New Cabeza de Vaca show at Scanner FM!!!! … who was incidentally rated in the top 18 internet radio stations in the world as judged by the latest issue of Rolling Stone magazine (Spanish edition).
The end of 2012 was a pretty rough ride in many ways. It also became a rich period for ambient music partly by design, to soothe this turmoil and also to prepare for the latest show, and partly by coincidence, listening to whatever came my way. Here I collect a few mini-reviews and comments about some of the albums that characterized the end of the year and that complement the show. Many people sent me some great stuff, not all of which I could play on the air, but many thanks as always and please don’t stop! A special shout out to Mike as well at the Touch shop as I made a mess of an order there as I was too busy and too stressed to read the email he sent me properly, but he so patiently dealt with my incompetence. Gracias!
VA – Touch: 30 years and counting [Touch]
Easily the most surprising thing about this collection on Touch is the sheer number of field recording-based tracks there are. A scan through the list of “materials and methods” reveals a host of locations and techniques. Label boss Jon Wozencroft opens under the Touch 33 name with a brief excerpt of “a fast ford [not the car (sic)] on a village road near the rocky outcrop of Ros-y-Felin”, whereas on Jana Winderen’s track “In a silent place” she mixes the sounds of bats recorded in Regents Park, London with ultrasound mixed with underwater recordings. Chris Watson’s recording of Brussels Nord train station is particularly beguiling for its sounds of men, machines and birds, so much so that it sounds like a collage rather than a “documentary” recording. Best of all is Francisco López whose “Untitled#286” apparently combines field recordings of Bogota and Lima, although the sound feels more like one segment of one afternoon than any kind of studio manipulation. As well as these more direct pieces, there are also a lot of recordings that seem to have taken place in at least two locations, being finished on the road or re-recorded elsewhere, such as Oren Ambarchi’s “Merely A Portmanteau” recorded in Melbourne and Tel Aviv, or Carl Michael Von Hausswolff’s recording made in Khufu’s pyramid in Giza and the Castle in Stockholm. Combine all this with the label’s usual international roster and you have a set that feels strangely ubiquitous in a purely global and spiritual sense. Much has been made of the atemporality of the modern internet world, but this compilation seems to suggest an aphysicality as well, a simultaneous existence of multiple teeming places in one instant, or a literal binding of one place within another irrespective of distance. That is to say, everything is within Touch(ing) distance. Perhaps it is for this reason that the label also decided to join the tracks into four long pieces to fit on the four sides of vinyl so that one track Touch(es) another?
Oren Ambarchi – Audience of one [Touch]
Oren Ambarchi – Sagittarian domain [eMego]
Australian multi-instrumentalist Oren Ambarchi was undoubtedly one of the artists of 2012. His name turned up in far ranging media from the Wire to Resident Advisor with regular frequency and his recording legacy from last year was simply superb. Discogs lists at least nine albums he participated in, including two stunning solo works, one for Touch and the other for Editions Mego. Although we will play the plaintive short track “Salt” from “Audience of one” on this week’s show, the highlights of the two albums is easily the long tracks “Knots” and the title track of “Sagittarian domain” which is actually the only track, each clocking in at over 30 minutes. Both are sumptuous and progressive jams, building in tension, texture and wonder as they climax. There is a lot in common with the other Australian group The Necks in “Sagittarian domain” with its combination of bass-drum repetitions driving the track forward, but in place of Chris Abrahams ethereal piano licks, Ambarchi unleashes his electric guitar and various electronics until the end breaks down into wistful modern classical finale. “Sagittarian domain” feels almost like a classic psych or space rock group doing a freak out whereas “Knots” is more complicated and more electric, bustling and fizzing across more uneven territory, but one that still climaxes in a wave of raw power.
Bee Mask – Vaporware / Scanops [Room 40]
Bee Mask – When we were eating unripe pears [Spectrum Spools]
Chris Madak’s Bee Mask project has been in existence for several years, since 2005 at least, with plenty of releases now on his own Deception Island cassette label amongst others. Even though I don’t own a cassette player anymore, there is no reason why I shouldn’t have come across his work until last year. But I still have the first moments of listening to “Vaporware” etched deeply in my mind. There was no sense of needing to grow into it, of music and listener testing each other, it was within a minute or two an unresounding “yes”. The Room 40 release was the first I heard with the opening spill of sound reminiscent of Popol Vuh’s “Aguirre” soundtrack, but never quite feeling like a mindless homage either as it slowly thickens into a more corporal piece. The B side “Sacops” also wears a few influences on its sleeve for the opening minutes, harking back to some classic ambient and minimal classical composition before blasting itself into outer space via a frenzy of analogue synth chatter underpinned by meditative choral drones. But this is the key to Bee Mask’s sound: exploration, re-synthesis and technology with an inherently spiritual core. That said, this is not anywhere near New Age music although the longer form tracks do have a healing energy. In a 2011 interview with Foxy Digitalis Madak claimed to have taken some influence from American abstract artists like Ad Reinhardt, Brice Marden and Robert Rauschenberg, stating that:
“I got interested in the idea that once you’re looking at your project as one progressing toward the identity of work and surface, the concept of fidelity loses its object and becomes meaningless.”
