Perfect Stability | Ellen Arkbro’s For Organ and Brass

Talk to any seasoned musician for longer than five minutes and you’re likely to find yourself in a conversation about the merits of various makes, models and release years of their instrument of choice. This seems especially true with guitarists, who won’t hesitate to tell you about how their Gibson hollow-body with a touch of tremolo is a recipe for dream-pop perfection, or that nothing beats the classic sound of a Fender Strat in a straight-up rock context. One could make the case that any musician who is worth a damn should know their instrument with this level of intimacy—to be able to distinguish various makes and models based on timbre alone. And if they can’t do it yet, then time and experience will grant them this gift.

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It is one thing to be able to hear and understand the difference between various makes and models of an instrument, but it is another to know exactly what instrument might be perfectly suited for a given song. In the context of For Organ and Brass, Ellen Arkbro’s new album on Subtext, Arkbro sought out the perfect organ. As challenging as she expected it to be, she wanted to find an organ that possessed similar qualities to one she’d become accustomed to in a Stockholm church. She eventually found one in Tangermünde, Germany, that was tuned to meantone temperament—allowing her to compose solely in septimal intervals—and whose quality of sound possessed a certain sadness, an aged warmth that expelled from the instrument in what she describes as “perfect stability.”

Arkbro is no stranger to unconventional scales, having been schooled in just intonation (a musical tuning championed by minimalist composers). Here, she takes cues from La Monte Young, Phill Niblock and Catherine Christer Hennix. The album is centred around the 20 minute title track, where Arkbro presents a simple yet mesmerizing cycle of sustained organ tones (performed by Johan Graden) that, over time, don’t appear to amass incrementally but fluctuate slightly in colour. The horn, trombone and tuba that accompany the opening piece do so effortlessly, despite how disparate the brass section and organ might seem on paper. Compositionally, the title piece is reminiscent of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s impeccable Virðulegu Forsetar, in that no matter where the music goes, it eventually returns to a familiar phrase heard early on. It’s an age-old trick, similar to how composers will return to a tonic note, or series of notes, as clue to a given work’s key, providing listeners with a gratifying sense of home.

Though For Organ and Brass’s path shouldn’t surprise anyone versed in the cornucopia of austere music, its subject remains alien. The work’s landscape is a breeding ground of sounds both new and old, familiar and strange. Arkbro’s pursuit of a dated and unusual instrument feels almost like a commentary on conventionality. Her instrument is stuck in the past, out of place in our hyper-maximalist world, but to her ears, it was the only thing that could make this music work. Ultimately, For Organ and Brass feels like a dusted off relic with a fresh coat of paint, its accompanying brass section bridging a necessary gap to a modern time—and oh, how sweetly those lower register organ tones couple with these horns.

The record’s flip side contains the work “Three,” a similarly minded—albeit, significantly shorter—piece for orbiting horn-sourced tonalities. Once one becomes accustomed to the quicker pace, the work is pleasant enough, but to these ears it lacks a level of thought and patience achieved on the title track. Perhaps at 2/3 speed, and with just a touch more variation Arkbro could have really had something here. As it stands, the A side will see a lot more of my record needle. In all, I highly recommend the album. A highlight of the year thus far.

From Glistening Examples: Olivia Block’s Dissolution

I can’t help but view the title of Olivia Block’s late 2016 release for Glistening Examples, Dissolution, with at least a glint of irony. In a light, Block’s album feels more like a Solution: the other side of a complex equation rife with fragmentary voices, the result of which could have been strung together in one of a million ways. Akin to the diaphanous reconstitutions of shortwave radio and distressed electrical signals deployed by Jim Haynes, Dissolution sees shreds of arcane sound Frankensteined together in a most satisfying and unpredictable manner. The album, being a reflection upon human ‘webs of significance,’ reveals Block as an artist cognizant of the perils of over contextualization. Thus, the themes in which Dissolution are framed exist merely as a container for the music’s free roaming.

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“Free roaming” is not to say that Block was somehow able to phone this one in, but that the music’s progression comes across as natural, despite its scrupulous cut-and-paste formation. The way Block works lends her albums the quality of a photographic mosaic in reverse: the smaller fragments are easy to see, while the big picture takes a lot more time to grasp. This may seem obvious, but there is plenty of similarly minded work out there that either just coasts unimaginatively or billboards an obvious trajectory. Dissolution is the flip side of that coin, its parameters expanding and retracting to suit the artist’s idiosyncratic vision.

