Category: Current listening

Through the Fog: a hard plod through black doom music

Though the Fog

Longing and Silence, Through the Fog, Sylvan Screams Analog, cassette (2013)

Originally released independently as a demo in 2013, this debut recording of San Francisco Bay Area one-man band Longing and Silence has been picked up by the up-and-coming Sylvan Screams Analog label and turned into an album with an extra track. Now the full glories of LaS can be enjoyed by audiences far beyond the act’s homeland. Well, admittedly these “glories” might take some time to sink in as LaS happens to be one of the more miserable depressive black doom metal bands. Songs proceed at a slow dejected foot-dragging pace, the drumming is drained of life and energy, and mournful buzzing guitars chug away while the harsh rattling vocals sigh and scrape through the lyrics. The atmosphere is a deep black fug through which living things struggle to move or swim. The odd thing about this album is that the sound seems reminiscent of some of the ambient batty acts of the French Black Legions of the mid to late 1990s but that may be an effect, accidental or deliberate, of the quality of the production on the original recording.

Most tracks are fairly long with the shortest at just five minutes if you disregard the short opening track which is called … “Opening”. (Talk about a grand entry!) After this, the album begins its doleful journey in earnest. Tracks are repetitive to the point of monotony although if you listen to each track quite closely, you’ll be surprised at how much change and variation are present in the details of the music. There can be surprisingly melodic moments though they’re hardly likely to have you whistling or tapping your fingers. One track “Wasted Days” could even be a bit rock’n’roll if it were sped up a bit as the solid-as-steel riffs and melodies have a hard edge and their texture has slight crunch. The bass is dominant throughout most tracks which tends to make the music a bit less black metal in sound if not in spirit and concept.

The B-side of the cassette starts off in a more lively manner with bonus track “Sinking Vessel” placed first instead of at the end as is the normal custom with such pieces. A cold space ambience, courtesy of some discreet background synth tones, helps shape the song and provides mystery and depth. The music still plods but not as slowly as before. During instrumental sections, guitars and synth tones share equal time and the duetting is surprisingly affecting and emotional. “Sinking Vessel” could almost pass as potential singles material as there are some very distinctive slash-guitar riffs and the track is song-like in structure. The title track is another highlight here: it’s a  completely ambient piece done with synthesiser and acoustic-music tones and effects highlighted by wistful raindrop guitar notes.

The album could have been edited for length as the repetition and monotony in half the tracks are more off-putting than immersive. I sense that the artist was striving for something to absorb the listener’s attention completely and, since repetition has (too often) been the standard way of mesmerising listeners and opening up their consciousness, used minimal and repetitive music structures to try to achieve that trance result. If it weren’t for the bonus track, the album would be a dreary affair; as it is, there’s more depth to the music and the listener is led to think that there must be much, much more to this LaS act than meets the ear. I certainly think so. It’s too soon to tell with just this one recording whether LaS is rethinking the musical direction taken with this depressive black doom style or plans to plunge ahead farther into the thick dark clouds of melancholy and repetition.

Contact: Longing and SilenceSylvan Screams Analog,

I’m Lost: losing and then finding oneself in five expansive sound dramas

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Tarab, I’m Lost, 23five Incorporated, CD 23five 019 (2014)

Well if Eamon Sprod is lost in this album, what hope is there for the rest of us as we try to follow him about on this set of field recordings all chopped up, fragmented, distorted and amped up to an extreme? – but no matter how far the soundscapes take us, we somehow find our own points of reference in recognisable sounds. The album’s seemingly modest and low-key title turns out to be deliberately layered: “I’m Lost” could be interpreted in a narrow physical sense but it could also be read in other ways. There is the loss you feel when you lose loved ones or your relationships break up either intentionally or through neglect or simply because the other people have moved on. There’s the loss you feel when your youth becomes a distant memory and familiar objects, cultural and technological items associated with your generation and knowledge are superseded by other cultural ephemera and become obsolete. There is loss on a greater scale as well: buildings are demolished to make way for new ones, industries change and certain kinds of work become redundant, valuable history and advice are forgotten, countryside is submerged under cables and concrete, and the world is soon brought to the brink of another global war by yet another lot of incompetent politicians and their unseen puppet-masters. (Well at least one thing doesn’t change!) Through this work of five meditative pieces, Tarab demonstrates that the concept of loss contains within itself an openness and potential for creativity and inventiveness as new associations, directions and goals are free to form and connect.

