Melancholy and Rumination: Idaho’s Levitate

While deep in the throes of the recent slowcore feature, I found myself coming back to one particular album that did not make the list. That album was Idaho’s Levitate, released in 2001. I don’t think I could live with myself as a critic and music obsessee without first paying recognition to this strong album and excellent band. If I was given another crack at the slowcore list, I would have probably found a way to include it (but that would mean bumping another album out, and honestly, which one? Difficult decisions). So, I’ve included it here as a separate post with it’s own review as a way to round out and close up the feature – looking ahead, at least the next three week’s worth of content will revolve more around ambient and experimental work.

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Idaho – Levitate
(Idaho Music, 2001)

Idaho were a California band founded by Jeff Martin and John K. Berry. Berry left the band shortly after and Martin continued the work of Idaho autonomously. That autonomy was taken to new heights on Levitate, where Martin not only wrote all the songs, but produced the album, and played every instrument on it as well. It’s clear that Martin has skills in all these areas as this thing is immaculately produced, and has some of the most heart felt piano playing I have heard.

Levitate was the follow-up LP to Heart of Palm, an album that – along with Three Sheets to the Wind – shares the distinction of being the band’s most highly regarded work. While Heart of Palm saw Idaho’s sound at it’s most developed, Levitate is far more sparse. Martin still manages to wail, like on the tracks “Come Back Home” and the cathartic “20 Years,” but these songs feel more like he’s spitting in the wind. In the bigger picture, Levitate tips toward melancholy and rumination rather than boldness.

Nothing puts this more into perspective than the beautifully pensive title track. The song “Levitate” is broken up into two parts, and we are given the second before the first – an always welcomed ‘fuck you’ to the status quo. Put 2 before 1? Sure, why not? The parts share the same lilting piano phrase but are rather different, with part one being a far more realized song than pt.2. With palpable emotion, Martin’s lyrics teeter on nihilism, but are not without a glint of hope: “Everything you do / what does it add up to / move yourself to be / where you’re going to be.” One can only assume that Martin sings from experience, and that the sliver of hope embedded in that last line is a token to the listener from a man who really knows it to be true.

Benjamin Finger – Ghost Figures

screen-shot-2017-03-02-at-8-06-48-pmBenjamin Finger – Ghost Figures
(Oak Editions, 2017)

In the second sentence of the Discogs.com profile for [Frank] Benjamin Finger, one comes across this: “[…] he has produced a prolific output of films and music with a healthy disregard for genres.” That last bit points to Finger as a kind of musical virtuoso whose art eschews easy categorization. And it’s true, many artists fit comfortably in a respective genre and as a result equally snug next to (some, but never all) contemporaries. Mr. Finger, on the other hand, does not. He is the lone wolf treading his own path. Over the past few weeks I’ve had a chance to immerse myself in a small portion of Finger’s discography – quickly approaching ten albums strong – and I can say that no album has sounded quite like anything I’ve heard before, nor do any two of his albums sound closely alike. It’s as though with each release Finger deliberately steps out of his musical comfort zone to take on a new, unexplored sonic territory.

In considering this lone wolf mentality, the careers of Keith Fullerton Whitman and Sean McCann come to mind, who both started in sonically sparse territory and whose music eventually careened into strange and wonderful realms of abstract synthesis and intelligent noise. In a way, Finger is like the opposite, where Ghost Figures sees him stripping away his usual cacophony to little more than a piano. Perhaps he’ll bring back the noise in the future, but for now he’s given us the type of haunt that usually pops up in an artist’s career after they’ve endured a great loss or hardship (see: Skeleton Tree).

Finger spent roughly two years recording Ghost Figures, spending hours at a time perfecting deceptively simple loops and miniature movements in front of a piano. Once perfected and then recorded, some instrumentation was added along with field recordings. Various filters were also used to better amplify the desired mood of a given piece. Despite the additional rounding out of the music, Finger keeps things minimal, letting the Satie-like melodies shine through on every track. It is rare when the piano is not the focal point here, and when it does get pushed slightly into the background, it is only to momentarily share the limelight with an elegiac cello, or field recordings of obscure dark creaks, clanging bells, and chanting crowds.