To bring that vision to life Block gleaned from sources that included field recordings, found and personal microcassette tapes, shortwave, and NIST time recordings. In what I can only assume was an attempt to make something out of nothing, she also used snippets from municipal audio feeds from several US cities—and we all know how dry those can be. On Dissolution, these voices haunt the work, and are fused into the composition as a scattering of non-linear phrasing. Sometimes we get as little as a morpheme or phoneme, but these fractions—as minute as they are—carry an emotional weight when juxtaposed next to the other elements. A flute and clarinet also grace this work, but if it weren’t written on the packaging one would be hard-pressed to pick these out (the dronier stretch that closes out “Dissolution A” I think).

Despite how dense her music can get, Block’s approach is that of a minimalist. It’s “Dissolution B” that reveals this a bit more, as she ever so slightly turns down the intensity and guides the work into more of a steady-state expansiveness. Dissolution also includes a third, digital only, track entitled “May 31, 2016.” The track is a live alternate mix of “Dissolution B,” which, was the piece she sourced for a number of immersive performances. Also want to point out that the limited edition LP comes with 35mm slides embedded in the vinyl (see below). Very cool, but sadly, limited and currently sold out. An excellent release all around, check out the Glistening Examples bandcamp here.

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SEEDBANK 2: When Summer Ends | A Return to Fennesz’s Venice

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. 

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Christian Fennesz, the Austrian glitch and electronic guru, is perhaps one of music’s most unsuccessfully emulated artists. When Endless Summer was released, it did as much for a cheery paradigm shift in electronic music as GAS’ Pop did a year before it. Actually, it did more, as a retrospective comparison of the two albums makes Pop sound damn near clinical. And then, as history repeatedly proves, nothing this good can simply be. Endless Summer‘s release saw an open invitation for electronic artists from all walks of life to offer up their own lukewarm interpretations—the more lucid of the bunch likely met with the glaring realization that maybe this shit’s a little harder than it looks.

For all of Endless Summer’s praise, it’s 2004’s Venice that found that impeccable balance between style and execution, a halfway point between Endless Summer’s sunny disposition and Black Sea’s more inward focus on headier composition. One spin of “City of Light” is enough to hear Fennesz’s growth from previous efforts, not by way of an expanding repertoire of sound, but just the opposite, a honing in on the simplicity that makes the best ambient music feel like it’s made of air. Or “Circassian,” a track often likened to My Bloody Valentine’s massive guitar sound. The comparison can be taken a step further: MVB as if rewritten by Bowery Electric, or, MBV as fed through the Frippertronics machine. Either way, “Circassian” is downright gorgeous, flirting with but never indulging in the melodrama that would have weakened its emotional impact.

Even the David Sylvan vocal treatment on “Transit” somehow keeps the album within scope, in no small part due to Fennesz’s more amped up presence. In order to make the song work the electronic elements had to match the energy of the very present vocals, and they do. For fear of overemphasizing any one of Venice’s songs, we’ll steer away from further analysis of “Transit,” except to say that including only one song with vocals on an otherwise purely instrumental album is not unheard of. Mogwai did it even better on Young Team’s R U Still in 2 it?” featuring lead vocals from Arab Strap’s Aidan Moffat. Unlike the Mogwai track, however—that sees the band provide backup vocals—Fennesz hardly graces us with a whisper.

Fennesz will long be remembered for his achievements in electronica, and it’s his organic approach to the music that has set him apart from the pack. In 2010, when he played at The Western Front in Vancouver, he opted for a set-up that segregated the laptop from the guitar—his guitar patched through a daisy chain of pedals that fed into an entirely separate amp, while the mixer / laptop arrangement patched into the house monitors. This deliberate choice to not fully integrate his live setup—to not, for simplicity’s sake, run everything through a laptop—provides some insight into what makes Fennesz’s music feel so personal, despite being lumped into the “electronic” camp. It shows that his music is not all laptop wizardry, that beneath the veil of glistening electronics lies a structure of more traditional song forms, even if skeletal at times. It doesn’t take seeing him live to get it either (though it doesn’t hurt), a few spins of any of his albums should provide a neat little window into his process.

If anything, Venice is a hard egg to crack. The album’s sonic elements are woven tighter than what came before, and thus, pinpointing the source of a specific sound becomes a fool’s errand. It isn’t until well into the album that fans get their fix of the signature Fenneszian guitar sound that was all over Endless Summer—and would again permeate Bécs. The one-two of “The Point of It All” and “Laguna” are like a joint reprise of the album’s opening statements, a sure-footed return to form after the bulk of Venice showcases a small but assured step forward. Although it will never be regarded in the same light as it’s breakthrough predecessor, Fennesz’s discography would feel all-too empty without Venice. Luckily, this is one hypothetical omission no one has to take too seriously.

