Music Reviews

Artist: Chihei Hatakeyama
Title: Mirage
Format: LP + Download
Label: Room40
Pitched as a non-academic study of how architecture has shaped music and vice versa, “Mirage” is a collection of nine gentle and relaxing ambient textures made up of slowly looping synthetic chords and subtle use of environmental found sound. It’s a very well established sonic style so it would be something of a challenge to bring anything new to the table, and sure enough, “Mirage” doesn’t, really. Being critical, this release severely lacks that distinctive element or polish that will make you remember it above the dozens of similar-sounding releases.

But, despite all that, it has to be said that it still works. As a slow and mellow wash of warm chords, it’s soporific and thoughtful. It’s an ideal background soundtrack to reflection or somnambulance. “Starlight And Black Echo” is the track that most epitomises this, while “Anatolia Mirage” is the track that comes closest to shattering it with a moderately unwelcome distorted glitch towards the end.

The found sound elements feel underplayed. “Bus Terminal In Konya” starts with purely environmental sound and shows more promise, but within a minute this culture and texture has almost entirely ebbed away, and the same gentle chords have meandered back.

The synth sound that forms the whole of “A Silence Of Day” is so reminiscent of the intro to Pet Shop Boys’ “Being Boring” that you keep wondering when the drum machine and wahwah guitar are going to kick in.

Rarely have I heard an ambient release that is so lacking in the singularity that might make you take it off the shelf, yet wanted to recommend it so highly for its relaxing qualities.
Artist: Kasper T. Toeplitz & Anna Zaradny (@)
Title: Stacja Nigdy w Życiu
Format: LP
Label: aussenraum records (@)
Begins with Penderecki-esque hornet swarm cello sounds. Static begins to creep in, square-wave harsh hints that never overwhelm the mix. Maintains a solid, legit sense of dread. Midway through the first side, there are no jump scares, no jarring peaks. This is just a good, unsettling mood piece.

The didgeridoo was unexpected, but didn’t cause me to leave the experience. I respect its presence here as a reference to the darker edges of tribal existence, i.e., heads on sticks in a desert plain.

A choral drone rises behind whiplash, downed power-line freak-outs. This is the harshest the side has been, but, again, nothing that has me racing for the volume knob. It all has its place, it is all expertly mixed. The drone bed holds everything in place. The subtlety of everything is brilliant.

Holy shit, there we go. There is a sudden explosive sound like a piano being dropped on its lower end. Everything fades out. That actually scared me.

I hope I get to say things like this more often, but this is really all I ask for with music of this nature. There probably aren’t any breakthrough concepts here…electronic sound effects over dismal drones, EQ tricks, crossfaded textures…but it’s done absolutely right, and mixed with great care. This is a fine presentation. Without knowing anything about the artists involved, it’s obvious to me that they know what they’re doing.

Helicopter pulses. Densely layered stuff: the bed, noise washes, a sine tone, static prickles, synth droning… I’m looking forward to flipping the record. The first side ends with a sound of a distant storm, not to use a tired cliché for describing elements of noise. This legitimately sounds like a distant storm.

Second side begins with a piercing, high-frequency bed. Organ-like drone pulse. Bubbly, rapid synth LFO ray gun behind a curtain of static. I think I hear a sad sax. Yes, it’s sax. (This was a blind listen, and I later realized sax was indeed involved). Very slow and tasteful, Breathed into carefully. Feedback-like squalls a couple layers underneath. More high-frequency tones, lots of stereo gymnastics… I have to say again, though, everything firmly in place, maintaining tasteful subtlety.

Heavy sub tones approaching. Big bass pulse. Feedback squalls sounding more like guitar. I haven’t noticed the sax again, and I believe it’s just being expertly massaged into a nebulous presence in the mix.

Square, harshly digital synth squalls somehow easily finding their place amongst very warm textures. Some wah-type effect starting. Guitar or bass, and as it leaves the mix, I realize how thick things have become. Not quite a wall, but definitely a thick haze. Buzzing. Now some very harsh, peaking, clipping prickles far up front. Death siren drones right behind, and another sub-rumbling storm rolling in. I’m now comfortable with the idea that much of the background drone presence is sax.

