Fiona Joy, Signature – Synchronicity

fiona_sync2Fiona Joy doubles down on the beautiful songs from her 2015 release, Signature – Solo, by bringing in guest musician to help open them up and “fully realize” them on Signature -Synchronicity. Often, I would hesitate to review a kind of re-do/remix of something I’d already written about, but this is more like a re-celebration of those solo pieces, and the roster of guest musicians–including Will Ackerman, Eugene Friesen, Jeff Oster, Tony Levin, and more–is a pretty potent draw. For this album, Fiona re-recorded her piano lines at her home in Australia, and much of the additional work was done at Ackerman’s Imaginary Road studios in Vermont. The differences between the two albums are quite subtle. (In some cases, quite honestly, I had to go back and check my library to make sure I hadn’t just reloaded Signature – Solo.) She doesn’t have the guests take over these pieces, she has them gently accent what’s already there. On “Grace,” for example, a song which she has now covered four times–including twice on this album–Oster’s fluegelhorn, Freisen’s cello, and tárogató (a woodwind) from Paul Jarman all slip in beneath the leading piano and vocals at different points. Their contribution is smooth enough not to ripple the song’s still, crystalline surface. A snappier “chill” version of the song appears later, upbeat and bright, with percussion from Jeff Haynes and guitar lines coming from (I believe) both Ackerman on acoustic and Marc Shulman on electric. Once again, these extras fold nicely into the song like they had been there all along. The revision of “From the Mist,” one of my favorites from Solo, more fully realizes its classical music soul with the addition of strings and Irish whistle. It retains its delicacy, and its pause-friendly structure, where each hesitation is like a stop in a dancer’s step and the next moment, its continuation. The whistle and strings seem to bring a more organic sense to the piece, and it’s lovelier than ever. Fiona’s dreamy vocals on “Once Upon Impossible” are as ephemeral as a warm breath on a cold morning, there but for a moment and fading. The piano here has a music box feel, each note its own statement, winding down in places where Fiona again perfectly uses the meaningfulness of a pause. On “Fair Not” the additional instrumentation comes on much stronger, driving the piece’s internal emotion to dramatic heights, giving its story more of an arc than ever. Strings from Freisen and violinist Rebecca Daniel push this along, appearing at first in a gentle accompaniment to the piano, as though taking its hand to lead it to this more vivid place. Fiona teases the piece’s newfound power a few times before bringing the heft of the ensemble fully into play. Tom Eaton adds moments of thunderous percussion toward the end. A powerful piece that, while lovely as a solo, really finds its voice here.

Signature – Synchronicity is a perfect complement to the original album in the series, adding to the beauty of each song without overpowering or over-rethinking them. The gentle addition of fresh sonic colors to an already complete work is handled intelligently and respectfully, and everything here benefits from it. Superb contemporary instrumental work from a cast of top genre talent.

Available from Little Hartley Music.

Schmaidl, Between Awe and Rawness

schma_aweComfortably experimental and laced with manipulated vocal samples and the occasional catchy beat, Schmaidl’s “Between Awe and Rawness” is an album that is sometimes a little hard for me to wrap my head around, but it keeps making me need to listen more to suss out what I’m digging about it. Some pieces hook me more than others, but all of them offer something to think about. NASA radio chatter from a liftoff makes up the core of the opening piece, “Forward Mobility,” laid in over a steady and springy two-note bass pulse. It’s one of those pieces that finds its strength in a minimal simplicity, with fresh elements carefully laid in. It never reaches any kind of notable density, but lets the spoken piece do most of the heavy lifting. After takeoff, Schmaidl plays with its tempo, stretching just a little. If you can stand the fact that the dominant background sound in “Heartbeat” sounds less like a heart and more like a busy signal that refuses to give up, you’ll eventually (a bit too long in coming for this listener) hear it gel rhythmically with the sounds and lines around it. The latter sounds are light and glistening, floating things playing around that anchoring tone. The locomotive rhythms of “River 1997” evolve into a suggestion of 80s electro-pop, thanks to the inclusion of a sharp clapping track. Once again, the piece is simple at a surface level, but that simplicity also forms an effective hook. By contrast, the heavy plod of “Cities,” which precedes it, works perhaps not quite as effectively, but something its hammer-fall insistence kind of works for me. The only place where Schmaidl runs the risk of losing me completely is in the high-velocity, dissonant piano tangle of “Rearward Tension.” Glitch percussion speeds along beneath it, trying to keep pace.It’s just too frenetic for me to get into, especially as compared to the slower, less complicated pieces around it.

