Wednesday, July 15, 2020
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Music Reviews

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Artist: Robert Millis
Title: Related Ephemera
Format: 12" vinyl + Download
Label: The Helen Scarsdale Agency
This LP from Robert Millis is a reflection on the fact that early shellac and wax cylinder records were fleeting novelty items, and decidedly temporary, at odds with the long-term collectivity and adoration that they inspire in some today. The source material is predominantly the surface noise and hiss from old records, but with a large helping of atmospheric and melodic ambient sounds to provide meat as well. Due to the deliberate artifacting, it was mastered twice, once for vinyl and once for digital, with apparently very different results, so I should say I’m commenting on the digital version here, where a lot of the crackling sounds feel almost electronic, like sci-fi locust noises, and not old but rather surprisingly new and clean.

The real composition, if you like, is actually the slow glass-like melodic elements that run underneath the noise, while old shellac recording material as found sound is sometimes more of a cameo than the central focus (final track “Lament (I Always Hesitate)” sums this up in barely one minute). On the first side of the LP is a single 20-minute piece “Samsara” which is extremely spacious, almost barren, but with slow changes in this fragile tone keeping a dynamic going, while the second side contains six shorter pieces with a bit more diversity. Pieces like “Matters Of Court”, are generally a little more traditionally composed, bordering at times on abstract symphonic, with some beautiful string work, while “Further Evidence To The Contrary” is an interesting little piece from the softest edge of glitch work. The fragile tones return with the almost-choral atmosphere of “Only Here For A Short While”, before being interrupted very abruptly by an old spoken-word recording, and for contrast, the almost inaudibly low drone of “Theories Of The Lower Twelve” wanders into sonic space that old vinyl could never get anywhere close to reproducing.

As love letters to old shellac and vinyl go, this one is rather obscure. But as an experimental ambient work that eats up the ambitious challenge of merging vinyl found sounds with some absolutely gorgeous melodic elements, it’s rich and impressive.


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Artist: Deborah Walker
Title: Starflux
Format: Download Only (MP3 + Lossless)
Label: Elli Records
The concept behind Starflux is to play a cello in an unusual way. By laying it flat, and using one undulating hand to apply different pressures to each string whilst the other hand constantly strums, it becomes a staccato pulsing instrument, deep and broody and industrial and barely recognisable as a classical string instrument. The changes in tone forego the usual modal intervals of western music and are based on maths and fractions, and over the course of the three long pieces, the gradual changes in proportion caused by the changing weight on each string results in gradually shifting but subtle micro-changes in the tone.

The result in the title track is mesmerising, in a simple, direct way. What initially feels a bit like the sound of hammering gradually settles down into the feeling of rhythm- around 100bpm, give or take- and it’s one of those long sound effects that seems to normalise in your ears, so that when it eventually stops, you miss it, as though it ought to always be there.

Ostensibly, the second track is a reconstruction of the concept of the first, done digitally to avoid the natural limitations and inconsistent tonal dominance of a real cello. But the result is entirely different- long, sustained, pure sine wave tones arrive in sequence, unpredictable thanks to the unfamiliar range of pitches. The rhythm is so slow as to essentially be gone, and instead we have a near-ambient, glacial digital melody that could scarcely be more different to the first.

Final piece “Pharus Novae” essentially, to over-simplify it, brings together the sound of the two previous recordings. The simple connection between the low tones of the first piece and the exclusively high tones of the second feels like a natural fit, and rather than feeling like you are being fed the same sound on repeat, instead it feels like the natural conclusion to a triptych, with the ear-normalisation of the rhythm in the first piece returning like an old friend. It’s oddly satisfying.

This release is one of the sixteen in the now complete Elli Records “In The Room” series, and it’s in good company with some excellent other releases. It’s also worth getting all sixteen on Bandcamp, via a subscription maybe, because of the strangely satisfying effect of arranging all sixteen releases in a four by four grid so that the full original artwork can be seen.


