Mätisse: Kairos (CD, In Paradisum, January 2016)

Sometimes, I really don’t make life easy for myself. It’s very hard to know what to say about this record. There are two 18-minute tracks, but each is in several apparently unrelated parts. Along the way it incorporates (in no particular order) melodic synth music, sparse modern classical using a variety of different piano sounds (from the close-miked and intimate to the echoey slightly dissonant), abstract acoustic bass noodling, buzzy drone ambient, post-rock guitar, some weirdly resonant plucked instrument I can’t place, a combination of humming and bowed resonant chimes and throaty chanting seemingly suited to some kind of meditative ritual, jazz xylophone (!), aleatoric percussion, heavily processed chanting, and a dozen other styles and instruments which I either can’t remember or can’t name. Often, we get two of three of these at the same time, in frankly surprising combinations. Sometimes, things will seem to come to a climax and then peter out; other times, they’ll simply come to a halt. There’ll be a pause, and then something different will happen, with no obvious sense of progression. It’s all very strange, really. But here’s the strangest thing of all: somehow, they manage to make this all not just work, but sound quite natural. Not only are all the elements satisfying individually, but the whole thing manages to combine an elegant lightness of touch with a kind of almost devotional intensity, and I found myself keeping on coming back to it — and after four or five listens, I started to convince myself that there’s a sort of fractured subconscious logic to its structure. An early contender for the hardest-to-categorize record of the year, but an immensely rewarding one.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic (which is, frankly, a cop-out).

Erik K Skodvin: Flame (CD, Sonic Pieces, June 2014)

I have to admit, this isn’t what I was expecting. I’ve heard Erik K Skodvin in contemplative mode as half of Deaf Center, and in doom-drone mode as Svarte Greiner. This is a much looser business, with open, clattering percussion, abstract cello scraping and clarinet tootling, half-prepared-sounding piano, and on the one-minute-long near-title-track Flames a big reverby guitar roar like some kind of psychedelic blues. There’s something about the structure and composition of these tracks which make me want to call them jazz, although the sound is often from a richer classical palette. This takes elements of things that are familiar and appealing to me and does something new and interesting and hard to pin down, and that has to be a good thing.

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

Kreng: Grimoire (CD, Miasmah, June 2011)

So, yes, first of all: Pepijn Caudron has chosen to record under the name Kreng; the album is called Grimoire; the label is Miasmah; the sleeve is entirely black and grey, has a grainy headshot of what might well be a corpse on the front, and makes extensive use of a blackletter typeface… if you want to say “ha ha, goth!” then I will understand. And you might have a point: the first track is composed of scary-movie breathing and scratching noises, a rough buzzing sound, a hellish bassy throb, an ethereal swell of brass, and a posh British voice saying things like “let go of the Earth” and “go towards the light”, and it very much sets the tone for the whole record. Elsewhere, we get knocking sounds which could be a grandfather clock, a heartbeat, or the grim reaper beating at your door; spooky neo-classical drones focussing heavily on the lower end of the register (cellos, bassoons, and double basses abound); baroque chamber music getting slowly eaten away by a low-end distortion effect; funereal piano, courtesy of the seemingly ubiquitous Nils Frahm (who also mastered the album); shuddering, industrial percussion; Caretaker-style hauntology; what could be the introduction to a particularly bleak early Nick Cave number, only here the guitars never kick in and the vocals are replaced by throat singing; in fact, everything any fan of dark ambient / modern classical crossover music with something of the night about them could ask for. It’s constructed with great skill, and hangs together as a piece despite the range of styles. Obviously, I think all this is splendid. I guess the questions are: can we take it seriously, and are we meant to? For the most part, I find that I can, and in places find it genuinely sinister. There are elements — notably the operatic soprano, all dissonant runs and melodramatic portamento — which strike me as deliberate black humour (though really, who knows?). But, of course, there has always been an interesting relationship between horror and humour: by exaggerating the macabre to the point of ridicule, we are able to laugh at our fears… but in the end, we know that death with get the last laugh.

