Please note that as of March 30, 2014, Hypnagogue Reviews and the Hypnagogue Podcast are closed to new submissions until further notice. All releases currently in the review queue will get reviewed in time. I appreciate your understanding.
I knew that I was digging Spiricom’s Opening the Portal before I got around to looking them up on the internet, but when I did, it became clear to me why I was enjoying it. One half of Spiricom is the very talented Steven K. Smith, whose work I have enjoyed in the past, whether under his own name, as A Signal in the Static, or as part of Dolmen with Jason Sloan. Pairing up here with guitarist Marc Cody, Smith handles synth guitars, keys, percussion and programming. Opening the Portal retains much of what I quite like in Smith’s work–raw and aggressive, grit-spattered post-rock with an attitude problem. Cody is the lead guitarist here, his work moving from the bright, shiny sounds of indie rock to metal-worthy, industrially crunchy guitar chords. Over that, Smith layers treatments and atmospheres to give us a perfect mix of the hooks and emotional content of the melodies and the gut-check rawness of the treatments. For example, the catchy song that’s sitting in the midst of “Another Way to Another World” is textbook post-rock with a melancholy tone, but it’s filtered through a dense gauze of distortion. It’s not that I find this a super-original approach; it just happens to be extremely well done here. I have to note that I quite like the first track, “After This World,” for the way it reminds me of Suspended Memories (Steve Roach/Jorge Reyes/Suso Saiz), between the clacking percussion and the animalistic, drawn-out sighs of the guitar. There’s a hint of tribal hiding in there. The duo also drive home their theme well in several spots. The Spiricom of the title was an invention said to be able to communicate with the dead, built in part with the help of someone who had died 13 years before it was created. (No, seriously.) To that end, we get distant, ghostly wails haunting the background in “I Feel A Presence,” which is where the aggressive metal feel really kicks in to take the focus away from windy pads and a slow-picked melody (give it two minutes). Hear it again on “A View to the Other Side” as Smith grinds these sounds through severe distortion, amping up the anguish of the screams. It works very well.
There’s a lot to listen to packed into Opening the Portal‘s 38 minute running time. It’s a very visceral release and it stands up to repeat listens. Cody’s playing is superb whether he’s taking on a quiet and reflective melody or slashing across your face with razor chords. Great chemistry is at work here, and I hope to hear more from Spiricom.
Available from the Spiricom web site.
When an artist’s own release page notes that the various songs on his album cover post-industrial, ethereal, sci-fi, and “whimsical circus” and the instruments include “egg slicer, kitchen whisk, [and] computer heat sink,” it’s a fair bet you’re in for a mixed bag. Such is the case with Jim Graham’s latest release, Connexion. There’s quite a bit of good stuff in these 11 tracks, the best of it falling somewhere between New Age and ambient. On the New Age side, take a listen to “Fire and Water.” While a repeating four-note arpeggio offers a firm base, Graham slowly builds sounds around it: an evolving melody on piano, lonely notes on bass speaking short phrases, and moments accented by the rasp of a bowed bass guitar. It packs a very pleasant honesty in its deceptively humble construction. Its followup, “Yes,” shines with an easy equation of flute over quiet chords. It’s charming and soothing. “Steel Dawn” straddles genres, opening like an ambient piece, with droning pads drawing near-straight lines against the thump of a drum. A sequenced rhythm establishes itself as the tone begins to brighten. In the last minute or so, the piece blossoms into a full-on song. I like the thematic transition here; the narrative is clear. “Chant”
is a nice take on tribal, with pulsing drums and breathy pads. Clattering chimes round out the atmosphere. “Northwind,” which Graham describes as “polar wind trance,” is the longest track, a nicely immersive bit of minimalist drone that’s easy to get lost in. Graham balances the cold feel of the wind-rush pads with bright tones and carves out a comfortable space.
