Jane Weaver: The Silver Globe (CD, Finders Keepers, October 2014)

After my first couple of listens, the impression I was left with was a really dense prog, all swirling psychedelic synths and heavy rotating basslines, leavened by the sophisticated sweetness of Weaver’s vocals (her background in folk really coming through). And, indeed, that’s a decent description of about half the tracks, including the first two proper tracks (discounting the intro). It was only later that I noticed the lighter moments, those vocals even more strongly showcased over a more pared-down backing of, say, bass and a simple beat, or a more minimal synth line. I guess the fact that it took me a while to really notice those tracks highlights the problem with them: they feel a bit like filler between the more epicly cosmic numbers. Those epicly cosmic numbers are pretty good fun, though, with top-rate 70s-style wigging-out taken to another level by those really rather special vocals.

I bought this from the label.

Harold Budd + Eraldo Bernocchi: Music For Fragments From The Inside (2xLP, Sub Rosa, December 2014)

Combining classical music and electronica sounds like a great idea in theory, but in my experience it’s often pretty underwhelming in practice. Not so this collaboration, recorded live at the Palazzo Delle Papesse Centro Arte Contemporanea in Siena, Italy, initially released in 2005, and here re-released on beautiful double LP. Bernocchi’s electronics — at times straight-up ambient, at others a kind of driven by a heavy thumping beat — provide the atmosphere. Budd’s piano — simple, airy, improvised melodies — provides the soul. Sometimes the two seem to work in concert, a minor-key piano line played on the beat; more often, the moody electronics thump darkly at the core of the music while the delicate curlicues of piano skitter over the surface. (I believe that Budd’s improvisations are largely in a pentatonic scale, although I’m no expert — this presumably contributes to the jazzy feel.) The result, from the piano study One to the slow-building epic Seven, is pretty wonderful. (They have one final trick up their sleeves, too: at the start, we hear the sound of the audience settling down; at the end, we hear them applaud, but then glitchy production effects start mutating the applause itself, playfully pointing out the ambiguity inherent in live recordings. No hay banda!)

I bought this from the Sub Rosa shop.

Icicle: Entropy (CD, Shogun Audio, November 2014)

Bit of a mixed bag this one. There are some up-tempo drum’n’bass jobs which range from good fun (Neutralize) to irksomely overblown (Hypervelocity, whose pretentious pseudoscience gets my goat). There are a couple of down-tempo almost trip-hop jobs which do nothing for me (Superimposed). There are some mid-tempo atmospheric filler jobs which are nicely produced but aren’t exactly the sort of thing I’d make a point of listening to (Entropy 1 through 4).

And then there are four absolute bangers. Problem is a grimy business with an ace anti-austerity rap by Skittles which is the best protest song I’ve heard in ages — the lyrics aren’t subtle, and neither’s the production (check the moment where everything gets pitch-shifted through the floor just before the bass drum kicks in), but it’s bloody refreshing. Isolation is ridiculously jaunty techstep complete with pleasingly old-school Alien sample and its timing is perfect. Amp is a classic slice of breakbeat rave, all hands-in-the-air and filter sweeps and a voice counting 3–2–1–0 before, yes, the bass drum kicks in: a friend remarked that it’s the sort of thing you’d hear at Bang Face ten years ago, and he’s not far wrong. And Acidic does exactly what it says on the tin: it was a big hit at an impromptu 3 a.m. kitchen rave-up recently and caused another friend to tweet “303 problemz in SE16″… she wasn’t wrong either.

I think it’s fair to say that Icicle hasn’t mastered the long-playing format yet. But he has a tonne of talent and with highlights like this we can’t really be picky.

I bought this from Juno. They call it Drum and Bass.

