There have always been hints of the symphonic in Chad Kettering’s work, but in the past it has typically slipped quietly into the background, maybe swelling a bit here and there in emphasis but mostly performing a supporting role. On his new release, Pathways, the symphonic pulls a chair right down front, takes the lead quite commandingly, and proceeds to launch its listeners on a big, cinematic, dramatic and beautiful journey. I would have sworn that this was a Spotted Peccary release; it has the same immense tone and phrasing so similar to what I’m used to hearing from that label, it was a surprise that this is apparently self-produced. I have enjoyed Kettering’s two previous releases, but on Pathways he makes a quantum leap in both style and substance. It is huge both in tone and in the perception of who Chad Kettering is as an artist. This is further cemented in the fact that Kettering doesn’t stick to one sound on Pathways. Yes, there are songs that should be the soundtrack to some fabulous nature documentary with long, swooping shots racing over a frozen tundra, but there are also funky uptempo pieces and plenty of world music influences at play as well. We are brought into Pathways on the twinkling keyboard and emphatic strings of “Openings” before we’re hit with a burst of drama, vocal pads, and a tempo switch. Here’s the first hint that Kettering has gone large. I distinctly recall having a “wow” moment at hearing this, and even more so when he throws in a drop then charges back up the other side of the break with a glitch-style rush under romantic strings. “Finding My Way” suddenly tosses us into a gorgeous sequencer riff, and the changeover is very effective. Now we understand that this ride is covering a lot of ground. High energy and great textures make this a standout track. Cellist Kari Kettering of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra lends soul-shaking, rich low-end sounds to “The Fire Within.” Again on this track Mr. Kettering makes great use of a drop. He builds the sound up to a potent thickness, rising out of a slow cello dirge and pads, then snaps it off and gives Mrs. Kettering the floor to set the tone and tempo for the latter half of the track. Like me, you’ll probably feel yourself waiting for this thing to burst upward as the cello phrase repeats over and over and small elements find their way in. It’s a nice, slow burn augmented with operatic vocals from Francesca Genco. Get up close with this one. The cello takes center again on the world-music-style “Close To You.” Thundering drums, wordless chanting vocals, and the hurried bass thrum of the cello form a bottom line for the melody. It’s another great pairing of energy and softness. Ms. Genco’s voice is absolutely stirring on the ambient depths of “The Infinity Mirror.” Paired off at the outset with heavy low-end pads and a windswept electronic atmosphere, she cries out a beautiful prayer. It comes back in an ethereal echo as Kettering fills the space with ringing chimes. This is Pathways‘ quietest track, comparatively speaking, yet it’s still very dynamic in its movement. Again, get in close for this one. The closing track, “Standing Upon the Edge,” is one that must have special meaning for Kettering—he notes that it his return to the trumpet after a 20-year hiatus, having started his musical career as a classical trumpeter. Pull in your Mark Isham comparisons for this one as Kettering lays down phrases over droning pads and plays with loops and echoes. The sound is very deep and swirling and hypnotic, leading us at last to a very hushed ending.
Hands down and without question in my mind, Pathways is one of the year’s best New Age/contemporary instrumental albums. Quite frankly, this should be up for every conceivable award and Best Of list out there. Chad Kettering has taken a bit of a risk in suddenly going this big, this symphonic, this grand, and he utterly freaking nails it. Put this release on at higher volume to take in its grandiose-by-plan potency, but also give it some close listens because Kettering has gone into very fine detail at the tiniest levels. This is powerful, emotional, attention-grabbing music and it is a completely rewarding experience for the listener. A stunning release, a must-hear. Bravo, Mr. Kettering.
Available from Chad Kettering’s web site.
Richard Neale jams 10 songs into 20 minutes on Deep Blue (Part 1). You can chuck about a minute and a half out of the mix, that time covered by four tracks that roll in under 30 seconds and don’t feel like they offer much outside of their use as demarcation points between the main tracks. The exception is the short piano piece, “Nc3 dxe4,” which, at a minute-forty, at least feels complete. What remains is quite strong stuff on the border of experimental music, pumping with energy and interesting treatments. “Your Move” has a bit of an Art of Noise feel hiding in its vocal samples. It’s an effective and deceptively simple track with layers of loops circling over a strong drumbeat. Fresh elements shuffle in to change up the tone and keep it interesting. If you can get past the music-box twinkle of “EPCOT” and give it a minute or so, it transforms. Opening as a kind of study in tonal contrasts, it first pairs the chime tones with a short, repeating piano phrase and a rising wall of drone. That cuts out and the track becomes a more energetic, minimalist thing with the chimes taking on a sequencer feel against frenetic drums. One more shift brings the piano back in, and the track zips toward its close. Neale hits his stride late in the album. “Wonky Beatst” is a pulse-driven piece filled with cool tones and a jazzy beat. Neale immerses his piano sounds in a murky resonance that makes it feel like it’s just a little ways off, and keeps it there. He adds layers again, always smoothly, and keeps the energy up consistently. “Ax” begins quietly, then abruptly slams the throttle to full and a hard-hitting base note. Give that a few moments, then cue the noise. Neale drops in a huge wash of over-amped sound that lands like a weapons strike, then plays with bringing it all in and out at varying times. Just a big, meaty track that demands extra volume.
