Feeling down? Rough day? No worries. Johan Agebjörn just showed up with a copy of Notes, and everything’s going to be all right—or at least seem that way for 45 minutes or so. Between slightly fluffy, sometimes jazz-tinged instrumental tracks and a handful of vocal offerings that range from shoegaze-y quiet to smoky lounge, Notes stuffs a lot of feel-good into just over 45 minutes. Some may have a small problem, as did I at first, getting through the sugar-glazed barrier that is the opening track, “The Right to Play,” but I came around to the thematically appropriate charm of its shiny little notes running up and down the keyboard. Just as a side note, my ears keep hearing the central riff as kind of day-glo revisitation of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.” (Though I must say, Johan—although it fits the title, the slide whistle is a bit much.) And unless my ears deceive me, and they may, that central riff finds its way into several of the tracks. I believe I hear it in the moody waltz of “The Boy Who Thought It Was A Good Idea To Cry” and later, slowed down, it re-emerges as the melody for “The Leftovers.” I quite like that track, with guest artist Loney, Dear sounding like a man talking to himself during a a walk in the rain. Agebjörn’s backdrop stays quiet, a combination of misty susurrus and a walking bass line, letting us focus on the rhythm and impact of the words. Agebjörn offers a particularly strong duo in the combination of “Will They Forgive Us” and his remix of Brain Machine’s “Alpha Beta Gamma.” The first is a nice blend of hurried sequencer lines and silky flute, with a thumping beat folded in. The mix of fast and slow works very well. Take a moment to admire how smoothly Agebjörn slips into “Alpha…,” the beat rising in force as cool electric piano notes lay down a jazzy lead. The toes, oh how they will tap.
As for the vocal tracks, which I don’t normally review, as I mentioned above, I very much dig the Loney, Dear collaboration. Sally Shapiro, with whom Agebjörn collaborates regularly in a project that bears her name, appears on two tracks to lend her high, elfin tones. Not my favorite moments on the release, but a fine addition. Canadian dream-pop band Young Galaxy bring the shoegaze element in the form of “You Passed Through.” Vocalist Catherine McCandless’ voice has a smoky ennui and mild sadness about it that works well on the track.
All in all, Notes is a nicely constructed, thoughtful album that’s easy to float through. Where it’s light, it’s very light. Where it wraps itself in a dreamy fog, it gets better. I can’t say for sure whether Agebjörn is playing with the idea of manipulating a central musical theme and seeing in how many directions he can take it, but there are moments that ring with a touch of sameness. Mind you, it works, but some might feel slighted at hearing the echoes. Still, an enjoyable release from Johan Agebjörn that you should hear.
Available from Paper Bag Records.
To be quite honest, on my first listen to “Its Fear in the Amygdala,” the opening cut from Splices and Phrases, I winced. Here we go, I thought, time to try to find something to say about noise and more noise. And, let’s keep it honest here, there is a lot of that on this offering from Soiled, one of composer Marcus H’s identities, and it’s only going to appeal to listeners whose tastes run toward the quite challenging. It’s created from bits and moments, and revels in its often overwhelming coarseness of sound. Things grate against each other, interfere with each other, and yet—in a fair number of spots—come together quite surprisingly. I can’t say I understand what Soiled is getting at here, or what the underlying idea is, but I find myself, through repeat listens, getting quite pulled into certain moments and how they come about. Late in “Caustic Surplus of Robotic Smiles,” an almost simple and very engaging bit of minimalist techno is rescued from a gnarled cluster of sounds. It may have been there all along, it may be cast off sounds pulled out of the mass—whatever it is, the change up grabs your attention. “Creepy Crawling and Drifting” opens with a spoken word sample drowned in static, then proceeds to change its face several times. Musical phrases repeat as Soiled dirties up the atmosphere with jagged noise. Rhythmic elements grind their way up as three hits on a cymbal strike out over and over. “Footsteps” takes what sounds like an over-amped acoustic guitar, briefly mangles the sound, and then just lets it play itself out. (Granted, the track’s just two minutes long.) There’s something in the straight-up approach that, again, catches the attention largely by making you wonder what the hell it’s doing here.
