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.

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.

Oren Ambarchi: Hubris (CD, Editions Mego, October 2016)

Oren Ambarchi has amassed a very impressive set of collaborators for this record — I shan’t list them here, you can get that and all sorts of technical information on the label’s site. Even more impressive is how he’s managed to weave all that together and end up with something not only cohesive but with a strong sense of Ambarchi’s own style.

The first track is a 22 minutes long and beautifully driving and hypnotic, bringing together elements of krautrock, techno, and disco grooves. There are a variety of guitar techniques and processes going on here, plus some electronic magic. One to lock in and lie back to.

The second track is a 2-minute palate-cleanser, dominated by heavily munged and cut up voices… I see why it’s there, but I have to admit I find it a little distracting.

The third track is 16½ minutes of sheer joy. It’s built around the same kind of looped guitar line as the first, but the surrounding matter is denser and more chaotic, starting with a sort of irregular percussion (that thing where there’s a couple of drum beats which are suddenly just a bit too loud is unmistakably Ricardo Villalobos) and progressing some lovely synth work from the mighty Keith Fullerton Whitman and thence to a total wig-out of a fuzzed-up guitar solo, jazzy and unhinged, the sort of thing which I would normally have no time but here it’s so superbly grounded by the discipline of those loops and it’s just soooo satisfying.

I bought this from the label.

I-LP-O In Dub: Communist Dub (2LP, Editions Mego, May 2015)

The more-elusive half of Pan Sonic doing Jamaican dub? Yes, please! This is Ilpo Väisänen’s first solo release in a decade. Some tracks are a sort of highly-abstracted dub, sparse things formed of hollow clanking sounds which you could imagine have been reverberating around the ghost of the Black Ark for years. Some tracks add in increasingly dense accumulations of skittering dancehall rhythms. Some tracks a sort of dub-inflected industrial noise, combining both the previous elements with the sort of fat buzzing sounds you’d associate with Pan Sonic. By the end, it’s achieved an unexpected intensity. It taken me some listening to get my head around it, but the overall effect is very satisfying.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic.

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.

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.

Fennesz: Bécs (CD, Editions Mego, April 2014)

This record was quite a surprise to me. I associate Christian Fennesz with a kind of ambient drone. On The Black Sea, for example, his guitar is mostly looped and processed beyond recognition to create a richly textured fuzz; on his collaborations with Ryuichi Sakamoto, he provides a similarly fuzzy backdrop to Sakamoto’s delicate piano twinkles. Here, well, here there are quite a lot of actual tunes. True, that trademark fuzz is there, but are actual recognizable melodies floating through it. Tracks like Liminality (aside: “liminal” is one of my favourite words) for example, sound somewhat like one of those buskers on the Underground who feeds their electric guitar through a box which adds a huge amount of distortion and reverb… except, you know, good, done with care for the layering and interplay so that it creates an effect of real mystery and emotional power. On the title track, there’s a tune which if frankly anthemic which is teetering on the brink of breaking free of the fuzz. Other tracks are more laid-back: Pallas Athene, for example, reminds me vaguely of a live guitar reinterpretation of a Leyland Kirby number. The closing number, Paroles, starts out as a relatively straight guitar tune, sort of country-ish in style I’d say, before the effects and the buzzing and the crackle start encroaching: it’s telling that, where I’d half expected that drone to take over and the album to fade out in a sea of noise, they actually stay in balance right to the end. This is an odd sort of a record, and it took me a while to get into it, but now I really like it. Plus, I never expected to hear a Fennesz record which gave me real honest-to-god earworms…

I bought this in Sister Ray, an actual shop.

Anthony Pateras: Errors Of The Human Body (CD, Editions Mego, February 2012)

This soundtrack to the indie body horror film of the same name is an accomplished bit of glitch-inflected modern classical. As an album, it is a qualified success. Shorn of their context, I find some of the more dramatic moments a little over-cooked (though I imagine they could be very effective in the movie). But on the whole I find it pretty engaging, and genuinely chilling in some of its quieter moments, such as the delicate Burton’s Lullaby. It even makes me want to see the film.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Soundtracks / Library / Early Electronic.