There is some very listenable stuff on Deep Blue (Part 1) and with this being, I believe, Neale’s first foray into our area, having come from the folk world, it leaves me interested in hearing more from him. I do think there are some rough end-edits hiding in the mix here that briefly bugged my ear, and while I’m sure the short pieces served an artistic purpose, they were small bumps in the flow for me. Check it out for yourself, certainly.
Available from Bandcamp.
Let’s have Mr. Tobias introduce his album, Tristes Tropiques: “A dreamy, hypnotic, melancholy-soaked collection evoking far-flung places where small-scale societies and indigenous cultures have vanished or are in the process of being swallowed by an ever-expanding global civilization.” Cheery, huh? What I hear is a collection of off-kilter, inventive, somewhat post-rock musings. I say somewhat because while the standard song structure pops through in places, it’s most often warped a bit or coated in curling ambient sounds. It comes out like a soundtrack for wandering through a hazy fog late at night, head down and a little sad. The melancholy factor here is quite high, but beautifully handled, darts of emotion that pack solid punch. The post-rock side of the equation is not as present at the start of the album; it slides in later. “Malayakolam (Rising Sun)” falls more into a drone space. A manipulated chant repeats hypnotically over a building wall of pads and guitar. Tobias bookends the album with this idea—the closer is called “Malayakolam (Setting Sun).” But as soon as the second track kicks in, we’re in a more rhythmic space. “Piraha” has a certain edge-of-tribal cool to its percussion, but offsets it with warbling guitar. Or at least, I think that’s a guitar. Whatever it is, the sound hooks straight into me. From there, most tracks cleave to a post-rock kind of line that’s underscored with the foggy, sad sounds of drone and, throughout, an air of the familiarly exotic. “Xingu” is a piano soundtrack to a walk in the rain, a simple ballad made deeper through atmosphere. “Hiva Oa” pairs slow-picked acoustic guitar and ambient drones that occasionally threaten to rise up in dissonance, but inevitably behave. It creates an interesting “where are we going?” vibe to the piece. “Gharapuri” jettisons us into the album’s darkest space. Here, we’re back with manipulated chant, but it feels more aggressive. The drones underneath have a scary-movie edge to them, a real sense of tension. The fact that it’s followed by the bright, clean acoustic tones of “Nan Madol” shows Tobias’ sense of balance, which is on display throughout. That’s one thing that impressed me about Tristes Tropiques; it’s well balanced between dark and light, heavy and quiet. Also, the longest track here is under six minutes long, yet every track lands with exquisite force. Tobias loads a more-than-amplke supply of emotion into his work.
Tristes Tropiques is a vivid, fully realized album that rewards the up-close listen. It’s only 44 minutes long, but the time spent inside it stretches out nicely. Expect many repeat listens for this one. A captivating release from Todd Tobias.
Available from Hidden Shoal.
Fun. That’s where this review starts. Jules Verne Forever is a fun album. Although it’s a tad lighter and boppier than my tastes normally run, it’s so crammed with effective hooks and shiny melodies and sounds that ricochet off my Jean-Michel Jarre and Azuma memories, I can’t deny that when I’m in the right mood, I quite like it. Mythos (aka Stephan Kaske) brings a full-on symphonic electronic feel to his tales and inflates them with the kind of pomp and wonder Verne was known for. No trope is spared in this familiar voyage, but neither are any of them too egregiously overused. Swirling synth-winds, spiraling electro-sounds, the ever-popular choral pads, you get them all here but they all fit in nicely. I don’t hear a great deal of structural variation in the ten pieces here—they’re all pretty much chugging sequencers, chords packed with extra drama, and lots of twinkling things—so the real differentiation comes via small elements in any given track. The opener, “The Mysterious Island,” takes up a world feel through drumming. “Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon,” which sounds amazingly like Azuma, distinguishes itself with what I’m moved to described as a steampunk-flavored rhythm. You can practically hear the gears and pistons over the flowing pads. “A Drama In The Air” has so much Jarre influence in it, it about spills over into being a tribute. Or, honestly, derivative. But damn, is it fun.
