Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Installment 24

RUDY ADRIAN Desert Realms (Lotuspike)
JOHAN AGEBJÖRN Mossebo (Lotuspike)
DARSHAN AMBIENT From Pale Hands to Weary Skies (Lotuspike)
CRAIG PADILLA Below the Mountain (Spotted Peccary)

Here indeed are an eclectic bunch from the Spotted Peccary family of labels, of which Lotuspike is now a “member”. No monstrously dramatic changes have taken place because of this "merger", except perhaps to broaden Spotted Peccary’s outreach; if anything, the label is now poised, along with Hypnos, to become a central operation along the loci of ambient/atmospheric music.

New Zealander Rudy Adrian has quietly amassed a respectable back catalog over the years, mostly for the Netherlands EM label Groove Unlimited, caressing a wide range of styles, from the aforementioned ambience of his earlier Lotuspike release Moonwater to the more rhythmically buoyant, sequencer-intensive calculations found on Kinetic Flow and Starfields. Many an electronic musician has found inspiration in landscape, going as far back as Eno with his benchmark On Land (amongst numerous others). Desert Realms apparently stoked Adrian’s muse from his touring in 2002 of Utah’s otherworldly terrain, a land of stark, epoch-scored vistas, incorporeal climes and steep grades. Tracks such as the opening “Saguaro Silhoutte”, with its wordless chants and upwardly spiralling drones, and the shifting dusky synth reverie of “Fading Light” are well-wrought, impressionist fantasies that manage to succeed independent of their earthen analogs. Being a longtime enthusiast of Adrian’s work, there’s little doubt that he’s a composer and synthesist of significant charge, yet, as satisfying as Desert Realms is, I’m not convinced that the grand landscapes he seeks to evoke are mirrored in the final constructs. Regardless, there’s some quality work here: “Subterranean River” benefits from a blur of bells and shimmery percussive accents smeared into a widening maw of synth; “Of Clouds and Mountains” feels like water vapor coalescing gently in a chilly morning sunrise, similar to Thom Brennan’s opalescent tone poems; “Rocks Under Midnight” likewise allows delicately rubbed electronics to vibrate and pulse throughout its many diaphanous layers. Conceptual illustrations aside, Adrian remains a composer of no small measure—coaxed from a minimal array of soundmakers, Desert Realms is a laudable work of abject beauty.

Who is Johan Agebjörn and where has he been all this time? Though probably a new name to most, his bio on Discogs.com (and his website) shows him treading in quite divergent streams, creating piano-based compositions in addition to Italo-disco under his Sally Shapiro alias. All over the stylistic map it might be, but Mossebo blew me back—totally engaging, lithe in execution and elegantly produced, its luxurious ear candy handily updates the early 90s heyday of Euro ambient techno. Agebjörn’s influences run a wide gamut: he himself notes the ballast of Autechre on “Ambient Computer Dance” (the Incunabula era), and Lisa Barra’s wordless (and sometimes wordful) vocals recall that other Lisa-nicked chanteuse, Gerrard. (Elements of Erik Wøllo and Candice Pacheco pop up as well.) Barra’s baleful coos and energized whispers play all kinds of acrobatic games across Agebjörn’s rhythm tracks, trading their hypertexts with arctic synths, the odd piano, and even themselves, Agebjörn admitting a fondness for vocoders and chopped-up voice edits. All due respect given to the Delerium boys and any Enigma worshippers/wannabes out there, but here’s sultry techno-trance done right. The opening “Dulciter Somni” makes a good argument against such ultra-polished digital faux “world” music, Agebjörn setting up a fairly simple drum machine riff over which Barra swoops and swoons amongst pink-purplish electronic flotsam. One of Mossebo’s particularly notable graces is that its richly-detailed fabric comfits a largely uncluttered music: Agebjörn no doubt clings to the less-is-more school and milks that credo for all its worth. Thus “The Sound of Snowflakes Touching the Ground” appears quite enamored of its pristine subzero minimalism, pitter-pattering beats skating below Barra’s cries as if on a thin icepatch, and the two-part “Siberian Train” actually feels more epic than it is, Agebjörn’s locomotive programming and delineated synths reminiscent of Tangerine Dream’s classic “Madrigal Meridian”, or even a distantly-engineered cousin to their own “Love On A Real Train.” In any case, Mossebo is like some brilliant bolt out of the blue, unexpected, surprising, ever-rejuvenating—built for the future, Johan?

