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.

Erik K Skodvin & Rauelsson: A Score For Darling (Sonic Pieces, March 2018)

Is it weird to buy soundtracks for films you’ve never seen and basically have no interest in seeing? I dunno. Anyway, I kind of impulse-purchased this, what with it being limited edition and all. I’ve never met an Erik K Skodvin (Svarte Greiner, Deaf Center) record I didn’t like, and Raúl Pastor Medall aka Rauelsson has good pedigree (solo album also on Sonic Pieces, collaboration with Peter Broderick). Oh, and it’s got Anne Müller playing cello on it, and the final track has Otto A Totland aka the less prolific half of Deaf Center playing piano. This is 15 short pieces (most of them are under two minutes, and the longest under four), mostly for strings with occasional ominous bassy rumblings, very much the drone end of the modern classical spectrum, although much of it does have a kind of insistent rhythmic pulse pushing it along. It is, of course, impeccably produced (sound design is by Skodvin and mixing mostly by Medall). And, although I have to admit there’s nothing revolutionary here, it is rather lovely.

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

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.

Jasmine Guffond: Yellow Bell (LP, Sonic Pieces, Jan 2015)

This one is right on the cusp of the modern classical / ambient thing. Strings and electronics blend seamlessly together to shimmering, atmospheric effect. The sleeve notes explain that the title refers to “an ancient Chinese tradition… of a fundamental tone that relates to society’s place in the cosmic order”: while I don’t think there are any actual bells on the record, there is definitely a sort of sustained resonance running through it. Composed, recorded, and produced by Guffond, and mastered by the ubiquitous Nils Frahm — and, in this limited vinyl edition, attractively packaged with a fabric insert in the sleeve — it’s all very nicely put together. If I have one criticism, it’s that it sounds just a little bit too much like Grouper, especially on the occasional floaty vocal numbers (the album’s weakest points, for me)… and it lacks the magic of Liz Harris’s finest work (like, say, Alien Observer / Dream Loss).

I bought this from Norman Records.

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.

Otto A Totland: Pinô (CD, Sonic Pieces, Jan 2014)

From the first few notes, it’s obvious what this album is going to be like: delicate, intimate piano compositions, recorded with that close-miked sound which is Nils Frahm’s trademark. Handily, that’s a thing I really like, and it seems to have gone somewhat out of fashion, so this record — the debut solo album by the other half of Deaf Center — is very welcome. It’s really nice stuff, the sort of negative-space record where the expertly judged gaps between the notes are as important as the notes themselves. At 18 tracks in 42 minutes, it zips along, each leaving you wanting more. Truly lovely.

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

Dictaphone: Poems From A Rooftop (CD, Sonic Pieces, April 2012)

This record has a wonderfully fresh take on the modern classical template, and I can’t quite put my finger on what it’s doing. We get sonorous chimes, tinkling pianos, and atmospheric strings. We get some jazzy touches, like the soulful reed instruments and the percussion’s tendency towards soft brushes and hand-claps. We get a subtle washes of static, and snatches of samples. (There is one straight-forward vocal track, Rattle, and I have to say I find it jarring in this context.) The whole thing is gently propulsive, which makes a change, and there are some interesting tonalities at work. Whatever it does, I think it’s smashing. (Also, I approve of the film-geek-friendly track titles.)

I bought this directly from the label.