Sub frequencies have gotten intense enough to rattle some things off a nearby shelf, but I’m still not interested in turning this very balanced material down. The possible sax drones morph into watery synth bubbling. Growling lows push signal limits near clipping-point. Once things start to strip down again, there is one low, growling synth pulse met slowly by another high-frequency whine. Glass tones around the edges as the lows leave, and an insect song that recalls the hornet swarm at the beginning accompanies a sustained mid bed, like a guitar left against an amp a few miles away. Fade out.

The credits reveal that this Switzerland duo used bass, saxophone, and computer on this recording, causing me to wonder if the didgeridoo was either the sax or a sample? Anyways, thank you Kasper and Anna for a fantastic listen. The Penderecki reference I made in the beginning of the review is deserved and apt. This is a fine descendant of his brilliance.
Artist: Spray (@)
Title: Children of a Laser God - An Introduction to Spray, Vol. 2
Format: 2 x CD (double CD)
Label: Banoffeesound (@)
Rated: *****
I don't know what's the most popular synthpop band in the U.K., but it out to be Spray. If you haven't heard, or at least heard of Spray by now, shame on you. For the record, Spray is a Brit synthpop band consisting of bro-sis duo Ricardo Autobahn (synths, programming, production) and Jenny McLaren (vocals), active since 2001. Previously I reviewed the reissue of 'Living in Neon' (2002 debut album) expanded and subtitled 'An Introduction to Spray, Volume 1'. 'Children of a Laser God' was their 2007 sophomore effort and that album is delivered complete and intact (all 18 tracks of it) on CD1. CD2 contains bonus tracks, previously unreleased material, remixes, and a covers of Alice Cooper and Glen Campbell songs. I'm sure there must have been plenty of reviews of 'COALG' when it first came out so I'm not going to go into a lot of detail over that. Suffice to say Spray is clever as ever with plenty of tongue in cheek pop sensibility, dancefloor enthusiasm, and stellar production. While nothing on the album rivals "I Am Gothic" from 'Living in Neon,' the overall quality of the material makes it a very enjoyable listen. For me, the best tracks are "He Came With The Frame," "Anthem [For the Modern Artist]," "Pretend Girlfriend," "I'm Begining To Think That People Don't Like Me," "Run With Us," and "We Are The People Our Parents Warned Us About." The rest is really good too, with so much hit potential it's almost like they were trying too hard.

CD 2 though makes owning this expanded edition worthwhile. Title track "Children of a Laser God" wasn't on the original and mostly consists of some alien vocal sample - "You wish to eat you wish to drink you wish to reproduce.". There's a clubby remix of "Run With Us" by Michael Trenfield. "Change" is a previously unreleased track that's a little dark in tone. Next up is the cover of Alice Cooper's "Poison," a great song that probably hasn't been covered enough. It's a little low-key compared to Tarja Turunen's version, but I still like it. There are remixes of "Queen of Summer," "Love's Been Particularly Cruel To Me," "Pretend Girlfriend," and "Anthem" all geared to pump up the danceability, although the "Anthem" might be a little too hyper for most, but it's still fun. The second remix of "Run With Us" (Goodnite Electrolite) is less dancey and more electro-strange. "Cheesebox" is a previously unreleased demo that reminds me of a raved-up version of Gershon Kingsley's "Popcorn" synth instrumental from 1969. "Idiosynchronicity" is another previously unreleased track that's a decent, if minor tune. "Drowsy" is just a silly sample-laden club track. "Cosmic Kylie" makes a little fun of Ms. Minogue. "I Hate Everyone [But You]" is another previously unreleased track come to light of day and it's a good one. 'The Jinx" is a bit of fun funk wrapped in rap, and really ought to be a hit in a just world, which unfortunately this isn't. Spray also presents a brand new version of the Glen Campbell song, "The Highwayman" that's been covered by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson and was a big hit for all of them, except for Glen. It's unlikely to be a big hit for Spray but still a nice version, change of pace. The album concludes with another previously unreleased track, "Sex and Chocolate," a nice, but not particularly remarkable track. While CD2 doesn't have the impact of CD1, there is enough ear candy on it to make the total package worthwhile.

At the risk of repeating myself, this is another incredible "bang for the buck" so I highly recommend you get yourself a copy. While Spray doesn't seem to be getting the notoriety I believe they deserve, perhaps this reissue will give them a boost. Still, one of the best modern synthpop bands in the world.
Artist: And Then You Die (@)
Title: Lord of the Flies
Format: CD + Download
Label: Skithund Records (@)
Rated: *****
And Then You Die has been touted as Finland's best kept music secret, so it comes as no surprise that I (and most likely you too) have never heard of them before now. Since 2003 they've released five albums 'Lord of the Flies' being their fifth) and just as many, if not more singles, and I understand they've been around since 1990 or so. To me, this is remarkable since I found the music on 'LOTF' quite compelling. They call their music Finnish underground depressive experimental post-industrial psychedelic rock, and that is pretty close to the truth. The album is only 7 tracks and weighs it at slightly over 33 minutes, so it's brief and doesn't wear out its welcome. Beginning with the fast-paced straight-ahead beat driven "Idiot," drawn out vocals glide over the rampant and unwavering rhythm like a surfer over Hawaiian waves. There's a bit of a synth break in the middle before things pick up again. The guitar plucks out a monotonous but remarkably effective riff, and in its punkish splendor with a similar pacing to Eno's "Third Uncle". Things take a stranger turn on "Damp Idea" where buzzy bass hits are juxtaposed by twinkling synth. The vocals are a bit more defined on this one, and when the rhythm gets going, it's like Nine Inch Nails meets David Bowie in some psychedelic arena. Still, the vocals are somewhat understated, almost like a singer turning his back to the audience. I don't know if the drums are played or programmed but whichever, they're marvelous in a big beat sort of way. The aforementioned similarity to Bowie really comes to fore in "Formant" where the vocalist seems to have similar vocal characteristics as latter-day Bowie in the warble and vibratro. The enigmatic lyrics also support this. "The Box" is similarly inclined, albeit with a different groove. Speaking of grooves, I've noticed that once a song gets into a groove, it pretty much stays there without variation. The tone is definitely dark, and the melodicism makes it pop, but deep underground psych-pop. There's something primal about it that cuts to the bone, and manages to avoid many (although not all) of the cliches found in industrial rock these days. Interestingly as the album progresses, the more intense yet more ambiguous it seems to get. If one had to choose a single from 'LOTF' it would likely be "The Tide" oozing sinister psychedelia. Final track, "Turn" only deepens the mystery in its psychedelic sludge. Something about 'Lord of the Flies' really resonated with me from start to finish the first time, and every other time I listened to it. Seldom does that happen these days. I urge you to check it out and see if does with you too.
Artist: Bvdub (@)
Title: Epilogues for the End of the Sky
Format: CD
Label: Glacial Movements (@)
Rated: *****
Even if he's not a very known name, Brock Van Wey has a long history started in the late 80's and oscillating between deep house and ambient. With his new release on Glacial Movements he takes the titles of the tracks by a brief poetry and this is an hint that, more than a collection of tracks, this is a cohesive release.
The first track, "On Deaf Hearts Your Prayers They Fall", seems an usual ambient track with the juxtaposition of drones that create a quiet mass of sound but suddenly a piano chord if used to forge a second part of the track closer to certain modern classical. "With Broken Wings and Giants Tall" use the drone to blur the piano and the voice and transform them in abstract sounds to reveal them only in the closing seconds. The discernible melodies of the guitar and synth make "Sparkling Legions Turn to Black" a track away enough to the usual structure of the genre and closer to the form of the prime movers e.g., the Orb. "Your Painted Armor Aches to Crack" is quiet ambient watercolor and "Clouds Besiege What You Remain" is a crescendo for synth until his end in silence.
"Footsteps Fade If Not Your Pain" is based upon a beat that is loosely audible until when it stop with the soundscape to let an almost inaudible synth accompaniment. The cradling metaloop of "Love Is Never Asking Why" has a mirror in the almost static drone "It All Ends with the Coming Sky" which ends the release.
Even without any ground-breaking moments, this release let the will to hear it again as it balances his well known form with a remarkable sense of balance and a great craft for sound forging. It's worth a listen maybe with headphones.
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