This line on the press release for Derelicts of Distant Hope, the debut from Polish dark ambient artist Abandoned Asylum, caught my eye: “With dark ambient, it’s not so much about reinventing the wheel (which isn’t so easy to do given the genre’s defining characteristics) as much as it is about setting the mood.” Well, I’m glad someone other than me said it, because it’s largely true across the board, and pretty much true for this release. The tone is grim and the sounds are dense. Big, swelling drones heavy on the bass end clash with industrial clamor. Nothing here really moves the needle from where it usually points, and the disc will likely only appeal to core dark ambient fans.
Available from Malignant Records.
Dan Pound opens up tribal and mystical spaces on his new release, Spherical. For this outing, Pound pulls some of his sounds from an interesting source. While working on this disc, a now-replaced bit of studio equipment would sometimes play back tracks from another album Pound was working on, but at half speed. Recognizing the potential is these fresh rogue sounds, he worked them into Spherical. This, added to his usual arsenal of synths, guitars, flute, percussion and more, drives another deep and well-orchestrated excursion. Listeners with some ambient background will likely pick up distinct bits of the influence of Steve Roach in various parts of Spherical. “Only A Memory” sounds like what would have happened had Roach thought to add understated beats to Structures from Silence. Pound’s pads have a tone that’s close to identical to that disc’s, but the slight sidestep he takes with the beats keeps him in his own territory. And the title track has its share of familiar echoes, from the curvy analog squibs to the rise-and-fall backing drone. Which, again, doesn’t detract from the quality of the thing. It’s still a deep groove in a nicely carved-out electronic space. Pound’s fully in his element when he takes the listener into tribal zones, beginning with “Lookout Point.” Native American flute vies with growling bass drones and ominous pads, a nice mix of organic and electronic. It conjures up (in my head, anyway) a wonderful visual sense, a sort of man against nature feel, the flute coursing in the face of an oncoming storm. Then “At A Distance” keeps it going by ramping up the percussion with clattering sticks and throwing in dark, spiraling pads and hypnotic drones. You’ll happily lose your way in the middle of this piece, and the way it pares down toward the end, spreading into a wide vista, is superb. Pound uses this to carry into the calm swirls of “Through the Center,” the disc’s long showcase piece. (And, I admit, the start of this, with crow calls and long pads, put me in mind of part of Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces–but only until the rest of the track swept me up.) Then, unexpectedly, acoustic guitar with a bit of Spanish flair comes in, a grounding presence in the deepening space. Pound works in a bass pulse, its insistent repetition becoming a mind-salving element as he thickens and intensifies his layers. This track exemplifies why headphones are a must for this journey. As always, Pound pays laser-focused attention to his small sounds and they way they’re worked around your headspace, and that work demands equal attention from you. The acoustic guitar returns on the closing track, “Like Tears In Rain.” Here the guitar trades off with high, soaring pads in a cleansing New Age sort of mix that lifts the darker aspects away and brings the disc to a soft close.
Spherical is another great release from Pound, and one of his darker excursions in a while. He’s always been a solid tribal-ambient musician, and that’s the standout element on an overall strong set of pieces. Very much worth a close listen.
Available from Dan Pound’s web site.
On her latest release, Crowd of Reeds, Emmalee Crane offers up electro-acoustic chamber pieces that seamlessly blend new classical music with understated ambient supporting structures. The resultant sound is intimate and organic, very human and deeply affecting. Leaning heavily on rich string drones, comparisons could be drawn to an earthier Stars of the Lid, with the drones being grounded and given a lyrical lift by piano, brass, guitar and more. Sarah Conroy, J. Patrick Brookman, and Miles Fender assist, which gives the music even more of that small-combo chamber feel. Crane peppers her work with interesting touches, from clatters of sound to field recordings to vocal drop-ins, but the focus stays firmly on the music and its rich emotional content. Fender’s guitar work in “The Seventeenth Wheel” brings a twangy solidity into the midst of quiet drones and wavering sound-forms, later augmented with Conroy’s clarinet. Together, they create a meaningful voice. Crane’s piano on “Manitoba,” my favorite track here, has a definite heartbreaking quality to it. The structure sounds almost simple, and allows the repetitive song to truly drill down to an emotional core. Long-drawn strings melt into a drone on “The Summer Fell Silent,” a core-resonating bass sound with a signature raspy edge. As the strings layer and open into a more melodic space, all you can do is close your eyes and let this somber sonata wash across you. It leaves off beautifully at the end, teasing the listener with a need for just one more note that isn’t coming.
