Friday, September 26, 2008

Installment 17

A Deeper Silence (Timeroom Editions)
Landmass (Timeroom Editions)
Empetus (Projekt)

Listening to A Deeper Silence, cochlea bathing in its luxuriant fathoms, begs contemplation regarding the inexorable march of time, particularly as this year’s already slipped into the eve of its final quarter; in fact, speaking in senses both chronological and philosophical, notions of time, of fleeting moments and indelible memories, thread the conduit binding Steve Roach’s first handful of 2008 releases. There’s a simultaneous longing and exuberance across the span of these three recordings—embracing things past and things current yet remaining anticipatory towards the future, Roach nevertheless recognizes the unerring arc of the circle. Dots are connected, lines are re-drawn and recalibrated, the ghosts of muses past beg for exorcism; amidst Roach’s work, time is truly the fire in which he burns. Sounds might rest temporarily, occupying relatively safe havens until their oasis is shattered by the next cyclonic statement, yet in Roach’s slipstream, psychotropic fulfillment comes from bridging the id of then with the momentum of now. It’s beginning to and back again.

Out of the barest sliver of eclipsed sunlight illuminating the top of the front cover, an infinity symbol subtly emblazoned over the tray card’s near-blackest ever black, years bloom, flare, fade, and are reborn within the tableau of A Deeper Silence. Ostensibly a continuation of the themes augured by 1987’s Structures from Silence but allowed to naturally expand across a far longer bandwidth, when the soft machine tufts of A Deeper Silence first emerge it’s as if they always existed, ready to unveil themselves to whomever chooses access. Like ancient solar winds, gravity thinning their entrails across limitless parsecs, the disc’s beauteous tones achieve a perfect symbiosis between reflection, sensation, and environment. “Immersive” these elastic, whispering filigree are, yes, but it’s a far different tenor (though the aesthetics are certainly shared) than that displayed on Roach’s earlier Immersion series. On those 2007 recordings, Roach’s dronic maps availed themselves of braided, gelatinous, and indeed minimal, textures, eerie fugs of sound that engulfed you in startling ultraviolets. Play A Deeper Silence in varying situations—as a preternatural listen, precursor to sleep, or perchance to dream—and each time its sparse opiate narcotizes different corners of the soul. A more profoundly introspective skein of sound, yielded via the “cold” ions of electronics, one would be challenged to find—embodying ambient music, in fact codifying Eno’s own behavioral maxim for such musics, the subtly insinuitive tow of A Deeper Silence not only suspends memories, but left to its own devices, displaces the very flow of time itself.

Reacting to the moment, indeed fabricating its template as the post-midnight hours drew out all sorts of internal phantasms, Roach’s fomentation of Landmass out of a radio station’s sound booth speaks volumes about his regenerative gift for invention and application. While A Deeper Silence opened up vast, unhurried spaces for disembodied traveling, Landmass is a far more extroverted construct, six lengthy pieces of stormsurge and metamorphic resonance. Recorded live at WXPN studios in Philadelphia on the venerable Stars End radio show, Landmass condenses a millennia’s energy of continental drift into one epoch-spanning force of nature. The breathtaking vistas that ribbon-wrap the digipak provide some total recall of their own—Roach’s collaboration with Kevin Braheny on Western Spaces, imagery coveted from Dreamtime Return—but rather than a historically assembled composite, Landmass instead feels more like a statement of intent. And what a statement. Though the protean chord sweeps and abyssal ambiences incontrovertibly image-stamp this as a Roach album, there’s little in the way of repetitive motifs or overused passages; everything about this recording, from point of conception to execution of ideas, feels fresh, vibrant, cinematically rich. Roach’s choice of sound design, carved in situ, is all the more dazzling for it: the chromium synths ratcheting-up tensions along a boiling sequencer front acts as the propellant enabling “Transmigration” amid a flurry of levitating pulses central to the record’s tingling spine. Track titles vividly depict what becomes electronic analog: indeed, soaring through “Cerulean Blue Sky Over a Seared Desert Wasteland” is no doubt abetted by its oxygenated rush of synthetic cloudbursts and interlocked, serpentine rhythms. “Monuments of Memory” and “Alluvial Plain” bear witness to the movements of geologic time, jettisoning the acrobatic thrall of sequencer so Roach can brush great swathes of plangent color across his desolate canvas. When he finally leaves Landmass’s (and his host’s) excoriated territory behind with the appositely-titled “Stars Begin,” hushed drones, cast amongst the galaxies like grains of sand, seem to portend some kind of big bang; instead, they ebb discretely back into the void, forever primed for reawakening when next Roach decides to smite the power.

