Maria W Horn: Epistasis (LP, Hallow Ground, October 2019)

At last! I’ve been, ah, rinsing this since it came out digitally back in October, but I’ve been holding off on writing about it until I got hold of my vinyl copy, which took a while. It was worth it, since it has unusually helpful sleeve notes.

Anyway, this is a kind of magical record, one which makes fantastic things happen out of tiny moments. The first of these happens a little bit less than two minutes into the ten-minute opening track, Interlocked Cycles I, a piece for Disklavier (an electromechanical player piano) and synthesis. It’s been playing a simple, almost naive little piano line, with some only-just-there synth washes, and then this new synth noise wells up a little louder, and there’s an unexpected note in the melody, and… well, it’s kind of hard to describe, but it makes me catch my breath a little whenever I hear it, and I guess that’s the magic.

The rest of the A-side is taken up with the title track, which Horn describes as an eight-voice double string quartet: the quartets are each violin, viola, cello, and electric guitar, with Horn on viola, I think we can deduce from the notes. It’s a slightly eerie piece, full of strange resonances. Quoting from the sleeve again, it “utilizes evolving progressions in F minor, the idiom being inspired by the sound and harmonic structure of doom and black metal music from the early nineties”, which isn’t something I would have picked up on in a million years, but which makes a great deal of sense. (There’s a slight resemblance to Anna von Hausswolf here, at least in terms of the ideas going on here if not in terms of the actual sounds laid down.)

By this kind of logic it is, of course, a small step from early nineties doom and black metal to the tintinnabuli technique of Arvo Pärt, which is the cited inspiration for Konvektion, the first track on the B-side. This is the most minimal work on the record, consisting of long chords held on the organs and those feather-light synthesized notes again, with all the business going on in the harmonics and resonances. If that makes it sound dryly theoretical then I’m sorry, because it has a kind of hypnotic appeal.

The final track is Interlocked Cycles II, which is the slightly darker twin of the opening number.

Huh, I’ve gone on for ages about this record, and I still feel like I’ve only just scratched it’s surface. It’s a thing of subtlety and beauty that combines seemingly simple elements to quietly spell-binding effect.

I bought this from the label’s Bandcamp page.

A Winged Victory For The Sullen: The Undivided Five (LP, Ninja Tune, November 2019)

I had an odd feeling of crossing-the-streams with this album. I listened to a bunch of Ninja Tune stuff in the mid-90s, mostly instrumental and alternative hiphop and breaks, but I think of that as a part of my musical past. So for the third album proper from Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran, who could be said to exemplify a big chunk of where I’ve been musically for the current decade, to come out of Ninja… it was a bit like discovering that two people you know in completely different spheres are actually top chums.

Anyway, onto that actual record. If you’re into the whole modern-classical/ambient-drone thing, then it’s basically a big comforting hug. I mean, I guess that, if I wanted to be super-critical, I might say that this drifts a little bit into the second side — except that drifting is pretty much this music’s raison d’être, so maybe what I mean is that those little moments of magic that make it special as a smidgeon too far apart. When it comes down to it, I don’t think they’re ever likely to get me as excited as I was about their 2011 debut, which remains an absolute classic, but this is still pretty fine stuff.

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

Shida Shahabi: Shifts (LP, 130701, November 2019)

I’ll admit that my first thought on hearing the opening track here, Futō, was that maybe it was overdoing the whole close-miked piano thing a wee bit, as the creak of the mechanism was so up front in the mix. But that was soon forgotten, displaced by my second and more lasting thought: this is blooming lovely.

Iranian–Swedish Shahabi’s intimate and evocative piano playing is accompanied by cello by Linnea Olsson, with a subtle touch of synth and electronics from Shahabi herself. I’d file this record under “modern classical with a touch of ambient/drone”, and while it may not stray far from the genre template, it easily stands out from the common herd for its melodies, which are unshowy but somehow worm into your subconscious in that way that makes you feel you’ve known them for years, and the superb playing. An all-to-brief 25 minutes, it is tender, with a quiet touch of sadness, but ultimately gently uplifting, this has been brightening up a cold and damp London winter enormously.

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

Octo Octa: Resonant Body (2LP, T4T LUV NRG, September 2019)

Aw, now, this is just deliriously good stuff. It’s acidy housey breaksy rave and, well, I’m not sure whether she was even born in ’92, but Maya Bouldry-Morrison knows her stuff. There’s all the right bloops and squelches, there’s Korg piano, there’s even a motherflipping hoover. Best of all, there are dangerously infectious vocal samples, cut up just the right amount. No, best of all is the production, which is absolutely note-perfect and just soooo damned pleasing. (Check out the way that Spin Girl, Let’s Activate! just goes ahead and slows everything down halfway through, and then brings it back up to speed. It’s utterly outrageous, but somehow here it makes total sense.)

