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.
Ujjaya (“victory”) is the moniker of Hery Randriambololona, a Malagasy multi-instrumentalist and sound artist based in Montigny le Bretonneux, France. Randriambololona’s overall style is an shamanic ambient primitivism that was strongly influenced by his careful study of North Indian classical music, though his choices in instrumentation have been borrowed liberally from a wide range of cultures. De Retour was unknown outside of Randriambololona’s closest circle of friends for sixteen years until the Spheredelic netlabel picked up what was originally a private issue cassette and gave it a much needed remastering in late 2014. This forgotten gem is available for free on the Spheredelic website.
Like his cornerstone influences Jorge Reyes and Jon Hassell, Randriambololona’s overall aesthetic and approach organically bring listeners into the animistic spiritual space of the ancients– the voices in these musical spaces take on the qualities of beings and elements, transcending the separation of humanity from the rest of nature. However, though Randriambololona utilizes unusual instrumentation hearkening back to ancient tradition in order to manifest this affect, his pieces are often mostly anchored by clear, melodic lines on electric guitar and richly textured, billowing synths. Like much of the work of Steve Roach, the sonic landscape of Ujjaya is a cosmic fusion of ancient tradition and electronic meditation– the lost howls and footsteps of ghosts find a special resonance here. A track like “3000 Ans” has an enfolding beauty as humble as a row of trees bowing slightly with the wind. This one comes highly recommended to all fans of deep ambient sounds.
“3000 Ans (3000 Years)” by Ujjaya
Pondfire, the debut solo album of Blind Cave Salamander’s Paul Beauchamp, will be getting a much-deserved release to vinyl from Onga Boring Machines, Old Bicycle Records, and Neon Caffe Rimini. Beauchamp works out of Torino, Italy these days, but he grew up in Muddy Creek, North Carolina, on a farm owned by his grandfather. This album is, in fact, particularly personal because it is dedicated to the memory of Paul’s grandfather and the farm on which Paul and his brother worked and came of age. Pondfire is excellent stuff that breaks the mold of an often too-safe genre with analog techniques that hearken back to some important forebears who worked with effects perhaps cruder than those more in use today.
On Pondfire Beauchamp works with broad strokes– sweeping, watery synth textures and ringing drones often form an eerie call and response. There is a certain starry-eyed spookiness to the voices of analog synths, and Beauchamp knows this…furthermore, the deliberate unnaturalness of the “crying” voice of a singing saw on a track like “Old Philips Bridge” exemplifies perfectly what Beauchamp is going for. Kyle Bobby Dunn seems to take influence from the territory covered in Avec Laudenum…perhaps Beauchamp would be more interested in Encounter (A Journey in the Key of Space). The pieces on Pondfire are minimal, but they were fleshed out with a cold and metallic palette to give them an otherwordly timbre. The imagery that comes to mind time and time again is of a boy stargazing in a cool forest by a pond, in silence.
At the same time, though, Beauchamp’s choice in earthly subject matter distinguishes his work here from the cosmic spaciousness of an album by Michael Stearns, Phillip Wilkerson, or Pulse Emitter. As if to drive home this distinction, the final piece on the album is a brief and innocent duet of a fretted dulcimer and a tinny organ voice. I am reminded a little bit of one of my cult albums: Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, but brought far closer home. This one comes highly recommended to fans of deep ambient and electro-acoustic sounds.
On his new release from the consistently great Eilean Records, Lueurs, ieva (Kyoto-dwelling French sound artist and founder/curator of Pollen Recordings Samuel André) shows how he has progressed by leaps and bounds from the absorbing, but scattered textures of his beginnings as a recording artist to deliver a dizzyingly epic vision. The last we heard from him in the way of a musical release was the gentle A New Morning, a collaboration with Hakobune. On that album one could see the beginning of what has culminated in Lueurs, a dream-travelogue worthy of the finest moments from Hakobune, Celer, and Chubby Wolf. Perhaps the collaborations ieva has made with Hakobune and Nobuto Suda over the past few years gave him the confidence to attempt at this warm, grand style of ambient music.
ieva’s style on Lueurs makes heavy use of field recordings of nature– the murmur of slow-moving water through a forest scene is the steadily ebbing undercurrent of ieva’s new perspective on crafting sound art. The textures of this album are varied, though. On “Forêt Vierge” and “Eclipse”, cloudy, grainy drones set the backdrop for the melancholy fornent tones– this is deep listening material. Elsewhere, on “Vers Le Soleil”, ieva unveils an emotionally overwhelming synth wash reminiscent of Chronovalve. ieva is as adventurous in evoking a varied palette of moods as he is experimenting on the textural level– a particularly memorable detail is the suffused hiss of a match being struck towards the end of “Poussière”, in the midst of a Buddhist ceremony. An ambient album of admirable scope, and certainly one of the best of the year. Highly recommended.