French maverick Franck Vigroux has long been a favourite at TSP on account of his gloomy paranoid caste, his do-everything approach in the studio, and his penchant for churning out ugly, crunchy studio noise by the yard. On Ciment (DAC RECORDS DAC1973), I’m happy to note he’s finally realised a solo guitar album, which is apt considering how often I’ve personally likened him to Fripp and Pinhas (two of our favourite art-guitarmeisters). Through 10 jet-black tracks of home recordings, Vigroux explores various solo possibilities, including as near-perfect an imitation of “electric” Derek Bailey as we’ve ever heard, and the use of a slide for an occasional dabble into 21st-century Tarotplane swamp blues – evoking The Magic Band, after they wake up in the middle of a grim Parisian banlieue. There are also passages of understated guitar-noise, where the amplifier hum itself has a useful part to play, but Franck restrains his normal carcinogenic tactics in favour of exhibiting a profound melancholic emotion, a sadness that seeps into every track regardless of how good a job the roofer did with the Polyfilla. The time is ripe for Vigroux and Michel Henritzi to make an album together. The other thing to note on this release is its superb sound quality; the presence of a musician in the room is palpable, the details of the instrument are larger than life, and it’s great that for once he stepped away from the studio console and curbed his tendency towards applying excessive reverb processing, just so we can appreciate what a strong guitar-player he is. From September 2014.
Two grisly episodes of slow-burning torture noise from Jeff Surak on his cassette tape Dillhole And Fashion Delete (ZEROMOON ZERO164). On side one he passes the subject through an experience resembling a body-scan device of some sort, except that this infernal machine is not for medicinal healing purposes and instead inflicts the victim with germs, diseases, and corpuscle-destroying entities. Once completed, you’ll be a ghost of your former self, lucky if you can shake hands with your own reflection. An exquisite low-key whine of sinister proportions, for sure. One side two we’re in a distinctly urban-industrial outdoor scenario, involving what may be a fruit-canning machine that’s in the business of parcelling what’s left of our bodies into food for the remaining populace. This side undergoes many changes presenting several ingenious nightmares of minimal electronic Hell, presenting an impassable facade of grim, unknowable horrors. Last heard from this Maryland stern-faced noisedroner in 2014 with his supernatural tapes Skull Cloud and Harmonium Bacterium; we always enjoy his restrained yet unwavering approach, fearlessly exploring dark zones of implied violence and subdued terror.
Dark Buddha Rising, Inversum, Neurot Recordings, NR094CD (2015)
As surely as the sun rises in the east and the fishes swim in the sea, so a Dark Buddha Rising album will feature extended trips into dark and expansive doom metal trance space. This latest heavy psychedelic venture contains two tracks, “Eso” and “Exo”, each clocking in over 20 minutes of sprawling hypnotic music. The tracks usually develop quite slowly, with atmosphere prominent in its evolution upfront while the music gradually assumes more definite forms through repetition of riffs and the drumming takes on a ritualistic role to encourage full immersion and profound changes in consciousness. Chanting voices coalesce into definite forms in the background.
The first few times you listen to the two tracks, you may not find much to distinguish between them – they’re both minimal in their presentation, the instruments being limited to guitars, background ambient effects and drums, and the structures of both tracks rely on repetitions of series of riff and rhythm loops. It’s with repeating hearings that you realise the two tracks contrast and complement each other in music and mood. “Eso” has a definite mood, one of dread and even of pain and bleakness at some points during its journey, and the track feels claustrophobic and suffocating. The music is very brooding and inward-looking. It is very monotonous and it only picks up speed, energy and force quite late in the piece. Then it takes on a relentless machine-like aspect as it climbs higher and higher towards its kismet, with demon voices shrieking in the background and guitar riffs grinding endlessly.
