G A S – Narkopop and the Return of Wolfgang Voigt

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

GAS-Narkopop

GAS-NarkopopLP

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

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

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


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

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.

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.

Substrata3

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

Substrata2

Substrata (Biophone 2xLP Reissue cover art, 2011)

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.

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

Bing & Ruth – No Home of the Mind

david_moore_br

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secret Pyramid’s Distant Works

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

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

secret_pyramid_dw1Secret Pyramid – Distant Works I
(Proposition, 2013)

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

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

secret_pyramid_dw2Secret Pyramid – Distant Works II
(Proposition, 2016)

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

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

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

Lost in Shadows: Loscil’s Monument Builders

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

loscil_monument_buildersLoscil – Monument Builders
(Kranky, 2016)

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

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

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

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