UnicaZürn: Sensudestricto (LP, Touch, April 2019)

UnicaZürn are Stephen Thrower out of Coil and David Knight out of Shock Headed Peters, and Sensudestricto is a mix of moody ambient and pulsating psych-tinged drone. Across four long tracks (five on the digital streaming version) they pull an impressive array of blarps, bloops, squishes, and swirls out of what sounds like mostly analogue synth kit, plus the occasional flourish of sax. It’s one of those records that keeps evolving in small but satisfying ways, and overall it’s rather captivating.

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

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.

Claire M Singer: Solas (2xCD, Touch, June 2016)

Ooh, now this is really, really good. Claire M Singer, who is the musical director at the Union Chapel, has apparently been writing and performing for 14 years, but this is her first record. It’s really top notch classical drone stuff, with the traditional strings supplemented by some juicy work on the Union Chapel’s organ, and a decided celtic lilt to the tunes. Richard Skelton is one obvious reference, and a one track reminds me of Carter Burwell’s score for the Coen brothers’ Millers Crossing (which I love). The first CD has six tracks which range from the spiky to the pastoral to the upliftingly anthemic, and they’re all cracking. Given all that, you’d be disappointed (well, I would) if we didn’t get a 26-minute organ-based drone epic, and that’s exactly what appears on the second CD: The Molendinar really makes great use of its length, too, taking its time to develop and build without ever drawing things out for the sake of it: it’s a fantastic exhibit of superbly controlled power. Basically, this album combines a number of my favourite things, and does so tremendously well.

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

Bethan Kellough: Aven (CD, Touch, August 2016)

This is a short (28 minutes) but perfectly formed bit of intense atmospheric ambient. It’s made mostly of Kellough’s own droning string arrangements, field recordings (from Iceland and South Africa), and a bunch of processing. From the opening seconds you’d be forgiven for thinking this was going to be at the floaty end of the spectrum, but don’t be deceived: this is a tough, muscular work, evoking not just the wonder of nature but also its danger, and the suddenness of its changes of mood. Melody is used sparingly, and is all the more effective for it. The production is superb (especially since it was apparently recorded live). If pushed for references, some of the effects remind me of Ricardo Donoso — particularly the one where a crescendo of static like an approaching shock-wave hits you with a bang leaving wisps of echoing strings and crackle in its wake — and it’s no surprise to read that Francisco Lopez was involved in some of the field recordings, but overall this is refreshingly original (and the strings are better than Donoso’s). A hugely accomplished debut.

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

Fennesz: Mahler Remix (LP, Touch, January 2016)

In which Christian Fennesz applies the techniques he usually uses on his guitar to a bunch of recordings of fellow Austrian Gustav Mahler (and his guitar). This inevitably invites comparison with Matthew Herbert’s working over of the composer’s tenth symphony for Deutsche Grammophon’s Recomposed series. I have to say, the comparison does this work no favours: Herbert’s work was meticulously detailed, had a rich variety of tone, felt like it was interrogating and responding to Mahler’s work, and surprised and delighted me; Fennesz, it has to be said, sounds very much like Fennesz here, incorporating or even subsuming the source material into his own act (this is a live recording). Still, they say that comparison is invidious, so let’s put that aside… On its own merits, this is a very good Fennesz record, with all the lovely ambient fuzz you could hope for, with the occasional recognizable orchestral (or, once or twice, choral) swell adding a welcome extra dimension. It also incorporates bits of Liminality from 2014’s Bécs, which is nice.

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

Mika Vainio: Fe3O4 — Magnetite (CD, Touch, August 2012)

Mika Vainio treats us to another fine selection of sudden clunks, gut-wobbling buzzes, and long ominous silences. An obvious reference point would be his last album with Ilpo Väisänen as Pan Sonic. The comparison is interesting: this trades a little of Gravitoni‘s raw power for a little subtlety. You could almost say that this is the chamber music to Pan Sonic’s symphony. Certainly, the tracks here feel like self-contained experiments, or possibly even like variations of a theme (a sense heightened by the track titles: Magentotactic, Magnetosphere, Magnetosense, etc.). Of course, all things are relative, and this is still a fairly monstrous thing. Good work, noisy Finnish dude!

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic.

Hildur Guðnadóttir: Leyfðu Ljósinu (CD, Touch, May 2012)

Wow. Spell-binding. I know Guðnadóttir from Mount A, a fine collection of cello-centric drone-oriented modern classical pieces. This is on a whole other level. It is a live recording (with “no post-tampering”, according to a somewhat earnest sleeve note which is, in this case, entirely excused by the power of the music) with the composer on cello, vocals, and electronics. A 4-minute Prelude, with just the strings, establishes a sense of mood and place. The title track (which translates as Allow The Light) fills the remaining 35 minutes. It introduces a floating aethereal vocal which makes me catch my breath slightly every time I hear it. I don’t know if there are Icelandic words in there, or if it is just phonetic, but as these fragile elements are layered up they achieve a devotional intensity comparable to the likes of Henryk Górecki. Later, the vocals recede, and the cello playing becomes more urgent, its insistent repetition accompanied by a bassy rumbling. This is music that demands my attention, and leaves me feeling subtly renewed.

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

Hildur Gudnadóttir: Mount A (Touch, September 2010)

This is excellent, clever, involving modern classical. These compositions are largely for strings (there is a plenty of cello, which is always good for me), but there are also appearances by zither, gamelan, vibraphone, and some processed wordless vocal sounds. Gudnadóttir plays all these herself. The album has a quiet urgency about it — if it was techno, I’d probably call it propulsive. It has some sinister moments, some uplifting. (This is a remastered rerelease of recordings originally released in 2006 under the truly awful artist name “Lost In Hildurness”.)

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

Philip Jeck: An Ark For The Listener (CD, Touch, September 2010)

Like the best ambient works, two minutes into this record I feel like I’ve been listening to it for aeons. I mean that in a good way: it is a testament to its immersive, timeless quality. (A few other types of music can do this too me: interestingly — to me, anyway — I get it a lot with Bob Dylan’s really long tracks, things like Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands and Desolation Row.) There’s something about Jeck’s crackly vinyl textures that makes the whole thing sound like a distant memory of something long departed. This reminds me of Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking Of The Titanic: not surprising, I suppose, since Jeck manned the decks for the Touch recording of that piece. The two works also have shipwrecks in common, as this was inspired by a verse from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Wreck Of The Deutschland. Filled in with a heavily processed bass guitar, this is significantly more dense; and, having no recognizable voices, it feels considerably more cut adrift from humanity. I listened to this a couple of hours ago, and still there are moments echoing around my head: one, in particular, consists of a sad little chiming melody in the foreground, and a distant lonely howl. Cracking stuff.

There are two bonus tracks on the end, unreleased live material. I’m normally too much of a rockist to go in for such things, but then Jeck is way too much of a rockist to unthinkingly chuck any old spare parts on the end of his album. These are both real treats, in particular the final number, Chime, Chime (re-rung): this appears to be a sibling to Chime Again from 2008’s Sand, and with its coruscating peals of (I think) tubular bells it provides an enchanting and decidedly more uplifting conclusion to the disc.

I bought this from Juno. They describe it as leftfield, whatever that means.