Monday, November 16, 2009

Madlib - Mind Fusion Vol. 1-5

For my first (and extremely long overdue) post on hip hop I bring you some rare mixtapes from my number 1 favorite producer/DJ, Madlib, aka the Beat Konducta and a thousand other aliases. Actually, there's so little official information out there about these tapes that their authenticity has been disputed. They sound like the real deal to me though - the left-field loops, crackling jazz samples, smoked out interludes and obscure vocal recordings all scream Beat Konducta.

All the information you need to know about these, including partial (sometimes complete) tracklists and some really cool photos, can be found on this website. Here are some brief descriptions of mine of each installation.

Vol. 1 is mostly a Stones Throw sampler, featuring remixes of tracks by Madvillain, Quasimoto, Oh No, MED, Wildchild, and others, but also including material by Method Man, Common, and Bobby Hutcherson.

Vol. 2, one of the best in the series, is a jazz mix featuring some scorching 70's fusion, Brazilian jazz, impassioned spoken word and trips to outer space.

Vol. 3 is an eclectic selection of dub, jazz, comedy recordings, psychedelic soul, and much more - another standout.

Vol. 4 focuses on hip hop, and includes a set of Nas vs. Jay Z remixes.

The first long track on Vol. 5 is called "Dirty Crates from Around the World". The second is a live set with some great chopped up Dilla tracks, and closing with Madvillain's "Closer" given jazz horn treatment.

Now that I've (finally!) opened the hip hop floodgates, prepare to see a lot more of this incredibly dynamic and progressive genre on Giraffe Kingdom.

[Links removed]

Shrinebuilder - S/T

Shrinebuilder is a metal supergroup comprised of members of Om, Neurosis, The Melvins, The Hidden Hand and Sleep. (!) ((!!!!))  Recorded in just 3 days, their debut album has it all - psychedelic riffing, ominous chanting, and some serious fuzzed-out bliss (The long vamp in the second half of opener "Solar Benedicition" is a big highlight).  Highly recommended - this album is sure to please fans of any of the member's former projects.

From their label, Neurot Records:

There are moments [as they are and as we configure them] strung together amidst all of our other moments of slow growing awareness, when the tectonic shifting of who we think we are gets overcome and overwhelmed by who we really are. And IF we are lucky, it happens without too much bloodshed.

It births, it dies, it lives without bloodshed for the rare and sainted few.

For the rest of us it happens to us [and not for us]. And it is accompanied by a quickening purpose and transcendent understanding of our goddamned place in space: we build our places of worship up on high for a reason, and SHRINEBUILDER -- created by Al Cisneros, Scott "Wino" Weinrich, Dale Crover and Scott Kelly - shares the season and the reason: because it is closer to the gods.

So it was that the calling was answered as simply as a phone call could have been and was made. Cisneros called Weinrich, Kelly, and later Crover and decided, in full-blown ex nihilo fashion to make some music beyond the summed parts of all what had been done before and in doing so rediscover why it had been done in the first place. Beyond the parts, beyond beyond, and here descriptors that you will read every OTHER place but that go without saying here...crushing, killing and heavy, heavy, heavy...seem somehow too much and not enough.

It is Wagnerian. It is Iommic. It is simply: SHRINEBUILDER.

Now Manson [Charles, not Marilyn] once said to us, "there are only two ways to get to the get dragged...or you go along."

And here, in the spirit of the contrary, is a third: SHRINEBUILDER.

You're goddamned right.

----Eugene S. Robinson


Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Complete Recordings of the Mwandishi Band

Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi band was responsible for creating some of the most deeply explorative and emotionally charged music of the early 1970's electric jazz fusion explosion, and probably ever. The original band on the self-titled debut, recorded in October through December of 1969, consisted of Herbie Hancock (Mwandishi) on rhodes, Bennie Maupin (Mwile) on bass clarinet, flute, and piccolo, Eddie Henderson (Mganga) on trumpet, Julian Priester (Pepo Mtoto) on trombone, Buster Williams (Mchezaji) on bass, and Billy Hart (Jabali) on drums, along with an assortment of supporting musicians, including the illustrious saxophonist Joe Henderson. The music for the most part featured spacey, abstract improvisations from the rhodes and horns over earthy, rhythmic ostinatos from the bass and drums. Crossings added Dr. Patrick Gleeson on synths, launching the band into exotic new galaxies of sound that would be explored further on Sextant. Despite the incredible inventiveness of the music, none of these albums were commercially successful, and the band officially broke up before the release of Herbie's crossover megahit Head Hunters. At least, that's how I thought the story went, until I discovered just days ago that the Mwandishi band recorded two additional little known albums, released under Eddie Henderson's name. The lineup on these albums is essentially unchanged, with the exception that Julian Priester is replaced by the great drummer Lenny White on Realization, and by Weather Report's drummer Eric Gravatt and the Head Hunters conga player Bill Summers on Inside Out.

The band really hit their stride with Crossings and kept it up to Realization, though the debut and Inside Out are also fascinating to hear and light years beyond what most fusion bands were doing following the release of the genre's catalyst, Bitches Brew. Listen to all five of these in a row, and you can consider yourself a black belt in interdimensional time travelin' jazz funk.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Horace Parlan - Happy Frame of Mind

Here's a reasonably straight-ahead but still adventurous and forward-looking Blue Note album led by the criminally underrated pianist Horace Parlan, who is perhaps best known for playing on the masterpiece Mingus Ah-Um. When he was young, Parlan was stricken with polio, which left his right hand crippled; but this did not deter him from striving for a career in jazz piano. On the contrary, Parlan's weakened right hand caused him to develop a particularly strong and unique left hand style, featuring highly percussive attacks from big blocky extended chords. His right hand ultimately ended up more than up to par as well, contributing agreeably loose and buoyant melodic ideas. On this album, Parlan teams up with the always cool guitarist Grant Green, veteran drummer Billy Higgins, Mingus-associates Johnny Coles (trumpet) and Booker Ervin (tenor sax), and the bassist and rock solid sideman Butch Warren, who's played with Miles, Monk, Herbie, Dexter Gordon, and many others. In other words, a first-rate band.

