Tagged: synthesizers

And Also The Trees

Last heard from Chester Hawkins, the Washington DC synth genius, with his 2015 solo release Apostasy Suite – a vague parody of the Catholic mass in music that indicated the trend of Hawkins’ mind towards some sort of ritualistic purging. He’s back again today with Natural Causes (INTANGIBLE ARTS IA019), an LP which doesn’t quit over two continuous sides, amounting to 44 minutes of soundtrack music for the film Pale Trees made by Tim Ashby. This film is still making its mark on the festival-arthouse circuit at time of writing, and it’s not quite clear what themes it might be tackling in its weird storyline, apart from an interest in ghosts, buried memories, and skeletons locked away in a family closet. To do justice to this semi-supernatural subject matter, Hawkins has summoned up all the “dark ambient” forces he can muster from his impressive array of vintage synths, and also enriched the production with field recordings made in the forest to bring the scent of the earth and the pine cone to his LP. He calls them “deep-woods” recordings, in fact, apparently made in Rock Creek Park, a National Park which lies north of Wash. DC. As forests have figured significantly in fairy tales and dark folklore for several centuries, this was an inspired move; one might say no other choice was possible. The cover photos, in stark black and white, may be sourced from said locale, and convey ominous sensations of dead bodies and burials. As a final touch, he painted his tongue black and wore an undertaker’s suit while making the record inside a mortuary. Not all of these facts are accurate, but you get the idea.

The album itself almost divides into two halves, with the “melody” on the A side and the “atmospherics” on the flip, but even that is too simplistic an assessment as the main musical theme reasserts itself towards the end of the suite, thus creating a satisfying whole in the mind of the listener as said theme re-emerges with a certain triumphant flourish. Despite the slightly macabre undercurrents, Natural Causes is not an especially morose record, nor does Hawkins ever fall back on conventional pre-sets, lazy drones, or instant effects to achieve his aims; instead all the music feels solid, through-composed, and assembled with the deliberation of an architect. It certainly has a sturdy backbone, unlike some flimsy electronica drones I could name. Equipment fetishists may slaver with envy over his list of keyboards, which include assorted Korg and Moog branded devices, but once again Hawkins demonstrates it’s the imagination and skill behind the machines that matters most when the rubber hits the asphalt.

On his press note, Hawkins makes plain his debt to “kosmische” and “krautrock” music, and declares this record to have derived in part from his understanding of the “sonic textures of the 1970s Berlin-school kosmische drone and the more experimental side of krautock.” If it weren’t for the internet I wouldn’t know that this school is associated with the music of Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, and Manuel Göttsching, who happened to be based in West Berlin in the 1970s. The aim of that label is to distinguish the music from the more rhythm-hungry types of Dusseldorf, such as Cluster, Can, and Neu!, and “Berlin kosmische” is seen by many as one of the progenitors of ambient music, as it has now become known. Hawkins doesn’t neglect rhythm completely on this record though, as side A marches along to its own ponderous and robotic tread with a solidity and weight that is distinctly Teutonic, yet clearly filtered through the mind of an American, an American who mentally overlays the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich with paintings from the Hudson River School. I mean there’s a real understanding of the sheer ruggedness of the forest, which comes across in almost every passing moment of Natural Causes, and a trait which would be welcomed by Walt Whitman and Thoreau alike. From 22nd December 2016.

Cantosynaxis: a rich and amazing universe of retro-electro synthesiser sound art awaits within

Andrew Douglas Rothbard

Andrew Douglas Rothbard, Cantosynaxis, Tapes From The Gates, cassette 012 (2015)

When I got this cassette in the mail, the gaudy colours of the cover art and the neon-light stylings of the album title and artist credits should have been warning enough that I was going to be treated to some really surreal retro-electro-synthesiser soundscapes. And sure enough, from start to finish, all the way through, without pause or even a few micro-seconds of white-noise relief, this recording takes you on an extended journey through some amazing electro-disco vistas of wobble bubble drone, soaring tone and clappy-clappy percussion beats. To think that the fiend behind this tape, one Andrew Douglas Rothbard, created and recorded this incredible universe of mind-melting sound art on his own – yes, all of it sprung from his feverish, fertile mind. He builds the music with layer upon layer of modular synthesisers, all seemingly at variance with one another, and the result is so thick with melody, beats, rhythms and evocations of imagery pulled from all the hidden corners of the brain that the tape seems at least an hour than it really is and demands several hearings for everything to really soak in … if your mind is able to accommodate all that “Cantosynaxis” offers.

