SEEDBANK 1: An Envisioned Arctic in Biosphere’s Substrata

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


Substrata1Substrata (All Saints cover art, 1997)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Substrata2

Substrata (Biophone 2xLP Reissue cover art, 2011)

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

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

mark so cover for caduc

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farmer Lacey Cover

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

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

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

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.

A Slowly Darkening Sky: Keith Berry’s Elixir

It’s fitting that 14 years after the release of The Golden Boat, Keith Berry’s debut for Trente Oiseaux, that he should find a home for his new album on the Brooklyn based Invisible Birds label. After all, it was those auspicious releases from the likes of Fransisco López, Bernhard Günter, Steve Roden, Richard Chartier, and Berry himself, that in part inspired Matthew Swiezynski to dream up Invisible Birds in the first place. The scope of Swiezynski’s label has been anything but strictly defined, birthed from the notions of transcendence, memory and nothingness, and how they might link – romantically or otherwise – to landscape and birdsong. These notions, presented cryptically on the Introduction section of the label’s website, are but a glimpse into the complicated workings of a mind that, above all, seems unflinchingly dedicated to the boundless possibilities of art.

ElixirKeith Berry – Elixir
(Invisible Birds, 2017)

Invisible Birds is in no hurry to shed it’s more romantic ideals, particularly the one that finds endless allure within the mysteries of the human psyche. In this regard, Elixir is another unearthed cave for which the listener can explore. The last I heard from Berry was his limited run picture disc from 2008, The Cartesian Plane. While that album’s finely-tuned drone work swayed toward the emotionally ambiguous, Elixir sees Berry take more risks with mood, opening his sound up to a wider spectrum of feeling. It’s not necessarily happiness that these track’s instill, more like an elevated calm, a contentedness. It’s not the feeling of watching the sunset, but the one where the sun has long set and you just can’t seem to divert your attention away from the slowly darkening sky just above the horizon.

I cannot help but draw comparisons here to the work of GAS, Wolfgang Voigt’s now legendary ambient / minimal techno project from the late 90’s. Voigt will be releasing a new GAS album this year – the first in 17 years – so his music has inevitably worked it’s way back into my listening regime. On Elixir, Berry’s drones are as airy as voigt’s, but he seems perfectly content in foregoing any musical element that one would typically associate with rhythm. I’m reminded, too, of Tim Hecker’s earlier releases for Alien8, back when his music was a lot simpler and before he became hooked on the use of compression algorithms to beef up his sound. On that note, Berry’s music is certainly about doing more with less, where even a small misstep in any given piece might’ve changed the mood to something less desired.

Attached to the release of Elixir is a paragraph by Berry regarding his process in making the album. The parts that struck me were his mention of “a heavily granular processed sound” and his explorations of the “permutations that digital editing software allows.” Perhaps these statements would be of no surprise to someone with a lot more software experience than myself, but to me, they seem in almost direct contradiction to how effortlessly this music flows, how organically the elements seem to come together. Sure, this is electronic music, and I get the difference between a computer making music and using a computer to make music, but this particular music sounds as natural as the flow of water over a creek bed.

Much like Voigt, who claimed that his intention behind GAS was to “bring the forest to the disco, or vice-versa,” one gets a similar sense of amalgamated intent behind Berry’s work. However, Berry’s intentions have never felt as cut-and-dried, and unlike Voigt, he’s been lurking more or less in the shadows for 15 years, emerging every so often with an album that shines like a beacon among the year’s long list of drone releases. When 2017 eventually rolls to a close, you can bet that Elixir, too, will stand out among the lot.

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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