Friday, April 26, 2013

Sunwølf ~ Midnight Moon

Originally published on A Closer Listen.

Late last year this duo from Leeds wowed us with their solid debut of slow desert sludge and mature sense of composition. With such a quick turn-around on the follow-up, one had to wonder if the B-sides were coming. But Midnight Moon is such an essential component to Sunwølf’s binary star system of albums that, along with Beyond The Sun, they behave like a double album. Both are great.

As with the debut, the heavier tracks come in the first half, but Midnight Moon simply sounds bigger. The production is crisper. The drums are louder, with more noticable fills and flourish. There is a lot of momentum for a band that takes its cues from bands like Earth and Sleep. “Prey To Melancholy” bleeds heavy, with monstrous riffs and bass guitar taking a leading role in dropping the doom. On “Breach” the band chugs into Isis territory. After this song’s delicate beginning, the curtain is drawn to reveal a caged metal bull waiting to be released into the ocean. In other words, you know the eruption is coming long before it does.

Still, while listening, there is a sense of being taken care of, of being held. Never is the distortion out of control; everything is measured. Clean guitars are presented with such audio clarity (think Earth’s Bees Made Honey…) that it is easy to feel we are always in the right place, a pleasing attribute of popular music. Sunwølf could be the first doom pop band in existence! Even in the more ethereal back third, the haze is more of a clear, daytime ritual rather than a lawless opium den. The pair of “Plateau” tracks signify that this band is not just in it for the loud guitars but for the total album experience. The textures Sunwølf come up with are most engaging with topographic drumming, moonlit guitars, and a soft thunderhead of perpetual distortion that would make witnessing an asteroid hit the earth seem pleasant.

The reversed piano notes of the hypnogogic finale “Glacier River” suggest twilight is here, and it’s time to play Beyond The Sun again. Without having advertised it, Sunwølf have created a truly cyclical pair of albums where one inevitably begets the other. They share a style and a narrative arc where the pummel preceeds the peace and peyote, and this is their appeal. Sunwølf makes its music sound effortless. As before, we are amazed how a band so fresh on the scene can sound so polished.

Monday, April 8, 2013

My Education ~ A Drink For All My Friends

Originally published on A Closer Listen.

Fear is one of rock and roll’s greatest sources of power, and to overcome fear is perhaps the human spirit’s greatest triumph. My Education has long been the real deal, never shy to experiment or follow its heart.  It takes courage to risk failure, but now with a fifth studio album it’s easy to hear a band that has thrived on taking risks and is now in full stride.

A Drink For All My Friends has all the features that My Education’s more recent album Sunrise contained. There are big jams, pensive orchestral moments, highly dynamic narrative from song to song – but the element that stands out is the “rawk” factor. Some of these songs are blazing big holes in the soft underbelly of the universe. The pinched squirm of the wah wah guitar is evocative of orgasm.

Once the tea cups are set in the opening post classical “A Drink…” the band enters into “…For All My Friends”. Like setting up camp before a medieval battle the drama is meticulously woven with each instrument added. With a plaintive guitar the tents are erected, a pair of violas calms the horses, the bass and toms load catapults, the vibraphone-esque accents keep the king’s breakfast warm. And once the wah’d lead guitar carves a parabolic path, the signal is given to attack in theatrical fashion. The breakdown at the end of this song will inspire listeners to turn it up even louder. It is cathartic stuff!

It would be easy to rattle off a gushing analysis of each track, but it is the diversity of approach from one track to the next that will either impress or perplex. A confident group of musicians, My Education’s handle on story telling, composition and pacing is supreme. The middle of the album slows into the post-mortem ”Black Box”, a moody experimental piece featuring audio samples from, you guessed it, an airline in trouble. The indistinguishable words are smothered in static and provide a ghostly element to a woozy but affecting piece. My Education also does a great Maserati impersonation! “Roboter-Höhlenbewohner” is a muscular ode to the late Maserati drummer Jerry Fuchs, and one could easily imagine him powering the engine on this one.

There just aren’t many post rock bands that distinguish themselves. If My Education are post rock I hope the next generation is listening because this is an exciting group that just keeps getting better while trying new things. In the world of Austin, TX instrumental bands, Explosions in the Sky became the emotional soundtrack to hold hands to while My Education jams in the dreamland of a Richard Linklater film (even cult movie icon Wiley Wiggins has done a video for them).  The band’s position on the fringe would explain why it hasn’t received similar attention, but there is never a sense that My Education create music that does not move them. We all respect art with sincerity, and this music expresses sincerity with every note. Cheers.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Félicia Atkinson ~ Visions / Voices

Originally published on A Closer Listen

A wall is the antithesis of a waterfall. Right angles are unnatural, but they define our world. The enigmatic New York City tour guide Speed Levitch once said, “People do have a tendency to build walls in the face of boundlessness.” The wild, the great wide open, the truth; they are terrifying prospects for humans. Visions/Voices uses a waterfall framed inside a box to invite listeners along for a strange, discursive journey.  Félicia Atkinson recorded these pieces in a private space likely made from walls, but the mercurial and erosive nature of water is an apt description for the music that emerged.

