Thursday, October 30, 2008

Installment 21 / Hypnos label roundup

AUSTERE Solyaris
STEVE BRAND Bridge to Nowhere
M. GRIFFIN Fabrications
SANS SERIF Tones for LaMonte
SAUL STOKES Villa Galaxia
VARIOUS Message from a Subatomic World
VARIOUS Sounds of a Universe Overheard

America’s premier ambient label’s been churning releases out at fairly regular intervals in 2008, the better to continue it’s burgeoning rep while playing host to artists of varying levels of notoriety. In these days of the now ubiquitous CDR and virtually 24-hour downloading, when ambient music (and all related subgenres) can be had for a mere pittance (or a mere click of the mouse), it’s comforting to know that Hypnos and its founder Mike Griffin have stayed the course despite weathering sea changes in the marketplace and its insatiable audience. The Hypnos “ideal” has altered little in its twelve-year lifespan, but Griffin and Co. do on occasion tweak the model; this year’s offerings cross a swathe of genre, and have introduced some well-acknowledged, if “underground”, recruits to the imprint’s fraternity.

Judging by Solyaris, Portland, Oregon’s Austere couldn’t have picked a better name for their recording identity, although the Pacific Northwest collective do categorically mix it up if you’ve been paying attention to their back catalog pre-Hypnos. I must admit some trepidation regarding artists choosing “site”-specific monikers—it would be an understatement to say that branding oneself Minimal or Technorock might muddy the pudding, as it were—dispelling that sense of mystery and “myth”, unwittingly painting themselves into a corner. This is indeed the case on Solyaris, but thankfully the collective pull off their metaphorical hat trick in a (subtle) blaze of pragmatic glory. Apparently neither in the hollow vacuum of space nor the dimly-lit corners of our psyches can anyone hear us dream—consider that during the opening 15 minutes of “Seraphim”, where rising tones ache and shimmer, where errant corpuscles of sound occasionally interrupt the piece’s flowing circulatory system. Or partake of the massive near 40-minute trawl that is “Nictitate”, as heated moogs unspool threads of humid mist, envelopes are tightened, filters open and close like the rusting apertures of a gargantuan space freighter, and unidentifiable noises caress the emptiness. Little compositional momentum emerges; rather, a chain of irregularly dispersed micro-events is what keeps so much articulated tension coiling along the event horizon of the piece's collapsar. Positioned along axes of darkly similar persuasions—alum from Cyclic Law, Steve Roach’s The Magnificent Void, Sleep Research Facility—Solyaris doesn’t reinvent the drone aesthetic as much as reap its attenuated whirlwind.

If its gritty, grotty, granulated textures are anything to go by, Hypnos founder Griffin’s own long-in-the-tooth Fabrications, the follow-up of sorts to 1997’s Sudden Dark, hasn’t squandered its evolutionary arc. At least he puts his money where his mouth/sound is—virtually embodying the Hypnos gestalt, Griffin massages, coaxes, and exacts all manners of eerie sonic turbulence from natural, neé acoustic, sources. Other than signal processing, Griffin has abandoned “traditional” methods of aural mutation and frequency daubing in the realization of six elusive, often incorporeal, environments. Cliché is abandoned, too: rather than allowing the natural ebb and flow of liquids to generate tension, Griffin’s samples of ocean and waterfall on “Water is Silver” instead rubs its mercurial tide up against a ballast of corroded iron stirred within cloudbanks of disinterred reverb. Navigating us and his sounds through tunnels barnacled and wind-etched, Griffin’s fragmentary snapshots, depixellated, the emulsion bleached and stretched taut, require his nimble direction, and our fertile imaginations, to hammer them into tangible, if fleeting, shapes. A somnolent piece of hauntology such as “Devise” appears as if wrenched from a carnival of souls, its disembodied voices caught in EVP flux, just out of reach and trapped between dimensions thick with echo and (reci)process. As you may now glean, Griffin’s tactile soundscapes subvert the ambient model in no uncertain terms. He achieves a fitful balance between poles, neither Lull-ing his audience to sleep nor making them reCoil in abject terror, though exposed to the final cumulative 22 minutes that is “Sky is Glass Lit”—rife with a veritable catalog of extrasensory percolations, altering tableau, and ghost cadences—it’s clear Griffin’s aural fictions are the stuff of daymares rather than nightdreams, a threnody of compelling, edgy, anxious grimbience with precious few parallels.