The album is at once quiet and noisy as scraps of unrelated field recordings of industry, the natural world, domestic life and urban environments are pashed together with no thought for how they blend (or not) together. Of course the more you listen to this recording, the more your ears and brain start to accept the unusual and random juxtapositions for what they are, and structures and links arise spontaneously in the music that are unique to it and to your ears. Other listeners will make their own associations. In this way, you’ll find your own supports in the music but they’ll be unique to you as a listener.

Listeners become aware of the environments in which they live and the detritus they unthinkingly leave behind. The lost and forgotten, the things that seem innocuous at first but which have serious consequences for us later on (things like plastic rubbish left on the ground, scooped up by the wind or washed through stormwater drains into the ocean where it might choke a sea animal that swallows it), the things we try to ignore or forget but which have a habit of annoying us and demanding our attention … Tarab scoops all these up into these five expansive and highly absorbing sound dramas.

Repeated spins of the album do eventually result in your finding yourself as a unique being, free of all past associations and structures. Isn’t that a paradox, that to know and find yourself, you have to be lost?

Contact: 23five Incorporated

Vestiges / Panopticon split: two portrayals of epic black metal grandness

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Vestiges / Panopticon, self-titled, The Flenser, LP (2013)

The phenomenon of split recordings where two or more acts in the same or similar genres release an album together – often in the form of vinyl LPs with one band on the A-side and the other band on the B-side – is common in underground metal circles, especially black metal, and the USBM act Panopticon has done his fair share of such recordings with other bands. Here he (or rather A Lunn, the sole member) teams up with Vestiges, a black metal / post-rock fusion act hailing from Washington DC. After the attention he gained with the release of “Kentucky”, one might think Panopticon doesn’t need to be paired up with other, maybe lesser acts to promote his music but there’s also something to be said for encouraging other acts to come forward with their work by joining it to his and sharing the expenses of production and recording.

Vestiges lead off with two tracks titled “VII” and “VIII” which are intended as two episodes in an ongoing narrative that started with their first album “The Descent of Man” and continued with a split recording with Indonesian sludge metal band Ghaust. “VII” begins slowly and majestically with quiet but insistent guitar twang riff loops, deep bass drone and soft ambient background wash. Gradually adding percussion that itself speeds up as the track goes along, plus ghost voices and a raspy vocal, the track constantly piles up volume, energy and emotion. The music quickly goes into “VIII” which breaks into a mix of rapid-fire tremolo black metal guitar with sometimes choppy drumming and of clean-toned melodic post-rock guitar flow that may take in influences from blues and sludge doom metal. The mood on this second track is sorrowful and tragic as it alternates between the two musical extremes of black metal and doom, both with a post-rock sheen. As “VIII” continues, the music becomes ever more intense, working in dark space and the volume dynamics within to create a mighty edifice of tremolo guitar scaffolding, a thumping bass / percussion foundation and towers of tone and drone that reach skyward and beyond. The music ranges over a wide territory of emotion and atmosphere and there is plenty of epic drama in the two tracks.