Behind the waterfall is a collection of tracks previously scattered between highly limited CD-Rs and cassetes over a three year period. It’s a soup containing evocative soundscapes, disembodied folk tunes, a lost lake, woodland dirges, and lonely towns on a windswept hillside. The mastering by James Plotkin helps to bind the myriad ideas together, but in truth Visions/Voices comes across like a series of short stories rather than a novel. While voice is not on every track, it ends up being the unifying thread.

Atkinson’s voice-in-the-haze gets her many Grouper comparisons, but her vocals appear under so many guises on this album it helps to distinguish her style. On “Badlands” the vocals sound like chants expressed with the final ounces of one’s lifeforce. At times the voices crack or rumble with gravel in the throat, as if the words were sung softly by a wolf in disguise. On “Infant Vampire” the vocals sound like the title, but expressed through a trumpet mouthpiece. Ghostly “oohs” join in while a squeezebox takes a terminal series of breaths. To say this album is a breath of fresh air would be incorrect as the fog and cobwebs are plentiful, but the voices and music are constantly breathing, making it uncomfortably human. The spooky lyrics on tracks like ”Franny” and “Entomology” are also heavy on the hush, the words breathed as much as sung. Be careful not to mistake her for the forest ghost of Tori Amos!

Atkinson’s approach is very different from track to track. Celtic harp graces the intimate and haunted “Badlands”. “This Impermanent Gold” emits a defininite Grouper vibe. “Hooves Drummed” expands like Fabio Orsi or Tim Hecker. “Franny” mimics the dread of Demdike Stare. And it sure sounds like the Mars Volta used the same sound sample used in “The Owls.” With such non-linearity between songs, narrative stability is established within the context of the longer pieces. ”The Owls” is a definite highlight at over 17 minutes, expressing a playfulness and sense of genuine wonder that is only hinted at on the other tracks.

While Visions/Voices does strike as a collection of songs, it is highly intriguing. The music echoes and drifts, yet it consistently feels close to the surface, as if our own skin were expressing itself. There is a distinct air of decomposition throughout, where death gives way to life. That rush of wet, black earth full of fungus. Breath is the most fundamental aspect of human nature, and this artist seems to be playing at its edge. In a sense, Atkinson’s songs are the dreams of the unrealized human, pawing at authenticity. It’s a message we ignore most of the time. Levitch poetically said small trees were planted in the shadows of skyscrapers, “to show us how much larger our illusions are than our true nature.” Visions/Voices is that little tree with so much to share if we only put an ear to it.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Barn Owl ~ V

Originally published on A Closer Listen

Evan Caminiti and Jon Porras have been exploring the more electronic facets of textural guitar compositions on a lot of solo outings, and they really bring it all together on their fifth Barn Owl album. The San Francisco duo’s provocative ambiance is an invitation to city dwellers to explore their roots, the call back to the wild, to the unknown. With V, the vision is even grander and yet more simplified.

Barn Owl took advantage of the studio as an instrument, composing each part separately with a fine toothed comb. As the fuzzy synths and ebowed guitars raise the clouds, V’s rhythms slowly sculpt the geology. They are at times pulsating well beneath the album’s vast sonic landscape, and at others they are a dynamic set of gears over top. Pretty and a bit disarming, the album behaves like an unpopulated earth millions of years in the past. Barn Owl’s recent exploration of rhythm has opened a new dimension to their sound, and on V the effect is highly grounding, making for a more dynamic and even holier listening experience than in albums’ past.

An eerie tone on “Void Redux” draws the curtain. Shooting stars disintegrate, and the thrum of a dark synth uncoils. The desert rock aspect makes Barn Owl an awesome choice to watch landscapes to, and if you sit still long enough things start to happen. Drum sticks rap and echo and the simplest of guitar plucks establish an evolutionary pace. It’s easy to imagine lava in canyons, wind-torn archaeopteryx eggs, and such, but then a lone human voice sails in like a pale sun. This promise of human life firmly grounds us in the magic of V.

Each track blooms and burns with many layers. Organ and guitar weave “The Long Shadow” while electronic storms form icicles in “Against The Night.” The tectonic apex comes with “Blood Echo,” a track which is captivating on its own, but within the album’s context it is a revelation. Rising with a rolling cymbal and ritualistic chimes, the first ominous life forms begin to take shape and lumber into view, like a Diplodocus made of burning embers. The synthetic temperature rises and what unfolds is as majestic as it is intimidating. Here the percussion takes on a sumptuous leading role as the synths helix and divide into the cosmos. Barn Owl are in total command.

In entertaining the idea of creating “doom dub” for years, the band has now created a very strong narrative, one that enthralls with a momentum uncanny for music that is “slow”. Each piece changes color and timbre throughout, so no two moments are alike. Like the earth, this music is constantly shifting. The drums Barn Owl introduced on 2011’s Lost In The Glare are now fully realized and integrated beautifully. This is without a doubt their best album to date.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Crusade ~ EP

The Sperm Whale has long been woven into epic tales of adventure and dread. Killer of Ahab. Devourer of 30 foot squid. Because so little is still known about them, these creatures live more as monsters than icons of science. There is no doubt the three New Jersey-ites who comprise Crusade went big in choosing a suitable emblem for their first entry into the post metal universe. It is their energetic compositions and oceanic tone that help them make a mark.