Connexion is a pretty solid bit of work. Weaving its way through styles as it does could have resulted in a feeling of uncertain identity, but Graham handles the switches well. Some tracks feel weak by comparison to others, but all in all it’s a release I’ve enjoyed going back over.
Available from CD Baby.
Deep, dark and delicious, Michael Meara’s Nocturnal Panorama is a 47-minute excursion that demands you take the trip in headphones. Three mid-length drone pieces work to describe “Mars and other cosmic entities” and in doing so, take us on a bit of a trip inside ourselves as well. Perhaps it’s not fully accurate to call it “drone,” although much of the disc certainly dwells close to the border. The opener, “Chryse Planitia,” builds from the sharp pluck of bass strings and their resultant resonance, along with what sounds to my ears like volume-modulated guitar chords. So it’s more dynamic, in that sense, than its two companion pieces. Meara lets the resonant sounds stretch out into the backdrop, and the solid, sudden plucks hit the mark as perfect punctuation. The other two tracks delve more firmly into drone territory. The anchoring sounds are gone; there is just the drift through shadowy spaces. But even at that, Meara’s sounds are more in the ambient vein than they are true drone. Unlike drone, where time is extremely stretched, and the music equally so to the point of apparent near-stasis, these pieces have more of the slow but noticeable movement of ambient, the grace of breath. As the label notes, these are guided tours through certain landscapes. As such, they possess a stronger dynamic aspect, an aural descriptiveness that comes through quite clearly. “Cepheid Variable” brings in a vocal pad, low male voices that offer a sense of some grimly sacred chant. It continues and completes the movement toward–but again never quite fully crossing into–drone. It’s the recognizable, metaphorically physical aspects tucked into the music that keep it just to the ambient side of true drone. Where we tend to respond to drone on a more subconscious level, this music keeps us below the surface but within reaching distance. It is a place between, and this is exactly where Nocturnal Panorama needs to be. It is where it truly succeeds. This is a very deep voyage that needs to be taken often.
Available from Aural Films.
I was listening to Neal Gardner’s We Are Infinite in my day-job office, as I tend to do with review material, and a coworker who stopped into my office said, “Is that classical music?” I said no, but realized afterward that what I could have said was, “Sort of…at the moment.” There is a certain classical influence at play in some of the music here, but there is also electronic minimalism, hints of lounge, and spacemusic influences. The album changes faces several times, and each new look is equally attractive. The approaches can be sparse, as with “Horizon on the Shore Eternal,” with its forlorn piano melody picking its way slowly across intermittent and intriguing slow tides of wayward sound. Or as with “Requiem,” where Gardner drops hammer-heavy, funereal chords on the listener while string pads soften the background. Weighty and sad, yet beautiful. (And here’s part of where that classical tone comes in.) But they can be uptempo and playful as well, like the tenuous pizzicato that forms the base of “Memories Fade, Dreams Recursive,” over which Gardner lays another pleasantly simple piano melody. Breaks and drops change up the pace, accenting the feel and the flow. They can be hushed as the flow is steered briefly out to space with the title track. Textbook spacemusic touches filter in here, starshine pads tracing horizon-to-horizon arcs. Whatever mode he enters, Gardner hits it spot-on. We Are Infinite retains a nice emotional depth and connection to the listener through its shifts. You never doubt that you’re in good and capable musical hands. The change-ups make sense and keep things fresh and interesting. Gardner’s piano playing is fantastic and it’s a real pleasure when it takes the lead. The good news is, everything else is as well done. A great release that deserves all the repeat play it’s going to get.
Available from Bandcamp.
