Indigo Symbol, Zenith

indigo_zeniIndigo Symbol (aka Richard Soto) comes to the ambient genre from the world of industrial music. That can be a fairly substantial divide, so I’m pleased to report that his album, Zenith, manages to embrace both sides of the river. The work here sometimes packs the considerable density and grim undercurrents of industrial, but also opens, widens, and lightens slightly in tone to offer a dose of good, free-floating spacemusic. So if darkness isn’t your thing, the nightfall heft of “The Beginning” might put you off. It’s bass-loaded and slow-moving, with a yawning electronic wind softly wafting through it, but it pulls you directly into its droning flow. There’s enough of a dynamic at work to give your mind’s eye plenty to do. The first half or so of Zenith stays mostly in shadow. “Cryostasis” pulls listeners fully into a dark-ambient realm, or perhaps more accurately, off to the borders of isolationist ambient. A minimal drone structure, amplified by the cold breath of an electronic wind and a slowly pulsing sound like the thrum of weird machinery, etches out the image of a barren landscape, lifeless or dormant or simply abandoned. It’s a very lonely-sounding track, but its quiet voice and almost unshifting cadence renders it quite hypnotic. It slides into the equally drone-loaded “Dematerialize.” This is a nice, deep flow that rolls quietly on for over 20 minutes. It marks the start of the upward movement on Zenith, offering more glimmering tones peeking out of the wash. It still whispers along, drawn on long-held notes and a well-layered structure. “Eclipse” carries the trend forward, working into a rise-and-fall wave that’s equal parts ease and drama. It strives upward as it breathes, and when Soto cuts it off, we exhale along with its deflation. “Chasm Light” is another rich, warm, and bright flow of pure meditative pleasure. Not to spoil the surprise, but the closing track, “As They Lay Still,” shifts from low drones to morph into a rhythmic, analog-flavored track. Nicely echoed touches of percussion find their way in to play with bouncing sequencer. It’s a very cool dose of energy at the end of a long, deep set of flows, and it works incredibly well.

The only weak link I find in an otherwise very strong release is the use of a distorted vocal/narrative in “Of Time.” Tucked into the flow, it’s hard to hear, and just seems out of place. Maybe if Soto had re-used it later I’d mind it less. It’s not a deal-breaker, it’s just overdone and feels unnecessary.

Zenith gets a great deal of its allure from the smoothly navigated voyage from heavy and dark to lighter and bright. It happens naturally—so subtle that it’s almost hard to notice. It’s something you became aware of slowly rather than having it dumped upon you. That alone shows a practiced hand at the controls. When this album goes deep, it goes very deep, and it sucks you right in with it. That stretch that goes from “Cryostasis” through “Eclipse” could stand on its own. Luckily for us, everything else here is very well done, rich enough to pay off a focused headphone listen, and primed for looped play. Definitely give this one a listen.

Available from Earth Mantra.

Tom Eaton, Abendromen

eaton_abenYou can, of course, listen to Tom Eaton’s Abendromen at any time of day. It’s just that I’ve come to prefer it as evening comes on, a long day dwindling into twilight, preferably with a glass of good wine close at hand. It’s an easy, beautiful album that massages your temples, yet also offers up thoughtfully composed music that blossoms in a focused listen. The elegant equation at play here seems almost ironically simple, considering its emotional impact. Eaton sits down and pours his soul across the keys of his piano, then lightly augments the background with electronic strings and washes to give everything an airy, dreamy undertone. Some of the songs work up from this stepping-off point to turn into ensemble pieces, and Eaton also works in some jazz touches and at least one pop of vibrancy. “Sunday/Slow Rotation” kicks off the album and grabs your attention with its graceful and unabashedly romantic piano melody. It has a touch of sadness to it that might be a bit of remnant heartache. This is one of the “simpler” (quotes all mine) pieces here, one that lets just this duet of piano and accent do all the work. “Monday/Midwinter” takes a similar approach, but adds in a lot of powerful, heavy playing, driving up the drama to further punctuate that keys-and-electronics chemistry. The backdrop sounds also become somewhat more present, engaging in overt direct back-and-forth with the piano. Having established his emotional baseline, Eaton provides himself room to spread out on the tracks that follow. ‘Thursday/For Orion” is where things take on that additional vibrancy. It blends a classic “New Age” visage with the snap and catchiness of a dance tune. The shuffling beat drops in from the start, with the piano and synths adding their short starting phrases. And when Eaton suddenly drops in some raw-edged guitar, I admit it wowed me a little. He lays in a big, wobbling, whammied chord by way of introduction, then has it step back to a supporting role. A great, fun track. One place where the hint of jazz pokes through is on “Tuesday/Compass.” What catches my ear is how Eaton plays with a three-note phrase that gets repeated between synth and piano. Each time, the piano then takes it and spins a new angle into it. This unfolds into something that sounds like a small jazz ensemble has slowly entered the room and joined in. It’s not capital-letters jazz, but it’s the soul of the stuff, applied smartly. If you’re ready for an extra tug on your heart strings, there is something about the almost-country piano trills of “Friday/Patience” and the bright tones behind them that dig right into me. Guitar makes another notable appearance here as the piece rises up to fullness. The main idea of the album takes us through a week’s worth of music, Sunday through Saturday, and then Eaton tags on three pieces featuring what’s basically the ambient-wash backdrops we’ve been hearing. So once Saturday rolls around, it’s time to get our hush on and drift. It’s no surprise, considering how excellent the first seven tracks are, that these ambient pieces are simply a pleasure to ease into.

