It seems that 2016 is going to be a year of change for me. It has already started with a change of job, and taking on additional work as well. This means I have less time for reviews than ever.
I will continue to accept submissions for review, but as of January 1, 2016:
Not all submissions will be reviewed. Submissions will be reviewed at the discretion of the Hypnagogue staff.
And since the Hypnagogue staff is one guy—me—it all depends on what I feel like writing about. One result of this may be that the reviews that do get posted appear to mostly be positive. That will be because one of the side effects of having less time to write is that the desire to spend that time explaining why I didn’t like something is greatly diminished. I think critical reviews have great value to artists, and I have never shied away from saying that something was not to my liking—and I always said why. Now, there will probably be less of that and more pointing you toward the stuff that impressed me.
This is not an easy change to make and it was not an easy decision. Since 2003 I have reviewed virtually every single release sent to me, both physical and digital. It has always been my policy that if you send it, I will review it. This is no longer the case. I simply do not have time to attend to the massive amount of submissions.
You may still send me your albums. But you do so with the understanding that I may or may not download it, may or may not open it, may or may not listen to it, and may or may not review it. I am not responsible for returning items sent by post. I am under no obligation to listen to, write about, or include your music in the podcast. I can tell you that I will try to listen to, write about, and play as much as I can. The choice to send music to Hypnagogue is entirely yours, and you do so knowing that nothing may come of it. I also respectfully request that if you send something, you do not send endless followup emails asking if I’ve listened or when I will be posting a review.
Again: Not an easy thing for me to say, but a necessary thing.
Thanks for reading.
This is fun. On When, AeTopus (Bryan Tewell Hughes) finds a spot for world music, traditional folk, tribal, and classic EM—often all at once. Whether it’s the slowed-down Renaissance dance feel of “Sage” or the rich Middle Eastern flavors of “Metanoia,” When‘s reach is pleasantly global. And when the earthy acoustics are set aside for the out-there-somewhere drift of “Quietus Est,” it’s just as effective and engaging. Hughes goes heavy on the percussion on this release, and it’s part of what makes me enjoy it so much. Almost everything is beat-driven, so there’s rarely a need to stop the toe-tapping and head-bobbing. Cool touches abound. “Neverwheel” kicks off like a madrigal on guitar, adds light finger-tap drumming and beautiful string sounds, and laces it through with smooth electronics. It’s a great old-world-meets-new-world piece. The strolling jazz bass line that kicks off “Gather” is a great surprise, which just gets better as Hughes develops his sounds around it. It’s got a serpentine feel and, like many tracks here, a touch of exotic flavor—an incense smoke kind of thing, if you will. “Hindsight Axiom” blends acoustic guitar with a strong spacey feel. The start has a nice tenuous/minimal feel, which Hughes breaks with a sudden burst of chord and some dense low end. Familiar synth runs, that kind of “music of the future” glissando, arc like comet trails in places. Hughes plays with the shimmering sound of the chords late in the track; they sound wonderfully large.
Hughes’ compositions are deep and robust, with many levels of sound crossing and layering. You can hear how carefully each element is placed and why it’s even there. The mix of acoustic and electronic is balanced with just enough bias given to the acoustics to lend the whole album its signature tone, that sense that Hughes has reached back in time for his sources, then electrified them just a touch. When is a pure pleasure to listen to, and I think it may represent AeTopus at the current top of his game. Can’t wait to hear what comes next.
Available from AeTopus’ website.
Whichever point in the day you choose to listen to Medard Fischer’s Four Songs for the City of New York will simply be the most beautiful 18 minutes of your day. Moving neo-classical tinted with the soft light of ambient, these are graceful and gorgeous comments that, though brief, come through with strong, human resonance. This is one of those times when words won’t suffice. Fischer’s piano holds the lead on these songs, but it’s supported by an airy ensemble of sounds with a cinematic quality to them. The release opens with the delicate tones of “The Imaginary City,” said tones getting nearly drowned in a rising wash and distorted vocal drops. “Five Years Almost to the Day” comes in hesitant and perhaps a little sad, but brightens as it has its say. “Monument” has a soft, sequenced feel, a comforting pulse over long string pads. It ends on a note that is held like a mix of longing and expectation. “A Light That Doesn’t Go Out” took hold of my heart from the moment I heard it. For reasons I cannot explain, of the four tracks this one comes off the most like a love note to the city. In my head I see a montage of shots of empty city streets, the canyons between Manhattan skyscrapers, just after dawn, the city only thinking of waking. It is sunlight on high windows, a sparkle on the Hudson, the city glimpsed through the railings of a bridge as you reluctantly leave.
Enough from me. Get this. Listen. And listen again. Few things are this beautiful.
Available from Hidden Shoal.
Konnektions represents more of what I’ve come to expect from analog synthesist Jeffrey Koepper. This puts me in odd position as a long-time Koepper appreciator. I have said that I would like to hear him do something more with his impressive cache of vintage gear than another set of nostalgia-fueled Berlin-style music, but once Konnektions gets going, and particularly by the latter half of the release, I’ve set that concern aside and just accepted the bouncy, wave-driven ride. Make no mistake: you’ve got to love sequencers here. Koepper’s skill at crossing their angular streams in ever-growing layers is as impressive as ever, but we’re still talking about a lot of variations on onetwothreefour onetwothreefour onetwothreefour. (You just read that in your best “sequencer voice,” didn’t you? Perfect!) The more I have listened to Konnektions, the more I have stopped dismissing it as a more-of-the-same situation because, although it is more of the same, it’s just really good and immersive. And there is a bit of differentiation. “Oracle” is the kind of thing I’d like to hear more of, a beat-free, spacey drift full of big chords and a touch of drama. He melds it nicely into “Pantheon,” which has a light Eastern feel in its carefully stepped cadence. “Trance Electric” is where the album really takes off for me. It starts with more of the spacemusic overtones, and lets us hang in there for several minutes. Once the vibe is locked in and hypnosis has taken over, he laces in the sequencers, nice low-end notes, and leaves the lazily oscillating waves lifting and dropping in the background. As he does throughout the album — and this is a saving grace — Koepper very smoothly segues into the faster, early-Roach-reminiscent “Astral Mechanika.” It comes of like a lost track from Traveler, and its building energy is a very cool wakeup call coming out of the preceding piece. “Mercury Circuit” completes my favorite stretch of the album by taking us back into the void, then matches the velocity of “Astral…” but with brighter tones. Those three tracks cover over half an hour of deep, very, very good Berlin-style work. Which, again, I am not complaining about. But the other day, while this review was in progress, I had my library on shuffle. A song came on. To my ears, it was clearly Koepper — turned out to be a track from Sequentaria. So perhaps you can see my dilemma: I want some differentiation, but then I find myself in the kind of space that Konnektions brings me to, and all my arguments go out the window, onetwothreefour onetwothreefour.
Indulge your old-school desires and grab a listen to Konnektions. Koepper has carved out this niche for himself, and every album is a celebration of what brought us here in the first place.
Available from Jeffrey Koepper’s web site.
If you took a piece of chamber music, a sort of small-consort, genteel kind of thing, and carefully eased it through a gauzy, eyes-half-open filter to create a here-but-distant motif, you might end up with something like Renewed Brilliance. Guitarist and composer Grant Miller brings a team of acoustic musicians into the studio as The Balustrade Ensemble, and together they turn out nine hard-to-define pieces that are deep, engaging, complex without being pretentious, and well worth listening to many times over. I like that nothing here demands to be heard; Miller’s shadowbox vignettes are full of minute details and thoughtful structures. The slow and graceful movement of “Aerial Verandis” describes, in my mind, a lithe, porcelain ballerina dancing alone. Clockwork pizzicato makes it feel charmingly mechanical, a thing of springs and well-worn gears. Too imagery-ish for you? Have to admit, this happens a lot as I pass through this album. I can’t help but see, in my mind’s eye, everything coming across in the blurred sepia of old photos. The tone is set straight away with “Bathyal Reel,” Miller’s first guitar notes ringing clearly over an ambient-esque wash. But listen closer, and that wash is made of many elements and they begin to slip their way to the front but remain half-hidden in the haze. “The Arch Scopes Cleave” layers on the crackle of old recordings as it showcases Erik Friedlander’s lush cello work. The piece feels fragile but important enough to carefully show us. A rivulet of sadness courses quietly through it. Deterioration of sound is a factor in “Processionary” as well. Miller picks out a clean melody, supported by strings, and every now and then the sound suddenly crunches, skips, or warbles. (I assume this is courtesy of Scott Solter, who is listed in the credits as “Recording, mixing, and tinted vapors.”) This is the kind of thing I enjoy—taking something simple and clean and then coarsening the sound somehow or adding that unexpected element. And throughout Renewed Brilliance, there are plenty of well-made unexpected moments. A deeply explorable work from The Balustrade Ensemble.
Available from Serein.
