Tagged: ambient


Pinkcourtesyphone is the Los Angeles artist Richard Chartier, noted once before in these pages by Jennifer Hor who detected a certain lack of emotional engagement in his ambient music on his Room 40 release. Oddly enough the “emotions” theme is reflected in the title of today’s item, taking into account only a portion of your emotions (EDITIONS MEGO 236) which arrives in a conceptually-related pink cover (designed by Chartier himself) with suitably vague and blurred imagery. As a listener I have often felt ambient music to be a double-edged sword, except the sword is not even a sharp instrument and is more likely to be made of plastic or foam rubber, and if I may sometimes enjoy the cloying sensations afforded by ambient sound, I often find myself losing patience with what I perceive as the torpor and slowness of the genre. Today’s spin is winning me back to the other side, however, as there’s something deeply convincing about Pinkcourtesyphone’s approach; it’s certainly well-crafted, creating that artificial sense of “depth” which might be one of the genre’s purposes, and I feel myself slipping into the sens-surround atmosphere with remarkable ease. It might be a warm bath to soothe my aching muscles, or a chilling ice box for the conservation of meat.

This particular release has a very slender “narrative” undercurrent, if we can call it that, suggestive of lost telephone calls in a hotel from nowhere. This is suggested by the project name, the fleeting presence of telephone voices which appear early on, and one brief sound sample which resembles a dial tone. All the above elements could be used by someone with a fervent imagination to construct a post-modern murder-mystery story set in an update on an Edward Hopper painting, with theatrical lighting and deep crimson hues. In fact it’s so post-modern there’s no characters, no murder, and no mystery. This line of thought may be confirmed by a hint in the press release that as much as says “RIYL” to lovers of the music of Angelo Badalamenti. But I refuse to be drawn into yet another David Lynch discourse at this point.

taking into account…sustains this wispy mood of tension for about half of its duration – the first three tracks are quite compelling in this way – then it seems to tread water on track 4-5, wandering around in highly-contrived layers and loops without really advancing anywhere. It concludes with 17 minutes of much gentler and melodic music completely free of the threatening tone, which makes for a nice payoff to the whole thing; on the other hand, if the whole album was like this last track, I would have switched off a lot sooner. From 12 December 2016.

With Borrow’d Sheen

We quite liked parts of Anish Music Caravan by Band Ane, which is a solo turn by the Danish musician Ane Østergaard; her approach is to use all sorts of physical objects and musical instruments (some of them old and broken) as starting points, then merge and combine recordings into her laptop. On today’s release, Anish Music V (CLANG RECORDS clang047) I find the novelty is wearing thin already, and the music, although wistful and longing in tone, comes over as shapeless ambient driftery. I’m not expecting anything so conventional as a “root chord” in this type of music, but perhaps some central theme or consistency of thought would be nice to stop the listener’s attention from wandering. In her favour, the playing is sparse and understated, there is sensitivity in the work, and the use of natural caverns to enhance the acoustical space in this recording may be a bonus: the credit notes refer to a “17 second natural reverb from Cisternerne (Copenhagen)”, and “recordings from Thingbæk Limestone Mines”. There’s a limited press of 100 vinyl copies available. From 4th November 2016.

Blue Shadows on the Trail

Marsen Jules
Shadows In Time

Dortmund-based Martin Juhls has been putting out records under this derivation of own name since 2003 on labels including 12K, City Centre Offices, Autoplate and his own imprint, Oktaf. He also uses the names Falter, Krill.Minima and Wildach Sonnerkraut. There is also a separate Marsen Jules Trio where Juhls is augmented by brothers Anwar and Jan-Phillip Alam on violin and piano respectively. He terms his solo work under the Marsen Jules heading as “instrumental/ambient”. And his weapons of choice for this single piece Shadows In Time are synthesisers.

I suppose you could describe Juhls’ approach as drone/ambient synth-scape, but the development, at least initially, is a tad faster than is traditional in this sort of venture. Nothing wrong with that per se, and soon it relaxes into a sound more reminiscent of church organ. The material repeats, which is one facet that may put off hardened connoisseurs of Drone; the organic, “random” generative development familiar with such purveyors or, at the other end of the drone spectrum: complete stasis, is absent in this particular prime cut of beefy transcendence. It has neither the roiling mid-range bombast of Nadja’s Thaumogenesis nor the single-minded brutality of Puce Mary nor the inexorability of Phill Niblock.