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Under the Arches of Her Voice | Socrates Martinis

Hailing from Athens, Greece, sound artist Socrates Martinis presents Under the Arches of Her Voice. The album is a six-part rumination of rough-hewn sound, with each part acting as a snapshot of an unidentifiable sonic environment. Martinis’ tools are simple yet effective, employing field recordings and “found sound” (the latter of which I’ve always found comically vague as a source material credit. Nice ring to it though). Compositionally, Martinis’ approach is gratifyingly to the point, mostly opting out of the use of gradual fading at the beginning and end of tracks. In terms of transitions, the pieces turn on a dime, not only from one track to another, but within the songs themselves, which makes the fact that this is split into six parts feel not particularly important.

Restlessly, Martinis changes the direction of a given piece before it fully settles. Normally, I’ve found the decision to cut quick and short as detrimental to this type of music, but Martinis achieves a healthy degree of success with it here, and I think it’s due to how the micro-movements that make up this music all seem to complement each other well. More artists working in the realm of field recording are embracing an approach to composition that Martinis employs here, namely, a grittier, drone-based sound pocked with quick transitions that can lend the music a touch of authority when done right. Considering the entirety of Under the Arches of Her Voice, the album could have achieved the level of, say, Patrick Farmer & David Lacey’s Pell Mell the Prolixa like-minded work that I reviewed earlier in the yearbut stacked up against it feels overly constricted.

When honing in on any given track, Martinis’ strengths become more apparent, as it’s clear that his ear is finely tuned to his environments. Even when his naturally captured sounds are bathed in layers of hiss and sonic grime, there is an unmistakable feeling of open space. It could be that I’m picking up on the natural reverb from his recording areas, or it’s the sounds that tend to creep into the mix that hint at space, like the barely audible classical music that exists deep in the background of the fifth songsounds like the music happened to be playing somewhere in the background. Not shockingly, the longer of the album’s tracks provide the most interesting variety, like part two, “…Happiness Smells Like an Orange,” whose vignettes shift from crude and subdued noise to churning, weather-beaten drones and back again. Are these the voices emerging from cavernous ventilation shafts or are we hearing some arcanely processed recordings of wind? Could very well be both. Without a doubt, the allure is in the mystery.

Available now: Organized Music From Thessaloniki.

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The Art of Reduction | Yan Jun & Ben Owen’s Swimming Salt

A tube amp warming up. The final stretch of an unwinding cassette tape. A radio with the dial set between stations. For most of us, if not simply the musically inclined, these are but three of the many familiar variations in static sound. Hiss, crackle, buzz, drone, fizzle, hum, whir, whatever you might call it, the liminal sounds of existence are one of life’s constants. These static sounds rarely blip the conscious mind of those unaware of their musical potency. To certain artists, however, these sounds hold the potential to be made alive, transcending a byproduct status that’s resulted from the second nature interactions between humans and machines.

Yan Jun and Ben Owen are two artists who not only recognize the potential in liminal sounds, but have adeptly harnessed that potential over their careers to create innovative and evocative music. Using a reductionist palette of controlled feedback, electronics, amps, and radio, Jun and Owen ease into a composition for approachable noise. Over its course, Swimming Salt balances piercing feedback with an ever-present crackle. As the title suggests, the work is like the sensory equivalent to an epsom salt bath, enveloping the listener in a blanket of simmering electronics. Eventually, parts of the blanket succumb to the void, allowing room for silent stretches that give the clinical tones an added weight when they are eventually reintroduced.

Ben Owen resides in Brooklyn, New York, while Jun, it appears, floats between Vienna, Taipei and Yokohama. While each player has surely been influenced by their respective locales, this collaboration remains geographically indistinctout of context I wouldn’t be overly confident that this even came from Earth. More importantly, Swimming Salt continues to prove these two artists’ respective aptitudes for keeping things interesting. Owen, who also possesses a strong fascination with field recording, and Jun, who is one of the more unpredictable and eccentric Chinese voices in the experimental arena, use their collaborative chops to fuse a mutual interest in the power of unencumbered sound. And Swimming Salt, to these ears, is exactly the kind of work I would hope for when bearing in mind this noble pursuit.

Available now from Organized Music From Thessaloniki.

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Elevator Bath Presents | An Evocation of Anatomies

With today’s near world-wide ubiquity of the internet, the possibilities for musical collaboration are far greater than they used to be. These days, artists living thousands of miles apart can produce something together, usually by some form of digital file transfer–or, if you’re old school, I guess you could mail tapes back and forth. There is, however, something to be said about the virtues of face-to-face collaboration.

