Wednesday, January 31, 2007

RAFAEL ANTON IRISARRI: Daydreaming (Miasmah Recordings)

Miasmah Recordings 2007
07 Tracks. 34mins07secs

Miasmah Recordings

Since Norwegian duo Deaf Center deployed their voluptuous blend of Gothic electronica back in 2004, there has been a pretty regular stream of associated releases related to Erik Skodvin, from his solo project (Svarte Greiner) to that of Miasmah, the imprint he set up (Greg Haines, Encre). Sound artist Rafael Anton Irisarri hails from Seattle, where he curates the Kupei Musika imprint. He has released minimal electronica as Luken, but this is his first album under his own name, and here, he explores radically different forms of music.

On Daydreaming, Irisarri paints incredibly subtle impressionist vignettes with sparse touches of piano and electronics. Each piece casts a particular light upon this effortlessly elegant suite, making it a beautiful and captivating record.

Unlike the claustrophobic formations found on Skodvin’s output as Svarte Greiner or the haunting spaces of Greg Haines’s recent Slumber Tides, Irisarri relies on gossamer drapes and carves wonderfully light and airy pieces. Traces of Brian Eno and Harold Budd are welcomed signposts in landscapes otherwise shrouded in fog. Waking Expectations, which opens, is a delicate reflective piece led by an omnipresent piano over which melancholic sound waves come crashing. When a guitar softly rains on the melody of A Thousand-Yard Stare, there is an echo of Budd’s collaboration with the Cocteau Twins. While treated sound debris cloud the opening moments of Wither, they are pushed aside by a particularly pure and sharp piano line. On Lumberton, Irisarri intensifies for a moment his execution for this surprisingly romantic piece, yet, here again, strips of Guthrie-esque guitar ornate the delicate melody until it fades away.

The piano is once again at the heart of Voigt-Kampf, but this time, in treated form. Lengthened and soften, each note becomes ethereal swathe, caught in a gentle breeze like a thought in a dream. Fractal displays a more ambitious series of soundscapes, with layers of fuzz and distortions slowly laid down over a muffled heartbeat-like rhythmic marker. Although the mood of the entire record lends itself to daydreaming, the title is especially relevant to these two particular tracks. Irisarri concludes with the haunting and contemplative A Glimpse.

Daydreaming is a haunting collection of stunning dreamscapes which not only allows for the mind to wander, but actively stimulates mental illusions and emotional attachment. Here, Irisarri assembles an incredibly consistent series of particularly elaborate and evocative ambient pieces which are likely to captivate for years to come.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

BEN FROST: Theory Of Machines (Bedroom Community)

Theory Of Machines
Bedroom Community 2006
05 Tracks. 38mins40secs

Buy it: CD
Ben Frost | Bedroom Community

There is something terribly disturbing about the cover of Ben Frost’s latest offering. Showing him hanging upside down, feet and hands wrapped in green plastic bags and tied together. Additional images of him lying on the floor looking half dead or of his head caught up in a strange metallic contraption further accentuate the feeling of unease that surrounds this release. While a definite stylistic slant, these images are more than just a simple visual translation of the content of the album.

Hailing from Melbourne, Australia, twenty-six year old Frost relocated to the somewhat cooler Reykjavik in 2005 and teamed up with Björk collaborator and Bedroom Community label head Valgeir Sigurðsson. Prior to depositing his bags of noise on the Bedroom Community doorstep, Frost has been spotted on labels such as Room40 and John Chantler’s Inventing Zero. He has also been involved with various art installations and has worked on scores for films and dance companies. More recently, he has worked under the collective moniker of School Of Emotional Engineering and released a self-titled album, published on Architecture, in 2004.

The scope of Theory Of Machines, Frost’s first offering for Bedroom Community, is rather vast, ranging from gritty guitar-fuelled cloudy drones to digital minimalism and greasy heavy rock. This album challenges and unsettles by its apparent inertia and the underlying perversion which results from the sometimes violent atmospheric shifts throughout. Nothing is quite what it seems here. Compositions that appear calm and introvert can erupt into raucous clouds or dense seismic formations unexpectedly only to be pulverized into minute particles. Elsewhere, Frost applies layer after layer of thick sonic foundation to form cyclical pieces.

The album opens with the title track, which grows from an ethereal guitar line into a much grittier and sturdier edifice. We Love You Michael Gira works in similar ways, but the result is more subtle and delicate, despite the mind-drilling ring of an alarm clock pacing amongst abrasive glitches for a while. Stomp is a much more complex composition. Raising razor-sharp electric fences around pulsating electronic debris, Frost builds tension and gets under the skin of its audience, while Coda is a much rawer piece, with electric sparks flying across all the way through. The last track, Forgetting You Is Like Breathing Water is, in contrast, totally introvert and almost pastoral as Frost progressively applies an orchestral feel into his processed soundscapes.

