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.
Swedish musician and sound artist Dag Rosenqvist was once the face behind Jasper TX– after the conclusion of that project, he cycled through two more monikers until around 2014 he resolved to push on under his given name. On The Forest Diaries, his new album from the excellent Eilean Records, one can see how far behind he has left the dark (albeit very minimal) electric guitar-focused style of his earlier albums to focus on softer acoustic sounds. Here, for instance, piano and pump organ are the focal points Rosenqvist chose for the music’s anatomy. This change in approach and instrumentation has given his music a more intimate tone.
The Forest Diaries, a piece in ten parts that was commissioned for a multimedia project by artist Jenny Larsson, has a voice that is faded and weary, like the face of a page tanned with age. One aspect of this album that is revealing of the aesthetic for which Rosenqvist aimed is the out-of-tune piano he utilizes on the piece’s coda. That little breath of ringing dissonance gives a little layer of darkness to the wistful theme that recurs throughout the meditation, in between resurfacing from underneath some muted drones of electric and acoustic origins. This uncommonly gentle album goes out to all fans of deep listening and minimalism.
The fine English label Liminal Noise Tapes will be putting out their much-anticipated tenth release, a split between Bird People (free-improvisation musician Ulrich Rois) and Waterflower (Latvian experimental musician and vocalist Sabine Moore) late this June. This split comes highly recommended as it showcases two widely different approaches to sonic experimentation that, in my mind, both have equal potential to be successful and provocative, as is the case here.
Ulrich Rois’s Bird People is a loose collective that almost exclusively utilizes acoustic instrumentation to create psychedelic ritual drones. For this new split Rois and collaborators Lucas Henao Serna, Roy Culbertson III, and Re Sukre worked in a live, improvised atmosphere to create the two captivating pieces present on Side A– there were no overdubs on the final mix and they barely used any effects! The result has the same sense of ritualistic mystery and tension as Organum’s Ikon or any one of Jim O’Rourke’s free-improvisation-themed releases. Fans of dark ambient sounds and free-improvisation electro-acoustic music will find much to admire here. A release like this really stands to remind us that one does not need a lot of gear-wizardry to create truly mind-manifesting sounds.
Sabine Moore is a multidisciplinary artist based in Riga, Latvia who makes a ghostly music all her own by compiling sounds from sources as disparate as from battery-powered toys to glass beads to piano melodies. Waterflower reminds one of Julianna Barwick freefalling in the midst of a hazy sidereal nightmare– Moore’s lovely, haunting voice is like an apparition trapped in the prisms of slowly decaying reverberating noise. She has certainly found a unique medium with which to transmit her interest in the folk-song tradition of Latvia.
Highly original and highly recommended. Congratulations are due to Liminal Noise for their tenth release!
As Ant’lrd, Colin Blanton makes sound art that is at the halfway point between the really interesting offerings from synth-and-sample driven psychedelic stuff and more challenging, minimal, electro-acoustic ambient sounds. Having moved to Portland from Chicago last winter, he was a good acquisition for the musical health of our city in the ambient department…thought it was already pretty damn great to begin with!
On Sunnup Ant’lrd summons up an enveloping, expansive sonic landscape with drones, field recordings, and noise. Stray Ghost and Lost Trail make sounds similar to the ones here: the thick film of tape hiss and the arid, growling tones produced by a disparate array of gear evoke awe and mystery. The figures are distant and slightly warped, just like the filamentous sonic current that Blanton carefully layers and shapes. However, what sets Sunnup apart from other similar records is that the theme here is of an ecstatic affirmation of nature rather than a gloomy meditation on loss or the unknown. Especially on the closing title track, it is clear that this is not the sound of the remembrance of a long-lost adventure but that of the adventure that we can embark on every day. An inspiringly original album that is highly recommended to all of fans of drone and electro-acoustic music.
For all my Portland readers, I hope to see you at Ant’lrd’s next show at Turn! Turn! Turn! on Killingsworth, May 28th at 8pm. He will be appearing with M. Akers and Kyle Landstra. It’s sure to be a good one.
Pânico-Ambiente is the newest offering from the drone masters Aires and Rui P. Andrade, and was released on cassette in February through the Lisbon-based Casa Amarela collective. What can I say about these awesome guys that I did not already say in my write-up for their split with Earthly Beasts? Listeners should be warned though– this release stands apart from Aires and Andrade’s previous efforts in that it takes the plunge completely into harsh noise. Pânico-Ambiente is an absolutely bracing half-hour of punishment. A thrilling, and welcome, experiment from two highly original sound artists– some of the most daring brain-fuckery you can hear this side of the golden age of Japanoise.
The Lonely Bell is an instrumental project of Scottish musician Ali Murray. Listening closely to his new release under this moniker (which Murray produced, recorded, engineered, and mastered on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland), I was reminded somewhat of friend Jason Gray’s Weather Exposed. Murray’s compositions are built around his simple but subtle guitar work, making the label “post-rock” seem appropriate. However, the incorporation of field recordings endows these tracks with a strong sense of place. The Lonely Bell is another brilliant contribution to the now overwhelming array of isolation ambient.
This is sad and windswept post-rock…but in the sense of Labradford, in which some primacy is given to sonic experimentation in addition to atmosphere. A wall of static that suffuses, but never completely overwhelms “Frozen in Memory” is just one example of the tempered experimentation that catapults Murray’s bleak vision into the spiritual extremes that isolation ambient and post-rock can reach at their best. And then there are also the faint chimes that can be heard from within the depths of a layered drone on the album’s title track. Murray’s take on this idiom is passionate and rich, and without a doubt leaps and bounds ahead of most of his contemporaries.
(New Album Review) Lost Trail- One Day We’ll All Walk Outside and Stare Up at the Blameless Sky and Wait for Something to Happen
Husband and wife duo Lost Trail (Zachary Corsa and Denny Wilkerson Corsa) take us on another ambient head trip into the murkiness of the unconscious and the unknown on One Day We’ll All Walk Outside and Stare Up at the Blameless Sky and Wait for Something to Happen. The recording of this album was evidently inspired by some experiences last spring in the couple’s hundred-year-old, dilapidated North Carolina home.
This is the music of haunted places and haunted heads, and Zachary and Denny create unsettling and beautiful sounds through a variety of methods. On “A Town of Dead Letters”, they go the route of Leyland Kirby, looping a sample from a degraded-sounding source and drenching it in reverb to create an atmosphere of queasy nostalgia. Towards the beginning of the epic “The Timber Paths Have Sung Their Last Refrain”, a simple figure on guitar and synth is enough to create a sense of unease that helps us transition into a lengthy sample from a lecture on psychology that borders on the paranormal in its subject matter.
Listening to Lost Trail, you see how these two have a long-standing obsession with using degraded sounds to evoke haunted landscapes and the grey area of the psychological. Zachary and Denny use field recordings, guitars, synths, and primitive, possessed noise to create a pastoral drone hauntology all their own. Even the gentle closer “For Roaring Woodlands” sounds otherworldy, a dream vision painted in a strangely too-bright light. This is yet another provocative and eerily beautiful release from an extremely forward-thinking group.