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.

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.

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)

The Jesu EPs

The devil hates Justin Broadrick, as there are few people who suffer less from idle hands. The moment Broadrick has an idea for new music, it seems there isn’t a thing that can get in his way. Hell, why not just start a band for every new idea? At one point in his career it almost looked that way. The man has more bands to his name than most seasoned bands have albums. Sure, many were short-lived and hardly worth mentioning, but the likes of Napalm Death, Godflesh, Final, and God, would not exist without Broadrick.

Tucked neatly among Broadrick’s impressive list of projects is Jesu, a band seamlessly formed out of the ashes of Godflesh, and Broadrick’s longest standing outfit. In other words, Jesu is Broadrick’s baby, a project whose concept was cut and dry, whose creator reeled at the helm, in full understanding of the project’s boundaries and limitations. Ultimately, Broadrick would cross those boundaries, but not without acknowledging he had done so, and starting a new project, Pale Sketcher, to further explore music that veered from the Jesu ideology.

Jesu’s brilliance lies in Broadrick succumbing to his desires to go pop without ever actually going pop. To Godflesh, and Napalm Death, Jesu is pop. In reality the band’s sound lies somewhere between shoegaze and post-rock with an ever present tinge of Broadrick’s industrial roots. Jesu has released a considerable number of EPs over their decade-and-change existence, and it is the opinion of this writer–whether or not Broadrick himself believes it–that Jesu is served best in smaller doses. Whether it’s the sameness of Broadrick’s guitar or the sameness of his voice, it’s a much harder affair sinking one’s teeth into a Jesu full length (there are of course exceptions. See: Conquerer). However, give the band four or five song slots to fill and they’ll give you much to love before wearing you out.

Heartache

Heartache, 2004
(Dry Run Recordings)

If there was a release that was the clear divide between Godflesh and Jesu, Heartache wasn’t it. Such a release doesn’t exist, exactly. Instead, Heartache, and the self-titled full-length of the same year, were like transition points, allowing Broadrick the space to shift focus from one band to another.

On the one hand, Heartache is stoic and at times even cold. On the other, it’s one of the most emotionally charged releases in Jesu’s lifespan. The instrumental arrangements are precise, avoiding the sameness trap that would plague much of the band’s later work. Especially noteworthy are the drums and Braodrick’s vocals, which would both never again be left as unencumbered by lush instrumental arrangements as they were here, given space to breathe, naturally rising and falling into and out of existence.

Silver

Silver, 2006
(Conspiracy/Hydra Head)

There are few Jesu songs that hit as hard as the title track on Silver. The song is a perfect distillation of the “Jesu” sound: cinematic, hooky, and equal parts heavy and dreamy. How the arc of the song is encapsulated in less than seven minutes and doesn’t feel rushed is baffling. Broadrick is wise in letting the instruments do most of the talking here, the vocals sunk low in the mix until the words “silver’s just another gold” cut through and repeat for the final minute. It’s one of the finer moments of Broadrick’s extensive catalog.

As is typical in Broadrick’s recipe for a well-rounded EP, the track in the second slot picks up the energy level. “Star” is propulsive, with drum tracks that hammer away like in the Godflesh days, but with enough pretty guitar at work to trump any “industrial” pigeonholing. The guitar tricks continue into the closing track, “Dead Eyes,” where more studio is heard than on any of the previous songs. It’s a glimpse into what would eventually become a more hypnotic, electronic driven direction for Jesu. But it’s only a glimpse. On Silver, we get a taste of Broadrick’s genius, where, amidst the spectrum of everything Jesu was and would ever be, the pendulum hung in the perfect place.

Lifeline

Lifeline, 2007
(Hydra Head)

On the heels of Silver was Lifeline, a mere blip in a year that saw plenty of releases for Jesu, including two LPs. However, Lifeline is not to be overlooked, incorporating and expanding on much of the sound that shaped Silver. Later Jesu instrumentals had a tendency to sound rehashed, if not a little boring, but on Lifeline Broadrick was deep in his groove. Gone are the emotional peaks and valleys and hammering drums. In their place is a soup of drum machines and effect-laden guitars. The sound is murky but not sloppy.

The album’s pitfall lies in the third track, “Storm Comin’ On,” which would benefit a lot from the absence of Jarboe (ex-Swans vocalist). Her whisper-quiet verses work for the most part but her throaty delivery of the chorus is cringe inducing. The appropriately titled closer, “End of the Road” makes up for it. Bass-heavy drums break through the murk to start but are soon taken over by an ambient backdrop of looped synthesizer, pattering percussion and Broadrick’s intentionally half-present vocal delivery. For a good minute or two one might forget they weren’t listening to The American Analog Set.

WhyAreWeNotPerfect

Why Are We Not Perfect, 2008
(Hydra Head)

Whether he was appealing to Eluvium fans (the band on the other side of the split album in which these songs originally appeared) or substituting jack and coke with tranquilizer and sleepy-time tea, Why Are We Not Perfect is Broadrick’s most syrupy delivery of the Jesu sound yet. Though some would argue Broadrick set himself up for failure on this one, I’d argue that he got to further explore a side of Jesu that was present from the very beginning. And what format is better than the less comital extended play in order to tap into that facet of the band’s sound?

Vocals have never been Jesu’s strong point, often placed unassumingly in the mix. On these arrangements, which, in Broadrick’s songwriting spectrum are basically lullabies, there is less present noise to hide the voice. The result comes across as more lacklustre than subtle, floating in an awkward middle ground somewhere between post-rock, slowcore and the rainy day electronic indie haze of the Postal Service.

OpiateSun
Opiate Sun, 2009
(Caldo Verde/Aural Exploits)

What is it with Jesu consistently nailing the title track?  “Opiate Sun,” though an obvious parting of nuance for the band, is what I wish all rock music would sound like. That and the opener, “Losing Streak,” are as unobfuscated as they come for Broadrick. And yes, this is Broadrick working alone here, amazingly. “Losing Streak” and “Opiate Sun” compliment each other perfectly, while “Deflated” would be the closest thing here to outright metal had Broadrick passed along lead vocal responsibilities. The EP is a welcome shedding of layers from Why Are We Not Perfect, reigning back a sound closer to that which defined Jesu’s lauded earlier work.