SEEDBANK 1: An Envisioned Arctic in Biosphere’s Substrata

SEEDBANK is a sporadic review series highlighting recent history’s most influential, cultified and all-around masterfully crafted documents of experimental music, ranging from pioneering works to modern day classics. 


Substrata1Substrata (All Saints cover art, 1997)

Geir Jenssen’s long standing Biosphere project has changed directions a few times over the years, most notably from his second to third full-length proper, Substrata (originally released in 1997). Before its existence, Jenssen had already made a name for himself as a go-to artist of ambient-house and techno. While there is a notable move toward subtlety from Microgravity (1991) to Patashnik (1994)–namely, a dampening of the beat–it wasn’t until the release of Substrata that Jenssen fully embraced the minimalist ethos that he would bring to his most accomplished albums.

Jenssen is from Tromsø, a city contained within the Arctic circle that also happens to be the Northernmost point of Norway. Jenssen’s place of origin has played a considerable factor in his music, lending his particular minimalism an added edge, a coldness that would be different–if not entirely absent–had he lived anywhere else. Substrata‘s success is at least partly due to how unabashedly Jenssen channels the arctic through it, whether by use of field recordings or stark loops. Even the various album covers, and the album’s title, Sub-Strata, meaning below ground (likely in reference to permafrost), not only act part and parcel to the album’s central theme, but help guide the listener into the necessary headspace required to enjoy this music.

Peppered throughout the praise of Substrata is a number of ‘fans’ who cannot get on board with the popular opinion, claiming that the music is boring and largely ineffectual**. This opinion is not entirely without clout, as I can see how a fan who had tracked Jenssen’s work from the beginning might have been put off by Substrata’s stoicism. With the right approach, however, I believe even skeptics could find a lot to love here, or at least could gain a level of respect for how the work has helped change the face of electronic music.

Calming yet frigid, desolate yet inviting, Substrata is all about balance. Opener, “As the Sun Kissed the Horizon,” sets the tone with a field recording of a distant plane flying somewhere far above. The recording itself is not particularly impressive, but as an introduction it gives us a sense of the music’s space, tells us that what we are about to hear is not confined within human-made walls. As a predominantly electronic album, Substrata is remarkably cognizant of the natural world, and this is perhaps the album’s greatest property.

From here the music eases into a number of unhurried pieces that blend nature recordings with looped instrumental phrases, stark drones, and various television samples. Two tracks even sample the show Twin Peaks, which feels especially relevant now that the series has been rebooted. It’s done to greater affect on “Hyperborea,” where you hear the voice of the Major recounting a ‘vision’ he had to his son, Bobby Briggs. The sample is buried beneath a brooding, murky veil of electronics. The sample then fades away and is replaced by a short loop of synthesized tones, that, despite the loop’s obvious presence, acts more as textural compliment than anything more overt. And if it starts to feel like nothing on Substrata necessarily “stands out,” it’s because nothing is meant to. That is what makes this music so mysterious, so enticing for those who want to figure it out and become lost within its depths.

If there is a transcending moment then it comes on the album’s second to last track, “Sphere Of No-Form,” whose focus is a stream of reverberant, billowing horns. If the end of days have a soundtrack, this could very well be it. Simply put, the sound here is massive, leaving one in a state of awe that only the best music is capable of doing. On the 2011 vinyl reissue of Substrata, “Sphere Of No-Form” falls in the middle of side C, followed by the album’s brilliant closer, “Silene,” an undulating work for raw electronics and celestial drones, reminiscent of the type of balance struck on Aphex’s Ambient II. Side D is made up of the bonus track, “Laika,” a surprisingly potent late addition that seamlessly tacks on to the album’s end.

I am hard-pressed to think of another artist that has been able to pull off an album quite like Substrata (Labradford’s Prazision LP perhaps?), especially with its heavy use of sampling that can so easily be mistreated in lesser hands. In a certain light, Substrata breaks a cardinal rule that good ambient music has taught us: that less is more. Don’t get me wrong, the music here is certainly minimal, but it’s scope is huge, reigning in source material from all possible directions. I don’t think Jenssen was out to break any rules, but he certainly bent perceptions. For this, Substrata will not soon be forgotten.