Guitarist Keven Garetz created the EP’s striking cover, and it tells of the fascination humans have with beings we cannot see. At first glance, a massive creature appearing dead and vomiting the contents of its stomach seems a bit odd, but when you know that sperm whale vomit transforms into one of the most valuable natural commodities in human history, ambergris, one wonders what kind of magical contents this album might hold.

The four tracks are all between three and five minutes, with the overall tempo being more of a jaunt than a plod. EP comes across like Isis going punk rock, with the guitar swimming in reverb most of the time and the drums and bass being full of energy. Post-rock does not have to have big highs and big lows; sometimes it can be high all the time, and for Crusade the EP format suits this approach. Everything is big and ready to roll. “A Picture In The Wall” is a head-crunching tale with a lot of tempo changes and a brief respite with acoustic guitar. For a few chords the deluge subsides with a pleasant rolling of the snare before we plunge back into the squall. Opener “Turkish Ambassador” and closer “Pythagorus” even share a thematic guitar motif, a technique we at A Closer Listen really enjoy. Is Pythagorus sailing in disguise on a mission of espionage in Turkey, only to sail home a hero? The track titles push the narrative.

Crusade approach the music more playfully on “Amethyst,” sounding more like Beware of Safety with spritely bass cues, high hat and more acoustic strumming. But it isn’t long before the crash of the distortion returns. There is a lot of sound with just three people, and the compositional twists and turns are myriad, making for an engaging listen. The warbly reverb guitar tone is present throughout, and while it defines the sound, it tends to blur the songs into one lump of ambergris. It will be exciting to see if the band switches things up even more the next time around on their full length debut, expected this summer.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Fabio Orsi & Pimmon ~ Procrastination

Good things come to those who wait! In this case it’s the long-anticipated, heavyweight pairing on Home Normal featuring Fabio Orsi and Pimmon. For those familiar with the world of drone and experimental artists, these two need no introduction. Orsi is a figurehead in the Italian (and world) experimental / psych scene and is constantly pushing his craft into new worlds via collaborations and a steady output of genre-bending work. The Australia-based Pimmon (Paul Gough) favors a ghostly glitch style that reveals its hidden secrets through close inspection. This pairing of the sonorous and the subdued makes for a gorgeous adventure through a series of active and revelatory environments.

The four soundscapes here are lengthy and virulent. Each unique world spins like a small moon, its features sparkling like many plankton at varying depths. These pieces are highly dynamic, sonically speaking, with all kinds of sounds and patterns twisting like polar winds or flocks of birds in and around the ears. When Giuseppe Ielasi masters a record, headphones deliver the full package. In “Garnacha” Orsi’s slowly fermenting melodies are beaten by Pimmon’s weather and miniscule detritus, each gentle barrage mutating along the way. There’s a lot going on, but the overall effect is that of welcome paralysis in the listener. If we were cryogenically frozen, this would be a potential soundtrack.

Each composition reaches an omega density, sometimes beginning that way, and holds this intensity throughout before calming at the closing curtain. “I Wish You Were In Yallingup” does just that, opening with some alarm-like skree before the graceful mass of drones and space absorbs it. When Orsi and Pimmon dive right in, the white burst of bubbles quickly reveal a coral reef of soothing complexity. There is no letdown or compositional theatrics. “Just One More” however quietly starts with the equivalent of glitchy candlelight, and effortlessly blooms into a gorgeous closing piece. Soft pings and glistening guitar fragments are brushed with skeletal static. It is easy to imagine prismatic flowers opening on a field of cloud. Lovely!

Folks who have been patiently waiting for Procrastination to be released since last year are hopefully enjoying the growing humor. The combination of the album’s title and cover originally felt more like a cheap project name rather than an inspired accompaniment to the music. It actually came about after Pimmon stewed helplessly on Orsi’s shared pieces (ones he immediatley considered “fully realised”). He essentially had writer’s block for 18 months and worked on other projects before the dam broke and the transformations took shape for this album. And once the chosen vinyl cutting machines broke down for a lengthy period, causing more delays, the theme has become deftly appropriate*! There is an optimism to this title, indicating that projects put on the back burner, for no matter how long, can be approached and completed with new knowledge and enthusiasm right now.

*Orsi and Pimmon’s collaborative follow-up Abandoned, however, will unfortunately never see the light of day.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Jerusalem In My Heart ~ Mo7it Al-Mo7it

my review for A Closer Listen

For the last eight years Jerusalem In My Heart has been blending electronic music, contemporary Arab music and immersive film projections, but this is the first album they have ever recorded. In the past, group founder Radwan Ghazi Moumneh was not interested in a definitive recording; JIMH is meant to be a live experience. The film projection aspect is more than just video, as film artist Malena Szlam Salazar uses up to six 16 mm film projectors to play with space and light wherever a performance takes place. And while concerts may involve just the three core members, the group has a lot of friends in Montreal so it wouldn’t be unusual to have thirty or more people on stage. No two performances are alike.