As I set aside Jules Verne Forever, having reviewed it, I’d say it’s an album I’ll hang onto but enjoy more when it’s shuffled into other works. I do like it, but in doses. Kaske’s a superb musician who knows how to build a storyline through sound, and his work is extremely catchy. Sadly, it tends to be too similar, piece to piece, and a touch too light to hold my attention for the full 80 minutes. Listeners whose tastes fall more into a classic New Age framework will quite likely greet it more enthusiastically. There is energy and fun aplenty here, so do have yourself a listen.
Available from the Mythos web site.
Take Americana. Flip it on its head. Set it down on a clean sheet of drones. Fold it in on itself. Take vocals with a spiritual-music quality and dissect them. Rearrange them in slightly skewed layers. Manipulate them. Leave all the emotional value intact. There: now you have Fuck Everybody, You Can Do Anything by the Andrew Weathers Ensemble. These seven tracks unfold in gloriously melancholic slow motion, pulling incredible amounts of warmth and honesty from their wide assortment of acoustic instruments. Weathers recorded these songs as improvised sessions with various musicians—the Bandcamp page lists 15 guest stars—whose contributions range from violins to clarinets to guitars to melordion to cello to, yes, pine cone. Back in the studio, he went at the raw material and reformed it, added electronic treatments and turned it all into an album I quite frankly can’t get enough of. To my ears, there’s more than a hint of Appalachian music going on here, a kind of laconic bluegrass feel underscoring everything. Weathers’ voice consistently has a reserved, heartbreaking tone to it. On “Keep Fighting 2K15,” it comes in over a clean mix of drones and dobro-like guitar, all but mumbling “Praying for your happiness/Hope that you recover” over and over, and something in the tone, in the way the words come out, suggest a scene where the singer isn’t sure what to say to someone, and this is the best they can muster. I will try not to overuse the word “honesty” in this review, but it keeps coming up in my head. It often reveals itself as a bare truth, unadorned of pretense. While the vocals are not always super-clear, their feel comes through—piercingly so. On “Live By Golden Rule: Go Orange Be Strong,” I pull out “I’d sleep on the floor/right next to your door/And I think I’m all right/I know I can drive tonight.” It’s from “Backwards from Ten” by The Progress, but slowed, slurred slightly, and loaded with that head-down resignation. You can hear the shrug. A repeating phrase on guitar pulses through, leaving a wake of simplicity. A touch of (perhaps) auto-tune on backup vocals is a great touch. It’s done throughout the album in places, always to up the texture. Lyrically, by the way, Weathers pulls from a broad range of sources, from R&B guy Drake to folk legend Buell Kazee to punk rockers Oskar. So there’s some eclecticism to the mix, and Weathers distills the words down to fit his front-porch-jam style. I don’t normally review work with a lot of lyrics, but as they’re presented here, it’s less about lyrics and more about their use as one more layered in instrument. There are places, as on “We Will Never See A Cloud Again,” where a chorus of voices joins in, but everyone’s kind of singing in their own tempo, just a hair behind or ahead. Again, it creates texture and takes us into a place where folks have gathered to praise in song and maybe some of them don’t know all the words. We’ve all been there. And what comes of that? Yes, honesty. Hominess. Truth. And the need to listen.
From the first of the many times I’ve listened to Fuck Everybody…, it has had its hooks in me. “Live By Golden Rule…” has nearly brought me to tears more than once, and since it leads off the album, it makes me want to stay in the flow and the feel, and that is duly rewarded with an ever-deepening experience. It’s the mix of the straightforward sound of the instruments, Weathers’ own vulnerable vocal style, and the unobtrusive electronic treatments, all meshing impeccably with the quality that is at the album’s core: honesty. This is an album you definitely need to experience. One of my favorites this year.
Available from Bandcamp.
