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Review: SunnO))) & Ulver, “Terrestrials” (Southern Lord)

Six years in the making, SunnO))) and Ulver’s first collaborative record arrives at the end of a long stretch that saw members from both bands performing together in various configurations.

According to Stephen O’Malley, the basic tracks for Terrestrials were first laid down in 2008, shortly after SunnO))) performed at the Øya Festival in Oslo, Norway. A couple of years later, O’Malley, Daniel O’Sullivan, and Kristoffer Rygg met in Oslo again, this time with percussionist Steven Noble. Together they performed a series of concerts as Æthenor and released the results as 2011’s excellent En Form for Blå. Prior to that, Rygg had produced a track for SunnO)))’s White1 and O’Sullivan had recorded with O’Malley on Æthenor’s debut album, Deep in Ocean Sunk the Lamp of Light. Terrestrials represents the first time Greg Anderson, Jørn H. Sværen and Tore Ylwizaker have joined the party, but there’s a long musical relationship playing silently behind the scenes here.

(Read more)

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Review: Tarab, “Strata” (Unfathomless)

Eamon Sprod records music in the field, but don’t mistake the product of his labor for a field recording. In some hands microphones and tapes are used to capture the buzz of insects or the sound of rain pelting the land—whatever the subject might be—with the intent of faithfully reproducing those sounds later in a living room or in a pair of headphones. Replication is the documentarian’s craft. Sprod’s is magnification. He singles out particular noises, brushes them off and, like a geologist or an archaeologist, excavates them from the sediment of ordinary commotion. His efforts yield an enlarged world of microscopic rhythms and porous surfaces, small remnants that point to the unbroken environments from which they were culled. But Sprod re-purposes those extractions as musical vehicles too, for both re-hearing and re-imagining the world.

Strata is a telling title. Maybe the perfect title for this album, because, in order to get what he wants, Sprod has to dig into the dirt. He trains his microphones on the gritty crunch of busted concrete and loose gravel, buries them in the ground to pick up the vibrations of subway trains, and lets them loose over a wide surface where dogs bark and the hum of cars, planes, and other machines mingle chaotically. Most public spaces are filled with sounds like these, but they pass by unnoticed for a variety of reasons: visual distractions pull our attention away from them or other sounds roar rudely into our ears masking the quieter noises that smolder in the dark. Some sounds require special equipment to hear and other times there is simply too much happening to catch it all at once. Whatever the case, our senses fail to report the entire scene. Sprod’s method of recording and composing brings those silenced sounds back to consciousness, with a twist.

Read more at Brainwashed (with sound samples)…


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Review: Nicholas Szczepanik, “Not Knowing” (Desire Path)

Halfway through Nicholas Szczepanik’s Not Knowing things take a turn for the dark. It required a full 25 minutes to unfold them, but it takes only a few short moments for Szczepanik to stab his gilded melodies and let them die. First the strings lose their luster, then they grow still and cold, and finally they sink into icy cold waters. Afterward, all that remains of their swaying, sentimental song is a muffled harmonic echo and the barest suggestion that something warm still persists below the surface. But the music sweeps us along, and the symphony finally fades into a wavy blur of shivering tones. The transition is forlorn and paradoxically comforting, like recalling a happy memory and realizing you’re unlikely to experience anything like it ever again.

Not Knowing first saw the light of day in 2011, when it served as the inaugural disc in Szczepanik’s Ante Algo Azul subscription series. It was a brief 18-minute piece on a 3-inch CD-R, extremely limited, housed in a handmade sleeve and sealed with a dedication to Eliane Radigue, whose work served as an inspiration for the music. You can hear her at points throughout the album: in the patient introduction, in the pulsing analog tones, and in the directness of the elements employed. Her influence is clear, but Szczepanik does a lot more than imitate her work.

Read more… (at Dusted)


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Review: COH, “Retro-2038”

Back in May, as the Daft Punk machine squeezed out its Steely Dan yacht rock tribute and bamboozled writers (“does good music need to be good?”) with their AM radio, disco-pop revival, COH quietly released a throwback record of his own on Editions Mego. Both the Punks and Ivan Pavlov name-checked Giorgio Moroder and both took dance music as a starting point for their endeavors, but the similarities basically end there.