After Vestiges’ contribution, A Lunn of Panopticon has his work cut out matching the other USBM band’s effort in creating immersive ambient BM opera. “A Letter” begins well with a dark bluesy sound touched with reverb and a bit of distortion that add extra urgency to an already fast track. This sounds quite a different band from the Panopticon I know from “Kentucky”. The vocals rage continuously throughout, wrapped up in a swift-moving maelstrom of music. The bass / drum rhythms are powerful and drive the song with a lot of force. The mood of the track is oddly uplifting and even triumphant for the most part but mixed with a streak of longing and sadness. “Eulogy” is a surprisingly happy little piece with a definite pop vibe, though the harsh singing in the far distance gives the song bite. The slight echo and washed-out ambience bring enough gloom to give the track a complicated emotional nature: it’s as if it wants to skip through summer fields but then reminds itself that life isn’t always sunshine and bright skies, and greyness and depression could be just moments away.

Panopticon concludes its side of the split with a cover of the Suicide Nation song “Collapse & Die”, a suitably cheery piece to end on. The song is played as a straight black metal song save for a folksy section in the middle which features mandolin and a sing-along chorus.

After hearing this split a few times, I’ve got to hand the greater glory to Panopticon who might not aspire to epic grandeur as Vestiges does but who can certainly handle atmosphere and sound in ways that suggest more emotional depth and complexity than that act has a right to possess. There certainly has been considerable development after “Kentucky” where the music could be sometimes monotonous. That’s no longer a problem here for Panopticon. Vestiges give the impression of laying out all their cards upfront and not having much in store left to give while Panopticon keeps dishing out one surprise after another right to the end. It’s a mighty tall order to share a split with Panopticon and Vestiges do their damnedest.

Contact: The Flenser

T.R.A.S.E. (Tape Recorder And Synthesiser Ensemble): early 1980s UK teenage outsider synth-pop (yes, really!)

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T.R.A.S.E. (Tape Recorder And Synthesiser Ensemble), self-titled, UK, B-Music / Finders Keepers, CD BMS050 / FKR067 (2013)

Here’s a recording where the history of the artist and the equipment used is so unusual and engrossing that it threatens to overshadow the music itself. The group’s name might seem twee and antiquated to us jaded sophisticates today but in 1981 the concept behind the name and project was just slightly ahead of the trends prevailing in the commercial pop music industry in Britain. The astonishing aspect of T.R.A.S.E. is that it was actually the music project of a 16-year-old boy who started it as an extension of both the work he was doing at school, in class and in extra-curricular activities, and his own interests in pop and rock music. Even more amazing is that the youngster, Andy Popplewell, built his own synthesiser (the Elektor Chorosynth), a 6-channel audio mixer, a phaser and a fuzz box using instructions from electronics magazines and the school woodwork and electronics skills he gained. With money earned from delivering newspapers, Popplewell built all these himself (his father having died years earlier), acquired and assembled a drum machine kit, and off he went, experimenting with composing and playing his own music, some of the results of which have now been released on vinyl and CD.

Admittedly if you were to hear the music and you didn’t know that this was all the work of a young teenage boy with some help from his guitar-playing kid brother, you’d swear that the artist behind the various rhythm texture pieces making up the bulk of the recording was a bit conservative in the way he coaxes sounds and melodies out of his machines, with very few sounds hitting the extremes of the instruments’ capabilities and burning up the wires. The drum machine beats anchor the music rigidly and apart from a couple of instrumental tracks near the beginning and the end, there’s hardly any experimentation with basic elements like sound; the music is driven by repetitive melody loops held in place by fixed beats. Sometimes the music is so slow or monotonous that you almost fall off your seat in slumber. On the other hand, there are some good tracks that show music composition potential (“Electronic Rock”, “War Machine”, “Unrequited Love”) even if very little is done with them. There are some beautiful ambient mood pieces like “Harmonium”, a radiantly sunny instrumental that includes a trilling melody and plucked warm-summer guitar tones. That a school-kid was able to progress as far as he could building his own equipment and writing and playing his own music within fairly commonplace artistic and musical conventions of the time might say something about his middle class upbringing in early 1980s Britain and how much (or how little) exposure children had to music, art and other avenues of creative intellectual enrichment.

