Music Reviews

Artist: Kj
Title: Spells
Format: CDS (CD Single)
Label: Lost Tribe Sound
Rated: *****
I confess it’s the first time that I hear about Kj, also known as Kj Rottweiler. By looking at the website, it seems that Kj is not only a musician, but a video maker as well. The album ‘Spells’ has been produced by the label Lost Tribe Sound. I confess I have never heard of this label either, but it looks certainly a very interesting one - the type of label that produces whatever the owners like, with well-curated packagings (as it’s the case with ‘Spells’).
However, I’m very disappointed at this album, despite very good reviews I read. How do ambient/dark ambient/drone albums usually work? What are their aims? I have been listening to this kind of music for a long time (almost 20 years), and the best albums are the ones that completely absorb you. Here are my two cents. You absorb someone else into your music by creating a sort of evolution of the song leading to a climax (and back again!): you start with a layer of sound, and then you fade in other layers, and while you have the new ones, you may subtract others. It can be dark ambient, new age, minimal, or whatever: I think the concept is exactly this. This is why ambient’s songs tends to be pretty long - it is exactly to create this suspence. But this is not necessarily the case: there are pretty good artists who can do with short songs.
What about ‘Spells’? This album is composed of brief songs (with some exceptions - more on this later). These songs are usually made of a couple of layers of sound - mostly pads, reverberated, creating the typical wide and open perception of ambient music. However, there is no construction, there is no evolution. Sometimes I had the impression of listening to only excerpts of the actual songs - when you want to introduce the listener to your album, and you made him/her listen to the songs when they have reached the climax. The only exceptions are the songs Dawyn and Spells. Interestingly, these are the longest songs.
What I want to say is that this album has amazing and well-curated sounds. However, it lacks structure and evolution - and I think structure and evolution are of paramount importance to ambient music. Without structure and evolution, it is very difficult to be absorbed by the music.
Artist: Moskus
Title: Mirakler
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: Hubro
Moskus are a trio of piano, drums and bass, though they’ll hop onto some other instruments- keyboards, organs, vibraphones or recorders- on a whim. But at its core it remains three skilled musicians performing, mostly improvising, around each other in a manner that’s comfortable, almost cosy, and quite playful at times.

The clap-along “Irsk Setter” is one of the brightest tracks, with a poppy energy that’s halfway to making it an odd crossover radio hit, but other tracks are more sanguine, exuding the slightly smoking-sounding jazz tones in pieces like “Sang til C”. The vibes- literally- on “Min venns skaperverk” place us firmly in a quirky chamber jazz world. Particularly in the second half, many of the tracks are short- over half the tracks here are under three minutes long- giving us concise little patterns that are a touch under-baked at times, improvised melodic ideas being casually batted about and thrown away rather than really explored.

The track called “(_ ,)” is particularly sweet thanks to the judicious use of Hans Hulbækmo’s musical saw, sounding decidedly theremin-like when given preferential solo treatment.

