Posts Tagged ‘Ambient’

Monotreme Records

Christopher Nosnibor

I met my wife as she now is online back in 2000, before it was the done thing. Online dating didn’t exist, and we got chatting in Holechat, the band’s official online chatroom. We were both there because we had an appreciation of Hole, oddly enough. But Celebrity Skin has always been a point of division, in that it was my point of departure, with single ‘Malibu’ being a significant factor. To my ears, it was, and remains, the sound of selling out, and while pop is by no means is dirty word for me, it represented a slide into lazy, poppy commercial rock. From the band that brought us the snarling, spitting mess of noise that was ‘Teenage Whore’, this was the work of a band who’d completely lost their bite.

This is the personal context for my engagement with Stumbleine’s cover of ‘Malibu’, released as the second taster of the forthcoming album ‘Sink Into The Ether’, which promises ‘a deep submergence within a celestial upper region somewhere beyond the clouds’, and on this outing, ‘a lush ambient electro cover of Hole’s ‘Malibu’ featuring Elizabeth Heaton of Midas Fall on vocals’.

According to Stumbleine, ‘Hole’s ‘Malibu’ is the perfect balance of bittersweetness, a golden soundscape of serene melancholy. Tracks which illustrate that symmetry between light and dark are timeless to me, they mirror life with piercing clarity.’

That’s clearly a different perspective on the song from the one I have, and clearly informs this breathy, slow-unfurling drifter of a tune that bears negligible commonality with the original bar the lyrics. It’s slowed to a dripping mellowness that’s pleasant on the ear, but so prised apart and washed-out it’s bereft of chorus, hooks, or any other memorable moments. And in context, it’s nicely done, but it’s perhaps less of a cover than a reworking that’s 99% Stumbleine and 1% Hole. In this instance, that’s not such a bad thing.

24th February 2020

Christopher Nosnibor

Kemper Norton’s kept a steady trickle of releases coming for some time now, and while the last couple – Hungan (2017) and Brunton Calciner (2019) – had bypassed me until now, the consistency of previous works, from Cam (2013), Loor (2014), and Toll (2016) was more than enough to ensure my immediate interest on the arrival of Oxland Cylinder. His music always has an intrinsic sense of place, however elliptical, and if on the face of it Oxland Cylinder appears to break this trend, the accompanying text is informative:

‘In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century the majority of the world’s arsenic was created in Cornwall and Devon. The “Oxland Cylinder” was one of the methods used and was a revolving iron tube used to process and vapourise arsenic pyrites. None of these devices remain intact.’

Immediately, we’re transported to England’s south coast over a century ago, and not only to a bygone era but a practise essentially lost to history. And in this context, Oxland Cylinder takes on layers of meaning and caries a certain historical weight.

If the first piece, ‘halan 5’, which introduces the album with discontiguous electronic scrapes and buzzes, and a swell of bleeps and bloops, an analogue bubblebath that slowly eddies and swells, feels like so many other post-Tangerine Dream ambient electronic drifts, it’s also an evocation of a process akin to alchemy, only instead of turning lead into gold, it turns minerals into alloys, including lead.

Oxland Cylinder forges temporal spaces through the medium of sound, slow-spun ambience that conjures a certain mental blankness into which the listener is free to project their own sense of alternating coastal countryside and industrial production. Some will likely visualise Poldark, although the ruins that remain today tell little of the intense labour, heavy mining and vast engines involved in the extraction of ores and pyrites and their conversion to various alloys as lined the south coast at this time.

‘Dark as a Dungeon’ finds the first occurrence of vocals: it’s a sparse shanty with ringing electronics building a glistening, metallic backdrop to the lilting vocal melody. Singing about mining against funeral echo-laden rings feels like a sad thing.

Oxland Cylinder is as rich in evocative depth and subtlety as the south coast is in social and industrial history, and an absorbing album irrespective of context or intent.

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Kemper Norton – Oxland Cylinder

Sound In Silence – 9th January 2020

Christopher Nosnibor

Fifteen years on from initiating worriedaboutsatan, Gavin Miller resumes work under the moniker as a solo performer once more. During that time, there have been lengthy breaks, solo releases and side projects, and five albums along the way, all of which featured Thomas Ragsdale. As a duo, it was always apparent that each of them brought something very different to the table, and on paper, the differences probably just shouldn’t work, with Ragsdale’s more beat-centric style seemingly at odds with Miller’s introspective post-rock / ambient stylings. But work it did, and incredibly well. The sound evolved over time, too, from the stuttering microbeats that characterised Arrivals to the up-front booming dance grooves particularly prominent in their later live sets, worriedaboutsatan developed, but remained distinctive.

So what impact Ragsdale’s departure to focus on his solo endeavours?

