Me, upon receiving Memory Palace: “Excellent! A collaboration between two artists who do lovely, quiet stuff.” Me, after listening: “Wow! That was not what I expected!” Perhaps my expectation was skewed; both artists, Chris Russell and eyes cast down (aka Greg Moorcroft) do tend to work shades of darkness, hints of dissonance and touches of tribal into their individual work. But here, they ramp all that up into a pulse-driven, drum-loaded outing that still speaks most often in a restrained voice. Having called out another artist for adhering a bit closely to the Steve Roach model, I would note that bits of it show up here as well. The opener, “Primitive and Prime,” is familiar territory, pushed along on space-opening drum work from Moorcroft and wide, misty atmospheres from Russell. The influence is clear but the piece stands alone based on its deep groove and the deliciously hypnotic quality of the electronics. You get it again at the end of the disc with “Somewhere the Circle Stops,” which sounds much like a lost track from Roach’s Trance Spirits. Moorcroft takes the front here, weaving several drum lines into a complex and potent structure. Russell’s soundworlds here move as slow as incense smoke, soft washes that sometimes take on a growling, almost didgeridoo-like edge. Outside of that, while the influence still colors the proceedings, Russell and Moorcroft head off into their own zones. “Spatial Mnemonics” has an industrial clatter to it, all serving more of the kind of interlaced rhythms that are the centerpiece of the album. It’s a little dark, and it works. “Touchstone Array” is a fast-paced piece with an up-front analog feel. Glitchy snips of sound tap out a rapid-fire rhythm over slow pads for a nice contrast. However, my only complaint on the whole album comes from this track. The lads play with some high-pitched sounds, one of which sounds—to me—like a kid’s party favor bring blown in one ear over and over. Just like that, I’m pulled out of the track. (It’s playing as I type this out and, honestly, I just want to punch it.) Luckily, that passes and I let myself focus on the cool electronic rhythm work. “Afterimages” quiets things down with an ambient flow lightly touched with (I believe) rain sounds, shakers, and the lightest touch of percussion on the whole album. There’s a very cool effect late in the track where it rises up just a little—a nice touch. On these five tracks, the artists allow themselves a wide time frame in which to craft each piece; the two shortest run about 11 minutes each. Within that frame, they explore and codify their chemistry and justify their initial decision to challenge themselves to do a beat-based album. Memory Palace is an excellent deep listen; Russell and Moorcroft both love their details, and they are plentiful here, so dig into them. An excellent collaboration between two good artists. Well worth listening to.
Available from the eyes cast down website..
Listening to Jonathan Badger isn’t entirely easy. You have to get used to quick stops and starts, sounds that come running in to interrupt other sounds, complex signatures, and a near-complete lack of discernible through-line. And it can be fascinating. Verse gives us 10 tracks from a composer who’s clearly not afraid to mix things up, whether by individual tracks or within them. Straightforward post-rock moments arise, as on “St Lucy’s Day” or the initially calm and quiet “Limbec,” but Badger is just lining them up to get mauled into new shapes. “Limbec” makes a very smooth shift from a folk-influenced indie feel to something that suddenly has thick calls of brass and sparkly arpeggios that run in and out. Distorted guitar comes in bursts, crashing sounds drop in the background, and yet it retains an odd coherence. Nothing takes you out of the listening experience, odd as the sounds might be, but just adds another layer of interest. “Nimbus” opens with a dream-pop feel, with vocals from the Sisters Wick over acoustic guitar, breaks out into something more at home on quite trippy prog with fast guitar runs and distortion, and settles back into an actual song with an orchestral overtone. Then it’s gone, snapped off at a perfect point. Badger’s inventive guitar work is on display throughout the album, and is showcased on “Dotter.” This high-energy track boasts meaty bass and fiery runs packed into loops that take on weight as they go forward. “Ebarmen” plays with post-rock, taking something fairly straightforward, rhythmic and melodic, and then throwing in some off notes to tug at your ear and mess with your musical ideals. Throughout, though, it never quite loses its hook and you stay with it as much for its subtle groove as to see where it goes next. Verse is intriguing work for a generation deprived of their attention spans and fed on sound bites. It packs big amounts of intellectual and emotional data into moments that flash past on the retina of your mind’s eye and leave their branded impression. You remember the sudden, interruptive segments as much for how they didn’t seem to fit but did as for how they felt like they fit but didn’t. It may take a couple of listens to get used to Badger’s style and ideas, but the reward is worth the challenge. There’s some very cool stuff going on in here if you’re uo to it.
