Music Reviews

Robert Haigh: Black Sarabande

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Experimental / Avantgarde / Weird & Wired / Glitch / Noise / Field Recording
New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Jan 23 2020
Artist: Robert Haigh
Title: Black Sarabande
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: Unseen Worlds
“Black Sarabande” is a collection of eleven short original piano works from Robert Haigh. Some, such as the title track or “Lady Lazarus”, are purist solo piano recordings, while others, like “Strangers On The Lake”, frame the piano in the centre of soft electronic ambience and gentle synthetic and sympathetic accompanying melody elements. Subtle production touches, like the backwards notes in “Wire Horses”, tip this release over into an electronica category, but only just.

The result is always spacious and calm, and sits in conventional piano ballad territory, painting sound pictures that are thoughtful, melancholic, sometimes romantic, but never really energetic.

Highlights include the icy, barren-sounding “Ghosts Of Blacker Dyke” (which was released as a single last year), which feels strongly pitched into soundtrack territory, and the memorable and faintly haunting melody in “Arc Of Crows”. The chord sequence in “Progressive Music” is calling out to be turned into a trance tune, Wim Mertens style.

Over the course of 39 minutes, though, there is a sense that it’s all a little flat. There are only occasional hints of dischord- the unexpected odd synth-strings in “Painted Serpent” feel like a new voice, albeit an oddly dated-sounding one- but overall the drama is limited just to slow introspection and doesn’t successfully progress. This leaves you feeling like you have spent two-thirds of an hour staring at a single painting. A beautiful sound, for sure, but it would have benefitted from braving its way further away from the conventional.

Claudio F. Baroni: The Body Imitates The Landscape

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Jan 15 2020
Artist: Claudio F. Baroni
Title: The Body Imitates The Landscape
Format: CD + Download
Label: Unsounds
This work, compared by Baroni and performed by Ensemble Maze, was originally designed as the sonic aspect of an installation rather than a recorded work, with the idea that each of the 11 pieces named (with one exception) after body parts would, when performed live, be felt in those parts by the audience as they engaged in the space. This was part of Adi Hollander’s installation of the same name, where she designed a collection of ergonomic objects that were meant to facilitate this transformation of the music into vibrations felt through the entire body.

Neutered from this interactive experience and now presented as a standalone CD or download, what we get is a 48-minute collection of sparse, impulsive plucks, bows and bells fused with fairly relentless low-level whispering that seems intent on targeting subliminal suggestion to tell you what your body should be thinking.

Without the body reaction, it feels quite barren, almost empty at times- there are no attempts to shake your body by the old-fashioned high volume approach, and resonance seems to be the preferred technique.

In me, this release triggered an awkwardness. It’s clearly intended to be sensual and intimate at times (although the topics seem to expand and contract in scale with more gusto than the music), with the breathy talking and seductive slow musical movement, coupled with the track titles that slowly work their way down the body. But for me, I’m afraid that didn’t really work. The whispering feels more sinister, leading to embarrassment rather than excitement. It’s also at such a low level that it triggers that super-awkward situation where your lover says something very quiet and sexy to you, and you fail to hear it so you’re forced to just say “PARDON?” and spoil the moment completely. But that last point is possibly a diversion from the point.

The journey down the body does not result in the level of musical diversity that you might expect. Notable tracks, to a point, include the oddly jazzy vibes that crop up in “Heso (The Navel)”. “Uesoto (The Waist)” foregrounds the narrative slightly more and this feels more poetic and engaging- or distracting, if your engagement to the playback has been thin enough that you’ve found yourself doing other things whilst listening.

As translations of musical work for installations go, unfortunately this falls into the category of “you should’ve been there”. Without the interactive experience, this doesn’t really glimmer as an audio work.

drøne: the stilling

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Jan 10 2020
Artist: drøne
Title: the stilling
Format: 12" vinyl + Download
Label: Pomperipossa Records
Drøne’s fourth album paints a picture of an oasis in the middle of chaos. An ensemble of violin, celloes, bass, guitar, and synth pads collaborates to offer up a melodic layering that reaches us in phases- sometimes slow and calm, sometimes tense and suspenseful. It is often heavily mired in, sometimes almost buried by, an electronic expression of modern life built from field recordings and found sounds. City and vehicle noises, light industrial environments, electronic voice countdowns, and artificial drones generally pull the mood darker.

It’s comprised of two 17-minute parts, simply called ‘Side A’ and ‘Side B’, but in practice it’s broken into much smaller scenes, with the overall tone and sonic make-up changing substantially, never settling into a routine for more than three or four minutes. Sometimes the string work shines out in a purist fashion that becomes almost classical music (two minutes from the end of “Side A” for example), while at other points it’s almost music concrete (two minutes into “Side B” one of many examples I could have picked).

