Tagged: ambient

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.

 

The Irrepassable Gate: an uneven recording with good moments … and some very long ones too …

How does the cliche go? “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here …”

Ash Borer, The Irrepassable Gate, Canada, Profound Lore Records, CD PFL174 (2016)

If you’re thinking “there’s no such word as irrepassable”, well you’re wrong now because US West Coast black metallers Ash Borer have just brought it into being. Go on, is there another word in English that expresses the sense of wanting to pass over or through a threshold or portal, finding yourself stuck, yet being unable to go back, and being possibly condemned to remain in eternal limbo? This is the sense I have with the title of Ash Borer’s most recent album after a long hiatus of three-and-a-half years after the band’s last release. The cover art also conveys an impression of an occult temple entry into another dimension, one that will have a dramatic effect spanning the rest of your life if you dare try to go through; and if you don’t, you’ll remain in a child-like state forever, unable to progress to a higher spiritual level or state of conscious existence.

The title track is a mighty roaring guitar-dominant beast rampaging through its jungle domain, all thudding drums, whining guitar and subterranean growling vocals. The sound is very clear and the style of music is close to very melodic, clean-sounding BM with thrashy elements. Any pretensions to being ambient BM are being left behind and Ash Borer is becoming a full-fledged guitars-n-drums band. This in itself presents a challenge to Ash Borer to convey atmosphere, mood, intense emotion and their full, densely layered style without the help of keyboards. Stretched over 11 minutes, the title track appears a bit one-dimensional as the band concentrates on piling riff upon riff and plows its path speedily and relentlessly, forcing listeners to follow as best they can. The slower, bass-heavy (in its first half anyway)”Lacerated Spirit” is more successful at carving out a three-dimensional sound and distinct atmosphere with feedback drone and an experimental bent. Likewise “Lustration” is another step further into the twilight world promised by the album title with deep drone, repeating guitar strum shrouded with echo and moaning voices and effects suggesting the presence of ancient spirit beings.

The album does have its bombastic moments and at times these and the long passages of never-ending blast-beat drumming, guitar noodling and background demon wailing can start to sound like filler material. There may be some fine melodies and moments where the music is intense and unsurpassable but when songs are very long and get carried away by constant repetitive fidgeting, no matter how technically good that is, such jewels can be missed. Listeners who find the second half of the album something of a drag (I have to say I did) can spend some time with the songs to their halfway points and shoot through to the final track “Lustration II” which is a return to the slower, complex doomy BM style of earlier songs like “Lacerated Spirit”.

As you can guess by now, this album was a very mixed bag of good, avant-rock music and longer scrabbling pieces of endurance-test proportions. The experimental ambient avant-rock style of tracks like “Lacerated Spirit” and the two “Lustration” pieces unfortunately doesn’t extend all the way through and the distinct sounds these have compared to the more straight-ahead melodic BM of the rest of the album make “The Irrepassable Gate” a very uneven recording. Well, Ash Borer didn’t exactly promise us a smooth ride through what may very well be a transition phase in their career. It seems that “The Irrepassable Gate” symbolises a formidable challenge for the band at this crucial moment in their history, whether to advance in a different musical direction or stay as they are, as it is a listening experience for its audiences.

Entropy: a dive into a world of black metal / doom fusion despair and hopelessness

Spire, Entropy, Germany, Iron Bonehead Productions, IBP 265 CD digipak / vinyl 12″ / digital (2016)

Only recently have Spire issued their debut album in spite of having existed for nearly a decade. The long gestation period (with an equally long wait for their fans!) has finally paid off: “Entropy” is not so much an album of very dark ambient ritual black metal songs as it is a full dive into a universe of deep alienation, untold pain and never-ending despair. The immersive nature of the music reminds me a great deal of French BM legends Deathspell Omega and it’s possible DSO served as an inspiration and the standard against which Spire strove to craft and refine their music. In that, Spire have certainly set themselves a high target to aim for and they have done well indeed.

