Jamie Lidell - Multiply
A would-be 1960's soul classic re-envisioned with the digital machinery of the 21st century, Multiply's richness derives from the glorious abandon with which Jamie Lidell channels a generation of soul singers. Equal parts Otis Redding, George Clinton, Sam Cook, Prince, and Steve Wonder, it's as if he's been stealing bone marrow and red blood cells for a musculoskeletal replacement and a full transfusion. Whether it be the slinky do-wop of "What's the Use?," the Motown shimmer of "Music Will Not Last," or the New Power Generation funk frenzy of "Newme," Lidell croons and warbles with daredevil aplomb over instrumentation that jiggles and bleeps with digital artifacts, while noise and technology masquerade as a lock-step rhythm section. As the P-Funk Mothership crash-lands into the studio during "The City," you can almost hear that Lidell has slung himself so robustly into the past that he's come around to the future.
L'ombre - Medicine For The Meaningless
As a label, Ant-Zen is consistent. As a listener, you know what you're going to get from an Ant-Zen release, and I don't say this in a bad way -- I'm a huge fan of the music which comes out of the Anthill -- but I approach their releases with an awareness of what I'm going to hear. The real trick is when they pop something into my head which makes me wonder if all the rules have changed. L'ombre's Medicine for the Meaningless challenges every other act on the Ant-Zen roster to graduate themselves to the next level of complexity or be left behind. Not a bad trick for a newcomer.
In this case, one Stephen Sawyer, resident of Canada. Operating with the mantra of "...behind all that exists there is shadow," Sawyer disappears into L'ombre and delivers an hour of rhythmic ambient music which is equally claustrophobic and aurally expansive. Medicine for the Meaningless opens with "Nowhere," a winter wind howling across empty moors. Somewhere just beyond a hillock or copse of broken trees is a tiny shed with gaping holes in the walls and ceilings so that the wind can toy with an abandoned piano that has been left there. Call this "Fugue for Wind and Piano," "Nowhere" scours clean your mental landscapes as the wind fills your head and the oddly arrhythmic piano melody captivates your lung sacks until you find yourself holding your breath, waiting for the next note to find its way through the wind.
The song titles are landmarks of desolation. "Disappear" continues the reluctant melody of "Nowhere," adding rhythmic noise patterns to a steady tonal melody. Heavy washes of sound breathe in and out around the listener. To disappear is to have your identity subsumed under the weight of the sound. All that remains is the melancholic melody which, like a pterodactyl trapped on the surface of a tar pit, is slowly being dragged under by the fields of noise rising around it. "Ressentiment" [sic] follows this bird-creature down under the black surface, slow bubbles of trapped gases rise past it as it sluggishly falls towards the black bottom. Imagine the building pressure as the weight of the surface increases overhead, imagine the hissing sound in your ears as they start to bleed, imagine the force exerting itself against your heart as you struggle to breath.
"On the Beach" echoes Nevil Shute's apocalyptic book of the same name. Restless beats scamper around the processed sound of waves breaking on the shore. Global wind patterns are bringing nuclear fallout to the shore. All you can do is wait, and the waiting starts to get under your skin after awhile. You start to get edgy and restless. After the Nietzschean "God is Dead!" rumble of "Atheist," L'ombre takes us on a pharmaceutical ride with "Syzygy," a mental flight on beat-paths laid out through the throb and click of celestial space.
The last track, "Trailblazer," wanders into silence as those records which want to hide a bonus track do, but in L'ombre's case, the silence works as part of the experience. Melding equal parts Gridlock and Tarmvred, Sawyer has taken the best parts of rhythmic ambient and noisy IDM which the last few years have offered and gone off in his own direction. We're just following his lead and, for a few minutes in the middle of "Trailblazer" we are lost, surrounded by silence. Finally he calls us on again, lost from view but still somewhere ahead. Medicine for the Meaningless is a fabulous debut, a record which all of 2003 will be hard pressed to match.
L'ombre - Simulations 2.0
Picking up where his 2003 release, Simulations 1.0, left off, Simulations 2.0 continues Sawyer's evolution from a cold and ghostly dark ambient player to a cinematic isolationist with a machine-driven heartbeat that thrums steadily beneath his capacious soundtracks. Split equally between new material and remixes (seven of them supplied by similarly-thinking artists like Enduser, Mimetic, Ab Ovo, Hecq, Displacer and S:cage), Simulations 2.0 is more than a simple variation of L'ombre's oeuvre: it's a whole new iteration of Sawyer's cinematic polish, lit by neon reflections and polished chrome and cut by an subterranean undercurrent of dark beats.
