Thursday, October 22, 2020

Music Reviews

Desensitized: Hemispherica Portalis (Portal Of 1000 Years)

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Artist: Desensitized (@)
Title: Hemispherica Portalis (Portal Of 1000 Years)
Format: CD + Download
Label: Spotted Peccary Music (@)
Rated: * * * * *
Hemispherica Portalis is the debut collaboration album from the collective imagination of Deborah Martin and Dean De Benedictis. Performing under the moniker “Desensitized”, these two veteran ambient electronic sound explorers have joined forces to craft a thought-provoking work of art that combines ancient and futuristic moods into a captivating world of sound, filling the imagination with illusory images of undiscovered realms. The abstract and alluring music that unfolds across the album’s seven tracks is in many ways just what one would expect when De Benedictis & Martin’s recognizable yet disparate styles are focused into a singular expression.
Martin's long and early association with the Spotted Peccary label and her ability to integrate with similar artists in the soundscape genre position her well as the perfect partner for an album such as Hemispherica Portalis, while her extensive travel throughout Europe, Asia, and the North American continent brings a comprehensive understanding of the diversity of cultures and the historic threads that weave together connecting us all. The varied background and long list of music credentials makes Dean De Benedictis the ideal candidate and partner with Deborah Martin on this outing. Blending the familiar with the unexpected, Hemispherica Portalis not only takes you to some astoundingly exotic regions, but how you end up getting there is also an important part of the journey.

Forget everything you thought you knew about "New Age" music and begin again. While much in that generally maligned genre reeks of clichéd melodic content and easy listening/pseudo-classical bullshit, you'll find none of that here. Yes, there is plenty of melodicism, but nothing you will find yourself involuntarily humming. It weaves in and around the atmospheres, the magical environments your ear produces in your mind's eye. (The album cover by Daniel Pipitone is but a snapshot of a possibility of one of the realms explored here, but an accurate one.) You may even feel as though you've heard much of this before on an initial listening, but the deeper you delve, the more you will realize that you're experiencing something in a way you've never actually heard before. Martin’s signature sounds and digital synth expressions expand and contract as the occasional acoustic flourish or melodic moment briefly bubbles to the surface. Added to that are the nuanced layers of De Benedictis’ remarkable laptop-based sound-sculpting approach and the resulting array of textural, experimental, and at times gritty elements that he expertly swirls into the mix. Together they create a wonderama of a dreamscape that just cannot be easily defined. The tracklist may provide some clues though.

1 Hemispherica Portalis (Portal of 1000 Years) 06:59
2 Concunus Dracus (Dragon of the Heavens) 09:30
3 Formulata Oblivonos (A Complicated Tale) 09:15
4 Ecumenicus Orato (The Umbilical Center) 12:54
5 Saltis Nominus (Floating Seabeds) 11:38
6 Terminus Equitos (Redemption Seeker) 06:09
7 Amphibinatum (Myths and Legends) 09:05

And no, not everything is just drifty/floaty in the world of Desensitized. The rapid motion of "Terminus Equitos" for example, recalls Tangerine Dream's Berlin School sequenced electronics. This is an album to be savored like a fine wine, full of nuance, with great balance, flavor, complexity, and just the right length on the finish.

Oliver Leith: Balloon / Slide

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Artist: Oliver Leith
Title: Balloon / Slide
Format: 10"
Label: SN Variations
This short 10” release from London-based composer Oliver Leith was originally commissioned by the London Sinfonietta as an acoustic piece, performed at the Sound Unbound festival in 2019. This arrangement, however, has been reworked for “synthesizers of many tunings”.

Over the course of three parts, each a little under five minutes, it’s an interesting and somewhat pointed exercise in obtuse melodic tuning. Vaguely “ethnic-sounding” synth notes are played with some leisure, but also a fixed sense of discord, or if not discord, then at least something slightly ‘off’. The third part in particular feels like an odd pastiche of the Chinese pentatonic scale somehow.

Bonus piece “Slide” uses a similar source palette of Eastern-sounding notes and plucks. It’s one of Leith’s first purely electronic pieces and grew out of his discovery that on his old software, tweaking parameters with both a mouse and trackpad at the same time would cause jumps and glitches. Apparently a software update has put paid to this ‘feature’, which is certainly a shame, as the additional post-production trickery, and a few extra ambient noises, elevate it a level of interest above “Balloon”.

It’s a curious and compact little release, though it doesn’t bewitch either melodically or sonically.

Sparkle Division: To Feel Embraced

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Artist: Sparkle Division
Title: To Feel Embraced
Format: CD & 12"
Label: Temporary Residence
In the electronica boom of the late ‘90’s, genre-smashing was everywhere, sampling was ubiquitous, and with the boom in popularity of the remix, every corner of labels’ back catalogues were mined. This led to some fascinating, and often quite underrated, remix compilations- “Electro Lounge”, “Motown Remixed”, the “Verve Remixed” series, and of course electro swing which blew up into a genre that’s still going strong (divisively) to this day.

In their debut album as a duo, ambient tape loop experimenter William Basinski and his former-assistant-now-collaborator Preston Wendel have managed to create their own original compositions that feel like one of those remixed compilations. Basinski’s saxophone offers up the centrepiece for the jazz and lounge side, supplemented by extra jazz samples and the occasional guest.

Meanwhile on the electronica side, it’s often a fairly familiar array of light beats, simple acoustic-sounding bass tones and a few appropriate digital sparkles. A few choice glitches and loops offer up referential interference, breaking up the jazz sounds in mostly non-invasive ways on tracks like “To The Stars Major Tom” (which given that the album was recorded in 2016, is presumably a Bowie tribute in its title, though there’s nothing musically to indicate it).