Part of Finger’s intention behind Ghost Figures was to strip away conceptualism and create something open minded yet emotionally arresting. The piano melodies that emerged from this pursuit rarely follow what one might consider a cohesive narrative, existing in the ambiguous realm between neoclassical and ambient-electronic. There are moments, however, that closer resemble more traditional song structures, such as the excellent “Strings Attached,” whose cyclical piano phrase sounds so damn familiar, but I can’t quite put my finger (ha!) on who or what it reminds me of – is it Satie, Part, maybe Eno? In any regard, the piece is a standout, and offers a refreshing – though subtle – change of pace midway through the album.

There is another element at play on Ghost Figures that works to the album’s success as a modern tome for melancholy. Finger has taken risks here, integrating instrumentation and recordings that are often atypical of these types of piano works, such as noisy traffic sounds and the aforementioned recordings of chanting crowds. In doing so he risks being pinned an amateur, but any seasoned listener would be able to detect a compositional perfectionist at the helm. The bigger risk, however, in taking into account Finger’s approach to the album, is the music’s transparency. Listening to these pieces, one gets the sense that each track is like a window into the composer himself, and every sound an attempt to build something from the ground up. Ultimately, Ben Finger has built an album that will likely stand as one of the year’s most honest and quietly compelling.

Ghost Figures is out March 7 on Oak Editions as a limited run LP. Get it here.

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Bing & Ruth – No Home of the Mind

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I must be perfectly honest, No Home of the Mind is my first exposure to David Moore and his ever evolving minimalist ensemble. He’s been right under my nose for years, making beautiful music unbeknownst to me. Rarely do I come at a review of an album that’s waist deep in an artist’s career without having heard anything prior to it. Sure, I can do my homework, make it sound like I’ve heard the albums, even scour the different streaming outlets at my disposal in an attempt to cram as much older Bing & Ruth material into my brain before embarking on this review. I could do that. I’ve done it a handful of times before (albeit, to mixed results). But now, as I sit here and my head becomes flooded with clusters of beautiful piano in the shape of starling murmurations, I’m suddenly halted and my mind goes blank.

As not only a writer but voracious reader of reviews, I have always found that the best commentaries are the ones that are not only well researched, but subtly reveal the writer’s passion for a specific type of music. And if they can relate this passion to a reader’s general understanding in a way that will make them excited about hearing the music, well, that can bring greatness out of a good review. If you agree with me then I’m sorry for what I can only describe this time around as ‘a different approach.’ I’ve decided to walk in blind, having only the music to guide me, so please, expect no revelations from here on in.

Let’s look at it this way, perhaps there is some music in the world that beckons this approach, shining all the brighter when taken at face value, when stripped entirely of the contextualizations of time and place – even something as seemly arbitrary as album art can provide context, as the vague, smeared colour motif of Bing & Ruth’s latest proves. We are then faced with the question: Could the music on No Home of the Mind benefit most from nothing but it’s own existence and an audience to hear it? It’s impossible to say for sure, but what I can say is that going in with this little information is like reverting back to childhood. Oddly, it feels great, and from the moment I hit play the room comes alive with the album’s sounds. I become awash with an adolescent excitement about only having discovered this now and think, maybe I’m on to something.

bing_ruthBing & Ruth – No Home of the Mind
(4AD, 2017)

Let’s return to the starlings. When these birds fly in flocks (called murmurations) they stick very closely together, often forming impressive cone or ribbon like swarms that bend and twist in the sky without breaking apart. The effect is something like watching mercury flow through a clear cylinder, and anyone who has experienced the sight of a large murmuration will likely tell you that it is nothing short of mesmerizing, a true wonder in nature.

The starling draws a rather easy analogy back to No Home of the Mind, especially in its opening piece, “Starwood Choker.” String drones – I’m guessing cello originated –accompany rapidly played piano that propel through to the track’s close. Like many of the movements on the album, the various instruments seem to possess such a close relationship to one another that at times their individual sounds become indistinguishable. There are moments too, as on “Form Takes,” when one wouldn’t be too far off to think it the ensemble’s mandate to hammer away for the sake of cataclysm. However, these frenzied moments are seldom without reward, for the pieces never truly lose their underlying shape, often blossoming into something unexpected and majestic.

Bing & Ruth are equally as effective when quieter. More accurately, the ensemble is adept at balancing the loud with the quiet, to the extent that No Home of the Mind strikes an uncanny buoyancy. Pieces like “As Much as Possible” and “To All It” are centred primarily around a somber piano, while the remaining ensemble’s job is to texturize the pieces, providing shifts in hue rather than changes in colour. A closer listen to “To All It” reveals a sensibility closely linked to that of Adam Wiltzie (1/2 of Stars of the Lid, A Winged Victory for the Sullen), where, to the ensembles credit, a piano and some wheezing strings possess enough emotional weight to make me think that this music could somehow move mountains.

