Steve Roach, Spiral Revelation

roach_spiralListening to Spiral Revelation is like watching electronic mandalas get spun out in the air in front of your mind’s eye. It’s another outing of hands-on analog synth craftsmanship from the master himself where intricate skeins of sequencer trace their paths across a floor of quieter pads. There is constant energy at play, not always in hyperspeed sequencing, but often just in a vibrancy of tone and the emphatic, angular ping and rebound of the synths. Roach harnesses the consciousness-quelling powers of repetition in every track so that by the end of this hour-long voyage you’re both chilled and invigorated–which is a pretty good trick. While everything is rooted in the titular spirals of sound, each track has its own distinct face. “We Continue” carries a feeling like a slightly sped-up version of a Structures from Silence track–the soft, welcoming chime tones across a flowing bed of pads, all of it accented with quick electronic gurgles for extra texture. Roach melts it flawlessly into the fluttering atmosphere of “Unseen Hand” and increases the velocity a bit. The energy ramps up and all of the analog pleasure centers are firmly struck with the space-cruising “Finger on the Pulse.” This is core EM style with its rigorous sequencing and rapid-fire pacing, the play of low tones against high. I will always be a sucker for that Schulze-style bouncy metallic bass tone that resonates through your body, absolutely defining the Berlin School sound. The title track is a deep 20-minute voyage and has quickly become one of my favorite Roach pieces. (And in a discography this deep, that’s saying something.) It builds from a central phrase that never fades, but instead has a constantly shifting atmosphere built around it. There’s something pleasingly melodramatic in its tone, and Roach slips it back and forth in the mix, sometimes letting a light percussive line take the front briefly. He shifts tones, bringing new sounds and feels into the mix organically. They just appear, then fade. Maybe we hear them again, maybe we don’t. It breathes in this way as it goes about its hypnotic business. Once again, even though it’s head-soothing, it’s got a steady energy and great velocity.

One thing I noticed and appreciate about Spiral Revelation is that Roach never turns it to a dark, moody zone. Often in his energetic work he feels the need to shift gears, go grimmer and slower, if only to pull the listeners back out again. That doesn’t happen here; it’s a consistent assault of sequencer-driven spaces, a future-looking piece of the past that reinforces the power of classic EM. After many plays, Spiral Revelation continues to pull me in, and down, and away, and is likely to get many more listens going forward. This is masterful.

Available at Steve Roach’s web site.


Dead Melodies, Subtle Imperfections

deadm_subltDream-shrouded post-rock that fluidly melts into stretches of glassy ambient, Dead Melodies’ Subtle Imperfections is a laid-back set of songs surrounded in lush sonic atmospheres. Lead by Tom Moore’s acoustic guitar on most tracks and featuring vocal contributions from singer Oneira, this album can be as deeply explorable as you like, or you can just let it wash over you. Both, I find, are equally enjoyable. I did have to check whether the Bluetooth connection to my speaker had gone bad during the heavy distortion at the start of “For A Wonder,” but as the piece smoothed out and Oneira’s wispy, half-awake voice sung softly to me, I understood–sound is going to get played with here. Moore uses Oneira’s voice throughout in various mutations. It’s heavily echoed and stretched thin as wind on the drone-based “Hidden Seeken.” It coos from a light distance on “It’s Too Late.” It slithers out with Björk-like phrasing against the viscous, bass-heavy movement of “Indigo Requiem.” While the voice is a consistently compelling element here, it’s Moore’s elegant, foggy, droning atmospheres that do the heavy lifting and pull us easily along. And the details run deep. “Lakes” offers strong string pads, delicately placed micro-sounds, field recordings, and more of Oneira’s manipulated voice, heavy on the reverse echo. Piano fronts “Glimmer in the Darkness,” its echoed lines set against rolls of thunder, night sounds, and distant voices. Moore lays down the piece’s main phrase, lets it fade to the background, and brings up the atmospherics–then does it again. Listen closely and it seems you can still hear the sustain of the piano’s lowest notes like a soft hum.

Subtle Imperfections is a fantastic listen, its eight songs (seven and a reprise of the opener) built on tight lattices of well-chosen sounds and impeccably handled effects. Oneira’s vocals, as noted, are used perfectly any way Moore decides to apply them. They add to the album’s out-of-body feel and ghostly landscapes. Go grab this now and set it looping.

Available from Sparkwood Records.

