the work. With some weird buzzing and less distorted tones appearing towards the end, the mood lightens near the conclusion. For the concluding "Ingress" though, Griffin brings things back into the haunted house via random knocking and clattering sounds bathed in reverb and filtering. Static waves and swells in sound, and what almost could be a horn of some sort end the tape perfectly.

Parashi has always exceeded my expectations with every new release, and Against Eugenic Massacre is yet another example of this. Abstraction and weirdness always abounds, but there is a complexity and nuance to his work that sets it apart from being just "noise." Another great Parashi tape, and an excellent release from the newly established Half-a-Million Records, (the house label for Belltower Records in North Adams, Massachusetts and one of the top record stores in the region).

4523 Hits

Phew / John Duncan / Kondo Tatsuo, "Backfire of Joy"

https://f4.bcbits.com/img/a0700186680_16.jpgThis short release captures the only performance from the trio. Recorded at Hosei University, Tokyo, on John Duncan’s first visit to Japan in 1982, it is a fascinating document both in the context of that visit but also in terms of the creativity, emotion, technique, and improvisation. The participants are meeting here for the first time, although they were familiar with each other’s work through tape exchange. Duncan is finding and processing shortwave radio signals, Tatsuo using piano, tape loops, and synth textures, and Phew vocalizing in English and Japanese. 

Black Truffle

On the first of two pieces, "Backfire," the group plunges straight into a tense section dominated by percussive tape loops and Phew’s hybrid chant-song. The effect is of a woman plodding around in metal boots and tinkering on a broken stylophone while absentmindedly reading aloud the labels of electronic appliances. Yet she is actually offering up a kind of liturgy “I already sold you… an electric plug, an electric bell, an electric cooker, an electric kettle, an electric toothbrush, an electric knife...don’t let me sell you... an electric chair.” If this is a serious message against consumerism or the death penalty then the paradoxical mundane glamor in the charming tone and rhythm of her voice elevates it far above dull moralizing. Around the seven minute mark comes a halt and bare smattering of applause gives way to a more mournful flow, with chiming and buzzing synth melodies. Then Phew switches to Japanese and the abrasiveness ratchets up in a thumping swirling climax.

“Backfire" is the more gritty and dissonant of the two pieces but the creative extemporization holds together very well. Pearls are made by grit, and the second, slightly shorter, “Joy” has a soothing and ecstatic atmosphere and more breathing space for the music. There is a wonderful feel to this track, and Duncan’s spluttering bursts of shortwave noise provide perfect contrast to elegaic singing and echoing piano notes. A slightly over-the-top comparison would be stalactites dropping into a moonlit pool of molten silver. Phew manages to sound as if she’s singing backwards.

The tape exchange meant these collaborators will have had an idea of what the others would bring to the performance, but it is intriguing to wonder if some of the audience knew of Duncan's previous events and expected to be challenged by upsetting or confrontational elements. To describe him as notorious would (still) be a massive understatement. It is arguable that this recording only exists because of his self-exile from the USA. He had acquired a reputation for transforming his personal experience into disturbing art and also using disturbing art to trigger transforming personal experiences in others. I refer in particular to the 1980 performance combining two separate but linked events: an audio recording of Duncan allegedly having sex with a cadaver (which he’d obtained by bribing a mortuary assistant in Mexico) and projected photographs of his later vasectomy, presented to a Los Angeles audience as Blind Date - a depiction of male rejection turning into rage and self-punishing loathing. This work made his earlier Scare from 1976, wherein people answered their door to be confronted by a figure (Duncan) in a head mask, pointing and firing a blank-loaded gun in their face before fleeing, seem relatively benign. Blind Date provoked a backlash of such fierce critical and personal opinion that two years later Duncan relocated to Japan as something of a cultural leper.

Backfire of Joy occurred as Duncan was deliberately submerging himself into a new country and the alienating effects of a foreign language. A creative dialogue works here, though, with Phew and Tatsuo at least equal partners in the trio. The record can be enjoyed without an understanding of how Duncan's upbringing and personal history affected his art. Equally, the event did not rely on Reichian breathing exercises or rather “hyperventilation used to create a complete loss of physical and psychic control" or the need for an audience to confront or dissolve the personal armor preventing us from getting in touch with our true nature. That’s just as well, as I won’t be shedding my armor any time soon - at least not the visor and codpiece.

Samples can be found here.

