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.

 

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Steve Brand, Sanctuary

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This is what you call a deep dive. Sanctuary is a pair of full-length long-form releases from Steve Brand, who must be setting some kind of record with the quantity and quality of the work he’s turning out.As with most of Brand’s outings, this one blends strong electronic tides with natural, organic elements and breath-based instrumentation. The first part, “Place of Honoring (Inner Temple),” gives off a kind of tribal-ambient vibe, opening in the lower registers and emerging through a swirl of aural fog. These first few steps are tenuous, built with a carefully balanced tension. Brand brings a familiar array of sounds into the mix, the percussive clatters and the dry rattle of shakers, to punctuate the slowly flowing washes. Wonderful attention is paid to the level and placement of all the sounds here, opening a space that is rich, surrounding, and darkly meditative. This gives way to a spacey drift, whispering and reaching, anchored with a strong low end. It may be a minute or two before you fully register the shift in tone; the changeover is effortless. The piece’s third expression brings in flute. I have always enjoyed Brand’s flute work. To me there is a rawness to it, a beautiful edge of simple imperfection that comes off as very human, very organic. Here he loads it with echo, letting the notes crash and entwine into a soaring mosaic. Moving toward the end, Brand steers us into a star-bright vista filled with big, sparkling pads, the far opposite of the crawling, darkened place where we began. So it’s appropriate—and, I would imagined, planned this way—that the second part, “Place of Unconditional Love and Acceptance (Valley)” opens, after a minute of quietly rumbling drone, in those shinier registers. Brand is a storyteller, and this tale gets taken up here. The slowly evolving, broad sounds laid out early in the track will draw inevitable comparisons to Steve Roach, but the patient flow is go engaging, no one’s going to mind. Your head will be too mushy. Plus, as with “Place of Honoring…” it’s just the first face of this journey. It becomes very much its own thing by the 15-minute mark, grabbing a spacemusic feel packed with high notes that almost threaten to be too harsh. The next shift brings back the flutes, and the stretch beginning around the 20-minute mark becomes a dazzling, moving knot formed by the flute and those shining notes. They coexist and play off one another in a way that sets my head spinning—but very pleasantly so. It’s like an aural endorphin rush, with all the feel-good that suggests. The next phase is underscored with a field recording of a stream, and from the moment everything falls away except the sound of water, we’re brought to a remarkably peaceful place. Breathing slows to match the relaxed cadence of well-spaced rise-and-fall pads. This is the kind of stuff that hooked me into drifting ambient in the first place, and it’s expertly done. And because balance matters to Brand, we rise up from there, with the water sounds fading, to be brought back to a more shadowed and primal locale, driven by a moan of wind and the rough call of didgeridoo. The circle closes, and we take a deep breath.

I find Sanctuary to be a stunning album, nicely balanced and perfectly dynamic. The changeovers between ideas are absolutely smooth, making for a well-managed narrative that spools out organically and with nothing to interrupt the flow. If you don’t care for the primal/tribal stuff, the beginning and end may not appeal to you, but you will likely appreciate the way Brand steps off from there (and returns to it) as a means of exploring a truly vast ambient space. And I must again mention Brand’s always-exquisite detail work. From the careful placement of rattle sounds in the mix to the decision to make the nasal inhalation of the didge’s circular-breathing technique audible and integral to the moment, his work demands your full attention and instantly rewards it.

I have given up on trying to keep pace with Steve Brand’s output, but with every release, he just seems to get even better. I could say that Sanctuary is among the best, if not the best, of his releases, but I know I’ll have to weigh it against the stuff I’m behind on. In the meantime, I cannot recommend this release highly enough. This is landmark-quality work from Steve Brand. Get this now.

Available at Bandcamp.