The best way to listen to “Cantosynaxis” is to hear the tape right through – and the cassette format does make any other kind of listening difficult – and to keep looping, as there most definitely is an over-arching if not always logical structure to the whole thing. Yes, the music is broken up into 11 tracks but keeping track of them and trying to recall which one is which when so much is happening and your head is off in the far pink and purple clouds with multi-coloured fairies is far beyond difficult. It dances over hills and through dales spanning the entire colour spectrum and is a creature of varied moods and emotions. There are definite alt-pop sensibilities present along with the experimentalism and the go-for-it attitude, and on the whole the music is very vibrant, bright and positive in outlook and expansive and sprawling in style.

While the whole album is good and there’s no filler, the one track that stands out is the long delirious one that starts off Side B of the tape.

Personally I think this album would have been better served as a CD or a vinyl release: the singing is not always very distinct (though it’s not intended to be separate from the rest of the music but rather become another sound element that adds another layer of meaning) and the sound quality typical of cassettes does blunt the music and make it seem flatter and less nuanced than it deserves. The more I hear this album, the more convinced I am that the music would be far better served on the aforementioned formats. I understand though that Tapes From The Gates is a small cassette-only set-up masterminded by one Christopher Bartus whose day job is customer services manager for a Florida-based organic food grocery store.

Black Lodge


A splendid piece of droney process-art from Alex Keller…his Black Out (MIMEOMEME MIMEO 012) was produced using analogue synths, used to create recordings of various low-level tones, layered and overdubbed, which he then played back in an empty theatre in Austin. The idea was to make the walls “rustle, vibrate and wheeze in sympathy”, and ultimately to make the room come alive as a breathing entity of some sort. The underpinning concept is to do with the natural rhythms of breathing.

We have heard a number of records and projects which try to do this sort of thing, i.e. exploiting the natural tone and acoustics of a performance space – one that springs to mind is Venison Whirled, also of Texas as it happens, where Lisa Cameron made her miked-up drums drone until the sound bounced off the walls of the venue. But few have made such a deep impression as this evil droner…Alex Keller is determined to explore a single powerful effect as far as he can take it, and document the journey. He seems delighted with the way he made the light fittings tremble with his playbacks; evidence of the true power of the subsonic taking its toll. It feels like a sinister horror movie, bringing a terrible unwanted presence into the room. Title and all-black cover suggests strongly it should place in total darkness. I don’t suppose it would work as well if the theatre was occupied (too many human bodies might muffle the effect, perhaps), so I wonder if he’s every tried performing Black Out for an audience. Chances are the venue owner wouldn’t ask him back if he did, not after he received a bill for 100 replacement light bulbs next day.

As to the rhythm of breathing, we always invoke the name of the Deep Listening Queen Pauline Oliveros at this point, and although I suppose other musicians influenced by Tai Chi or Buddhism might make similar claims, La Oliveros is the one who has turned it into a compositional philosophy, and lived by it. Keller’s Black Out does open with the sound of an intake of breath, a sound which appears twice more I think, punctuating the length of the piece, and reminds us of the conceptual integrity of what he’s doing here. In ways which are not explicitly described here, I assume he also mapped the rhythm into the structure of the piece and its playback; certainly it feels organically “just right”, there’s a recognisable human dimension to the piece, as opposed to one of those monumental minimalist pieces which passes all reasonable limits of human endurance in the name of art. At less than 30 minutes of playback, we could never accuse Black Out of that.

Keller is an active sound artist, performance artist, installation artist and teacher of media production in Austin and Seattle, and his work contains ideas about “architecture, language, and abstraction”. Very happy to have Black Out as an addition to our collection of “room” records; even the simple cover design is very attractive. From 29 December 2015.

