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.
Gareth Dickson’s newest release The Invisible String, a collection of live recordings, could serve as an excellent introduction to those curious about the Scottish songwriter’s work. Dickson’s trade is to craft relatively simple finger-picking pieces transformed through reverb and delay pedals to create an eerie, wintry echo-chamber– in a sense, this is folk-music for a somewhat specific audience.
It cannot be denied that Dickson’s strongest influence is Nick Drake. But would even Nick Drake craft music that’s as impossibly delicate as this? These are not straightforward folk-songs, they are folk-songs that have been saturated and blurred to the point of becoming little planetariums of arpeggios and Dickson’s almost-whispered vocals. Dickson betrays himself, to interesting affect, as perhaps more of an ambient musician than someone interested in self-expression through lyricism. Because this is music that is more about a feeling that is conjured by a certain sonic atmosphere, Dickson’s lyrics are repetitive. This is not to say that his songs lack depth, but rather that as a lyricist he is somewhat reticent and that he fills in the wordless spaces in his songs with atmosphere. Also, when I say that Dickson creates folk-music for a somewhat specific audience, I mean that he is bridging the barrier between “mood” music and “expression” music, and I have a feeling that because of this, he might be more appreciated and understood by enthusiasts of ambient and electroacoustic music.
Dickson’s finest moment both as a songwriter and crafter of soundscapes might be the dramatic and slightly unsettling “Jonah”. The haunting final refrain, “I will love you forever” (God threatening Jonah with His love? Jonah finally surrendering to God? It is not clear.) will leave your hairs standing on end.
This is a fine sampling of Dickson’s work, and it comes highly recommended to those who have not had a chance to look into him so far.
One Day We’ll Find the Valley is Oakland musician Andrew Weathers’s undertaking to transform hymns from the Sacred Harp Hymnal using modern instrumentation and production. Weathers performs virtually all of the album himself, though John Weathers and Janie Benson provide additional vocals. The album is, according to Weathers, part of a bigger, career-long project to play around with the idea of reinventing American folk music. Weathers has been influenced mostly by American minimalist composers and noise, and has a BM in Music Composition and an MFA in Electronic Music, but this album isn’t exactly dry or intensive-listening stuff.
For the most part, the album comes on like a whirlwind of tinny, crackling electronica and disembodied voices– the album has a light tone. The compositions float and blur, with little organic touches lighting up the sonic palette, and making the connection to the past clearer. Though the album is sort of disjointed, like a very rushed tour of the sonic museum Weathers wants to show us, it is, at the very least, a very pretty example of how elecroacoustic music can be employed to attempt to reinvent music from the past. The voices on One Day We’ll Find the Valley sound slowed-down and distant– is there any more intuitive way of trying to electrically reinterpret music from the past than by amplifying and distancing it, to increase its romantic aura?
The greatest success of the whole undertaking is “To Die No More”, an electroacoustic adaptation of the 18th century hymn “Why should we start and fear to die?” Weathers’ decision to autotune his voice gives the morbid joyousness of Isaac Watts’s lyrics a haunting afterglow. It’s a short piece, but it strongly colored my impression of the rest of this album.
Almost equally impressive is the closer, “We’ll Meet Beyond the Grave”. One has to hand it to Weathers for turning a hymn into something that starts out sounding like Berlin School electronic music before melting into a heavenly refrain from an organ-like synth. I can picture these pieces perfectly in my head as the soundtrack to a Terence Malick film.
This is an imaginatively conceived project with many moments of beauty, and it comes highly recommended to all fans of electo-acoustic and ambient music. I imagine also that this will hold some special amount of interest for musicologists who check it out, though laypeople will no doubt also see what Andrew is aiming for. Here is the bandcamp page from my buddies at Lifelike Family, where you can buy either a download or a physical copy of the album.
From Allister Thompson in Ontario, Canada comes this fine submission, Near North, the new album from his project The Gateless Gate. The album was performed completely by Thompson and his wife, Teri-Lynn Janveau.