While Between Awe and Rawness is not an album I need to hurry back to, based on my own tastes, its ever-changing nature, the scope of approaches from track to track, and the thought-provoking sound palette make it a very interesting listen. It’s not for everyone, certainly, and it does go a little heavy on the vocal drops, but if you’re into music you’re going to want to think about while you’re in it, give this a listen.

Available from The Committee for Sonic Research.

Key, Pentimento

key_pentiIt has taken me a while to get around to writing about Pentimento by Key (Maiko Okimoto) because I’ve been trying to figure out whether I should. I have something of a love-hate relationship with the album. It’s been in my queue for a very long time, and when a track from it comes up, my reaction is always either “Hmm…interesting” or “What is this shit?” It’s an hour of very minimal electronic music, heavy on never-ending, repetitive pulses and straight-line percussion. Much of it feels like “I push this button…wait one minute….and push this button.” It tends to make me a little crazy because there are spots where I do fall into it. “Fractale” has that button-button-button mindset to it, but then I realize I’m grooving to it a little because, as minimal as it is, it has a rhythm that, since it’s largely unchanging, gets hypnotic. Problem is, even though I end up digging it a little, within another minute the repetitive nature of it has me thinking, “Can we please get on with it?” Maybe if all 12 tracks weren’t suffering from sameness and the aural jet-lag of constant repetition, it would work better. “Liber Abaci” manages to work in something resembling a conga rhythm. It’s interesting at first, but before too long…let’s move on. Individual tracks thrown into your mix might bring a cool kind of minimalist break in the flow. But an hour of Okimoto’s bare-bones electronics and occasional forays into noise become much too dull for me.

Available at Bandcamp.

Closer, Monsoon

closr_monsCloser lays down four tracks in this short offering, and I can’t say it raises more than a shrug from me. Melodic electronica with everything wrapped in a thin gauze of white noise. “Leak” tries to add some club heaviness with leaden beats. “Typhoon” goes for brighter tones, but when it switches to thick, rumbling chords, they’re dialed back too far to make any impact. Maybe it’s the artist’s intention to deflate the usual weightiness of this sort of music, but it feels like nothing here strives to impress. It’s content to hiss, sing a little, and go on its way. A pass for me, but take a listen and form your own thoughts.

Available at Bandcamp.

Eluvium, False Readings On

eluv_flaseIf an “hour-long meditation on self-doubt, anxiety, and separation from one’s self” can always sound as good as Eluvium’s False Readings On, I need to meditate more often. There is a distinct undercurrent of sadness to Matthew Cooper’s work here, but it’s couched in such soft, ethereal beauty that it just seeps in slowly rather than weighing heavily upon the listener. The connection evolves across 11 songs that combine an ambient framework with phrasing and structure that rings of a classical influence. A repeated use of vocal pads adds to that, and brings in a sacred-music feel to most the tracks here. It shows up first at the end of the opening piece, “Strangeworks,” somewhere between hymnal and operatic. Piano and synth chords set the stage and then accompany it as the piece winds down. On “Beyond the Moon for Someone in Reverse,” they come after a long stretch of quiet minimalism. At its outset, the piece is built on a whisper of a vocal drone and low, muted string notes. Halfway along, the voices rise like prayer, their brightness sudden and contrasting–and so, quite effective. Allusions to Pärt can be made here, and rightfully so. “Movie Night Revisited” is more immediate with its vocal aspect, another prayer-like offering with an unobtrusive drone foundation. Reverb applied to the vocals give it even more of a singing-in-church feel. The voices step out to give way to a woodwind-toned lead and a breathy harmonium sound that lifts up to transform into something more like a pipe organ. Cooper steps away from the vocals on the title track, a short, minimal work with spoken snippets and crackling electronic backdrop. The album closes with the massive wall of drones that form the heart of “Posturing Through Metaphysical Collapse.” Cooper builds it during the piece’s 17-minute flow in a way that is never obvious. It rises and thickens into a tight grid of hissing white noise with a dynamic core.