Mode Bionics: blank-faced cyber-industrial pop minimalism a lot more intriguing than at first appears

Ariisk Mode Bionics

Ariisk, Mode Bionics, US, Nostilevo, cassette # 79(2015)

LA-based Nostilevo is making a name for itself in experimental electronic / noise / industrial with recordings like Ariisk’s “Mode Bionics”. This is very intriguing blank-faced and emotionless rhythm-based cyber-industrial pop minimalism of a sort that years ago Kraftwerk and its followers might have trailed in an alternative universe in which they meet Raymond Scott and his self-made music machines churning out supposedly soothing electronic music for babies. Some sounds can be very hard and rubbery and others suggest flimsy pieces of metal twisting in space while disembodied half-alien / half-metal voices whisper and chant through a thick layer of echo and distortion.

The cassette is not very long but there’s an astonishing variety and depth in the music, even though it’s all robot pop melody and nothing else: all the atmosphere and emotion that might exist come from the analog synthesiser-generated tunes and tones. Robot voices turn out to contain quite a lot of feeling and inhuman malevolence. The second side of the cassette is much more repetitive and inhuman than the first but I actually like the second side more. Probably the sound quality would be better if the album had been issued on CD but sometimes the cassette format has its charms: “Mode Bionics” can be quite shrill in a metallic way and the music often has a brittle, lo-fi quality.

The recording straddles a very fine line between rhythmic minimalist pop and full-on experimental industrial. Shame that there’s not more of this music about.

Gnosis: Themes for Rituals Sacred & Profane, for creatures of free will governed by routines and habits

Allegory Chapel Ltd Gnosis

Allegory Chapel Ltd, Gnosis: Themes for Rituals Sacred & Profane, US, Nostilevo, cassette (2015)

“You are not a machine … you are not a machine … you are not a machine …”

With those reassuring words of introduction, in case some of you out there have forgotten that you are creatures of flesh, blood, free will, routine and bad habits and addictions that are hard to shift, we plunge into this strange world of ritual, religious and non-religious, as created by one Eldon M, the brains (and brawn) behind Allegory Chapel Ltd. This San Francisco act used to be quite active in the 1980s-90s, took time away from musical activity in the first decade of the 21st century, and has recently returned to the world of experimental noise and rhythm-based electronic music with Allegory Chapel Ltd and Avellan Cross respectively.

First track “Machine” might be a bridge between his former recordings and current work, what with bright and sometimes spooky twinkle-toes space synth tones and melodies dancing around your head. Overlaid over these strings of bubble notes are found sound recordings of a solemn psychologist sonorously intoning a mix of New Age hypnopaedic self-help therapy and more sinister brainwashing psychobabble. I have the impression that Eldon M is basically sleepwalking through this track, it hardly seems to challenge his abilities much. “Sephiroth / Enochian Calls” seems to be much more his style with droning low-end synthesiser backing and sinister woo-woo loops underlying religious chant and deep robot voices that might be reprogramming our brains, those organs having been lulled into twilight trance by the previous track. This is a deeply disturbing piece, creepy and steadily growing more deranged and disorienting.

“Solar Rite (For Suspension)” may be a nod to Eldon M’s more dance-oriented electronic work with a deceptively simple beat and rhythm, snare drum programming, phased synth sequences and snippets of effects and broken melody being added along the way. The work is very layered with percussion-derived effects and feathery noise background but it’s not at all dense and has a strong ritualistic quality. The final track “Mata Jewels (Surah al Alaq)” uses a recording of a recitation of Surah 96 from the Koran, which states that God created humanity from a clot of congealed blood, as a launch pad for quiet and understated dark mood electronic drone.

All the music is varied and each track offers something different from the others, though I still feel Eldon M hasn’t shown us the full range of what he’s capable of. I guess it hardly needs saying that the recording’s sound would be much improved had it been released on CD or vinyl. This is very accessible experimental electronic music that has just enough (but not too much) weirdness and loose structure as to appeal to a broad range of listeners

Blossom: rhythmic dark ambient / atmospheric BM comfort music


Lustre, Blossom, Sweden, Nordvis Produktion, CD digipak NVP019 (2015)

Lustre is a Swedish one-man project specialising in rhythmic dark ambient / atmospheric black metal comfort music that rarely changes from one release to the next in spite of a large discography that includes five albums and several EPs and splits with other artists. The fifth,”Blossom”, starts promisingly and for a moment I almost start hyperventilating, sure that my personal deity has finally answered my prayers and directed Nachtzeit, the man behind Lustre, to break out of his own comfort zone and do something a little different with his Lustre project, like add some live instrumentation to the synths running on autopilot or switch to laptop glitch-electronics instead of the synths running on autopilot. For a brief while, the music echoes my hopes: it seems bright and hopeful, in a subdued sort of way, and the cold space tones have an air of wonder about them.