Cosmic Mind Warp, Lysergic Space/Lysergic Dreams

cmw_lyssCelebrate the heyday of IDM and the joys of dropping acid on Cosmic Mind Warp’s double hit of weird electronica,  Lyser9ic Space and Lysergic Dreams. On the IDM side, we get the very liberal use of lengthy spoken snippets to go along with thick, trippy beats and swirling electronic atmospheres. For me, there’s too much of the spoken stuff. It’s a personal preference, and I know they’re there to tell part of the story, but they rarely seem to be used in a way more creative than being a straight-line narrative in any given piece. The exception is “Lysergic Muttering Blues,” where two odd voices, which may not be saying anything at all, hold a lengthy, if indecipherable, conversation over a warbling, spaced-out melody. At other times it can be distracting. The woman chortling and speaking during “The Tunnel” makes me want to–actually need to–jump to the next track. I wish the device had been used more sparingly, because some of it is walking over good, interesting music. The opener, “They Can Tell Us We’re Crazy” is an energetic, bouncing thing with a whiff of electro-pop. “Auto-Dimensional” uses reverse echo and long drones to create its hallucinogenic atmosphere, and feels like it could take of to other lines of thought. That’s also an issue here–CMW cram 12 tracks into 40 minutes, leaving each exploration just a few minutes to have its say.

Lysergic Dreams is a companion album that uses the tunes from it predecessor as a stepping off point. Per the Bandcamp page, “Each track is the result of its counterpart on the earlier album being fed back into Ableton 9 and converted into a series of MIDI notes … before undergoing many manipulations & mutations.” It’s meant to be the more ambient side of the project, but outside of a couple pieces that feel like they’ve been mildly Paulstretched, the work here is pretty active. “Dream Number 2” manages to stand out with light bell tones over sparkling pads, and “Dream Number 3” has a tap-along rhythm and a subtle melody. The 15-minute “Dream Number 10” works itself into a weird and wicked tangle of tones with a bit of a suspense-movie vibe to it. Not my definition of ambient. “Dream Number 8” is apparently one of those dreams that just screams loudly in your ears. It’s an instant blast of sounds that hits like a fist and doesn’t let up. The only way this is “ambient” is if you set the volume to “1” and sit yourself down two rooms away.

Neither of these releases sat particularly well with me. I wish that Lysergic Space had placed more emphasis on the music and less on the narrative, and Lysergic Dreams sort of misses the mark for me in general. I like the thought behind Dreams and the way it works with the first album, but these aren’t albums I’d hurry back to. Give a listen and see if you can get into these Lysergic doses.

Available at Bandcamp.

Michael Reiley McDermott, Music from Ephemeral

mrm_ephem.jpgArtists can find inspiration and sound sources in an infinite range of things. For composer Michael Reiley McDermott’s Music for Ephemeral, it was the flap of birds’ wings. As he notes on his Bandcamp page, he “found … hidden worlds of sound in the quick bursts of flapping sounds that last only a second in our time.” The hidden sounds get manipulated, stretched, and stacked to create four movements for a ballet. This intrigued me, because the work skews toward a very minimal, drone structure that one would think belies the idea of it being used for dance. (Visit the video link below to see just how wrong that line of thought actually is.) As for listening, McDermott’s structures unwind and spread with a rich organic grace, rises in intensity coming naturally up out a flow in simple curves and receding back to the integral mix. “Part 1” is constantly underscored with a sound like running water or, more likely, the susurrus of countless wings. Beneath it can be heard light touches of piano and a lingering drone. “Part 2” uses a variety of microsounds, and for much of its time it sounds quite like listening to the patter of rain. A steady metallic beat and soft voices arise out the sounds–again, emerging quite naturally out of the existing structure. The sonic textures thicken as McDermott chops and slices his samples, letting them grow quite aggressively into an in-your-face wall that cuts out suddenly. “Part 3,” a short palate cleanser before the 25-minute finale, returns to a very quiet place, almost little more than a series of electronic exhalations allowing us to recover from the assertive ending of “Part 2” and melting themselves into the start of “Part 4.” McDermott notes that in this final movement he wanted to create “…a hail storm of granular sounds that rain down…” As it evolves, it sprouts various tendrils of sound, from spatters of electro-crackle to waves and gulls to the hum of strings, all grounded in a high, slowly oscillating drone. It gets quite complex, with a lot of interplay between the sounds, but nothing is ever out of place or fights against the oddly harmonious atmosphere that’s created. It’s not a particularly soft sound, but between its easy flow and the mesmeric influence of the drone base, it can certainly set your mind drifting for a while.

Listeners whose tastes run toward drone and conceptual/experimental work will more easily find a point of entry into Music from Ephemeral. Its sparseness and use of small, granular sounds can be challenging, but listening to all of it evolve and unfold is intriguing, especially in a close listen.

Video of the ballet can be found on Vimeo.

Available from Bandcamp.