It knits together very nicely, many times. The soft, almost belearic loungey long sax notes of “For Gato” play nicely against a slightly stuttering light rhythm. Odd time signatures nibble at the edges of the spectacularly named “10 Mmmmkayy I'm Goin' Out Now and I Don't Want Any Trouble From You!”. Final piece “No Exit” is also a highlight.

It’s not all fun and games, far from it. It lacks the playfulness and cheekiness of some of the aforementioned remix albums- it seems the novelty has worn off, as it were. Tracks like “Oh, Henry!”, with upright bass and violin from Henry Grimes, is evocative noir, with the more urgent rhythm pulling in interesting ways against the late-night seedy jazz vibe. There are definite playful moments though- Leonora Russo’s bizarre scat singing on “Queenie Got Her Blues” being one.

Longest track “To Feel” is notable as a decidedly ambient piece that adds a substantial hiatus in the middle of the album, and which leads on to the husky title track, with Xeli Grana on sparse vocals.

It’s a really interesting fresh take on “jazztronica” (if I’m allowed to use that word), with the emphasis more on the jazz part. It’s rich in quality and has an authentic feel that blends the retro and the modern, and it’s an album with a lot of character.

James Rushford: Música Callada / See the Welter

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Artist: James Rushford
Title: Música Callada / See the Welter
Format: CDx2 (double CD)
Label: Unseen Worlds
James Rushford offers up a solo piano performance of Catalan composer Federico Mompou’s four-part work “Música Callada” (“Silent music” or “Voices of silence”) put side-by-side with an original composition and ‘companion piece’ to the Mompou work, named “See The Welter”.

“Música Callada” comprises four books, originally published several years apart between 1959 and 1967, with each book split into individual movements and phrases, almost all of which are under three minutes long. This succinctness and frequent stopping gives something of a vignetted feel, with individual chord and arpeggiated explorations allowed to unfold loosely and individually. It’s undeniably sweet, and Rushford’s playing is light and romantic, though at times there’s a slight shortage of the sense of a larger structure at work- it can feel more like a series of thoughtful interludes in sequence. Book I has something of the post-war reclusion into traditional romanticism about it, while Book III was a form of reluctant calm and a touch more avantgardeism. Dynamic moments do appear, such as in Book II’s jumpy “Allegretto”, but often it feels like a musical diary- individual bite-sized introspective chunks of expressive musical mood, with no planned overriding narrative.

“See The Welter” is structurally quite different, comprising seven long ‘pages’, averaging over ten minutes each. Instead of the compact chapters of the Mompou work, this is more meandering, long sustained-note melodic wanderings that are allowed to breathe and roam freely- especially as most pages roll directly into the next, with reverb inbetween, so almost no pauses at all. There’s a definite commonality though, which is found in the mood and tone- that same sense of introspection and space. It isn’t the traditional melancholy that sparse solo piano works sometimes adopt as a kind of default- there’s a certain positivity threaded through it too.

It’s a sweet bit of piano portraiture and Rushford has done an excellent job of presenting and replying to Mompou’s original works. The result is an indulgent two and a half hours of captivatingly small, space-driven solo piano that is very much worth losing yourself in.

Angelspit: The Ignorance Cartel

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Artist: Angelspit
Title: The Ignorance Cartel
Format: CD
Label: Black Pill Red Pill
Long-established industrial and cyberpunk band’s ninth album is the second in a planned “Hexe Trilogy”, after “Bang Operative” which was reviewed here last year. Despite lyrically being written prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, there’s clearly still plenty for the Chicago-based act to get angry about, because even compared to their previous output, this is a fast, hard, aggressive album centred around seething frustrated lyrics full of non-specific politics, fury and imperative.

“Eat The Children”’s lyrics aiming “fuck you”s at various targets and with lines like “it’s my right to breathe so get my hands off my throat”, which if it was written before George Floyd’s death, was horribly prescient. There are somewhat more generalised and cyberpunk-familiar themes of social control, defiance against submission to “the system” and so on. Besides a fairly liberal use of the word “hate” and swearing, there are more metaphor-driven lyrics encompassing The Woodsman and Vikings and some interestingly oblique references to fairy tales and monsters. Although I imagine it was tempting, individual politicians or incidents are generally not cited- but it’s not hard to imagine that many of these tracks are responses to certain events. Social commentary is the dominant theme, but there are a couple of exceptions- such as the more sinister and sexual “Hot Machine”.

This is all set over fourteen rigid cyberpunk tracks full of distorted drums, angry biting bass noises, and glitched guitar-like noises. It’s a familiar formula for the band, and for the most part it doesn’t throw up many surprises, but there are some little treats and production touches in there to give at least a little variety. Examples include the interesting throwback to early Prodigy-esque rave noises in “Happy Little Coma” and “Someone Else”. Like later Prodigy albums though, an entire album listen can be quite a tiring experience due to a lack of variety or interlude in tone. There are some slightly softer moments, such as the decidedly Depeche Mode-ish “Easy” and the darker final track “All Puppet No Master”, but for the most part it’s a fitting reflection of modern times and modern listening styles where these tracks are more likely to turn up as individual items on a playlist than as a whole album, with the typical song length of four minutes quite generous in the expectations of modern listeners’ attention spans.

A few of the counter-culture tropes do feel a little bit threadbare due to overuse now- for example I can’t comment on the uncensored never-on-YouTube videos created for each track and only available as a VHS tape direct from the band. But nevertheless this is still high quality cyber- and electro-punk with a strong heart and high production values. Roll on the third part of the trilogy. Given the state of the world at the time it must be getting written in, I sense it might end up being even more angry than this.