First, I am still closed to new submissions to the review site and podcast. The update is this: As of this posting, October 20, 2014, I have decided–after an awful lot of back-and-forth with myself–that I will continue to run Hypnagogue going forward. However, it is likely that my submission policy will change to no longer accept unsolicited submissions. What that means, precisely, I have yet to decide. What I do know is that as much as I appreciate the community’s faith in my opinion, I do need to get a stronger grip on controlling the flood gates. This change, and my reopening the site to submissions, will probably not happen until the turn of the year. Please watch this page for updates (or subscribe!) and when the change does come, please familiarize yourself with the new rules.
I appreciate your continued understanding as the doors remained closed for now. It’s not easy to say no to so many good artists and their work, but I have to get the House of Hypnagogue back in order to a point where I feel good about doing it. This decision to continue is admittedly a bit tenuous.
Thank you for your support.
To my mind, Structures from Silence ranks highly in the list of ambient works that could be considered canonical. A defining work both in Roach’s career and in the genre itself, this timeless 1984 release has inspired countless electronic musicians–including, in retrospect, Steve Roach. That, aside from the improvements in sound quality the remastering offers, may be reason enough to get ahold of this 30th Anniversary re-release: to hear how the music continues to inspire the artist. Along with the three original long-form pieces, which are as beautiful and meditative as ever, there are two new releases inspired by their “soul tone,” and which emerge as very worth successors. “Suspension” and “Reflection” maintain the hallmark lightness of the original. The first eases its way slowly through on warm clouds of sound, so familiar that if you’re listening from one disc to the next, the flow is perfectly unbroken. The second glimmers appropriately, like sun on water, and passes through various moments of light and shadow without losing that sense. Roach plays with high tones here that sometimes border on sharp without going too far. “Beyond” and “Below” explore the flip-side of the Structures… sound-set, tending more toward Roach’s slightly darker musings. While still as soft and immersive as the rest of the release, these pieces eschew the higher tones and let low drones take the forefront. “Below,” particularly, brings the volume and brightness way down, almost to the point of just barely breathing in your ears. As much as I have always loved the feel of Structures, this is more the way I like my Roach–a little moody, decidedly pensive, and wrapped in the right amount of shadow. As for Structures itself, the piece has aged beautifully. I will always find the three-note phrase that makes up the title track a little breathtaking in its simplicity. The rise-and-fall cadence of the pads, with the slightest of pauses between, is as calming as ever. Since its initial release, this album’s resonance has been felt over and over in Roach’s work; it’s inspiring him still on releases like The Delicate Forever. And with good reason. In 1984, Structures from Silence arrived to change things, to point in new directions, and it’s clear that it has never quite left.
Available from Steve Roach’s web site.
Dear Spacemusic Fans: If you have not already familiarized yourself with John Lyell, please do so immediately. His music falls in a perfect space between classic glimmer-of-stars drifts and Quiet Music-style ambient hush. His signature chime tones are round and soft and calming, gentle pings against ethereal washes, like Eno’s Thursday Afternoon set adrift in the cosmos. Reflection of Time is his latest excursion and it continues an excellent line of releases. Before Lyell goes full space on us, he opens the disc with robotic rhythms on bass keys underscoring pads on “The Deep Unknown.” Nice old-school feel right off the bat, and Lyell moves his burbling analog sounds around your head for full effect. From here, however, we simply glide into deeper realms and the aforementioned chimes take over. The two parts of “Dreaming in Sine Waves” are warm and blissful. There’s almost too much whooshing electronic wind happening on the first one, but it comes and goes, and in between I’m utterly charmed by the resonant tones of the chimes and the occasional spiraling electronic twist, so I let it go. The second is simply perfect, especially to an old analog lover like me. It’s a beautiful piece that’s comfortably familiar and nicely executed. A sequenced bass phrase repeats quietly beneath the chimes, and long pads draw out a song in slow motion. The title track is mesmerizing. It opens very quietly, its motion minimal at best, just a low-end pulse. Even the chimes here feel dialed back just a touch; everything rises and falls like it wants you to hear it but doesn’t want to intrude. It’s a very hushed and dreamy atmosphere that will absolutely bring you to a meditative state if you let it. This is a great showcase for Lyell’s subtle touch and his understanding of how potent quiet can be. You just want to remain still and watch it unfold in the air around you. Reflection of Time is a release that is bound to get a lot of looping play, and deservedly so. It’s one of those works that changes the space you’re in by its softness. Plus, again, if you love old school spacemusic, that deliciously angular construction that comes with knob twiddling and sequencing, you can’t help but love this release. Lyell is well-studied in the art, and he absolutely owns it here. Over the months that I’ve had this and the number of times I’ve gone through it, Reflection of Time has become a personal favorite. You need to hear this.
Available from the artist’s web site.
