With his fourth album, Incandescent, Hollan Holmes offers up more of his signature sound, equal parts sequencer and spacemusic. While I’ve enjoyed the album the many times I’ve listened, I’d say that it lags about a step behind Holmes’ last couple of releases. Typically, something in his work has really grabbed hold of me, really made me sit up and pay attention. I don’t get that here, but I find myself fairly content to just coast along with the sound. “First Light” gives us some velocity and old-school vibe with its intersecting lines, but never breaks out into something bigger. Same with “Letting Go.” The blend of pads and sequencer lines is well made on this track, and Holmes thickens it up a little with a low-end motif, but it feels very neutral. When he switches into purely pad-based territory with “The Inevitability of Change,” he gets my attention more. This is a deep flow, spacey and calm. He keeps this sense going in “Ancient Atmosphere,” reaching for more low-end chords for a solid dramatic feel that doesn’t forsake the breath-slowing cadence we’ve entered into. Mid-track he works in a change of tone that roughens up the ride like turbulence, then eases back out of it toward the close—a great transition. A mis-step for me here is “Interstellar Lullaby,” which a bit too standard-issue New Age-ish for me. The sound is thin and too familiar. Thematically, yes, it’s on point. For me as a listener, it’s too breezy and obvious.
Incandescent is definitely an album ambient and spacemusic lovers should check out. If you are not yet familiar with Hollan Holmes’ work, it’s a decent intro. Having listened to him from the start, however, and having been a solid proponent of his work, this one pulls up just a touch short for me by comparison. The last 25 minutes or so, as covered by the three closing tracks, work best for me, and I will confess to upping the volume on the sequencer-driven pieces more than once. Have a listen.
Available from Hollan Holmes’ web site.
Okay, now I’m sad. But it’s the good kind of sad, because it’s, like, beautiful sad. I have come through yet another listen to the self-titled release from The Lonely Bell (aka Ali Murray), and I’ve gotten really pensive again, and darkly calm, and as I emerge from this half hour of softly murky drones, its truly gentle weight lifts away. This isn’t the kind of weight you get with dark ambient, but it certainly swaps that out for emotional weight. The majority of the impact comes from the stunning-yet-simple closing track, “Frozen in Memory.” Prior to that, the title track opens the disc with long, beatless drones that, although not deeply layered, exhibit a very pleasing slow-motion dynamic. The most forcefully present of the drones remains nicely constant in the foreground; the movement happens quietly beneath the flow. On “Winter Curse,” Murray laces in guitar over what may be a field recording of wind. (Murray records on the remote Isle of Lewis off Scotland.) That sound imparts the requisite chill, and the guitar’s uncertain steps convey a meandering loneliness as it finds its way into a melody. The transition is timed beautifully, and the balance of sounds shifts accordingly. The quick track “Withdrawal” follows, another play in drones, this one built on a warbling sound looping before fading off into wind. This makes for the changeover into “Frozen in Memory,” and the deepest stretch of the album. The equation, on the surface, is simple: a slow, sad post-rock song, played quietly over a base of drones meets a rising electronic crackle that patiently obscures everything else. The track is 10 minutes long; the crackling starts at the two-minute mark. How Murray manages to not piss me off with this sound in the next eight minutes, I have yet to understand. Instead, I find that I am falling deeper into it, getting lost in this static-filled snowstorm, using the whisper of the song as a guide. The feel of the thing, and maybe the combination of feel and the eventually hypnotic effect of the noise, absolutely hooks me and I don’t want to come up out of it. A very effective piece.
This short release marks an excellent start for The Lonely Bell. Although it begins a bit on the thin side, by the end, Murray has shown a lot of skill with an understanding of drone. I’m looking forward to more. Have a listen, and at the very least treat yourself to “Frozen in Memory.”
Available from the artist’s Bandcamp page.