4744 Hits

Anne Guthrie, "Gyropedie"

cover image

Anne Guthrie's third album for Students of Decay continues her trend of significantly transforming her vision with each new release, though the arc of her albums does consistently suggest an increasing aversion to conventional structure and musicality. In practical terms, that means that Gyropedie was primarily assembled from field recordings, though Guthrie's French horn does make a few ghostly and well-timed appearances. Notably, the sounds that Guthrie collected are entirely diaristic in nature ("quite literally a record of pilgrimage from East to West"), as she recorded and collaged a host of ephemeral and meaningful moments from her move from New York to California (birds, crunching snow, instruments that she had to sell, etc.). As Guthrie wryly notes in the album description, she found herself "becoming an impressionist." I heartily concur and believe that approach suits her work remarkably well. Given the deliberately abstract and elusive nature of the material, it took me a bit longer to become drawn into Gyropedie than it did for Guthrie's previous releases, but the album's second half contains some of the most tender, distinctive, and quietly beautiful work that she has yet recorded.

Students of Decay

The opening "Threading A Closed Loop" is a bold and interesting way to introduce the album, as it slowly rolls in like a mysterious fog of ambient outdoor sounds, plinking strings, distant woodpeckers, murmured voices, bees, and an occasional strangled sound from Guthrie's French horn. It is frankly about as understated and impressionistic as an album can get, but it does gradually cohere into something quite intriguing and evocative (I especially like the part where it sounds like the bees bought a distortion pedal). The following "Hill, Mountain" undergoes a similar trajectory, initially sounding like someone fumbling with a microphone while a woman recites poetry over a distorted radio, but eventually it blossoms into an enigmatic scene that seems to capture the time-stretched sounds of a train passing through a gently hallucinatory landscape of singing birds and metallic drones. I believe the "broken synth" mentioned in the album description makes an appearance as well. Both it and its predecessor are subtly beautiful in their own ways, yet my favorite pieces are the ones that follow. In "Variation on Coral," Guthrie paints a lovely seaside scene, as a slow, lovely French horn melody lazily unfolds over a backdrop of gently gurgling and lapping waves, lysergically smeared chimes, cooing vocals, and a host of other curious sounds. The closing "The Goldbeater’s Skin," on the other hand, sounds like a duet between a quietly plinking and fitfully operational music box and a lovelorn French horn player in a particularly bittersweet mood, but it is further enlivened by an evocative array of breath-like textures and wounded-sounding squeaks and warbles. To my ears, it is unquestionably Gyropedie's most lovely and memorable piece, as the unexpectedly poignant horn melody feels like the beating heart of the album finally being revealed, yet it would not make nearly the same impact without the languorous and dreamlike journey beforehand. Granted, Gyropedie is an album that demands some patience and attentive listening to reveal its full beauty, but its fragile and tender fantasia of memory fragments is well served by that steadily deepening immersion.

Samples can be found here.

4326 Hits

Thomas Ankersmit, "Perceptual Geography"

cover imageThree years after the mesmerizing Homage to Dick Raaijmakers, Thomas Ankersmit is back with yet another bombshell inspired by an underappreciated electronic music visionary. In this case, that visionary is Maryanne Amacher, who also happens to be the person who fatefully introduced Ankersmit to his Serge modular synth. Naturally, the Serge retains its central role from the Raaijmakers album and Ankersmit masterfully wields it again to conjure up another hallucinatory swirl of phantom sounds and strange aural phenomena. The conceptual themes are bit different this time around, however, as Ankersmit explores the ideas laid out in Amacher's "Psychoacoustic Phenomena in Musical Composition: Some Features of a Perceptual Geography" essay. Unsurprisingly, Ankersmit does a stellar job psychoacoustically mapping out his own compelling perceptual geography with this release, but his most striking bit of sorcery actually occurs off the album, as the piece was engineered to trigger otoacoustic emissions, which are "sounds emanating from inside the head, generated by the ears themselves."

Shelter Press

The album fades into existence with a quietly oscillating electronic hum that gradually becomes increasingly disrupted by squelches, blurts, crackles of static, swells of feedback, and something resembling shortwave radio transmissions. That is admittedly not radical territory for a vintage modular synth album, yet each sound feels like a meaningful building block that incrementally moves the composition closer and closer to one of Ankersmit's beguiling set pieces. The first of those starts taking shape around the 9-minute mark, eventually reaching a crescendo that sounds like asteroids slowly smashing into the hull of my spaceship while I fight off a swarm of psychedelic crickets. Things only get wilder and more intense from there, as the simmering brew of abstract electronic sounds repeatedly blossoms into striking new forms, at times even resembling a killer noise guitar act. The first truly "wow" moment hits around the 16-minute mark, as a haze of beeps, buzzes, and other squiggling and squirming electronic sounds starts to feel like it is actually burrowing into my goddamn mind. That is a hell of a trick, as the piece seems to transform as I turn my head from side to side. I suspect the live experience is even more transcendent, as Ankersmit always "tunes his instrument to the resonant characteristics of the performance space, so that the sounds activate the structure." He clearly takes the physics of sound very seriously and it pays off beautifully. Naturally, there are more dazzling climaxes as the album unfolds, including one that starts forming around the 26-minute mark in which Ankersmit sounds like the best damn noise artist on the planet. I easily could throw around some more colorful terms describing what transpires ("lysergic space aviary" and "gibbering, squelching cacophony" spring to mind), but the only thing that matters is that Perceptual Geography contains some of the most challenging, absorbing, and masterfully executed sound art that I have ever heard.

