Posts Tagged ‘Ambient’

Cruel Nature Records – 5th March 2021

Christopher Nosnibor

Aiden Baker’s releases have become a regular feature here at Aural Aggravation. His prodigious output, not only as a solo artist, but through innumerable collaborations, often released through Gizeh Records, have given us no shortage of material to contemplate and ruminate over. It’s often hard to keep up with his output,

Stimmt was first released digitally back in 2015 on Broken Spine Productions, and has been was remixed and remastered for its first physical format outing via Cruel Nature in a limited edition of 60 cassettes (as well as digitally again).

Baker is to guitar what John Cage and Reinhold Friedl were / are to piano, with the ‘prepared’ guitar being a prominent feature of his musical arsenal, along with an array of other ‘alternative’ methods of playing, across a genre span that incorporates elements of rock, electronic, classical, and jazz, within his broadly ambient / experimental works

Stimmt sits at the more overtly ‘rock’ end of Baker’s stylistic spectrum, launching with the heavy riffology of ‘Dance of the Entartet’ that’s got a prog vibe but comes on with a heavily repetitious throb that owes more to Swans than Pink Floyd or Yes. The percussion crashes away hard but it’s almost buried in the overloading guitar assault that’s cranked up to the max and is straining to feed back constantly throughout, before it wanders off into ‘Atemlos’, where it’s the strolling bass that dominates as the guitars retreat to the background and sampled dialogue echoes through the slightly jazz-flavoured ripples. It’s here that things begin to feel less linear, more meandering, and the chiming post-rock sections feel less like an integral part of a journey and more like detours – pleasant, appropriate detours, but detours nevertheless – and it culminates in a climactic violin-soaked crescendo.

Veering between hazy shoegazey ambience that borders on abstraction, and mellifluous post-rock drifts, Stimmt is varied, and, oftentimes, rich in atmosphere. ‘Mir’ is very much a soporific slow-turner that casts a nod to Slowdive, but with everything slowed and sedated, wafting to an inconclusive finish.

The lumbering ‘Staerken’ stands out as another heavy-duty riffcentric behemoth: it’s low, it’s heavy, and finds Baker exploring the range of distortion effects on his pedal board, stepping from doom sludge to bolstering shred and back, and there’s a deep, crunchy bass that grinds away hard, boring at the bowels and hangs, resonating at the end.

After the full-on overloading ballast of ‘Quer’ that really does go all out on the abrasion, with squalling guitar paired with a nagging bass loop that’s reminiscent of The God Machine (the track as a while, calls to mind ‘Ego’ from their debut Songs From the Second Story), closer ‘Resolut’ is eight minutes of semi-ambient prog.

It’s a lot to digest, and it’s certainly not an easy pigeonhole, but it’s an intriguing album that stands out as being quite different both musically, and in the context of Baker’s output. Unusual but good, and offering much to explore.

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Cruel Nature Recordings – 5th March 2021

Christopher Nosnibor

Live performances of experimental electronic work, particularly when involving an element of improvisation, can be somewhat hit and miss, and what’s more, sometimes, much of the wonder and appreciation is derived from witnessing the performance itself, as much as the sound.

This album was recorded live at Cave 12 in Geneva in 2019, when Stuart Chalmers and Distant Animals shared a stage is a document of a moment in time, and is one that explores differences and similarities. Each act occupies one side of the limited-edition cassette (of which there are just 45 copies) and naturally, a track each on the digital version, and each track contains a full performance from each artist.

Chalmers’ set is a sparse, minimalist affair. Clanking chiming notes – partially atonal, and entirely arrhythmic plink, plonk, clatter and clink every which way. It is detuned strings? Is it a glockenspiel, xylophone, or similar? Whatever the sonic source, it increases in speed and urgency, but not in musicality, and a flat chord shreds and mangles as though strumming a washboard with relentless frustration. While the performance is brimming with energy, there’s a purposeful tonal flatness to this.

At times a clattering clang, a monotonous chang of deadened notes, and a tension-building thrum that grates away relentlessly, Chalmers’ set is never comfortable, never easy, never really breaking into the realms of melodic. The relentless scrapes and scuffles scratch away for twenty-three troublesome minutes. It’s rhythmic and does build in a certain way, but it’s slow progress that’s uncomfortable. One suspects that this uneasy sensation would only be heightened during the actual performance.