Crane packs 10 pieces into this 40-minute offering. Although short, the songs here are firmly filled and fully realized. The brevity seems to reinforce the chamber-music sense, the intimacy of a small recital. A superb release.
Avaiable at Emmalee Crane’s web site.
Hollan Holmes pays homage to astronaut Neil Armstrong on his new release, Phase Shift, and in doing so offers the best work of his short but increasingly impressive career. As with his previous discs, Holmes’ music varies between an analog sound that pings all the listening-pleasure centers in old-school fans, and broad, far-reaching spacemusic excursions. In fact, the final two pieces, “Morphogenesis” and the title track, covering about 15 and 33 minutes respectively, are incredibly deep stellar flows, alternately calming and quietly dramatic. “Morphogenesis” lifts slowly out of silence to find its way to that place where all spacemusic goes at some point, the ever-popular angelic choral pads. Holmes does a great job of dialing them back to a sort of celestial whisper, a perfect accent to the misty borders and earthy bass drones of his larger drifts. “Phase Shift” is the more ethereal of the two but none the less substantial in sensation. Long undulating washes dissolve across time into a fog of surrounding sound; it’s simply a classic ambient feel, all slow evolution and crossing pads for deep and pleasing immersion. Holmes’ structure here is impeccable, giving a distant sense of melody within the flow. Prior to this long stretch, he opens with sharp and well-shaped sequencer lines in “A Precarious Trajectory” and “The Road to Perdition.” These are an analog lover’s joy ride, energetic and angular, the sounds bouncing and rebounding beautifully. Have your Tangerine Dream points of reference handy. “The Road to Perdition” is punctuated with mighty, fist-on-keys chords, big slams of sound that pack some serious resonance. A great touch. Falling in the middle is ”Lost Memories.” It opens in a quiet space, its pads soft and gentle, and later takes on a light touch of sequencing. Again, Holmes elegantly folds in this aspect so that it grows organically into the piece and builds to a point of focus. Underneath it comes a repeating melodic phrase that feels a little pastoral. Holmes takes almost a full minute to strip the sounds back down and prepare the listener for the deep trip ahead.
It’s been an absolute pleasure to spend a lot of time dropping into Phase Shift. The deep end of it is remarkably so, a full-on brain massage edged with emotion. Its uptempo side is simply fun, not just for its nostalgic side but for the quality of the interlacing of lines as well. Holmes makes it sound effortless, and his sense of overall pacing creates a well-realized sonic through-line. Another superb offering from Hollan Holmes. If his name is not on your radar yet, check again. It needs to be.
Available from Hollan Holmes’ web site.
It’s interesting. Stephen Savage says that with Future Memories he wanted to create synthesizer-based spacemusic. If that’s the case, then this is the jazziest, least spacey spacemusic I’ve ever heard. He finds his way there by the time he reaches the track “Gravity”–and he manages to all the right memes with his big, sweeping pads and glittery sounds–but even that winds up with a jazz tint. And that’s okay, because Future Memories is a comfortable ride that finds its voice in its blend of jazz, laid-back New Age, and a hint of spacemusic. The jazz element is strongest, and Savage, whose credentials include stints with both Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music, is clearly at home there. “Then There Is Here Now” sounds like what would happen if Steely Dan decided to go a bit more prog. Fagen-esque breaks and phrasing mark the spaces between tweaky arpeggios that scurry up and down the scales. Savage also unfurls some tasty guitar licks here (and throughout the disc) for extra zest. Michael O’Connell’s rock-solid drumming adds flair and power. “Hold That Thought” carries echoes of Lyle Mays in its crisp and lyrical piano. “Riding the Cusp” spills out filled with electro-jazz funk, its Return to Forever keys underscored by percussion from O’Connell. This track will do your soul some good. Savage’s ambient-leaning pieces are equally well executed. “Ponder” and “Lux” float right along, with “Lux” adding in a little extra dramatic flair.
