Sunday, October 25, 2015

Label special - Ambient, experimental and techno labels

A brief insight into some interesting small-to-medium-sized labels that have caught the ear and eye lately.

Shimmering Moods (Netherlands)
Shimmering Moods is an excellent up and coming ambient/experimental label from Amsterdam that differentiates itself from a lot of other ambient labels by straying further away from simple drone-fests. Many of their releases are characterised by experimentation that feels more playful than intellectual and yet which doesn’t harm the seriousness of the music or dampen the sense of tranquility and mystery that oozes from the core.

The label´s visual aesthetic matches their sonic palette of drones, field recordings and somnambulic instrumentation perfectly with cover imagery featuring real and imagined places in grey scale, abstracted textures and carefully drafted diagrams. Most of their releases have come as limited runs of 100 homemade CDs packaged in highly tactile and comforting recycled cardboard or envelopes with printed photos which highlights the organic feel. There have been a few sparse vinyl releases too and a couple of digital-only releases on their Bandcamp page. Frustratingly, their web presence is a bit mixed, with a big emphasis on Soundcloud and the excellent SHM Podcast series, but their main webpage never seems to have been finished whereas Bandcamp only sells some of their releases, with not many of the CDs available there, meaning it can be a bit of work to hear samples and know what is really available and where.

Prolific Japanese producer Hidekazu Imashige from Hiroshima working as Gallery Six released one of the standout albums earlier this year. “Gasansui” combines a sense of narrative, through the use of water sounds that reflect beautifully the still cover images taken in Japan, whereas the underpinning drones provide a mirror-like surface. However, there is a lot more going on here than background ambience. There is a lot of dynamic range with tracks seeking to pull you deep into the calm or push you slowly towards the surface. The processing on the water sounds is also variable between tracks integrating beautifully with the other sounds, particularly on the adequately named closing track “Hakusui” (white water) where it has been accelerated and thinned slightly so that it’s bubbling and dripping sounds integrate perfectly with the slowly noodling synths. One sound seems to affect the other such that by the end the water seems more electronic than the machine noises. “An imaginary friend” works similarly, pairing muffled real time field recordings from nature and someone moving about a room with hypnogogic chimes to create an enhanced sense of lucid dreaming.

Best point of entry is probably the two Mediations compilations that include a wide variety of tracks by what appears to be their growing core roster of artists who are gathered from far and wide and include Mexican artist ~~^^^macheteoxidado^^^~~, who has released the “Viento de las Montañas” (Mountain wind) album and the two long digital tracks “Agua Santa Limpia Me” inspired by the disappearance of 43 male students in Mexico in 2014; Kyoto artist Michiru Aoyama who also released the “In a Dream” album from early this year, and Light Sleeper, who’s recent “The Goodbye That Keeps On Giving” album is one of the labels other highlights so far. Other noteworthy artists making an appearance include Portland’s Sage Taylor, and Chris Anderson’s EchoGrid. Mastering of most releases has so far been done by Early Reflections (the duo of Oliver Charpier and Wilfried Decaesteker) who also contributes a track.

Arboretum (Germany)
Arboretum is a collaborative sound and visual project composed of visual artist Andrea Familari, sound designer Giuseppe Bifulco (Drøp) and producer Marco Berardi who are all based in Berlin. The project kicked off in 2012 and so far there are only three releases, two 12” EPs and one CD album showcasing a diverse sound and a promising future. As the labels name might suggest, there is a lot of botanical reference throughout the releases from the track names to the artwork, with the “Unseed” album also coming with some sakura (Japanese cherry blossom) seeds.

Drøp’s “Vasundhara” EP is a stark, unfriendly and heavy IDM work closely aligned to the Stroboscopic Artefacts' Monad series or some of the album work of Lucy. It is perhaps no surprise then that Dadub offers up a remix of the opening track. The overall pacing is slow and the sounds oppressive despite the space often being sparse. But with violent beats coming up from below and a rain of grainy noise and feedback descending from above, there is nowhere to go whereas the is a sustained sense of menace throughout that makes for a thrilling listen.

Marco Beradi’s “Sycamore” EP released under the Mogano name was the label’s second release and is billed as a homage to the Tree of Life and is perhaps more enigmatic than the debut. Opening track “Retama” and “Anunnaki” both capture the sense of ancient civilization perfectly with grainy textures, melancholy strings, guitar feedback and funerary and cavernous beats closer to downtempo drum n bass than techno. Title track “Sycamore” is more steely, cold and closer to current club sounds with its washes of dystopian sound and fragmented and atomic high end and tribal pounding drums. The EP is rounded off by a lovely remix from Kerridge whose aesthetic fits perfectly with the EPs palette and mood.