Substrata3

Substrata² (Touch reissue cover art, includes Man with a Movie Camera, 2001)

Substrata2

Substrata (Biophone 2xLP Reissue cover art, 2011)

Mark So – And Suddenly From All This There Came Some Horrid Music (caduc., 2017)

In the book This is Your Brain on Music, author Daniel Levitin retells something Miles Davis once said of his own music: “[…] he described the most important part of his solos as the empty space between notes, the “air” that he placed between one note and the next.” I was immediately brought back to this tidbit from the book upon listening to the new work by Mark So, And Suddenly From All This Came Some Horrid Music, a score, performed in this instance by Cristian Alvear (guitar) and Gudinni Cortina (turntable).

mark so cover for caduc

In this performance, the players are as important as the composer, because even though they are interpreting a score (which, by the way, is an abstract visual and text score), it is the performers’ job to make that score meaningful. To make it come alive. It’s apparent rather quickly that Alvear and Cortina have a musical chemistry, each one careful to not drown out the other with their respective instrument. Also noteworthy is how one musician will often seem to pick up where the other left off, despite how disparate the two instruments actually are. Leading us back to the Davis quote, this music is heavily reliant on space. Both artists actualize this concept well, but it is Alvear – whose guitar is featured more predominantly throughout – who best puts it into practice, with a minimal playing style that is so precise that it verges on tedious.

Cortina, on the other hand, reigns in a sound that is more lush, but also, more abrasive. The sounds are recognizably that of a turntable, only Cortina is clearly using a range of other, smaller instruments to scratch, scrape, and rub up against the machine’s moving parts. The tactility of Cortina’s turntable juxtaposes well with the very simple plucks of the guitar. There is a stretch in particular, at around the 14 minute mark, where the sound of the turntable dissipates, leaving only the solitary guitar to ring out into open space. Then, the guitar also ceases and we’re left with a duration of silence before both players suddenly come back into the mix. In the face of a limited palette, it goes to show the importance of a musical imagination (think I might be ripping off Steve Reich there, sorry).

Unfortunately, the CD does not include the score, which, would have been interesting to look at and compare to the music. This would likely shine some light on why the piece sounds the way it does, why, for example, the final minutes act like a return to the album’s opening seconds – Cortina’s turntable nowhere to be heard. Or, why it is that one of the two players will occasionally drop out of the mix entirely. Is there something about the score, visually, that prompts them to do so? If so, what is it? What does that full stop look like to the eyes of the musician interpreting it? Ultimately, the music is good enough on its own to not have to lean heavily on context for support. Another fine album from caduc.

Update: May 16, 2017
Mr. Alvear got in touch and kindly informed me that the images and text that are on the CD packaging are in fact the score, which, I initially concluded were absent from the packaging. Always best not to assume. Thanks.

Patrick Farmer & David Lacey – Pell-Mell The Prolix (caduc., 2017)

Pell-Mell the Prolix is the collaborative follow-up to Pictures of Men. (2003), where Patrick Farmer and David Lacey made an impact among that year’s releases by kicking the album off with a recording of pigs. I, myself, have only heard excerpts of the work (that unfortunately don’t include the pigs) so I cannot speak to that release’s integrity – however, reviews are favourable. The Duo are now back with an album on Mathieu Ruhlmann’s ever intriguing – and quickly growing – caduc. label; a perfect fit, I might add.

Farmer Lacey Cover

The flavour of Pell-Mell is equal parts accident and intention, where, even if the recordings used here are in themselves often chaotic, the bigger picture, it seems, is what the listener is meant to seek. Over its 38 minute duration, Pell-Mell patiently unfolds with a series of recordings – some obviously of the field variety and others likely from improvisations – that smash cut from one to the next. This technique is certainly not unheard of, Chop Shop’s Oxide from almost ten years back is an album that immediately comes to mind. Farmer and Lacey are liberal with the technique throughout the album, and although it feels abrupt and a little jarring for the first few minutes, one quickly acclimatizes. In my case, I found that after a certain point I was anticipating the next cut, and was often relieved to find an unpredictability to the whole thing.

