Arrocata, Man in the Maze

arroc_mazeMy initial impression of Arrocata’s Man in the Maze is that it is exceedingly quiet. Not just ambient quiet, but whisper in the middle of a desert night quiet. Robert Straub apparently does not want to rouse you whatsoever as you slip through this 48-minute offering. Long, underplayed drones melt across breathy pads and everything gets coated in a light glaze of hush. Let me correct myself: there are occasional moments where the sound rises up briefly, like the start of “Looking Back,” but it almost instantly and somewhat apologetically quiets back down. For the most part, these pieces feel delicate. They never speak loudly, choosing instead to just course by. This becomes, paradoxically, both a strength and a weakness. Certainly, its lowered voice fortifies its contemplative nature, which is at its best in “The Gift.” Built on string pads and a hiss of rain, it seems fairly simple on the surface, but the mix of sentiment and sound effect create a vivid image and a true emotional core. “Day Break,” which opens the album, establishes the overall tone and also welcomes the listener with a familiar set of synth sounds. Grumbling low end pads and glittering higher notes waft easily past. “The Passage” shifts into a moodier, twilight-shaded space, but again never rears up, never does much more than pull its sonic thread slowly through your ears. “Rising from the Depths” is the most active track, as Straub laces in squibs of curling electronics and some breathy flute sounds. Straub’s music has tended in the past to have that Southwestern sort of flair to it, a light touch of tribal/shamanic influence, but outside of this track, Man in the Maze tends to keep away from that.

As far as this quietness being a weakness… If it was Straub’s intent to create a very restrained album, then he’s succeeded. I do wonder if this might make it too light or thin for some listeners. I’ve been struggling with the question of whether there’s really enough here for me. On one hand, if there was enough, I wouldn’t have to ask. And yet as I have let Man in the Maze‘s low sounds walk me through their vistas over and over, I’ve never quite felt like, okay, that’s enough of that. There is an attraction for me in that restraint, in that resistance to needing to do something more or bigger, but said attraction has had a tendency to waver a bit. In the end, what this kind of music strives for is a visceral response from the listener. That much, this album gets from me. Find a quiet moment, add Man in the Maze to it,  and see how it works for you.

Available from CD Baby.

Tim Story & Hans-Joachim Roedelius, The Roedelius Cells

tshr_cellsI am hoping it is not too presumptuous of me to suggest that the musical chemistry between Tim Story and Hans-Joachim Roedelius borders on legendary. Each of their collaborations comes to us with a new variation of brilliance, a new way of playing with or discovering sonic expression, a fresh redefinition of the borers of composition. On The Roedelius Cells, we have Story taking piano improvisations by Roedelius and re-imaging and re-configuring them into new shapes and thoughts. Treating pieces of these solos as “found sounds,” Story─who came across them some time after they were originally done─set about making his own music out of what had been Roedelius’ music. So here we get the flowing, almost romantic lyricism of the originals, paired with a funkier, more playful cut-and-paste approach as Story isolates a few seconds’ worth of notes and blends them back together. In some pieces the stitch-work is not all that obvious. You hear it as a  slight stutter in “Cell One,” the briefest of pauses between phrasing─just enough to catch your ear. It hides again in “Cell Four.” A slight click seems to mark the juncture, but there is also a perceptible sudden stop, an eye-blink of silence, in this pastoral stroll before the main phrase repeats. It’s also hard to detect in the surprisingly fast and vibrant “Cell Seven.” This jubilant piece feels virtually untouched, but listening closely reveals the interplay between its various loops, and it’s spectacular. At its core, it has the heart of minimalism, but feels so much richer and less rigid. A heftier sense of being in Steve Reich territory comes through when Story brings his strong but short repeating elements more forcefully to the front. “Cell Three,” especially in its waning moments, carries this vibe quite clearly. In among all the piano sounds, Story also drops vocal tidbits and “accidental sounds.” In “Cell Three” we catch moments of studio conversation, from variations of someone saying “I can’t hear…” to Roedelius’ charming “Ooh la la!” The use of vocals is even more effective in “Cell Six,” where Story sprinkles them among piano passages that seem to only barely match, harmonically. It’s a challenging piece, perhaps the most so of all the works here, so adding one more unusual element into something that’s already daring you to keep up is a fantastic touch. (Story notes on his web site that this piece “contains well over 450 … separate audio ‘events’”…) The final track, “Cell Eight,” shows off small, curling burbles of a signature sound that instantly call to mind the duo’s earlier collaborations, such as Lunz and Inlandish. One choice I quite enjoyed is the change of tone on “Cell Five.” Although still rooted in piano sounds, Story draws the instrument’s voice out, stretching and folding it into synth-like shapes. Placed in the middle of the album, it arrives as an unexpected but immersive ambient-style break.

