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.

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.

Thomas Strønen / Time Is A Blind Guide: Lucus (LP, ECM, January 2018)

This may be a foolish thing to say — I am far from an expert — but this strikes me as a very ECM-ish record. The line-up is strings, piano, and drums (Time Is A Blind Guide are the band; Thomas Strønen takes the writing and percussion credits). It is, for the most part, relentlessly sparse and brittle, triangulating a point somewhere between a highly abstracted strain of modern classical, what I’m choosing to call minimal jazz although I still don’t know whether that’s actually a thing, and the plangeant tones of early music. At times it even sounds like it’s already been through Villalobos & Loderbauer’s Re: ECM treatment. If that makes it sound terribly po-faced then I apologize, because this has a real lightness of touch and even a playfulness in places. I must admit that there a few of the more full-on moments which strain my jazz-tolerance, and one track (Wednesday) that exceeds it (this is my problem, not the records; but this is my blog, so I get to complain about it anyway). But it’s mostly a very pleasant listen, and there’s some real magic in the quieter moments.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Jazz / Fusion.

Hior Chronik: Out Of The Dust (LP, 7K!, December 2017)

Hior Chronik lists his influences as Max Richter, which I can absolutely see, and Arvo Pärt, which I confess I can’t (although I don’t know Pärt as well as I probably should). This is a dozen tracks of piano, strings (cello by Aaron Martin), and a gorgeous muted trumpet (Christian Grothe — the one who is Kryshe, I guess?), plus a bunch of ambient effects (rather more than Richter normally goes in for). The combination of drone and melody is basically spot-on as far as I’m concerned. If we’re playing the references game, I’d add that the scrapy (I’m sure that’s not the correct technical word) wilderness-evoking string sound reminds me a bit of Richard Skelton, the slightly celtic lilt of Claire M Singer, and the interplay between the brass and the synthy wash a little of Vangelis (a comparison which, I would guess, is probably pretty annoying to Greek composers, but I promise it occurred to me before I’d consciously made the link of nationality). It also figures that Chronik has collaborated with Dictaphone. But, more importantly, this stands on its own as a deep, emotional, and genuinely beautiful record. A late contender for classical album of the year, I reckon.

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

Ryuichi Sakamoto: async (2LP, Milan, September 2017)


Oo oo oo, I’m super-excited that, after a six month delay, the vinyl of this is out and I am holding it in my hands right now. (Well, not while I’m typing, obviously. It’s lying beside me right now.) I’ve been listening to it digitally and loved it already, but this gatefold beauty is a thrill.

Obviously, everyone adores Ryuichi Sakamoto, right? In recent years I’ve been a big fan of his collaborations with Alva Noto, Christian Fennesz, Christopher Willets, and Illuha and Taylor Dupree. This is his first solo work in 8 years, and his first major work since his diagnosis with throat cancer (he was working on it before he got ill, but says he discarded all that and started from scratch after his recovery).

The opening track, ‘andata’, starts off as a heartbreakingly delicate piano melody, but morphs into a much richer church-organ type sound swathed in a lovely ambient wash courtesy of Fennesz doing his manipulated guitar thing. The second track, ‘disintegration’, is a total contrast, an abstract prepared-piano type thing. This should give you an idea of the wide variety in store — keyboards dominate throughout, but the styles and the accompaniment run the gamut. (We get everything from the Northwest Sinfonia and the percussionists of the International Contemporary Ensemble to Ko Ishikawa on the shō and Honjoh Hidejiro on the shamisen). But these tracks all feel very much like parts of a coherent work. This is partly down to the top-notch production and the careful sequencing, but it is also in large measure down to an obvious thematic consistency: intimations of mortality haunt this record. This is evident in musical elements from the slowly repeated treble ping which inevitably evokes the unsettling sound of a heart monitor, which features in several of the tracks here, to the way that numbers like ‘ZURE’ give the impression of being about to stutter to a halt. It’s also clear in the two spoken word vocals: ‘Life, Life’ features David Sylvian reading an English translation of Arseny Tarkovsky’s poem ‘And This I Dreamt, And This I Dream’, while ‘fullmoon’ has an array of friends from Bernardo Bertolucci to Carsten Nicolai (Alva Noto, of course) reading various translations of excerpts from Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky. (More abstract connections… The movie of The Sheltering Sky was directed by Bertolucci, and Sakamoto did the soundtrack. And Sakamoto himself says that at times he thought of this record as the soundtrack to a non-existent film by Andrei Tarkovsky, Arseny’s son.)

Okay, enough. Suffice it to say that this album is richly detailed, deeply moving, a thing of great seriousness and beauty without ever being po-faced or depressing, and I am so glad that Ryuichi Sakamoto is here to enrich our lives.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic.

Jessica Moss: Pools Of Light (LP, Constellation, May 2017)


A fascinating and powerful solo work from the Silver Mt Zion violinist. Each side is a continuous piece in four movements. The A-side, Entire Populations, combines densely layered strings, at times of a sort of middle-eastern-ish folk-ish flavour, at others of a spiky neo-classical, at times densely layered, at others more stripped down; Pt. II is dominated by a repeated doom-laden vocal, the mantra “Entire populations, oh, we can’t see” making clear the eco-warning at the heart of this. The flip, Glaciers, is more obviously influenced by post-rock, you could see it as an extended and more fully developed version of one of the quiet string-based bits from a SMZ record… it’s nice, but it’s not all that memorable. The A-side, though, is great.

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

Bing & Ruth: No Home Of The Mind (LP, 4AD, February 2017)

Like many folks, I guess, I got into Bing & Ruth when RVNG released Tomorrow Was The Golden Day in 2014, and only caught their self-published debut City Lakes when RVNG reissued it in 2015. Like many folks, I guess, I gushed unashamedly about TWTGD for its lush, twinkling, warmth — but I also like the slight element of (relative) raucousness that CL had. Well, I think it’s possible that No Home Of The Mind (on 4AD, no less) is their best work yet. The credits list is a little slimmer: just piano, clarient, two double basses, and “tape delays”. It starts out roughly where they left off, with main man David Moore’s immersive piano sound dominating, but about track 2 (it’s hard to tell where one ends and the next begins, they all run into each other seamlessly) a real wooziness wells up over things, and that sets the tone for the rest of the album: there are extended periods of a kind of fuzziness which sort of reminds me of the feeling of being just slightly tipsy on a sunny afternoon — but then a crisp, bright melodic element will emerge and it’s just so damned perfect. (And, yeah, I’m gushing again…)

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic, which seems like a mistake.

William Basinski: A Shadow In Time (LP, 2062, January 2017)

As I’ve mentioned before, you don’t expect a new William Basinski album to be a radical departure: almost imperceptible evolution is more his thing. But this does feel like a little bit of a step forward. The self-titled A-side is 17 minutes of tape loops supplemented by a Voyetra 8 synth and other electronics, apparently dedicated to a friend who committed suicide. I can’t really work out how it does what it does, but it is atmospheric and emotionally rich and — whisper it — possibly even better than the Disintegration Tapes. That piano line that comes in near the end is just superb. (Aside: The LP sleeve says it’s 17 minutes, although I haven’t timed it; the digital version is 23. The order of the tracks is also swapped on the digital version. Go figure.) On the B-side we get the 20 minute For David Robert Jones. Who knew Basinski was a Bowie fan? Though I’m not totally surprised. Again, it’s tape loops and Voyetra 8 and this time a blaring, mournful saxophone line joins in about a third of the way through, apparently quoting from the track Subterraneans on Low, and it’s another cracker. This is Basinski’s subtle magic at its strongest.

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