Tarquin Manek: Tarquin Magnet (LP, Blackest Ever Black, December 2015)

This starts out magnificently. Sassafras Gesundheit — quite apart from being an amazing title — is a 13 minute workout centred around an infectious circular melody on some kind of analogue-sounding synth, a jazzy burbling bass clarinet, and a kind of scratchy fiddling. This is all enhanced with a packed toybox of bangs, clanks, bloops, and squeaks. Plus, he’s riding the faders shamelessly. All in all, it’s deliriously good fun.

The other four tracks here are all a good deal sparser, and I have to admit that I struggle to find them engaging. The shorter ones (one is just 85 seconds) feel like interludes, and they’re all pretty effects-heavy. There’s plenty interesting going on, it’s just that it all feels like a little bit of a let down. But I don’t mind, because (let’s just say it again) Sassafras Gesundheit is pretty special.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic.

Milan Knížák: Broken Music (LP, Sub Rosa, October 2015) + Milan Knížák / Opening Performance Orchestra: Broken Re/Broken (CD, Sub Rosa, October 2015)

I have a bone to pick with the normally impeccable Sub Rosa concerning their re-release of Broken Music. They describe these pieces as being “widely regarded as important sound art documents”, which suggests that they are of only historical interest, and risks obscuring the important fact that they sound freaking amazing. As a rule, I don’t buy records of only historical interest, because they end up just sitting slightly sadly on a shelf. But I’d have been sorry to miss this stuff because — and this bears repeating — it sounds freaking amazing. Fluxus-chappy Knížák started doing bad things to records as part of happenings in the 60s: he’d smash them up and glue bits of them together, stick paper over them, scratch them, paint them, and then play the results, often destroying the needle in the process. The results, judging by this 1979 release, were pretty astonishing. There are sub-second snatches of classical, rock, soundtracks, spoken word, jazz, and more, each just about recognizable for what it is but cut off before my ear can properly glom onto it. This constant teetering on the brink of coherence makes it wonderfully dynamic, and combined with the mostly propulsive rhythm of the thing, the overall effect is quite exhilarating. I won’t deny that it’s age is apparent, but it’s none the worse for being a bit lo-fi, and the aesthetic is timeless: the obvious descendents of this music are people like Christian Marclay, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to draw a line from this to, say, breakcore. More importantly, though, this still sounds genuinely exciting.

Having said all which… There’s no denying that it’s this modern release, of a 2014 concert, which is the one that really blows me away. The first track, and my favourite thing here, is a 45-minute updating of the original Broken Music concept by Knížák and Phaerentz using broken vinyl, CDs, cassettes, and a keyboard. The advance of technology basically makes this a fuller realization of the concept: the palette is richer, the sound denser, and the recording fresher. If Broken was exhilarating, this is a pure adrenaline rush, bursting with tension and rhythm and drama. The second track is a 33-minute “contemporary reinterpretation” by the Opening Performance Orchestra for “5 laptops & fraction music”, and it’s just mind-blowing. This is turned up to 11 throughout, and the source material harder to discern under a thick layer of howling, clattering noise — although several of the first track’s samples are recognizable. More than anything else, this reminds me of an Aphex Twin gig from about 1999/2000… and, while I think it loses something in the translation to home-listening, anything that can make me feel like that must be doing something right. (Spoiler alert, though: they don’t drop Billy Jean or Take On Me.) The two tracks go really well together add up to a stonkingly good, powerful, exciting album.

(Incidentally, I somehow suspect that Knížák wouldn’t really approve of my take on his music. He seems quite belligerently anti-pop — he rather sniff says that the Christian Marclay “sounded to me like pop music”, something which his own “definitely isn’t”… although oddly I don’t remember Marclay troubling the top-40 all that often — and he might resent some of my references and possibly even the implication that I find his music rather fun. Naturally, I’m not going to let that stop me responding to the records the way I hear them.)

I bought both of these from the label.

Aris Kindt: Floods (LP, Scissor & Thread, November 2015)

There seem to have been a lot of new releases recently from artists whose previous records were big favourites of mine. Francis Harris’s Minutes Of Sleep was one of my albums of 2014, and Aris Kindt are Harris and his childhood friend Gabe Hedrick. This record is much more stripped back: the trumpet, cello, and piano are all gone, and we’re left with an 808, some synths, and Hendrick’s fuzzy guitar work. It has the same beautifully laid-back vibe and the feeling that Harris is perfectly in control of his sound. Much of it is a meandering and unusually warm dub techno, elsewhere a gentle kick drum hints at some kind of deep house. It doesn’t quite sweep me away the way Minutes Of Sleep did, but it’s still a really lovely, relaxing, absorbing listen.

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

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.

Max Richter: Sleep (Digital, Deutsche Grammaphon, September 2015)

So, yeah, a few things we have mention is that this is over 8 hours long, it was developed in collaboration with the celebrity neuroscientist David Eagleman, and you’re meant to sleep through it. Also worth mentioning is that it’s bloody lovely. There are 31 compositions for piano and string ensemble (which still average over a quarter of an hour long, maths fans), many of them variations on a handful of simple themes. If you imagine taking your favourite moments from, say, The Blue Notebooks and spinning them out to a geological timescale, this is roughly what you’d get. It’ll be no surprise if I say that this is an unusually unhurried affair: transitions which might take minutes in a regular work happen over tens of minutes here, giving the whole thing a sort of geological timescale. It’ll also be no surprise that this would be pretty frustrating if you sat down to just listen to the thing. But as something to doze to, or to have in the background while working, it’s relaxing, gently uplifting, and has moments of real beauty.