Available from Cuneiform.
A benefit of our digital music-making world is that in the right hands, it can take very little to do a lot. Lumi, the new release from K (aka Ivan Kamaldinov), was made using “a laptop, two midi controllers, and [an] iPod Touch 4 microphone for taking field recordings.” From that stepping-off point, Kamaldinov proceeds to give us work that is quiet yet dense with texture, calming overall but with the right amount of edge to keep us alert and paying attention. The texture most often comes in the form of small, static-like crackles that tickle the ear. On “Two,” combined with infrequent snaps, the impression is of the sound of a small fire. Long, brooding pads fill the atmosphere darkly. On “Six” the textures take on something of the feel of creaking wood; a washed-through sound in the background whispers like water, the overall effect that of being adrift. Sharp tones and moments of dissonance lend a mildly unnerving edge. In other spots, the textures fade and the slow drifts set about the business of lulling you into a quieted state. “Four” and “Five” blend to carve out more than 20 minutes of ambient bliss. “Five” catches your ear with reverse-echo-style tones over trembling pads. There is quite a bit of music here—the eight tracks cover 81 minutes, but the time passes in a haze. The texture work is kind of the star of the show here; it adds interest, tension, and imagery, all without ever being interruptive. It provides the listener with a viable reason to take a deep dive into the sound, but the album as a whole makes for a perfect ambient looping piece. Very much worth grabbing.
Available from Timbrae.
Ethan Helfrich, recording as Rest You Sleeping Giant, serves up a big cupful of guitar drones on his debut release, Peppermint Tea. This album makes for an excellent backdrop listen. Helfrich’s drones and washes are very quiet, moving slowly and gracefully. He layers in just enough distortion in spots to give it some texture and edge–the closing track, “Under the Desert Sun,” is a great example. It’s about the loudest the album gets as Helfrich piles on intense layers of harmony, yet it retains a calm overtone. There’s a lot of depth and dimension in these five tracks, and Helfrich does a great job of controlling their interactions. Everything feels balanced, with an organic growth and decay. The only small mis-step here is the abrupt start of “Those Who Come at Night With Dagger in Hand.” Feels like a blown edit, and it results in a jarring moment—all the more noticeable for coming at the end of almost 30 minutes of off-to-sleep drifts. Granted, what follows is the album’s most uptempo piece, an interesting break in the flow that gives us acoustic guitar in a post-rock, folk-inlufenced tune washed over with electronics. But the start could be smoother.
Peppermint Tea is a very good introduction to Rest You Sleeping Giant’s music, and I’m hoping to hear more soon. It’s very good ambient guitar, perhaps almost a bit too hushed in spots, but with the ability to quiet a room and change its vibe. Loop it a few times and see for yourself.
Available from Bandcamp.
In the name of full disclosure, I will admit that when I saw that Numina and Zero Ohms had joined forces, I made a happy sound. I have been following and admiring both artists throughout their careers, so the idea of these talents merging sent me into a bit of ambient-music-lover overdrive. Broken Stars Through Brilliant Clouds is pretty much everything I expected: a lush, deep, far-reaching journey built on Numina’s synths and Ohm’s electronic wind instrument. It is also exceedingly quiet, reveling in an underplayed, droning breathiness that sets the mind drifting. This is the music you want playing quietly in the background as your night winds down, and it’s music you want whispering through your headphones to take you as far down as possible. While the music is crafted in gossamer wisps, there is still ample movement, dynamics, and detail. Ohms’ flute rises in places, deliciously organic and solid amid the flow. The opening track, “Secrets of the Treasure House of Stars,” is about the “biggest” piece here, the one with the most up-front presence. The duo bring it up from near-silence and guide it toward a great spacemusic feel, a classic sound of big-yet-soft pads floating off to some distant spot and a well-balanced hint of drama. “A Day Without Time” brings the flute and EWI toward the front and truly sets us drifting. The pads here move nicely in your head, rolling gently back and forth like waves and every bit as lulling. From here, Broken Stars… gets very quiet, more of an insinuation of feeling than a conscious listen, its strong moments not intrusive enough to bring you back to the surface but able to stir something in you. The title track has its breathtaking moments, but manages to do so just through some shift in harmonies, or the brightness of a chord. On “Night of the Falling Planets,” the duo nudge us toward darkness, but even there we watch from a distance, still adrift and unconcerned, as it rolls in and we watch it make its way past. This track hits a point of sparseness that show how much these two can do with very little, and that they know when to bring the ride back around. A nice piece of drone-centered work. And then, as if to welcome us back from this very deep journey we’ve taken to elsewhere, we arrive at “Of An Uncertain Mythos.” This is an interesting surprise, so I won’t reveal it here—trust me when I tell you that it pays off, and its drastic departure from the tracks before it feels actually quite cleansing. Soft drones are at play here as well, with long notes from the EWI playing quietly in the background. It’s an unusual choice, but they make it work.
