Music From the Shameless Years: Rafael Anton Irisarri

Has there ever been an era in recent history that so perfectly warrants the title of The Shameless Years then the one we are currently living? Is it not usually only in retrospect that we are able to make such a claim, in that we must first crawl out of the shit before we can walk away from it, then slowly turn around and acknowledge that we were once back there, in the shit?

One likely needn’t look further than the collective inaction on climate change, “alternative facts,” and the current socio-political state of America to think maybe these truly are the shameless years, and one doesn’t need a retrospective view to see how bad it is—I mean, this level of racism, now? in 2017? This harmful thinking should be extinct by now, and yet, it remains at the centre of the conversation (substitute shameless with regressive and tell me they’re not the same thing).

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Strip away the title and one would be hard-pressed to find anything political about Rafael Anton Irisarri’s new album. There is, however, an underlying urgency that’s hard to ignore. Few albums that bubble up from the bottomless spring of contemporary ambient take the bold steps that The Shameless Years does. So rarely do they go as big and burn as bright without suffocating their audience first.

The immediacy of the opening half might just be that wake up call we all need, a reminder to not sit idly, but to peel the crust from our eyes and dig ourselves out of the shit. The urgency peaks at “RN Negative,” where it’s as though Irisarri fuses the greatest parts of Christian Fennesz and Lawrence English into a six minute sensory rapture. Listening to “RN Negative” for the first time I was transported, an experience that left me momentarily stranded on an alternate plane of consciousness. When music gifts this experience one should savour it and be thankful. Sadly, not a whole lot this year has taken me quite there.

And although it’s exercised with caution, the album’s cinematic grandeur does occasionally float to the level of Explosions in the Sky or Godspeed (note to self: check out new Mogwai record). However, its final two statements smooth out the emotional peaks as Irisarri teams with Siavash Amini to soundtrack the pensive part of your evening. The album ends on its longest track, “The Faithless,” whose subtle complexity would likely be lost on the less astute listener. From this vantage point “The Faithless” can be regarded as a microcosm for The Shameless Years: a meticulously crafted album that’s made to look all-too easy. Great record. Not to be overlooked.

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Murmer Teams with Gruenrekorder for Songs For Forgetting

“I work very slowly.” The four words that begin Patrick McGinley’s extensive notes for his most recent LP are telling of an artist who brings, first and foremost, a deep care to his craft. This isn’t news for anyone familiar with his catalog, particularly his albums dating back to 06’s superb collaboration with Jonathan Coleclough, Husk. McGinley’s tireless contributions in putting field recording on the proverbial map have seen him rise as a prominent figure in a style of music that’s low enough under the radar to be often labeled ‘non-music.’ Just goes to show that it’s for the love of it and little else, and the same can be said of his friends and fellow sound artists John Grzinich and Yannick Dauby—the three of which you might consider the Estonian axis of captured sound.

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Songs For Forgetting was released about seven months ago now, and before that you’d have to go back about four years to his last proper album. In that time McGinley scrupulously made recordings of things like dripping gutter spouts, fireworks, a giant sand timer, and a bowed radio antenna. He also made a point of evoking a more traditional spirit of song on this release, and as a result a Ukrainian zither-like instrument, a bandura, is also featured. hidden in these songs is a plethora of origin; the album coming across as a kind of cryptic atlas coded in sound. The listener is given a sonic arrangement from which to derive meaning, but only the creator himself can fully decipher the work.

There are many layers to Songs For Forgetting, and as one digs deeper they are rewarded with a nesting doll’s worth of surprises. The LP jacket features an embossed aspen leaf skeleton from McGinley’s personal found object collection, and the paper itself appears to hold bits and pieces of detritus (perhaps also provided by McGinley?). Furthermore, McGinley made recordings of the printing press while the jackets were being made—not a bad call back to a past work should these recordings ever grace a future release. Ultimately, it is the songs themselves that hold the most intrigue, confirming that a Murmer release is still something to get excited about.

Songs For Forgetting may feel skeletal at times, but the quality is a testament to how well McGinley layers his recordings, where multiple sound sources can give off the illusion of a joined origin. The first and fourth songs showcase this well, as the quick, spindly tones of his zithers sit perfectly atop the sounds of rainy gutters and fireworks, respectively (the tempos match up almost perfectly). And if these tracks come across as a bit playful for the devout field-recording enthusiast, I’d counter with a plea to look at it from the perspective of unconventionality, to attempt to embrace the act of a nature artist rolling down his sleeves and venturing into the great indoors.