Pleasingly, Crystalline still has that je ne sais quoi that’s uniquely worriedaboutsatan, despite the contrasts being less pronounced, as Miller pursues the more ambient direction that defined Revenant and Blank Tape. The eight pieces coalesce as a whole to create an album that’s mellow and subtle, with reverby guitar notes chiming out into soft washes of ambient synth. It is predominantly background in its positioning: Crystalline isn’t an album where anything leaps out and grabs the attention, there are no peaks or troughs, and the whole thing more or les drifts by on a certain level that registers low on the concentration meter. That’s not a criticism, but a personal observation on its function as a musical work: it supplements the mood and occupies a space in an understated fashion, and is something that can be played while you’re working or reading. By the same token, that doesn’t make it ‘forgettable’ or mean it isn’t worthy of attentive listening: Miller has constructed some magnificently layered compositions, and while the overall sensation emanates from broad washes of sound that could be described as impressionistic, there is considerable detail beneath the surface.

The forms are vague and vaporous, the individual instruments indistinct, but this changes on penultimate track, ‘Secretly’, where the guitar becomes clearer and more ‘guitary’, and judders as the echoes take over the notes, creating a doubling effect as the picked strings stop and stutter against a heartbeat pulse of a beat.

The album closes with the mournful drones of ‘Switching Off’: sparse, spaced out, blank in their connotations before a swell of overloaded feedback begins to rise in the loudest, most abrasive moment on the album, before it’s suddenly cut dead. Thank you, and good night.

The suddenness of this ending is unexpected, and breaks the suspension of time that the preceding half hour of amorphous sound punctuated by barely-there beats has created. It’s a jolt, and you’re back in the room.

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worriedaboutsatan – Crystalline

Christopher Nosnibor

Two Acorns – 2A16 – DL release date: Out Now / CD release date: 6th March 2019

Celer’s Future Predictions is a vast and ambitious work: spanning four discs, it’s an ambient exploration on a truly grand scale. Each disc contains a single longform track, each running at around half an hour, with the shortest, ‘No Sleep in Medan’ clocking in at 27’30”, and the longest, ‘Nothing Will Change’ 42’36”.

According to the write-up, the compositions are made with ‘tape loops, from digital and acoustic instruments, field recordings and foley sounds’, and ‘with a focus on introspection and imagination, each piece begins with all layers playing, with minimal additional long-term structural development in order to maintain a state’. There’s a conceptual lineage here, if not an auditory one: Future Predictions is the follow-up to 2018’s Memory Repetitions which was based on memory and the interpretation of it over time. Future Predictions, we learn, ‘is instead based on the idea of future situations, and should be seen as a meditation on future events’.

While the various elements of tape loops and various instruments are indistinguishable, combining in their simultaneity to create soft, supple sonic washes, hovering drones interweaving interminably, the overall effect is incredibly immersive.

The first of the four, ‘Merita’ is light, drifting like mist over dewy expanses of grassland at sunrise, and while I initially find myself waiting for some progression, expecting some transitional shift, after a time the stasis becomes the end in itself.

‘No Sleep’ inches into darker territory, with deeper, rumbling low notes but after a few minutes this sense of difference dissipates in the drift of elongated notes that have no clear definition, no forward trajectory, no overt sense of movement, but instead hover and hang in the air for all time. ‘Quaraous’ brings new layers, new tones, new, shades, a shimmering light and swell of organ to the proceedings, and for aa time it again feels different, but again, that difference fades over the course of half an hour of sameness.

The effects of Future Predictions are cumulative. It’s true that on a purely practical level, few, if any, are likely to listen to all four discs or digital files in succession, although it’s in this context of continuous play that it works best. Admittedly, this is not music to listen to, but to allow to drift by. You don’t listen: you feel it and on a subconscious level as you drift, and you let life happen and continue as normal. I read and replied to texts and emails, while the sound swelled and hummed in eternal undulations. They didn’t transport me anywhere, they didn’t ‘do’ anything. And yet, inducing a certain sense of sedation, of slowness, of tranquillity, they achieved everything.

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Celer

OUS – OUS027 – 7th February 2020

Christopher Nosnibor

The accompanying text reports that Bit-Tuner’s seventh album, EXO ‘marks a milestone in his work’ and tells of how this ‘widescreen and beatless opus focusses on musical storytelling and atmospheric depth’.

EXO is unquestionably cinematic, with synth washes that are simultaneously soft and cloud-like, but achieve a density by their layering, and they conjure a breadth of sound, too, that evokes vast vistas that stretch from horizon to horizon. This isn’t ambient in the conventional sense, and while ‘beatless’ is a largely accurate description, it’s by no means formless, without rhythm, or without a certain sense of sensory attack. There’s a deceptive amount going on across the album’s eight pieces, and EXO is an album that doesn’t simply require attention, but demands it. This is not all wimpy, wispy sonic contrails that hang in the air: EXO has a certain solidity, depth, force that renders it anything but background. You can’t settle down and chill out to this, and while the musical storytelling may not be immediately apparent, the atmospheric depth is all-encompassing.

The prefatory single ‘Passage’ very much sets the tone, and on revisiting the piece here, it’s apparent just how much the mewling top-line, that semi-resembles a lost, plaintive seagull lost in the sweeping swathes provides a contrast and focus: this is an ambient work with intense focus, and, despite the absence of beats, a strong focus on rhythm. Then, ‘Valve’ pulses and throbs and crackles with distortion and decay around the edges and while it’s expansive, it’s also probing inwards toward the depths of the listener’s psyche. This isn’t music you can just leave running in the background: it continually grabs you and draws you in, demanding attention. And at times, it’s downright difficult and edgy.