Perhaps this sounds a little pastoral in the way I’m describing it, but it’s full of contrasts in that respect too- most obviously in the teeth-shaking screaming section that rips right through you about eleven minutes into “Side B”, before switching to a long low string tone that feels relatively calm at first before it starts to pitch up… and up… and up… This is sheer drama, told with careful and non-excessive use of extremes.

What makes this work really shine out is its musical quality- which perhaps sounds like an inept thing to say. The string work, exquisitely recorded and sorrowful, fuses and transitions with the electronic work in a way that really elevates the latter. It’s a truly well-formed musical hybrid that makes the artificial feel natural and vice versa. It keeps you on your toes as a listener, keeping you engaged- if somewhat miserable- and ultimately very impressed, and possibly even a little shaken.

Martina Bertoni: All The Ghosts Are Gone

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Electronics / EBM / Electronica
New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Jan 09 2020
Artist: Martina Bertoni
Title: All The Ghosts Are Gone
Format: Tape
Label: Falk
This is the first full-length album from Berlin-based cellist and composer Martina Bertoni, after a couple of EP’s- although at 37 minutes, you’ll wish this album was longer.

Relatively purist cello playing sits at the heart of each piece, predominantly long low drawn-out notes of a kind that are stereotypically used by film composers to portray barren landscapes or end-of-act-two hopelessness and sorrow.

But the electronics and atmospherics that surround the cello are far more than a simple framing device, and absolutely shine in their own right. “Stuck Out Of Lifetime”, in second position, comes as something of a surprise when you’re anticipating near-ambient work and a gentle ticking rhythm arrives, a subtle but powerful structural move that keeps crucial energy running underneath the slow melodic work. “Impossible Routines” is a half-step further in the electronica direction. Darkness, perhaps the titular ghosts, are an undercurrent here rather than a dominant force, with pieces like “Invisible Cracks” brooding and gently ominous yet still retaining a sense of melodicism and calm, largely thanks to the cello.

Only a couple of the pieces top the five-minute mark and there is a certain sense of static vignette at times, each piece representing an environment or an idea and not progressing within itself. There’s no harm in that in itself, but it does sometimes leave you wondering where tracks like the gently pulsing “Principles and Petals” would have gone if allowed to take a longer and more in-depth journey. “Notes At The End Of The World” is notable thanks to its spoken-word element that serves as a kind of postscript- although when an instrumental album has let you wander off in your own imagination whilst listening, sometimes last-minute words can seem somewhat unwelcome as they can contradict where you’ve got up to in your head.

There’s a delicate underplaying throughout this album and I’d hope in future releases that Bertoni could be a little more ambitious, but I would certainly still recommend this album overall. If this is what the quality of albums is going to be like in 2020 then we’re in for a great year.

Katariin Raska & Christian Meaas Svendsen: Finding Ourselves In All Things

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Dec 13 2019
Artist: Katariin Raska & Christian Meaas Svendsen
Title: Finding Ourselves In All Things
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: Nakama Records
The debut album as a duo from these two performers, each with established CV’s of band work, is underpinned fundamentally by contrasts. There are two works, one frantic and relentless, the other sombre and slow. There’s a sonic pull between the high squeaking of Raska’s Estonian bagpipe and the low growls of Svendsen’s double bass. But this is clearly two performers in sync with one another, which is what makes it work.

“Melting With Butterflies” is fourteen minutes of pushing two instruments to their limits. The folky tones of the bagpipe are bent and abused so that they begin to sound variously like sirens, like animals or (less flatteringly) like balloons, while the intimately-recorded double bass is not just bowed but also scratched and tweaked. At times it feels like the duo are in a race to see who can either perform fastest, or break their instrument first. It’s not a piece of music you could drop casually into, but fourteen minutes of it is long enough for it to establish its own baseline of what’s sonically normal and let you adjust to it- just in time for it to abruptly stop.

Second piece “The Way Mountains Make Love” is consciously opposite. Long, low single bowed notes and drones are the order of the day, layered up in a conspicuously flat or gently undulating way that feels less like dramatic mountain tops and more like the never-ending tectonic pressure deep underground. As it progresses over 19 minutes, there’s a degree to which it gets more melodic, more vocal-like, and gently lighter, as though harmony is gradually being found amongst the grit. It’s romance, but on geological time.

It’s a strong and deeply confident pair of expressions from a pair of talented performers playing around with ideas that are deceptively simple, but executed with precision and purpose that really shines through- and the result is eye-opening.
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