Michael Allison, aka Darshan Ambient, considers From Pale Hands to Weary Skies his best work yet, and, despite a career that’s still in its infancy, with creative moxie to burn, a convincing argument could be made that his assessment might well be true. Conceived while Allison was in the throes of a life-threatening illness, he subsequently mined the final result during his lengthy convalescence, and once your ears have drunk deep of this remarkable offering, you’d reckon that his near-death experience virtually electroshocked both his muse and psyche. It certainly shows in the energized spirit of the music; much of this new recording marries a more overt rhythmic sensibility to the usual Darshan Ambient post-Eno template, but Allison’s music has always been about more than pat categorical metaphors. Erected with nimble hand and equally imaginative finesse, his is a voice unique in worldwide “ambient” music due to his gift for melody and an emotional instrumental range that never sacrifices vibrancy for passive new-age sentimentality. “The Furniture of Time” leads thing off in fine fashion, Allison playing an absolutely charming piano motif atop squeaking electronics and a tousled rhythmic counterpoint of tablas and ticktock soft-synth beats, assuming one of those naggingly insistent melodies that stick in your head forever. The pealing twangs of “The Look of Amber” suggest the contemplative ideals of Patrick O’Hearn in their late afternoon simplicity, all lower-key chords and alabaster moods. “Palace of the Windowed Rocks,” with its fleet percussive line, electronics that snap to and fro like weathered rubberbands (replete with irising space whispers) and subtle piano phrasing, is one of the more sumptuous pieces of melancholic ambience to come down the pike this year. Allison’s getting better all the time—physically and artistically—his sonic alter ego proffering the perfect sonic balm for all concerned.

And now for something completely (relatively speaking) different. Craig Padilla’s name deserves more than just a passing nod amongst post-Berlin school aficionados. He’s released some superb space music and sequencer-driven works over the years, both solo and in collaboration with fellow sonic auteur Skip Murphy, and, more importantly, swept aside the usual Teutonic affectations in an effort to spin off from those hoary, 35-plus year old battleaxes. Yes, the vocabulary’s recognizable, but the syntax has been tweaked: the music on Below the Mountain (the inspiration of which comes again from landscape, specifically Padilla’s home around Mt. Shasta in Northern California) suggests rugged earthly embraces except that its palette harkens more towards the quantum mechanics of interstellar pioneers Tangerine Dream and Schulze. All irrelevant anyway—beguiling moments await within. Immediately appealing and subtly clever, the opening “Current” benefits from a little elfin countenance of a synth figure that invigorates the ever-shifting expanses made by well-oiled, well-tendered yet soft machines. Like a boomerang, “Woven Planet” tugs at your memory cards as it recalls the classic moments of TD’s Ricochet, gurgling sequencers rippling under bulging updrafts of graysky electronics. Padilla is able to achieve a near perfect balance of sci-fi futurism and landscape veneer: the ten minutes of “Windspell” see a return to slow tempo sequencer and chugging, Exit-like cymbal acrobatics as Padilla folds his mosaic of rhythms into thick clouds of majestic, undulating chords, 70s déjà vu all over again but brushed over with 00s gloss. The closing 22-plus minutes of “Alturas” is the real barnstormer, however, Padilla coaxing various skeins of star-twinkle, metallic dewdrops, blossoming backdrift, and, ultimately, a corkscrewing, hypnotizing sequencer pattern whose complex tangles burrow right into your cochlea. Padilla’s scored some major hits in the past, but this particular slice of systems music’s a real humdinger; it simultaneously fades back and radiates. DARREN BERGSTEINwww.lotuspike.com / www.spottedpeccary.com

BVDUB Return to Tonglu (Quietus)
CIVYIU KKLIU & ILYA MONOSOV Cartolina Postale (Winds Measure)
DAVID PARSONS Earthlight (Celestial Harmonies)
MIRKO UHLIG The Nightmiller (Mystery Sea)

