Cavatica Sessions (named after a beer that was named after a spider’s scientific name) arose from a collaboration between Tim Gray (Ethernet) and Elias Foley (Temple Maps). What happens when you combine the 32-bit hauntology of Temple Maps with the spacious, meditative techno vibes of Ethernet? To answer that question you’ve got to look at their shared affinity for dub techno– Orbweaver is a take on deep techno sounds as unconventional as Foley and Gray’s respective styles. Foley put out the limited cassette release of Orbweaver on his label Tamarack Music, which earlier this year put out On Solar Winds, his fine new album as Temple Maps, right after High Light, a collaboration between Gray and Tim Worley (Jatun).
These are layered, eclectic mixes in which splattery, booming beats compete for space with rambunctious, mantric refrains– a bustling alien landscape with synth ligaments jutting out from every direction. The sound design is intriguingly atypical for dub techno– the textures are tinny and angular, yet they resound heavily. When the guys bust out the swirling synth stabs on a track like “Heavy-Bodied”, what you’re ultimately struck by is the claustrophobia of the overall mix, which is shot through with clattering echo-heavy polyrhthms– these mixes are more dubby than ambient, with the interplay of percussive, metallic surfaces sending the listener into deep trance territory.
This one is certainly among the year’s essential listening for fans of experimental electronica at its most abstract– check it out right now!
Seattle-based singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and sound artist Thomas Meluch’s Benoît Pioulard project made a full-length return to its more experimental underpinnings in March with Sonnet, a collection of mostly instrumental pieces composed with magnetic tape, guitar, and voice, off Kranky. Sonnet was followed by two stylistically-similar companions: Stanza in April and Stanza II earlier this month. Following the net release of Stanza II, Meluch collaborated with my friend Ant’lrd’s Baro Records and Portland experimental mainstay Beacon Sound for a limited series of tapes combining both Stanza and Stanza II in one collection. Both installments of Stanza were mastered by Rafael Anton Irisarri and recorded in 2015.
Most of Meluch’s albums under the Benoît Pioulard moniker have been made up of wispy, echo-laden folk songs, similar in their sensitivity and mysterious experimental undercurrents to work by Gareth Dickson, Liz Harris, and Richard Youngs. Bearing this in mind, it seems natural that Sonnet and its two companion albums were devised to stand out among the yearly deluge of thoughtful and texturally-varied ambient releases, in both a conceptual and aesthetic sense. Wordless except for the drowned vocal melody of “A Shade of Celadon”, Sonnet is all ephemeral isolation ambient– and it has a fairly specific form: fourteen lines irregular in length, yet following the same dreamy meter. The two stanzas that follow the sonnet are a refinement of this concept: a sextet of nameless 4-minute-long lines followed by another sextet of nameless 6-minute-long lines. Interestingly, the concept seems to be made clearer on the combined release from Baro, as the standalone edition of Stanza ended with the 6 minute-long first line of what is seemingly the diegesis’s second stanza, and Stanza II’s standalone release included two titled tracks at its end (“Held In” and “Courtesy”) that could not be included on the C60.
Sonnet and Stanza I & II represent the most poetic, organically-beautiful offerings from modern ambient music. Like Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, Meluch paints in saturated colors so as to evoke heavy vibes of nostalgia and melancholy. Tape decay and heavily-processed electric guitar are looped into a sonic ocean in which subtle harmonies swell and echo– the sheer immensity of these soundscapes is on the level of Tim Hecker’s white noise odysseys, and, like Hecker, Meluch knows well that one can’t exactly recreate the blurry beauty of organic decay with software. I would say though, that Sonnet goes even further into these realms than anything by Hecker, and with more of a pastoral, impressionistic sensibility in which more attention is paid to melody and harmony. What’s more, the textures of Stanza I & II venture deeper into the shade cast by Sonnet.
Stanza is, for the most part, muted and thoughtful– an afternoon lying in the grass on a beautiful day near the end of summer. Stanza II is the slow crawl of orange light over the earth as evening approaches– it steadily grows more mysterious and plaintive, with the emotionalism of Meluch’s guitar surfacing more frequently in the mix as the the sun dips out of sight. The tones that Meluch has struck here, as well as the conciseness of his phrases, particularly in the last three pieces of Stanza II, are marks of a master. Stanza and Stanza II are all of a piece, and they are ultimately even more melodically, harmonically captivating than their precursor.
Along with Deupree, Sakamoto, and Illuha’s Perpetual, Benoît Pioulard’s trio should be at the forefront of the must-listens of the year for enthusiasts of sound art and ambient music. Stanza II is already one of my favorites of the year. Here’s hoping you check all three out soon…drink deeply.
On his excellent new album Colors, composer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Patkus continues to assert himself as one synthesizing the American fingerstyle guitar tradition with ambient soundscapes- astute listeners will take care to note that his work in this vein is itself part of a tradition, along with Bill Frisell’s Ghost Town, Jim O’Rourke’s Bad Timing, and Daniel Lanois’s Belladonna. The last word we heard from Patkus was the fine Nigel’s Brie, on which he divided time between acoustic and electric pieces and played figures closer to the perimeters of the folk-blues idiom– Colors is a refinement (or a diffusion?) of the most dense, delicate electric textures to be found on that previous album. Listen to “Sedgwick” off Nigel’s Brie back to back with Colors‘s “Old Futhark” and you can get an idea of which direction Patkus decided to move in for this one.
This new album is aptly named– Colors is all watery abstractions…less driving, rhythmic picking and more glacial drones and repeated phrases softly echoing across the hushed atmosphere. The already strong influence of minimal composition seen earlier has been accentuated to create a resonant and assured emotionalism, distant but warm, that seems to signal Patkus having coming even more into his own stylistically. Listening to tracks like “Two Houses” and “And After the Moon, the Sheltering Sky”, scenes unfold in one’s mind with ease. Patkus has stripped his constructions down even further, taken his experimentation deeper into uncharted territory and come up with something pretty damn great. Check this one as soon as you can if you are into ambient sounds, post-rock, and experimental takes on folk music.
Noordwiijk is the newest project of Jeremie Jones, a Montreal-based composer, musician, and sound artist. Over a decade of highly eclectic session work and ensemble collaborations culminated in January with this project’s full length debut on tape and CD off Jeunesse Cosmique: Sailor Boy II, a loose concept album about a young boy’s journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Jones’s primary suit as an artist is that of a virtuoso bassist, however, for Sailor Boy II, he enlisted the help of a small ensemble of musicians on woodwinds, french horn, piano, and drums to throw a flurry of textures over the face of a spookily-beautiful ambient odyssey.
Sailor Boy II meshes timbres of acoustic and electronic origins in such a way that they become inseparable in their effects– the eerie rumblings of machinery are evoked just as much by a complaint from Guillame Bourque’s bass clarinet as the synth shockwaves Jones sends pulsing through the mix alongside Tony Spina’s scurrying drum strokes. Nervous stutters and swelling drones toss and turn like the movements of an unquiet sleeper– or like the young imagination’s awe in the midst of something seemingly endless. And then there are moments of sheer beauty like the tremulous, uncertain “Mademoiselle”. Sailor Boy II should not be missed by enthusiasts of dark ambient soundscapes and electro-acoustic exploration.
Tatsuro Kojima is a sound artist with a background in visual arts, and on his second outing for Audiobulb, Refraction and Reflection, one can see his meaning when he says that much of his inspiration as a sound artist comes from non-figurative painters like Mark Rothko. Refraction and Reflection is synaethesic laptop ambient painted in swirling, filamentous strokes.
As is the case with predecessors and possible influences like Taylor Deupree, Sawako, and Wil Bolton, the main pleasure of Kojima’s approach is the very finely-tuned and tactile juxtaposition of timbres that goes into each piece. Tones from field recordings, synths, and, occasionally, piano are processed and arranged so as to create soundscapes all at once airy and furrowed, enveloping and tinny. This aesthetic culminates with the sprawling, serene “Fish Eye”, in which one cannot help but relate the flurry of processed birdcalls and footsteps crawling across the steady drone in the background to a tableaux of details sprawled across a heavily distorted panoramic view. These pieces are impassive, mysterious, inviting– a spooky sense of melody hovers in and out of the mix, muted but not buried, but what is really interesting here is how Kojima’s experiments with processing can make very commonplace sounds seem very alien and looming. Kojima’s work here is as great as anything I’ve heard from the best, and if you are into sound art and ambient music, I can’t recommend Refraction and Reflection to you enough.
