Peter Kater has not released an album of solo piano music in over a decade—which is not to say he hasn’t been playing solo piano. In the liner notes for Love, Kater says that the pieces on the album came together over a three-year period in “‘the heat’ of the moment.” There are five improvisational pieces and seven compositions (the last track is “an improvisation on a composition”), all of which are just a candle and a wine glass away from inspiring heady romance. I am of two minds about this album. There’s no doubt that as far as New Age-style piano albums go, this is a winner. Kater plays with fluid passion, and every piece here overflows with several greeting card stores’ worth of genuine emotion. “Two of Us” literally stopped me in my tracks the first time I heard it. I am a number of listens in to this album and I have to admit that it can still move me to the edge of tears. “Keep Loving You” revels in quiet trills and overall takes a sotto voce approach without losing its soul-impact. Even when it swells, like so many tracks here do, it’s in a restrained way. It’s like listening to it start to get its reserve up to say something important, then sigh and go back to ruminating. “Mystery” puts me in mind of a nocturne. Kater’s left-hand runs here are gorgeous, and there is a passage around the 3:20 mark where things get very quiet except for twinkling riffs on the high end of the keyboard, and it’s a beautiful little moment. “Passion,” the track that is an improv on a composed piece, throws in the added pleasure and surprise of suddenly grabbing hold of a jazz vibe. Maybe Kater wanted to let us know that he’s got a little kick to go with the outpouring of love. Love can be fun, after all, right? It’s not all heaving breasts and pounding tickers. Those are the moments I enjoy most on Love, the pieces that show restraint. I enjoy them because they don’t swell and sweep off into the kind of too-big, ideal-of-romance notions that fill everything up with splendid runs up and down the keys. That’s the other part of my mindset regarding this album. There are places where things get a bit sugary for me, but I recognize that it’s very much in keeping with the New Age piano motif. (“Safe Haven” and “Intimacy” are the ones that stand out in my mind.) I also find that, as a listener rather than a reviewer, I’ve usually enjoyed this album more when it’s working as background—at dinner, or just left to play as I go about my business. There, I notice those grander pieces less, and still the pure emotion of Kater’s work firmly takes hold. It’s a very good end-of-day release, preferably when your end of day involves wine and candles. New Age piano fans need to hear this. The quality and beauty of all of Kater’s work is a well-known quantity and this return to the simple beauty of solo piano will surely please his existing fans while making new ones.
Available from CD Baby.
Not to start a review by calling out a peeve of mine, but: When your album jumps in sounding like a bad edit, there had better be something there that makes me forget about it. Inside the World Machine from Soundchaser kicks me right in the peeve at the start of its hour-plus run before settling into a industrial dronespace that does its best to help me forget about that gaffe. (As always, said gaffe may be quite on purpose and is only a gaffe to my ears.) What follows is a workable exercise in drone, a long beatless drift that maintains a hissing base and a fairly dark tone while it slowly morphs its tonal shape. Artist George De Bruin skillfully handles the piling up and breaking down of layers of sound as he goes along, and in doing creates a balance of truly gritty, harsh industrial textures and less dense, somewhat more floaty passages—there’s never an actual calm moment here, just places where the sound is less assaultive. That being said, I never find myself being compelled to listen, and although I know I’m listening to drone, I kept wanting something interruptive to happen, some shift to something bigger or even more sparse. Either direction would suffice. De Bruin’s work does take on the hypnotic quality we expect from drone, but for me just lacks for those attention-retaining moments. There is a second, “melodic” mix of the track which does much of the same, but with a distinctly brighter tone. (It also fades in more gracefully than the first.)
Those who appreciate drone more than I may find more going on here. I think there’s good work going on, but it’s not squarely in my noise wheelhouse.
Available from Cerebral Audio.