Splices and Phases is quite content to punch you in the ears and then ask what you thought of it. Its appeal will be limited, but it can’t be denied that there is a lot of work going on. Noisy, distorted, disjointed work, but work nonetheless. Its appeal lies in how it can almost drive timid listeners off, but still cause enough of a Hmm reaction to perhaps get them to stick around for a little more. Experimental music fans should definitely tune in; others, approach with caution.
Available from Elm Lodge Records.
Listening to Thunder Conjuring Mind is like having an acceptably trippy daydream, one where your mind kind of wanders and skips around quite unfettered. What you get here is a little bit like jam-band grooves, a little bit like found-sound art, a little bit like prog, and a lot like fun. Second Culture crunch 15 tracks into this release, with each landing around the five-minute-plus mark—just long enough to make a full and firm statement before changing channels. Transitions between tracks are smooth and leave the flow unbroken. I like the way the sequencer-fired opener, “Star Seed People,” melts into “Euphoricum Integer,” the sequencer slowly fading back from prominence but still maintaining a rhythm. Things quiet down a bit before we’re suddenly popped into the heavy beats of “Tuning the Dream Door, Pt 1.” Classic spacemusic washes and a vocal drop round it out, ushering us into Amy Conger’s singing/repeating/reciting on “Sorting Sanctuary.” It’s a happy little tune… “The world will end/in 11 days/welcome the apocalypse/stroll right through/the detritus/in your very best shoes.” This thing gives off a heady 70s space rock vibe, a deep jam with poetry wedged into it. She comes back, heavily drenched in glorious reverb, on the title track. Zach Taylor (“for the first time ever, a proper drummer playing a drum kit,” says the web site) lays down aggressive lines as the vocal loops weave around one another in a very hypnotizing dance. “Glass Samurai” bounces and gurgles along, sounding like an alternate take for a Dr Who theme song. This one pings that part of me that thrives on good baselines. On top of that, there’s an 80s synth-pop touch to some of the keys here, so I’m pretty much all in on this one.
The more I listen to Thunder Conjuring Mind, the more I find to like about it. Keyth McGrew and company have hit a definitive groove on this. They’ve expanded their personnel and approach, and it seems like more people means more fun. That’s one thing that truly comes through here: these folks love being Second Culture. They’re ready to play, and push edges, and explore, and we get to dig the results. Plus, personally speaking, I have to admire any artist that notes “100 different variations of Thai Tom Ka soup (vegan)” among their influences for the album. (Along with The Cocteau Twins, Pete Namlook, and Yes, for starters.) Thunder Conjuring Mind is good for your head. It’ll also give your speakers a workout. You need to give this one a listen.
Available from Bandcamp.
Scyye’s 18-minute EP From may be short, but it uses its time wisely, jammed full of catchy hooks and intriguing plunderphonic-style sound sources. This is one of those releases where a bag of cast-off sounds are transmuted into undeniable rhythms and an overall coolness. “CCTV” is a super-trippy groove built on a disorienting array of scattered electronic sound and what to my ears sounds like a surgically altered string lift from “I Am the Walrus.” (Not saying that’s the case, but have a listen for yourself.) “We Remain” is an augmented solo piano piece, where the reverberating tones, or a perfect mimicry thereof, blend into a drone-like quality in the background. This one drips with melancholy. “Nine” opens with scratchy effects and a muted voice sharing space with a slow melody. It’s just 90 seconds long, but it leaves its own emotional resonance.
From doesn’t take up much time, and is hopefully just a holdover as we wait for a longer offering. Between this release and last year’s Timegazing, Scyye is becoming an artist I look forward to hearing from. Go listen.
Available from Sparkwood Records.
