Music Reviews

Artist: Steve Hauschildt
Title: Nonlin
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: Ghostly International
Steve Hauschildt’s second album for Ghostly International comes from the spacey and sci-fi side of synthwave and electronica, built on lush-sounding pads, super-gentle percussive sounds and thoroughly baked and polished in sonic elegance and reverb. At times it dips into slightly more esoteric and experimental territory, but not for long periods, as exemplified by the title track which rolls a deep rhythm with quirky squeaks and glitchier sounds on top, gradually introducing stuttering chords that unfold into calm, or the tempo-challenging final track “American Spiral”.

The gradually building pulses and arpeggios of “Subtractive Skies” will appeal to Tangerine Dream fans, while “Attractor B” has a more modern, techno-light flavour. “Reverse Culture Music” is an unexpected highlight, making strong use of real string plucking and bowing with a bubble-like electronic rhythm for something really quite captivating.

At times though, it does all sound a little bit too easy. A lack of cut-through melodies prevents any long-term memorability, and tracks like ambient workout “A Planet Left Behind” could, if cynical, be described as synth-electronica-by-numbers. At 42 minutes long though there’s nothing which overstays its welcome and the result is a successful collection of deeper synth work for your more philosophical electronic moments.
Artist: Loewenhertz (@)
Title: Traumfaenger
Format: CD + Download
Label: Echozone (@)
Rated: *****
Yet another German synthpop duo, this one from Augsburg, consisting of Alexander Pfahler and Andreas Pfeifer. Apparently Alex handles the vocals and Andy does the synthwork. 'Traumfaenger' is their sophomore album after their 2017 debut album, 'Echtzeit'. (Back before 2008 they used to be called L'Image.) Apparently I reviewed 'Echtzeit' some time ago but I can't seem to recall it at all. No matter; it's what's here and now that counts. Undoubtedly it's the Euro market Loewenhertz are aiming for, with half the songs sung in their native German and the other half in English. This is pretty commercial fare for the alternative market with catchy melodies and hooks, not a lot of depth, and styled in the De/Vision, Depeche Mode sort of mode. If you're not up on your Deutsche some of the album might be a challenge lyrically, but it still goes down easy. (The title, 'Traumfaenger' translates to 'Dreamcatcher'.) Though there are a few grey clouds strewn about the atmosphere, songs aren't particularly dark. I'd say that Loewenhertz's brand of synthpop is more likely to appeal to hausfraus in their thirties (and maybe beyond) than a younger audience. American interest will assuredly be limited in spite of their general pop appeal. (Likely in the late '80's or early 90's they might have had a good shot here.) Still, 'Traumfaenger' is not a bad album at all, just not a particularly memorable one to these ears. If you get a chance you should check out their video for "Golden" from this album on YouTube; the gals in it will make it worth your while. :-) For some that just might be enough to but the album.

As a special bonus, the physical album copy does not only present the ten official album tracks but also includes the EP “Vierklangdimensionen” which has only been available in digital form so far, featuring four excellent cover versions: "Dreiklangdimensionen" (Rheingold), "Wenn der Mond die Sonne berührt" (Hubert Kah), "Leuchturm" (Nena) and "Elisabeth" (SnÄp).
Artist: Nechromancer (@)
Title: Monochrome Dystopia
Format: Download Only (MP3 + Lossless)
Label: self-released
Rated: *****
Man, it’s tough to catch a break in the music business these days, especially if you're doing it all yourself, and most definitely if you're in some sort of fringe genre, like the kinds we cover here. For every YouTube "overnight" sensation, there are thousands of talented artists that get hardly any notice at all. The music press (and unfortunately I have to count myself among them) is notoriously fickle, highly opinionated, biased and often cruel, and sometimes don't even bother reviewing half the stuff they get sent. So when an artist or a band works their ass off and really delivers the goods to minimal acclaim, it can be really demoralizing. All I can say is you better be prepared to play live a lot and hope you develop enough of a following to sustain some interest and make a few $$ to defray your expenses. That's where our friends Nechromancer come in. I can tell these people really want to succeed, and put in the work to get there.

