Friday, October 17, 2008

Installment 20

ATMOWORKS / Label Roundup


EXUVIAE Settling Density
EXUVIAE The White Underneath


MARK TAMEA Buried Traktora
RAZZLOG Dark Side of the Mood

Back in the ambient mists of 2001 James Johnson joined forces with John Strate-Hootman (Vir Unis) to form AtmoWorks, providing a channel for a plethora of releases from friends and kindred spirits in the atmospheric electronic music field. Full of a sense of mission to facilitate independent artists in releasing music at will free from third-party agenda, their goal was to set up more direct modes for connecting listener with musician. This was achieved in large part via a website which notably offered a download delivery option long before this was de rigueur. Driven by a consciousness of the consumptionist strictures of the established paradigm of marketing, promotion and release, AW sought to offer a more flexible and direct outlet for creative output. Earlier this year, however, it was announced that Johnson had left the enterprise, with new energies being coopted in the form of John Koch-Northrup (better known as AW recording artist Interstitial) and Matt McDonough (aka MjDawn). Recent emissions from the label indicate that this change of personnel has effected something of a refresh, and AW has continued along the lines of its earlier genre pathway, with one or two unexpected and offbeat trajectories being added. Exhibits follow.

Starting off in relatively safe AW territory is Jonathan Hughes, familiar from kindred label The Foundry, through whom he released the moderately acclaimed Trillium and the virtual collaboration project Fluidities. On notes to Circumflex, his AW debut, Hughes professes to enjoy the feelings or images evoked by certain words, significations free-floating from signifiers. Something of this spirit of freeplay is evidenced in the track titles, which are typographical terms, and carried over into the focus on the micro- of design in the music's contours. In addition to his predilection for sound design, Hughes’s love of synthesizers is also apparent and appellant to typical frequenters of AW's portals. But for all that it is an elegant and composed collection, it ultimately lacks a spark of something ineffable to make it ignite. Longest track, “Dieresis”, contains everything that might be called Hughesian, characterised by a dynamic of gentle flickering that channels something of 12k's digital microsonics, combined with draughts drawn from the same well as Saul Stokes’ quirky ‘populist’ approach to electronica. Charming.

Originally released on AtmoWorks in 2002, Response saw Exuviae cement the guitar+drone+synthesis formula developed over a trio of albums. A set of soundscapes of dense drone-drift and harmonic heft, its atmospheres shifted sinuously from dark (“Liquid Soil Shapes”) to light (“Synthetic Alignment”), often within a track ("Dustfilm Cocoon"), as Brooks Rongstad channeled some of the fluidity of Jeff Pearce’s guitar-scaping with a thicker, earthier edge, redolent of the likes of fellow Great Axescapists such as Jason Sloan and Matt Borghi. Its reissue is timely, signalling Rongstad's Second Coming, his dabblings in doom and post-metal noise projects having served for refresh. Rehydrating the shed skin of his old Exuviae, he now climbs back in to reanimate it through Response's latest incarnation. It dwells at the threshold of altered-state high spacemusic, rather than in the homespun lowlight drone-fields of the likes of Aidan Baker and Peter Wright. For all its situation in neo-ambient and atmospheric space realms, though, the outcome is still fresh and strangely not that far removed from the fuzzy digi-logic of Christian Fennesz without the laptoperative’s glitchy’n’scratchy tropes, allegiance to the drift inside fully pledged, all drone-tone swells and billows oozing forth from the speakers as if glassine or molten. The sprawling "Reaction.Response" is recognisably Roachean, visibly Vir Unis-ian, and maybe a little too close to these artists' spacemusic synthetics for the ungroomed nouveau guitar drone-ophiles. Whatever its alignment, pleasure a-plenty accrues from its swathes of infinite reverb-soaked ebowed-out airy/gaseous/subaquatic texturology. Engrossing.