Distant Animals’ set is more overtly ambient, a twenty-minute piece that centres around twisting dronescapes and elongated crawls. The layers ripple and rub against one another to create not a dissonance as such, but a vibration of frequencies.. but suddenly, around the mi-section, the storm breaks and dissipates… there is a calm. Soothing synth waves of something that borders on electroprog crossed with chilled-out electroambient. Its trajectory is very different from Chalmers’ – instead of a single, linear trajectory that works its way to a specific end point, they navigate a series of passages and movements that segue into one another to form a meandering journey, which eventually tapers to a fade that leaves you wondering if it was all a dream, and wishing you had been there.

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Panurus Productions – 5th March 2021

Christopher Nosnibor

Charlie Butler’s Gathering Dust is something of a departure for Newcastle tape label, PANURUS Productions, in that it’s incredibly mellow. It’s not a complete departure, through: designed as a cassette release, it features two longform tracks, each fitting neatly onto one side of a good old C30 (the likes of which I used to get from Maplins back in the early 90s) – or, in an ideal world, perhaps one side of a 12” or 10” vinyl release. But we know that for a niche label like this, the cost of a vinyl run is prohibitive, and while their print runs are extremely limited, they do sell out – which is the perfect operating model: knowing the scale of their audience and sales reach, and catering to demand without massively overreaching, means costs are covered, and everyone wins. There’s a stream and digital download for anyone who wants it, after all. Everyone’s a winner.

The album title is in fact an amalgamation of the individual titles of the two tracks, and separated, the context shifts a little. Gathering dust connotes a lack of movement, a stasis, something that’s essentially furniture, something neglected, unused. This places the power of word association in sharp relief: together, the words suggest something very different in contrast to when they’re independent of one another.

And so ‘gathering’ brings connotations of collecting, bringing together, of hunter—gathering. And from the dense, swirling drone of a trilling keyboard on the fifteen-and-a-half-minute track that is ‘Gathering’ emerges a slow-picked guitar. The drone und strang approach, whereby echo and tube crunch coalesce to envelop the guitar in a soft sonic bubble is highly reminiscent of latter-day Earth and Dylan Carlson’s solo releases. It doesn’t ‘do’ much, and doesn’t need to: ‘Gathering’ is a long, slow, and expansive work that explores atmosphere.

‘Dust’ is a deep, sense drone that billows and booms, and is indeed reminiscent of the heavy drone of Sunn O))). Its effects are soporific, and for a time my notes are sparse as I drift and move beyond the immediate environs of my workspace to immerse myself in this thick fog of a composition as it slowly unfurls with its post-rock leanings and immersive atmosphere. There’s a tonal warmth that surrounds this, and it borders on ambience at times, and dust washes and drifts like particles descending. And over time, it builds… and builds, swirling into a dense, billowing sonic cloud. The final minutes are reminiscent of the eternal drone of Earth 2 – and being one of my all-time favourites, that’s very much a compliment and an indication of just how textured and enthralling Charlie Butler’s brand of drone is.

Gathering Dust is remarkably dense, but it’s not heavy per se. It’s one of those releases you can simply surrender to, and lose yourself in the enormity of the sound.

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Houndstooth Records – 22nd January 2021

Christopher Nosnibor

‘Transmogrifications’ features a brace of compositions by Guy Andrews reworked, reimagined, decomposed – spin it whichever way – by seminal experimental musician Kevin Drumm, with one from Permanence (which was released in September) and another from his latest, [MT][NT][ET]. Back in the day, this would have been a 12” single, or a CD single / EP. Now, it’s simply a release. Part of me feels that the devolvement – and dissolvement – of the physical format is sad not because of plain nostalgia, but because of the way it’s altered our relationship with music. The release of new music, when it required actually going into town to purchase it, arriving home with a sense of excitement and anticipation to hear something that had required not only the effort of the journey, but the outlay of actual cash, meant that there was an element of deliberation involved in each purchase: you’ve got a tenner (and there was a time not SO long ago when that would likely get you three new 12” singles at £2.99 – £3.50 apiece), and dropping the needle on each was an actual event. The loss of that sense of occasion, that event, is significant, and one that struck me unexpectedly on hearing this. As excited as I was to hear it, the joy was tempered by a certain pang of loss.

