I feel that I can condense my review of Ambient Space – Star Diffusion down to a somewhat indifferent shrug. Klaus Lofgren pages through the spacemusic handbook as he constructs sounds and scenes on his synthesizers, but through the course of 20 tracks never seems interested in applying any power or emotion to the work. Many of the tracks feel very thin, holding a chord, letting it fade, holding the next chord, occasionally lacing in some analog twiddle for texture. There’s nothing particularly objectionable about it, it’s just that it never gives me a solid reason to listen. Where most spacemusic strives to take us directly into the heart of a star or the deep reaches of cold space and make us feel it, Lofgren shows us a photo and considers it enough.
It’s not enough for me.
Available from Paraflux.
Offering up three and a half hours of drones, Seconds Before Awakening’s Thirteen is clearly meant for quiet, long-term listening. (On the album’s archive.org page, it clearly says, “Play, listen, fall asleep & dream.”) Artist Mike Waller pulls his sounds out to great lengths in these six tracks, letting many of them go on in their light layers, but also knows when to make them rear up a bit to get your attention. Thirteen does what Waller wants it to, and it does so in waves of warm drones. There’s no real deviation from course for this long piece, just subtle shifts of dynamic. Toward the end of Part Three and into the beginning of Part Four, there’s a gentle rise in intensity and a stronger spacemusic overtone to the flow. (You can check my timing: I’m somewhere between an hour-forty and two hours in at this stage, and I may have stepped out of the body for a moment or two.) Unlike the pieces before and after it, Part Four goes on to lift a bit out of the hush to show a melodic side. It plays out without disturbing the overall feel, just single notes looping and peaking in the flow and adding a new texture. Parts Five and Six retain a level of intensity, conveyed through strong, low tones in lightly swelling waveforms and somewhat more roughened edges in spots. (I’m not sure these passages work as a sleep aid, but give it a shot.)
Thirteen turned out to offer far more than I expected when I started out on its marathon. The lulling spaces of the early tracks unfold into richer, more varied elements as time (slowly) passes, and I like that Waller does not succumb to the sometimes perceived need to break up long stretches like these with attention-getting bursts that only serve to pull a listener out of the experience. As Thirteen moves along, its changes of tone arrive as welcome surprises that we simply accept as the next part of the journey. This is not the album you’re going to sit down and listen to; it’s the album you’ll start and then go about your business, conscious or not. However you choose to experience Thirteen, you will be affected by it—but quietly so.
Available at Archive.org.
As I was settling in with the indie-rock flavored, guitar-based tunes on Gustaf Fjelstrom’s Intention, I popped over to his site. There it says that Fjelstrom plays bass and synths. Then it lists two drummers and a vocalist. And I thought, hold on, where is all this shiny, melodic guitar coming from? Because it it’s all synth, I’m ready to hand out the award for Best Impersonation of One Instrument By Another. That, or he’s got a bass with high strings or he’s playing that sucker way up the neck. Intention is 41 minutes of catchy, glittering rock instrumentals with a tasty gloss of ambient and electronic lightly spread over it. The album starts off a bit slowly, but please be patient. The first track, “Intention,” spends five of its six minutes in a blend of airy washes, light percussion, and wordless vocals. It’s reasonably interesting, if a bit on the repetitive side, and to honest, my mind wandered off—until Fjelstrom lit the fuse on his bass and the thing exploded (for a minute and a half) into an energetic song. Downside being, the really good part was over quickly. From there, however, the ride becomes filled with laid-back rhythms, catchy melodic lines, and the occasional foray into driftier spaces. This is never more true than on “Spectrum.” While keys pulse and waver, the drums snap out a cool lounge beat and more of Cathryn Talbert’s straight-from-a-dream vocals float through the background. A great chill-style tune. “Incantation” offers a folksy edge and a sweetly lilting melody on synth. Clean and upbeat, it feels like a bit of a guilty pleasure. “Autonomy” features an excellent build-up of sound that leads us to a cliff-face drop and a break where Fjelstrom’s muscular bass leads the way. It’s another dose of musical optimism that gets your head nodding. The final track, “Trajectory,” steers us into melodic space music territory with sci-fi movie keys, radar-blip textures, and a song that plays out very patiently.