Yes, sequencer music can be repetitive. But two things: one, we’ve known this for decades and for many of us, knowing hasn’t dampened our love of it. Two, in the hands of Steve Roach, who started in this sphere, took a long trip through so many other realms of electronic music and now returns to his hands-on, purely analog roots with Skeleton Keys, the dynamics of repetition take on a new timbre. He’s not trying to reinvent or reinvigorate the style here; he’s clearly just digging on coming home. If you’ve been along for the ride this whole time, the reverse-echoing intro to “The Only Way In” is like a vortex pulling you back the man’s early work. For me, it was a familiar sound, one I greeted with a broad smile, like seeing an old friend again. (And damned if I can remember which song I’m reminded of. Ah, age.) And, yes, both the opener and its followup, “The Function and the Form,” are deliciously old school, but the strength of Skeleton Keys is that is doesn’t just linger in that zone. Roach is a couple decades more experienced than the guy who created Now and Empetus, and he’s got a smoother hand. “It’s All Connected” shifts the feel toward a more subtle groove, reminiscent of the zones he played with on Immersion 5. This track spreads the sequencer bits out more, finds an easier rhythmic stride, and lets the focus fall more squarely on slow-breathing pads in the background. It’s also a welcome shift in pace after the high-speed runs of the two tracks before it, and it slips very smoothly into the just-slightly-faster beats of “Outer Weave.” Outside of the fact that I have always enjoyed this style of music, the more I listen to Skeleton Keys the more I’m aware that what I’m really enjoying about it is the seamless juggling of lines, pulses, and pads and they way the come together. On “Escher’s Dream Is Dreaming,” there’s a great sense of Roach as the patient conductor, deftly cue’ing his various phrases, picking and choosing and just watching the sound build around him. There are some great uses of small textural sounds hiding in here, skittering and burbling beneath the main lines. By the end of the album, we understand that the guy standing behind the modular rack might in many ways be the same one who caught the analog bug 40 years ago and switched us on with Now, but the man behind Skeleton Keys is a more confident, deeper composer—who has never lost his sense of play.
Crusted in thick and gritty heavy metal tropes, from crunchy distorted guitars to viciously assaulted drums, Les Limbes’ debut EP is one of those albums you throw on when you need to break a speed limit somewhere. It’s just four tracks and less than 20 minutes long, but these post-rock instrumentals land with a fair degree of force. “Hypersonic” is a barreling train of sonic goodness that stops in the middle to grab a breath before finding another level of intensity. A three-chord descant that repeats over and over throws an anthemic feel into the mix. The last minute of this track is big and meaty and fun. “Strangers to Everyone” drops the tempo and picks up more of an indie rock swerve, but still has that metal edge. “Thousand Billion Broken Ideas” puts the bass up front and lets it grind away. Vocal drops repeating the title are a nice touch. I feel like I hear an Incubus influence in the sound and structure here, with the raw potency of Rage Against the Machine. My favorite of the four. “Zeitgeist” starts out feeling like a bit of an indulgence, coming in with unaccompanied piano that swells into a hammer-fisted blast of chords like Rachmaninov gone mad. I don’t get into this one until late in the track when wah-wah’d guitar lines start strafing the area–but by then I’m also done with the “let’s do a power ballad” mindset.
As a quick listen, Les Limbes works well. The group has energy and chops to spare, but cleaves pretty closely to a safe heavy post-rock style. It’s a great album to toss into a mix, and shows a lot of potential for work yet to come. Have a listen.
Available from Hidden Shoal.
