Radium 88, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Space Traveler

rad88_loneAllow me first to confess my love of Radium 88’s signature sound. On their website they say—and I love this—that they wanted to “make music that sounds the way William Gibson reads.” Sum it up thus: sad piano melodies, doses of doppler, electronic backdrops, house beats where they’re needed, and the heartache-laden voice of Jema Davies telling us stories. Put these together in manners that vary really only slightly, toss in some raw guitar now and then, and off we go. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Space Traveler serves up fourteen helpings of this sound and style, and I have to say that while I enjoy the whole ride, it really stands out for me when Tim Thwaites busts out that guitar and starts cranking. He hits it first on “Who Will Save Us From The Waves,” when a big crunch of distortion-heavy axe roars up out of a sequencer line. It wails like a banshee with a microphone and the sound just envelop everything. He dials it back after its solo, its held notes more easily underscoring Davies’ voice. On “Renunciation Blues” we’re greeted with the syncopated bop of a reggae keyboard line before Thwaites walks in his sharp, rock-attitude guitar lines. There’s a nicely orchestrated tempo shift later that ushers in some bad-ass slide work. Thwaites absolutely rips it up briefly, creating a “What was that?” moment that may have you going back for an immediate repeat listen. It wails again in “The Girl Who Outshined the Void,” playing off thick bass and multiple sequencer lines drawing a crosshatch over the sound. On both “The Lost World of Tomorrow” and “This Too Shall Pass,” it goes heavy on the tremolo, cutting wavy lines in the air like shutters. But it’s not all about the aggressive axe work here. As always, there are passages of quiet reflection that ride more directly on Davies’ fluid choral recitations. “Heavy Water, Falling Stones”  is a longer piece (most of their work is pop-length) with a pastoral quality at its outset. It dials up into an easy groove with string pads, plenty of dopplering, and another great guitar solo that has a big alt-rock feel to it, although it’s set off into the background for a nice balancing touch.”Nocturne 7″ is where classically influenced piano meets muted electronics in a genuinely beautiful mix.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Space Traveler is the most assertive, raw album I’ve heard from Radium 88, and I quite enjoy the changeup. There has always been a guitar element to their sound, but never quite like this. It not only adds a fresh energy, but it makes for very interesting textural matches and shifts where you go from 60 to 0 in a beat. I enjoy those moments. Davies’ voice is what hooked me on the duo early on, and she’s in very fine form here. This feels like an invigorated Radium 88; I know they have returned to playing live as well, so grab hold of this burst of energy now. It must be said that the duo’s formula is very much on display across these 14 tracks, and some folks may find this album shines more when it’s mixed into a larger flow. I always like to take my R88 full-on at first, then later let it show up to surprise and delight me with this sound that I’ve come to love. Check this out now.

Available from CD Baby.

Leaving Richmond, The Antique Heart

leavrich_antiqOne thing to know about Leaving Richmond is that its prinicpal, Jordan Pier, has been killing it lately in getting his music picked up for various television and commercial projects. That’s because his work is bright, catchy, cool, and memorable. It’s shiny post-rock with energy to spare, and it’s in full view on The Antique Heart. If you don’t find yourself reaching for the volume knob and doing a little chair-dancing in the high-speed, glitchy glow of “The Electronic Afterlife,” consult a physician. This undeniable groove lifts up out of a lounge-ready drum loop and cool chords. As Pier laces in a faster beat, he matches it with quick guitar riffs, then offsets it further with slower, silky lines. The pace shifts, with a nice drop midway. A nice adrenaline injection. Its velocity carries into “Freezing Light,” a minimal electronic piece built around stretching pads and an insistently pulsing beat. It also makes for an interesting style interruption, steering us away from the more straight-up post rock.The Western gallop of “Waiting for Another Heartbeat” is just charming, and the perfect foil for a backdrop of small-combo strings. A repeating guitar phrase anchors it, and a bridge of simple chords breaks it up neatly. “You Will Be Safe Here” catches my ear by having part of its melody include a four-note phrase that sounds like Ultravox’s “Reap the Wild Wind.” Beyond that, its easy, shuffling lounge beat, deep layers, and crisp guitar lines just walk coolly forward, and I gladly follow. The title track enters on a downtempo keyboard pulse and some techno-style textures. Swelling strings, guitar, and bounce-around-your-head  chime tones round it out. Add a mid-track drop, and you’ve got another round of joy.

