Tagged: ambient

Bells Never End

Andreas Usenbenz
Bells Breath
GERMANY KLANGGOLD KG021 LP (2017)

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.

Planet Echo

Rara
W//\TR
POLAND ZOHARUM ZOHAR 125-2 CD (2016)

Formerly known as Przed Państwem Rara, Poland’s now-truncated Rara are a trio who purvey (apologies in advance) a kind of ambient folktronica (sorry again) that weaves acoustic guitar, percussion and low-key electronic textures into moody dreamscapes – both oneiric and nightmarish – which are well-suited to the gothic whims of the Zoharum label. While their new album, W//\TR, is generally warmer and more emotive than the black metal ambience hinted at by the cover, the 10-minute opener ‘Echo Planety’ leaves us little the wiser. This, the longest of the otherwise intermezzo instrumentals, is a runway taxi of echo pedal-drenched shoegaze guitar with all the glory of the first yawning in millennia of dawn light across a distant moon. It’s a fine scene-setter for the epic theatrics that subsequently emerge from subterranean strata of crisp, ornate finger-picking, bubbling synths and deep, droney undercurrents that add drama to ambivalent chord progressions.

While much of this is to seemingly simple pastoral effect, Rara also know how to throw a ‘country’ shape or two, whether it’s affecting the slow southern drawl and wild west mise en scene of Angels of Light’s no country for old men (‘Gen Planety’) or the more rustic charms of a fair-voiced maiden (one Kuba Ziolek) singing to the night (‘Przynieś To Z Nocy’). All nice enough, though there are unsettling anomalies like the risible electro-goth segue halfway through ‘Pasaźerowie Wiatru’ or the moist male whispers that follow a plangent guitar into the ear canal in ‘Szepty W Głowie Elly Brand’. Mood killers both.

There is ear-balm aplenty however: ambient interludes that provide recovery time, and the more soothing female voice that dovetails with itchy guitar lines, recalling some of Stine Grytøyr’s plaintive contributions to Ulver’s Marriage of Heaven & Hell. In fact, W//\TR shares a good deal of that album’s mannered and musically omnivorous gothicism: primal undercurrents of tethered frustration beneath ornamented structures (and the odd power-chord pyramid), suggestive of a reservoir of archetypal power that gives form to all physical appearances. Some might find W//\TR‘s stylistic shifting a tough swallow, but Rara’s musical blending is an accomplished one, lending W//\TR a sense of fractured identity well-suited to their recent change of name.

International Geographic

Vitor Joaquim
Geography
PORTUGAL CRÓNICA 117-2016 CD (2016)

Robert Lippok / Soojin Anjou / Askat Jetigen
Gletschermusik
GERMANY FOLK WISDOM FW007CD (2016)

Tom Hamilton
City Of Vorticity
USA POGUS PRODUCTIONS P21085-2 CD (2016)

Three very different releases on a vaguely geographical theme, and that’s appropriate, because geography, as a subject, is pretty vague and diverse. What is it, exactly? New towns and capital cities? Oxbow lakes? Glaciation? Alpine cattle husbandry? All of the above?

Vitor Joaquim, Porto’s celebrated laptop geomancer, tries to nail it all down with Geography, which sounds like a statement of intent. The opening title track confirms his intentions, as it arrives with sampled speech from some sort of space mission documentary. It’s as if Joaquim is pulling back to show us the planet in its entirety, before coming right back down to ground level.

The eight tracks on this release were inspired by Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs and Steel”, which attempted to show how human history and culture has been shaped by environmental factors. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on that, or indeed, how suitable this album is as a soundtrack. You’ll have to make your own minds up about that.

What I can comment on is the music, and it’s a satisfying set of electronic experimentalism, stitched together from countless live instrumental samples and served up with just the right amount of glitch and fizz. In that sense, it reminds me of the Jemh Circs LP, with a serious laptop face instead of a sugar-rush pop-music grin. But it’s a release that is equally worthy of your attention, I feel.