With embers from 2007’s Arc of Passion still unextinguished, vintage Klaus Schulze poised to hit the racks in early 2009 and far more circumspect artists errorizing the sequencer mainframe, there’s no better time than to revisit Empetus, Roach’s 1986 sequencer-intensive follow-up to his earlier Now and Traveller sessions. Reissued as a two-disc set, its cover a bisection of fibre-optic kaleidoscopia catapulted as if through a particle accelerator, twenty-two years of retro-stylings and digital brinkmanship hasn’t rusted one bolt on Empetus’s die-hard chassis: if anything, its utter lack of irony or nostalgia serves to shore up the record’s totally distinctive, and bracing, architecture. Roach’s first true sequential masterwork remains seminal precisely because it handily acknowledges its source code without breaking bread with it. Sure, Schulzian parallels could be drawn by dearth of the comparable instrumentation involved, but Empetus is truly that rare breed: a synth/sequencer album that doesn’t sound like any other, despite the malapropism so designating Roach one of the few then-emerging “West Coast” synth artists. Empetus effectively crystallized a genre—these works aren’t mere Klaus encounters of a third kind. What’s held the album in such high esteem over the tide of years is it’s magnificently diverse patterning and impeccable arrangements. Sequences are turned inside out, twisted, corkscrewed; the elephantine synths of “Arrival” airburst overhead as they climax, as do the dizzying motifs that drive “Seeking” and “Merge.” “Twilight Heat” contains the kind of sprightly sequence that most bit-programmers would kill for, while the hypnotic acid-trance headrush of “Distance is Near” maxes out a near-perfect distillation of Berlin/California sensibilities. And “The Memory” could very well be one of Roach’s best ambient nuggets committed to disc, a languid decompression infused with diaphanous stillness and Quiet Music melancholy.

However, the ride doesn’t end there. As a way of clearly affirming that even in the early 80s, at the dawn of his career, he often transcended his influences, Roach produced a longform sequencer piece with fellow electronic artist Thomas Ronkin. Considered lost for years, Roach obtained the original tapes and appended them to the revived Empetus package as a second disc labeled The Early Years. Consisting of two mammoth tracks, “Harmonia Mundi” (clocking in at 46-plus minutes), and “Release” (just under a half-hour in length), these enormously powerful, orgiastic blowouts, though definitely of their time (1982-83), still pummel the speaker fabric with earth-shaking ferocity. Totally analog, “Harmonia Mundi” is the sound of two gents locked in mortal electronic combat, wielding their synths like swords, hacking lesser soundbytes into mulch. Notes interlocked so closely their tightly-wound springs threaten implosion, synths galloping triumphantly over parched terrain, Roach and Ronkin tagteam on an extraordinary symphony of sequencercore. “Release” harkens back to Roach’s formulative upbringings splayed over the Now and Traveler releases, as he pirouettes his modular’s pliable contours across an atavistic dappling of spongeiform noises and varispeed rhythms. As a landmark album, Empetus is beyond reproach—the inclusion of the Roach/Ronkin twin behemoths, rescued, ripped, out of time, cements its legacy as one of the finest sequencer albums ever. These recordings quite rightly square the circle, bridging gaps separating decades and genre, the artist himself forging ahead, time’s great ennabler, built for the future. DARREN

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Installment 16 / U-Cover 2008 Update

These days the act of blinking is undertaken at the electronic music writer’s peril. For between start of downward and end of upward eyelid trajectory, U-Cover will almost certainly have put out an album (or at very least a 3” mini disc). In the space of nearly a year since your U-Covering scribe last surveyed the field, with an eye in particular to the limited CDR series ( and previously, no less than twelve releases have been sneaked out by fiendish label supremo, Koen Lybaert. This obsessive audio-subversive, operating out of a Belgium bunker, is evidently on a mission to subjugate the musical world with his minimal electronica, experimental ambient, and IDM masterplan. A proposed update on U-Cover’s recent release activity, originally casually envisaged as a brief visit, thus now requires an extended sojourn. Your plucky reviewer sees it as his duty to provide a public service to the long-suffering keeper-uppers with this estimable but not uniformly vital series to do some sorting work with sheep/goats and wheat/chaff.

