Mikael Delta & Hior Chronik, The First Ray

delta_firstIn this half-hour offering, Mikael Delta and Hior Chronik lay out quiet blends of ambient and piano, then cap it with a laid-back. dub-flavored track that for me is the best part of the ride. “How to Define Existence” kicks the album off with crackling noises over pads, then laces in the piano and some upright bass that gives it a touch of a jazz aspect. That crackle comes back in “Till I Will Born Again” to give the track extra allure. Its echo-packed piano picks out a tentative melody, adding depth slowly as it goes. Fluid drones fill in the background, coming just up over the top of the piano. It’s dreamy, yet a little dark with that insectile crunching sound. “Standing in the Middle of Nowhere” is like a small string combo playing alongside piano and unobtrusive field recording drops. Though short, it is graceful and compelling. Bare boned and breathy, “I Have Everything” is a haunting piece not too far removed from elegy. It moves only slightly, with a minimal rise and fall to its string-like sounds, while an indecipherable voice intones from some far-off place. The closer, “Revival,” takes the album in a wholly different direction, as noted. With full-on dub flavor coming in right off the bat, it’s rhythmic and cool, reminiscent of the bass-heavy “electronic exotica” from the Waveform label. I could take an album’s worth of this.

One issue I have with The First Ray is that it sometimes feels like the duo decided to re-use certain elements over and over. While I like the echoed piano, the fact that it sounds so similar on “Everything We Want to Feel” and “Till I Will Born Again”–which follow each other–makes it harder to discern one from the other. The crackling sounds, as well, while they come in slightly different intonations, reappear often. Perhaps in a longer piece, it wouldn’t be as noticeable. So while similarity may pose a barrier to some listeners, tuck this album into your shuffle and the individual pieces all offer something interesting to peer into.

Available at Bandcamp from Sun Sea Sky.

Vlad Nedelin, Postante

nedel_postMy feelings run a bit lukewarm when it comes to Vlad Nedelin’s Postante, a workable mix of noise over ambient structures. But it’s not an album I’ve enjoyed delving into deeply.  As a rule, the less noisy and subtler, the better I like it. “Nothing Disappears” stalks along on a blend of high chords and slow melody, and lacks any noticeable noise element. It’s got a bit of a spy movie vibe to it, and a nice air of drama and mystery. There’s a story at play in “Yet to Be Told,” and it plays out with a sort of old-school sensibility. A militaristic drum line (Nedelin is a jazz drummer) snaps along in the background, and the tempo is mechanical and strident. It took a couple of listens to warm up to the atmospheric sparseness of “An Isle,” but this strange mash of wind, perhaps very distant waves, and the noises of someone moving through a space—all this accompanied by a very dialed-back, droning mix of pads—becomes quite attention-getting. At the least, it forms a strong sense of scene, a field recording with a light dusting of music. It pushes us out into “Through the Tunnel,” which is again fairly minimal, but packed with velocity. Nedelin lays in robotic analog synth sounds and bends the piece off in sort of a science-fiction direction. The click and clatter of the percussion drives this one forward. “Temporary Residence” hearkens back to the mysterious tones of “Nothing Disappears,” with a rhythm that bounces along over eerie vocal pads. It does get slightly repetitious, but, again, moves away from the noisier side of things. I sometimes call out pieces like this for not giving themselves enough time to develop, but this one could have said its piece more briefly. (And the thematic sounds at the end quite simply don’t help.)

Postante does offer up some decent atmospheres, but relies too heavily on the noise for my taste. The pieces are brief enough that the problem spots pass quickly. While this one is not entirely for me, those with more experimental tastes will probably find more to dig into.

Available from CD Baby.