Gletschermusik has a more specific geographical focus, namely the Tujuksu Mountains of Central Asia, where the glaciers are in retreat. The album is full of the sounds of rushing meltwater, cracking ice and desolate mountain winds, recorded in the field and layered into electronic ambient and Kyrgyz folk music compositions.
This project came together under the auspices of the Goethe Institute and came to life in a series of successful concerts in the region, before coming back to Germany. The overall aim, to raise awareness of the fragile nature of the glaciers, is unimpeachable, and good work has certainly been done in this sense.

As a piece of music, some listeners may find it a bit too reminiscent of those new age CDs you used to find on sale in garden centres, with titles like “Amazonian Reiki Quest” or “Celtic Dolphin Meditation”. Personally, I’m not averse to that sort of thing, and I think there’s enough going on here to stop it becoming totally soporific. It’s certainly exquisitely played and arranged, so if you’re not totally allergic to new age connotations, buy with confidence.

Superior chill-out music, then.

Which brings us back down the mountain to join Tom Hamilton in his City of Vorticity. This is described as a “collection of electronic sound events, all occurring independently, and gradually shifting through kaleidoscopic rearrangement”, which is a description I can’t possibly improve upon.

We get two versions of this piece, the first with improvising musicians Al Margolis (violin), Alan Zimmerman (percussion and “prepared hammered dulcimer”) and Peter Zummo (trombone and didgeridoo) interpreting Hamilton’s electronic sound environment. It’s richly textured, sometimes heavy, sometimes light, often surprising with weird pulses and lopsided rhythms, and all in all, a thoroughly absorbing listen.

The second track is just the electronic sound environment itself, presented in unadorned state so you can play along at home. It’s like the ground plan for the first track. If Wyndham Lewis had designed a city, this could be its A-Z. Exploration encouraged.

Ossuary Dub

Finding much to enjoy on this 2016 reissue of the third Painkiller album Execution Ground (KR025) from 1994, appearing as a double vinyl LP from Karlrecords in Germany. The trio of John Zorn, Bill Laswell and Mick Harris make a crazed and maximal noise full of things we tend to like, such as manic sax screams, heavy bass, remorseless rhythms, and plenty of lush studio effects such as reverb and echo. It’s much to my chagrin that I never bought their records at the time, but I intend to make good and investigate Guts of a Virgin and Buried Secrets as soon as possible. The structure of the original release was to pile on the crazy rock-friendly rhythmic stuff on the first disc, and then reserve disc two for the “ambient” mixes. Even so the second disc is every bit as menacing as the first, and the listener lives in fear for their life for most of the duration of Execution Ground.

I see the track titles make reference to Balachaturdasi and Pashupatinath, both of which terms are associated with Hindu and Buddhist rituals, a nod in the direction of esoterica which I tend to attribute to Zorn, especially with some of his later Tzadik releases when there appeared to be no gnostic subject at which he wouldn’t have a tilt, or at least profess an interest. This strain is conspicuously absent from the first two Painkiller records, which came out on the Earache label (a home to extreme speed metal, most notoriously Mick Harris’ original band Napalm Death) and whose track titles wallowed in gore, death, and other tasty taboo subjects. On the other hand, the image on the labels of a hanged man surrounded by a mod in a grisly fog will more than compensate and put the listener in a suitably morbid frame of mind.

While I’m not the world’s most loyal fan of John Zorn’s music, I find his crazy squeals make a tremendous amount of sense in this context, the studio effects improve his sound, and there may even be some edits which demonstrate he wasn’t wedded to the conventional jazz idea of recording a solo in its entirety. It wasn’t too long before this that he made the Spy Vs Spy LP, which drew musical connections between extreme hardcore and the free jazz of Ornette Coleman; clearly a stepping stone on the way to working with Harris. Laswell is probably known to most readers of these lines, and his profligacy in recorded and performed music since the 1980s is – erm – remarkable; as one example of his genre-straddling capabilities, the press notes remind us of his Last Exit project with Peter Brötzmann, Sonny Sharrock and Ronald Shannon Jackson. One of many melting-pots where improv, free jazz, rock noise and funk exchanged their sinewy vibes in a sweaty, punchy mix. The parallels with Painkiller are evident, and if you enjoy wild free-jazz skronks on top of ultra-heavy bass rhythms, this is indispensable listening.