Steve Brand, Second Spring

brand_springSecond Spring is almost an hour and half of deep, detail-loaded ambient from Steve Brand. I could end my review there and tell you that’s all the convincing you need to go listen to this, but then I wouldn’t get to talk about said detail, about the move from dark to light, about the thoughtful-as-always compositional style of an artist who is, quite frankly, one of my favorite names in ambient right now. Brand saves the lighter side of this journey for the later tracks. Second Spring‘s path opens in a place  that is surprisingly gruff in spots, thick with shadow and concern and potential energy. It feels like passage. Big, edgy guitar-like chords bloom throughout the title track, outlined with buzzing distortion. Sound rises in heady walls. Parts of “The Sun Resides Within My Body” offer a snarling, guttural vocal like chant’s less-well-intentioned cousin. There’s a distinct tone of ritual and passage. That’s something that should be noted—as heavy and near-dark as these opening tracks start out, in typical Brand fashion, they resolve into something softer and more accessible, with more space to breathe. That transition becomes a physical effect, a release that works very nicely. The tone brightens for a bit when Brand breaks out his flutes and shakers for “Transitional Experience.” There’s a lot of sonic activity going on in this track, with plenty of small sounds and pad work filling the space. The flute work continues on “A Drop, Becomes A Stream, Becomes A River, Becomes the Ocean.” Up close and intimate, Brand lays down snaking, jumping, twisting lines over very quiet pads. The contrast of dynamics is excellent, and something in his playing feels like he’s captured a raw, improvised, spirit-of-the-moment energy. Gong strikes roll in and push the work again toward prayer. Touches of dissonance bring us back to an edgier spot in the flow even as it winds down to a meditative space. The album finishes with its two brightest tracks, “Fruit of the Spring” and “Love Never Dies.” (You can read into it what you will that both pieces time out at 11:11.) “Fruit…” features a melody that bounces off the strings of an oud, like a hesitant raga, buoyed on pure ambient pad flows. Chimes clatter in accent. “Love…”  begins beautifully as an ambient/spacemusic piece, then adds a melodic element on keys roughly halfway through without shedding the lovely high tones and quiet hush that’s been set up. I find this a very touching piece of work. Brand manipulates the dynamics for maximum emotional impact and drives his listeners to an uplifting, peaceful conclusion. This is one of those albums that, when it ends you just want to spend a few more moments being aware of your breathing and of the spiritual light that’s been left there for you.

Steve Brand’s output is consistently amazing. The very personal nature of the music always shines through. He is truly one of the top names in electro-acoustic music right now, and Second Spring exemplifies why. It encompasses so many ideas, yet fuses them seamlessly. Once you hit play, the ride is captivating and smooth for the next 79 minutes. Everything here is deeply affecting at any volume, and rewards both deep listens and repeat listens. An incredible suite of pieces, and a true must-hear.

Available from Pioneer Light.

Steve Brand, Into the Current

brand_currMusic is usually at its best when it is created as a direct response to something personal. Anger, joy, outrage, love, heartbreak—or, as is the case with Steve Brand’s hour-long Into the Current, a profound and lasting learning experience. Created as tribute to time he spent at a music workshop lead by Steve Roach, the always-soulful Mr. Brand pulls us into a slow-moving organic meditation. Long, drifting pads mix with flute and field recordings to convey “memories of warm desert breezes, shaded canyons, crisp mountain streams, [and] cool nights.” One of the things I admire about Brand’s music is that he can work in trope-ish elements without letting them sound forced or obvious. Crickets chirp in the background and it’s not listen, everyone, it’s nature!, it’s the sound of the moment, of the atmosphere as Brand plays flute—it’s the image of someone standing outside deep in the night and connecting. On this outing, Brand nudges the listener into and out of the flow by breaking up long stretches of complete immersion with the sharp-toned, breathy trill of the flute. It is a well-timed call to consciousness, a brief break to come up for spiritual air before heading back down into the lull. The quietest parts of Into the Current are incredibly beautiful. Brand takes something of a minimal route, letting just a couple of cloud-motion pads move and cross at a time. It’s not densely layered, but it’s smartly layered. The harmonies ring clear as the elements work their way through one another. This is definitely a candidate for long, quiet looping, and it’s a real pleasure in headphones. I’d say it’s good for meditation, but I do wonder if the high flute—which, don’t get me wrong, I think is superb here—would knock some folks out of their deep state. Certainly worth a try, because you’ll be listening to Into the Current many times over. Another fantastic work from the very vital Mr. Brand.

Available from Steve’s Bandcamp page.