The Roedelius Cells manages to be intriguing, challenging, and charming, not just in turn, but in marvelously complex variations of all three. Roedelius’ playing is full of soul and softness, and Story keeps that in mind as he develops each piece. This is no simple pastiche or remix; this is the loving reassembly of inspiring music, designed to amplify that inspiration in a fresh and respectful language. Another completely engaging set of ideas from a duo with unmistakable chemistry,

Available from CD Baby.

Chris Russell, Spectra

russ_spectChris Russell recorded Spectra after taking a hiatus from creating music. Getting back into the art again, he notes, “I  decided to allow myself to merge with this project and just record a collection of vignettes to capture what manifested in the moment.” Russell has always been an artist who looks to explore fresh vistas in his work, and Spectra, by its exploratory nature, covers a fair amount of ground as it shifts through shadow and light. The opener, “Anake,” greets you with a dark wind and a sound like spatters of rain on a koto or zither, punctuated with sudden glissandi. Russell underscores this moody, slow-moving piece with crackles of static for texture. Things brighten considerably on “Vegha,” with pads that rise up shining, yet in spots have an interesting, almost industrial metallic feel. The gentility carries into the smooth and spacey flow of “Domoos.” It whispers its way past on crossing, nicely layered pads, matched for ambient style only by the even softer “Gada.” That track takes you into a dreamy cluster of warm, breathy pads to shut down your ability to have conscious thoughts for 10 minutes. A beautiful, fully immersive piece of classic ambient. Toward the end of the album, Russell heads directly toward the darkness. “Kadium” takes you down a coarsely paved path, edged in thick, immovable shadow. Sparse and grim, it’s an attention-getter, especially coming right after “Gada.” It gives way to “Keon,” which takes an almost minimal approach, building off a repeating bass thrum. There’s more excellent, almost indescribable textural work here, and the whole thing is anchored with a breezing drone beneath it all. The only minor misstep on Spectra for me is the title track, where Russell opts for a lead sound that reminds me too much of an electronic doorbell. It’s not a bad track, but that sound wears a little thin on me.

Spectra shows a few sides of Russell’s considerable talent. Give this a listen, remembering that this is him just taking hold of inspirational moments and following the thread to wherever it leads him. From deep-space drifts to edge-of-darkness forays, it all works quite well, and is another solid addition to an already strong canon of work.

Available from Earth Mantra.

Howard Givens & Madhavi Devi, Source of Compassion

hgmd_sourceHere is a deep-breathing exercise in sonic form, and a firm reminder of why we enjoy meditative ambient. With calming, mantra-ready flows mixed with dancing bits of sequencer and hand percussion, Howard Givens and Madhavi Devi (Cheryl Gallagher) bring together an album that’s ready to be looped for blissful hours on end. More often than not over many listens, I have put Source of Compassion on quietly to play, then went about my business, letting it work its dream-inducing magic in the background, politely requesting my attention in various spots as it went along. However you choose to listen to it, there’s simply no escaping its embrace. The opener, “Intention,” gets the flow going with long pads and a slowly repeating melodic phrase. It rises into a pulse that softly massages your brain. Close your eyes and pay attention to how many layers are at work here, crossing and weaving. From there the album moves into what has become my favorite stretch, the combination of “Emergence” and “Omkara.” The first is a gliding, hushed ambient offering that unfolds itself over and over as you listen. A perfect 10-minute meditation, a butterfly wing of sound. The second carries that softness, then laces in a percolating sequencer line. Once again, the energy is subtle, more a suggestion of movement than an outright command to do so–but move, you will. The title track again immerses us in warm sound-clouds to accompany our deep breathing–which, by this point in the album, is pretty much unavoidable. “Pathless Passage” provides another nice dose of old-school thought, with a simple sequencer line going unobtrusively through its paces over a spacemusic framework. It picks up some vibrancy midway through the piece from a glistening arpeggio set just a bit to the back of the scene. “Connected Space” closes the album with the gentlest of hands at the controls. It comes on like dusk and fades gracefully into a quiet and reflective evening.

I am not usually prone to doing track-by-track reviews, but Source of Compassion is one of those albums that compels me to say something about everything on it. Truth be told, that could have been captured thus: Everything here is superb. Everything here is what you love in ambient music. Everything here is what you need to hear. Deeply beautiful, incredibly calming, and perfectly constructed, Source of Compassion is easily one of the best albums I’ve reviewed this year. Get this now.