On his sixth release, Transcend With Time (aka Mark Mendieta) blends New Age music with themes of “isolation, frustration & despair.” While the results aren’t quite as sad as that may sound, When Emotions Fade does pack its share of melancholy, but its contemporary instrumental framework, tempered with a bit of post-rock in places, is solid and pleasant to listen to. Mendieta is equally adept on guitar and keys, so the disc switches focus easily. The piano takes the front on the touching ballad “Somber Rains,” supported by string pads. I love the tone of the piece, rich with a sense of longing, but I could have done without the rain sound the start. It’s not a bad thing, so much, but the way it cuts out suddenly doesn’t sit well with me. Aside from that, Mendieta’s playing pulls me right in. The guitar is at its best in the spotlight on the post-rock-flavored pieces. “Dreary Conclusions” has a bit of a shoegaze overtone, minor chords and a slightly dragging beat that stirs up some sympathy. “The Disappearance” sounds like it could break into a Metallica song at any moment. It’s got that metal-ballad finger-picked run-up going on. It’s the post-rock pieces that work best for me on When Emotions Fade. They feel more honest and they’re downright catchy. Speaking of which, the slight jazz flair of the Spanish guitar in “When Mystery Arises” is perhaps the most hook-laden thing here–and may also be the one piece that belies the whole isolation, etc., theme. How can you be in despair when you’re snapping your fingers to such a funky time signature?
When Emotions Fade opens a bit too lightly for me, but soon blossoms into a listen that’s worth repeat visits. Superb musicianship, an honest feel, and a very fine blend of styles pave the way.
Available from Bandcamp.
Initially created to be released on Pete Namlook’s FAX label, this collaboration between Material Object and Phonaut instead became a tribute to the electronic-music legend, self-released after his death in November 2012. On his bandcamp page, Material Object notes Namlook’s deep influence on his style; in this hour-and-twenty minute journey, tribute is paid in full. What awaits here is simply mesmerizing. Part 1 opens with a mash of disparate sounds that clash and tangle slightly before resolving themselves into a sort of cadenced pulse. Inside of five minutes, the solid basis is laid down, a patient dynamic is established, and all that’s left to do is let go and listen. Background sounds turn to washes, and the washes take on a kind of softly mechanical feel, the hum of unusually quiet machinery. Part 2 stands out as the shortest piece, an interim between the first half hour and what’s to come–45 minutes of absolute blissful immersion. The spiral into kiss-your-brain-goodbye begins as Part 3 slips in on white-noise pulse, glittering pads, and a fast pseudo-beat meted out in small thumps of sound. That is one of the great parts of this excellent disc: there are no beats per se, but the duo do an amazing job of turning layered, repeating phrases or pulses of sound into rhythmic elements. Your body responds to them regardless. They are as irresistible as they are insistent and understated. It’s a very cool feeling to be in a slightly dissociated mental state, courtesy of these misty drones, and to be aware that you are, in fact, swaying just a bit with the rhythm. This slides neatly into Part 4, which at first flattens the pulses out into long drones, still heavy on the hissing mist. There’s a physical shift that happens with the listener here, a movement from the active response of moving with the music and into a passively responsive, meditative state. I recognize that this happens with many ambient/electronic works, but there is something more emphatic about it here. The transition, in both music and listener, is simply beautiful. The drones here are warm and fluid, the current easy and comfortable. A mid-track change brings in bright chords and a chant-like vocal sample. As a rhythm slowly re-establishes itself, the piece becomes a bridge to the final movement. I really like how the pair use a simple bass pulse to finalize the transfer. Part 5 complete the shift with a nod to Namlook’s techno/IDM background. This one can’t really be called a drone. Rather, it cranks along on sequenced notes in an almost unchanging, Morse Code-style cadence. Under it swirl warm pads and subtly moving parts. The sequencing becomes hypnotic and brings us back to that active involvement in and response to the sound.
This is an amazing release. The sound is deep and very dynamic, one of those examples of how making good drone is not an exercise in simple tonal stasis. The infusion of rhythm is handled perfectly and the ride is superbly modulated. I would own this just for Parts 3-5; that stretch alone should be considered required listening across the community. The more I have listened to this, and the more time I have blissfully lost within it, the more I have come to appreciate it. Do not miss this release.
Available at Bandcamp.