Tim Hecker: Konoyo (2xLP, Kranky, September 2018)

I have a bad habit of using Tim Hecker comparisons in this blog as kind of a lazy shorthand for a really full kind of ambient drone, the sound that fills the spectrum, fills the sound-stage, and fills every last cubic millimetre of your brain cavity with a giant pulsating fuzz monster. This is largely based on a phenomenal 2010 live show and on 2011’s brilliant Ravedeath, 1972. And it’s kind of embarrassingly out of date: with its moments of sparseness and its recognizable instruments 2013’s Virgins was quite different, and 2016’s Love Streams even more so. (I’m not sure whether it’s because that gig had made such an impression on me that I couldn’t get my head around the change of direction, or what, but I didn’t rate either of those two albums enough to actually buy them.)

Well, maybe this is the record to change all that for me. It has intense wall-of-sound bits, but also plenty of stripped-back bits, actual quiet bits. The ‘recognizable instruments’ element here consists of the Japanese courtly form Gagaku, played by the members of Tokyo Gakuso on hichiriki, shō, ryūteki, and uchimono (percussion), plus Kara-Lis Coverdale on keys and Mariel Roberts on cello. But you still shouldn’t come here looking for a rollicking good melody: the key elements here are the texture and the dynamics. And while, okay, I obviously don’t adore this like I adore Ravedeath, it is a very pleasurable chunk of noise, especially the serene 15-minute closer Across To Anoyo. And you know what? Despite the more restrained and collaborative approach, this sounds not really Western or Eastern but very very recognizably Tim Hecker.

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

Christina Vantzou: No. 4 (LP, Kranky, April 2018)

Christina Vantzou keeps us on our toes here. Glissando for Bodies and Machines in Space is all sighing voices and synthesized hums. Percussion in Nonspace is sparkling little number of delicate chimes. At Dawn is a generously-processed string drone number (the cello is by Clarice Jensen whose For This From That Will Be Filled I was admiring recently). Doorway (the first track over three minutes in length) adds a spooky piano line to the strings. Some Limited and Waning Memory is a beautiful ambient synth number (the synths on this track are by Steve Hauschildt… I’m not going to namecheck all the collaborators here, but it’s an impressive list) coupled with a gentle piano melody (and some more sighing vocals harking back to the first track). And so on. Even though the second half of the album is mostly drawing from the same set of elements, I’m struck by how each track seems to create a distinct sense of place, from the desolate moor my mind conjures up for Staircases (plangeant strings and an almost Satie-esque piano line) to the abandoned warehouse of Sound House — or perhaps that should be derelict cathedral, since it ends with about twenty seconds of the wonkiest requiem mass you’ve ever heard, a moment which is jarring but somehow works brilliantly. Basically, Vantzou shows huge invention (with everything except her album titles: this is her fourth release on Kranky, and there are no prizes for guessing what the first three were called), a fantastic control when marshalling the talents of her musicians, a wonderful sense of texture, and a great knack for dropping in the perfect dose of melody at the perfect moment, and the whole thing is just delightful.

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

Pan American: Cloud Room Glass Room (CD, Kranky, April 2013)

There are times when what I really need is to listen to some people playing guitar very slowly, swathed in fuzz and echo, accompanied by a light dusting of percussion which sticks to the top end of the drum-kit, all brushed cymbals. This does the job very nicely. A nice balance of melody and atmospherics, very relaxing.

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

Grouper: A I A (2CD, Kranky, April 2012)

I’d never quite got Grouper (aka Liz Harris) before. I remember the fuss about 2008’s Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill, and at the time I didn’t quite see the attraction. After taking the plunge with this double album, though, I’m a fully paid-up fan. Let’s start with the more conventional half, Alien Observer: the music sounds roughly like a shoegaze band stuck down a treacle well, the mumbled vocals are quietly astonishing, sounding simultaneously echoingly distant and starkly immediate, and the effect is haunting, emotional, and involving. (There was a thing a while back where every other pop chanteuse was being described as Lynchian, apparently because they had a bit of a kooky 50s look and a bit of a woozy retro sound, and yes I’m looking at you Lana Del Rey. That thing was pretty annoying, right? But this, this has a good claim to be described as Lynchian… The Nightingale song from Twin Peaks wouldn’t be totally out of place here.) Dream Loss applies a dreamy ambient wash to the template, creating something more abstract but still essentially melodic. This could be pop music in some strange and beautiful alternate dimension. I think I’d like to live there.