Drumm explains the remit he was given, which directed his approach to the project, recounting that “Guy essentially said that he’d rather not hear his own music played back to him…So with that in mind, it freed me up to drastically transform his material…it was a good experience taking something that is quite different than what I usually get up to and turn it into something different than what it is in its original form.” And the title says it all, really: ‘transmogrification’ is defined as the process of complete and usually extreme or grotesque change from one state or form to another.

Each track is an entire album, compressed, condensed, and generally reworked and altered beyond recognition.

And so it is that ‘[MT][NT][ET]’ is seven-and-three-quarter minutes of deep, swirling ambience, a deep mass of sound that eddies and drifts with a drilling metallic edge giving it a slightly uncomfortable sharpness. While it’s a more or less even drone, there are occasional – subtle – dips and twists that add to the understated but quite definite tension. And yet for all that, there is an overall sense of calm, a smoothness, until near the end, when its rich, space-like tranquillity is devasted by a rising blast of extraneous noise.

‘Permanence’ offers a different kind of experience, it’s more deeply textured, and a slower, lower simmering fermentation of sound. It also boils the thirty-two minute album down to eight minutes of overlapping sonic layers. Glistering shards of feedback are worn smooth in a soft wash of pink noise and an undulating amorphous cloud of noise, beneath which a grating sonic wreckage churns at such distance as to be almost subliminal.

And then it stops. Just like that. The abrupt nature of the ending is of note, accentuating the silence that follows immediately, and giving a tangible pause for thought on a release that has a lot more depth than the surface first suggests.

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When an album contains just three tracks, you know before you even hear a note that it’s going to be possessed of epic qualities. Similarly, when a band’s pitch includes ‘RIYL bands like Swans, MONO, lots of layered drums and percussion, ambient soundscapes, and wall of sound guitar and big strings’, (and I think it’s pretty much public knowledge by now that I do), then the same applies, and so needless to say I was all over this in an instant.

The first track, ‘The Gift’, is a twenty-minute behemoth, a sweeping exploration that builds from tense strings of the kind that would likely be at home on a Netflix period drama into something altogether more awe-inspiring, as the drums rumble like distant thunder at a gathering pace and intensity. Over its immense span, it leads the listener on a journey through an array of soundscapes, and there’s not only considerable atmosphere being conjured here, but the music also has a very visual aspect. You feel as if you’re being transported through different scenes, and at times, are creeping cautiously and peering around corners, while at others, staring out from a high plateau overlooking immense vistas that stretch further than the eye can see.

This is very much latterday Swans providing the inspiration here, with the expansive instrumental passages and near-ambient stretches that came to define releases from The Seer to The Glowing Man via To Be Kind, each of which stretched over a full two hours apiece. However, solarminds’ compositional approach and overall sound is quite different, leaning very much toward more conventional post-rock tropes (but without the contrivances of, say, Sigur Rós) and while there are some immense percussion-driven crescendos, with the strong-centric instrumentation, they don’t hit the explosive peaks of, say, Explosions in the Sky or Her Name is Calla. None of these are bad things, and while the sheer scale of their music does definitely sit within the domain occupied by MONO.

‘The Visit’ begins with an amorphous mass of dank, dark ambience, and is thirteen minutes of elongated, undulating drones that twist, turn, scrape and screed against a tumultuous barrage of percussion.

Closer ‘The Lie’ marks a significant departure, as the sound of heavy rain and extraneous noise gives way to a near -acappela vocal, an acoustic guitar, muffled and distant, providing the sparsest of accompaniment. It’s here they’re most reminiscent of Her Name is Calla at their most minimal, stripped-back, and folky, and it’s a delicate, tender experience that grows in emotional intensity and pulls at the gut with its starkness, its rawness.

Dissolving in a rumble of thunder, it’s a fitting conclusion to an album that, beneath some smooth surfaces, presents some quite troubled currents in the depths.