I’m sure Juhls will be rolling his eyes to hear these lazy comparisons, but the point I’m making is: I’m not entirely sure of his actual intent. It’s repeated material for sure, but nice to drift off to. Put the cd player on repeat and you could drift away for ever thanks to Juhls’ interest in extended duration. He makes this statement about the process of composing Shadows In Time: “…It is based on four variations of the same 20 seconds loop modulating on three different layers, which are running against each other on a basis of millisecond variations…”, before also the assertion that “…Generative music has long ceased to be unknown territory in composition…”

But like the apocalyptic trend for pop-star singer-songwriters to overuse their brand new loopstations ten years ago, is it enough to simply set some pre-recorded material loose and watch it go, however subtly and delicately manipulated? Even a two-year-old will eventually tire of a wind-up toy, but on the other hand let’s not forget that Phillip Jeck and William Basinski have made careers out of this sort of thing, in their own unique ways. Juhls is another addition to the oeuvre. Indeed, he is poised to enter the history books when “the world’s longest film”: Anders Weberg’s 720 hour colossus Ambiancé is released in 2020; it’s theatrical trailer features music by Juhls – all 7 hours and 20 minutes of it, (Got a day off? View it here.

Curtain Raiser

On Background Curtain (ZOHARUM ZOHAR 129-2), we have a collaboration between Celer and Dirk Serries. Celer, i.e. the American Will Long, is familiar for his minimal ambient music which can be quite beautiful on occasion, and his Inside The Head of Gods was judged by us as a “masterpiece of understatement”. Belgian droner Dirk Serries used to be Vidna Obmama throughout the 1980s, and also recorded as Fear Falls Burning, a project where the weapon of choice was a guitar.

I suppose both players have an interest in long tones, subtle shifts of timbre, and a creative approach which involves much processing work. Processing is certainly the hallmark of Background Curtain. In fact it seems to be the basis for the entire piece. Celer sent a tape to Dirk one fine day in 2012. The time-stretched segment of collaged work was, to its creator, “puzzling and unworkable”. Yet Dirk came through and rallied like a Hessian, and returned something to Celer. At this point the tape-trading story becomes unclear to me, but it seems that Dirk didn’t actually rework the original unworkable tapes, and instead produced something entirely new while he was listening to them. Another year goes by, and Celer (clearly not a man to rush into things) has the brilliant idea of mashing up the new Dirk Serries music with his original source recording. He got to work behind his multi-tasking processor desk. “The musical colour and frequencies were the same,” he assures us, “but the effects and enveloping were triggered by the waves of Dirk’s track”. This feels a little sketchy, but I think I get the general idea, and I can understand why creators would wish to protect their working methods by shrouding them in vagueness and ambiguity.

Two long pieces ended up being pressed on the present CD as a result of this long and drawn-out creative process – ‘Above/Below’ and ‘Below/Above’. The first one is a slow-moving blanket of swaddling ambient sounds where everything sounds processed and unrecognisable, yet not to the point of becoming saccharine goo. On the second piece, it’s just about possible to discern some guitar notes, keening their forlorn cries like slowed-down seagull effects from a Bill Nelson performance. However, there’s no real point in trying to unbake this sonic pie; the point that Celer wishes we would concentrate on is the presence of what he calls the “background curtain”, presumably referring to his original “puzzling and unworkable” source material. I think he’s right to call it a curtain; it’s certainly not rigid enough to be called a spine or backbone. “Even if you can’t hear its place, it’s definitely there,” he assures us. “Maybe you can hear it?” From 23rd November 2017.


New Rome

From Lawrence English’s excellent antipodean imprint comes Tomasz Bednarczyk who is Polish. Nowhere is “…an album that is unashamedly rooted in the concept of ambient music”, according to the press release. Somewhat appropriately, or at least traditionally for an album of ambient music perhaps, the sleeve features a photograph of clouds. Which at least saves the listener the bother of falling flat on their back and staring at the sky for hours. It’s not all clouds on the sleeve though – there’s clouds and a close up of a denim shirt.