False Readings On is a beautiful album poised at the juncture between ambient and the modern classical works of composers such as Pärt and Richter. Unhurried, deep, and complex, it’s relaxing in a low-level cathartic kind of way. Speaking to you softly, it finds your feelings and plays on them. This is one of those albums that, when it came up in a shuffle in my review queue, never failed to stop me in my tracks and make me need to know who was putting out such moving music. It’s Eluvium, and you need to listen to this now.

Available at Bandcamp.

Steve Lawson, The Surrender of Time

lawson_surrArmed only with bass guitars and effects pedals, Steve Lawson arrives to get seriously funky-jazzy on your ass. Not right away, mind you. Lawson, referred to on the cover of the October 2015 edition of Bass Guitar Magazine as “The Lord of the Loops,” uses much of the opening track, “When You’re Accustomed to Privilege, Equality Feels Like Oppression,” to walk you through his gear and the sounds it gives him. Ambient sighs, curling electronic squibs, and clattering percussive elements mix around occasional riffs off the bass. And we get that in a couple permutations of tone as well. The jazz slides in more as we go along. Lawson’s eloquent phrasing on  “Wait and See What Happens” plays out against a tick-rock rhythm that sounds like it’s being played on pots and pans–including a couple of hearty thumps. The fluidity of the bass gliding over the strident percussive line works well. “I Thought Only Foreigners Knew That” walks in full of funk, and Lawson immediately lights up the strings with fast flurries, playful runs, and crunches of chords. This piece finds Lawson expressing freely and jazzily high up the neck while his initial loops keep that smooth stride flowing. “Come the Revolution” also gets its funk on via its waking bass bottom line and liberal application of wah-wah. “Five Stages” offers the purest bass experience, a set of solo expressions carefully laid over each other, with just the slightest hint of a constant electronic wash beneath it.(And one oddly placed touch of that kitchen-born percussion that’s mildly distracting.)  As much as each element feels like a new exploration, they also grow organically like branches off the last idea. Even when Lawson gets down to grinding odd sounds and scratches out of his strings, it makes sense. As much as I enjoy the in-the-moment feel of a lot of the work here, two pieces that come across as more melody-driven stand out for me. “Ten Years Too Late” is built on ever-increasing loops, heading toward its thick, complex high point where Lawson absolutely unleashes his bass in fiery rock fury. At that stage the bedrock of his loops is a churning, rhythmic force that holds steady as he grinds. “Her Kindness” is a quiet love song, a perfect jazz-guitar piece that sings in a very romantic voice. I’m reminded here of the playing of Tuck Andress of Tuck & Parri, that same easy elegance and pure expressiveness.

The Surrender of Time hits just the right mix of improv-based exploration and straight-ahead melodic lines. Lawson’s technical skill with the bass is showcased in any number of ways, and there’s no doubting he is the “Lord of the Loops.” His builds are a pleasure to listen to, and when he lays his jazz lines across them, there’s a totality of sound that hits every time. This is my introduction to this prolific bassist’s work, and it’s made me need to dig in deeper. Get ahold of this soon.

Available at Steve Lawson’s web site.

