Tor Lundvall - Empty City
There's a progression of events that lead to Tor Lundvall's Empty City. First, we build cities and railways and roads and factories; then, we vanish from them, disappearing into the night. Lundvall, riding the train through these empty landscapes, is struck by their ephemeral nature -- the way they are built and seemingly abandoned. He carries home these images and paints landscapes. These landscapes, rich with lambent skies and intense palettes of grey and charcoal, became the inspiration for the ghostly ambience of Empty City.
There's enough metropolitan drift floating through this record that a comparison to Mark Nelson's work as Pan*American is a starting landmark. But, I think Lundvall's paintings are a filter on the spectral nature of the abandoned -- sorry, "empty"; this distinction is, I think, key to Lundvall's interpretation -- cityscapes. While the music is imbued with phantasmal swirls of melody and the sepulchral echo of mechanical percussion, there is an indelible fingerprint of color and heat still captive within these ghostly sounds. Voices -- acting as instruments sans language -- exhale with moist humanity behind them. "Night Work" reverberates with the steel pulse of a train yard while vents of warm steam jet up into a slate sky. There is work being done beneath the ground, human work.
"Early Hours" ticks with the metronomic pulse of street sweepers smoothing the grit from the gutters, the long tone hush that descends upon the still city and the echoing chord of rarefied sound that seems like the echo of a party that got out an hour ago and is still quietly draining away. It is the sound of that attenuated exhaustion which rides home with the nightlife, whispering that fading echo of the final flush of last call, last kiss, in your ears. A repetitive drip of rainwater provides the rhythm for "Buildings and Rain" while anguished melodies twist into awkward spirals in the puddles running beneath the eaves. Sounds like ravens expiring are stretched across rain-damp skies. "Wires" vibrates with electrical urgency, a organ hymn raised from power lines and transformer stations; while "Empty City" approaches the closet thing to a trip-hop tune, as a torch singer who has lost her words but not her voice lets her lamentation drift across the empty boulevards and still avenues.
Tragically short, Empty City is like a town glimpsed through a break in the mist. Populated by ghosts and rife with echoes, you barely get a chance to hear the whispered litany of the city's hidden inhabitants before the song vanishes. Rhythms you think you understand decay into nothingness just as they worm their way into your brain and melodies are simply phantoms of the daylight hours when the sun stirs up the wind and the voices. It is the closest we city-dwellers get to silence; it is the purest and most uncluttered music we can hear. Lundvall captures this rich tapestry of evocative ambience beautifully with Empty City.
Saltillo - Ganglion
Menton J. Matthews distills the emotional weight of loss and heartbreak down to the tremor of a violin's string and the vibration of a cello's wooden frame. Stepping out from Sunday Munch to record Ganglion as Saltillo, Matthews offers twelve tracks that merge chamber orchestra intimacy with the caliginous seduction of trip-hop.
Matthews has scored a few soundtracks in his time and that mindset thrives throughout the mostly instrumental tracks of Ganglion. Violins and cello warble against a backdrop of sly beats in "A Necessary End" (while Matthews' wife Sarah provides wordless exultations during the bridge); a echo-drenched banjo, a sepia-tinged guitar and a crisp beat make "Remember Me?" seem like the incidental music for a showdown at the OK Corral as if The RZA was scoring Westerns. The Shakespearean-laden "A Hair on the Head of John the Baptist" and "Blood and Milk" play out like DJ Shadow doing soundtrack work on Elizabethan dramas.
"The Opening" is orchestral breakbeat, strings undulating in tempestuous space while wrestling with noisy drum programming; "Backyard Pond" glitches and hiccups with microtonal melodies while vinyl scratching bubbles around a warm synthesizer melody. In "Grafting," Matthews' string work evokes melancholic pastorals while Bristol-style trip-hop throw a 20th century haze over the idyllic landscape. Sarah's voice is lost in glossalia, ephemeral world-beat vocalizing that is so diaphanous that it never touches the ground.