"Jackhammer Blues" and "Subway Tunnel Advertising" bristle with dark beats, dark marching rhythms that lurch with an urban insouciance. "City Speak" echoes with the hollow reverberation of drums rumbling through a tactile fog of noisome static. Sawyer isn't building metropolitan pastoral symphonies any more; his soundtracks have a gritty, urban drive to them and sound like they could very easily be adapted as themes and leitmotifs for a remake of Walter Hill's The Warriors. In "Relax It's Digital" and "No Referent," Sawyer's ambience is filled with the leaking hum of the downtempo jazz club and the glitch chatter from a thousand difference electronic sources. Even "Vanishing Point," which sounds as if it escaped from a Loscil record, is accompanied by a bass drum and metallic drum kit.
The remixers, for the most part, accentuate the existing thematic thrust of their individual tracks. Ab Ovo's remix of "Relax It's Digital" is simply more digital than the original -- neither faster nor slower, just filled with more digital processing and crackling synthesis while Displacer's remix of "City Speak" focuses on the drums, bringing them closer in the mix. Enduser's remix of "Urban Estate" snares the same luscious drone of "Vanishing Point" and demolishes it in a broken cataclysm of drum 'n' bass and sub-sonic rumblings. Hecq's two remixes of "Reality Loop" vanish in either direction, the "Hysteria Jive" mix shuttling off to an uptown dance club while the "Echo Implant" mix dissolves into the slow water running down the streets and vanishing into the storm drains. S:cage brings the rhythmic noise train hard into the station for "Off Course," and Mimetic's remix of "Interlocution" is a stellar conglomeration of the L'ombre aesthetic: a self-contained five-minute soundtrack that moves from the ghostly ambience of L'ombre's Medicine For The Meaningless to the dark hop beats that permeate Simulations 2.0 with the added bonus of the orchestral flair that suffuses Mimetic's work.
I'm continually impressed with Stephen Sawyer's work; each of his records as L'ombre have distinct personalities and demonstrate Sawyer's continued growth as an artist. Simulations 2.0 is just the next iteration in that evolution, adding propulsive beats and gritty urban sizzle to his already immaculately constructed static-laced ambience. Bravo.
LFO - Sheath
I got a cassette tape promo of LFO's new record, Sheath, and it stopped me in my tracks. I had to remember if I still owned a tape deck. While I tried to remember where the deck was, I wondered why Warp -- who normally send out their promos as CDs -- sent out cassettes this time around. And then I saw the video for "Freak," the lead single from the record.
The video, for those who haven't gone to Warp's website and watched it, tells the story of mischievous young girls at a school in Japan. After locking the headmistress in the bathroom, one of the girls approaches the stereo in the head office and switches the PA system from the microphone to a stereo input -- to the cassette tape, in fact. The girls playing on the roof are blasted with music as the first girl pops in an unmarked tape, and they start to dance. And -- subtly, creepily -- things start to get weird.
I'm looking at this tape on my coffee table, feeling like I've just been dropped into Warp's version of Ringu, and I'm wondering just what is going to happen to me when I play this tape. Will my face start to stretch, centuries of evolution sliding backward as I shiver and twitch about the room to the shuddering metallic beat of "Mokeylips" which scrapes its way out of my stereo? Will the furious beat breakdown of "Mum-Man" turn me into a raging baboon? I'll tear off the legs of the coffee table and go all 2001 on my sofa during the tumultuous and cataclysmic climax of "Snot."
When LFO (Low Frequency Oscillation) formed in 1990, it comprised of two members: Mark Bell and Gez Varley. After the release of Advance in 1996, the two parted ways with Bell retaining the name. Since then he's been busy on the production side of the desk, working on Björk's Homogenic and Depeche Mode's Exciter. Sheath is his first record in a long while and is full of the acid house foundation which "LFO" (the first track the duo ever wrote) was born in, as well as the successive decade or so of Aphex Twin style knob twiddlery which set the direction of so much electronic music. The complex mechanics of "Blown" and "Unafraid to Linger" transform their respective wistful melodies into textured symphonies of electronic expression. Beats bubble and dance beneath glistening arias of sound and melody (there are even some double-reed instruments which wander into the mix of "Unafraid to Linger," drawn by the Dionysian fervor of the fairy melodies). Whether he's poking the monkey part of your brain with snarling pulses of spastic beats or guiding the child in you towards the light, Bell has a penchant for tunes that will challenge the intelligent and delight those who come to IDM for the dancing.