Overall, it feels quite unchallenging. Musically the root concept behind pieces like the odd-stepping-rhythmed “Eventyrdagene” are interesting exercises, but the rest is something that sounds like it was more complex to play than it was to listen to (well of course that’s generally true but it feels even more the case here, if you see what I mean).
Artist: Key To The Mint (@)
Title: A Godless Line
Format: CD + Download
Label: self-released
Rated: *****
Key To The Mint is an '80s retro synthpop band (although they describe themselves as "post punk") from Cleveland, Ohio, who have been around since 2015 or so. The band consists of Joel Anger (lead and backing vocals), John Alexander (guitar, bass, keyboards, drum and synth programming), and Rich Kundracik (drum and synth programming, bass, keyboards) plus a few guests who help out with additional backing vocals and guitars. They admit to influences of Depeche Mode, The Smiths, The Cure, Sisters of Mercy, and OMD, and truth be told, they sound a little like most of those bands. This 11-track CD opens well enough with "The Hague," a song that sounds nearly like a Depeche Mode B-side, but unfortunately it's all downhill after that. The aptly titled next track, "Make Me Suffer" will make you realize that this album sounds like it was recorded live in a basement. It's also where the singer switches from Dave Gahan mode to Morrissey mode, meandering in the melody with no real hooks to anchor the songs. Joel Anger's vocals may be an amalgam of all the singers of the aforementioned "band influences" (excepting the Sisters) but basing the vocal melodies on the worst traits of Morrissey is no way to make an impact. Considering that Anger's voice is the most talented aspect of this group (the instrumental performance/execution is fairly pedestrian), these guys have a long way to go as the competition is fierce in this genre, and there are many better bands out there. In this age of rampant technology there's simply no excuse for the mediocre recording. What this band needs is a spiffy songwriter (one who can really cook up great hooks) and a good studio with someone who knows how to use it. Until then, it's back to the basement.
Artist: Chris Russell (@)
Title: Echo
Format: CD + Download
Label: Spotted Peccary Music (@)
Rated: *****
'Echo' is ambient sound sculptor Chris Russell's second release on the Spotted Peccary label, but about his 15th release over all, and that's only since 2010. No doubt Russell is a very prolific artist, but this is the first I'm hearing his work. On the SP one-sheet that accompanied this release it says "Russell's sci-fi inspired audioscape is a stimulating aural environment of immersive spaces that calls to mind the haunting cinematic works of Stanley Kubrick ('2001 A Space Odyssey') or Ridley Scott ('Blade Runner')." That description isn't far off the mark, just don't expect any Legeti or Vangelis cloning. Comprised of 9 tracks of varying length totaling an hour and a minute, 'Echo' is a trip that will take you both to outer and inner space. Beginning with the title track you are thrust skyward at intense velocity rocketing you quickly through the stratosphere to the exosphere and beyond into weightless space. And yes, it begins as noisily and turbulent as a rocket, but doesn't last long. After that, it's a pretty smooth ride. Most of Russell's atmospheres are on the minimal side sound-wise, but complex in their formulation. The music is closer to grey ambient (neutral) being neither particularly light or dark, except on a few pieces. A couple of those have a gamelan-like ambience, most notably "Sparse," a nearly 11 minute excursion into a Javanese dream sequence, as if you were visiting a perfumed garden on a sunny day. Some pieces are overtly extraterrestrial while others seem more reflective of inner space. The last, and longest (13:20) track, "Abandoned" belies the ominous definition of its title. Definitely terrestrial, it sounds like a peaceful vacation day at the lake (or maybe even the beach) where you can hear birds, a barking dog in the distance and other minor ambient activity combined with a generally mellow drone atmosphere. 'Echo' is an enjoyable journey that is high in replay value. Essential if you love ambient music.
Artist: L# Collivasone (@)
Title: Vostra Signora Del Rumore Rosa
Format: 12" vinyl + Download
Label: Furry Heart Records (@)
Rated: *****
I think we've become jaded and lazy as far as new music goes; in what we listen to, the way we listen to it, where we get it, and what we pay for it. At the risk of being called an old fart (I am, but that's beside the point) I recall a time when ever new album was a special event; something to be savored and cherished. Yeah, there was the radio, but it mostly played "songs," not complete works. It was a taste- incomplete and usually only the highlight or "hit", not the whole work. (A bit of a different situation with classical music, but that's another story.) The point is, with so many different music outlets and formats, we tend to take it for granted. Stealing music on the 'net is commonplace. Many new music artists give it away just to get known. Nearly everybody streams their stuff, so you don't have to pay anything to hear it (not to mention YouTube), just to own it. To some extent I think that cheapens the experience, and also cheats the artist. But if you can't listen to it (radio is a dead, at least here in the U.S., for most new music artists) how are you going to get it to the people who will most appreciate it? Record companies (labels) used to pave the way, grease the right palms, and obtain exposure for new artists. Now it doesn't work that way anymore, partly because the labels can't afford it, and partly because they're unwilling to do the kind of work they used to do. The whole game has changed and it's up the artists more often than not to promote their product. With so many out there doing that though, it's a cacophony of sound where one has to slog their way through so much crap to get to anything really good. This is where folks like me come in. I don't necessarily think reviewers are the arbiters of what's good and what's not, so much as guideposts pointing potential listeners in the right direction. Yes, we're all biased to some degree as no one can be completely objective when it comes to an art that is just so subjective. However, a good reviewer should be able to provide context and maybe even some nuance when it comes to description and qualification.

