Caterina Barbieri: Ecstatic Computation (LP, Editions Mego, May 2019)

I was pretty excited to get my ears around this one. Barbieri’s Patterns Of Consciousness was one of my records of 2017, and Born Again In The Voltage was almost as good. So, how does this new album stack up?

The thing that made me adore Patterns so much was its awesome precision. It had a scattergun approach to melody, sometimes lurching between registers in the middle of a phrase several times in quick succession, but it always felt like every aspect was perfectly engineered on the basis of some guiding principle — and, judging by the liner notes, it probably was. It was like the most brilliantly controlled chaos. By contrast, Born Again (which was released a year after Patterns but recorded a couple of years earlier) was a bit fuzzier around the edges, something which at the time I attributed to a less finely honed skill. Well, Ecstatic Computation is in some ways more like Born Again. It shares a slightly looser feel, possibly connected to a wider range of instruments, and even a rather smashing wordless vocal line by Annie Gärlid and Evelyn Saylor on Arrows Of Time. The sort of swishy hitting-a-wire-fence noise that starts Closest Approach To Your Orbit is positively messy. And yet it does feel controlled in the same way that Patterns did. I suppose that it may be a greater accomplishment, broadening your scope and letting things be a bit more free while retaining that precision. And this is a very fine record and one I’m glad to give cabinet space to. But I’ve got to admit that I do still miss the purity of Patterns.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic.

Steve Moore: Beloved Exile (LP, Temporary Residence, May 2019)

You know how sometimes you stick a record on and you’re immediately spirited to a particular time or place or scenario via some kind of sense-memory transporter beam? That. I’ve just stuck this rather beautiful slice of hot pink and milk marbled vinyl on the ol’ Technics, and I find myself lying contentedly in the chillout area at a dance festival, perhaps ID Spiral at Glade. Lava lamp patterns swirl over Gaudiesque shapes formed of nothing more than white fabric stretched over wire frames. Nearby, a slightly muddy but happy fairy is doing poi. In the distance, flags flutter in a gentle breeze. Ah.

Which bit of over-written nostalgia is my way of saying that album opener Your Sentries Will Be Met With Force is an ambient synth track featuring a fab floaty vocal by Tunisian singer-songwriter Emel Mathlouthi and just enough of a rhythmic drive to keep you twitching through the after-effects of your evening, and also that it’s very lovely.

The rest of the A-side largely dispenses with anything resembling a beat, and on two of the tracks Moore’s synths are paired with the twinkly (but thankfully not twee, or at least I don’t find it so) harp of Mary Lattimore. The B-side is entirely taken up with the evocatively titled My Time Among The Snake Lords, which clocks in at fifteen sprawling minutes, starting out in glacial ambient mode, picking up a little bit of a sparkle as it goes along, and then about halfway through gaining a bass guitar line which I have to admit is a teensy bit too bushily moustachioed for my taste but which doesn’t spoil the vibe too much.

In conclusion I give this album “pretty nice stuff to kick back to” out of ten, but I give the first track “aw, dude, I want to be in a field full of weary ravers so much right now” out of ten, and it’s worth buying on the strength of that (and, yes, I did just cheat and go back and listen to it again after the record had finished).

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

UnicaZürn: Sensudestricto (LP, Touch, April 2019)

UnicaZürn are Stephen Thrower out of Coil and David Knight out of Shock Headed Peters, and Sensudestricto is a mix of moody ambient and pulsating psych-tinged drone. Across four long tracks (five on the digital streaming version) they pull an impressive array of blarps, bloops, squishes, and swirls out of what sounds like mostly analogue synth kit, plus the occasional flourish of sax. It’s one of those records that keeps evolving in small but satisfying ways, and overall it’s rather captivating.

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

Deaf Center: Low Distance (LP, Sonic Pieces, March 2019)

Previously, on “dogrando writes about some records”… Eight (8!!!) years ago, Deaf Center’s Owl Splinters was a pretty big deal in these parts. It had some fine examples of the kind of close-miked solo piano sound that was very popular back then, and some excellently spiky string numbers, and helped to define a distinctive movement in music (for me, at least). Since then, I’ve enjoyed a few releases by Otto A Totland and Erik K Skodvin individually, but this is their first proper album as a duo in that time. (There was the 2014 mini-album Recount, which I passed on for reasons I now forget.)

