Update 12/16/14: Just a note to say I’m still closed to submissions for both the review site and podcast. As of this update, I still have about 20 releases to review before I consider re-opening for business. I had been considering a policy of no unsolicited submissions, but as of right now it may just be a matter of, if you choose to send a submission for review you’ll need to understand that I get to it when I get to it, however long it takes me to get to it. Remember, there are other review sites out there. Good holidays to all, and here’s to getting back into the swing of things in 2015.
Altus has pulled off quite an alchemical trick with Excursion 3, creating pieces that are lighter than air while still nicely weighted with emotion. Over the course of these three mid-length pieces (10, 20, and 30 minutes, respectively), musician Mike Carss maintains a quiet yet meaningful voice, and guides us on a journey that begins melodically and melts down into a silken ambient space. “Journey’s End” opens the trip with a lullaby-ish quality courtesy of a gently swaying rhythm and a repeating phrase on chime-like tones over an ambient pad backdrop. A softly persistent chordal pulse on keys adds to the depth. It’s lovely and charming and works perfectly to relax you for the rest of the hour. “Gathering the Moments” is the most straightforwardly melodic piece here. Piano takes the lead. Carss’ playing pulls in a light touch of drama, the space between notes played out perfectly. The notes glitter brightly against a hushed curtain of synth. I like that Carss does not overload this track. It has a well-thought-out sparseness to it, a wideness for lack of a better term, that lets focus more firmly on what is here. And what is here, we connect with very directly because of it. By the time you reach “Silver Shores,” the longest track, you are fully immersed in this quiet space, and Carss gently holds you there for half an hour. This is a classic ambient piece, full of pads that rise, fall and shift, packed with hints of starlight and a cadence that controls your breathing. If you happen to be looking for a soundtrack for a 30-minute meditation, look no further. Slowly and gently, this track brings Excursion 3 to a close. When I listen, I typically spend the next few minutes in silence after it finishes, letting the effect of this wonderful release fade as I slowly resurface. And then I want to head back in again.
Excursion 3 is a remarkably beautiful album, and very affecting. Dedicated headphone listening is highly recommended. This is a release you will want to be completely alone with. An incredible effort from Altus, and a true must-hear.
Available from Earth Mantra.
Even if I take my tribal-ambient-loving thumb off the scale, Intention would still be one of the most potent pieces of medicine music I’ve ever heard. Consider what’s here: deep, soul-shaking shamanic drumming from Byron Metcalf; overtone throat signing and bansuri flute from Mark Seelig; and a double-pronged didgeridoo attack from Rob Thomas of Inlakesh and Dashmesh Khalsa, who has worked on previous Metcalf outings, including Dream Tracker. If there was such a thing as a tribal-ambient supergroup, this would be a mighty fine start. As always, Metcalf wastes no time in bringing the listener in. The title track is a 22-minute voyage that crawls quietly into your head and takes up residence. Each element then slips into place. The frame drum thumps, Seelig’s dual-toned exhalations craft the atmosphere, the whispering song of the flute calms, and the smoky curl of the didgeridoos gives us ground. The rhythm takes hold within the first few minutes, bringing your breathing in line. The mix of didg and voice create a drone-like through-line that settles and focuses your mind so that you’re ready to give over to the journey. This blend creates the perfect ongoing equation on Intention, and the effect is heightened and deepened by Metcalf’s excellent sense of pacing. The five pieces here build in intensity and energy, then slide down into a brief cool-off zone. You’ll feel it firmly at the end of “Surrender” when almost all sound drops out except for the flute. For me, there is an almost tactile snap as I am set momentarily adrift. The best part is knowing that it’s about to start up again. When there is energy on Intention, there is plenty of it to spare. I love the juxtaposition of Metcalf’s frenetic drumming in “Focus” against the slithering drones and soft flute. Another aspect of the equation is creating moments where where all the elements are in play and the mix is deep and we are lost within it, and we are suddenly dropped into a few moments where the sound is pared way back. There’s a killer passage around the 5:40 mark of “Encounter” where we are left alone with the drum, big and hard-struck and pure, before an absolute bestial snarl of didg pushes in. Say hi to your inner animal for me when this one lands. When these drop-away moments come, we feel the release, and then we feel the music reclaiming hold and building back up again, and the transitions are expertly navigated and incredibly powerful. What’s amazing is that everything happening here is acoustic. On past outings, such as Wachuma’s Wave, Metcalf has called Steve Roach in to carve out some electronic beds to accompany the sound. Not here. This is nothing but hands and and breath in action. The magic of post-production brings us rich layering and a maximized sound, but there’s nothing here that’s not man-made and straight from the source. The flow is unbroken for over an hour, with each piece smoothly dovetailing into the next. It’s like power meditation.
Tribal ambient has long been the absolute bulls-eye of my listening soul, and over the years Byron Metcalf has hit that mark with every album. Intention, however, strikes deeper and more truly than ever. There is a very special alchemy at work here and ancient medicine and it knows right where our souls reside. Metcalf has pulled together an unmatchable blend of sounds and sensations and the result is pure shamanic honesty. Cleansing, energizing, and just downright fantastic to listen to. This is Metcalf at his undeniable best. Come take your medicine.
Available from Projekt.
Lazy Arc from Tim Story and Hans-Joachim Roedelius can be considered the closing portion of a musical trilogy quite a while in the making. Its lineage began in 2003 with the duo’s first collaboration, Lunz, which begat 2008’s Inlandish, which is the direct ancestor of Lazy Arc, composed as it is from thoughts and movements that occurred during that album’s creation. In a November 2014 interview with Ambient Music Guide, Story noted that during the Inlandish sessions, he and Roedelius developed “many hours of longer, more ‘intuitive’ improvisations that were really beautiful and compelling on their own…” Those pieces were woven together, he says, to create Lazy Arc. The songs here share the dreamy, balletic feel of their predecessors, a blend of intimate, slow-moving melodies and fluttering butterflies of electronic burble. The work is graceful and strange, and utterly compelling. Deep listening is both required and amply rewarded; there is something to hear, to notice, to feel, in each moment. It may be the heavy chords punching out in Part Four, or the misty ambient passages of Part Six–the longest piece here, one that keeps changing its face, beautifully–or the gritty electronics of Part Two, with its expressive moments that make me think of Story’s wonderful solo release, Buzzle. Throughout, Roedelius’ piano walks patiently through the misty sound-paths Story lays down, and its very human solidity keeps us anchored. It is the stepping-off point for these thoughts, the source of every sound-mutation in play. What’s more, Lazy Arc possesses a very strong sense of emotion. Somewhat sad, perhaps, or maybe just deeply pensive, but the underlying melodies have a definite heart-tugging tone. These are all superb contemporary compositions that pull a lot of strength from moments of play. (Story has said that during these sessions, he would occasionally reach over and tweak something on Roedelius’ keyboard as he played, just to change a tone or a harmonic.)
Listeners need to devote time and headspace to Lazy Arc. The detail work is excellent, the immersion is complete. This is sound to surrender to, an hour in the hands of two masters whose working chemistry has formed over the course of a 30-year friendship. It is seamless and pure and the results are sublime. An absolutely wonderful release from Mssrs. Story and Roedelius. You must hear this.
Available from Tim Story’s web site.
Didn’t I already love Bruno Sanfilippo’s music enough? I have followed him over the years through ambient spaces and solo piano ruminations, and now he comes forth bearing ClarOscuro, a suite of pieces for an intimate acoustic trio. With his as-always wonderful piano accompanied by cellist Manuel del Fresno and violinist Pere Bardagi, Sanfilippo turns out an album that is quite simply the most beautiful work he has ever released. Emotionally stunning, ClarOscuro grabs the listener by the heart mere moments after its first note, and never relinquishes its hold. The full trio pieces are very strong. It’s hard to resist the soulful allure of those throaty cello sounds and the singing violin. The title track, which kicks off the album, makes full use of the dynamic. The harmonies between the three instruments are heart-stirring. Each instrument has its moment at the forefront, and the piece itself is a perfect, classic-influenced ballad. If you can listen to this without feeling a twinge of pure emotion, I would politely suggest there is something wrong with you. On “Luciana” Sanfilippo lays out a strict and angular piano line, a patient phrase over which the strings sing a duet. del Fresno’s bass notes are resonant and rich here, fully utilizing the potency of those low strings. Sanfilippo makes an interesting decision on his album by giving his composition “A Constant Passion” over completely to del Fresno and Bardagi. This slowly bowed dirge reminds me of the work of Henryk Górecki. The cello repeats its simple phrase over and over, gaining emotional power with each unchanging pass. Bardagi provides the high counterpoint, a voice on the edge of tears. The trio get more playful on “It Happens On the Ship.” This piece has a tipsy charm about it. It feels like soundtrack music from a 1940s comic film. The piano weaves unsteadily between the strings. Bardagi’s violin repeats a drowsy run that feels like it’s trying to keep its eyes open–and del Fresno’s lullaby lines on cello aren’t helping. This track just makes me smile. Then there are Sanfilippo’s solo pieces on piano. As with his Piano Texture releases, this is the sound of an artist in genuine mastery of his instrument. “The Movement of Grass” gets an assist from light electronic touches that whisper in the background. Subtle warbles and a gentle sigh of wind–both just enough to suggest their presence, a light tap on your shoulder to ask for your momentary attention. The clean New Age style of “Day by Day” closes the album softly and romantically.