I have to turn the tape over now (yes, I did find my tape deck). "Freak" is on side B. I'm still concerned that I'm going to be permanently altered by this song. The opener to side B, "Sleepy Chicken," has a lonesome guitar surfing around in the background behind the 1950s style "we're all happy here" theme music. At least it was a guitar. Now it has morphed into something stranger, something that has teeth and likes to chew on power chords. I think my ears are starting to slide down to my jaw line.
"This is going to make you freak." These are the only lyrics on the entire record. These are the only words you will hear on Sheath. This is the message, not so subliminally pumped into your brain. "Freak" is like Aphex Twin storming the studio of the minimal techno-heads in Berlin. There's a perpetual four on the floor feel to the track, but it gets lost and fucked up by Bell's mastication of the melody by any and all methods available to him. And then it all drains away and I shit through "Mummy, I've Had An Accident..."
Hmmm, I meant to say "sit." See? It's that low frequency oscillation. It's Bell, turning me inside out as I try to dance and sing to songs that have no vocals and aren't meant to be danced by the recently erect knuckle-draggers in the audience. I hear voices where there are none in "Nevertheless" as a looped cello is transformed by a persistent melody into a fully orchestrated duet, and the closer, "'Premacy," is a love song to deep space noises -- sex music for quasars and pulsars and other celestial bodies.
I've gone from regressing to my ancestral beginnings to staring at the night stars, imagining that I am light years across so that I can wrap my arms around the Crab Nebula. This is what that unmarked and innocent looking tape of Sheath did to me. Your mileage may vary, but I hope not. Bell puts together a good trip.
Laibach - WAT
Laibach has been in existence for more than twenty years, a quasi-political art collective which has persisted in releasing records which both confound and inflame the political authority of their Slovenian homeland. In 1992, they formed the Neue Slowenische Kunst -- a "State in Time" -- and began to issue their own passports as well as staging "diplomatic" events and establishing consulates in foreign countries. Their intent has always been to make art that turns the masses away from consumerism, Christianity, and the mindless adherence to the entertainment industry. Their "crypto-totalitarianism" -- a term used by the New York Times to describe them -- is propagated to the West by their music.
The first formal Laibach record since 1996's Jesus Christ Superstars, WAT finds them returning to the more electronic based arrangements of earlier records. The massive choral orchestration is still existent, filling tracks like "B Mashina," "Du Bist Unser," and "Now You Will Pay." Milan Fras' profoundly basso voice still anchors their sound, a rumbling thunder which is both guttural and hypnotic. Vaguely industrial (in what slim sense "industrial" has for music any longer), Laibach's sound is a strange mix of choral hymn, military drill team soundtrack, and the black belch of smoke from proto-industrialized machinery. Singing in either German or English, they move easily from the martial pomp and circumstance beat of "Achtung!" to the subterranean intonation and machinery whisper of "Ende" to the tongue in cheek, four on the floor club stylings of "Tanz Mit Laibach." (If my handy translator pal is correct, the lyrics go: "We dance with totalitarianism, we dance with democracy, we dance with fascism, and we dance with anarchy.") And, as a seductive "welcome to the machinery of the new state" love song, "Hell:Symmetry" is not only club-friendly, but it could just as easily become the theme song for a slick underground S & M boutique/dungeon chain.
But what they really do better than anyone else is the nationalistic hymn -- the shake off your shackles and claim your birthright sort of anthem. This time it is "B Mashina," a spoken word introduction based on text by Tomi Meglic that, if I was going to found my own nation state, I would want as my national anthem.
I'm just a naive white boy from the "land of plenty and of ammunition" who has enough trouble getting his local politics straightened out, and a band who is gagged by their state from even displaying their name on their records for the first decade of their existence is an organization whom engenders respect. It saddens me that the best we can do is give them course to write songs like "Satanic Versus." "Express yourself as the living nation / The first, the second, the third world domination / Impress with stars and stripes forever / Conspiracy of terror and salvation."