Ben Frost’s music is not exactly pretty in the esthetic meaning of the word, but the treatment he applies give his compositions an interesting sheen. While the reaches of this album are, as its title indicates, somewhat mechanical and industrial, there is an organic thread which runs through each track, binding Theory Of Machines together beautifully.

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Joanna Newsom, Barbican Centre, London
Fri. 19 January 2007

Wearing an almost identical dress to the one she is depicted in on the cover of Ys, Joanna Newsom shyly steps in front of a full Barbican Hall framed by her drummer, guitarist and conductor. Once behind her towering pedal harp, she delivers the first notes of Emily. Tonight, she will be performing Ys in its entirety, backed with the London Symphony Orchestra. This date comes at the end of a short tour of the UK, and is the sole performance with the Barbican-based formation.

Joanna is there, on stage, just behind the guitarist...

The songs are presented in the exact same order as on the album, but Van Dyck Parks’s arrangements at times appear to have be given a slightly different relief. Cast against the orchestra, Newsom’s voice sounds as if it has once again gained in maturity and clarity, giving the songs a much sharper and vibrant feel. Emily flows well. The song, for her younger sister, provides a perfect introduction to the evening. Monkey And Bear follows. Equally as exquisite as the original, its Celtic roots, brushed with discreet medieval tones, appear much clearer, highlighted by the outburst of percussions and the soft vocal harmonies provided by Newsom’s drummer.

As the lights are dimmed, the focus is on Joanna alone when she starts Sawdust And Diamonds. Her execution is particular acute and physical here as she caries the whole song alone. Her hands run on the strings in intricate sequences, like spiders on a web, yet, nothing of the complexity transpires in the music as she weaves melodic patterns and lays upon them her delicately acidic tones. Here, she captures the attention of the audience for good and will not let go until the end of the performance.

The epic Only Skin follows. Stretching over sixteen minutes, it is a monster of a piece, but it is delivered with precision and class. The pastoral feel of the song is accentuated as the orchestral backdrop ebbs and flows with the melody. Toward the end, Newsom is joined by Smog’s Bill Callahan, her partner in life, who adds a deeper, darker harmony to the culminating section of the song. Cosmia, which is, as Joanna informs us, the last song she will be performing with the orchestra, flows like a river, at times tumultuous and wild, at others peaceful and vast. The soft accordion brushes which give the song a discreet Jacques Brel flavour on Ys are absent here, but this almost goes unnoticed as vibrant orchestral swathes continuously swell.

After a short interval, Joanna returns to the stage, this time on her own, for a few more songs. ‘This is not a Christina Aguilera costume change’ she says, justifying her change of dress by the intensity of the first half of the concert. She begins with The Book Of Right On and Sadie, renamed Sasha in honour of a friend, both from The Milk-Eyed Mender, followed by Ca' The Yowes To The Knowes, a traditional Scottish song which is perfectly suited to her voice and instrument. Joanna is then joined by her drummer and guitarist for a brand new song with strong Irish folk flavours, which may give an insight into what the follow up to Ys might sound like. With one more song under their belt, the trio retire. Joanna comes back once more for a one song encore. ‘We have been debating which song I should do, and this is the one’ she says before breaking into Bridges & Balloons, concluding a truly magnificent evening under the ovations of a devoted audience.

The contrast between Joanna Newsom’s frail appearance and disarming modesty and the confidence with which she delivers her songs, either with the orchestra or on her own, couldn’t be greater. With Ys, Ms Newsom undoubtedly delivered a career-defining record, and this live performance didn’t disappoint.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Those albums that keep on creeping up...

The most recent post on Enda's blog describes his usual listening pattern for a track as:

1. Discovery
2. Love/Hate/Indifferent
3. If love, repeated plays for certain period of time
4. Less regular outings
5. Even fewer outings.

I often have noticed similar patterns with albums. I will sometimes play them a lot in the first few weeks, depending on whether I like them a lot or not, then a bit less, then, depending on whether they made a lasting impression, they will get very irregular airings or not leave the shelf they've ended up on ever again. This is, you understand, not related to whether an album is actually good or not.

There are however a handful of albums that keep on creeping up on me at very regular intervals. They are linked to artists I am mad about, obviously, and reaching for them depends on a variety of reasons, whether it is dictated by my mood, events, magazine article or just a particular track resurfacing in my mind out of the blue.