CommonSen5e & Mario Grönnert: Nightmares And Dreamscapes: Silhouettes Of Urbia

gron_nightmSo there’s this place, and something quite bad has happened there. Like, extinction-level bad. It’s  a broken world, dying, maybe dead without fully realizing it, certainly haunted, and the empty streets are covered in remnant ash. It’s through this shadowed waste that CommonSen5e (Mason Metcalf) and Mario Grönnert would like to escort you on Nightmares and Dreamscapes: Silhouettes of Urbia. While some might classify this as dark ambient—and parts of it very much are—I think the term “gloom ambient” is more apt. This place they describe exists in a forced twilight that’s both physical and metaphorical. It can be uncomfortable, but there you are so you might as well look around at the details. And since the album opens with 22 minutes of the thick sonic surroundings of “Breathing in the Ash,” you don’t have much choice. There’s no easing you in here. Scene opens and there you are, alone in this decaying place, lungs taking in the sadness that coats everything. It’s got a sharp, industrial edge in spots, sometimes finding its way toward an abrasive brightness of sound. Metcalf and Grönnert show patient hands in moving us through the scene. The images shift imperceptibly and organically, with a quiet sense of despair our constant companion. There are many small sounds and moments, so headphones and attentive listening are an absolute must. The last couple of minutes all but whisper yet still manage to carry a hold-your-breath tension. “Sky Full of Crows” and “Station 17” pile on the darkness, haunted atmospheres,  and grimmer apocalyptic edge. What makes this album work for me is that while it doles out its share of depressing weight and tone, it has a narrative arc that begins to turn at its mid-point. Piano appears quite unexpectedly in “Journeys Calling,” a spot of light or hope—or at least something shiny in the murk and miasma for us to try to get to. The keyboard tones change but persist in “Through Midnight Fallen Lands,” taking on a harp-like feel against easy pads. With its final two pieces, the album spins it narrative fully toward a more optimistic sheen, though it’s optimism through a haze. “The World Rewinded” offers a sense of industry starting up and moving forward, of this darkened world wobbling back to its feet. A pulsing metallic beat and throaty bass pads energize the scene, and again it’s the piano that winds a thread of hope through the murk. It all brings this story to a satisfying close, and makes the journey overall very satisfying. A dark-but-not-too-dark piece of work that has kept me engaged for many listens — and which offers much more to hear than I first thought it would. Check this one out.

Available from Bandcamp.

Altus, Innerspace

altus_innerPrior to starting any Altus album, I make sure I have nothing else I need to do, because I know that all I am going to do is listen to Altus and maybe do a bit of introspection. Innerspace keeps that tradition alive by easing out over an hour of slow, sometimes somber, often broad ambient constructs that get inside your head, quietly sever your consciousness’ connections to your body, and take you quite far away. On one of my first review listens, I looped it for about five hours. I listened to it, examined it, let it become background, lived within it, napped to it… It was a very good five hours. Innerspace is signature Altus, meaning that it doesn’t use a lot of velocity or motion, but rather focuses on the slow drawing out of an emotional thread across a series of calm vistas. So your mind stays focused on the tidal rise and fall of the layers while you sit back and let your feelings find their way to the surface. A beautiful sense of yearning comes through, to my ears, on “Vast Yet Insignificant.” Pads like very long strings pull this one along, and as one fades I find myself waiting for the next. This is one of those “this is why I listen to ambient” pieces, and on one listen it occurred to me that I’d love to hear this done by an actual string ensemble. I think it would be fantastic. “Reflection” takes the ever-popular choral pads, draws them out and immerses them under the surface of bright, warm drones that curve gently upward like a prayer. I hear sacred music undertones rise as the piece goes along its meditative way. Lest I lead you to believe that it’s nothing but quiet drifty things on this album—although that’s the main focus—I love the simple bass pulse, a single note, that taps out the passage of time on “A Universe Within the Atom.” By the time this track lands, we’ve been adrift on warm, melancholy-tinted seas for more than 20 minutes—and blissfully so—and this unassuming note changes the timbre of the journey without really doing much. For this artist, it’s a momentary change of brushes on the same vast canvas. (He even sneaks in a distant drum beat.) Complete immersion comes in the closing piece, the 21-minute “Innerspace Outermind.” For an inward-looking piece, it’s got spacemusic cred dripping off it from the outset. Greeted by thick, warm pads brushed with high tones and tethered by a rich low end, the listener is instantly pulled far down into the sound. Unhurried, the elements shift and meld and expand as the real world just keeps getting farther away. The rise and fade of the bass chords are like intermittent swimmer’s strokes that come solely to take you along on these warm currents. If you ever find yourself in need of a perfect 20-minute meditation break, here’s your soundtrack.

To me, Altus is one of the top purveyors of quiet, reflective music working today. Mike Carss has an amazing ability to pull strong feelings from you without rippling the surface. His music just eases itself into your ears, heads for your soul, finds that part of you that’s resonating with his ambient reflections, and works on that harmony. It’s effortless—all you have to do is listen. Innerspace is yet another superb, repeat-ready release from one of my personal favorite artists. Get this, and resonate.

