Music Reviews

Test Card: Music For The Towers

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Jan 16 2020
Artist: Test Card
Title: Music For The Towers
Format: CD + Download
Label: Sound In Silence
The reliable Sound In Silence label is a perfect spot for Vancouver-based Lee Nicholson’s third album as Test Card. The soft melodic pads, the gentle wind noises, and the soft and sparing, long and melancholic guitar and piano notes are the conventional ambient music format that the label has offered up in the past- but once again it’s relaxing ambient music of the highest order. It’s music so smooth and so relaxing that it ought to be prescribable by doctors. If ambient music is honey, this is top grade manuka.

“Data Taken Over Under Rating” is a highlight and exemplifies this perfectly. Starting just with the wind, elements are introduced with assured slowness, from the extremely warm chord envelope through eventually to the gentle arpeggiated synth pattern. It’s beautifully executed and if I had to fault it, as a track I’d say it fades too early. Different tracks are imbued with different levels of melancholy, but it’s never overtly sad- “We Oscillated Like Sheep Grazing On Grassy Waveforms” perhaps coming closest to that mood.

Both the artwork and the track titles are far stranger than the music, with tracks like “It Calmed The Hedges And Blurred The Buildings” a reassuring blend of folky guitar and chords you can hum, and “Let Single Sideband Loneliness Receivers Be Happy” a combination of melodic and literal wave sounds. Occasional extra textures are added to just about keep things interesting for those wanting to actually pay attention to it, rather than let it wash over them, for example the indistinguishable spoken-word radio broadcast element audible at the start of “Monochrome Dreaming Softened The Broadcast”, or the faint and oddly rapid heartbeat-like sounds that bubble under “Horizontal Sweep Correction Lullaby”.

This is old-fashioned ambient, if you like, that can be traced directly back to Brian Eno and beyond. But it’s done in such a lovely way, so velvety and calm, with enough attention to detail like a home-made fabric, that it absolutely has to be applauded- but not too loudly in case you wake the other listeners up.

Zahn/Hatami/McClure: Ypsilon

 Posted by Ibrahim Khider (@)   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Jan 13 2020
Artist: Zahn/Hatami/McClure (@)
Title: Ypsilon
Format: 12" vinyl + CD
Label: n5MD (@)
There are a number of collaborations between the triumvirate of Uwe Zahn, Porya Hatami, and Darren McClure but only in permutations as a pair. Ypsilon is the first collaboration where all three work together and the results are unlike any of the previous. Whereas prior dual collaborations like In Between Spaces, and Nest dwell in atmospheric, textural sound art, Ypsilon is more sublime atmospheric-dub-ambient-techno at home in the hallowed halls of Basic Channel/Chain Reaction roster. Ypsilon captures the vaporous moments between dream and wakefulness, the twilights of dusk and dawn and instills a sense of wonderment, even to seasoned listeners. It is not clear in the liner notes which artist contributed what sound, and that is by design. There are tones that seem to evoke the signature Arovane style, but that could be from another member. For all we know, the least Arovane-like sound could be Zahn’s contribution. That is because Zahn is the kind of artist who likes to play with listeners’ expectations and challenge them. Opening track, “they’ll” begins with a rummaging clamour and then envelops like a dive into a cool lake during a hot day or a cool breeze for several moments until the sensuous rush instilled from the kick-beats announce like the rhythmic tapping of a tail from a whale as varied tones wash over like schools of colourful fish. The following, “cyntr” with its progressive layered melodic synth modulations evokes the dreamier yet playfully quirky sounds of The Orb. “synfolt” is comprised of fragmentary female enunciations amidst ornate textures and breezy atmospheres that wash over. “blynn” has a myriad of disparate yet gentle tones that come together like the frayed ends of a rug and coalesce into lovely musical patterns while higher pitched tones wistfully float above as momentum builds. “absyrb” takes us into a living, cavernous techno club cocoon with electro-currents that pulse and course like a rod just after it is struck by lightning, followed by retro-organ tones. “prysma” is made up of toybox melodies while ghostly tones swirl while title track, “ypsilon” is a series of string-like resonances on a bed of gentle pastel tones. Book-end piece, “byte” concludes with continuous ambient flow, a gentle noctural breeze where microcosms of sound emerge, a restive conclusion to a work of blissbeat. Ypsiolon is easily one of the loveliest recordings of 2019 and also a pleasant surprise for both techno and ambient enthusiasts.