EEAOA043_JACKETColin Andrew Sheffield & James Eck Rippie – Essential Anatomies
(Elevator Bath, 2017)

When like-minded musicians gather in the same room and play together, there is a magic that can happen, a gelling of vision and sound that can only really materialize from this kind of setting. Colin Andrew Sheffield and James Eck Rippie seem to understand this concept well. After beginning their musical partnership in Dallas, Texas, Sheffield soon moved across the country–over 2,000 miles–to Seattle, Washington. The move put the duo’s work on ice, but since Sheffield’s return to Texas years later, the two artists found themselves working together again.

Essential Anatomies is the product of the duo’s return to the collaborative stage. At over an hour and a half, the album sees the pair recontextuatizing “commercially available recordings.” What these recordings were to begin with is beyond me, as the audio is manipulated and deconstructed heavily from its original form. The presence of Rippie’s turntable lends the work an occasional likeness to GUM–an improv duo from the late 80s that operated in similar bare-bones plunderphonic–though him and Sheffield pare things back even further, lending credence to the album’s title.

By way of furtive pockets of noise and dark abstractions of previously recorded songs, Sheffield and Rippie create a flowing musical dialogue that reimagines turntablism in subtler ways. Essential Anatomies relies heavily on atmospherics over concrete forms, though recognizable timbres from familiar instruments do occasionally rise to the mix’s surface, like the horns that grace the album’s pensive closing track, or the piano that crops up all throughout track 2. And although these two artists forego anything resembling a traditional narrative, I do get a sense of an underlying intention at the music’s core, a likely byproduct of an inherent understanding of balance and pacing. There’s not much worse than experimental music that shows little intent and goes nowhere. Essential Anatomies certainly avoids such pitfalls.

Originally, the album was released in the form of two limited run tapes, which are now out of print. Scrutinized under the scope of four tracks played in succession as opposed to just two, the duo’s skillful restraint and consistent sound reveal themselves a little more. With this said, it’s a pleasure to have all four tracks available again as a single release, and on vinyl, nonetheless. As always, excellent work by way of Elevator Bath.

Elevator Bath Presents | Missives From Foreign Lands

Closing in on two decades now, Jim Haynes has worked scrupulously to mine the deep wells and various crevices of his singular artistic statement: “I rust things.” Impressively, in his pursuit of the ideas embedded in that phrase, new pathways keep presenting themselves, and Haynes is quick to explore them. I can’t help but wonder whether or not the artist himself anticipated the type of yield he’s received from this dedicated pursuit. Who knows? maybe that’s exactly the kind of thinking that would hold him up. Either way, artistically speaking, in a blink it seems Haynes has added up enough small, deliberate steps forward to have traversed a small mountain range; a distance not unscathed by his excavation of the phenomenologically abstruse.

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Jim Haynes – Flammable Materials From Foreign Lands
(Elevator Bath, 2016)

On Flammable Materials From Foreign Lands, Jim Haynes brings the dead back to life. Using primarily short-wave radio receivers, electro-magnetic disturbances were captured within the negative space of dilapidated Soviet-era war structures. The end result is some of the best work I’ve heard from the man, but I can only imagine the type of record he could have produced if his initial vision of picking up disturbances from “weird Soviet power transformers” or “fluctuations from shitty wiring” weren’t thwarted by a lack of electricity throughout the region. Although, as any artist will likely tell you, limitation, deliberate or otherwise, could very well be the key to a project’s success.

Something I’ve come to appreciate about the way Haynes describes his music is that he never shies away from citing his influences, in that listening to an artist’s work he respects seems to help put him into a desired frame of mind for his own music. Just yesterday I noticed in the liner notes for Mount Eerie‘s most recent album (not at all in the same ballpark musically) that both Sun Kil Moon’s Benji and Will Oldham’s Arise Therefore were cited by Phil Elverum as blueprints for its creation; one could say affirmation, really, for channeling the feelings and emotions around the death of a loved one into art.

Haynes cites Robert Ashley’s “Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon” and, not surprisingly, Nurse With Wound’s recontextualizations of similar sounds, as compositional influences on the album. The B side, “Electric Speech: Nadiya” certainly bears a resemblance to Ashley’s piece, not only compositionally, but sonically as well. The Haynes piece’s focus is that of a female voice, fragmented and distorted, uttering indecipherable words from a foreign language. Haynes’ use of silence here only accentuates the listener’s anticipation between the snippets of sound. With a keen ear one can also pick up on some of the artist’s signature sonic devices, like the long wire drones that populated his early work.

The three tracks that make up the A side are more direct, channeling a sound more inline with the current direction of Haynes’ work, gritty and noisy. With any of the man’s albums, however, noise is never without its sonic and emotional relief, and Flammable Materials… too, has much in the way of slow-wielding, haunting minimalism. This, coupled with a now seasoned ear for sonorous expression in the way of all things tactile, rust-laden and decayed, Flammable Materials From Foreign Lands makes for one very, very fine listening experience .

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