With Villa Galaxia, Saul Stokes has realized the most playful recording of his career: springy in step and lactating purple, it even mischievously tugs at the fringes of (god help us) “electropop”. But don’t get too alarmed: this is a marvelously vibrant, engaging work of contemporary electronica that finds Stokes charting unexplored territory with his usual idiosyncratic gusto. Outerspace music, rendering the covers of antiquarian sci-fi mags Astounding and Fantastic in glorious harmonicolor, Stokes’s sonic bric-a-brac would find favor from those whose collections sport Bill Nelson as well as early Morr sides and magic fealties long ago forged by IDMistic platterpusses Aphex Twin or Bochum Welt. But Stokes is a true original, a savvy composer who refuses to merely tweak paradigms, boost plug-in ratios or jump to Warp nine with his controls locked to the heart of the sun. The sheer joviality of this recording is impossible to shake—like the spaceage art nouveau so relished by his colleague, Stokes goes back to the future encumbered in a cozy full Nelson. Other folks subconsciously flavor the stew as well: “Hello Radar” works Mouse on Mars rubberband rhythm-snaps into a gaseous Stokes configuration that pops and bubbles like the most exotic Stereolab experiments. “Vapor Trails” revels wholeheartedly in its old-school moog refrains and bleep coagulant. “Eta Car Is a Massive Star” (Stokes' gift for titular designation improves on each successive recording like a fine vintage) explodes in a frenzy of jocular snares, boiling beaker beeps and candystriped synths. And the beat/tone clusters perambulating through “Interrupted by Time” mandates tripping to the moon on (synthetic) gossamer wings, the artist smitten by his digital crushes, noises that fizz, fuzz, and fan out in equal measure, charged by headspinning rhythms agog in zero gravity. Quark strangeness and charm, Stoked by stardust.

A Hypnos compilation usually acts more as a statement of intent than a simple summing-up (or label stopgap between releases), and the latest to come down the pike are two of a perfect pair. Both Message from a Subatomic World and its companion Sounds of a Universe Overheard are inherently “ambient” in nature and ambition, but what distinguishes them from any of a hundred other doppelgangers is their ability to morph between sense and sensibility, sharing common stylistic ground yet unfearful of exposing what lies beneath the obvious strata. Handpicked and meticulously programmed by label maven Griffin, each artist presides over their own hard-won turf so that despite varying opinions regarding each collection’s value in toto, they're both worthy of commanding wet skin and curious eye. Of the two, desolation angels help to deliver many an agile Message in a bottle. Austere’s “Crystil” invents a drone that isn’t so much fragile as close to the edge, lo-end rumbles swelling under spectral choirs and atmospheric distortions. Relapxych.O trades in his deepdub aquatics for the frosted wineglass-rubbed starkness of “Distant Radiance.” Malignant Records signee Phaenon goes straight to the heart of darkness, reincarnating Lovecraftian gods on “Quantum Silence”, while ex-pat Cyclic Law-yer Svartsinn wrestles with eddies blackest ever black on “Cold But Strong.” Meanwhile, eavesdropping on Sounds of a Universe Overheard, we find contributors experimenting with old-world Teutonic engrams in addition to spatial lucidities. Jonathan Block’s “The Language of Rocks” journeys to the dark side of the moog in pure, beatless Schulzian homage; the miasma exploding out of M. Peck’s “Somna” is a virtual diorama of whirling flora and aggressive fauna that harkens back to mid-period Zoviet France; “Scarecrow” finds Kirk Watson drawing spooky figures from existential ones, shapeshifting odd shimmies, drafts, and buzzes out of a primordial soup of dawn-breached synths; Justin Vanderberg explores his own alien terrain on “Infection,” where near-extinct species nestled in abandoned hollows parse limpid drones that blossom quickly then recede in to the nightsky. The economic diversity spread out over these two worthwhile Hypnos joints is captivating enough to prevent even the busiest mind from wandering. Jump in at any point; the water’s just right.

