With the amount of music I receive to listen to, it’s always in an artist’s best interest to be able to catch my ear and make me need to examine their work more closely. Moonlooker (Axel Zaren) did exactly that with his half-hour offering, White Bird on Black Snow. A track from it first caught hold of me as I was shuffling my review queue; then, when I decided to dive into the whole album, it held my attention. In seven short pieces, Zaren switches up styles, mostly maintaining a quiet-flow feeling as he plays with variants on his main idea. String pads and soft wind sounds greet you on “Black Bird on White Snow,” laying down a bed that Zaren later augments with a churning beat and glittery sequencer. It glides back down to an ambient space, with long and calming pads. At nine minutes it’s the longest track, and a great introduction. “White Bird on White Snow” takes a simple approach with layers of rise-and-fall strings pads cutting gracefully past one another. It’s a nice, meditative piece that eases its way along. It melts into “Black Bird on Black Snow,” another mesmerizing set of pads, just lightly roughened at the edges and with a hint of underlying urgency. “Epilogue” unfolds into a piano piece with ambient backing and bass accompaniment. I’m tempted to suggest it’s got a bit of post-rock to it, as it’s basically piano and bass, with a rhythm carried by the low end. There’s an ominous undertone to the pads, like a suggestion that this story is not quite finished.
White Bird on Black Snow has been a pleasant surprise for me. It’s engaging and well-made, with each track giving your ear a little more to take in. Ambient fans will like it as a low-volume listen, letting Zaren’s work find its own way into the space. It’s a short album, but I can tell you that during one listen, I wondered if “Black Bird on Black Snow” was a longer piece, like the opening track. No, it’s just over four minutes, but it’s so immersive, time just took a step out. That will happen with this album. Give it a listen soon.
Available from Deep Flux Records.
On his last release, What We Left Behind, Robert Rich took his listeners into a vivid post-population world where nature had reclaimed its domain. He follows that with the equally haunted and gorgeous landscapes of Vestiges, an album that fuses shadowy overtones with the breath of hope. Rich has told me that this is a very personal piece, focused in part on a growing awareness of mortality. Thus, it’s beautiful and sad–and, as is always the case with Rich’s work, it is also a deeply dimensional, fully realized environment that hits the listener at a visceral level with its mental imagery. The album enters on slow bass notes, the stretching yawn of slide guitar, and the sound of someone moving through the space on “The Fading Shore of Memory.” Rich wastes no time in layering up his sounds, and we’re easily carried into “Night Seas Luminesce,” which introduces piano to the mix. Its lonely notes pick their way through the foggy washes around it, a kind of dreamy meandering. Those dreams darken through the heaviness of “Spectre of Lost Light,” with Rich raising a wall of grim and steady drones. It’s a point of passage, and from there the album turns a touch quieter. Piano reappears on “Obscured by Leaf Shadows,” brighter and more confident against a backdrop of high, singing pads and the organic crackle of analog-synth skitterings. From here, each time I have listened, I have simply drifted away and lost time. The soft-but-eerie “Equipoise and Dissolution” brings in Rich’s flute, which is always a highlight for me. It’s set against a backing of field recordings featuring voices. Placed far back as they are, they become something that falls between watching the scene remotely or seeing a memory play out in your mind’s eye. Wind-blown chimes float in to heighten the piece’s dark beauty. “Reborn in Brackish Pools” hits its theme with watery gurgles and pads that rise and morph, spreading slowly across the piece’s surface. Your breathing will slow while this plays out. Piano leads the closing piece, “Anchorless on Quiet Tide,” thoughtful and melancholy. Overall, the presence of the piano pulls Vestiges’ through-line forward, its voice more definitive than the ambient elements around it. It is the coalescence of our thoughts as we wander through these landscapes, our tie back to solidity. Rich places it perfectly throughout the album, marking passage and bringing us back toward the surface.
Vestiges is a stunning album, as deep as it can be soft, as hopeful as it can be grim. It is almost instantly immersive, and holds its listener firmly–and gladly–within its world for its whole run. Headphone listening is imperative to take in all of Rich’s typically exquisite detail work. It has narrative, it has imagery, it has emotional impact. I cannot get enough of this album and the way it affects me. Masterful.
Available at Bandcamp.