Pavlov’s songs steer clear of most radio-friendly conventions and follow a much harder to define trajectory. They fly through the computerized sounds of Spiegel’s Expanding Universe, navigate the twisting textures of Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon and fall into orbit around Kraftwerk’s android funk and Pan Sonic’s crippling beats.

Read the rest at Dusted…


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Review: Songs: Ohia, “Magnolia Electric Co. (10th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)”

Two forces define Jason Molina’s entire career: work—he was almost obsessively dedicated to his craft—and his band. In 2003 he brought these forces to Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio in Chicago and, with nine other musicians, caught lightning in a bottle. Up to that point Molina had made a case for his being a great songwriter, but on Magnolia Electric Co. he became a great bandleader. Those nine other musicians share the spotlight with him on these eight songs, and rightfully so. They’re an integral reason Magnolia ended up one of the best rock ‘n’ roll records ever recorded.

From his debut 7″ in 1996 until 2003 Jason Molina’s band changed with virtually every new release. He played and recorded with Arab Strap, Richard Youngs, Geof Comings, Jonathan Cargill, Mike Mogis, Edith Frost, Dave Fischoff, Alasdair Roberts, and many others; too numerous to count here.

These are the people, as much as Molina, who made Songs: Ohia what it was. Jason knew this and admitted it in various interviews. With Magnolia Electric Co. he acknowledged it, and practically handed the album over this friends and fellow musicians.

The big themes come first: transformation, doubt, partnership, work, and fate—Jason’s magical lyricism rides on top of these concerns. He communes with spectral guides and ghostly conspirators; presents deserts, flowers, and ghost towns as trail cairns for lovesick wanderers; and draws Comiskey Park together with the ancient light of distant stars. He writes about broad spaces, thoughts, and inner experiences, and then brings them to life with these details. Until, in the album’s penultimate moment, as “John Henry Split My Heart” nearly flies off the rails, Molina reels the band’s energy in for just a few lines. In the equivalent of a rock ‘n’ roll soliloquy, he sings, “Boy what you gonna do with your heart in two?” He replies, “Only if it’s good enough, half I’m gonna use to pay this band. Half I’m saving, ’cause I’m gonna owe ’em.”

Jason Molina was undoubtedly a great songwriter. As his solo albums, numerous solo bootlegs, and the newly reissued Magnolia demos show, he could carry a song all on his own, sometimes just on the strength of his voice. For the 2003 recording session, he had worked out all the lyrics in advance, knew the basic chords and shapes the songs would take, and maybe even knew how everything would fit together. A few of those songs had been tested on the road the year before too, with a band in tow. But incredibly several of the album’s most memorable melodies aren’t there in the demos, or even in the pre-album live versions.

Jim Grabowski’s floating Wurlitzer accompaniment on “Just Be Simple,” Dan Macadam’s dancing violin on “The Old Black Hen,” Dan Sullivan’s angular guitar playing, even Mike Brenner’s lap steel lead on “Farewell Transmission”—they were all almost unbelievably invented by the musicians, in the studio, on the spot, without the benefit of knowing the songs well in advance, using overdubs to fix mistakes, or having rehearsal time. Jason wasn’t kidding about owing them.

That spontaneity gives the music its loose, anything-could-happen feel; the sort of rambling, improvisational quality that causes listeners to draw connections to country and gospel music when they hear the album. Molina’s ideas, what he brought to the table as a writer, pull the record in the opposite direction. He’s the one that makes the music sound tightly wound; it’s his ability as a leader that makes it all sound inevitable.

And that says nothing of the incredible rhythm section Jason had in Jeff Panall and Rob Sullivan, or of Jennie Benford’s haunting harmonies, or of spectacular start on side B, where he gives up the mic to Lawrence Peters and Scout Niblett on “The Old Black Hen” and “Peoria Lunch Box Blues.” Jason disappears into both of those songs, making it hard to say where he even is in the mix. They’re his songs sure enough, but it’s the team that’s making them sing. Other bands have worked in a similar way, but few have left so much to the fates and come out the other end with an album that sounds as confident and energetic as Magnolia Electric Co.

