Wednesday, August 21, 2013

P047: Cabeza de Vaca – Ambient and experiemntal music special

Plenty of reviews to cover the content of this week’s Cabeza de Vaca show over at Scanner FM. Thanks as always to all those artists and labels who sent promos in and apologies if I didn’t have time and/or space for all. There will be another, special ambient show in only two weeks time.

Aquarelle – August Undone [Students of Decay, 2013]

Fans of Mountains should definitely pay close attention to this release. That is not to imply anything derivative on offer, but that Ryan PottsAquarelle project has delivered an essential album for fans of cinematic pos-rock-ambient to rival Mountains themselves. “August undone” achieves the perfect balance between stasis and movement, between loud and quiet, between dense and sparse without ever feeling like an imitation or resorting to emotional blackmail. Opening track “Within / without” is a perfect encapsulation of the album both in title and sound. The opening minutes blend waves of drones and noisy guitar with a distant tinkling piano before it all suddenly seems to go still, with what seem like real life summer beach waves lapping somewhere in the background. The sound clears and becomes fragile and spritely, the moody heaviness suddenly bristles with optimism as it slowly reverts to the opening sequence again. The rest of the album follows suit, using density and volume and emotional sleight of hand to create a diverse, intelligent and sentient panorama. This is played music, not thought music. The short and beautifully titled “Sandpaper winds” resembles the religious side of Popol Vuh and their similar untethered and instinctive modus operandi as a guitar gently strums away and lifts upward in naked and fragile joy. The epic “This is no monument” is almost Bardo Pond at times before it too clears into a more melancholy piano-led sequence. The finale “Clockless hours” returns the favour with a burning core of noise bookended by quieter sequences. A stand out release for the year beyond doubt.

Xiphiidae – Pass hidingly seek [Housecraft Recordings, 2013]
Xiphiidae – Quaking myth [Aguirre 2013]

Across the two Xiphiidae releases covered here, I kept getting the impression of hearing somehow the overlap of the actions of man and of nature. In particular, there was a very rural sense, albeit abstracted, reminding me of the uneasy harmony of the farm where everything is allowed to grow and roam free, where nature is close, but where everything is ultimately sown, including the “harvesting” of animals for food.

Xiphiidae is the long term project of Jeffry Astin who has been running and releasing on the Housecraft Records label from Gainesville, Florida for many years. Although his artist name is derived from the Sword Fish, a large predatory beats of the sea, Astin’s music is anything but predatory, albeit neither is it hippie New Age drone either. “Pass hidingly seek” was originally released on cassette in 2009, but only now on vinyl, and feels like farm yard pop refracted through a watery prism. Wah wah sounds control the texture of the album, marking it with drifts of current and the wash of waves as seen from below. But deep in the core of this is the source material, or what sound like a blend of field recordings and guitars that keep the emotion glued to pangs of old-time nostalgia. As well as the guitar-ish feel, many tracks also seem to contain animal noises, like birds, chickens milling in the background. The music has a pleasant innocence about it, perhaps linking the mood to the title, but by the end of the album there is a lack of tension or thematic development across the many tracks that is ultimately its overall weakness.

“Quaking myth” which originally dates from 2010 is a completely different beast, however. The first ten minutes sound like gamelan music played in a rain storm with a Word War II transistor radio playing softly in the background, a kind of tropical Java heat slowed to a crawl and trapped in a beautiful loop. The second track on the first side sounds at first like a harmonium drone fest or some of Charlamagne Palestine’s strumming music. The sound could be a crystal storm cloud gathering in to itself purple dusk hues as it condenses and sets down over a small town. But there is no disaster on touch down, only a soft blurring as the cloudiness becomes night and the threat merges into the quotidian activities of man, as captured in the field recordings. The second side opens with a phasing set of chords not unlike some of the moments from Popol Vuh’s soundtrack to Aguirre (which seems appropriate given the label!), particularly the metaphorical scenes of raging rapids, before it eventually slipping into a more languid drift work for just over 13 minutes. The album ends in a short vignette of a rusty gate come loose and grinding in the hot summer breeze before it too fades into silence, as if time has swept clean the farm and the jungle of all life and only the structures remain to crumble slowly.