ClarOscuro is a remarkably beautiful album, emotionally charged and superbly composed. This is a high mark in Sanfilippo’s ongoing evolution as an artist. As much as I want to hear what he will do next and where he will take his listeners, I could certainly use more of the kind of music offered here. Put on this deeply contemplative album, pour yourself a glass of wine (perhaps a nice Spanish Rioja or Argentine Malbec…) and open your heart to ClarOscuro. A truly magnificent work.
Available from AD21.
“On this album, we dream about extraterrestrial oceans,” says Algol, aka Daniil Kazantsev, and dream we do as we venture into his guitar-based ambient release, Goldilocks Zone. This is a weightless, glittering drift through spacemusic territory, coasting through Kazantsev’s slow-moving vistas. I find that I like this release more as a background listen than I do up close. Kazantsev’s layering is lighter than I usually prefer in works like this, but the feeling he conveys on each track is splendid, and the journey is deep and unbroken. For many of my listens, I have simply set it going quietly, whether in ‘phones or through speakers, and allowed it to just fill the space. Overall, the tone is warm as the artists explores his interpretation of that perfect spot in a star system, the Goldilocks Zone, where life (as we know it) might flourish. Expectedly, the imagery that comes through is lush and full of promise, consistently light and calm. And it’s all drift and drone, save for “Gilese 581e” where he gives us a more solid version of his guitar work, picking up the standard trope of a phrase repeating quietly over clouds of sound. Perhaps needless to say, Goldilocks Zone loops seamlessly. I could see this being used as a backdrop for meditation or for playing while sleeping. Personally, I’ve let it take me through an entire workday, and gladly so. No bumps, no rough edges, just an hour spent dreaming of the quiet lap of waves on those so-distant oceans.
It’s also worth noting that this release is the first to arrive on the freshly revived EarthMantra label. This off-shoot of Relaxed Machinery, under the guidance of Geoff Small, is off to a very good relaunch and its first releases are firmly in keeping with the quality lineup of Darrel Burgan’s original label.
Available at Earth Mantra.
Drawing heavily on Eastern influence and instrumentation, Loren Nerell and Mark Seelig’s Tree of Life wastes no time in sending its listener into a blissfully transcendental state. And a fine state it is. Over six mid-length tracks, the shortest running a touch over eight minutes, your mind is salved and soothed by bansuri flute, sarangi, tanbura, gamelan, overtone singing, and more. It is Seelig’s gorgeous overtone work that starts the process, rising out of a backdrop of nature sounds and a misty drone on “Wacah Chan.” This track runs 20 minutes deep and I would almost be content just to leave it looping. After Seelig’s voice has opened the space, he shifts to flute, accented by the crisp snap of tabla from percussionist Max Link. Link’s contributions are essential here, grounding the proceedings as the listener falls further inward. It glides perfectly into “Cintinmani,” the first few minutes of which are a showcase for more of Seelig’s elegant flute work. The sound here is clean and stripped back–nothing but an underlying drone, the flute and the drum, and the simplicity of it is where its strength comes from. When the overtone returns, it just vibrates your soul and moves you into a personal and sacred space. The tone shifts a bit on “Yggdrasil,” growing a touch more shadowy and earthy. Here we dig down to the depths of the spirit, the roots of consciousness, and it is warm and dark and genuine. The nature sounds return here and Link’s percussion takes the front. It’s more bass-oriented, harder and more primitive. Heavy drones, roughened at the edges, take on an animalistic feel. For me, this is the place I like my tribal music to take me–straight to the deepest parts of my primal mind. Sarangi from Pankaj Mishra comes in on this track, the vibrant cry of the bowed strings sharp against the thickness of the sounds around it. There is just so much dimension to this track as it builds in layer after layer. It grows to a savage crescendo, then literally crashes to an absolutely perfect segue. “Kayon” arrives on the calming sound of waves, a stunning juxtaposition coming out of “Yggdrasil,” but one that’s instantly effective. Our breathing slows, we welcome the softness, we are called by the chant that rises in prayer. Now it’s Nerell’s turn to step forward; as “Kayon” sways and floats, the crystalline chimes of the gamelan ring out, falling soon into a steady cadence–high, low, high, low–and shimmering with vibatro. It becomes a clockwork rhythm, a metronomic pulse for us to focus on as our breathing comes in line. This track will keep you well-hypnotized. I have always loved the near-dissonant voice of the gamelan, and it’s in full effect here. Mishra’s sarangi returns in a more prominent role on “Acacia.” It feels like it takes over that shimmer from the gamelan; the instrument’s wailing, ululating voice is a signature sound of Eastern music. Nerell anchors it with what sounds like the drawn-out tone of a harmonium, then secures it further with a drone on tanbura. This is the soundtrack to every film you’ve seen that opens on a wide shot of the desert–and it’s beautiful. Mishra draws out emotion with every pull of bow across strings. This is an incredibly spiritual track. It melts into the closer, “Arbor Vitae,” where we are caressed by Seelig’s flute singing a lullaby over the plush warmth of the tanbura and soothing nightsounds–crickets and (perhaps?) tree frogs. Seelig’s playing is impeccable here, a smooth dance infused with the joy of life. As the track closes, the urge to let this journey arc back around once more is undeniable.
It is completely without hesitation that I tell you that Tree of Life is THE best album I have heard in quite a while. It is a release I don’t want to stop listening to. It is superbly constructed and expertly produced. It is deep and true and organic and intimate and moving. Nerell and company give themselves ample space in which to lay out these gorgeous ideas, and then execute them flawlessly. Where it is energizing, it is completely so; where it is soothing, it is utterly so. Listening to this truly engages mind, body and spirit as one, and the journey is stunning. This is an album you cannot miss. A masterpiece.
Available from Projekt.
Sitting down to write about Forest Spirits, the third release in Conni St. Pierre’s “Nature Spirits” series, the first word that comes to mind is, appropriately enough, “organic.” I mean this partially in the way of the album flows, from the simplicity of unadorned flute on “Forest Light” through more complex arrangements featuring a variety of global instrumentation and then returns to the simplicity of the flute on “Roots Breathing Down.” But also, and particularly in the case of the flute pieces, I mean organic in a beautifully raw, wabi sabi kind of sense. On “Forest Light,” and later in “Snow Covered Branches,” we are given St. Pierre’s playing, miked very close and intimate. We hear and almost feel the drawing of breath and the hard puffs across and into the mouthpiece. Not every note is clean and perfect, particularly on “Forest Light,” and that in itself (to me, at least) makes it perfect. The feeling is bare and honest and elemental and hard-focused on the organic nature of the instrument. Across the rest off the release St. Pierre and some friends branch out, pun only slightly intended, to explore other themes. “The Clearing” uses a tremolo effect, like sunlight shimmering through the forest canopy, to underscore a gentle procession of flute with guitar from Pat Malla. This is my favorite track on this release, for its casual glide and lightly hypnotic air. Running a close second is “Branches Up.” This is a light, airy song driven by hand percussion and acoustic guitar. Phil Poirier contributes guitar and some gorgeous overtone singing to the mix. It’s just a smooth bit of feel-good groove. The guitar comes back in a heavier guise on “Lycopodium,” as Ted St. Pierre wrenches out big bass chords with a cool metallic resonance. They’re balanced nicely against a simple wash of drone, warm and quiet. Piano takes the forefront on “Leaf Shadowing,” its dramatic melody getting occasional assists from flute and Eastern-style strings. There is also a bit of Eastern flair on the delicate “Bend in the Wind,” which feels like a walk through a Zen garden on a chilly day. St. Pierre’s shakuhachi flute shares the lead with what I believe is a harp, doing its best koto impersonation. The way they dance around each other carries a hint of improvisation. Again, there is an interesting sense of intentional imperfection in some moments, the feel of two things just a moment apart from one another. Far from sounding sloppy, it’s integral to the soul of the piece. It’s a wonderful rawness, the moment accepted as it is. (I do recognize that this is probably a well-rehearsed and intentional aspect of the piece, but to my ears it has that roughened charm.) St. Pierre takes something of a risk with the closing piece, “Roots Breathing Down.” Here again is the flute, alone and up close in a long meditation. St. Pierre plays with dissonance and long-held notes. There are aggressive, low-end tones that drill straight into you to pull out a response. The feeling is intensely personal; this is her playing straight from her center, connecting breath to instrument to soul. It’s not easy to take in at first, but I find myself once more drawn deeply into the truthful rawness of the sound, the deep earthiness that ties so strongly to the theme of the release. It may not be for some, but the more I have listened to it, the more I’ve come to appreciate what St. Pierre is doing. Also, as noted above, this closes the circle nicely, bringing us back to the solo flute.
Forest Spirits is a fantastic piece of work. I love the way it moves from simplicity to complexity and back. St. Pierre is a gifted musician whose sound is full of soul and spirit. A must-hear release.
Available from Conni St. Pierre’s web site.