“Baroque-Pop-Folktronic-Neo-Classical-Something-Or-Other,” huh? Yeah, I suppose once I get to the squeezebox sea-shanty that pops up in “Bleak and Beautiful (All Things)” I can roll with that. And it’s just the start of a whole set of charming sounds that wander into Etch and Etch Deep from trio Haiku Salut. Chimes and warbly electronics mix with thumping beats and little frenzies of glitch, all to support the warmth of the acoustic instruments at the core of it all. The words that jump to front-of-mind here are fun and nice, along with I think I’ll listen to that again.Every track here is rock-solid and has something new to offer. That accordion sound, matched with a drumbeat that falls somewhere between military and D&B outtakes, creates the mix of power and pause on “Skip to the End.” “The No-Colour of Rain and Dust,” one of my favorite tracks, opens as a thoughtful solo piano piece. Light taps of glitch snap in as accompaniment. It reaches a bridge, and then beautifully oscillating synth tones come in to play. The shift in tones has a very hands-on-knob feel to it; it honestly feels like an immediate response to where the piano goes. This is the one that hooked me for good. “Hearts Not Parts”* is a massive dose of feel-good. It charges in on drums and a pulsing accordion line—or is that a harmonica? I don’t care, I love it! Wordless, cooing vocals lace their way through. I confess to having done a bit of chair-dancing when this comes on. Give it 90 seconds or so and you’ll be treated to a nice drop where the three work in small moments with small sounds, and give the space great texture and detail, You know the other side of the drop is coming, the part where it cranks back up, and when it hits, it’s rewarding. And in case it sounds a bit light on power, the vicious drumming that closes out “Things Were Happening And They Were Strange” covers that, too.
There’s a crazy amount of stuff to love on Etch and Etch Deep. The trio, who I can only find reference to as “Louise, Gemma, and Sophie,” have an incredible chemistry, a love of musical play, and crazy talent. And I don’t do this often, but in trying to learn more about them I came across this video of a cut from their live show where they have 20 vintage lamps rigged to turn on and off, flicker and fade according to the music. It’s not that they have a light show that impresses me; it’s the light sources themselves. I am now jealous of people who’ve gotten to see this live. I’m in love with Etch and Etch Deep. It’s an amazing set of electro-acoustic pieces with the focus on the acoustic and a solid grounding in electronics. Give it some extra volume, fire it up, and don’t be afraid to chair dance. I think Louise, Gemma, and Sophie would prefer it that way.
Available from Bandcamp.
Layers of floating ambient guitar are waiting to caress your noggin on Souls, the new release from Chords of Orion (aka Bill Vencil). The overall feel is light and quiet as Vencil slowly coaxes long strands of overlapping tone out of his guitar and effects. Each expression is fairly short, with 11 tracks in an hour, but they float together without any real bumpa, giving the overall impression of a long, single listen. Vencil blends the more ambient work with pieces built around more distinguishable sounds, making for a dynamic mix. But it’s the pieces that sigh and yawn in light rise-and-fall cadences that are the draw for me. On these, Vencil takes a melody and pulls it out to graceful lengths and infuses them with melancholy. Tracks like “In Heaven, It Is Always Autumn” (which is a fantastic title), “Ruler of the Night” and “The Distance Between God and the Creature” show this style off really well. Vencil also throws in some nice treatments as well. “Ruler…” glides from ear to ear; the notes in “Distance…”waver with tremolo and skirt over the top of what sounds like field recordings of water. “Dismiss Your Servant In Peace” plays with long-held tones bordering on feedback laid against a virtually unmoving bass drone beneath it. The contrast is excellent, and it feels like you can hear Vencil literally wringing the notes out for all they’re worth.
At times, Souls can feel like it’s shackled with a bit of sameness. After repeated listens, however, I’d say it can instead be considered to lend to that sense of this being a mostly continuous flow. It doesn’t get old, thanks to a lot of very good small detail work, but it’s come up in my mind more than once. Even so, Souls is a pleasure, and works very well tucked into a larger mix. Vencil’s playing is beautiful. His focus on letting the resonant sounds that arise from his delay effects fade and cross to create fresh, lingering sounds is perfectly executed. Check this one out.
Available from Bandcamp.