Things have changed a bit in that interval. For one thing, that close-miked solo piano sound got kind of played out a while back, and while there is plenty of piano here, it’s always in combination with other elements. To my ear, this is Deaf Center’s most sinister release yet (although some of Skodvin’s Svarte Greiner stuff gives it a run for its money). Somehow, the intimacy of the piano (which I last encountered on Totland’s 2014 album Pinô) seems to enhance the strangeness of the tortured strings and the atmospherics. Or else, the ominous rumblings add an edge and a power to the piano (check out the end of Gathering, say).

All of which is a pretty long way of saying: if you like music that lurks in that space between dark ambient and modern classical, you should love this, because it’s great… but, then, I mean, duh: it’s a Deaf Center record, and a good one, you didn’t need me to tell you that.

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

Rian Treanor: Ataxia (2LP, Planet Mu, March 2019)

This is pretty exciting. The sound palette is heavily rave-inspired, but the methodology is all glitch. The drums are glitchy; the punchy little synth melodies are mostly glitchy; on the handful of tracks that have synthesized or sampled vocals, they are glitchy. (One minor quibble I have with this record is that, if the title is a reference to the experience of trying to dance to it, I think it’s in slightly poor taste.) This is the sort of thing that can become pretty grating pretty quickly if it’s not executed well, but here it is done excellently. To pick a random highlight, I love the aggressively cut-up vocal part on track B2, and the way it counterpoints with the drum line is just spot on… there are many moments like this. Like the brilliantly fractured hardcore of D1, complete with Juno-esque chord stabs and squeaky bat-fart noises. Superb stuff.

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

JAB: Erg Herbe (LP, Shelter Press, March 2019)

In my formative years, the term “new-age” was pretty much an insult. In Thatcher’s Britain, you could revel in the spirit of corporate greed or you could rail against it, but either way the concept of any kind of cosmic harmony seemed hopelessly naive. Well, times change, and these days secular spirituality is quite on trend — and as I’ve matured I’ve certainly learnt to embrace my inner hippy. But I still find myself baulking at the associations my mind throws out when I hear that term “new-age”.

Maybe that needs to change. I mean, I loved the record that Laraaji did with Sun Araw back in 2016, right? And, let’s be honest, plenty of ambient music owes a debt to good old-fashioned new-age. So I think I’m going to try to overcome my mental block. I mean, so long as it has a wee bit of an experimental edge to it, you know? I don’t think I’m ready to go full-on tie-dyed flabby dope-haze music just yet.

Aaaanyway. Here is John Also Bennett (last seen in these parts in a rather charming Zin Taylor-inspired collaboration with Christina Vantzou) with his long hair and his lovely beard and his flutes and his oscillators and his Farsifa and whatnot, making his solo debut. And, yes, much of it really should be classified as “new-age”. And, yes, it does have an experimental edge. And, you know what? Yes, it is really very good. It’s soothing (but not in the least bland), it’s got a touch of exoticism (without falling into the trap of tacky orientalism), and it’s the perfect kind of music to float away to. Oh, and just to avoid any accusations of taking itself too seriously, the artwork (which is by Zin Taylor again) centres on a psychedelic chameleon in what appears to be a rather funky hat.

I bought this from the label’s bandcamp site.

William Basinski: On Time Out Of Time (LP, Temporary Residence, March 2019)

William Basinski has a remarkable ability to seemingly distil the essence of a moment in time and stretch it out to epic durations. So it seems appropriate for him to tackle the subject of black holes, where gravitational time dilation means that (to an outside observer) a clock will appear to slow and stop as it approaches the event horizon (as any fule know). On Time Out Of Time features an audio conversion of data from LIGO’s ground-breaking gravitational wave detection events, which is pretty darned exciting. (Basinski, who is surprisingly feisty when he’s not actually engaged in the serious business of time-stretching and the like, describes this as the sound you get “when two black holes fuck”.)

The result is 39 minutes of ethereally delicate ambient music that really does seem to float out of time. (The vinyl has two 19-minute tracks, On Time Out Of Time and On Time Out Of Time (The Lovers). The digital release has a single 39-minute version, plus a 10-minute bonus track which I don’t really think adds much.) I described 2017’s A Shadow In Time as “Basinski’s subtle magic at its strongest”. It’s just possible that he might have outdone himself again here.

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

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.