Technique aside, the recordings alone are very interesting, more often than not overblown, resulting in less detail heard from the actual source recordings. What we do end up hearing then is largely a byproduct of the recording process, ultimately giving the work a feel closer to that of old-school noise as opposed to electroacoustic improv or your typical “clean” field recording release. However, there is nothing here abrasive enough to pin these two as noisicians. The noise that is presented does more to soothe than it does to agitate, albeit, without lulling one into a stupor.

I’ve listened to this enough times through to get a sense of its overall shape, and it hits an especially nice groove at around the twenty minute mark, the duo settling on elongated drones that counter the rougher hewn parts beautifully. Pell-Mell’s 38 minute span feels a touch short for what is a universe’s worth of sound contained within, but the duo is smart to not push their piece into inevitable stagnancy–better a work is too short than too long I’ve always thought. Despite feeling like the work could have safely been ten minutes longer, the strange world of sound that Farmer and Lacey present here is captivating to say the least. I look forward to more from these two in the future.

Swans: 10 Songs to Break the Ice (Part 2)

Welcome to part 2 of our 10-song feature on the band Swans. If you’re just joining us, visit here for part 1.

6. Mother/Father (The Great Annihilator, 1994)

My_Buried_ChildMusically, wherever Swans are at any moment, there is a visible path, a logic, to how they got there. When they went pop with Children of God, it was because going pop was – ironically – the bolder, more experimental thing to do. By the time The Great Annihilator rolled out, the Swans sound had significantly evolved once again, existing as a halfway point between the rather restrained Love of Life, and the inaccessible but brilliant Soundtracks for the Blind, released in 1996.

At no point does The Great Annihilator feel hurried, with its damaged pop and deranged folk arrangements wrapped up in that soupy pace that is so characteristically 90’s Swans. “Mother/Father” provides a bit of a break from the mould, sitting snuggly in the fifth position within the album’s excellent mid-section. The remastered version breathes new life into the song, helping to distinguish between individual instruments and Jarboe’s vocals. I absolutely love the way the guitar comes into the mix at around the 20 second mark. A great song with an intoxicating energy.

7. Love Will Save You (White Light From the Mouth of Infinity, 1991)Love_Will_Save_You

When it comes to what their songs are about, M. Gira and Swans are perhaps the most candid band on the planet. I’ve said it before and I will continue to tout the band’s ability to weave a fresh face onto topics as old as time. This is not to say that they are never tongue-in-cheek, but that either way their music always feels forthright. From a spiritual perspective, one could say that the band gleans as much from the 10 commandments as they do the 10 deadly sins. In that vein, throughout the years, Gira has remained an omniscient narrator, unbiased by the plight of this world, an arm’s length away from the very idea of God that is often his muse.

Here, Gira turns his lens on the notion of love, it’s seemingly unwavering power in the face of pain, fear, loss, and any dark shadow that the world may cast over humanity. Lyrically, Gira espouses love as a force that can stand up to any form of wrath, that it will save even in the face of poisonous air, the evil greed of ignorant man, and above all, one’s self. Despite this, Gira sings “but it won’t save me.” In the end, “Love Will Save You” is still the hopeless, self deprecating Swans that have been there from the beginning, dolled up with a shiny exterior, the waxed apple rotten at the core.

8. The Other Side of the World (Love of Life, 1992)
The_Other_Side_Of_The_World

Love of Life is essentially an extension of White Light…, released the following year and musically almost indistinguishable (Love of Life is maybe a bit more experimental, what with the interludes and all). I like to think of the two as sister albums, produced out of the most accessible era of the band – an era that also included the mostly forgettable industry bomb that was The Burning World. Love of Life was not as innovative a release as Swans were capable of at the time, and in my eyes has aged as a noteworthy transitional record with a few really good songs.

Undoubtedly an A-side standout, “The Other Side of the World” sees the band pare back their sound to let Jarboe do what she does best. Her vocal delivery makes this song, and I especially love the way she elongates the last word in each line of the verse, pushing her voice to great effect. The song is languid and hypnotic, but has enough substance to keep one glued to its progression (which is more than I can say for much of Children of God). Neo-folk, art pop, lounge rock, however you want to think about this era of Swans,”The Other Side of the World” is it done right.