This is the type of bebop I love most - all the players are in tight form, hitting the bluesy and soulful chord changes accurately, but still playing with loads of character and taking their solos into daring territory. Most of all, they just sound cool as all hell and like they're having a great time. This is a perfect lemonade-on-your-porch-in-the-summertime type of album, and it's a must have for any fan of the classic Blue Note sound. For me it's easily on the level of albums as lauded as Lee Morgan's The Sidewinder and Wayne Shorter's Speak No Evil (actually, I like it more than both), though for whatever reason it's far less well known. Mellow, playful, and just brilliant all around.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Oorutaichi - Drifting My Folklore

Here's an album I've been meaning to blog about for some time, Oorutaichi's Drifting My Folklore from 2007. I don't know much about Oorutaichi, other than that he's a Japanese solo artist/DJ who cooks up some seriously zany acid cartoon music. If you thought that was Cornelius's shtick, prepare to experience new levels of zany acidity - Drifting My Folklore comes bursting at the seams with mutated disco, freak funk, twisted pop hooks, synths and turntables galore, hypnotic grooves, and utterly bizarre vocal melodies that shouldn't work but somehow do. Rarely are albums simultaneously as strange and catchy as this one. Given the overwhelming number of different musical ideas that transpire throughout it, one must really admire Oorutaichi's flawless sense of craft in arranging so many instruments and studio effects into something cohesive, without a moment sounding out of place. (Then again, what could sound out of place on an album like this?) The studio tricks in particular are frequently mindbending and worthy of Nobukazu Takemura at his best. In the end there's probably no describing this album, so let's just say I can comfortably imagine alien robots doing their morning workout routine to it, and leave it at that.

Aside, Oorutaichi contributed one of the best tracks on Shugo Tokumaru's 2009 release Rum Hee, a remix of Shugo's song of the same name.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Toru Takemitsu - Complete Takemitsu Edition 2: Instrumental and Choral Works (11 Disks)

I just found out that 5 days ago was the late Toru Takemitsu's 79th birthday, so here's a belated dedication and celebration post. I bring you quite a large collection of instrumental and choral works by the visionary man Wikipedia documents as Japan's first international composer:
In the late 1950s chance brought Takemitsu international attention: his Requiem for string orchestra (1957 Takemitsu requiem.ogg listen ) was heard by Igor Stravinsky in 1958 during his visit to Japan. (The NHK had organised opportunities for Stravinsky to listen to some of the latest Japanese music; when Takemitsu's work was put on by mistake, Stravinsky insisted on hearing it to the end.) At a press conference later, Stravinsky expressed his admiration for the work, praising its "sincerity" and "passionate" writing.[14] Stravinsky subsequently invited Takemitsu to lunch; and for Takemitsu this was an "unforgettable" experience.[15] After Stravinsky returned to the U.S., Takemitsu soon received a commission for a new work from the Koussevitsky Foundation which, he assumed, had come as a suggestion from Stravinsky to Aaron Copland.[15] For this he composed Dorian Horizon, (1966), which was premièred by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Copland.
Takemitsu later became a close personal friend of John Cage, who encouraged him to embrace his nation's musical traditions for the first time, leading to a new stylistic period combining ancient Japanese and Western avant garde ideas. At the same time, Toru was also highly conscious of Western popular music, as evidenced by his many guitar transcriptions of Beatles and jazz songs.

This collection is actually the second installment of an even larger group of recordings of Takemitsu's music, called the Complete Takemitsu Edition. From what I can tell, Edition 1 consists of his orchestral works, Editions 3 and 4 cover his film works, and Edition 5 is made up of popular songs, tape, and theatre works. Supposedly the entire collection goes for around an absurd $1,000. Here's what we have on Edition 2, the instrumental and choral works:

Disk 1
2-3. Lento in Due Movimenti
4. Distance de Fee
5-7. Pause Ininterrompue
8-10. Le Son Calligraphie I, II, III
11. Masque
12. Landscape
13. Piano Distance

Disk 2
1. Ring for flute, terz guitar and lute
2. Corona for one or more pianists
3. Sacrifice for alto flute, lute and vibraphone with antique cymbals
4. Sonant for 2 flutes, violin, violoncello, guitar and 2 bandoneons
5. Hika for violin and piano
6. Eclipse for biwa and shakuhachi
7. Cross Talk for 2 bandoneons and tape music

Disk 3
1. Stanza I
2. Valeria
3. Seasons
4. Munari by Munari
5. Voice
6. Eucalypts II
7. Stanza II

Disk 4
1. Distance for oboe with or without sho
2. For Away for piano
3. Voyage for biwa
4. Garden Rain for brass ensemble
5-7. Folios for guitar

Disk 5
1. Bryce
2. Waves
3. Quatrain 2
4. Waterways
5. Les yeux clos
6. Les yeux clos II

Disk 6
1. A Way a Lone for string quartet
2-4. Toward the Sea for alto flute and guitar
5. Rain Tree for 3 percussion players
6. Rain Spell for flute, clarinet, harp, piano and vibraphone
7. Rain Tree Sketch I for piano
8. Rain Tree Sketch II, In Memoriam Olivier Messiaen for piano

Disk 7
1. Cross Hatch for marimba and vibraphone
2. Rocking Mirror Daybreak I, Autumn for violin duo
3. Rocking Mirror Daybreak II, Passing Bird for violin duo
4. Rocking Mirror Daybreak III, In The Shadows for violin duo
5. Rocking Mirror Daybreak IV, Rocking Mirror for violin duo
6. From far beyond the Chrysanthemums and November Fog for violin and piano
7. Orion for violoncello and piano
8. Entre-temps for oboe and string quartet
9. Rain Dreaming for cembalo

Disk 8
1. Signals from Heaven I, Day Signal
2. Signals from Heaven II, Night Signal
3. All in Twilight I for guitar
4. All in Twilight II for guitar
5. All in Twilight III for guitar
6. All in Twilight IV for guitar
7. Toward the Sea III Part I for alto flute and harp
8. Toward the Sea III Part II for alto flute and harp
9. Toward the Sea III Part III for alto flute and harp
10 Itinerant, In Memory Of Isamu Nogutchi for flute
11. Litany I, In Memory Of Michael Vyner for piano
12. Litany II, In Memory Of Michael Vyner for piano
13. A piece for guitar For The 60th Birthday of Sylvano Bussotti
14. And then I knew 'twas the Wind for flute, viola and harp

Disk 9
1. Equinox
2. Between Tides
3. Paths
4. A Bird came down the Walk
5. In the Woods I
6. In the Woods II
7. In the Woods III
8. Air

Disk 10
1. Bad Boy for 2 or 3 guitars
2-3. Piano Pieces for Children
4. A Boy Name Hiroshima for 2 guitars
5. Le Fils des Etoiles for flute and harp
6-17. 12 songs for guitar
18. The Last Waltz for guitar
19. Golden Slumbers for piano
20. Herbstlied for clarinet and string quartet

Disk 11
1. Wind Horse I
2. Wind Horse II
3. Wind Horse III
4. Wind Horse IV
5. Wind Horse V
6. Grass
7. Handmade Proverbs I
8. Handmade Proverbs II
9. Handmade Proverbs III
10. Handmade Proverbs IV
11-22. Songs for mixed chorus

There are too many excellent pieces here to really name highlights, but I'm particularly fond of the Piano Pieces for Children, Toward the Sea for alto flute and harp, the guitar songs, and the astoundingly gorgeous songs for mixed chorus, which to me almost sound like otherworldly slave spirituals.

