Music Reviews

Sverre Knut Johansen & Robert Rich: Precambrian

 Posted by Steve Mecca   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Jul 08 2019
Artist: Sverre Knut Johansen & Robert Rich (@)
Title: Precambrian
Format: CD + Download
Label: Spotted Peccary Music (@)
Rated: *****
'Precambrian,' the latest album by Norwegian electronic music composer Sverre Knut Johansen, in collaboration with iconic American ambient drone artist Robert Rich, focuses on the prehistoric development of planet earth, going all the way back to the Hadean Eon (4.6 billion years ago). In case you need an earth science refresher on the prehistoric periods, one is provided for you on the inside of the 6-panel slipcase the CD comes in. The intention on 'Precambrian' is to take the listener on a journey through the following epochs - Hadean Eon, Archean Eon, Proterozoic Era, Paleozoic Era, Mesozoic Era, Cenozoic Era, then the (modern) Anthropocene, and finally, summing up in Precambrian. This is all quite impressionistic, since there are no actual accounts of what life was like during most of these periods. In a sense, this is more of a fantasia than an actual aural presentation of what these prehistoric times might sound like, which would probably be pretty boring for the most part. Beginning with a rush of white noise, then eerie drones, the earth's initial existence is shrouded in mystery. Weird whistling oscillations and heavy space ambience harken to an unsettled time on earth's cooling crust. Eventually, life bubbles up slowly and a less tumultuous environment emerges, with a bass sequence (eventually embellished with other synth elaborations) to represent the pattern of microbial life being formed. As life evolves the ambience becomes more complex and less alien. Johansen provides most of the atmospheres, ambiences and synth work, while Rich contributes piano, Haken Continuum (a most expressive keyboard instrument that goes well beyond any standard synth controller) and gliss guitar. David Helpling also contributes guitar textures on a couple of tracks. These elements add a certain humanistic factor, even in the pre-human eras. Some (ambient purists) may be put off by the musicality that evolves out of some of the pieces, but there are no memorable tunes to hum, or toe-tapping rhythms. Much of this is likely for dramatic effect, as if you were watching a movie. Still, even with pterodactyl cries and strange bird chirps there is enough ambient atmosphere to please most who enjoy these kind of soundscapes. It isn't until the next to last track, "Anthropocene," where humans enter the picture and impact earth's geological and ecosystems that things get really intense, ominous and scary. (As well it should, considering what we're facing today with the environment.) There's also a bit of sadness to it as well. The summation in the title track (also the longest on the album by a few seconds) is the most orchestrated and dramatic piece on the album, giving the impression that it's better to go out with a bang rather than a whimper. A tremendous amount of effort has been put into this, not only musically, but also in the visual art and text of the 6-panel slipcase and 20 page booklet. It may not trip the trigger of every ambient music enthusiast out there, but should be lauded for its grandeur and the ambitious attempt to stuff the billions of years of earth’s eco-history into a little more than an hour’s worth of music.

Hüma Utku: Gnosis

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Techno / Trance / Goa / Drum'n'Bass / Jungle / Tribal / Trip-Hop
Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Jul 05 2019
Artist: Hüma Utku
Title: Gnosis
Format: 12" vinyl + Download
Label: Karlrecords
After putting out releases under the alias R.A.N., Hüma Utku has now come forward with a full album in her own name. Sonically the approach is still the same, in principle- taking the sonic palette of techno and stretching it into darker environments, with thicker rumbling atmospherics and low drones. And that’s absolutely fine, because it works very well indeed.

For most of opener “Vulnerary” and the first part of “Black Water Red”, we get only low gutpunching bass noises and scratchy atmospherics. It’s only part-way through the second track that more elements begin to emerge and a broader techno-scope is revealed, with muted chanting samples and tribal percussion sounds.

