If your soul needs a little tune-up to get it feeling clean and shiny again, pop on East Forest’s Orbits. Brimming with cool downtempo tunes and a healthy dose of laid-back spirituality, not to mention catchy keyboard licks and field recordings of frogs, this is a batch of gorgeously infectious work from Trevor Oswalt. Opening with “Code of Ten,” we get those frog sounds and a recitation of ten laws a friend of Oswalt’s lives by. (Said friend happens to be skateboard art legend Vernon Courtlandt Johnson.) In comes a light glitchy beat, a gentle ballad on piano, and vocal drops, and at less than a minute in, I believe you’ll be feeling pretty good. Chilled, anyway. (You can watch Oswalt perform this live at a TEDx talk here.) Although it may not quite be the word the artist would want applied to the work, Orbits is consistently charming, abounding with feel-good touches. Even the way the first track slips neatly into its followup, “Carry Water,” just feels right. “Toad Lick” is the track that first tossed “charming” into my head. It’s an upbeat tune and catchy beyond belief. Oswalt plays with an Asian influence that comes through in his keys. I know the instrument that I think it sounds like, I just can’t grab hold of the word—suffice to say it falls somewhere between music box, kalimba and koto. Meanwhile, violinist Kyleen King and cellist Amelia Bowler bring in their strings to lend the piece some flow-worthy fluidity. Oswalt packs an entire perfect sunny day into three and a half minutes. First time I heard it, I immediately played it again. “Talk the Talk” falls, for me, into the “ambient chamber music” category, a discrete trio of piano and strings with a classical feel. King and Oswalt share the lead as Bowler holds the low end. Field recordings of crickets and footsteps on a path offer a sense of place, then part the curtain and see us into the yogic cool of “Vyana Vayu.” In this I hear the breathy tones of a harmonium and the crisp snap of tabla. When this winds down to a quiet passage where the strings take the reins, I find myself very aware of my breathing, and then comes the realization that Oswalt has gently led me to the next track. The flow between songs—and, really, between musical sensations—is perfectly handed on Orbits. No bumps, no surprises, just flow. It’s one big, groove-loaded meditation session where the mantra unobtrusively suggests you just relax, chill, and feel. (There’s a soul-stirring vocal passage in “Choices” that has more than once brought me near tears, truthfully.) Twelve tracks bring you up to just short of an hour, and it’s one mighty fine hour of listening. I’ve left this one looping over and over, just feeling better and better. A stunning collection from East Forest.
Available at the East Forest web site.
The sonic landscape of The Past Is Another Country spends much of its time dwelling in shadowy darkness, but slowly and by its final track meanders out toward, but not entirely into, the light. Steve Roberts, recording as Amongst Myselves, invites listeners to take an “inward focussed journey to explore your darkest thoughts and fears.” But it’s not as dark as all that. Not by dark ambient standards, at least. Yet what it might lack in pure darkness it more than makes up for in shadow-carved layers of sound, processed field recordings, and a superb sense of being out there quite alone. Roberts opens the proceedings with the title track, which comes off as a fairly straightforward bit of ambient built out of gently oscillating waveforms. Then he flips a switch and off we go into places a bit less pleasant. “Dark Places, Winter Shadows” is a haunted thing with quiet windy backdrops, a persistent cadence meted out by one grim bass note that lands over and over, and vocal snippets of voices—some of children, some of an adult male voice, neither distinct. It feels like isolationist ambient but without the typical grinding weight. It’s more atmospheric, and effectively so, pulling a true sense of unease out of an uncomplicated construct. Drones take the forefront on “He Who Bathes in the Black Sun” and build into a thick, mesmerizing wall that then slowly fades to mist. “Cave of the Swimmers” plays in experimental ground, spiraling together field recordings, squibs of electronic sound, and a sparse, lonely feel. Roberts is not afraid of silence of the pause, and doesn’t feel the need to over-pack his sonic space. At this point, Roberts turns us back toward the light. The timing is excellent, and bright guitar notes in “The Day the Crickets Listened” are the perfect vehicle. After almost half an hour of feeling mildly creepy and a bit lost in the mist, the solid tones of the strings guide us out and up. Nice harmonies at play here between the guitar and the pads, and he stirs in some textures from more small electronic sounds. The feel continues through the final two tracks, “Campfires of the Night Sky” and “In My Depths, All Treasures Dwell.” Roberts eases us back toward a soft ambient space filled with pads and textural touches that play in the ears, and in doing so pulls the end of the release in line with its beginning—which of course means it loops very nicely.