Complete Takemitsu Edition website (Japanese)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Satoko Fujii & Tatsuya Yoshida - Erans

Uploaded by request, this challenging Tzadik album is a little difficult to categorize. Some of the labels I was tempted to give it included free jazz, modern jazz, improvisation, and noise, but none of these are quite right. What we really have here is a set of ultra-complex etudes for piano and drums, which often sound improvisational or "jazzy" but were really composed with extreme care and attention to detail. Performing these are two of the most adventurous and capable musicians to rise out of Japan's avant garde scene, pianist/composer Satoko Fujii and drummer Tatsuya Yoshida of Ruins fame. After one listen to Erans, one thing is clear: Fujii and Yoshida did a lot of rehearsing for this album. Their stop-on-a-dime changes in tempo, meter, and dynamics are timed with perfection, and they don't falter once in playing through the songs' baffling structures.

This album is not for the faint hearted. The songs are fiery, menacing, relentlessly energetic, generally atonal, and nearly impossible to swallow all at once. Multiple listens reveal many subtle intricacies in their form, harmony, emotional content, and so forth, but they never lose their visceral nature, or their ability to quickly exhaust the listener. Even if you never listen to it from start to finish, this is a must hear.


Sunday, October 4, 2009

Orbital - Orbital II (The Brown Album)

"There is the theory of the Moebius . . . a twist in the fabric of space where time becomes a loop. Where time becomes a loop. Where time becomes a loop. Wh-Where t-time b-becomes a l-loop. Where-eretimetibecomecomalooaloop. Where . . ." begins the UK-based Orbital's second album, a classic of early 90s experimental ambient techno. The first track, "Time Becomes", consists of the above Star Trek sample looping over and over against itself in a tempo-phasing experiment that borrows directly from Steve Reich. Though this kicks the album off with a fairly lofty and intellectual feel, the song is actually a joke - Orbital's debut, the Green Album, opens with the very same sample, the reappearance of which at the beginning of the Brown Album was meant to momentarily fool listeners into thinking they bought a bad pressing.

The hour of music that follows "Time Becomes" is one of the most consistently well reviewed in all of 90s electronica, or indeed any electronica. It's hypnotic, trippy, joyous, haunting, and deeply groovy. All of the tracks are lengthy and insistently rhythmic, making them fine for dancing or zoning out to, but they are also all dynamic enough to reward close attention. Two of them, "Lush" (please play this one loud and with as much bass as possible - the layers, the layers!) and "Halcyon + on + on", were big singles, and are probably a couple of the best tunes of their genre/decade. "Planet of the Shapes" is another quality head-bumper, with effective use of the sample "Even a stopped clocked gives the right time twice a day", taken from the film Withnail & I.

A second phasing experiment closes the album; this time the phrases "Input translation" and "Output rotation" loop against each other. Like "Time Becomes", this is the type of track that one either instantly hates, or grows to love for the delicate, ephemeral melodies and rhythms that can be discerned emerging from the chaos. (Guess which one it is in my case).

This album appears on a lot of Best 100 lists and for good reason. I slept on it for a long time, and would caution any fan of electronic music not to make the same mistake.



Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Rough Guide to the Music of Mali

The UK label World Music Network has released over 240 albums in an ever growing collection called the Rough Guides, each honing in on a particular location, genre, or both; typical examples are albums like the Rough Guide to West African Gold, the Rough Guide to Brasil: Bahia, the Rough Guide to Celtic Music, and on and on. It's gem after gem on this one, the Rough Guide to the Music of Mali, which is so diverse in character that any non-expert of African music could easily take it to be a compilation covering the whole continent. According to the World Music Network,
Mali is the crown jewel of West Africa - a vast, magnificent country with ancient musical traditions and many of the continent's best loved musicians. From Wasulu songstress Oumou Sangare and the rocking desert blues of Tinariwen, to the acoustic blues of BBC Award winner Bassekou Koyate and the international stars Amadou & Mariam The Rough Guide To The Music Of Mali explores this thriving and evolving musical dynasty.
The full track list is:

1. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba Feat. Zoumana Tereta - "Bala"
2. Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabeté - "Simbo"
3. Habib Koité & Bamada - "Mali Ba"
4. Amadou & Mariam - "La Réalité"
5. Issa Bagayogo - "Kalan Nege"
6. Oumou Sangaré - "Baba"
7. Afel Bocoum - "Ali Farka"
8. Rokia Traoré - "Kanan Neni"
9. Vieux Farka Toure Feat. Ali Farka Touré - "Tabara"
10. Kandia Kouyate - "San Barana"
11. Babáni Koné - "Djeli Baba"
12. Les Ambassadeurs Internationales - "Mousso Gnaleden"
13. Boubacar Traoré - "Mouso Teke Soma Ye"
14. Tinariwen - "Arawan"
15. Kélétigui Diabaté - "Summertime in Bamako"

As far as I'm concerned, the first four tracks on this disk are simply superb. "Bala" is a rich blues, featuring a mix of deep soulful male and smooth female voices, and anchored by lithe kora (I think)* basslines and ngoni flourishes. The syncopated, instrumental chorus serves as a perfect hook. "Simbo" is a meeting between two of the most respected musicians from Mali, Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabeté, who play guitar and kora respectively. It took my ears a few listens to the opening chords before they got used to the strange harmony. The song quickly settles into a more consonant ostinato, and Toumani brings some of his usual divinely great solos over Ali Farka's bluesy guitar in total rhythmic lock. When they come together in the chorus, the concrescence of it all raises the hair on my forearms. I was smitten with the third song the first time I heard it - I will describe it as incredibly beautiful, and leave it at that. Much to my surprise, it turned out I already had a couple songs by Habib Koité on my computer, as does anybody with Windows Vista, in the Sample Music folder that I never bothered to listen to. I've now heard a few of his albums, all of which are solid. Fourth is "La Réalité", a kickass psychedelic funk romp soaked in reverb, police sirens and rowdy crowd shouts.