Eyesix, (aka Jason Dowd) quite proudly wears his Boards of Canada heart on his sleeve. He doesn’t mind if you make the connection, but when I take my 20-minute dose of Conet Communications Workshop all I really care about is that it’s nicely chilled, laid back, packed with hooks, and makes me want more. I could dig on the bright, sparkly synth lines of “Monarch Shortwave” all day. I like the crunchy percussion, the very ’80s swooshes of electro-sound and the IDM-style vocal drop. Dowd picks up samples from The Conet Project, a set of recordings made of “Numbers stations.” Go read the link—it’s a pretty interesting thing. He mixes this, voices reciting sets of numbers, with your standard-issue vocal lifts from instructional films and movies (not specifically that I know of, but with that feel) and peppers them throughout. “Trealtop” is a bass-heavy, loping piece that might be your first hint of Dowd’s BoC influence. “Arecibo Observatory” owes it lineage to D&B, thumping through three quick minutes. “Waiting,” which features Bearhead, is another bright and shiny thing, driven by a pure lounge backbeat and a sweet, jazzy guitar line. The background is loaded with a sample of kids at play, and the overall feel is of being somewhere enjoyable on a perfect blue-sky day.
These 20 minutes snap by quickly, and the urge to listen again is solid. There’s a lot going on below the surface, so listen carefully. Sure, you may feel like you’ve heard it on this BoC album or that one, but so what? It’s quick, it’s name-your-price, and it’s tasty. So light it up and see for yourself.
Available from Sparkwood.
Spacemusic fans, please queue up in an orderly fashion to procure tickets for the voyage that is Scott Lawlor’s Neptune. Inspired by the distant planet and Holst’s classical paean to it on The Planets, Lawlor grabs hold of familiar spacemusic tropes, wraps them in drones, and gives his listeners a deep and image-filled ride. This is familiar territory, done well. The rushes of stellar wind are here, the choirs of celestial voice pads, the sense of passing through the vast stellar distances—all intact and used properly. Lawlor laces in a recurring motif of icy temple-bell chimes and marks passage with them very conservatively. When they ring out against his layered pads and drones, it’s a beautifully sharp call that really works. There’s a great trade off between stretches with softly administered melodic passages and those that just whisper and drone. The opening track, “The Mystical Blue World,” is the former. After setting us adrift, Lawlor lays in a slow-moving phrase that sounds just familiar enough to make me expect David Gilmour to slip in and fire off a riff. “Neptune’s Rings” goes the other way. Opening with scale-ascending bell chimes, it slowly melts into a lush, windy drift. Lawlor really lets his pads stretch to the far reaches here, and it’ll take conscious thought with it. Between this and its followup, “The Great Ocean,” we’re afforded over half an hour of the deepest material on the release. “…Ocean” makes up 20 of those minutes. It’s packed with drones that take their time rising up in intensity, and everything is underscored with a persistent whoosh that is equal parts wind and the far-off sound of the ocean. He manages to convey and excellent sense of drama throughout this piece, and really holds the listener’s attention for 20 minutes. “Wizard’s Eye” sounds reasonably similar, but arcs upward toward the end into higher-register pads. Here I find myself hearkening back to the lighter parts of Roach’s Magnificent Void. Overall, this is a disc that demands long-term looping.
Stepping into a genre that’s as trope-heavy and well-trodden as spacemusic can be a tricky proposition for an artist. There’s not a lot of new ground, so what you lay down needs to have a certain something that hooks the listener in. I can say that Neptune has such a hook. Have you heard it before? Sure, a bit. But if you love good spacemusic, this album follows the rules and lays out the sonic sights you love, and it does so very, very well. I like Lawlor’s patience in the way he layers his pads. There’s no hurry and, unlike a lot of spacemusic, there’s no need to build to some big celestial moment—you know, the ever-present supernova sound that births out into a big helping of choral pads. That’s not what this is; what this is is a spacey voyage you’ll take many times, finding yourself in the musical moment at different stages, always discovering a fresh side of it. Set aside the time, bust out the headphones, and head out, space cowboy.
Available from earthMANTRA.