Here's the non-exhaustive list, in no particular order:

Autechre: Tri Repetae / Chiastic Slide
Cocteau Twins: Heaven Or Las Vegas / Head Over Heels
Broadcast: Tender Buttons / Ha Ha Sound
Biosphere: Substrata / Dropsonde
Alice Coltrane: Ptah, The El Daod / Journey In Satchidananda
Animal Collective: Campfire Songs / Feels
310: Recessional / After All
Pet Shop Boys: Behaviour / Very
The Creatures: Boomerang
Joanna Newsom: Ys (this one is very recent obviously, but I have noticed the pattern developing already).

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

ROSY PARLANE: Jessamine (Touch)

Touch 2007
03 Tracks. 48mins50secs

Buy it: CD
Rosy Parlane | Touch

After a spell in experimental rock outfits Thela and Parmentier, New Zealand-born Rosy Parlane established himself as a sound artist with a series of releases for Sigma Editions and Synaesthesia. He has also collaborated with artists such as Fennesz, AMM founder Eddie Prevost and avant-garde musician Mattin. In 2004, Parlane joined the ranks of influential UK label Touch and released the magnificent Iris.

Following a similar template to the one applied to Iris, Jessamine is articulated around three distinct tracks clocking at over thirteen, sixteen and nineteen minutes respectively. Like its predecessor, this album is a fascinating journey through dense soundscapes built around a multitude of instruments (guitars, piano, melodica, violin, drums), various objects (sawblade, radio, computer, bowed metal) and field recordings, all blended into thick and complex drone-like atmospheric formations which continuously change texture, tone and feel as new layers are applied. Although intrinsically monotone and austere, Parlane’s creations are extremely detailed, rich and evocative. Melodies may be almost entirely inexistent as such, yet there is undeniable musicality throughout, giving Jessamine a surprisingly pastoral and light appearance.

The album opens with shimmering noises layered over a scarce backdrop, but the piece becomes more vibrant as Parlane applies delicate touches. It takes a while for the track to settle, but just as it reaches its climax, it reluctantly begins to recede, lingering out for some time. There is much more grit in Part Two as interferences and environmental glitches continuously emerge from a seemingly orchestral cloud. After circling for a moment, they eventually evaporate, only to materialize once more in a condensed form toward the end. Part Three is perhaps the most rewarding composition here. While its first section gently develop over a series of soft and warm sounds, a wall of guitars progressively washes over before exploding into autonomous particles of distortion. As this cloud of noise comes crashing down, all is left is a single thread of sound which eventually brings this album to a close.

Parlane is responsible for the vast majority of the sound sources used here, but additional contributions from sound artist Marcel Bear on Part One, Japanese guitarist and violinist Tetuzi Akiyama on Part Two, and no less than eight guitarists, including Norwegian noise artist Lasse Marhaug and Dead C member Michael Morley, on Part Three. Yet, it is very much the New Zealander’s vision that transpires throughout. Rosy Parlane has found in Touch his spiritual home and Jessamine is sure to continue establish him as a major artist.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

MIRA CALIX: Eyes Set Against The Sun (Warp Records)

Eyes Set Against The Sun
Warp Records 2007
10 Tracks. 62mins37secs

Buy it: CD
Mira Calix | Warp Records

Hot on the heels of her collaboration with pianist Sarah Nicolls and arranger David Sheppard as Alexander's Annexe and over three years after the stunning Skimskitta, Mira Calix returns with her most ambitious record yet. Building on her orchestral work with the London Sinfonietta and with Alexander's Annex, she presents here a rather diverse and expensive collection of complex electronica.

Calix, real name Chantal Passamonte, has been digging her own singular groove on the electronic scene deeper with each release, pushing further into field recordings and experimentation. The former Warp PR girl's unique blend of miniature sound collages have been made up of everything from urban pollution to insect noises, although, since relocating to Suffolk, the bulk of her sound stock comes from the countryside surrounding her studio. Her instinctively adventurous work has led to commissions coming thick and fast in recent years, from Geneva's Natural History Museum with the infamous Nunu, to London's Barbican Centre, which were compiled on Three Commissions, released two years ago to pieces for art installations and dance companies.

While OneOnOne was quite a dry affair and Skimskitta had a very organic feel, Calix follows yet another path for this third album as she magnifies intricately woven minute sound formations and turns them into vast pastoral symphonies. Where others spend their energy cleaning samples and polishing their production, she thrives on trials and errors, going as far as adding grit and 'accidents' to her compositions to accentuate the realism of her music.

