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.

levitate-4f27181e0137c

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.

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Slowcore: 10 Indispensable Albums (Part 2 of 2)

Welcome to part 2 of 2 of The Alcohol Seed’s ten album slowcore primer.
In case you missed it, here’s part 1.

Low – I Could Live in Hope
(Vernon Yard Recordings, 1994)

low_liveinhopeIf Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker were anything but lifer musicians, Low’s stardom may not have progressed past the status of the American slowcore poster child. At this point, however, after a dozen LPs, they have earned a well deserved global following. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the band perform three times in Vancouver over the span of a decade, and at the last show they opened with the song “Words,” a classic from I Could Live in Hope, before jumping into a set of newer material. The song brought about cheers from longtime fans who seemed in great abundance in the audience. It’s Incredible when a band can open a set with a song from twenty years ago and it not come across as outdated or disjointed from the rest of the set.

Consistency is an easy word to throw around when talking about Low. They are known for having a specific sound and only diverging from it to either slightly amp up their production (The Great Destroyer), or go a bit more experimental (Guns and Drums). The root of their sound was dug in deep on I Could Live in Hope, an album whose slow unfolding of dark imagery perfectly suited the band’s basic setup – guitar (Sparhawk), drums (Parker) and bass (John Nichols, who left the band shortly after). Many of the album’s songs seem built around a formula that allows for the guitar to cut through the mix like a knife, like on “Drag,” whose primary image sees Sparhawk at a point of giving up: “I’m sorry but I can’t hold on / It works much better if I let it drag me around.” It’s a testament to the album as a whole, a plea for the listener to not attempt to resist the gravity of this music. Hell, it’s a testament to the band as a whole, because slowcore would be nothing without Low, and I Could Live in Hope is where it all started. A quintessential release.

The American Analog Set –
The Golden Band
(Emperor Jones, 1999)

an_am_set_goldenbandThe American Analog Set (AmAnSet) might be one of the least offensive bands in history. They’re music never gets all that raw or noisy, nor does it ever get that loud or toss you much you wouldn’t expect. Andrew Kenny’s vocal delivery is so delicate it almost sounds prepubescent; meanwhile the rest of the band steadily churn out a sound somewhere between krautrock and smooth jazz. If Elliot Smith ever sang along to Kraftwerk songs it might have sounded something like AmAnSet. They were yet another band born of the vital Austin scene happening in and around the mid 90s, and though their whole catalog is worth hearing, the three or so years spanning The Golden Band to Know By Heart marked a highpoint in their history.

Ranking all six AmAnSet albums from best to worst would be very challenging. The first four are excellent and the last two are very good. The Golden Band happens to be a personal favourite, with the four part “New Drifters” that explores some of the band’s most varied and interesting instrumentals to date – the repeated guitar slide on “ii” is especially good. “The Wait” is about as nostalgic as it gets with the line: “through the nineties / we just got by,” which later became the title to a compilation of singles and unreleased material. But it’s the song “It’s All About Us” that really shines through with its brilliant mix of loud / quiet vitality. In its final minutes the piece develops a staggering post-kraut dynamism with the familiar guitar, organ, bass and percussive elements at their most interdependent.

Movietone – Day and Night
(Domino, 1997)

movietone_daynight

Before hearing even a second of Movietone’s music, I had read in a Dusted review that the band recorded at least part of an album on a beach. Curious, my digging led to the discovery that not only was some of the album The Sand and the Stars recorded in an ocean bay at night, but those sessions “involved the band carrying a double bass down a cliff.” None of this means their music was going to be any good, but I was nonetheless excited to check it out. Meanwhile, I had developed a level of respect for the Bristol band’s spirit for experimentation. Dating back to their second album, Day and Night, it’s apparent that that spirit was alive and well years before the release of The Sand and the Stars.

