Music Reviews

Artist: Orchard
Title: Serendipity
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: Ici d’ailleurs
Orchard are the experimental, avantgarde equivalent of a manufactured boy band. Stéphane Grégoire arranged to bring together four musicians who didn’t know each other either personally or professionally, given the theme of ‘the orchard’, and left in a room to improvise. And yet the result is a piece of confident, assured, leisurely, mellow instrumental soundscaping that sounds like it’s been generated either by one mind or by performers who’ve been working together for many years.

Rich, slow string notes meander gently. Soft drum patterns drift in and out of audibility. Gentle and organic grooves with an unfamiliar quietness form and then disperse almost absent-mindedly. A clarinet toys with melodic ideas, repeating short note patterns then abandoning them, sometimes working alongside the drums and forming something faintly Eastern-sounding. The third track introduces an approach that then gentle infuses the rest of the work- an electronic processing and re-processing openness which sprinkles extra details onto the performance. With some short echoing samples there’s just a very subtle hint of early 1990’s ambient chillout flavour, as though it’s a natural progression from that to this ‘properly’ instrumented work two and a half decades later.

After the especially mellow four-part piece “A Day Staring At Eternity”, second work “Drawn With The Wind”, again in four parts, has a more cinematic and tension feeling to it, thanks predominantly to the rumbling drums towards the start, and the more electronic-sounding slow kicks towards the end. If this is a musical representation of an orchard, then somewhere outside the orchard is a distant threat, it seems.

Third piece “After All The Sun Is Awakening” is a single-part 21-minute work which starts with shades of trip-hop before broadening out into an expansive and open landscape. This isn’t so much an orchard as an invocation of the Great Plains of the US, largely barren yet beautiful.

The album is wrapped up by two shorter pieces, “Fructification” which is a simple and laidback jazzy groove that deteriorates into some kind of rabid bird attack, and “We Host You” which is a gently pulsing affair of string and soft bass with a calming clockwork feel that wraps up proceedings warmly.

It’s hard to believe from “Serendipity” that the performers had only just met. The level of accomplished and assured performance in this smooth work is exemplary, and it really stands out as one of the highest quality downtempo listening experiences I’ve encountered recently.
Artist: Monty Adkins
Title: Shadows And Reflections
Format: Tape
Label: Cronica
“Shadows And Reflections” aims for ‘a sense of meditation, contemplation and relaxation’ as it develops sonic ideas originally created for an audiovisual exhibit at Bradford Cathedral in 2016 that drew inspiration from the restored altarpiece and stained glass windows of the cathedral. Designed for the cassette format, it’s two twenty-minute pieces of warm, comforting, eventless drone soundscape with a decidedly ‘empty church’ feel.

This is simple, floating ambience that can’t help but induce a sense of steady calm. The evolution of the tones is imperceptibly glacial. The second piece “Sounds Of The Sun” has an ever so slightly more tubular, metallic resonance to it, but I may only think that because my brain started to adapt to the noise level as its new normal.

Thankfully it’s available digitally too, as the often soft and subtle soundscape can’t really benefit from tape hiss- it’s a very purist bit of soundscaping that’s pleasantly soporific and attention-avoiding.
Artist: Three Free Radicals (@)
Title: Travelogue
Format: CD
Label: Improtest Records (@)
Rated: *****
Minnesota-based composer and live-electronics performer Scott L. Miller and Estonian guitarist Mart Soo return as "Three Free Radicals" with their second collection of free improvisations. Their collaboration continues at a distance but the fertile avant garde improvisation scene in Tallinn makes Miller’s every visit an intensely creative journey that ends in a recording studio. This newest release on Improtest Records features Mart Soo’s fluid lyrical guitar style layered over his looped and fractured extended guitar techniques which are simultaneously feeding Miller’s Kyma system for additional digital signal tune-ups.

All of the above is one-sheet provided description. So what is Kyma system (you may ask)? It's a sophisticated sound design environment relying on complex algorithms used by heavyweight music producers most notably in the film and game industries, and also by certain music pros in live performance. It's not cheap but if you're looking for real sonic adventure, it's the thing to use these days. While I can't specifically pick out passages on 'Travelogue' and say, "ah yes, that's Kyma," overall this work does have a certain ambience to it that is different than other avant-garde guitar/electronics combos that I've run across previously. If you are expecting some kind of all-encompassing cinematic environments though, get that out of your head, because these guys aren't trodding that path.

Comprised of seven pieces, 'Travelogue' begins with the guitar-plinky "Roundabout," where Soo fusses and fidgets on the strings over a plucky guitar rhythm while sustained electronic drones play in the background. "The Flaneur" relies on controlled echo of varying types juxtaposing one against the other all using guitar as the basis. It sounds rather clockwork in its own fashion. "Passing Turbulence" begins placidly enough with sporadic guitar figures and ambient electronics but eventually wells up into something a bit more sinister. Anyone who has ever traveled by air has probably had their own "Departure Lounge Fantasy," but this one is a bit on the ominous side with fretfully foreboding squalls and wails emanating from Soo's guitar. If you like old school electronics, you will probably enjoy "Weekend Casino Junket" for it's looped electronics sequence if nothing else. Over that Soo's guitar creates long, sustained ambient drones. There's a bit more to it than that, but you'll just have to hear it. I don't know how "Suburban Tourist" got its title; free improv guitar over a monotonous rhythm that subtly shifts might make you think of something a bit more cerebral. With "Perambulation" we're back to another old school synth loop, this time with some digital distortion thrown in for good measure. Lots of dissonanc3e and not my favorite track on the album. It ends fittingly with "Passage Home," a predominantly placid number that employs sparse, simple but effectively creepy sounds that indicate all is not exactly as it seems.