Each track, no matter how long or short, is epic in itself which says a great deal about how the musicians composed and crafted the music and constructed the whole thing – not just the actual song itself but its atmosphere, the effects that flesh it out into a three-dimensional beast – so that the entire structure is a soaring monstrous creature of unlimited malevolence, magnificent in its clear and crisp sound, and utter crystalline coldness. The first track “Ends” demonstrates Spire blasting out atmospheric BM doom drama the equal of any music in that genre to be found. It’s really with “(Remake)” though that we enter territory that maybe not even DSO have dared to venture into: here we come into a stupendous Ninth-Layer-Of-Hell region of deranged crunching guitar riffing and reptilian echo-cacophony that plainly spells out “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter” in case we still harboured such child-like notions in our heads. Even then, we only get a glimpse of the depths of the abyss that beckon before we’re whisked off to the next track, an equally intense work of thunderous bass, rapid-fire percussion and pounding visions of eternal hell.

So far, so good … and then we come to “(Unmake)”, an almost all-ambient track featuring guitar trilling melody and feedback against a background of pulsing whisper noise effects. Putting this track here after mostly short though intense pieces does take the wind out of the album, especially as this is one of the longer tracks, meaning that the song coming after has a lot of work to do reclaiming the earlier intensity of the music. Fortunately this is not difficult for the title track to do, building up to behemoth proportions with nuclear-powered blast-beat percussion, martial riffing, loads of screaming vocals and deep-end guttural groans, and bass lines that travel their own off-centre rollercoaster paths into derangement.

The album could have done with slightly longer songs in its earlier half – “(Remake)” alone is such a stupendous song that cutting it to about 3 minutes should have led to six months’ community service and maybe a small fine – so as to balance the long tracks that come in the album’s second half. Apart from this, and the slight loss of momentum that comes with having a long ambient piece after the halfway point, I don’t find much to fault this album. True, a lot of the music sounds familiar if you’re a DSO-obsessive freak and Spire could have brought something more innovative to their brand of very dark and occult-sounding black / doom fusion. The band has work cut out for it to develop a more original sound and not be mistaken for someone else’s project. Even so, “Entropy” is still a very ambitious work, sounding very complete in its aims and vision, with a powerful and layered style. The best thing about the album is its immersive nature, how it sounds so much like a real hellish world where pain, despair and lack of hope reign, that it feels more real than the actual world we live in.

IV / Appendixes: a compilation forming a bridge between albums, and a bridge between worlds

Aosoth, IV / Appendixes, Czech Republic, Cloven Hoof Brewing & Releasing, cassette Call 001 (limited edition) (2016)

I hadn’t heard of this trio before but the tough deep style did seem very familiar. Turns out all three members are or have been members of Antaeus, a couple of whose albums I’ve been acquainted with in the past. Talk about living in a very small world! This cassette release gathers up three short recordings Aosoth made after their fourth album way back in 2013 and forms a connection between that album and the next album to be released some time in the near future.

As might be expected of a band whose members are drawn from Antaeus, the music is not only hard-hitting, it’s also concise and has a very dark, bleak feel and a clear, crisp sound. All instruments can be heard clearly but the rapid-fire thudding percussion makes the strongest impression, more by its complex rhythms and constant changes than through its power. First track “Appendix A” is a robust and confident beast with a triumphant sound overall, varying rhythms and beats, and streamlined powerful riffing. The vocals are not great for this style of music – they need to be much stronger and deeper in my book – but like the rest of the music they are stern and forbidding, and do their job efficiently and minimally. “Appendix B” has more urgency and energy, and the half-spoken vocals stand out more from the music which not so much plays as pours out like hot molten lava cascades. Crisp and precise spoken-word recordings are well integrated into the music in the song’s first half while the second half features ever more deranged lead guitar scribble and dramatic martial drumming. A definite groove develops quite late in the song but disappears almost as quickly – there’s nearly always something new happening in the music if you pay close attention to it.

The music gets better as it goes: “Unbroken Dialogue” breaks with Aosoth’s BM style and heads into unstructured experimental dark ambient waters with found sound recordings, various ambient effects and oppressive background drone to create a malevolent soundtrack to an imaginary film of sinister occult and anti-Christian themes. Final track “Appendix D” returns to familiar blast-beat blackened death but somehow this music isn’t quite the same as it was before we listeners were treated to a glimpse of that yawning black Satanic abyss lurking deep within the Aosoth universe.

Individually and as a whole, the songs are very good – even though by their titles they form a definite group of related tracks and serve to bridge Aosoth’s last album and the next, they could just as well constitute a separate EP or mini-album. Some tracks boast very distinct melodies and riffs and all are different in their structures and details. The band’s austere approach to the music, in which every melody, every effect and sound serves a purpose, and nothing exists by accident, might be the most outstanding aspect of this recording. This extends even to the one experimental all-ambient track that appears on the recording.