Samples can be found here.

4437 Hits

Andrew Chalk, "Paradise Lost"

cover imageNewly reissued on vinyl (and digitally) with beautiful new artwork, Paradise Lost was originally released as a cassette back in 2019. As is the norm for many Chalk releases, additional details beyond the fact that it exists are quite thin, but this one takes that to an amusing extreme, as the Discogs entry for the original cassette notes "label and artist name are not listed on the release." That said, I believe I can say with moderate certainty that these two longform pieces were recorded on an 8-track reel-to-reel between 2016 and 2018 and that Chalk primarily played a synthesizer. Also, his Ghosts on Water bandmate Naoko Suzuki contributed some very well-hidden vocals and created the artwork for the original tape. To some degree, it makes sense that this album originally surfaced as a very limited-small run tape, as it does not feel like one of Chalk's more significant opuses, but it is quite an enjoyable and interesting release nonetheless. In fact, the title piece feels like legitimately prime Andrew Chalk material to me, though I suspect many longtime fans will be more fascinated by the surprising and divergent "This Pendent World."

Faraway Press

One interesting bit of information that I stumbled upon while researching this album was a blurb from Daisuke Suzuki's Siren Records noting that this album "strongly recalls the atmosphere of home recording in the '80s." I got exactly the same impression myself from the opening "This Pendent World," as I had scribbled down that it felt like a duel between two very different artists from the golden age of private press New Age: one kosmische-inspired synth wizard hellbent on taking me to space and another guy who just wants to lull me into a blissful, bucolic reverie with some pretty string swells. There are also some traces of a third guy who closely resembles contemporary Andrew Chalk, as there is a loose melodic theme of wobbly, liquid tones likely originating from an electric piano. While that is certainly an odd collision to encounter on a Milton-themed Andrew Chalk record, it works surprisingly well, amiably and amorphously drifting and curling like a trail of smoke. The following "Paradise Lost" is similarly form-averse, but in a much more compelling way, as its frayed and smeared swells of warm synth tones feel teasingly just out of focus. Additionally lurking within the artfully blurred dream-fog are a slow-motion tumble of acoustic guitar fragments, ghostly traces of Naoko's lovely singing, and probably some pedal steel too. I am tempted to make a wince-inducing pun on the album title here, but "Paradise Lost" is simply too beautiful of a piece to deserve such an indignity, vividly evoking the slowly streaking and shifting colors of an especially gorgeous sunset.

Samples can be found here.

4612 Hits

Magic Castles, "Sun Reign"

Sun Reign cover imageMinneapolis-based Magic Castles make a glorious return with their fourth release on Anton Newcombe's label, weaving together jangly hooks and minor chords and slathering it with fuzz. The release is triumphant in that it was released at all, following the band's 2016 hiatus and songwriter Jason Edmonds' near-fatal car accident in 2019, not to mention contending with a pandemic. Sun Reign is a lush and dreamy masterpiece of layered musical intensities, awash in evocative imagery and heartful melodies.

'A' Recordings Ltd.

The music grabs hold with the plaintive "Sunburst" and never lets go, producing a perfume of joyful wistfulness atop minor chords, dropping low to rise airborne in exuberant joy, vocals low in the mix in favor of musical atmosphere and jangle onslaught. Hazy vocal harmonies interplay with sparkling guitar, ethereal violins, and a gentle yet encouraging rhythm section, preferring to drift comfortably through a paisley landscape but unafraid to cross into pop or folk territories. Case in point, "Lost Dimension" would appear to be the most blissed-out title, but at its heart is a song of longing: "Feeling so torn in two / caused me to lose time and space / gotta leave this empty space / Lost in another dimension without you." Many of the tracks reference a certain nostalgia for sixties folk, brought firmly to modern terra firma riding on a darker, but not despairing, energy. "Ode to the Wind," "Valley of Nysa" and "Surmise" are particularly reminiscent of that timeframe, suggestive of bands like Pentangle or Fairport Convention but with a thick topcoat of distortion and a paisley pop sensibility dialed to the maximum. The result is a masterful blend of evocative atmosphere and memorable melodies fueled by fuzzy guitars and passionate musicians.

