While I’m not inclined to burn a lot of words on a 4-song release that skates by in under 30 minutes, Umbrose’s debut, Final Nights, is worth bringing to your attention. It’s something of a showcase release, giving the listener four sides of Umbrose’s musical personality. The opener, “How Many Winters,” would lead you to believe this is something of a New Age disc. Rain, a wolf howl, then strings, flute and keys set the tone. Light electronics fill in the background and a beat with some tribal pedigree knocks out a tempo. It’s the vocal drop-in late in the track that suggests this isn’t a by-the-numbers New Age outing. And with the first rap of the snare drum on “Crushed Like Velvet (Velour),” it’s confirmed. Now we’re in a somewhat jazz-infected space. The drum plays a simple, slogging beat as a piano offers a half-awake tune. A woman’s voice slips out of a dreamspace and into our hazy awareness. Melancholy drips onto the floor. Again, don’t get comfy. Those are warped carnival music sounds you hear as “MMN” opens, but they give way to an even more stupor-draped chunk of post-rock. Some of the sound here is muddy, dimmed and fading, half here and half not. Then there’s my favorite track, the one that takes the disc to a completely different and quite unexpected place. “The Crying Mask” is an insanely catchy thing that’s basically the theme music for a lost 50s B-movie about spies and aliens, with a surfing contest thrown in for good measure. Wailing theremin sound, snappy snare drum, groovy licks on dirty guitar… If you don’t hear just a little hint of the rockin’ theme from The Munsters, well…it’s probably just that you’re younger than I. But it’s there. And it’s cool.
On their Facebook page, Umbrose notes themselves as a “dark ambient” act. If this is dark ambient, it’s really light dark ambient. It’s moody, for sure, and draped in gloom, but overall it’s too bright in tone for that designation. No dark ambient rocks out the way “Crying Mask” does. Whatever you want to call it, Final Nights is a solid, fun and interesting debut that makes me look forward to something longer from Umbrose. Have a listen.
Available at Bandcamp.
Olekranon is back to douse his listeners in his well-practiced blend of raw-edged industrial, aggressive noise and meaty post-rock. This is Danaus, and it would probably like to hurt you. Or hypnotize you. Or a bit of both. Ryan Huber handles both aspects well. When he gets his aggro on and lays in with beats that feel like they’re being meted out via machine press, Danaus takes on a huge, bellicose aspect. It snarls and spits and vents–walk into the beating that is “Bellow,” for example. Metallic clatter, thick distortion, and beats that literally punch. Throw in a vocal drop that gets crushed underfoot and you’ve got a signature Olekranon piece. When he piles on hissing drones in massive layers, the resultant cliff-face of sound becomes hypnotic, a rough-hewn susurrus that forcibly lulls you into a trance space. I like “Severed” for this; it shows how Huber can effect that dronescape and still work in texture and punch. A variation on this theme comes again on the next track, “Marionette,” with the additional allure of being built on a pretty straightforward post-rock frame. A follow-along beat, an identifiable melody via chords, and that big hissing brain-shower. “Libertine,” which closes the album, is a perfect blend of white-noise drone and a steady, almost subtle beat. A subliminal groove, if you will. As the album moves along, the line between beat(ings) and mesmerizing washes blurs and shifts so that regardless of where you are, you are engulfed in Huber’s soundpool and taken out of your normal flow.
Olekranon’s work is not the easiest to get into, but I find that I’ve developed a taste for it. I appreciate the restrained aggression, the way there’s always a path through the sound even at its densest, and the carefully paced-out shifts of tone. It’s always worth giving a close listen because Huber is not a noise-for-noise’s-sake artist. Get down into the details and take in what Danaus is offering. The effort is worth it.
Available at Bandcamp.