The goodness of Response makes it all the more painful to report that more recent Exuviae work, The White Underneath, is far less immediately listener-gratifying. In fact, there’s little or no attempt at gratification in evidence, other than the self-oriented variety, and much here seems almost to go out of its way to grate. 'Uncompromising' perhaps would be the epithet the artist might choose to use to excuse this confused farrago. In fact, it's described by Rongstad as “experimental”, a signifier by now shorn of any concrete signification, leaving the door open to a multitude of sins. After opening track "Her Familiar", which is recognisably the work of the same artist responsible for Response, only with a more abraded brush daubing from a similar palette, The White Underneath enters into a serious identity crisis from which it never recovers. Remixes by fellow Minnesota artists Datura 1.0, Bunk Data, Signal To Ground, and The Essential compound the prevailing impression of thrown-together incoherence. Unkempt.

Pete Kelly, the man behind Igneous Flame's effects, may hail from Leeds but that’s the nearest his guitar is likely to get to playing leads. No slave to rhythm either, Kelly has unwound his sound into long, evocative drone-based washes and crepuscular tonefloat unmoored from the strictures of its stringy source. HALO is a departure from his previous six albums in being a collaborative affair with Michael Stringer, known to his Mum and Dad as Achromus. Stringer passed on raw compositions and source sounds from a pool of material, with Kelly adding guitar parts, transforming sonorities and re-working overall. Two immersive timbrally exploratory long-form works emerge, vibrant in form and colour, occasionally flirting with industrial gruzz before retreating to a kind of alien pastoral with a mysterious skein. The combination of Achromus’s synth textures and Igneous Flame’s e-bow guitar lines works to conjur up abstracted harmonic shapes, with melodic phrases woven around shape-shifting contours. It’s the kind of sound that gets labelled 'experimental', but at heart it's simply possessed of an appealingly questing spirit for which the phrase ‘dark luminosity’ has been aptly coopted by the artists. Referential mention might be made of Matthew Florianz, the pairing with Achromus’ synth perhaps influencing the overall pull towards that artist’s slow-mo shadow-swirl soundworld. Incantatory.

Mark Tamea’s Buried Traktora is something different again. An unknown quantity to this listener, the studious net-naut can easily turn up salient Tameana, such as that “his recent output exploits atmosphere and juxtaposition to investigate what he imagines are the hidden parallels between the discernible and the esoteric...”. Liner notes reveal that Buried Traktora is “a composition inspired by the notion that matter is a conduit enabling consciousness to travel through time”. The (homepage) trailing of refs to Beuys, Duchamp and Rothko, all artists who challenged boundaries in their time, sends out further pre-listening signals that Tamea is likely to be a tricky conceptual customer. In fact, from the off “Switched” is upon you with a bristling panorama of sounding objects creating a sonic tableau that would fall under the banner of ‘sound design’, containing few of the elements (melody, harmony, pitched material, rhythm) your folks know as the sound of ‘music’. On “Behold Orderly Digits”, however, things do tend to cohere into a more recogisably musical entity, albeit a queasy mood music of eerie ambiance populated by fleeting digi-effluvia and rattling ghost percussion. On “Odium” buffer override pile-ups and found sounds are slapped together into sound collage. Elsewhere there are incursions of instrument samples, while in other pieces electro-acoustics hold sway. Overall, Tamea creates some atmospherically charged compositions, which crawl with queasy dream depictions. You might think of something like John Wall and his assembages of fragments and juxtaposed importations. Then think again. A challenging listen, and your meaning-making mileage may vary across its audio-drama scenes. Buried Traktora is, though, likely to mystify the bulk of the AW demographic for all that it signals their new spirit of adventure. Unsettling.