The video for "Lost Dimension" can be found here.

5734 Hits

Vladislav Delay, "Rakka II"

cover image

The return of Sasu Ripatti's beloved and long-dormant Vladislav Delay project last year was quite a well-received one, suggesting that fans were unfazed by the fact that Rakka marked a sharp detour from the work that made the project so beloved in the first place. Naturally, that warranted a sequel and Rakka II sticks with roughly the same aesthetic as its predecessor, though Ripatti envisions this latest release as "a romantic summer vision full of hope and optimism," which is theoretically a very different tone from the cold "brutalist vibes" of the previous installment. To be fair, Rakka II does feel somewhat less like an pummeling assault from start to finish, yet Ripatti's "romantic summer vision" is still quite an intense ride. It roughly approximates what I imagine a Tim Hecker live set would be like if he wound up on an extreme metal bill and was hellbent on whipping up a mosh pit. I am not sure if that is an unambiguous compliment or not, but I genuinely do think Ripatti is onto something quite good here (sublime beauty faintly radiating from oversaturated textures and punishing, obsessively looping rhythms). While Rakka I was likely the bolder and more distinctive artistic statement, I feel like this successor is ultimately a bit more enjoyable, immersive, and amenable to repeat listening.

Cosmo Rhythmatic

The roiling and sputtering roar of the opening "Rakkn" unavoidably calls to mind the blown-out soundscapes of Tim Hecker or Ben Frost, as Ripatti shares a lot of aesthetic terrain with the two this time around (corroded textures, enthusiastic maximalism, endless sizzle, etc.). As the piece unfolds, however, it starts to feel the hissing, roaring soundscape is merely a sample in a larger piece that is slowly taking shape. While it never quite reaches full transcendence, the whooshing electronics and oddly lurching bass drum pattern Ripatti mixes in are nevertheless a very enjoyable enhancement. For me, however, this phase of Vladislav Delay is most compelling and distinctive when Ripatti unleashes a complex polyrhythm, as he does with "Raaha." In fact, I think my dream late-period Vladislav album would be just a longform collage of idling engines and other machines periodically syncing into cool patterns (someday, perhaps). Interestingly, there is one piece on the album that heads in the complete opposite direction ("Rakas"), as Ripatti dispenses entirely with percussion to craft a beautifully half-vaporous/half-rumbling dronescape. The other extreme is represented by the closing "Rapine," which sounds like an absolutely apocalyptic assault of crash cymbals, stuttering loops, and throbbing bass rumble. To my discerning ears, the best pieces are "Rakas," "Raaha," or the dub-techno-meets-engulfing-roar of "Raato," but every piece is compelling if you happen to enjoy stuttering, crackling, hissing, and disrupted textures. Ripatti clearly loves those textures himself, but his production talents are the real star here (along with Andreas Lubich's mastering), as this album feels like one visceral, richly textured, full frequency assault after another. If Rakka I felt like being repeatedly hit by a truck in the arctic tundra, Rakka II feels more like occasionally noticing some flowers while getting repeatedly hit by a truck in the springtime.

Samples can be found here.

4875 Hits

claire rousay, "a softer focus"

cover image

This latest release from the prolific claire rousay has been deservedly getting quite a lot of attention, as it can reasonably be called a creative breakthrough of sorts. At the very least, a softer focus documents an especially accessible and melodic strain of rousay's singular (if understated) vision. Obviously, most of the credit for that goes to rousay herself, as her work has always been on a upward trajectory, but this album was also significantly influenced by the involvement of visual artist Dani Toral, who is the creative force behind the album's non-musical content (cover art, videos, song titles, album title, etc.). While the artists' two visions seamlessly combine beautifully into one, some of the best parts as a pure listening experience involve the participation of less-central contributors, as my favorite pieces are warmed by violin and cello accompaniment from a trio of guest musicians. While I have always found rousay's work generally intriguing and unusually intimate, the more melodic and organic elements here definitely enhance her aesthetic wonderfully. This album genuinely feels like it is on a completely different level than most of rousay's previous releases.