The title of the record is an acronym meant as a symbol of the final rebellion and as a dig at our acronym-centric culture. WAT. "We have no answers to your questions / Yet we can question your demands / We don't intend to save your souls ... We are time." In the end, the nations will be gone and those who have shaken off the shackles of the military/industrial complex and liberated themselves from the death cycle of endless consumerism will be ready to ride the "dream machines into the sky."
As Laibach warns us in the beginning, "Let them sleep who do not know; the final day is here." WAT is a manifesto for us to rise to our evolutionary possibilities. "We raise our hands and bodies to the peak and to the universe. Towards the stars we go." Art and the inherent expressions of being human can never be destroyed. Laibach's "State in Time" is one of complete freedom, free of all self and state forged manacles. Entrance to the NSK is easy; it is getting out of your own totalitarian state which is hard. You need WAT to remind you of the revolutionary fervor of which you are capable.
Laika - Wherever I Am I Am What is Missing
I've been a bit put-off from Laika's music for a few years. I -- exuberantly -- went to see them on their last tour and caught them on an abrasive off-night early in the schedule. The caustic vibe of the evening was so unlike what I enjoy about their music that the galloping drum work of their music suddenly seemed harsh and claustrophobic. Fortunately, the new record, Wherever I Am I Am What Is Missing, both erases that memory and reminds me how marvelous their Polynesian polyrhythms meets English dream pop style is.
Laika, for all their Russian cosmonaut trappings, are really just a slippery voiced Yma Sumac fronting a South Seas Cargo Cult ceremonial rite. Margaret Fiedler's voices is just so much spun honey -- smooth, golden, and O how effortlessly it slides down into your ear canal. "Girl Without Hands" shuffles us into their complex world by introducing the elements gradually, working us up to the whole picture. Lou Ciccotelli's dense drum work always emphasizes the beat you don't expect, a beat pattern which seems off-kilter until the bass drifts in and supplies a facet you didn't realize was missing from the rhythms. Fiedler's guitar work is piecemeal and falls across the mix like scattered sunlight. Guy Fixsen provides a flood of electronic elements, tiny particles of organic sound which are swirled into the mix and become colored strands of melody. And, finally, her voice floats over the top like a fragrent breeze, the overdubbed echoes sounding like marsh gas ghosts who are trying to pass as real phantoms but their voices can't quite mesh with the physical singer.
The title of the record is taken from Mark Strand's 1963 poem, "Keeping Things Whole," and the brushstroke figure on the cover mirrors the ephemereal physicality of the narrative voice in Strand's poem. "We all have reasons for moving," the poem reads, "I move to keep things whole." The ten tracks of Wherever I Am I Am What Is Missing cling to this invisibility, of transient reality, of being defined by one's presence and passage in the external world. "'Cause a body was better than nobody," Fiedler sings in "Barefoot Blues," "And one seemed worse than two..."
The continuing tragedy of Laika's music is that it moves and shivers like some firelit ceremony, some spectacle filled with strange rhythms and fronted by an intoxicating siren who weeps her eternal sorrow into a bleak void beyond the liminality of the torchlight. You feel like you've stumbled upon some foreign and alien music but, as you listen to the undulating sound of Fiedler's voice and become captivated by the rhythms and programming, you realize that you know these songs. They're filled with loneliness; they're just the sound of lost souls running to stand still.
Not so different from you and I. "I remember smiling / Words designed to justify / It helps the sun is shining / On and on and on and on and oh." Laika's success on record is how they make loneliness and heartache seem less stark, less of an empty monochromatic world. Keep moving, the rhythms whisper, keep moving and the world still knows you are there. And, if you stay in motion, eventually you will find something. "Birds without wings out of the dust of dreams / Head out to sea seeking the stars."
Lamb - Between Darkness And Wonder
Lamb's fourth album, Between Darkness and Wonder, is a coming of age record. Having broken new ground on their eponymous debut in 1997 with their welding of languid and soulful torch songs to the piston-beat backbone of drum 'n' bass and further refining this combination of amen breaks and heartbreak with the next two records, they've reached a point of maturity with Between Darkness and Wonder. The opening statement -- "Darkness" -- compresses every trick that Louise Rhodes and Andy Barlow has learned in the past five years, compressing the clattering beats, the orchestral swells, the grandiose sweep of Louise's voices and the lush production into a five minute history lesson.
There is a rippling band of muscles under the smooth skin of this record. "Sugar 5" bruises the walls as it swaggers about the room, its thick rhythm section knocking over tables and chairs. Louise's velvet voice has the sting of independence as she boxes our ears. "My ears hear every sound / And now my eyes can see / I can leap and not look back / This earth has greater arms to hold me." Barlow brings Debussy into the 21st century in "Angelica" as he welds a piano sonata to a turntable workout and a chamber orchestra. Louise warns us in "'Til The Clouds Clear" that we're going to "take the whole world with us when we go" over a minimal drum kit and acoustic guitar. She begins to howl and the rhythm section explodes. "Nothing you do can seem to break through / This darkness smothering you / When it takes hold, your heart turns cold / The very soul seeps out of you..."
There is self-assurance in Louise's voice and Andy's production, a visceral offering of heart and blood through these eleven songs. There are moments of tempestuous fury, eruptions of love and affection, which are tempered with stretches of elegant restraint and silk-wrapped longing. "Wonder" overflows with strings and harp while Louise considers the possibility that God doesn't exist. "But," she whispers, "there's some magic out there." If you can see through the armor of "Sugar 5," you will find a tremulous optimist who is still seeks a solution for her heart's longing, a romantic who still wonders at the possibilities.
The torch singer becomes a naked seer -- a prophet who, striped of everything but her voice, reveals the secret workings of her heart. The angels of heaven -- their voices heard as a wealth of strings -- sustain her in this most intimate moment. "Are you feeling lost? / You needn't be / Like you've lost all hope and your sanity / You needn't be / If we only love one turn / In this life, we have to learn." "Learn" is just two of the 46 minutes of Between Darkness and Wonder, but they are the naked purity of hope which sustains you through the blackness and is your guide to the wonder and the light.
Suspended between the past and the future, snared by the eternal errors of our digressions and failures and kept alive by the promise of better decisions tomorrow, we exist in this space between darkness and wonder. The two poles pull at us, constantly tugging us down or lifting us aloft. On the days when the downturn is too strong, grab Lamb's Between Darkness and Wonder. This record will knock you out of your ill orbit and give you hope.
Lapsed - Twilight
Twilight is the work of one Jason Stevens, and is a record of the movement of tiny particles during the cold winters of the arid deserts of the Southwestern United States. It's a record meant for headphones in the intimate darkness after the sun has gone out. Twilight begins as the light flees and the only sparks remaining are the fading luminescence of nocturnal insects and scavengers. Thirteen untitled tracks (and a remix by Displacer) explore micro-particle ambience and the delicate static of distant solar activity.
Self-described as a "glitchy, funktastic, atmospheric, schizoid-beat droppin' voyage into the mind of a slightly melancholy, but mostly well balanced, young man," Twilight draws its influence from five years of hawking CDs in a retail store where Stevens was exposed to more genres than is good for a young and impressionable mind. The Lapsed filter passes over these disparate sources and spits out an attention to rhythm and pacing, a penchant for atmosphere, and a delicate hand moving across the glitch underpinnings of the electronic landscape. As the tracks are untitled, the warp of Twilight comes off as a seamless journey, a single shot arced across a pinpricked heaven. This is a transmission of the night sky as recorded by a slow-moving radio telescope, the buzz and hiss of distant hot suns sparking and foaming in electrostatic fury.
"Untitled 2" bends with the desert sonority of a western guitar. Electronic measures lurch and stumble in accompaniment like saloon full of wooden-legged cowboys all staggering towards the bar in time with the wandering melody of the lonesome guitar. "Untitled 4" plays out its pattern of precise beats against a shimmering curtain of soft ambient tones -- a meteor shower punctuating a glorious desert sunset. "Untitled 5" attaches you to a nano-creature of assembled electrons and sends you coursing through a colorful explosion of electro-magnetic particles, following the tiny sputtering creature as it navigates an endless labyrinth of tonal waves. "Untitled 9" shivers with the collision and fragmentation of tiny particles. A solemn bell tones rings and suffers from drop-outs in the background as tiny shards of microscopic noise get melted together on a hot stone before being swept off and shattered on the cold granite.
Nicolas Chevreux of Ad Noiseam continues to demonstrate that he has a great ear for discovering new work that isn't bounded by the rigid toxicity of genre classifications. You can consistently count that an Ad Noiseam release will fascinate you in a manner completely unexpected, and the inclusion of Lapsed to the Ad Noiseam catalogue is pairing that elicits congratulatory nods to both artist and label. For those who like the beats, the glitches and the ambience, it's all here for you in Twilight. Recommended.
