Safe to say that I am not in the exact target demographic for Music for Viola and Electronics II, but at the same time I find myself more engaged than I thought I would be. This set of five improvisations mix Michel Banabila’s popping, gurgling, noisy electronics with the rasp and soar of viola and violin from van Geel, along with several guest musicians. Together they maneuver speedily through spaces that are gratingly experimental one moment but almost pleasingly normal, for lack of a better word, the next. There is a fair amount of tension and release, vivacious energy and pause-for-breath breaks. There are spots where I am inclined to move along, feeling like I’m hitting the boundaries of my tolerance for neoclassical jangle, but even at its most demanding, the way this album showcases the chemistry between Banabila and van Geel holds me in place. The jagged, spliced tones of “Kino Mirko” begin to get on my nerves a few minutes in, tired of my brain being picked at my pizzicato notes and sharply truncated moments—not to mention some genuinely annoying trumpet braying from Eric Vloeimans—but it slowly resolves itself into a whispery, textured drone. “Chaos” lives up to its title shortly after luring you in with quiet strings from van Geel. Banabila gets aggressive with the noise, and van Geel counters with squealing string runs and dissonant draws. Again, while it can be off-putting, it is saved by an intriguing dynamic that shoots it from those hyped-up moments to passages heavy on pause and tiny sounds. The best, most accessible piece here (for me) is “Vleugels,” and I can’t get enough of it. It enters on string spirals, with Emile Visser’s cello arriving to add his repeating notes to van Geel’s as they build into a charming minimalist space. When Visser takes the lead, the mood shifts, the sound gets richer, and the sense of moving toward something is strong. Enter Joost Kroon’s drums, absolutely launching the piece with a blast of pure rock energy. The strings head straight for your heart at this stage; it’s truly that stirring.
Aside from “Vleugels,” it does take some tolerance for experimental music to appreciate Music for Viola and Electronics II. It challenges the listener, but the complexity of sound and the chemistry at work tempers the rougher edges.
Available from Bandcamp.
Because it is meant as a tribute to the late, great Edgar Froese, this album lets you fill out your Berlin School Bingo card rather quickly. It may not be here to offer anything new in the genre, but it’s rock-solid in its homage, packed to the brim with passion and power, and just a whole bunch of fun. With all the standard elements of the Berlin framework in place—thick. tangy sequencer lines and big, dramatic chords that land like meteor strikes—what really draws my ear here is the ass-kicking guitar work. Fiery lines, I will assume mostly from the project’s lead artist, Kuutana, light up the proceedings in almost every track. You get a nice taste of it in the opening track, but if you really want to get your fire on, head straight to “Escape Velocity.” Pure rock flair sparking against the rigid pulse of the sequencers. “Orbital Manuevers” with Midnight Airship latches onto a 70s rock groove, giving us breathy organ riffs to go with the guitar sounds. You’ll certainly catch a little whiff of Richard Wright hiding in the quieter passages. “Light Beyond the Abyss” finds a very smooth groove that builds off low-end sequencer pulses and locks in for an easy, laid-back ride. Kuutana brings in flute to feather-drift its way around the tune—a nice balance for the electronics and a western-flavored guitar line. For you latter-era TD fans, the closing track, “The Phoenix,” brings in some sultry, oh-so-smooth-jazz sax a la Linda Spa. It’s almost a bit too nostalgic, and borders precariously on being too much of an example of that era’s cheesiness, but it’s still pleasant. As much as I love this style, there are places on L3G4CY that have a bit too much of the tinny sounds and cliche phrasing that feel like examples of why the style’s star faded somewhat. The iffy charm of electronic drums can wear thin, and there’s only so much sparkly synth I can handle in one sitting. “The Sea of Stars,” featuring guest musician Johan Tronestam, is such a piece. Despite more gnarly guitar (with a trill perhaps lifted from Oldfield’s “Serpent Dream” on TBIII), its tick-tock cadence sends me reaching for the skip button. L3G4CY has been a pleasant driving companion for me. It’s energetic, it rocks, it pings those old-school pleasure centers, and it can just be a lot of fun to listen to. A good tribute to the Maestro, and well worth a listen.
Available from Border’s Edge Music.
Attention to detail and attention to the interplay between the smallest sounds and the larger ideas around them, are hallmarks of Dan Pound’s signature sound. On Change of Weather, Pound uses that to make musical commentary on the weather—how it affects us and how we affect it. The journey takes us through places of fog and rain, and into zones that are both sunny and cool. It begins in darker tones with the two-part “Through the Fog.” The first, shorter part sets the mood with low-end chords creeping in like lowering clouds and skittering electronics arcing over our heads. Pound’s constructs wander slowly past, the sounds appropriately misty. Settle in for the second part, the longest ride here at just over 18 minutes. It soon brightens considerably more than its first part, and develops a richer complexity. Vocal samples with a tribal flair and light percussion fill the space alongside those pads and even more woven analog electronics. It’s quiet and deep but layers in a gentle vibe. Toward the end it smooths and thins beautifully, putting all the focus on flowing ambient lines. I feel that there is an organic movement happening from piece to piece on this album. It’s often subtle and may even be a matter of me as a reviewer looking for connections. There are light twinkling sounds in “Through the Fog, Part II” that seem to get picked up as droplets in “After the Rain.” let’s go back for a moment to my comment about the integral role of small sounds in Pound’s work—there may be no better example than this. He fills your ears with fluid, burbling sounds, some barely a squib, and sets them in bouncing motion. That feel, and the rain motif, carries over further into “Rainforest,” where Pound folds in some flute to up the acoustic/organic ante. This one will most certainly soothe your soul. Now, this may be too much of a stretch, but I think the flute sound may find something of a logical extension in the harmonica that comes in during “A Differnt Wind.” It fits into the the way Pound is melting together electronic and breath-based sounds. At the very least, the texture it adds is excellent, sharply cutting its way through the misty pads. “Moon Tide Rising” closes out the release in twinkly, bright style, but it might be too bright. There is something less than pleasant in the sort of dissonant play between the chimes and the underlying pads, something feeling almost like a disconnect, that takes me briefly out the album. It feels in places like there are two competing ideas pulling me in opposing directions, and I’m not enjoying that sensation. Coming at the end of an incredibly deep flow, it gets a bit of wince from me. Overall, however, Change of Weather is well worth a very deep listen. Take in the complexity of Dan Pound’s work, and enjoy.