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

Jóhann Jóhannsson: The Miners’ Hymns (CD, Fat Cat, May 2011)

This is the Icelandic composer’s soundtrack to Bill Morrison’s film about the Durham mining industry, focussing particularly on the pageantry of the annual Big Meeting, a combination of a family day out, a political rally, and a concert for the pit bands. This melting pot theme is echoed by the music, which is a blend of church organs (the slow-building introduction reminds me of Philip Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi), brass bands, and subtle electronics (a grinding noise provides a gentle reminder of the industrial reality of this cultural phenomenon). It is echoes, too, in the mood, which is at once mournful and uplifting — never more so than in the sombrely stirring closing track The Cause Of Labour Is The Hope Of The World, which makes me want to raise my fist in salute while being painfully aware of the futility of the gesture. Fine work.

I bought this from Amazon (it was out of stock on my preferred sites, sorry).

A Winged Victory For The Sullen: A Winged Victory For The Sullen (CD, Erased Tapes, October 2011)

People laugh at me when I describe A Winged Victory For The Sullen as a post-classical/ambient/drone supergroup. Not quite sure why. To be fair, the description is stretching the point somewhat: both pianist/composer Dustin O’Halloran and Stars Of The Lids’ Adam Wiltzie are pretty super, but two hardly makes a group; however, the record does include greats such as Peter Broderick on the violin and Hildur Gudnadottir on cello, and some tracks were recorded by Nils Frahm… So I think I can get away with it.

Anyway. This music, unsurprisingly, combines the rich drone of Stars Of The Lid with O’Halloran’s delicate melodies. The strings are beautiful. And it is all perfectly recorded and mixed, in particular the piano, which seems to hover entrancingly just out of reach in front of me. The balance between these elements is subtle and perfectly judged, ebbing and flowing while never seeming in conflict. The effect is at once deep and accessible, and although there is a strong sense of yearning to this record it is hard not to describe it as ultimately uplifting.

I bought this from Juno. They describe it as Leftfield.

Danny Norbury: Light In August (CD, Lacies, June 2009)

Norbury combines delicate piano and soaring cello, and does so in a charmingly melodic fashion. He shows no ambition to soar to the heights or plumb the depths, but the music is sincerely emotional. If I sound restrained in my praise, it’s because this is possibly a little restrained for my taste. Reviews have compared it to Peter Broderick’s Float, but it lacks that works scale and cohesive structure, and is instead (as far as I can tell) a collection of ten chamber pieces. I first came across Norbury when Robag Wruhme used his Speak Memory to open his splendid Kompakt mix Wuppdeckmischmampflow. I’m disappointed that he seems more effective in that context than on his own album.

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

Various Artists: SMM: Context (Compilation CD, Ghostly International, February 2011)

I was pretty much sold on this compilation from the first three artists: Goldmund, Leyland Kirby, and Svarte Greiner are all favourites around these parts. The (previously unreleased) tracks are all as lovely as you’d expect. The downside is that lovely tracks is just what they are: call me an old rockist, but I find that albums from artists like these are greater than the sum of their parts, and that doesn’t happen here. Nevertheless, it’s a very appealing listen, and it works as a sampler (I’ll definitely keep an eye out for Christina Vantzou — who, I learn, is half of The Dead Texan, of which the other half is half of Stars Of The Lid). The only bum note, for me, is The Fun Years, whose contribution is just a bit annoying (but then I knew I didn’t like them). The record closes with the laptop Americana of Peter Broderick’s Pause, and that is truly something special

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Dark Ambient / Drone / Metal (which seems a bit too doomy to me).

Recomposed by Matthew Herbert: Mahler Symphony X (CD, Deutsche Grammophon, July 2010)

