Although I’m not in the habit of reviewing game soundtracks (nor do I intend to be), Siddhartha Barnhoorn’s accompanying score for Out There: Omega Edition could easily find a slot in the collection of your average spacemusic fan. These are small slices of music, with 23 tracks crammed into less than an hour’s time, each a well-made expression of some aspect of the game’s celestial landscape. Expect plenty of standard science fiction tropes in the music, from twinkly starlight things to the deep, bass-loaded chords of a black hole. Expect also for there not to be a real discernible through-line. While the soundtrack flows nicely enough and the music is pleasantly spacey, we’re not able to forget that Barnhoorn is actively writing to fit particular moments within an existing framework. One effect of being handed all those bite-size snippets is that I find myself wanting to hear more of the ideas expressed more fully. As with his debut album Pillars of Light, which I reviewed in 2011, I feel that the constrictive framework here really hampers the listening experience. Within the confines of the game, I am sure it works well. Tracks like “Out There I” and “Supernova” show a lot of interesting potential as they break the background-music mold and reach for a fuller form of expression. Barnhoorn’s “longer” tracks, “The Story Unfolds” and “The Final Chapter” allow him more running room, and they are, perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the best pieces on the album.
By his trade, Barnhoorn is a soundtrack composer with more than 70 films to his credit, and he certainly has found a niche for himself in game soundtracks. (The last piece of his that I reviewed was for a game called Antichamber.) And while Antichamber and this release have been fairly interesting and I appreciate the opportunity to listen to them, since Pillars of Light I’ve been waiting for a bigger, more expressive standalone ambient/electronic album from him. I always enjoy listening to his work; personally, I just want more out of it.
Available from Siddhartha Barnhoorn’s Bandcamp page.
You could hit the internet and look up whether or not the Inuit actually have a bunch of names for different types of snow, or you could take Marsen Jules’ word for it and dive into his interpretation of nine of those words on The Empire of Silence. I don’t know that there is much more to do here than sit back and let these ambient sounds drift quietly around you. Marsen’s very patient constructs melt easily one into the next. An hour passes without much to mark the time. (An hour and a half if you get the 38-minute bonus track.) You just get a little lost in the steadiness of the drifts and the overall calm. Here and there sounds may glimmer a bit and a chord might rise up for a moment of notice, but otherwise it simply breathes around you and carves out a nice, quiet spot. While The Empire of Silence is a quite beautiful album, it’s also one that seems content to rely on its simplicity. Definitely one to use for your next meditation session, or just to let loop at low volume as you go about your business. It is soothing and pleasant, but doesn’t necessarily hold up to close scrutiny.
Available from Oktaf.
As far as I can figure, Ken Elkinson is one of those composers who has a whole bunch of stuff dancing in his head and he just needs to let it out sometimes—in huge chunks. In 2011 he gave us the first six volumes of Music for Commuting, followed that up in 2013 with two volumes of Music for Telecommuting, and now drops another six volumes of the first on us. (To say nothing of the 14 albums in between…) Music for Commuting Vols. 7-12 is 60 tracks of Elkinson’s soft, light music, the kind of stuff you’ll use to underscore your day. With this collection, I find myself drawn more to Elkinson’s ambient-style forays than to his poppier, rhythmic ones. Problem being, the underlying style doesn’t seem to change up that much. The overall arrangement is soft-edged keyboards and breathy pads paired up with chime-like tones that bounce about charmingly. In places it lands with a bit too much of a leftover Ray Lynch vibe (lookin’ at you, “Data Packet”)—which, in doses, is not a bad thing. I have always liked Ray Lynch’s work…in doses. So while the retro ping can be fun, here (and, again, we’re talking about 60 tracks) it happens too often for my tastes. When Elkinson plays in quieter fields, it works very well. “Icicle Rain” is a perfect combination of sighing chords, that hushed organ sound, and a gently percolating accent to round out the imagery. “Desert Valley, Wind” has caught my ear consistently over my several review listens. It’s got a slight air of melancholy crafted in long-held chords and a melody that sings almost to itself beneath, on what sounds like a melodica. And while “Loosely Held Firecracker” sounds like it should be more uptempo, it’s a rich ambient-style drift specked with twinkling electronics. “Penumbra” makes the most of big chords and a rich string sound as it spirals upward.
