Artist: Unknown Land (@)
Title: Dark Seasons
Format: CD
Label: self-released
Rated: *****
Unknown Land is a unique artistic collaboration between Lucia Ponticas (Chile) and Rob Bryant (Australia), two musicians on opposite sides of the earth, making music through satellites in space. The project was conceived in 2015 after Lucia and Rob met on twitter, promoting their respective solo projects "Lucia Fenix" and "Bare Island". Very quickly they realized their styles complimented each other perfectly, and Unknown Land was born. Despite living in two different cultures, speaking different languages and even when one's days are the other's nights, their passion for music prevailed. The discography of UKLD consists of four productions, the debut album 33° (2016), the subsequent EPs REDLINE (2017) and UNO (2018), and their latest album, 'DARK SEASONS' (2019). Lucia contributes all the vocals as well as lyrics and some synth work, while Rob provides guitar, synth and percussion programming. I find it especially intriguing that these two have such a cohesive and distinct sound being virtually worlds apart in distance.

The album is a brief one, only eight tracks in just 34 minutes which assuredly leaves you wanting more. This isn't synthpop, goth, industrial, EBM, or ambient. It's closest to darkwave but even then, different than what you might expect. While slightly similar to groups like Bel Canto and Chandeen, Unknown Land is more steeped in the downtempo realms of trip hop and shoegaze more than dream pop, although there are dreamy aspects as well. While the opener, "Gargoyle," is largely atmosphere and vocal calisthenics, "Kingdom," which follows is superb exotic melodic songwriting with a dreamy arrangement. "Tau" continues the exotica as Lucia's voice rises and descends low dancing on a musical topography in perfect balance with her voice. Rob's somewhat minimal rhythm is just enough to convey motion, which is all that's really needed here. As we get deeper into this work on "Cathedral," the vocal tends to blend more seamlessly into the music evoking a special sort of magic and symbiosis that transcends anything even remotely "pop". The distinctly shoegaze aspect of this album emerges full bloom in "Siren" when Rob conjures Robin Guthrie with gauzy, shimmering guitar. While there are cool lyrics in the song, it will be Lucia's wordless melodic refrain that will etch itself indelibly in your memory. The same is true for the wordless vocal opening of "moonlight" - "oohooh..ah...oohooh..ah...oohooh..ah...oohooh..ah..." - simple, but absolutely brilliant. And yes, there are lyrics that follow, but the brain remembers what stands out. In "Firelies" Lucia moves toward more lyric-oriented melodicism, still with a background of swirling, wordless vocal melody. The closer, "Hollow" ramps up the intensity on all levels bringing the album to a close with a satisfying conclusion but still leaving you wanting more. On a certain level I'm reminding of Collide, in the way kaRIN and Statik mesh together, but Unknown Land is still quite different from that industrial duo.

Seductive, immersive, and pulsing with promise in a deliciously dark setting, ‘Dark Seasons’ is as gorgeous and bleak as the album cover, an endeavor worthy of being picked up by well-known label (Echozone, are you listening?) as Unknown Land deserves much more exposure than they’re probably getting.
Artist: Arctic Sunrise
Title: Across The Ice
Format: CD + Download
Label: Echozone (@)
Rated: *****
'Across The Ice' is the third album by the German synthpop duo of Torsten Verlinden (vocals) and Steve Baltes (electronics) and they waste no time in getting down to business. Songs are slicker, vocals stronger than ever. It's albums like this that exemplify the difference in this type of electronic-based pop music from Europe vs. the United States. Here synthpop is still considered quirky, novelty and/or dance-oriented, while in Europe it is taken more seriously. (Not that Europeans don't care for the occasional wacky bit of electronica.) Arctic Sunrise is definitely in the more serious vein, and while not really dark, there is very little tongue-in-cheek. Philosophical themes tend to prevail on 'Across The Ice' - Life and Death; Love and Loss; Climate Change/Global Warming; Uncertainty of the Future, etc. Steve Baltes has become even more proficient and sophisticated at orchestrating Arctic Sunrise's sound, providing the best and most varied background possible for Torsten's vocals. For his part I believe Torsten has upped his game considerably in the vocal department with a bolder and more emotionally gripping performance than ever before. Standout tracks are "Surrender," "Stars," "Fly" and "Time Is On Our Side." I also like the instrumental "SSP84" which shows some diversity. There is also a cover of the Kate Bush chestnut, "Running Up That Hill" which I consider superfluous. It’s not that Arctic Sunrise do a poor job of covering it as it’s quite listenable, it’s just that they add nothing novel to the song. (Just recently Johnathan|Christian also covered the song on their 'Dark Hallways' album, and they didn't fare any better on my opinion.) Aside from that though, 'Across The Ice' is a worthy effort.
Artist: Swans (@)
Title: Leaving Meaning
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: Young God Records (@)
Rated: *****
'Leaving Meaning' is Swans 15th studio album, the follow up to 2016's 'The Glowing Man,' written and produced by Michael Gira, featuring contributions from recent and former Swans, members of Angels of Light as well as guest artists Anna and Maria von Hausswolff, Ben Frost, The Necks, Baby Dee, and a Hawk and a Hacksaw. Being a double album (either on vinyl or CD) there is quite a bit of material here, and you can count on a variety of form- ambient, rock, folk, psychedelic, avant-garde, etc., but all distinctly SWANS, as there is nothing else like it. No compromises have been made, no short-cuts taken, and it flows effortlessly, as if everything Gira & Co. has done in the past has all led to this point in time.