The steely acid guitar noise shower and the relentless mechanical percussion beats kick in, and from then on the Lustre machine is in full operation. I watch out for moments where the machine takes a break and the only thing present is the cold wintry ambience through which odd stray tones and fragile melodies might be caught like rabbits on the road staring at the headlights of the oncoming semi-trailer that will send the bunnies straight to Carrot Heaven. It is in the melodies and the atmosphere that Nachtzeit exercises some real creativity: admittedly when they’re repeated over and over the tunes become New Age banal but at least for a few rotations they have a cool sharp jewel-like edge to them and even sound a bit chilling and alien.

In this respect, the best track of this set is Part 3 which features extended passages of all-synth tone wash and drone, with very minimal guitar or percussion accompaniment. Part 4 is not too bad though the ongoing bass droning is heavy for the more delicate melodies and quivery tones. The ambience of this track could have been changed to give the music more of a clear, sharp and fresh-sounding edge.

This album is very monotonous and repetitive, and could do with editing for length. I don’t find Lustre recordings at all hypnotic and absorbing as they are intended to be, probably because the rhythms and beats are so heavy, clunky and laborious. The good music that is present is drowned out by clunk and repetition that renders everything it comes across into kitsch and banality.

Happy Turner


My teeth are singing after only a few bars of the saccharine buzz that is Hyperion Suites (NOBLE NBL-214), a new album from Japanese electro-pop wonderkind Serph. We’ve heard from him before in his Reliq guise with Metatropics, another album which, although intricate and polished, somehow failed to enchant us with its hyper-restless surface. On Hyperion Suites, there’s the same unsatisfying synthetic sound (something which appears to be this label’s stock-in trade) blighting every bar produced, while Serph experiments wildly with drum’n’bass breaks, hyperbolic synth solos, and various stylistic borrowings from Afro-American music, including R&B and jazz influences, apparently. It’s fair to assume he gets these influences from a record collection rather than any first-hand understanding of musical form, and they’re simply superficial touches used to embellish the sound. As with the Reliq album, the lack of structural coherence creates a nauseating sensation in the pit of the stomach. The final insufferable touch is the abiding presence of a babyish voice singing “la-la-la” effects by way of a melody, a tic which confirms the fundamental immaturity of this music. From April 2015.

Fairfield Circuitry


Russell Haswell & PAIN JERK
Electroacoustic Sludge Dither Transformation Smear Grind Decomposition nO!se File Exchange Mega Edit

This “extreme duet mass atack” (unquote) finds Russell Haswell, electroacoustician, label boss of the OR label and remixer of Merzbow, Thurston Moore a.o. teaming up with harsh noise fiend Pain Jerk a.k.a. Kohei Gomi; Amp imprint majordomo with releases on Harbinger and RRR. They initially met up at Nottingham’s sinister sounding ‘Rammel Club’ in 2012, after corresponding for ages, and the subsequent file recordings of the gig and various other solo recordings were exchanged between the two, undergoing a fairly savage mauling over a solid two-year period.

With ‘Audiofile engineering’, ‘Fairfield circuitry’, ‘Hinton instruments’, ‘M.A.S.F.’ and ‘M.O.T.O.’ on hand “Russell Haswell’s Mega Edit” occupies the first disc, coming in at a gigantic one hour, twelve minutes and fifty-nine seconds. (!!) . To be honest, as someone of a certain vintage and proud of his non-musician status, Haswell’s array of gear leaves me mightily befuddled, so if it’s o.k. with you, dear reader, I’d like to set up an alternate reality in which we locate a white lab-coated Mister H. skulking within the confines of a strange, top secret government installation, buried deep in the leafy English countryside with a roof bristling with a tangled mass of aerials and antennae. His eldritch transmissions girdling the globe, while Joe and Josephine Public remain completely oblivious to their malevolent contents. Makes more sense to me!

