CV & JAB: Zin Taylor — Thoughts of a Dot as it Travels a Surface (LP, Shelter Press, February 2018)

When I discover a record I really like by an artist with a few releases under their belt, it’s tempting to go back and binge on their back-catalogue. I normally try to resist, having found that it mostly leads to disappointment, and often dilution of the pleasure of the music that kicked the whole thing off. So, despite having loved Christina Vantzou’s No. 4 recently, I resisted the urge to go back and hoover up Nos. 1 through 3.

But I did check out this recent live performance by Vantzou and John Also Bennett (who also played on No. 4) and, you know what, it’s really good, too. It’s a very different record. No. 4 had an impressive list of collaborators and instruments. This is just the two of them with synths, ‘virtual instruments’ (CV), more synths, flute, and piano (JAB). No. 4 has a rich, layered strangeness. This has a sparse, abstract strangeness. It was performed in a gallery, as a response to works by Zin Taylor, or perhaps we’re meant to say as a reconceptualization of those works, or something like that… anyway, it does seem to fit the abstract simplicity of the drawings, and comes with a nice 1.8m-long leporello which you can, I don’t know, look at while you listen to the music, I guess. The music itself is proceeds at a stately pace, and it’s more about the textures and the shapes than about the melodies, but it’s full of lovely little surprises — I love the sound of lapping water which appears somewhere near the end, for example — and it’s thoroughly immersive. In places, it reminds me of another recent live duet, Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Glass — or, reaching further back, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe and Ariel Kalma’s We Know Each Other Somehow. It’s one of those records that I love a little bit more each time I listen to it, and lingers in my memory for a good while afterwards, and those are very good things.

I bought this from the label’s bandcamp page.

Abul Mogard: Above All Dreams (2LP, Ecstatic, June 2018)

The buzz started with the 2016 retrospective album simply called Works. Abul Mogard had worked for decades in a steel plant in Serbia, and it was only when he retired that he bought a bunch of electronics, got tinkering, and started making music — trying to recreate the sounds of the factory, which he missed. Or so the story goes, anyway. I’ve read scurrilous rumours that some or all of this is fiction and a cunning marketing ploy. Well, it’s a nice story, so there.

More importantly, what do we think of the music? Well, I have to admit, I never really understood the fuss about Works. Perhaps that was the cynic in me. But this, his solo follow-up, I really like. It was (the sleeve tells us) “composed by Abul Mogard between 2015 and 2018 using modular synthesiser, Farsifa organ, effects, and computer”. This is the kind of big, all-encompassing ambient that fills your head and then swallows you up. It bears comparison to the best of Tim Hecker, or perhaps Stephan Mathieu. If I may be excused a spot of a pseuds’ corner indulgence, it seems to hover on the boundary between motion and stillness, which is a kind of magical effect.

I was feeling kinda stressed out when I first listened to this, and by the end I had a feeling of profound calm. Yay!

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Dark Ambient / Drone / Metal. I don’t find it that dark, but YMMV.

Head Technician: Profane Architecture (LP, Ecstatic, April 2018)

I never quite got into Martin Jenkins’ work as Pye Corner Audio: it’s retro seemed heavy-handed and lacking in substance. But this, his second LP as Head Technician, I like. It’s basically dark acid techno, and so, yeah, it’s still pretty retro… but it’s big and chunky and bouncy and fluid and those basically it’s really good retro dark acid techno, and I’ll take that. It has the reassuringly solid, structural feel of proper old Roland kit, and some nice sinuous work on the faders. Mostly clocking in at around 120 BPM (and occasionally dipping down to a stately 100) it’s hardly going to tear the dancefloor a new one, but then we’re all too old for that, right? My album highlight is Decay Blossoms, which has a thick, squelchy texture that almost puts me in mind of Plastikman. Oh, and it’s themed around brutalist architecture and the track names are all to do with concrete (First Pour, Béton Brut, Formwork, and so on), so bonus points for that.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic.