Larvae - Monster Music EP
LARVAE's Monster Music EP is a snarling, four-track precursor to this fall's Fashion Victim CD and, as a preview of Things To Come, it packs a solid punch. Two tracks of furious monster movie inspired drum 'n' bass, followed by two illbient excursions, Monster Music is a toothsome burst of beats and atmosphere which compresses an entire Godzilla movie down to a twenty minute thrill ride.
Beginning with the tiny twins who summon Mothra with their siren song, "Mothra" chatters and clatters for an instant before bursting forth like a Lepidoptera whacked out on methamphetamines and frantic for the lightbulb on your front porch. While the twins continue their tiny clarion call, the beats mash and swirl around them like Tokyo collapsing. My exposure to LARVAE previous to this EP has been their more illbient stuff and I'm glad to hear they can maintain the menance and power at harsher speeds. This isn't breakcore, but rather Scorn-style beats run through a drum 'n' bass blender with a healthy homage to the monster movies of the 1960s. "Ghidrah" has a tiny piano line ghosting in the background behind the beats that sounds almost like the beast's cry slowed down several thousand times until its high-pitched giggle becomes a dolorous lament. The breaks and beats collide over a landscape scoured by air raid sirens like a calamitious battle between the monsters and the best weaponry mankind can muster.
The second half of the record is darker and slower, like the dark nights which swept across Japan as the monsters begin their approach towards the shores of an unsuspecting country. There are storms on the horizon, natural disasters waiting in the wings. "Mecca" slinks along, the beats more subdued -- almost subterranean in their movement. The latter half of the song is sharper, a crisp beat which pushes along the underground rumble. Monsters coming, the drums are saying, monsters coming.
The Monster Music EP winds up with a remix of "Mothra" as imagined by Mothboy and The Dustmite. Almost a drug-induced fever dream, the tiny sound of the twins echoes and stretches as the beats of the remix churn and bubble like a slow eruption. Bells ring slowly, tiny chimes like air bubbles escaping, as we sink into the depths of a dream nightmare.
Matt Jeanes, one of the lads behind LARVAE, says in a moment of naked sincerity on the blog on the LARVAE site: "Still, I thought that while the Monster Music EP was a nice, self-contained package, that it might be a mistake to release it into a world that doesn't always understand the kind of geeky, fanboy humor that spawned it." Some of us understand completely, and are thrilled to have a modern soundtrack by which we can watch guys in rubber suits pummel each other and trash miniature cities. Great stuff.
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."
Loscil - First Narrows
It's not until "Cloisters," the final track of First Narrows, that I really hear the live instrumentation that Scott Morgan has begun to weave into his work as Loscil. Maybe I'm just dense or maybe it's the masterful way that he integrates the piano, guitar, and cello into his electronic compositions that they haven't been identifiable as distinct instruments until this point. For his third record on Kranky, Morgan has evolved from his deep water dub excursions and begun to experiment with customized patches and software triggers which generate random soundscapes. Over these minimal glitch inflected landscapes and dub atmospheres, he's added the work of the live musicians in an effort to craft a record that is organic and vitally alive.
It's no heartbreak to start this record over again. In fact, it runs on endless loop quite often during the day, a placid stream coursing through my headphones waiting for me to dip into it again. Loscil's work is like the warm pulse of an ocean current drifting lazily about the world, carrying with it all sorts of tiny elements. There are gentle rhythms --hints of percussive elements that dapple the current like tiny crustaceans -- and there are tender melodies like gaseous jellyfish that ebb and flow with the current, their color and texture changing as they are caressed by the moving water. The opening track, "Sickbay," begins mid-stream as if we have just plunged into the current and are swiftly carried along like the opening moments of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. "River run, past Adam and Eve..."
Through the metallic dub echo and the fine grained static of "Lucy Dub," you can hear the chatter of Tim Loewen's guitar against a careful arpeggio from Jason Zumpano and the fender rhodes piano. Change occurs slowly as rounded drones begin to drift across the musical landscape. The title of the record, First Narrows, refers to the gap at the entrance of the Burrard Inlet which leads to Vancouver harbor from the Pacific Ocean, and a great deal of this record hangs on the edge as if it just about to cross a threshold. "First Narrows" unspools like a sentimental journey, a wanderer returning to a place he had once forsaken and thought he would never see again. The interplay between the guitar and piano creates a melody both wistful and hopeful, filled with yearning and a sense of closure. The guitar whines with just a hint of the mythology of the Old West like a theme song for the aged gunslinger returning home.