If you, like me, aren’t familiar with Aosoth, you could hardly do worse than give this recording the time of day … or darkness, as it were, and from there either travel back to their previous recordings or wait for their next album.

Colour Organ

Last noted American composer Celer (Will Long) with his Akagi loop piece, a highly meditational drone work made from loops…Inside The Head Of Gods (TWO ACORNS 2A10) is equally serene and beautiful minimal music, this time made with an organ, and integrated with an exhibition of paintings by the Japanese artist Taichi Kondo, whose brushwork adorns the cover to this release. Will Long was inspired by Kondo’s paintings, and found himself with a wealth of ideas for how to represent them in music – perhaps too many ideas, with a variety of lengths, timbres, structures and volumes. He wanted to represent the truth of Kondo’s work in a way that would sound appropriate in a gallery setting, so he made the decision to simplify everything and simply use only the first piece he recorded – these 20 minutes of organ music. Now segmented into ten episodes, the final result is a master-stroke of understatement, and the stricture instructing us to “listen at medium volume” means we can enjoy a gentle but insistent ambient experience which drifts in and out of consciousness, occasionally coming into focus as needed. Fitting for the “pictorial” theme, it does indeed convey a sensation of “colour” somehow, perhaps through the warm tones of the organ. Celer is convinced it’s a distillation of his earlier unused experiments from this project, and finds that “all of those elements from before were actually there, just in a similar form of each other, rather than separated.” A simple delight from 25 May 2016.

Luminiferous Aether: cosmic space black metal stretched too wormhole thin

Mare Cognitum, Luminiferous Aether, Italy, I, Voidhanger Records, CD IVR064 (2016)

Album title “Luminiferous Aether”, meaning the sky air that transmits light, flows smoothly off the tongue which, to be frank, is far more than can be said for this album of overstretched dark-space atmospheric black metal. By now, one-man Californian band Mare Cognitum has racked up a solid discography and “Luminiferous Aether” is his fourth album so listeners might be wondering where he is taking his music and whether it has advanced very much since he founded the project.

The album is a well-crafted effort from start to finish though for its genre and aims the music is very thin and needs more substance and power. It’s possible that with this album Mare Cognitum man Jacob Buczarski wanted a more raw and harsh black metal sound to help emphasise its cosmic space themes. I don’t fault him for wanting to do that but the songs are very long and a thin sound stretched over more than 10 minutes without some solidity in parts is going to sound very one-dimensional and under-powered. As well, melodies, riffs and rhythms will have to carry the music more than they would if this lacks power and sonic texture; and again with long songs, these structural elements need to provide backbone and unity to their respective tracks. As it happens, most tracks on “Luminiferous Aether” carry so many different melodies and riffs, few of them with their own flavour or individuality, often going at different speeds within the same piece, that the very idea of having separate tracks with their own titles becomes unnecessary. The entire album could have been one single work broken up into movements or chapters.

The music rarely varies in mood, key or instrumentation from one track to the next, and the atmosphere – always cold, remote and spacious in an airy way – is always the same. The sound quality is always very sharp and clear so that all instruments can be heard distinctly – but it also means the thin sound seems even more skeletal than it is. I wonder that Buczarski doesn’t see fit to add another instrument, even if in a minor way or in the background, to songs to differentiate them from one another and perhaps give a sense of direction, of purpose to the whole album. The percussion is very whippy-thin even on some later tracks like “Occultated Temporal Dimensions” where a scathing grinding guitar demands strong percussion to challenge it. While the level of musicianship on display is always good and consistent, there is the danger that without a clear sense of direction the music ends up being a long exercise in self-indulgence. It’s one thing to let yourself be carried away by the music for short periods but for a major part of an album going for 50+ minutes, the exhilaration resulting from being inspired by the music can, if taken too far, end up looking too self-indulgent and the freshness and edge are lost.

This recording could have worked so much better if each song had been pared down to a few essential riffs and melodies, the overall sound had been thicker and the production perhaps a bit muddier. Here is a case where a clear production doesn’t always make for a better recording than a more ragged or distorted approach. This is a pity as there is some very good music on offer here. Less emphasis on technical chops and more on an original style of music with more atmosphere and punch, and this album might be going a long, long way across the universe and beyond.