Christina Vantzou: No. 4 (LP, Kranky, April 2018)

Christina Vantzou keeps us on our toes here. Glissando for Bodies and Machines in Space is all sighing voices and synthesized hums. Percussion in Nonspace is sparkling little number of delicate chimes. At Dawn is a generously-processed string drone number (the cello is by Clarice Jensen whose For This From That Will Be Filled I was admiring recently). Doorway (the first track over three minutes in length) adds a spooky piano line to the strings. Some Limited and Waning Memory is a beautiful ambient synth number (the synths on this track are by Steve Hauschildt… I’m not going to namecheck all the collaborators here, but it’s an impressive list) coupled with a gentle piano melody (and some more sighing vocals harking back to the first track). And so on. Even though the second half of the album is mostly drawing from the same set of elements, I’m struck by how each track seems to create a distinct sense of place, from the desolate moor my mind conjures up for Staircases (plangeant strings and an almost Satie-esque piano line) to the abandoned warehouse of Sound House — or perhaps that should be derelict cathedral, since it ends with about twenty seconds of the wonkiest requiem mass you’ve ever heard, a moment which is jarring but somehow works brilliantly. Basically, Vantzou shows huge invention (with everything except her album titles: this is her fourth release on Kranky, and there are no prizes for guessing what the first three were called), 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, and the whole thing is just delightful.

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

Goldmund: Occasus (LP, Western Vinyl, April 2018)

It’s sort of hard to know what to say about a new Goldmund record. Delicate piano, close-miked recording by Taylor Dupree, ambient fuzz: check, check, check. It basically follows in the footsteps of 2015’s Sometimes, even down to the moody black-and-white cover art. (Of all the Goldmund albums I have, only 2011’s stunning guitar-based American Civil War album All Will Prosper breaks from that pattern.) I would say that this has some of his most heavily processed sounds to date (which again continues the pattern of the years), and I think the final track What Lasts, with its strings and woodwind and glockenspiel (?), is about the most fulsomely orchestrated… but these are things of fractions.

Absolutely none of which matters when the music sounds as wonderful as this. Honestly, if you get past the achingly tender As You Know (the 5th of 15 short tracks) without melting a little bit, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am. There’s melancholy here, and occasionally a sinister note, as on the gently rumbling No Story. But the feeling that remains after the last notes have faded away is one of calm.

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

Clarice Jensen: For This From That Will Be Filled (LP, Miasmah, March 2018)

It’s no secret that I’m a sucker for some cello-based drone music, and Clarice Jensen has provided four rather dreamy examples of it here. The first track, bc, was composed in collaboration with the late and sorely lamented Jóhann Jóhannsson, and sounds very much like a tribute to William Basinski, so that’s ticking a whole bunch of boxes for me already. Cello Constellations was written for her by composer, theoretician, and inventor Michael Harrison, and does some uncanny things with harmonics and tunings and multi-tracking. On the flip side are the two parts of the title track, which are Jensen’s own compositions: the first is a spiky little number made of staccato and feedback; the second is a slow-burner that is straight up drone for about its first four minutes, before gradually a melody starts to emerge, and somewhere around the ten-minute mark it briefly and miraculously achieves a sort of Lark-Ascending-style lightness. I must admit that, on my first listen, I wondered whether this album might be a little… academic, maybe? But since then it’s really gotten under my skin. Perhaps not essential listening for all, but for connoisseurs of the sub-genre, one to treasure.

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

Erik K Skodvin & Rauelsson: A Score For Darling (Sonic Pieces, March 2018)

Is it weird to buy soundtracks for films you’ve never seen and basically have no interest in seeing? I dunno. Anyway, I kind of impulse-purchased this, what with it being limited edition and all. I’ve never met an Erik K Skodvin (Svarte Greiner, Deaf Center) record I didn’t like, and Raúl Pastor Medall aka Rauelsson has good pedigree (solo album also on Sonic Pieces, collaboration with Peter Broderick). Oh, and it’s got Anne Müller playing cello on it, and the final track has Otto A Totland aka the less prolific half of Deaf Center playing piano. This is 15 short pieces (most of them are under two minutes, and the longest under four), mostly for strings with occasional ominous bassy rumblings, very much the drone end of the modern classical spectrum, although much of it does have a kind of insistent rhythmic pulse pushing it along. It is, of course, impeccably produced (sound design is by Skodvin and mixing mostly by Medall). And, although I have to admit there’s nothing revolutionary here, it is rather lovely.