Available from Dan Pound’s web site.
More long-form, pad-driven quiet time from Another Neglected Hobby, aka Mark Cotton, in a two-track, hour-long release. Reminiscent of ambient path makers like Roach’s Quiet Music, Surface Gravity is not an album you need to listen to closely. Cotton doesn’t go out of his way to change up the rise-and-fall mode of the style, and the work doesn’t feel deeply layered. It is, however, warm and quiet, and takes a lot of its strength from its effect rather than its sound. Having let it loop for quite some time, I can vouch for its calming capabilities and non-obstrusive nature. Having let it loop for quite some time, I can also say that while it’s a nice enough ambient ride, there were times when I wanted something a bit more out of it. A stronger shift, a darkening maybe, a fresh dynamic, something. I’m okay with the work here, but it feels—particularly compared to Cotton’s previous works I’ve reviewed—like more of an ambient exercise than a focused outing. A good effort that just falls a touch flat. Check it out at the link below and draw your own conclusions.
Available from Bandcamp.
It can be taken as something of a given in the ambient world that if the name Alio Die appears on an album, it will be good. Stefano Musso has been consistently turning out beautiful music for 20-plus years, often collaborating with other stellar talents. Holographic Codex, his new outing with Italian composer Lorenzo Montanà carries the legacy forward. Although it opens with a surprising touch of micro-beats on “Muns De Etrah” (I’ll get back to that), it soon levels into a smooth, mostly beatless place that will, in the course of an hour, move us through pure ambient vistas and the call-to-prayer feel of sacredly inspired music. That opener, though, balances a lounge-like feel—thanks to the tiniest of percussive elements—with the soft drifts to come. I get a little trace of Carbon Based Lifeforms in its easy groove and sway, and I like how Musso and Montanà offer us a cool uptempo cocktail to begin before we get down to being quieter. Its followup, “Hydra E Vers,” moves us toward that prayer-like feel with a vocal sample chanting over a backdrop of slow-moving, echo-packed piano and quiet ambient washes. The shift in pace from the first track is superb and unexpected and takes us into a very meditative frame of mind. The sacred feel carries through quite a bit of Holographic Codex; it returns in the opening moments of “Silent Rumon,” where unless my ears deceive me, the chant blends with touches of throat singing. (That distinct whistling sound of the high tone…) It elevates the choral singing on the very beautiful and cleansing “Eternal Wisdom.” There are so many rich touches here. The chimes on “Akvil” are big and resonant, and the way they clatter together feels absolutely organic. Bold chords and pads rise beneath them, giving the piece a dramatic air and a real sense of scope. “Silent Rumon” works to reintroduce a beat-based element into the flow, perfectly breaking up this ritual-feeling outing to make sure we’re still with it. It builds and swells, eventually spiraling back down while pizzicato notes pepper the flow.
Here is an album whose effects you will be unable to resist. Sound causes physiological changes, and the sounds on Holographic Codex are undeniably calming and moving. Your breathing slows, your mind quiets and opens, you connect with the sacred regardless of how secular you may be. On top of that, it’s the kind of deep sound that you just want to peer closely into with your mind’s eye to take in all the imagery that arises. Headphone listening is an absolute must. There is so much beauty to take in here, you shouldn’t miss the slightest moment of it. A masterful album from two stunning talents, and easily a contender for the best albums of the year.
Available from Projekt.
Hey, remember when the cool thing in IDM was to wrap funky beats around long vocal drops? Stuff you were pretty sure you should be paying attention to, either because it was informative or just cool? Did you love that? Then welcome back, because that’s what’s in store on Subatomic Particles from your friends at Cosmic Mind Warp. “A hallucinogenic head-trip through the strange microscopic world of quantum physics,” they tell us. On that side of the scale, they deliver. I will say up front that the album tends to be a little drop-heavy for me, but the grooves are pretty deep and often trippy, and they’re balanced off with more ambient-inclined pieces. Problem is, I find that I’m only ever minimally engaged in Subatomic Particles. The pieces are short, so the sense keeps shifting—which is fine—but none of the 15 tracks here ever really demands my attention, and the abundance of drops puts me off a bit. There are points where I quite dig into the feel of something, like the soft flows at the end of “Weak Nuclear Particles” once we’re quite done with a sleepy-voiced woman slogging through an explanation of how a boson works, or the overlapping electronic waves of “Cosmic Microwave Background,” one of the only tracks to really grab me. Structurally, that track is fairly simple, but the way its continuously layered builds into a wispy wall of pads with its own fluid dynamics.
Subatomic Particles has worked best for me as kind of a distracted listen. There’s some excellent production in here, and the CMW duo know how to play with your head, but it’s just kind of…there. I could have done with a bit less voice and a bit more energy and dimension. Still worth having a listen, if only in the background.
Available from the Cosmic Mind Warp Bandcamp page.
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.