9. Children of God (Children of God, 1987)Children_Of_God

Children of God is spotty, but for its shortcomings it contains at least a few of Swans’ best songs. “New Mind” is a fierce opener, matched in intensity only by the title track: a spellbinding final statement to the album. “Children of God” is Swans at their most visceral, opening with punchy, bass-heavy drums, a keyboard made to sound like an organ, and Jarboe’s angelic voice easing us into the forthcoming tumult.

The song only gains momentum as sheets of guitar noise fill-in any remaining emptiness. The call-and-response vocal treatment that the band has come back to time and again is well and alive here, but done in a subtler way, where it almost comes across as a form of phasing. As the song grinds forward, Jarboe begins to echo herself, the words “We are children / Children of God” seeming to come at you from all possible directions. Take my advice: play this one LOUD.

10. Helpless Child (Soundtracks for the Blind, 1996)Helpless_Child

Still the band’s most challenging work to date, Soundtracks for the Blind might as well have been called Michael Gira’s Dark Twisted Fantasy (errr, sorry). As an album, Soundtracks is over 2 hours of beautiful chaos, encompassing the esoteric and the tame, the oddball disco funk of “Volcano” to the Throbbing Gristle-esque skronk of “Yum-Yab Killers.” The album is rife with ambiguous radio/TV samples, and is as droney as it is poppy. If I absolutely had to choose only one Swans album to listen to for the rest of my days, Soundtracks would be it. It possesses all the best elements of the band in one place. And somehow, in its embraced messiness, it really works.

“Helpless Child” is a favourite among Swans fans, including myself. It’s not too hard to hear why this song is consistently noted as a fan fave, especially for those of us who love post-rock and other instrumental and experimental music. The song begins unassumingly enough, as if it could have been plucked from the Burning World sessions. At the seven minute mark it takes a turn, however, a guitar strumming repeatedly over shimmering ambience before giving way to primitive drums. We soon find ourselves in the midst of an instrumental epic that towers over the back half of the song. At 16 minutes, “Helpless Child” packs the emotional weight of an entire album.

Swans: 10 Songs to Break the Ice (Part 1)

In honour of the forthcoming reissue of one of Swans’ best albums, The Great Annihilator (5/5/17), I have taken on the challenge of creating a simple, 10 song guide to cracking into the vastly complex and intimidating catalog of this excellent band. Swans have been active for over 30 years, and in that time the band has transformed enormously – a quick scroll through their wiki page is enough to get a sense of this. However, as Aaron Lariviere points out in Stereogum’s ranking of the Swans catalog, there really is no obvious entry point to the Swans discography.

Years ago I, too, could see no obvious entry point, so I took on the enormous task of listening to and digesting every Swans album in chronological order. At times the job was so daunting that I often became listless in the face of it, especially with the early material that saw a sound so consistently brutal that it was hard to distinguish songs for their individual merits. However, I really wanted to know this band, and not just know them, but know them intimately. I persisted, and have been handsomely rewarded with countless hours of immersive listening, often times bizarre, beautiful, uplifting and soul crushing all in the same session. Now that I’ve broken through to the other side, I can say for certain that this band truly is one of music’s greatest entities.

Swans are as important to the shape of modern music as bands like Radiohead and My Bloody Valentine, but unfortunately their presence is as intimidating as the Sun’s, appreciated by people from afar, but burning too hot and too bright to go anywhere near. So, think of this list as your footbridge toward the Sun, made up of ten stones to ease you into the indelible majesty of Swans. Where you go from here is up to you, and the one thing I can promise is that once you get sucked into the world that is the music of Swans, not only will you not be able to look back, you absolutely won’t want to.

1. New Mind (Children of God, 1987)

New_Mind

‘New Mind’ has a ferocious energy. At this point, Swans were a band looking to shed their past and move into fresh, uncharted territory, and they did just that. Gone is the slurry of sawing guitars and suffocating noise of the first three albums, replaced with a new kind of anger, still brutal, but more precise. The thread of religion, fear, and sex that pulsates throughout Children of God all starts here, with Gira howling “let the light come in / damn you to hell”.’New Mind’ embodied the crossover of first generation Swans with a newer, folk driven sound, and it remains as powerful a statement as ever.