Second Spring is almost an hour and half of deep, detail-loaded ambient from Steve Brand. I could end my review there and tell you that’s all the convincing you need to go listen to this, but then I wouldn’t get to talk about said detail, about the move from dark to light, about the thoughtful-as-always compositional style of an artist who is, quite frankly, one of my favorite names in ambient right now. Brand saves the lighter side of this journey for the later tracks. Second Spring‘s path opens in a place that is surprisingly gruff in spots, thick with shadow and concern and potential energy. It feels like passage. Big, edgy guitar-like chords bloom throughout the title track, outlined with buzzing distortion. Sound rises in heady walls. Parts of “The Sun Resides Within My Body” offer a snarling, guttural vocal like chant’s less-well-intentioned cousin. There’s a distinct tone of ritual and passage. That’s something that should be noted—as heavy and near-dark as these opening tracks start out, in typical Brand fashion, they resolve into something softer and more accessible, with more space to breathe. That transition becomes a physical effect, a release that works very nicely. The tone brightens for a bit when Brand breaks out his flutes and shakers for “Transitional Experience.” There’s a lot of sonic activity going on in this track, with plenty of small sounds and pad work filling the space. The flute work continues on “A Drop, Becomes A Stream, Becomes A River, Becomes the Ocean.” Up close and intimate, Brand lays down snaking, jumping, twisting lines over very quiet pads. The contrast of dynamics is excellent, and something in his playing feels like he’s captured a raw, improvised, spirit-of-the-moment energy. Gong strikes roll in and push the work again toward prayer. Touches of dissonance bring us back to an edgier spot in the flow even as it winds down to a meditative space. The album finishes with its two brightest tracks, “Fruit of the Spring” and “Love Never Dies.” (You can read into it what you will that both pieces time out at 11:11.) “Fruit…” features a melody that bounces off the strings of an oud, like a hesitant raga, buoyed on pure ambient pad flows. Chimes clatter in accent. “Love…” begins beautifully as an ambient/spacemusic piece, then adds a melodic element on keys roughly halfway through without shedding the lovely high tones and quiet hush that’s been set up. I find this a very touching piece of work. Brand manipulates the dynamics for maximum emotional impact and drives his listeners to an uplifting, peaceful conclusion. This is one of those albums that, when it ends you just want to spend a few more moments being aware of your breathing and of the spiritual light that’s been left there for you.
Steve Brand’s output is consistently amazing. The very personal nature of the music always shines through. He is truly one of the top names in electro-acoustic music right now, and Second Spring exemplifies why. It encompasses so many ideas, yet fuses them seamlessly. Once you hit play, the ride is captivating and smooth for the next 79 minutes. Everything here is deeply affecting at any volume, and rewards both deep listens and repeat listens. An incredible suite of pieces, and a true must-hear.
Available from Pioneer Light.
A couple of throwaway tracks and several iffy song-end editing choices mar an otherwise decent listening experience on Returning to Another Time. In fact, I’m not entirely in line with the album until the third track, “Still.” After opening with the 60-second exercise “Remember to Rewind” and the twinkly “Plucking Stars,” which is pleasant enough even if it does seem to simply sit there and repeat itself like a music box before ending abruptly (more on that in a moment), it’s not until “Still” comes in with muted pads that I feel like paying attention. It’s a good ambient drift laid out in chords that nudge their way through a drawn-out melody. It like its foggy feel. It gives way to the album’s centerpiece, the 16-minute track “Dust.” Gritty but minimalist, “Dust” is a gathering of hissing white sound, mournful and distant pads, and tiny-yet-effective accent sounds. Hearing some of them, I literally checked my window to see if a light, pattering rain had started falling. The background noise is soothing in its hush, the chords turn a slow dance, and the extra sounds add depth and dimension and keep me listening attentively. Artist Charlie Broderick guides it down into a thinner feel as it fades toward the end. Segues nicely into “Pulse,” another well-executed ambient piece. It’s not really more than a solid rise-and-fall pad piece, but it’s got a nice warmth that goes well with it simplicity. So there are spots where Returning to Another Time pulls me in; the problem is, there are also some moments that knock me right out of it. Several of the pieces drop off ungracefully at the end. Once might be an artistic choice, kind of a cool wake-up call. It’s been done. But more than that? Feels sloppy. “Plucking Stars,” “Windows/Visual Noise” and “Glare” all snap off at the end, and once that happens. my ride is disturbed, and I have to figure you don’t give enough of a damn about your work—my opinion. This is compounded by the last track, “A Piece of Quiet,” which quite honestly sounds like the artist put a recorder in an empty room, perhaps with an air conditioner, and let it run. Three minutes of barely moving white noise drone with an almost undetectable something-or-other going on under it? Maybe I just don’t get it, but I’ll pass. (And, let’s mention, it also cuts off like it’s been guillotined as well.)
Looking at Broderick’s Bandcamp page, he’s been on quite a tear lately as far as releases go, pumping out new music every month or so. Makes me wonder how much better it might be if he throttled down on the release velocity and instead put a little more attention into the quality. Returning to Another Time is my first exposure to The Ambiguity, and I can definitely say there are some things worth listening to here—it’s just a shame that the voyage is loaded with bumps in the road.
Available at Bandcamp.