François J. Bonnet & Stephen O’Malley: Cylene (2LP, Editions Mego, September 2019)

In which Stephen O’Malley out of Sunn O))) and François J. Bonnet of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales in Paris’s National Audiovisual Institute have a beard-off. And the beards win.

You probably expect this is going to be a weighty business, and it is, but at the same time there’s an ethereal quality to it. A lot of the time, it’s all guitar-drone in the bass and floaty resonance in the top end, but it’s not quite as simple as that. However you analyse it, there’s a lot of power in the tension between the elements, and it rewards deep listening. The fourth side of the vinyl is a 15-minute track called Des pas dans les cendres (footsteps in the ashes) and its first half is kind of like the essence of a wintry night in a draughty castle (I recommend having a comforting blanket on hand for this bit) but its second half is kind of like the echo of a musty chapel and it’s a rather serenely magical ending.

(Fun fact: I once saw Sunn O))) at an All Tomorrow’s Parties festival. There was a heavily robed and hooded figure crouched at the front of the stage going “ommm” for much of the gig, and a very authoritative-sounding rumour was flying around stating that this was Julian Cope (who was also playing the festival), and an equally authoritative-sounding rumour that the first first rumour was nonsense. It was good, anyway.)

(As far as I know, my only previous encounter with François Bonnet was under his Kassel Jaegar alias, collaborating with Stephan Mathieu and Akira Rabelais on 2016’s Zauberberg.)

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

Norman Westberg: After Vacation (LP, Room 40, July 2018)

Ahhhhh! Swans-chappy Norman Westberg has been playing with his guitars and his effects pedals and has come up with a lovely sort of ambient drone thing which immediately sweeps you away in a sort of floaty haze. Little plucked melodies drift in and out of the gentle waves of texture. It reminds me a little bit of Mike Shiflet and High Aura’d’s Awake, although it’s a little less dense (by this analogy, the closing title track here, which introduces the most straightforward, open, acoustic sound of the record, would correspond to that album’s Covered Bridge, which I described as the clouds parting briefly). These are the kinds of record that create an oasis of peace in our busy lives, and I say yay for that. An understated gem.

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

Aclds: Fuadain Liesmas (CD, Entr’acte, January 2018)

I want you to imagine a giant robot, lost in a world it does not understand, holding a more aleatoric Morton Subotnick in one hand and a noisier Autechre in the other hand and trying to figure out how they work, while the mad scientist who built this poor creature plays fragments of The Caretaker and Stars Of The Lid to try to sooth it. That’s not what this record sounds like, but it’s the best I’ve got, so let’s go with it. There are walls of buzzing noises, torrents of blips and pops, and echoes of sad, droning melodies. There are also surprising moments of subtle beauty. Can a perfectly positioned and executed click be beautiful? I don’t know what weird mind tricks it’s playing, but this album makes me think the answer is yes.

I bought this from the label.

Anna von Hausswolff: Källan (Betatype) (12″, Touch, November 2016)

What with the excellent recent records from Claire M Singer and Bethan Kellough, Touch have been on a pretty stunning run of form recently, and this release absolutely keeps up the good work. As with Solas, the composer is doing some awesome melodic drone work on a pipe organ, in this case the astonishing Acusticum organ at Piteå — but there the similarities end, as the other instruments here are electric guitars and percussion, of a suitably epic post-rock/post-metal persuasion. This is basically one 21-minute track split across the two sides, and frankly it’s a bit of a monster. (It’s not too surprising to learn from a Quietus interview that the staff at Lincoln cathedral were very nervous about letting her use their aging Henry Willis organ because they thought she’d break it.) This combination is new on me, and it’s hugely entertaining.

I bought this from the label.

Jon Mueller: Tongues (LP, Rhythmplex, May 2016)

You may want to be sitting down for this one. Right from the start of the A-side (the 15-minute long How You Look When You’re Not Looking) we’re thrown into some seriously heavy ritualistic shit. According to the liner notes, Mueller “conceived” this (it’s hard to believe that it’s scored) and plays bass drums, voice, and percussion; the great Cory Allen plays harmonium, tanpura, and “ceremonial breath”; and William Ryan Fritch plays a sarangi using a prepared piano as a sounding board… as you do. Overall, the effect is of dense, swirling layers of chanting, droning, “huh”ing, tribal-sounding drumming, and droning. It’s really powerful, and really good. The B-side (the 19-minute What I Thought You Said) starts off more gently with a tinkling of chimes and a clanking of pipes and then a sort of groaning monotonous bassy chant (which somehow puts me in mind of throat singing without actually being anything of the sort), but gradually builds up the layers and is possibly more potent for that. It also features a striking bit of insistent whispering, which is a bit like Goblin’s soundtrack to Suspiria only without the high camp. I felt a bit dizzy after experiencing this once. In, like, a good way. (Listening recommendation, other than the bit about sitting down: make sure you have good stereo separation. When I’m not using headphones, I find sitting on a cushion on the floor right up near my floorstanding speakers to be a good choice.)

