Tuesday, July 7, 2020
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Music Reviews

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Artist: Zea + Oscar Jan Hoogland
Title: Summing
Format: CD + Download
Label: Makkum Records / Klanggalerie
After originally meeting in unusual circumstances- teenage Hoogland attending a gig with Zea performing one evening, then attending school to find Zea was his new sociology teacher- the duo have since been collaborating for some time, combining Zea’s guitar and voice with Hoogland’s piano, electric clavichord, “synths and sirens”. Summing is a nine-pack of short experimental-rock-alt-pop pieces that sounds like the duo are still challenging one another, rather than settling and getting comfortable.

There’s something of a 60’s or 70’s wig out feel at times, including sonically- sometimes relatively static, at other times not. The title track’s chaotic final minute, that segues gently into the brooding “You’re Dead”, is a strong example of that. Some tracks, including again the title track, have various production details that qualities that demonstrate the 2019 nature of the recording, but at times the only detail that indicates that the tracks are modern, rather than unearthed from the annals of prog rock, are lyrics such as “We Lost Our Phone” (which is not as flippant as the title suggests) and the talk of track-and-trace delivery in curiously passive-aggressive “I Never Threw A Stone”.

More introspective moments come in tracks like the surprisingly moving “Atomic Heart”, which if it had been released in a more acoustic form by a pop-singer-songwriter, might be getting lauded as a beautiful pop song. Final track “Trip the Light Fantastic” is notable for its jazzier, more laidback feel as well.

At only 32 minutes it’s a compact album that buzzes with ideas and moods. The duo work together with other musicians on other releases too, and it feels like that’s probably necessary in order to drive the inventiveness further. But this level of expressiveness from a duo is rare and heartfelt.


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Artist: Aisha Orazbayeva
Title: Music for Violin Alone
Format: CD + Download
Label: SN Variations
Like many releases at the moment, “Music For Violin Alone” is a work prompted by lockdown, and dare I say inspired by lockdown. Orazbayeva’s fourth solo album contains performances of works from six different composers, ranging from J.S. Bach through John Cage to Angharad Davies. It’s then topped off by one of Orazbayeva’s original compositions, seven pieces in all.

The album is bookended by some decidedly avantgarde work. “Circular Bowing Study” (Davies) sets a tone, a rhythmic scratching that rises and falls in waves, a divisive piece that will mesmerise some and be like nails down a blackboard to others. At the other end, Orazbayeva’s own “Ring” is a dark arrangement of slow breathy string drags that’s strangely compelling but which does feel somewhat like horror movie sound design.

Between those poles is a slightly more conventional collection- most obviously “Largo from Sonata no. 3 in C major” (J.S.Bach), a beautifully recorded and expressive meandering solo which flows beautifully into the energetic and optimistic “Alla Fantasia” (Matteis Jr.). The second half is a tad more experimental- “Koan” (Tenney) is the longest piece, and feels it thanks to its relentless bowing and alarm-like steady pitch rise that begins to feel like a Shepard tone as it gets under your skin. It makes the sparseness of “Eight Whiskus” (Cage) feel like relief.

“Blurry Wake Song” (Leith) is double-tracked, layering up (I think) two takes into a duet with some unexpected tonal changes, but most of the rest of the recording is single-layered and it’s a testament to the playing and the recording quality that a single instrument can maintain your attention and keep things interesting for forty minutes.

It’s another introspective but fascinating work from the lockdown period.


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Artist: VV.AA.
Title: Building A Better Reality : A Benefit Compilation
Format: Download Only (MP3 + Lossless)
Label: JMY
The sheer weight of feeling behind a cause doesn’t prove that cause’s validity or importance- but it must surely be a massive indicator. It speaks volumes that JMY set out to do a benefit compilation raising funds for Black Lives Matter, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Greater Chicago Food Depository, and received over 100 tracks from over 80 different contributors. That’s eleven and a half hours of music. And while the sheer scale of a compilation album doesn’t equate to its quality, I’d certainly call it value for money!

The quality is excellent. I can’t feasibly comment on every track, but to generalise massively, there’s plenty more reasons to buy this compilation than just the charity aspect.

The arrangement of tracks is such that listening to the first few tracks is quite misleading. This opening hour or so is a collection of works from the thoughtful and introspective side of electronica, but with lashings of acoustic elements, found sound and sound design and atmospheric work. There are huge doses of ambient, some drones, including Silber-ish guitar drones, some more cinematic pieces, and plenty of sombre moods and environmental pieces.

However this is not the full story, by any means, and after this point, a lot of musical diversity arrives. TV POW’s “Cadillac A” and Precise’s “It’s On Me” are on-point rap track (the former with a nice line in American culture samples), while Tina M Howell and Just Nick offer up a soul-meets-trip-hop affair in “Donna And Tina”. Gel Set’s “Headless Statue #3” is an intriguing bit of semi-retro synthpop with a nice hook to it. Extraordinary Popular Delusions’ “Contention” is a straight-up slab of avantgarde jazz, Jeb Bishop Trio’s “Fifth Gear” is a smooth cruising jazz (the latter a part of a jazz zone that the album enters around two-thirds of the way through), and Azita’s “Something That Happened” is a straight-laced reggae groove with dub elements- until the point where it isn’t (spoilers!).