Available from the Altus website.

metlay!, fade

metlay_fadeIt pays to be patient when listening to fade, the first solo release in several years from ambient scene veteran Dr. Mike Metlay. Each of the six songs here build themselves architecturally while you listen. Humble, sometimes odd, beginnings scale upward and hit an “a-ha” point as the purpose of Metlay’s musical madness becomes clear. And when these pieces reach full potential, it’s quite simply fantastic. While it’s not unusual for electronic music to be built this way, on fade it’s done for an interesting reason—which I’ll get to later. On my many review listens, the thought that comes to me is that hearing these songs get pieced together is like watching Metlay lay down clear sheets with each variable of the equation written on it. Bit by bit, a new element gets layered and never obscures all the structural considerations below it. Outside of the short opening piece, “Fade to White (Glimpse),” each song on fade has ample time to evolve—from 10 to just over 14 minutes. “Fade to Silver” is a glacial, almost minimalist piece that builds off a repeating set of three-note phrases. Around those phrases, Metlay floats small sounds and elements like points of illumination against the bigger, foggy backdrop. The whole thing spins into a gently hypnotic wash of sounds, and your mind is massaged into submission by those repeating, unwavering phrases. The lowest note in those phrases delivers a solid, bone-felt resonance. My love of this album was cemented with “Fade to Purple.” Calling to mind the churn and flow of Tangerine Dream, this is one of the pieces that begins with a bit of a “Huh?” Synth hand claps pace out a stumbling rhythm over a drum heavy on reverb. More percussion eases in, followed by a music-box melody. On my initial listen, this was where I started to doubt, quite honestly. Then, as these elements began lacing themselves together and the familiar Berlin School flute sound walked in, I got it. A-ha. And when a chopped vocal snippet gets tossed into this intricate lattice, it manages to get even cooler. For pure cool, the award has to go to “Fade to Gold,” a track that has been played at maximum volume in my car many, many times. Springy, analog-style bass sequencer lays the foundation over big, industrial drum crashes. A backbeat slides in, and another vocal snip, this time with kind of a world-music edge, pushes the intensity even higher—and the damn thing isn’t even half over. Synth phrases in layers, a raw guitar sound, a tick-tock sequencer hitting the high end…it just keeps getting bigger, more intense, more involved. And when it ends with one big percussive crash…ecstasy, I tell you. Electro-music lover ecstasy.

Ideally, I would have you go listen to fade before I tell you what the really interesting part of this is. Metlay has told me that he kept this information to himself because he didn’t want the knowledge to color people’s perception of the album before they heard it. I listened before I knew, and when he told me how it was done, I was quite honestly amazed at this deep, captivating, and vital album’s pretty humble origins. As Metlay told me via email, with the exception of “Fade to Blue (live edit)”: “The album was created… Sound design, arrangement, composition, recording, sequencing, editing, mixing, and mastering… Entirely on one iPad.” Your ears will tell you this is bullshit—but that’s because of our perception of how music is made and what’s required to make it, a perception that fade goes a long way toward demolishing. Easily one of 2016’s best. Get this now, whether to hear what one talented musician can do with a single tool, or to help you shed your idea that it can’t be done this way.

Available from Aural Films.

Jim Ottaway, Southern Cross

otta_south

Jim Ottaway takes his inspiration for Southern Cross from the night sky view from his Gold Coast Hinterland, Australia, home. In trying to capture its beauty, he lays out an hour’s worth of pad-driven spacemusic, slow moving and broad in scope. While the album does not chart new stellar territory, it does a great job of describing these heavenly vistas while giving us an immersive journey. To some degree, this is a set-it-and-forget-it work, one that’s going to go about its business in quieting the space and setting you adrift whether you’re paying attention or not. When you do decide to tune in closely, however, you’re treated to well-woven layers of sound and effect, with a great deal of attention given to the use of small background sounds. One of the things I appreciate most about Southern Cross is that Ottaway doesn’t give in to going down the obvious spacemusic path. You know the one, where we start quietly, thrown in a roar of metaphorical engine noise, ramp up the tempo, and then shift it back down. It’s not here, and that’s good. Instead, we get deep, telescopic stargazing, the churn and drift of nebular clouds. The five main tracks, representing the points of the cross, Alpha through Epsilon, flow together well, with only slight pauses marking the move to each new track. I have tended to get so lost in the music here that it seemed like Ottaway had laid them out without actual end points. (Although I do find the ending of “Delta Crucis” to be a bit rough.)  Alpha, Gamma, and Epsilon each spool out slowly across just over fourteen minutes, with Beta and Delta acting as brief waypoints of eight and a half and five an half minutes, respectively. By the time you’ve visited “Alpha Crucis” and “Beta Crucis,” you’ve been in almost half an hour’s worth of seamless drift. “Beta…” in particular comes in slow and amorphous, the refracting and shifting of stellar dust. Ottaway puts a slight warble into some of the tones here, a nice ear-catching bit of texture. “Gamma Crucis” brings a shift in feel, with Ottaway playing with ringing metallic sounds and, overall, a darker sensibility. Tremolo chords feel like ripples in the fabric of space, and long, low pads chart their course through the background. Toward the end, Ottaway shifts into territory that almost loses me. He goes a little science fiction-y with various bloops and swoops of the knob-twisting analog type. They’re fine, and it can be argued that they come at a point where we could theoretically use a shift in tone—for me it’s just almost too much. To his credit, if you listen closely, these sounds exist in small blurbs throughout the piece, and come to the forefront later. “Delta Crucis” carries the darker tone. At just over five minutes, I’m not sure it adds that much to the flow; the other pieces feel more like full expressions and explorations. The main voyage concludes with the very deep “Epsilon Crucis,” a track that merits its own repeat play. Close your eyes and let 14 minutes of very light pads just flow across you. Bright tones highlight a slowly developing melody, and the sense is just a blissful, coasting float accented with starshine. The album closes with “Southern Cross (Timeless Motion),” and in a nice choice by Ottaway, we’re given a subtle, constant drum pulse meting out a steady rhythm over more rich pad work. It acts like a nice “welcome back” after your long, deep trek out to the stars.