Truth be told, I don't care for everything Swans have ever done. The first few releases I had no affinity for; too harsh, too brutal, too much. It wasn't until 'Children of God' that I really paid them any mind. Much of that was symptomatic of where my personal musical taste was at the time; more bright than dark, leaning toward the quirky, cleverly commercial rather than melancholy, dark, morose and malevolent. A personal crisis precipitated a radical shift of perspective in the late '80s for me, and I developed a strong affinity for dark music, ranging from dark ambient to goth-industrial, experimental and even noise. It's not hard to see how Swans music would enter my orbit and I'd develop an affinity for Gira and Jarboe songs, along with a myriad of others I thought to be kindred spirits. I can't say that I've kept up with every Swans release, and even with those I had there were tracks I really enjoyed, and others I didn't particularly care for. I can't really put a finger on what (to me) made a great Swans track (or album, for that matter) as some things just resonated with me, and others didn't. For example, I had a copy of 'The Seer' back in 2012, and didn't much care for it, so I gave it away. It's not like I didn't try to get into it; it just didn't resonate with me. Then there is 'Leaving Meaning' which I found riveting from the get-go. There is something so enticing, so entrancing, so beguiling about this album that it's a feeling difficult to put into words. To a degree, the album is like parts of albums that they've done before, and yet remarkably different as well. It's more of a perfection of the elements that makes Swans great than any comparison would be capable of. There is an undeniable essence of deep spirituality and ritual permeating the album's entirety, not something I'd consider particularly unusual for a latter-day Swans album, but with ‘Leaving Meaning’ it is so abundantly clear there can be no mistaking it for anything else.

Beginning with "Hums," a brief, mildly chaotic instrumental piece that tumbles out of the gate, 'Leaving Meaning' takes on a mystical quality with "Annaline," a slow song wrapped in ambience sung confessionally by Gira with plenty of western pathos. "The Hanging Man" begins the ritualistic aspect of the album with repetitive riff and percussion while Gira spins his evocative shamanic vocal web alternately intoning and shouting the lyrics. It's reminiscent of vintage Swans, but more controlled. "Amnesia" is an acoustic number that begins like Death in June neofolk, but is given the inimitable Swans touch in its orchestration. Title track "Leaving Meaning" is a gentle, psychedelic, modal celebration of the senses completely captivating and drawing the listener in. "Sunfucker" which concludes the first disc is a chant swathed in noise that turns into a rhythmic mantra halfway through.

