UnicaZürn: Sensudestricto (LP, Touch, April 2019)

UnicaZürn are Stephen Thrower out of Coil and David Knight out of Shock Headed Peters, and Sensudestricto is a mix of moody ambient and pulsating psych-tinged drone. Across four long tracks (five on the digital streaming version) they pull an impressive array of blarps, bloops, squishes, and swirls out of what sounds like mostly analogue synth kit, plus the occasional flourish of sax. It’s one of those records that keeps evolving in small but satisfying ways, and overall it’s rather captivating.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Modern Classical / Ambient.

Deaf Center: Low Distance (LP, Sonic Pieces, March 2019)

Previously, on “dogrando writes about some records”… Eight (8!!!) years ago, Deaf Center’s Owl Splinters was a pretty big deal in these parts. It had some fine examples of the kind of close-miked solo piano sound that was very popular back then, and some excellently spiky string numbers, and helped to define a distinctive movement in music (for me, at least). Since then, I’ve enjoyed a few releases by Otto A Totland and Erik K Skodvin individually, but this is their first proper album as a duo in that time. (There was the 2014 mini-album Recount, which I passed on for reasons I now forget.)

Things have changed a bit in that interval. For one thing, that close-miked solo piano sound got kind of played out a while back, and while there is plenty of piano here, it’s always in combination with other elements. To my ear, this is Deaf Center’s most sinister release yet (although some of Skodvin’s Svarte Greiner stuff gives it a run for its money). Somehow, the intimacy of the piano (which I last encountered on Totland’s 2014 album Pinô) seems to enhance the strangeness of the tortured strings and the atmospherics. Or else, the ominous rumblings add an edge and a power to the piano (check out the end of Gathering, say).

All of which is a pretty long way of saying: if you like music that lurks in that space between dark ambient and modern classical, you should love this, because it’s great… but, then, I mean, duh: it’s a Deaf Center record, and a good one, you didn’t need me to tell you that.

I bought this from Juno. They call it Ambient / Drone.

Rian Treanor: Ataxia (2LP, Planet Mu, March 2019)

This is pretty exciting. The sound palette is heavily rave-inspired, but the methodology is all glitch. The drums are glitchy; the punchy little synth melodies are mostly glitchy; on the handful of tracks that have synthesized or sampled vocals, they are glitchy. (One minor quibble I have with this record is that, if the title is a reference to the experience of trying to dance to it, I think it’s in slightly poor taste.) This is the sort of thing that can become pretty grating pretty quickly if it’s not executed well, but here it is done excellently. To pick a random highlight, I love the aggressively cut-up vocal part on track B2, and the way it counterpoints with the drum line is just spot on… there are many moments like this. Like the brilliantly fractured hardcore of D1, complete with Juno-esque chord stabs and squeaky bat-fart noises. Superb stuff.

I bought this from Juno. They call it Experimental / Electronic.

JAB: Erg Herbe (LP, Shelter Press, March 2019)

In my formative years, the term “new-age” was pretty much an insult. In Thatcher’s Britain, you could revel in the spirit of corporate greed or you could rail against it, but either way the concept of any kind of cosmic harmony seemed hopelessly naive. Well, times change, and these days secular spirituality is quite on trend — and as I’ve matured I’ve certainly learnt to embrace my inner hippy. But I still find myself baulking at the associations my mind throws out when I hear that term “new-age”.

Maybe that needs to change. I mean, I loved the record that Laraaji did with Sun Araw back in 2016, right? And, let’s be honest, plenty of ambient music owes a debt to good old-fashioned new-age. So I think I’m going to try to overcome my mental block. I mean, so long as it has a wee bit of an experimental edge to it, you know? I don’t think I’m ready to go full-on tie-dyed flabby dope-haze music just yet.

Aaaanyway. Here is John Also Bennett (last seen in these parts in a rather charming Zin Taylor-inspired collaboration with Christina Vantzou) with his long hair and his lovely beard and his flutes and his oscillators and his Farsifa and whatnot, making his solo debut. And, yes, much of it really should be classified as “new-age”. And, yes, it does have an experimental edge. And, you know what? Yes, it is really very good. It’s soothing (but not in the least bland), it’s got a touch of exoticism (without falling into the trap of tacky orientalism), and it’s the perfect kind of music to float away to. Oh, and just to avoid any accusations of taking itself too seriously, the artwork (which is by Zin Taylor again) centres on a psychedelic chameleon in what appears to be a rather funky hat.