There have always been hints of the symphonic in Chad Kettering’s work, but in the past it has typically slipped quietly into the background, maybe swelling a bit here and there in emphasis but mostly performing a supporting role. On his new release, Pathways, the symphonic pulls a chair right down front, takes the lead quite commandingly, and proceeds to launch its listeners on a big, cinematic, dramatic and beautiful journey. I would have sworn that this was a Spotted Peccary release; it has the same immense tone and phrasing so similar to what I’m used to hearing from that label, it was a surprise that this is apparently self-produced. I have enjoyed Kettering’s two previous releases, but on Pathways he makes a quantum leap in both style and substance. It is huge both in tone and in the perception of who Chad Kettering is as an artist. This is further cemented in the fact that Kettering doesn’t stick to one sound on Pathways. Yes, there are songs that should be the soundtrack to some fabulous nature documentary with long, swooping shots racing over a frozen tundra, but there are also funky uptempo pieces and plenty of world music influences at play as well. We are brought into Pathways on the twinkling keyboard and emphatic strings of “Openings” before we’re hit with a burst of drama, vocal pads, and a tempo switch. Here’s the first hint that Kettering has gone large. I distinctly recall having a “wow” moment at hearing this, and even more so when he throws in a drop then charges back up the other side of the break with a glitch-style rush under romantic strings. “Finding My Way” suddenly tosses us into a gorgeous sequencer riff, and the changeover is very effective. Now we understand that this ride is covering a lot of ground. High energy and great textures make this a standout track. Cellist Kari Kettering of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra lends soul-shaking, rich low-end sounds to “The Fire Within.” Again on this track Mr. Kettering makes great use of a drop. He builds the sound up to a potent thickness, rising out of a slow cello dirge and pads, then snaps it off and gives Mrs. Kettering the floor to set the tone and tempo for the latter half of the track. Like me, you’ll probably feel yourself waiting for this thing to burst upward as the cello phrase repeats over and over and small elements find their way in. It’s a nice, slow burn augmented with operatic vocals from Francesca Genco. Get up close with this one. The cello takes center again on the world-music-style “Close To You.” Thundering drums, wordless chanting vocals, and the hurried bass thrum of the cello form a bottom line for the melody. It’s another great pairing of energy and softness. Ms. Genco’s voice is absolutely stirring on the ambient depths of “The Infinity Mirror.” Paired off at the outset with heavy low-end pads and a windswept electronic atmosphere, she cries out a beautiful prayer. It comes back in an ethereal echo as Kettering fills the space with ringing chimes. This is Pathways‘ quietest track, comparatively speaking, yet it’s still very dynamic in its movement. Again, get in close for this one. The closing track, “Standing Upon the Edge,” is one that must have special meaning for Kettering—he notes that it his return to the trumpet after a 20-year hiatus, having started his musical career as a classical trumpeter. Pull in your Mark Isham comparisons for this one as Kettering lays down phrases over droning pads and plays with loops and echoes. The sound is very deep and swirling and hypnotic, leading us at last to a very hushed ending.
Hands down and without question in my mind, Pathways is one of the year’s best New Age/contemporary instrumental albums. Quite frankly, this should be up for every conceivable award and Best Of list out there. Chad Kettering has taken a bit of a risk in suddenly going this big, this symphonic, this grand, and he utterly freaking nails it. Put this release on at higher volume to take in its grandiose-by-plan potency, but also give it some close listens because Kettering has gone into very fine detail at the tiniest levels. This is powerful, emotional, attention-grabbing music and it is a completely rewarding experience for the listener. A stunning release, a must-hear. Bravo, Mr. Kettering.
Available from Chad Kettering’s web site.