Fabio Perletta’s “Unseed” album released under the Øe moniker takes another turn, well away from the club, and more towards traditional ambient music. The album features five long tracks that gradually and gently unfold, with the idea taking inspiration from the Japanese concept of Hanami which contemplates the transient beauty of nature. Opening track “Winter, Awakening” is one of the highlights with a shimmering and kinetic sense of quiet stillness built from bubbling electronics, echoing crystalline tones and deep religious drones. “Uncertainty, Green” uses a similar approach, but is slower and seems to separate out both the main sound elements before bringing them back together with slowly plucked acoustic guitar. “Charm, Hanami” has an almost shoegaze feel to the underlying bass pulse and its melting textures like waves of slow guitar feedback. The album finishes off with the lightest and stillest track, “Creation, Breath” which feels like the ice thawing at the end of winter and the chance to start a new cycle again.

Kvitnu (Ukraine)
There is so much movement in the tape underground that you sometimes get the feeling that CDs are somehow uncool. Personally, I find the whole tape things utterly pathetic and just some hipster cry for help and a deception that doesn’t really mark anyone or anything as different or interesting. The reality for me is that tapes were/are mostly poor audio quality, impractical (to play or rip to other formats) and of all the audio media, the most easy to break and the most difficult to find decent audio equipment. But the sad irony is that CDs may be uncool (or perhaps are just a symbol of consumer capitalism?), but for several decades there has been a lot of invention and imagination put into how they are presented. One label at the forefront of exploiting the artistic potential of CDs, both graphically and musically, has been Ukrainian label Kvitnu (although a Ukrainian label the postal address is now in Vienna, Austria).

Founded in 2006 by Dmytro Fedorenko (a.k.a Kotra) as an outlet for Ukrainian artists it has since gone on to have an international roster and organise nights and festivals as well as release experimental and abstract electronic music in the vein of Raster Noton and Sähkö. Most of the artwork is done by Kateryna Zavoloka who also performs and releases as Zavoloka on the label. The covers are usually beautiful mixed media designs incorporating base material of different origins (cloth, card etc.) and are embellished in different ways such as screen prints, embossing and with adorned other physical materials. The results are highly varied and original.

Sound wise, the label is pretty diverse, releasing anything from ambient works, to glitch electronica and more techno-orientated pieces with a tendency towards a darker sound. The label currently has over 40 releases from the last decade, perhaps the most famous of which is Sturqen’s “Peste” from 2010 which helped the label on to win three prestigious Qwartz Electronic Music Awards that year. Sturqen is the Portuguese duo of David Arantes and César Rodrigue and they have since gone on to release several albums for the label as well as branching out recently to other labels.

Some of their recent releases include Italian artist Matter (Fabrizio Matrone) who also works as Heidseck who just released his seventh album “Paroxysmal” and third for the label in as many years. Like the label, “Paroxysmal” is a diverse work, branching out from the stunning metallic and brooding ambience of opener “Fluid” through various chunky rhythmic industrial tracks via several outgrowths of dystopian noise like the grating and gritty “Surge”, the abstract the unsettling “Amplitude”. The closing sequence of tracks is both pummeling and with a touch of funk in “Ash” which bookends the album. Hiss and bass at its best.

Mingle’s “Static” album is something completely different. It is the work of another Italian, in this case Andrea Gastaldello, who plays electronics and treated guitar and piano. The result is a much more mediative and less abrasive ambient work, but still tinged with dystopian sounds and beats, especially on tracks like “Conditions” and “Words”. Whereas Matter favours bludgeoning and sparse percussion, Mingle often uses fast runs of light glitch beats to provide the momentum or keeps the rhythmic structures deep in the background. The emphasis is thus on flow rather than angular kinetics. With a lot more instrumentation and slowness, there is more emotional range and a sweeping feel to the album that is cinematic.

Other highlights include Isolat Pattern’s “Clinical Ambience” which is a classic glitch album full of rugged force and detail.  Pan Sonic’s album “Oksastus” which was recorded at Kvitnu_live in Kiev in 2009 is one of the labels few forays into vinyl releases. Just announced is an upcoming release by another Italian artist Plaster (Gianclaudio Hashem Moniri) called "Mainframe" that will come out at the end of October with a driving techno feel to several of the tracks.