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

Giacinto Scelsi, Chris Watson & Joe Browning: Scelsi EP (LP, SN Variations, March 2016)

The first side consists of a Duo for Violin and Cello by Giacinto Scelsi, a drone piece with just a tiny leavening of melody, excellently played by Aisha Orazbayeva and Lucy Railton. It’s got a mystical power to it and it’s quite subtly uplifting, excellent stuff. On the flip side are two Scelsi-inspired works. Chris Watson’s Invertebrate Harmonics is, for the first two minutes, essentially a drone piece made from field recordings of insects; for the rest, a mysterious resonant sound that certainly sounds synthesized joins the swell. And Joe Browning performs Buddhist monk standard Honshirabe on a shakuhachi (which, as you know, is a Japanese end-blown flute). Both are fascinating in their own right and excellent companions to the Scelsi.

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

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).

Jóhann Jóhannsson with Hildur Guðnadóttir and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe: End Of Summer (CD+DVD, Sonic Pieces, December 2015)

This release was pretty exciting to me, given my feelings about all the protagonists: Jóhann Jóhannsson’s The Miners’ Hymns was one of my albums of 2011, Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Leyfðu Ljósinu was one of my albums of 2012, and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s FRKWYS collaboration with Ariel Kalma, We Know Each Other Somehow, is bound to be on the shortlist for this year. Let’s talk about the music first. Guðnadóttir is crediting with cello and voice, Lowe with synths and voice, and Jóhannsson with electronics. (Those voice credits are more reason for me to get excited, since the distinctive vocal work was a big part of the attraction of both Leyfðu Ljósinu and We Know Each Other Somehow.) The first two of the four tracks focus mostly on the cello: Part 1 is a straight-up drone work with all the business happening in the harmonics, Part 2 a little more melodic while still suitably glacial, and obviously I lapped this up. The second two focus mostly on the vocals: Part 3 leads out with Lowe’s pleasingly strange nasal chanting, before being lifted by purer tones provided (I think) by Guðnadóttir, while Part 4 goes full transcendental with layered harmonics from Guðnadóttir which remind me a little of the bits of Ligeti used in the trippy end section of 2001, with Lowe adding extra richness later on. I was pretty much bound to say this, but this is a truly wondrous 25 minutes of music.

This is the soundtrack to Jóhannsson’s 30-minute movie, which is on the DVD here. This is filmed in Antarctica, at (of course) the end of summer, on a “very slow 35mm film stock — used in the old days for filming title cards — which was cut down to super 8 format”. (He says that this film no longer exists, but he doesn’t say what it is: enquiring geeks want to know!) It consists of long, stationary shots of wildlife, icebergs, etc. The results are a naturally lo-fi, and mostly very high contrast, giving the whole thing a strangely otherworldly appearance. The black and white of the penguins in long-shot turns into a kind of abstract art, while the seaweed on the rocks under the seals looks decidedly alien. It’s not exactly revolutionary, but it’s pretty and interesting and goes well with the music.

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

Gabriel Saloman: Movement Building Vol. 2 (LP, Shelter Press, October 2015)

If I have one complaint about this album from (sorry) the less well-known half of Yellow Swans, it’s simply that at 31 minutes it’s too short. Otherwise, it’s magnificent. It’s primarily guitar drones and percussion, although for much of the first part of the record it sounds like the guitar is being bowed or scraped somehow. Album opener Contained Battle / Ascend features a sort of wondrous howling over a tribal drumming. Ear Piercer and Mountain Music are dominated by sparse, abstract percussion — resonant chimes, which create a powerfully ritualistic feeling, feature strongly on the former, and a heavy bass drum on the latter. The climax is reached on the 11-minute Gagaku, which slowly becomes more densely layered until, at about the 6-minute mark, a warm, fuzzy guitar melody gently appears: that particular noise inevitably invokes the mighty Christian Fennesz, although this is definitely late-period anthemic Fennesz à la Bécs, and powerfully uplifting it is too. The closing track is a little bit different: it’s seemingly a heavily-processed take on a Miles Davis recording of My Funny Valentine, all vinyl crackle and submerged dynamics and woozy trumpet, it’s very Leyland Kirby, not at all gimmicky, and strangely affecting. All in all, a fantastic record, warm and approachable despite its experimental nature, that leaves me wanting more.

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

Kreng: The Summoner (CD, Miasmah, January 2015)

This is one of those records I love a little more every time I hear it. The opening is almost unbearably quiet, there’s something tiny rustling in there that you strain to hear. Of course, this is an obvious set-up so you jump when the big scary noises happen. It’s a move straight out of the horror movie rulebook, and that’s an obvious influence here. The label’s blurb references György Ligeti, but I think a more apt comparison is actually Krzysztof Penderecki, and obviously I’m basically thinking of the screeching strings of The Exorcist here. There’s also a touch of the Pan Sonics to the powerful rumbling bass swells. Together, that’s a pretty potent combination. The tracks are almost named for the five stages of the Kübler‒Ross model of grief — I say almost because I don’t remember The Summoning coming between Depression and Acceptance. That track features Amenra, who wikipedia tells me are a Belgian post-metal band (so I’ve learnt about a new genre today, which is nice), and who bring an impressively doomy guitar sound and the closest we get to vocals, in the form of some black metal style screeching. While not subtle, this is a hugely accomplished piece of work, every note and every effect feels vital (this is a big step forward from 2011’s Grimoire, whose black humour and theatrics feel slightly cheap by comparison). The three-and-a-half minute closing track is an atmospheric piano number, and the subtle key changes shifting between major and minor are just perfect.

I bought this from the Sonic Pieces / Miasmah store.