A couple of years back, sound artist Joe Frawley and pianist/singer Michelle Cross put out the album Dolls Come to Life, and blew me away. Aside from having the most stunning re-imagined version of “My Favorite Things” you’ll ever hear, the album was full of amazing manipulations of sound and very large buckets of pure emotion. Frawley and Cross must have enjoyed it as much as I did, because here they are again, taking that album’s title as the name for their duo, and telling me the story of The Groundskeeper’s Daughter. The tale spools out in non-linear fashion over just under 40 minutes, and there is so very much to take in aside from the you-piece-it-together narrative. The foremost instrument here is Michelle Cross’ amazing voice. Plenty of singers can emote convincingly enough; when Michelle sings, it’s more like she has plunged her hand into her chest and pulled out warm, beating emotion to share with you. It feels incredibly personal and almost painfully vulnerable. I could listen to “The Violet Hour” over and over. It’s a powerful song, driven forward by hard-hammered piano and the kind of lyrical angularity I had previously compared (and still do) to Kate Bush. Cross sings in a strong voice, but when it comes down to an almost hesitant repetition of “I wonder if he’s okay” at the end, it’s turned into something small and concerned and beautiful. The voice is in the spotlight again on “Nightingale and the Rose,” taking its text from the Oscar Wilde poem of the same name and turning it into something like a madrigal. Long, low string notes underscore the otherwise a cappella recitation. The simplicity is gorgeous. Between the more distinct songs we enter into Frawley’s area, where even the briefest of sounds get pulled in close to be examined and turned into musical elements. As always, he has a particular fascination with the intimate sound of breath; you’ll hear it at work on “And Dream of the Evening.” In this sound collage we get snippets of Cross’ dissected voice, parts of a vocal sample, and isolated piano notes reworked into new, mutated phrases. “Sundial” is another such exercise where Frawley treats his sounds like ghosts passing unseen to one another through the building scene. Piano phrases echoing, Cross humming, a man’s voice speaking, small random sounds–they exist here in individual moments that create the larger whole. Frawley and Cross have not only found a chemistry in their pairing, they have also struck a vital balance. While either could (and have) present their styles alone and be an excellent listen, putting them together amplifies their talent. I have enjoyed Frawley’s work, his sonic-collage approach, and since first hearing Cross’ voice on Dolls Come to Life, I have struggled to understand how she is not more widely appreciated. This is a major talent. Together, they pretty much tap all my listening pleasure centers: soaring vocals full of absolute emotion, intriguing sound worlds, depth and dimension–The Groundskeeper’s Daughter is an album I’ll have a hard time walking away from. After a number of listens I still feel like I hear something new each time through. A superb release with a lot to say. Go get this. Available from Bandcamp.
Often, when a piece of music is created to accompany another form of art, there can be a bit of a “lost in translation” feeling. Or, at least, the curiosity of what it might have been like in context can mar the listening experience. Ryan Huber’s Abiff’s Gaze is an ambient backdrop for artist Erik Waterkotte’s 2014 installation piece, “An Abridged Equinox.” Waterkotte’s work explores “popular culture, myth, and fantasy as conveyed through printmaking and mixed media.” In this work, he covered the walls of the gallery with specially designed wallpaper showing images of churches one of his ancestors built in Illinois. In an interview, the artist said he is “interested in images and representations of mystical places that carry some kind of symbolism…[and] how we’ve put a significance on something or built something for a kind of transcendental purpose.” (Charlotte Observer, January 2014.) In building an atmosphere for the installation, Huber crafts a darkly reverent space built on whispering, low-end drones. Small environmental sounds, like the crunch of soft footsteps on gravel and taps of wood or stone, lend a sense of environment and also hint at something bordering on primal. It is the sound of another place, far back, that still resonates in us. On his website, Huber notes that the music is “Ritualistic audio inspired by the story of Hiram Abiff and the construction of the Temple of Solomon,” which has roots in Freemasonry. Thus, the air of mystery that surrounds it. I could see where this would make for a very effective accompaniment to Waterkotte’s dark images, moving in the air around the art; it’s also quite effective as a deep listening experience. I am used to Huber bringing more aggressive sounds in his Sujo and Olekranon identities, but here he also shows a very skilled hand at more subtle work. He still manages to convey a touch of unease, so he retains his dark-ambient cred, and the dimensional aspect of his mix is excellent. The sounds are well spaced and dynamic. It also has that oddly calming effect that comes with darker drones, easing you into a slightly displaced state of mind. Despite this work being meant for open-air ambience, I highly recommend taking the headphone dive on this one. Take in all of Huber’s craft, and let it loop a while. Fans of more shadowy sensations will enjoy this one, but it’s definitely worth a listen across the board.
Available from Bandcamp.