While I do enjoy Intention quite a bit, there tends to be a bit of a similarity of tone, track to track. For that reason, I like it melted into a larger shuffle. Fjelstrom’s clean, bright sounds and strong mixing hand really shine through that way—there’s no regard for feeling like you’ve just heard that song. My only other detraction, one that has honestly faded over repeat listens, is that although the album notes mention that Nick Grant and Brad Bjuman provide drum work, it often come off like the tinny, too-rigid sound of programmed drums. I was surprised to find there were humans behind it. Several listens down the road, however, they feel less out of place. Overall, the detail work is excellent, the vibe is strong post-rock, and I just have to know where those damn guitar sounds are coming from. Perhaps I’ll figure it out when I listen to Intention some more.
Available from the artist’s web site, botched.com.
There are benchmarks against which any tribal/ethno-ambient album will inevitably be judged. You know the names, you know the common sounds and tones. Here’s the didge, here are the drums, here are the shakers and chants. There’s no need to go into the comparisons. The standard for this kind of work should instead be, “How far down into my primal/ritual self does this album take me?” For me, the answer with Blood Moon is: pretty far. Frore (aka Paul Casper) and Shane Morris do a great job of balancing off the things you’ve come to expect in a tribal release with deep ambient atmospherics, giving us a blend of ritualistic rhythmics and check-your-breathing meditative patches. Where this album really shows it strength is in the attention to minute details, the small sounds that create dimension, texture and inner vision. It’s that aspect that creates the strongest sense of immersion. Several points firmly catch my attention and cut through my usual tribal-loving rapture. “Orison” goes deep with a humming drone wavering its way across a mix of ambient washes and a slowly rising batch of drums. Just before the 4-minute mark, flute drops in to turn it into a slow and sensual dance. Balance again is key here, with everything kept at about the same level, which succeeds in throwing a kind of incense-haze veil around the music. Just slightly distant but very effective, it has a dreamy quality to it. Excellent didge work highlights “Unfolding.” Churning up perhaps the strongest of the influential references, it’s a deep flow with big ambient pads and the cool twang of a stringed instrument I can’t identify—but I know I love it sound and texture. “Night Rapture” is 16 minutes of curling-smoke washes, hypnotic percussion, and pure atmosphere. Breathy flute pushes through like a phantom wind to nudge your mind out of its reverie. This piece retains an edge of darkness and the repetitive churn of ritual as it draws you in. You could just loop this track for a while and your primal self would thank you.
Blood Moon is a strong addition to the overall tribal and ethno-ambient canon. It will slot in alongside your personal favorites. Capser and Morris have very good chemistry; they are strong tribalists on their own, and this joining of their powers results in a rock-solid release sure to please tribal fans.
Available from Spotted Peccary.
A quick story about how first impressions matter. To me, anyway. When I opened the envelope containing Tedd Arnold’s Ghostchild, the first thing I saw was a round sticker on the CD case that read, “Listen! They sound like stories!” And I immediately thought, “Oh, great. An artist who feels the need to over-explain his work.” This, to me, does not bode well. To me, it’s the sign of a lack of confidence in your work, a safeguard against the negative or “I don’t get it” opinion. Good news, Mr. Arnold—there’s no need to over-explain. Ghostchild is a fairly engaging album built on a crossover mix of old-school sequencer work, New Age dramatics, and—yes—a pleasant sense of narrative. It’s a bit of a hit and miss for me because it can dwell too much in heard-it-before New Age tropes and dramatics for my listening tastes, but in the places where Arnold’s work strongly catches my attention it holds me fast. The opening track, “Apparition,” is one of those places. A quick repeating bass line, sparkling sequencer notes and some interesting manipulated background sounds form its basis, delivering energy and tension. “Returning” has me when Arnold breaks into a sound between overamped flute and distorted rock guitar and just cranks the energy levels. I get hooked into the big chords and “We Will Rock You” drum line of “I Know You Can Hear Me.” Choral pads, the ol’ New Age standby, are used well here, particularly in a break about halfway through. Little bit of creepiness works in at the end, effectively. “Spirit Guide” moves in an appropriately ghostly fashion, the background washed through with atmospheric whispers. Bass strings play an elegy, and as the piece goes along, it fully conveys the sense of a journey, of following. “DeNovo” announces the end of the disc with a burst of rough energy that then settles into a pulsing rhythm blended with world music flavors. Great electronic treatments in here, with sweeping sounds and vocoder’d voice taking on a didge-like tone. (Though my vote is still out on whether the sudden drop-off at the end works. I get it, but it leaves a slight unfinished taste.) Arnold’s stories are short. Most tracks flit by in two to four minutes. He does a fine job of laying down an easy through-line without any real leaps of tone, but the brevity often means a piece takes its bow just as it’s reaching a point of fullness and potential. When he gives himself more space, as with “Returning” and “Spirit Guide,” he avoids that feeling and provides a more satisfying ride.