Steve Brand & Roy Mattson, Meltstream

brandmat_meltListening to Meltstream should accomplish two things: solidify Steve Brand as a vital name in the current ambient canon, and introduce you to new talent Roy Mattson. (Having listened, I immediately headed off to Mattson’s site to check out his solo work, and I suggest you do so, too.) The duo’s chemistry first bubbled up during a 2007 sound workshop hosted by Steve Roach, and Meltstream is the initial culmination of the work that began there. All in all, it is a lush and gorgeous drift packed with big ambient vistas, wisely utilized field recordings, and skillful organic touches. As it gently makes its way through an hour, Meltstream never feels the need to raise its voice above a confident and confiding whisper. There are times when things get so quiet, I have actually stopped to check if I’d set my player’s volume too low. This, obviously, makes it an excellent open-air listen as it drifts mistily through your space, just another element in the atmosphere; in headphones it becomes a very personal, meditative thing. It’s quite easy to get carried off in these rich flows, but do try to pay attention to the small touches these gents have laced through the work–the dry, hint-of-tribal rattle of shakers, the sharp call of the ocarina, the easy harmonies created by the intersecting pads. The long, quiet space created by “Leeward Shadows” and the title track will give you a solid half-hour of introspective time. “Leeward” shifts, briefly and appropriately, into the darkest stretch of the album. Discordant pads and the metallic clatter of wind-blown chimes give an eerie air. “Meltstream” just wants you to relax in its warmth. This is some fantastic melodic ambient, with the kind of wide-screen sense I love. It opens up feeling big and deep, then glides down to a gentle current of sound.

Meltstream is one of those releases where I struggle to find words good enough to describe it. I was already a fan of Brand’s work, and this collaboration deepens the appreciation. Mattson is someone you should keep an ear on, and this album certainly makes a great starting point. I look forward to more moments of chemistry from Brand and Mattson. In the meantime, I think I’ll loop this for just a couple more hours before moving on. Get this.

Available from Relaxed Machinery.

Steve Brand: Over-Soul

brand_oversoulUsing a nine-minute track from a 2011 release as a starting point, Steve Brand expands on the idea beautifully with the three long pieces that form Over-Soul. This is a very big bit of work, a broad and cosmically panoramic thing that also manages to be as personal and spiritual as an epiphany. As Brand gently layers long pads over, through, or alongside each other and kneads their surfaces with texture, the listener cannot help but ease into a very quiet space.  There’s a slight rite of passage to go through first, however, as the opening track, “The Wise Silence,” sets about balancing shadow and light over its 21-minute run. Brand brings us in with a dark, rising tone that turns to a growling breath rich in low-end tones. It’s reasonably ominous, which makes the shift toward lighter sounds that much more potent. The shift comes and goes as the piece goes on, pulling the listener deeper into the flow. It’s remarkable what Brand achieves with what feels like a fairly slight sound-set. The layers here are not overly deep, but they’re fully effective–you feel the weight of the shadows around you, and you feel the relief of shifting away from them. “The Collective Heart” moves into a realm that is equal parts spacemusic and pure ambient, where the windy hiss of washes and high pads arrive to regulate your breathing. Brand does an expert job of handling the transition between these tracks. The calm that “The Collective Heart” eventually gives us doesn’t come immediately; it unfolds slowly from out of the darker landscape of its predecessor. There’s a nice minimal feel at play here, a cool sparseness of movement that brings its own power. Brand plays a bit with dissonance here, but lightly so, underscoring stretches with what sounds like the modified sound of a temple bowl. The ringing sound draws the attention just slightly toward it as it comes and goes. With “Unity” we are moved into a meditative space, soft and largely free of shadow. The tone here is higher overall, and hopeful, bring the proceedings to a cleansing close.

Over-Soul truly is a release that you need to make time to simply dive into. It will pull you into itself, as I said, regardless of how much attention you think you’re giving it. But this music draws out something intensely personal. It touches the listener very deeply. It is quite stirring while managing to be deceptively simple in structure. Brand’s music always carries a very honest, human feel. It’s in tune with you just as much as you are with it. While it’s his music, in listening it becomes very much yours. Set aside the time and pay close attention to the lush emotional content of Over-Soul.

Available from Pioneer Light.

