Music Reviews

Sean Julian: Sounds of the Birch Forest

 Posted by Steve Mecca   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Apr 15 2018
Artist: Sean Julian (@)
Title: Sounds of the Birch Forest
Format: Download Only (MP3 + Lossless)
Label: Take It Easy Policy (@)
Rated: *****
A while ago a guy dropped into my book & record store, and while perusing some of my more non-mainstream CDs, struck up a conversation about electronic music. His name is Sean Julian and he said he'd been working with a Buchla System (portable Music Easel model) and had made a recording at his cabin in the woods outside of Bath, N.Y. using synthesis in conjunction with field recordings of the surrounding environment. I promised I'd give it a listen and if conducive to our genre format, review it here. I should let you know that 'Sounds of the Birch Forest' is being distributed by the small Take It Easy Policy label out of Oslo, Norway. Originally available on cassette, the cassette sold out so now it is only available by digital download. 'SOTBF' is comprised of 16 (mostly brief) tracks that take some fairly expected field recording sounds (water, thunder, rain, birds, crickets, leaves rustling in the wind, footsteps trudging in the snow, crackling fire, etc.) and combines them with Buchla synthesized sounds. A number of the tracks are hinted at by the titles - "Thunder Beings," "Buchla Crickets," "Tending Fire," "Insects Swarming," etc., but there's still a lot left to your imagination. As for the synth programming, some of it is pretty basic synthesizer experimentation, and reminded me of the kind of stuff I was doing when I first acquired an ARP 2600 (long gone now). Some of it is a bit more elaborate employing sequencing and more advanced forms of modulation as well as overdubbing. Still, there is a minimalism here in the general simplicity of these pieces. Because of a certain musicality woven through a good number of these tracks I wouldn't call this work strictly ambient as some of it is melambient (my word; melodic-ambient) and other portions more or less experimental. The opener, "Thunder Beings" begins with the sounds of rain and thunder while an old piano plays a melancholy melody, and a bit later a voice comes in with a subtle recitation. The piano is the only real instrument I heard on this album and does not return; ie- not typical of the majority of the album. Later, a track called "Haunted" uses a Wendy Carlos style deep sawtooth bass riff (Think 'The Shining' soundtrack) while crows caw overhead and someone sounds like they're walking through the woods. A bit on the ominous side but welcome, and a good offset for some of the happier tracks. "Falling Leaves" uses Tangerine Dream style rapid multi-sequenced synth as its basis. Elsewhere on other tracks big bellish tones ring out (got that ring modulator working), melodic sequenced synth happily chugs along, high whistling tones swirl around, trilling, twittering and frequency sweep oscillators roiling, burbling, buzzing, zizzing, etc., etc. To some degree there is a touch of New Ageyness to parts of this work, but I wouldn't define it as New Age. Perhaps the high point on 'SOTBF' is the 9:10 "Night Sounds" track which is a neat excursion into darkside emanations. Overall though, I'm reminded of Wendy Carlos' 'Sonic Seasonings' album, a landmark ambient recording from 1972. That's definitely not a bad thing.

Amalgamated: TO

 Posted by Steve Mecca   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Apr 08 2018
Artist: Amalgamated (@)
Title: TO
Format: CD + Download
Label: Aubjects (@)
Rated: *****
Somewhat recently I've reviewed solo projects by two member of Amalgamated - Phil Klampe (Homogenized Terrestrials) and Bob Newell (forM). Other members include Cory Bengsten and Mike Richards, with production assistance (mixing/mastering) by D. Petri of the Aubjects label. This Illinois-based collaborative makes some astonishing instrumental electronic music that crosses the genres of elctronica, industrial, psychedelic, ambient, dark ambient, noise, IDM, experimental, and what-have-you since about 2004. On their own, these guys are quite formidable. Together, just amazing and enigmatic. You really never know what you're going to get with an Amalgamated recording, and to be honest, this one almost slipped through the cracks, being accidentally tossed on my "already reviewed" pile. At first I wasn't even sure what it was. It comes with a piece of patterned vellum, a 36 page mini-booklet of mostly abstract black & white images and the CD has a fuchsia stenciled spray paint design on it. The printing on the vellum is hard to see, but it did have the basics on it to tell me that it was Amalgamated. (The physical version of this is limited to only 36 copies.)