Recent entries on the label’s CDR imprint Hypnos Secret Sounds are of such vivacity one wonders why owner Griffin didn’t deem them fit for “legit” silverdisc; it’s a pleasure they exist, nonetheless. Making the case for Steve Brand’s credibility is a no-brainer, but more puzzling still is why his profile remains negligible in the deep libraries of serious ambient collectors. Having built up a considerable catalog under both his given surname as well as the more opaque moniker Augur, Brand’s traversed intercontinental soundscaping, digital rainforest raga, au natural acousmatics and abstract experimentation with the greatest of ease. Bridge to Nowhere is scorched savannah ambient, lethargic and lush, breathy and breathless, keenly felt across the two lengthy sojourns spanning the title tracks, where Brand simply allows his balmy drones to expand and contract at will. “Through the Lens of Love” departs from the established norm with some well-ordered gamelan rhythms that brings the artist’s fascination with tribal elderisms to the forefront, but eventually his nest of mbiras and xylophones ultimately become subsumed in the sticky mix. Great stuff.

Mike Soucy, aka Darkened Soul, prefers to dive down 20,000 leagues under the sea in order to float Bathys to the surface. The large-scale impact of his scabrous drones hitting you over the head with blunt force trauma, Soucy designs some inescapably desperate scenarios of quite unsettling natures. Of course, as with most longform musics of such darkly atmospheric stripes, these endlessly shifting tonal wrecks stay for the most part static, which isn’t necessarily irredeemable. Darkened Soul will never be confused with the happy wanderer: the coruscating waves of echo and steel hull collisions of “Ateleiotos Agkareia” has roots sunk in decades-old bastard industrial obfuscants, which supports its clanky sturm und drang with some deeper imagistic heft, and also draws linkage to recent black metal brigadiers who’ve forsaken their guitars for samplers. “Trela” is all about dense vibration, as if a moth’s wings were miked then amplified a hundred-fold, on which caress a storm surge of galvanic rip tides. Things devolve when “Ypexairesi” unfolds its skein of cyclonic noise, oscillating static charges the color and texture of brillo glancing about the surrounding inimical terrain. Soucy doesn’t pull any punches on the closing title track, either; although the previous abrasive gusts are absent, in their stead hammers bang on grimy bulkheads, swap tensile blows with tongs, and occasionally erupt through the relentless and enveloping maelstrom. All told, simple but effective.

Tones for LaMonte is the debut recording by Sans Serif, aka intrepid explorer Forrest Fang, whose affinity for the works of minimalist composer LaMonte Young finds homage in this “one-off” project. Emulating in feel the elongated tropes of his mentor, Fang’s methodology in realizing these discrete, gradually irising sonic pupae was to manipulate the harmonics in “real time” as much as possible and in doing so preserving the natural organic flow of the resultant sound current. It’s about as minimal and threadbare a music as Fang’s ever done, surely the direct antithesis of his prior solo work Gongland, or 2006’s mutually satisfying collaboration with guitarist Carl Weingarten. As is, each of these beams of silvery sonic light are absolute gems, less “classically” organized than Young’s work, stripped of institutionalized polemics and unafraid to dapple in the kind of beauteous harmonics that characterize adjunct recordings such as Roach’s Structures from Silence and a good deal of the work of Eliane Radigue. So the eleven minutes of “Gamma” are delicately nuanced pulsations bending discrete layers of the color spectrum, while the confrontational, dissolving “bell” sounds imbuing “Delta” are less palliating on the ears. Sans anything but deftness of touch and flawless execution, these Tones display a limitless depth of aural profundity. Take notice, LaMonte, and prick up your ears. DARREN