To the inclusion of the reissued demos, this 10th anniversary edition adds two studio recordings; one brand new, one difficult to find until now. Acoustic versions for both songs were featured on the demo disc in the album’s limited first edition, but the big draw for anyone who has those already are these studio additions. “The Big Game Is Every Night” was previously available on the Japanese edition of the album, but thank God it’s finally available domestically because it’s stunning, and almost perfectly embodies the entire album. Above a dark, swirling mass of droning strings, Molina delivers urgent line after urgent line of historical images, references, and self-accusations that only he could have imagined. Cutting it from the record must have been painful, but it’s such a massive black hole of a tune that it would have swallowed all the light around it. It makes perfect sense on it’s own, after the album has ended, or on the 10″ that comes with the vinyl version.

“Whip-Poor-Will,” on the other hand, falls a bit flat. The demo version is great, and the studio treatment it received on Josephine is heart-rending, but the Magnolia version simply sounds incomplete, as if Jason and Jennie Benford had a good idea, but couldn’t find a way to make it work with the time they had.

Hearing it reinforces just how perfect everything else is. Unbelievable is a good word for it, and maybe lucky too. But good bands make their own luck, and this band was as good as they come. As good as the ones Dylan had in ’64 and ’65, as rough and powerful as Crazy Horse, at times as heavy and as energetic as Hendrix, Redding, and Mitchell. Together, these ten musicians could go toe to toe with anyone, and that’s not hyperbole. Make no doubt about it, it’s a fact; true like the solid earth. All you have to do to know it is listen.

Magnolia Electric Co. is available on Secretly Canadian
Sound samples available at Brainwashed.com


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Review: “EDM A2” and “EDM B2”

Rephlex is almost definitely behind EDM (Electric Dance Music) A2 and B2, but they’re not owning up to it. Neither disc sports a label, neither comes with liner notes, and except for a few Jodey Kendrick aliases, most of the 13 featured artists are unrecognizable. Alain Kepler, Rob Kidley, and Trevor Dags could be anyone, but with electronic music as hyperactive and acid washed as this, the first anyone that comes to mind is Richard D. James.

Anonymity cuts like a double edged sword, especially for IDM producers or anyone else in the general vicinity. It drummed up a good deal of attention for The Tuss and Steinvord, but the question of authorship can overshadow whether a record is any good or not. Unfortunately, A2 and B2 suffer that fate, if only a little. Nearly every song is exciting and memorable, and there’s plenty of diversity here. Artists like Rob Kidley and J.K. obviously have some bubblebath in their blood, but Kepler, Heidi Lord, and Trevor Dags pull both records though smears of ambience and clubby pastiches that break away from the braindance bill. The familiar throb of drum ‘n’ bass shows up too, followed by the quiet sizzle of micro-sculpted dance and the analog hum of droning waves. Not everything inspires dance, but the title feels appropriate nonetheless.

va-EDM_B2That variety makes it hard to believe that one person could be behind every song, but both discs play more like albums than compilations, and they flow into each other as if they were one album assembled by one hand. A2 begins with a solid beat and keeps it going for more than half the album. Abrupt samples and distorted fragments cut in and out of the mix, and multi-threaded melodies criss-cross each other in jumbled chunks, but always in service of a syncopated rhythm. The songs also stick close to a four and a half minute limit, leaving an impression just by their blur of their movement. Repeat plays help to solidify the impact.

In the last 12 minutes, the music mellows into a series of relatively low-key ambient shorts. That leads naturally into B2, which proceeds at a more relaxed pace. These songs rely less on glitches and more on instrumental color. A few are just electric sketches, others are longer, more hypnotic tracks, but they caress more than punch. The artists blend beat with atmosphere and toy with acoustic samples, and J.K. tosses a fragment of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue into the mix on a song called “Man Hunt 1”; I can almost hear him laughing behind it. By the time Heidi Lord kicks the second half of B2 into full gear, everything’s very cool, blue, and chilled out. The record is still playful, but it loses much of its dance-y flavor and drifts into more ambient, psychedelic territory. It ends in a much different place than where it began, but the shift is gradual enough to keep the records linked up.