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

Atom™ & Lisokot: Walzerzyklus (CD, Raster, January 2018)

Curious story. I was listening to the Atom™ album Leidgut in my kitchen in 2009 and the bit where it incorporates the effect of audio interference from a GSM mobile phone (remember that? the little morse-cody blip pattern?) and just then my partner walked in, checked the wiring, realized what was going on, and laughed at me for the sheer pretension of it. Clearly this stung, because I’ve not listened to the album very much since, even though I do like it, and I skipped 2011’s follow-up Winterreisse entirely. I had recovered by 2013 when HD came out.

Anyway, that’s all ancient history now, and I’m happy to say that this (the third in the sequence started by Leidgut and Winterreisse) is the best so far. Uwe Schmidt does the electronics and Lisokot does most of the vocals and in 18 minutes they manage to incorporate elements of ambient, minimal techno, Kraftwerk (come on, the track Transhuman Melody was a bit of a giveaway), lieder, Weimar cabaret, and abstract early electronic… without it sounding at all overcrowded or chaotic. The structure is elegant (three 2-minute parts of a Leitmotif around four 3-minute ‘proper songs’, mostly in waltz time) and it’s somehow all so natural that by the second listen you feel like you’ve known it for years. Basically, the combination of proper tunes with defiantly experimental production is just smashing. Oh, and the cover version of Be Bop A Lula is worth the entry fee by itself: calling this otherworldly sounds like a cliché, but this is the real deal, the 100% genuine dying-alien-race-in-distant-galaxy-intercepted-faint-signal-of-1950s-rock-n-roll-radio-station-and-programmed-space-exploration-robots-based-on-it-and-sent-them-out-and-they-crashlanded-on-earth-just-as-everything-here-is-turning-to-shit-and-they-robots-want-to-help article.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic.

Alva Noto: Unieqav (2LP, Noton, March 2018)

Ah, lovely Alva Noto. This record is a follow-up to 2008’s Unitxt and 2011’s Univrs and very much a continuation of those works, although with elements of the Xerrox sequence in there too — it’s considerably less surprising than Glass, his latest collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto. There are those skittering glitchy clicky beats that I just love, there are those warm humming sounds (more so than on the previous Uni- material, hence the Xerrox reference), there’s the occasional buzzing melody (Uni Blue), there’s Anne-James Chaton reading out DNA sequences in his best sexy-French-robot voice (Uni Dna). And it’s it’s just crammed full of tiny moments of genius. You probably know already whether you like this type of thing or not, but if you do, this is a master at the peak of his powers.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic.

Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto: Glass (CD, Noton, February 2018)

You’ll think I’m silly, but I almost didn’t want to listen this: I love Alva Noto, I love Ryuichi Sakamoto, I love Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto, Sakamoto’s latest album was almost heartbreakingly perfect, and I didn’t want to be disappointed.

Well, I’m glad I got over myself, because this is a magical and wondrous thing. It’s not what you’ll be expecting if you’ve heard their previous collaborations like Insen and Summvs. It’s a single 37-minute piece, recorded live at Philip Johnson’s modernist (and self-explanatory) masterpiece Glass House, and a lot of the sounds here are from playing the house itself, with gong mallets, fingertips, and contact microphones. Other instruments are singing bowls, crotales, and keyboards. The effect is out of this world, in every sense of the phrase. I’m not sure I can think of anything to compare it to except — and this is going to sound idiotic, but bear with me — there’s one segment that’s a tiny bit like Brian Eno’s Prophecy Theme from the Dune soundtrack… which is a good thing, honestly! Other than that… There are sounds that just hang in the air, delicate crystalline things, and then tiny moments that are surprising in exactly the right way. Alva Noto does a thing to the crotales that somehow makes them sound like a cross between windchimes and firecrackers: I don’t think there’s any way you’ll know what I mean by that without listening to it, but it’s brilliant. I don’t want to over-egg this or anything, but OMG YOU GUYS this is awesome. It’s the kind of thing that, when it finishes, you feel like you’ve been holding your breath for the last half an hour.

Oh, and if you don’t believe me, check out the 26-minute video version for free (although it deserves a quiet room and some proper headphones).

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic.