Giulio Aldinucci: Borders and Ruins (LP, Karl Records, September 2018)

This is a rather awesome and intense bit of ambient. Each track sounds like it has been spun out of a single moment of classical music: stretched, looped, processed, snap, crackled, and popped. The source material includes sacred-sounding choral music, avant-garde-sounding strings, organs. It’s powerful stuff, with a real glacial heft, but at its core there’s a big, soft, warm, lovely hug.

I bought this from the label’s Bandcamp page.

Tim Hecker: Konoyo (2xLP, Kranky, September 2018)

I have a bad habit of using Tim Hecker comparisons in this blog as kind of a lazy shorthand for a really full kind of ambient drone, the sound that fills the spectrum, fills the sound-stage, and fills every last cubic millimetre of your brain cavity with a giant pulsating fuzz monster. This is largely based on a phenomenal 2010 live show and on 2011’s brilliant Ravedeath, 1972. And it’s kind of embarrassingly out of date: with its moments of sparseness and its recognizable instruments 2013’s Virgins was quite different, and 2016’s Love Streams even more so. (I’m not sure whether it’s because that gig had made such an impression on me that I couldn’t get my head around the change of direction, or what, but I didn’t rate either of those two albums enough to actually buy them.)

Well, maybe this is the record to change all that for me. It has intense wall-of-sound bits, but also plenty of stripped-back bits, actual quiet bits. The ‘recognizable instruments’ element here consists of the Japanese courtly form Gagaku, played by the members of Tokyo Gakuso on hichiriki, shō, ryūteki, and uchimono (percussion), plus Kara-Lis Coverdale on keys and Mariel Roberts on cello. But you still shouldn’t come here looking for a rollicking good melody: the key elements here are the texture and the dynamics. And while, okay, I obviously don’t adore this like I adore Ravedeath, it is a very pleasurable chunk of noise, especially the serene 15-minute closer Across To Anoyo. And you know what? Despite the more restrained and collaborative approach, this sounds not really Western or Eastern but very very recognizably Tim Hecker.

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

Automatisme: Transit (LP, Constellation, August 2018)

This one from William Jourdaine is super hard to categorize. According to the blurb, ‘the sonic material is all sourced from the field, with recordings captured in the forests and caves of rural Quebec, along with ex-urban “non-places”, and various waiting rooms’. This seems to have gone through a whole load of modular synth gear and been ‘rendered through generative and probability-based digital patches’. The result is has an analogue-sounding warmth and a digital-sounding glitchiness. It burbles and stutters along at a nice tempo, though I’d characterize it more as a pulse than a beat. Jourdaine manipulates his material with great skill: there’s always something new happening, new sounds and textures either evolving slowly or bursting into the mix abruptly, but there isn’t a jarring moment on the record. Keeping things this interesting with a palette while making every new element sound so natural and right is a rare talent. This is one that demands repeated careful listenings — and rewards them richly.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Basic Channel / Dub Techno, Electronic.

Norman Westberg: After Vacation (LP, Room 40, July 2018)

Ahhhhh! Swans-chappy Norman Westberg has been playing with his guitars and his effects pedals and has come up with a lovely sort of ambient drone thing which immediately sweeps you away in a sort of floaty haze. Little plucked melodies drift in and out of the gentle waves of texture. It reminds me a little bit of Mike Shiflet and High Aura’d’s Awake, although it’s a little less dense (by this analogy, the closing title track here, which introduces the most straightforward, open, acoustic sound of the record, would correspond to that album’s Covered Bridge, which I described as the clouds parting briefly). These are the kinds of record that create an oasis of peace in our busy lives, and I say yay for that. An understated gem.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Dark Ambient / Drone / Metal.

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.

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.

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.

Marc Barreca: Aberrant Lens (CD, Palace Of Lights, March 2017)

Cover art for Aberrant Lens

Confession of ignorance time: Marc Barreca has apparently been a big noise (as it were) in electronic ambient music since the late seventies, but I’d never encountered him until now. I’m happy to correct that, though, because this is a beguiling piece of work: twelve tracks that hover tantalizingly between ambient (but they’re too structured and substantial for that label to really stick) and classical (but they’re too thoroughly abstracted for that one), in which fragments of melody emerge out of shimmering atmospherics — often melodies that sound like the closing bars of a symphony that hasn’t been written yet. Half the time I can almost but not quite put my finger on what we’re listening to (the sleeve notes say it’s digital synthesis, accordion, uneducated guitar, sampled instruments, field recordings, and digital audio treatments; the label blurb mentions prepared guitars, pianos, Indonesian metallophones and glass harmonica). One that demands, and rewards, deep and repeated listening.

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

Mike Cooper: Reluctant Swimmer / Virtual Surfer (LP, Discrepant, February 2017)

Cover art for Reluctant Swimmer / Virtual Surfer

Here’s one to file under “strange but strangely wonderful”. The first 11 minutes of the A-side is Reluctant Swimmer, an ambient experimental thing which seems to be done on a prepared guitar, all scrapes and bloops and rattles: it sounds oddly like you’re inside some kind of arcane machine but in a much softer, more relaxed way than I normally mean when I deploy that particular metaphor; this is a hand-made and hand-cranked machine of wood and ratchets and springs. This segues directly into a moving cover of Movies Is Magic, a song by Van Dyke Parks which appeared on Orange Crate Art, his troubled early-nineties collaboration with Brian Wilson. The vocal is intimate and heartfelt and works brilliantly over the continued clanking noises and some simple sustained chords. (Key lyric: “Movies is magic / Real life is tragic / And fundamental though it seems / When you’re livin’ in your dream / When you wake up it’s over”.) The B-side follows a similar pattern. Virtual Surfer is even more abstract than Reluctant Swimmer, featuring field recordings of birdsong as well as some unidentifiable probably-guitar-based noises. This segues into Fred Neil’s 1966 folk song Dolphins (a song I vaguely knew, though I’m not sure whether it was the Neil’s version or Tim Buckley’s), and very lovely it is too. This then drifts off into a final few minutes of crackling and buzzing, a fittingly off-kilter ending to a truly splendid record. Experimental music has rarely been so affectingly emotional.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Folk / Roots, which seems to be stretching a point.