Full disclosure: When I got an email telling me that Markus Reuter and Zero Ohms had made an album together, I made a very loud, happy sound. And then when I listened, I got much, much quieter…but still just as happy. Pressing play on this is your tacit agreement to leave the real world for an hour and fifteen minutes as Reuter and ZO (aka Richard Roberts) spin reams of pure sonic silk and wrap them around you. I don’t know that there are adequate words to describe this, and so I find myself defaulting to well-worn descriptors like warm and soft, flowing and enveloping. And as standard-issue as those words may seem, they are absolutely accurate. This is an atmosphere, insubstantial yet affecting, a thing that slowly connects with you and becomes you. As with any good spacemusic/ambient, what Reuter and Roberts put together here is gently woven in long pads that melt when they meet, frosted in places with sparkling notes and glistening moments. The opening track, “Unseen,” does have some sharp sounds in it, sudden flashes that jar slightly against the softer elements around them. The juxtaposition works, but even after several listens, I find I would have preferred them to be downplayed a bit. But it’s a choice, and once it is past, the flow goes along unabated. There are passages where melodies play out across light years, recognizable but easing past in their own very good time. To me, there is no way of saying that one element is Reuter’s and another is Roberts’; they simply coexist in quiet beauty, and the deeper I fall into this splendid album, the less I care about the why of it. Ideal for low-volume looping and sleep listening, it is also marvelously hypnotic and soothing in headphones. This one should be left to play for hours at a time. An amazing work from a pair of veteran composers. Alone, their work is always wonderful. Together, it is pure and beautiful alchemy. A must-hear.
Available from Iapetus. (Also on Relaxed Machinery, who are experiencing site difficulties as of this posting.)
After a debut album that touched on a little bit of everything, Intersonic Subformation (aka Richard Lisaj) returns with Into the Void. It’s a quick helping of music with its eye squarely on space as a theme, held in place by a shifting tone that helps keep it out of too-well-trodden territory. “Navel of the Universe” kicks it off with a beautiful mix of synth pads and piano. It’s delicate and calming. This combo plays out again on “Unfolding,” but pulsing minor chords and the piano insistently repeating a phrase give it an ominous air. On “Galaxies In Motion,” carefully bouncing sequencer lines in low and high registers weave a rhythm against starlight pads and low string tones. It’s got a classic feel. Lisaj slips a touch of world music into “Constalation [sic] of the Spear Warrior.” Kalimba-like tones and hollow percussion push it forward as it moves from a dark intensity into a calmer deep-space feel. This represents the most drastic shift of tone on the album, but not in a disruptive way. A few strong moments make for a welcome wake-up call. A two-chord phrase on keys with a glistening layer of vibrato put a metronomic vibe into “Microbes in Microsphere.” This is one you’ll want to get up close for. While the keys are up front in focus, there’s a rich backdrop of morphing sound playing out underneath it. As the piece slips along, you may be hard pressed to focus past the hypnotic simplicity of those two chords, but you’ll also be drawn right in. An excellent piece that makes great use of its minimal nature.
Into the Void slips past in just over 30 minutes. All the pieces are short, with the longest topping out under five and a half minutes. They are brief but very well realized. Each steps up, tells its story, and politely makes way for the next. There are no bumps or interruptions. It’s a pleasant ride that shows another side of the Intersonic Subformation story.
Available from Bandcamp.
Eric Pietras offers an aural tour of the San Francisco area on Beams. Originally created as a soundtrack for a time-lapse film, the album guides us through a series of vignettes and vistas, shifting tone each time yet maintaining a strong balance between melody and drift, energy and ease. A few of these glimpses are brief—under or just over two minutes—but all of the moments presented are well-told and full. Pietras starts off in a quiet space with the short, pad-based title track, then gets more melodic on “Once Hardly Known.” New layers and sounds come in each time the melody’s base makes a full round, building the piece’s character bit by bit. By mid-track, it has become a cool collection of thoughts and textures. Beats, string sounds, a great-but-odd vocal drop…everything fits. “The Shape of Water” catches my ear right off with its Casiotone-style conga beat (you’ll recognize it) and wobbly, pseudo-steel drum keyboard tones. It slides easily into “Duck Island” with its lush, round Rhodes piano sound and drawn-out chords. “Theory of North” picks up a jazzy vibe, keeping that Rhodes in play. In spots, Pietras drops out his hook-heavy beat and lets chords and pads wash through. Another vocal drop injects it with another level of texture. You will hum along with this one. There’s a more to ambient feel to “The Hill.” Long pads that sound a bit like a tambura buzz through over light field recordings. It’s a contemplative piece, like standing in one spot and just taking in everything around you.
Beams is one of those releases you can listen to casually, but Pietras does a lot of great detail work here as well. Its light jazz edges make it catchy, and its laid-back, thoughtful tone make it easy to slip into. There’s a whole lot to like here, and you need to give it a listen.
Available from Aural Films.
You will know in pretty short order whether or not Jason A. Mullinax’s sonic stew, Home World, is for you. This “collection of moody electronic space excursions featuring cut-n-paste aesthetics, swirling synths and moto-kosmic drumming” leaps out at you from its first moment with a bewildering jumble of sounds and a mad blast of energy. It dances in front of, perhaps a bit spastically, with a look at me! bravado, and depending on who you are and what you like, you just might find yourself settling in and saying, okay…let’s see where this goes. And where it goes is a bit of everywhere. The more I dug into Home World—which is to say, the more I willingly gave in to its deep weirdness—the more I found to quite like. It helps to like percussion, because there’s a lot of it here, but it’s not ramped up throughout. “Hello, Human!” is driven by a crazy beat that matches the springy, cartoon voice at its core, but the follow-up, “Shadow Box” is built on reverse-echo sounds that rise and expand like bubbles in water. A pulse rather than a straight beat marks out a sort of staggered waltz tempo. “Harm Game” is another beat-based piece, with a world-music feel that comes from clattering sticks and drums. Big chords, a repeating phrase in high synth notes, and a distorted vocal add extra energy. “Strange Hours” features a drum riff that has a cool, slightly sloppy feel, like some guy kicking around on a small kit in a garage somewhere just to get the urge out of his head. Around it, Mullinax builds a dissonant, pad-based atmosphere packed with all manner of odd little sounds. If there is such a thing as post-electropop, “Octopus Tree” would fit that bill. A swirl of bright sequencer lines dance around a bass-drum-heavy beat. I like the drums here for the fact that they lay out a very straight 1-2-3-4 beat and every fill is just hit every drum in order from snare to floor tom. Without meaning to sound insulting, there’s an interesting amateurish edge to its simplicity—and don’t get me wrong, I like it. The track that closes the album proper (before bonus tracks) is a nice bit of surprise. “Goodbye, Earth” gives us hand percussion, wobbly wavering keyboard tones, and the comforting rasp on fingers on acoustic guitar strings. It’s very low-key and smooth and shows a side of Mullinax I’d love to hear him explore in a later release.
So Home World can be edgy, it can be frenetic, it makes the occasional hard shift of tone (give “Soft Landing” a listen), but there’s a lot of great structural work at play here. Even at its most tangled, it never sounds or feels gratuitously so. On top of that, it’s just fun. (As I write that, I am swaying to the tribal-ish drums of “Space Amish” with its dum doh doh doh vocals.) What the heck—I think I’ll go listen one more time.
Available at Bandcamp.
Just under 20 minutes of misty post-rock and washed-over sonic landscapes is what you get on Understated Theory’s Critical Drift. One half of the duo is Tom Moore of Dead Melodies, whose album Slowwave Perception received a good review here recently. Here he partners with Colin Crighton of nil.co, with whose work I am not familiar, to craft an enticing lead-in to their first (I believe) full-length release. (Like many of my reviews, this album has sat for enough time to let Understated Theory finish an entire album before I get around to writing about their EP, which came first.) These five quick songs are mostly laid-back yet pack a lot of sound and layering. A big waft of guitars chords is the first thing to greet you on “Lost in the Midst,” but at two minutes long it’s just an attention-grabber that doesn’t do much more than go “Hey!” Luckily, what follows has more substance. For me, the sweet spot is the stretch of “Left Behind” and “Light Wait.” The former comes in on a lazy beat, acoustic guitar and way-back-there vocals—like a folkified version of dream pop. “Light Wait” is a lounge-style piece gently rubbed to make it sway and warble just a bit. A shuffling drum lick and high chords sweeten and soften the sound. Cool as a cocktail, and just as likely to leave your head swimming just a touch.
Critical Drift has been nice to have on hand for when I’m shuffling songs. And it does what an EP should—it leave me curious enough to want to check out the full-length version to see what Moore and Crighton can do with more time and space. Do check this out.
Available from Sparkwood.
Plastination: (n) A technique or process used in anatomy to preserve bodies or body parts.
I looked up the definition of “plastination” in hopes that it might give me some deeper insight into this intriguingly titled offering from The Dread. It didn’t, but the good news is that you don’t need the background to enjoy this weird journey. Picture if you will a kind of electro-acoustic outing with its roots in sort of a back-country down-home aesthetic that dropped a tab of acid and then started talking. This is pay-attention music, or more like pay attention or you might get lost. Or consumed by sound. One or the other. Either way, not a bad thing. Everything rises up out of a fog, like the blues-tinged swirl of the opener, “Goodbye, Otis, See You Soon.” When twangy guitars meet backward echoes and dense, dark washes of sound, the mix is both catchy and off-putting. But cool. As you can tell, this release puts me in several minds at once, and I like it. The title track lurches in with a twisted gnarl of sound bits but resolves itself into a bass-drum-driven drone that locks me in—and kind of creeps me out. “Roll in the Slicing Machine” gets its rock on when it ramps up, and it’s loaded with gorgeous psychedelia. “Otis Doesn’t Feel Himself These Days” exhibits a low-speed power, a kind of sonic wedge to open your mind. Loads of bass helps, and a vocal drop that lays in a Sunday-go-to-meeting vibe. And then there’s the raw, drum-fueled ritual of “The Music Will Set You Free…” This piece builds to a huge sound with a wall of guitar noise, practically baring its teeth at you and daring you to get close.
This release consistently surprised me as I listened to it over and over. It’s got an unexpected quality to it, a compelling oddness that picks up a lot of strength and credibility from how well-made it is. Don’t get me wrong—if you’re not into somewhat challenging music, this probably isn’t for you. Its patchwork narrative, its mash of sources, its refusal to be one thing at a time can all easily put off less intrepid listeners. But wrapping your head around this—and, more to the point, sending your noggin deep inside it—is well worth the effort. An inventive and smart bit of work from The Dread.
Available at Bandcamp.
The Ghostlands Themes has a story to tell. A ghost story, obviously. For the most part, it tells it well and manages to not get too rolled up in the obvious tropes of the idea. Make no mistake (and no pun intended), it’s full of theme. Temple bells, people asking spirits to reveal themselves, church-organ tones, there’s plenty here to hold the idea in place. The narrative begins with “Invoking the Phantom” with heavily echoed vocal drops over wavering pads. This is where we get the temple bells, placed after a nice fade into quiet. It makes for a nice segue into “A Glimpse of Our Ghostlands,” which picks up a New Age feel and dresses it in grey shades. Arpeggiated notes gracefully unfold and we hear someone asking the spirits to say hello. Although I find the vocals a little interruptive, musically the piece lands in a comfortable space between ambient and New Age and is both relaxing and engaging. There’s quite a bit of charm in “Don’t Turn Off De Ligh'” an easy-moving piece on keys that takes a neat turn into a droning shape halfway through. Just when you’ve settled into that, there’s a tiny pause and the piece bursts out in a funky little sequencer riff and you get a dose of angel-voice pads to sing over it. Just a lot of fun. “Absent, Yet Still Here” catches my ear when it mizes a repeating guitar phrase with organ tones. The bass notes here rumble and the high notes sing a smooth descant. It doesn’t develop much further than that but the repetition carves out a meditative zone for its brief run. There are, however, two tracks in particular go a bit far afield for me. “Poltergeist in the Music Room” bludgeons the theme with dissonant guitar that might have been meant to be clever but instead just sort of pokes me in the forehead. The theme gets utterly overdone on “Our Souls Are But Feathers Trapped in Tar.” Most of this track, the longest on the release, is a bed for a long dramatic recitation. A trifle hammy, perhaps, and it just seems to go on too long. Where other expressions here are brief and effective, this one sticks out. Overall, though, worth checking out—especially if you like theme.
Available from Bandcamp.