The album opens with the delicate and acidic Because To Why, which features a school choir recorded while rehearsing with Alexander’s Annex. The composition appears very much an extension of her more recent work as Chantal Passamonte applies gossamer sonic layers, alternating between treated vocal elements and a lonely violin while running water and environmental drones can be heard in the background. Later, Protean works in similar fashion, with its birds and forest noises placed against a dense orchestral theme. The epic The Way You Are When is even more intense, blossoming from a light string section into a more complex array of voices, creaking interferences, clattering industrial matter and orchestral debris, which, although rarely crossing paths, all seem connected and impacting on each other.

The Stockholm Syndrome is a rather more unhealthy proposition. Sounding like a nasty experimental Siouxsie Sioux clad in distorted electronics, with Calix lazy voice weighing the atmosphere down, there is an element of discomfort here which makes the track stick out uneasily. Elsewhere, the litany of Eeilo offers a stark contrast to the rich formations of aforementioned pieces with its lone piano and minimalist settings, while One Line Behind uses treated sections of the school choir heard earlier layered over a dense orchestral framework. The closing hidden track is a short sequence of the choir chanting the album title.

While her two previous albums collected a great number of often short compositions, Eyes Set Against The Sun shows a move toward more expensive pieces, which undoubtedly coincides with Mira Calix's increasing involvement with contemporary classical music. The album doesn’t actually seem quite as coherent as Skimskitta and sometimes feel as the reflection of a transitory period in Calix’s work. Yet, there is much to explore on this record as she continues to craft elegant sonic tapestries, ensuring her music remains as challenging, intriguing and entertaining as ever.

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Alice Coltrane (1937-2007)

Alice Coltrane at the piano

I have just read about the sad news of the death of Alice Coltrane on Mapsadaisical’s blog. A quick search on Google and Yahoo news sections have unfortunately confirmed it.

I first encountered Alice Coltrane through a interview that she gave to UK magazine The Wire in April 2002. Although hadn’t heard of her before, my interest in jazz being relatively recent, I was intrigued by the photos, and the association with John Coltrane both prompted me to read the article. In this interview, her spirituality came across quite strongly, and the way she was talking of her music gave me envy to hear some of her records. The interview coincided with the re-release of three of her Warner albums, Radha-Krsna Nama Sankirtana (1976), Transcendence (1977) and Transfiguration (1978). Dave Shooter, at work, had copies of all three on his desk, so I asked him if I could borrow them to which he told me that, since he had them already, I was welcomed to keep them.

On listening to Radha-Krisna and Transcendence especially, I loved the incredible fluidity of her music, especially on the pieces where she plays the harp or the piano. I was also fascinated by the chants and the hypnotic nature of her music.

It is not until Andrew recommended some of her earlier Impulse records that I grasped the majestic touch of the music she had produced following the death of John Coltrane in 1967 and truly fell in love with her work. Albums such as Ptah, The El Daoud (1970), Huntington Ashram Monastery (1969), A Monastic Trio (1968), Journey In Satchidananda (1970), Universal Consciousness (1972) and World Galaxy (1972), captured my imagination like no other jazz record has done. They are all permanently on my MP3 player.

I still have a few of her albums to discover, including her last one, some of them yet to be released on CD. Her latest album, Translinear Light, came out just over two years ago and was her first in 26 years. Recently, while visiting the Barbican Centre website, I found out she was due to give a rare concert there on April 1st, with her saxophonist son Ravi, bassist Charlie Haden and 81 year old drummer Roy Haynes. I immediately booked a ticket, and was very much looking forward to see her play. Unfortunately, she will not be coming to London.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

ADJÁGAS: Adjágas (Ever Records)

Ever Records 2006
09 Tracks. 39mins24secs

Buy it: CD
Ever Records

Four years ago, Sami artist Mari Boine released a couple of albums on Norwegian imprint Jazzland, including a collection of remixes by the likes of Jah Wobble, Biosphere, Bill Laswell and Nils Petter Molvær and Eight Seasons, a superb collaboration with label founder Bugge Westeltoft. While she adopted a resolutely contemporary sound, her work provided an insight into traditional Sami culture. Living in nomadic tribes on a territory stretching across Northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and part of Russia, the Sami People have suffered a similar fate to the Native Americans, being bought with alcohol and progressively made to adopt sedentary lifestyles. While, in the last twenty years, Scandinavia has proved to be a hotbed of talents, the Sami culture has remained confined to its people.