Black Swan – Redemption [Ethereal Symphony, 2013]

“More drones for bleeding hearts.” The Black Swan returns with a limited edition CDr on Ethereal Symphony. Don’t let the near-white cover fool you though, this isn’t a feel-good album and the hooded figure on the cover isn’t any druid or guardian angel. The gloomy track titles will probably give it away before you even get to the music, but just in case, the disc inside is a Black-on-Black, with the first 17 copies including a one-of-a-kind, antique funeral invitation! As with previous efforts by the mysterious artist, the beginning and end of the album are particularly poignant. Here, the opening is a quiet and grainy build before suddenly exploding into an old cinema soundtrack. But the dramatic and nostalgic atmosphere gives way to moody and suspenseful drones, always with the feeling that something worse is about to happen. If there was any theme to the album it might be the dying light of a Hollywood star given the distinct opening and the central track “Fading glory” which returns once more to a film music feel. The rest of the album is a bleak and blurry drone soundtrack to an inescapable downfall that has to be resisted with a maximum of dignity and grace albeit with a relentless sense of futility. “Desperation” lives up to its name, turning a fuzzy, but hopeful symphonic swirl into a cathartic and hopeless mess of noise by the end. The long track “Atonement” surges like an inner spirit trying to purge itself and having a metallic production it feels like a kind of heavy, aural burden, before fading into the subtle symphonic sounds of “Inferno”, a kind or ironic logic as if to say that the actual world is hell, despite all the intense transformation and dramatic emotion in the music surrounding it. Black Swan saves the best for last, however. “Of Land and Water” starts by blending a big timpani sound, the first rhythm on the album, with waves of strings and another Black Swan trademark which is to provide a sense of longing and regret, and a desire to return to the music, no matter how dark and bleak it was. The end of every Black Swan album has the sense of death to it and it is always sad to leave, no matter what.

There is also a “name your price” Black Swan track available on his Bandcamp page  as well if you don’t manage to snag one of the album copies.

Tuluum Shimmering - Ulau Tau / Spirit Of The Sun [Aguirre, 2013]

This is Tuluum Shimmering’s third album this year after  a 46 minute untitled digital release on Blowing Up The Workshop ‎and the double cassette “Raag Wichikapache / Lake Of Mapang” on Space Slave Editions. The first side here, presumably “Ulau Tau”, feels like a long lost Pacific Tribe meeting Dolphins Into The Future. It is landlocked music, but one that pays homage to the nearby waves. It could be Hawaii with a tinkling piano imitating a ukelele. There’s also enough shells, congs and bells to feel closer to Tahiti or the South Pacific. Press notes say that it is a “homemade bamboo xylophone, homemade flute, acoustic guitar customised with buzz bridge, Roland digital piano, vietnamese gong, cymbal, rattle.” The fact that it may have been made in rainy England beggars belief. It is nonetheless a brilliant beach holiday mantra, a soundtrack for endless cocktails, for wind and sand sunset lounges, breeze in the hair and the palms swaying above. Over on the second side, the balance is quite different. The flutes are still there and the piano still twinkles in the background, but with a bluesier feel. The most notable addition is the drums, big toms toms buried deep in the mix and a twanging drone that moves in and out of focus. Its hard to know if the second side feels more religious or more like a soundtrack to a desert road movie. Tahiti feels closer to India here, though its hard to tell as the drugs had already kicked in sometime on the first side, or maybe it was just all those tequila sunrises sipped on the long white beach? In any case, this a mantric and very pleasing album for losing time and transporting yourself to another place.

Kevin Drumm – Imperial Distortion [Hospital Productions, 2008/2013]

There is not much more that needs to be said about this album it seems. Anyone curious for a background could do worse than head over to FACT Mag  where there is a primer as well as a historical context of the album that has just been re-released on vinyl. I must confess to being a bit uneasy about buying it based on a few Boomkat samples, especially after ending up with the re-issue of Drumm’s eponymous first album on Thin Wrist Recordings from 2010 which remains lovingly packaged, but hardly played on my shelf somewhere. “Imperial Distortion” is something else altogether though. It truly is a masterpiece, but one that is most definitely not for the iPod generation. To have any kind of experience with this album requires proper speakers and preferably a decent sized room for moving through. My first listen to this in such conditions nearly made me sick, but in a good way. The depth in the sound was simply staggering. The bass at times was cavernous, a cliché word for ambient, but in this case there is nothing else apt. The six sprawling tacks here are like flying at a steady height over black canyons whose bottom plummets away and then rises again to sea level, all in the darkness. There is a brooding and frightening presence in this lightless space, a presence which only makes itself felt at the end when the album closes in a crunching deluge of noise lasting only a few paltry minutes compared to the endless and timeless void that is the album proper. Ever since getting hold of this I have been trying to create for myself time and space to listen to it as it defies to be wallpaper music and requires activity and response. But its epic length, much like the Swans “Seer” album from last year, is a difficult barrier for an all-in-one session, yet it with six sides to choose from it can be assembled and reassembled at will. Any comparison with Aphex Twin you may have read is garbage, at least sonically, although it will be easy to hold this work up in the same high regard in half a century’s time. This is an album with profound impact and an extensive range. Finally, it is worth pointing out as well the poignancy of the cover image too. The front features a few plastic bottles in a dirty river in colour, like a modern version of Monet’s “Waterlillies”, while the inside features a World War II battle scene underway in black and white. There is hardly a word anywhere to be seen. Somehow this reflects the floating world within: society, mankind has become a dirty river burdened with pollution and consumerist flotsam and jetsam, while inside we harbour war. I remember a trip to Egypt several years ago and walking in a village suburb in Luxor and seeing such scenes. The once beautiful Nile, cradle of civilisation, choked with plastic Coke bottles.