How does an artistic project that is so shape-shifting translate to an album? The opening snap of vocals on Mo7it Al-Mo7it sound less like a prayer, and more a warning. My Arabic is pretty clumsy, and I don’t know what Moumneh is singing about, but the high amount of reverb recognizes an immediate relationship between Western and Eastern audio climates. The simmering drones and synths that soon accompany the multiplying vocals reveal a psychedelic bent, one that refuses to be put in a box as each song further unfolds. Moumneh spends three months of the year in Lebanon, working in the local experimental music scene, and while I’ve heard musicians of Lebanese descent mixing instruments and styles before (Claude Chalhoub is nice, albeit a quite new agey), this album is the first that is purely transformative to my ears, and absolutely unique.

It’s a true delight to come across an album whose disparate cultural starting points are written on the wall but sound completely natural together. Second track “3andalib Al-Furat” is a peaceful drift down a river. Many birds join in while Moumneh dreamily plays acoustic buzuk, zurna and piano. These gentle ten minutes assuage the echoing conjunction of sounds on the first track, as if we have escaped massive civilization, revealing the smells and sounds from a smaller, cobblestoned Lebanese village. Then the third movement enters in “Yudaghdegh El-ra3ey Walal-Ghanam” (or “He titillates the shepherd but not the sheep”), a cascade of bioluminescent synth staircases and gentle but urgent vocals. And oh, those harmonies! They are divine, sounding a lot like those that Maynard Keenan uses quite a lot in Tool’s holier moments. They behave like candlelight on a night with no moon. This is one of those pieces of music that is surprisingly short considering how time-expanding it feels.

Each track is a portal into the next, and a balance between the blown-out electronic sounds and the more holistic instruments is truly achieved. The peace of the songbirds and river appears once more before the mesmerizing “Ko7l El-3ein, 3emian El-3ein” takes us to the pinnacle of the story, with an electric guitar played in a scale fitting of a cross-desert voyage. Here the guitar is like the hero’s stallion as Moumneh rides it through the final two tracks, the latter of which is a compelling conversation between horse and rider whose ending is haunting and powerful.

Inspired by the book Al-Muhit al Muhit (“The Ocean of Oceans”) by the innovative Lebanese renaissance educator Butrus al-Boustani, Mo7it Al-Mo7it and all its song titles are written as if you were typing in Arabic on your mobile phone. Embracing a culturally unifying text and texting from one side of the world to the other is a bizarre pairing that is now part of our reality. No doubt the difference in patience and care required for these two things is about as vast as the ocean, and Jerusalem In My Heart’s debut record is a reflection of much care and patience in the face of this fretful age of the cheap and easy. It is a rock and roll gem among the pallid detritus known as “world fusion music.” This album has a mature and unbridled energy that defies classification, and I cannot recommend it enough. (Nayt Keane)

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Best Album Covers 2012

Pretty slow in posting this, but it's the crowning achievement for writing, despite a busy year.I spent so much time on this article it created marital friction in my life. I wanted it to be really good. And it is. Don't worry, my wife and I are now friends again :). In any case, I am very proud of this article, and the bar has been set for next year. I couldn't possibly put the entire article with all 36 album covers, as well as all the people who contributed their thoughts on process and theme and whatnot on my blog, so here are the top five.

These are times of widespread disconnect, and music is one of the most genuine ways for a person all alone to feel understood. We’re seeing DIY backlashes against this loss of connection everywhere (Just look into the boom on homesteading crafts and farmer’s markets). To sell albums the handmade element is becoming almost necessary to get people’s attention. Many of the albums in this feature involve for the purchaser a unique experience. Handmade paper, specialty printing, yarn, boxes, scents, stitching, transparencies, layers layers layers. Some of today’s newer independent labels go for broke on presentation.

And what of digital only releases? The album cover is often all they have, making it even more essential. It isn’t just music. Every one of us is seeking an authentic experience, and a quality piece of cover art and the subsequent design of an album is a beacon for that desire. Every album reviewed on A Closer Listen in 2012 was fair game; here are the top 30 album covers of the year, along with some honorable mentions.

Simple. Bold. Spartan colors or just black and white. Oftentimes less is more. The top ten album covers, as voted by our writing staff, share a power through simplicity. Only two feature the artist name and title, while the others didn’t deem it necessary. The imagery is that effective.

Photography: Eirik HolmøyvikDesign: Michael Waring
Photography: Eirik Holmøyvik
Design: Michael Waring

1. Ian Hawgood ~ The Shattered Light
This photograph gives it all in one glance. On first look, the photograph evokes a deep solitude. It took Ian Hawgood four years to write this album, and it’s easy to imagine him alone amongst the fjords of Iceland in that pointed shed, processing the deepest of hurts. The album’s cover was photographed by Norwegian photographer Eirik Holmøyvik while traveling across Iceland. This tiny shack in the winter amongst dynamic geography speaks volumes about people overcoming hardship. ‘If someone can make it in that thing, then my First World problems don’t seem all that smothering.’ Maybe there’s a positive spin to put on things? On his father’s passing Ian wrote for Fluid Radio, “The light of life was shattered, but these shards of memory and eternal being remained, floating like embers: bright, bright embers that could last forever.”