The arrival of Sami duo Adjágas, with their self-titled debut album, released on Ever Records, could very well change all that. Formed in 2004 by Sara Mariella Gaup (23) and Lawra Sombry (26), both vocalists, Adjágas have, with this record carved a fascinating niche for themselves. Using a traditional form of musical expression called the ‘yoik’ or 'joik', which relies not on words but on sounds as a mean of expression, the pair recorded this album with various musician friends and producer Andreas Mjøs, whose credentials include working with Susanna & The Magical Orchestra, Jaga Jazzist and Rotoscope.

The nine songs featured here are largely acoustic, providing all the necessary space for the vocal performances to flourish freely. The mood is reflective and hypnotic, with gentle melancholic touches giving a particular relief to each piece. Although branded as an acoustic Sigur Rós, the music of Adjágas is in essence closer to the ritual chants of Native Americans, highlighting the similarities between the two cultures. The songs, part incantations, part tribal calls, develop into captivating little vignettes in which male and female voices dance around each other, at times taking in turn to lead, at others merging into one, dressed in sumptuous swathes of guitars, banjos and occasional percussions. The strong contrast between Sara’s clear and slightly acidic voice and Lawra’s darker guttural tones works interestingly throughout, as each joiker takes it in turn to lead and brings their own textures and flavours to the mix.

The album opens with the gentle sparkling Lihkulaš, but, as the track rapidly gathers momentum as the voices come in, the accompaniment becomes more potent. Later, a similar treatment is applied to Mun Ja Mun, the infectious Ozan, and, to a lesser extent, Suvvi Ijat, which closes the proceedings. The most instantly gratifying moments on the album, these are powerful evocative pieces. Elsewhere, the band adopt a more reflective tone. Songs such as Rievdadeapmi, Guorus Fatnasat or Siivu build on the fluidity of the yoik and pastoral aspect of the music to reveal beautiful cinematic forms. Melodies are at their most fragile here, often appearing as if at breaking point, but, held together by shimmering orchestrations, they continue to thrive until their natural end.

This debut album is truly magnificent; yet, its underwhelming aspect means that it requires time to grow. By continuously building on their powerful roots while applying gentle contemporary brushes, Adjágas have created a beautiful evocative piece of work.

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Monday, January 08, 2007

NICO MUHLY: Speaks Volumes (Bedroom Community)

Speaks Volume
Bedroom Community 2006
07 Tracks. 53mins27secs

Buy it: CD
Nico Muhly | Bedroom Community

Released on new Icelandic imprint Bedroom Community, set up by record producer and Björk collaborator Valgeir Sigurðsson, Speaks Volumes is the debut album from twenty-four year old composer and musician Nico Muhly. Born in Vermont and raised in Rhodes Island, Muhly studied composition at the Julliard School. He has since worked with Antony & The Johnsons, orchestrated the score for The Manchurian Candidate in 2004, collaborated with Björk on Medúlla and conducted the score for Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9, once again working in partnership with Björk.

Speaks Volumes is a fascinating collection of complex and delicate chamber music pieces framed with discreet electronics. While the seven tracks presented here all share rather austere attires, developed from few instruments at a time, there is, running through the whole album, a deep sense of musicality which gives it a surprisingly light and airy appearance. Although his music can at times seem somewhat serious and conceptual, especially on the textural and moody Clear Music, with which he opens, or on the complex and expressionist Honest Music, Muhly deflects the tention by projecting playful elements at the forefront of his compositions, from the relentless clarinet pursuit of It Goes Without Saying to the swelling waves of piano and celesta fighting out for attention on Pillaging Music.

Elsewhere, Muhly adopts a rather more stern approach on the superb Quiet Music and A Hudson Cycle. Both pieces, interpreted by Muhly on the piano, are short and introspective, but, whereas the former shows strong spiritual and cinematic overtones, the latter is a much more subtle and fragile composition. Originally created as a wedding gift for two friends, the piece is at once melancholic and uplifting and pays a noted homage to the work of Philip Glass, which Muhly cites as one of his most important influences.

The closing track is a much more experimental and intriguing composition. Keep In Touch opens with a lonely viola drawing a pseudo improvised arabesque before being joined by Antony on vocal duties. This is perhaps the most demanding moment on this album, but the dense canvas formed from the alternatively plaintive and abrasive instrument and the mournful hums and hoos, with background electronics progressively adding grit to the mix, serves the intrigue surprisingly well and brings this album to an end in a rather unexpected fashion.

While Nico Muhly has been getting noticed for his work for a while, with compositions performed on both sides of the Atlantic, this first collection, as eclectic and disparate as it is, is certain to raise his profile and put the fledgling Bedroom Community imprint on the map.

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