For all the talk of ambient, and a deliberate sense of contradiction in the music and “holistic space” in the slightly over-excited text in the press release, this cd is to me, essentially, fundamentally modern. What I mean by that is that it occurs to me that Bednarczyk has studied the last 30 years of “ambient” music’s history and acquired a bunch of shiny new equipment to produce his own version of it. This is not a criticism; rather it is an observation and one from someone who would give his eye teeth for the time and opportunity to attempt something similar. I like that all the titles are all simple, singular words. “Cat” and “Turpentine” are my favourites. Great words, those. The music is more Mr Moby than Mr Riley perhaps; particularly on “Beginning”, which to my ears is more Orbital than Brian Eno but I can live with that. The start of the fifth piece, “Voyage” is almost a Japan/Richard Barbieri-like Prophet V low-res, low bit-rate synth pad. It circles your head insistently like a malevolent bee, before dissolving into a bass heavy veneer of acetate over inlaid sonic shellac. Quite lovely. “Turpentine” has a Reich-ian approach to rhythm but with a nod to Christian Fennesz or Aphex Twin almost; the synths sizzling over an open flame.

The press release describes this album as “…falling into and emerging from winter…”. I don’t necessarily agree – for me, this is a summer album; it’s for playing on a warm afternoon on campus with the speakers perched on the window ledge facing out towards your reclining ears, while you relax on a tatty picnic blanket with some warm beers staring at the accommodation block opposite through the heat-haze. Any minute now the rave generation is going to wake up; emerge from its 20 year slumber – those of us who survived relatively unscathed – and burst forth in a huge, fractal-crested wave of creativity and finally report back from the abyss. And this could be part of the soundtrack. To back that statement up, in fact, I might even go as far as to say this is having a similar impact on me as when I first heard the KLF’s Chill Out. There. What do you make of that? Clearly the best way to enjoy this album is in an easy chair late at night with a head full of your favourite stimulant/corrective under supervision of competent persons.

I must say I’m a little surprised to see this come out on Room40 which I had previously put in the box marked “improv/composition” in my brain. As it happens, Bednarczyk has released two previous albums on Room40: Summer Feelings and Painting Sky Together. How wrong can one be? But I’m glad I’m in a position to reset my protocols because this is a beautiful album; remarkably good.

Any Colour You Like

Ab Intra is the Polish musician Radosław Kamiński, who’s been releasing his brand of dark ambient electronica since 2006. His previous three albums came out on Zoharum, one of them a split with 1000schoen. His alter-ego is a Latin phrase which roughly translates into English as “from the inside”, which may indicate something of the introverted nature of this self-absorbed music; like so many releases in this genre, it doesn’t have much of a life outside itself. Today’s release has a Greek title rather than a Latin one however, and Henosis I-V (ZOHARUM ZOHAR 132-2) uses the Greek word for “unity”. Kamiński’s earliest influence was the French synth big-wig populist Jean-Michel Jarre, and this does show on parts of this album; the second track ‘Henosis 2’ exhibits much of the pomposity and self-importance of the French player, as if announcing to the massed audience some mysterious post-millennial event whose significance has to be bolstered with flashing lights and laser shows. But there’s no real payoff; as with most of the music here, it seems to be all build-up without any actual event, idea or statement at the end of it. Even so, Kamiński’s music does have a well-crafted production surface, and he manages to avoid over-familiar synth settings and sounds, arriving at his own style of dark ambient brooding. A six-panel digipak is required for the artwork, allowing for slight visual variations on the arrangement of equilateral triangles on a black field; it invokes the cover of Pink Floyd’s best-selling album, and some of Ab Intra’s synth drones would have felt right at home, if not on that album then certainly on Wish You Were Here. From 27th October 2016.