Eirik Holmøyvik, photographer: Unlike some of the other covers I’ve provided, this photograph is a digital capture. It’s a classic black and white landscape from North East Iceland, about 4 hours drive north of Reykjavik. It’s a place of gravel roads and remote farms. I came over this amazing cabin which mirrors the mountains in the background. To make the photograph work, all I needed to do was to isolate the subject in order to enhance the clean and strong shapes of the cabin and the mountains.

EH: I’ve provided cover photographs for several previous Home Normal releases, including Ian’s 2010 release “Slow Films in Low Light”. So I guess he just turned to my portfolio for the latest album as well.

Review and Purchase Link

Artwork and typographical design: Dennis Huddleston

2. 36 ~ Lithea
Red, White and Black is my favorite color scheme, and Dennis Huddleston’s cover artwork for his latest 36 album is mighty unforgettable. It’s only smoke, but the symmetrical mirroring creates a sense of awareness. Of life. Smoke by nature is a luscious process to observe, evidence that something has ended, but to think that this boldly colored smoke might be staring back at you…

Dennis Huddleston of 36: When I designed the artwork for Lithea, I wanted it to reflect the concepts for the album itself; something veiled, organic, minimal, dark but beautiful.

DH: I used images of smoke against black isolated backgrounds, which were collaged together in Photoshop and melded in a near-random way to create an almost Rorschach-style mirrored image. I’m a sucker for the traditional black/white/red colour scheme and after multiple versions were made, I finally settled on the final artwork you see on the front cover. It is suitably ambiguous and I love the fact that people interpret it in different ways; just like the music takes each listener to entirely different places.

DH: The actual digipaks were hand-made by Tom Leggett at ACDSleeve, printed on 350gsm white card, which was then matte-laminated. The overall finish looked wonderful and Tom should be championed for his hard work.
Review and Purchase Link

Cover Photo: Paul Randall.
Edits & Design: Harry Towell

3. Spheruleus ~ Cyanometry
Perhaps we’ve seen images like this before, but this one makes a great album cover. The calm textures appear handmade even before you get ahold of it (and good luck with that, as only 50 of the first run – with this cover image – were made). Simple but rich with mystery, the imagery promises an album of secrets revealed through a natural process, a cover that says “It’s safe here. Rest. Tissue? Tea? ”

Harry Towell of Spheruleus: The final image reflected the album’s concept of Cyanometry – measuring the blueness of the sky – something I had become fascinated by as I went for a walk to make field recordings and take images for the bonus landscape photography.

HT: The main image was originally taken by Paul Randall who records as Microvolt. He kindly let me use and edit the image. I chose lo-fi textured effects in the editing process to make it look like a painting. The bonus images were also edited using similar lo-fi digital processing methods, which I had discovered using some simple programs. I experimented with the landscape images for a long time, in some cases starting all over again several times. Once these were in place, I then chose Paul’s image as the cover artwork. This didn’t take long to edit, as I had gotten used to the programs I was using and the sorts of techniques I wanted to use.

HT: Whilst Paul supplied the image, it wasn’t actually for this project. He sent me a number of images for an EP he released with my Audio Gourmet netlabel. I edited them all and sent them back to him. He chose one for his project. The one with the birds wasn’t used and I decided to ask if I could use it as the front cover to Cyanometry.

HT: For the first 20 copies, I hand-stamped a tessellating hexagonal pattern on the front of the card packaging. Then I stamped the album title in the centre. All 50 copies had the hand stamped title. Inside, each copy had both the cover image and also one of the bonus images, a CD of course, and then a hand-written thankyou note to the person that bought it. I had stressed at the time that these were in a limited edition of 50. They sold out in next to no time and I had several emails asking if there were any spare copies left! So I decided on a repress using the money I had made from the first release. For the re-press, I didn’t want to offend those who may have bought on the premise that it was strictly 50 copies, so I did a simple professionally printed card wallet at a cheaper price, so others could get hold of the album. The problem I had with the original image was that as a heavily edited image, it didn’t have a very good resolution for printing to packaging so I had to choose a new front cover.
Review and Purchase Link

Photography: Jurgen Heckel
Design & Layout: Daniel Crossley
Booklet words: Vincent Vocoder
Poster/Booklet design: Ian Hazeldine

4. Olan Mill ~ Paths
What looks like devastation to many can be transformed into hope or opportunity through a wise lens. Olan Mill’s gorgeous ambient washes and classical motifs sprang out of Alex Smalley’s history in music therapy for the mentally ill, so he’s had plenty of experience in helping people see things another way. Is this photo a Cormac McCarthy moment, or is it one of the paths from ruin to riches?

Alex Smalley of Olan Mill: Around the period this record was assembled (late 2010) I was ruminating a great deal on man’s impact on the planet – I was particularly fixated on how we’ve adapted pristine natural environments in order to extract resources for commercial gain. To me this image works as a good visual metaphor for these activities and the potential lifeless path our future promises as a result.