American Dreams

After a brief and enigmatic introduction that sounds like a dictaphone recording of someone moving around a room and using a typewriter, the album begins in earnest with the absolutely gorgeous "discrete (the market)." It is essentially a continuation of the sounds from the opening "preston ave," but they are now joined by slow, beautiful drone swells and a shifting host of other elements (wind chimes, a tender piano melody, and an intensifying low-end surge). It evokes the sensation of blissfully lounging in an apartment on a perfect spring day while sunlight streams in, curtains gently sway, and sounds drift in from neighboring apartments and the street below. The following "peak chroma" is similarly excellent, as it feels like home videos of childhood vacations are flickering across a shimmering dronescape while an autotuned R&B jam plays on a fitfully operational radio. While "peak chroma" is ostensibly the album's hot single since it has a video, the next two songs are every bit as good, which adds up to an impressive four-song run of near-perfection. I especially enjoy how "diluted dreams" sounds like a reprise of the heavenly "discrete (the market)," but with added playground sounds and the impressive aural illusion of making me feel like I am slowly submerging in a bathtub. I also greatly appreciate the honesty and simplicity of rousay's overarching vision (using the mundane sounds of daily life as the building blocks for a deeper, more poignant whole), but it is the execution that makes this album such an immersive and wonderful delight, as the best moments feel like a warm and dreamlike fantasia of overlapping memories playing at different speeds. Rousay and Toral have done quite an impressive job of blurring the lines between sound art, visual art, poetry, drone, and pop in a pleasing and soulful way here, which is a definitely not a feat that many other artists could convincingly pull off so gracefully. I probably do not need to say this, but I will anyway: a softer focus is unquestionably destined to be all over "Best of 2021" end-of-year lists.

Samples can be found here.

4027 Hits

James Welburn, "Sleeper in the Void"

cover image

Miasmah celebrates their 50th release with this second solo album from Norway-based bassist/composer James Welburn. In some ways, this is a perfect album to add an exclamation point to that milestone, as Welburn and his collaborators take the label's "shadow music" aesthetic in an uncharacteristically epic and aggressive direction (though the same could be reasonably be said about 2015's Hold as well). Notably, Swans were invoked as a rough kindred spirit for Hold when it was released and that comparison seems apt here too, as Welburn certainly shares early Swans' love of raw textures and pummeling repetition. The similarities mostly end there, however, as Welburn's vision is considerably more abstract, deconstructed, and stylistically fluid and the individual pieces on Sleeper in the Void are significantly shaped by the collaborators involved. While I sometimes wish Welburn would take his aesthetic in a less texture- and rhythm-centric direction, he has a definite talent for bringing a blackened, visceral intensity to his brooding and gloom-soaked soundscapes. This is an impressively heavy album.

Miasmah

The fact that Welburn partially identifies as a bassist came as quite an amusing surprise to me, as I would have guessed that he was a drummer: not because the drumming here is conspicuously better than the bass playing, but solely because the heart of this album seems to be slow, punishingly primal percussion. That said, I do not question Welburn's love of bass frequencies, as rumbling low-end heaviness is recurring theme too. His style has been described as "reductionist, monolithic, and raw" and it is certainly all of those things, yet the best songs on this release tend to be the less reductionist and monolithic ones, which is why the collaborators loom unusually large. Drummer Tomas Järmyr turns up most frequently, enlivening "Raze" with a thunderous crescendo of rolling toms and supplying the killer doom-lurch of the album's best song ("In and Out of Blue"). Vocalist Juliana Venter appears on the latter as well, contributing a layered climax of chopped and manipulated wails and warbles. I believe Welburn himself is responsible for the awesome gnarled guitar hook though, as well the piece's sheer seismic force. Venter returns once more on the closing "Fast Moon," as her voice drifts through the violent shoegaze of its surroundings like a ghost. Hilde Marie Holsen, on the other hand, only appears once, contributing a tenderly undulating pulse of dreamlike drones to the album's least hostile piece ("Parallel"). While Welburn is only completely solo on a single piece ("Falling From Time"), that one is admittedly a hell of a banger, beautifully combining psychotropic smears of darkly twinkling organ and a wonderfully pummeling and machine-like rhythm. "Fast Moon" is similarly industrial-tinged and those looping, machine-like rhythms definitely suit Welburn's aesthetic quite well. I hope they stick around for the next album. I hope Welburn's collaborators do too. In fact, I wish the foursome would just form a damn band, as Welburn's greatest gift lies in simply making everything sound crushingly heavy and it would be nice to hear him do that with a more varied palette of sounds and textures. For now, however, Sleeper in the Void is an impressively bracing dose of bass-heavy brutality.

Samples can be found here.

3940 Hits

Rokurokubi, "Iris, Flower of Violence"

Iris, Flower of Violence cover imageForthcoming.

Time Spun

Ready later today.

Sound byte.

Samples can be found here.