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Artist: Massimo Discepoli (@)
Title: The Right Place on the Wrong Map
Format: CD
Label: Depth of Field (@)
Rated: *****
This is one of those things you never knew you wanted. I'm a drummer, so it warms my heart when drums are at the forefront because it so rarely happens. But you know one place you don't expect drums at the forefront? Ambient music. Now I'm not talking about some hippies with a djembe playing new age music. I'm talking drum set with plenty of cymbals. But Discepoli delivers.

There is a lot of variety here. The opening track, Once In A Minute, is a peaceful track featuring the sounds of xylophone, drums, and cymbal, with a slow moving synth line. Contrast this with Phase Transition, which is a bit grittier than the previous compositions. Everything is coated in a light layer of distortion until a soothing piano line comes in, which provides an interesting counterpoint to the static. Eventually the static fades away and we are left with a calm piano and cymbal composition. In others, we have a liberal helping of heavy synth drone to go with our drums.

The album as a whole is well composed and demonstrates what can be done when percussion is not merely a means of keeping a beat. I also appreciate that the album was not processed into oblivion. The cymbals actually sound like cymbals (complete with overtones and decay) and the drums are raw and beautiful. If you love percussion, this is one to pick up. If you don't, then you will probably love it after hearing this. This album weighs in at around 57 minutes.



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Artist: RNL (@)
Title: Conquering King Kong
Format: Tape
Label: Vonconflon (@)
Rated: *****
RNL is the work of one Jesse Farber, who is an accomplished visual artist. According to the artist, “Conquering King Kong is a 45-minute trail through mental states and thought patterns, an abstract audio film that unspools with the logic of a dream. Woven together from a massive archive of tapes, the album builds ambient spaces and puzzling sound objects out of location recordings, found sounds, private performances, and endless analog and digital manipulation.” So let’s see if the music is as good as the visual artwork.

The music on the tape is heavily synth-based, with bits of field recordings and voice thrown in for good measure. For example, the tape begins with pulsing drone that adds a layer of noise like a helicopter spinning up and preparing for takeoff, followed by a series of staccato, barking synth hits with a thin layer of warbling flutelike sounds. Later on, we have someone beating sticks against the floor with the sound of a howling wind outside. Turning the tape over, we begin with a short, interesting ditty with percussion that gives a sense of marching band, more drone, some heavily processed voice,and more synth based noise with a heavy beat. Overall, this is pleasant, but it began to get a bit dull and predictable at times. RNL is at their best when they incorporate other elements besides the synth or going beyond the standard drone (the heavily processed voice, for example).



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Artist: Albert / Day / Kreimer (@)
Title: Mutations
Format: CD
Label: Public Eyesore (@)
Rated: *****
This is the work of Marco Albert on voice and electronics and Bryan Day and Jay Kreimer, both on "invented instruments." Like many artists on the Public Eyesore label, these artists are new to me. However, I have found that I have enjoyed most of the things that PE has put out, so let's see how this measures up. I hope it measures up well, since Bryan Day is the man behind the label!

Mutation 1 begins with sparse bits of heavily processed chaotic noises. This is incidental music to play in the soundtrack of your dreams. It becomes increasingly aggressive as the track moves on until it is full on chaos. Mutation 2 features whispered Spanish and English voice over loosely strung guitar and balafon, interrupted by scraping metal, with the voices becoming increasingly processed over time. Mutation 3 is chanting/singing over chaotic percussion and bowed strings, and Mutation 4 keeps this feeling going with spoken word about art theory over a noisy background. Mutation 5 is thudding percussion over the sounds of wheels on rough pavement. An organ drones as bass slaps and metal rattles. It has a rhythm like an off center washing machine until it eventually falls completely apart. Mutation 6 changes it up to conclude with lots of drone, voice, and bubbling water.

This was interesting and well constructed. If you like experimental improvisation, this may be up your alley. Another solid entry to the Public Eyesore catalog. This album weighs in at around 36 minutes.



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