The Past is Another Country is the third Amongst Myselves release I’ve reviewed and it is, hands-down, my favorite. Past efforts have always contained some small, probably picky thing that takes me out of the flow; that never happens here. The album contains no bumps, no jarring moments, no twists that merit a “huh?” It tells its story, it keeps me immersed and moving forward, it makes me want to hear it again. This is very much a headphone listen. You need to take in Roberts’ detail work to truly appreciate what he’s so carefully placing into your head and how he’s eliciting deep and often visceral responses from you. A great piece of work.
Available at Bandcamp.
Sculpted in real time out of processed guitar, the five tracks that make up Dirk Serries’ Disorientation Flow are rich and warm, waves in constant ebb and flow. Serries’ time-slowing style, coaxing notes and emotion patiently out of his instrument, creates an overall atmosphere that almost demands low-volume looping, but break out the headphones first. Up close, you can peer into the way he lays down strands of sound and weaves them together. Then, take the buds out of your ears and play it at higher volume to get a nice tactile hit from the resonance of the guitar layers. Although it’s quite like classic rise-and-fall ambient there’s a distinct, drawn-out sense of melody and harmony at work, combine that with a sort of minimalist structure of repeated phrases that slowly shift over time. These five mid-length tracks, covering just over an hour, don’t vary much in approach or construct, but the sameness never becomes a concern because they’re all so immersive and rich. If it wasn’t for the pause between tracks, you’d never really feel the shift–and that’s not a bad thing. In fact, the quiet between songs becomes a listening moment itself, waiting for the next notes to rise and form. This is a release to put on loop and just let it go for several hours, maybe a day…two… It’s deceptively simple sounding on the surface, but as you go deeper into it, it gives up its sonic truths and shows a lot of thought, heart, and soul. Superb work from Serries, as always.
Available from Projekt.
The dual release of the albums Iris and Opaline marks something of a nexus point in Igneous Flame’s sonic narrative, the last time Pete Kelly will pull from a sound-set that has informed several of his past releases. The music offered here represents three years of work and mostly departs from the warm, frequently dark ambient flows that are most familiar to Igneous Flame fans. (Don’t worry—you still get that, too.) This is the sound of Kelly playing with rhythm, distinct guitar lines, and world music flair, and to be honest it’s a bit of a hit-and-miss affair for me. While there are a lot of moments that fully catch my attention and even give me that familiar “oh, yeah” sensation, I never feel fully engaged with the music. True, I could loop “Cherry Blossom Day” and its smooth, round Manring-style bass tones all day. The dynamic here is excellent, with Kelly dropping out the rhythm to let notes float gently around before picking it all back up again. There’s also a superb, underplayed use of field recording here that adds some dimension. And I dig on the peppy tone of “Axis,” loaded with sharp hand drumming (or its electronic equivalent). Again, part of the equation is to drop into a spacey zone with one element remaining strong and then bring it back up to speed. The opening track, “Krakatoa,” gives us some serious guitar rips, runs and riffs that land with a potency I hadn’t expected from this artist. But damn, it works, expecially around the six-minute mark. “Dream of Form” catches an island vibe with deeper drums laying down a base for gorgeous, sliding guitar lines. (And, again, it goes melodic/drop/coast/melodic.) For much of the rest of the release, I’m sort of in and out, easing along on what’s a pleasant enough bit of work, as unobtrusive as we like our ambient to be—but this isn’t really ambient music, and I’d like it to hold my attention more potently. Iris is another of those releases where Kelly has exploited the time-boundary-free aspect of the electronic release, clocking in at almost two hours. For me, it could have been shorter and possibly more effective for it.
Opaline is the one that’s more likely to appeal to long-time Igneous Flame listeners. Pulling from the same sound-set, the artist heads into long-pad territory, but weaves light elements of unprocessed guitar and keys through the mix. As ever, small textural sounds populate the flow to reward deep listening. “Incandescence” coasts quietly along, going out on softly fading electric piano notes, and gives way to bold opening chords on “Overtone Ensemble.” Kelly plays with a church-organ-style sound on this track, and does a great job of melting them from their dramatic start into wispier vocal pads. The strong guitar passages return on “Lilac Haze,” when a beautiful riff elevates up out of the deep ambience. This is what makes Opaline the more attractive of the two releases for me; I like the way the rhythmic elements layer in to the ambience, rather than the having the ambient passages arrive like a drop in the middle of something more uptempo. It’s a better transition, and it’s used sparingly on these five tracks.
On his web site, Kelly notes that the music here is “not perfect.” I’d agree, not just because nothing every truly is, but also because as a long-time fan, I do find some of the work on Iris a bit forced—and this is a word I’ve never used in regards to his music before. I think ambient fans will find a lot to enjoy on Opaline, and it packs enough non-ambient elements to broaden its appeal. As Pete Kelly puts this packet of sounds away and explores new sources and motifs, I have to say that the last several albums that came up out of this pool have been among my favorites. I’m looking forward to what’s next from this excellent artist.
Available from LuminaSounds.
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.