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Gizeh Records – GZH101 – 22nd January 2021

Christopher Nosnibor

Gizeh label founder Richard Knox already has a quite remarkable resume of musical projects, often running simultaneously or overlapping. With Shield Patterns currently quiet and A-Sun Amissa standing as his primary collective vehicle, Knox’s contributions to collaborative works over recent years have been numerous, but to fill a gap – or more likely scratch another itch – he’s stepped into the (half) light with a new solo project, Of Thread & Mist. A fair summary is that the project sounds exactly as the name suggests, and one might say representative of the Gizeh ‘house’ style’ – evocative, haunting, juxtapositional, but also evasive, intangible, ephemeral.

Static Hymns contains two longform tracks: the first, ‘Grace and Truth Perish’ has a running time of eighteen and a half minutes, while ‘A Face Full of Drunken Ticks’ is a colossally sprawling thirty-two-minute epic.

The formulation of the album centres around music ‘composed by Knox then deconstructed and manipulated via hand-made tape loops, beaten-up 4-Tracks and modified cassette players’. There’s very much a sense of artistry around the manipulation of the material, an almost avant-garde collaging, repurposing, reconfiguration, destroying – or at least disfiguring – in order to build anew.

There is something old, faded, slightly damaged about the warped, wavering tape drones that seep tentatively from the speakers to begin with, creating a sense of unease, a certain degree of disorientation, a feeling that something isn’t quite right about the way the different layers of sound rub against one another without quite connecting. It’s a slow, trickling turn as gradients of sweeping waves of sound, broad in spectra and subtly textured like pale watercolours spreading into one another, and the edges blur into indistinction.

This type of cinematic, atmospheric ambient drone is very much Knox’s signature, and he’s long demonstrated a knack for slowly shifting from light to shade and back through almost granular gradation, but where Static Hymns stands out is its almost collage-like approach in places. The different elements overlap, and not always comfortably – and this is very much in their favour in the way in which they challenge the recipient: this is no simple drone-over-and-out, but an album that proffers a sensory challenge, and as such, demands more attention than so many exercises in background drift that occupy the ambient sphere.

Toward the end, the sound again begins to waver, waxing and waning, tapering and yawning, stretching and fading in and out unpredictably, as if slowly degenerating, degrading. There are a number of abrupt false endings as the sound fragments into evermore brief flickers. It stutters, it yawns, and finally, it is done – gone, ended.

But when the sound ends, the reflection begins. Static Hymns is an album that invites reflection in the silence which follows the final notes.

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Ojud Records – 1st January 2021

Christopher Nosnibor

It may only be January 1st, but 2021 already feels very much – as expected – like a continuation of 2020. As a friend pointed out to me only this morning, in summarising the fact that the pandemic position remained unchanged and now we had the added shit bonus of having fully left the EU, ‘shit never sleeps’. Seeing so many post on social media about being glad to see the back of 2020 was somewhat depressing: I get the sentiment, and very much am on board with the significance and psychology of book-ending a period of time with the striking of midnight marking the start of a new calendar, but really, what changes? This year or ever?

One positive of this continuity is that Dave Procter is kicking off the new year where he left off the old one, namely by making and releasing more noise, and its timing is noteworthy, as a common theme within Procter’s work is some form of commemoration or ritual, with events like midsummer drone walks

This time, it’s with an alliteratively-titled work with occasional collaborator Claus Poulsen, with whom he plays one concert and makes one release every year. Parallel Perspectives is very much from the dronier end of his working spectrum, and follows Solaris (2019) and Minimum / Maximum (2018) in a continuum stretching back to 2015 and the release of his first work with Poulsen, PP. The release of Parallel Perspectives being a day late for 2020, despite having been recorded almost a year ago on 20th January 2020 also seems somehow, if accidentally appropriate, and something that won’t be lost on the artists, not least of all with Procter having relocated to Sweden ahead of the finalisation of Brexit. And works like Parallel Perspectives illustrate why: when creativity is so reliant on collaboration, free movement is essential, and this is a perfect advertisement for everything the un-UK has just thrown away in the name of ‘sovereignty’.

Not that there is anything remotely political about the album itself: this is purely a coming together of musical minds, and a celebration of their commonalities and differences – and it’s that mutual understanding, paired with an awareness of the power of contrast that make this.