As the years tick past and more and more work that sounds like No Home of the Mind is produced, the trickier it becomes to classify and quantify the varying shades of ambient. That’s not to say that all music should be quantifiable, or have purpose for that matter, but Bing & Ruth seem poised to bring ambient to an unsuspecting generation of listeners. It could very well be part of their goal. Considering Moore’s pop take on Charlemagne Palestine and La Monte Young era minimalism – namely digestible song lengths and a modernized sheen – No Home of the Mind feels like it could very well be the tipping point.

Secret Pyramid’s Distant Works

Following in suit to last week’s post, we now delve into a pair of releases from another shadowy figure among the Pacific Northwest experimental underground. Amir Abbey, the name behind Secret Pyramid, has steadily developed his solo project since its humble beginnings roughly eight years ago. At that time we saw the fallout of his band Solars (his two man psych-drone outfit with Daniel Colussi) and the self released Ghosts cdr. The reason behind the Solars break-up remains opaque at best, but, nonetheless seemed to light a fire under Abbey to aggressively pursue his own sound.

In Abbey’s musical pursuits he’s accomplished multiple releases on Cincinnati’s Students of Decay label, and has performed not once, but twice at Montreal’s Mutek. According to the artist, the forthcoming Secret Pyramid album, Two Shadows Collide, is finished and will be released sometime this summer. For now, let’s look back at the two part (thus far) Distant Works series from the Secret Pyramid oeuvre.

secret_pyramid_dw1Secret Pyramid – Distant Works I
(Proposition, 2013)

On the bandcamp page for Distant Works I, Abbey describes the album as a more minimalist approach to his 2011 release, The Silent March. The material here came from the same sessions as The Silent March, and is composed of analog tape loops. Not surprisingly, the opening minute brings to mind the work of William Basinski – particularly his lesser known but fantastic album, El Camino Real. Where Camino meditates on a single loop for close to an hour, “Distance 1,” the tape’s A side, slowly meanders through a series of looped vignettes. Vignettes are strung together, but the transitions between them are nearly undetectable, swallowed up in the gravity of the overall movement of sound.

“Distance II,” while not a monumental departure from the opening side, does see a change in focus. The piece builds from an inaudible beginning, gaining momentum with swelling guitar permutations and rising amplitude. To work as well as it does, a piece like “Distance II” could not exist without a certain level of ambiguity. Similar to Secret Pyramid’s other albums, the sounds herein exist in the sweet spot between over-contextualization and lack of intention, where the artist’s hand is present but never weighs all that heavily. On Distant Works I we are presented with a familiar drift, but one with intention and a sense of movement behind it. Even the most minimal music needs to take the listener somewhere – whether it’s to an open field or along a path – and this understanding is what edges Abbey’s work in front of plenty of so-called ambient musicians.

secret_pyramid_dw2Secret Pyramid – Distant Works II
(Proposition, 2016)

Last year’s Distant Works II is Secret Pyramid’s most recent album, and shows a staggering diversity of sound compared to past work. Where previous releases saw mostly tape loops and prepared guitar, Distant Works II opens the Secret Pyramid netherworld to a range of sources that include piano, strings, synths, field recordings and an early electronic instrument know as the Ondes Martenot (similar to a theramin in sound, the Ondes allows for the player to seamlessly glide along pitches using a ring that is worn on the right hand. The ring is attached to a string and sits horizontally in front of a keyboard).

To a piece of minimal music, a more diverse palette of sound sources can be as devastating as it can be enriching. Luckily, Abbey, who at this point would certainly be aware of the shortcomings of overdoing it, shows plenty of restraint with his new toys. Rather than the side-long slab approach, Abbey chose to break the album up into seven movements. The three tracks that are under two minutes here gingerly trod new sonic territory for Abbey, incorporating field recordings of wind and rain that sound like they’ve been given some tape treatment. This also includes the opener, clearly featuring the above mentioned Ondes, giving the album a distinct – though ultimately brief – touch of cosmological new age.

It’s the album’s two longer tracks that steal the show. The centrepiece, “IV,” has a backbone of one of Abbey’s cleanest synth drones, but soon corrals familiar tape hiss alongside wavering, distorted tones, whose source one can only guess at. “VII,” the final movement, is one of Abbey’s finest tracks to date, striking a perfect equilibrium with the rough-hewn elements of his sound and another spellbinding loop. In an interview from April of 2014, Abbey mentions how he’s gradually becoming more and more comfortable with the recording process. With comfort comes confidence, and if Distant Works II is a precursor to the trajectory of Secret Pyramid’s sound, then that confidence is only going to make it stronger.