Available at Bandcamp.

Hennie Bekker, Beyond Dreams ─ Pathways to Deep Relaxation

bekk_beyondPillowy clouds of melodic music are ready to comfort you as you take an hour-long immersion in Hennie Bekker’s Beyond Dreams. This blend of New Age piano with lush and spacey synth pads sets right to work in taking any rough edges off your day and letting you know everything can be all right if we just get quiet and breathe. Bekker nails the relaxation equation here by lacing in moments of subtle vibrancy, usually via easy sequencer pulses, allowing him to find─or create─a spot that lets the listener unwind, enjoy, refresh, and come away feeling good. Across all tracks, there is always enough small detail going on that deep listens are quite rewarded; but Beyond Dreams is also a solid candidate for low-volume background looping, or even as you’re headed off to sleep. Most tracks run close to or over 10 minutes, but all of them have that wonderful time-stretching capability, and the hour running time feels blissfully longer. Bekker slips from one track to the next through very organic, seamless transitions. “Self Connect” and “Floating to Forever” open the album with a soft spacemusic feel, the sort of thing that elicits long, contented sighs and gets you ready for the deep ride to come. Bekker’s piano slips in on “Floating…”, giving us a nicely grounded aspect to harmonize with the ambient side and nudge us into New Age territory. From here, the piano becomes more present. “The Calm” adds resonant chimes for a feel that hits a gamelan-like tone in spots, that recognizable hollow ring and touch of dissonance. It’s perfect against the romance of the piano, which in turn is aided by soft string and pan-flute pads. The satiny chords of “Quiesence” are underscored with a hushed sequencer pulse that gives it just a tiny touch of energy, a gentle velocity. On the title track, Bekker goes almost pure spacemusic, bringing back the chime tones to play under long pads and a steady bass drone. The genre-ubiquitous vocal pads, lightly applied, round out this drifting voyage.

Beyond Dreams has garnered a lot of much-deserved attention in the New Age world. Its quiet atmospheres and healing-music intentions (Bekker notes that this is meant to be “brain entrainment music”) neatly bridge the gap between beatless and rhythmic music. There are points where the piano can be a bit sweet for my tastes, but it folds effortlessly into the overall feel rather than taking it over, and never draws my attention away from the calm flows I’m enjoying. It loops perfectly, and works its mind-massaging magic at any volume. Lovely work, and a must-have for New Age fans.

Available at CD Baby.

Genevieve Walker, Walking Home

genw_walkHere is an album I have been loving from the first listen, taken in completely by its rustic charm, calming voice, and heartwarming honesty. Genevieve Walker plays violin, viola, guitar, piano, banjo, and glockenspiel on Walking Home, working threads of folk, bluegrass, and chamber music into these tapestries, their own unique colors adding to the blend.  Walker notes that these pieces take their initial cues from simple sounds, from the swish of a broom to, charmingly, the beating of her son’s heart. From what I can hear they’re not used overtly—if they exist as more than inspiration—but however she chooses to translate them into the music, it works. The violin is the star of the show, however, whether it’s singing in lilting trills or sighing across the strings to draw out long, melancholic lines. Her playing is fluid and heartfelt, reaching out to create a real, direct connection to the listener. The album begins with the casual stride of the title track, lead on the road by acoustic guitar and given sure feet by the low weight of Rebecca Foon’s cello. Pizzicato notes give it a little extra joy (which they also bring to “Cicadas And Light”). “Embryonic Voyage,” the song with its basis in her son’s heartbeat, is of course one of the happiest, most vibrant pieces here. It dances along with an almost gypsy-like undertone, the heartbeat taken up by light hand percussion. Banjo adds more of that rustic smile to the sound. In her quieter moments, Walker mines deep for strong emotions. “Sweep” is slow and graceful, approaching minimalism in its bare construction. But every note speaks, ringing with something very true. “Falling” is where we hear the strongest sense of a chamber music influence, a small ensemble of strings playing a delicate interweave of lines and using the thoughtfulness of the pause to great effect.

This is an absolutely enchanting album, and you may be surprised, upon listening, to find that it only covers 40 minutes. Time just excuses itself and steps out of the room as Walker spins her scenes, this traveler’s voyage fully taking over your awareness. Beautifully played and more than happy to pull at your heartstrings and also tell you a story or two, it consistently reward you for giving it your ear. This debut album introduces us to a fantastic new voice in acoustic contemporary instrumental music, and I am very much looking forward to what comes next from Genevieve Walker.

Available at Bandcamp.