The Antique Heart is a half-hour of feel-good post-rock with Pier’s ample talent on display. Stick it into your favorite shuffle for quick doses of energy that will stay in your head all day. I’ve yet to hear a Leaving Richmond track that doesn’t make me inexplicably happy. Soundtrack-worthy and here to please, The Antique Heart is a must-hear for post-rock fans.

Available from Bandcamp.

Eliethel, November Landscapes

elieth_novIn a brief, 20 minute outing, Eliethel (aka Evangelina Alexaki) lays down fog-washed, waking-dream scenarios just a touch left of center. Eerie in places, and slightly challenging throughout, the five tracks on November Landscapes offer a lot to listen to. With her tenet of “weaving dreams into sounds,” Alexaki plays with the melding of disparate elements,  the way odd intrusions find their way into the otherwise coherent narratives of your subconscious night-wanderings. The title track cuts snippets of a deeply drawn breath over music-box-like keys. The dense fog of “Penelope” is almost disconcerting, the kind of dream where you can’t figure out where you are, but you’re pretty sure it’s not good. An eerie melody and a forest of small sounds round out the nicely disjointed scene. “Flamenco Boy” courses along on a vocal like Sufi chanting, then morphs into a blend of that and flamenco guitar. It’s exotic and  potent, and again filled with small atmospheric sounds. “The White Wall of Valletta” pairs more of the music-box melody with trap/glitch percussion and switches tempo in spots to throw you delightfully off. It’s an energetic way to bring you out of the deeper dream of November Landscapes. A succinct offering that should leave you looking for more.

Available from Eliethel’s web site.

Luna Firma, Falling Toward Atlantis

luna_atlanThe debut release from Luna Firma, the duo of Kuutana and Eric “the” Taylor, is a graceful, narrative-driven album filled with small sounds and vivid aural imagery. There is plenty of thematic set dressing here, from the sounds of waves and seagulls to distant howls of wolves, but for the most part it’s underplayed. For me, that’s a plus. I don’t mind that kind of stuff, but it’s very easy to get too heavy-handed with it. Kuutana and Taylor ease it into a place where you know it’s present, but it never gets in the way of simply enjoying the music. (Although for me, admittedly, those seagulls come mighty close.) “Between Me and the Sea” sets the scene with wave sounds and shimmering tones, then brings in piano to open the vista. The backdrop is both fluid and dreamlike, and a nice dose of echo gives it dimension. As I said, I could do without the gulls that fly past later, but only for the way they interfere with what is otherwise a comfortable flow. “Light Source” starts with slow pads and a jumble of kalimba-like tones, then gives itself over to keys backed with swirling string sounds, a bit of harp, and a swirl of arpeggios. Again, the duo lead the listener into a misty and calming edge-of-dreams space. “Open Night Air” offers a bit of surprise. It begins in soft ambient territory, with whisper-soft pads over night sounds. Then, around its mid-point, it grabs a shot of tribal tonality with solid drumming and a striding, bass-led melody. This is also where you get your wolves, howling in the distance. Again, not overdone, and a nice, subtle touch in what becomes an intense piece. That intensity plays really well against the more laid-back feel of what’s come before. The centerpiece of the album is the final track, the 32-minute saga “Approaching Atlantis.” As a melodic piece of this length should, it moves through a couple of scene changes. Rising out of a watery wash of pads (hello, seagull), it shifts into an oddly mechanical, clanking tangle of sounds that, quite honestly, I am at a loss to describe. I find it odd, but it passes and deposits us back in a quieter current that uses a lot of small sounds to create a full atmosphere. It passes into a space of pads and bell tones, minimal yet in constant, liquid motion. By its last few minutes, it’s been stripped back to a murmuring crinkle of white noise, long pads, and light atmospheric touches. It’s an excellent piece that not only bookends the album, but stands very well on its own. There’s one notable mis-step here—I mean, other than the gulls. An odd sound, like you just lost at a video game, gets thrown into “As Of Yet Unknown.” I was listening once in my office, and had to take off my headphones to make sure it wasn’t someone else’s computer I was hearing. Tore me right out of the moment…and it gets repeated. An iffy choice that acts like a big bump in the flow.