Lost in Shadows: Loscil’s Monument Builders

When considering the breadth of Vancouver’s purveyors of fringe electronic, Scott Morgan, aka Loscil, certainly ranks among the top. In the grander scheme of things, Loscil is synonymous with dependability, but Morgan’s albums don’t exactly garner the type of anticipation that an impending Fennesz or Tim Hecker release do. By the very nature of his music, Loscil will always exist a little bit in the background. His album-per-year output is like an old, reliable friend. You won’t always think to call up that friend, but when you do you’re reminded of the connection that brought you both together in the first place.

loscil_monument_buildersLoscil – Monument Builders
(Kranky, 2016)

The discovery of a new Loscil work brings about a fascination rather than teeth gnashing excitement. At this point it is obvious that Morgan has found his stride with the project, and that he very likely will not stray too far from the sound now embedded in that stride. There is steady movement in Morgan’s output from album to album, whether it’s forward into new sonic territory – as Intervalo was to Sketches From New Brighton Park – or sideways into a familiar yet slightly tweaked sound –as Sea Island was to 2006’s Plume. With his latest effort, Monument Builders, Morgan’s direction in sound is an angled step, falling somewhere in between these two directions.

Sonic space and timing are central to Loscil albums, providing a sense of the necessary human hand that guides these clean, computer-driven digitizations of sound. The human element is all the more present here, where Morgan’s ghostly techno is dialled back even further than usual. Sea Island and Plume saw Morgan’s compositions as self-catalyzing, where it almost felt like he was able to set up a loop, hit play and watch the magic happen to great effect.

Monument Builders foregoes a level of mechanization, evident in the opening two minutes of the album. The track in question, “Drained Lake,” builds slowly with plenty of low end, never settling into a comfortable groove. If there is anything that the track reveals about the album as a whole, it’s that the listener is going to remain a little on edge throughout. The work of Daniel Lapotin is a good yard stick for what one might expect from the unexpected in electronic music, and Morgan certainly channels him on “Red Tide,” with its ridged arpeggiations reminiscent of Tangerine Dream. “Weeds,” the album’s closer, begins with pure, beatless ambience before an overlaying of angelic vocal fragments fill it out – not dissimilar to sections of Love Streams, last year’s staggering release from the aforementioned Tim Hecker.

Morgan has never shied away from taking his music into dark realms, evident from as early as his aquatic themed Submers to his 2011 release for Glacial Movements, Coast/Range/Arc. This album further reveals the shape of these dark realms. The title track might be the best example, a slow burner that builds from a highly affective loop, reigning in atmospheres that are equally tactile, meditative and luminous. It’s a piece for the fans, as its true brilliance is revealed more so in the context of Morgan’s career than that of the album alone. And as an album, Monument Builders provokes the thought of where Morgan will go from here, and how he’ll be able to further expand on this release. Alternatively, one can rightfully interpret the album’s title in a more direct light: that he’s built something quite substantial already.

When Dunn Met Meluch (and Became Perils)

One would be hard-pressed to argue that the respective musical styles of Kyle Bobby Dunn and Thomas Meluch (aka Benoit Pioulard) are more disparate than they are similar. For starters, both artists work almost primarily in the realm of “ambient-electronic.” And although that style tag is about as appropriate a descriptor as it is flawed in it’s breadth, we will embrace it here as an uninspired jumping off point.

Like any good rabbit hole, the deeper one delves the more understanding one gains. In doing so with these artists’s respective catalogues, the nuances that separate Dunn and Meluch become apparent rather quickly. Dunn tends toward the more minimal side of things, often taking a “fewest brush strokes” philosophy to his prepared guitar pieces. Meluch, on the other hand, tends to be a bit more playful, allowing for different recording techniques to colour his pieces and a more varied set of instruments to enter his sound worlds.

perilsPerils – Perils
(Desire Path Recordings, 2015)

As the name Perils suggests, the album came to fruition during a time of struggle. Dunn was more than bogged down from the near completion of his opus, Kyle Bobby Dunn and the Infinite Sadness, while Meluch was in the midst of moving his entire life from the UK to the US. Through this strange and turbulent time the duo managed to piece together an album that, despite its palpable melancholy, speaks more of future promise than present hardship.