Martin Tillman, Superhuman

tillm_superhReady to be stirred? To feel like you’re smack in the middle of a really good movie? Or several of them? With his experience working on a number of film soundtracks with Hans Zimmer, it’s no surprise that cellist and composer Martin Tillman brings plenty of  vivid, cinematic narrative energy to his album Superhuman. The mental pictures are full-screen and the emotions are spot-on across all these tracks as Tillman moves from soundtracks in search of a scene to thumping club-influenced dance numbers. I’ve had a lot of fun listening to Superhuman despite the fact that, to be honest, it can be a little sweet for my tastes, a little heavily skewed to a New Age sound. Within that context, however, it absolutely works and will hold a lot of appeal for fans of that sort of style. And, admittedly, I have caught myself many times firmly grooving on something I never thought I would. The title track, for example, opens quietly but then spins itself into a very techno, whumpa-thumping thing. Tap that hi-hat, kick that bass drum, and set me chair-dancing without apology even as the synth hand claps and dance-music chords that should be pissing me off for their cheesiness are making me somehow dig it more. Damn it, Tillman, you made it fun.  On another side of the equation I pick up─as Tillman intended─a cool Pink Floyd vibe off the start of “Celluloid Spaces.” Take a listen, and tell me you can’t hear Richard Wright in those keyboard chords  “I wanted to do one track which covers thirty years of drugs from LSD to ecstasy,” Tillman says in his liner notes. The piece accordingly evolves through styles while keeping its thoroughly trippy edge. With “Cracked Diamonds” and “Translated to Beauty” we’re brought into Tillman’s sketches for a spy movie soundtrack. “Cracked Diamonds” has symphonic depth, complete with spiraling string stings for emphasis. It’s familiar and still original. “Translated…” gets its scene across with a shuffling beat, a whistling melody, and the lonely twang of a Goldfinger-style guitar riff. The album closes with the beautiful piece “The Invisible Shield of Strings and Bows.” which piles on a ton of emotion in another big, symphonic composition. It surges and rises on a classically romantic melody played out on strings and keys, building in potency until its quiet finish.

Tillman has pulled in some pretty heavy hitters for the album, including Elton John guitarist Davey Johnstone, Toto mainstay David Paich, and noted session drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, among others. Dee Lewis Clay contributes beautiful wordless vocals on some tracks, and Tillman also works in a contribution from renowned polyphonic group Anonymous 4.  Take this, add his clear compositional prowess, and underscore it all with the artist being driven to create works to encapsulate his wife’s struggle with multiple sclerosis, and Superhuman becomes a very powerful suite of songs. From a personal taste standpoint, some of it is a touch overly grand, but never so to the point where I can’t listen. The uptempo work is packed with hooks, the symphonic pieces have their grandeur, and the quiet passages are soothing. New Age fans and folks who love a good soundtrack─even for scenes without an accompanying film─are going to truly enjoy this Superhuman effort.

Available from Martin Tillman’s web site.

Rob Byrd, Aurora Season

byrd_auroRob Byrd crafts guitar ambient soundscapes in real time, without loops or samples, using “original sound design programs” to lay down ambient backdrops over graceful arpeggiated melodies. It’s a very workable formula, familiar and well-done on this album, but unfortunately here it gets a touch overplayed. Although I like what I hear on Aurora Season, and have enjoyed when its tracks come up in shuffle, Byrd never makes a move to break his established mold, never really changes the tone or approach to a noticeable degree over these 10 tracks. His playing is tight and crisp and engaging enough when you first encounter it. The harmonies between the melody and the ambient aspects underneath them are pretty seamless. But as each song opens with a phrasing arpeggio that’s not unlike the last one, and the tones of those underlying pads are equally familiar as the album goes along, its allure dims in light of the formula becoming too obvious. The issue fades, as I said, when Aurora Season gets added in among other work, but as a straight-through listen, it’s got nowhere to hide. Pick any track on the album on its own and you’ll find a good guitar ambient piece. Listening makes me wonder what Byrd can do if he moves away from the apparent limitations of this live setup, and also gives himself longer stretches in which to explore. (These songs all fall in the 4-5 minute range.) There is a voice here, one that has the ability to grab hold of a listener. For me, I just want it to tell me more and different things as it goes along. Do give Aurora Season a listen, though─even if it’s just sliding a track into your mix here and there. Listen to Rob Byrd shine in those moments.

Available at Bandcamp.