Maybe old man A-F-X shows up somewhere in the middle, or maybe that’s what Rephlex wants you to believe. Either way, it’s a frustrating game. Whether or not he’s releasing music is less interesting than the music itself. Does Heidi Lord have another record out there somewhere? Has TX81Z—aggravatingly named after a Yamaha synthesizer—produced anything else as trippy as “Googol?” Is Jodey Kendrick secretly one of the best electronic producers out there and the sole man behind this series? For now, nobody knows.

EDM A2 and EDM B2 are available from places like Forced Exposure and Boomkat
Sound samples available at Brainwashed.com


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Review: Miles, “Unsecured”

Miles Whittaker can’t be stopped. As one-half of Demdike Stare, as Suum Cuique, and now as Miles, he has released a string of records that have vanished almost as soon as they have appeared. Unsecured follows his first full-length under the Miles moniker, rounding out its low-key tones and subdued colors with four coarse and heavy techno productions. Like his other records, it’s also likely to disappear soon—and for good reason.

Faint Hearted, Whittaker’s first full-length for Modern Love as Miles, was sold out and unavailable almost before it was released. On it, atmosphere and dusty effects take precedence over melody; and stiff, sputtering rhythms—that remind me of Plastikman’s “Spastik” —constitute the music’s driving force. There aren’t many hooks and there isn’t much to dance to, but the album’s quiet magic won me over with repeat plays. It was the first techno record to win me over this year.

Unsecured is the second, and it blows Faint Hearted out of the water. It leaps out of the gate with “Blatant Statement,” an explosive production propelled by sizzling percussion and a slippery 303 pattern catchier than anything on the full length. Miles beefs it up with the kind of cold synthesizer chords I’m absolute sucker for and keeps the tension running high for the next six minutes. The song doesn’t stop so much as it falls over. The melody sputters and trips, and falls head over heels.

The momentum carries into “Technocracy” —a cooler, but still forward moving dub track with an off-kilter rhythm and a hip-commanding low end— and on to the second side, where “Infinite Jest” erupts with a massive four-on-the-floor rhythm and a synth lead almost dirty enough for Pan Sonic. There is nothing subtle about it. It just pounds away for seven and a half minutes in full-on caveman glory.

“Plutocracy” winds the EP down with a darker atmosphere and some more of those cold synthesizer chords. This time they actually cool things off, as the record ends to the sound of their ominous moaning. But I’d honestly rather hear more like the first three songs. Faint Hearted is a good record for chilling out. Unsecured is great because it rocks so damn hard.

Unsecured is available on Modern Love
Review published at Brainwashed.com
Listen to the entire EP here:


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Review: Songs: Ohia, “Hecla & Griper (15th Anniversary Edition)”

In 1997, as the last of the tenth generation Thunderbirds rolled off the Ford assembly line in Lorain, Ohio, Jason Molina released his debut album and first EP for Secretly Canadian. The Lorain native had two 7″ singles to his name when his self-titled debut arrived in April. Hecla & Griper snuck in before Christmas that year, loaded with terse songs, a bigger bottom end, and a tougher sound for the winter. Secretly Canadian’s 15th Anniversary Edition tacks on four new-ish songs, two of them exciting, previously unreleased Hecla versions of “Heart Newly Arrived” and “One of Those Uncertain Hands,” which both first showed up on 1998’s Impala.

There’s nothing in Songs: Ohia’s first recordings that point to where Molina would end up on albums like Ghost Tropic or Didn’t It Rain. Early on, he had somewhere to be and he wanted to get there fast. No nine minute serenades with bluesy flourishes, no long instrumental passages with droning organs and bird calls —just a small band, some peculiar verses, and maybe a chorus or two where the lines bear repeating. “Pass,” Hecla’s opening song, lasts just one minute. Jason sings for about half that time. It’s more like a punk song than anything in the Americana/Palace-worship catalog, and it’s catchy as hell. “East Last Heart,” the longest song on the EP at four minutes, ends precisely when it needs to, and with very little ornamentation: some dramatic piano chords to complement the bottom-heavy crawl of the tenor guitar and bass, and Jason singing “rich kid I’m talking to you.” That’s it. Cut, next song.

Even the slow tunes are fleet of foot. “Reply & Claim,” a re-purposed version of “Citadel (Tenskwatawa),” is just a hair longer than the original, but passes with more momentum thanks to the extra instrumentation. The instrumentation is only bass and drums, but it sounds more like a rock song now and Jason’s delivery is a touch more urgent too, to keep the energy in proportion with the duration. Plus there aren’t any saxophones or clarinets brightening things up, so there’s no airy relief from Molina’s frequently dark lyricism and insistent delivery. The closest Hecla & Griper gets to relief is a cover of Conway Twitty’s “Hello Darlin’,” which is almost funny, but still badass. Jason talks through some of the lyrics, sounding proud and resigned simultaneously, and half-amused that he’s recording a Conway Twitty song.

The bonus songs are an odd bunch. “Pilot & Friend” is a slightly different version of “The Arrogant Truth” from the Our Golden Ratio EP (1998), and “Debts” is actually “To the Neighbors of Our Age,” which first saw the light of day on Songs for the Geographically Challenged Volume 2, released by Temporary Residence in 1997. “Debts” points the way to Impala with its quiet organ melody, but still fits the Hecla bill just fine. I assume “Pilot & Friend” was recorded around the same time, but without liner notes all I can do is assume. It isn’t out of place, but why put a song from another EP on here?

But I’m being grumpy about a great song from an EP I don’t have anyway. For fans already acquainted with everything Jason did, the new versions of “Heart Newly Arrived” and “One of Those Uncertain Hands” are worth getting excited about. They feature the Hecla & Griper instrumentation and are more cleanly recorded, without echo or reverb. Instead of being moody and atmospheric, they’re lean and propulsive—mean sounding songs with a touch of heavy metal in them. The Thunderbird may have left Lorain in ’97, but Molina was still representing, dishing out some thunder of his own.

Hecla & Griper 15th Anniversary Edition is available on Secretly Canadian
Sound samples available at Brainwashed.com

note: I failed to mention in my review that this is the first time Hecla & Griper has been available on vinyl. It was originally issued on compact disc.


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Review: Phil Minton + Audrey Chen Quintet, “Four Instruments Two Voices”

The fundamental elements of singing and vocalizing are easy to miss in most music. All singers, even the very worst, unconsciously coordinate the various processes required to sing musically, so that respiration, phonation, resonation, and articulation collapse into sung phrases or wordless melodies. Phil Minton and Audrey Chen work to undo that coordination. They break their voices down, emphasizing the dental clicks, nasal hums, and various fleshy noises typically masked by melodies and lyrics. Many of the sounds they produce as part of this quintet—which features two basses, percussion, and cello—are the kind most singers would try to play down. By giving them the spotlight, Phil and Audrey are forced to express themselves the same way instruments do.

Four Instruments Two Voices is one of two Audrey Chen and Phil Minton albums released this year by Sub Rosa, both of which focus on extended vocal techniques. This one matches their voices with Guy Segers’ electric bass, Peter Jacquemyn’s double bass, and Teun Verbruggen’s percussion. As might be expected from instrumentalists who have worked with the likes of Peter Brötzmann, John Butcher, and William Parker, the music is improvised and mostly chaotic. But because Chen and Minton’s vocal contortions lead the group, and because there isn’t another wind instrument around, much of the record has a loose and open feel. All the vocal frying and plosive noises they make with their mouths come through loud and clear, from the spit-filled vibrations of their lips to the raspy hiss of their closed windpipes.