Ficture (aka Gábor Tokár) makes a solid debut with Roads to Everywhere, a release that shows touches of dubstep influence blended with cool post-rock and a shot or two of well-chilled lounge. You do have to love your percussion to dig into this stuff, as Tokár–who is, in fact, a drummer–jams it right up front on most tracks and gives it a lot of presence. To its credit, the percussive side of things is a nice mix of rapid glitch and straightforward bass-and-snare–“Turned At Once” rides on a very jazz-oriented drum base, complete with tasty little taps on the cymbals. I like the way this track thins down to wavering pads and an almost-buried bass riff while the drums leave their mark. There are a lot of groovy little touches happening here. Wah-wah guitar welcomes us into “The Knee,” a track I have to say I find a bit sexy. (Plus, it reminds me of a personal favorite artist, the duo called Canartic.) Manipulated vocal drops slur in the background, then a little drop comes into to sweeten the flow and open the piece up into a more certain post-rock sensibility. It does sound like Ficture grabs the same way riff to underscore “I Let It,” a track I feel is one of the weak spots here. It sounds like a forced remix of an existing piece, with singer Viktória Salgó’s voice wedged in a bit too awkwardly. Just to support that, I think that the instrumental version that closes the disc is a smoother ride, although the sound muddies up a bit early on. On the whole, though, there’s plenty to like on this release. “Wiseard” gives a nod to IDM with its lifted spoken sample, placed neatly into another jazz-tinged flow. Great bass here. “Ants” grabs hold of a thick dubstep bass line as it steps slowly along. It’s a little grim, compared to the rest of the disc, but it pulls me in. The swaying rhythms of “Camels Came” and its stuttering drums give me hints of classic dub. Lots of delicious little stops in here to texture up the flow.
Roads to Everywhere is a feel-good disc. I’ve found it to be a great traveling companion, driving along with the windows down and the sound turned up. Tokár knows his way around a tasty hook, and he knows how to work his sounds into a listener to get them moving. Ficture is a name I’ll be looking out for. Give him a listen.
Available from Bandcamp.
Stephen Philips says it took more than 10 years to land on the music that he considered a worthy successor to his 1999 release, Desert Landscapes. Although I’ve never heard the original recording, as I emerge once again from the droney depths and enveloping environs of Desert Landscapes 2, I’d have to say I’m glad he took his time. Philips is, in my opinion, one of the leading practitioners of drone music. He understands that it is a more dynamic and descriptive discipline than its name implies. Here, he quietly flaunts that understanding in time-stopping style. As it begins, it would be easy to mistake Desert Landscapes 2 for a dark ambient release. “Bluebell Knoll” enters on a slowly rising rasp of electronic wind that manifests into the sort of low groan that typifies dark stylings. Philips lets it stretch out as it goes forward, but it never quite loses that shadowy edge. “Kayenta” follows, growing even more sparse for long stretches, drones whispering their way past. But this is not how the whole release goes; this is just one interpretation of the topography. Through “Black Mesa” and into “Moab,” things quiet down–“Moab,” particularly, is an incredibly soft drift, a slow pan across the vista at dawn. By this point, anyway, you are very likely completely pulled in and enveloped in the sound. Philips does a great job of balancing light and shadow throughout the release. It’s never fully one or the other; we certainly get the feel of the desolate, dangerous side of the deserts, but we see and feel their stark beauty, that stunning simplicity and sense of place they impart. I recall standing on a ledge at Gates Pass in Tucson, looking south, and not only being amazed at how huge and full of nothing the desert was–it was this New England boy’s first real look at it–but also feeling like I wanted to do nothing but stay there and watch it for a very long time. This is the sense I get from Desert Landscapes 2. This album is powerfully meditative at any volume, but I have found that I prefer it whispering to me in headphones, letting the drones ease their way into my head to take me elsewhere. For rich, superb, mind-melting drone, you can’t do much better than Desert Landscapes 2. Thanks for waiting, Stephen.
Available from Dark Duck.
On the Malignant Records web site there are snippets from reviews of Skorneg’s Foehn from artists and reviewers more versed in the dark ambient arts than I–or, at least, more into them. These reviews talk about how good this album is. If you are a dark ambient lover, I suggest you take their word for it. When I listened, I found myself getting part way into each of the four tracks and then skipping ahead. I guess I was looking for something more because to my ears this is Dark Ambient 101 stuff, and I’ve heard enough Dark Ambient 101. Yes, it is big and loud and dense and it captures the austere feel of yet another barren wasteland. But there’s the issue for me: it’s one more barren wasteland, rendered in howls and the occasional bit of iron-on-iron percussion. Does it take you to some bleak, hopeless place so you can question your own existence? Of course. Does it have long stretches that border on hypnotic as viscous grey drones wrap around you? Of course. Because that’s how dark ambient does its thing, especially in its simplest form. Maybe I’m burned out on a surfeit of the stuff and there’s more going on here than I’m hearing. But what I’m hearing is straightforward, drone-laden dark with nothing outstanding to offer. Dark music fans are welcome to have a listen and then tell me why I’m wrong. For me, Foehn is simply a miss.
Available from Malignant Records.