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.

Drone: A 20 Album Introduction to the Past 30 Years (Part 2)

This is the second of a two part series documenting 20 albums as an introduction to the past 30 years of drone music. visit here for part one.

kevin_drumm_imperial_distortionKevin Drumm – Imperial Distortion
(Hospital Productions, 2008)

Kevin Drumm is certainly recognized more for bringing the noise than anything else, with his Mego debut, Sheer Hellish Miasma, opening the flood gates to a discography of now over 100 strong. Drumm’s noise work (from the ten or so albums I’ve heard) is interesting but not all that engaging. Imperial Distortion is another beast entirely, bringing to light a side of Drumm’s music that most fans likely didn’t know existed before its release.

Over a double-disc set, Imperial Distortion sees previous impulses toward more spastic tones curbed in favour of meditative drones. The music here is the sonic equivalent of the horizon at dusk, sun-doused as an already distant and bleary memory. To delve into this album is to open one’s ears to the quiet, rusted and weather beaten remnants of sound; it is the sound of decay. One can draw parallels here to the music of Jim Haynes or Lawrence English, but Imperial Distortion seems all the more nihilistic. A fine drone album, but be warned, do not attempt to fall asleep to this unless you want to be jarred awake by the blast of noise that graces the final minute.

jonathan_coleclough_periodJonathan Coleclough – Period
(Anomalous, 2001)

Jonathan Coleclough is no stranger to collaboration, but it’s in his solo work where his genius shines. Albums like his impeccable Windlass and 2004’s Makruna ・ Minya encapsulate the sounds of a drone artist in peak form. I would argue that Period, however, is Coleclough’s most realized, and therefore, best work. It also happens to be his darkest and probably his most unique album. Period’s particular use of unprocessed minor key piano is atypical of artists often affiliated with so-called lowercase minimalism and droning ambient. Part of what makes this album work as well as it does is this unflinching use of the piano, striking and cold as ice.

Putting aside the details for a moment, Period, on an unmistakable level, is made up of two paralleling distinctive tracks. The first track, that lives in the foreground, is made up of unprocessed piano. Notes are struck and left to ring out into silence, with sometimes one minute going by until the next note breaks through a swath of drones. It is this simmering layer of drone that makes up the second track, acting as a constant presence that fills the void between the sparingly played keys. When it is all put together, Period makes for an hypnotic and all around mesmerizing listen.

alio_die_ora_door_possibilitiesAlio Die & Ora – The Door of Possibilities
(Hic Sunt Leones, 1994)

Ora was the musical project of Darren Tate and Andrew Chalk, existing in a 10 year span from the early 90s to the early 2000s. On The Door of Possibilities the duo teamed up with Italian ambient-electronic composer Stefano Musso, aka Alio Die. In taking into account their respective styles, it’s no wonder these three decided to make an album together, as their tastes for organic soundscaping overlapped very well.

The Door of Possibilities is a bit more amped up then your typical Ora effort, where soft percussive elements grace many of the field-recording heavy tracks. I am not overly familiar with Alio Die’s catalog, but I can only infer that he was responsible for giving some of these songs their additional heft. A couple tracks almost veer into post-rock territory, albeit a very hushed, Middle-earth take on post-rock. “Bestiole Nascoste Tra Muschio E Le Alghe” is an obvious example and a standout track, leaning more heavily on traditional melodies than pure ambient bliss. And though there is plenty of bliss to go around, The Door of Possibilities is one of those albums where the artists involved were able to gracefully pivot their sound without tumbling off the track.

velvet_cacoon_atropineVelvet Cacoon – Atropine
(Full Moon Productions, 2009)

Operating in cloak-and-dagger form, Portland, Oregon’s Velvet Cacoon made a name for themselves in the extreme metal community before disbanding in 2012. The band came under some fire from fans and haters alike after an interview with an Italian publication revealed that many “claims” the band had made about their music and lifestyles were actually false. More accurately, the band simply did little to discredit rumours and once in a while enjoyed a little piss taking. Dubious claims aside, it’s clear that VC made music their top priority (even if in frequent conjunction with copious amounts of drugs).