That particular blend of sound, which we could reduce to the simple equation “rock noise with wild sax noise”, immediately made me think of Otomo’s Ground Zero. Both bands seem to have started about the same time, and the possibilities of cross-infection are interesting to speculate on, although Otomo’s band went much further down the road of layering in intense cut-ups and samples from pop culture, before the band imploded from sheer exhaustion. Also note that their Null & Void album came out on Tzadik in 1995. That same year, the year after Execution Ground came out, we had Techno Animal and the first Macro Dub Infection record, where Kevin Martin and his friends carved out a further niche down this road, laying more emphasis on the dub mixing technique, but not neglecting the fine juicy noise. I suppose Painkiller were one of the monumental milestones that opened up this route of musical experimentation. Very good. From 12th August 2016.

Self X-Amining

Wolfram’s name seemed to strike a chord in the corners of my brain, but in checking I found I was confusing him with the free jazz trio of the same name from Stavanger, whose CD for Va Fongool nevertheless featured a cover of a demonic dog with mad staring eyes, an image which might have appealed to this fellow, the Polish Wolfram. Dominik Kowalczyk kicked off his dark ambient drone career in the early 2000s with a couple of small-run CDRs for Polycephal, then kind of fell off the map and went under radar, unless you count his Thinking Dust album for this label in 2005; he got involved in some side activities involving music for cinema, theatre, and sound installations, and may have surfaced on some compilations too.

Today he creeps back into the public consciousness with a highly effective album of atmospheres, rhythmical drones, warm pulsations and uncanny textures, simply called X (MONOTYPE RECORDS mono102). The record company are delighted with it and invoke the familiar terms such as “disturbing” and “hypnotises with subtle structures”, “anxious”, and “ascetic”. I’d also like to point to track titles such as ‘Introspektiv’ and ‘Secret Humans’, both of which indicate a predilection for strangeness and mystery, while insisting on one’s own mind (and all its secret maze-like pathways) as the centre of everything – a trend which began, I suggest, with his very first record, 2001’s Mind Locations. I have no doubt that Kowalczyk finds solace and expression in his very internalised, self-examining music, and that it’s a form of therapy that keeps the men with butterfly nets at bay. We’ve heard Dominik before as one third of the trio Komora A, but personally I much prefer this solo material…seems purer, more single-minded. From 12th July 2016.

Moroccan Oil

Last noted Gaap Kvlt with his 2014 record Void; here he is again on the same label with Jinn (ZOHARUM ZOHAR 123-2). Gaap Kvlt affects an air of mystery, so we don’t know if it’s just one person or a group, though they display a penchant for esoteric pseudo-ceremonial drone and solemn techno beats in line with other releases on this Polish label. Jinn is vaguely trying to make some statement about the “sun-baked Moroccan deserts”, and possibly referring obliquely to the writings of American ex-pat writer Paul Bowles, who lived in Tangier for most of his life. I confess to knowing little about the work of this writer, though I appreciate there’s an aura of cultishness about him and his works that attracts some; it may be his sheer isolatedness, the fact that he couldn’t really connect to modern life and lived in solitude.