Tom Eaton has made a name for himself as a producer. Abendromen is his first solo album, and it’s a revelation. Eaton’s piano playing is so captivating, I sincerely hope he eventually produces a solo piano album in the future. In the meantime, I will listen to this album over and over. Eaton notes that these songs were “written and recorded in the longest nights of [winter],” and every song is filled with the kind of quiet reflection and gentleness that might suggest. Although this is a “first” album, this is no rookie effort; from composition to execution, this is a breathtaking set of work, easy to enjoy but rich and complex and beautifully structured. This must be what a good week sounds like. If anyone needs me, I’ll be on the deck with my wine and Abendromen.

Available from Bandcamp and CDBaby.

 

Jeff Pearce, Follow the River Home

pearce_followThere are basically two equally well-executed approaches to creating the beautiful music on Follow the River Home. One is looping, spinning out short, concentric guitar phrases in an increasingly deep and complex nautilus shell of sound. The release opens this way, with the shining melody of “Under Summer Stars.” With plenty of sustain to carry the stream of notes off to blend in the background as they fade, Pearce layers lines and weaves them into a warm, calming song. “Outpost” is even more of an exercise in carefully setting the phrases in place and letting them work with one another. Whereas “Under Summer Stars” sounds like it could have been played without looping (and may have, for all I know), “Outpost” distinctly gains strength from both repetition and the folding in of new elements. A big, undulating drone finds its way in for a beautifully spacey undertone as the main line wends itself into a hypnotic spell. In early listens, I sometimes felt it was a little too repetitious, and some may find it so, but it’s also a track that’s easy to drift away on–at which point such concerns seem somewhat less important.  The title track, which closes the release, echoes back to the style of the first. It’s homey and a touch on the folk-music side, bright with the feeling of completing the thematic journey. Again the background gently turns to mist and memory, backing chords created from the notes we’ve just heard. This is the kind of song people will attach a lot of personal meaning to; it has a way of bringing thoughts and emotions to the surface. The second approach is to pull out of the guitar a plentiful supply of big, spacey washes and pads and just let them hang, grow, and shift in the air. “Downstream I” heads in this direction, and packs a lot of dimension and drama into less than four minutes. There’s no way to tell without knowing that this is guitar and not synth; it’s a dead-on classic spacemusic piece. (Not that Pearce hasn’t done this before…there are tracks on With Evening Above that beautifully took this tack, too.) But if you really want to drop straight into the beatless side, settle in for the 20-minute float of “Gathering Stars.” Combining the glimmer and comfort of a warm, starlit night with a breath-slowing, meditative grace, this is a track that’s going to defy simple description. This is exactly what you love about this kind of stuff, and you will be totally immersed in its gentle flow until the final note slowly fades out. (And if that lovely title track didn’t follow this piece, you’d likely be tempted to run it again. You still may get the urge to loop this one track over and over. I say do it.)

I guess you could technically say that there are three approaches on this release, and if you’re familiar with Pearce’s work, the third one will probably come as a “wow” moment. I know it did for me. “Snowfall” begins as one of the loop-based pieces. Pearce lays down a low-end framework, flashes a couple of harmonics into the mix along with other textural touches, and then just…shreds. I mean, this is arena rock quality fireworks with Pearce putting the whammy bar through a workout and running the neck. This is that point in the snowfall when a squall kicks up and just blasts the snow everywhere–and then dissipates, taking us back to the quieter side of the storm. This is a track that has had the community talking, and with good reason. It’s both unexpected and perfectly done. If you’ve ever seen Pearce play live (I am lucky enough to have done so), you instantly understand that this is a guy who is at one with his instrument. This track shows that he knows a lot more than how to play fantastically quiet tunes. You’ve been warned.