AS: Once I had the Jurgen Heckel images a clear idea formed in my mind for the vinyl design. From years of buying records and studying album artwork I knew I’d have to capitalise on the strength of image over any elaborate design aesthetic. Decisions regarding design were made out of sympathy for the image and the listener’s need for information.

AS: Beyond the vinyl design and book content, I was very happy to let Dan complete the rest of the package with his team. I’d seen his work on previous releases for the label and this was part of the appeal to release Paths on Fac-ture.

AS: A book titled ‘On Rainbow Corner’ was written specifically for the release and is included with the package. Its conception was the result of the author’s experience with the music, artwork and track names. I thought it was important to have a narrative aspect to the release, a snapshot of someone’s experience of the World and its varying paths. The text acts to blur the borders of mind hygiene. There are strains of autism, personality disorder and psychosis in the piece and all to slightly unsettling effect. Hopefully the music acts as an antidote to any discomfort felt.

Review and Purchase Link

The Letting Go
Photo: Unknown

5. Hexakai Dekagon (HXDK) ~ The Letting Go
Total annihilation is a terrible barrage of feelings, but it never looked so good. No one can deny this cover is badass. Most of our staffers included it on their lists. And yet, the image is borrowed from a lost and uncredited source. Some readers are going to have an issue with this fact, but if the message in a bottle has no signature, who else can you save but yourself?

Nathan of HXDK: I struggled with whether or not to use [the photo], but it seemed to me to be the perfect representation of what I was trying to get across – the burning bridge being a metaphor for destroying close friendships and relationships due to anger and grief (with a liberal dose of self loathing) and also realising that it was necessary to break away from that situation in order to move on or be stuck in that rut to the cost of my sanity and at least salvage some semblance of self and so on and so forth…

Nathan: It’s an image I stole from a Google search as i was looking for a picture of a burning bridge. It would be disingenuous for me to claim any credit for it whatsoever. I’ve tried to find the original source but to no avail. I’d also seen it on a few random blogs and assumed it was just a stock image. I could be wrong, and if someone claims it’s their photo and wants it taken down, then (to overstate the metaphor) i’ll cross that bridge when i come to it. It fits the subject matter of the album perfectly and i didn’t really anticipate it having any impact outside of my small circle of friends. So i just went with it.

Review and Purchase Link

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Brambles - Charcoal

Published on A Closer Listen.

Mark Dawson’s debut as Brambles is packed with mystery and buoyed by austerity. It’s not common to hear an album whose source instruments can confound and comfort at the same time. The intellectual in us will sometimes have a hard time figuring out what instrument is what, but inevitably the reptile brain will rejoice without caring.

The opening pair of tracks sets a stage for sombre and wintery feelings. “Such Owls As You” utilizes a peaceful piano motif and the softest accents of saxophone this side of twilight. One can draw a lot of connecting points to the label’s flagship duo Nest who similarly can make anything one looks at rich with importance. Mysterious winds or sirens occasionally drift in and out of focus, sounding entirely organic and a bit haunting. Throughout we hear field recordings like the fluttering of wings coupled with dreamy interpretations of classical instruments.

“In The Androgynous Dark” delivers a chilling romanticism that is at the heart of the Brambles sound. It’s the first instance of any percussion, a hushed brushing echoing into the undergrowth, and it’s punctuated by a melody that sounds as if it’s being played on a piano made of ice. Clarinet, strings and guitar make for a rich and soft pillow of sound, one that you might rest your head upon when the bittersweet truths in life consume the mind.

Charcoal is just warming up, however. “Salt Photographs” is the album’s fulcrum at nearly seven minutes, effortlessly changing from a string quartet sounding one shade shy of paranoid to an optimistic Peter Broderick shuffle. There is a rich soundtrack quality to this album, but not in “it’s made for a movie” kind of way. This is a soundtrack that begs a movie to be made in your mind. Most artists do great things when they simply respond to their own life. It feels like a miracle to us, the folks who have no idea how someone can get to this place where art is manifesting so clearly, so wonderfully.

When I listen to Brambles I am hearing an artist who is pouring his life into his music. He obviously has spent hours crafting this work and probably doesn’t care deeply about being recognized for it. This is the hallmark of the Serein label. Through each of its major releases (this being the third) the artists’ music has been a creation of stark necessity. Each composition calls for certain instruments all the while having a clarity of expression. A fellow left to his own thoughts for hours hunched over a piano in a communal artist house for months could come up with such a performance, as Dawson did at the Painted Palace in Melbourne where most of this album was recorded. It has been said that this is a night time album, and it was the most fragile of hours when Brambles likely broke through and solidified his melodies and major compositional cornerstones. But I hear a poignant album that can grace our most quiet of times or punctuate a wild event with a knowing caress. This is delicate music which, like a flower, only lasts for so long but is built upon a foundation of a need to live well and live beautifully. Bravo. May you find your bee.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Dead Sea Apes - Lupus

Published on A Closer Listen

Hold the space. Light the candles. Stir the brew. The ritual is about to begin. The curiously named Lupus begins with a strike of a singing bowl: an invitation calling our reptile minds into action.