A variation of black metal was for the most part the band’s musical focus, but on Atropine, that focus is shifted toward an exclusive use of rarified drones and swelling dark ambience. The album is only a slight deviation in the band’s typical feel, but gone is any semblance of recognizable instrumentation, replaced by music so obfuscated that it takes on an otherworldly quality. “Nightvines” is reminiscent of Andrew Chalk’s Vega, while the 36 minute “Dreaming in a Hemlock patch” has more in common with a humming radiator then anything typically categorized as music. As their final statement, Velvet Cacoon conjured up another baffling take on black metal, taking the form of a truly haunting drone work.

rolf_julius_distanceRolf Julius – Music for a Distance
(Western Vinyl, 2011 : composed between 2003-2009)

The German artist Rolf Julius was a through and through sound and visual artist. Throughout his life until his death in 2011, Julius produced work from a seemingly boundless well of inspiration. As a sound artist, Julius’s primary focus was on “small music,” a Cageian term “designat[ing] sounds so subtle they’re usually barely discernible,” according to Discogs. One might not immediately classify Julius’s music as ‘drone’, and although I do think it’s some of the most difficult music to describe, it does seem to rely heavily on the drone-like principles of length and repetition. A lot of the time it just sounds like a bunch of insects.

Music for a Distance was first conceived in 2003, after which Julius spent six or so years tweaking it in the studio. The version of the piece that I am familiar with – the Western Vinyl release from 2011 – is rather refined. Music for a Distance is 40 minutes of controlled chaos. Within its parameters there exists a cornucopia of buzzing, scraping, droning, twitching, and fizzling sonic elements, all buried next to each other and vying for attention. Within that cacophony Julius layers in gentle tone bursts at random intervals that unfold a little differently every time. While the arc of the piece is predictable, its specific unfolding is not. In the context of Rolf Julius’s catalogue, this is a good place to start. I also recommend the piece “Raining.”

lawrence_english_kiriLawrence English – Kiri No Oto
(Touch, 2008)

Lawrence English, the busy Australian intermedia artist, has worked his way through the musical ranks since the early 2000s to become a dependable figure on the experimental music world stage. His curatorial experience has seen him gracefully handle the endeavours of his Room40 label whilst juggling collaborations and his own sound and visual projects. English’s interest in music is multifaceted, evident not just by the diverse repertoire of artists throughout the Room40 catalogue, but also by way of his own work – his field recording library has grown considerably over the last few years. English is showing very little sign of slowing down, with the beginning of 2017 seeing the release of his new album, Cruel Optimism, while the remainder of the year looks quite promising for the Aussie.

English’s sole release for Touch in ’08 is also his most mystifying. Right from the title, which loosely translates to ‘sound of fog,’ we get the hint that no compass will help in navigating us through its deep wells and shifting atmospheres. The album art, too, – a small boat at sea in an endless blue-grey vista – beckons of the ill-fated confidence of so many chasers of the storm. Front to back, experiencing Kiri No Oto is like navigating the open ocean with little reference. And when reference points do surface, they soon become fading blips on a comet tail of decaying drones. In this ‘sound of fog,’ the best that any listener can hope for is to let go, get lost, and come out on the other side in one piece.

aeolian_string_ensemble_eclipseAeolian String Ensemble – Eclipse
(Robot Records, 2004)

Despite being dubbed an ensemble, Eclipse is the work of no more than one man. That man is David Kenny, and if that name seems familiar it’s because you may have read it in the linear notes of a Nurse with Wound or Current 93 album, where he would have been listed as a collaborator. For his solo work, Kenny doesn’t steer very far from the likes of either aforementioned project, but does take things in a more ethereal, spacey direction on Eclipse, the second of only two releases from the ASE.