This is a pretty long compilation, and not all of it, starting with the fifth track, is necessarily totally compelling. But that's okay, since this is after all a "rough guide", intended to give a big-picture view of contemporary music in a very large and diverse country. It's hard to adequately represent all the musical trends of a country while still maintaining a sense of coherence and a good pace from start to finish. In these respects, the Rough Guide to the Music of Mali is mostly a success. A couple highlights from later in the album are Les Ambassadeurs Internationales' "Mousso Gnaleden", with its off-kilter saxophone lines and groovy organ solo, and the jazzy, laid-back closer "Summertime in Bamako". Not quite to my taste are the more club-oriented tracks, of which there are several; but the bottom line is, when it's good, which is usually, it's way better than just good.

World Music Network: Rough Guides

*Post script, 3.25.10: I was wrong about this; there is no kora player in the band. Recently I had the good fortune of seeing Bassekou Kouyate and the Ngoni Ba for free at Amoeba Records in Hollywood, and I learned that all the plucked instruments are ngoni of various sizes. The band is absolutely incredible live, and went way further out in their playing than I expected based on the track of theirs on the album in this review. Amazingly fast dueling-banjo style playing among the various ngoni players, and jaw dropping hand drum solos from their lead percussionist. Bassekou even got psychedelic at times, flipping on a wah switch hooked up to his amplified ngoni and busting out blistering Hendrix-esque solos. Awesome!!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Perfume River Ensemble - Music from the Lost Kingdom: Hue Vietnam

I first became interested in Vietnamese traditional music when I listened to the solo dan tranh works of ethnomusicologist and recording artist Dr. Phong Nguyen up on this website. I don't remember how I stumbled across that site, but those six songs really struck a chord in me, and for a long time I was on the lookout for any albums by the Perfume River Ensemble. Last month I found this one in the Asian section of Amoeba Music in Hollywood. The content is rather different from Nguyen's solo works I've come to love, likely because Nguyen himself doesn't actually play in this recording - he's credited as the Producer and Project Consultant. From the liner notes:
Vietnam's former imperial city, Hue, lies along the beautiful Perfume River near its entry into the sea in the country's central region, an area distinguished for its strong accent, tasty cuisine, and proud cultural heritage. From 1802 until 1945 a succession of thirteen emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty ruled the country from a fortress-like Forbidden City hidden within the walled Citadel, the latter period in cooperation with their French "protectors". The court at Huế was the last in a succession of Vietnamese dynasties which preserved the rituals and music that had existed at least since the founding of the Ly dynasty in the 11th century, whose court was located in Thang Long (now Ha Noi).

The emperors required dignified instrumental music for their rituals and audiences with foreign visitors. The court's power and splendor was demonstrated in its great orchestra (nha nhac), a chorus, and a dance company. Perhaps the most spectacular ritual was the Nam Giao (Heaven and Earth Sacrifice) first celebrated on a vast outdoor esplanade built by Emperor Ly Anh Tong (1138 - 1175). A similar esplanade was built slightly to the south of Hue in 1806 for the Nguyen emperors. The sacrifice took place annually in the spring between the hours of 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. In addition the court maintained three other ensembles: a dai nhac ensemble consisting of 20 larger drums, 8 double-reed shawms, 4 large gongs, 4 small gongs, 4 conch shell trumpets, and 4 water buffalo horns, all managed by a master conductor and 14 assistance conductors; a nhac huyen group mainly consisting of sets of stone chimes and bronze bells; and a tieu nhac sting ensemble which included a lead drum and several smaller percussion instruments playing interlocking patterns.


The present recording resulted from the first United States tour of a Vietnamese ensemble since the end of the war in 1975. The Perfume River Traditional Ensemble, directed by Mr. Vo Que, a poet and singer, is made up of authentic artists resident in Hue. Mr. Manh Cam, aged 78, is both a survivor from the original court ensemble [of Vietnam's last emperor, Bao Dai, who abdicated in 1945] and one of the country's Artists of Merit. The ensemble toured the eastern United States for two weeks during August, 1995, performing at Lowell Folk Festival, Masschusetts, New Haven, Connecticut, at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and at Lincoln Center in New York City. Their repertory includes music of the court, ca hue chamber music, and folk songs of central Vietnam, specifically the Thua Thien Hue and Quan Tri provinces.

The artists sing to the accompaniment of five traditional melodic instruments and numerous percussion instruments and drums. The former include the round-bodied long-necked lute, the dan nguyet long-necked flute, the dan tranh zither with 16 strings, the dan bau monochord, the two-stringed dan nhi fiddle, and the double-reed ken shawm. The percussion instruments include both clappers and pairs of teacups struck together.
The songs have a very ancient and otherworldly feel to them, and at times the singing can be rather abrasive on ears not fully accustomed to this culture, mine included. The ensemble's music is also rarely as downright beautiful as the Phong Nguyen solo recordings linked to above, but it is much more varied in character, possessing many exotic idiosyncracies. To point out just one, the final track, an improvisational duet between Tran Thao's nasal double-reed ken and the clacking percussion of master drummer Manh Cam, almost sounds like Interstellar Space in early Vietnam.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Alexander Scriabin - The Poem of Ecstasy, Piano Concerto in F# minor, Prometheus

One of many composers who blurred the line between genius and lunacy, Alexander Scriabin created some of the most ambitious, complex, and downright orgasmic music of his time or any. The pieces on this recording, especially the Poem of Ecstasy and Prometheus (also called the Poem of Fire), surge and seethe with emotions both primal and highly refined. Scriabin (1872 - 1915) was a piano virtuoso, maverick composer, synaesthete (his perceptions of sounds and colors were intrinsically linked), and mystic. To get an idea of how mystical Scriabin could be, take for example that for the last dozen years of his life he toiled on a massive, multi-media project to be performed in the Himalayas, which Scriabin hoped would usher in the armaggedon and replace mankind with "nobler beings". The work, called Mysterium, would have been "a grandiose religious synthesis of all arts which would herald the birth of a new world" - unfortunately, it was never completed.

While the pieces on this album aren't quite as ambitious as that, they are nonetheless tremendous musical achievements, so grandiose and sensational as to make Wagner's most dramatic pieces seem docile by comparison. Pierre Boulez brings the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to seismic levels of intensity as they explore Scriabin's bizarre universe of exotic and ecstatic harmonies. According to Wikipedia, the Poem of Ecstasy combines two aesthetic principles Scriabin upheld: that music is the most highly evolved of the human arts, and that ecstasy is the most highly evolved of the human emotions. Novelist Henry Miller evidently thought very highly of the piece, writing
"That Poème de l'extase? Put it on loud. His music sounds like I think - sometimes. Has that far-off cosmic itch. Divinely fouled up. All fire and air. The first time I heard it I played it over and over. (...) It was like a bath of ice, cocaine and rainbows. For weeks I went about in a trance. Something had happened to me."
The Poem of Fire, if anything, is an even greater musical spectacle, calling for an enormous orchestra and vocal chorus, as well as a one-of-a-kind instrument called the clavier à lumières, a kind of organ/light-projector that would bathe the concert hall in color and sound. The music is somewhat more difficult than in the Poem of Ecstasy, making heavy use of Scriabin's dissonant "Prometheus chord" consisting of the pitches C, F, B, E, A, and D in various inversions. The climax of the piece sounds like a choir of angels singing the world to its end.

