Music Reviews

Ana & Ina: On Dockweiler Beach

 Posted by Vito Camarretta (@)   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Jul 30 2017
Artist: Ana & Ina
Title: On Dockweiler Beach
Format: Tape
Label: Constellation Tatsu (@)
Rated: *****
The winter batch (I know a couple of seasons - spring and summer - hit the calendar in the meanwhile, but it doesn't really matter) by tape-label Constellation Tatsu I also found this cassette by Ana and Ina, monikers of writer Ashley Hoffman and visual artist Ian James, who also likes to play synths. Honestly, I wouldn't label it as a masterpiece of analogue-synth electronica, but what lay behind the curtain of this (not only) artistic liaison and the subsequent sonic project is somehow interesting. Ana and Ina met in Columbus, Ohio, and run together a spiritual path as lovers and friends that brought them to explore what they refer to as 'metaphysical plan' through a series of bizarre ways to a more or less artificial transcendence smelling like new-age spirits (including some devotional beliefs in asexual muscly angels, goofy and supposedly nonsensical poems carved in sandstone and reverie about technology-driven utopian society ruled by equality and no worries about money). The beliefs fostering their sound had an unavoidable influence on hit: the two long ambient suites (the 26-minutes lasting "Come In" and the 20 minutes of "Come Around" on the B-side of the tape) feature naively elongated minimal loops, sudden injections of blinding wide-resonating harmonics, lukewarm wrapping (even if often "wilted") tones, cricket-like whistles and other softening elements, lying in between the dime-a-dozen lo-fi new age stuff that someone can even receive as a gift by buying tons of smelling candles in one of those shops owned by former hippies and highest stuff by some interesting findings belonging to the so-called isolationist branch of ambient, such as the mesmerizing stuff by Sonic Boom/Pete Kember's Experimental Audio Research or some outputs by Todd Gautreau's project Tear Ceremony. Some writings by Ashley could maybe explain the reason why they quoted Dockweiler State beach (nearby Los Angeles) for the title. It deserves a check, even if please don't expect to reach some kind of enlightenment!

Expo 70: Exquisite Lust

 Posted by Levi Jacob Bailey (@)   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Jul 30 2017
Artist: Expo 70 (@)
Title: Exquisite Lust
Format: LP
Label: Sonic Meditations
I'm in the second day of a fast right now, so maybe I'm cranky or a little too clear, but this album isn't winning me over so far. It's ambient-ish, loop-based guitar music "crafted entirely from guitars, sitar and Moog". The bed drone in the opening track is fine, whatever, but the guitar loop stuff is basically dicking around. The atonal clashing moments come off as "whoops" moves rather than any attempt at tension or a resignation to chaos. I've heard playing like this at open-mic nights, I'm sorry to say.

"astrionics pt. I" turns the tables a bit...the guitar is more interesting, with melancholy, drifting arpeggios, but the drone stuff and and other guitar dickery kind of awkwardly plop themselves right into the middle of the mood. There's totally room for electronic noise alongside solo guitar stuff, but this is a bad example. The abrupt ending, at least the way they ended it on this vinyl (this is a reissue of a 2006 CDr), gives me the impression of an unrealized sketch rather than an intentional, cohesive statement. The pretty guitar or spookshow electronics would maybe work fine in a one-or-the-other situation, but they fail as a team here.

Side B, "motorik"...when you understand how loop pedals and delay effects work, and how easy it is to make weird sounds just by scratching your pick on the guitar strings bumping around the instrument, it becomes difficult to sit through things like this. I will say the addition of the Moog gives the listener more texture to explore, so good move, there. But when you're just dealing with texture for texture's sake, it doesn't really matter how many layers there are. There's some jazzy runs hidden in the middle of this track, but I'm getting the impression again that this is just more dicking around. I swear to God if the last run of notes had subtitles it would read: "Yeah, so you know, yeah whateverrrrr, whoooooo, uh. Sigh." Just an uninspired, beige slab, only there to impress the thoroughly baked or musically uninformed.