Passing from one level of existence and reality to the next, the music of “Exo” starts cautiously and hesitantly, like a newly born creature finding its legs in a new unforgiving world of harsh and stinging light. The murmuring riffs give the track its uneasy brooding quality but there is a new feeling of urgency in parts as well. This track tends to stress drone – and lots of it, all very over-stretched – and listeners may think of droney doom bands like Sunn0))) and Spain’s Orthodox during their early periods. There are fewer vocals and what you do hear of them isn’t always easy to detect. The sense of dark and malevolent ritual is strong in this track and parts of it are downright spooky. Guitars are deep and rumbly in their sound, almost to the extent where you can imagine them standing sentinel over the track to shepherd listeners into an entranced state that demands their total absorption. The track becomes interesting halfway through when it slows right down and becomes very fragmented with only drone stretched thin holding the music together. Suddenly it explodes into a mighty monster, with looping, surging riffs, anguished voices crying and howling at the point of point, and a feeling of rapidly growing tension that can only resolve itself in an abrupt climax. Beyond this, where enlightenment might be expected to exist, there is the realisation that the soul’s journey has but completed one circle and there are more circles to be traced …
Both tracks can be understood as mirror reflections of one another, and each links to the other in a never-ending cycle of repetition that might lack purpose or meaning. Of the two tracks, I think most listeners will find “Exo” to be more interesting and varied but the variety is in the latter half of the track rather than spread out evenly across the entire piece. To get value out of DBR recordings, listeners need to be very patient!
The music is good but my feeling is that it’s a bit too controlled or restrained, and needs to be more deranged than it is. For this kind of dark droning sludge doom whose message might be that life might be meaningless and that seeking enlightenment or meaning may spell danger, the music needs some hysteria, some feeling that life is close to chaos, to succeed.
Jabladav, Fin, self-released CD-R (2014)
This one-man ambient black metal act was very quiet for a few years after the 2011 release of “Trostlosigkeit” but in 2014 he stormed back to attention with an EP, “Gail”, and two albums, “Maj” and “Fin”. At 29 minutes, “Fin” is much the shorter of the two full-lengths, and it’s an ideal introduction to the range of music that Jabladav works in: starting from buzzing noisy BM with a Burzumesque pop feel, “Fin” delves into trance and abstract drone tone soundscapes. Everything happens in an environment that seems blacker than black, pained and utterly bleak, yet there are moments of serenity and utter bliss.
The first few tracks are straight-out black metal songs that almost verge on pop, yet have a keen, sharp, crackly sound and a background echo that keep this listener on edge. Rasping reptilian vokills add to the sense of unease on “De sista viskningar till min alskade” and the song quickly pulls into a short acoustic coda that leaves me feeling uneasy at what may come next. The second track starts off as an acoustic post-rock effort with clean-toned though haunting and spooky singing but its dark underside of crispy crackling noise guitar, demonic howl and noodling bass soon claim dominance. The sounds can be jangly, unearthly and beautiful but there is always an air of unease, even bleakness. “Dod Spell” is a jagged stuttering instrumental where the bass takes the lead over guitar noise clouds.
We continue through acoustic guitar meditation, expansive space ambient / guitar jangle drift psychedelia (that turns into a crazed technical guitar-sizzle spasm) and a fusion BM noise-lite / jazzy post-rock piece shot through with trebly guitar howl. The last two tracks, the clearly related “Before the Frost” and “After the Frost”, with no hint of anything in-between, are Jabladav at his most experimental and abstract: the former track features layers of space ambient tones and drones travelling together in a cool neutral space, and the second piece seems to be drawn-out low piano rumble that grows mossy and vague and which almost disappears into the deep black space.
Several tracks are very short but the instrumental pieces are minimal and easy to follow, and they manage to say all they need to and no more, and there they end. The more pop-oriented BM-dominant tracks are notable for their austere style and have a strong sense of utter isolation and aloneness. You might expect with such short and musically varied pieces that the album might be something of a travelogue through different sonic landscapes: a bit rushed and not delving very deeply into each. It turns out though that each song or instrumental piece has such a strong individual identity, that it makes a very deep impression on you and you can find yourself playing this album quite obsessively. This is a stunning collection of sketches of utter bleakness and dark beauty.