Steve Brand: The Great Hoop

brand_hoopMy biggest problem with writing a review of Steve Brand’s The Great Hoop is that, having done so, now I have to stop listening to it and move on to other discs. Easier said than done, because this is a disc I have deeply enjoyed. On this release Brand pulls inspiration from Native American culture and the landscape of the American Plains (in particular, the Cahokia Mounds in Illinois), but does not set out to make a Native American music disc per se. It’s more the artist’s interpretation of how his own interest in and connection to the subject manifests in music. So, yes, there are flutes, shakers and rattling bones that call up the impression and which also lend an air of ritual in places as the five pieces here move along, but their role is to act as a perfectly placed accent to Brand’s big, deep ambient soundscapes. The flute, particularly, works as a tether for your floating spirit. Brand’s playing is elegant and spirited, and I like the way he varies between full-voiced playing and occasional wispy, breathy whistlings. The latter brings a bit of a ghostly touch, especially in a darker piece like “Hoop of the Earth.” It’s wisely played against low-end pads, the thrum of a frame drum, and the crisp sound of the rattles. The drama gets ramped up on this track as Brand alternately thickens and thins his sounds in superb measure. It’s an interesting blend of potency and peacefulness. This is something I really enjoy about Brand’s work; he knows how to create impact either with a minimal amount of sound or a heavy dose of it, so his more hushed passages still leave an impression. Definitely the case here. Fans of Steve Roach are sure to hear echoes of his influence throughout The Great Hoop, and perhaps nowhere more so than in the fantastic “Medicine Bag Ghosts,” with collaborator Frore. This is the centerpiece for me. It’s seriously powerful medicine that’s ready to take you very, very deep. Layers of flute swirl and spiral, echoing off into the distance; throaty drones beckon from somewhere below; a whisper of wind eases through the sound. Halfway into it we enter into Roach’s established territory, marked by slow tribal beats and a humid sonic atmosphere. This is pure ritual in action, evoking a primal, gut-level response. This track alone is worth the price of admission. When I first listened to The Great Hoop, I felt like the last track, “Suspension Vision,” had something of a mis-step. Brand whistles on this track, a sort of wayward, almost haphazard whistling. It struck me as odd at first, but after some repeat listens I came to see it as a very personal, connecting touch. It echoes the songs of the flute we’ve been hearing across the disc, but this is the song without the external instrument. This is the breath that makes it happen. This is a reminder that, in the end, all of our music begins with us and in us.

The Great Hoop is a brilliant release. It may very well be Brand’s best. It digs into the listener and doesn’t let go. Its organic parts are wonderful, down to the simplest shaker. It manages to embrace tribal and Native American musical themes, but they’re always tied directly to the ambient spaces Brand is known for–vast, moving, and impressive. Steve Brand is a genuine force in the ambient sphere, and this disc helps to solidify that position.

Available from Relaxed Machinery.

Steve Brand: Our True Nature

brand_natureIn a pair of 35-minute tracks, Steve Brand takes an electro-acoustic path to showing that “one of the most fundamental and immediate ways we can connect with our essential selves, our core being, is through our connection with nature, its processes and metaphors.” Field recordings, bells, flutes, rain stick and more are carefully woven in and around Brand’s signature slow-motion synth pads. It’s not long before the listener is fully immersed in the calm, meditative space  Brand carves out in the first track, “True Nature.” Break out the headphones for this; this artist pays a lot of attention to sound placement and movement to create rich dimension. He also covers a lot of ground in each of these explorations; there are distinct shifts of tone and feel as well as density of content. Where “True Nature” starts with a lot sound and a lot happening in your ears, its middle stretch becomes delightfully sparse, leaving you with windy pads, quiet movement, and the call of the flute–and then that gives way to simple nature sounds. Brand imbues this moment with reverence; it’s a very cleansing passage. There’s an interesting, almost dark turn at the end of “True Nature,” with thunderous rumbles, echoing whispers and rain stick. After several listens I still can’t decide what I think of it. It does, however, make a great counterpoint to the bright and almost energetic start of “Genuine Nature.” The melodic start slowly spreads and quiets, to rise again with cricket sounds and more bright, swirling synth lines with a string feel. Brand brings the piece back around on itself in the closing minutes to drive home the sense of a journey undertaken and completed. On both tracks Brand does an excellent job of moving the listener between states of pensive quiet and bolder, more active stretches, and the balance between the two is superb. There is time to take in Brand’s careful construction, and there is time to simply listen, breathe, and be within yourself. Our True Nature is a disc that should be listened to closely to get its full effect, but also thrives in a subtle, low-volume listen. As always, excellent, spirit-moving ambient from Mr. Brand.

Available from Relaxed Machinery.