Sandwiched between those cataclysmic symphonic works is Scriabin's piano concerto in F# minor, an earlier work that displays the composer's love of Chopin. This is the most accessible piece on the album, lush, tender, delicate, and emotionally satisfying. It could be classified as post-Romantic, being strongly lyrical and expressive while exploring richer harmonies and more daring dissonances than was typical of the Romantic style. The first few achingly lovely minutes of the Andante movement sound like the work of a completely different composer than the Poems. However, the same movement features some very dark and abstract passages, and in general this concerto hints at the extremes Scriabin would take his music to in the last 15 years of his life.

Wikipedia reports that Scriabin was a life-long hypochondriac, and in 1915 he passed away from sepsis contracted from a shaving cut or lip boil.


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Axolotl - Memory Theatre

It's high time Giraffe Kingdom goes live again. Axolotl is the free-form sound project of experimental violinist/vocalist Karl Bauer, as well as his collaborators William Sabiston and Brian Tester. Memory Theatre, released in 2007, is a compilation of several of their hard-to-find releases, with quite a wide variety of atmospheres and moods. But if you haven't heard those releases, Memory Theatre will sound more like a unified album than a compilation, so it's the perfect introduction to the band. The music is extremely lush and evocative, bringing to my mind things like swarms of particles in Brownian motion, the frenzied yet precise movements of an ant colony, the boiling innards of a star, or a malfunctioning Tesla coil. Each piece is a wall of unfamiliar sounds, teeming with controlled chaos, never quite settling on any single idea, always subtlely evolving. At the same time there is a certain amount of stasis to each piece, in that a given song rarely strays particularly far from the texture it establishes at its beginning.

Aesthetically the pieces gracefully blend mechanical/technological sounds with those of a more organic/biological nature. For example, "Anamalon" bubbles with electric energy and prickly static over unsteady, wooden sounding thuds. This is followed by the gorgeous "Natura Naturans", which sounds like a field recording from some kind of magical forest with will-o'-the-wisps hanging in the air. Farfetched, perhaps, but this kind of music lends itself to such extravagant visual interpretations. Axolotl have put together a refreshing collection of sonic organisms, and aside from the last track (11 truly challenging minutes of noise) it is quite accessible, at least when approached with an open mind.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Kronos Quartet and Wu Man - Tan Dun: Ghost Opera

Most Westerners familiar with Tan Dun, China's most prominent composer, know him through his Academy Award winning score for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", or through his works commissioned for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Fewer are likely to have heard his more personal and artistically adventurous works, which bridge Eastern and Western traditions while exploring a musical language of Tan Dun's very own. One of the most fascinating of these is Ghost Opera, which puts a (post)modernist spin on an ancient and somewhat polarizing genre - the Chinese opera.

Commissioned in 1994 for the Kronos Quartet and pipa player Wu Man, the five movement Ghost Opera is fairly short (35 minutes) but packed with challenging material that will defy any listener's expectations. Opening the first movement is the sound of water splashing in a great glass bowl, followed by a beautiful and haunting quotation of Bach's C# minor prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2. Just as we're beginning to get comfortable, a shrill note in the upper register of the violin rudely interrupts the serene Bach, and the chilling voice of a monk spirit enters the act. Things move quickly now from strange to bizarre, as a variety of male and female spirit-voices shout wordless incantations over abstract and menacing string gestures. The second movement begins as a high energy dance, with driving string parts and more shouting from the spirits, but in the end winds up showcasing Wu Man's virtuosic pipa skills over a bare texture. The third movement, lacking vocalizations, blends the Bach heard previously with a Chinese folk song, "Little Cabbage", to gorgeous effect. Its sheer melodic accessibility is countered by the next movement, which is almost totally rhythmic, featuring unsteady percussion on a variety of stones and metallic cymbals, and later, percussive string strumming. As the piece mounts in intensity, the spirits return with more excited clammoring than ever, and ultimately a gong hit marks the beginning of the final movement, the most understated and "ghostly" one of them all.

Tan Dun notes:
"My whole village was crazy. We had a professional crying team available for hire at funerals and deaths...a shamanistic choir to set the mournful tone. In Hunan, where I grew up, people believed they would be rewarded after death for their sufferings. Death was the "white happiness," and musical rituals launched the spirit into the territory of the new life. Instruments were improvised: pots and pans, kitchen tools, and bells. The celebration of the remote was grounded in everyday life.

The tradition of the "ghost opera" is thousands of years old. The performer of "ghost opera" has a dialogue with his past and future life — a dialogue between past and future, spirit and nature."
As stated before, Chinese opera is a polarizing genre. Many people find it difficult to appreciate, and attendence to live performances has been on the decline since the second half of the 20th century (see the Wikipedia entry on Beijing Opera). Ghost Opera, aside from being a rumination on modern spirituality, is an attempt to rejuvenate this unusual and uniquely beautiful art form.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Jon Hassell - Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street

Released last February, this ECM recording from the somewhat veiled yet influential trumpet player Jon Hassell is his first for the label in more than 20 years. In the meantime he released a number of albums for other labels, steadily giving more and more definition to the style of music he describes as "Fourth World". He coined this term as early as 1980 (hear Fourth World: Possible Musics with Brian Eno from that year) to refer to music which combines jazz improvisation, futuristic electronics, atmospheric ambience, and ethnic influences.

Fans of the Norwegian free improvisation troup Supersilent will immediately draw comparisons between Hassell's airy, floating trumpet tone and that of Arve Henriksen. Besides having both recorded for ECM, and sharing a delicateness of tone and penchant for thoughtful improvisation, the two are linked further by mutual involvement with Jan Bang, who controls the electronic samples on this album. However, the atmosphere of Last Night The Moon Came... is distinct from anything Arve Henriksen has had a hand in. The opening track "Aurora", a wash of electronic textures over a minimal bass ostinato, with almost no melody, sounds closer to releases on 12k Records or Hearts in Space than any I've heard on ECM or Rune Grammofon. It's a beautiful commencement to the album, and one that gives the listener no sense at all of how many musicians are involved. Besides Hassell and Bang, we have Rick Cox and Eivind Aarset on guitars, Peter Freeman on bass and a laptop, Jamie Muhoberac on keyboards and a laptop, Kheir Eddine M Kachiche on violin, and drummers Helge Andreas Norbakken and Pete Lockett.

Despite the size of the lineup and richness of instrumentation, the music throughout this album is almost always highly subdued and sparse in texture. There are no crescendoes or sudden changes in direction anywhere, there are no choruses, the songs plod along at a mostly uniform tempo (very slow), and most of the melodic content is fairly unmemorable. These statements are not meant to detract from the quality of the album, however; only to demonstrate that it is far from a typical ECM release, and instead lives in a world of Hassell's own, dominated by meanderings through quasicomposed mires of sound. At times, like on the very short but supremely effective interlude "Clairvoyance", the result is devastatingly beautiful. On the other hand, another even shorter interlude, "Scintilla", features a lovely violin gesture but isn't given the opportunity to do much else, and its inclusion almost feels superfluous. For different reasons, one wishes both of these tracks were more fleshed out.

The meat of the album is found in the longer tracks, two of which go past the ten minute mark. The Fender Rhodes in "Abu Gil" makes the track reminiscent of Miles Davis' In A Silent Way, but with a stronger Indian influence and much more ambience. The outstanding title track is halfway between a moody Steve Roach drone and an organic chamber improv, with Hassell's overdubbed trumpet producing warm harmonies over the most minimal of beats, joined by violin flourishes and low-key electronic sound effects.

If there are any serious criticisms to make about this album, it's only that the last quarter of it begins to feel redundant. No individual track is weak in terms of musicianship, but the listener paying close attention may tire of the overall sound and mood of the album, which is for the most part dreary and listless, before it's finished. This could have been remedied by replacing the last tracks with some more dynamic and explorative ones, but that would have taken away from the purity of the whole. For providing a unique aura anywhere it's played, the album is perfect as it is. Jon Hassell's "Fourth World" vision, refined over decades, has culminated in a remarkable release, and what he does next is anybody's guess, though it's sure to be of interest.


Sunday, March 29, 2009

Shaham, Meyer, Wang & Chung - Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time

One of the most proclaimed chamber works of the last century, it is widely known that Olivier Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time" (for violin, clarinet, cello, and piano) was conceived and composed within the Nazi prison camp Stalag VIII A. Given this, and the fact that Messiaen was already at the forefront of musical exploration before his wartime captivity, one could reasonably presume the Quartet is heavy, discordant, and menacing. This is indeed the case at times, but it's impossible to summarize the whole piece so quickly and easily - Messiaen's fascination with bird songs, modal melodies, supernatural or "heavenly" harmonies, rhythmic augmentation and diminution, eternity, infinity, and Catholic mysticism is in full effect throughout the composition.

Particularly striking to the author is the third movement, for clarinet alone, which lasts nearly 9 minutes and features incredibly elegant and lyrical phrasing, achieving as much expression with elongated notes as with empty rests. Etienne Pasquier, cellist among the original four performers of the Quartet, sheds light on the history of this movement in an interview reproduced in the liner notes:
Among our comrades was a clarinettist who was a member of the Orchestre National and who had been allowed to keep his clarinet. Messiaen started to write a piece for him while we were still in this field [where prisoners were held] as he was the only person there with an instrument. None of us had a violin or a cello or a piano. And so Messiaen wrote a piece for clarinet that was later to become the third movement of the Quatuor pour la fin du temps: Abîme des oiseaux (Abyss of the birds). Henri Akoka, the clarinettist, practised in the open field and I acted as his music stand. The piece seemed to him to be too difficult from a technical point of view and he complained about it to Messiaen. "You'll manage," was Messiaen's only reply.
The same interview contains many other fascinating anecdotes, including that the camp directors at Stalag VIII A constituted the front row of the audience at the very successful premier performance, and that Messiaen and his fellow performers were given preferential treatment as "musician soldiers" and released four years before the rest of the prisoners.

Other highlights include the fiery, rhythmically complex sixth movement ("Dance of frenzy for the seven trumpets") and the heartbreaking eighth and final movement ("Eulogy to the Immortality of Jesus"), which according to Messiaen represents "the ascent of man towards his God, of the Child of God towards his Father, of the deified Being towards Paradise."

Each player on this recording is somewhat of a celebrity in the world of concert music, and followers of Giraffe Kingdom will already have a recording featuring Gil Shaham and Jian Wang paired together, namely on Brahms' "Double Concerto". Paul Meyer on the clarinet is as comfortable playing works by modernists like Penderecki and Berio as by giants of the Classical and Romantic eras. Rounding out the group, pianist Myung-Whun Chung is, like Shaham, a Deutsche Grammophon exclusive artist; no stranger to Messiaen's orchestral oevre, he is present on recordings of the Turangalîla Symphony, Éclairs sur l'au-delà (Illuminations on the Beyond), L'Ascension, and much more. This is his first recording of chamber work.

"This quartet is in eight movements. Why? Seven is the perfect number, the six days of Creation, sanctified by the Divine Sabbath; the seven of this rest is prolonged into eternity and becomes the eight of everlasting light, of eternal piece." - Olivier Messiaen


Friday, March 20, 2009

Ecstasy of Saint Theresa - ...fluidtrance centauri...

Fans of the melodic shoegaze stylings of Asobi Seksu will find much to enjoy about the three songs on this short EP by the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, a Czech group formed in 1990. The band's first releases, the Pigment e.p. (1991) and debut album Susurrate (1992), feature distorted guitar textures very prominently, and are heavily indebted to My Bloody Valentine. By 1993, the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa were experimenting with elements of electronic and ambient music, and ...fluidtrance centauri... finds the band honing a more unique sound. "Fluidum" opens gently with light chimes and graceful delayed guitar chords, but the chorus lets loose with some heavy distortion and beautiful wah guitar treatment. "Alpha Centauri" and "Trance (Between The Stars)" follow this dynamic approach, both featuring a lot of contrast between pretty, mellow sections and energetic rock-outs. The band has had a steady stream of releases since their formation, the most recent being Watching Black (2006). Sample it on their MySpace.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

David Darling & The Wulu Bunun - Mudanin Kata

Shangri-La does exist, but it's about 2,500 miles east of the Himalayas, in of all places, Taiwan. In the year 2000, accomplished cellist David Darling visited the Bunun people, "a tribe of Taiwanese known for their sophisticated polyphonic vocal music" (Wikipedia). The result was an album so exquisitely beautiful it simply must be heard to be believed.

At the forefront of Mudanin Kata (Journey Home) is the joyful communal singing of the men, women, and children of the Wulu Bunun. Beneath their gorgeous indigenous harmonies, David Darling provides just the right amount of accompaniment, generally remaining delicate and understated, never competitive. Sometimes he plays as little as a single bowed note, or nothing at all; elsewhere he multitracks his playing, creating a chamber orchestra effect that splendidly complements the gladsome voices. He lays down some bluesy pizzicato on "Malas Tapag" (Celebration), and in the call-and-response singing one can actually hear the smiles on the faces of the Bunun.

Then there's "Pasibutbut" (Prayer For A Rich Millet Harvest), a harrowing hymn for 8 male voices which harmonically blend in ways that were unknown to the Western world until 1943, when a Japanese scholar brought a recording of the piece to Paris, causing quite a sensation. According to the album's liner notes, "‘Pasibutbut’, which has been called the ‘sound of nature’, is said to have been created by a member of the Bunun who was inspired by the sound of humming bees, a rushing waterfall or the sounds made when crossing through a pine or bamboo forest".

On "Wulu Dream", "Wulu Mist", and "Wulu Sky", Darling takes some solo time, but half of the effectiveness of these interludes stems from the lush ambience of the thriving jungle they were recorded in, thick with the chatter of local birds and frogs. One really feels transported to another place. While David Darling is guilty of having produced some fairly drab new age music, this album is anything but, and he should be applauded for bringing the Bunun to a wider audience.


Monday, March 9, 2009

No. 9 - Mushi No-Ne

Fans of Nobukazu Takemura will potentially like this album by No. 9 - Mushi No-Ne combines ambient/jazzy-techno/computery noise into a nice, laidback album. Standout track is "Bug Beats" - great melody.


Friday, February 27, 2009

Tetsu Inoue - Ambiant Otaku

First released in 1994, Tetsu Inoue's debut album Ambiant Otaku was limited to 1000 copies, yet made a significant splash in the fledgling minimalist techno community. Reissued in 2003, the album is now considered a classic, and original copies are highly collectible. Spanned by five lengthy compositions ranging from 10 to 18 minutes, Ambiant Otaku is a gentle space cruise through pillowy nebulae of sound. "Karmic Light" opens the album with a sparkling, hazy mire of enveloping drones, overtone sweeps, and polyrhythmic beeps. Light percussion gives the first section of the piece somewhat of a driving feel, but about halfway through, the texture becomes suddenly rarefied, and the listener simply floats, as though suspended in honey.

The rest of the album maintains this "drifting through clouds" consistency, more often than not without any percussion, but there is a surprising amount of musical and emotional variety from track to track, and even within single tracks. "Low Of Vibration" sports some unbelievably deep bass rumbles beneath soft washes of keyboard; "Ambiant Otaku" with its short, repetitive melodies has a slightly sinister edge; the beautifully serene "Holy Dance" builds gradually from smooth drones to include brushy percussion and echoing wah guitar. The album closes with "Magnetic Field", a gorgeous expanse of reversed synth melodies and silky electronic murmurs.

Now more than 15 years old, Ambiant Otaku has held up extremely well, largely due to its very tasteful, modern sound palette and subtle compositions. Since its release, Tetsu Inoue has gone on to become a major figure in experimental electronica, now with nearly 20 albums under his belt, including the glitchy, Oval-esque Fragment Dots (Tzadik Records, 2000), and collaborations with Bill Laswell and Taylor Deupree. For fans of the expansive soundscapes of Steve Roach and Brian Eno, Ambiant Otaku remains essential listening.

Purchase the Reissue from Amazon

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Arik Einstein - Once I Was a Child

So this post might seem a little out of left field, but I've always wanted to share this album with more people.  It's been a favorite of mine since childhood.

Arik Einstein is one of Israel's big name folk/rock singers, perhaps an analogue to someone like Paul Simon or Bruce Springsteen.  Wikipedia (not the most credible source, I know) claims "Arik Einstein's influence has been so profound that virtually all Israeli pop music can be traced back to musical projects in which he participated."  A big claim that I can't substantiate, get the idea: he's a big name in the Israeli pop music world.

This is, as far as I'm aware, an unusual album in his ouvre (a body of work I can't say I'm very familiar with) - it's a children's album!  And for me personally, it's a children's album that I grew up with and still cherish today.  Children's music or no - it's excellently crafted pop music.  The songs are catchy and interesting, without seeming to dumb-it-down for a younger audience.  Lyrically, these songs are fun narratives relating to childhood, with a wide range of subjects: saturday morning, having to do the things your parents say, really wanting a dog (but getting a cat), going to the zoo, having an unreliable friend..

Some songs take on more...surreal? narratives.  In my personal favorite, track 2, "Adon Choco", an anthropomorphized chocolate popsicle named Mr. Chocolate, goes to visit his friend, the other Mr. Chocolate - the pair decide to visit their friend...the other Mr. Chocolate...and so on so forth.  Track 11, "Kilafti Tapuz" is a dub-inspired song which tells a story of peeling an orange and finding a sleeping child inside, who demands that the orange peel be fixed immediately.

I hope people enjoy this album, and I hope language barriers won't prevent you from listening.  This will always be one of my favorite albums.

One note...I deciphered the tracklist myself - my hebrew isn't perfect and there is no real tracklisting available online (in fact, very little is available about this album it seems...the 70x70 pixel photo is the largest I could find)  Some tracks I'm not sure the exact titles of and #4 I just couldn't decide on.  Sorry for the inconvenience - if anyone manages to get a better tracklisting, please comment.


Friday, February 6, 2009

Mamoru Fujieda - Patterns of Plants I & II

Algorithmic music has a long history, and can roughly be defined as music produced through the use of rigid, deterministic procedures - the opposite of improvisation. This allows for a great deal of music to be considered at least partially algorithmic, such as 17th and 18th century counterpoint, 20th century dodecaphonism and serialism, and more generally any genre requiring a certain compositional scheme. The artistic maverick John Cage frequently used algorithmic methods, including in determining the rhythms for the recently blogged about "Sonatas and Interludes", but Cage was also largely concerned with free creative impulse. Iannis Xenakis worked with concepts from areas as diverse as pure mathematics, physics, game theory, chance, and architecture in composing his influential sound works.