'TO' consists of only five tracks - Euhedral (7:38); Chronometeorite (22:44); Phlebneutrics pt. 1 (4:48); Phlebneutrics pt. 2 (6:37); Stoichiometry (12:55) recorded in 2014-2015. Each is quite different from the other. "Euhedral" begins with a bassy, bouncy, springy synth amidst an atmosphere of noise pads, wild echoed oscillators and other spacey effects. Eventually it deconstructs into some type of randomized computer code, or so it would seem. There's an awful lot going on here and it's hard to keep your head above water through it all. "Chronometeorite" has a touch of the old Eno~Moebius~Roedelius to it with a sustained string synth, rhythmic bass synth sequence (morphing into a fuller rhythm) and then a carnival-like synth as it chugs its way into the nether-regions. When the rhythmic impetus disappears, you'll find yourself adrift in quantum spacetime, where all sorts of particle variables come into play. These are difficult to describe without going into the minutia of the sonics, best experienced on your own. Suffice to say the listener will be drifting through sound elements familiar and unfamiliar, like a psychedelic experience. As you pass through that, you step through the radiance to "the other side," back to a physical industrialized soundscape that's almost comical in its mechanization. "Phlebneutrics pt. 1" is the most strictly ambient piece so far, containing events but with the major element of drone. "Phlebneutrics pt. 2" is a richer, more developed sort of ambient with far more layers and elements to it than part 1, and a different feel. Towards the end there is even a chaotic sort of breakbeat rhythm. "Stoichiometry" begins with a rhythm reminiscent of Cluster & Eno and high open-filter synth sequenced along with it giving it a very musical feel. Various modulations along the way change and transform the piece until it consolidates into a singular drone, then mutates into a rainy city evening. There is a tinnitular background ambience that fills the space between the raindrops. There you have it.

"TO" is probably best listened to without focus as it's best appreciated without dissecting the sonics and just letting the feeling wash over you. For those who don't care much about physical product (if there are even any left) you can buy the digital album from the Aubjects Bandcamp site for only 4 bucks which is pretty cheap for this much creativity.

Astral & Shit: Divo

 Posted by Andrea Piran (@)   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Apr 08 2018
Artist: Astral & Shit
Title: Divo
Format: CD
Label: Black Mara (@)
Rated: *****
Astral & Shit is the prolific project of Ivan Gomzikov from Russia. This release is presented with evocative words hinting a sort of gnostic inspiration behind it and this usually means that it's a dark ambient release. In fact, the music of this project is a canonical dark ambient but there's a more structured writing behind it i.e., it's not a simple drone but there's a more layered approach to sound using evocative samples.
The first track, "Riphean Mountains", has a quiet first part based on sparse samples on a pulsating background, a second one based on a sharp drone and third one based on a sort of hum. "Ursa Major" is a crescendo which surrounds the listener. "Polota Crossing" has a first part based on evocative foley sounds introducing a more canonical second part which evolves in "Mugodzhar", static track based on a too slowly evolving drone while "Taganay" make an effective use of noise to generate the illusion of movement. "Beryls Eyes" closes this release with a moving drone carefully constructed and developed.
While not exactly ground-breaking and somehow trivial in some solutions, it has good moments when the sound construction has the lead instead of a too contemplative drone. Only for fans of the genre but they will enjoy the release.

Matawan: We Lingered In The Chambers Of The Sea

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Apr 08 2018
Artist: Matawan
Title: We Lingered In The Chambers Of The Sea
Format: Tape
Label: Midira Records
Gareth Chapman and Barclay Brennan, as Matawan, release a turquoise cassette (and thankfully a download) of a single 31-minute melodic ambient piece in which various chord patterns and soft melodies in interesting and counterpounting rhythm patterns wash back and forth in gradually adjusting, quite thickly-applied layers. Repeating synth-string pads and organ-like synths and reverb-bathed piano sounds meld with slightly harder-edged tones, and a subtle whiff of processed guitar, to give the “full bombastic synth-orchestra” version of relaxing ambient music.

In the latter third, multiple layers of synchronised arpeggio melodies (from a “basic 90’s keyboard” apparently) add a pulsing rhythm that was absent before, tending at times almost towards synthpop chord changes, but deferring from assembling into any larger form or structure.

It’s a dense and straightforwardly emotional listen where changes happen a little more rapidly than you expect, almost as though a longer work has been compressed in time here because the duo found a stock of turquoise C60’s. It’s quite bold, but perhaps lacking in dynamism inbetween sections, and too relentlessly full-on, bordering on bombastic, for it to really strike an emotional chord. “Needs more light and shade”, as they say, but certainly a rich luxuriant carpet of symphonic-style ambient.

Amandus Schaap & Evert Kramer: Done

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Apr 07 2018
Artist: Amandus Schaap & Evert Kramer
Title: Done
Format: Tape
Label: Midira Records
Amandus Schaap and Evert Kramer stick to a fairly well-trodden path of piano-led ambient music with “Done”, their first release as a duo. Many familiar elements are in play here- gentle piano themes with subtle tape warbling, electronic constant-rain-meets-vinyl-hiss-meets-digital-wind atmospherics, long synthetic and melodic drone pads, ghostly vocal noises.

But while harshly I might say it plays well and truly by the ambient book, it’s certainly not an unpleasant listen. Pieces like “Aftermath” are strongly emotive, centred around sombre piano that ebbs into and out of synth-symphonic melodies. The piano work on tracks like “Drowning, Surface Reflections” is very strong, neither complex nor minimalist yet cleverly imbued with both melancholy and optimism.

It’s available on green transparent cassette and to download, and I’d recommend the latter- the subtle low-level rumble sections of this release are of the kind really quite unsuited to the hissy, whirry cassette medium. Going off on a tangent here but whoever decided that cassettes are cool but CD-Rs aren’t needs their ears examining- but that’s another story.

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