Music Reviews



Barry Schrader: The Barnum Museum

 Posted by Steve Mecca   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Aug 02 2013
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Artist: Barry Schrader (@)
Title: The Barnum Museum
Format: CD
Label: Innova (@)
Rated: *****
Although I've never heard of American electro-acoustic composer Barry Schrader before, he's been around for quite some time (since the 1970's) garnering much critical acclaim for his work. Schrader began composing electronic music in 1969 while a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, where he was also organist for Sunday high mass at Heinz Chapel, thereafter going on to California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California, where he received an MFA in composition in 1971. He was appointed to the School of Music faculty of CalArts in 1971, and has been on the composition faculty ever since. Schrader is the founder and the first president of SEAMUS (Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States) and has been involved with the inauguration and operation of several performance series such as SCREAM (Southern California Resource for Electro-Acoustic Music), among other things.

Obviously since I haven't heard of Barry Schrader before, I haven't heard any of his previous work either, but I was certainly intrigued by the title of the album. 'The Barnum Museum' to me conjures the world of the showman, huckster, and all manner of oddities. Barnum's American Museum was quite a place in its time (1841 ' 1865) where for a quarter you could experience a wide variety of strange and unusual people, things, and events, but this work by Schrader is not about the actual museum but rather the short story titled 'The Barnum Museum' by Steven Millhauser taken from his book by the same title. The short story 'Eisenheim the Illusionist' on which the movie 'The Illusionist' was based appears in the same book, for some frame of reference if like me, you haven't read Millhauser. From what I understand about Millhauser's Barnum Museum story is rather an extended fantasy, described as 'a fantasia of a vast and magical institution that adapts to the desires of its visitors.' In that description Schrader seems to be on target with his tone poems that delve into Millhauser's ideas.

Nine pieces comprise Schrader's 'Barnum Museum,' ranging from Grand Guignol to the sublime. The beginning, 'The Romanesque and Gothic Entranceways' features demonic then placid pipe organ, a medieval march, and culminates in a reprisal of the demonic pipe organ theme in a tumultuous ending. 'The Hall of Mermaids' is liquidy mystery, sometimes light and celestial, sometimes dense and heavy. 'The Caged Griffin' radiates a strong and regal presence, then shifts into rhythmic tension causing trepidation, finally calming at the end. 'The Subterranean Levels' begins with descending arpeggios followed by a steadily persistent muted clacking or chaking, possibly the sound of machinery in the chambered depths. Of course, the subterranean levels sound very'¦subterranean! Not that there is necessarily anything very evil down there, but all manner of oddities and unusual things seem to lurk within, including some absolutely haywire machinery. 'The Flying Carpet' certainly gives a sense of airy motion without the use of any percussive rhythm, simply by swirling oblique arpeggios mixed with drones. It's a rather interesting form that the composer employs here, using slight underlying minor themes to add an air of mystery. There is much more depths to these layers than you are likely to catch on the first listening. Where 'The Flying Carpet' had no definitive rhythmic element, 'The Homunculus in a Jar' begins with a rhythmic wooden xylophone-like synth sequence, but is quickly abandoned for a swirling, dense atmosphere that morphs into a machine-like drone, then back to a different, more intense wooden xylophone-like synth sequence. I'm reminded somewhat of Harry Partch here. 'Chinese Kaleidoscopes' has a clattering of glass-like sounds and similar sequenced synth timbres utilizing pentatonic scale which increases in swirling intensity, and eventually density until it is absorbed by pipe organ grandeur. A metamorphosis occurs and the spinning kaleidoscopes reflect a thousand butterflies, or, so I envisioned.

Schrader's piece de résistance in this strange menagerie is the phantasmagorical 16+ minute piece de résistance 'Chamber of False Things,' which is comprised of 'Porphyry Figurines from Atlantis,' 'Golden Cups from El Dorado,' and 'Water from the Fountain of Youth.' Whatever there was previously, there is even more of it in here. The minor three chord theme from the beginning is reprised; there is more descent and opening into vast space; toots of a calliope; dark and ominous drones; a march-like percussive section on hollow wood; glittering fairy dust falling from above; more swirling arpeggios, culminating in a crescendo of the great pipe organ again. Awesome!

