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Manuele Frau, Sky Blue Ice Dawn

July 19, 2016

frau_sbidIn under half an hour, Maneule Frau manages to tap, ping, and punch every old-school electronic-music pleasure center I have in my brain. With star-vista drifts, high-energy constructs, lattice-work sequencing, and every textbook genre example firmly in place, Sky Blue Ice Dawn is a seamless joyride through well-trodden musical realms. There are four tracks, one for each word in the title. “Sky” takes a minimalist route,  layering and re-layering a repeating phrase into a hefty sonic wall. The build is reasonably slow, but very potent, and by track’s end you are completely immersed in it. Seemingly simple, but effective. “Blue” is the album’s most Tangerine-ish track, a pleasure cruise of a thing with bouncing, shiny sequencers that rise up from a very subdued pulse. It’s picture-perfect Berlin style, and all your favorite tropes are here. When it hits full stride, it’s got energy to spare—it’s just good old-school fun. On “Ice,” Frau begins with airy drifts, then taps the throttle a little to energize a groove that finds high, sighing synth lines circling over muscular sequencer structures and electronic percussion. He throws in a touch of distortion to give the lower end a hint of rawness and aggression. “Dawn” also opens with long ambient pads, then spreads out into sequenced territory. This piece is anchored with fantastic blobs of low-end notes that remind me of Giles Reaves’ work. Their spreading, liquid character contrasts nicely with the bubbling lines above them for more of that fast-and-slow dynamic. It kind of sums up the things I have long loved about this style.

Sky Blue Ice Dawn is just too short. That’s my complaint. I want more of this delicious throwback music. Frau is following some pretty standard formulas here, but they’re laid out with  a careful and respectful hand and they’re just a pleasure to dive into. And since they neither overstay their welcome nor become tiresomely repetitious, I am fine with hitting “repeat” on this and letting it loop until Manuele Frau’s next release. Definitely go give this a listen. Analog yumminess that’s good for your soul.

Available from Winter Alternative Records.

21st Century Bard

July 18, 2016

21cb_selfJust based on time and circumstance, I have listened to the debut release from 21st Century Bard (aka Sam Bardin) somewhat more than I usually do for a review. And while I haven’t minded the multiple listens, I also find that it’s never left a deep impact on me. It cruises along from the spacey churn of “125.36±0.41GeV,” and while it could be considered a good thing from an ambient music standpoint, this fairly hushed track melts into a back-of-mind thing before too long and it’s not until I’m a few minutes into “Dali-esque Tundra in Darkness” that I become aware that I’ve moved on. That second track suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. It starts out wanting to be a guitar piece — or at least one that takes a lot of interest from its guitar lines — then eschews that and focuses on its undercurrent of warbling synth notes and abundant electronic twinkle. And while the latter half is fine, the sharp rawness of the guitar sounds are what work to make this piece stand out. Bardin locks me in for a while beginning with the slow floater “Influx of Waves.” It’s straight-up spacemusic, built on oblong pads and ample spatters of electronic starlight. It eases into the catchy minimalist groove of “Quantum Escher.” This charming piece chugs along on a repeating line, with vocal-sample song lines rising to the surface here and there. I like that those moments are kept brief, and just lift the emotion and deepen the experience for a few moments.”Liquid Dynamics” brings me in with appropriately watery, wavering weaves of sound. Bardin uses light clattering noises, hollow like glass spheres tapping against each other, to add texture.

There is some interesting work on this album, and it certainly deserves a listen. The downside for me is that I didn’t find anything particularly compelling here. It’s well-made enough, however, that I am quite likely to check out what 21st Century Bard has to offer next.

Available at CD Baby.

Sundaug, Nocturnality

July 13, 2016

sundaug_nocTake the clean, honest, up-close-and-personal feel and technical playing excellence of your favorite Windham Hill-era acoustic guitarists and add a light touch of electronic strings. Now you have Nocturnality from Philadelphia-based artist Sundaug (aka Stephen Bonitatibus). On his second outing, Bonitatibus lays down pieces that just make me want to kick back with a Sauvignon Blanc and watch the sun go down. He’s found a great, relaxing match-up here, keeping the crisp fingerstyle guitar front and center, as it should be, and relegating the other sounds to the background where they become a smoothly shifting scrim for our mental imagery. Comparisons are naturally going to arise, so let me suggest that Sundaug’s style blends the laid-back, rocker-on-the-porch folksiness of Will Ackerman with moments of Michael Hedges’ “let’s use the whole guitar” approach. Harmonics ring and body taps bring in moments of well-placed percussion. Piano finds its way into the mix here and there, as on the bright and cheerful “Chasing Angels.” The piano is given a couple of spots to come toward the front, but never takes over. It just adds its voice, says what it needs to say, then steps back. It plays a solid role in “Desert Oasis” as well, a song that has a rich ensemble feel to it while showing off Bonitatibus’ ability to nail the flairs and flurries of this style. On “Mount Olympus,” we get a feel for his hand at crafting big, full pieces that take advantage of the symphonic side of the electronic part of the equation. It swells in spots to fill the air, and the guitar rises in intensity to meet it. The real joy in this album is listening for the trills and runs and acoustic pyrotechnics of a talented artist at play–like the little twisting scales and the punctuating ping of harmonics that made me smile when listening to “Summer Rain.”