As the liner notes detail, Parallel Perspectives was recorded in Copenhagen. The single track on the album is an extension of Procter’s Fibonacci Drone Organ minimalistic project, but with Poulsen adding overdubs. With his different perspective, he quickly forgets the minimalistic nature of the piece and details it with waves of half speed vinyl and samples.

An elongated organ drone hums, hovering and wavering gently in semi-stasis. Ruptures and incidentals abound, from seemingly random discordant cascades of sound and piano interjections to slow-whispering thermal winds and desolately chill nuclear gusts, and I’s remarkable just how much those details prove to dramatically colour the mood. Perhaps it’s the – for a better term – blankness of the flat organ drone that is as much key here, in that as of and in itself, it has no particular ‘mood’; it’s a neutral sound, imbued with precisely nothing. It’s only when rubbing against or along with another sound that it slides upwards or downwards, into light or darkness. There is no shortage of either over the course of the album’s fifty-three minutes, but there are many protracted passages which explore the realms of the ominous and eerie, the uncomfortable and the suspenseful, as fear chords creep like drifting mist in a dark city alley.

At times, it chimes, and at others, it grates. Sometimes it rings, and at others it drifts. At times, it swells, at others it tapers to nearly nothing. Its pace is barely perceptible, a continuously creeping shift, not so much a slow-burn as a smoulder of smoke tricking from a peat burner, and the layers added by Poulson only serve to protract the transitions, grinding a slow-motion audio that has a cognitive effect as you feel yourself slowing in line with its interminable aural crawl. And for all the moments that sounds like there is a heavy craft looming on the horizon, for all the protracted ponderous spells, there are moments that sound very like the soundtrack to breaking dawn, the soundtrack to redemption on the horizon.

Parallel Perspectives is subtle, but the devil is very much in the detail here.

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Lamour Records / Purlieu Recordings

Christopher Nosnibor

Spending most evenings immersing myself in an array of weird and wonderful and sometimes not so wonderful noise, this album came as a real surprise. The accompanying text does little to prepare the listener for such a gentle and exquisite collection of cinematic neoclassical compositions.

And yet the liner notes are precisely why Transformation is surprising, because all is not as it seems, explaining that ‘The album Transformation challenges the boundaries of human and machine, the physical and the artificial, the feasible and the impossible. The result is a thoughtful and true emotional storm where the piano forms the basis for an opposite pole between sound and playing technique. When the sound is real, it is played with inhuman technology. When played by hand, the sound moves outside the spectrum of the physical piano. What role does "lying" play for the listener?’ And what exactly are we listening to here?

It’s impossible to distinguish organs and organic sounds from synthesised or sampled approximations, and while the human / inhuman / orchestral /electronic sounds are impossible to distinguish – is that piano, performed by a musician with a real passion and a deep sense of drama, creating rippling waves of notes, or is it all so much programming? Listening to ‘Skeppsrå’, it sounds real. It feels real. I want it to be real. Can I therefore simply not believe that it’s real and accept it?

It’s not quite as straightforward as that. Once you’re aware of something, it’s impossible to erase that awareness. You want to feel as though you’re tapping into something real, otherwise it’s just muzak, film music made to fill a space and manipulate an emotional response to what may otherwise be a blandly-shot scene.

‘Tradition’ sounds like the product of synthesised sounds, while the brooding sonorous atmospherics of ‘Mekanik’ are simply other-worldly, while ‘Skogsrå’ is another magnificently supple slice of post-rock flavoured ambience that swirls and soars towards the stratosphere.

There’s no questioning that the elegiac solo piano piece, ‘Artikulation’ a beautifully poised piece, understated yet rich and immersive, and likewise ‘Klinga’ which follows. But are those ‘wrong’ notes simply artifice? Are they programmed in to create ‘imperfections’ in order to create a sense of humanity and therefore a greater ‘trust’ in the machine? Or is this an example of an openness about human error? I’m not convinced: why would any musician play to highlight their flaws? But this is the challenge and the dilemma: what and who do you trust?

Trust nothing and trust no-one: but do trust me when I say that Transformation is a fascinating and most listenable work.