I bought this from the label’s bandcamp site.

William Basinski: On Time Out Of Time (LP, Temporary Residence, March 2019)

William Basinski has a remarkable ability to seemingly distil the essence of a moment in time and stretch it out to epic durations. So it seems appropriate for him to tackle the subject of black holes, where gravitational time dilation means that (to an outside observer) a clock will appear to slow and stop as it approaches the event horizon (as any fule know). On Time Out Of Time features an audio conversion of data from LIGO’s ground-breaking gravitational wave detection events, which is pretty darned exciting. (Basinski, who is surprisingly feisty when he’s not actually engaged in the serious business of time-stretching and the like, describes this as the sound you get “when two black holes fuck”.)

The result is 39 minutes of ethereally delicate ambient music that really does seem to float out of time. (The vinyl has two 19-minute tracks, On Time Out Of Time and On Time Out Of Time (The Lovers). The digital release has a single 39-minute version, plus a 10-minute bonus track which I don’t really think adds much.) I described 2017’s A Shadow In Time as “Basinski’s subtle magic at its strongest”. It’s just possible that he might have outdone himself again here.

I bought this from Juno. They call it Ambient / Drone.

Croatian Amor: Isa (LP, Posh Isolation, January 2019)

Oh my gosh. I can’t quite get over how awesome this is. It’s also kinda hard to describe, so [takes deep breath].

Let’s talk about the vocals first. There’s some semblance of a human voice on all eight tracks here. Some are spoken word, ranging from bits that sound synthesized (but may not be) to bits that sound like they’re sampled from a documentary about UFOs (but almost certainly aren’t). Some are sung, in a mix of styles that include everything from mutated R’n’B to dream-pop. All are heavily processed: cut up, filtered, sped up, slowed down, pitch shifted all over the map, and then abruptly stitched back together again. We rarely get the same thing for more than a few words at a time. On paper, this seems like a terrible idea. But it’s incredibly skillfully done, so that it seems not only seamless but somehow perfectly natural, and I admit I am a bit of a sucker for this kind of thing when it’s done well.

The lyrics feel like fragments of some kind of millenarian prophecy shot through with a heartbreaking ballad of loss, nostalgia, and regret. (The sleeve says that the record is “inspired in part” by philosopher Michel Serres’s Angels: A Modern Myth, which makes a certain amount of sense.)

Alongside this, the music largely consists of big fat slabs of fuzzy synth that slam into place, floaty ambient washes, and strange little flourishes. Sometimes there’s a kind of industrial beat, but often there’s not, or there’s just an occasional thumping or clanking in the background. Again, all these disparate and jarring elements are assembled into a brilliantly coherent whole.

So, it’s intense and it’s strange, but it’s deliriously infectious and primally satisfying. I fell in love with this at first listen, and I think I love it a little more every time.

I bought this from their Bandcamp page.

Efdemin: New Atlantis (2LP, Ostgut Ton, February 2019)

Phillip Sollmann throws us a curveball at the start of this album: opener Oh, Lovely Appearance Of Death consists of a sort of ambient wash under an a capella rendition of the (predictably cheerful) Funeral Hymn For A Believer sung by visual and performance artist William T Wiley. It’s simple and affecting and certainly not what I was expecting from my last encounter with Efdemin, 2010’s Chicago. (He’s released one record in the meantime, 2014’s Decay, which I didn’t pick up.)

The rest of the album is more conventional dance fare — though thankfully not too conventional. As you might guess from the move from Dial to Ostgut Ton, this is a little less deep-housey and a little more straight techno. It’s also a fair bit more experimental. A pleasingly bouncy beat weaves its way under a rich palette of synth noises which nicely balance melody with abstraction, and there’s a sparing use of some unusual instrumentation, including a “sing-drum” and Konrad Sprenger’s “motor-controlled guitar“. I guess you could characterize it as Berlin minimal seasoned with equal measures of second-generation Detroit and avante-garde invention (perhaps most strikingly in the moment near the end of Black Sun where it suddenly slows to about half speed, which sounds outrageous but somehow works). And the whole thing is done with precision and flair and it works rather brilliantly.

Incidentally, the title is a reference to Francis Bacon’s 17th century utopian sci-fi novel, which also provides the spoken word element of album closer The Sound House.

I bought this from Juno. They call it Techno.