Massimo Pavarini
X Sounds Extremely Mysterious

The emergence of this bulging quad c.d. box set comes as a homage to, and an overview of the works of Italian composer/multi-instrumentalist Massimo Pavarini (1970-2012). A nicely appointed retrospective details his genre-hopping career from the years 1988 to 1994, showing a restless, mercurial talent who, as contributors to the accompanying booklet will attest, was also his own sternest critic. Projects that began with the best of intentions would be casually ditched and bulk-erased from the memory banks, much to the chagrin of his close friends and contemporaries. I’m thinking here of someone that, working practice-wise, seems to resemble Arthur Russell (himself no slouch in rapid genre shifting), combined with the mindset of a pre-fame Syd Barrett. I seem to recall reading that a number of his works at art college would be discarded/destroyed (?) soon after receiving their very last drip of paint, as if going through the artistic process was an end in itself. However, in Massimo’s case, his work has been retrieved from places unknown and have been lovingly and painstakingly restored.

“Alea”, his debut, matches arthouse electronics against hushed piano introspection and was originally issued in cassette only format on the Rosa Luxemborg label. On “Alloro a Colazione”, we can see the dapper spirit of Monsieur Erik Satie hovering over those ivories, genie-like. But that largely unadorned piece ill-prepares the listener for the eye-watering gas cloud of white noise that eventually engulfs “Over the Rainbow” (from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (!)). Dear Judy and her mutant entourage would soon realise that some things are even more psychologically disturbing than those damnable flying monkey-things. The startling “Impulso è Rigetto” has Massimo ‘breaking glass in his room again’ with lung-straining sax skronk and mangled guitar emissions recalling certain violent juxtapositions/jump-cuts found in the early Goebbels & Harth songbook. The “Undicititoli” collection (c.d. no. 2), sadly unreleased at the time, again finds our teenage (!) hero teetering between light and shade. For every “Nativo”; a bewitching Italian cousin to the “Kes” soundtrack, there’s always an “Ingrandire un Policlinico”, in which pounding drum tattoos are but a mere click-track set next to the ‘a to z’ of factory demolition tonalities that follow.

Another artistic zig-zag takes place with the “Danze” c.d. with the artist in question’s apparent brainwashing at the hands of the sinister house/techno-ambient cabal. Well, I’m happy to report that their efforts weren’t that successful as tracks like “The Good Clerk” and “the Curling Ducks” are too hard-edged to occasion thoughts of the loved-up ones throwing shapes with glo-sticks. Mercifully, this approximation of a U.K.-based ‘scene’ (cough) has been partially bent out of shape by an outsider’s p.o.v. and seems to align itself with grainy b/w photos of Hard Corps or Nitzer Ebb instead.

Massimo’s collaborative exploits find a home on “Gruppi”, the final disc in this foursome, and covers his involvement as principal drummer/rhythmic synthesist with Le Orbite, Marmo, Le Forbici di Manitù and Tomografia Assiale Computerizzata. Recorded mostly live, Le Orbite were a 2g/b/d vox outfit that could’ve easily slotted into the Creation Records roster right next to Slowdive. This kinda ‘my bloody mary chain-lite’ choonage (at its best on “Over and Over” and the “6 Colori” instrumental really does fail to match the sense of invention displayed on the previous discs. Sadly, the lure of a bowl cut and a hooped t-shirt must’ve proved to be too overwhelming…

An earnest/moody vocal package and trebly white boy funk guitar signals the arrival of Marmo. Excised from vinyl/cassette comps, the Hula/Chakk-esque rumblings reach their boiling point with Massimo’s ‘noise guitar’ cameo on “I Cinque Angoli”. Laboiusly slow grinding, subterranean rhythms and T.A.C. leader Simon Balestrazzi’s dark mutterings and insinuations seem to share thoughts and deeds with Anti-Group and 23 Skidoo. But perversely, this mainstay of the Italian underground (for over twenty years…) hits real pay dirt with “Ingoiare Chiodi” (from the “Hypnotischer Eden” c.d. on Discordia) which could almost be a great lost Morricone theme. Those chasing unusual sonorities scoped from exotic sources will do a double back flip over T.A.C.’s genius deployment of scraped propellers, ‘walkie-talkie’ voices, Ethiopian drums and the Turkish Zurna. Le Forbici di Manitù’s piece marks Massimo’s last recorded work. With its archetypal synthetic waveforms, “Esilio nel Deserto delle due Lune” could easily have hatched from any period in the last half century or so and is taken from the “Luther Blissett Soundtrack” on Alchemax Records.