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.

Philip Samartzis & Eric La Casa: Captured Space

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Jan 08 2020
Artist: Philip Samartzis & Eric La Casa
Title: Captured Space
Format: Download Only (MP3 + Lossless)
Label: Cronica
“Captured Space” comprises two ambient pieces built up from field recordings made over the space of ten days in and around the Kruger National Park in the corner of South Africa. Individual recordings have been layered up to create something denser than real life, but still essentially realistic. It’s a sonic portrait that, unsurprisingly, is dominated by the wildlife sounds from the generally tranquil sub-tropical park, gentle river sounds, and so on.

Crucially though, it doesn’t shy away from the interjection of human artifice- ranger trucks come and go, distant aeroplanes can be heard, tour guides speaking on loudhailers, and so on. Towards the end of the second part, the pulsing electric safety fence is almost full-on electronica in its droning. This is not purely “the natural world” and the work makes us consciously aware that we are sonic tourists.

The recording quality, incidentally, is absolutely pristine- this is the carefully processed stereo result of what was initially conceived as a multichannel sound installation, and it would be fascinating to step inside that space, though I’m unlikely to get that opportunity.

I’m honestly not sure what the animals we hear at fourteen minutes into the first part are, but their deep calls are loud and decidedly comical, a bizarre cameo in a generally relaxed environment. Between sounds like this and the conscious highlighting of human intervention, this precludes the work from working as a piece of chill-out ambient, and instead it begins to feel more narrative driven- a passively-told drama giving us an impression, rather than a message, of the natural world being pinched and encroached by humanity. The result is an unusual compromise, not too much of any one thing, a work that’s curiously both relaxing and unsettling at the same time.

VV.AA.: Note Lithuania: Experimental / Electronic 2019

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Electronics / EBM / Electronica
Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Dec 19 2019
Artist: VV.AA.
Title: Note Lithuania: Experimental / Electronic 2019
Format: CD + Download
Label: MIC Lithuania
The Music Information Centre Lithuania might have a drab name, but their releases have reached the point now where seeing a new work from them in my inbox is a cause for excitement, and I’m happy to push them to the top of my queue. This compilation just squeezed in before Christmas, and is a 71 minute collection of selected experimental and ambient pieces from Lithuanian artists, mixing some previously unreleased material with recent album tracks.

What really pleases me about compilations like this is how breadth and consistency can be found simultaneously. On the one hand, it showcases a good range of sounds and tones, yet on the other hand, if you were played this release ‘blind’ and told it was a single-artist album, you could believe it. It’s predominantly full of acoustic and synthetic atmospheres, pads, drones, electronic effects, and occasional soft and crisp rhythms that build naturalistically from found sounds more often than from compositional structure.

Highlights include- but are not limited to- Patris ideleviius’ brooding and cinematic “Sonata ianileve”, a beautiful softness of melody in FUME’s “Strala”, and the truly romantic “Glimpses Of Dust” from Nortas. There’s a soporific thread that runs through several pieces that have a calming, sleepy vibe. Tracks like Skeldos’ “Tylos”, Daina Dieva’s crisp and icy “litis remias siena virpant vanden” eschew anything percussive in favour of either flat or slowly ebbing atmospherics that really draw you in.

For contrast, dark electronica that loosely borders on industrial and even techno can be found in Distorted Noise Architect’s compelling “Fictive Live”, and the journey towards Tiese’s “JM FM” is a descent into much more frustrated noise work, showing that it’s certainly not all happiness and light.

The compilation progresses in a nice considered way, and after the angrier noise comes ‘the synthwave section’. Unit 7’s “Methods Of Coercion” and Phil Von’s “Capsized Poetry” are both strong, perhaps lacking in distinctive character or melody that would make them really shine, serving more like gaming background music, but rich nonetheless. Proceedings are them calmed down nicely to close, with the Nortas track followed by the enchanting, broadly ethnic vocal, flute and string tones of Raguvos’ “Medziotojas” which gently nods towards the more folky side of MIC’s work.

If every country had an agency as strong as MIC Lithuania when it comes to finding and highlighting the quality electronic and experimental music coming from their scene, the world would be a very rich place indeed, sonically speaking.

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