Loscil's work is like an underwater recording of a love fest between Pole and the Basic Channel sound; it is an aquatic marriage of dub and static. First Narrows finds Scott Morgan branching out and expanding the methodology he uses to create his sounds, both through the fabrication of customized sound programming and the mixing in of improvised instrumentation. First Narrows is ambience caught between the sea and the sunrise and makes you feel like you are floating on one and being warmed by the other. Fantastic.
Loscil - Submers
One hour of submarine music. This is so tailor-made for me. Loscil's second disc for Kranky continues Scott Morgan's fascination with deep spaces. Focusing more on man-made underwater craft than the minutia of thermodynamic theory and activity (as he did with last year's Triple Point), Submers' nine tracks are all thematically linked their namesakes. The songs are lietmotifs -- miniaturized soundtracks -- to accompany a retrospective of man's efforts to move through the dark parts of the ocean.
Now I'm not going to turn this into a history lesson for each of these underwater behemoths, but it is quite apparent that Morgan has done his homework. Each track distinctly captures the texture and physical sonic environment of the specific vessel, whether it be the resolute machinery drone of "Argonaut," the single ping pulse and Morse code clicks which perambulate through "Mute 3," the dry percussion of "Nautilus," or the rapid precision of "Diable Marin" (irony here, since that vessel was actually oar-driven when it was in service). Morgan closes the disc with an elegy to the ill-fated Russian vessel Kursk, a moving tribute to those lost at sea.
At times minimally ambient, filled with lo-fi drones, cryptic with glitch messages, or heartbeat athrob micro-techno pulses, these submarine excursions sink the listener into dark, watery environments. Tone patterns rise and fall over the rumble of intense machinery, pistons and pipes chatter and click with steam. Tiny electrical impulses drive complex machinery, moving these massive bulks through miles of heavy water.
Elements of micro-house, static-charged dub, glitch, and ambient drones pervade all the tracks on Submers. If Porter Ricks redid Wolfgang Voight's work or Basic Channel started to remix Pole, those aquatic treatises would stand right behind Loscil's work. Loscil lays down a thematically-powered sonic history lesson, focusing not so much on the dry historical record, but rather dives into the wet and tactile experience of being submerged. Lose yourself in the deep-end with a pair of waterproof headphones. You too can be a submarine captain.
Loscil - Triple Point
The contagion has spread. No longer can you say "Basic Channel" and be limited to releases on Germany's label of the same name. That distinctive sound has spread beyond the walls and borders, insinuating itself in many diverse places. The latest outbreak can be found on Kranky: Loscil's Triple Point. The aquatic dub echo of "Ampere" can be traced straight back to Porter Ricks' Biokinetics. Gentle sine waves and nearly indistinct blips float over the submerged bass rhythms. The synthetic melodies gain strength, coming closer in the mix, twisting end evolving like a sweeping school of glowing jellyfish, while the lower registers are forced beneath your skin to dully thud against your thicker bones.
"Pressure" wakes slowly, like a bead of magma slowly being extruded on a deep ocean floor, bubbles of pressurized gas escaping in shining streams, the hot magma sending out waves of distortion through the heavy water. "Freezing Point," reminiscent of both Monolake and Gas, hiccups on the edge of restraint, movement snared in a loop of sound. "Vapour" rings with the rising columns of expanding vapor as liquid is turned into steam and quickly achieves lift, condensation sliding and dripping along the rim of the container. It all ends with "Absolute:" the cold point when even atoms can no longer move -- they gradually slide and slither to a stop, the only thing left is a fading drone.
Loscil is Scott Morgan, a Vancouver native whose past work has been designing music for film, DVDs, CD-ROMs, websites, as well as material used to soundtrack films at Vancouver's independent Burning Light Cinema. Triple Point is material from a self-released CD, A New Demonstration of Thermodynamic Tendencies, molded and refolded among new creations. A conceptual treatise on the nature of thermodynamic concepts (the exchange of energy, heat, and the transformation of liquids into solids), Triple Point is a musical expression of these purely scientific abstractions. Who knew they were so delightfully minimal and rhythmic?
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.