I tried to list my highlights, and ended up with more that half of the tracks here. Move Your Body vies with the aforementioned Spin Girl, Let’s Activate! for the crown of absolute giddy banger. The breakbeat workout of Ecstatic Beat is impeccably rendered. Can You See Me? is perhaps the most straightforwardly delightful. And then there’s the ridiculous yet highly lovable album closers Power To The People, which somehow reminds me of Ricardo Villalobos’s remix of Señor Coconut’s Electrolatino, except way less minimal, obviously. Only one doesn’t quite “land” for me (the ambient My Body Is Powerful just seems a bit unnecessary). That’s a pretty impressive hit rate, especially given the range of material.

Actually, I’ve changed my mind: what’s best about this record is that, despite the obvious danger, this is very far from a cheap retro pastiche: this is a record with genuine depth and warmth. It’s a giddy head-rush in places, but it leaves me feeling satisfied, and you can’t say fairer than that.

I bought this from Rough Trade. They call it Techno.

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.

Merzbow & Vanity Productions: Coastal Erosion (LP, iDEAL, July 2019)

Ah, noise. Lovely, cleansing noise. Once in a while, I find this stuff does me the world of good. Merzbow (Japanese veteran Masima Akita) is on splendid form here, assuming you think that ear-shredding howls of electronics and squeals of tortured static are amenable to the appellation of “splendid”. Vanity Productions (Christian Stadsgaard, a Dane whose work is new to me) provides an effect counterpoint with washes of soothing ambient synth — a combination that works remarkably well, the two elements subtly enhancing each other. On the 18-minute A-side, called Erosion Japan, Merzbow is the dominant force, with Vanity Productions some way back in the mix but somehow insistently holding his own. On the 16-minute B-side, called — have you guessed it yet? — Erosion Denmark, the roles are somewhat reversed. Both are powerful works which, despite the theme implied by the title and the cover art, I find strangely calming. Even if my ears are still ringing a little bit.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic.

Rafael Anton Irisarri: Solastalgia (LP, Room 40, June 2019)

It came as a surprise to me when I realized I actually only own two records by Rafael Anton Irisarri. It Falls Apart, the 2010 release from The Sight Below, was a pretty cracking record, and it caught me at a formative moment in my listening journey, and I guess he’s felt like a part of my musical makeup because of that. But the only one of his solo releases I have is 2016’s A Fragile Geography. Quite remiss of me.

Anyway, here we are again, and it’s another cracker. This is more of his big swooshy fuzzy ambient. There are bits that remind me of classic Fennesz, bits that hark back to the shoegazier sound of The Sight Below, and some little touches like a echoey distant clattering and the gentle plinking at the start of Kiss All The Pretty Skies Goodbye which I can’t place but which I find strangely bewitching. And Irisarri is an absolute master of this stuff — check out album closer Black Pitch and the way the soaring melody’s pitch wobbles just fractionally like a record that’s been warped in the heat: it’s subtly done and somehow only emphasizes the track’s epic intensity — and who cares about cataloguing influences when it sounds so damned good?

(Strange thing: The digital streaming version of this album appears to have the six tracks individually, and then a single 38-minute track called Solastalgia (Suite One) which contains the same music all over again, including the track breaks and everything. Not sure why.)

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

Fabio Orsi: Sterminato Piano (LP, Backwards, June 2019)

For a while now there’s been a slow but steady resurgence of form of music that, for want of a better term, I’m going to call kosmische. You know the kind of thing: analogue synths, or good emulations if not, sequenced into big fat motorik swirls of sound. At it’s best, it can be rather lovely: warm, immersive, and satisfying (check out the 2017 release Synthwaves by Tangerine Dream’s Quaeschning & Schnauss, say). At it’s worst, it can be derivative and dull, lazily using the instant nostalgic appeal of the sound palette to mask the fact that it really has nothing very interesting to say.

You can see where this is going, I’m sure: this record really is a supreme example of the breed. There are two tracks, clocking in at just under 15 and 19 minutes respectively, with Orsi on synths, sequencer, and field recordings. And both are fantastic from start to finish. Just check out the opening bars of the A-side, Amai Il Vento, for heaven’s sake: a simple sequence of a handful of notes repeats, but the dynamics are to die for, a sinuous spiral of filter-driven goodness winding infectiously through the melody that lifts it from the pretty to the magnificent. And then that building, building intensity, without ever losing that deftness. This is maximalist music made with a minimalist’s attention to detail. I’m no musicologist and I’m no poet and I’m not really doing justice to this so go stick some headphones on and just click that play button. You can thank me later.

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

Richard Skelton: Border Ballads (CD, Corbel Stone Press, May 2019)

Ooh, a new Skelton! I loved 2010’s Landings and 2012’s Limnology but none of his more recent works quite made it onto my radar (I think they were mostly pretty low key?). Well, this one emphatically did, and it is cracking. It was recorded, as you might have guessed, in the Scottish Borders, and is as evocative of time and place as we’ve come to expect. In a new development (or new to me, at least), those droning strings are complemented by some delicate piano on a few of the tracks here, played in a style that somewhat reminds me of Deaf Center’s Otto A Totland. Oh, but check out the three repeating melodic fragments in Roan. Or the gently evolving strings of Kershope, which seem to conjure a mournful longing and a gentle hope in equal measure. Or any of the other tracks, to be honest. Simply gorgeous.

I bought this from the label.

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.