Once again, Jeff Pearce has given us an album that simply demands repeat play. The blend of bright, picked and looped pieces with the deep floaters creates an amazing ride with plenty of moments where the music just stops you and pulls you in to listen more closely. Expect to see this on pretty much every “Best Of” list in the genre come year’s end. This is an album I’ll be listening to for a long time to come.

Available at Bandcamp.

Super Fata, Percipient

superf_percipPlease be patient after pressing play on Super Fata’s Percipient release. On the first track Jan Roos takes a full minute to bring in his sounds, taking them from a barely perceptible whisper to, well, a slightly more perceptible whisper. It sets the tone for this drifting, deep, and often dark listen, and lets us know we need to be paying close attention to the many small sounds at play. This is a quiet journey, for the most part, but one that is still very dynamic in its intricacies. Roos’ slow-moving structures, built on electronic-wind foundations and a broad sense of dimension, almost feel like a slow pan through a highly magnified landscape. Given the cover image, along with song titles like “Mycellum” and “Cordyceps” (yes, I had to look it up), referring to types of mushrooms, I feel I’m not entirely wrong—we may very well have been shrunk down and are now looking at the structural complexities of natural life from a wholly new and alien perspective. That feeling, the idea that we’re someplace strange, comes through intensely on the combined flows of “Protoself” and “Mycellum.” This is an excellent stretch, the sounds dark and uncertain, the plink of water drops suggesting we’re in some dank place as we try to find our way along. The subtle rumble of the low-end sounds intensify the visceral quotient of the  atmosphere Roos creates. “Mycellum” is borderline dark ambient, its voice consistently low and windy, the space around it filled with tiny insectile sounds. One of the great touches on Percipient comes when “Psymbiosis” throws a cool curve into what has been a beatless flow by offering a rhythm that rises up out of the dry, rattling sound of shells or seed pods. It’s not a huge uptick in velocity, but its laid-back vibrancy and easy groove are a cool wake-up call. Plus, it’s functional, because it fades into the title track, and that’s going to take you as deep as you can go on Percipient. Drone aficionados will find their bliss in the metaphorically immeasurable depths of this 31-minute piece, which builds from a quiet place to eventually turn into a mass of stormcloud drones that hover and slowly descend. By the time you’re in the middle of it, with its low end growling with soul-wobbling resonance, it has become your atmosphere. Within its swirl, more small sounds craft an expanding dynamic, and Roos drives it to a blistering thickness that rises in intensity. It’s compelling. There’s just one bump in the flow for me on Percipient. The squeaky little sounds that pepper “Membrane” bothered me at first. They seemed out of place and intrusive, considering how far down the album has taken me by the time this track arrives. Same goes for the crackling static that comes in later. The crackles bother me less than the squeaks, but I feel like I could have done with one or the other. Both? A bit distracting—which is unfortunate in a release that has truly captivated me. It’s a small quibble, and if truth be told, I’ve somewhat gotten over my objection to it, but it still pulls me out.

Percipient is a very deep release, and headphone listening is very much a must. Roos is dialed in to how complexity works, even in the more minimal confines of drone, and his layering is a pleasure to dive into. Prepare for a deluge of sonic imagery and visceral response, and take your turn exploring this very good release.

Available at Bandcamp.