Nechromancer is a group of four, and they all have band pseudonyms, which some might consider pretentious, but I find fairly amusing. There is Vile Heathen (Vilarya Marceline) - Vocals/Guitar/Lyrics; Wreythe (Aislynn Taber) - Keyboards; Johan (John Elwert) - Electronic Drums/Percussion; Vetica (Matthew Binginot) - Keyboards, Backing Vocals. The band is from Burlington, Vermont, not the first place that comes to mind for this type of music, which is EBM rooted in old school, with nods to acts such as Nitzer Ebb, Xymox, Leæther Strip, Front 242, etc., so you get the idea. This isn't usually the path that modern dark electronic acts follow these days, at least not here in the U.S. I find more bands leaning toward the harsher end of the spectrum- acts such as Combichrist, God Module, Hocico, etc. That wasn't always the case for Nechromancer. Their debut album, 'Intersect' (2017) was a harsher, rawer affair, with a good number of songs that are also on 'Monochrome Dystopia'.

Truth be told, 'Intersect' sounds like a so-so demo, although there is a glimmer of promise in some of the songwriting. Nechromancer cleaned up their sound on the greatly improved 'MD,' leaving behind what didn't work so well and adding some better material as well. Interestingly, three of the best tracks - "Unhallows Grieve," "Vampire Queen," and "Blood and Teeth" appear on both albums but the ones on 'DM' sound better. ("Unhallows Grieve" and "Vampire Queen" appear twice on this album, the regular versions and a remix of each which is fine; they're worth hearing again.) Other highlights on 'Monochrome Dystopia' are High Tech No Life" and the atmospheric "Punish Me." Vile's voice, which compares to Andrew Eldritch trying to imitate Type O- Neg's Pete Steele (or visa versa) on 'Intersect,' comes into its own on this album, but still in the gothy baritone vein. His strident guitar playing (a little too dominant and invasive on the debut) is effectively employed here lending a sharp metal edge to the electronic base. Synths/keyboards are well orchestrated and having a live drummer instead of just drum programming is a big plus. The two killers - "Unhallows" Grieve" and "Vampire Queen" should be guaranteed to motivate the dark dancefloor crowd with solid beatwork and great hooks. (Favorite line from "Unhallows" Grieve" - "Those awakening from this slumber speak to me in curse, and the inquisition of my disposition makes it")

‘Monochrome Dystopia’ sounds like the work of a seasoned band and not of a group that’s been kicking around only a few years. These folks look pretty young from their videos, and from what I understand they're already the big fish in the small pond of the Burlington, VT. If they can hook up on a national, or even international tour with a bigger fish, the exposure gained is likely to substantially enlarge their fanbase and maybe prompt some good dark music label to sign them. Meanwhile, you can revel that you heard about them here first when you turn your friends on to Nechromancer.
Artist: Bart Hawkins (@)
Title: 21 Pulse Eclipse
Format: CD + Download
Label: Spotted Peccary Music (@)
Rated: *****