Byron Metcalf, Inner Rhythm Meditations

metc_irmMost of Byron Metcalf’s work tends to be percussion-forward shamanic rituals that thunder into your soul to great effect, an invitation to grab hold of your primal power, saddle up your spirit animal, and take it for a ride. On Inner Rhythm Meditations, the drums settle back to chart a milder cadence as Metcalf, ably abetted by flutist Peter Phippen and Erik Wøllo on guitar and synth, taps into that part of your soul that just wants to move fluidly, sway gently, and celebrate being here. There are none of the usual passages where Metcalf just roars away on the skins–and believe me, I love those parts of all of his albums–but the constancy of the drums and other percussive elements, reassuringly holding down the proceedings like a collective heartbeat, are perfect accents to Phippen and Wøllo ‘s ambient flows. To a large degree, this is kind of Phippen’s show. Metcalf provides the steady, grounding life-beat, and Wøllo crafts the deep, breathable atmospheres, but Phippen is the one who takes your soul by the hand and leads it off to the higher places to let it soar around a while. The three-part chemistry is magically effective, and each component absolutely holds down its own role. Metcalf’s array of percussive voices square off nicely against Wøllo’s signature guitar sighs on “As Clouds Dance,” and Metcalf places each in its specific spot, setting the listener in the middle as the piece folds outward.  This track is a solid spotlight for Wøllo as well, between those sighs, some bright sequencer work, and short but soaring solo lines. The aptly titled “A Perfect Place” is a melting thing that effortlessly blends a hypnotic beat, long pads, and slowly curling guitar chords with singing flute.  Phippen sits out for a while as the other two lay down a very comfortable bed, then steps in to sweeten up the place. There’s a little sliver of cool attitude to it, skirting the familiar boundaries of a Native American sound with maybe just a suggestion of jazzy flair. Metcalf’s criss-crossing tones here are sublime, peppering the air with sharp, tiny sounds to offset the rich low bounce of the frame drum. At the end of the album, Phippen’s work on “Presence of Longing” goes a long way toward making this perhaps my favorite track. At the very least, it is the most deeply affecting and a perfect exit. Part of what makes it remarkable is how much of a back seat Metcalf takes. His role, largely, comes down to the simplest of strokes, a single slowly meted out note that holds the space as Phippen courses over ambient washes from Wøllo, which are also quite understated. The overall quiet of the piece lets the nuanced emotions of the flute pierce straight into your soul. Beautifully meditative. I could loop just this track and be content.

By making a slight change of approach to his usual style, Metcalf has crafted an album that stands out in his already impressive catalog. Inner Rhyhtm Meditations lacks none of the personal power of his more aggressively shamanic outings; instead, it achieves that same soulful connection and transcendence through the power of rhythmic repetition and blending the drums with mind-easing washes. What takes this over the top is how he then lets Phippen and Wøllo take turns shining at the front with their own voices and styles. This one has a permanent home in my list of personal favorites, and sits comfortably at the top for me among Metcalf’s albums.

Available from Byron Metcalf’s web site.

Erik Waterkotte & Ryan Huber, …and Now They Are Gone


I get a pretty fair amount of music from Ryan Huber, and each time I receive another release, I can be sure that what I’m going to hear will, to a noticeable degree, be different in approach from what came prior. Granted, it’s usually pretty dark and always has a strong impressionistic aspect, but he’s never content to do the same thing over. On …And Now They Are Gone, he teams up with artist and field recording gatherer Erik Waterkotte and descends into a purely atmospheric space of impressive grimness and near-industrial heaviness. Needless to say, if you’re not looking for experimental work that largely eschews a musical approach and opts instead for a shot of pure viscera, this is not the place you want to be. It’s a an eight-song, 38-minute bit of sonic spelunking into shadowy spots where things creak, gurgle, hiss, and slowly close in on you. It can be claustrophobic, but at the same time, the spaces the duo describe in sounds compel the closest possible examination. Where I find the album at its most potent, oddly enough, are those places when it hits its most sparse. Slow-moving, minimal constructs such as parts IV and VIII (all tracks are titled “…antag: part ____”) reconcile into bits of dark respite, less about grit and texture and weight than a drawing down of the listener’s consciousness to a deeper place within the flow.  These sections balance the pieces that pack a bit more fist. Along the way, Huber and Waterkotte opt for a hard stop at the end of tracks, a technique that doesn’t always work here. And it’s clear to me that some folks would be totally put off by things like the insistent dial-tone electronic pulse that hammers at your head for the last several seconds of part IX. I know it threw me off the first few times. But, as noted, …And Now They Are Gone is not for casual listeners. Huber’s work never is. For listeners with an ear for experiment, or ready for a bit of out-of-body disconnect, albeit in a dark and gritty way, this short ride runs deep.

Available from Bandcamp.