Thursday, December 8, 2011

The shapelessness of things to come: new ambient music

As I struggle to repair my computer, a quick roundup of some ambient albums that came my way recently. Thanks as always to Jeremy Bible for many of these.

Charlatan – Equinox (Aguirre)

Charlatan is actually Brad Rose, label head of Digitalis which alongside labels like Aguirre, Hippos in Tanks, Editions Mego and more has kept the synth fires burning this year. “Equinox” is actually his first release, dating back to 2009 where it came out on Canada’s cassette label House of Sun, supplemented here by two bonus tracks. “Equinox” soars like an eagle in honey, bathed in dawn’s golden light and flavoured with the slightest tinges of melancholy. The mood is close to science fiction, alluded to in the cover art and track titles like “Pyramids”, “Titans” and “Minus ten”. The often woozy bending of sound also evokes images of a spangled future in outer space as seen from a quainter past. Rose’s forms are not long form ambient or faux-soundtrack material, but pop, albeit pop distended and deconstructed with the absent mindedness of someone up all night or caught looking both forward and backwards in time. Support is supplied by the viscous textures which work against the body, comforting it and displacing the intangible elements of mind and soul into the immensity of the cosmos. However, any over the top idealism is restrained by the light undercurrents of sadness and nostalgia. “Delta”, which opens the second side, crackles and shimmers in a watery glaze like a Caretaker/Leyland Kirby track. Even the heroic chords of “Titans” have a sense of tragedy in the undertow. The overwhelming feeling from “Equinox” is, however, a sense of warmth and a sense of place and purpose.

charlatan - equinox (album preview) by experimedia

Refractor – Locus Suspectus (Under the Spire)

A mysterious release by apparent new-comer Refractor. The press release comes with no useful information, only two or three lines worth, one of which is “A Brave New World soundtrack to feed the connected one's insatiable appetite for distraction.” This pretty well sums it all up. Kinetic ambient music is how I would describe it. Peaceful chimes, bubbly underwater tones and forever shimmering waterfalls of synth glissandi populate this world. The sensation is one of tranquillity, but there is so much movement and indeed, distraction, that it doesn’t feel like music for sitting still. Another way to look at it would be as a mix between Oneohtrix Point Never and Dolphins Into the Future: an urban aquatic park for cyber cetaceans. Indeed, like Lieven Martens’ music for Dolphins, the album was all recorded on the fly, with special modifications of the synths to allow all the real time modulation.

refractor - locus suspectus (album preview) by experimedia

Innercity – Terrestreality (Aguirre)

Antwerp’s Hans Dens has had a busy year or so, releasing a handful of albums and singles on labels like Release the Bats, NNA Tapes and his own Why So Serious label. His latest for Aguirre is an interesting counterpoint to some of the labels other material in that the production style feels remarkably different, referencing more purely electronic techniques rather than coming from the more low-fi indie-referencing synth school. “Opiate vague” with vocals by Bram Devens is a good case in point, burying a kick drum somewhere way down in the mix and scratching a fractured synth rhythm with tabla percussion until it feels almost like a current incarnation of bass music. The albums penultimate track “baby food” also grinds down and irons out some prickly digital noise over nearly ten minutes with a clarity and attention to detail that could rival Machinefabriek. While “Terrestreality” impresses for its production and invention, it does at times suffer from lack of cohesion. Tracks seem to splinter and disappear rather than binding together to make a complete work, something not helped by their often short duration. Yet if 2011 has taught us anything about music it is that texture, weirdness and what Simon Reynolds calls “digital maximalism”  reign supreme and Innercity’s mix of vignettes and one extended piece represent another fine example of technology and imagination daring sound to excess.

innercity - terrestreality (album preview) by experimedia

Je suis le petit chevalier – L’Enfant sauvage (Aguirre)