Mamoru Fujieda (1955 -) generates beautiful, otherworldly music from an even less likely source: living plants. Fujieda attached sensitive electrodes to the leaves of various plants, measuring their subtlely changing electric potentials. This data was then translated by the composer's algorithms into six collections of music, each in a different tuning system, written for traditional Asian and Western Medieval instruments. Patterns of Plants was released on Tzadik Records in 1997, featuring a live chamber ensemble performing the pieces. In 2008 this was followed by Patterns of Plants II, containing five new collections with different instrumentation, notably including violin. On both albums, the music is startlingly emotive and accessible, whether or not consideration is given to how it was made. In fact, most listeners would probably never suspect this was not "composed" by a human being in the ordinary sense of the word, a fact which is very easy to forget while listening. Fujieda's blind processes resulted in something starkly beautiful, balanced, organic, and very close to the human heart.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Seaworthy - Map in Hand

Seaworthy, a three piece collective that revolves around core member Cameron Webb as well as Sam Shinazzi and Greg Bird, was formed in early 2000 to explore melodic and experimental approaches to the construction (and unravelling) of minimalist sound scapes from looped guitar, warm drones, piano, electronics and field recordings. *

Map in Hand (2006) opens at "Dusk, 30th September 2005" with the shrill cries of marine birds and soft wisps of electronic hum. Less than a minute later, we begin a quiet search with our "Map in Hand" - a 35 minute suite in ten parts consisting of little more than quiet melodies over quiet guitar drones, sometimes accompanied by light electronic touches. The mood is predominantly contemplative and wistful, occasionally hopeful and occasionally dark and sober. At "Dawn, 2nd October 2005" the search comes to a sudden, gentle end. What have we been looking for? If nothing more than a momentary sanctuary from the world, we certainly found it in this album.

* Order from 12k Records

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Herbert Henck - John Cage's "Sonatas and Interludes"

A piano prepared for the Sonatas and Interludes (Wikipedia)

John Cage (1912 - 1992), though regarded by many academics as the most important American composer of the 20th century, has still not earned much widespread acceptance or even recognition from general audiences. Performances of his music are infrequent, and not from a lack of able and willing performers; regrettably, many casual listeners find his compositions musically senseless and absent of emotion. Steve Reich addresses this in an essay on John Cage (see Reich's Writings on Music), and suggests that his Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano are among the few likely candidates for Cage pieces which could achieve lasting popularity.

This author agrees with Reich for the simple reason that the Sonatas and Interludes are catchy, a claim which no doubt will sound strange to anyone whose exposure to John Cage is limited to 4'33". The set, written prior to Cage's fascination with chance in composition, consists of 16 sonatas in binary form, interspersed with four more freely composed interludes. Many of these pieces borrow compositional techniques from various non-Western cultures; that combined with Cage's complicated scheme of rhythmic proportions, and the expanded timbrel palette of the prepared piano, leads to a rather idiosyncratic overall character. Ultimately though, these pieces have a distinctly charming and playful quality to them - there are melodies and rhythmic gestures throughout that have the capacity to get stuck in the listener's head, and this is rare for John Cage.

This ECM recording is one of many available, indicating that the Sonatas and Interludes have indeed already secured some amount of popular appeal. Herbert Henck has enormous technical faculties, and the typically transparent ECM recording quality is at hand, allowing these pieces to come fully to life. So have a listen and proudly reply "John Cage!" next time you're asked what you're whistling.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Steve Roach - Landmass

Steve Roach has been producing deeply inspired and masterfully crafted ambient music for the last 30 years, at a pace only his most dedicated fans can keep up with. The twentieth release in Roach's Timeroom Editions series, 2008's Landmass
"is a surreal shape shifting grand adventure in sound, morphing through a constantly altering perspective giving witness to the creation of iconic landscape formations, stone monuments and massive alluvial desert plains, and the occasional pyroclastic flow."*
Although the music on Landmass constitutes a single seamless journey, it is broken up into six tracks which make the structure of the journey clearer. "Transmigration" opens the album with echoing shimmers steeped in a soft drone, soon joined by light percussive taps and bass thumps. Within a few minutes, steadily measured bass strumming joins this beautiful texture to create a strong feeling of movement, as the title suggests. And after fifteen captivating minutes, the beat dissolves and we arrive at "Cerulean Sky Over A Seared Desert Wasteland". It will be difficult for me to resist using superlatives in describing this one. Rapid, knotted keyboard melodies dance over a thick low drone, like flashes of light in a fog. A strong tribal rhythm comes to the foreground, grounding us, and we coast for several minutes; but periodically and unpredictably, enormous shining swathes of strange harmonies interrupt the rhythm, and the effect is like being launched into the clouds by a great gust of wind. As the piece begins to wind down, we hear the raspy cries of what might be a turkey vulture, and it is clear Steve Roach means it when he says he has been influenced by "regular soul-searching trips to the Southern California deserts and mountains".

The next two movements, "Monuments of Memory" and "Alluvial Plain", are beatless, and fine examples of Steve Roach's quieter side, providing us some time for rest after the longer and more kinetic opening tracks. Despite the overall relaxing qualities of this music, it is not "easy listening" in the pejorative sense, and the album takes on a somewhat darker shade at this point. Murky mists of sound surround us, and a sense of timelessness hangs over everything. One feels we could be lost in this realm forever.

But finally, we take up the journey once more with "Trancemigration", a tight groove constructed from punctuated keyboard and bass notes. The emphasis on discrete scatterings of notes rather than a droning continuum makes this track a standout in terms of energy and velocity. In the last third of the piece, though, the groove begins to relent and change shape, and we transition smoothly into "Stars Begin" - a ghostly conclusion with the barest overall texture present on the album.

Although Roach has released more than 50 albums and honed an unmistakable "sound", he rarely repeats himself, and Landmass testifies that he remains a major boundary-pusher in the world of meditative ambient music.

* Order from Steve Roach's website

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Christopher Willits - Surf Boundaries

Like his contemporaries Christian Fennesz and Tim Hecker, San Francisco based Christopher Willits digitally processes his live guitar improvisations to create compelling electronic music. In contrast to the former artists, however, on Surf Boundaries Willits combines his abstract digital textures, unsteady glitch rhythms, and alien noises with a huge pop component - live drumming, gorgeous dreamy singing, short songs with verse/chorus structures, and a general sense of boundless joy and energy. It would be an understatement to say many influences went into the making of this album, and it is truly staggering how well they all came together to form something so coherent, unique and accessible.

Visit Christopher Willits' website

Monday, January 5, 2009

Metro Area - Metro Area

On the heels of the recent Kelley Polar post, here is the full length debut of Brooklyn based Metro Area, for which Polar lent his viola talents. Morgan Geist, DJ and half of Metro Area with Darshan Jesrani, met Kelley Polar in 1998; their collaborations led to the singles "Dance Reaction", "Miura", and "Caught Up", all of which appear on the 2002 full length. But this is not a Kelley Polar album, and its sound is immediately recognizable as closer to the New York house scene than outer space. The songs are mainly instrumental, and despite some very slick production and elaborate arrangements they maintain a raw, stripped down funk feel. In other words, the album successfully revels in the old school and points toward the future. What better time than the new year for us all to do the same?