Eclipse’s opener, “Espacios” sets the tone as a calming arrangement of elongated drones; like an epsom salt bath for the ears, the music verges on effervescent. “K1,” the second of the three pieces, doesn’t hide its source material as well, where elegiac harp strings are clearly heard, first plucked in a descending scale and then looped in a three or four note phrase. All the while a gentle feedback pulses throughout the song, gaining momentum and on a few occasions nearly escaping a comfortable volume threshold before getting abruptly cut off. “K1” is louder and more jarring but acts as a nice counterbalance to the more ethereal bookending pieces. The album ends on the title track that also happens to be the longest piece on Eclipse, where Kenny reigns in the sounds once again to nicely finish of this very solid release.

vikki_jackman_of_beautyVikki Jackman – Of Beauty Reminiscing
(Faraway Press, 2006)

For an artist who has produced as little work as Vikki Jackman, it is amazing how impactful her presence has been. Certainly her affiliation and occasional collaboration with Andrew Chalk helped in getting her name out there, but it is her own musical vision that has sustained her status alongside respected contemporaries.

It is Jackman’s understated methodology of the piano that is her strongest suit, arguably put to best practice on her debut album, Of Beauty Reminiscing. The difficulty in putting into words what it is that distinguishes Jackman’s work from other’s is part of what makes her music so noteworthy. There is a certain quality, a colouring of these sounds that is hard to pin down, but so recognizably her own. Piano notes are unearthed, never sounding whole to begin with, but exist as wisps of sound alongside fleeting drones. Of Beauty… instills a feeling of peace similar to the music of Kyle Bobby Dunn or Stars of the Lid, but with far less. In her case silence and the space between sounds becomes as important as the sounds themselves. Jackman understands this dance better than anyone.

thomas_koner_teimoThomas Köner – Teimo
(Barooni, 1991 : above cover art from 2010 Type reissue)

Often considered one of the masters of drone, Thomas Köner doesn’t need much of an introduction. His albums are a fascinating investigation into the principles of deep listening. Usually, a Köner album amounts to little on first listen, where one can only derive the basic architecture of any piece. Subsequent listens, however, reveal deep seeded nuances, rich textures crawl up from dark crevices and come alive. Köner’s musical talents are vast, stretching from the oh-so-minimal to the art club jams of Porter Ricks, his late 90s techno project with Andy Mellwig. The man has also had a long standing fascination with combining his sound with visual accompaniment. Of all his endeavours, it’s the music he has released under his own name that keep me coming back, especially his albums for Mille Plateaux and Barooni.

Teimo was the first Köner album I was exposed to, so it holds a place a bit closer to my heart than any of his other albums. I’ve chosen it for the list but any of the man’s early work – Permafrost, Nunatak, Daiken – would be fine in its place. The important thing – a no-brainer really – is that something of Köner’s had to be included among the lot. Teimo is still my personal favourite, and after countless listens I’m still noticing things that I’ve managed to miss before, like some nearly inaudible scrape or buzz that seems to manifest from the ether, as if the music is an organism that grows and changes over time. Absolutely essential drone music.

phill_niblock_just_record

Phill Niblock – Nothing to Look at Just a Record
(India Navigation, 1982)

I know what you’re thinking. I cheated. Yes, I admit it, Nothing to Look at Just a Record was not originally released within the last 30 years. Allow me to explain why it ended up here. I decided to include Phill Niblock’s debut, not as a desperate attempt to fill the 20th spot – any number of albums that didn’t quite make the cut could have easily slipped into the 20th position – but because it is, to this reviewer, too integral a stepping stone toward a wider critical acknowledgement of experimental music to not feature in this list. So, despite the math not quite adding up, Nothing to Look at… snuck its way in. After all, this is meant to be an introduction to drone music, and as anyone who is familiar with the artist will tell you, Niblock’s music is about as pure a musical representation one can find to the textbook definition of drone.