I bought this from iTunes, which is the only option mentioned on the label’s website, although I have since found that it’s now available for download on a variety of services. It’s also been released as a 9-CD box set… although, unless you happen to have a massive CD changer to load it all into, the latter option seems to slightly miss the point. And there’s a one-hour version that’s available on streaming sites and as a single CD, for the lightweights.

Akira Rabelais: The Little Glass (2xCD, Akira Rabelais, December 2015)

Harold Budd’s double CD Avalon Sutra was on the shortlist for my albums of 2014, and the highlight was the second disc’s 69-minute ‘remix’ by Akira Rabelais, As Long As I Can Hold My Breath (By Night). So I was really looking forward to this, a collaboration between the same artists, only now with Rabelais’s name on the tin. The first disc consists of four piano tracks, ranging in length between 19 seconds and 42 minutes. The short track is Begin Slowly And Curved Fingers, and it’s hard to have an opinion about it. The long track is Every Tone Is The Prism As Words, Any Unexpected Corners Must Be Slipped Away, and I have to admit that (whisper it!) it’s a little bit too sparse and minimal for me. I think that thing where you play a phrase and then let it fade out before dropping in the next works so well because there is an unresolved tension hanging in that gap. Here, the gaps are so long that the tension is allowed to dissipate. To be honest, if I’m not paying proper attention I find that I’ve often forgotten the last phrase by the time the next one comes along, so there’s no sense of connection between them. Which I find frustrating. The other two tracks are in between in length, less spaced out, and are both nice numbers but not spectacularly memorable.

So, as Boomkat predicted, it’s the second disc which is the real draw here. Once again, Rabelais has produced a 69-minute remix. This (the suitably epically titled The Resonators Are Very The Room, I Throw Light On In Giving A Part As Meaning And Beauty, Practical Exercises of One’s Pure Playing) is rather more distantly related to the source material than his work on Avalon Sutra, which was based firmly around looped pianos and strings: the instruments are hardly recognizable here. Interestingly, it pretty much exclusively occupies the treble register, which gives it a rarefied atmosphere which feels like you’d get dizzy if you breathe it too deeply. For me, it lacks the meditative magic of last year’s offering, but this is gossamer ambient of the highest quality.

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

Oiseaux-Tempête: Ütopiya? (CD, Sub Rosa, April 2015)

Over the last twenty-odd years, there have been many heinous crimes committed in the name of post-rock. This, however, is unashamedly post-rock, and it is stonkingly brilliant. It has quiet bits, with echoey guitars and ominous pianos and field recordings (including the obligatory street chatter with distant siren). It has loud bits, with heavy drumming and noisy angular guitars. It has vocal samples of a general left-wing protesty nature. Yes, it sounds a bit like Godspeed! much of the time (I really like Godspeed! by the way) and occasionally even like Slint (I like Slint, too). It’s also bursting at the seams creativity and energy and technical skill and emotional intensity. It prominently features a jazzy bass clarinet, which is a nice touch. One highlight is Ütopiya / On Living, which centres on two readings by G W Sok of poetry by the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, who spent much of his life imprisoned or persecuted for communism, who I hadn’t come across before but intend to investigate further (the verses are the third stanza of On Living, and It’s This Way). The CD version finishes with a 22-minute live recording called Palindrome Series: the recording is a touch muddy, especially noticeable after the spot-on production on the album proper, but it still really makes me want to go see them live. I guess this isn’t a very fashionable sort of record right now, but who cares when it is this good?

I bought this from the label.

Blond:ish: Welcome To The Present (CD, Kompakt, October 2015)

You know I don’t like to leap to judgements, but I’m going to go ahead and call it: this record from Canadian duo Anstascia D’Elene Corniere and Vivie-ann Bakos is the most exciting thing I’ve heard from Kompakt in, ooh, about a decade. It’s a blend of minimal house burblings (lead single Endless Games has a lovely Gui Boratto-ish warmth), laid back psychedelia, field recordings, and sampled vocals and traditional instrumentation from around the world. Done wrong, this could have been spectacularly annoying — even quirky. But I love every bit of this record. Its magpie-like attitude to sounds never strays into exoticism for exoticism’s sake, and everything seems to flow together effortlessly, to a really pleasing effect. It ends strongly, too, with the shuffling tech and rootsish vocals of Inner Jungle (the vocals are Sunru Carter), and the strangely wonderful It Starts Now which gives a talk on meditation and spirituality by Alan Watts a piano-led backing track and sounds far better than you could imagine that ever would. Every time I listen to this record I hear some new sound, and I’m impressed again by the skill with which it’s put together, and all in all it makes me very happy.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Techno / House.

Bing & Ruth: City Lake (CD, RVNG Intl, November 2015)

I utterly swooned over Bing & Ruth’s Tomorrow Was The Golden Age last year, and I wasn’t the only one. So I was pretty excited to learn that RVNG were re-releasing their 2012 debut. The same elements are present here: David Moore’s wonderful piano playing ranges from intense torrents of alternating notes to delicate simple melodies, there is a fuzzy ambient backing from the clarinets and the double basses, the odd synth hum and mostly wordless vocal, and those heart-breaking harmonies. It’s noticeably less polished than TWTGA, and the received critical opinion seems to be that this makes it a lesser work, but I’m not so sure: there’s a charm in the occasional rough edges. And I rather like the way this allows itself to rock out occasionally, most notably in the dissonant crescendo of Tu Sei Uwe, which brings the first half of the record to a raucous climax. I’d say this is equal bit different (which, of course, makes it very, very good indeed).

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic.