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.
If good instrumental music is intended to paint a scene within the listener’s mind, then Timothy Wenzel’s River Serene is most definitely good instrumental music. In 12 pieces spread over a scant 49 minutes, Wenzel presents tone poems based around the themes of water, love, light and dreams. Each theme is represented by three pieces, and the mood overall is soft and reflective. Wenzel’s piano is the star of the show here, but it’s surrounded by a superb electro-acoustic supporting cast. Harps and flutes, strings and drums, all come together to tell the stories. I have promised myself I’d try to step around the term “New Age” going forward in favor of the term “contemporary instrumental,” but River Serene slots easily into that sleeve. Crisp and romantic, quietly paced, and packed with musical optimism. This is music you’ve heard before, but it’s all quite beautifully made. The title track, which comes in early on, is something of a soul-cleanser. Piano and pizzicato harp notes blossom out into full orchestration, with flute coursing high above. The sound imagery here is perfect, the mood encapsulated in the notes. Wenzel’s piano swells in big, neo-classical fashion, packing shades of Richard Clayderman, on “A Midnight Rose.” (A little roll of the tympani adds drama.) There is something going on in “A Twilight Pause” that resonates in me as a listener, and I cannot adequately describe what it is. Soft string pads wash beneath the piano as it takes a slow walk–perhaps that’s it; there’s a slight sense of melancholy here, of a departure being made. Sax-like synth sounds wail a melody with just a hint of 80s flair. The moody tone carries into “Night Train,” which also picks up a little bit of a syncopated groove as it winds toward its close.
River Serene is going to be a big winner with New Age fans. It’s firmly rooted in that style. It’s light without being wispy, a lovely end-of-day album. Wenzel is getting better with each new release. Keep an ear on him. (A new release is slated for December ’14.)
Available from the artist’s web site.
Aptly titled, Marsen Jules’ Beautyfear is a release with two distinct tones. On the beauty side, there are luscious, warm pads drifting in classically cloud-like fashion. On the fear side there are shadowy, edge-of-industrial constructs and dark chords. And while for this listener the lighter, warmer side sounds and feels stronger than its counterpart, Beautyfear overall is a solid hour of music and sensation. Jules opts to intertwine the two sides of his equation rather than making any sort of light-to-dark shift, or vice versa, and I can’t fully decide how I feel about that. On one hand, it would be interesting to hear that shift made slowly, gliding from the higher side down into the grit. On the other, the release as it stands moves you dynamically in and out of these spaces, making sure you’re not just lolling off into sedated-listener land. The heavier pieces can pack a pleasing punch. “Beautyfear II” (the pieces are just numbered) comes in a series of almost bestial metallic snarls, big hammer-falls of sound punching down over a hushed and haunted drone base. “VI” follows a similar path, with swells of moody pads, but the air is more suspenseful, the bass end thicker and more menacing. “XI” paces itself off with a strident military cadence that’s loaded with drama. This one is soundtrack-worthy–but the film would need to be shot in stark black and white. But, again, I find myself more engaged with the quiet side of Beautyfear. I get readily lost in the purely gentle, almost minimal flow of “VIII.” Here, the sounds glide into and off of one another and Jules makes excellent use of the not-quite-silent moments between pads, that space between breaths. It flows into “IX,” which is a big, airy and panoramic thing built on long-held chords crafted in sonic silk. The string-like sounds in “IV” feel almost romantic, and their tone is classic ambient. The movement on this track has a liquid sense as the layers shift and roll. The harmonies at play are beautiful.
Beautyfear is a very deep release that loops with perfect ease. The light-and-dark dynamic plays out well, and Jules is obviously well-versed in both sides of his style. Individual pieces are relatively short, with the longest clocking in at just over seven minutes, but the transition between tracks is smooth and there’s no tactile break to the flow. Put it on, let it play, enjoy.
Available from Oktaf.