Words fail in these descriptions as this is something that you just have to hear. I don't know whether Schrader succeeded in capturing the flavor of Millhauser's short story, but he did succeed in making a most enigmatic and intriguing soundscape. 'The Barnum Museum' should appeal to steampunk aficionados too. I'm giving this album five stars not only because I because I think that it's an amazing work, but also because it's intriguing to enough to warrant multiple plays, and I don't see how it could be any better.

Mirt: Healing South

 Posted by Andrea Piran (@)   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Jul 31 2013
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Artist: Mirt
Title: Healing South
Format: 12"
Label: Backwards (@)
Rated: *****
The theme of is new album from Mirt is "derived from exotic vision of class B old adventure films and cheap comic stories". The musical result is an attempt to obtain a crossover between a pop song structure and some experimental effort to obtain the typical atmosphere of sci-fi and adventure movie, the first genre to historically feature electronic and experimental music.
The first side is opened by "Disaster", a track focused con dreamy lines of synth and found sounds. "Soul" is instead a proper pop tune with vocals even if it's more structured than the average. "Papa Legba" closes the side with an almost meditative mood created by the loops and the oriental beats. Side 2 opens with "Bury Me Here" a soundscape created with a sparse noises, a drone and some effects. "Hunger" is based on the juxtaposition of a glitchy beat and a textured sonic landscape "South" closes this release with the dreamy synth and a beat created with the baseline.
Some lines could be a sort of "looney tunes" but, as the linear notes stated, this has been consciously done searching for this kind of mood. It worths a listen when it's not season for avant-garde but for something to hear while reading a comic book and drinking a wine. Nice.

VV.AA.: Joy - schole compilation vol.3

 Posted by Vito Camarretta (@)   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Jul 30 2013
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Artist: VV.AA.
Title: Joy - schole compilation vol.3
Format: CD
Label: Schole (@)
Rated: *****
One of the most suitable Japanese word to translate "joy" or "delight" is "yorokobi", whose kanji transcription is made up of a couple of words, literally meaning "rejoice in beauty" or "take pleasure in beauty". Such a concept which involves both emotional and aesthetic aspect perfectly fits to the third compilation album by renowned Tokyo-based label Schole, which follows the successful self-named first compilation (sold out) and the second one titled "Note of seconds" and doesn't lose to deservedly celebrate its 5th anniversary by a bunch of 13 delicate tracks with different emotional declension of what we name "joy": the lovely melodic baldness of Akira Kosemura's "Joy" - that kind of song some listeners could use as a soundtrack for the videoclip of the first final recital at school of your little son, the first dance display of your daughter or a memorable country outing with your family! -, the subtle connections with French pop songs of the initial whistled "Beginning" by Mamerico, the gentle chromatic whirlgigs and the delighting cherafic choir of "Irodori" by Yoshinori Takezawa, the enchanting ascending clockwork of "Air" by [.que], the acoustic-guitar-driven representation of the spirited jollity of a group of pupils on "Welcome To My Playground" by Humminbert Stereo, the balletic intertwine of guitar, piano and female voice of "Evergreen" by Akira Kosemura, [.que] and Lasah, the explosions of ethereal tenderness of "Imagine Fun" by no.9, the exquisite pianistic cammeo of "Short Story" by Quentin Sirjack, the daydreaming musical box of "Day Light Dream" by Sawako and Daisuke Miyatani, the dissoluble listening pearls of the mesmerizing "Santiago" by Ghost And Tape, the perfumed drops of minimal chiming piano of "Incense" by Teruyuchi Nobuchika, the charming guitar ballad of "Light Dance" by Paniyolo and the folkish portrait of "Anne" by Haruka Nakamura. I'm pretty sure many listeners will easily enjoy these delightful musical miniatures, which anticipate forthcoming directions of the label as well.