In the booklet that accompanies the CD, Popplewell lists among his musical influences acts like Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder, Jean Michel Jarre, Joy Division, Ultravox, the Human League, Gary Numan and John Foxx and his own music certainly reflects those inspirations. (The booklet also mentions his interest in Cheap Trick, Led Zeppelin and Motorhead but their influence, if any, can’t be discerned, perhaps for obvious reasons: their music was dominated by guitar and was not minimalist in structure.) Some tracks have a melancholy air as well as a definite pop orientation and the deadpan singing style Popplewell employs might owe as much to his heroes as to his own inexperience as a singer. Although in the booklet he states his suspicion of being close to having Asperger’s syndrome, I detect in the music he may have had something of a talent for picking sounds and tunes that conjure up particular moods.

I don’t have many favourite tracks on this CD but the one I like best is one I might treasure for the rest of my life and that’s “War Machine” for its delirious slightly off-key and dazed synth tones and the clicky mechanical rhythms. Probably by the time Popplewell composed this song, he’d already had considerable experience writing, playing and polishing his music. The singing is frail and boyish and the whole track sounds a bit like a cross between early Depeche Mode and The Cure. A solo lead guitar turn by little brother Phil Popplewell adds a soulful blues mood. The song is crowned by the sort of abstract early-Kraftwerkian experimentation, here simulating machine-gun fire and falling bombs, I’ve been dying (err …) to hear all through the album.

The value of this recording lies mainly in the circumstances in which it was conceived, the DIY culture that existed in the UK in the late 1970s / early 1980s and the fact that it was made by an artist still at high school and what this suggests about how much Western society still underestimates the creative potential of adolescents. Some of the songs may well grow on listeners over repeated hearings.

Alas, Popplewell did not follow up his early precocious start as an experimental electronic pop musician; he became a BBC radio broadcast engineer (though he curiously manage to miss falling into the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) in the 1980s and has held other technical and engineering positions since. It may not be too late for Popplewell to resurrect his music career if he so wishes, though I doubt that the novelty value of his having been a child musical prodigy would last long; advances in music technology and electronics have been so great over the last 30 years that audiences born after 1980 might well be mystified by the music and instruments used, and several tracks really are just not much more than rhythm texture studies.

Contact: Finders Keepers, www.finderkeepers.com

Valonielu: a steady ride into the black metal psychedelic universe

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Oranssi Pazuzu, Valonielu, Svart Records, CD SVR 226 (2013)

This Finnish five-piece is on its third journey through the psych black metal cosmos and reaching out to the very edges of the known universe and possibly beyond, as suggested by the album cover art which might (just might – I’m guessing wildly here) have been inspired by the style of famous 1960s comic-strip writer and artist Robert Crumb. “Valonielu” is a very confident work refining the style set by debut recording and album “Muukalainen Puhuu” which was a real humdinger for its enthusiastic and colourful if sometimes demented music. Our citrus-loving demons wisely don’t try to top that album in excess but nevertheless the ride here is as mind-blowing and expansive in its own way.

The opening track is a tough rocker dominated by Jun-His’s inhuman croaking vocals barking in deranged Finnish while droning synths and effects heighten the sense of unreality and the impression that chaos and other dreamworlds are just a breath away. The psychedelic space journey proper really launches with the next track “Tyhja Temppeli” (“The Empty Temple”) with a thumping percussion accompanied by squiggly guitar chords, flashes of guitar tone and synth wash. Tension and suspense created within the song builds up. The band opts for a more relaxed, spacey, trippy ambient approach with “Uraanisula” rather than continue with the near-hysterical escalation of foreboding generated on the preceding song but “Uraanisula” has its own sinister charms, especially in those instrumental passages where guitar solo competes with ascending and descending space gurgle noises. It’s a fairly long track but with a riff that more or less runs right through its length, the song is distinct with a strong focus and direction.