Southern Cross was my introduction to Jim Ottaway’s music. His catalog goes back to 2004. With this album, however, my interest is definitely piqued to hear more of his work. His spacey vistas are descriptive without being overdone or obvious. The album plays well at low volume, and offers a lot of interest in a deep listen. Take your own voyage out to the Southern Cross soon.

Available from Jim Ottaway’s website.

Ann Licater, Beyond the Waves

licater_wavesIf I could, I think I would lightly rearrange the order of songs on Ann Licater’s lovely new album, Beyond the Waves. With Licater’s flawless flute work front and center, surrounded by small, intimate accompanying combos, the album develops a vibe that’s laid-back and calming while also drawing vivid imagery. For me, less is more on Beyond the Waves. In my imaginary song lineup, the album would open with the beautiful solo sounds of “Sunrise Blessing.” At just two minutes, it’s bright and inspiring, showcases Licater’s fluid, soaring style, and would set the tone very nicely. “Blossoms Falling” spins quietly out like a flute haiku, accompanied by guitar from Dan Ferguson and bass from Peter Phippen. I like the way the accompaniment takes small steps, laying down bits of phrasing that play out across time as the flute flies ahead. “Island Garden” pairs the flute with acoustic guitar and light taps of hand percussion, courtesy of David DiLullo on Peruvian cajon, in a smooth, upbeat dance. The piece that follows, “Sailing On Moonlight,” is a graceful duet with piano from Ferguson, softly underscored with more of Phippen’s bass. If the track listing was up to me, I’d end my “less is more” section with the stunningly soulful “Song of the Willows.” It’s flute, wind chime tones, and nothing else. Just this wonderful, Eastern-inspired song where the flute leaps and spins, each note rising in vibrant color to paint the air.At this stage of the review I am going to admit to you how much I have revised and revisited my opinion of the two opening tracks on this album. Initially I did not care for “Rhythm of the Stars.” It struck me as too filled with New Age-ness, maybe even a little too bright and dancing when compared with the subtler pieces that come later. But the more I listened to it and the deeper I looked into it, the more it grew on me. Ferguson’s acoustic winds a thread of melancholy through the piece, stepping back when the vibe turns brighter. Phippen catches a jazz glide on bass, and DiLullo’s djembe work anchors it all. I hear echoes of the Windham Hill combo Nightnoise in the song. I also like the folksy, honest tones of “Halcyon Morning,” but again feel the need to note that I like it less than the rest of the pieces. Ferguson handles both piano and guitar here, while Phippen keeps the beat on conga. A touch of synth strings lend the background a sophisticated feel.

The order of tracks is probably the last thing I should be commenting on here, since Licater notes that “Each track is carefully placed in an order that supports a 55-minute, ‘traveling meditation for well-being.'” And Beyond the Waves does, indeed, flow superbly from start to finish. For me, having listened to a lot of Ann’s work, I guess I tend to prefer her amazing playing when it’s left to its own devices as much as possible. She calls her music “flute for the soul,” and my soul generally agrees. Beyond the Waves should easily find a slot among your favorite New Age albums. An excellent addition to a superb catalog of work. I’m always glad to see a new Ann Licater release in my mailbox.

Available from Flute for the Soul.