Julia Kent: Temporal (LP, The Leaf Label, January 2019)

There’s always a danger with music based around looped strings: get it wrong, and it can stray into annoying-busker-outside-shopping-centre territory and there’s no coming back from there. Well, I’m pleased to report that we’re in far more appealing terrain here. Julia Kent is credited with cello, electronics, and sounds. Most of the tracks have the cello front and centre, looped and layered and textured. Occasionally, as say on Conditional Futures, there’s a more ambient electronic feel. There are a few other instruments, seemingly: a piano on Floating City, chimes on Sheared, something that sounds almost music-box-ish on Through The Window (I guess these qualify as “sounds”?). The mood has a blend of lyricism and urgency, in varying proportions. I’m not surprised to discover some soundtrack work on her CV. I don’t think it’s setting out to change the world, but this is a very charming record.

I bought this from Juno. They call it Ambient / Drone.

Nkisi: 7 Directions (LP, UIQ, January 2019)

I have to admit that I underestimated this record on my first casual listen through. Take the first track, called simply I: the thing that leapt out at me was the floaty synth line and the distorted vocal sample that scream Artificial Intelligence era IDM; which lazy pigeon-holing misses the vital fact that something very different is going on with the drum programming, which brings together two rival heartbeat-like pulses, a skittering Geiger-counter click, a bassy throb, a couple of sci-fi laser-type noises, and a bunch of other things, all built into a polyrhythmic structure that is complex without being showy. (I’m not quite sure how I missed this first time around, since it’s the drums that dominate the track for its first 90 seconds until the main melody kicks in. I guess I just wasn’t pay close enough attention.)

The rest of the album is along similar lines. Elements of II remind me of Autechre, III of perhaps Polygon Window-era Aphex, and so on. The synth on V is pure …I Care Because You Do. And yet these obvious early-to-mid-nineties Warp influences are paired with these crazily fresh drumlines.

And so to the bio. I’m often ambivalent about the abstract concepts said to inspire dance music records, but this really seems to make sense to me. Nkisi, aka Melika Ngombe Kolongo, is Congolese by birth and Belgian by upbringing. Her moniker refers to a spirit in the Kongo religion (or, perhaps significantly, an object inhabited by a spirit). And the album is dedicated to Kimbwandende Kia Fu-Kiau Bunseki, a scholar of Bantu culture and cosmology and someone who has written about Africa’s relationship with western values and structures and the role the continent has in shaping the future of civilization. (To its credit, there are no theses in the liner notes, only the dedication. Following that lead is strictly an optional extra, but I found it kind of fascinating.)

It is a truism, of course, that modern dance music is a layer cake sandwiching together many strata of European and African heritage. What this album does is make that concept come thrillingly alive. It’s got the familiar notes that draw me in and then something fresh and utterly compelling that keep me coming back. And if this is the sound of the future then I say “yes, please!”

I bought this from Juno. They call it Experimental / Electronic.

My albums of 2018

Annual round-up time! Lots of lovely rekkids this year (I think I say that every year, but it’s true every year!). In the classical/drone/ambient space, I loved records from Clarice Jensen, Lubomyr Melnyk, and Sarah Davachi. In the nice gentle techno space, there were corkers from ASC and (stretching the genre-bucket a bit, here) Automatisme. In the electronic ambient space, I swooned over releases from Abul Mogard and M Geddes Gengras. Elsewhere, I’m sad to miss out albums from Atom™ & Lisokot, IVVVO, and especially Maarja Nuut & Ruum. But the winners are…

  • Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Glass. An ambient masterpiece played live on a house that, when it finishes, makes me feel like I’ve been holding my breath for the last half an hour.
  • Anna von Hausswolff’s Dead Magic. Drone rock with pipe organs, what’s not to love? It’s got an epic power and also some great tunes and all-in-all it’s a cracking good listen.
  • Christina Vantzou’s No. 4. A richly varied classical/drone work of huge invention, with a fantastic control when marshalling the talents of her musicians, a wonderful sense of texture, and a great knack for dropping in the perfect dose of melody at the perfect moment. The whole thing is just delightful. (Her joint record with John Also Bennett gets an honorable mention, too.)
  • Eartheater’s IRISIRI. A feminist avant-pop classic which builds disparate and not always easy elements into a coherent whole without seeming forced, and does it absolutely brilliantly. This is a record that I’m sure I’ll be coming back to over and over again for a long time.
  • Head Technician’s Profane Architecture. Big and chunky and bouncy and fluid and basically really good retro dark acid techno. And, in case you’re not already sold, it’s themed around brutalist architecture.

Happy New Year, y’all!