First things: I would have preferred fewer vocal drops on Mestesis’ Her Place On Earth. It’s just a personal preference. I don’t mind the device, but it’s easy to overdo—and this album comes pretty close to crossing that line. With that out of the way, I’ve been enjoying the narrative, cinematic nature of Mariano Sinestesia’s work, which the composer describes as his “abrasive, ambient and cinematic side.” The seven songs here blend bits of laid-back lounge, airy jazz, and ambient washes in pretty much equal measure. “Your Dreams Are Your Destiny” is my favorite piece on the release, a snappy pairing of a glitchy beat and a dramatic, melodic piano line played out in thick chords, augmented with string pads.”Her Brainwaves” takes us in the other direction, out toward space music with layers of shiny sequencer work and accompanying pads. It’s a more directly uptempo piece, and gets more so later in the track, which really hooks me in. “Her Voice” heads down a minimalist path, with crickets, keening voices, and dark strings. A great atmospheric piece. But it’s the dependency on the vocal drops that keeps getting in the way for me. “This Is You” comes in with the kind of bubble and bounce that reminds me of Ray Lynch, then plops some spoken-word on top of it, which adds nothing for me. I find it gets in the way of the piece’s energy and brightness. Same goes for “Warmth It’s OK”—lovely as the poetry may be, it brings little to the piece. When it moves out of the way and Sinestesia brings in crossing ambient pads with more of that galactic glimmer, the piece opens up. And I’m sure that whatever kid at the end of “Riding An Elephant” is saying for almost a minute and a half is charming if you speak the language, but I just want to say, shhhh….
I like a lot of what I hear on Her Place On Earth. The compositions are lovely, and truly engaging. Sinestesia knows his way around a melody, and the production work is well-made and deep. It’s just that I am too frequently taken out of my reverie by the drops. A few are fine. This many, for me, just serves to impede the ride. Very much worth a listen.
Available from Beatlounge Records.
Okay, so this is about the happiest friggin’ album I’ve listened to in a while, and I absolutely should not enjoy it as much as I do. Two things: It’s all of 15 minutes long and it is packed to the gills with glorious musical cheese. But from the first mariachi-type trumpets of “Summer Night Joy,” I’m laughing and whooping along with it. Oh, the strings, the strings that escaped from your grandmother’s whoopie-making albums from back in the day, they’re just magical in how obvious they are. “Dancing Star” has a sort of Bollywood dance number wannabe feel. It aspires to be one, but it’s a bit too thin. It whump-thumps its way through five minutes and is actually the weakest of the three. “Chasing” wants to find its home in a club, with its little arpeggio runs on synth and lots of echo. Bang a house beat in there and it’s just wheeee. This album is so not in line with my tastes, but every time “Summer Night Joy” has come on while I’m driving, I turn it up and just dig on it. I don’t know if I could take more than the 15 minutes that’s here, but whenever Volume 2 comes out, I have a feeling I’ll take a curiosity peek. It’s not amazing work, but it’s fun work.
Available from Bandcamp.
The Infinite Calling is guitarist Daniel Turner, who comes at you with his various delays, effects, and looping pedals and a desire to burrow very deeply into your brain and set it drifting. Given that Vidya is a loop-based album, you can prepare yourself for a lot of phrases repeating in a quite unwavering way, but Turner is also deft at adding fresh elements and breaking the linear construct of his work here and there to keep it from going too stale. (We’ll get back to that.) Truth be told, once your head is firmly in the grasp of a track like “Centrifugal Spirals” and Turner has not only laid in his metronomic repetition but has also built his sound to an impressive density, you’re probably not going to be in any mental state to give much of a damn. “Ambedo” has the same effect, but Turner accomplishes it with a far lighter sound. Most tracks open with a fairly active phrase, laid down to establish the baseline. This is about the only place you really hear the framework before it starts to melt into the layers that are piled on top of it.”Shunyata” gets to a point where the sound all but spirals its way around your head, an oscillating tone like a glissando looped upon itself over and over. Turner takes bigger risks in sections of his four-piece suite, “Liquid Continuum.” Part I has moment where the sound burbles up suddenly, a temporary disturbance in the flow that quickly gets grafted into the heady wash. Late in Part II Turner breaks into a bluesy kind of riff that proceeds to go all ouroboros on itself. That lick, when it comes in, is a cool surprise. In all, the pieces all here do their job—they absolutely engender a bit of an altered state of mind, as hypnotic drones tend to do—and Turner’s playing and skill with looping is good. But this formula always runs the risk of getting too samey. When I’ve heard a track from this album come up in my shuffle, it absolutely holds my attention, especially in headphones. There interplay between lines is interesting to dive into for a while, and the brain-salving effect is pretty much unavoidable. But as a straight-through listen, its hold is less strong. Still, Vidya has been a good introduction for me to The Infinite Calling, and I look forward to hearing more. Get your brain ready for a bit of an immersion, and give this a listen.
Available from Bandcamp.