At just under 45 minutes, Nothing to Look at… is Niblock’s shortest solo album. The two tracks – to be later included in A Young Person’s Guide to Phill Niblock – are both centred around the trombone. The pieces here meet at the intersection of recorded tape music and live performance, where a single ‘A’ note was played at various octaves, captured separately over eight recording channels and mixed down into two tracks (stereo) with breathing spaces removed. The finished works are ones that truly benefit from high volume playback, where overtones interlace to form a complex sculpture of sound. To date, this is still the most dynamic, lush, deceptively simple and most meticulously crafted drone music there is.

Drone: A 20 Album Introduction to the Past 30 Years (Part 1)

Before diving into the albums that make up this list, let’s briefly touch on the title: Drone: A 20 Album Introduction to the Past 30 Years. For starters, that’s a tall order. The summation of the last 30 years of drone music by way of a meagre 20 albums must be, almost by definition, taken with a grain of salt. That’s not to say that this list shouldn’t be seen as a valuable guide, or appropriate ‘starter pack’ for music fans looking to get into the genre. In fact, the initial thought of creating a sort of drone guide was central to the list’s eventual creation. Secondly, these 20 selections are not meant to define the genre, but are in this listener’s opinion important to its progression, either by being a glowing example of the style or a glowing example of how the style can be pushed into interesting and challenging directions.

The title begs the question: why the last 30 years? Much is known and written about the beginning of drone in the west. In the 60s, The Dream Syndicate, made up of La Monte Young, Jon Hassell, Tony Conrad, John Cale, Marian Zazeela, and more, broke incredible ground into a new music consciousness. But where did it go from there? and what did musicians make who were influenced by the Syndicate, or musicians who were influenced by musician influenced by the Syndicate? These are the questions this guide attempts to explore. There is, however, no mandate to draw definitive conclusions, only to open doors for further exploration.

Lastly, one would be foolish to attempt a list as such without at least loosely defining the term drone. With any codifier, especially in regards to music, this can be a daunting task, especially when dealing with a genre whose distinction from ‘ambient’, ‘new age’, ‘dark ambient’ and ‘electronic’ can feel marginal and unimportant. La Monte Young defined drone as “the sustained tone branch of minimalism,” which is a fine definition except that it doesn’t seem to account for the music’s mood or effect on the listener. I would add that the mood of the best drone music tends to remain objective, or even moodless at times, differentiating it from ambient and dark ambient – the former often relying on melancholy while the latter tending to be more menacing. It’s a slim difference, but the understanding of that difference seems to grow as one discovers and absorbs this music passionately. Fortunately or unfortunately, there isn’t much more to be said.

Now, in no particular order and with the necessary preamble out of the way, I present an honest attempt at distilling and organizing 30 years of drone music into 20 landmark albums. Enjoy, and drone on…

john_duncan_phantom_broadcastJohn Duncan – Phantom Broadcast
(Allquestions, 2002)

The prolific and nomadic artist John Duncan was primarily interested in performance in the 70s, responsible for pieces that dealt with challenging and difficult subject matter – his piece Scare saw him firing blanks from a real gun at preselected audience members while the remaining members watched in terror. In the early 80s he became engrossed with the musical potential of shortwave radio and began what would slowly become a long and meaningful relationship with sound.

Although this is only one among dozens of recordings Duncan released since his career started to ramp up in the 90s, it does seem to mark a kind of milestone in that journey. To do what Duncan is able to do with shortwave is to possess a gifted understanding of the power of nuance that is vital to, not just drone, but many forms of music. Phantom Broadcast showcases this intellect in the form of fluttering tones that simmer and decay over long arcs. The result is haunting, and as the piece gradually dissolves, you may find your reality dissolving with it.

mirror_eye_of_the_storm
Mirror – Eye of the Storm
(Streamline, 1999)

Mirror was the reticent music project of Andrew Chalk and Christoph Heemann, including contribution from Andreas Martin and Jim O’Rourke (or The Chameleon as I like to call him). The group was active during the early and mid 2000s but fizzled out in ’05. What’s striking about Mirror’s construction of the drone is how it’s creators feel almost completely removed. Their music takes on a fluidity to the extent that each album can feel like the aural representation of something that happens each and every second in the natural world: the gradual erosion of a river bank, or the movement of a plant leaf toward the sun.