My hand hovered dangerously close to the “skip” button as “The Weight of Dreams Against the Harsh Wisdom of the World, Part 1,” the short opening track of Misdreamt’s Apophenia, hissed and gurgled its way out of my speakers at me. My eyes rolled. Another dark ambient outing full of, well, hissing and gurgling. Then the track changed and lo, there was guitar, which suggested something more interesting. Suggested. Because while this four-part piece pairs dark atmospherics with guitar, said guitar spends its entire time sounding like the beginning to every deeply thoughtful Metallica song you’ve ever heard–without ever wanting to leap to something further. The mix of elements isn’t bad; the guitar work, while sort of standard metal-issue fingerpicking, is solid, and the atmospheres are appropriately dark and mysterious. But the lack of forward movement wears thin in short order and the work overall never feels like it wants more from itself. For me, things didn’t get much better from there, nor do they get much different. “Contemplation of the Dust” is more of the same in a different chord, and the two-part “Shadows Remain” gets little more than a shrug.
Available from the Misdreamt Bandcamp page.
Don’t worry–no one is going to fault you if you mistake Solarization, the new release from Janneh, for a long-lost Jean Michel Jarre album. It sounds like the artist snuck into JMJ’s sound library and whisked away all the good stuff, then blended it into seven short pieces. Which is not to say they aren’t original, but they do lean heavily on the nostalgia button for the album’s 35-minute run. Which isn’t so bad; old-school music lovers like me will enjoy having that particular pleasure center pinged over and over. That swirly, breathy whoosh that’s in virtually every Jarre release? It’s here. That twisty, ripply downward sound-squib? That’s here, too. So you have your music-genealogy waypoints in place. But let’s put that aside and consider Solarization on its own. I have enjoyed everything I’ve previously heard from Janne Hanhisuanto (this is the fourth release I’ve reviewed), and while I think this is not as strong as his other work, it has its spots. Part 2 is one of those distinctly Jarre-inspired pieces–it puts me in mind of some piece about a train (maybe?). A big, rubbery Berlin-style bass sequence holds down the low end for the high, sunny-day melody. And oh, those whooshes… It all drips with tasty retro, but I do have to say that the electronic drums, kicking out a steady beat, have an artificial tinniness that can wear thin quickly. Some things are retro because we stopped enjoying them. Part 3 is a charming song that lopes along on an easy rhythm. Great guitar work in this one as Janneh lays a soulful solo over the top. Part 5 is my favorite track, packing a light Middle Eastern flair, including some very nice (sampled, maybe?) hand percussion. It’s a serpentine, dancing bit of work, pushed ahead by a pulsing sequencer line that has just a touch of club-music pedigree to it. Great layers at work here. The closing track finds Janneh closer to the ambient side of things, carving out a comparatively minimal feel where the space between moments is emphasized, punctuated with a simple, percussive chord that echoes off into the distance. Keys take the front here, placed over quiet pads, picking out a meandering melodic line. The blend works very well–the droning backdrop, the casual leads, and that very cool and very consistent accent sound.
Solarization is quick and pleasant. Hanhisuanto skirts the edges of being simply derivative and delivers another good chapter in his ongoing musical story. Give it a listen.
Available at CD Baby.
Id|entities is one of those dark experimental works I have to admit I can’t get into and don’t really get. This Finnish artist started off collecting a lot of samples from various media, mostly films and television, then “recontextualized [them] to form new dialogues.” And it must be said she certainly didn’t go light on them. If you love soundbites, you’ll love this release. It’s thick with them. Too thick for me. In fact, Ovro almost lost me on the first track with endless repetitions of a single phrase from one source. The disc boils down to the repurposed audio forming a sort of disjointed narrative that gets a little bit of atmospheric treatment. It’s like listening to a slightly schizophrenic radio play. For me, it’s a bit ponderous and doesn’t do anything to hold my attention. Fans of dark ambient or plunderphonics might get more out of it.
Available from Some Place Else.