3343 Hits

Jeff Burch, "Samum Suite"

cover imageImportant Records' Cassauna imprint has quietly released some woefully underappreciated stunners over the years and the latest one to blindside me is this brief yet near-perfect tape from The Spring Press's Jeff Burch, whose work seems to steadily grow more compelling each time he surfaces. While last year's collaboration with Tres Warren explored similarly heady and timeless "deep psych" territory, Samum Suite takes a very different route to get there, as it was composed and recorded primarily with acoustic instruments at the edge of the Sahara Desert. I am always delighted when acoustic drones, Eastern modalities, and field recordings collide in a pleasing way, but this album feels like it was recorded in an entirely different timeline in which The Theatre of Eternal Music relocated to Morocco and got assimilated into The Master Musicians of Jajouka. Sadly, that is not the timeline I wound up living in, but Samum Suite legitimately feels like the kind of album no one makes anymore. Or maybe ever made. While plenty of artists have borrowed liberally from traditional Middle Eastern sounds in service of their own vision, Burch seems to have achieved full ego death and dissolved into the streets of Morocco only to re-emerge with a beautifully crafted collage that replays his experiences as a hypnotic swirl of sensory impressions.

Cassauna

The heart of Samum Suite is a pair of field recordings that Burch made during his travels back in 2015 (a Khatna procession in Tangier) and 2017 (street musicians in Marrakech). While "Muslim circumcision parade" is certainly an enticing thread to encounter on an album, Burch incorporates the festivities in a purely impressionistic way, evocatively conjuring a vibrant, richly textured, and enigmatically exotic (to me) street scene. The Marrakech musicians likely provide the clattering percussion and winding melody that open the album, yet the magic of this four-part suite lies in how blurry the line becomes between the field recordings and the eclectic host of instruments played by Burch and his guests. Admittedly, the clarity of the recordings provides some differentiation, but it never feels like Burch merely added an organ to some cool sounds and called it a song. Instead, the album feels like an endlessly dissolving fantasia of dreamlike vignettes that grows steadily deeper with each new section. Each segues seamlessly into the next, so the delineation between individual parts is largely academic, but the suite starts to catch fire near the end of "II" when the percussion fades away to leave a lysergically spectral haze of warbling tones in its wake. From that point onward. Samum Suite feels like an organically effortless, gorgeously psychedelic reverie, as haunting woodwind drones appear like a shimmering oasis over a simmering and subdued backdrop of found sounds and twanging baglama. The return of the warbling tones heralds the transition into the fourth and final part, in which blurred, sustained tones lend a soft-focus unreality to the raw, clattering jubilance of the Khatna procession. The whole experience lasts less than twenty minutes, which probably explains why Samum Suite is modestly entering the world as a tape, yet the arc is a perfect one and I am pleased that Burch had no inclination to dilute his sublime distillation into an LP. Had it been recorded by Roberto Musci or Futuro Antico in the '80s rather than by Jeff Burch in 2021, Samum Suite would likely be a much-sought classic that would cause a feeding frenzy when inevitably reissued by Black Sweat.

Samples can be found here.

4529 Hits

New Bums, "Last Time I Saw Grace"

Last Time I Saw Grace cover imageFriends Ben Chasny (Six Organs Of Admittance) and Donovan Quinn (Skygreen Leopards) are fans of each other's work, and so in 2014, they decided to work together out of their respective projects. Last Time I Saw Grace is the second long-player from their union. The latest from the two maintains the feel of the one-take sound of 2014's Voices in a Rented Room with the addition of a rich layering of instrumentation, affording a more lavish sound. All of the lyrical wit from the first album is present, and the emotional intensity of dual acoustic guitars in glorious interplay soars to new heights.

Drag City

Chasney and Quinn are two incredibly talented musicians that know the strength of memorable melody. Quinn's lyrical prowess strengthens the power of the emotional exchange of these two highly proficient guitarists. The album wastes no time in showcasing their muscle, launching with "Billy, God Damn," striking first with slide guitar while Quinn lines up his lyrical attack: "Billy, it's a god damn shame / the strain on our bodies / the stains on our name." "Marlene Left California" is undoubtedly a song Dylan wishes he had written, a story of four people—including the author—tied together in disparate ways, all lost and floundering to find direction. Word to Al Stewart: get busy on a cover of "Onward to Devastation." There is plenty of dark gallows humor within, lightened by lyrical playfulness ("Cover Band") and jangle ("Obliteration Time," "Tune to Graffiti"). I would urge listeners that appreciate bluesy folk, outsider acoustic singer-songwriters a la Robyn Hitchcock, and dual guitarists to give this a listen.

Samples can be found here.