Sleeper – From beyond [Room 40/A Guide to Saints, 2013]
With Moths – For silence [Room 40/A Guide to Saints, 2013]

Lawrence English’s Room 40 cassette sublabel A Guide to Saints has unleashed a second batch of relases for July 2013. Amongst them are a couple of New Zealand artists, including Sleeper (C.J Parahi) and With Moths. The former’s album “From beyond” features anywhere from two to four long tracks with different atmospheres. At least the press notes tell me there is four and each side has two names, but there is no discernible join between the two on each side. On side 2 “Edge of darkness”/“Creeper” is dark enough to bring it into the same sort of terrain as Kevin Drumm’s “Imperial Distortion” (see elsewhere) and is like an Industrial dreamscape, with grating fluorescent lights panning across landscapes etched from blackness and coloured in clotted smoke. There is a comfort in feeling at least the music might come from another room and is not really inside your head. The A side couldn’t begin any differently, however, and appears to be an ironic joke. The opening minute is like the soundtrack to some kitsch Celtic movie although it is quickly drowned in a deep pool along with the whole film. Time then becomes stretched and the scenes drag as they play it, struggling against the weight of water. It is beautiful without being blissful, like watching your life play out before your eyes while drowning.

With Moths album “For silence” may or may not have a reference to the Flying Saucer Attack track of the same name from the “Further” album [1994] who were certainly something of a hit in New Zealand, as they were in Australia. After all, they also released their impressive live album “In search of spaces” on Bruce Russel's Corpus Hermeticum and appeared on the “Harmony of the Sheres” boxset alongside one of the space rock idols of the time Roy Montgomery. Certainly there are some similarities with the FSA sound, to a point. The vocals that first appear on “Living the wait” bear more than a resemblance to Dave Pearce on FSA, being slightly tuneless and drowned in reverb and effects. There are also echoey low fi guitars too, but much less cathartic than the FSA sound. If anything, there is more of a touch of the Cure than FSA, with guitar feedback replaced by hazy synth drones and a certain psychedelic eastern feel from “Killing an Arab”.

Seaworthy and Taylor Deupree – Wood, Wnter, Hollow [12K, 2013]

More from the antipodes with Seaworthy, the electro-acoustic post-rock group of Cameron Webb (on this recording without Greg Bird and Sam Shinazzi) who is normally based in Sydney, Australia and his team-up with 12K head honcho Taylor Deupree. Here the emphasis is on the landscape as muse rather than as audio form. That is, this isn’t a soundscape, but a reaction to one played out on guitars, chimes and layers of synth and over field recordings. For inspiration, Webb and Deupree spent several days wondering through the snowy Ward Pound Ridge reserve a little to the north of New York recording the frozen rivers, wind, footsteps in snow and absorbing the site of white hills and wounded trees, damaged in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Two of the tracks bear dates, February 21 and 22 from this year as a kind of audio diary and are the closest to an actual soundscape. But the emphasis of the album is on the three longer tracks “Wood”, “Winter” and “Hollow” which give the album its name. These tracks are essentially jams without riffs and hooks, just picked guitar, flutters of echo, the fading of notes and the forgotten promise of melodic progression. At times there is a strange lack of space as all the sounds compete for an audible middle ground, but in other moments there is a much greater sense of profundity, with the field recordings interacting more with the notes, or where the second guitar or the electronics comes more to the fore. There is a melancholy emotion running through the work, but sometimes it feels slightly muted, given its bleak source of inspiration and its sparse arrangements. “Hollow” is perhaps the richest track emotionally, with the long amble of “Winter” lacking another instrument to accompany the long haul to really emphasise its purpose. But this is an album for focusing and defocusing in slow motion, where the impression given by the purity of the recording and the tonality of the playing is as important as any invented emotion embellished on its surface. Here, the winter landscape is more like a mask or a mirror than its own voice.