2. Cop (Cop, 1984)

Cop

Cop is the gnarliest Swans would ever get. Even next to the brutality of Filth, Cop feels all the more caked in grime, as if birthed from the depths of a bottomless sewer. This album truly is the thing of nightmares, but its appeal exists far beyond shock factor, and hasn’t become more ham-fisted with age, only more intrinsic to the Swans catalog as a whole.

When it comes to first generation Swans, Holy Money is easily the band’s most sonically diverse – Jarboe joining the band had a big part in this – and objectively I would say it is the “best” album from this era. It’s Cop, however, that I come back to for it’s unrelenting, raw expression. Hard to pick a favourite song here, but the title track probably serves as the best gateway, with its morphine-induced pace and down-right disturbing lyrics: “nobody rapes them like a cop / with his club.” When I need to scratch that teeth-grinding itch, this is still what I reach for.

3. Oxygen (To Be Kind, 2014)

Oxygen

When Gira and long-time Swans guitarist Norman Westberg reignited the band in 2010, they took Swans – along with members both old and new – into yet another defining era. No one could have guessed an album like The Seer coming out of this new formation, let alone the masterpiece that is To Be Kind. The album is not for those looking to squeeze in some listening time on the 20-minute commute to work. It is a full-blown epic, with the type of long form foreshadowed on Soundtracks for the Blind and The Great Annihilator, but not fully realized until The Seer.

“Oxygen” is one of the more concise of To Be Kind’s statements, and it still clocks in at 8 minutes. Gira’s vocal delivery, and the song’s overall energy is reminiscent of “New Mind,” but the production is way bigger, while the whole thing is so propulsive, starting out as a light jog and ending in an out-right sprint. As if attempting to evoke some sinister carnival, “Oxygen” unfolds like a fever dream in fast forward. By the time Gira starts barking like a dog, you’ve already lost your mind.

4. The Seer Returns (The Seer, 2012)

Seer_Returns

In the context of The Seer, “The Seer Returns” could not have been sequenced any better (the CD version, not the LP version that has it at the very end). At this point in the album, the listener has just been dismantled by the 32-minute title track, one of Swans’ most densely woven and all around brilliant pieces. “The Seer Returns” grounds the album once again, and in the process puts the listener back together, providing the necessary structure to continue to drive the album forward.

Like many of the stand-outs from the youngest era of the band, “The Seer Returns” is driven by monstrous percussion and a ceaseless insistence to just keep the flow going. It’s that ensuing state of hypnosis from riffing on the same elements over and over, coupled with ghostly background vocals and bold production, that make for another valuable addition to the Swans canon, and another ideal introduction to the band’s music.

5. A Screw (Holy Money) (Holy Money, 1986)

A_Screw_Holy_Money

Swans are one of the hardest bands to define because they never have stuck to singular sound. They were early noise rock and industrial pioneers, but one can hear a strong post-punk current in a lot of the band’s earlier work as well. “A Screw (Holy Money)” is one of those rare songs that seems to encompass all the sides of Swans in one place.

The band experimented with this song a lot, as the two alternate versions on the A Screw EP can attest. While those alternate takes are interesting in their own right, the album version best captures the percussion, which is so repetitive it almost sounds mechanized. For whatever reason the drums really work, and Gira’s quiet vocal delivery adds a particular sinister element that crops up throughout the early albums. With Holy Money, it’s hard to grasp the extent at which the band evolved from past albums with any isolated song, but “A Screw (Holy Money)” is a great place to start nonetheless.

Visit Part 2 here.

The Coffee Snob: A Playlist

Working in coffee shops for years and years, I’ve had plenty of time to weed through albums to hear what works and doesn’t work in this environment. I’ve created my fair share of on-the-fly playlist throughout the years, but The Coffee Snob is my first true attempt at a comprehensive, ever-evolving coffee shop specific playlist. Created over a two week period, The Coffee Snob is a collection of new and old indie rock, dream pop, 90’s alt rock, electronic, shoegaze, and instrumental. There are other styles peppered throughout, but the majority of the songs fall somewhere within the sphere of “indie rock,” which, I find suits coffee shops best.