Latest in a brilliant run of submersive aquifer ‘tronix from Brock Van Wey, going by the name Bvdub. Drawing a line straight through minimal techno regimes first internationalized by the early Kompakt sides of Reinhard and Wolfgang Voigt (specifically his releases as Gas), drawing in Chain Reaction notables such as Porter Ricks and early Monolake, connecting spacier Detroit imperatives, and finally culminating in a subgenre popularized by other similarly-inclined producers (Quantec, Deepchord, Koss, folks on the Echocord label), Bvdub continues to refine his sound to the point where he’s rapidly becoming a benchmark for this slowly expanding microgenre. There’s a lot of this kind of stuff engulfing our precious aural canals at the moment, which could be a detrimental thing to our psyches if the music wasn’t so wholly compelling. Of course, you have to meet it halfway or the molasses-thick minimal repetitiveness, minor key chromality, and dense weeds of reverb might get on your nerves. What separates Bvdub’s take on this strand of boom-tschak oceanic electrogauze is twofold: a general segregation from basic foursquare rhythms and a sound design suggesting natures personal rather than forestral. A true son of the loop da loop era, Bvdub is our best foggy bottom sculptor, chipping away at Detroit’s rusting corpus, exposing a mellifluous core few realized existed, working with a virtual paucity of sounds that achieve their grandeur by sheer act of repetitive will. It doesn’t hurt that this is a noise exquisitely lush, plush, and limned with hush. The title track, with its puffing beats, wheezing cymbals, and velveteen ambience, plays like an Autobahn for the isolationist set, soft, wet, weepy, and low. Desolate synths shudder in the moist air, refracting and echoing endlessly on their cloudburst flights, as on the closing “It’s Too Late,” Bvdub slow dancing with tears in his eyes. Do we gleam infinite melancholia here? Utter despair? Errant euphoria? It’s a combination of all three, a music that revels in its own emotional ambiguity. Go on—immerse thyself. DARREN BERGSTEINwww.quietus-recordings.com

Concerning Cartolina Postale, quite apart from the message and its content that comes scrawled like grafitti on the back a postcard, the handwriting and style of a letter is often just as effective, if not more so, in conveying a certain human presence. The metal plate scrape and toothpicks that play a music box like bony fingers speak well to this: an elephant has a better chance of squirming through the eye of a needle than one does of alighting upon any inkling of a message here; the material is far too diffuse. There is a certain style at play, however, and thus some modicum of presence. Specifically, it's one that asserts itself through an interruption of the vagaries of time and any notion of totality. This isn't achieved positively but negatively: during its twenty-three minutes, the album is largely devoid of structure; it doesn't establish an atmosphere; and there is little, if any, trace of intent. What's left is a gradual drift of sonic dust through which single notes on music box gleam intermittently like tiny lights. As with a postcard, it's the fingerprint of a particular time and place; and like every fingerprint its a radical singularity. Only in this case, admittedly, it seems more about secrecy than identity. A devilish little postcard, this is. MAX SCHAEFERwww.windsmeasurerecordings.net

Percussionist Metcalf marks the end of a trilogy of sorts with Nada Terma, squaring the circle that began with his previous collaborations with fellow aural tribesmen Roach and Seelig on 2003’s Wachuma’s Wave and 2004’s Mantram. On this seventy-three minute excursion into the wild frontier of elder music and ancestral shamanism, Metcalf’s manifesto becomes wholly recognizable once the recording gathers steam, his percussive arsenal a baker’s dozen of frame, udu and earth drums, further augmented by the softer accents provided by tapping on clay pots and seed pods. Multi-instrumentalist Seelig surrounds Metcalf’s war-drumming in a cushion of bansuri flutes and plucked dilruba in addition to building some rich harmonic overtones thanks to his own vibrato of a voice. Roach, of course, wraps the whole affair in so many of his typically vivid, color-enhanced tones and myriad, swirling atmospheres it situates the listener right at the center of some ancient, mysterious retreat. Subtly altering moods predominate: what can feel like a powerfully earthshaking music one moment slowly shifts gears into climes both seductive and spiritual. But don’t get the idea that this is some exercise in well-dressed new age tedium—Roach’s heavenly noises time and again provide the foundation for Metcalf’s rock-solid beatstorms, particularly during the first indomitable half hour, the physicality of the drummer’s extraordinarily propulsive thunderstrikes practically a force of nature. Roach and Seelig have no choice but to keep pace by superimposing their own distinctive sonic flavors onto the febrile stew; naturally, the desert shaman’s kaleidoscopic textures reincarnate all sorts of primordial demons, through which feint Seelig’s piercing winds and arcing strings. The lengthy journey the album makes across its expansive running time does it justice—this is true trance music, relentless, hypnotic and very alive. DARREN BERGSTEINwww.projekt.com