Now consider the eye of a storm. Characteristically, the eye is peaceful, while all around it are turbulent winds and thrashing rain. To say this music is the aural representation of the eye of the storm as it occurs in nature is an understatement. The tones here are delicate, almost pastoral at times, but around them dark storm clouds loom. On close listen the music can be rather unsettling, but from a far it can fill a room and have a calming effect. The duality represented here is almost too obvious, but really it’s best not to overthink Eye of the Storm. After all, you wouldn’t want it passing you by.

stars_of_the_lid_ballasted_orchestra
Stars of the Lid – The Ballasted Orchestra
(Kranky, 1997)

In the first decade of the 21st century Stars of the Lid set a new bar with two epics. The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid and Stars of the Lid and Their Refinement of the Decline have become benchmarks of modern ambient. Almost every contemporary drone or neoclassical outfit is compared to SOTL at some point in their career, and for good reason. Much is lauded of their albums from the 2000s, but the band had established their excellence prior to that time, notably with the release of The Ballasted Orchestra in ’97.

The Ballasted Orchestra has aged very well, and tends to be the SOTL album I return to the most. What would later become a sound tied to minimalist influences from the realm of piano centred compositional music – Satie, Part, Feldman, etc. – was all that much foreboding and mysterious on this release. This is SOTL at their droniest, and most spectral. Though Adam Wiltzie and Brian Mcbride remain busy to date, it doesn’t look like the world will be graced with anything quite like The Ballasted Orchestra any time soon (although, reportedly the duo have been working with Ben Frost on the new SOTL album). In any regard, this is an album to be cherished as one of the band’s greats and one of drone music’s finest.

pauline_oliveros_deep_listening
Pauline Oliveros / Stuart Dempster / Panaiotis – Deep Listening
(New Albion, 1989)

The recent passing of Pauline Oliveros saw the death of one of ambient music’s true geniuses. Perhaps only second to the word ‘ambient’ itself, deep listening, coined by Oliveros, became a widely used term to describe a more refined, immersive way of experiencing our sonic world. It has become valuable to audiences and artists alike, imploring an aesthetic that can better connect an artist to improvisation, to environment, and can help hone their responses to music and sound.

This recording from 1989 by Oliveros, Dempster and Panaiotis is the first major recording by this trio (later to be renamed The Deep Listening Band) and is an absolutely essential drone album. Deep Listening saw the trio descend into a 14 foot cistern, where the four pieces that make up the album where performed and recorded. As anyone might guess, the highly reverberant space lends much to these recordings. Listening to the album, one really gets a sense of the architecture surrounding the sounds. The silence pocked throughout the recordings further accentuate the important role of the location, where voice, accordion, didgeridoo, trombone, and even a conch shell, feel all the more enveloping to the listener. As if choreographed, the trio were able to conjure an enormous sound from so little, in turn paving the way for the emergence of a new generation of minimalists, ambient purveyors, and drone worshipers.

earth_earth_2
Earth – Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version
(Sub Pop, 1993)

Any drone list wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of Earth 2. The shape of doom and drone metal would look significantly different if this album was never made. It was influential even enough to spawn Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley’s Sunn O))), who would become more popular than Earth themselves. Earth, however, would stay relevant, altering their sound to incorporate more folk, country and jazz elements.