It is “The Third Song For Forgetting,” however,—a strictly outdoor sourced piece—that is the album’s crown. Frequencies sourced from physically manipulating, or picking up the wind on, telegraph wires, rods, antennae, or metal fences, has been a long standing practice among phonographers. Harry Bertoia and Alan Lamb are my go-to artists for that particular sound, but McGinley certainly gives them a run for their money on this track with a palette-whetting arrangement for ocean waves and a grayscale melody that would rival any long-wire drone. McGinley harnessed these drones from bowing a radio antenna on the roof of an observatory in Tõravere with village native Piibe Kolka. The song marks a high point in the Murmer catalog, and as an album, Songs For Forgetting reveals McGinley as a man who won’t soon take lightly his search for the world’s perfect sounds.

Visit the album’s kickstarter campaign. It’s a good read.

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Secret Pyramid Presents: A Pulse in Your Shadow

I had the honour of catching up with Secret Pyramid’s Amir Abbey over some beers at a local watering hole just the other week. We briefly discussed Vancouver’s unpredictable and bustling experimental music scene, along with Abbey’s own musical process and what the future holds for Secret Pyramid. Before long we had paid our tabs and found ourselves perusing the selection at a nearby record shop. Every once in a while I’d pick out an album and ask his opinion on it, to which he always had plenty to say—the man’s craft may require isolation, but his music knowledge proves he’s not living in a cave. Before parting ways Abbey passed along his newest tape, A Pulse in Your Shadow, a single-sided release acting as precursor to his forthcoming album, Two Shadows Collide (noticing a theme?). You can expect that one to drop on all formats September 22 on Ba Da Bing! records. For now, let’s peel back the layers and take an in-depth look at the music at hand.

SecretPyramidShadowThough not a stranger to the uninterrupted long-form, Abbey tends to favour vignette-length composition. Typically, a Secret Pyramid album is made up of 5-10 tracks that average about six minutes per, a format that Abbey has become more than comfortable with. A Pulse in Your Shadow is an entirely different affair, showcasing a single, unbroken slab of music that clocks in at just over 27 minutes. Before coming anywhere near the play button, one knows Abbey had to change up his routine for this one, and that’s what I was most anticipating from this release, to see how he chose to adjust the well-set ideas behind his typical process given the substantially longer timeframe.

Evident is the work’s tweaked compositional approach, but what immediately sets A Pulse in Your Shadow apart is a more expansive use of familiar instruments. Using a keyboard, Upright piano, Ondes, and tape & effects manipulation—all of which have become typical Secret Pyramid fare—Abbey evokes sounds and styles beyond the Pacific Northwest bleary drones that have constituted much of his past work and the work of his coast dwelling contemporaries. This influence is still present, of course, but Abbey is smart in tagging this as ‘minimalism,’ as the piece elicits the sounds and ideas that trickle back through names like Eno, Glass, Riley and Reich. From the onset we hear Abbey’s take on what one might deem a “percussive ambient”—namely, short, bell-like tones that clink and jangle repeatedly to often mesmerizing effect. Get a few of these layers happening at once and the music’s possibilities can seem endless (These days I favour this approach to the steady-state work of, say, Tony Conrad or Eliane Radigue, but at some point I’m sure the pendulum will swing back).

A Pulse in Your Shadow is seamless, but its narrative has a distinct beginning, middle and end. Its mid section is the most lush, slowly emerging from percussive origins and developing into an undulating wash of tones that splatter across the broadband like so much goopy, colourful paint. It’s downright pretty, and doesn’t fall into the sameness trap of so many organ-like drone works. As the piece persists, its tendrils slowly give way to something far more angelic, while its core continues on, providing a backbone for the closing movement. And as the tape winds to a close on a stewing bed of manipulated piano notes, one can’t help but wonder: is this the pulse we are meant to discover, hidden all this time beneath its ethereal cloak? Or, instead of finding it, has it revealed itself, now, as a parting gift for the astute listener? Or further still, perhaps is holds some clue to what the future might hold. Perhaps.

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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