First up is David Newlyn, a newcomer to the label with previous releases on his own October Man (as well as Symbolic Interaction and Boltfish) imprint. Another Day Gone is a collection of gentle solicitously crafted compositions comprised mainly of piano études and guitar pluckings with discreet digital embellishments, and the odd patter of soft downtempo beats. Field recordings from local locations in N.E. England are woven into uber-delicate electroacoustic settings, perhaps in the hope of adding some local colour to largely insipid material. This works well on “Grey And White Afternoon Light”, a quite beautiful study perched exquisitely in that sad-happy zone which has most resonance in this kind of music. A pity that this is the first time Newlyn seeks to prod his sonorities into a life less ordinary, by which time we are already halfway through the proceedings. However, the artist is nothing if not a proficient exponent of his chosen art, and if your boat is floated by wistful keyboard meanderings and soothing washes, you might find your day with Another Day Gone is a day at least partially reclaimed.

Austrian trio Peter Kutin, Daniel Lercher and Florian Kindlinger make up Dirac, who deploy an array of intrumentation to foment a kind of post-millenial hybrid between microsound, film-thematics and the chamber tradition of post-rock (distilled to remove rock traces). On Untitled, sombre drifts and muted minor-chord harmonics blend with audience laughter samples to render opener “Elysium” a surreal zone of twitchy ambience. The nearest touchstone would be to dwell on the quiet bits of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s quiet/loud template, as dirac do most mimetically on “Cherubim”, the resemblance accentuated by Ivana Primorac’s cello and David Knauer’s e-viola scrapes. Elsewhere “Tar De Mah” begins with a dirge-like reflection on what sounds like pipe organ before opening out from mournful to elegiac. The sixteen-minute “Lysis” is a solemn drone church built of tone balletics between key- and string-driven things, around whose haunted environs play the sounds of unquiet in abrasive communion. Being a reissue of the group’s debut, this offers Lybaert the occasion to bundle in one of his more warped and submariner Ontayso remixes. Like Kutin’s previous solo work in this series, Dirac’s Untitled eschews more conventional U-Cover prosaics for an intriguing, if somewhat gloom-laden, poetics.

Next up, Shunichiro Fujimoto from Tokyo operates under the Fjordne banner to cook up a delicate digitally-wrapped sushi comprised of freshly caught raw acoustics. Trailed as being based on two concepts of “sound texture” and “twisted time” (for which read "DSP"), Unmoving is a collection of contemplative and shimmering soundscapes, wherein piano swirls and guitar twirls find fellow-feeling with folds and rhizomes of digi-tritus. Most notably, 10-minute centerpiece “Tick Away From Awake” harnesses a pattering glitch-rain to drench its strumming acoustics, while hazy pianistics vie with marimba tonks and tinkles on “A Book to Read.” Fjordne, for all his Oval-shaped glitch fiddles, is no fierce errorist beast, but a warm-hearted pup playing gently with the aesthetics of failure to add some fizz to his otherwise docile sonics, sounding as if he’d be most at home on the twee side of the 12k tracks, close to kinsman Fourcolor, or perhaps his fellow-countrylabel, Plop. As if to defy such pigeonholing, the vaporous “Falling to the Ground” ends the album in an almost willfully blissed out ambient drone epic.

On to Dutch artist Fomatic, who started making music using C64-trackers, and was clearly raised on a computer-made music diet that, while providing sufficient sustenance for compositional efficacy, may have stunted his musical growth. Inflow is melodic pop-electronica of the downtempo variety that will have no doubt found its way onto the crib-chill playlist of graphic designers and young IT-boys everywhere. He may well have been “inspired by artists like Telefon Tel Aviv, Plaid, Secede, Boards of Canada, Autechre, Klute, Kettel”, but little has been done with his inspiration other than to channel its informing ingredients into a diluted miasma of negligible distinction that reminds that U-Cover’s niche was once not far from regulation issue IDM. Having graduated to more developed and diverse pursuits, the good Mr Lybaert would do well to guard against the easy lapse back into the Boltfish/Rednetic bargain basement school with facile purveyings of such nouveau easy listening fodder.