Soft and every bit as fluid as its title suggests, Tidewater Pulse, the new release from Off Land, is classic deep ambient. Structurally simple on the surface, the music here employs minimal movement, field recordings and well-planned depth to be both relaxing and intriguing. Musician Tim Dwyer fully involves the listener in his interpretation of “the water cycle, as well as the expectations and excitement of travel.” This is definitely a headphone listen; Dwyer uses a lot of small sounds, light accents that texture the edges of his warm drifts. It may be a simple crackling sound or something as full as a crowd of voices. They act as well-placed waypoints, attention-getters that do their job with subtlety. The mix works very well across these nine tracks. “Precipitation” is a gorgeous, dreamy piece opening with long-echoing piano and a wispy voice easing out of a misty backdrop. Repetition is key here; the piano phrases–a chord and two descending notes–remain steady in their cadence, allowing things to change around them. “Never Been” is comforting and slow, easing its way to conclusion with a recording of water–and, again to catch your ear, dogs barking in the distance. (At least that’s what it sounds like to me.) There are, obviously, water sounds in Tidewater Pulse, but Dwyer never uses them in an up-front way. They appear, they recede. This is not a “sounds of the ocean” relaxation disc, it’s just a set of work inspired by it. Dwyer also mixes up the feel in places. “Drift Ice” has a keen edge of uncertainty. Scratching and cracking sounds fill the space and another voice sings in a sort of a drowsy, disaffected way. The track comes off colder than the ones around it, but is effective in doing so. A stretch late in the track, with little more than the scratching sounds and long chords with a bit of a pipe-organ tone to them, is beautiful in the way it impacts with minimal elements. “Petrichor” hovers near the nexus of dark and tribal. A steady thrum on frame drum and a ritual-ready clatter of shakers carry the tone. The pace is very slow and deliberate, sound-pieces slotting strictly into their assigned places. “Permafrost” and “Wait” introduce light, more active rhythms into the mix. “Wait” offers a rain-spatter sequencer line traipsing over pads before giving way to them. “Permafrost” pushes along on an insistent thump that underscores swelling textbook-ambient pads and a rich bass drone.
Tidewater Pulse is one of those quiet-companion albums, the thing you listen to on loop when a reflective mood strikes. But it’s also a companion you want to know intimately, one you want to understand in each and every sound, and it rewards that intimacy. A great release from Off Land.
Available from Psychonavigation.
Over the course of the four albums from him that I have reviewed, Christopher Alvarado has become a musician I keep an ear on. Between releases under his own name and those he puts out as Twilight Transmissions, he has demonstrated a real knack for crafting work that’s wrapped in shadow and uncertainty but which can suddenly shift into a strong groove. On this new album with Finnish sound artist Ari Porki, he nails it yet again. Menagerie of Clouds is a deep ambient ride that skirts the edge of darkness, giving listeners just enough of a glimpse of what’s going on over there in the murk. Borrowed tribal rhythms and field recordings flesh out the flow, and the duo nicely balance rhythmic tracks with mistier amorphous constructs. The rhythmic pieces are absolutely coated with hooks. ”Cape Isthmus” blossoms into a wash-and-pulse flow with recognizable Steve Roach influences. Strong percussion drives it forward and a sweet sequencer line bobs and weaves through the sound. ”Land of Nothing” lifts up out of swishing layers of sound to resonate with deep electro-pop echoes–like Yaz or New Order with a heavier ambient undercurrent. A beefy bass line punctuates the washes and finds its way into you. The beatless pieces, or those with minimal beats, are equally effective. “Inception of Stillness” finds its center in broad pads with hints of Porki’s field recordings lurking at the edges. The sound surges in places, taking on mass and intensity, driving upward and filling the space with expectation. On the darker side is “Valley of Winds,” which dwells in a far more abstract space, haunted by echoing vocal samples. The sound here bends toward Alvarado’s Twilight Transmissions side in its timbre, and picks up dimension from tribal-style percussion and shakers. I do have a minor complaint on one track, and it exists only because the remainder of Menagerie of Clouds is such a seamless ride. ”Mesas” has a rough edit at the end that cuts out abruptly, creating a moment that rips me out of a good flow. I wondered if I’d accidentally shifted to “shuffle” and there was meant to be a smoother transition into the next track. Apparently not. While this is a very minor thing to point out, it is the one huh? moment in an otherwise completely immersive flow.
Menagerie of Clouds catches me with its near-dark atmosphere, tribal touches, and richly dimensional feel. It’s superb on a close listen as Alvarado and Porki load their layers. Many feel whisper-thin, but stacked and infused with a little mystery, that take on a deeper effectiveness. It’s a great blend that works well. You need to hear this one.
Available from Aural FIlms.