For once, the press sheet hype ("quite possibly the finest release we've ever heard") doesn't seem like hyperbole. Ganglion is sumptuous listening -- rife with heartache and release, longing and liberation. Like Portishead or Massive Attack, Satillio brings trip-hop to the heartland and gives it a new home.
International Peoples Gang - Action Painting
The latest release from duo Martyn Watson and Ric Peet dovetails nicely with the resurgence of the em:t label as a waystation for the electronically adventurous. Action Painting is a lysergic curiosity, an aural psychedelic landscape that has a kinaesthetic impact upon the listener. Watson and Peet throw classically-minded electronics, contextually-adrift discourse, warped recordings of fuzzed guitar and a hint of dub at a blank canvas where they let it slide together, mixing and melding until a more-or-less stable state is reached.
The looping melody of "AC Harmonics" may have come from a guitar once upon a time, but it has been warped into a sound palette that is reminiscent of a bent harmonium. While breezes of classical strings and deploring electronics cascade around the looped melody, crystalline percussion drops dewy trails in the wake of the swelling melodies. "Stretch" is a nocturnal pastiche -- a mimetic pastoral of chimes, bell tones, vaporous electronics and brittle backmasking that brings to mind a city in winter: glassy streets, lantern light flickering beneath a film of ice, white smoke curling in abstract symbols from soot-darkened chimneys, snow flecking the hibernating trees.
The music of "Myopic" is nearly hidden beneath the foreground recording of a physical therapy session. It is a drift of drones that rises out of the encouraging dialogue and deposits us in the "Waiting Room," yet another interstitial piece. Filled with the reverb of guitar strings, "Waiting Room" redecorates the musical headspace into the experimental chill lounge of "That Time Already?" As if you have been blindfolded, lead across town by the elbow, left in an elevator, which in turn took you to a mysterious grotto where fat beats, string quartets, a meandering breeze from the South Seas and a DJ with a crate of old funk records greet you as if the party has been waiting for you to arrive.
There's a sense of falling down the rabbit hole with Action Painting, a constant sonic disorientation that both envelops and repulses you. Anne Papiri's voice on "Fireworks" wants to seduce you, but the music darts and swarms around you like so many wild birds -- fireworks, even -- that distraction is constant. Until the birds all roost and, accompanied by the noisy burr of cell phone static, fall into an avian lullaby that swiftly calms your restlessness. The swirling voices of "Polite State" intoning "Yes," "No," "Thank you, please" contribute to the hypnologic state introduced by the bird song of "Fireworks." I can't even remember what galaxy I'm in as the solar flares of "Shimmer" begin to fall around me.
Classical guitar, modified bird song, and deft beat programming greet our return to this earthly aural space in "Mornin'," a paean to the dawn light that dapples away the night. A chaotic wash of strings and guitar represent the full flush of light that breaks the skyline and, just like that, the frozen life of night is blown away by the crescendoing texture of the day's movement. And, yet, for as gorgeously symphonic as "Mornin'" is, the subsequent "Granny Takes a Trip" is an inversion of crackling vinyl, electronic squiggles, distorted childhood nursery rhymes and deformed tones that, again, drains us down the rabbit hole. We are flushed into a world of echoing strings -- a phantasmal realm where cast-off symphonies go to lament their unfinished state.
Watson and Peet call Action Painting a "synaesthetic" record, a collection of aural vignettes that twist the senses. The collision of disparate instrumentation and styles certainly makes it feel like a surreal mash-up experience, but they never completely abandon us. The chaos of Action Painting feels guided, like International Peoples Gang are your drug gurus. They are your LSD guides who show you the door into the surreal psychedelic landscape but who always give you a way back to comfortable reality.
Enduser - From Zero
Armed with the amen break and his trusty sampler, Lynn Standafer is making an effort to put some emotional content back into the desiccated state of the drum and bass scene. "The beats would sound stale after a while, no matter how chaotic, without some sort of emotion," he says about his drive to make music. "Thanks to my sampler, I can grab emotion from anyone...it's all about how I feel at the time."