Lusine icl - Condensed
Lusine icl is the project of Jeff Mcilwain and Condensed is a collection of work which has appeared on vinyl over the last few years. Since 1999, Mcilwain has been exploring experimental electronic landscapes and, in those few short years, has pushed past a number of boundaries into spaces heretofore unexplored. From the suspended ambient landscape of "In Flight" to the glitched dance beats of "Risa," Mcilwain seeks to create a sound which is answerable only to his whim.
While "Chao" clatters with complex beat patterns in a manner expected of an Intelligent Dance Music track, Mcilwain slathers crisp tones over the beat patterns, tones which are echoed again in the more minimal techno followup, "Rabblerouse." His constructions all have a marked coloration, a silvery tint to the notes (if I can be indulged in a synaesthetic moment) which puts everything in a cool and crisp light. Polished, but still highly mobile and flexible. The programming takes on a veneer of effortlessness while still retaining an elegant complexity which draws in the curious listener. "Dr. Chinme" teeters on the brink of being a down-tempo track, a sulty vocalist caught in the opening phrase of her song, her rising notes looped and folded back upon themselves over a bed of clicks and resonant bass notes. "Shin" plays out like a series of ripples on a pond, tones echoing across a wide lake while fuzzed beats scurry beneath the surface like startled crustaceans.
"Vacate" rises out of the noisy grooves of a vinyl record, a soft breath of a song harried by the looping static of the needle against the vinyl surface. My favorite ambient track on the record, "Vacate" is from a split 7" on Awkward Silence in 2002 and is a completely self-contained universe of Mcilwain sounds. The static from the needle morphs into a metallic pattern, a digital rendition of chaos which peramubulates beneath the ambient soundscape which grows in its own strength to counter the burr and hiss of the beats. "Cascade," the single new track on the record, contains this same ordered flight of glorious tones but the beats are stronger. Caustic spikes poke and pry at the listener, an electrified field of energy which sizzles and snaps. The center of the song drops away, vanishing into a fine mist of digitized particles which gradually build back to their former energized state. "Lullaby" coos in your ear in a spritely fashion, buoyed by a back-masked beat pattern, and it hovers around your head like a tiny hummingbird, first singing its 'la la la' in one ear and then the other.
Condensed covers most of Mcilwain's work as Lusine icl and demonstrates how fully formed he sprang into life. The tracks aren't ordered in any sequence, furthering the idea that Condensed isn't just a gathered set of specimen jars. What you hear across this span of time, across this hour of electronic melodies and ambient journeys, is that Mcilwain is a curious and experimentally-minded fellow. He's not caught by convention; he's not constrained by what he thinks he knows. He finds the electron to be flexible, and Condensed is a great way to introduce yourself to what he's done. Elegant, polished, and captivating to hear. Recommended.
Miles Tilmann / LARVAE - sub:702
I'm not quite sure why Miles Tilmann isn't getting more work. His discography is too short a read, filled with several tracks on compilations and a few more EPs and vinyl records. And yet, his work just sings. The latest piece is the A-side of a heavy ring of vinyl from sub:marine Records. "Double" is a achingly expansive movement of beat-dappled ambience which is like a too-brief sun break in the winter gloom. The clouds part, light falls down in a cascade of moving color, and the grey sloughs away. Comprising of two parts, the second act of "Double" shivers and glistens across a bed of light beats. It is, tragically, over much too soon.
The B-side of sub:702 is a track called "Seclusion Dub" by Atlanta-based LARVAE. Composed specifically to pace the tempo of "Double," "Seclusion Dub" is the inverted shadow of the A-side's scattered light show. You can hear the sinister elements of the low-end rumble which made LARVAE a perfect contributor to 2001's tribute to dark hop, Low End Recon. Dub and noise are rubbed together, gently at first and then more firmly as the track processes.
7-inch vinyl is a tricky beast: it is both succinct and tantalizing. The size of the record allows an artist to present a concise idea -- get in, seduce you, leave you breathless on the couch. But, at the same time, it can also be a tease, a breath of honeyed air which leaves you hungering for more. The 7-inch is also a challenge; the artist throws a slice of music out and waits for a response. I can tell you what is going to happen with sub:702. We're going to storm the stage; we want more.
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.
- L -
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Publications I've Written For
- Eraldo Bernocchi
- Fields of the Nephilim
- Peter Gabriel
- Chris Randall
- This Morn' Omina