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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Ephemera Poetica: PAN’s Mono No Aware Compilation

PAN_Mono_No_AwareVarious Artists – Mono No Aware
(PAN – 2017)

I’m not sure who said it first, but over and again I am reminded that if you can’t explain something in simple terms, then you probably don’t understand it yourself. It is through this lens that I struggle with mono no aware, a Japanese originated term that loosely translates to “a sensitivity, or empathy toward ephemera.” On the one hand, it’s an easy enough concept to explain using metaphor and everyday examples. For example, anyone can recognize the simple and fleeting beauty of a campfire. It can strike home even more so the morning after, when, at dawn one crawls out of their tent only to find the coals of last night’s fire still smouldering beneath a thick layer of ash. It’s a scene that has held my attention on many mornings, and I can’t help but continually marvel at how a short passing of time can so dramatically alter a place, or, at least one’s perception of a place.

There is, however, a deeper level to the concept of mono no aware (that also overlaps with wabi-sabi), and this is where my struggle lies. In the appreciation of impermanence and ephemerality, one can eventually gain a unique perspective on humanity. By way of another example: think of a winter rain that slowly washes away a snowman. In doing so you may eventually tumble upon a metaphor for the gradual and inevitable demise of humanity. If you get that far, you’re starting to tap into what mono no aware is really about.

It may seem depressing, but there is a sadness that is both innate and fundamental to grasping this concept on a meaningful level. Through the practices of meditation and haiku writing, one can better harness what can only be described as the feeling of mono no aware, or the feeling of wabi-sabi. Because of this, there is no simple explanation that I see. What I sense is a concept that requires a willingness on the part of the inquisitive to allow for more humility, less self-indulgence, and less materialism in their lives. Call it what you will, but I think we are talking about a heightened state of consciousness.

Similar to the practice of reading and writing haiku, good ambient music seems to provide a gateway to understanding mono no aware. The latest compilation from the Berlin-based PAN label does just that, showcasing 16 unique tracks from 16 separate artists. A good compilation will draw one’s attention away from the artist and onto the album. With this in mind, Mono No Aware shines, as there are essentially no moments where the listener’s attention is pulled away from the sequential flow of songs. Listening to this, I rarely feel the need to check what song or artist is playing, to the extent that I derived a certain satisfaction in hearing this as a work from a 16-member musical collective called Mono No Aware (that would be a cool name for a giant musical collective). That’s not to say that individual songs didn’t grab me,–it was the cold-as-ice loop in Ayya’s “Second Mistake” that initially drew me in–but that individuality, itself, feels less important.

I’m not all that familiar with PAN’s releases, but perusing the label’s output one sees a wide range of experimental musicians, from the well known to the virtually unknown. The beauty of the label is that they’re all mixed in together and there doesn’t seem to be a mandate on releasing work from more established artists. Mono No Aware is made up of the virtually unknown camp, who’ve collectively harnessed an opportunity to give new meaning to the ambient lexicon. Taking cues from a broad definition of ambient, Mono No Aware feels like new age music for the final age. And it could be the occasional injection of noise–see PAN’s very own Bill Kouligas’s “VXOMEG”–but there’s also a level of fatalism at play that is better to embrace than to ignore.

For a compilation as well sewn as Mono No Aware, the mood often shifts. The early-Oneohtrix-Point-Never feel of Kareem Lotfy’s “Fr3sh” and the third track, “Limerence” by Yves Tumor, provide almost a playful air–especially the Tumor piece that sounds like the beginning of a Mark Mcguire guitar-athon with home movie samples of teenagers being teenagers plugged in. Helm’s track patiently weaves soft surges of noise with an underbelly of atmospherics levelling out the mood.

The previously mentioned “Second Mistake” is the comp’s longest song, and works wonders with its central loop, an elegant use of some source signal reversal effect. The focal drone in Jeff Witscher’s “Ok, American Medium” could be an ode to the maligned and now nearly forgotten vuvuzela, and it’s awesome, while the final songs, “Heretic” and “Zhao Hua” are truer to ambient as Eno saw it. The latter, especially, by HVAD and Pan Daijing, closes the album out on a more solemn note, as elegiac strings push into celestial realms. All the better an ending if one is going to contemplate the title’s deeper meaning, or be left in awe, as I was, at how much time managed to slip away while engrossed in this music.

G A S – Narkopop and the Return of Wolfgang Voigt

Wolfgang Voigt, by now a household name among experimental music lovers, has produced A LOT over the years, dipping into every variation of ambient, acid house and minimal techno under the sun. Of all his musical endeavours–and let’s not forget his co-founding of the influential Kompakt label–his work under the GAS moniker in the late 90’s was nothing short of visionary. As Gas, Voigt washed away any remaining conventions around the four-to-the-floor beat, burying it within remnants of classical music and shifting atmospherics. Voigt has never shied from venturing into pure ambient form neither, like on the opening track of his debut album from 1996, where a beat simply never enters the mix. Now, 17 years after the release of the fourth GAS album, Voigt delivers a fifth, the densely woven and exquisite Narkopop.

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As the opiate-induced, dark sequel to 2000’s PopNarkopop certainly delivers. Pop’s optimism (Poptimism?) is dialled back this time around, snuffed out by a more oppressive sound. This could have been achieved with a more present, driving beat, I suppose, but Voigt accomplishes this mood more so by weaving elegiac textures seamlessly into these pieces. It’s evident from the first four tracks that Voigt is as relaxed at the helm as ever, like on “Narkopop 2,” where the looped string samples rise, fall and change shape more frequently then he has ever allowed with GAS in the past. Alone, “Narkopop 2” seems to lack focus, but in the context of the album it plays an important role in building anticipation for Narkopop’s spirited interior.

“Narkopop 4” is when things really get interesting. The piece builds intensity as the various textures fly into and out of the mix, laid on with thick brush strokes for the brief moment that they exist. The transition into “Narkopop 5” is shiver inducing. Flawlessly, the signature GAS kick-drum beat positions itself as the track’s backbone, like someone thrumming the side of a dumpster, the sound reverberating through dark alleys in an abandoned city. The skittering, brooding framework of “Narkopop 6” wouldn’t sound out of place as soundtrack to some future-noir sci-fi flick; again, it transitions imperceptibly into the next track, “Narkopop 7,” what one might classify as ‘barely techno,’ its austerity providing space for a gently pulsating beat that harkens to the early GAS days.

Although rare, Voigt has been a bit forceful with the beat in the past–I’m thinking select tracks from Zauberberg and Königsforst–but he finds near-perfect proportions on Narkopop, insofar as it never feels as though the drummer is trying to show up the band. “Narkopop 10,” the album’s powerful closing statement, finds an impeccable balance between all of its sonic elements, but Voigt is a master of the closing statement, so it’s no surprise he hit this one out of the park. 17 years on, it’s safe to say that Voigt’s vision of GAS has not distorted, only shifted to accommodate a broader version of the project. And perhaps, Narkopop will serve not only as thirst quenching for longtime fans, but as introduction to a new generation of listeners cursing themselves at only discovering this now. To that I say, better late than never.


Quick note on the incredible package Kompakt put together here for the 3LP release. Beautiful full-colour thick board jacket that gatefolds out to a twelve page booklet of Voigt’s nature photographs. I’ve never found his photography all that moving, but the way this is all put together is worth the heftier than normal price tag. The LPs are tucked neatly behind the front and back covers in slick, all black inners. A CD version of the album is also included, and sits in a holster on the inside front. Very nice all around.

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.

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.

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.