Moonlooker, White Bird on Black Snow

moonl_whiteWith the amount of music I receive to listen to, it’s always in an artist’s best interest to be able to catch my ear and make me need to examine their work more closely. Moonlooker (Axel Zaren) did exactly that with his half-hour offering, White Bird on Black Snow. A track from it first caught hold of me as I was shuffling my review queue; then, when I decided to dive into the whole album, it held my attention. In seven short pieces, Zaren switches up styles, mostly maintaining a quiet-flow feeling as he plays with variants on his main idea. String pads and soft wind sounds greet you on “Black Bird on White Snow,” laying down a bed that Zaren later augments with a churning beat and glittery sequencer. It glides back down to an ambient space, with long and calming pads. At nine minutes it’s the longest track, and a great introduction. “White Bird on White Snow” takes a simple approach with layers of rise-and-fall strings pads cutting gracefully past one another. It’s a nice, meditative piece that eases its way along. It melts into “Black Bird on Black Snow,” another mesmerizing set of pads, just lightly roughened at the edges and with a hint of underlying urgency. “Epilogue” unfolds into a piano piece with ambient backing and bass accompaniment. I’m tempted to suggest it’s got a bit of post-rock to it, as it’s basically piano and bass, with a rhythm carried by the low end. There’s an ominous undertone to the pads, like a suggestion that this story is not quite finished.

White Bird on Black Snow has been a pleasant surprise for me. It’s engaging and well-made, with each track giving your ear a little more to take in. Ambient fans will like it as a low-volume listen, letting Zaren’s work find its own way into the space. It’s a short album, but I can tell you that during one listen, I wondered if “Black Bird on Black Snow” was a longer piece, like the opening track. No, it’s just over four minutes, but it’s so immersive, time just took a step out. That will happen with this album. Give it a listen soon.

Available from Deep Flux Records.

Robert Rich, Vestiges

rich_vestiOn his last release, What We Left Behind, Robert Rich took his listeners into a vivid post-population world where nature had reclaimed its domain. He follows that with the equally haunted and gorgeous landscapes of Vestiges, an album that fuses shadowy overtones with the breath of hope. Rich has told me that this is a very personal piece, focused in part on a growing awareness of mortality. Thus, it’s beautiful and sad–and, as is always the case with Rich’s work, it is also a deeply dimensional, fully realized environment that hits the listener at a visceral level  with its mental imagery. The album enters on slow bass notes, the stretching yawn of slide guitar, and the sound of someone moving through the space on “The Fading Shore of Memory.” Rich wastes no time in layering up his sounds, and we’re easily carried into “Night Seas Luminesce,” which introduces piano to the mix. Its lonely notes pick their way through  the foggy washes around it, a kind of dreamy meandering. Those dreams darken through the heaviness of “Spectre of Lost Light,” with Rich raising a wall of grim and steady drones. It’s a point of passage, and from there the album turns a touch quieter. Piano reappears on “Obscured by Leaf Shadows,” brighter and more confident against a backdrop of high, singing pads and the organic crackle of analog-synth skitterings. From here, each time I have listened, I have simply drifted away and lost time. The soft-but-eerie “Equipoise and Dissolution” brings in Rich’s flute, which is always a highlight for me. It’s set against a backing of field recordings featuring voices. Placed far back as they are, they become something that falls between watching the scene remotely or seeing a memory play out in your mind’s eye. Wind-blown chimes float in to heighten the piece’s dark beauty. “Reborn in Brackish Pools” hits its theme with watery gurgles and pads that rise and morph, spreading slowly across the piece’s surface. Your breathing will slow while this plays out. Piano leads the closing piece, “Anchorless on Quiet Tide,” thoughtful and melancholy. Overall, the presence of the piano pulls Vestiges’ through-line forward, its voice more definitive than the ambient elements around it. It is the coalescence of our thoughts as we wander through these landscapes, our tie back to solidity. Rich places it perfectly throughout the album, marking passage and bringing us back toward the surface.

Vestiges is a stunning album, as deep as it can be soft, as hopeful as it can be grim. It is almost instantly immersive, and holds its listener firmly–and gladly–within its world for its whole run. Headphone listening is imperative to take in all of Rich’s typically exquisite detail work. It has narrative, it has imagery, it has emotional impact. I cannot get enough of this album and the way it affects me. Masterful.

Available at Bandcamp.