You’ve got to love Matthew Herbert for going the extra mile. Whereas Carl Craig and Moritz von Oswald, say, used Ravel and Mussorgsky as source material for their Recomposed offering, Herbert has clearly used Mahler as text for his. The work in question is the unfinished tenth symphony, a work which seems to be particularly obsessed by death. Herbert has responded to this by sampling a recording of the adagio being played on a car radio fitted into a coffin, over the speakers at a crematorium, and out of a hearse. He also had the viola solo played at Mahler’s grave, and recorded that. All of which was splendid marketing for the record — indeed, many people are probably sick of reading about it by now. Handily, the result is musically successful too. Though bracingly experimental, it is also powerfully melodic. Indeed, the glitchiness, often sounding like someone is twiddling the dial of an old fashioned radio, meant that I find myself appreciating the tunes all the more — whereas I find Mahler himself to be often too rich, so that my palate gets jaded, Herbert provides the light and shade required to keep me keen. I suppose you could say that it is this light and shade that gives Herbert’s work a genuine sense of drama where Mahler can err towards melodrama. The key, I think, is in the structure. Sometimes he plays it quite straight. Sometimes, he adds an ominous drone. Sometimes a sort of woozy distortion creeps in, like the record is slowly warping. Sometimes, wonderfully, the whole thing just stops abruptly, leaving the last note hanging in the air. The same fragments keep returning, subtly different each time. The effect is strange and hypnotic.

I bought this from Juno. As with its predecessor, they call it Leftfield, whatever that means.

Gavin Bryars and Juan Muñoz: A Man In A Room, Gambling (Complete) (CD, GB Records, 1992)

So, let’s start with the facts. This consists of ten works for string quartet, composed by Gavin Bryars and performed by the Balanescu Quartet, over which the Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz reads instructions on how to cheat at cards. In some of the later segments, occasion phrases are repeated by a confused-sounding Japanese man (Yukio Fujishima, of whom the internet knows nothing except this credit). The readings are phrased as if they form part of a series of 5 minute radio programmes. The aim was to create a feeling like the shipping forecast on BBC Radio 4.

Sounds kinda strange, right? Well, it is kinda strange, but it’s also kinda awesome. String quartets aren’t the sort of thing I’d go for normally — I’m not a big fan of chamber music, although I’d obviously take your Bryars over your Schuberts every time — but it works well here, the dynamics of the music subtly complementing the phrasing of the readings. Muñoz’s voice is rich and soothing. The overall effect is gently hypnotic. A deft touch is the way each segment starts with something like “Good evening, and welcome back to A Man In A Room, Gambling”: that “back”, which is present right from the first episode, makes me feel like I’m dipping into some continuous narrative. Despite the difference in subject matter, there is a sense that this is a kindred spirit of the shipping forecast: not being be a card sharp, I don’t fully understand the technical instructions, and the effect is like I’m eavesdropping on a communication not intended for me, yet deeply appealing in its rhythmic syntax and repeated formulations. (I should mention that I am, or at any rate used to be, a bit of a shipping forecast junkie.) This does get some strange looks if I play it with people around, but I really like it.

Carl Craig & Moritz von Oswald: Recomposed (Music by Maurice Ravel & Modest Mussorgsky) (CD, Deutsche Grammophon, October 2008)

In which the 2nd-generation Detroit deity and the more famous half of Basic Channel rip apart Ravel’s Bolero and Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, chuck in some old-skool drum machines and synths, and create a 64 minute techno megamix.

It’s possibly too easy to call this symphonic techno. Also slightly misleading, as neither of the source works are symphonies. But if we take “symphonic” in the sense of “symphonic rock”, it’s rather apt. The six-minute introduction is a lush orchestral swell, the sort of warm hug of a production that says “welcome in, you are in good hands here”. As it moves into Movement 1, it picks up a beat… the famous ostinato snare drum of the Bolero. The link with techno is quite obvious, and the next couple of tracks are based around this idea. It’s really rather nice, but I did find myself wondering how it would last over an album. Luckily, Craig and von Oswald change tack for Movement 3. It becomes more obviously techno, pinned by beats which, though analogue, are undeniably electronic. The source material is incorporated more subtly — von Oswald spent a long time in pre-production with the master’s of DG’s recordings with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, picking out individual elements — but it is nearly always there, and not as a gimmicky add-on but as the backbone of the mix. The mood varies (as I would hope and expect). At times, it’s quite banging (though never exactly dancefloor friendly). At others, it has a warm ambience. The Interlude between Movements 4 and 5 is pretty much Basic Channel style dub. Movements 5 is big and driving. Movement 6 is delicate, almost ethereal, the drums reduced to a soft clicking and a lilting violin melody drifting in and out of the mix. It’s all rather epic, very different, and generally smashing.

I bought this from Juno. They call it Leftfield, whatever that means.