Broken Stars Through Brilliant Clouds needs to be given its looping space. This is where it really thrives, its softness quietly expanding to fill your space. Its emotional core comes through at any volume. Of course, headphones will just augment the intimate feel of the album. Regardless of how you listen, this is a must-hear. Numina and Zero Ohms are a perfect pairing and they have created a standout album. Look for this on your “Best of 2015″ lists. I guarantee it’ll be there.
Available from Spotted Peccary.
Perhaps if it weren’t for minimalism’s ability to mesmerize with its abundance of repetition, Matt Starling’s all-flugelhorn rendition of Terry Riley’s Dorian Reeds might come off as, well, annoying. The blame here, what little there is, lays entirely with Riley, not Starling. You will need to be firmly in the “I love minimalism” camp to enjoy, let alone get through, this composition. That being said, kudos to Matt Starling for taking this challenging work, originally written to saxophone and tape delays, and transcribing it for brass. (Not to mention raising the backing for this release on Indiegogo.) Computers are used to approximate the effect of the delays, and Starling recorded large amounts of the individual modules that make up the piece before editing it into the form offered here. The structure of Dorian Reeds is built from increasingly complex loops of those modules—phrases, as with Riley’s In C—that the musician plays, only to have them spat back at him almost immediately by the “delays,” creating a sort of duet (or deeper, as the sound goes along) with himself. The layers of repetition turn into drones and the drones turn hypnotic, but more often than I might prefer, there are sections where the horn starts poking you in the forehead over and over. I do find myself, however, trying to peer into the math at play, looking, aurally speaking, into the way the lines cross and weave and how passages evolve interdependently, thrive briefly in their latest form, and then disappear.
Dorian Reeds (For Brass) is one of those recordings that makes me feel that if I was perhaps a bit more worldly in my musical tastes, I would “get it” better. I do like minimalism a la Riley and Reich, and quite enjoyed Starling’s other dip into Riley’s oeuvre, the Salt Lake Electric Ensemble’s superb take on In C. But this is super-aggressively minimalist, and its appeal is probably more scholarly than pedestrian. It must be noted that this is the first time the work has been created using something other than Riley’s recommended sax, and it works well (I would think, in my layman’s opinion) as a study in the composer’s style and its possibilities. Starling’s work on this is exemplary. He put years into its creation, and it shows. It is complex, rich, challenging, and excellently realized. Coming at it as a casual listener, however, I find it somewhat above my head and outside my tastes. Listeners more attuned to modern compositional works should most definitely come in and experience this.
Available from Matt Starling’s Bandcamp page.
Madoka Ogitani’s EP Take A Walk is a bit on the precious side, with its folk music influences, playful inclusion of toy piano, and its bright springy tone, including chirpy nature sounds. It suffers a little bit from too much of the tinny, sharp notes from the toys. Which is a shame, because the core of what’s here is great acoustic work on piano and guitar. It’s clean, richer than its simplicity would suggest, and a bit uplifting. At under 20 minutes long, there shouldn’t be time for the more sugary aspects to make you tired of them, but for me they tend to get in the way of the good stuff. The first two tracks, “Wind” and “Humming,” share a central theme—so much so that I went back in to re-listen to see if this is one of those releases where the artist just twists a central conceit over and over and calls it a day. It’s not, as far as I can tell, and the difference between these two tracks is just enough to make the idea work. Well, until the tinny stuff comes in. “Wind” begins primarily as a duet between guitar and piano. Other elements lace in lightly to round it out. “Humming” ups the precious ante by giving the main duties over to the toy instruments. From there it tends to be more of the same: good acoustic music just alike enough to make you wonder if you just heard it, intruded upon by too much cute.
Take A Walk will work better tucked into a deep shuffle than it does as a straight-on listen. The core idea, as noted, is solid and Ogitani’s playing is precise and pleasant. In the times when I’ve had my review queue on shuffle, it arrives into the mix as a shiny and happy thing, and that brightness is welcome. But there’s too much sameness of sound and over-the-top precious play stuffed into so tight of a space. I like Take A Walk, I just need it spread out more. Have a listen and decide.
Available from La Bél Netlabel.