A case in point (which is almost enough of a reason to buy the record alone) is his sampling of New Age Celtic siren, Enya. "Endya" is barely two minutes long, but it is a whirlwind of razored beats savaging Enya's distinct voice. It shouldn't work, but it does; Extremely well. It gets even better with "Def?" which bangs ragga like a prison bitch with its hardcore amen smackdown and demonic basso thunder. Ragga vocals and distorted zombie movie samples pop up throughout the record like angry banshees driven from their restless graves by the sonic destruction being lashed about them.
"Ill Cosby's Remix Mashup" swaggers with cutup samples and vinyl breaks, single words piercing the mix with fiery infection. "West Side Breaks" shivers and cascades a This Mortal Coil song over a clattering break line, the emotional core of the song floating like a gossamer veil above the hi-hats and breaks. Standafer isn't just about breaking things -- about creating maelstroms of densely kinetic beats -- he is seeking a marriage between ambience and action. The beats can't exist in a vacuum; they have to go somewhere and they have to appear in public with some sort of vestments. "West Side Breaks" is a precise marriage between the two extremes -- the languid loneliness of the chanteuse and the frantic effort of the rooting male of the species. "Knuckle Fucker" is a minute of Mario Bros. Mash-up, video game noises spun up to 180 BPM before being nailed to the floor by a spastic drill beat. Hipster ragga chipmunks invade "Kick Dem Down," getting their tiny paws in the air against a backdrop of splattered amen breaks, hand drums, and squirting technoid rhythms.
Standafer wrecks up his vinyl collection of jungle, dancehall and ragga to provide grist for his sampler, layering out the resultant pieces against a barrage of beats and percussion. I usually find breakbeat empty and monotonous; however Standafer's work as Enduser is a constant source of spine-rattling entertainment. From Zero may start from a point of nothingness, but it gets to 180 MPH in just a few seconds. Excellent.
Loess - Wind and Water
Somewhere between ambient drones and drifting beat programming is the world of Wind and Water, the new release by Loess on n5MD. The duo of Clay Emerson and Ian Pullman sought to create a record that paralleled the natural progression of creation and dissolution, and the ebb and flow of the twelve tracks of Wind and Water captures a gentle progression -- both airy and fluid -- that is captivatingly natural.
Seemingly a blend of Biosphere's gentle electronics and Chris Watson's environmental recordings, "Creshiem" finds waves of wind transforming into delicate melodies and ticking percussive motifs; while "Greenland" hums with the echo of bells across frozen tundra and the noisy chatter of digital crickets. Emerson and Pullman fill their organic landscapes with the micro-detritus of IDM arrhythmia, a laconic programming that seems like nothing more than the redistribution of dust and pollen beneath swirling breezes and winds. Squirts of bird noises are caught in the wake of a organ-like melody in "Lomond," a gasping, swaying song filled with the huff and puff of air through air bladders and hoses.
A small group of organs stagger about in a field in "Sonde," trying to keep in some semblance of time with the brisk percussion. One or two keep their tone poems alive while others shudder, swallowing their notes with reflexive decay. Melodies appear to be afraid of being heard, dissolving into inverted echoes of themselves before they are fully realized. "Talus" is a more forceful "Sonde," like woodblocks and a church organ lost in a windstorm, but the decaying quality of the melodies are still there. A flute, carved from wood by the wind and blown with those same lips, lends a Japanese flavor to "Veld," a Shinto meditation on the movement of tree limbs, while the deep and sonorous rumble of mountain streams provides a grumbling undercurrent to the ambiance.
I was surprised at how much of Wind and Water is purely non-environmental. While their source material and artistic inspiration may be natural, the resulting programming is certainly unnatural in its cadence and percussion. That isn't to say that Wind and Water doesn't succeed in evoking a sense of natural rhythms -- it certainly does -- but rather the efforts of Emerson and Pullman are that of restrained pastoralists. The sense of innocence here is not completely akin to Boards of Canada's winsome characterization of childhood, but Emerson and Pullman are more Thoreau-ean lovers of nature than Blake-ean advocates of innocence realized through experience.