All of Jabladav’s 2014 releases are available in limited print runs of 50 copies each; contact Aquarius Records to see if they still have any.
An Autumn for Crippled Children, The Long Goodbye, Hong Kong, Wickerman Recordings, CD WKM003 (2015)
With their fifth album “The Long Goodbye”, these Dutch musicians who are known only by their three-letter codenames move ever closer to the shoegazing – even if it’s dark shoegazing – zone of depressive BM. This work is solid melodic ambient black metal / post-metal, at once harsh, often aggressive on the one hand and on the other filled with hope and sunshine in parts, eager and focused on the future.
From the start the band’s style is very smart, business-like and brimming with confidence. The songs sometimes have a hurried feel to them and even those passages that are meant to be ambient / acoustic, with all the churning guitar shower out of the way, are rushed. The music can be very pretty, as on a track like “Converging towards the Light”, and the synthesisers add warmth and bright sheen, but there are times where everything is bit too glossy and the mood and atmosphere are forced. In the later half of the album, a more definite moody urban blues quality arises in songs like “Endless Skies” where black metal elements recede into the background to allow cleaner guitar chords, mellow synth lines and some piano to dominate.
The musicians put a lot of energy into this recording and the quality of sound is rich enough (though not too much so) while keeping that necessary sharp and hard edge. The guitars and keyboards balance each other perfectly, the percussion sticks closely to its time-keeping function and the raspy vocals add raw anguish: these all make for a complex style of fusion BM, post-metal and urban blues.
Yet I can’t shake off the feeling that the trio have dug themselves a hole from which they may never escape if the album meets with more acclaim than criticism, which it’s likely to do. Everything sounds just too perfect and too rushed, and the whole album is like a rollercoaster checklist of necessary highs and lows to be churned through and ticked off. Songs don’t have enough repetition of distinctive melodies and riffs (which need to be less smooth and more jagged) to stand out from one another. If you are familiar with shoegazer BM, post-metal and the depressive and bleak BM-lite rock / urban blues pop of bands like Lifelover and Circle of Ouroboros, you may find this album to be a bit ordinary, not very original and even commercial and generic in parts.
SWITZERLAND SCHIMPFLUCH ASSOCIATES SHA 01 2 x CD (2014)
Dave Phillips is a sound artist, vocalist, musician from Switzerland; he crosses performance, sound and field recording. Listening a few times to this double CD, despite the dark side to its aesthetics : the subject is quite dark in itself : the humanimal, mutation and violence of an impossible mutation, we are left wondering why a young artist such as Phillips (relatively young but still in his forties) need to re-release some of his works on a CD. It would probably be more convincing to release some unreleased early works rather than works that have been produced only a couple of years before their “re-releasing”. I suppose what we are trying to understand here is what is the point of this double CD release of the work of an artist on his own label of his own recently released music? Perhaps it’s for his personal archive! Great, but give us something we haven’t heard already!
Apart from this little irk, the music is absolutely beautiful! Bassy, breathy and “animal” noises made with voice, well-composed in his relation to the mutation of human and animal and landscape using voices, sound poetry and field recordings: pitched groans and rocky super male crooners turn into a rather dodgy bull which is about to explode in millions of little insects, like a dead body re-incarnated with the grace of black magic, of a dead science everyone forgets. Dave Phillips is a master of bringing you to where dark magic and trance prevails, in a kingdom of suffering and transformation.