Earth 2 doesn’t rank among the band’s best albums, but it was ahead of its time. To this day its tenacity is indisputable, and as the metal behemoth’s debut it was a bold statement, unrelenting in its guitar drone and distorted riffs that oozed from amplifiers like so much sludge. After its release the album could only be received as a statement that this band meant business, and that they did. Certainly, Earth 2 is a landmark drone album.

kyle_bobby_dunn_infinite_sadnessKyle Bobby Dunn – Kyle Bobby Dunn and the Infinite Sadness
(Students of Decay, 2014)

In tracking the musical career of the Canadian born composer Kyle Bobby Dunn, it’s impressive how well he’s been able to float just below the radar for over a decade. I can only surmise that this is a comfortable place for the guy, that he’s not exactly one for the limelight. As a solo artist he’s had a steady output of albums on notable labels such as Low Point, Sedimental, and Desire Path, and critics have been very kind to his work over the years.

Dunn is able to coax drones from a guitar better than most, and one needn’t look further than his Students of Decay masterpiece (and I do not appreciate that word being tossed around) from 2014. Kyle Bobby Dunn and the Infinite Sadness manages to retrace the best moments of Bring Me the Head of Kyle Bobby Dunn, while expanding on those ideas with patience and a vision to bring on a previously unheard lushness into the arrangements. The four-movement-spanning C side from the LP version is arguably the best 23 consecutive minutes of any recorded modern compositional music. Perhaps a broader circle of listeners could see …and the Infinite Sadness regarded as a guitar drone classic. To more than a few fans it likely already holds that honourable distinction.

pelt_-ayahuasca Pelt – Ayahuasca
(VHF Records, 2001)

The late 90s and early 2000s bred a strange and fascinating group of psychfolk and raga-centred drone bands, where it wouldn’t be unusual to see 8+ members perform at once, but hardly ever would a band perform with the same lineup twice. It was a time of rebirth for the ideas set into motion by The Dream Syndicate, giving way to a central nervous system of musicians who seemed perfectly suited to eat, breathe, and sleep minimalist free improv. ‘New Weird America’ was eventually coined for the movement, and as that seemed to perfectly suit bands like Sunburned Hand (of the man) and No-Neck Blues Band, it always felt a bit clunky for Pelt, who were more interested in their tapestry of drones than ever getting all that weird.

Ayahuasca is Pelt’s most robust work, and also happens to be their longest. It feels like the band’s focus was brought up a notch than on other efforts, with Jack Rose’s fast paced guitar playing having an amount of presence throughout that neither limits itself nor crowds the underlying ragas. Listening to this now, plucked from its weird America context, the album shines, with its arrangements of primitive guitar and bowed strings and bowls enveloping the body and mind like a warm bath. Ayahuasca is a must hear for any drone enthusiast.

chalk_coleclough_sumacJonathan Coleclough & Andrew Chalk – Sumac
(Robot, Siren Records, 1997)

Few artists know their way around a drone better than British stalwarts Jonathan Coleclough and Andrew Chalk, so to have them together on a recording is quite the treat. Sumac – the extended one hour and eleven minute version in particular – is an absolute behemoth of modern UK minimalism. After twenty years this record still stands up, not only as a defining work from the time, but one that still holds precedence against much of the drone based music of today.

Nearly ten years ago, on a now defunct blog, I described Sumac as “[…] an album without ‘start’ or  ‘finish’. When you hit play you aren’t starting the album, you are simply given access to an eternal flow of sound that exists regardless if anyone is even listening.” This notion of an eternal flow is perhaps the most important reason why this piece works so well. On the surface, the musical elements all come together fine enough, but what’s really at play here is a keen understanding of temporality: its relationship to music and music’s relationship to it. Taking this in mind, what I hear as an eternal flow could also be interpreted as a stasis. Whether it’s heard as moving or standing still, Sumac remains timeless.

spiracle_ananta
Spiracle – Ananta
(Mystery Sea, 2006)

Brood for a moment on the concept of infinity. Infinity, in every potential context is beyond the grasp of the human mind. Sure, the word itself, like any other, is definable, but to truly grasp infinity is to step outside what is comprehendible for the human mind; impossibility and limitlessness are threaded into the word’s meaning, after all. Ananta is the Sanskrit word for infinity, and although the introduction to this review could be accepted as a deterrent for its use, there are few titles that would feel as fitting for this Spiracle album.