4545 Hits

C-Schulz, "Frühe Jahre"

https://f4.bcbits.com/img/a0634048495_16.jpgIn 2017, C-Schulz’s late '80s-early '90s work was compiled in this mesmerizing album. Barely in his twenties, Schulz created some genre-defying music which, although clearly located between the kosmische music of 1970s Germany and early techno-electronica, resists easy classification or dating. The compilation is impossible to become bored with since it is memorable and satisfying yet so unpredictable that it is strangely difficult to recall the atmosphere and pace of individual tracks. This sprawling array of shifting sounds can perhaps be understood as the equivalent of a classic neuroscience memory test where the subject tries to recall 20 unrelated items after they have been covered by a cloth. I remember a Dada collage, industrial rhythms, a tiny piece of acid funk, library musique-concrete, heavy breathing, carbonated liquid cracking ice cubes, galloping static and clattering train tracks, looped chanting, economic radio news chatter, giggling children, a growling beast, a racing heart beat, poignant brass and synth tones.

Unseen Worlds

For all the juxtaposition and surprise, this is an uncluttered and precise soundtrack of sustained tension which, decades later, sounds neither dated nor gimmicky. Music does not need a purpose but Schulz's could be suited for waking an astronaut from a deep space pod in the year 3000, or for having a panic attack sipping cocktails in a late-1960s airport lounge as the Mike Sammes Singers refuse to be drowned out by occasional road drills. Marcus Schmickler co-produced many of the 20 tracks and he contributes liner notes. Frühe Jahre came to my attention three months ago when (aged 64) I began a vicious bout of shingles. When it seemed nothing could distract from that nightly agony, thank God for these glorious, innovative, and timeless recordings.

samples available here

4506 Hits

Contrastate, "Recorded Evidence II"

cover imageActive for over 30 years, with a 10 year break in the middle, Contrastate’s idiosyncratic take on challenging, industrial tinged music has certainly changed and evolved through the years, as this compilation indicates. What has not changed though, is a dark sarcasm that injects just the right amount of absurdity into their otherwise dour works. Collecting various singles, compilation pieces, and unreleased material onto one CD, it makes for an excellent career overview.

Black Rose Recordings

The opening "Taste the Waste for the Human Race," a b-side from 1993, sets the tone for this set of songs pretty well: gently malignant loops meshed with treated guitar and down pitched vocals. There is certainly a conventional music undercurrent here, but bent and twisted into something else entirely. There’s that same broken music feel to "The People Who Control the Information" from 2017's Your Reality is Broken tribute album, which is an odd combination of erratic synths, protest chant like vocals, and eventually an almost hip-hop rhythm loop constructed from noisy fragments. "The Silent Fish," released in 2018 as part of a Troum tribute/compilation continues the dramatic spoken word and sweeping synthesizers, but with a great bass guitar like distorted passage and subtle percussion beneath it all, it makes for a particular standout.

The droning electronics, spoken word, and crying baby recordings on 1994's "English Embers" captures their more challenging style. Similarly abstract is "True Believer," which is all grandiose piano, voices, and a chaotic low-bit rate sheen to it all. "Revolution Sera la Nom de la Civilisation" almost resembles Contrastate's take on traditional power electronics: pulsating electronics, low end rumble, and guttural vocals (albeit in French). All the elements of that genre are there, but there’s a cleanliness to the proceedings that make it sound utterly unique. There is a RLW/Ralf Wehowsky treated unreleased piece from 1999, "From the Opened Red Lips," that represents perhaps the most out there piece: a short burst of sputtering vocal treatments and insect buzzing.

I know Recorded Evidence II is a singles/compilation/unreleased material compilation, but it melds together like a traditional album, while still giving an overview of nearly 30 years worth of content. At times difficult, and at times almost catchy, Contrastate covers a bit of everything in their sound, and that black humor component (which is also well reflected in the liner notes, and I cannot find any indication there was ever a Recorded Evidence I) makes for a project that I can never predict what they will sound like next, but I know it will be fascinating no matter what.

4712 Hits

Fossil Aerosol Mining Project, "Predicament Recordings Volume II 2‚Äã.‚Äã2021"

cover image

In characteristically enigmatic fashion, this inscrutable Illinois collective recorded a two-album series over the winter and opted to release the second part first. The two releases were conjured into existence during a brief "real-time, studio interaction" earlier this year, but the source material actually spans roughly a decade of scavenged sonic ephemera. If this were any other project, cannibalizing old recordings might be considered a "vault clearing" of sorts, but with Fossil Aerosol Mining Project, the whole point has always been to dig up long-forgotten shit from the past and repurpose it into something thoroughly weird and disturbing. Before this album, I was admittedly starting to wonder if this project was in a rut, as there have been a couple recent releases that I was less than enthusiastic about. However, it would be more accurate to say that this project is an unpredictably hit-or-miss one and this album is mostly a hit, as these murky nightmares nicely approximate an aesthetic best described as "what I hope to hear whenever I unearth some incredibly obscure yet revered '80s noise tape."