Firmly slotted in the New Age category, Future Memory‘s jazz pedigree makes it a nice wind-down disc, with the electronic edge bringing in a lot of dimension and room to play. Jazz fans will find themselves playing the name game as they go along, but Savage makes each piece his own and everything here is rock-solid. Very enjoyable.
Available at CD Baby.
Taking off from an oddly abrupt start that had me worried about the condition of the road ahead, Supersimmetria’s Golden Ratio delivers a mix of dark-industrial grind, glitchy rhythms, and deconstructed music-class musings. The disc purports to be about the effect of rhythmic and arhythmic elements working in unexpected ways and blended into spacious sounds. To the listener this comes out as interesting cross-rhythms punching their way through sound forms that build to palpable thicknesses. The formula tends to be: start with a simple phrase or sound, repeat and layer, weaving complexities and loops, and allow the thing to gain mass and impact. “Still Thinking About the Law That Regulates the Universe” and “Structure” build off piano motifs. The first uses a base of two notes, paired with little flourishes, to set the tone. Those two notes work as anchors as the sounds load up, before disintegrating toward the end. The other is played as a charmingly stilted set of notes trying to hold their own focus as a snarling electronic sound forces its way in to change the feel. Golden Ratio revels in its grittiness, and its strongest moments are where it takes that to a high level–the distorted washes and pure industrial metal-on-metal pounding in “Atmosphere,” or the tinkling glitch and old-school electronic feel of “Descent.”
All in all, Golden Ratio is effective and powerful. It’s going to appeal more to those whose tastes run toward, but entirely into, noise. The glitchwork here is excellent, and there’s a lot of thought behind how things are constructed. A good higher-volume listen.
Available from Industry 8.
A couple months back, I sat in on a stillstream.com listening party for the release of Chrysalis, the new release from Chronotope Project. At the time I only caught the last two tracks, but as I was listening I found myself looking forward to taking the time to make a deep dive into Jeffrey Ericson Allen’s latest. Turns out the wait was worth it, as Chrysalis has revealed itself as easily one of the best releases I’ve heard this year. In these five tracks the listener gets a blend of downtempo, spacemusic, and textbook ambient, fused together with Allen’s classical training. (He cites Debussy as a strong influence.) That last aspect shines through in the tight structures and progressions throughout, like the use of an ostinato phrase (and I will confess I cribbed that from his website) in soft chime-like tones that forms the bedrock of the opening, title track. That sort of solid, near-linear musical mindset gels perfectly with the vaporous and boundless freedom of his ambient structures, and complements the composer’s intricate patterns when he shifts into a Berlin-like space. Without meaning to sound fawning, you know you’re in good sonic hands pretty much from the first note, and remain so, without a bump, until the last. Headphone listening is an absolute must in order to catch Allen’s intricate detail work. There is a point in the beautiful drift of “L’Avenue Du Ciel” where he mixes together a field recording of water, crystalline glissandi, and a coolly pulsing sequencer bass line for a stretch that is simply mesmerizing. It’s a pleasure to listen how Allen manipulates these sounds within your headspace, keeping them moving like living entities. ”Trance-Missions” is a 25-minute joyride that reminds me of Erik Wollo’s work in its snappy sequencer trails and sighing chords. I like the way this expands and contracts as it moves, shifting from its initial broad and spacious drifts to tightly packed rhythm-fueled passages and then back out. A deeply immersive space. “Reflecting Pool” eases into the disc’s most ambient flow, beginning with tones like meditation chimes, the sounds rippling outward. Quiet tonal phrases lend some solidity to the feel, warm string pads float through, and a sense of pure calm just descends over the piece. Guitar at the outset of the last track, “Eternity’s Sunrise,” comes as a pleasant surprise. Here, Allen says, he turns to Debussy for the structure, eventually opening into “…a slow psychedelic sunrise–so Debussy plus Moody Blues.” Once again, his layers build to an elegant and headphone-worthy depth, and there is more of that expert blend of restraint and release, of the mathematical and the organic. This is the piece that made me look forward to this disc back at the listening party.
Chrysalis is a stunning piece of work. It sounds fresh each time you listen to it, and offers nearly immeasurable depth. It seems like there’s always something new to hear, a new place to be taken. Kudos to Jeffrey Ericson Allen. This is a standout recording. I recommend visiting Allen’s web site to read his interview with Blake Gibson. There’s a lot of insight to be gained.
Available from Relaxed Machinery.