French-born and Brussels-based Felicia Atkinson is both a painter, contributing the cover art, and musician. Her sound is like a heavier and at times darker take on the synth drone workouts of Grouper and Motion Sickness of Time Travel. Like these two artists, Atkinson contributes vocals, dreamy and wordless siren calls from the depths of the mix. However, whereas Liz Harris and Rachel Evans tend to lay back beneath the stars in gentle, pastoral folds, Atkinson searches for motion and conjures up dark, moving forces around her. Side one track “No talisman” builds and builds into a climaxing vortex of coruscating noise impregnated with demonic fury and damnation. The B-side “Love” also has certain gothic tendencies and a permeating, organic darkness. Her guitar chimes loudly while ghostly flutters shudder through the layers of haze. The claustrophobic darkness may be in contrast to the white spaces and bright colours of the cover image, but its sexual imagery is perhaps also one of the tortured themes inside the music. A wonderful contrast to more settling and sedative ambient music.

je suis le petit chevalier - l'enfant sauvage (album preview) by experimedia

Nova Scotia Arms/Motion Sickness of Time Travel – Crystal Anniversary (Aguirre)

Speaking of Motion Sickness of Time Travel, a split album from Rachel Evans and husband Grant under his Nova Scotia Arms moniker to close a fantastic year for the pair. That said, this is perhaps not the pinnacle of their work from this year, with MSoTTs outstanding “Luminaries and Synastry” and their collaborative project Quiet Evenings eclipsing the two sides here. That is not to say it is a dud by any means. NSA’s “Navigation (devotional)” feels at times like a lost Flying Saucer Attack track, but recorded with the higher fidelity of a laptop, something not available to Dave Pearce back in the day. There are the meditational vibes of Popol Vuh and the waves of guitar fuzz, but where “Navigation (devotional)” differs from FSA’s rock and folk core is in its slippery escape into more purely ambient skies, at least until the heavily processed and noisy climax. MSoTT’s side begins with the short track “Censer” a warm and vibrating ritual that like its name suggests, cleans and purifies the room for the longer “Lotus Flower” that follows. However, “Lotus Flower” is not a simple or passive meditation. It is deceives by working not through evoking immediate beauty or sustained tranquillity, but by offering a stream of restless noise and unsettling ambience, almost as if the idea is to contrast the sound with an image in the mind’s eye of a stable, harmonious and elegant flower. Grant Evans contributes the records packaging whereas mastering is by the celebrated Lawrence English.

Steven Hess and Christopher McFall – The Inescapable Fox (Under the Spire)

"The Inescapable Fox" is a richly conceptual album by two diverse artists. Steven Hess has worked with a great many musicians including Sylvain Chauveau, Christian Fennesz, Pan American and Robert Hampson of Main/Loop while Christopher McFall has released several solo and collaborative albums exploring sound design in relation to visual images and the use of decaying and treated tapes a la William Basinski. Indeed, the album was generated as a series of exchanges of analogue tape material sent by mail between the two artists. McFall goes on to explain that the idea behind the album is a study of the interface between light and dark. More specifically he invokes images of Greek mythology and the hound Laelaps that never catches its prey and the fox Teumessian which can never be caught, hence the title. Sonically this manifests as a constant focussing and defocussing of sound and texture. Field recordings and acoustic instruments are allowed to be recognised, then are modified out of all recognition as a contrasting element comes into play. Rhythm become drone, wind becomes steel, silence sinks into threat and remerges as gentle rain. The occasional presence of tape his and real instrumentation reminds us to think of the physicality of the media and music making while the buzz,  hum and silence do not let you forget the ethereality of sound and life. A fascinating and compelling collaboration for anyone who appreciates the modern classical elements of labels like Type and the more experimentally-minded music of labels such as Touch, Experimedia and Room 40.

steven hess & christopher mcfall - the inescapable fox (album preview) by experimedia

Willamette – Echo Park (Infraction)