Self-Released

This particular album does not have an explicit conceptual theme lurking behind it (beyond the collective's usual morbid fascinations), but it does not exactly need one when the project's general vibe is nearly always some variation of "disturbing fever dream set in a George Romero movie." That said, the collective's vision has encompassed a few different strains of disorienting and creepy analog murk over the years and I tend to prefer the albums where some glimpses of melody, kitsch, or black humor brighten the pervasive atmosphere of rot, ruin, and existential horror. The humor this time is limited to the title's droll nod to the pandemic, sadly, but that is not a deal-breaker: if the spectral fragments that billow up out of the slime are compelling, I am always willing to submerge myself in Fossil Aerosol's seething miasma of tape loops and abandoned film canisters. The fragments in this case evoke a mysteriously abandoned secret military base in a malarial jungle, as the recurring themes seem to be ghostly machine hum, enigmatic loops of echoing voices, phantom radio transmissions, and a host of vaguely menacing "natural" sounds like buzzing insects and distant, muffled howls. In the closing "Passage Three" there is even an unexpected and visceral flurry of percussion, but it only emphasizes the existing dread further, resembling the war drums I might hear if I found myself suddenly dropped into Cannibal Holocaust. Fortunately, that has not happened to me yet, so I am free to wallow in the less extreme sensation of watching a cursed video cassette that makes everything around me curdle, wilt, rot, and corrode. Admittedly, few crave such a refined pleasure, but those who do will find an especially focused, tightly edited, and immersive Fossil Aerosol Mining Project experience here.

Samples can be found here.

4138 Hits

rootless, "docile cobras"

cover image

This fascinating and inspired album is both the debut vinyl release from guitarist Jeremy Hurewitz and the first Flower Room album that is not a Matt Lajoie or Ash Brooks project. To some degree, that union makes perfect sense, as both Lajoie and Hurewitz are guitarists with healthy appetites for improvisation and psychedelia, but docile cobras takes those appetites into some impressively inventive and unfamiliar territory. While enhancing his acoustic guitar work with flutes, percussion, field recordings, and psychotropic electronic flourishes is nothing new for Hurewitz, this album is the fruit of a two-day collaboration with Mexican musician/folklorist Luís Pérez Ixoneztli, who oversees a "collection of priceless, one-of-a-kind, indigenous instruments from Mesoamerica." This is not a document of a jam with some unusual instruments, however, as Luís Pérez made his contributions only after listening to the pieces and thoughtfully reflecting upon the ideal accompaniment. Sometimes he opted for shakers made of dried cocoons or ancient clay flutes, but his instincts also led him to less traditionally musical sounds like "water poured into a tub" or "Shamanic breathing." To my ears, the result feels like a pleasantly lazy jam around a campfire, except I am wildly hallucinating and a displeased owl god just reawakened to punish me for blundering into his sacred clearing.

Flower Room

The album opens with some improvised-sounding variations on a vaguely Spanish or Middle Eastern acoustic guitar theme, which is normally not a promising sign for me. However, before I could start wondering if an actual song was going to appear, I was immediately drawn into the evocative and enigmatic backdrop of echoing drips and deep, whooshing breaths. Eventually "lost at sea" coheres into a kind of desert-psych crescendo, as Luís Pérez joins in with some shuffling percussion while additional layers of guitar weave an intricate web of melodies, but it illustrates an interesting and unusual aspect of Hurewitz's aesthetic: he seems extremely disinterested in songcraft in any kind of conventional sense. That said, the finished pieces each feel like part of an organic, complete, and a vividly realized vision, as the guitar parts serve as a thread guiding me through a phantasmagoric jungle of eerie, unfamiliar sounds pregnant with hidden meaning. However, there is one song ("peculiar travel suggestions") that is structured and melodic enough to approximate a "single," as Hurewitz even goes so far as to include a tender piano melody. Later, the rippling arpeggios of "shared consciousness" come within shouting distance of a conventionally structured song once more, but my favorite piece is the more loose, abstract, and epic "docile cobras." As usual, the most exquisite pleasures are not the chiming minor key arpeggios that act as the piece's backbone, but the rich panoply of mind-bending sounds that bleed slowly into the tableau with maximum hallucinatory impact. In fact, the piece even gets sucked into a still deeper black hole of psychedelia after I thought it had already reached peak mindfuckery, which is quite an impressive feat. The album as a whole is also quite an impressive feat, as Hurewitz and Luís Pérez cooked up one hell of a vibrant and memorably unique deep listening experience.

Samples can be found here.

4385 Hits