AMN Reviews: If, Bwana – The Joy of Photography [2014; Bandcamp]

a2962225004_2If, Bwana’s The Joy of Photography isn’t about literal photographic images, but it’s liable to provoke vivid mental images in the receptive listener. Originally issued as a three-cassette box set on Barcelona’s 8eminis label in 2014, it’s now been reissued as a download from Bandcamp.

If, Bwana’s brand of musique concrète is quickly recognizable in that it reveals its sources by keeping instruments identifiable, if enhanced or otherwise modified. As in much If, Bwana work, many of the source recordings selected for manipulation on The Joy of Photography feature acoustic instruments, the better to bring out their natural sonic qualities through unnatural means.

The tracks find Margolis manipulating time, drawing impossibly elongated lines out of wind instruments and voice. With musical movement thus rendered glacially slow, ordinarily overlooked nuances of pitch and timbre move to the foreground. The buzz of Steve Norton’s reeds becomes the focus in The Norton Variations, sounding at times like mechanical saws or a swarm of insects. In Brent Bari Sax Margolis’s sound stretching brings out microtonal variations in pitch as it extends over the course of saxophonist John Korchak’s breath, as it does with Alfrun Schmidt’s voice on Alf Runs and Runs. Solo Duet 3 for Violin and Viola—an overdubbed recording of Margolis on both instruments—is all about timbre, its scrapes and squeals an accurate report of changes of pressure on bow and strings. The same is true of Solo Duet 1 for Alto & Tenor Recorders, once again played by Margolis using extended techniques that seem to depict air and wood as sonic raw elements.

The Bandcamp release includes two bonus tracks originally issued in 2007’s Ghost of Reality 3” CDr. A bonus track of sorts is an extended version of It Is Bassoon, featuring Leslie Ross on the title instrument, proving that more of a good thing is, well, better.



AMN Reviews: Maurizio Bianchi – Untitled 1980 / Untitled 2013 [imprec414]

414-bianchi.webjpgMilanese-born sound artist Maurizio Bianchi has been making challenging, noise-inflected work since the late 1970s. Describing himself as a non-musician, he created proto-industrial musique concrète collages and sound manipulations in a series of cassette releases issued between 1979 and 1983, when he suddenly stopped making music in the wake of a religious conversion. After a fourteen year hiatus he began again in 1998 and is once again creating sound art, sometimes by revisiting and reworking early material as he does on this recording.

The first two tracks, two untitled works of approximately seventeen and eighteen minutes each, are reissued from a cassette originally released in Japan in 1980. Both were created on a KORG MS20, a semi-modular monophonic synthesizer. Untitled A 1980 is a pulsing, industrially-tincted work containing apparently randomly placed pitches and glissandi whose tones sound as if received through radio static. Untitled B 1980 is built around an oscillating buzz that seems something like the product of the chance encounter of a jaw harp and a ring modulator on a mixing table. The remaining four tracks are reworkings of the 1980 recordings, done in 2013.

The juxtaposition of the originals with these recastings is a revealing testament to Bianchi’s ongoing commitment to working with sound, his periodic withdrawals from music notwithstanding. To the extent that he takes his own work as source material, the new pieces represent a kind of self-commentary embedded in a peculiarly reflexive form of musique concrète. As such, these new works manage to retain the salient features of the originals while rephrasing them in a more contemporary electronic vocabulary deriving primarily from drone. The anti-melodies of Untitled A 1980, for example, are recognizable under the manipulations Bianchi subjects them to in two of the new compositions. But even when the source recordings are obscured, something of a family resemblance between old and new can be perceived through the noise.

AMN Reviews: Yannick Franck – Hierophany | Иерофания (Monochrome Vision)

a0327891689_2Though inspired by the culture and rites of the Russian Orthodox Church, when Hierophany first opens its maw, it sounds like the fiery forges of Hell, or at least some hellish, rust belt steel mill. But perhaps Ghent´s Yannick Franck is on the same wavelength as 13th-century thinker Albertus Magnus (Catholic rather than Orthodox), who thought the music of the universe was not one of sweet proportions generated by the perfectly aligned spheres, but rather a man-made pursuit that served to purge the soul, open it to contemplation and bring it closer to illumination.

Franck´s thirty-odd minute suite in three movements begins with “Mausoleum”, an appropriate place to ruminate on life after death, and continues with “The Dive” before “Dying Down”. The drone he generates only sporadically reveals some of its source material – we can hear people, not at their devotions, people going about their city business – as it shifts gradually from hellacious to spacious calm inducive to contemplation. Ultimately a whiff of plainchant floats by, before all heaven breaks loose like all the bells in Moscow and Petersburg combined and finally – almost cathartically – a choir.

Though recorded in 2012 and released in early 2013, Hierophany is Franck´s latest solo offering. Seamless from start to finish, it captures a highpoint of his creativity while also fulfilling Albertus Magnus´ ancient criteria. It entices to closer listening while perfectly content at just being.

Stephen Fruitman

AMN Reviews: Jack O’ The Clock – Outsider Songs (2015; Bandcamp)

a3117357812_2Woefully under-appreciated San Francisco area avant-rock band Jack O’ The Clock has released a new album. But unlike their previous four, which are takes on the band’s own melancholic version of progressive rock / rock in opposition, Outsider Songs is a 30 minute EP of covers. Given the band’s background, the targeted artists may seem surprising – Morrissey, Duran Duran, R.E.M., Paul Simon, and Bjork are featured. However, group leader Damon Waitkus stated that these songs were ones that he or another band member had loved for years and never tired of hearing.

Having said that, Outsider Songs does not feature straight covers. Instead, Jack O’ The Clock applies a unique interpretation to each. Not being familiar with any of the originals, I cannot say how much the covers deviate, but apparently some are essentially re-composed and rearranged. Thematically, Jack O’ The Clock is known for lyrics and an overall feel that exudes subtle darkness that borders on the disturbing. The songs here are similar in that regard – perhaps chosen subconsciously. Each is focused on a person trying to find their place in a world for which they are not quite suited.

Is this the best place to start with Jack O’ The Clock? 2013’s All My Friends probably gets the nod in that regard. But if you are a fan of any of these songs, or of the group, do take a listen to Outsider Songs. There aren’t many current American bands that combine compositional sophistication and emotional poignancy quite the way Waitkus and his co-conspirators manage to pull off on a regular basis.

Read our previous Jack O’ The Clock reviews:
All My Friends (2013)
Night Loops (2014)

AMN Reviews: Sound Awakener – September Traveler (2015; Bandcamp)

Sound Awakener - September TravelerSeptember Traveler is a collection of works recorded in 2011 and 2012 by Sound Awakener (Nhung Nguyen). It serves as the soundtrack for Irene Cruz’s exhibition What Dreams Are Made Of, which took place in Berlin from 6th to 18th February, 2015.

The Sound Awakener project is one of a growing number of artists that combine ambient electronic music (e.g., Brian Eno, Steve Roach) with musique concrete. September Traveler features layered background drones with foreground acoustic instruments. The drones are dark, ominous, and unsettling. In particular, the 16-minute The Shade You’ve Become is a disturbing journey through a heavily processed landscape with fractured vocal remnants, stark tones, and grinding electroacoustics.

Clocking in at approximately 30 minutes, September Traveler feels as if it contains edited-down versions of longer works. Nonetheless, the album offers a haunting progression, and it should be thoroughly satisfying for fans of the aforementioned styles.

AMN Reviews: Robert Scott Thompson – Arcana (2014; Relaxed Machinery) / Repeated by Dreams (2014; Aucourant Records)

When one discusses electronic and ambient music, reference artists are typically Klaus Schulze, Brian Eno, Steve Roach, Robert Rich, and Alio Die among others. But every so often, we are reminded that this genre is a vast expanse, with much to explore.

Robert Scott Thompson is a formally-educated composer of ambient music who has been recording for over 25 years. His output is voluminous, and often incorporates aspects of electroacoustic and acousmatic music, modern classical, and electronica. Not being familiar with many of his works, I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with two of his more recent releases.

coverAt first blush, Arcana seems like it shares common territory with Roach and Schulze, featuring sweeping synths and pulsating waves of soft sound. But Thompson adds crumbling, distorted structures (shades of Natasha Barrett, perhaps) and clanking percussion into the mix. These more jarring aspects are not dominant nor a constant throughout, but instead add darkness and tension to his pieces.

While Arcana’s foreground music borders on simple ambience at times, subtle discordance and shimmering patterns of sounds result in an ominous, disturbing overall offering. As an example, the fifth track, Unwoven, features slowly-played chimes and tuned percussion, with a synth line and high-frequency, electroacoustics to round things out. Zero Point Field, on the other hand, is a 29-minute Roach-styled drone.  In a sense, Arcana is divided between a more acousmatic style on its first half, and a more traditional ambient approach on its second.

coverRepeated by Dreams is arguably the more avant-garde album of the two, featuring processed string instruments and effects, voices, and incidental percussion along with synth walls and textures. Themes slowly evolve and fade like haunted, sunlit landscapes of resonances. Novum Organum: Progressive Stages of Certainty, the 35-minute centerpiece of the album, is where Thompson takes the material on a left turn. On this track, the album transitions to a modern classical composition, not unlike the musique concrete that has traditionally been produced by France’s Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM).  However, the end of the track incorporates bouncy elements of electronica.  The remaining tracks combine ambiance and electroacoustics, using background drones with foreground effects.

AMN Reviews: Aidan Baker – Already Drowning (Gizeh Records)

a3154857344_2Aidan Baker´s Already Drowning is “a song-cycle inspired by various myths & folktales about female water spirits” and the fiction of a handful of writers, including Angela Carter, A. S. Byatt and Hubert Aquin. It presents the Aidan Baker project – experimental guitar, ambient drone, doom jazz on a good hundred solo albums plus all his collaborative and group work (most significantly as Nadja with his wife, Leah Buckareff), some poetry – in a new light: as an atmospheric contribution to the Great American Songbook with an arch sensibility and orchestral sweep. Though it sounds far-fetched, it bears a certain family resemblance to Frank Sinatra´s cult classic album Watertown, about an abandoned husband´s big time, small town heartbreak.

Like Watertown, Already Drowning is great melodrama, cinema disguised as an album of music. Despite its ostensible conjuring of stasis, drone, especially in Baker´s hands, can cast between still gloom and tempestuousness, delicate nuance and overwrought emotion. Playing guitar, bass, flute, trombone, piano, drums and unspooling field recordings (and joined by a handful of guest instrumentalists), Baker incorporates drone but also goes beyond it, and foregoes the lone male voice in favour of a different female vocalist on each track. Each adds not only her interpretive gift but in some instances, her own translation of Baker´s lyrics.

Opening at a gritty train station (just like Watertown), Clara Engel delivers the title track to a spare accompaniment that contrasts with the richly orchestrated strings of “30 Days / 30 Nights”, sung by Jessica Bailiff. “Mélusine” – a Medieval mermaid, perhaps not unlike the one in stone being ravished on the cover – is a duet sung almost to abstraction by Valérie Niederoest and Maude Oswald of Swiss indie band Toboggan, while “Mein Zwilling, Mein Verlorener” is articulated in crystal clear German by Joanna Kupnicka to an acoustic, folksy accompaniment.

On “Tout Juste Sous La surface, Je Guette”, the inimitable Geneviève Castrée (aka Ô Paon) and Baker turn her wintry submersion into a grim Icelandic saga. On the eleven-minute “Ice”, a truly mesmerizing piece, Liz Hysen (Picastro) whispers as Baker ebbs and flows. The honour of closing goes to arguably the most-well known of the assembled vocalists, Carla Bozulich (of Evangelista, The Geraldine Fibbers). “Lorelai / Common Tongue” arcs all the way back to the beginning, and the mood has absolutely cratered; lover gone (again, inevitably), train station now a death trap, Salvation Army brass band drunk and a swirl of demons trying to drown her story out.

Under Baker´s direction, a complex web of emotions is solid as latticed steel and victims become heroines.

Stephen Fruitman