Confident and thick as a galaxy, this album gathers up a whole bunch of psych and prog influences and pours them out like black coffee. It’s the coffee you drink while in some Byzantine rite of passage (no you can’t have cream!). Each sip feels mystical and heavy, to be savored by the deepest of olfactory nerves. The pace is relaxed yet full of momentum, demonstrated to perfection on “Knowledge and Conversation”, a 16-minute piece that grows like mutant mycelium in an abandoned city. Repetitive guitar themes keep one foot on the earth as constantly shuffling drums and bass lines help pilot the ark of electronic weather and energy.

Based in Manchester, UK, Dead Sea Apes draw from a lot of influences. Their fondness for the kraut-masters Can comes across in the way they tailor their layers. As it goes, Lupus is a jam record by design, the one-off recordings later studied and enhanced with more layers, sounds, drama, and the like. “Something To Do With Death” pits a mechanically drowsy rhythm with a Simon Scott vibe, telecasters twinkling and stratocasters growling. Guitars perpetually bloom on top of others in loops for a good twelve minutes. “Blood Knot” sounds like some (un)happy accident, as an arachnid beat with tambourine joins up with a terrifying metal chord – for about a minute. The variation between moods and approaches on each track keeps this album highly engaging.

Lupus is psych rock meditation music, and the reason it doesn’t run out of steam is the band’s sense of dynamism and drama. Dead Sea Apes play slow, and thus more pockets of space open up to enhance what’s being played. Some folks are just savants at knowing when to ratchet up the tension at the right moment, or draw it out over a matter of minutes. Grails do this impeccably, and here Dead Sea Apes do it at a more glacial pace. But it’s a black glacier, and it trails fire behind it, spitting ash as it rampages through hillsides and villages in the Roman countryside (just you wait for the climax on “Wolf Of The Bees”, you’ll see it). I wasn’t aware this would be part of the ritual, but one doesn’t argue when the mirrors open doors.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Evan Caminiti - Dreamless Sleep

More Evan Caminiti! Does he ever sleep? First appeared on A Closer Listen.

It’s amazing what can happen to us in a year. Something we did twelve months ago can mean something entirely different or fail to resonate with us today. Such a gap in time is what allowed Evan Caminiti to take a leap in compositional scope for Dreamless Sleep. While this album still exists in an ambient realm its stylistic shift sounds a whole lot more like Tim Hecker, someone quite familiar with drastic mutations of original source material. Whatever side of consciousness you’re on, this album is welcoming, though it is oh so clear that Caminiti composes at night and for the night.

Between Barn Owl and Higuma, his myriad solo guises as well as touring the world and the many musicians wanting to collaborate, it is easy to understand how the Dreamless Sleep recordings were put on the back burner. After recording guitar and synthesizer to a 4-track in 2011, life happened, and it was not until a year later that Caminiti revisited these compositions. Compared to previous records, including this year’s earlier release Night Dust, this album plots a different course to arrive at a slightly more articulate dream-space, one whose details are more memorable upon waking.

Shades of  Caminiti’s psychedelic, western landscape can be heard through the sparkling drift, but Dreamless Sleep has cleaner edges to follow. The drone, both the subtle and the huge, are present, but rather than being left in the murk to one’s own devices, the listener is gently led by the hand into a rich narrative. “Symmetry” represents a defining moment in Caminiti’s emergence from static to clarity. It begins with tape hiss and soft cycles of fuzzy energies flurrying beneath the surface like an iridescent school of fish. A skyline opens up with a series of synthesizers and echoing tones before the staying voice of guitar appears. Only a few notes are used and sustained, but this guitar serves as a calming beacon, a calming thread to follow.

“Absteigend” uses hushed voice and breath to create shuttering percussion while guitars and synths create a nocturnal chorus. It’s easy to let Caminiti’s albums pass by without really noticing the details, but it is Caminiti’s clear voice on guitar that ensures that Dreamless Sleep does not solely exist in a hypnagogic state. “Veiled Prayers” has fading chords simmering through a hot amp to create a gentle brushing of sound. “Becoming Pure Light” grounds the album in Caminiti’s familiar sky-scraping guitar weather, and it’s the choral voices creating the blanket of stars that helps take the style to another level.

In all, this album is a healthy maturation. For many listeners, the guitar ends up being the familiar light to follow but with more time spent on each composition an entirely new world opens up. Fan are so often impatient for certain bands to just hurry up and release something already. Caminiti has been too prolific and active to even get to this release until now – much to our benefit! Once again it is clear that this man takes great care in expanding his craft.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Maninkari - Continuum Sonore

The French duo Maninkari crafts music with a haunted sensuality. Mythical and improvisational in spirit, the sounds are activated in solitude, at night. Imagine The Necks playing in a vampire opium den; it’s not exactly the soundtrack for reading my four year old to bed (although not impossible!). Much like Maninkari’s 2-disc debut album Le Diable Avec Ses Chevaux, mostly older instruments make up the duo’s sound. Old wood and strings contain rich resonance and, as Olivier and Frederic Charlot have said, unlimited sustain. Thus, when given a proper listen, it is delightfully easy to discover yourself at the edge of the world in the Asian Steppes, the desert full of distant red-eyed raiders, and minarets peaking out of canyons.