The Gateless Gate occasionally journeys into the realm of ambient, but I would perhaps describe Thompson’s project best as pastoral art music that is influenced by ambient, Classical art music, and folk. Thompson has noted Florian Fricke’s Popol Vuh as a major influence, and I would say that their sensibilities are very close. Like Fricke, Thompson seems to move seamlessly between the idioms of psychedelic folk and ambient meditation music. Moreover, as with Popol Vuh, there is a Romantic spirit of nostalgia and reverence for nature underlying The Gateless Gate.
Near North is something of a loose concept album about the wildernesses of Northern Ontario. I was particularly impressed with the subtle mystery and drama of “Misery Bay”– Thompson and Janveau evoke environments seemingly frozen in time, as well as hinting at the emotional history behind these places. For the most part, the album is fundamentally divided between piano pieces played by Janveau and guitar pieces by Thompson. Janveau’s contributions on piano illustrate the sense of lostness and silence of some places, Thompson’s on guitar convey the sense of wonder and quiet majesty to others. In this way, Near North gives a very complete and compelling narrative of its setting. There are so many memorable details on this album: the field recording of a raven’s call on “Ken’s Eagle”, the angelic vocal harmonizing on “Ottawa River”, the mellotron on “Aurora”.
This is very much a musician’s ambient album (and yes, there is such a thing…). Thompson is, after all, not just a musician but also a music buff whose eclectic knowledge is part of what makes his blog Make Your Own Taste such a pleasure for me to drop in on. Check this out when you can. Here is Allister’s bandcamp for The Gateless Gate.
Here’s a submission I received around a week ago, a rather charming bit of homegrown surrealism: Chuckle Change And Also, the second album to date by West Virginia’s The Chewers.
Self-described “freaks from the woods”, The Chewers (Travis Caffrey and Michael Sadler) do a good job of screwing around on the creepy avant-rock wavelength. Disjointed guitar riffs, demented fiddles, and primitive drums stutter in time with monotone monologues of murder and weirdness– it’s hypnotic listening. The Chewers are indeed very charming– perhaps best described as jaunty down-home punk-intellectuals. It’s nice to see a new band taking up the mantle of folks like The Residents, The Holy Modal Rounders, and Sun City Girls, and doing a damn good job at it.
What separates this pair from their artistic forebears is perhaps a tendency to lean towards a Southern Gothic style of country-folk, as one can see on tracks like “Smiling Samuel” and “Tornado of Stasis”. Personally, I think that the gothic country influence in their music is rather brilliant, because while all of these experimental-freak outfits have enjoyed telling stories, I’ve just never heard this Southern influence transplanted into this kind of band (except as a temporary pretense, as I’m sure that Sun City Girls have at some point or another imitated literally every genre of music ever to exist). It’s just another aspect of The Chewers that’s very refreshing, and it gives a special fascination to their music– these strange tales held me in suspense. I smiled a lot while listening to this album– it alternates between droll tales of weird murder and mad-scientist freakouts very gracefully. And The Chewers can be very funny when they go the route of full-on strangeness, particularly on “I’m Afraid” and “Some Folks”. This is indeed music “from the woods”, or as a musician I know once said, “music from the other side of the fence”– primitive and untamed. Their aesthetic is rough and at the same time grows on you easily, calculatedly sounding patched-together and hastily-thrown-in-gear as a way to hook the more discerning listeners. The Chewers make music that purposefully comes from a place of estrangement and fragmentation…I love it! We need more stuff like this out there, particularly because it’s harder to do a good job making it than I’m making it seem.
I can see these two going pretty far with future releases, though this release is itself pretty impressive. Here is their bandcamp, check them out when you can!