There are 14 tracks in all on Nocturnality, and it must be said that there is some similarity track to track. After all, it’s a guy, a guitar, and some electronics. But Bonitatibus’ playing is so strong and smooth, I tend to overlook it and just savor the wow moments. The album also shines quite brightly when it’s tucked into a mix. Its homey feel, smiling attitude, and ear-catching technical work are effective attention-grabbers. In just one album, Sundaug has placed himself firmly among my favorite guitarists. I’m looking forward to more.

Available from CD Baby.

Off Land, Afterglow

July 13, 2016

offland_aftergIn my previous outings into the sound worlds of Off Land (aka Tim Dwyer), I saw him as a purveyor of quiet drone-sculpted spaces and deep textures. Which is part of what makes Afterglow such a surprise and an excellent release. Here we get a somewhat different Off Land, or at the very least an Off Land who’s decided to go play in a different sandbox for a bit. Which is not to say it’s better than his beatless works. Rather, it’s another great case of an artist stretching his craft and hitting a fresh mark. The difference sets in straight away, with the world-music overtone of “Zodiacal Light.” Its easy groove, gently tapped percussion, and well-placed bird-like squawks create a cool tropical feel, somewhere green and shady and gloriously overgrown. Dwyer also plays with classic EM and Berlin School styles several times on Afterglow. “Subtypes” locks down a low-volume sequencer line, then traces floating melodics over the top. Chime tones sparkle across the space, and a heavily echoed and subdued vocal drop slips in for extra interest. “Pulsar” sets up a swirling spiral of sound, then slyly slips in a beat and a sequencer line. The build on this track is excellent and evolutionary, with each new element really ramping the piece. It leads into “Radiance,” which matches a chugging sequencer with round chime tones and rise-and-fall pads. The contrast works well, with the chimes never trying to match the pace of their accompaniment. The ambient and spacemusic side of things gets its moment on “Photosphere” as Dwyer lays down long, large-scope pads with a distinct dramatic flair. A manipulated vocal comes in, raw and distorted, as if to denote the point here he starts to smoothly nudge the piece into a  slightly different shape. Without leaving the spacey side of it behind, Dwyer folds in new textures to keep your attention focused. (It’s easy to lose your way in such a hypnotic vista…)

One thing of note is that while Dwyer gets more active in a lot of the work here, he doesn’t forsake the kind of cloudy quietude that tends to envelop his music. He’s found the right blend of his signature ambient style and the stronger dynamics of classic EM. His thoughtful approach to building layers and tones is definitely on display, and his attention to the smallest details makes Afterglow very rewarding in close listens. This is an excellent release that shows Dwyer taking his Off Land identity in interesting directions. He has always been an artist to keep an ear on, and Afterglow takes that from a suggestion to an imperative. If you have not done yourself the favor of looking into his work, start here and start now.

Available as a download from Carpe Sonum . Physical release expected to be available in 2017.

Joe Evans, Elemental States

July 10, 2016

evans_elementalLet me start by confessing that I tried reading Joe Evans’ explanation of what’s going on in Elemental States, and it got a little music theory-ish for this simple reviewer. He notes that he’s interested in “…the idea that intervals based on the same prime number may have similar characteristics in the way that they are interpreted by the mind. For example 5ths, 4ths and 9ths sound similar, having a structural or even an architectural quality and all share 3 as a common factor.” Still with us? Okay, then you may be ready to dig in to this blend of sounds created with metal or glass household objects, paired with field recordings made over the last 30 years, fitted into this mathematical framework. From my earlier encounters with Evans when he was recording as Runningonair, I’ve understood that he always comes at the work from a mathematical/theoretical side, then uses his findings to create something both challenging and listenable. On Elemental States, I wonder how well he’s hit that second mark. It’s challenging, but for me, not entirely listenable. Relying heavily on soft chime tones and field recordings, the work does take on a drone-like quality. But, as on “Water – 5- Liquid,” which has the chimes and, as one might guess, the sound of a running stream, it also becomes a bit too repetitive. For me it feels like from a the standpoint of supporting Evans’ theorem it’s probably going well, but I can’t escape the thought that I’m listening to my garden wind chimes. It doesn’t abate as the album moves into “Air – 3 – Gas”; instead, it trades the water sounds for a rush of wind that I initially mistook for some kind of quieted-down industrial clamor. “Aether – 11 – Virtual” works best for me. It’s the one track here created “synthetically” as opposed to using those analog household sources. It is a quiet, humming ambient piece that warbles slightly to create a warm and misty flow. Ripples in the flow rise up as it goes, the agitated curl of an electronic wave. It may very well f0llow the same path of repetition as its kin, but it may be that whereas it’s already a drone as opposed to a more organic tone, the pattern becomes less obvious.