Razzlog's Dark Side of the Mood ep is another to go off the beaten AW track. A new artist bringing a small slab of beat-driven electronica to the table, Serbian Dejan Pejčić was evidently raised on a diet of 80s electro, 90s ambient-house and techno, and a smattering of millenial electronic hiphop, judging by the shapes and forms of machine-funk IDM that emerge here. The likes of “Into the Waves” and “Trippin’” suggest an early schooling in Skam, while “Anger Management” points toward previous membership of a chemical brotherhood. 'Razlog' (sic) is apparently Serbian for 'reason', and some might justifiably ask if there’s a compelling one for this 17-minute release. But those after a hefty dose of crunch and splat in the beat department combined with all the analogue wibble and squelch a post-techno B-boy could ask for in five bite-size breakbeat bits will find a very good one here. For the rest, well, there's always other more atmo-charged AtmoWorks. Techy.

Next up is Steve Brand, something of a veteran by now, his first experiments with sound forged in the early 80s, all gnarly tape loops, cassettes, and 4-track portastudio play. Early work was under nom du cassette Augur, part of a shadowy ‘tape network’ and follower of the :zoviet*france: school of DIY industrial ambient. Now reclaiming real name for artistic endeavour after more than 20 Augur releases, his SoulSpiral contains two expansive half-hour+ texture maps inspired by Hubble/NASA space footage of worlds taking shape, and by writings addressing “the expansiveness of consciousness in and around us, and our true creative nature as Human Beings, as opposed to the more limited and limiting one sold to us by organizations, popular culture and advertising”. Leaving aside commentary on the true counter-cultural significance of Brand’s work to dwell on its musical value, the deep billowing hypnotics of the opening (title) track and its a dense mass of shifting layers of keyboard, voice and didge are reason enough to stay on the scene. Second track, "Worldmaker," begins with a clarion call of deep Tibetan horns before entering into a twilight more like earth and fire after the title track’s air and water. Kora, bells, voice, drums and an array of whistle and flute, thrum and rumble are orchestrated into a more dynamic and organic soundscape before ceding once more to the lava flow spiral dynamic. Totally immersive.

Finally, Disturbed Earth and Vir Unis join forces for a tri-partite trip, melding electro-acoustic noodling with ethereal atmospherics. The two seemingly cyber-traded tracks, issuing ultimately in Drawn from the Well, which is far more organic and populated by Real Instruments making Real Instrument sounds than much of VU’s previous work. “Flicker” is a 50-minute piece that draws out (for longer than its texturally limited contours merit, truth be told) a softly droning carpet of gentle guitar-pluck and soft keyboard-tinkle, taking on an eponymous dynamic of slow-burning fire. “Relinquish” is an experiment with DE picking reflectively in semi-improv mode on a deliberately unadorned detuned gutstring guitar with minimal treatments (mainly reverb and some filter and EQ tweaking) while VU provides the backdrop of a distant synth-drone texture like a muted midnight mass, all subdued portent, tension without resolution. DE’s right hand investigates timbral variation with a variety of touch and scrape techniques to bring out more interesting sonorities from the corporeality of his instrument. The final, and shortest track, “Velvet World”, is, frustratingly, the most interesting, forsaking guitar twiddle for some of VU’s old liquid synth-swathe inside-drifting, with DE essaying a mini-ritual of tub-thump, rattle and clank, before departing the stage and leaving Vir on his Unis. DftW contains some good moments, but this feels like the primer for a collaboration that, pursued further with the proper coat of paint, might result in a better future finish. (Atmo)Work(s) in progress. ALAN

GREG DAVIS & SEBASTIEN ROUX Merveilles (Ahornfelder)
JOHN HUDAK On and On (Presto!?)
OMIT Interceptor (Helen Scarsdale)