Tokyo-based Goro Watari has apparently been active in music since the 80s, though a documented background as guitarist in hardcore and metal bands is little in evidence on this assemblage of questing experimental minimalism, here simmered in post-rock stock, there drizzled with shoe-gaze glaze. Early on Hinode Tracks, with “Era”, Watari finds common ground in harmonic drone experimentation between early-12k micro-isms and late-Kranky space dust. Reinforcing this, “Revt” has something of the Christopher Willits/Giuseppe Ielasi approach to guitar wrangling, a tranquil chord progression caught in conflagrante by an Ocean Fire-breathing laptop-dwelling noise-monster, pulling you down into a fascinating vortex. “Joya C” hosts slow-burning smears of (guitar?) tones spreading-cum-squalling across the upper realms underpinned by a densely heaving bass rumble. “Joya D” surprises with an assertive 4/4 technoid thump to ground the liquefying metallics of its guitar folds and synth tucks, before giving way again to the drone-swathes and bloopery of “Palse”. The quasi-Muslimgauze excursion, “Tortoise and me in kotatsu”, finds Watari intriguingly pushing an opiate drone-haze into a clattering Arabesque percussion den and standing back to watch the fun. “Pix”, however, prefers to make a woozy Kom-pakt with the listener, allowing thick swathes of a distant relative of Markus Guentner’s infinite synth to drift densely across the soundfield. Hinode Tracks is easily one of the most impressive and texturally exploratory releases of this whole series.

Pausing only to draw breath before descending into the Phosphoresence of Koen Daigaku, known to his local postman as Shimizu Kei. There is no background available on this artist’s previous exploits, but let the record reflect that he dredges up the deepest of deep and abraded tones and choreographs them into a veritable nightsweat ambiance that reminds of the darker moments of Gas with loopy intimations of Basinskian disintegration. The sound fabric threatens to burst at times under the surge and thrum of its severely compressed and remodelled fragments, seemingly filched from classical music quietude and press-ganged into service as Kei’s dark materials. Think a smudged and smeared realisation of a similar concept to Andrew Deutsch’s Loops Over Land. Then think again. Maybe take Deutsch’s The Sun, and place it in a fathoms-deep rusty bathyscape. Maybe then you’ll get close to imagining its remarkably corroded sub-aquatic sound. Particularities are otiose as its ten untitled individualities merge into a compelling whole, one whose homogeneity is somewhat spoilt by the addition of a remix by U-Cover house band Ontayso, which strikes as incongruous in the context of what precedes it.

After the fog clears, it’s Marihiko Hara who appears, out of Kyoto but seeming to have let some Chemnitz air get into his circuit boards; it’s not so much the German articulation of the entire titling and track listing of Reflexion, und dann, Metamorphose, that suggests this, but rather the nature of his minimal audio-sculptures of glitchy drones with white noise bursts, some of which seem to lie in sputtering distance from Raster-Noton HQ, reminding of Ryoji Ikeda in particular. Hara choreographs processed piano and the like in sparse strata, introjecting reticent shards of buried half-melody, while whirrs and fizzes vie with skips and silences for brief entries onto the soundstage. The recording strikes, overall, as an episodic collection, resolutely electronically stamped with a machine-driven harshness. And for all its insertions of more human temperament, and inquiries into timbre and structure, its brittle and fragmentary ambiance is invariably more often ear-chafe than aural massage material.

And so to Oubys, nom de disque of Belgian Wannes Kolf, whose explorations are forged from a mix of live improvisations, electronic treatments and field recordings. Paths is his debut album and bespeaks a grounding in all things krautly and kosmischely beautiful, with ambient irradiations from the Blessed Brian’s brainwaves. There’s a pleasing weight and density to this recording, first evidenced on “Toweringwindtowering”, which treads endlessly (well, ten minutes of endlessnessism) over a deep carpeted corridor leading from a late-vacated Cologne-fragranced room with a buzzer-nameplate bearing the legend W. Voigt. On “Mem” he stunt-doubles as Harold Budd reeling woozily from a shot too many. “Oubys” itself has Kolf unable to resist returning to the earlier mentioned room, and finding its air swimming with a shifting drone-fog of buried melodies, before ghosting through “Blue Caves” to a psyched-out downtempo beat-loop lope. “Inside Cloud” blows out steepling billows of grainy Heckerian cumulo-nimbus before it clears to reveal a becalmed final path in the shimmering drift of “Silent running”. The sheer expressive heft of Paths marks Oubys as one of the stand-out soundscapers of the whole U-Cover bunch.