Annulled Music (Norway)
Annulled Music is a relatively young label from Norway focused on long tracks of dark and motoric techno and ambient in the mould of Prologue, Semantica and Northern Electronics. In little over one year the label has notched up five releases, but all of these have quickly found the attention of many DJs including the likes of Cio d’Or, Takaaki Itoh and Ness amongst others. So far the roster includes relatively unknown artists which give it a freshness and a sense of risk that is another reason to keep your eyes on it. The label highlight so far is Monochrome’s “Unforgettable call of the octopus” which is as brilliant in name as it is in sound design. The EP is poised somewhere between dub techno and experimental, not merely interested in dancefloor functionality, but also textural grooves and sonic quality. Opener “Empty into dampness” and “Senses” are both searching tracks that refuse to lock into a simple groove, but instead work intricate circles around a central and irregular kick drum. “Misme’s breath” is chugging and ambient, mixing murky radio voices with thick, inky squirts of percussion. “Uton” is the dancefloor number with a propelling momentum and a spooky, ethereal tinge. The EP closes with “Silent Bodies”, a watery number that is the most experimental of the set, with the weight of the sea bogging down all momentum and sending the lower end to Davey Jones’ locker amid a blur of voices and seaside sounds.

The first release was BLNDRs “Hypermental” EP which captures the current range of the label, with dubby tracks like “Chords Dark” and “Behind the Log Cabin” as well as Prologue-esque “Hypermental (Diving Mix)”. The highlight from Elle’s more dance floor-orientated EP “Yamaja” is the slowly building “Alatangana”. Von Grall with releases on Semantica and Planet Rhythm is also responsible for one of the purest club releases of the label so far with the standout track being “Falling Bodies” which has plenty of ambience and hypnotic momentum to keep the late hours moving.

The labels most recent release is also their first full length (digital only) by Hydrangea, interspersing ambient tracks with club tracks. The emphasis is on ambience rather than peak time, with a dark and deep lost feel pervading the album that might favour the more introverted clubber. Highlight tracks include the brooding “Hope”, the psychedelic echo chamber techno of “First”. Although the label and the album’s aesthetic is all moody and greyscale, they are not all monochrome (sic) and depressing. The middle of the album finds respite in “The Sea Breathe” which is a welcome shade of simpler sadness touched by a ray of light whereas towards the end “5 o´clock” is almost a lullaby to signal the end of the nightmare. The following Bvdub-esque track “Winter sleep” confirms this as it reaches its branches towards the sun.

White Paddy Mountain (Japan)
Chihei Hatakeyama seems to be arriving at a peak moment in his career. The prolific ambient artist started playing in rock bands, but has since migrated to electronic music, playing mostly laptop and field recordings and having his debut on Kranky back in 2006. Nonetheless his previous experience is critical to his current sound which often feels closer to shoegaze than to ambient with clearly audible guitars and other instruments in many of his works. As well as his solo output, Hatakeyama is also one half of the electroacoustic duo Opitope along with Tomoyoshi Date and has released plenty of collaborative albums including the recent “Frozen Silence” with Sakana Sosomi, “It is, it isn’t” with Japanese ambient artist Hakobune and “Magical Imaginary Child” with Argentine Federico Durand who has also put out solo releases on White Paddy Mountain.

White Paddy Mountain debuted in 2010 with the first of Hatakeyama’s ongoing “Void” series, now up to number VII, but it is really in the last two years that it has taken off, releasing a large number of CDRs and digital releases not only by Hatakeyama, but by a growing roster of international artists including Celer, Aaron Martin and Jeremy Young, which is testament to its rising potential. Some of the labels recent highlights include Hatakeyama’s solo album “Mist” which is incredibly gentle and reaffirming, the more instrumental “Frozen silence” collaboration, “It is, it isn’t” studio live album which sounds like an ambient take on slow-core rock, and “Bullshead Emperor” that has a distinctly religious almost Popl Vuh feel.

As well as releases on White Paddy Mountain, Hatakeyama has also seen recent albums come out on Room 40 (“Moon Light Reflecting Over Mountains”), who have previously released several other albums of his, and Glacial Movements (“The Storm of Silence” with Belgian Dirk Serries to be released in January 2016).