Another all-solo record from Washington DC’s finest proponent of dark broody synth work and evil pulsating rhythms, the latest since 2014’s Semisolids. I had to look up the word Apostasy, but there’s no need as the press release helpfully includes a printed definition anyway, the better to guide us through this “concept album”. Apostasy is to do with renouncing any belief system, be it religious or political, and clearly Hawkins finds himself at that particular crossroads in a man’s life where he feels it necessary to burn down the temples, demolish the statues and trample underfoot the edicts and articles of faith that have shaped his life until now. He himself calls this process a “purification by burning”, “stripping away all the value systems imposed by the outside”. He sees fit to do it through music, using modular synths, keyboards, loops, oscillators, sequencers and sundry objects like the mobile phone to generate strong, soul-searching instrumentals of abstract black shapes, fit for use as the walls of an anti-chapel where he can conduct his personal anti-prayer rituals.
Part of the process is to construct a parody of religious ceremony of sorts, a strategy which is enacted not just in the titles and cover artworks, but also in the structure of the album itself: the music is top and tailed with “corruptions of the Catholic Mass”, with tunes that resemble church music or hymns played on the organ, and references to the high holy date of Easter; fittingly and ironically ending with a “dissolution”, affirming Hawkins’ final divorce and separation. I’ve always enjoyed the single-minded and relentless aspect to Hawkins’ music, and no more so than in this instance where its remorseless repetitions are used to a near-harrowing effect. What’s also notable here is that all the music is performed live, whether at a venue in the studio, suggesting that he’s able to generate and control these multiple layers and inputs with the assurance of a jet airliner pilot. Listen for yourself and decide whether Hawkins achieves the hoped-for catharsis through this ritualistic purging exercise. From 24 March 2015.
Scarlet (HELEN SCARSDALE AGENCY HMS030) is a most excellent cassette in which Jim Haynes, up to now widely perceived as the “Jon Anderson” of unobtrusive sound art, at last discovers the power of supernatural noise…well, almost. Scarlet is pretty much a continuous listen of compellingly strange, eerie and (in places) loud and disturbing noise, divided into eight sections with descriptive bloody titles such as ‘Mordant Red 15’ and ‘Racine To Vermillion’ which prime the listener for a session of decadence, blood-bathing, and grand guignol. What follows is pretty much the haunted TV screen effect of the Poltergeist movie to the power of ten…unsettling, tense, inexplicable waves of sound. The notes here tell us it was derived from hot-wired strobe lights and shortwave radio (hacked using wire-tapping devices), but also “psychic disturbance…within the Helen Scarsdale Agency’s shipping container”. Intriguing…while I have no idea what this “shipping container” may be (unless it’s simply the mail room for this Californian label), the notion of capturing psychic disturbance on tape is always a popular way to go. Just look at the large number of YouTube videos uploaded under the rubric “ghosts caught on tape” (or aliens, ditto). On the other hand, don’t do that.
Jim Haynes has always created beautiful sound art, and he has always left it largely unexplained, undetermined, with no explanation of what he is pointing the microphones at (if indeed there are any microphones) or what if anything he is doing in the way of editing, post-processing, filtering. This deliberate ploy usually invites the baffled listener to simply listen harder (rather than forcing us to do so, like some more aggressive types do). Haynes’ second triumph is the “humanity” as I would call it of his work, by which I mean he doesn’t generate dull process sound-art for its own sake, but always manages to discern the spirits of things, the ghosts in the machines, or perhaps he can clearly see the chain of life that connects everything in the world, using the gifted vision that is somehow hard-wired to his ears, however anatomically strange that may seem. His patient, sympathetic methods always yield fascinating results, where the human being can always find something recognisable that strikes a chord deep within. He is never out to alienate, nor drive the listener to distraction with boredom.
“I’ve made attempts at rhythm in the past,” says Haynes about this release, “but here I throw caution to the wind with numerous variations on the noise-pulse theme.” He describes the results as “jagged and torn electronics” and feels that a cassette release is the best medium for the statements. Fans of John Duncan and Candor Chasma are advised to check in a.s.a.p. to hear this “study in scarlet”…Haynes doesn’t go quite as far as Duncan into the dark, sensory-deprived realms of psychological despair, nor does he seek to spin supernatural yarns like Candor Chasma, but this release is (for me) a clear departure from the more understated and slow-moving material that I am more familiar with. If you want more, there is a ninth recording which exists as a video piece, part of the 18 Films Of Ted Serios project. From February 2015.
