Posts Tagged ‘Ambient’

ANTIME – ANTIME20

Christopher Nosnibor

According the bio, ‘Bad Stream is guitars and machines vanishing in the spaces between Radiohead, The Notwist and Nine Inch Nails only to reemerge amidst ambient, noise, and drone. It marks Martin [Steer]’s attempt to release his own history, alienation and loneliness into the chaos of the digital world and to retain their substance in doing so.

This is very much Martin’s thing, essentially a solo project, and the album represents five years of work, of gathering, of sifting, of seeking ways to represent the realities of life in contemporary society.

“I look at my phone even while I’m playing guitar,” says Martin Steer, “and that isn’t even entirely voluntary. The 2010s really changed my perception of how digital technologies and social media affect me as a musician. Through Bad Stream I want to make sense of this particular kind of anxiety, and to use sensory overstimulation as a way to develop an independent and progressive musical language.”

I can relate. Starting out as a writer around the turn of the millennium, I was fascinated by the idea of postmodernism – because although the concept emerged in the 70s in considering writing of the 1950s and 1960s, I was completely engaged in the notion that this was something that was happening now. Whatever McLuhan, Lyotard, and Jameson, or Deleuze and Guattari had to say about the effects of accelerated communications and a ubiquitous blizzard of media and sensory overload, nothing could truly predict or account for the psychological impact of living in the second decade of the second millennium. Nothing we’ve seen before corresponds with the endless twitching, the nagging anxieties of text messages without response, the barren Facebook page, the diminishing Twitter following, the hassling, haranguing, emails and messages, the relentless barrage of information and contact from every direction.

Besides, theory and practise, however closely they endeavour to merge, invariably and inevitably exist with degrees of separation. And so it is with Bad Stream. It’s a nicely-assembled album, with some suitably dark and intense moments, and the production balances the slick, crisp ultra-digital with the messy, reverby, sonic halo that pulls it all back a way.

I often wonder what the musical landscape would look like if Nine Inch Nails hadn’t happened. It seems that one act not only spawned a genre unto themselves, but reshaped the musical landscape, to the point that what would once have sounded ‘edgy’ now sounds mundane, and so much can simply be filed as ‘derivative of Nine Inch Nails’. In drawing in a samples, semi-ambient segments and more besides, Steer extends hi sonic palette beyond the NIN template – but by the same token, Reznor’s shadow looms large over the majority of the compositions here.

Amidst the accessible (granted, it’s all relative) electro tunes, the bleak ‘Drown on Mars’ builds a pulsating bass groove over an insistent beat that call to mind the darker, more downbeat moments of The Downward Spiral and With Teeth. But where Steer separates from Reznor is his unswerving tendency to offer melody and chorus over obliterative noise. On the one hand, it’s a relief: life is punishment enough – but on the other, there’s a sense that he simply doesn’t push far or hard enough, and fails to convey the anguish, the anxiety, the trauma. ‘Polyzero’ is a cracking stab at surging shoegaze with a resonant electro throb, and it’s perfectly executed – a kind of hybrid of ‘March of the Pigs; with Nowhere era Ride. And I dig. But Bad Stream fails to convey the claustrophobia and relentless bombardment and the mental anguish it engenders. It’s a relatively minor criticism, though: everything is fucked-up enough as it is, and do we need more music that mirrors, even amplifies back, the torment of the overload that is life as we experience it? I’m too fried to conclude right now…

AA

badstream_cover_digital_2800px_300dpi_rgb

Advertisements

ROOM40 – 5th April 2018

Christopher Nosnibor

A single, repetitive beat rings out for what feels like an eternity. With nothing else to focus on, the mind begins to conjure deceptions: is it entirely consistent in tempo and timbre? Or are some beats vaguely out of step by an infinitesimal fraction of second? Are some strikes harder or softer than others? A sparse chord rises up, slowly, then stops abruptly. The beat goes on. Another chord swells…. Repeats, disappearing the same way as the first. Then just as something threatens to build, the beat stops. The notes drift, without form, direction, or guidance. Eventually, just as tension and a certain confusion begins to mount, everything comes together: the rhythmic thud, the strings, the soft ambience and the faint strains feedback, combine to create a resolution. Unsteady, somehow incomplete, but a resolution. And so it is that ‘Neither Flesh not Fleshless’ sets the tone for At the Still Point of the Turning World.

The album takes its title from T.S. Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’, the first of his Four Quartets sequence:

IV

Time and the bell have buried the day,

The black cloud carries the sun away.

Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis

Stray down, bend to us; tendril and spray

Clutch and cling?

Chill

Fingers of yew be curled

Down on us? After the kingfisher’s wing

Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still

At the still point of the turning world.

This collaborative work is preoccupied with time and how we experience it, and the accompanying blurb observes how the two artists were very much working both with and against one another in the creative process – which seems an apt analogy for the human relationship with time itself. On the one hand, it’s simply a concept, and an intangible: and yet we see and feel it, in the short and long terms: there is no escaping time, and no-one ever fought time and emerged triumphant. The still point is but the blink of an eye, and the turning is endless despite its invisibility. These are the irreconcilable and dichotomous tensions which inform the sonic push-and-pull Gama and Fernandes explore and exploit in these compositions, which are simultaneously smooth but turbulent.

‘The Patterns is Movement’ is a slow swell and glide of sombre strings pitched against a desolate but mournfully graceful piano: the form is vague, but there is something rather post-rock about the brooding disquiet. It segues into unsettling, rumbling industrial clanking way off at a distance. The haunting clangs of metal are cold, without comfort. I’m pulled back into the mindset of the worker: the ghosts of heavy labour still haunt the structures of the tertiary industries which now dominate the western world. The final coupling of the sparse and altogether lighter ‘Lucid Stillness’ and ‘Shaft of Sunlight’ pitch the album to a calmer, more redemptive close.

While much of the movement within the compositions on this album is slow, and often somewhat non-linear and marks a trajectory that’s divergent, indirect and non-evolutionary, there is, nevertheless, an indisputable sense of movement that’s perpetual.

AA

Joana Gama   Luís Fernandes – At the Still Point of the Turning World

Kranky – 6th April 2018

It was Alexander Trocchi, often referred to as the ‘Scottish Beat’ with whom the phrase ‘cosmonaut of inner space’ who seemingly has the strongest connection, largely on account of the fact that this was how he often referred to himself. However, it was in fact coined by William Burroughs, who said, “in my writing I am acting as a map maker, an explorer of psychic areas, a cosmonaut of inner space, and I see no point in exploring areas that have already been thoroughly surveyed”.

This is pertinent, as the press release which accompanies the functionally-titled No. 4 – Belgium-based composer Christina Vantzou’s fourth full-length for Kranky – explains how her latest work ‘ventures further into the uniquely elusive and evocative mode of ambient classical minimalism which has become her signature: a fragile synthesis of contemplative drift, heady silences, and muted dissonance. In regards to the new album she speaks of focusing particular attention on the effects of the recordings on the body, and of “directing sound perception into an inner space.”’

More often than not, I will dismiss the contents of any accompanying verbiage in order to engage with the music unswayed by sales pitch or theoretical position. However, there was something about the context of this album which resonated, and – not wholly intentionally, I should stress – informed my listening and analysis. One may assume that ambient music is ambient music. But no: there are those vast, swirling, cinematic ambient works which explore immense spatiality; there are those works which gather and collage sounds specific to a given time or place, or both, and which are concerned in some way with location, be it geographical or temporal; and then there are those inward-looking explorations which filer through the libraries of the mind and memory. This very much sits in the latter category, with Vantzou’s sparse, minimal compositions possessing deeply haunting qualities, with the notes echoing into the deeper recesses of recollection.

The titles ascribed to the eleven compositions which comprise No.4 are all vague yet strangely evocative. ‘Doorway’; ‘Staircases’; ‘Some Limited and Waning Memory’… so non-specific, and precisely for this reason, so resonant. Within the personal lies the universal and between the spaces between the softly echoed piano notes, the subtle, drifting strings, the soft washes of sound that drift like vapour and gradually dissipate into the air.

Tranquillity descends. Under Vantzou’s aural guidance, I find myself reflecting on my own inner space and conjure images and recollections of experiences linked – however tangentially – to those spaces named in the titles. A bulbous bass pulsates on ‘Garden of Forking |Paths’ and I’m transported back to my father’s long, sprawling garden – and because the bass sound is reminiscent of The Cure circa Faith – specifically Carnage Visors – I’m back to when I discovered this music, age fourteen or fifteen. I visualise dappled orchard sunlight and smell grass clipping. This will mean nothing to you, but by allowing myself to drift inside, I’m feeling that interiority that Vantzou’s work intimates.