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Misanthropic Agenda – MAR056 – 4th December 2020

Christopher Nosnibor

It’s been a few years since I last engaged with Simon Whetham’s work, which at least up to a certain point had a certain preoccupation with geography, or least location. In a sense – albeit somewhat tenuous, that relationship to place remains as a backdrop of sorts to Forced to Repeat Myself, which documents a tour (remember those?) in 2018.

Perhaps the absence of touring has driven many artists to review their archival recordings, and on Forced to Repeat Myself, Whetham contemplates the way in which touring drives a tendency toward homogeneity in terms of the way each night’s performance is assembled. For rock bands and acts performing compositions of a fixed nature, this is part and parcel; the repetition of set lists and even, over time, between-piece patter and introductions. But for artists whose work is based on improvisation, repetition is undesirable – after all, at what point does repetition become something rehearsed and preplanned?

As the accompanying text observes, ‘One characteristic aspect of the touring experience that is not discussed often enough is the dilemma of repetition. Not repetition as a mechanism of the work itself, but as a tedious consequence of being obligated to perform night after night in quick succession. Generating a completely unique performance for each stop, even with the assistance of improvisation, is a laborious undertaking that consumes too much time and sanity, while adhering to a rigid set of rules leaves one open to both burnout and diminishing returns. Is there a way to split the difference so that both performer and audience are always engaged to the highest standard?’

And so this is the context for Forced to Repeat Myself. As a document, it’s a curious one, and it may or may not be ironic that the cover art for Whetham’s ‘live’ album is a photograph of a venue with rows of empty seats. If it was indeed shot at one of the shows where Whetham performed on said tour or any other (and the presence of a flipchart suggests otherwise), it was surely during soundcheck. But then, history can be subject to so many manipulations, and the time and space begins to flake over the passage of the latter… the relevance of the track titles is unclear: they’re not dates, and this is not some kind of aural tour diary. Nor are the tracks really the same. Yes, Whetham does revert to certain tones and textures as one would expect from the same equipment operated within a more or less predetermined set length.

Random is only so random, and external factors invariably influence and direct the shape of things. That said, the same performance is never the same performance: different venues of different shapes and sizes, the kit run through a different PA, different audience responses… Life in lockdown may feel like perpetual groundhog day, but the reality is that we never live the same moment twice. No-one is more acutely aware of this than Whetham himself when he comments, “In each situation objects and materials unique to the space were incorporated into the performance setup and structure, generating sounds or resonating with them. And yet I could hear similar scenes, movements, even spaces. This repetition determined the dynamic of the composition, working with it and against it.”

And so we return to geography, location, in the most immediate of contexts. And over the course of the album’s eight pieces, the identifiable repetitions are few, as the same sounds are reworked, remixed, reimagined, and with each manipulation, however subtle, they’re a step or phase away from their previous version.

But over the course of the album we’re reminded just how strong Whetham’s ear is for texture and tone, and there is a spectacular abundance of crackling overdoing distortion, groaning drones humming clicking, bangs and scrapes and minimal electronic sounds colliding and vibrating against one another – hard and violently. The absence of audience sound and the up-close fixing of circuits mean that this doesn’t feel or sound like a live album, but it is, every inch, a hard sonic challenge.

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Human Worth – 6th November 2020

Christopher Nosnibor

Evan Gildersleeve’s debut solo single, ‘Mortal’ is an absolute masterclass in suspenseful, atmospheric instrumental music. While incorporating ambient elements, the mellifluous piano work is clearly structured, albeit subtly as it drifts, the notes reverberating in the rarefied air. It’s deeply evocative, resonating on a level that’s at the innermost point and therefore beyond specific articulation.

That ‘Mortal’ emerged from a very personal space, with Evan’s creative process in its formation being a journey through challenges with mental health and the impact of lockdown renders it all the more poignant. While turbulence and trauma are completely removed from this soundtrack, it’s perhaps telling in itself, serving as it does as a refuge from all of that.

It may be a mere six-and-a-half minutes long, but ‘Mortal’ captures something special and moreover, has the capacity to slow time, drawing the listener into a slow suspension, with the most soothing effect.

This is music that requires you to put down the phone, step away from the keyboard, disconnect social media, the TV, all streaming news, dim the lights and breathe slowly. The video features some remarkable visuals likely to assist in soothing a crowded mind – and with proceeds going to MIND, it’s pretty much one of the essentials of 2020.

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