The diversity plays out piece by piece, and throws up some assured surprises. But the compilation does keep returning to the electronic world periodically, making it its home turf and leading to some interesting contrasts- none more than the roll from Spanish-sounding guitar ballad into Zoot Houston’s sine-wave symphony “xrstlyedit.mp3”.

Many of the tracks have a political connection to the cause in hand, like the protest crowd sampling “BLM about the Permawave 2020” from GK Jupitter-Larsen which covers a self-contained distance from found sound through to a wall of distorted noise- and at the other end of the spectrum, Simon Joyner’s acoustic folk ballad “There Will Be A Time #2”. Few are more unsettling than the long drone, sirens and riot noises pulling against solo choral and ballad singing in Jesse Goin’s somewhat Jimmy Cauty-esque “Is There A Balm In Gilead”, while some take topical sounds but process them into more abstract soundscapes, like Fred Lonberg-Holm’s “Slow Riot” or the sinister but not gruesome “Smoldering Corpse Outside The Embassy” from Our Wrongs.

The compilation does return to its gentler more atmospheric and ambient roots at later points as well, with Doline Karst’s haunting “Incolae” and Pharmakustik’s “Freight” some of the finer examples, and some more interlude-like pieces like Mykel Boyd’s “60 Miles South of Chicago”. There are plenty of immersive soundscapes here as well, many of which top the ten minute mark on their own (and some nearer half an hour!). Some are on the unsettling side, like the dizzying “Untitled 200613” from J. Soliday, or Al Margolis’ “QueBec” with its utterly unexpected accordion halfway. The selection of alien environments on offer ranges from the straight-laced, like Kazuya Ishigami’s “Lemurian Memory”, and the dark and grunge, like Gabie Strong’s “Sous Les Pavés”, to more unusual offerings like Stephan Comford’s presumably lock-down inspired “A Finite Number Of Rooms”. Others like the excellent “Carrier v1.40” from remst8 + Drekka or Rugar Magnusson’s “Gull” are more accessible and warm drone works. Towards the end of the compilation there’s a greater prevalence for sparse, isolated solo tracks, like Jeff Kimmel’s extremely plaintive “Solo At ESS”, as well as some extended noisier abstract works like K2’s “Flat Horizon Is So Black”.

Although this is a political hot topic at the moment, there’s surprisingly little here that feels rushed or overly raw. It is curious to think that if the dates are correct, I’m reviewing tracks like Jeb Bishop’s dizzying “mISTAKES v170620” less than two weeks after they were finished, but it still doesn’t feel underbaked Some tracks feel like an opportunity to try something unique that might not fit into the rest of their work- while I’m not familiar with Mike Bullock’s work, his chaotic string and processing piece “Tread” feels like a good example of that scenario working well. There’s the odd short sketch, like Nick Hoffman’s one-minute guitar piece “Sufferir So Disposto”, but the calm maturity in tracks like Neil Jendon’s “Sulu Bleeding Heart” rather suggests that the current lockdown situation has given many musicians a bit more time to work on these tracks than they might’ve had otherwise...

Other miscellaneous highlight tracks include Jim Becker’s pulsing electronics and fragile melody of “Jajouk 2213”, and the bright but twisty electronic drone-fanfare of Boris Hauf’s captivating “Exspiro”. Pandabrand’s “Listen” is from the very quirkiest edge of pop, and the raw electronic techno of Danfan’s “Contratiempo” or Frank Rosaly’s “Fool” both leap out at you, as does the sharp one-minute guitar-techno “Grass Dance” from Kendraplex. For the introspective side, Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson’s yoik-like multitracked vocal “Turning Down The Volume Inside Your Head” must be mentioned.

For eyebrow-raising weirdness, a number of special mentions should go to No Motive’s “Untitled”, Pavlos Vakalos and Nicolas Malevitsis’s bold stop-start sample-metal “Cry”, the energetic cut-up monkey vocalisations of Karen Constance and Blue Spectrum’s “Medication Bathing Wine”, the mental-health-concerning twisted vocalisations of Leif Elggren’s “Soya” or the noise wall of Crank Sturgeon’s “Standstill Until”. Ernst Karel’s “Cassette Field Recordings, Thailand 1993” tells an interesting but sparse story of forgotten television broadcasts, while Weasel Walter, Brandon Lopez and Michael Foster offer a track called “Current Events” which is a difficult wall of distortion, angst and percussive noise- which is very fair, because that’s what current events do feel like.

Eleven and a half hours is a marathon listen, for sure- but considering the minimum price is only $7, it’s insane value, and even if you can only relate to half the tracks on here, it’s still a fantastic find. Plus it’s a charity record for a solid cause too- leaving you with pretty much no reason left not to buy it.