Listeners who are more into a classic New Age sound than I will probably enjoy Ghostchild more than I did. There are definitely strong pieces on here, and Arnold understands how to lay in emotion and drama. (Yes, and make things sound like stories.) Too light for me in places but absolutely ear-catching in others, Ghostchild is worth a listen.
Available at CD Baby.
I think that the term “post-rock” tends to be overused sometimes in reference to melodic instrumental music with an edge—as if tossing vocals into the mix would let the piece shed its “post” manacles and just be rock. Aftermath from Stratosphere (aka Ronald Mariën) would certainly fall into that category. But if this is rock, it is rock at a slowed tempo, pulled into a soporific laze, like a patch of sun moving across the floor late in the afternoon, and occasionally shaken up with jagged lines. The guitars come in big layers here, piled into humming strata in varying degrees of distortion and texture. Singular elements, phrases just a note or two long, quiety assert themselves in loops against the droning atmospheres. Overall, the feel is warm and calm. Lush chords fill the air, gentle pick-sweeps across the body to send the notes shimmering off. That begins right in the early moments of “Accepting the Aftermath,” and forms a major part of the album’s sonic palette. In places, as on “The Search for Normality (Reprise),” Mariën brings in the sound of bowed strings. It adds a light orchestral tone and a pulsing rhythm to play against the washes. There is also gritty energy here. Toothy distortion spews off the guitar in “The Search for Normality” (not to be confused with its reprise!). It feels like Mariën is twisting his axe’s neck to wring the notes out of it, the resultant throttled noise buzzing in our ears. (You, like me, may find yourself checking your media player at the end of this track. I’ll leave you to see why.) “Confusion” changes the feel, entering on tapped notes that bounce back and forth and showing a certain tension at play in the harmonies and in the way the washes rise and shift, everything grabbing hold of the emotional power of minor chords. The closing track, “When You Think Everything Is Alright,” is surprisingly bright. Not that everything else is gloomy, but there’s an optimism in its voice that caught me a little off guard when I first heard it—and which I came to look forward to in later listens. The melody is very strong here, elements coming together in a sing-along tone and everything simply shining. Some might call it post-rock, but by the generalities of that term and the way this piece feels, I’d lean more toward post-folk. It’s homey and welcoming, then makes an effortless shift back toward distortion to create a great closing vignette for this hour-long ride.
Aftermath is an excellent looping album. Where it slips into more ambient spaces, it’s quiet and unassumingly pleasant. When it raises its voice, you pay attention. The underplayed melodies and rhythms are crammed full of hooks. You may hum along, and you’ll definitely find yourself moving to it. I’ve truly enjoyed the several hours I’ve spent inside the sound here. An excellent, deep-listen-worthy release from Stratosphere.
Available from Projekt.
Do you like drone? Do you like guitars? Do you have 23 minutes to spare? Then you’ll be pleased with Windshifter’s April Showers. Initially, I was not all that interested in Anders Johanson’s simple-on-the-surface excursions into over-distorted “post-drone” guitar realms. I have a fairly low tolerance for noise. The first track, “Rhododendron,” didn’t do much to dissuade me from that in its five-minute span. My interested piqued a bit more when “Lilly” introduced some oscillating tones to echo and rebound like some early electronic music experiment, which were then joined by a slowly moving melodic line in high tones over a steadfast guitar drone. Now things were happening. When the oscillating sounds come back at the end of the track, madly overmodulated to the point of sounding like a rabid creature made of anger and electricity, I was in. This is the kind of noise I can deal with. Johanson further catches me by dropping abruptly out of that into the quiet start of “Dronsanthemum.” Oh, “Dronsanthemum,” how you proved me wrong about April Showers. Pleasantly lulling after the harsh snarl of “Lilly,” once you’ve got me listening, you start to get rough. Long notes hold and multiply, develop serrated edges, and transform into a drawn-out post-rock structure. Each new note is a layer in an ever-thickening atmosphere, and the resonance goes right through me. It grows, it swells, it hypnotizes. The way fresh chords erupt out of a mass of blaring noise is fantastic. It adds motion and energy to the drone framework, and it absolutely pulls me in. Johanson wisely gives us a slight respite at the end, breathing room after so much tension, but wobbles it around with those funky analog oscillations one last time. More, please.
Available at Bandcamp.