Kyoka: Is (Is Superpowered) (CD, Raster-Noton, May 2014)

It was looking for a moment there like I wasn’t going to get a single 2014 release from the wonderful Raster-Noton. But only because I nearly forgot about this little gem from the summer.  Which would be rubbish, because this is fab. It’s got that precision-engineered glitch we expect from the label, but it’s also crammed with infectious beats and catchy tunes, and makes great use of her cut-up vocals, hovering just the other side of language and all the better for it. There are so many moments which just make me grin every time I hear them: the interplay between her vocals and the awesome toasting on Lined Up, the daft squeaky melody which turns up two thirds of the way through the rumbling Rot Neu, and the way that Re-Pulsion somehow makes me think of a R&B track that’s been syncopated to within an inch of its life. But my highlight has to be Piezo Version Vision, a sort of industrial hardcore number that smashes together a pummeling beat, a big roaring noise, a bunch of squeaky noises, a fantastically catch glitched-up snare fill, a vocal that sounds a bit like someone trying to play a didgeridoo while operating a pneumatic drill, and a brilliant chipmunky rave vocal… and slices and dices them into something utterly exhilarating. I can imagine this absolutely destroying the right kind of dancefloor. Hell, if I knew anywhere playing this kind of stuff, it might be enough to make me go clubbing again. For me, this is the most exciting dance music record of 2014 (and this was the year that the new Aphex Twin album appeared).

I bought this from Juno. They call it Techno, which seems a bit arbitrary.

Neel: Phobos (CD, Spectrum Spools, November 2014)

I’ll be the first to admit that my tastes are inconstant and my feelings about music contingent on all sorts of other stuff other than what’s on the disc. There are plenty of records which I listen to and I kind of recognize that me-of-N-years-ago would have loved it, but now-me doesn’t quite have space for it. Most often, it’s simply that it sounds kinda like a bunch of records I already know and love. I think this is why I haven’t bought very many straight-up ambient records recently. But as soon as I heard this, I knew it was something special. For the bulk of this record, we’re immersed in what we kind of have to call a soundscape of distant and echoey humming, creaking, clanking, plinking, and chiming noises. It inevitably recalls the soundtrack of a sci-fi film from the 50s, the kind of scene which evokes the mystery of deep space with psychedelic visuals and eerie early electronic sounds — except that (unsurprisingly) the production is vastly more richly detailed and realized. It’s also weirdly compelling to me, for reasons I can’t explain. It’s only on the sixth of the seven tracks, Life On Laputa Regio, that the first actual musical notes appear, two alternating synth tones; and on the final track, The Secret Revealed, that we get something approaching a melody, a few notes played on chimes and strings. In this context, the effect is subtly dramatic and uplifting. This is a record pretty much guaranteed to transport me to my happy place. Which is exactly what I want this kind of ambient to do.

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

Locust: After The Rain (CD, Editions Mego, October 2014)

Aw, now this is a treat. Mark van Hoen and Louis Sherman have made an album rich in analogue synth sounds. There’s something very 70s about this music — there are bits which sound strikingly like Vangelis — but there’s also a very hopeful feel. It’s a kind of nostalgic futurism. It also has melodies, harmonies, and timbres which I’m going to have to describe as gorgeous. The last 90 seconds or so of the lead sort-of-single I’ll Be There, with just a hum, a heartbeat, and a heartbreakingly lovely minimal melody, is about the most gorgeous thing I’ve heard in a long time. It’s not 100% easy listening, with the stereoscopic pans of the Sky Black Horses creating a somewhat disorienting effect… although that just serves to enhance the uplifting spirit of album closer Won’t Be Long. Yep, this really is a rare treat, and one I can’t seem to stop myself indulging in.

I was bought this from Juno. They call it Ambient / Drone, which seems a little odd.