Microsounds, found sounds, and sound manipulation form the basis for Autistici’s Attaching Softness. Ranging from soft, warm flows to well-calculated tangles of glitch, this release revels in its sonic textures. It needs to be listened to closely to get the most out of musician David Newman’s machinations. Between the use of tiny sounds and the way he nudges things around in your head, there’s constantly a good amount to take in and a carefully crafted dynamic. Newman sets up an interesting dichotomy; his constructs can be quite mesmerizing, particularly when you’re well into the middle of the 22-minute title track, but his judicious use of sounds that clatter and rattle suddenly in the midst of it work to keep the listener focused. You’re lulled but aware. (Like me, you may also be lulled but slightly annoyed when the crying baby comes in…) In contrast, Newman’s collaboration with Calika, “Blue Stern Sister,” is a playful piece built on delightfully sloppy drumming and a groovy little bass line. Let it bounce pleasantly around in your noggin like it’s trying to find its shape and being quite content not to. Attaching Softness comes in under an hour, with the title track and the drone-and-clatter closer, “Meditation on Distance,” accounting for 32 minutes of it, but even the short pieces pack their own meaningful depth and distinct character. There is no wasted sound here, no matter how minuscule, and it’s all infused with a very moving quality. Intimate and interesting, it’s a release I find myself peering more deeply into each time I listen.
Available from Audiobulb.
It is understandable if you quail slightly at the idea of listening to a release titled The Great Famine. I know I did. Aside from thinking I was in for yet another round of oppressive dark ambient, a musical musing on the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1800s hardly seemed like something I wanted to take in. That I have now listened to The Great Famine a number of times, quite willingly, speaks to how well composer Peter DiPhillips handles his subject matter, opting for a deeply impressionistic approach that carries the weight of the story without crushing the listener. I feel that although the DiPhillips recognizes that the story he is telling is a tragedy, he also recognizes that within that tragedy there is strength and there is hope and there is change. This is not a dark ambient album focusing on the horrifying aspects of the famine; this is an album that seeks to tell the story of the Irish people during this black time and how they found it within themselves to carry forward. Not to say there isn’t darkness here. There is, draped over the landscape in varying shades. It’s a tint of despair and sadness that, not to overstate this, carefully pervades the proceedings without overwhelming them. Dissonance and seemingly intrusive elements throughout the release help to carry the feel of something being wrong. After the comparative ambient ease of “Hedge Schools,” the uncertainty begins to creep in on “Hunting Orange Men.” In its sharp, sudden chords and the way in which apparently random elements trip through the moment, we come to understand that something is out of joint. You hear it again in “King Magnus Returns.” These two tracks share a guitar element, just a strum of chords, like a repeating motif. “King Magnus Returns” also gets some of its unease from the clatter of chimes. For a purer sense that all is not well, head straight to “Hill of Screams.” This almost indescribable track creaks, squeals, moan ands wobbles its way through, hitting every nerve as it goes. For visceral response, it doesn’t get much more effective than this. I love it and hate it in equal measure. But there is balance here, as any good story requires. “Hope Across the Pond” lightens the mood just slightly, though there are still strands of deep shadow laying across it. “Coffin Ships,” despite the grim name given to those often barely seaworthy vessels that sailed the treacherous waters away from home and off to the new world, is a smooth, pad-driven flow. It’s still sad, laced with dirge-like choral voices, but its comparative still surface ends the release on a thoughtful, meditative note.
So it’s no surprise that The Great Famine is not an easy thing to sit through, but DiPhillips’ work is deep and complex and he clearly has a lot personally invested in telling this story. It doesn’t blink at giving you the creeps here and there, and it fully intends to make you feel its story—and it does. Well worth the initial effort to take this one in.
Available from the Free Music Archive.
Inspired by the script for an indie science fiction film, Anton by brothers Daniel and Mikael Tjernberg is not the sort of release I’d normally sit down and listen to. This is not to say it isn’t good. The problem is that too often I feel like I need to have the visuals that go along with it to really get it. The brothers hit their thematic landmarks without question. The opener, “The Hunt,” is drum-driven and proceeds at a galloping pace, chased along on dramatic strings. Maybe, without the accompanying visual context, too dramatic for a casual listen. “Postapocalyptic Landscape” strolls along on a slightly jerky jazz feel and you can see the accompanying tracking shot from some character’s perspective. (You know, the kind that then switches to a face-on shot of the character walking, and then back.) “Hero” builds on swelling, bold strings ready to blow the wind through anyone’s hair. Anton is a little too bombastic for me, and the mix of styles, while probably nicely tied into the feel of the film, wanders a bit much. Still, it’s worth a listen. The Tjernbergs are excellent composers and musicians. This is a case of something just not being my style.
Available from Waerloga.
“An ambient exploration of sounds and light,” says the website, and I couldn’t agree more. Designed for headphone listening but equally effective left to float in the open air, O is graceful and warm from its first note, and proceeds from there to just wrap itself slowly around the listener. By the time the first track, “Crop Circle,” has softly faded away you should be suitably calmed, if not downright sedated, and nestled in comfortably for the rest of your trip. The layers here are not deep; it’s more that each element is lightly woven through the next, given over to a short but beautiful coexistence before they make way for each other. In less certain hands this could result in a thin sound that would be unattractive. But here it lends to the gossamer quality of the music and the glittering tone. Spun through the tracks here is a lovely sense of patience. Pads stretch and notes hold and things fade slowly. It’s a nowhere-to-be feeling that’s augmented by the warmth of Sobocan’s tones and the ability to aurally “watch” these things glide and shimmer. There’s no need to call out individual tracks here; it’s all a seamless whole once you’ve been subsumed into the flow. Perhaps the pinging chimes of “Ponder” could be mentioned for the way their organic sound nudges you back to awareness, or that “Kalki” has a slightly dark edge to it, but it’s playing right now as I’m writing, and I’m quite content to talk about the release in terms of its gentle, esoteric, mildly mind-altering effect.
I question, but only lightly so, Sobocan’s choice to use some tones that border on, if not feedback, a high-pitched test pattern sound. (Listen to “Page 2.”) Although they work tonally, the effect of the sound is distracting and what I don’t want in the course of this pleasant ride is to be distracted by a comparatively harsh sound. But, like most things here, it fades off to let a new sound speak and the thing keeps going. On loop. Always on loop. A fantastic, intricate and beautiful set of works from Bubble. Listen to it now.
Available at Bandcamp.
What we have here, friends, is a quick batch of glitchy oddness that has taken me a while to get into–but, like many of the odd-at-first offerings I get, Tim Held’s glitch-based Alb(L)um has found a tentative place in my ears. “Part improvisation and part random chance Alb(L)um’s key components were created by running percussive and melodic sequences through a synthesizer hooked up to various boutique guitar pedals,” says the artist’s site. Held created a batch of five- to ten-minute tracks using this process, then “scoured each track and sliced out sections he liked and then built songs around the selected sequences.” So we’ve got a bunch of disparate elements being stitched and soldered together to create beats and riffs that play with a familiar structure while being unmistakably unfamiliar and somewhat random. Controlled chaos, if you will, and Held controls it in some interesting directions. Spoken-word drops lend some old IDM cred to the thirteen quick pieces here, and mighty doses of wubwubwub bass make some tracks-“Duncan’s Duality” in particular–feel like dubstep’s weird cousin. “Blip” gets downright industrial. Fat, speaker-rattling bass tones and a processed muffled shout come away like Trent Reznor got his hands on some really good acid. (On another listen, I felt like I was picking up a leftover Suicide vibe.) “This Is It Baby” is a subverted club song. It keeps its thudding, unchanging beat and growling bassline, pounding themselves into a hypnotic haze as a voice repeats “Crazy universe” over and over. This is a full-volume-or-nothing affair, a fun track that just wants to be your best friend. Your maybe-scary, something’s-not-quite-right best friend.
Alb(L)um is going to scare off a lot of people very early into its 33-minute run. It’s freaky and fast and won’t sit still. The sound samples can be raw and harsh and they’re not exactly gently melded together. But take a chance–turn up the volume, open the mind, and let Tim Held’s art try to beat you into submission.
Available at Bandcamp.