Wacky Southern Current, 6

wacky_6The last time I reviewed Wacky Southen Current, I noted that something about Marco Cervellin’s music made me feel like I wanted more out of it. That was then, and is now, and I have to say that it does not leave me with that wanting feeling. A cool half-hour of post-rock tunes, 6 is catchy, bright, and full. I can’t believe I’ll be the only one to hear a Lennon/McCartney vibe coming out of the ridiculously hook-laden lines and changing faces of “We Had Many Fights Along the Way.” It’s just fun and joyful, especially when Cervellin cuts loose on guitar late in the track. There’s also some sweet slide going on throughout the track that makes me happy. The pure optimism of “Girl With a Future” and its toe-tapping rhythm grabs the listener right away. There’s a hint of 70s West Coast rock in its structure. Another late-arriving guitar solo lays out spicy licks and runs over heady drums as the rhythm section keeps things tight. “Not Afraid (of Spiders)” starts off sounding like a chamber music piece transported into a post-rock setting. Its very formal piano line opens things a bit stiffly, but Cervellin then slips in strings, drums, and more to loosen it up. When the break comes, the song openly evolves into something smoother. I like almost everything on 6,  but could do without the high dramatics of “End of the Hansa.” The repetition of its three-note setup line feels like Cervellin’s not sure he should let it leave the starting blocks. Big drum fills that do nothing but play up the drama don’t help. It’s just a too-heavy thing in the middle of pieces with easier, more enjoyable flows.

So this must be the “more” I was looking for when I last listened to Wacky Southern Current. Nothing’s lacking here, from style to hook to let’s listen to that again. Cervellin plays most everything on the album and nothing sounds forced or phony. (Okay, sometimes the drums feel a trifle too programmed.) It’s just a batch of quick tunes with a full-on ensemble sound, and it’s a blast. Turn up the volume and enjoy.

Available from Bandcamp.

Matthew Florianz: Nocturne – Soundtrack for Science Briefings

florianz_noctMy initial impression of Nocturne – Soundtrack for Science Briefings  by Matthew Florianz was that it was thin. Even for an ambient album, it felt like it lacked depth. As it looped through several listening sessions, however, I realized that although that thought never quite left my head, I was still getting quietly pulled into the music. For long stretches of its 93-minute run, Nocturne – Soundtrack for Science Briefings gets whisper-quiet, turning from a classic spacemusic sound to barely there, meditative ambient. Florianz mixes in sequencer runs and other small flourishes at points that nicely break up the flow. Between those points he’s inclined to lay out the more minimal pathways, with breathy pads and spiraling lines that exist just below the surface. It’s the kind of stuff that makes this a very effective headphone listen. Although it may seem contrary to say so, while Florianz’s quieter  constructs are as calming as one might like in this kind of music, I find that by and large it goes by without leaving a larger impression. I know I’ve heard it, and I could listen to it again, but at no point does it make me need to listen. It’s one thing to get lost in an ambient/space album; it’s another to have a moving enough experience to immediately hit play again. I do enjoy the leg of the journey formed by “Dark Matter” and “Life.” In both piece, Florianz plays with slightly different versions of putting a slow-moving arpeggio over washes and pads. It’s that solid-versus-ethereal motif that works so often for me. “Life” blossoms out into a pad-based vision of stellar distances. The first half of “Do we live in a multiverse” is one of the album’s most immersive spans. This is where Florianz really reduces the sound down to a next-to-nothing state. Very light chime tones at the outset place waypoints for the unsure path ahead. From there, it gets very sparse but remains in constant, softly churning motion.

This is a good album to put on quietly after you’ve done your headphone explorations. It’s very ambient for the most part, content to just drift around the room. And while I don’t often comment on titles, I do wish Florianz had found a less antiseptic name for this album. Although it’s true to the music’s origin as soundtrack pieces for videos exploring the “unexplained mysteries of the universe,” I can say that the title made me hem and haw about whether I even wanted to listen to it. Hopefully it doesn’t turn listeners away, because it does offer some good ambient and spacemusic visions.

Available from Bandcamp.

Neon Shudder, (viii) Neuromantic: The Communion of Nature and Technology

neon_neuroI’ll keep this brief since we’re talking about four tracks and  fifteen minutes of angry chipset and nostalgia heavy on appreciative irony. Neuromantic from Neon Shudder delights in its throwback sound, and for a short offering it can be somewhat fun. Neon Shudder apparently stuffed Trent Reznor into an old Nintendo to get the dark groove of “Cargo Cult,”  the album’s opener. The familiar tinny snap of electronic drums drive it forward “Kill or Be Killed” sounds like the theme music for an 80s console game I wish I’d played. Crunchy distortion and a meaty bass line give it a grinding quality. “Not To Be Fucked With” escapes from some forgotten New Wave clubs courtesy of vocals from Randi Hubler of the duo Reapers. It’s a gritty electro-pop tune with a darkness reminiscent of Depeche Mode after they realized they weren’t happy. Electronic drums from Onslaught Six (the other half of Reapers) lends extra power to its punch. “The Tragedy of Being” is upbeat, with the warble of 8-bit processor music to its melody.

Stuff this one into your daily shuffle for a quick shot of cool. I like Neon Shudder’s commitment to the style–his love of it shines through every note. It may come off a little cheesy for some, but embracing that is what lurks at the core of this artist’s work.

Available at Bandcamp.