Luca Forcucci: Fog Horns

 Posted by Vito Camarretta (@)   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
Experimental / Avantgarde / Weird & Wired / Glitch / Noise / Field Recording
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Jul 28 2013
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Artist: Luca Forcucci (@)
Title: Fog Horns
Format: CD
Label: Sub Rosa (@)
Rated: *****
The premise that half Italian half Swiss young sound artist Luca Forcucci made about this surreal release, the 14th chapter the prestigious Belgian label Sub Rosa added to his limited-edition Framework series, could let you surmise the initial title-track and the following two long lasting suites could belong to a sort of sonic document about sensorial hallucinations that tiredness could cause; he spoke about "twelve hours of flight and some sleep deprivation" before his landing in San Francisco. So Luca explained, "Because of or thanks to my state of consciousness, I heard a distinct and beautiful sound. It took me a while to understand if I was really hearing it or dreaming it: the sound of the fog horns". The field recordings of conversations by anonymous pedestrians, chirping birds, delayed noises of a train trip and other sonic clues intertwines with the sound of distant fog horns he listened after he landed in San Francisco in Spring 2011 and those fog horns have been turned into the cement of endoplasmic reticulum of sounds, including some hip-hop scratches by Le Gooster on "Fog Horns", which sound like unexpected reminiscences resurfacing from inner depths or frenzied parties, the occasional metallic hits of crockery, other hip-hop morsels and the mesmeric over-stretched cello by Michael Kott on the somehow disquieting and hallucinatory atmospheres of the final track "Winds". On the central track "L'Ecume des Jours", fog horns became the imaginary vertex of a mysterious building who got erected both in the spacial and the sonic dimension, whose architectural principles lay on the sound of crashing waves, puffed electric distortions and scorched reedy samples which chorally becames headier and headier by emphasizing the artistic metamorphosis of this device that warned vehicles of navigational hazards or boats of the presence of other vessels or other obstacles in foggy condition into a presence, which is both reassuring and unsettling as it succeeds in evoking an impending danger by means of his orotund heavy "voice" and his effect on sonic sphere which seems to be covered by a sort of camouflage mantle.

Kamil Kowalczyk: Nova

 Posted by Steve Mecca   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Jul 26 2013
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Artist: Kamil Kowalczyk (@)
Title: Nova
Format: CD
Label: self-released
Rated: *****
Kamil Kowalczyk, originally from Poland, now based in Edinburgh, Scotland is a minimalist electronic musician who has released six albums in mp3 format on the U.S. net label 'Zenapolae' and another in CD format ('Aurora', 2011) plus this one available in CDr and digital download. If 'Nova' is any indication of what he's been up to, I'd say Kamil is certainly someone you might want to check the back catalogue of. 'Nova' consists of nine sort mostly lengthy pieces, with one short one at 4:33. From the album and track names, you can tell these pieces are "space-oriented" (as in outer space), but don't expect anything akin to classic 'space music'. This is actually much closer to the coldness and sterility of space, or as it might be imagined. The soundscapes are primarily composed of drones of various colors, tonalities, and densities, using different LFO and filtering techniques to blend and contrast them. Voices, sometimes echoed, sometimes not occasionally appear, some seeming like astronaut/mission transmissions, and others, eerie disembodied voices...in space. (I won't spoil your experience by telling you what they say.) As minimal as the soundscapes are though, there is still an amount of aural variety in sonic events and incidentals. Throughout the course of the nine pieces you will likely feel you are traversing the void, and experiencing light cast from the stars, shimmering and shifting in your perspective. At a point in the recording there almost seems to be a dimensional bending, as if space was being folded. This is a very heady album and I'd encourage listening in both headphone and open speaker environment to experience it fully. 'Nova' is certainly one for more contemplative, relaxed moods when you can take the time to fully absorb it. If you haven't listened to this kind of music since Tangerine Dream's 'Zeit,' and loved it, I'd say this is a 'Must Buy'. (Album is limited to 250 CDr copies.) It is very deep. You could easily get 'Lost in Space'.


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