The key concept appears to be this idea of surface, as there is a curiously superficial feel to the music, not in terms of meaning or vision, but of gliding between transparent surfaces or states, where all musical colour and meaning comes from the collections of light and reflections shifting across the dual interfaces. Moreover, Madak makes sure to break the surface at certain moments, with gnarly synth workouts or volume effects, to facilitate a penetration of the material and precipitate vulnerability in the listener. “When we were eating…” is altogether different compositionally, working off much shorter pop song lengths, albeit wonderfully sequenced, but combining much of the same sound synthesis: 70s sci-fi effects, serene hypercoloured backdrops of mystic temples, melancholy angels and nature hallucinating an idea of itself. Essential.
Robert Hampson – Répurcussions [eMego]
Robert Hampson – Signaux [eMego]
Robert Hampson – Suspended cadences [eMego]
It seems a long time since I heard anything from former Loop and Main man Robert Hampson although he hasn’t been entirely inactive of late. However, three albums at once is almost a frightening load for anyone. In many ways, there is not a great deal of difference between any of these, with “Signaux” and “Suspended cadences” even going together to form a pair. The sound is post-Main in that it extends the micro guitar textures of the Main material into even more minimal and insectoid forms. “Suspended cadences” represents two studio improvisations whereas “Signaux” is essentially the same material recorded live in Paris on two separate occasions. It appears that no laptops were used in the music making process, only to record the material, but there appears to be plenty of source machines and instrumentation used to create these side-long pieces, particularly guitars and various analogue electronics, some of which sound like circuit bent gadgets. The three tracks on “Répurcussions” had their origins in different live performances, being commissioned for different spaces and festivals. The source sounds for the track “Répercusions” are distinctly percussion based instruments, though as with all Hampson’s material since Main, they are highly processed. “De la Terre à la Lune” on the other hand from takes its inspiration from NASA missions and sci-fi classics like 2001 and Solaris. Understandably there is little rhythm across all three releases, though pulses do surface in “Signaux” and drum sounds do create a cinematic sense of drama in “Répurcusions”. Such Spartan and spidery music can feel academic and dry at times, but there is always a wealth of micro texture and detail to focus in on, whereas the improvised construction loosens the tracks from any overbearing rigidity.
Retina.it – Descending into Crevasse [Glacial Movements]
There is a marked difference between the Italian duos previous album “Randomicon” and “Descending into crevasse”. The former is more complicated and mechanistic, more aligned with IDM via its beats, whereas the new album is noticeably more fluid and rich in feeling, perhaps to fit better in the Glacial Movements label aesthetic and sound. Indeed, some passages of “Descending…” are so mesmerizingly rich with beauty and soft-lit emotions that they are almost painful. The key is the simple melodies that repeat in different spaces and with varying trajectories, often derived from what sound like samples of jazz and classical music. This is not to say another Gas-like album as here the constructions are melodic, simply repeating phrases that wash and tremble. The second track “Freezing the fourth string” is perhaps the most obvious, at least by the name, combining string washes as if hearing chamber music play in the room next door from the throes of sleep. “Moonshine” is perhaps the standout track and features on this week’s show. The mood is harder to divine, a little dramatic like the “Moonlight sonata” perhaps, and yet uncertain and merged with endlessly changing thought. The mood darkens as the album plays out, with the micro rhythms of “-32°F Porcelain, Metal & Ice” adding an extra sense of urgency, whereas the closing title track is stark and threatening at times with monumental grandeur. But “Descending…” is not overly a dark album. Rather its coolness is a slowing of process that gives a luxurious sense of immensity.
Christoph Berg – Paraphrases [Facture]
“Paraphrases” is the debut album from Kiel-born and Berlin-based composer Christoph Berg under his own name after two more electro-acoustic albums under his Field Rotation alias released in 2011. The album is a collection of chamber music compositions recorded over a period of two years and apparently all played by Berg, with some remix help on various tracks by Aus (Yasuhiko Fukuzono) and Peter Jørgensen. The pieces are mainly written for violin, piano and double bass although extra non-musical sounds also work their way inside, such as drones, found sounds and the electronic tones and typewriter effects used on the intriguing track “Poems written by an old (prepared) piano” which features on this week’s show. The mood is sombre or pensive throughout, evoking wooden houses and the skeletal thread of winter trees etched into the mist. The cover depicts a similar image, of a lonely woman’s silhouette lost in the fog. It is the violins that dominate the opening sequences, one mixed into a tapestry beneath the fluttering, sing-song expression of the first violin that cries the melodies. The bass is plucked almost percussively and drops out altogether in many moments to enhance the sense of loneliness and fragility. Piano comes into play during “Poems…”, but the following “Buildings at night” returns to the violin-bass combination and almost offers a brighter ray of hope for a moment. However, “Interlude”, like “Poems…” is a stand-alone piece, merging reverbed ambient recordings of what sounds like a train station, with droning violins and isolated notes of a glacial piano. There is a wooden timbre to the violins as the end draws in, such as on “A small path crossing”, bringing a richer mid-range is sturdier and offering strength. The finale “Quiet times at the library” brings back the violin call of the opening track, but sets it free over a sparser and more evanescent backing this time completed with piano. “Paraphrases” as a whole feels like some kind of travelogue, a memory of a journey in a quiet vehicle, the landscape trapped behind the glass and disappearing in time and fog. An absolutely beautiful and heart rending work.