In times past, I may have felt embarrassment as taking such a tangential approach to a review. But music – and the response it elicits – is not scientific. To analyse this objectively would be futile, and worse still to strip the soul from its very heart. No.4 isn’t an album to listen to, so much as to feel.

AA

Christina Vantzou – No.4

Sound on Probation – SOP018 – 17th April 2018

Christopher Nosnibor

Zonk’t is one of the many guises of polychrome composer Laurent Perrier. According to his biography, while many of these projects often share many common elements, they are all built on a strong individual identity, and are therefore distinct and different from one another. Thus, Zonk’t ‘has always been a way of exploring the most ambient fringes of dub, and the transition from the all-digital to compositions made entirely on modular synthesizers has overall not changed its approach in depth’.

The album takes its title from the cryptanalytic process developed by Alan Turing during the Second World War, which ultimately facilitated the deciphering of the coded messages the German military produced via their Enigma machines. The track titles all relate back to the theme of the title. However, this album seems more concerned with the evocation of messages buried or encoded than the application of complex formulae to the compositional methodology.

‘Square’ (which I assume to be a reference to the Polybius square, also known as the Polybius checkerboard, which in cryptography, is a device invented by the Ancient Greek historian and scholar Polybius, for fractionating plaintext characters so that they can be represented by a smaller set of symbols, at least according to Wikipedia). occupies the entirely of side A, almost 20 minutes of slow-paged ambient dub propelled by thick, heavy beats. Thin, twisting sinews of sound like strings stretch across the space and spin layers of texture.

Side B contains three more short-form compositions in the shape of ‘Chronogyre’, ‘Colossus’, and ‘Conditional Probability’. The first of these forges a low, deliberate groove that undulates at a deliberate pace, while erratic, glitchy beats and crackles of static flitter and clank through the swampy tones. ‘Colossus’ picks up the pace and the bass-centric density, thwupping and thrumming in waves. A stark synthesised stab echoes out before the final track – the most direct and beat-orientated of the set – conjures an immersive retro-futurist groove.

It’s the combination of space and bass-orientated groove dislocation that makes Banburismus worth the effort. It’s not immediately accessible, and doesn’t sit comfortably in either the ambient or dub genres. Crossovers as far removed from not only the mainstream but the mass market as this will inevitably slide into ultra-niche categories, but this by no means devalues the work. If anything, the existence of Banburismus only further illustrates the need for art more than mere entertainment.

AA

SOP018_front

This is it Forever – 12th March 2018

Christopher Nosnibor

Ok, I’m biased. Thomas Ragsdale’s work as one half of worriedaboutsatan and Ghosting Season has enthused me for over a decade now, and his solo work, too, has consistently mesmerised and enthralled me. This isn’t just journo gush: his work is rich and immersive and simply never disappoints. His latest offering, the three-track ‘Under Dwellers’ EP is no exception.

The BandCamp blurb describes it as ‘Three pieces of music paying tribute to the world beneath our own’, and goes on to describe how ‘Acid lines are fed through tape echo and back into a reel to reel machine… Randomised synth arps clatter around unpredictably inside a distortion unit… Crumbling piano melodies faintly cry out over the hiss and hum of modern circuits… Sounds made by a human, but with no control. Music for beneath the grit and surface of our modern world’.

Ragsdale translates all of these things into something more than pitch, more than process jargon, and presents a set of atmospheric, semi-ambient compositions, rich in tone and texture, and which utterly envelop the listener.

There is little point in detailing either the structure or sound of the individual pieces, or much else for that matter. Dark clouds drift and scrape, twist and turn and swell to fill the air. Yet There is depth, and above all a certain intangible grip and pull here. One listens. One reacts. One feels it, somehow, subliminally, a head-tingling, gut-pulling soundwork.

AA

Thomas Ragsdale - Under Dwellers

Ici d’ailleurs – IDA119 – 30th March 2018

Christopher Nosnibor

The lengthy blurb which accompanies the latest release from Matt Elliott’s Third Eye Foundation, active since 1996, covers a lot of ground. A lot has happened since Semtex, the expanded reissue of which I ruminated on a couple of years ago. And yet. Wake the Dead may not match the violence, but still packs a restrained intensity.

‘Words have no place here except to confuse matters a little further. And the 40 minutes of throbbing, hypersensitive dubstep that make up the record are not aimed at sending a message to the mind. The intention is to make souls dance, to unite them and to remind us that, despite our choices and individual convictions, we are all components of the same whole and whether living or dead, we are connected forever.’