For me, Music for Commuting has worked best as part of a bigger shuffle. I like Elkinson’s music. It can be playful, it can be emotional. It’s familiar, usually in a good way, and it’s easy on the ears. Big batches of music like this need to be broken up, anyhow, to avoid revealing its underlying sameness. Blended in, these light, bright pieces pop up as aural palate cleansers and mood adjusters. Give it a listen, and see if it has a place dovetailed into your own queue.
Available from Ken Elkinson’s web site.
Me, upon receiving Memory Palace: “Excellent! A collaboration between two artists who do lovely, quiet stuff.” Me, after listening: “Wow! That was not what I expected!” Perhaps my expectation was skewed; both artists, Chris Russell and eyes cast down (aka Greg Moorcroft) do tend to work shades of darkness, hints of dissonance and touches of tribal into their individual work. But here, they ramp all that up into a pulse-driven, drum-loaded outing that still speaks most often in a restrained voice. Having called out another artist for adhering a bit closely to the Steve Roach model, I would note that bits of it show up here as well. The opener, “Primitive and Prime,” is familiar territory, pushed along on space-opening drum work from Moorcroft and wide, misty atmospheres from Russell. The influence is clear but the piece stands alone based on its deep groove and the deliciously hypnotic quality of the electronics. You get it again at the end of the disc with “Somewhere the Circle Stops,” which sounds much like a lost track from Roach’s Trance Spirits. Moorcroft takes the front here, weaving several drum lines into a complex and potent structure. Russell’s soundworlds here move as slow as incense smoke, soft washes that sometimes take on a growling, almost didgeridoo-like edge. Outside of that, while the influence still colors the proceedings, Russell and Moorcroft head off into their own zones. “Spatial Mnemonics” has an industrial clatter to it, all serving more of the kind of interlaced rhythms that are the centerpiece of the album. It’s a little dark, and it works. “Touchstone Array” is a fast-paced piece with an up-front analog feel. Glitchy snips of sound tap out a rapid-fire rhythm over slow pads for a nice contrast. However, my only complaint on the whole album comes from this track. The lads play with some high-pitched sounds, one of which sounds—to me—like a kid’s party favor bring blown in one ear over and over. Just like that, I’m pulled out of the track. (It’s playing as I type this out and, honestly, I just want to punch it.) Luckily, that passes and I let myself focus on the cool electronic rhythm work. “Afterimages” quiets things down with an ambient flow lightly touched with (I believe) rain sounds, shakers, and the lightest touch of percussion on the whole album. There’s a very cool effect late in the track where it rises up just a little—a nice touch. On these five tracks, the artists allow themselves a wide time frame in which to craft each piece; the two shortest run about 11 minutes each. Within that frame, they explore and codify their chemistry and justify their initial decision to challenge themselves to do a beat-based album. Memory Palace is an excellent deep listen; Russell and Moorcroft both love their details, and they are plentiful here, so dig into them. An excellent collaboration between two good artists. Well worth listening to.
Available from the eyes cast down website..