There's a heavily filtered drone happening right now that's actually kind of's so enveloped that it's kind of making my ears vibrate, and the feel is reminding me of good Lalo Schifrin Exorcist stuff, and it just led into some sickening stereo-field manipulated chatter that calls back to Wendy Carlos' "Colorado". And then the track ends. So the end of "motorik" gets a pass.

"village of forest" picks up where "motorik" left off, with thick, nauseating drone. It's legitimately "creepy", not just decoration. There's a menace here that was absent in the earlier tracks. Some square-wave sweeps dropping in, and this is sounding like an outtake from Brad Fiedel's "The Terminator" score. See? It's not that I hate drone, ambient, or improv loop stuff...I just need it to have some kind of actual depth. I'd be interested to know how far apart the sessions were for all these tracks. It sounds like this one was recorded at a darker time than the first two stinkers.

I know this genre works in lengthy durations to put you into the "zone", or whatever, but I definitely feel like there's a lot of tacked-on stuff to these pieces. The last two minutes of "village of forest" definitely feel like a hastily created exit tactic unrelated to the mood of the piece as a whole.

"witch hunt of the sun people" has the same problem as "astrionics pt. 1", being two poorly combined concepts of pretty guitar and ambient experimentation. Again, they do not give a seamless impression as much as oh-whatever jamming.

Back and forth, back and forth. "two black hearts" is excellent. The credits don't indicate there's Moog on this track, and I'm beginning to think the credits aren't correct. A Wire article quoted in the press sent with this album even lists different track titles ("Center Of The Earth"?), so I'm wondering if anything was changed from the initial CDr release. Anyways, there's some piercing high electronic tones on this track that don't seem guitar-generated. White noise hisses, and more powerful synth drone. When the guitar stuff comes in, it sounds like really good David Gilmour-creepjob stuff. This is a cool, menacing track. Things even get a bit crunchy towards the end, with fuzzed-out guitar strikes and blown-out synth washes.

"astrionics pt. II" seems to have almost nothing to do with it's predecessor, and joins the better tracks on the album. It says Justin Wright plays guitar on "all tracks", but it's buried here, or unrecognizable as guitar. This one doesn't feel overlong, either. Dark, ominous track with thick tones and a sensible conclusion.

The titular finale, "exquisite lust", opens with a soothing guitar-jangle loop that is soon surrounded in string-section like warmth from volume-swell tremolo washes, with sparse, bluesy picking on top. The strings effect is very convincing and lovely, and the jangle-loop disintegrating into itself works well in the mix. Some typical delay effect wankery is present as color, but it doesn't detract from the piece. I'm going to vote that the droning foundation on this track is the strongest, most impressive bed on the album. There's a clear reason it was used to close the album on a high note. There's a terrifying squall towards the end that again recalls Wendy Carlos' "The Shining" work, and an odd classical arpeggio that sounds like a ghost-echo from some other album. The whole thing reminds me of Elliot Goldenthal's "guitar orchestra" stuff for the Heat score, with a few out-there choices that were good or bad choices depending on which part of the mood you're enjoying. Again: I long for more cohesion.

This isn't awful stuff, but it's definitely a bit of an aimless mess. Completely listenable, and probably a fine addition to anyone's pile of ambient/improv/drone choices, but I just wish there had been some fat trimming and a better sense of blending and flow. The artwork is nice, but seems to be just lifted from some '70s art/porn stuff. The vinyl pressing is decent, but definitely seems to be mastered too hot, and starts to show its weaknesses quite a bit on the last side, at least with my copy, with peak snaps and lots of crackle that clearly isn't intentional. The tracks I did enjoy deserve a second listen, though, so I suppose I can comfortable recommend this, warts and all.

thisquietarmy: Democracy of Dust

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Jul 28 2017
Artist: thisquietarmy
Title: Democracy of Dust
Format: 12" vinyl + Download
Label: Midira Records
“Democracy Of Dust” is a fairly brief collection of bass-heavy drones and shoegaze blending long drawn-out distorted guitar tones with synthetic noises and heavy effects.

There’s a strong formula here- all three of the opening tracks begin with dark and heavy synthetic bass patterns defining the percussionless rhythm. This is then gradually unfolded as more and more layers of drones and effects washes gradually fade in until the scale has been notched up to ‘epic drone’. The strongest of these is the opener “Welcome To Mendacity”.

Things get more diverse in the second half. “The Harbinger” is a stand-out track, taking industrial process noises and filtering them into a kind of profoundly slow techno, where the temptation to fade in dozens of drone layers is resisted in favour of a more open and ambient guitar strumming. The final two tracks “A World Without Power” and “Nobody’s Free Until Everyone’s Free” both adopt a slightly more arpeggio-heavy synthwave approach, with a slightly more sci-fi cinematic result.

This is a release that will appeal to fans of M83 or Sigur Ros and who are willing to take things into slightly darker and more sinister electronic territory. It’s a rich and full-on work but it perhaps lacks the diversity and variety of inspiration that would have made it really shine.

Liam J Hennessy: Held

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Jul 27 2017
Artist: Liam J Hennessy
Title: Held
Format: 12" vinyl + Download
Label: Sound In Silence
Liam J Hennessy’s debut, a mini-album based on the concept of writing a song every month throughout 2016. “Held” represents the first six results, January through to June, a 21-minute six-track collection of gently atmospheric soundtrack-style instrumental pieces featuring gentle guitar melodies, soft synthetic drones and chords, and lightweight beats structured out of field recordings.

“Beacons” is a highlight, a slowly evolving and measured layering of elements with piano and a last-minute slightly militaristic snare drum that sonically veers a little close to Coldplay without getting too close. Final track “Viewpoint” is also strong, infusing the guitar patterns with a strong and not too cliché emotiveness.

There’s a certain sketch-like feeling to this release. Several of the tracks feel shorter than their atmosphere would have warranted. Opener “Frozen Lights” feels like an unfinished idea, especially when it stops (“Viewpoint” also has an over-abrupt tail). “Over The Bay” has the flavour of an instrumental that’s waiting for a vocal to be added.

Gentle, relaxing, inoffensive, cinematic and smooth, “Held” is a polished bit of downtempo melancholy which perhaps falls a little short of being a fully coherent work but is certainly a deeply pleasant aural wash.

Atonalist feat. Gavin Friday: Atonalism

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Jul 26 2017
Artist: Atonalist feat. Gavin Friday
Title: Atonalism
Format: 12" vinyl + Download
Label: Audiotrauma
Atonalist is a collaboration between Renaud-Gabriel Pion and Arnaud Fournier, with Gavin Friday providing vocals on half the tracks. Between them their CV’s have an extremely extensive list of name-drops, everybody from Antony & The Johnsons to Björk to U2. One man whose name isn’t on that list is David Bowie- yet what they’ve managed to create here sounds very much like a missing late 1990’s David Bowie album, or at least a tribute to one. It’s dark electronica with steady rhythms, overlaid with jazz noodling and occasional diversions into hardier and glitcher electronic noise. This is fashionable pop music gone seriously dark.

Gavin Friday’s deep, breathy vocal has more than a few shades of Bowie at his most low-key, particularly in the extremely languid “la la la la la” refrain of opening track “Different To The Others”. The gravelliness also has hints of Dieter Meier at times. Shunning verse-chorus structures for the most part in favour of a more off-the-cuff storytelling approach gives it plenty of character.

“The Philosopher’s Argument” is a highlight, a mellow and atmospheric call-and-response-style instrumental between wind instruments with the most subtle use of electronic clicks as a gentle bed. “Final Prayer” pushes the edgy guitar crunching and white noise before starkly contrasting it with a sombre clarinet, to great effect- an antagonism that’s explored again back-to-front in “Behaviourist”. In other parts, such as “Massacre Of The Pretenders”, the juxtaposition is a little less successful, coming across as uncomfortably awkward.

It’s a deep, genre-defying collection of pieces with an absolutely lush production quality that manages to bring sharp electronic production into a more organic, Brian Eno-ish soundscape with great success. It perhaps runs out of tricks a little before the end of its fifty minute run but nevertheless it still shines brightly.

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