Friday, November 27, 2020

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.

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.

Kazumichi Komatsu: Emboss Star

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Artist: Kazumichi Komatsu
Title: Emboss Star
Format: 12" + Download
Label: FLAU
Kazumichi Komatsu has been putting out releases fairly prolifically since about 2012, using the Madegg alias until 2016, then his own name, but this is his first full album release under his own name, which must in some way feel like a peak of a personal musical expression. It certainly feels emotive, but more so it feels like peering into a stranger’s sketchbook, at a variety of different styles, some of them perfected, some of them more prototypical.It’s a collection of ten short, mostly laid back and semi-experimental electronica pieces, almost all of them under three minutes long. Everything is fair game sonically, from acoustic and traditional-sounding plucked instruments to crafting sound out of found sound, samples, and noises. These are layered up into arrangements that are mostly grooves, steady, undramatic and short. It’s chill music, but with something wilfully ‘off’ about it, as typified in tracks like “Skip” with its gentle plucked melody and chopped-up, more urgent-sounding spoken words, or the underlying disquiet in “Come In”. Other tracks substitute gentle piano work as the melody.“Umi Ga Kikoeru”, featuring Dove & Le Makeup, is a really strong curiosity, playing a relatively conventional verse-chorus vocal structure against an interestingly back-to-front arrangement, an experiment in how to construct a pop ballad out of all the wrong sounds and still make it work (just about- it’s likely to be a bit divisive to some audiences). The other fully-fledged song on the album, “Followers” with Cristal Bere, is a touch more conventional in arrangement, piano-led and uniquely English-language, but concentrates less on the vocal hook, a stronger one of which could’ve made this a track with strong crossover potential.“Weight Of Smoke” is notable for its increased tension initially, with an opening that feels like an intro to a much more aggressive, almost EDM album, before dropping quite abruptly into a padded sci-fi soundscape. It’s the exception to the rule in regard to my earlier comment about the tracks being undramatic.At only 27 minutes it’s very compact, practically a mini-album, but it packs a fair bit of musical quality into that small package. Certainly one to try out if you like your chilled out musical experiences to be very off-kilter.

Gintas K: Sound & Spaces

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Artist: Gintas K
Title: Sound & Spaces
Format: Tape & Digital Download
Label: Powdered Hearts
There’s something consciously small about the tone of established Lithuanian sound artist Gintas K’s work in “Sound & Spaces”, which was recorded in one take with no overdubbing, using just “a computer”, MIDI keyboard and controller.Obviously “a computer” can mean almost anything nowadays and almost any genre can be created using one, but the sounds created here are largely throwbacks to what people would think of as computer sounds in the 1970’s- lots of dot-matrix-printer-esque whirring, curt bleeps and beeps. This is layered up live predominantly driven by contrasts, such as in the first numbered piece where a steady rhythmic motor sound is pulled against sporadic and impulsive heavy glitching. The fourth part broadens the contrast further, with high watery bubbly notes in opposition to deep, toothy synthetic bass impulses that sometimes sound (and not in a bad way) like a broken hedge trimmer.The contrast between chaos and calm is also present in reasonable abundance- part five is frantic and disorientating, others less so. Piece 6 manages to contain both.It’s a 41-minute audio bath with a certain amount of abrasion, and at times, a feeling of randomness rather than improvisation. But it’s a rich abstraction of sound that enjoyers of a difficult listen will emerge from smiling at the end.

Time Being: An Ocean Of Time

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Artist: Time Being (@)
Title: An Ocean Of Time
Format: CD + Download
Label: Spotted Peccary Music (@)
Rated: * * * * *
With their acclaimed ambient/electronic music project Time Being, veteran space-music maestros Phillip Wilkerson and Jourdan Laik have been exploring the expansive sonic realms of atmospheric soundscapes for the better part of a decade. On their third album, ‘An Ocean Of Time,’ the duo venture into over 70 minutes of deep-drifting, time-melting, soul-stirring bliss that hovers delicately at the fringes of darkness and light.Those lines come from Spotted Peccary of course, and it would be easy to just paraphrase a few more lines about the album being "vast and immersive," "fathomless spaces evok[ing] a sense of ageless infinity," etc., etc., but what does any of that even mean, really? Okay, when you use lots of programmed big reverb, things are going to sound...vast, along with complex synth pads and long drones, it can't be helped. And that's exactly what a lot of this is. Couple that with most of the (8) tracks being somewhat lengthy (total of 70 minutes worth of music) and it all seems a bit unending. Throw in a good dollop of treated noise sweeps as well (perhaps to make up for the momentum that isn't there) and you've got...voilà...Space Music! Well, no, not really. You've got drones in a large space.I really don’t believe this to be "space music." I suppose it could be considered spacey, or space-ish, but it sounds pretty terrestrial to me, even though there are no birds or other nature sounds. I'm just not getting any cosmic vibrations at all from anything on 'An Ocean Of Time,' and I've listened to it plenty. What I can say is that the album has what I'd call a New Age sheen- tranquil gentility, and a sprinkling of stardust as the only concession to the heavens. (Okay, "Unfolding Way" has some dissonant chords in it, but that's only four minutes out of the whole.) Not that there's anything wrong with that but this isn’t my idea of space-music. Space is an interesting place, extremely cold, full of wonder but fraught with danger, the unknown and often times, violence. There's little of that here. Most tracks open sounding like the dawn of a new day, full of hope, possibilities, and maybe even some languorous lolling around. There is minimal momentum- no rhythm, pulse, or sequencing, just drifty, floaty drones, with occasional sequences of plucked notes, and a hint of melody. For me, I was looking for something more along the lines of what the label touted this as, and truth be told, I didn't get it. If you're cool with New Age drift, I guess this album is for you.