Frozen thoughts – Calm before the storm [Glacial Movements, 2013]

More winter music in the heart of summer (at least in the northern hemisphere)! There has been a lot of movement at Glacial movements (sic) in the last few months. Not only has there been a digital album by Japanese artists Yuya Ota (more from him in our special Japanese ambient show coming up soon), but a new collaboration between Bvdub and Locsil as well as CD albums by Aida Baker and label boss Alessandro Tedeschi aka Netherworld. Somewhere in between all this was also Frozen Thoughts aka Petar Šakić and another digital album “Calm before the storm”. Geographically at least, there seems a long way between the Croatian capital Zagreb from where Šakić originates and the frozen tundra he evokes, although there are plenty of mountains nearby and one assumes this at least provided some of the inspiration. Here the album is divided in five long tracks for immersive listening with intermissions between the tracks of someone walking through the snow and environmental noises like wind and birds. The album is thus a kind of fantasy travelogue, with each track feeling like a chapter in the story. It is quite a dark tale, however, with all tracks playing off a brooding, isolationist feel with the exception of “Godlight” which feels almost a bit too bright and up-beat at times. But there are plenty of good ideas on the rest of the album, from the bleepy chimes opening “We are not alone” as if an ancient alien beacon had been discovered beneath the ice, whereas “Reflections of dead maidens” and “Eternity without time” are both exceptional portals to beautifully resonant inner space. Finally, the title track which closes the album does not betray and concludes the tranquility in a blizzard of granular noise and distant shrieks.

Mousecop – Greatest hits volume 2 [Rubber City Noise, 2013]

The first couple of minutes of Mousecop’s Greatest hits might not suggest an album that lives up to its titles. It’s all pretty goofy and standard low fi stuff, with growly vocals and dirty electronics, the kind of music your parents are always telling you “I could do that,” only this time they might be right. However, somewhere near the end of the first track, things start to get weirder and out of control. It sounds for awhile like C3PO and R2D2 are coming up on acid just as the Millennium Falcon starts lurching into hyperspace before touching down in a granular mess on Tatooine. From there onwards “Greatest hits volume 2” is a less predictable and more involving, combining gritty noise with a vast array of more palatable sounds and a collage approach to arrangements and some nice sequencing that joins it all together. The second track “Moldar encounters a dark spirit in the woods, Skully is skeptical though” briefly alludes to the X-files theme before diverting to a whacked out preacher intoning over a wash of noise. The third track is a country-like guitar jam reminiscent of Sunburned Hand of the Man or other New Weird American sounds that becomes a hazy backwards drawl as it closes. Things get weirder still with the fourth track with a constant rhythm of heavy breathing overlaid with a sprinkling of abrasive sounds and heavy noises as if the respiration were under attack. Somewhere towards the end you can hear a “real” band playing in the next room. The closing track “Where the shook window offers no respite” begins like a quiet, narrative story full of disembodied voices in detached locations. Not entirely satisfying, but full of humour and chaotic invention.

Billy Gomberg – False heat [False, 2013]

This is a minimal release if ever there was one from rooklyn.based sound artist Billy Gomberg. The whole recording sounds somehow frail, withered and almost half in and out of existence. I mean that in a good way. It takes about 12 minutes for the first side/track to almost register on the consciousness and then it sort of sits as a wavering, sickly line. The second side begins with a more corporal presence, contrasting the trajectory of different drones to form hypnotic overlays, like much of Éliane Radigue’s work. By the end it thickens into a heavier, eastern-sounding hum, but like the first side, the changes are almost invisible and the sense of time is marvelously distorted.

Frozen Thoughts
Eternity without time
Glacial Movements
Edge of darkness
A Guide to Saints
Savvas Ysatis and Taylor Deupree
Sand paper winds
Students of Decay
Tuluum Shimmering
Ulau Tau
Aguirre Records
Quaking myth side B
Aguirre Records
Waiting for a friend
Black Swan
Of Land and water
Ethereal Symphony

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