There’s a ‘passing the baton’ feel where each track seems to take elements from the previous track and bring something new- the third track temporarily keeps the chanting elements and adds a more upbeat delay-driven rhythmic pulse, as though the first 20 minutes of this release are all an epic build-up to something- though no punch-through or big reveal ever arrives.

“All The Universe Conspires” brings with it vocal pads that up the emotive level. “A Gift From The Dark Ages” brings with it extremely slow bell-like sustained notes that are so slow in developing and transitioning that you find yourself skipping back through the track to check whether the melody really is changing or whether you’re going slightly mad- some slightly screechy EDM tweaks to bring things back in line at the end. Final track “All-one” almost entirely ditches the rhythm in favour of crisp impulsive muted bursts of white noise that feel like a natural deconstruction of the elements, as a conclusion of sorts.

It’s 41 minutes of thickly textured techno and deep dark electronica, frequently arhythmic and broody but not overtly sinister. It makes excellent use of a fairly minimal approach at times, resulting in something that’s captivating in its detail, and not built for casual or incidental listening. If you’re willing to don the headphones, dip the lights and close your eyes for 40 minutes though, it’s a deep sonic journey worth your full attention.

Philippe Petit: Descent Into The Maelstrom

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
Experimental / Avantgarde / Weird & Wired / Glitch / Noise / Field Recording
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Jul 01 2019
Artist: Philippe Petit
Title: Descent Into The Maelstrom
Format: CD + Download
Label: Opa-Loka
Petit’s “Descent Into The Maelstorm” is a pair of chaotic and noisy works, “Descent” and “Into The Maelstrom” (with a four-minute interlude piece “_ _ _” inbetween), inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name about surviving a whirlwind, a story which some people now regard as an early example of science-fiction.

And early science-fiction seems to be an inspiration sonically here as well- this is a cacophony of old-fashioned-sounding simple analogue modular twists and turns, derived from that most fashionable of retro electro-experimental instruments, a Buchla easel. Squeals and bleeps akin to 1960’s sound designers impressions of broken robots or egomaniacal computers are the other of the day.

But unlike the 60’s trend for sparsity (driven at least in part by technical limitations), here the sounds are laid on thickly. Rapid-fire comb filters abound throughout, keeping the energy level persistently high. The noises are dragged into an artificial stereo due to processing the signals differently for each channel, which ends up being quite discombobulating, like being told subtly variant versions of a story in each ear at the same time- strangely tiring in a sitting of almost 50 minutes.

Moments of relative calm provide breathing space- for example at the 13:30 mark in “Descent” when the composition wantonly demonstrates an audacious change of musical note, or 7:30 into “Maelstrom” where it sounds like The Clangers have arrived to party- but these moments are brief and it’s rarely long before another ascent into the more manic arrangement begins. Despite the naming, if anything it’s the “Maelstrom” second track that is slightly more subdued than the first- not actually calm, but with a deeper, more bass-rich profile that isn’t quite as grating.

The press release states- or at least implies- that the Buchla is the source and this is a one-take affair, but the level of complexity involved certainly gives the impression (perhaps falsely) that there are both other sources and other processes at play, because it is sonically more diverse than one instrument would normally provide. Some of the higher-pitched elements sound like vocal noises that have been digitally cut-up and glitched, and some of the fastest parts do give the impression of digital dissection post-performance; but if that’s not the case then it is a compliment to the capability of the Buchla.

It’s a wilfully difficult listen, and I would definitely recommend headphones for it to get the fullest effect. If you’re in the mood for a gloopy, indulgent and moderately abrasive analogue aural bath to give your ears a good modular scrubbing, then dive into this.