No one can accuse Slow Dancing Society (Drew Sullivan) of skimping on the music on The Wagers of Love and Their Songs from the Witching Hour. Sullivan offers up a full 19 tracks over 74 minutes, packed with his signature sound, a warm, round, and lovingly echoed guitar style that has held my attention since I first heard it many albums ago. The Wagers of Love… also finds Sullivan taking this style into new places and shapes, lifting it out of its usual atmosphere of dreamy melancholy and crafting a full-band sound on several tracks–and it all works. There are places here where, even as a long-standing SDS fan, I find myself surprised at moments of rock power, bluesy shreds, and even a little bit of smooth jazz sax. “Greenwood Boulevard” is packed with all the familiar SDS essentials: that tone, a pizzicato accompaniment, tons of sweet soul, gritty riffs, and an indescribable background wash that’s a sure identifier of Sullivan’s sound. In spots he lays out trills that feel like nods to Mark Knopfler. He cranks up the blues on “Evening Falls,” carving those lines out of a starting source of misty drifts and the requisite melancholy. A hit of unexpected sax and drums, and you start to feel those blues creep in until Sullivan opens up a short, sweet, slow-hand solo. There are many of those out-of-nowhere moments to enjoy. There’s a spot in “Turning In” where a sudden burst of wah-loaded goodness drops some hefty hell, yeah potency. “Are You Still There” moves from its initial quiet and moody state to develop a smooth sense of casual funk. You’ll hear the guitar’s cool gangster lean when it slides in. Aside from these ear-catching moments, what comes through as clearly as always on a Slow Dancing Society release is the incredible depth of feeling. Sullivan is a very emotive player, finding something to say with every note that rings with an amazing sense of personal relevance. These are thoughts we’ve had, things we’ve been through, moments we’ve experienced, and it takes these notes to pull them up. Even the soulful heartbreak sax that closes everything out in the last moments of “Love Isn’t Love Until It’s Passed” manages to take what could be a bit of a cheesy smooth jazz sound and make it meaningful.
There’s so much to listen to on The Wagers of Love…, and all of it’s good. Is 19 tracks a little exorbitant? Maybe, and some listeners may not prefer to take in so much of Sullivan’s signature style all at once–there is the risk of sameness. Personally, I can never get enough of this sound, and I think there’s enough variation and playing with the core idea to keep it from getting stale. Deep down, I think what you’re hearing is the sound of a talented musician really, really enjoying himself. I believe you’ll enjoy it, too. A lot.
Available at Bandcamp.
There are several things you can do when listening to Tanner Menard’s Deepest Indigo. You can delve into its construction using custom piano tunings and the midi piano emulation software Pianoteq; you can play with the idea that the album is meant to be shuffled so that not only does it reorder in a sort of aleatoric way, but the track titles change to create differing miniature poems; you can think about how this music was created in 2009 but held back by the composer until 2016; or you can put this on, perhaps quietly, and let Menard’s compositions, fuzzily soft at the edges but concentrated and intense at their core, ease past you. You’ll certainly come around and give it attention as the unique tunings push at your acceptance of what tonality is and how it’s supposed to work. I get pulled toward it at “subdued,” where the sounds, with a metallic resonance almost like a hang drum, nudge just enough off-kilter–to my usually fairly pedestrian mind–to make me stop and try to make sense of it. As I hear it and become attuned to it, I understand it better. But what had been my passive participation for several tracks before it turns more active. Perhaps, in the unshuffled listen, it’s designed to lead you into “rainbows,” which cleaves to a similar tack, if not pushing those perception-of-sound borders even further. The accurately titled “deepest” has an ambient face but percolates with notes just below the surface. It’s a breath-slower of a piece, saving its energy for its final moments when it arpeggiates, then sighs to a close. Rolling notes empower “indigo,” its intensity measured in velocity as it spins through a minimalist cadence.
Deepest Indigo is a solo piano album at its center. But between the tunings, the effects laid in by the software, the artist’s own changing, expressive style, and its “please shuffle this” modality, it transcends that tag and becomes very much its own thing. If I read correctly, Menard has left music behind. If that is the case and this is the last we will hear, I encourage you to listen closely to this fading voice. It may not please all ears, but it certainly stirs the mind.
Available from Full Spectrum Records.
As a writer, I’ve always been a proponent of putting away a finished piece of work for a stretch of time, then coming back to reconsider it when its freshness has left my mind. (As artists, we are typically too close to our newest children to have any kind of unbiased view.) To some degree, Andrew Howie has done that with Scars Are Like A Beacon. The sources for the seven tracks here come from the release before it, The Great Divide. I will take him at his word that this “bears no sonic resemblance to its source material,” because rather than compare I’d sooner just jump into his languid, endlessly stretching lines, packed in places with a distorted, over-amped edge and a near-constant undercurrent of somewhat sad melody. He can float out a wavering ambient line as he does on the gentle “Tremble,” and then grace it with the simple concrete sound of slow guitar notes. He can build the kind of hissing, solid, sonic wall that rises in “Disarm.” Howie pings me here by infusing the structure with a hint of my much-loved pipe organ sound, that touch of sacred music some of us can’t help but resonate to. He can lay in the thumping beat of “Beacon,” cut through with razor-edge guitar notes to skirt the border of post-rock territory as it glistens past. And he can thread a beautiful acoustic guitar song like “Found” with streams and currents of lightly buzzing electronics and rising string tones in a melancholic blend that truly tugs at the soul. Did I mention that he does this all in 37 minutes, makes it feel like a pleasantly longer listening time, and makes it all absolutely stick with you?