More surreal, hypnotic psychedelia endues on "Cathedrals of Heaven" which opens the second disc. It's an atmospheric trip heightened by Gira's evocative and visceral lyrics. One of the best tracks on 'Leaving Meaning' in my opinion. "The Nub" is abstract (and likely largely improvised) psychedelia with seemingly little structure until Baby Dee's vocal comes in. Although BD is no replacement for the absent Jarboe, she does fill in the needed feminine touch that makes Swans whole. "It's Coming, It's Real" sounds almost like a woozy, inebriated singalong. "Some New Things" is a trance-mantra that will have you up ghost-dancing 'round the campfire all night long (if you put the song on repeat). "What Is This" is one of the more melodically adventurous songs but hypnotic in its own rite. The closing track, "My Phantom Limb" sounds like an hallucinatory ayhuasca ceremony, or what I'd imagine one to sound like. Overall I don't think 'Leaving Meaning' can be picked apart; it really needs to be experienced in its totality. This may not make it the most popular album in the Swans' oeuvre, but in terms of quality, it certainly is a standout. There are a few tracks that I believe transcend the others for one reason or another, but the impact of the whole is essential to its potency. Release date: October 25, 2019, tour to follow in 2020.
Artist: Flaub
Title: Stratocode From Nowhere
Format: Download Only (MP3 + Lossless)
Label: self-released
Electronic experimentalist Flaub is internationally well-travelled, taking his one-man analogue sound performances all over the world. “Stratosphere From Nowhere” is an album that has something of a live improvised feel about it at times, recalling some of Tangerine Dream’s more freeform live work but with more impulsiveness and less structure.

Layers of squeaks, bleeps, sine waves, pulses and crisp-edged rumbles ebb and fade, painting textured landscapes- sometimes quite thick, like in the opening title track, or sometimes sparser, such as in the gradual builds of “Ignis Fatuus”. There are strong shades of retro analogue tone that recalls 60’s avantgarde or Radiophonic work- especially in the bubbly and squelchy “Warbling Static”, which breaks into multiple chapters like a sci-fi soundtrack suite. But to a lesser extent it also has that modern, sharp-edged arhythmic glitchy and digital tone at times.

The track that really held my attention was “Stationary waves”, thanks to a high level of dynamism, with the volume of the whole piece fading and rising, sometimes quite sharply, while the pulses also rise and fall- waves upon waves, sometimes tense, sometimes more relaxed, with added percussive echoes and low industrial tones to boot. It’s the track with the most character of the set.

It’s a strong piece of modular experimentation, and while it does feel like it revels in the past rather than pushing anything forward, it’s still a very worthwhile 40-minute listen for any lovers of dark freeform electronics.
Artist: Voin Oruwu (@)
Title: Etudes from a Starship
Format: CD
Label: Kvitnu (@)
Rated: *****
Most followers and fans of the releases by Kvitnu, the label masterfully managed by Dmytro Fedorenko and featuring Zavoloka handling on graphics and mastering, matches them to more techno-driven and electromechanical rhythms and a certain martial attitude, in spite of some of the latest releases moved towards more experimental and ambient stylistic zones, but most of the artists manage to meet the tastes of them by impressive sonic artifacts. Kiev-based producer Dmitry Avksentiev aka Koloah forged the project Voin Oruwu to fly over those same stylistic territories by means of an imaginary starship! The sense of ascension gets immediately evoked by the opening "Titan", where a sort of cosmic synth-generated harpsichord weaves a web of tension and urgency around a whose sound set, which manages to render a feeling of gradual detachment, getting even more vivid on the following "Rising", where traces of known organic life get more and more distant until the final fading out, and "Blur Planet", whose combination of sounds marks the turning point and the somehow foreboding vision or memory of the left planet. The garbled refrains and the unstable melodies of "Source" as well as the corrosive sound manipulations on "Acid Clavi 2010" fully dives into sci-fi sonic environment, and I would say the same process occurs on the following where "Decay Instability" - the first moment where Dmytry gets closer to the typical Rhythmic Noise concept, pushed by many Kvitnu delivieries - could vaguely recall the refrain of the original version of Blade Runner. The feeling of being into a muffled bubble for extra-vehicular activity, that gets impressively rendered by the following "Even Mind", precedes "Limulus" and the moment (in the second half of the track) when the composer explicitly inoculates masterfully organized percussive elements and convulsive rhythmical patterns. The following "Escape Mission" and the catchy final "Ceremony" seem to be necessary stages of these journey, combining interesting sound techniques and a certain cinematic hook, that mirror Dmitry's interest in cinematography as well as mystical atmosphere in a so guessed way that some tracks of "Etudes from Starship" could be fitted for a sci-fi revision of Tarkovsky movies.
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