I’ve listened to Falling Toward Atlantis a good number of times, and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve lost track of time while listening. The work glides past, always quite touching and affecting, but quietly so. It’s a very soothing album, even with the passing primal snarl of “Open Night Air,” and it’s certainly a candidate for long, looping sessions. Kuutana and Taylor have created a very special album here. They have recently released a follow-up album, and I’m looking forward to hearing what they do next.

Available from Bandcamp.

Robert Slap, Atlantis Trilogy: Brave New World

slap_atlantMy confession: This review is quite late in coming because Robert Slap caught me on a day where my professed—and untoward—bias against the use of overt New Age tropes was turned to high. I saw the word “Atlantis” and the Papyrus font, and I thought, here we go again. So I nudged it over to the no-thanks pile. Fast forward to me putting together a recent podcast episode, shuffling the music in my library, and this quite good, if obviously New Age, track comes on, and it’s Robert Slap. So here’s the review. Yes, Atlantis Trilogy: Brave New World, the final installment in Slap’s story of the lost kingdom, has its very, very New Age moments and does wander a bit into too-sweet or too-melodramatic territories for me, but there’s also some very good work here. Slap has spent his life in the music industry and worked as a backing player for a lot of musicians, so he’s got his chops. In fact, it was the guitar work on “Healing Temple” that brought me around for a fresh listen. Outside of the 12-minute opening track, “Crystal Chamber,” the steps in this journey run just four to six minutes, so Slap offers up a change of scene quite often. “Crystal Chamber” is heavy on flute and pads, with a steady sequencer line running beneath it. Although most of the flute work skews toward a Native American or Andean feel, Slap throws a few jazzy trills into the mix for fun, which also helps keep this track from getting static. There’s a fair amount of world influence throughout the album. The crisp, warbling plucks of Eastern strings fill “Wizard’s Journey” with charm, but the piece almost loses me at its mid-point. It rears up at what I’m sure is a narratively appropriate moment, like some point of arrival or discovery, and delivers a symphonic burst that’s just too overdone for me. I feel like Slap could have eased from one section of this solid track to the next without the bombast. It’s minor compared to the title track, which is so loaded with it from the start that I simply don’t enjoy it. Again, from a theme standpoint, it probably works fine. It’s meant to be big and dramatic. For me as a listener, it’s just too much of both. I prefer the pieces that leave the drama behind. “Voices From the Past” is a striding, cool tune filled with bright, round tones almost like kalimba or dulcimer, laid out in separate, complementary sequencer lines. Light hand percussion, synth vocal pads, and more flute round the piece out. Something in it puts me in mind of Shadowfax’s “New Electric India.” The biggest draw for me is the piece that pulled me back in, “Healing Temple.” It slips in on a bass drone and echoing, crystalline tones. Acoustic guitar and flute take the forefront; the flute here is snakey and lithe. Midway through, Slap lays down a guitar solo against a slow-moving backdrop of pads and sharp percussion. I honestly wish more of this style of playing had found its way into the mix.

Out in the world beyond my opinion, Atlantis Trilogy: Brave New World is resonating with New Age listeners. It’s been ranked highly on the Zone Music Reporter charts, which means it’s been getting airplay on New Age outlets. I’ve seen fit to include it in my own podcast as well. There’s good music here, especially if you’re predisposed to a heavy New Age style, and I like it more when Slap dials down the melodrama. I think that while it may enhance the story, for me as a listener, it interrupts the experience. However, for some—perhaps many—this trip to Atlantis will be worth taking.

Available from Robert Slap’s web site.