There’s time for a breather and a look around the alien vistas with “Reika Maisemassa” (“A Hole in the Landscape”), a trippy little instrumental with tribal-sounding drumming and a sense of wonder and awe. The difficult second half of the album – this is where filler is most likely to be found – is negotiated well before “Ympyra On Viiva Tomussa” (“A Circle Is A Line In The Dust”), a monster track of atmospheric trance immersion, blackened rock-out glory and mind-blowing consciousness-altering space psychedelia, takes us on the final lap around the edges of the cosmos, always on the verge of falling right off and over into another (and perhaps more malevolent) universe. A war to dominate our minds is waged between a battery of tremolo guitars and death rays of while Jun-His sings over the battle. The sound is evil as though the forces of darkness are winning and the spacecraft carrying us listeners is doomed to fall into black void forever.

What makes this blackened psychedelic trance record stand out is a calculated attitude that drips with evil intent; the voyage to the stars and far beyond is a one-way journey into a cosmos that is indifferent and maybe even antagonistic and hostile towards those humans who dare to forget their place at the bottom of the cosmic hierarchy and venture out from their Earth prison. The album’s energy and focus are directed towards dropping us all into emptiness: the answer to humankind’s quest for meaning to life. As cosmic jokes go, this is devastating and “Valonielu” might serve as a warning to us all about human hubris. Whereas on the band’s first album, interstellar travel was fun, now on this trip the fun has been replaced by uncertainty and foreboding that we might be in for an unpleasant shock.

While the first half of the album is a tease with songs going off on different tangents from previous tracks, the second half pulls the strands together and from then on the ultimate aim is imminent. Early tracks can stand alone as potential singles (due to one riff or melody dominating throughout) which might explain why as a group they don’t seem unified and a bit of momentum is lost from one track to the next. The musicians keep monotony at bay with synthesiser melodies, atmospheric wash and effects which help give songs their distinct ambience and identities.

The whole recording works like a horror sci-fi movie in sound: all that’s needed are the visual backgrounds and maybe some stills of actors, and we’ve got ourselves a complete package.

Contact: Svart Records

Wargthron (Demo 1): channelling the spirit of primitive raw kvlt black metal

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Wargthron, Demo 1, Sylvan Screams Analog, cassette SSA018 (2014)

Channelling that good ol’ primitive super-raw kvlt black metal vibe here is a mysterious horde (of maybe one guy? or a couple?) hailing from the wintry ice-scapes of … Atlanta, Georgia, in the southeastern subtropical realms of the US. We-e-ell, I guess them folks down there experience a real light dusting of overnight winter snow in mebbe a hunnerd years. Thrumming steamy BM super-hornet guitars, barely-there percussion and deeply buried rasping ghost vokills along with monotonous rhythms and the most skeletal of riffs and melodies recall the early years of the French Black Legions or Norwegian BM legend Ildjarn on this debut offering from Wargthron.

The recording divides into two parts and repeats on the B-side of the cassette (so you never have to rewind it if you prefer one part over another). “An Ancient Fortress of Blood” – how kvlt is that?! – is a slowly menacing shadow creature, grimmmer than grimm, glacial yet unrelenting in pace, the percussion counting down to that moment when ice tendrils, making their steady and stealthy way, penetrate into the deepest parts of the listener’s brain and freeze it forever. The blood runs cold, the heart stops beating, skin turns an icy-blue colour and anyone foolish enough to touch the victim might suffer severe frost-bite in the finger/s that make contact. The music becomes more hellish and unbearable as it creeps up on you: guitars slash away repeatedly, demons roar and gloat in anticipation of possessing yet another human soul, and the atmosphere is so overpowering it leaps into another dimension to continue the torture.

“Bless the Heavens with Darkness” turns up the pace and intensity early on but ends up mixing the faster parts with slower music that might almost sound like a continuation of the first track. The guitars lollop faster and at a more shrill tone but the steaming buzz texture and dark murk are still present. The malevolent monster voices growl and roar continuously.