Phasen is Ryan Parmer, a 19 years old musician from Orlando. Though seemingly a seasoned campaigner on the netlabel circuit, the self-titled album under scrutiny here is his official disc debut. The most striking aspect is the extent to which the influence of Boards of Canada, Milieu and a legion of similarly calibrated wibbly chill-tronica lies upon its pedestrian precincts. Unfortunately, not much else of merit lies upon it, since Parmer’s endowment is possessed of little spark or distinction. So what you get is a largely invariate slew of (resorting to press blurb prosaics for want of a music sufficient to massage a limp muse to life) “dreamy, soothing pads, light melodies, and catchy rhythms”. And not just one, but two phases of Phasen’s negligible development are reeled out here with Quarterlife Crisis, a second full-length, following (not so) hot on its predecessor’s dragging heels. There is little pleasure and even less mileage to be had from documenting the smell of spent campfire headphases attending Phasen’s every tired step of the way through this loping synth-doodle and snoozing guitar-fiddle.

The Belgian Greenhouse label closed down after three releases, with Somni451’s album Probes and Prisms barely distributed so U-Cover have stepped in to reclaim it for contemporaneity, so posterity can get a look in. Those familiar with Bernard Zwijzen's project from previous U-Cover outings (A Phosphorous Spot and Vladivostok) will immediately feel at home in the big soft electronic listening blanket of its tranquil pop-microsound infused minimal ambient-electronica. Rich tones and nagging patterns lullingly recur, with the odd voice, field recording and percussive tics and tucks. The sonic touchstones are still the same: the Kranky musings of such as Chihei Hatekayama and Christopher Bissonnette and the 12k of (especially) Shuttle 358 (“Chrome Yellow” and “Porthole 104”), with occasional cadences redolent of a Kompakt pop ambient-lite (“Probe”). There are, though, sufficient departures in sound source, as on “Sidetracked”, with its jazz-tinged saxophone loop, and newly appealing tweaks of the old template, such as “Outer Shell”’s melding of the patter of sticks and stones with a gorgeous tumble and trill of harp plucks, to make this an engaging ride.

Finally, we have Ylomejja, by the Strom Noir project, under the curation of Slovakian Emil Mat’ko, who constructs flowing pieces of haunting, sometimes haunted, ambience from guitar loops and synths, adding detail with field recordings and sundry liminal sounds of otherness. Haunting, as in title track “Ylomejja”, a beauteous Enossified driftzone of resonating neon guitar plucks that outfold across the listening space. Haunted, as in “The Orbs”, which has the arcing lilt of a reverb-dripping motif slowly effaced by the cavernous resonance of overdriven echo. The same shadowy figures populate the psyched-out drone-blur that is “Nice to be here”. Ylomejja is strong on tenebrous atmospherics and a certain desolate drama effected by Mat’ko’s sombre poetry of movement and texture. Overall, however, a certain sameness of sound design means the album as a whole falls just short of attaining the heights initially promised, though it’s helped in this case by an addendum in the form of a 15-minute Ontayso remix, a slow and low trance-mission which sees “Planet Catcher” spirited away to a different darkside domain of shifting and tilting pitch-shifted soundplates.

Overall then, it’s what we’ve come to expect from U-Cover, a mixture of the totally compelling, the occasionally intriguing, the just so, and the ho-hum. The best is up there with the best of any major electronic label, and the rest is a question of sub-genre predilections. Oh...and I just blinked and yet more releases have leapt into being—seems you can never quite have U-Cover covered... ALAN

Monday, September 22, 2008

Back in business

After a lengthy hiatus, I'm pleased to announce that Audio Verité will begin regular updates once again, starting with Alan Lockett's mini-overview/update on the Belgium U-Cover label. So watch this space...