Jason Sloan, Haven

sloan_havenWhat I am used to from Jason Sloan is sound experiments that blend various audio sources with vocal snips, edgy and complex collages tinged with subtle rhythms. What I am not used to from Jason Sloan, but could get very used to based on his new album, Haven, is sequencer-driven, velocity-plus-drift, Berlin School homage grooves that demand and reward a lot of volume. Haven is a sheer delight for analog junkies like me, whose pulses frequently fall into a step-and-repeat motif. I received this album from Jason when I saw him perform in Philadelphia in September 2016. It was the first thing I played on my ride home to Boston…and I played it five times in a row. With three mid-length tracks and one sonic palate cleanser as an epilogue, it clocks in at just over 45 minutes, and every moment is superb. The three longer tracks lay out along a similar path, opening with big, warm drifting chords, slowly allowing a sequencer line to come in and share the space, and then easing back into the drifts to close. “Aleppo” kicks off the album with string pads and piano accents. The sound drapes beautifully, with a mildly mournful tone, and the gently pulsing piano notes give a hint of the sequencer touches to come. When they arrive, it’s on that strident 1-2-3-4 line, down toward the bass end but not low, and their clean, angular energy folds itself smoothly into the flow. “Egress” follows, entering on a hiss of chilly electro-wind. Once it gets going, this track, which was commissioned by the Star’s End radio show, is the one that most strongly pings my Tangerine Dream recognition centers. I am instantly reminded of my favorite parts of Sorcerer; there’s that same sense of tension in the  springy, metallic tone of the sequencers, and Sloan works the electronic atmosphere into an underplayed urgency. When this piece downshifts late in the track and brings back the wind sound and its atmosphere, the sense of release is quite real. Starry arpeggios back-light the scene. Throughout the track, he makes the choice to lay some kind of muting over every element —nothing really raises its voice, and everything takes on a hushed, misty feel. Top speed is reached on “Hegira,” which wastes no time in cranking up criss-crossing sequencer lines. Were there a need to put an aural pin in the map for reference, it would be early, Traveler-era Steve Roach, complete with pulsing analog chug and swells of high, symphonic pads. The title track is a fairly straightforward melodic piece, washed through with string sounds that hearken back to the opening tones in “Aleppo” and bringing the piece to a thoughtful close. Across the album, the transition between tracks is flawless, making Haven a focused straight-through listen.

This is a very different side of Jason Sloan than I’ve heard before, and an equally good one. For all its nostalgic analog value, it’s such a strong outing that the references barely matter. This is solid Berlin-style synth EM wrapped around a potent emotional core, and it’s a must-hear.

Available from Bandcamp.

Salvatore Passaro, Overwhelming

pass_overwIn a suite of 14 short sonic sketches, Salvatore Passaro lays out impressionistic work run through a series of distorting filters that coarsens its edges and scours it in texture. This is by no means a happy album. It’s draped in an almost constant grey fog of equal parts resignation and quiet angst, but it’s tempered by intriguing construction and plentiful attention to the impact of small sounds. Its emotional center feels very true and affecting, and each piece in its own way draws the listener in. For me, Passaro gets better as he gets quieter. “Dream” and “Memory” flow together to create an ambient-like atmosphere. “Dream” melts field recordings into a breathy wash and strips itself down to a point where it’s little more than  a slow draw of bowed strings and a light breeze blowing coolly across the landscape. “Memory” opens with night sounds, piano, and curls of string instruments. Vocal pads ease in, and the piece moves like a gentle pan across the evening sky. Listen closely to catch all the movement going on, the layers Passaro threads through each other. The closing track, “Sinestesia” is a well-executed drone piece that from the first note sets out to soothe your mind. Even here Passaro stays with those lightly roughened textures. They work on this track to create a wavering feel that just makes everything that much more hypnotic. In other tracks, Passaro reaches for some classical influence, easy ballads or etudes, and subjects them to the same filters and treatments. The transmuted, chime-like keyboard sounds of “It Is” play against a background treatment with an Eastern feel. “A Light” surrounds the piano with a rush of sounds, a spinning wind that threatens to overwhelm it yet never does. One of my favorite tracks here is the trippy “Circular,” which loops in some indistinct vocal drops, packed with echo, over different keys—piano and electric piano—and some kind of wonderfully distorted and amorphous warble of sound that rolls through.

To my mind, Overwhelming suffers from brevity. Passaro’s compositions are all roughly pop-song length, running two to four minutes, and often end a bit suddenly. As much as I like “A Light,” for example, it swirls to an odd and somewhat unsatisfying close. And it’s not alone. Too often, just as I’m getting good and deep into a piece, it’s just about done. I feel like Passaro would thrive and enthrall even more if he gave himself a broader stretch of time in which to express his stories and give them space to truly speak. Overwhelming deserves your attention, and speaks of more good (and hopefully longer) things to come from Salvatore Passaro.

Available from Bandcamp.