Curious is that after a number of albums and EPs, Continuum Sonore is the duo’s first drone record. “Part 1” grounds the proceedings with a slow crawl of bodhran and toms, but the tide of drone soon washes the percussion away for the rest of the album. The cymbalom (a Hungarian hammered dulcimer) is used for much of the ambiance; its strings glisten like the setting sun atop the ocean in “Part 1” and reverberate the way sparks bounce off of steel in “Part 6”. When cymbalom is present, it’s as if the hallway is lit with torches, and when other elements take the lead, the shadows move about, and the irrational mind must fill in the blanks.

The strength of Continuum Sonore is contained in its rich and mysterious variety. “Part 2” takes another ancient, ritualized sound – church bells – and sets it to drone, while “Part 3” is a brief Transylvanian synth mantra. The gem of the album is the meditative, 18-minute weatherscape in “Part 4.” Sporting zombified kinetics that grow slowly, this piece is truly something new for Maninkari. Shimmering effects are the breath while a lugubrious, distorted sine wave is the boat. An intensity increases like a rush of wind over a corpse on a giant sand dune. The duo has never shown this level of patience, a skill toddlers are inversely proportionate to. When I was able to get through this piece without interruption it truly was special.

There are folks that would label this music as “dark”. Granted I can only hear its power when the sun is down, my family asleep, but it’s no darker than the horrors locked away in our own emotional corridors. In fact amongst these sounds I find many footholds and textural branches to hold onto and climb. The truth in the music is shared by that in a coat of feathers or a bed of quartz. Its tone of pausal reflection meets me when I awake in the middle of the night and watch my children sleep, their wild, unstoppable bodies in stasis. I forget the beautiful trauma of the day, and think how wonderful. Maninkari has always been visually evocative (the group has even scored several films), and it is this album’s stylistic dynamics that makes it such a rich listen. Ensure you are not interrupted.

Originally published on A Closer Listen
Here's a link with sound samples.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Evan Caminiti ~ Night Dust

Originally published on A Closer Listen.

Fans of Evan Caminiti have to be rejoicing. Not only has this fellow been exponentially prolific with each passing year, but his music is always operating on a high level. This year alone sees him releasing no less than three solo albums (one as Painted Caves), and while the knock on prolific artists is a thinning of quality, I just don’t hear that problem with Caminiti at all. Night Dust has been a long time in the making and occasionally highlights a new compositional direction (one that can be heard even more on his forthcoming Dreamless Sleep LP).

Anyone familiar with the stellar West Winds album would probably say, ‘Yeah, I could go for some more of that.’ Night Dust is here to grant your wish, though instead of a strictly guitar EFX driven record Caminiti has been tooling a lot more with synthesizers and analog manipulation. Isn’t the mantra: Once you go 4-track you never go back? Once Caminiti started committing music to this dusty-sounding medium, he became enthralled with re-animating the resulting deteriorations. Tape hiss and static are unofficial members of his one man band on Night Dust, a perfect marriage with his overnight, psychedelic seance.

“Near Dark” sets the stage well with a processed tide of analog rivulets combined with Caminiti’s signature amplifier worship, grand in sound and humble in execution. The blending of the synths and atmospheric guitars is usually seamless, as all the sounds share a timbre or quality. When a clear voice is heard it’s always a guitar, and it is no clearer than on “Moon is the Hunter” where Caminiti waxes poetic with a simple sounding electric axe over top the echo-laden landscape. And Caminiti doesn’t leave behind his deluge of guitar weather systems and other organic textures that make his work so engaging. A series of harmonics on “Returning Spirits” evokes fireflies’ lights in a sepia toned past. “Last Blue Moments” is a thunderhead, and while a synth is the table cloth tossed across the plain, the guitars blister the sky with a delicious mass of clouds as majestic as a lion’s mane.

As the track titles suggest, Night Dust is an ode to happenings after dark. In linear fashion, once darkness falls we have the returning spirits and nods to the stars, the moon, a harvest moon, memory, and the eventual, slow fade back to light. This album truly comes alive when the sun is down. That ache we feel as the deep night seems to go on endlessly is captured in the album’s middle and end. “First Light I” completes this feeling with an agonizingly mournful passage, white hot with distortion, muted through the analog re-tooling. When at last “First Light II” arrives our submission is complete. Sounding a bit like the work of Aaron Martin here, Caminiti lets the tape hiss ride as his lonely guitar swims in the warm waters of dawn. As if hitting a moment of clarity, this track reveals both a lament for the night’s passing and an optimism for the coming day. Night Dust succeeds wonderfully in its deep study of textures as well as its symmetrical replay value. It’s a lovely document that makes a case for dusk to come as soon as dawn arrives.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Nest - Retold

This is one of my favorite ambient/neo-classical albums of all time. I was delighted to find that one could stream the whole thing online. It's so good, it's probably one of my ten favorite albums, maybe ever.