I bought the deluxe re-issue of this from Boomkat. They call it Dark Ambient / Drone / Metal. (I’m not sure what’s deluxe about it. Incidentally, my copy appears to have a pressing error, and the labels on the two discs are the wrong way around.)

Tim Hecker: Ravedeath, 1972 (CD, Kranky, February 2011)

Within seconds of starting, Tim Hecker has turned it up to 11. You should turn it up, too: this assault of awesomely crunchy drone demands to be played loudly. (I hope the neighbours don’t mind — if they do, they might be too scared to complain.) It roars, it pulses, it stutters. I kind of feel like it exists outside of time, it’s one of those records which is too huge to admit a beginning or an end. (Does that mean that the listener is briefly immortal?) Brilliantly, it prominently features a church organ. Rave on.

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

Jonas Reinhardt: Powers Of Audition (CD, Kranky, March 2010)

This is a good deal sillier than most of the records I talk about here. It’s tempting to describe it as a guilty pleasure, but I don’t really feel very guilty about it. Reinhardt is all about the synths, and creates wonderfully warm analogue music with layers of synths and drum machines, plus a good unpinning of bass and an occasional sprinkling of guitar. The instruments are vintage, and so is the sound, which is a defiantly proggy krautrock. But it doesn’t sound particularly dated: there are modern rhythmic touches, and the production is very fresh. There is a nicely even tone to the record, with a driven tempo like a heartbeat that races through the more up-beat tracks but still pulses insistently in the more laid-back numbers. Great fun.

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

Brian McBride: The Effective Disconnect (CD, Kranky, October 2010)

Brian McBride is half of Stars Of The Lid (whose …And Their Refinement Of The Decline was a big hit in these parts), and The Effective Disconnect is the soundtrack to the documentary movie The Vanishing Of The Bees. I suppose that makes this drone music in two senses, and a lot of the tracks are indeed built around long slow string composition which could put me in mind of a distant hive. In the sleeve notes, McBride says ‘I hoped that the pieces would do justice to the “gloriousness of the bees” theme, striving for a more overt hopeful quality. But old traditions die-hard [sic] and the more hopeful side of the music was eventually subsumed by the more lamentable.’ Nevertheless, this does have some up-tempo moments (quite unlike anything I’ve heard from SOTL), especially the lively piano numbers: they aren’t quite The Flight Of The Bumblebee, but their sparkling trills definitely evoke their subjects idiomatic busyness. Elsewhere we get horns, heavily reverberated guitars, and on just one brief occasion the actual buzzing of bees. A very involving exploration of the space between ambient and classical.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Home Listening / Modern Classical / Ambient (and for once this makes real sense).

To Kill A Petty Bourgeoisie: Marlone (CD, Kranky, September 2009)

Intriguing and rather lovely. This record gives us sparse and heavily processed instrumentation which touches on a rather fuzzy, buzzy kind of laptop folk at times, and spirals off into drone at others. But it also gives us dreamy indie-pop vocals — and some pretty catchy tunes, too. If this sounds a bit like post-rock, say Electrelane maybe… well, I guess that’s not completely wrong, but it’s far from right. For one thing, the vocals are more delicate (Cocteau Twins being the most obvious comparison, although parts remind me of the woozier ends of Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks soundtrack). But mostly, the soundscape is a lot slower and a lot more manipulated. A lot more Kranky, in fact. When I first started listening to this, I worried the vocals would be too twee. But very often, a song will have two minutes of this — a rather warped pop song, but pop nonetheless — before the vocals fade out and the track spirals off into five minutes of a lush analogue hum. Which suits me fine.

Incidentally, the Kranky website tells us that To Kill A Petty Bourgoisie are Jehna Wilhelm on guitar and vocals, and Mark McGee on electronics and sound manipulation, plus a number of guest artists (presumably here supplying the frequent strings, at least).

I bought this from Boomkat. They say that this is Indie / Rock / Alternative.