After the gloopy atmospherics and sickening melodies of Paquet Surprise, the detailing of Merveilles comes across as surprisingly complex: digitally sharpened fragments cut through churning ambience; a broken volley of electronics flicker through a carapace of high octane distortion, which in turn push through phase-shifting loops of metallic clank. The duo still like to throw natural objects around, to extract the choicer timbres that result, and process them into a watery ambience stirred by adventurous swoops and squiggles that alternately purr and roar. But now they're positively onanistic in their urge to diddle with their source sounds, to deface these evocative drones with performative gestures, and chase the quickening echoes around their private mixing board and tweak, distort and multiply as needed. The presence of Greg Davis and Sebastien Roux is dispersed and drifts over these grainy fragments of the everyday. Their spectral recontextualizations imbue these banal morsels with a stealthy unease. For "London", found sounds and traditional instruments are gradually integrated into dense collages of layered drone, encrusted with unstable events and varispeed squiggle. Later on the works begin unfurling as a complex polyphony of long-string resonance, engulfed in motorized vibrations and cantankerous field recordings. In fact, even in the less full-bodied moments, such as the sombre aeration of "Eugene", hints of aggression linger amidst the half-formed melodic phrases. At the same time, the music has a weight and depth that pulls the momentum of the pieces back and ensures that the tone is not overly episodic. If anything, the album would have benefitted from more of this. Still, Merveilles is slyly intelligent and, ultimately, a fine advancement for this pairing. MAX

On and On is born of an alchemy which turns midi information into music. Enraptured one morning by the black-capped chickadee as it sang four notes, from A to G and then G to F, sound artist John Hudak took up his guitar. The sieve-like memory of his computer subsequently converted and reduced the strumming audio to a cluster of numbers that themselves held the basic pitch information, as well as duration and volume. This number information then finally was used to excite the pitches of an instrument to produce a halo of harmonics. For a period just over an hour, Hudak thus uses a minimal, repetitive approach to bring out in his shifting chords a welter of nuances. His guitar recalls an organ, a glass harmonica and a wind-driven aeolian harp at various places over the course of the album. Indeed, these moment, in which sounds flicker like digital dragonflies, often bear out a certain sculptural quality. This seems a testament to the disc as an exercise in minimalism, given that its manner of conception was one that, in a simple and effective way, entailed Hudak's having to give away a good deal of control over the proceedings. The results reveal that he was still very much in command of the selecting and editing of the finished product. As a result, the effort has a gentle, anticipatory blush all its own. MAX

Animating Interceptor, this two-disc set by Omit is a delicate organic motion one might not expect to find in a noise merchant so often likened to Birchville Cat Motel, The Dead C and their ilk. Regardless, Omit, aka Clinton Williams, has an ear for subtleties of musical structure and instrumental timbre. He puts together skillfully mixed harmonic shifts in “LockNut Shadow” and an immaculately paced sweep in yet others such “DropSite”. An initial fascination thus develops out of hearing a slowly evolving continuum made up from a multitude of individual voices. Particularly pieces like the title track have a floaty, space-age quality—the nematode bass-thrum, clattering percussion, and solar wind whistling through strings are curiously distant, squirming together in an air-locked chamber, softened only slightly by the processed harmonies of helium-like sighs. Up until this point, Williams' system, though idiosyncratic, affords him a steady enough hand to reveal something recognizable, if still ineffable. His penchant for scatological surrealism, which permeated past efforts such as Quad, soon seeps into the proceedings like oil into water. The environment grows inclemental, sandstorm-like winds and the gnashing and gnawing of what sounds like close-miked termites whittle the surrounding area into deformed shapes; a propulsive mesh of analogue synth and mangled drum machines that flit through groves of upper treble tinglings and a dense lattice of high, whinnying arpeggios that rise and fall like day and night. Gradually, the music does begin to accumulate like landfill. For a good while Williams manages to provide matter off of which to work, to reshape, liquefy and electrify, and thus enable the pieces to remain tantalizingly ambiguous, yet as the bpm count climbs toward the end of the second disc, pieces like the warped bridal march of "WaveForm Finder" come across as a trifle too rudimentary and loaded down. Williams himself was apparently consternated by the fact that he kept on returning to these sound documents while he was supposed to be searching out a proper line of employment. And its not difficult to see why—in its best places, Interceptor is a bottomless pit, and as with Williams, the longer one peers into it, the greater the chance one stands of completely falling in. MAX