Music Reviews



First Tone: Reactions

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Nov 14 2019
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Artist: First Tone
Title: Reactions
Format: 2 x 12" vinyl
Label: Spectrum Spools
The duo of Turk Dietrich and Duane Pitre have been collaborating on sound for years, but this is their debut set of available recordings. It doesn’t sound like the work of a duo, in that it’s a simple and direct vision of atmospheric drone and tone with a singular purpose, devoid of any of the back-and-forth or turbulence that collaborative work can be imbued with.

The meat of the release is four long pieces, that average around 12 minutes each. “Reaction 1” is slightly gritty with a mildly sinister hollow and metallic drone tone (exhibiting a gentle tension which re-emerges in short piece “Recollection” later on), whereas “Reiterations” has a far more pure and melodic make-up that opens with a powerful and emotive call before settling into flatter tones. “Reaction 2” offers up synthesis that feels very organic, and quite clarinet-like at times, but still with a hint of artifice and alienation.

Ultimately this is ambient soundscaping across well-worn territory, and while there’s undoubtedly a rich sonic quality here, it does seem to fall just a little short in terms of unique texture or distinctive character. It’s a very pleasant 55-minute way to fall asleep, undoubtedly, but if you’re alert and looking for sonic detail, you may find this is the wrong kind of ambient for you.

Agencies: The Number Stations

 Posted by Ibrahim Khider (@)   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Nov 12 2019
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Artist: Agencies (@)
Title: The Number Stations
Format: Download Only (MP3 + Lossless)
Label: self-released
Deep music for deep listening to immerse in varied moods and textures where melodic fragments luxuriously float in plush atmospherics, some serene and some disquieting. Indeed, the album title, like some track names suggest Cold War era tension and this listener cannot help but feel that Agencies may be tapping into memories of when humanity was closer to the horrific brink. The Number Stations opens with the psychedelic, “When Tomorrow Becomes Today”, where disquieting ambient fits right at home under the ‘illbient’ genre. Saturated in reverberating, choppily phasing psychedelic fragments that echo in the perpetual distance—like fever dreams—as tones ripple, dissolve, then re-materialize, fragment and re-assemble into a continuous, dizzying loop. This track serves the function of ‘time machine’ and takes the listener back to a narrative that is about to unfold. Subsequent track, the aptly named, “Quarantine the Past” has remnants of the psychedelic ripple, only this time on a more serene backdrop as the waves then become modulating, near-retro sublime synth tones. A din of radio chatter from mission control levitates as radio signals float in the aether and dissolve into ongoing ripples of time. “Shelters” offers a tentative, fledgling start amidst a sedated plume of angst while playful Casiotone notes and distant guitar flows through much the way a child weaves through throngs that queue to the bomb shelter. The magic in the track is in how discord is successfully merged with a sense of playful wonderment. “Time Lag Accumulation” opens with metallic resonance as if from turning bike spokes before pensive keyboards materialize and bring calm reassurance, even when a disembodied vocal chorus joins. Wood instruments interplay for an intermission of tranquility. “Wasp Network” sets the tone for tension with nice, dramatic synth sweeps and understated beats, radio signal transmissions and voices that indecipherably intone with a sense of urgency that dissolves midway through into another dreamy excursion. “Standing Wave Levitation” and “Carriers” are both comparatively serene yet brief ambient tracks; the former accentuated with understated melody and guitar feedback, the latter has faint toybox tunes within the larger drone tone. “Errornets” is melancholic infused with static crackles and enigmatic shuffling, but “Static Dead Lines” is more expansive; a fuller, lush backdrop with understated beats and muted melodies. Among the more mellifluous tracks is “End of Transmission” which starts with a barrage of radio frequency feedback before sequaying into an orchestral cinematic ambient piece complimented with acoustic guitar and piano, culminating into a wash of bliss. Finally, the title track, “The Number Stations” caps the release on a somewhat dramatic note, melds drone and ambient seamlessly—though it starts off with discord it is then overwhelmed with guitar ambience and piano fragments that fall like a drizzle amidst distant static crackles. It is not known whether the narrative is stuck in time, but what remains is a lingering sense of bittersweet and wistful melancholy. If you are into deep, lush and layered yet masterfully crafted ambient-drone with melodic overtones, this album is for you.