The more I listen to Wind and Water, the more I think its sounds are akin to time-lapse photography. These recreations of the natural landscapes are time-compressed, days and years squeezed into seconds and minutes. These are the sounds the world would make if it were living and dying as fast as we were. In an sense then, Wind and Water isn't about motion -- though it is rife with it -- but rather, it is an admonition for non-movement. As "Dasein" fades out, crackling into nothingness, and "III6" glides into my head with its elongated tones (all the rhythms of the preceding fifty minutes have been left behind), I think, "Maybe, I'll just sit here awhile, still as a flower, and feel the breeze on my face."
To Rococo Rot + I-Sound - Music Is A Hungry Ghost
I was listening to a few old Nick Cave records recently and it occurred to me what his secret was. It isn't just his magnetic voice, but also the whiff of menace that seems to snake beneath his words. You find yourself checking over your shoulder occasionally as well as turning on more lights than you need in any room as his music is on the stereo. To Rococo Rot and I-Sound infuse that same darkness throughout their recent collaborative effort, Music Is A Hungry Ghost. Much like Boards of Canada's Music Has a Right to Children, and its buoyant playfulness, Music Is A Hungry Ghost fully embodies its title. It opens with "A Number of Things"--a spattering bass note and a back-masked vocal effect--the industrialized effects of a nocturnally vibrant city. "How We Never Went to Bed" rolls along damp city streets at 4am. The sun has set hours ago--a lifetime ago--and, while you think the horizon should be bleeding pink and orange soon, it hasn't happened yet and the streets are still filled with gliding shadows. To Rococo Rot has always stated that their musical efforts have been an attempt to craft electronic music that has more of a home outside the club atmosphere, a sound that fits the fleeting impressionistic moments of the city.
Anchored by Stefan Schneider's bass lines and corralled by Craig Williamson's cut-up manifesto, Robert and Ronald Lippok weave their electronic melodies in the graceful space between the dark and the light, making songs that will never burn up a dance floor nor become elegiac reminders of a simpler childhood, but rather their songs fill the moments of our daily lives when we have a chance to disconnect from the monotony. "From Dream to Daylight" includes the soaring violin work of Alexander Balanescu and, amidst the distant sound of passing cars and popping asphalt and humming power lines, emerges a sonic daydream of a man riding public transportation yet yearning for the day when he can own his own vehicle and drive not just on the city streets but out of the city and into the country.
It's not just about being haunted, you see, Music Is a Hungry Ghost is all about finding grace and hope in a sterile, mechanized world. There is warmth and humor and life to be found in the electronic detritus that machines produce and Williamson (I-Sound) and the lads of To Rococo Rot have the same yearnings as we do: they want to be engaged and inspired by their world and not held down by its weight. There is a claustrophobic menace to the sound of this record, but that is simply what provides the shadows which enhance the edges of the record.
Lusine - Serial Hodgepodge
After several well-crafted records under variations of the Lusine name, Jeff McIlwain has come to Ghostly for Serial Hodgepodge, his most polished and accessible album to date. McIlwain's charged and funky compositions flutter and flirt with subtle insouciance, a suggestive brevity of beat and melody that hints at Mandelbrotian complexities; the elongated vocals and bell tone melody of "The Stop" lay glacial austerity over a squirting house beat; the downtempo tranquility of "Everything Under the Sun" floats on a restless sea of squiggling noise and digital chatter; and the chorus of sirens languidly drifting through "Ask You" is kept aloft by a warm thermal of fat beats. Serial Hodgepodge beguiles like a dew-covered cobweb: fascinating, fragile, and complex.
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Publications I've Written For
- Eraldo Bernocchi
- Fields of the Nephilim
- Peter Gabriel
- Chris Randall
- This Morn' Omina