Spiracle is a recording alias of Japanese musician and painter Hitoshi Kojo. On Ananta, Kojo evokes the infinite by way of a complex tapestry of sound. The piece changes very little over the course of an hour, gently rolling along like an ocean wave that is thousands of kilometres from its break. The album’s pulse is purely mechanical, but it’s appendages are organic, as if sourced from water and wind. It could just be Kojo’s expertise but the two contrasting elements seem to come together rather naturally, though it takes a bit of time to adjust to all that’s unfolding before your ears. When one does adjust, the piece’s energy feels boundless.

nurse_with_wound_soliloquyNurse with Wound – Soliloquy for Lilith
(Idle Hole Records, 1988)

There are many words one could use to describe Nurse with Wound’s Soliloquy for Lilith, but ‘digestible’ would probably not be one of them. At nearly 2.5 hours in length, this album is as massive an undertaking for the listener as it likely was for Steven Stapleton to create it – despite it coming to life as a fortunate accident of no input mixing. The shear magnitude is reminiscent of works like Philip Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts, where it’s not outrageous to think that people should be given an award just for getting through it all in one sitting. Even by the genre’s standards, Soliloquy demands much from its audience, but reveals an admirable restraint from the part of Stapleton, who built each of these eight pieces stoically, and with precision.

Although it’s difficult to differentiate these movements, one could argue that any single piece left on its own would seem somehow naked. There is a strange paradox at work here. As mechanical as these tonal arrangements sound, they also come across as living, breathing, entities; a pulse all the while running through the album’s core. Every piece here seems to be built around its own controlled feedback loop, gently rising and falling in undulation while an interplay of overtones and secondary feedback creeps in and out of the mix. In the ever growing monster that is the NWW catalogue, Soliloquy for Lilith stands as not only one of the band’s best efforts, but as one of the greatest drone albums of all time.

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.

deathconsciousness

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.

2016: Or, the Year of the Release of American Football (LP2)

What exactly made the first American Football album a classic? And how did it eventually gain a reputation as the definitive statement from the 90’s generation of emotional rock? Some may argue good timing, and though that’s probably got something to do with it, it doesn’t seem to account for why its mass appeal came years later.

It’s no secret that emo’s been given a bad rep. The awful make-up and suicidal crybaby stereotypes are one thing, but the music has greatly shifted away from its roots as well, where today, emo has now come to define any whiny pop-punk band under the sun (or depressing, ominous raincloud). It’s gotten so bad that worthwhile emo acts these days seem to be operating under a more wide sweeping indie-rock guise, so as to avoid any affiliation with the genre (see Pinegrove, The Hotelier, and Julien Baker).

American Football’s popularity against this current climate isn’t surprising. It’s the perfect backlash record, a place where emo kids who want nothing to do with the current scene can hide away. After all, aren’t we all seeking that sacred feeling of discovering music that sounds like it was recorded just for us? American Football is surely that record for a lot of people, whom all likely experienced a collective chagrin in witnessing the demand for its repress last year. Guess what? Turns out you’re not the only one who loves that record.

The band’s debut – airy, mellow, almost amateurish at times, and full of sprawling instrumentals – was, in itself, a kind of transitional record. If the earliest of emo acts were responsible for taking much of the aggression out of hardcore, then American Football were responsible for taking it out entirely. Without their auspicious debut, it’s hard to imagine the existence of Death Cab’s Transatlanticism, or Bright Eyes’s I’m Wide Awake it’s Morning, even if the albums have little to do with one another.

americanfootball-lp2 LP2 (Polyvinyl, 2016)

17 years later and we’re graced with the band’s follow-up. Doesn’t matter what band you are, stack that many years between albums and the sound is bound to change. Thankfully, the American Football of 2016 sound a lot like the American Football of 1999. The biggest, and most immediately obvious difference is Kinsella’s vocals, which, throughout the album, are far more present and much louder in the mix, as if he took a full step closer to the mic this time around.