Steve Brand: Sunprints

Over the course of several releases, Steve Brand has gotten me used to music constructed out of big, far-reaching ambient washes, long and meditative exhalations in sound. So it came as a pleasant surprise to hear acoustic instruments mixing with the flow on his recent re-release, Sunprints. Here, Brand laces together organic and electric, heavy and light, tribal and modern, crafting pieces that variegate from his familiar ambient stylings to pieces that are complex and comparatively challenging. Much of the disc is underscored by excellent field recordings that Brand uses judiciously. One of the recurring elements is the sound of a burbling stream. You’ll hear it on “Return of the Masters,”  its trickling flow  and twittering birds providing the backdrop for patient synth pads and the resonant and reverent voice of chimes. (Late in the track there’s also a recording of a cat [see album cover] and I have to admit that the first time I listened, alone at night in my office, it totally freaked me out.) The stream sound appears again on “The Scent of Olibanum,” which finds Brand somewhat straddling the border between dark-ish ambient and a touch of tribal. This is a moody, slow-moving piece shot through with echoing dissonance. A very Steve Roach-like ocarina finds it way into the mix, providing that tribal ambient hint. The stream’s job here is to gurgle along in a reassuringly soothing way amid the more disconcerting elements.

Aside from the field recordings, Brand’s acoustic sources give Sunprints an even richer depth. Take the way “Return…” starts, opening almost jarringly with a huge note on a conch like an ancient call to prayer. Between that and the deep sound of the chimes/temple bells, Brand establishes an atmosphere that borders on ritualistic, then augments it with his synth tones. Or listen to the barking, almost dissonant notes of didgeridoo on “The Sun is the Mother of the Moon,” like a real-world shout launched into the meditative ether. Brand notes that he uses “Kora [a sort of West African harp], zither, kalimba, shakers, bells, cymbals, gongs, conch, bone, cane and cedar flutes, didgeridoo, whistles, voice, [and] accordion” here, and he puts them all to great use as sonic anchors in the flow. Each of the long tracks here moves through a series of identities, the changes coming naturally and in keeping with Brand’s narrative. The ride through Sunprints is diverse and shifting, and each new form, whether it’s a hushed ambient flow like the closing track, or the more tribal-tinged, rough-edged spaces of  “…Olibanum,” is engaging in its own way. On your first trip through, you may occasionally wonder where Brand is going or why this or that shift is happening. But don’t worry–you’ll be going back into Sunprints enough that you’ll become very at home with the ride.

Available from Relaxed Machinery.

Disturbed Earth & Steve Brand, What Is Memory?

Disturbed Earth (aka Dean Richards) and Steve Brand are perhaps two of the most visible entities in ambient music at the moment. Brand has been impressively prolific of late, between releases on the Relaxed Machinery label and reissues of his older work via his own Pioneer Light label, and Richards is in high demand for his masterful sound processing and manipulating skills, and also has about 29 releases of his own. Here they combine to craft an hour-long ambient drift that, while quiet for the most part, runs very deep. It’s a headphones-required/lights-out kind of disc packed with sonic imagery. The journey begins in shadow, with serpentine flutes reminiscent of Roach and Obmana’s InnerZone and Spirit Dome twisting off into the gloom. Throughout the disc the flute comes and goes; it may be a guidepost, a sort of sonic silver cord on the way down, or a reminder of the growing distance from the surface of conscious thought. Whichever way you look at it, it works. The duo make an interesting choice, at the end of the flute’s first appearance, to snap the sound off rather than fade it. It’s an abrupt way to mark a shift in tone, but it’s effective. You pay attention. There’s a distinct dynamic at work in this disc as it winds its way through the journey, and it’s often much more subtle than this first change-up. After some dramatic moments following the flute cut-off, What Is Memory? softens slightly while not lightening much in tone. Brand shoots bold pops of chord out of the wash and all the while the pair slowly guide it toward a gentler place–which they reach around the 20-minute mark. From here it’s a stretch of breath-slowing, mind-salving ambient anchored with a rich wash of sound. Wavering tones take over as the voyage continues. The sound grows denser, becoming almost chaotically thick around the 40–50-minute mark, then pares back again. Brand and Richards play with the intensity of the sound in the final 15 minutes or so, creating waveforms that swell, crest, break and reform. Quietly, this superb ambient disc eases itself to a close in a droning wash of sound that turns slightly upward in tone. After a deep breath, you should be ready to take this journey again.

I like that What Is Memory? never quites extracts itself fully from shadow. After all, the recesses of our mind aren’t exactly well-lit places, and to get to the good memories we often have to walk through some pretty murky patches. But the sense of going ever deeper without looking back and wondering if we’ve gone too far–that’s the strength here. The sound compels the journey forward into knowing.

Available from Relaxed Machinery.