Few other projects in sound art and ambient music show the sonic scope and thematic poignancy of Richard Chartier’s pinkcourtesyphone. The highly prolific Los Angeles-based sound artist came out with the latest word from this project, Sentimental Something, towards the end of August through the always excellent Important Records, and since I have been something of a rabid fan since I first made the acquaintance of Foley Folly Folio, I had to get my hands on it. If you were not sated with the release of the fine Divertissement, Chartier’s latest collaboration with William Basinski, you are probably more than ready to take the plunge into the chasms of pinkcourtesyphone’s haunted heart.
pinkcourtesyphone, a bit less minimal and more musical than Chartier’s work under his own name, is a thick, susurrant, creeping ambient soundscape of tones from synth modules and sampled cinematic dialogue, as well as other heavily-processed sounds. Details like eerie vocal samples and the not-entirely-sweet somethings of guest vocalists like Evelina Domnitch that frequently crop up in this world do more than just fit with its heady and luxuriously sinister atmosphere. What makes Chartier’s work as pinkcourtesyphone so deliciously necessary is the way that it reflects the arguments of different theoretical outlooks on modernity while referencing a too-beautiful, plush aesthetic rooted in the past. Cold beauty that only appears perfect at first glance often conceals strange monsters at its peripheries. This romantic, spooky duality has much in common with Leyland Kirby’s releases as The Caretaker, a key influence on Chartier, but it also reminds me of the films of Jacques Demy, in which what superficially appears to be naive fantasy meshes with implicit critiques of the societal values underlying that fantasy.
Sentimental Something is something of a departure from the usual style of pinkcourtesyphone in that it finds a middle ground between the lowercase minimalist style of A Field for Mixing and other works Chartier has released under his given name and the syrupy atmosphere I’ve come to expect from this series. Compared with its precedents, this new album is just pure chilly bleakness– all slowburning hums and hisses, and none of the sample-heavy interludes of encrypted commentary that intensified the spell of Foley Folly Folio and Description of Problem. Moreover, the album is surprisingly short, with just one epic (“Fabric Illusion/High on Neuroticism”) and two shorter pieces (“Tears of Modernism” and “Casual Encounter/Formal Encounter”) bringing it just under forty minutes (perfect for the limited vinyl pressing, though). Nonetheless, these stylistic shifts have perhaps made this the most easily digestible release Chartier has put out to date.
Indeed, Sentimental Something could stand as a great introduction to Chartier’s somewhat intimidating body of work. The timbres are, as always, gorgeously layered (look out for Evelina Domnitch’s theremin on “Tears of Modernism”) to create a meditative and sensual aura of dread that recalls Rapoon and Nurse With Wound, yet is far more genuinely intriguing than the countless dark ambient releases that repeatedly fall back on stock materials borrowed from pioneers such as them. And the sinuous, growling ostinato melody of “Casual Encounter/Formal Encounter” is as eerily resonant a construction as Chartier has ever crafted. If you’re deep into dark ambient sounds and extreme minimalism, you’ll hopefully already have this on your listening log for the year. I can’t recommend it enough.
2015 has seen Lifelike Family continuing to hold down the forefront of Portland’s overwhelmingly eclectic and passionate ambient music scene with great new releases from The OO-Ray, el owl (label owners Jay and Ryan’s ambient project), DeLyria, and now Neglect, Portland-based musician and sound artist Joseph Valentino. His absolutely jaw-dropping Western Romance Novels was devised and recorded over the span of two years, but its enveloping embrace pulls you into the echoes of what feels like a whole life-history. The limited cassette release of Western Romance Novels was handled by Lifelike’s imprint New Ruin Tapes.
As in the best work of Celer, Stars of the Lid, and William Basinski, Valentino has tapped into the incredibly evocative power of the slowly-altering ostinato theme. This is the kind of minimal emotionalism that needs only a looped melody and the space surrounding it to open the floodgates of memory. Western Romance Novels really could not be more well-named– it’s this cloudless high desert landscape of melancholic detachment and longing that just expands and expands until it’s as though it becomes life itself. Delay-stretched guitars and warm, spacious washes of synths paint an endless plain in which one cannot help but feel swallowed, though not lost. Where do epics like “Kayenta” and the phenomenal title track end and seeming interludes like “Ocotillo Wells” begin? This lonesome tumbleweed dream gives the impression of being made up of a single strand of circuiting feedback.
Because I am fairly certain that I heard some of these melodies in my dreams long before I met them here, and more importantly because I’d be a happy guy listening to them forever, this one could be my favorite ambient release of the year. To all lovers of warm drone, kosmiche, and melancholic post-rock feels, don’t let this one slip past you!