Listening to Jonathan Badger isn’t entirely easy. You have to get used to quick stops and starts, sounds that come running in to interrupt other sounds, complex signatures, and a near-complete lack of discernible through-line. And it can be fascinating. Verse gives us 10 tracks from a composer who’s clearly not afraid to mix things up, whether by individual tracks or within them. Straightforward post-rock moments arise, as on “St Lucy’s Day” or the initially calm and quiet “Limbec,” but Badger is just lining them up to get mauled into new shapes. “Limbec” makes a very smooth shift from a folk-influenced indie feel to something that suddenly has thick calls of brass and sparkly arpeggios that run in and out. Distorted guitar comes in bursts, crashing sounds drop in the background, and yet it retains an odd coherence. Nothing takes you out of the listening experience, odd as the sounds might be, but just adds another layer of interest. “Nimbus” opens with a dream-pop feel, with vocals from the Sisters Wick over acoustic guitar, breaks out into something more at home on quite trippy prog with fast guitar runs and distortion, and settles back into an actual song with an orchestral overtone. Then it’s gone, snapped off at a perfect point. Badger’s inventive guitar work is on display throughout the album, and is showcased on “Dotter.” This high-energy track boasts meaty bass and fiery runs packed into loops that take on weight as they go forward. “Ebarmen” plays with post-rock, taking something fairly straightforward, rhythmic and melodic, and then throwing in some off notes to tug at your ear and mess with your musical ideals. Throughout, though, it never quite loses its hook and you stay with it as much for its subtle groove as to see where it goes next. Verse is intriguing work for a generation deprived of their attention spans and fed on sound bites. It packs big amounts of intellectual and emotional data into moments that flash past on the retina of your mind’s eye and leave their branded impression. You remember the sudden, interruptive segments as much for how they didn’t seem to fit but did as for how they felt like they fit but didn’t. It may take a couple of listens to get used to Badger’s style and ideas, but the reward is worth the challenge. There’s some very cool stuff going on in here if you’re uo to it.
Available from Cuneiform.
A benefit of our digital music-making world is that in the right hands, it can take very little to do a lot. Lumi, the new release from K (aka Ivan Kamaldinov), was made using “a laptop, two midi controllers, and [an] iPod Touch 4 microphone for taking field recordings.” From that stepping-off point, Kamaldinov proceeds to give us work that is quiet yet dense with texture, calming overall but with the right amount of edge to keep us alert and paying attention. The texture most often comes in the form of small, static-like crackles that tickle the ear. On “Two,” combined with infrequent snaps, the impression is of the sound of a small fire. Long, brooding pads fill the atmosphere darkly. On “Six” the textures take on something of the feel of creaking wood; a washed-through sound in the background whispers like water, the overall effect that of being adrift. Sharp tones and moments of dissonance lend a mildly unnerving edge. In other spots, the textures fade and the slow drifts set about the business of lulling you into a quieted state. “Four” and “Five” blend to carve out more than 20 minutes of ambient bliss. “Five” catches your ear with reverse-echo-style tones over trembling pads. There is quite a bit of music here—the eight tracks cover 81 minutes, but the time passes in a haze. The texture work is kind of the star of the show here; it adds interest, tension, and imagery, all without ever being interruptive. It provides the listener with a viable reason to take a deep dive into the sound, but the album as a whole makes for a perfect ambient looping piece. Very much worth grabbing.
Available from Timbrae.
Ethan Helfrich, recording as Rest You Sleeping Giant, serves up a big cupful of guitar drones on his debut release, Peppermint Tea. This album makes for an excellent backdrop listen. Helfrich’s drones and washes are very quiet, moving slowly and gracefully. He layers in just enough distortion in spots to give it some texture and edge–the closing track, “Under the Desert Sun,” is a great example. It’s about the loudest the album gets as Helfrich piles on intense layers of harmony, yet it retains a calm overtone. There’s a lot of depth and dimension in these five tracks, and Helfrich does a great job of controlling their interactions. Everything feels balanced, with an organic growth and decay. The only small mis-step here is the abrupt start of “Those Who Come at Night With Dagger in Hand.” Feels like a blown edit, and it results in a jarring moment—all the more noticeable for coming at the end of almost 30 minutes of off-to-sleep drifts. Granted, what follows is the album’s most uptempo piece, an interesting break in the flow that gives us acoustic guitar in a post-rock, folk-inlufenced tune washed over with electronics. But the start could be smoother.
Peppermint Tea is a very good introduction to Rest You Sleeping Giant’s music, and I’m hoping to hear more soon. It’s very good ambient guitar, perhaps almost a bit too hushed in spots, but with the ability to quiet a room and change its vibe. Loop it a few times and see for yourself.
Available from Bandcamp.