Gaap Kvlt doesn’t make much of an effort to interpret or explain Bowles’ work, but that may not be the point of the record. Its maker or makers trade in deeply mysterious ambient drones and atmospheres, occasionally propelled by implacable processed drum beats; apparently much of the fabric was derived from field recordings made in North Africa. The cover design by Mirt does its best to capture the essence of a Moorish mosaic. The “Jinn” of the title meanwhile probably refers to a demon or spirit found in Arabian and Islam mythology, and the track titles refer occasionally to prayer and to death, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Content-wise, this is something of a pan-cultural stew, with shallow and non-specific allusions to matters which have not been well understood or digested. Musically, the record has its moments, but the unremittingly self-important tone becomes wearisome. From 4th July 2016.

The Blue Capsule

Pastoral label Serein from Wales have been home to some delicate but occasionally beautiful electronica records of late, including the sumptuous countryside fantasies of Huw Roberts who plays as Hidden Rivers. The label has recently issued a compilation featuring 16 new cuts from many of the names on its roster, and packaged the results as Orbital Planes & Passenger Trains Vol. 1 (SERE010). The idea behind this release is threefold – it’s a comp you can play on your headphones during your daily commute; it can relax the mind and body; and it can stimulate the imagination. As to the first theme, a few of the track titles are vaguely associated with “places”, if not with the actual act of travel. As to the third theme, the heavily-processed ambient drone music that greets our ears for most of this album might be an appropriate soundtrack for you to conjure up imaginary worlds, some of them with an idyllic science fiction undercurrent, such as the ‘Floating City’ of Dan Abrams, the ‘87 Billion Suns’ of Strie, or the ‘Solaris’ tune by Yui Onodera & Chihei Hatakeyama. As to the second theme, the entire album does indeed have the declared effect: “will calm the mind and soothe the spirit”. It’s not all soothing electronica and processed loops though, and those with a taste for calming piano fugues can enjoy the acoustic piano work of Otto A Totland, who features on two tracks here. Nothing wrong with all this ultra-pleasant and soft-focussed music, although for me the most successful piece here for me is ‘A Lightless Volume Of Water’ by Donato Wharton, the Cardiff prodigy who grew up in Stuttgart and enjoys a successful career there in sound design and underground digital music. His cut has a little more by way of light and shade and occupies a psychologically ambiguous area, unlike the other wistful and sunlit pieces here. From 6th July 2016; available as a vinyl release, and a luxury edition with a screenprint (CD edition is sold out).

Flogo de Bort: small deadly release of powerful raw ambient BM

Gnipahålan, Flögo De Bort, Sweden, Ancient Records (2015) / Germany, Purity Through Fire, PTF059 (2016)

Gnipahålan looks like a new group but its two members have long CVs playing in other bands. “Flögo De Bort” is the first of two cassettes Gnipahålan has released so far and consists of two fairly similar-sounding songs. The style is raw and distorted melodic ambient BM dominated by wild raging banshee vocals. The music has a strong garage quality with lots of clanging and clashing cymbals, a strong bass sound and a roaring hellish guitar over the top. Both musicians play as if their very lives depended on playing as fast and chaotically as they can, though both songs are more structured than what initially appears.

Track 1 is a forceful, surging song of blaring drone strings, ever-changing rhythms and beats that sometimes achieve hyper blast-beat levels, and screeching voices that bleed into the music around them. The vocals are not very clear and can be very ragged to the point of disintegrating into loose threads and strips. The song has a desperate mood as it charges madly towards its doomed end. Track 2 is a weeny bit slower with a more limping rhythm and a more settled, less harried feel. The drumming is the most outstanding feature and the guitars boom out overhead. As the song develops, a melancholy mood appears about the halfway point and the screaming seems to be less angry and more agonised.

Both songs are very powerful and moving in their own way, coming out of the speakers like huge waves of full-on guitar bellow, thundering drums and intense emotion. The vocals are a bit thin and restricted in their range for this style of strongly epic raw BM, and the shrieking does get tedious. While two songs might not be enough for folks to make a full judgement call on what Gnipahålan is capable of, beneath the roaring distortion they are quite complex in their rhythms and riffing, and the music expresses emotion surprisingly well.