Such physical noises make for tense music. When Chen and Minton choke sounds out, my body involuntarily seizes up, and their moans have a way of drawing my shoulders up against my neck. When the band reacts to them in sympathy, the effect is darkly atmospheric and unsettling, as on “Eight” and “Nine.” But not everything is quite so serious. On “Three,” Minton and Chen’s gaseous vocalizations are paired with a squealing cello and a wobbly rhythm section that sounds absolutely lost. It’s hard not to laugh at how ridiculous it all seems, and at times I think it sounds like the musical version of a slapstick comedy.

For “Six” their growls and wordless interjections are recast as part of a quiet drama filled with bird-like whistling, ominous bass melodies, and flitting percussive sounds. The band’s muted performance fosters a calmer atmosphere, and Phil and Audrey both sound more subdued throughout, but it’s hard to tell whether the band is responsible for controlling the mood or if they’re following the vocalists’ lead. Later in the album Segers plays several naked melodies, and I think those color the way I’m hearing the voices. Either way, though the techniques are unconventional “Six” is a relatively pretty song. It’s a solid example of how extended vocal techniques can be used to produce musically pleasant and expressive results without relying on a singer’s vocal quality or resorting to familiar melodic techniques.

In the liner notes Minton writes, “This music is first a matter of extra-linguistic expression, the idea of going beyond the word’s meaning, an exploration that doesn’t stop at letters… but extends to all in-between-sounds made possible by the tongue/oral cavity/breath configuration.” I don’t know if Phil or Audrey’s performances go beyond words, but their fragmented noises and stripped down vocal utterances do get at feelings and expressions differently than conventional singing does. Rather than going beyond anything, I get the sense that they’re digging down, drilling into the voice and looking for meaning and expressiveness where most would hear nonsense. Whatever the theoretical framework is, the content is unique and varied—the kind of music that encourages lateral thinking and hearing ostensibly familiar sounds anew.

Four Instruments Two Voices is available from Sub Rosa
Sound samples are available at Brainwashed.com


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Review: Nate Wooley, “The Almond”

Good luck pinning down New York’s Nate Wooley. He’s an Oregon-born trumpeter with solo, duo, and quintet projects that deal in free improvisation, extended techniques, feedback, noise, and jazz. He has played with Yoshi Wada, John Zorn, and Anthony Braxton, held residencies at ISSUE Project Room and Cafe OTO; he curates the Database of Recorded American Music online and is editor-in-chief for its quarterly Sound American journal. For The Almond Wooley flies solo, using carefully looped and layered tones to sculpt a beautiful and imposing 72-minute composition for trumpet and voice.

At low volumes or in passing, The Almond might sound like a drone record, and I guess that’s accurate to the extent that it is a long, unbroken piece of music composed of sustained tones. But played at louder volumes, as recommended in the liner notes, or given more attention, it sounds less like a drone and more like the audio equivalent of a bas-relief. Each of the looping pitches Wooley uses to build The Almond are made up of several recordings utilizing different tunings, mutes, mics, and environments. By adding and subtracting elements to and from these loops, he transforms apparently smooth and simple tones into layered things with shifting textures, contrasting vibratos, and undulating hues. The bright, relatively smooth grain of his trumpet breaks into grooves, crevices, crests, and furrows, and is joined by other similarly built sounds, which flash and shiver against each other. Nate carefully mixes these, generating harmonies, melodies, textures, and throbbing rhythms in a constant state of flux.

The construction is ingenious and easy to admire, but so are the results. The brassy pitches shimmer beautifully against the finer patterns that cut along its surface. Sections expand and contract as naturally as if they were breathing, but also swell to roiling crescendos. By midway through the record, the very shape of the trumpet comes through in the music: the fleshy buzz of the mouthpiece, the sonorous ring of the bell, even the mechanics of the valves sing. A massive low end, which I cannot identify as a trumpet at all, submerges the brighter sounds in shadow and fills out the thinner places with some muscle. When it drops out, the music is unmoored and floats away lighter than air. It doesn’t stop there though. Wooley continues to work and transform his material, shaping it into newer configurations, some of which are quite beautiful. At 72 minutes long, this is still just an excerpt of a longer piece, but I would be happy to follow along for another 72 minutes should Wooley ever think a longer version worth releasing.

The Almond is available on Pogus Productions
Sound samples available at Brainwashed.com