The enigmatic nature of this work is bound to leave some scratching their heads wondering what it all means. Truth be told, I'm a little perplexed myself, although there were tracks I definitely enjoyed. You might just have to put aside your preconceptions in order to really enjoy this, but taken in the spirit of avant-garde improvisation, it works well more often than not.
Artist: Chronotope Project
Title: Ovum
Format: CD
Label: Spotted Peccary Music (@)
Rated: *****
Chronotope Project is the music of Oregonian composer, cellist and electronic music producer Jeffrey Ericson Allen, and 'Ovum' is his seventh album under this name, and third on the Spotted Peccary label. And of course, the first time I'm hearing anything by Chronotope Project. "Chronotope" refers to the essential unity of time and space, a concept with numerous expressions in literature, physics and the arts. According to the artist, "Ovum is a concept album that poetically reflects on the nature of beginnings, seeds, and primordial states of being. As an archetypal symbol in art, literature and mythology, the Ovum represents pure potentiality and possibility, the indwelling and self-organizing élan vital that gives rise to life in its manifold forms." Yes, yes, all well and good you say, but how does it actually sound?

'Ovum' has the ambience of a lazy Sunday afternoon occasionally infused with mild percussion. There is a fair amount of flute in some of these gentle synthetic atmospheres giving it a more natural sound. Sequencing, when utilized, is subtle, and enhances rather than dominates. Over the seven tracks on this serene album the music is delicate without falling into stereotypical "New Age". I understand that Jeffrey employs the Haken Continuum Fingerboard which can effect a smooth glissando technique you just can't get from ordinary keyboard synthesizers, so elongated sustained guitar/pedal steel sounds are easy to emulate, as well as other instruments requiring lengthy sustain and slidey notes. He also incorporates subtle Javanese (gamelan) elements giving the music a placid world music flavor at times.

'Ovum' is an album I've played many times in my book & record store, usually in the morning when I'm in the mood for a laid back and peaceful atmosphere. 'Ovum' can be perfect for contemplation, doing yoga or tai chi, reading, or just chilling. Melodic without putting melodies in your head you'd rather not have stick around, Chronotope Project has come up with the antidote to over-stimulation in a world that is just full of it. Relaxing, enjoyable and a wonderful addition to the mellower side of ambient in your collection.
Artist: Porn (@)
Title: The Ogre Inside
Format: CD
Label: Echozone (@)
Rated: *****
If you're looking for porn on the Internet, it shouldn't be too hard to find, but if you're looking for Porn, the French Industrial Metal band, that might be a little harder but worth it. This is Porn's third album, and sorry to say I haven't heard the other two. I'm also willing to bet Porn are (currently) a lot bigger in France and Europe than they are here in the U.S., but perhaps 'The Ogre Inside' will change that. The first positive aspect for American appeal is that the vocals are in English. Second is that vocalist Philippe Deschemin doen't just growl, he also actually sings. Philippe Deschemin...hmmm...where have I heard that name before? Oh yeah, he was behind that 'An Erotic End of Times' album. Didn't much care for that one. He's also a novelist, lecturer, and political philosopher, if I recall. So here we kind of have the thinking man's industrial-metal, rather than the typical in-your-face fist-pumping stuff that passes for Industrial Metal these days. You will find plenty of industrial strength muscular guitar (playing a fair amount of familiar riffage) and as well as effective electronics sewn through the mix, yet it's not all sturm und drang. For the occult-minded, there are vocal samples of master-magus Aleister Crowley sprinkled throughout the tracks.

The album plays like a graphic novel exploring themes of violence, lust and desire, pain and suffering, control, death amd mortality, and more. It's a loose concept album, but a concept album all the same. The "ogre inside" is obviously the beast that thrives on destruction, sadism, cruelty and an appetite of excess. For Deschemin it's a losing battle he's waging here but he doesn't go down without a fight. What I felt didn't work too well on 'An Erotic End of Times' seems to work fine here. Maybe I wasn't expecting much from a band called Porn (you've got to have some balls to name your band that), but this is well-produced, musically varied, yet still tough as nails Industrial. Deschemin's vocals are introspectively emotive when they need to be, and also ragingly powerful, and even over-the-top when the song calls for it too. There are times I'm hearing shades of Pete Steele which might make some old-schoolers want to check this out. I really feel that this is an album that needs to be taken as a whole, so I can't pick a standout over the 9 tracks here. Truth be told, they're all good and there's nothing you'd want to skip in the 51 minutes from beginning to end. I think they have another album coming out soon too, and I'd be looking forward to that.
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