Richard Neale jams 10 songs into 20 minutes on Deep Blue (Part 1). You can chuck about a minute and a half out of the mix, that time covered by four tracks that roll in under 30 seconds and don’t feel like they offer much outside of their use as demarcation points between the main tracks. The exception is the short piano piece, “Nc3 dxe4,” which, at a minute-forty, at least feels complete. What remains is quite strong stuff on the border of experimental music, pumping with energy and interesting treatments. “Your Move” has a bit of an Art of Noise feel hiding in its vocal samples. It’s an effective and deceptively simple track with layers of loops circling over a strong drumbeat. Fresh elements shuffle in to change up the tone and keep it interesting. If you can get past the music-box twinkle of “EPCOT” and give it a minute or so, it transforms. Opening as a kind of study in tonal contrasts, it first pairs the chime tones with a short, repeating piano phrase and a rising wall of drone. That cuts out and the track becomes a more energetic, minimalist thing with the chimes taking on a sequencer feel against frenetic drums. One more shift brings the piano back in, and the track zips toward its close. Neale hits his stride late in the album. “Wonky Beatst” is a pulse-driven piece filled with cool tones and a jazzy beat. Neale immerses his piano sounds in a murky resonance that makes it feel like it’s just a little ways off, and keeps it there. He adds layers again, always smoothly, and keeps the energy up consistently. “Ax” begins quietly, then abruptly slams the throttle to full and a hard-hitting base note. Give that a few moments, then cue the noise. Neale drops in a huge wash of over-amped sound that lands like a weapons strike, then plays with bringing it all in and out at varying times. Just a big, meaty track that demands extra volume.
There is some very listenable stuff on Deep Blue (Part 1) and with this being, I believe, Neale’s first foray into our area, having come from the folk world, it leaves me interested in hearing more from him. I do think there are some rough end-edits hiding in the mix here that briefly bugged my ear, and while I’m sure the short pieces served an artistic purpose, they were small bumps in the flow for me. Check it out for yourself, certainly.
Available from Bandcamp.
Let’s have Mr. Tobias introduce his album, Tristes Tropiques: “A dreamy, hypnotic, melancholy-soaked collection evoking far-flung places where small-scale societies and indigenous cultures have vanished or are in the process of being swallowed by an ever-expanding global civilization.” Cheery, huh? What I hear is a collection of off-kilter, inventive, somewhat post-rock musings. I say somewhat because while the standard song structure pops through in places, it’s most often warped a bit or coated in curling ambient sounds. It comes out like a soundtrack for wandering through a hazy fog late at night, head down and a little sad. The melancholy factor here is quite high, but beautifully handled, darts of emotion that pack solid punch. The post-rock side of the equation is not as present at the start of the album; it slides in later. “Malayakolam (Rising Sun)” falls more into a drone space. A manipulated chant repeats hypnotically over a building wall of pads and guitar. Tobias bookends the album with this idea—the closer is called “Malayakolam (Setting Sun).” But as soon as the second track kicks in, we’re in a more rhythmic space. “Piraha” has a certain edge-of-tribal cool to its percussion, but offsets it with warbling guitar. Or at least, I think that’s a guitar. Whatever it is, the sound hooks straight into me. From there, most tracks cleave to a post-rock kind of line that’s underscored with the foggy, sad sounds of drone and, throughout, an air of the familiarly exotic. “Xingu” is a piano soundtrack to a walk in the rain, a simple ballad made deeper through atmosphere. “Hiva Oa” pairs slow-picked acoustic guitar and ambient drones that occasionally threaten to rise up in dissonance, but inevitably behave. It creates an interesting “where are we going?” vibe to the piece. “Gharapuri” jettisons us into the album’s darkest space. Here, we’re back with manipulated chant, but it feels more aggressive. The drones underneath have a scary-movie edge to them, a real sense of tension. The fact that it’s followed by the bright, clean acoustic tones of “Nan Madol” shows Tobias’ sense of balance, which is on display throughout. That’s one thing that impressed me about Tristes Tropiques; it’s well balanced between dark and light, heavy and quiet. Also, the longest track here is under six minutes long, yet every track lands with exquisite force. Tobias loads a more-than-amplke supply of emotion into his work.
Tristes Tropiques is a vivid, fully realized album that rewards the up-close listen. It’s only 44 minutes long, but the time spent inside it stretches out nicely. Expect many repeat listens for this one. A captivating release from Todd Tobias.
Available from Hidden Shoal.