'21 Pulse Eclipse' is the debut album from Oregon-based electronic music composer/modular synthesist Bart Hawkins, and a bit of a departure from the what I've heard on the Spotted Peccary label. Most everything realized on the album was created on a modular synthesis system using no keyboards. Melodicism does not really play a part in this work, but drones certainly do. The album opens up nicely with a lengthy, elegant, droney track titled "Dream Meditation" that is calm and lush, yet with an unsettling undercurrent of semi-random sounds that evoke some kind of activity that has nothing to do with meditation. A few bird chirps frame the piece in a natural setting just in case you needed a reference. The title track which follows seems to be predominantly buzzy drone (heavy on the sawtooth wave) which can be quite disquieting. In contrast, other smoother drones are intermixed adding character, flavor and color. Around the midpoint a repetitive sequencer begins and now we're headed into early Tangerine Dream territory. It took me more than a couple of listenings to get into this track because of the buzziness which tends to dominate, but over time it does become more listener-friendly. If the last track seemed buzzy, it only intensifies on "Your Breath is Electric". This steers the album away from the meditative and much more into experimental terrain. Random sample & hold begins "Energy Currents" but then a lot of other things occur as well further on down the line such as manipulated noise sweeps and abstract random synth leads. The similarly named "Torus Energy Currents" sounds like a woodpecker in a disenchanted forest with a militant gnomish band marching through below. "Bell Curve Blips" does have some bellish aspects to it but the jittery drone throughout might make you think somebody laced your hallucinogenic cocktail with something else far stranger. There is also some gentle acoustic guitar playing and voices in the background at the end, which I suppose would qualify as a field recording. "Crazy 8 Frobogs Trooping Through the Forest" sort of vindicates my description of "Torus Energy Currents". This is an hallucinatory forest of quite a different branch, where electronic squeaks and squelches force themselves into a natural ambient environment. The somber tone of the heavy drone pad which opens the finale, "Dream Meditation Part 2" gradually gives way to a host of real and imagined sounds- things you may not even be certain are actually occurring in the music, submerged just at the line between the conscious and the subconscious, playing almost like distant memories of past experiences in the brain. All too soon it fades out of earshot, out of mind.

To be perfectly honest, I didn't much care for '21 Pulse Eclipse' when I first heard it and put it on the back burner to return to later. I initially found the buzziness of a couple of tracks so off-putting I wasn't really able to get into this. Subsequent listenings however proved this to be a work rich in possibilities and astute in execution. Bart Hawkins' dedication to inner sonic exploration began in the early 1980s when his practice of zen meditation and love of the Berlin school of electronic music launched him into a world of musical landscapes, sonic textures and silence sparking a spiritual awakening into the power of sound. In light of that, the fusion of the electrically electronic and the spiritually meditative makes perfect sense. I don't hear a lot of people attempting this kind of experimental music these days, and those that do seem to lean toward the more raucous, noise-oriented side of the spectrum. I don’t know how much of this album was improvised and came about through happy accidents, and how much was actually plotted out, but in the end it doesn't much matter. The results are still intriguing and sublime.
Artist: Hermetic Brotherhood of Lux-Or
Title: Sex and Dead Cities
Format: 12" vinyl + Download
Label: Boring Machines
This eighth album from the duo of Laura Dem and MSMiroslaw is more ‘Dead Cities’ than it is ‘Sex’. Predominantly it’s a rich hybrid of thick atmospheric rumbles and drones with muted and distant-sounding reverb-laden slow percussive rhythms, a mixture of acoustic and synthetic that’s so thoroughly effect-washed that origination starts becoming irrelevant. Rather than the sound of a dead city, it’s generally quite busy, with these soundscapes throbbing to sounds of distant machinery and conversation.

After a mostly ambient humming opener “To Die In A Decayed Country”, the sex of the title appears suddenly in “River Flows From Incinerator”, a plaintive slow pulsing drone spontaneously interrupted by orgy sounds that disappear as quickly as they arrive, resulting in one of the strangest breakdowns I’ve ever heard.

At times this release even recalls the Future Sound Of London track “Dead Cities” as well, but darker- most notably in “Ruins And Shell Casings”, but also throughout.

“Seven Minutes Of Nausea” is not unfairly named, but it’s also not unbearable. It brings in woozier tonal shifts and more rapid fluctuations onto the established patterns in order to raise the discomfort level towards, but not over, the edge of bearability. It’s quite discombobulating. As it fades, it leaves just looped thumping industrial hits behind, which follow nicely into repetitive and angsty final track “Fear Of The Living” which feels like a call to arms- or a clarion call for zombies.

It’s a strong, tightly packed 34 minute package of post-industrial darkness and contemplative wallowing, a thick aural body scrub that’s oddly refreshing.
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