Robert Rich, What We Left Behind

rich_wwlbRobert Rich wants you to understand that long after all the people are gone, long after we’ve wreaked our havoc on the planet and faded from memory, the planet’s just going to keep going about its business. On What We Left Behind, he takes us on a sonic travelogue to that place, lush and verdant and pulsing with life. With the scene-setting burst of thunder and squawk of bird sounds that introduce “Profligate Earth,” Rich jumps right into giving this release an organic, primal tone. Percussion forms the heartbeat of the new ecosystem that thrives beautifully in this place, as flute and synth tones breathe and sing. He proceeds to produce smooth, flowing order out of the initial chaos, and gives us the space to look around. (And me, I like what I see.) On “Raku,” things darken up a touch as we begin to explore, pushing into the overgrown scene. If it feels a bit ominous–and believe me, it does–it’s the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land, everything within sight weird and wonderful and worrisome all at once, your head ringing with What is this place? and What happened here? The flute takes a strong lead on this track, laying down the narrative. It strikes me that What We Left Behind is very much a flute album. In among all his complex, deep electronics, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Rich is an accomplished flute player. These curling, vivacious lines and swaying, humid tones definitely solidify that understanding. If you like flute, there’s plenty here to dig on. “Transpirations,” for example, brings the flute work right to the front, soaring over serpentine synth stretches and a mildly unnerving manipulated vocal sample of (what sounds like) a child’s laughter. This one briefly takes a strong tribal turn as Rich drops in some heavy drumming–but he never lets it overpower the flute. It appears, adds texture and drama, then slides back. Balance is everything here, as is the art of creating well-painted canvases of sonic impressions. The clatter of hollow chimes running through “Voices of Rust” perfectly conveys the image of tattered pieces of our industrial detritus hanging windblown and forgotten in this revived world, adding their voice to the world of wild sounds around us. “Corvid Collections” packs much the same feel as it darkly plods forth, eerie flute tones matched up with clanging, gong-like metallic backdrops and a tribal pulse on thick drum sounds. This feels like a forbidden place, and we are not entirely welcome here. Loneliness pervades the minimal drone of “After Us,” where small sounds skitter beneath our feet. Rich just hangs long notes out there like the realization of what we’ve done. The title track, which follows, is a full, cinematic piece, a vista from a high vantage point, and between the bold melodic lines and the pulsing percussion, we get a sense of the scene’s reclaimed majesty. This piece swells and seems to keep gaining strength. On top of that, from a beat standpoint it’s a little catchy. (Perhaps it will only be me who head-bobs along with it, but I doubt it.) In the closing track, “Meeting Face to Face,” Rich pulls out one final surprise: a guitar. Its crisp, homey feel shines amid floating pads and angelic vocals.

When I noted on my Facebook page that I was listening to this for review, a commenter referred to it as “a modern classic.” I have to agree. The hours that I have spent looping this over and over have been time very well spent. There is a full, real, and honest environment created here. There are vistas and glimpses, color and texture, and emotion to spare. It winds through its dark places so that when the light shines on this reclaimed world. everything is brighter, more beautiful, and very, very alive. A stunning album from one of the true masters of the genre, this is a must-own release that’s going to hit every “Best Of” list.

Available from Robert Rich’s web site and Spotted Peccary.

Steve Brand, Songs from Unknown Territory

brand_sfutThe first words that come to mind regarding Songs from Unknown Territory are: sparse beauty. Steve Brand uses a quiet voice as he lays out these six tracks that describe places that are vast, alone, abandoned, and perhaps just a touch desolate—yet still retain their own uniquely fascinating quality. In capturing them, Brand sticks largely to a very airy kind of structure,  relying on whispering pads, slow tonal changes, and a sonic focus that nudges almost everything toward the background. Cinematically, it’s a series of wide shots that embrace the scope of the landscape and, rather than moving, use a static focal point to allow us to stare and fix our gaze on whichever parts of it pique our attention. Much of the album has a cloudy pall over it, a suggestion of nascent darkness that never fully arrives. It is the sense of being alone in these places and thinking of their ghosts. Deep, exhaling pads push a chill wind over the opening of “When I’ve Left Behind All That I Was,” with Brand allowing them to stretch and shift patiently. The tone changes, more than once, bringing in brighter tones, like a wash of unexpected sunlight between the clouds tracing its way across the landscape, before turning back through weighty bass sounds that rumble and hiss. To me, it speaks of passage. Brand throws in an interesting turn mid-album, when “Some Are Things of Substance, Some Are Not” suddenly offers up guitar tones. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they enter pretty much in the middle-most part of the middle-most track. Just a small melody, played among the pads, but a real ear-catcher—and nicely placed. It fades into a rising tide of tone and texture in a passage that makes me need to stop and listen deeply. Darkness falls at the outset of “The Pause Just Before the Great Exhalation,”
expressed in heavy, rolling low-end tones and a kind of dank-cavern atmosphere. Sit tight, though—it’s another track where light arrives in higher registers and a broader openness of sound. Of course, not Brand album is complete without flute. We get just a touch of it in its unaugmented form, coming in on the title track, which opens the album. I like the style of playing he’s come to favor, which skews toward being sharp and breathy, with a sense of urgency behind it.On this track it heightens that sense of being slightly unsure about coming to this abandoned place, and sets an overall tone for the songs that follow.

Songs From Unknown Territory is a deep-listening album. Though it ventures toward weight and shadow, it remains quiet meditative. Brand’s flows are richly layered, shifting constantly and gracefully. Another superb addition to a growing and always impressive catalog.

Available at Bandcamp.

 

Manuele Frau, Sky Blue Ice Dawn

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.