Haythem Mahbouli: Catching Moments in Time

 Posted by Vito Camarretta (@)   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Oct 30 2019
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Artist: Haythem Mahbouli
Title: Catching Moments in Time
Format: CD
Label: Schole (@)
Rated: *****
“I don’t want to predefine my genre or have an instrument-centered composition (e.g. piano). I see music as a mix of sounds that create emotions. Emotions can emerge in any music form. I picture music as images; each of them is associated with an emotion. This album (Catching Moments In Time), is a journey throughout experiences I lived and tried to translate. My goal is for the listener to adapt it to their own, mix it with their emotions and create their own images”. By these words, the Tunisian composer Haythem Mahbouli introduces his brilliant release landed on the Japanese label Schole and feeding the expectations following such an introduction since the symphonic breezes of the opening "Catching The First Moment", whose piano and string driven grandeur mirrors the one of the closing "Catching The Last Moment", opening and closing brackets detaching the musical padded bubble of the aural experience he offered. Two big names of contemporary music scene sustained the emotional flight by this guy, who reprised his compositional work after a hiatus following his settlement in Montreal after the Tunisian Revolution in 2011 and the start of a job as sound designer for gaming industry: the name that most of our readers would recognize is the one by Taylor Deupree, who cared the mastering of the album, while the name that you wouldn't maybe expect, even if it makes sense considering the strong component of classical music into the recipe by Haythem is the one of City of Prague Philarmonic Orchestra, playing strings all over the album. In between the two brackets, many layered emotional sounds flood over listeners' eardrums and souls and the way such a flood gets organized through frequent crescendo, overlapping symphonies and the implant of spooky operatic parts could break the emotional banks of many of them. Some voiceovers have been embedded in some ascensional movements of this album, recorded as if they were transmissions from outer space and quoting lines by American poet Robert Lee Frost, such as the one from Birches: "I'd like to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over". They sound consistent with the mood of the album - sometimes getting closer to the cinematic style well expressed by Jóhann Jóhannsson or Hildur Guðnadóttir, particularly in tracks like "Passage" or "Transition" -, whose general dynamics seems to activate different emotional or mnemonic areas before cathartic explosion, partially emulating techniques normally belonging to soundtracks. Awesome output!

Bart Hawkins: 21 Pulse Eclipse

 Posted by Steve Mecca   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Oct 28 2019
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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.

Bantou Mentale: Bantou Mentale

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Electronics / EBM / Electronica
Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Oct 24 2019
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Artist: Bantou Mentale
Title: Bantou Mentale
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: Glitterbeat
The debut release from new ensemble Bantou Mentale, self-described as “sonic groundbreakers”, is pitched as “the fulfillment of their long-held dream to create an African band with the weight and sensory attack of knife-edged rock and hot-wired club beats”.

And in a way, that’s overselling it- this isn’t nearly as raucous or knife-edged as I initially expected. Despite having the occasional gunfire FX and angry moments, energy-wise, and in many other ways as well, it’s got more in common with older dance-fusion acts like Transglobal Underground, Asian Dub Foundation or certain-era Dreadzone- solid, enthusiastic, festival-friendly crossover dance tunes with confidence and character, some distorted vocals and guitars here and there and the odd gutpuncher sound, but nothing that’s really going to rip you a new hole to a Slamboree degree. It starts off upbeat, but to an extent chills out quite extensively as it progresses, showing off its classy French underbelly.

But that’s no bad thing, not least because an hour of angry terror wouldn’t have the depth and variety that Bantou Mentale offer up across this hour-long 12-track collection. Here there’s the space for foot-tappingly infectious grooves like “Boko Haram”, or the soulful “Boloko” with its notable mashup of electro bass with a more organic soft rock arrangement. There’s strong vocal work across tracks like “Syria” and more experimental, bordering on jazzy pieces like “Bakoko”.

Although I compared it to a bunch of 90’s-era bands a minute ago- and tracks like “Yoka Chagrin” are absolutely a throwback to that vibe- it has to be said that generally the production is tight and spot-on. “Suabala” sounds like what comes out when Liam Howlett’s feeling funky rather than angry, while “Sango” introduces distorted samples into the prog-fusion core in interesting ways.

So it’s not the furious groundbreaking sonic assault that it’s being pitched as, but no matter, this is still a shining jewel of cross-cultural musical freedom with a fantastic depth and production quality to it. Hopefully it will take off enough to make it possible to justify it being toured live, as a live environment feels like where these songs would really thrive.


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