Day and Night is a peculiar album, thriving in but never exclusively tethered to a kind of drowsy psych-folk. “Night of the Acacias” could have easily worked as part of the Fear and Loathing soundtrack, which is to say it sounds more drug-induced than the rest of the album. Perhaps Rachel Coe’s stint in Flying Saucer Attack helped steer Movietone’s sound into more psychedelic realms, although any online mention of the band seems to also mention Flying Saucer Attack more as a convenient name drop than a worthwhile comparison. Sure, Movietone have taken cues from FSA, and I would say bands like Bowery Electric and Labradford as well, but they never existed in anyone’s shadow. Day and Night‘s energy and song structure does wane slightly in the second half, but the cohesion of songs like “Sun Drawing” and “Useless Landscape” solidify Movietone’s importance in the winding narrative of slow music.

Seam – Are You Driving Me Crazy? 
(City Slang / Touch and Go, 1995)

seam_drivingmecrazySeam formed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1990. The band saw many line-up changes over the years, with Sooyoung Park (of Bitch Magnet fame) as its only core member. It’s evident that Park had a strong hold on the direction of Seam throughout the band’s existence, as ’95’s Are You Driving Me Crazy? was so consistent with the sound of ’93’s The Problem With Me, despite every member other than Park being replaced. Seam’s sound was unique to what was typically considered slowcore, ironically because their sound was so inextricably tied to the 90s than it was to any particular genre.

It’s easy to hear how Seam would appeal to post-hardcore fans, although a song like the moody “Rainy Season” might leave one or two scratching their heads wondering where the energy went. Seam wore a rock banner as a kind of facade, as Park seemed intent on keeping a thread of mellowness alive in his music. Are You Driving Me Crazy? is chalk full of songs that reach the brink of rocking out but retreat to quieter places instead. It’s this restraint that has often struck me as one of Seam’s best qualities, not to mention they also wrote some damn good hooks. In considering it’s place among the list, Are You Driving Me Crazy? helps to round out the pack with the necessary structure and energy to balance things out.

Tram – Heavy Black Frame
(Jetset / Piao!, 1999)

tram_heavyblackframe

I challenge anyone to come up with a better soundtrack to the overcast skies and concrete cityscapes that are so stereotypically depicted of London, England, then Tram’s Heavy Black Frame. And remember, we’re talking about shades of grey, not immutable depths of black. Tram were never so slow, or so depressing as to ever alienate themselves from their place of origin, and their progression toward a more varied, accessible sound over three albums didn’t hurt this fact either. Heavy Black Frame, the band’s debut, was their most soporific, which is probably why it makes for such a good “make-out” album, according to one pitchfork critic – whose review of the album is a strong contender for the website’s absolute worst (that hasn’t already been deleted).

Thanks to its long list of collaborators that brought to the album an array of strings, horns, and keys, Heavy Black Frame is chalk full of lush arrangements that so effortlessly compliment Paul Anderson’s vocals. Certainly, the band didn’t fall victim to the choppy production that seemed to plague the early releases of oh so many smalltime acts trying to play slowly. The result is an album with an unbroken flow from start to finish, probably diminishing its initial appeal for listeners wanting more to immediately grasp onto, but rewarding for those seeking a lasting relationship that starts with subsequent spins.

Slowcore: 10 Indispensable Albums (Part 1 of 2)

I don’t love the term slowcore. I do, however, stand behind what I believe the term represents. Humans need to compartmentalize and categorize to make sense of the whole of life, and music does not fall outside of that. And although it’s easy to scoff at the fan and critic mentality to stick ‘core’ on the end and call it a day, I prefer to hold out a little hope in what I see as a byproduct of rational human behaviour. So what does slowcore represent other than a bunch of bands that play slowly? Slowness is part of it, as all the bands I’ve chosen to list below could be lumped into a group representative of music made up of slow tempos. But there is so much more.

Attached to the decision to play slowly is a kind of network of other less conscious decisions. Playing slowly means playing more deliberately, carefully and thoughtfully. Bands that play slowly also often play quietly – though there are plenty of exceptions to this, as this list attests – and with quietness there is always at least a notable level of vulnerability. Take a singer-songwriter performing with an acoustic guitar as example. With all other instrumentation stripped away beyond a voice and guitar there is little else to hide behind. The din of a band behind you can mask your imperfections, but in the songwriter scenario every mistake rings out like a pin drop. The difference is that everyone expects the delivery of the songwriter, but few walk into a rock show expecting the music played at a snail’s pace. Thus, slowcore bands are like rock music’s delegates of vulnerability. They are the raw, exposed nerve, the sensibility beneath a veil of noise, the pause in the constant stream of zealous stimulation.