Objekt: Flatland (CD, Pan, October 2014)

The plus column: This is an ace album of proper electro-flavoured techno. It’s sonically and rhythmically rich, it’s got a lovely balance of hard thumpy bits and bloopy melodic bits, and it has that exciting feeling of being like what people thought the future was going to be like back when people thought the future was going to be exciting. The minus column: It could, at least to my ear, have been produced at any time in the past two decades. I mean, there are bits that just scream Dopplereffekt (and I have since discovered that the two acts had a split single on Leisure Systems once). That is, of course, a pretty theoretical objection, and doesn’t stop it being great fun to listen to… but it’s easy to overdose on such retro thrills. I try to limit myself to one or two releases like this a year. I’m glad I made this one of them.

I was bought this from Juno. They call it Techno.

Angel: Terra Null (CD, Editions Mego, June 2014)

I’m not normally comfortable with people describing music as “difficult”. If I find a record difficult, doesn’t that say as much about me and my experiences as it does about the music? So I’m going to stick with saying this: I doubt many people would classify Terra Null as easy listening; I certainly don’t. However, it is also a wonderful thing if you just give yourself over to it. Angel are Ilpo Vaisanen, off of Pan Sonic, and Dirk Dresselhaus, off of Schneider™, and they are ably assisted by saxophonist and clarinetist Lucio Capece and cellist and chanter Hildur Guðnadóttir (who is a massive favourite round these parts). The album starts off with some random-sounding plucking and twanging noises from something like a guitar and a fiddle, later joined by something that sounds not unlike a hurdy-gurdy, all creating an effect not unlike a folk band attempting to tune up while under the influence of dissociative hallucinogens. Slowly, a buzzing noise creeps in: a big part of Vaisenen and Dresselhaus’s work is playing what seem to be tone generators being fed through, at most, some basic LFOs and the like. Inevitably, perhaps, the moment it starts to cohere for me is when Guðnadóttir’s cello comes into the mix. By the end of the first (twenty-six-minute) track, we’ve been transported to somewhere completely different, and we could maybe be listening to the closing bars of some grand romantic symphony, frozen in time as we get sucked into the vortex of a black hole, our rusty old spaceship getting slowly torn apart around us. Or something like that. Then we’re through the wormhole for two tracks of floating in an alien galaxy in our humming hulk with only sinister wordless choral crescendos for company (Guðnadóttir again, inevitably recalling the trippy Ligeti bit at the end of 2001 only way darker). The quiet but unstoppable destructive power is back for the final track, before the signal is lost in a haze of static. In case you haven’t worked it out yet, I really really like this record.

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

Duane Pitre & Cory Allen: The Seeker & The Healer (LP, Students Of Decay, July 2014)

Just your regular duo: Duane Pitre plays bowed guitar and piano, Cory Allen plays piano, harmonium, and 49-stringed drone harp. Hang on, what? The drone harp was custom-made by sound artist Allen, it more or less sounds like the name suggests, and it’s rather magical. It’s also worth mentioning that at least one of them is clearly playing the inside of his piano some of the time. This is the sort of music that is all about resonances, overtones, interplay, and echoes. The record, which consists of two long improvised tracks, is clearly highly abstract, but in a way which feels very natural. And while the sound is pretty unique, there are enough echoes of familiar forms — most notably hints of a sort of plangent celtic folk, I guess — to make it quite accessible. Great stuff for just lying back and letting your mind wander.

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

Bing & Ruth: Tomorrow Was The Golden Age (2xLP, RVNG Intl, October 2014)

I’m going to find it tough writing about this without going all swooningly lyrical. This gorgeous double LP is swathed in warm, twinkling piano which gives me a lovely warm feeling right from the first notes. Then there’s the contrastingly simple but beautiful melodies played on either piano, clarinet, or strings. The harmonies and the subtle changes of key are just perfect. The production and the vinyl cut have a wonderful warmth and clarity. In fact, everything about this record seems somehow just right. It tugs on the heartstrings without ever becoming cheesy. And if you think I’m gushing too much, I urge you to go listen to it yourself: I can’t imagine anyone not falling for the charms of this utterly charming music.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic, which is pretty weird.