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.
So I sat down and listened to about 40 new albums this year– just about enough to barely qualify as a music journalist. Yes, I know, I should have listened to enough new music to make a top 50. When it comes to music I am picky to the point of full-on autism though (though far less than when I was younger), I’ll freely admit, so I’m not sure attempting a Top 50 would have worked out well anyway. Hopefully next year I will listen to more new music all the same. Here is my list of my top 15 albums of the year, followed by some honorable mentions, then a list of albums I will probably be re-listening to. Now granted, the albums listed in this post are not ALL the 2013 albums I’ve listened to. And there are honestly about 10 or so albums from 2013 that I still haven’t listened to yet that I probably should have. I’ve been scrambling at the last minute to listen to a few more important albums from this year, hence why this post is being published so late. I will post the rest of my listening log for albums released in 2013 in a few days (I’ve already been writing it down in a journal, might as well post it here too). Most of the albums in my top 15 have already been reviewed on this blog– for some of those I have not, I have briefly commented where I wanted to. Hope you enjoy this, and happy new year!
1. Julia Holter– Loud City Song
2. Föllakzoid– II
3. The Necks– Open
4. Cass Mccombs– Big Wheel and Others
I didn’t even bother trying to review this massive roadtrip of an album. It’s generally a waste of time to expend a lot of effort trying to review songwriters you already love. You really ought to just be enjoying yourself and trying to pick up the lyrics. Like, fuck…stop being a hipster and genuinely enjoy it for christ’s sake.
5. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds– Push the sky away
6. Federico Durand– El Idioma de las Luciernagas
7. Celer– Weak Ends
8. Grumbling Fur– Glynnaestra
9. Ulaan Passerine– Ulaan Passerine
Steven R. Smith is someone whose music doesn’t always connect with me. However, I’ll always be a loyal fan, as I consider his albums with Mirza to be absolutely fucking genius. His new project Ulaan Passerine is challenging but melodic and deserves a respectful nod for a higher level of compositional excellence alone. Time willing, I’ll revisit parts of this album again and again.
10. Destruction Unit– Deep Trip
This went hard. Seriously, it’s good shit. Savage and uncompromising, but with more than a few earworms. Out of this whole psychedelic punk rock scene that’s been dominating the hip youth culture of our strange and sordid times for some time, Destruction Unit deserves recognition as one of the best of the best. Also, I’ll just take a moment to note that Sacred Bones Records have an absolutely mind-blowing roster right now. Just about everything they’ve been putting out has been either fire or noticeably good.
11. The Dead C- Armed Courage
12. Arcade Fire– Reflektor
“Normal Person” says it all really. For real, Arcade Fire are the only thing in modern music that does a good job continuing the crossover art rock of the eighties that our parents bequeathed us. This is a damn good record– sexy, sincere, and magisterial in that distinctive Arcade Fire way.
13. James Holden– The Inheritors
14. Boards of Canada– Tomorrow’s Harvest
Both Boards of Canada and Autechre stepped back into the limelight this year. So this new Boards album isn’t up to par with their best work…so what? Boards of Canada were one of the first electronic music acts I got interested in. I was bound to find a way to love this record. “Nothing is Real” and “Reach for the Dead” deliver.
15. Danny Brown– Old
Polvo- Siberia, White Manna- Dune Worship, Chelsea Wolfe- Pain is Beauty, Nihls Frahm- Spaces, Keiji Haino/Jim O’Rourke/Oren Ambarchi- Now While It’s Still Warm Let us Pour in all the Mystery, Zs– Grain, Kwaidan- Make all the Hell of Dark Metal Bright, Weather Exposed- Ring of Bone, Charles Bradley- Victim of Love
Albums I will probably revisit at some point (for various reasons):
Tim Hecker- Virgins, Autechre- Exai, William Basinski- Nocturnes, Broadcast- Berberian Sound System, Lumerians- The High Frontier, Plankton Wat- Drifter’s Temple, Jon Hopkins- Immunity, Eleanor Friedberger- Personal Record, My Bloody Valentine- m b v, Main- Ablation, Fire! Orchestra- Exit!, Barn Owl- V, Grouper- The Man Who Died in his Boat, Glenn Jones- My Garden State, The Holydrug Couple- Noctuary, Bardo Pond- Peace on Venus, Ashley Paul- Line the Clouds, Pere Ubu- The Lady from Shanghai, Janelle Monáe- The Electric Lady, These New Puritans– Field of Reeds, Eluvium- Nightmare Ending, Candy Claws- Ceres and Calypso in the Deep time, Date Palms– The Dusted Sessions