Slow Dancing Society, The Wagers of Love and Their Songs from the Witching Hour

sds_wagerNo one can accuse Slow Dancing Society (Drew Sullivan) of skimping on the music on The Wagers of Love and Their Songs from the Witching Hour. Sullivan offers up a full 19 tracks over 74 minutes, packed with his signature sound, a warm, round, and lovingly echoed guitar style that has held my attention since I first heard it many albums ago. The Wagers of Love… also finds Sullivan taking this style into new places and shapes, lifting it out of its usual atmosphere of dreamy melancholy and crafting a full-band sound on several tracks–and it all works. There are places here where, even as a long-standing SDS fan, I find myself surprised at moments of rock power, bluesy shreds, and even a little bit of smooth jazz sax. “Greenwood Boulevard” is packed with all the familiar SDS essentials: that tone, a pizzicato accompaniment, tons of sweet soul, gritty riffs, and an indescribable background wash that’s a sure identifier of Sullivan’s sound. In spots he lays out trills that feel like nods to Mark Knopfler. He cranks up the blues on “Evening Falls,” carving those lines out of a starting source of misty drifts and the requisite melancholy. A hit of unexpected sax and drums, and you start to feel those blues creep in until Sullivan opens up a short, sweet, slow-hand solo. There are many of those out-of-nowhere moments to enjoy. There’s a spot in “Turning In” where a sudden burst of wah-loaded goodness drops some hefty hell, yeah potency. “Are You Still There” moves from its initial quiet and moody state to develop a smooth sense of casual funk. You’ll hear the guitar’s cool gangster lean when it slides in. Aside from these ear-catching moments, what comes through as clearly as always on a Slow Dancing Society release is the incredible depth of feeling. Sullivan is a very emotive player, finding something to say with every note that rings with an amazing sense of personal relevance. These are thoughts we’ve had, things we’ve been through, moments we’ve experienced, and it takes these notes to pull them up. Even the soulful heartbreak sax that closes everything out in the last moments of “Love Isn’t Love Until It’s Passed” manages to take what could be a bit of a cheesy smooth jazz sound and make it meaningful.

There’s so much to listen to on The Wagers of Love…, and all of it’s good. Is 19 tracks a little exorbitant? Maybe, and some listeners may not prefer to take in so much of Sullivan’s signature style all at once–there is the risk of sameness. Personally, I can never get enough of this sound, and I think there’s enough variation and playing with the core idea to keep it from getting stale. Deep down, I think what you’re hearing is the sound of a talented musician really, really enjoying himself. I believe you’ll enjoy it, too. A lot.

Available at Bandcamp.

Tanner Menard, Deepest Indigo

menard_indigThere are several things you can do when listening to Tanner Menard’s Deepest Indigo. You can delve into its construction using custom piano tunings and the midi piano emulation software Pianoteq;  you can play with the idea that the album is meant to be shuffled so that not only does it reorder in a sort of aleatoric way, but the track titles change to create differing miniature poems; you can think about how this music was created in 2009 but held back by the composer until 2016; or you can put this on, perhaps quietly, and let Menard’s compositions, fuzzily soft at the edges but concentrated and intense at their core, ease past you. You’ll certainly come around and give it attention as the unique tunings push at your acceptance of what tonality is and how it’s supposed to work. I get pulled toward it at “subdued,” where the sounds, with a metallic resonance almost like a hang drum, nudge just enough off-kilter–to my usually fairly pedestrian mind–to make me stop and try to make sense of it. As I hear it and become attuned to it, I understand it better. But what had been my passive participation for several tracks before it turns more active. Perhaps, in the unshuffled listen, it’s designed to lead you into “rainbows,” which cleaves to a similar tack, if not pushing those perception-of-sound borders even further. The accurately titled “deepest” has an ambient face but percolates with notes just below the surface. It’s a breath-slower of a piece, saving its energy for its final moments when it arpeggiates, then sighs to a close. Rolling notes empower “indigo,” its intensity measured in velocity as it spins through a minimalist cadence.

Deepest Indigo is a solo piano album at its center. But between the tunings, the effects laid in by the software, the artist’s own changing, expressive style, and its “please shuffle this” modality, it transcends that tag and becomes very much its own thing. If I read correctly, Menard has left music behind. If that is the case and this is the last we will hear, I encourage you to listen closely to this fading voice. It may not please all ears, but it certainly stirs the mind.

Available from Full Spectrum Records.