Willamette’s “Echo Park” has been a long time in making and releasing. Apparently recorded between 2006 and 2009 it finally sees the light of day in 2011. The nexus of the group are the Chong brothers Davin and Kevin alongside Joseph Edward and guest cellist Danny Norbury. Not household names by any means, but nonetheless a fine album of neo-classical and treated electronics. The reference points are once again the Type label and in particular the sad strains of Deaf Centre, Peter Broderick et al. The music is perhaps not so dramatic, but still steeped in elegance and a soothing nostalgia. There are few melodic hooks to cling to, even when the cello does set sail. Instead, the music works best as a detached mediation, as a morning or evening suite of sounds and melancholy moods for quiet contemplation.

willamette - echo park (album preview) by experimedia

Hauschka and Hildur Guðnadóttir – Pan Tone (Sonic Pieces)

This is one of the better acoustic-ambient pieces I have come across in some time, being full of ideas, unexpected textures and the rush of spontaneity. The album is a collection of live tracks culled from a performance from Arctic Circle - Bubbly Blue and Green festival held at Kings Place in London on 26th of February 2010. The two performers are Volker Bertelmann and Hildur Guðnadóttir. Düsseldorf-based pianist Bertelmann is best known for his work with prepared pianos under the Haushka moniker and has released plenty of critically praised albums over the years, the best known of which is “Room to expand” released on Fat Cat in 2007. Guðnadóttir on the other hand has had something of a home on the Touch label over recent years, where she released her landmark album “Without sinking” in 2009. Together the two forge a strong alliance, able to generate abstractions and melodic rushes that are awash with pageantry and sensitivity. The basis of the album is the idea of the sea, one that is clearly romanticised and intimate, such as in the sad, melodic lines of “#294”, but also a sea that remains a great monstrous and unknowable force, such as in the opening of “Black 6”. The track names mostly use Pan Tone colour numbers in the range of blue and grey to evoke the sea in different moods and changes of light. This abstraction by scientific method contrasts with the intuition of the playing and also the longing and yearning for the water that the music seems to suggest to great effect. One of the other highlights of this album is that it is essentially anti-ambient, in that its textures, riddles and feeling demand active listening. This is not wallpaper music by any means. Outstanding.

Hauschka & Hildur Guðnadóttir - Pan Tone by sonic pieces

Air Texture Volume I: Compiled by Bvdub and Andrew Thomas (Air Texture)

Despite not being an album-proper, Air Texture’s compilation is still one of the major ambient releases of the year, especially given what seems to be the flagging interest in Kompakt’s Pop Ambient series. Joachim Spieth’s Affin label has their own admirable collection jockeying for more prestige, but Air Texture have probably bagged it for this year with this double CD set. Perhaps one curiosity then, is that all of Spieth, Brock van Wey (Bvdub) and Andrew Thomas have released and continue to release on Kompakt’s yearly collection. Disc 1 here belongs to Bvdub and disc 2 to Andrew Thomas. Both collections not surprisingly bear a strong resemblance to the sound of their selector. Bvdub’s choices are from generally lesser known artists and are full of sadness, tending to be longer tracks that slowly evolve. On the other hand, Thomas’s collection of more established names shoots for texture, shorter duration and mental calmness over emotion. Each artist also includes their own tracks on the collection, while Bvdub invites several artists who have worked with him or released on his Quietus label. This includes Arc of Doves (Tetsuya Nakamura) who closes the first disc, and Ian Hawgood who collaborated with Bvdub on “The truth hurts”, one of the many Bvdub albums to be released this year. Hawgood features on his own and in collaboration with Konntinent (Antony Harrison) while Thomas in turn includes two tracks by Oneohtrix Point Never and the under rated Markus Guentner (another Pop Ambient favourite), as well as tracks by Leyland Kirby and a lovely wintery piece from Biosphere. Perhaps the biggest selling point of the collection is that it brings the best of two worlds, pop ambient from Thomas and the richer emotional ambience from Bvdub.

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