In an attempt to keep the playlist fresh and exciting, I will be updating it every three weeks or so with new songs that I happen to come across. I’d also like to take a brief moment to recognize some of the artists that are not on spotify whose songs I wish I could have included, such as Silver Jews, Spacemen 3, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and Smog (though I managed to find and include a great cover of Kath Bloom’s “The Breeze / My baby Cries” by Bill Callahan). If and when these artists do show up on spotify I will make a point of cycling in some of their songs.

I have designed the playlist to be played on shuffle, primarily to avoid having back to back songs play from the same artist. On that note, I’ve also tried my best to limit any artist appearing more than once. Generally speaking, if an artist appears more than once it’s because they either have a massive discography or just a lot of great songs – I mean, how do you pick JUST ONE Spoon song? Pretty much impossible.

That’s about it, listen to the playlist below and please share if you enjoy it.

Talk Amongst the Trees: Eluvium’s Guitar Drone Opus Remastered and Reissued

Matthew Cooper is the name behind Eluvium, and if his 15 year tenure with Temporary Residence has proven anything, it’s that his modernized take on classical and ambient music has been anything but one-dimensional. Eluvium recordings generally favour a relaxed piano – see the piece “Don’t Get Any Closer” as a choice example – but for my money, the real magic happens when Cooper limits himself to little more than a guitar. Where the majority of his albums fall somewhere between chamber music and ambient lonerism, Talk Amongst the Trees is to date Cooper’s most restrained and true-to-form drone work. The beginning of 2017 marked a remastering and reissue of the album, its first ever vinyl pressing since its CD only release in 2005. I must say, as a milestone to kick off the year, Temporary Residence certainly nailed it.

TRR269_LP_Jacket_RE11439Eluvium – Talk Amongst the Trees
(Temporary Residence Limited, 2005, RE RM 2017)

As far as how it sounds, Talk Amongst the Trees is not hard to grasp. Each piece revolves around a unique guitar pattern, usually either a series of elongated tones or a few strummed chords, which is then looped and slightly tweaked as the track progresses. Whether you’re listening to the album for the first time or the ninetieth time, some tracks remain cinematic, uplifting, while others feel more neutral, while others still take the listener to a place of somber reflection. On the surface, there is nothing cryptic about this music, nothing lurking beneath a veil of noise, just simple, guitar sourced ambient music with nothing to hide. It wouldn’t surprise me then if some Eluvium fans wrote this one off a little too early, pinning it as overly simplistic. I believe the contrary to be true, and after years of listening to this record, I still marvel at it’s ability to keep my attention despite its straightforwardness.

How Cooper weaves minute sonic changes into these pieces is a big part of why they avoid stagnancy. These changes, that happen slowly over time, give the album a subtle sense of propulsion, but where these songs end up is never all that far from where they begin. The album’s sprawling and masterfully crafted centrepiece, “Taken,” is the most overt example, where no more than four chords are strummed on a guitar and set to loop for nearly 17 minutes. Within that time many things happen, but it’s hard to ever pin point exactly what they are. The piece gains momentum and plenty of texture is woven into the mix, but after awhile it’s as though the foundation of the music starts slipping away, the various elements pulling apart from instability. As if recounting the history of a star, “Taken” rises, peaks, implodes, and eventually dwarfs, and the effect is mesmerizing.

Nothing else on Talk Amongst the Trees quite reaches the grandeur of “Taken,” but that hardly reduces the album’s potency. “Everything to Come” pulsates with high register tones that rise and fall in an effortless dance that makes one easily forget that they’re listening to a loop. The 10+ minute opener, “New Animals From the Air,” with its hypnotic backwards guitar and enveloping bass, sounds all the more captivating in its remastered form, where the original’s distracting peak distortion is removed. Like an endless warm blanket, a pillowy cloud, or an opiate fog that the cover alludes to, Talk Amongst the Trees is an album to lie back and get lost in. And although Cooper foregoes the rigour of old school minimalism, along with the compositional structure of acts like Stars of the Lid, he’s certainly extracted a unique take on the inexhaustible drone. Here’s to celebrating this reissue and to hoping for Eluvium’s overdue return to the metaphysical guitar.