So why the big long preamble here? Maybe because this is a review of something so far afield from the norm that it warrants some expository treatment. When I come across unfamiliar music that purports to be "avant garde" I tend to wince because it's a genre that is often refuge to the talentless and inept, music utterly lacking in palatability or associated redeeming features. (Just because it's weird doesn't make it good.) I am most pleased to say though that L# Collivasone's 'Vostra Signora Del Rumore Rosa' (Your Lady of Pink Noise) is not that dreadful, poorly conceived and executed kind of avant garde music, but the real deal. A little background on Luca Collivasone (AKA: Doc. Luden Looksharp, Aston Baxmaq, L #, L.L.Looksharp): this Italian musical genius/savant began his artistic career as a musician at the turn of the ’80s as founder and guitarist of the band Aus Decline. He then studied classical guitar and various programs for the production of music with computers, composed soundtracks for documentaries, tv shows and advertising. He played with the Italian rockabilly band Stiletto, then later (2006-2013) established the art-punk/rock 'n' roll/retro band The Masked Marvels which toured extensively in Italy, Switzerland, Germany and France. Post-Masked Marvels Luca formed the band Iarballe, playing prepared guitar and a small synthesizer accompanied by a bassist and a drummer. It was around this time that he stumbled on the concept of the "Cacophonator," the primary and only instrument (excepting Collivasone's voice) played on this album.

The Cacophonator was made from an old (1940's) Singer sewing machine he found in a junk shop, that he modified with an assortment of strange sound producing elements. To see this contraption you would have no idea that the sounds on this album would even be remotely possible from some an archaic device, but they are. It really sounds as if it was made using some hi-tech combo of sophisticated modular synthesizers and samplers. (He calls it the "Concrete Music Machine".) A bit of Collivasone's philosophy regarding this work - "Slow down. Remove technology with its sure result. A strong idea becomes the first musical instrument..." There is much more but you can chew on that for now.
So what does this sound like? Well, a wide variety of things ranging from subtle ambient to chaotic experimental electronic. Dynamics are quite varied; quiet at times, loud at others; sometimes beatless, sometimes rhythmic. The album is comprised of nine tracks all with different motifs, moods and sonic palettes. "Alpha Crucis" which open the album is low-key ambient and kind of droney. The title track features a poetic recitation by Luca (in Italian) with slow beats, twisty, contorted sounds amidst light bellish tones and the occasional moaning, groaning bass. "Tropicantor," one of the longer pieces on the album, begins with a variety of low tones, then ghostly moaning oscillators enter the picture. Also eventually some squeaky sounds in a repetitive pattern, with a slow noise as well. This piece also has a vocal recitation, a short phrase repeated like a ritual chant. Collivasone concocts a plethora of odd electro-acoustic sounds for "Everything About Her Was a Lie," backed by an off-kilter rhythm. The bizarre vocal track on this one just has to be heard. If there could ever be a hit single from this record (which is highly unlikely) this would be it. There is even some sort of stringed instrument solo (warp guitar??) but all that is coming from the cacophonator.

Moving to side 2 we begin with "Bela Bite" which uses a simple metallic rhythm over which bowed, scraped and plucked string sounds, bass and little noise elements interact. The piece grows noisier over time as the volume increases. There is a definite buzzy machine-like ambience in "Sanguisuga," also with heavier beats which begin a basic rhythm you could even dance to. In fact, this is REAL industrial dance music, but not the kind you may be used to hearing. (I'd recommend this as the B-side of the non-hit single.) "Anus Pelicanus" almost sounds like its title, but I was thinking "duck farts in a shallow bathtub". String plucks and woodwind squeals over that strange duck-farting sequence on a repeating loop with blasts of noise interspersed. My description doesn't do it justice. "Rain On Your Parade" might be as close as we get to a conventional song with Luca's spoke-sung lyrics and repeating chorus, but it's not that close. Finally, "Caramel Moon" is a musique concrete fantasia with just about everything in it including a rudimentary beat. Usually when I've listened to this much avant-garde music I've had enough for a while but this album just makes me want more. Highly recommended for its concept and execution, but you'll need some quiet time to process it all. Thanks Edwina (owner of Furry Heart Records) for sending me the vinyl rather than just a download link. Tangible product is always appreciated, and I’d recommend the vinyl over the download.
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