Superstorms – Superstorms [Experimedia]
Superstorms is the project of Michael Tolan formerly of Ohio noise group Tusco Terror and sometimes working with the trio Trouble Brooks who have also collaborated with Emeralds Mark McGuire. Across the five nameless tracks here of varying length, Tolan explores the interaction between timbral pressure, feedback and drones which, once collided, seem to hang precariously over a chasm of infinite space. One analogy would be to take meaning from the project name and picture dark and potent storm clouds suspended overhead. The sound seems to surge forth from an invisible sonic crevasse, jagged and buried at the centre of the mix like a crack of lightning. From a distance the scene is smooth and roiling, but on closer inspection the sound is distinctly fractured and particulate, almost granular, like lightning atomized into micro sparks that remain embroiled in the clouds without pouring forth in rain or forking into the earth. This is not immersive ambient, but expulsive listening, like a rejecting from gravity instead of falling into the abyss. Volume here does actually help too as there is a lot of movement in the small sounds at different velocities and hearing with headphones helps the microscopic analysis, but doesn’t give any sense of the whole.
Damian Valles – Nonparallel (in 4 movements) [Experimedia]
All the music on “Nonparallel” was composed and arranged entirely from samples from the recordings of avant-garde Western classical composers and computer music released by the Nonesuch label in the 60s and 70s, including artists like Elliot Carter, William Bolcom, Charles Ives and Charles Wuorinen. The project then recalls Wolfgang Voigt’s Gas, although sounds much noisier, and also Indignant Senility’s “Plays Wagner”, itself inspired by Gas and yet sounding much closer to Canadian multi-instrumentalist Valles. All samples for the album were taken from vinyl originals with the intention of leaving in all the snaps, crackles and pops which probably accounts for the buried glitch and percussion elements the push at the surface from below, but never break through. Each of the four tracks is almost identical in length and in a way structure, being long dense fields of noise, but as would be hoped they all differ in their timbral range and the timing of the slow-motion climaxes that rage within. “Movement II” is particularly menacing at times, as is the closing track. “Movement III” bends and twists like a dancer as it emerges and even hints at melodies at times. He layering here is perhaps the most subtle of the album which compels, but can also feel heavy and at times a little over controlled.
Charlatan – Isolatarium [Type]
Digitalis label boss Brad Rose has a huge collection of cassette albums, but surprisingly only three or so on vinyl or CD. Aguirre re-released his debut album “Equinox” in 2011, whereas his “Triangles” album came out on his own label in the same year. Birmingham label Type now give us the pleasure of a new release which has a similar sepia/ochre tinted cover image to Bryter Later’s “Two lenses” released on Students of Decay last year. And just like Bryter Later, there is a strong representation of the music in the cover art. Here a woman stares forth from the yellowy gloom bearing a bandits mask and this is perhaps the essence of the album: a cloudy hijack. The dreamy, ambling tones of opening track “Codex” suddenly jolts awake with the lumbering slow motion techno garble of “Kinetic disruption”, a more than apt name for its arrival. “Anti-crash device” feels horrendously cacophonous at times, yet its chiming synths and earnest, but untethered searching are strangely protective. The rest of the album follows suit, if not becoming noisier, providing juxtapositions, stable discomforts and mazey escapes. Not as easily digestible as “Equinox”, but its all-terrain influences from buried techno, to synth jams, noise and beyond keep it from becoming obnoxious.
Alex Cobb – Passage to morning [Students of decay]
Intimacy is a word that can be thrown around a lot in ambient circles, just like isolation. Almost anything that is quieter than normal requires you to get closer or exposes you to a rawness or a sense of precariousness or evanescence that invariably draws the intimate tag. In addition, how much happy ambient music is there, meaning there is more scope for intimacy since sad feelings are often the more guarded? So much ambient music is tinged with this sadness, the waking and falling feeling. Intimacy is thus a cliché, but often an apt one. You can find the word in the press notes for Alex Cobb’s latest release, for example, an album that arrived almost two years after his prolific run as Taiga Remains came to an end. Perhaps then the tag fits in with something from his personal life that is not mentioned, but as far as listening goes, it certainly feels appropriate here, but not in the typical obvious way. This is not sad or even overtly emotional music. At times there feels like there is only a stark neutrality to the sound. But yet the music is somehow intimate, demanding that you come close to it to hear its purpose. There are so many tiny ripples slipping to the surface here, that it is easy became enchanted following them, wondering where they had arisen from and where they go. There is an amazing amount of simple movements occurring and an obscure number of sound sources. There is feedback, perhaps, and samples, but the microprocessing of the sound is wonderful even if the overall character may not be the most original.
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