Music Reviews



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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Artist: VV.AA.
Title: On Corrosion
Format: Tape
Label: The Helen Scarsdale Agency
“On Corrosion” is an ambitious art project. It’s the Helen Scarsdale Agency’s 50th release and the theme is based on founder Jim Haynes’ work curating an art collection under the name “On Corrision”. Ten different established sound artists have contributed their own full-length albums inspired by, or in response to, that theme. Over the course of nearly seven hours, these works head off in a variety of different directions, with diverse and varying appeal (some more than others). It’s appropriate that each album has its own artwork and subtitle as well, since largely they would stand up as sound works in their own right even if disassociated from the overriding theme- yet as I work through each release, I find myself spotting commonalities between each, leading to over-use of the word “also” in introducing each in the context of the last.

Fossil Aerosol Mining Project’s “Hydration Equilibrium” is a series of disquieting found sounds constructed into occasional patterns and rhythms on a drone base. ‘Disintegrated media’ is a successful subtheme, drawing and dismantling recordings from old tapes into an extensive entropy of modern broadcast noise, and meaty final track “Only The Green, Blue and Black” is a highlight.

The corrosion in G Park’s “Nosode” is largely digital, heavy bit-crunching, phasing and thick shifting equalisation taking fairly ordinary sounds like dripping taps and breaking them down into evil-sounding and edgy sonic abstracts across two fairly flat but intriguing 17 minute textures.

Himukalt’s “Torn Asunder- The Half Girl” is an exercise in unrelenting fury. Passionate angry feedback and noise walls punch your ears repeatedly, heavily distorted spoken-word monologues are barely discernible, raw sexual noises are thrown in for added affrontery. It jumps between structureless assembly and infrequent more industrial pattern-based sections such as when a kick drum pops in and out of “Cruel By Most Estimations”. “Absent” is the most successful track but the whole thing feels like reading somebody else’s private diary about a relationship that’s broken down in violent fashion.

Alice Kemp’s “9 Dreams In Erotic Mourning” also feels like relationship breakdown channeled into sound, but very differently. The stereotypical British bottling up of emotion seems at play here, as lethargic synth-piano melodies take precedent and suppressed feelings creep in at the edges, in the form of electric hums, masturbatory and pained vocalisations, identifiable rustling, and the like. These feelings break through periodically, most notably in the screams of “Alles Ist Wie Es Ist”, but it remains an odd balancing act of repression and expression.

Kleistwahr’s “Winter” also juxtaposes long harmonious melodic pads with more impulsive and gritty injunctions, this time more guitar-like, but across these two twenty-minute pieces it’s a contrast that feels more assured, almost enjoyed. It’s a tourist’s journey through discord but it somehow feels safe and unchallenging. Even as the pitch steadily shifts up and up and up in “Rust Eats the Future”, it somehow never sounds stressful or tense- which is very curious considering the ingredients.

“A Collection Of Damaged Reel Tape Loops” by Francisco Meirino also makes awkward noise palatable. There is no melodic element here, but there are windy envelopes that stroll over the main meat of the production, which is unrecognisably distorted sonic blowout and feedback that comes round and round, in looped patterns, to create rhythm and structure seemingly by accident. What could possibly me old music hall recordings drift through into your consciousness vaguely as it progresses, a literal but powerful interpretation of the corrosion of recorded sound-history.

No-wave, anti-rock duo Neutral offer up “Lagliv” which feels faintly anachronistic in this set thanks to the dominance of heavy guitar thrashing. A cacophony of dramatic documentary sound and spoken-word elements ride atop thick noise work but it still feels like the album here which is closest to what it would sound like if performed live. Of the two eighteen-minute tracks here, it was “Ganska lagt / Ocksa” that felt more accessible to me thanks to its increased inclusion of electronic noise, since I’m an electronics kid at heart.

Pinkcourtesyphone’s reliably minimalist “Shouting At Naunce” is an entrancing but uneventful forty-nine minutes of light electronic pulses, long delays, and slowly fading and breathing hums that’s absolutely charming and eminently soporific. Second piece “Alternatory” is marginally more melodic, adding to the sense of lullaby. If anything my only criticism of this work is that, in view of the overriding theme of the collection, this work doesn’t sound corroded- if anything it sounds smoothed, like a glossy sonic pebble. It joins other Pinkcourtesyphone releases on my sleep playlists.

Relay For Death’s “Mutual Consuming” is also a pair of long ambient works with a wave approach and a soporific flavour, but quite a different tone- there’s something steadily metallic about the resonances here, never straying fully into nails-down-the-blackboard territory but sharp enough to give an underlying sense of tension. Unlike the previous album, this does build to something dramatic, with second piece “Terminal Ice Wind” stepping assuredly up in level until it earns some dramatic deep bangs and crashes, corrosion akin to hearing the rapid cracking of a huge ice sheet from the point of view of someone trapped in the ice.

Alice Kundalini, as She Spread Sorrow, offers up “Orchid Seeds”. It’s storytelling-driven, powered by a breathy spoken word narrative that’s frankly hard to follow and feels invasively and deliberately over-intimate. This works on top of a bed of dark sonic textures, primarily super-low bass rumbles on the border of reproducible sound and ordinary hearing, but also cut through by higher-pitched rapid pulses and some very high-pitched squealing sounds that add to the discomfort. Occasionally, kicks and sub-bass sounds borrowed from dubby deep trip-hop bring everything up a level, making tracks like “She Didn’t Care” more memorable. Despite being split into five pieces, it mostly plays as a single unit, with the track divisions feeling as much chapter-based as they are by sonic change. A word of warning about the distant relentless old-fashioned telephone ringing sound that sits in the background of “Queen Of Guilt”- it will make you think your phone’s ringing, even if it doesn’t sound anything like your ringtone.

It’s presented as a 10-cassette set in a wooden box, but I only have the digital files to review so I can’t comment on the physical aspects of it. The packshot photo certainly makes it look like a thing of retro beauty though.

Sonically, it’s certainly a work of art. The way in which ten different artists have tackled the overarching theme, drawing parallels between themselves but also setting off in ten tangibly different directions. Everyone will have different favourites- I’d probably single out Pinkcourtesyphone and Francisco Meirino as mine- but people with a lot of time (and presumably money- I don’t know the asking price) to invest in dark electrosonic arts will find a lot that’s worthwhile in this nearly seven-hour-long collection.


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