Last heard from Pat Gillis under his TL0741 alias with the 2012 release Held To Account, although he also released a Northern Machine record that year. Got a couple of new albums from him 5th January 2015. With all of his electronic music, his avowed aim is to liberate electronic sound from what he sees as the “traps” of harmony and rhythm, intending thereby to arrive at an ideal, perfected, “pure” sound. On Circulation (HC3 MUSIC HC3TLCd5), he does it through a series of experimental schemes and actions, of which the opening cut ‘Vapor Turns To Mirrors’ is among the strongest – the piece goes twisting and weaving through strange manipulations in a highly convincing fashion, seeming to circumscribe a sort of airy labyrinth in the clouds. The title track ‘Circulation’ is another winner, with its disrupted, semi-mechanical patterns struggling to transmit their simple robotic messages across fields of toxic post-nuclear murk and solar winds. And ‘Lives Of Breathless Ecstasy’ should appeal to all listeners who miss the work of famous Polish experimenter Zbigniew Karkowski – it has a very similar vibe of “sternness” and cruelty, a relentlessly advancing slow drone of metallic, reverbed horror. The rest of the album is interesting, even if some of these other tracks feel like unfinished sketches or half-complete ideas; but there’s a palpably dark and pessimistic tone throughout, giving the album a strong iron-like consistency.
Before Waking (HC3TLCd4 / ZERO 144), a joint release with Jeff Surak on his Zeromoon label, continues to carry that dark and menacing aura, through a combination of sheer alienation and unfamiliar electronic noises. ‘Accelerant’ is an example of what I think Pat does best; a mesmerising sound-picture of futuristic jet-black nightmares, achieved through layers and manipulation of pulsating synth tones, never succumbing to the temptation to switch to “automatic pilot”, and instead consistently applying subtle and nuanced variations and filters to the pumping slew of thick oil-like music. Discipline! ‘Mycelia Open Fire’ is another triumph, a 16-minute gem which in places feels uncharacteristic of this creator’s work. Firstly, it’s got more use of quietness and dynamic range, instead of trying to smother the listener with unpleasant grim tones; and secondly, it’s got a vague sense of forward-movement to the extent that it’s almost telling a story. I expect a lot of electronic musicians wish they could have scored the electronic soundtrack to Stalker (a trope that keeps coming up on this blog, as a matter of fact), but here’s a piece of music that comes close to winning that coveted crown.
Be sure to see TL0741 at the Sonic Circuits Festival in Washington DC this year.
Gabriel Saloman (former Yellow Swans) returns with another ultra-lugubrious droner after his superb gloom-a-thon Soldier’s Requiem from 2012. Movement Building Vol. 1 (SHELTER PRESS SP051) comprises ‘The Disciplined Body’, a two-part work created with guitars and percussion and mucho patient studio layering. This time we don’t sensate the sort of half-suggested wartime narrative that we got from Soldier’s Requiem, but the attention to structural resilience is right there in the sequencing and construction of these 34 minutes, even if everything does unfold at a dismally slow pace. The general massed-guitar droning through multi-processing effects is shifted to match the changing themes, sometimes like an icy cold wind, sometimes a warmer tone, like a strangely comforting blanket of muggy misty weather. Snare drum blasts arrive like unwelcome guests, perhaps as harbingers of war, plague and famine; while the entire epic sweep finishes up with a long and protracted howl of pain. While segments of this record may sound a little over-familiar, Saloman’s compositional skills, and evocation of poignant emotional states, help this record reach catharsis. Vinyl pressing. From 22nd September 2014.