Listen to me! LISTEN. TO. ME! You DO NOT press that play button until you are sure—abso-freaking-lutely SURE—that you can handle being teleported back to the 80s. Like, instantaneously. You’ll only be there for 20 minutes before the temporal vortex sucks you back through, but it’ll be total immersion. Look at that cover. Look! Pixelated art. Pure 8-bit with a little bit of Blade Runner and Neuromancer homage thrown in. That’s what you’re getting yourself into, okay? Is it cheesy? Yes. Yes, but in the way that electro-pop and synth-drums and 808s were cheesy even back in the day and you know it but they still drive that urge to get up and dance. Hex Phase from Neon Shudder revels in dousing itself in nostalgia as potent as cheap cologne and then swaggering its way down the street. Oh, it knows you’ll be playing it loud. And probably giggling a little at how over-the-top we used to sound. You really think you’re going to deny the warbly techno style that kicks in on “Petrichor” and the bass line it stole from Yaz’s house? No, you most certainly are not. Or what about when the dramatic-chord-driven, bass-note-punctuated thoughtfulness of “Calm Before the Storm” is looking you in the eye and closing out the album with a meaningful pout (and probably an open shirt blowing in a phantom wind)? No, if you have even a shred of love for this stuff left in your heart, you’re going to crank up Hex Phase, have fun with it, and come back to it now and then. Truth be told, the cheese factor is good for one straight listen but then I think it gets relegated to the shuffle queue where its throwback magic can run into the room, shout “Remember me?” and make everybody happy for a couple minutes. But for now, out on those Ray-Bans, pop your collar or throw on a skinny tie, and teleport.
Available from Neon Shudder’s Bandcamp page.
Splendid Labyrinths is just over an hour of amorphous, meditation-ready ambient drifts. Max Corbacho has created an album that feels like a tonal successor to his beautiful release, Ars Lucis. This album has the same sacred-music undertones and graceful, rising pads, all leveled off by a rich low end. There are six tracks here, but a seamless flow between them creates a singular unbroken journey. The twinkling space-music heights of “Towards the Center” melt slowly into the languid density of “Earth Womb,” which in turn disintegrates into “Wave of Reflection,” and so on. Although this is not real stand-out work from Corbacho, whose stuff typically blows me away, it is, as always, beautifully done. As a low-level listen it enters your space like a gentle prayer and conveys its considerable emotional content. Break out the headphones to take in his patient weaving and layering of pads and the dynamic play between highs and lows. It is familiar-sounding material, but there’s no denying its efficacy as a relaxation piece. Bring your breathing in line with Corbacho’s constructs, and turn this one on when it’s time to simply drift.
Available from Max Corbacho’s Bandcamp page.
Begin with a 20-year old box of cassette tapes that capture your old band’s rehearsals. Digitize them, and in doing so accidentally route them through “a jumble of digital filters and delays,” making the sounds overlap and layer. Consider that moment as your stepping-off point for a musical exploration of the mind’s short-term, echoic memory. Result: Echoic, 42 minutes of misty drones that, outside of the opening moments of the first track, bear no resemblance to their source materials. Very little memory of the original is left after Stephen Christopher Stamper is done manipulating the sounds. Instead, we are given a collection of hypnotic structures with a minimalist amount of shift and churn. In places they become large, dense things that take over your head by filling it with big amounts of sound. The first track, “There,” balances on the edge in this, but stays just to the passive side of aggressive. On the other hand, “Out,” the closing track, grows continuously into an overwhelming storm of near-white noise. In other places, as on “Original,” the sounds are sparse and ghostly. On that track, Stamper gives voices from the original tapes more presence, but keeps them just far enough out of aural focus to make you feel a little like you’re eavesdropping. “Bark” finds a half-buried rhythm to work into its ambient flow, but it’s so nicely downplayed it almost becomes subliminal. I like this track, but something in the way its elements come together causes there to be some borderline awkward sound drops, like rough tape edits, mostly late in the piece. It may be on purpose but it’s just enough of a bump to take me out of an otherwise deep ride.
Drone enthusiasts are going to find a lot to like on Echoic. It has a distinct dynamic, shifting constantly and patiently, and Stamper gets down to some very small detail work to add texture. As a background listen, the whispering quality of the sounds goes a long way toward quieting a space. It’s one of those works that will subtly get your attention in new places each time you listen. Loop this in headphones if you’re in the mood for a brain massage—well, until you get to that last track, which will most certainly wake you from your drone-fed reverie. This is well worth diving into and letting it flow.
Available from A Companion of Owls.