Increasingly I find myself returning to my own reactions and responses to music, and the separation between the objective and the subjective. Any engagement with music must necessarily be subjective. Dismissing chart music because it’s vapid crap is still a subjective opinion, given that objectively, it serves a social (and economic) function and is invariably extremely well-executed and produced in technical terms, and to complain about a lack of emotional depth or lyrical complexity may on the surface appear to be an objective criticism, but a listener’s lack of connection with it is subjective. Flimsy radio-friendly fodder is entertainment: it’s music that strives to achieve different ends which is art.

Wake the Dead, while pitched as having the purpose of ‘making souls dance’, is very much art in that it exists to evoke a deeper emotional response than ‘it’s got a good beat.’ Not that the beats aren’t good, but the slow, deliberate rhythms are more of the variety one nods to rather than getting down to.

The title track sets the scene and the tone, with majestic, sweeping tones and soaring choral voices which rise towards the heavens above a slow, hypnotic semi-tribal beat has a rich resonance. The smooth, soothing cello is countered by occasional trills of feedback, creating a subtle but essential dissonance which alters the mood considerably. Gradually, over the course of the track’s thirteen-minute span, low-churning bass frequencies begin to throb and beats become stronger but also more fractured as looping echoes collide against one another disorientatingly.

‘The Blasted Tower’ combines gliding strings with stuttering, rapidfire fills, a balanced juxtaposition of soporifically soothing and twitchy tension, before ‘Controlled Demolition’ slides into murkier and rather heavier territory. With the structures less defined and a cacophonous collaging of sound pitched against warping bass tones, it makes for a cerebrally-challenging passage that culminates in a collision of brooding strings and extraneous noise.

The album’s only words are to be found on the shortest track, ‘That’s Why’, with a sampled shout of ‘Fucking pigs! I hate the fucking pigs!’ looped and mangled and fucked to fade. It feels a little incongruous, but provides a well-placed change in both tone and tempo ahead of the final cut, which takes the form of an elongated, wheezing drone graced with wordless female vocals which echo an abstract spiritual transcendence.

The six compositions segue into one another to form a continuous forty-minute suite. The atmosphere is dark, but more the darkness of twilight and shadows than pitch black small hours. There are moments where it feels a shade bleak, but these are contrasted by moments of uplifting beauty; the overarching sensation is one of a haunting feeling. As the sound fades to silence, the feeling of immersion hangs for a time. There’s no way to place that sensation in an objective context: this is about how the abstract language of sound touches the subconscious.

AA

IDA119_front

Hangman Ho Records

Christopher Nosnibor

Rick Senley doesn’t do things by halves. Invariably, when I receive mail from him, it contains not one, but two CDs released in close proximity. His two solo musical vehicles, I Am A Man With a St Tropez Tan and musicforvoyeurs reflect quite different facets of his creative bent, and this has never been placed in sharper relief than on his two latest releases. I Am A Man With a St Tropez Tan’s The Tattooed Aunts and Mice on Speed is an abrasive, at times harrowing affair; its counterpart, musicforvoyeurs’ Encounter, which emerged off the back of a film project of the same name for which Senley created the soundtrack, is altogether lighter and softer, and as such, represents an almost polar contrast. That isn’t to say it’s a happy-clappy skip through summer meadows. Encounter explores the spaces between ranging depths of shade in a moving and thought-provoking way.

The eight tracks drift and flow into one another, as brooding strings forge cinematic sonic vistas over which samples pass, creating not so much a narrative, but a sense of meaning, however submerged or allusive. Death provides the primary focus of the snippets of dialogue, and while Encounter is a deeply melancholy work, its tone is ultimately reflective and contemplative rather than dark or depressing.

It begins softly, vaporous ambience washing beneath an extended sample. It concludes dramatically, with a flourish. In between, there is undulating movement and turns of atmosphere.

A humming, thrumming low-end buzz hangs heavy for a time on the second track, before majestic light and choral sweeps cascade forth. The frantic, agitated raised voice which cuts in toward the end changes the perspective and raises the tension, but Senley brings it down with a delicately picked guitar that’s dainty and soothing. Notes ripple and cascade in mellifluous glissandos. But burred edges and rumbling tones lurk just a little way beneath the surface. However pleasant and mellow any given segment of the album is, there is always a nagging reminder of an underlying tension, an insistent sense of doubt that refuses to dissipate or be shaken off. It’s this dynamic which renders Encounter such a compelling album.

musicforvoyeurs – Encounter

Click on the image to hear tracks from Encounter.