Though his fifty per cent of the package is too heavily mired in the antimusic camp to be rubber stamped a ‘suite’, there is a series of differing moods displayed, though all (as expected) are cut from dark and resilient fibres. We begin with a welter of industrially-derived metallic texture/klang that come on all early SPK, which then leads on to heavily doctored feedback passages and then proceed to underwater short wave, field recordings from the cyborg wars and a series of irritable bowel synthdrones.

Perversely, ‘Pain Jerk’s Mega Edit’ clocks in at thirty-five minutes and thirteen seconds, half the duration of disc one, his manipulation of hand-made devices and trogotronics (nope, me neither…) working as a more concentrated assault on the senses. It’s a rapid-fire strategy where cartoonish juxtapositions vie with a gloopy rhtthmic churn worthy of a vat of sentient treacle. We then eventually welcome strands of early radiophonics, ray gun blasts, the rush of closely-miked sluice gates and an assorted procession of digital cough’n’splatter. And… intent on retaining some vestiges of humanity (at last! I was feeling like Robinson Crusoe before Friday…), we close with what I guess is the scattered applause of the Rammel Club clientele.

N.B. As a safety precaution after playing, please be sure to secure these discs within the lead-lined container provided. Thank you.

Editor’s Note: as the world knows, “Trogotronics” is a brand name for a series of hand-made electronic devices, FX pedals and synths created by an American company. Naturally enough, their logo features the surly visage of a caveman, the better to emphasise the primitive nature of the noise created by their products.

Easter Rising


Chester Hawkins
Apostasy Suite

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.

Hail Hydra


Last noted Dimitris Papadatos in a March 2015 post where he was appearing as one half of Virilio. Now he’s here again as The Hydra, a solo venture which he juggles alongside his other solo alias KU. The cassette On Troubleshooting (RECORD LABEL RECORD LABEL RLRLC002) has one side called ‘Give Me Another Universe’, and it’s a fairly bonkers onslaught that makes extensive use of repeat / loop actions, either through excessive digital delay pedalling, or switching the synth auto-trigger on. Or both. We read that this one was constructed from sound samples (including an extensive record collection, apparently), but the modular synth still continues to dominate the sonic soup kitchen like a cruel master chef with a grating voice. The completely abstract and inhuman outpourings pass on a strange and unreal experience, much like being covered with a sort of bland, flavourless, brown ice cream that’s been left out of the freezer too long. So far this Hydra is living up to its name as a beast of many heads…

The flip called ‘The Metaphysical Animal’ is no less portentous, even if the ice cream here was originally another flavour. It’s another slow-moving drone monster of treated modular synth sounds, comprised of many layers which swim against each other like langourous sea beasts in a sluggish ocean. Rather cold and inhuman, but the swelling rhythms do exert a certain physical pull. He was apparently trying to build “a frozen crust, still and unmoved, while below it a rapid movement takes place.” Out of context, that could be read as an editorial from the pages of National Geographic magazine when they’re covering dormant volcanoes in Fiji. Dimitris is keen (in the press notes) at any rate) to point out the mechanics of the production of his music, a process which involves use of field recordings and plunderphonics as well as the moaning synths.

Despite all the very specific and named sources used for creating this music (including jazz, a muezzin recording, a sound effects record), On Troubleshooting remains resolutely abstract and featureless, largely due to the creator’s tendency to processing, thus blurring all separate identities into a morass of drone. At least when Philip Jeck played old records, he allowed some recognisable elements to appear, acting as signposts for the listener. Coversely, The Hydra plunges the listener instantly into an unknown world, and keeps us there. From 02 December 2014.


From same label, the tape Dual Processing (RECORD LABEL RECORD LABEL RLRLC001) features the reductionist tuba player Robin Hayward (also in Phosphor) and percussionist Morten J. Olsen from Stavanger, performing here as Subroutine. They are quite pleased with the way that all their sounds are acoustic in origin, yet the results are oddly reminiscent of sound produced by electronic or digital means. Admittedly, the recordings are layered and mixed, but the process that’s relevant is the real-time acoustical interaction that each instrument (microtonal tube and bass drum) is having on the other. Real-time non-digital remixing of some sort. I dig this, but they do it at such a tedious pace that the work feels precious, and ultimately rather boring in its non-eventfulness.