Thursday, November 26, 2020
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Music Reviews

Hand: Suburbaen

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Artist: Hand
Title: Suburbaen
Format: Tape & Digital Download
Label: Elli Records
With a background as a professional drummer, you might expect Sascha Bachmann’s work as Hand to be heavily rhythmic- but instead, “Suburbaen” is ambient music, but made through the filter of someone with rhythm in their heart. “How would William Basinski sound if he made music for the dance floor?”, it asks. Based on that answer, certainly nobody would be dancing- as this is ambient electronic music, with just the lightest of rhythm woven into it as soft pulses and waves of hums.

The press release asks questions like “what do we listen to in our mother’s belly during pregnancy?”, for which Hand’s answer appears to be evident at the beginning of the oddly titled “Two Drink Minimum”, with its steady heartbeat, sometimes calm, sometimes muddled alongside other abstract and unrecognisable sounds, reprised for the album’s closure “To Drink Maximum” [sic]. The urgency rises a little as the track progresses, but there’s always a fluidity- if this is meant to represent childbirth, it’s a remarkably smooth ride.

At its more upbeat moments, there are hints of Tangerine Dream here, particularly in some of the washy soft noise waves that roll over analogue pulsing, or the dark purposeful synth notes that open “No For An Answer”. But it is consistently amelodic, focussing on the hum and drone and never conceding to a tune. A darker side is more evident in pieces like “For Eliane”, where the drone is both noisier and more sinister- and yet again, notably a little womb-like.

The rhythm is a touch more prominent, but marginally so, in the second half of the release. “Note To Self” is perhaps what unborn babies hear when their mothers are listening to loud heavy drum and bass. Glitchy, damp rhythms are always present but never dominant. “Crescent” has a more foregrounded electronic bleeping set against an almost jazzy abstract series of drum incidences.

It’s a curious piece of deep electronic dronework, which adds just the tiniest smatterings of more mainstream sounds to an otherwise very familiar-sounding ambient framework. It isn’t an out-and-out fusion though, more of a regular ambient work with more texture, and as such, it does work rather well.


Chris Abrahams: Appearance

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Artist: Chris Abrahams
Title: Appearance
Format: CD
Label: Room40
Chris Abrahams has a track record of electro-acoustic works on the Room40 label, but “Appearance” offers up something different- his first solo piano work for the label. Comprising two pieces, each around twenty minutes long, it’s entirely constructed from the conventional playing of a reverberant, grand-sounding piano- no tricks, no effects, no scratching or interfering, just tinkling.

Much of “As A Vehicle, The Dream” arrives in waves, with moderately long pauses and breathers alternating with faster cascades of notes, though never truly fast. It’s gentle, relaxing and fluid, and for its duration, mostly undramatic.

“Surface Level” has a similar tone, and still plenty of undulating, but has a slightly more romantic leaning, with top line melody notes that feel wistful and more structured- balletic, and almost but not quite danceable at times.

Undeniably virtuoso and elegant, it’s a solo piano album with very few surprises up its sleeve, but which certainly still has plenty of charm.


PlanetDamage: Relapse Protocol

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Artist: PlanetDamage
Title: Relapse Protocol
Format: CD + Download
Label: self-released
Most of Planetdamage’s debut album “Relapse Protocol” follows an electro-cyberpunk formula that is, on the surface at least, very familiar. Pulsing synth lines and drum patterns are the bed on which are laid angsty, semi-shouted, mildly distorted monologues about politics and the state of the world, infused with frustration and determination. It’s the lyrics that are placed centre stage, while the electronics are mostly there to provide a frame and a sense of urgency.

“Kompromat”’’s assertion that ‘history is deepfaked’, and “So Is Europe”’s talk of ‘sandbox fuckery’ (I think) and the remarkably understated side question, ‘what about the US?’. “Hi Rez Lo Life” turns its attention to online and social media, talking about pays per clicks and demanding “got no need for engagement” (always a difficult claim for musicians trying to promote themselves online), while “Vex” resorts to naming a selection of multinational companies to be viewed with suspicion. “The Mark” resorts to the chant of ‘question authority!’, which I have to suspect is a message that will only reach those who already do. Whilst I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with any of it, it does feel somewhat mansplained at times.

Unfortunately, despite being relatively short (40 minutes), it ends up being a little bit undramatic and one-note. The fact that the tracks are segued together seamlessly, sometimes a really interesting musical move, in this case unfortunately only serves to highlight the excessive similarities in tone and pace between each of the tracks. The vocal delivery is the same throughout all the tracks, which under-sells the message it’s trying to convey at times. There’s a decided lack of drama in the delivery, both lyrically and musically- the synths are mildly aggressive but never really given teeth, and fills and drops are sparse, curt and simple. The opening of “Regret Gunner” shows dramatic promise, then flattens out. And while not trying to bow to mainstream popular culture, a few stronger hooks or riffs would not have gone amiss.

There is some great techno work under there- “Firewalls” into the light acid tones of “The Mark” was a highlight area for me musically- but in the social-media driven industry that the lyrics complain about, I don’t think there’s enough distinct character, nor lyrical insightfulness, for this to really gain traction.


Swans: Children of God/Feel Good Now

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Artist: Swans (@)
Title: Children of God/Feel Good Now
Format: CD & 12" & Download
Label: Young God Records (@)
Rated: * * * * *
Well, here we go again, another Swans remastered re-release, this time of their classic 1987 opus, 'Children of God,' coupled with their lesser-known live album of their 1987 European tour made by the band's sound engineer on a Sony Walkman. While 'Children of God' got its first reissue in 1997 combined with 'World of Skin' (that's the one that I have), 'Feel Good Now' was only released in the UK (vinyl and CD) back in '87, but a remastered version showed up in the U.S. in 2002. In comparison to their prior work, Swans' 'Children of God' was nearly a new direction for them. Jarboe had only just surfaced on their previous album ('Greed') and certainly has a larger role on this album. Their previous brutal no wave approach had been tempered and Mr. Gira moved into more subtle realms of nihilism. That's not to say Swans abandoned their sturm und drang; there was still plenty of that to go 'round. Most Swans fans probably already own 'Children of God' in one form or another, but if you want an original 1987 copy on vinyl, that's gonna cost you plenty. As for the remaster, I've listened to both the original and the remaster several times, and I didn't hear a lot of difference; maybe a little brighter on the remaster, but not so much that I'd be compelled to buy it unless I wanted vinyl. For some, that ought to be enough.

So that leaves us with 'Feel Good Now,' certainly a title appropriate to these times even if it is 33 years old. For something recorded originally on a Sony Walkman (Pro), it sounds pretty good. I never heard the original, so I can't say how much the sound was cleaned up. Gira himself says, "The lineup of Gira / Kizys / Westberg / Jarboe / Parsons was a really good version of the band - one of the best live versions of Swans ever – actually much more intense and visceral in performance than in the nuanced takes of the songs on these recordings." Intense is really the byword here; it doesn't get more intense than Swans live. They do most every song on 'Children of God,' (but not in the same order) and it’s a good deal more forceful than the studio album. Not perfect, but still a worthy document.

Here's the thing though about the 'Feel Good Now' portion of the reissue- for the vinyl version of 'Children of God' you get a (digital) download card for the live album, and the CD version gets you an extra CD. What??? No double-LP? Nope. Sorry. Guess Young God wanted to keep the cost down. Too bad. A vinyl version of the live album would have been most welcome. For those that don't already have these though, this might be the best way to go.



Aperus: Archaic Signal

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Artist: Aperus (@)
Title: Archaic Signal
Format: CD + Download
Label: Geophonic Records (@)
Rated: * * * * *
Brian McWilliams is back again with another Aperus release, 'Archaic Signal,' his fifth album with this project following 'Lie Symmetry' which I reviewed back in 2018. Revisiting the review and the album (listening), I realize that it was even better than I thought it was at the time, so I urge you to get it. As for the album at hand, let's see what we're in for. McWilliams claim the title ('Archaic Signal') came to him while visiting a petroglyph site near his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "It appeared as a mirage....the images felt like viable signals still holding a charge." The resonating signal also occurred again while listening to a birdsong outside his studio, so he recorded it to a handful of cassettes and experimented with compromising the tape by scraping, crumpling, pulling it apart, reassembling it and applying magnets to it. That certainly added a lot of grit, noise and analog color. McWilliams' use of shortwave radio on this album is another key factor (and one used by Aperus often in the past) and that comes up right away in the music.

"New Antenna" features twisty drones interspersed with the aforementioned shortwave samples (foreign voices, possibly Russian) and then some other odd sounds toward the end. For the casual listener, this kind of experimentalism may be off-putting, but give it a chance. The title track perks up one's ears with a whistling quality, beginning as small signals in space to gradually become huge as the noise subtly sweeps in, a spacious environment is formed. At its apex it is nearly overwhelming, but then something happens and it morphs into something...otherworldly. Voices from the past rise and fall, as well as other incidents you're barely aware of. The melodic melancholy of "Phase Shift" is a little reminiscent of some of 'Lie Symmetry,' and although brief at 2:33, it is still poignant. The oddly titled "Newspaper Rock" blends complex ambient drone with various discreet spoken word (possibly radio or shortwave radio) samples, and other electronic zips, zizzes, and miscellaneous sonic artifacts. The broken melody loop that heralds "Canopy of Stars" seems to fade and disappear but actually changes into something more formidable while an at first minimal tapping advances into a bold rhythm, then dissipates. Just when you thought it was all going away, it gradually comes back again, stronger than ever this time. Towards the end it resolves into only two chord changes, but then changes a bit again with subtle supplementary string-like pads. It seems obvious to me that a lot of work went into this piece. You may have been wording what happened to those abused and deconstructed birdsong tapes, so "Birdsong As Mantra" should give you a good idea. It's birdie-chirp with drones and this is the longest track on the album at nearly 17 minutes. Various subtle events come into play at various points in this lengthy piece, but the drones and birdsong are its constant. At the end the soft noise sounds like a vinyl record repeating the last groove in the runout.

I knew sooner or later Brian would bring in some bellish tones (there are lots of them on 'Lie Symmetry') and here they are on "Silver Birds." This may be one of the best bell-drone pieces in recent memory. "Archaeodreaming" has an awful lot going for it- mysterious echoing drone, strange little minimal rhythm, and other nuances. It could have gone on much longer than the nearly five minutes it was. "Afterglow" offers big, rich, complex chordal drone, and a little bird chirping returns as well. The piece ends on a very long fade.

While I can't say that 'Archaic Signal' was as fascinating to me as 'Lie Symmetry' was, it does have some very good things to offer. What puts this into the “must buy” category is the CD packaging. McWilliams is also a photographer, and for the album artwork he used the camera as a sampler and incorporated basic components from his petroglyph photos with visual abstractions (such as the birdsong displayed on the front cover) layered over other photos of weathered metal, tables, rocks, etc. to create a unique composite image. The CD packaging features a 5 x 7 cello sleeve with a striking double sided gatefold cover and five double sided photo cards (10 images) created from weathered surfaces, pictographs and found objects. I have to say it looks pretty cool and makes this a worthy collectible as well.