Eye Level Eye, The Spider Moccasin Folk Ensemble, Very Rare Artifacts, and Turtle @ The Laughing Horse Book and Film Collective 1/25/2014
Last Saturday my friend Danny texted me to let me know about a show he would be opening at the Laughing Horse Book and Film Collective. We had been scheming about how to promote him with a write-up for his solo project Eye Level Eye, so I was excited to take the opportunity to plug for him. The show in question was a benefit put on by the Portland Rising Tide for a project to combat and hopefully halt the environmentally destructive consequences of extracting energy from tar sands (petroleum waste). In December, protesters in Eastern Oregon confronted Megaload trucks bound for an oil patch in Canada, and there may be some more conflict over this issue on the horizon. In keeping with the anarchist sympathies of the show-organizers and audience, the benefit showcased several wildly different genres of music presented alongside one another in a spirit of equal receptiveness. As a result, this was one of the most interesting shows I’ve been at in a long time, a truly eye-opening glimpse of the diversity of talent this city has to offer.
Eye Level Eye (my friend Danny Cox) got the show off to an awesome start. Eye Level Eye is stylistically kind of a throwback to the 60’s– psychedelic folk with poetic lyrics. Danny once mentioned to me that Syd Barrett is one of his biggest musical influences. Eye Level Eye is an intense trip: the chord progressions can be very dramatic and abrupt, the lyrics are haunting fragments culled from dreams. Danny’s voice is passionate and cuttingly beautiful. Just about every performance from this guy feels special. His performance of his song “Quiet” was one of the high points of the night. He hasn’t been able to put a release together yet, though he does have a soundcloud with some nice acoustic jamming from him and some of our friends. Check it out and here’s hoping he can get back into the studio soon!
The second act was The Spider Moccasin Folk Ensemble, a blues-rock guitar-bassist duo. They delivered a short set of blues-influenced tunes with environmental themes that tied in references to Chinook folklore. The two were veterans of the Oregon rock scene and were polite, funny, and apparently pretty photogenic as well.
My biggest surprise of the show was the third act, a one-man noise project called Very Rare Artifacts. I was completely blown away by this performance. With a laptop and a formidable array of pedals he delivered about twenty-minutes of brutal, intricately textured, occasionally-rhythmic noise– there was none of the pretentious nonsense that can often be expected from noise acts coming from this guy. When I approached him after he had finished his set, he told me that he had only just begin performing live. I was shocked; from the quality of his set, I had assumed that he was at the forefront of Portland noise. The one big regret I have from this show (aside from the fact that I didn’t buy any of the Laughing Horse’s $1 books on political theory, history, and philosophy) is that I don’t remember Very Rare Artifacts’s name, even though we shook hands and introduced ourselves. I couldn’t find a soundcloud or bandcamp for him online. In any case, Very Rare Artifacts will be an artist for fans of Portland experimental music to keep their eyes peeled for.
The fourth and final act up was Turtle, a free music trio made up of a trumpeter, a drummer, and a guitarist. This band too, gave off a similar impression to Very Rare Artifacts– they were playing perhaps one of their first shows, but they killed it with sheer self-assurance. This was a, I’m assuming, mostly improvised set with scratching figures and scurrying percussion overturing jagged punk violence. After about three improvised pieces, the spoken-word artist Sherpa joined them with some vitriolic improvised poetry. They went well with each other, and I suppose that this part of Turtle’s set sort of encapsulated much of the spirit of this night: experimentalists and anarcho-activists teaming up for something worth believing in. After Sherpa bowed out, Turtle played two more pieces for an admiring audience.
I’d like to remind my readers to support grassroots organizations that value direct political action, awareness of the real political issues of our time, and exercising one’s freedom of speech to the fullest extent possible like Portland Rising Tide and Laughing Horse Book and Film Collective. I don’t know when our bureaucracies and billionaires will steer us away from this paradigm of avoiding the inevitable and start to transition away from fossil fuel dependency, but I do know that you should make your voice heard, if not join in the fight. It was a great night for a cause we all need to know about.
Flyer courtesy of Danny Cox
Photos courtesy of Brett Sisun