So there we have it… a long ‘n’ sprawling response to a tragically brief yet sprawling career path. A sincerely constructed tribute from drawing board to finished article.

Bells Never End

Andreas Usenbenz
Bells Breath

Though frequently indistinguishable from one another, drone and ambient recordings are often categorised in terms of tonality and resultant emotionality; ‘dark’, ‘blissful’, ‘atonal’ and so on. Notable for its indifference towards such niceties, Andreas Usenbenz’s Bells Breath explicitly positions itself within the frame of early 1960s Minimal Art and its abandonment of pre-existing frames of reference in order to provide a fresh experience of art as one of ‘self-awareness on behalf of the audience’. I have to confess to being confused by this description, as it sounds uncomfortably similar to the kind of rationale employed to promote bible-based ecclesiastical dogma in pre-literate societies. Is it a sly dig at the religious pretensions of self-appointed ‘experts’ in the art industry?

Deeper theological mysteries might be discerned in the two sides of this clear vinyl artefact, which are inhabited by a Holy Trinity of pieces of a cold, metallic aspect akin to Jacob Kirkegaard’s otological ilk: endless glacial, hypnotic whorl set out to either sedate and stupefy listeners into catatonic passivity (a mission it manages in mere minutes on this chilly, grey day at least) or to convey them into a realm of supra-linguistic contemplation. Either effect is complemented by the record’s situation between four black-and-cloudy ‘art print’ panels that telegraph the music’s sublime and mundane effects.

As the title suggests, Usenbenz fashioned the piece for an installation from recordings of bells tolling in the Minster church in Ulm, Germany, to mark the 125th anniversary of the church spire’s completion. He follows a familiar process of layering the decelerated tonal recordings to achieve a deepening effect – though to these ears one more akin to an opiate of the masses than the gesture of heaven-bound ascension that might better befit the piece’s architectural paradigm. That said, the Minster church is a Lutheran one, so a protestant might conceivably argue that Usenbenz’s pensive radiations are better suited to a more critical theology than that provided by the pomp and drama of Catholicism. Either way, it makes for a captivating listen, however many such records one has listened to.

Air Piano

Japanese musician Teruyuki Nobuchika has a job composing TV and movie soundtracks, but also performs his own non-commercial works, and has been building up a small discography. One such is Still Air (OKTAF 013), released by this German label and packaged with abstract cover art by the painter Mischa von Wegen. Eight short instrumentals which at first spin seemed to be situated too conveniently in the “ambient” drifty zones – pleasant sounds often bordering on the tasteful, framed in pieces which might be too diffuse to contain anything of any value. However, I rescind that view on today’s spin; there’s a lot of detail and ideas going on in these deceptively simple pieces, which are tautly structured to conceal their clever changes, and they make a small journey almost without us even noticing, arriving somewhere that’s interesting and ambiguous. Nobuchika does this with the subtle use of loops and repeated pulsing patterns, sometimes interrupting the flow with a judicious piano trill, an interjection which has earned him the “classical” tag from other reviewers. Still Air manages to suggest stories and forward movement, rather than simply settling for pleasant “atmospheres”, and Nobuchika has put a deal of compositional effort into constructing and polishing these ingenious miniatures. From 20th September 2016.

Frozen Warnings

Several items from the Russian Frozen Light label to follow. All are limited editions of 300 copies and arrived here 7th September 2016.

Exit In Grey used to be a duo, now it’s just one fellow, the Russian artiste Sergey Suhovik. Exit In Grey seem to have been creating and releasing their drone music since 2004, much of it released on the Daphnia Records label. I can’t find out much about the artistic intentions of Suhovik, although album titles such as Twilight Waters, Dim Lines, Storms, Nowadays Warm, and Environment Despair might give us some clues; a certain interest in the weather and other aspects of our natural surroundings, combined with a vague sense of inevitability about an approaching disaster. One Lumen In The Past (FZL 039) offers three long tracks of very foggy ambient drone; and on today’s spin, I’m afraid I can’t find much going on here to distinguish Exit In Grey from many other practitioners in the genre. Even the methods used are commonplace: a combination of guitars, keyboards, effects, radio signals and field recordings, layered into a gently shifting sea of mistiness. I do however like the time-travel theme of this release. The titles ‘Old Letters and Visions’ and ‘Whispers Time’ do much to evoke a curious nostalgia for the past. The same goes for the cover images, which apparently repurpose old photographs of Russian landscapes and train stations, some of them maybe even going back to the 19th century; they have been tinted in those chromalith colours that appealed to our Edwardian ancestors. These images do more to stimulate and inspire our collective fading memories than the rather ordinary music on the disc.