‘Disbander’ pulses and grinds, low-end hums undulate and swoop into subsonics while mid-range interference collides against thumps and crackles and upper-frequency skitters and flits. There’s a lot going on, and while it’s anything but dark, it is incredibly tense: if you equate ambient with gentle, soft, and soothing, think again. ‘Ghost Light’ hits something of a Tangerine Dream stride, and electronic blips approximating beats coalesce to create a rhythmic structure that pulsates and throbs.

So is this ambient? It certainly doesn’t conform to the notion that it’s unobtrusive, or in an way calming, or soothing, and any contemplation encouraged here is rent with challenges. How does it make you feel? Ambience is so often geared toward the cerebral, but there’s a physicality to EXO, however subtle and subliminal: there are textures that make your skin crawl, tonalities than make you twitch, tense, and tingle.

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Fabrique Records FAB073 – 17th January 2020

Christopher Nosnibor

As the press text summarises, ‘Cusp is a collection of compositions taken from the soundtrack for the film STRESS by Florian Baron. The feature-length documentary gives voice to five young veterans, their experiences and trauma’. It was never going to be light or upbeat, and immediately, the sounds emanating from the speakers are unsettling, disturbing: blasts and reverberating crashes echo all around over slow, elongated drones, and ‘It’s Happening’ washes into the slow ebb and flow surges of synth that form ‘Them or Me’.

It may be good to talk, but those of us who haven’t been there simply cannot relate, cannot compute or comprehend the meaning, the pain, the anguish. It’s a world beyond and it would be a mistake and an insult to pretend otherwise. Anything, from sympathy to empathy feels like an underestimation and an undersale, a devaluement. Perhaps it’s an act of solipsism: the suffering in the mind of another is unknowable. This renders the territory Cusp and the film it soundtracks difficult on a number of levels.

Trauma is by no means entertainment, and while I haven’t seen the film, Irmirt’s handling is impressive in its subtlety, and it’s understandable why she was awarded the German Documentary Film Music Award in 2019. The jury remarked how in her soundtrack, she ‘dissolves the boundaries between sound design and musical composition in a virtuoso and at the same time self-evident way, thus creating a sound cosmos that, through uncompromising reduction, generates brutal knowledge.’

The best soundtracks are always understated, and compliment, rather than dominate the visuals they accompany, and Cusp, which takes fragments of the soundtrack as a whole – with eight tracks, half of which are only around the two-minute mark, this is a distillation of a broader experience, and it works well.

It is dark, unsettling, but nothing is overdone. And that’s why it works.

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Jana Irmirt - Cusp

Karlrecords KR073 – 24th January 2020

Christopher Nosnibor

Aidan Baker and Gareth Davis are no strangers to Aural Aggro: both feature in the roll-call of post-rock collective A-Sun Amissa, led by Richard Knox, and Baker’s myriad collaborations and contributions have received coverage here, and with good reason. Their contributions to the field of post-rock / ambient / brooding neoclassical orchestral avant-garde are substantial, to say the least.

It was two years ago that Canadian guitar player Aidan Baker and Belgian clarinettist Gareth Davis came together to release Invisible Cities, which, as the press release notes, ‘the duo explored the calmer side of things – from chamber jazz to ambient / drone and back, giving much space and air to breathe to their respective instrument’.

And so to the sequel: more of the same, yes, but different. Because there is always evolution, and never stasis.

Ominous. Unsettling. Slow-moving. Atmospheric. Resonant. The adjectives bubble up through the mist of ‘Hidden’, the album’s first composition as strings scrape and moan through a gauze-like haze and layers build and drift. Everything is vague, the elements fading into one another, with brief incidentals bringing tension and disquiet to an otherwise tranquil but strangely indefinable atmosphere.

‘Eyes’ rumbles into darker territory, rumbling, billowing darkness providing an undercurrent for wisps of otherworldly drones – forged on strings, but detached from the context of specific instrumentation

When listening to ambient works, I do, at times, find myself pondering the source or the various sounds. ‘That’s a violin’; or ‘that’s a cello’; or ‘that’ll be the clarinet’. It’s a distraction I could do without, especially when effects – and sometimes just reverb and the way notes and sounds rub against one another to create seemingly unnatural sounds – mean that instruments don’t sound like the instruments they are, and often don’t even sound like conventional instruments. It’s better just to let it all wash over you, and to let the sound swell and envelop your being.

This is very much true of the dense, malevolent sonic swirl of ‘The Dead’, which tapers down seamlessly into ‘Continuity’, where drones hover and piano notes crash as if sliding down a staircase and metallic drones slide and it’s a minimal approach to instrumentation that creates the greatest tension, which ultimately dissipates in the altogether warmer climes of ‘Names’.

Baker and Davis bring out the best in one another, combining their creative capabilities to forge ambience with depth and the power to affect mood rather than merely hover, and Invisible Cities II is strong, moving, and evocative while at the same time conjuring a perfectly distracting aural fog.

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