According to the sleeve notes, the songs were recorded in “utter darkness under shadow of the dead moon” on Christmas Eve in 2013 which might explain their repetitive nature: obviously if you can’t see what you’re playing, it’s best not to stray too far from the most essential chords, rhythms and beats in case you want to return to them but have forgotten the correct fingering positions. The Wargthron man definitely was not expecting or wanting any toys, games or the latest version of Grand Theft Auto from Santa Claus; this music would frighten the reindeer so much they’d bolt right out of the solar system and the fat guy in the red suit would be lost among the galaxies forever. The atmosphere reeks of ancient and evil corruption, the black void from which Wargthron appears and then disappears into comes across as infinite and gravid with deep hostility towards humanity and intent to wipe out this upstart anthropoid species forever. The music hums with a deep and intense power and this force, hungry and brimming with deep hatred, leaves a lasting impression in the imagination.

There’s only a very limited print run of 44 copies and I already have No 43 so you have to be really fast to get the last copy!

Contact: Sylvan Screams Analog

Zo Rel Do: a curious and intriguing mix of drone folk and electro-acoustic improv

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Mohammad, Zo Rèl Do, Antifrost, CD AFRO 2064 (2014)

Mohammad is a Greek trio employing cello, contrabass and electronics to create a curious fusion of drone folk and electro-acoustic improv. “Zo Rèl Do” is the first part of a trilogy exploring the music and sounds of the musicians’ homeland and immediate neighbouring areas in western Turkey and parts of Bulgaria and Romania.

We start off with some field recordings dominated by a solo flute melody and conversations that might have been recorded in a market-place. These are swept aside by low booming scrapey string instruments, deep and rhythmic, with a very minimalist melody loop: the music is a bit like an acoustic doom folk version of Sunn0))) at times. A scratchy spitting drone accompanies the raw and sonorous dirge-like march. The track seems very serious and solemn although there are moments when it appears not to be taking itself too seriously and almost parodies itself.

“Kabilar Mace” takes up the repetitive circular structure, applying it to a drunken seesaw melody and torments it with a nagging grinding string accompaniment. The two opposed melodies can be very amusing to listen to as one tune insists on going its own sedate way and the other buzzes around it like a jumpy pooch. The music steadily escalates to an extreme intense and quite deranged level with the odd pause or two to let off steam.

Subsequent tracks stick to the minimalist template of repetition (with variation), building up to an almost hysterical climax, and the sound lurches about clumsily as if in an empty and dark room feeling for the light-switch. One later track gives the impression of nearly falling over in a heap. “Samarina” in particular sounds a bit like the aforementioned hooded ones playing unplugged after having gone on one or two too many benders; this is probably the most memorable track in spite of it not sounding quite as accessible melodically as the others – it does have a certain mournful grace. The album concludes with what could be a barely audible recording of night crickets that might be overlooking a secret nature ritual.

While this is a fairly short recording, “Zo Rèl Do” has a massive sound and a clear ambience that emphasises the rough-hewn texture of the music. The mood alternates from bleary-eyed somnambulist slouch to solemn and serious to something suggesting a wry sense of humour at work building up the music to a near-insane, mind-transforming level. Though the music does not vary a great deal, the mood and humour behind it keep this listener transfixed, wondering what surprises these Hellenes might pull out next from within their instruments.

The thought has just occurred to me that Mohammad’s objective is to bring listeners deep into their world of native folk and other influences and to take their audiences right to the edge of infinity by mixing serious solemnity and playful teasing in equal measures. Beyond that edge, we become merged with the fabric of the cosmos itself and are at one with it.

Contact: Antifrost,  Mohammad

No Stars, Only Full Dark: a self-assured release of black metal fusion

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Windbruch, No Stars, Only Full Dark, Canada, Hypnotic Dirge Records, CD HDR-037 (2014)

On first hearing this album, the second by Russian one-man band Windbruch, hailing from Nizhnevartovsk in the Khanty-Mansi region in western Siberia, I get an impression of  raw and sometimes angry music, ragged and sharp in tone with a full bass backing, shaped into actual songs edged with delicate ambient sounds and tones that add touches of ice coldness.