I am not as versed in Meluch’s music as I am Dunn’s, but I can say with high certainty that Perils is like nothing either of these artists would have come up with on their own. And as much as each player shines through in these songs, the pieces here don’t exactly resemble a fusion of styles, but a unique and unexpected sound emerging from that fusion.

Perils opens with the drone piece “Colours Hide My Face” (notice the Canadian spelling of colours. A Dunn original no doubt). Elegiac tones are the focus here, seeming to both compound and disintegrate simultaneously, a tricky balance that’s struck rather successfully throughout the record. Take for example the addition of vocals on a handful of these songs, where a deft ear for their subtle integration is requisite to their success. Even on “Resin,” which one could argue ventures into neofolk territory, stands out more as a variation on a theme then the auditory equivalent of a sore thumb.

The album’s biggest pitfall, and perhaps it’s only pitfall, is it’s brevity. Since Dunn tends to favour expansive, multiple-hour spanning releases, it’s clear that Meluch had a winning influence on the structure of Perils. Unfortunately, the shear length of some of these purely instrumental pieces make them feel more like interludes than fully developed arrangements. However, the tracks all flow seamlessly into one another, making for a record that is – aside from a couple of exceptions – nothing if not the sum of its parts.

deathconsciousness: Have a Nice Life’s Monumental Debut

In 2008, Connecticut two-piece Have a Nice Life released their debut album, deathconsciousness. The album cover, a crop of The Death of Marat, is arguably the most famous painting from the French Revolution. Painted by Jacques-Louis David, it depicts the French revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat dead in his bathtub after being stabbed by one, Charlotte Corday. The painting has a far-reaching historical influence, and as an icon for one of the most important periods in human history, it’s no shocker it pops up now and again in popular and underground culture.

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deathconsciousness
(Enemies List Home Recordings) 2008

As the cover to deathconsciousnessThe Death of Marat feels all too fitting. The image is bleak, and the music follows perfectly in suit (as it does from the band’s name, from a dark parody standpoint). Ostensibly a post-punk outfit, Have a Nice Life tend to blur genre boundaries more than they ever stick to an edified regime, and they’re always all the better for it. Dan Barrett and Tim Macuga – the sole members of Have a Nice Life – share vocal duties, in which their unrefined and often shrouded-in-noise bellowing is something like Ian Curtis or Johnny Rotten singing inside a vacuum, if, of course, one could hear anything in a vacuum.

The vacuum might just be the perfect analogy for the sound of deathconsciousness, an album that seems insurmountably dark and dense, like a collapsed star sucking in all existing sounds, compacting them, and spewing out a crude yet addictive slurry for the ears. What separates Have a Nice Life from their contemporaries is their unique fusion of post-punk, shoegaze, industrial, goth and drone, most brilliantly executed on their debut, though spun exceptionally tight on their follow-up, The Unnatural World (2014), and the (still) free EP from 2010, Time of Land.

For a two-piece, the band manages to make a hell of a lot of noise, but what keeps it from just being noise is a focused lens. deathconsciousness filters it’s noise through a rigorous ideology, a higher level understanding of the search for light in absolute darkness. Where lesser acts might sooner guide a piece to more commercial friendly territory, Have a Nice Life delve deeper into the dark. The band won’t shy from the possibility of going 7+ minutes without vocals or percussion, transforming the banality of the interlude into a densely woven piece of drone music. When the drums do eventually kick back in, as raw as they are, the effect is sublime.

Yet, somehow, beneath the slurry the melodies posses their own hooks, nestled deep within the sound. After all, good music requires good ingenuity behind it, meaning an understanding of how it can work on many levels. Loveless isn’t a timeless album because it sounds like shoegaze. It’s timeless because the entire album is meticulously crafted from the ground up. Every song has something that corrals the listener, keeps them coming back years later. deathconsciousness works similarly, and although the band seems to draw from many sources, the album remains fresh, distinct.

Nearly a decade after it’s release, it wouldn’t surprise to find that deathconsciousness still garners a steady stream of new listeners. I, myself, was lured in not long ago by its minor cult status and promises to deliver ample doom and gloom. Immediately, its alien sound is captivating, but its shear length intimidating – clocking in at just under an hour and a half. However, that the album beseeches you of your time is not to its fault, it’s simply a matter of whether or not one is up for taking time to hear what can be revealed. In its revealing, deathconsciousness does not disappoint.