There’s also an emphasis on the lyrical content with this new material that was somewhat lacking in the debut – though not to the album’s fault. Every sentimental anecdote and nostalgia-soaked turn of phrase is sung with the utmost clarity. I’m hard pressed to think of an album with not one obscured word (maybe something from Bill Callahan or Real Estate). In any case, it’s a rarity, and for an album that sounds as if the lyrics are taken straight from journal entries, that type of transparency becomes a vulnerable position to take. It’s the type of vulnerability that Kinsella must be used to by now, what, with his work in Owls, Joan of Arc, and his solo output under the Owen moniker – whose number of full lengths are rapidly approaching the double digit mark.

Nearing 40, Kinsella likely can’t spare a single fuck to what people think of his emo boy inclinations, especially this late in his career. And although the band have taken a rather nonchalant stance on their follow-up, it’s clear that some serious work went into it. But with serious work often comes serious trimming, which, in a few cases does detract from the album. Take, for example, “Born to Lose,” whose fadeout at the 5 minute mark ruins its chance to be the answer to “Honestly?” The same can be said of “Give me the Gun,” where the lead guitar at the 1:30 mark would be nothing short of brilliant if it were just given a bit more room to breathe. Its inclusion feels perfectly natural, but its brevity stifles the progression.

Ultimately, nitpicking the differences between two albums released 17 years apart is moot. Throughout such a long hiatus it’s clear that was has survived the years is the band’s spirit. If anything, LP2 guides us deeper into that spirit, shedding more layers on love, loss, addiction and the banality of life – to name just a few of the running themes. One needn’t look further than the album covers; in 1999 we got to see the house. In 2016 we were let inside.

Julianna Barwick Presents Will

Barwick1

 

S-P-A-C-E.

It’s the first word that comes to mind after hitting play on Julianna Barwick’s Will, and is what immediately distinguishes the album from past efforts. For an artist who relies mostly on the wordless voice as a springboard for ambient composition, space becomes an ever important element in getting her vision across. “St. Apolonia,” the album’s opener, reveals the setting as a cavernous urban environment, perhaps a tunnel or underpass of sorts, where the ever-so-slight rustlings of human activity is faintly heard beneath Barwick’s signature mantra.

If The Magic Place (2011) and Florine (2009) showcased Barwick’s succinct bedroom lonerism, and Nepenthe (2013) was the slick and seamless band effort (Barwick collaborated with member’s of Múm and Sigór Ros producer Alex Somers), then Will falls somewhere in between. It’s her nomadic record, pieced together with sessions from both urban and rural places in the US along with a city Barwick holds dear to heart: Lisbon, Portugal.

The variety of recording locations makes for a more sporadic record, but Barwick manages to use this looser feel to her advantage. Where Nepenthe‘s songs tended to start from silence and would progress in tightly layered formations of voice and strings, Will‘s pieces often begin and end midstream, with strings, piano and synthesizer playing more predominate roles. The instruments help distinguish the tracks here, whereas in past efforts the cut between songs could feel almost arbitrary, as they tended to meld together.

From Will all the way back to her early releases (some over a decade old now) Barwick has managed to keep her music interesting yet wholly simple, and as of yet hasn’t lost sight of the sound she has built a career around. Her ethos, it seems, is built on a foundation not dissimilar to those ambient pioneers who also saw the voice as central to their expression: Brian Eno, Pandit Pran Nath, Lisa Gerrard and Phillip Glass to name a few.

Although her music harkens to bygone decades Barwick sounds anything but dated. The fact that she has so few like-sounding contemporaries places her not at the mercy of the past, but as a forerunner for the future. The evolution of Barwick’s music sees Will almost as a protest to popular demand, an anti-pop statement whose ambassador turned deeper within herself for the inspiration she sought rather than out into a world of over-saturated noise. In the face of that noise, Will is a breath of clarity.

Will

Will (Dead Oceans, 2016)