A seriously underrated talent that has embraced the same respect and awe for immense landscape and mystic realms as comrade-in-arms Steve Roach, composer/synthesist Parsons has for well over two decades realized a singular body of work that has embraced both an ambient ethos and the intricate, meditative harmonics of North Indian classical music. Parsons likens his work to the alap, the elongated introduction to Indian ragas, and in many ways such a description perfectly encapsulates the methodology of ambient music in the most literal sense, removed from yet reflecting Eno’s dictum of “music that can be simultaneously listened to and ignored.” Definitions often need upgrading, however: Parsons’ music is about as ignorable as the mountain vistas he often titles his epic pieces after. Abundant with prodigious chords, tones stretched thinner and thinner at such altitudes they beg for oxygen, and inveighed by the magnetic tensions brought on by otherworldly forces at play, Earthlight is evocative in the most fantastical sense. The record’s glacial pace mimics the breathless pulse of tectonic plates shirking millennia, but monodimensional drone this isn’t. A pronounced mystic quality informs all of Parsons’ music, and the strange regions he traverses on this superb excursion are no different—space music of a spherical nature, austere yet finely-wrought and patterned, buoyed by a surfeit of mysterious textures and alien cadences, the album is wonderfully disorienting, suggesting rugged confines as well as farflung artifices. The title track irises open to reveal a multitude of erupting, heavenly electronic lightbeams soon to be pierced by an eldritch motif of misty mountain modulars and cushioned bells. “Altai Himalaya” harkens back to Parsons’ eponymous classic Himalaya, aerated blasts of synth drifting in the wake of stratospheric jetstreams. Both “Beyond the Light” and “Corona” reveal a composer who’s come a long way since the simple two-chord notations of Tibetan Plateau: vari-hued pigments of electronics flow silkily into and out of one another like kaleidoscopic oils, buffed by tablaesque sequencers, pealing intrasolar radiowaves and, in the case of “Corona”, truculent synths howling into the deep night. The penultimate twenty minutes that is “Bathing Light” seems to end too abruptly even at that considerable length, but taking into account the buzzsaw cut of its synths, its baleful atmosphere and incessant rhythmic momentum, it portends something of a new direction for Parsons, who once noted that his music was “about bathing in the sound.” Surely a most inviting proposition, for on Earthlight, the water’s mighty warm indeed. DARREN BERGSTEINwww.harmonies.com

In The Night Miller, there seems to be all the infinity of Mirko Uhlig's own absence—that is to say, it's a pure hole into which drains all of his past penchants for machines of esoteric purpose vainly struggling to jar or achieve autonomous operation. This is also to indicate that Uhlig's new resistance is a kind of non-resistance; a sensitivity to the elements, to their contours, density, dynamics, and timbre. He appears equally open to their symbolic import: to the way these sparsely textured atmospheres enable creation, time, infinity and multiple discrete universes to merge in a satori flash. As a CD, it lasts all of 36 minutes and spans some three tracks. It begins as a beatific luminescence that breathes air and ripples out into an imagined distance, evoking a weight of being behind every act. Uhlig's melodies develop slowly and the oneiric structures betray an undercurrent of stealthy depths. It's these depths that run into the albums second work, "Wooden Waiting", where an intense focus upon the fine detail of the unfolding electronic fields spreads over the immense richness of acoustic detail. Such slow-burning episodes of beautiful, elegant, emotionally affecting passages of ambience finds in the albums final piece an effective counterpoint, as grainy, hissing loops shake up and then paralyze the tracks motion. The move creates a dim space into which single guitar notes and rasping massed melodic lines withdraw, leaving the dawning sensation that all is evaporating in impenetrable darkness. Neither especially active or passive, The Nightmiller nevertheless manages just enough permutation and variation of a limited set of materials. As a result, the sounds and spaces between them often float. Those acquainted with the vicelike brutality and recalcitrantly challenging Uhlig may find his wholehearted adoption of this elegiac tone difficult to fathom, just as those who begin here will find it hard to believe he's ever done anything else. MAX SCHAEFERwww.mysterysea.net