Lone Windbruch member Iluzii Optice brings skill and imagination to craft an album of self-contained and clearly defined songs that feature as much cold space-ambient synth, field recordings of nature and what might be termed “soundtrack music” as they do raw suicidal black metal. The path “No Stars …” takes might not sound different for the most part from what other one-man or two-men BM projects have done but it’s perhaps ideal at this early stage in his career for IO to get the balance between a more commercial style of BM rock pop and his more abstract experimental tendencies right, and to gain the support of a loyal fan-base, before he starts stretching the formula to his own ends.

The album begins strongly with “No More Entry, No More Exit” (taken together, the track titles suggest an arc of being enticed by the city, ending up being trapped there, reaching one’s nadir and experiencing a crisis) which is actually the second track, the first being an extended introduction. The music is robust and hard-hitting; as the album progresses, more ambience, especially at the start and end of each track, and melodic keyboard are brought in, and the album becomes more post-BM in style. Vocals, where they appear, are upfront in the music and are deep and gravelly, almost death-metal in style. The tension builds up through each track and flows into the next; ambient passages relieve some but not all of the tension so the suspense and momentum are still present.

Later tracks like “A City on Fire” and “Only Full Dark” are ponderous and include cold, forlorn space-ambient melodies and spoken-voice recordings. There is a definite urban-blues / post-rock feel which might seem surprising for a Russian BM band, especially one so far away from Europe and North America. The latter track throws away actual music and becomes entirely experimental in most of its second half; its reliance on near-inaudible drone rumble beneath a Russian-language radio monologue is daring. “Neswa-Pawuk” has a dreamy shoegazer atmosphere, a bit like a harder version of Alcest. From this moment on, the album has a sunnier and more positive outlook even if its central protagonist is still stuck in a grim urban environment.

The album is very self-assured and demonstrates confidence in its combination of BM / ambient / post-rock. Most songs are well-defined with some allowance for experimentation. There is something to please most people here.

Contact: Hypnotic Dirge Records

Amulet: the deep and the commonplace in mystery ceremony revealed by iPhone recordings

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Oren Ambarchi, Amulet, The Tapeworm, cassette TTW 65 (2014)

Korean director Chanwook Park made a short movie not long ago using a cameraphone so it was only a matter of time before a musician made an album with an iPhone. The surprise is that of all people I can think of who might do it first, Oren Ambarchi should have been the one. (Though he may have been preceded by others and I just haven’t noticed.) This is a really intriguing effort from Ambarchi: it’s an ambient soundscape, sometimes industrial-sounding, that includes what field recordings, whirring cymbals and other percussion or intrusive background noises that he opted to leave in.

In spite of its fairly short length, the recording seems expansive and blackly cavernous. We start with sharp metallic drone and buzz rolling across a huge flat plain in pitch-dark atmosphere on Side A. A rhythm of sorts is established with a loop of mechanical dolly clicks and there are other little noise effects that tinkle and thrum. The work or parts thereof must have been done live as indicated by audience applause somewhere in the middle of Side A of the cassette.

On Side B, the fragments of delicate metallic bell, gong and chime along with a quiet background and the static nature of the music, suggestive of a soundscape snapshot, give the impression of an ongoing mysterious ritual. You end up concentrating so closely that your mind becomes completely entranced and for a brief while you become part of the scene. Whichever side is played, and depending perhaps on the frame of mind you’re in, whether you’re tired and need soothing or you are just curious, the atmosphere can be quite intense and your anticipation of what might come with the drones keeps you hooked. A motor stutter vibration helps to concentrate your mind as well.