Ion & Sophus is also Sergey Suhovik, performing here under his alias [s]. Ion & Sophus have five releases that we know of, of which Love Of One (FZL 050) is their latest. Two long ambient drone pieces on this album, which are noticeably different from those executed in the Exit In Grey style. The Ion & Sophus approach is much cleaner; simple tones, almost like a slowed-down electric piano tune, backed by calming seashore effects apparently captured by the Black Sea. Where Exit In Grey’s music is extremely layered and shifting in three or four slightly different directions, this Love Of One record heads down a single path with a gentle but firm determination. As track one progresses – and it does indeed progress, more so than the stodgy One Lumen In The Past – the sounds of the Black Sea become more prominent, and the pleasant droning music undergoes a shift which might be taken to represent an epiphany, a realisation slowly dawning in the mind of the one who contemplates their “love of one”. This highly romantic interpretation is, I like to think, not inappropriate when faced with this rather tasteful background music. Let’s just hope the lover in question is not moving towards the cliff edge depicted on the front cover with a view to throwing themselves into the ocean below.

Karmiciel Wszy’s Torre Bert (FZL 034) is a much more cold and troubling offering than the two proceeding items, which at least admit the possibility of human emotions (love) and operations of the human brain (memory) into their world view. We’ve heard this Polish dark-ambient fellow before when we received his very limited Isdalskvinnen CDR in 2015. Wszy sometimes like to give out his name as KW, and prints these initials in a gothic font on his covers, such as on the cassette Murder Of Shanda Sharer. Torre Bert has no such Black Metal-ish leanings however, and simply proposes a series of bleak, emptied-out, and non-associative lengthy drones. Where Sergey Suhovik allows field recordings into the mix, the music of Karmiciel Wszy comes across as almost entirely processed-based and untouched by human hands, each chilling tone arriving as an unchangeable statement of fact. This stern tone is something that evidently has a certain attraction to Polish musicians, a sweeping generalisation which I propose to you based on releases from Monotype Records and Zoharum. But Zoharum artistes tend to cling to a sense of ritual and ceremony, whereas Wszy is beyond any of that humanistic nonsense, and clearly resigned to his unbelieving fate; he treads the world as a weary figure, despairing at the possibility of making emotional contact with anyone or anything. If this hermetic, sealed-off view appeals, by all means bend an ear to Torre Bert.

The record Hiding Place (FZL 036) is by Emerge. This is the work of Sascha Stadlmeier, a German sound artist who also happens to run the Attenuation Circuit label, whose unusual releases of electric noise have brought us much pleasure in recent years. I enjoyed this one as it seems to offer a slightly different approach to the idea of textured drones and processed sounds than the above. It also features more human elements – the voice work in particular, provided by Eljara from Prinzip Nemesis, and as a project it is open to the idea of collaboration (the Russian act Re-Drum appears on another track). The opening track ‘Flight 1’ is especially effective, a goodly dose of coarse, crackly rumbling suggestive of a frantic scramble across a pebble beach. Thereafter the record becomes more conventionally ambient and dark in its progress, although the general mood of claustrophobia and inescapable menace is well presented and well sustained. Emerge achieves this partially through a merciless use of repetition; when he finds an effect or sound he likes, he won’t hesitate to repeat it as needed, looping and repurposing as much as the market will bear. I can’t help reading the “hiding place” theme as a dark cave, as indicated by the vague stony images on the covers, the echoing sounds, the sense of confinement, and the tentative efforts to explore an imaginary space, such as on ‘Tension’ – a very successful acoustic sounding of the walls of the cave. The epic ‘Flight II’ at the end of the album is a thrilling episode using noise dynamics to its advantage. May not be as great as I’m making it sound, but an enjoyable mystery ride.