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.

Eartheater: IRISIRI (LP, PAN, December 2018)

Ooh, I’d forgotten how great this is. I streamed this a bunch when it came out in… was it July? I pre-ordered the vinyl, which I think was due to come out in September, and then I gradually forgot about it as the physical release date got pushed back. So this turning up was a lovely little Christmas present.

This is one to file under “really frigging hard to categorize”. Metadata-wise I’ve landed on avant pop, but I’m not sure that’s really a genre. Alexandra Drewchin mixes the synths up with everything from harps (played by Marilu Donovan) to strings to occasional drum machines and guitars, and her vocals range between proper singing, moaning, yelping, whispering, computer-generated loops, samples, and all sorts besides. Stylistically, it can flip in a moment from prettily, floatily melodic to twitchily abstract and back, or even drop into thumpingly industrial, and sound perfectly natural the whole time. And it does all of this in a way that seems perfectly natural. The lyrics, which are more fragments than verse-chorus-verse, have a spikily feminist theme running through them (memorable refrains include “inhale baby pink, exhale red” and “computer! / this body is a chemistry mystery / these tits are just a side-effect / you can’t compute her / you can’t compute her / you don’t decide for my chemical”) and are sometimes disconcertingly strange (“there’s so much… stuff coming out of my skirt”). And although they seem scattergun on first listen, somehow they add up to a coherent whole (a sample of what sounds like a child chanting “okay, go! nobody’s looking, nobody’s looking!”, which would seem random by itself, gains layers of meaning from its context) and rise above sloganeering.

Building these disparate and not always easy elements into a coherent whole without seeming forced is a very rare talent, and Drewchin 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.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic.

Lubomyr Melnyk: Fallen Trees (LP, Erased Tapes, December 2018)

Ukrainian-born pianist Lubomyr Melnyk came up with what he called ‘continuous music’ sometime in the seventies, but seems to have been having a bit of a moment recently, at least in parts through his involvement with Erased Tapes. This is my first real exposure to his work, and, boy, what an experience it is.

As far as I can tell, ‘continuous music’ means playing dense cascade of notes really fast without let-up, with a healthy usage of the sustain pedal. It’s obviously inspired by American minimalism, but it’s also quite melodic — much more so than, say, Charlemagne Palestine’s Strumming Music, which seems an obvious reference point. This record also includes a little bit of chanting (mostly from Japanese label-mate Hatis Noit) and a little bit of cello (from Anne Müller) — but it still has a much more direct purity than, say, Bing and Ruth (and, yes, I imagine it’s much more likely that David Moore is influenced by Melnyk than the other way around).

The A-side has three pieces, the sparkling Requiem for a Fallen Tree, the thunderous Son of Parasol, and the comparatively conventional Barcarolle (which even has, like, gaps between some of the notes! I have to say that I wouldn’t choose to listen to a record that’s all like this, but it’s a nice palate cleanser). The B-side is a single five-part piece called Fallen Trees, it covers a range of styles and emotions, and it’s absolutely stonking. In a just world, Melnyk would be filthy rich on the moolah from his finger sponsors. Ah well. Back in the real world, let’s hope his eighth decade brings us more records as good as this one.

I bought this from Norman Records. They call it Neo-classical / Classical / Orchestral and Drone / Kosmische / Minimal.

M Geddes Gengras: Light Pipe (CD, Room 40, October 2018)

The older I get, the less tolerant of excess I find myself. Which means that if you’re going to release a record that’s nearly two and a half hours long, you’d better have a good reason for it. Simply having a lot of stuff to get out isn’t enough; you need to be doing something that is only possible over this kind of length.

Luckily, that’s exactly what this wonderful work of melodic ambient does. There are swooshy strings, there’s fuzzy guitar, there’s occasional new-agey chimy things and the like. In passages, it meanders; in passages, it rumbles; in passages, it soars; in passages, it sighs. Take Water Study, for example, which starts with a kind of reverb-heavy anthem which reaches almost ecstatic heights (and which reminds me pleasantly of Fennesz’s Bécs)… and then it fades away to something much more contemplative, and we’re left with memories echoing around like a song in a magical cave. Each of the CDs here is one continuous piece (the first is described as pieces for live performance, indoors, and the second, outdoors — I confess that I can’t spot the difference). And, through some mysterious process, the power and the mood and the sheer loveliness build and build over the duration, and I end up not wanting it to stop. A rare case of more is more, perhaps, and a bloody brilliant record as well.

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

Maarja Nuut & Ruum: Muunduja (LP, 130701, October 2018)

On the off chance that your knowledge of the Estonian experimental music scene is as non-existent as mine, here’s an introduction: Maarja Nuut is a fiddle player and folk singer, and Ruum (aka Hendrik Kaljujarv) is an electronic musician who cut his teeth on old Soviet analogue synths. This collaboration appears to be the first major international release for either of them, and it’s a pretty damned impressive one, as well. Half the tracks are pretty intense instrumental numbers, with Nuut’s strings swirling around Ruum’s beats and keys; on the other tracks, Nuut also sings, her voice clear and compelling. There’s a genuine folky feel here, it feels not too far off the sort of thing you could imagine being belted out in the corner of a rural inn, with much lusty dancing, and the vocals are often layered as if being sung in a round. But pretty maids and spring flowers this is not: this is in the tradition that speaks of long, dark winters, and death never far away. There’s a subtly sinister edge to much of the music, and the tone of the lyrics is set by the striking opening number Hanad Kadunud which (the translation on the sleeve reveals) is about a farmhand who has lost her geese… spoiler alert, it does not end well for the geese. This album is powerful, distinctive, and thoroughly enjoyable.

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

ASC: The Outer Limits (2LP, Auxiliary, December 2018)

This is simple but beautifully effective. There are four generous slices of, basically, ambient techno (clocking in at 53 minutes in total). It’s a little bit dubby in places, a little bit bassy in places, a little bit Artificial Intelligence in places — actually, to my ear, it’s quite a lot Artificial Intelligence in places, but I don’t mind that. All in all, a laid back and thoroughly delightful trip into deep space.

I bought this from Norman Records. They call it Electronic / Electro / IDM / EBM and Techno / Dub Techno / Experimental House.

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.