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Artist: Roman Rofalski
Title: Loophole
Format: Download Only (MP3 + Lossless)
Label: Nonclassical
Loophole is a four-track EP that sees Berlin-based pianist Roman Rofalski supposedly channel his love for 90’s underground techno into a piano work- though let’s say from the start that the results are not techno, either piano-techno or otherwise. It’s a fusion that’s been melded before- it draws a lot of comparison to some of Christian Prommer’s works- but while Prommer and other artists have composed fairly purist techno-inspired but traditional pieces, Rofalski instead has adopted a more editing-heavy and processing-heavy approach.

On “Alpha”, the chopping up of the improvised acoustic piano sounds has an abruptness and punchiness that gives it a lot of energy, and it really feels like it has been composed after it was performed. “Sea”, by contrast, is initially a more ambient work, setting sparse individual high notes over a drone and effects bed derived but long detached from the low note sounds, before a gradual and decidedly soundtrack-like tension build-up in the second half, where we’re joined rather unexpectedly by cut-up drum sounds that give everything a more avantgarde jazz feel.

“Nagging” has a tense, unsafe feel thanks to its high string-scratching tones, before final piece “Redemption” is the track that comes closest to the EP’s techno-inspired pitch, with a more rhythmic approach and a nicely constructed repeated pattern of low bass notes and sharp-cut percussion- ultimately it still feels more like modern jazz than techno, but it’s very accessible, with crossover audience potential.

At times, the glitchy cut-up processing is a little reminiscent of Brian Transeau, and if you like his more mature soundtrack work, this will appeal in a similar way. If this were the soundtrack to a short film- and it sounds like it ought to be- I’d watch it.


Lean Left: Medemer

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Artist: Lean Left
Title: Medemer
Format: CD + Download
Label: PNL Records
Medemer was recorded live at a concert (remember them?) in September 2018, though casual listeners might guess it had dropped through a wormhole from the 1970s.
The quartet of Terrie Ex and Andy Moor on left guitar and right guitar, plus Ken Vandermark on saxophone and clarinet and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums, jamming live and publicly, is very much a work of avantgarde prog rock and post-rock. Other aspects of the package- from the slightly grungy recording quality on the guitars and more chaotic moments, to the paint print style of the artwork- back up this impression as well. The saxophone, in its predominant moments such as in the middle of part 2, feels like a guest appearance of experimental jazz, but its not anachronistic.
It shares that long indulgent approach too- theres no time for brevity. Its labelled as six numbered parts, all over eight minutes long, one almost nineteen minutes long, but all of them were potentially divisible into much smaller scenes and the 73-minute work could easily have been split into over 30 parts if theyd felt inclined. The entire work feels driven by spontaneous impulse.
Its a diverse conversation between four musicians and at times its metered, rumbling and sparse (towards the end of Part 1 an example), with strong elements of disquiet or dischord (the opening of parts 3 or 6). Then at other times its noisy, confrontational and argumentative. Sometimes its got more than a shade of the funk- the latter half of part 4 being decidedly groovy, whether it likes it or not. And sometimes the wig-out is sheer musical adrenaline kicking in, such as the end of parts 2 and part 5, a frantic performance workout that elicits cheers from the audience as much praising the exercise level as the music itself.
Its old-fashioned yet still avantgarde, and Im sure it wouldve been a fantastic concert to be at. The translation into a recorded work leaves me feeling just a touch cold and disconnected though, and despite this releases clear energy and undeniable virtuosity, I wasnt fully sold on it.Medemer was recorded live at a concert (remember them?) in September 2018, though casual listeners might guess it had dropped through a wormhole from the 1970s. The quartet of Terrie Ex and Andy Moor on left guitar and right guitar, plus Ken Vandermark on saxophone and clarinet and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums, jamming live and publicly, is very much a work of avantgarde prog rock and post-rock. Other aspects of the package- from the slightly grungy recording quality on the guitars and more chaotic moments, to the paint print style of the artwork- back up this impression as well. The saxophone, in its predominant moments such as in the middle of part 2, feels like a guest appearance of experimental jazz, but its not anachronistic. It shares that long indulgent approach too- theres no time for brevity. Its labelled as six numbered parts, all over eight minutes long, one almost nineteen minutes long, but all of them were potentially divisible into much smaller scenes and the 73-minute work could easily have been split into over 30 parts if theyd felt inclined. The entire work feels driven by spontaneous impulse. Its a diverse conversation between four musicians and at times its metered, rumbling and sparse (towards the end of Part 1 an example), with strong elements of disquiet or dischord (the opening of parts 3 or 6). Then at other times its noisy, confrontational and argumentative. Sometimes its got more than a shade of the funk- the latter half of part 4 being decidedly groovy, whether it likes it or not. And sometimes the wig-out is sheer musical adrenaline kicking in, such as the end of parts 2 and part 5, a frantic performance workout that elicits cheers from the audience as much praising the exercise level as the music itself. Its old-fashioned yet still avantgarde, and Im sure it wouldve been a fantastic concert to be at. The translation into a recorded work leaves me feeling just a touch cold and disconnected though, and despite this releases clear energy and undeniable virtuosity, I wasnt fully sold on it.



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