Anyone who is familiar with Ambarchi’s activities and the musical company he’s been keeping over the years might see the two sides of the cassette as representing the polar opposites his music has often straddled - Side A is very black and sinister, and Side B is tranquil – and the cassette and vinyl 7″ formats certainly lend themselves to such an interpretation more so than if the music had been released as a mini-CD. So I’d caution TSP readers not to allow a little knowledge about Ambarchi’s history and the choice of music format to influence their listening experience too much.

I don’t know how familiar Ambarchi is with recording music on his iPhone, if this is something very novel for him and if he will continue recording in this way on occasion, so I’m prepared to give him some leeway with the loose free-form structure of the music. The editing in parts can be crude – that audience applause cuts out very sharply – and any beginnings and endings are determined by the cassette format and the length of the tape. Had the musician and the label thought of the idea at the time, this music might suit a Moebius-trip cassette format, to be played continuously according to the whim of the listener.

Savage Pencil provides the odd(eye)ball cover artwork which plays up the voyeuristic role that the listener is forced into, in listening to this music that might serve as accompaniment to a secret ritual or ceremony. Whether the ceremony is a long drawn-out process involving animal sacrifices or just one’s bed-time routine being read to by a preschooler eager to show off by making up stories about a moon-worshipping rabbit family s/he sees in the picture-book, “Amulet” will be an ideal mystery backdrop. There’s something of the profound and the commonplace in these recordings.

Contact: The Tapeworm 

Polarlicht: giving us soothing low-key ambient electronic soundscapes

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Monolyth & Cobalt, Polarlicht, Time Released Sound, CD TRS041 (2014)

In spite of its name which translates from German into English as “Polar Light” and the artwork of cracking ice viewed from above, this recording is not really much of a cold and forbidding Ice Age ambient soundscape opus to be filed in among other Arctically or Antarctically inspired works; it turns out to be a slow, relaxing and gently immersive journey through glitch electronica worlds sculpted by one Mathias Van Eecloo, the man behind Monolyth & Cobalt. The recording was made in Brittany over a period of some 18 months from April 2012 to October 2013.

There may be allusions to maritime exploration on the album and the fact that the work was recorded in Brittany – an area with connections to the sea – might have some significance. “Blooming Stones” sets the tone releasing this listener to drift on gentle grey seas with rhythmic bell chimes and something of a slow undulating sea-shanty melody.  The tracks conjure up quiet landscapes of muted grey or light sandy colours where the sea raises barely more than a murmur of white wave froth and washes blue-grey up pale beaches. Even the skies are a restful pale blue colour. Not much happens and we are whisked from one track to the next to inspect new low-key soundscapes.

Track 4 promises to be a bit more interesting than previous pieces with a mechanical rhythm loop and some off-kilter noises suggesting all’s not quite calm and serene, and any moment we may run across some rusted toys or machines still able to play a melody after years of disuse and deterioration. Following after is a track where instruments seem to be more recognisable yet still unidentifiable – there could be a banjo in the music – and a sighing siren vocal is present as well. As the album progresses, the music broadens to include acoustic guitar, harmonica (or something very like it), violin and field recordings or found monologue in tracks like “Et Ces Arbres” and “Verhaal”.

The most interesting track on the whole album turns out to be “Birds (Are Some Holes in the Sky Through a Man can Pass)” which features some beautifully resonant string instruments, one of them possibly a harp or a zither, delicately trilling against a seesaw rhythm.

True, the general tone of the album rarely rises above mildly stimulating and the criticism could be made that the whole recording is just too mild and placid to hold most people’s attention. Sooner or later, someone will start wishing for something pacey and exciting, like a great white shark lurking in the unassuming grey sea. Folks with short attention spans will drift away leaving a few willing to follow Van Eecloo and to let him take his own time describing the vistas before them.

It doesn’t really matter that I fail to see the polar connection this music makes: it’s very soothing, low-key and minimal, and there are some interesting acoustic surprises in later tracks that add individuality and a distinct folksy flavour.

Contact: Time Released Sound