For a short listen, Scars Are Like A Beacon has a lot of impact, and a good amount to say. Howie his repurposed his initial inspirations into tracks that beg a deep listen. No small sound is wasted, and the flow between passive and active pieces is perfectly managed. A solid release I’ll be coming back to often.
Available at Bandcamp.
As a young man involved in Dungeons & Dragons, I once astonished friends by admitting that I’d never read The Hobbit. “How can you play D&D if you’ve never read The Hobbit?” they said. I had the same feeling when David Arkenstone’s Beneath A Darkening Sky showed up at my door. I listen to and review a lot of New Age music, but I’ve never really dug into Arkenstone’s work. How? He’s a pretty vital genre name. To some degree, it’s a partially blind bias I’ve had that placed him within the “puffy shirt” category of New Age, which I’m obviously not all that fond of. But in listening to Beneath A Darkening Sky I find myself drawn in to a storyteller’s tale, its soundtrack packed with sonic narrative and distinct scenery. And while there are spots where it gets a touch trope-laden for my tastes, overall it’s also a pretty gripping listen. Arkenstone’s scope here is global. Celtic influences, sonorous Gregorian chant, tribal-style rhythms, all this and more come into play. I find that I’m most engaged when the music goes as dark as the title suggests–which actually makes up a fair part of the album. We’re not talking dark ambient in the strictest sense, but pieces with notes the color of lowering clouds, of endless nights, of a mysterious uncertainty. The church bells and chant of “The Deep Desolation,” laid over long, mournful string pads, are a massive dose of pure atmosphere. A sadness drips from it like tears, reminding me of the work of classical composer Henryk Górecki. “The Moonless Midnight” follows suit quite closely, adding the ominous snarl of low pads. Offset vocals and choral voices trail through this gloom like a ritualistic recitation. It turns at a point to lace in hang-drum tones that lighten its appearance just slightly, and its pace lifts briefly. I shiver quite gleefully at the power of the pipe organ sounds Arkenstone nails as “The Wind from the North” heads toward it conclusion and the album’s close. (I happen to be a sucker for pipe organ, so that thumb was on the scale.) What a fantastic, gothic tone and potency it has. Where Arkenstone loses me a bit is in the more bombastic later parts of “The Storm,” which starts off more subdued before it rises up to drama, and in the dancing brightness that “The Ice Forest” gets to. Even as a lover of Celtic music, that latter track just gets too light for me in comparison to other tracks–though it must be said that “The ice Forest” moves into an intensity that can be quite gripping. But this minor quibble stems from two places. One, I’m not a big fan of this edge of the New Age spectrum and two, I so enjoy the darker, more directly atmospheric work on this album that the drama and brightness throw me off my grim groove a bit.
Beneath A Darkening Sky will, I’m sure, add a fresh chapter to Arkenstone’s story for listeners who have been following along. For those who, like me, might know the artist’s name solely for its association with the genre and thus figure to pass it by, this is very much worth a listen. I think it’s a departure for Arkenstone, but it’s not like he’s stumbling around in unfamiliar territory. He’s just crafting the story in his head, and from this listener’s standpoint, it’s a story I’m glad I heard.
Available from David Arkenstone’s web site.
Chords of Orion (Bill Vencil) packs a dozen ambient guitar pieces into an hour on his evening-hued album, Nightfall. Along with contributions from pianist Abigail Beavin, Vencil turns these sketches into an immersive listening experience full of melted melodies. While the accompanied pieces bring a refreshing touch of lightness, I find I’m most involved with Vencil’s straight-up drone/ambient pieces. The thick layers of “The Last Green Field,” laced with a coarse edge of distortion, wrap themselves around you. Listen to Vencil coax each new thread up out of the guitar and let it decay, softening as it goes. “Air and Angels” issues forth in slow yawns and long sustain, an especially effective mix at lower volume. “Fading Into the West” has a romantic feel to it, its drawn-out melody given a distinct voice that fits its title. Grittier in tone is “Things Which Are Not,” where sharp lines cut across distorted field recordings. Skirting the grey edge of darkness, it’s eerie and mildly unsettling. All of this discussion of the solo pieces is not meant to take away from the duets; other than acting as well-placed breaks of solidity between Vencil’s ghostly ambience, they showcase another side of his compositional work. Beavin’s piano on “My Faith Burns Low, My Hope Burns Low” finds a spot between homey and homily, rich with feeling against Vencil’s supporting drones. “Immanuel’s Ground” has a soft New Age feel to the piano, bright and hopeful. Vencil offers softer string-like tones beneath. The chemistry is clear and effective.
I think Nightfall represents an increase in confidence from Vencil, an excellent step forward in style. It’s a smooth release that shows subtly different faces without trying too hard. A nice low-volume listen that pays off well when you go deeper.
Available from Bandcamp.