For me as a listener, Elemental States seems like a place where the idea outweighs the practicality. I have no doubt that people accustomed to higher musical thinking, folks who wonder about intervals based on prime numbers, may find their way deeper into it. A more casual listener will need to be attuned to slow-moving drone styles, and plenty of chimes.

Available from Runningonair.

Joe Frawley, Cartomancer

July 10, 2016

frawley_cartoJoe Frawley uses music to show us visions through a fragmented lens and tell us stories where the pages have been torn and put back together in more or less the right way. On Cartomancer, the subject of the story is 19th century American astrologer and mathematician Olney H. Richmond, who devised a complicated methodology of using a deck of playing cards as a divination tool. Cartomancy has its followers to this day. Frawley interprets the tale via piano, mostly unaccompanied but placed in the midst of an atmosphere of manipulated sounds and his signature vocal snippets. The work is beautiful and haunting.”Arline’s Dream” opens the album firmly in familiar Frawley territory: bright piano, a moment of a woman’s voice, a snippet popping in as punctuation, a bold, heavy strum across piano strings. The narrative gets set here as we hear the woman turning our cards and explaining what they mean. (As one note of dissent, as is often the case, I could really have done without the sound of a crying baby.) The changeover to the lonely sound of the echoing piano in the title track, which follows, is particularly effective for the way its open, simple sound contrasts with the clutter of impressions that preceded it. Frawley plays with a core of one phrase and works in spirals around it. It’s a lovely solo piece that uses the instrument’s own resonant sound as fill. Frawley does a lot here with just the piano, or barely accompanied piano. On “The Magus” it pairs in a dramatic duet with ambient guitar textures from Greg Conte. The piece has a nice, improvised feel in places as the two trade phrases. The piano part feels like a sonata that takes on the occasional jazz frill. Each new chapter in this story gives us a new texture. “Trident and Pearl” has an Asian undertone, with plucked strings like a slowly played shamisen. Heavy, dramatic chords open “Upon this Rock…” and Frawley throws in a ringing hum like someone running their finger along the rim of a crystal glass, the jarring thud of something hitting the floor and bouncing, and an insectile buzz of string sounds. It’s ominous and weird and thematically potent. The kaleidoscopic dreamscape feeling returns for “The Mystic Test Book, or the Magic of the Playing Cards,” with more vocal drops and snippets coming in and out, and the piano speaking in short phrases. “Leda and the Swan” comes in honking and flapping courtesy of field recordings. We get more of Kay Pere’s melodic, almost ghostly humming, and Conte streams in his lines to add a slightly discordant edge.

I am, admittedly, a big fan of Frawley’s work, and Cartomancer does a lot to solidify that. The work has, if I may, a hypnagogic quality, that in-and-out-of-dreams flow, that not-quite-real structure. And around it Frawley places truly beautiful work. The solo (or nearly solo) piano pieces reveal the emotional truth that underscores his playing. By bringing that together with the mindset of a sonic sculptor looking to make challenging modern structures, he creates a unique artistic vision that fascinates me—every time.

Available at Bandcamp.

SONAR, Black Light

July 4, 2016

sonar_blackHello, math. I mean the equations, algorithms, and conceptual thinking of prog rock. Once you’re about a minute and a half into the first track from SONAR’s Black Light, the notes start getting algebraic, multiplied by funky time signatures and raised to the power of King Crimson. From there the numbers remain fairly the same with a few variables thrown into the mix, and if you’re very into a Fripp-esque angularity and complexity, you’ll likely devour this album. Guitarists Stephan Whelan and Bernhard Wagner trade licks and leads while Christian Kuntner on bass and Manuel Pasquinelli on drums form a tight rhythm section. Much of the album sticks to a similar pace, relying on technique rather than pyrotechnics to try to hold your attention. “Enneagram” ramps up slowly, and is constantly in danger of seeming too static. It runs nine minutes, and spends a lot of that on large chunks of repetition. The way the individual lines are brought together is interesting, but not for all nine minutes.  The title track kicks off with a bit more energy, but soon falls into the same situation. I know that there’s higher compositional thinking at play here and I might be missing some subtleties of music theory, but by mid-track I find myself wishing they’d get on with it. “Orbit 5.7” makes for a nice departure, slowing the pace down further and bringing the jazz feel up. It’s a carefully metered piece, mostly lacking flash but making up for it in the super-tight adherence to its crisp underlying angles. It’s like an exercise in how intense the ensemble can make something without straying too far from a distinct line of thought. One thing that stands out for me on Black Light is the way Kuntner’s stalking, bestial bassline puts an incredible amount of weight into the closing track, “Critical Mass.” Late in the track he uses it to set up a pulse-like thump and has a conversation with Pasquinelli—but again, as much as I like the moment when it arrives and although it does change up as it goes, it wears out its welcome.

For the most part, I do like what I hear on Black Light. It’s well-made prog with a heavy jazz lean, but I become too aware that I’m hearing similar structures over and over. Thelan and Wagner rely heavily on a Morse Code staccato that works decently enough in any given individual track, but when it’s happening track after track, it wears thin. Dig in, do the math for yourself, and see what you get for an answer.

Available from Cuneiform Records.

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