Daisuke Miyatani: Diario

 Posted by Vito Camarretta (@)   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Jun 30 2019
Artist: Daisuke Miyatani
Title: Diario
Format: CD
Label: Schole (@)
Rated: *****
There's a sort of sentimental value behind the decision by Akira Kosemura's imprint Schole to re-release this album by Daisuke Miyatani, having been the first version released by German label Ahornfelder in 2007, as it seems that this collection of intimate musical sketches this guitarist from Awaji Island, who already appeared on Schole in 2008 on a collaboration with Sawako (the album "Hi Be No ne"), has been a sort of source for inspiration as well as a part of the definition of Schole sonic research. The record was entirely made by an acoustic guitar, fragile electronic sounds, field recordings and occasional parts of xylophone and other instruments or just objects, that are often assembled in quite raw recordings - as it's clear since the track "Edadone" for instance, made only by sly strokes of an acoustic guitar, followed by what sounds like the tapping on a glass, following the opening "View", where a 'glitch plated' field recording grabbed into a runaway train get abruptly interrupted after 37 seconds -. The fragmententation of many parts over the whole records, the sudden fading in/out seems to follow the stream of consciousness, the role of the perception of external world (sometimes a distraction, sometimes a part or a sparkle of inner talking) and the introspective breakouts, that often go with the drafting of a personal log in the pages of diary (the tile "Diario" is the Italian word for diary), are consistent both with the conceptual framework of the record and the mission/vision of Schole, in general. There are many moments when audiophile could dwell on the beauty of the sounds that Daisuke naively forged and the ones that he also made for the four previously unreleased tracks (I particularly appreciated the entrancing ambient of "Brew" and the antiquated sound of the final track "Kurasu"), that come as a bonus, but I recommend listening to it all in one breath!

flica: Sub:Side

 Posted by Vito Camarretta (@)   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Jun 29 2019
Artist: flica
Title: Sub:Side
Format: CD
Label: Schole (@)
Rated: *****
Five years after "Weekendary", a co-production by Mü-Nest, the Kuala Lampur-based indipendent label which launched his debut 11 years ago, and Shibuya-based indie label Inpartmaint Inc., the Malaysian composer Euseng Seto aka flica reappeared on Akira Kosemura's imprint Schole last year for "Sub:Side", an album that could also be considered a way to celebrate his first decade of activity, but also another stage of his creative path. Over this path, he met the bassist Kent Lee and the subsequent collaboration brought the extensive usage of improvised loops, that he begun to integrate on live stage during his tour in China and Japan, before integrating them in the compositional process. The main features, that many listeners who immediately fell in love with the sound of this artist, are unchanged yet, but flica seems to move his lovely sound towards a more lo-fi and minimal approach, as if he understood that keeping the composition simple is a good way to render the melancholy, that often featured his music. Such a neat and somehow functional approach doesn't imply a renunciation of a certain stylistic diversification. The opening "Listener" crosses the statistical territories of groups like the Icelandic band Múm by its delicate balance between crackling percussions, ambient breezes and chidplay melodies, while the style of the following track "Moor" by its balanced union of three complementary piano lines, the chiming guitar lines and its beats could remind some stuff that got pushed by Expanding Records by artists like Monoceros, Benge or Cathode more than a decade ago. The track that gets closer to flica aesthetics, if you had any chance to listen to his previous albums, is maybe "Aire", a track where any element get inserted in a flawless pattern that will be led by an airy string towards an ambient suite, while instrumental parts gradually fade out. A softened kick drum that acts like an enzyme in the childish reverie, which can be sparkled by the other resounding elements (particularly the sustained bass chords by Kent Lee), features the following track "Waver". The frail delicacy of a bunch of piano tones that gets turned into a sort of harp by a wisely modulated delay and echo, fosters the lulling evanescent melody of "Whisperer". The slow chimes and the following expanding piano chords hides the structural complexity of "GMT+o", that becomes clear with the introduction of beats and ambiance. Some unexpected dim lights appear on the following "Sputnik", where only a kalimba-like percussive melody adds some lights on the seemingly saddest track of the album. "Wednesday" and "336 Hours" don't shine in their own reflection, as they are based on the shuffling of ideas, that sometimes got better expressed in some previous tracks, while on the final "Nephilim" a surprising bluesy touch got added to flica's sound.

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