As the name suggests, slowcore is not so much a musical movement but something that’s crept along, ever shifting and subtly evolving. Aside from it’s origins, it is tied to neither geography nor time. So-called slowcore bands came primarily from America, but there was also a significant presence of like minded acts spawning out of the UK (Hood, Tram) and Scandinavia (The White Birch). The German label, Glitterhouse, who partnered with Sub Pop until ’95, is to thank for getting American slowcore distributed abroad, and likewise assisted to the global awareness of European acts.

When considering bands that had an influence on the sound that’s come to define slowcore, Low is inevitably stuck at the top, with Red House Painters, Bedhead and Codeine close behind. Twenty years later and we’re still hearing the influence of these bands on more mainstream indie rock acts like Real Estate, Whitney, The XX, or even Beach House and Kurt Vile. It’s hard to say how many would actually site slowcore bands as influence, but the similarities are often undeniable. Aside from where slowcore has gone and where it continues to go, it’s beginnings are inextricably tied to the 90s, which then rippled into another smaller but significant wave in the early 2000s. For the next two weeks, The Alcohol Seed will look at ten albums from these eras of slowcore, presented and analyzed. So, let’s dive in…

Early Day Miners – Let Us Garlands Bring
(Secretly Canadian, 2002)

early_day_miners_let_us_garlands_bringSouthern Indiana based Early Day Miners have remained very low key since their humble beginnings in the late 90s. The band released 7 LPs, their last, Night People, surfacing in 2011. Since then the Miners have been mostly dormant, though members have been hinting at forthcoming activity for some time, but things remain uncertain. Early Day Miners (who, as of 2011 have gone by the shorthand EDM) seemed to draw from many wells of influence, including UK shoegaze and good ol’ Texan post-rock. The biggest statements in shoegaze had long left the pressing plants by the time of the Miners’ forming, but post-rockers like Godspeed and Mogwai were only just getting going. During the band’s nascent years, however, the Early Day Miners sound was unmistakably that of slowcore, apexing with 2002’s raw and sprawling Let Us Garlands Bring.

The band’s debut, 2000’s Placer Found, saw their sound a bit lost within ineffectual space. On Let Us Garlands Bring, the Miners fill in that space with just the right amount of additional instrumentation that never goes so far as to suffocate their sound. There is also an overall presence in the songs, a sense of deliberation and direction, that seemed lacking on the debut. Perhaps more than any other slowcore outfit, the Miners didn’t shy away from writing expansive music, bearing resemblance to Talk Talk’s later years. You can especially hear Laughing Stock in the song “Summer Ends,” with it’s languid unfolding of repetitive drums, clean guitars, and yes, harmonica. Experimental yet approachable, Let Us Garlands Bring was a vital late edition to the movement.

Codeine – Frigid Stars
(Glitterhouse / Sub Pop, 1990)

Codeine_Frigid_StarsIf there is a milestone slowcore album, then Codeine’s debut, Frigid Stars, is it. It is the oldest album on this list, and marks a subtle paradigm shift during a monumental time in modern music history, especially in regards to Pacific Northwest released music. Codeine was primarily a New York band, but Seattle based Sub Pop decided to release their debut at a time when grunge was all anyone was talking about. The label’s cofounder, Jonathan Poneman, has described the band’s music as “understated, elegant, forceful, and beautiful,” but also abhors the idea of Codeine as a pioneering slowcore band, and has referred to the so-called genre as a “made-up movement that reeks of critical contrivance.” Fair enough. We can at least both agree that the band’s music is beautiful.

Though they might immediately resemble a grunge or punk outfit, Codeine’s catalog, including Frigid Stars, sounds like nothing other than Codeine. One can only imagine the confusion of audiences walking into one of their shows, knowing that they were on Sub Pop and having no other information. I’m sure a lot people were shocked, and I only wish I could have been among the lot. As an album, Frigid Stars is pure, raw energy. Every note, every second of feedback has been greatly considered for its emotional impact. Whether it’s the massive slide guitar on “Pick-up Song,” the droning glacial riffs of “Second Chance,” or the acoustically driven and heartfelt “Pea,” Frigid Stars will remain nothing short of an understated classic.

Bedhead – WhatFunLifeWas
(Trance Syndicate, 1993)

bedhead_what_fun_life_was

Bedhead was the brainchild of Texan brothers Matt and Bubba Kadane, who released three albums throughout the 90s, all bearing a nearly identical sound and similar minimalist artwork. Over a seven year run Bedhead grew into one of the more reliable acts that consistently played at slower tempos but whose songs were very technical. Unfortunately, the band’s dynamic range makes for an unenjoyable listen in social and public settings – you have to turn up the quiet parts to hear them but turn the volume back down during the loud parts. In a similar vein, I imagine that Bedhead’s music was probably difficult to record. Their records are best suited for quiet settings, either with headphones on or played on your home stereo during a time when you’re able to sit down and soak in the details.

Considering Bedhead’s catalog, their second album, Bedhead’d, is probably their most accessible, while Transaction de Novo, their third and final LP, is probably their most experimental. WhatFunLifeWas sits somewhere in between. The album is both rock inclined, with the additions of tracks like “Haywire” and “Living Well,” yet makes room for Yo La Tengo like mellowness on “Bedside Table” and a bit of rockabilly twang on “To the Ground”. “Powder,” the album’s centerpiece (if one feels so inclined to single one out), unfurls slowly even for Bedhead’s standards, and whose closing minutes of instrumental relief is one of the band’s finest moments on record.

Red House Painters – Red House Painters (Rollercoaster)
(4AD, 1993)
red_house_painters_rollercoaster

Listening to Red House Painters in 2017 is opening a time capsule to when the artistic expression of one man was still deeply embedded in the emotions that made his music great. From then until now, Mark Kozelek has come very far, probably even further then he could have imagined when he was plugging away at his sound with the Painters. Sure, long-time fans will tell you that at some point his vision became warped and his music insincere as a result. Could any fan, say 10 years ago, have predicted the audio equivalent to a dog’s breakfast that is Common as Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood? Probably not. But, the silver lining is that people are still discovering Mark’s music these days, not so much for the quality, I suspect, but for the sheer fact that he keeps pumping it out into the world. He’s just gotten to a point where he can reach a much wider audience. I say good for him, but for what this critic’s opinion might be worth, the guy peaked in ’93, right here with Rollercoaster.

When I ranked the Painters’ albums around the time I started this site, I mentioned that when Koz gets pissed at people who request old songs at his shows, it’s usually ones from Rollercoaster he jokingly refers to. It’s no coincidence. This album is simply packed with the best Painters material. Whether it’s “Mistress”,”Grace Cathedral Park”,”Strawberry Hill”,”Katy Song” or “Things Mean a Lot,” there is at very least one song that remains timeless for fans. For me, it’s “New Jersey,” the first of the Painters songs I ever heard. The song discovered me (how I like to think of it) at a time when I was deeply seeking a new musical obsession, something meaningful that would lead me down a fulfilling path of discovery. Kozelek’s music was it, and to this day I’m still winding down that path.

Duster – Contemporary Movement
(Up Records, 2000)

duster_contemporary_movement

If Codeine redefined slowcore as punk then Duster were its ambassadors of Lo-fi. The band’s output was minimal, with Contemporary Movement being their second and final album (the follow-up to the spotty but interesting Stratosphere from ’98). Contemporary Movement saw the band effectively go from a two-piece to a three-piece, with more creative involvement of past part-time member Jason Albertini. As a result, Duster’s final album became a fleshed-out slowcore masterpiece.

Duster created music that was as gritty as it was soothing, as distant as it was right up next to you. Galaxie 500 might be a half-decent comparison to the band’s sound, but Contemporary Movement rarely gets dreamy, nor does it take you on any reverbed guitar journeys. Instead, the band plod along over the course of 13 concise songs, the music’s brilliance revealed over time as a cocktail of great guitar tone, punchy instrumentals, and songs that hook one’s head into a slow nod and leave one’s finger in search of the repeat button.

Catch you next Monday, March 20, for part 2 of The Alcohol Seed’s 10 album slowcore feature.

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.

screen-shot-2017-03-02-at-8-08-27-pmghost_figures_detail