At first blush, Blackweald’s 666 Minutes in Hell may seem gimmicky, as it literally is 666 minutes in length (over 11 hours) of hellish soundscapes. But this prolific Hungarian purveyor of cinematic, haunting, and experimental drones put months of effort into the release (along with several album-length releases) in 2020. While squarely in the dark ambient territory, with spacious rumbling waves and layers of synth, Blackweald also includes occasional guitar, percussion, field recordings, spoken word recordings, and even some singing. Though it is too long for one sitting, 666 Minutes in Hell is good background music to put on as you carry out your daily lockdown routine. But take a moment or two to listen to the details – if it was released as 11 separate albums, each would have been notable in its own right.
Grey Frequency – Paranormal (2021)
As a follow-up to 2019’s Ufology, Grey Frequency (Gavin Morrow) returns with an aptly-titled album about humankind’s interaction with the paranormal. That said, the music is more synth-driven and reminiscent of the Berlin school than most recent dark ambient of note. Thus, the album moves between pulsing drones, sequenced patterns, and mechanical elements. The themes are largely repeating, with distinct rhythms and foreground noises. Still, the requisite disquiet and spookiness are present on all tracks, as if there is something sinister just out of sensory range.
Wendy Eisenberg is a composer, performer, and guitarist whose music lives in the gray area between free jazz, contemporary classical, and punk music. Since finishing a Master’s degree at New England Conservatory, Wendy has developed a working relationship with John Zorn, releasing music on his Tzadik label, performing in his ensemble, and writing for his Arcana book series. Their most recent solo album, Auto, has been lauded in Pitchfork and The Washington Post. Wendy also performs with the rhythmically complex punk band Editrix, whose newest collection of recordings, Tell Me I’m Bad, will be released on Exploding In Sound on February 5, 2021.
I consider Montreal based artist Robert Normandeau’s work an excellent gateway to the weird, wonderful world of Acousmatic music. The release of Figures in 1999 (and reissued in 2009) provides a great launchpad for exploration, either backward or forwards. Figures lacks some of the more abstract moves that were heard on the 1994 release Tangram but still retained enough of what I consider a traditional “acousmatic feel” (that is to say, ambiguous sound sources made even more ambiguous by synthetic manipulation that is artfully and logically stitched together to form a synergistically satisfying whole). Beginning with Puzzles (2005) his music became more polished, more smooth-edged. Elements of power electronics and drone were very creatively employed while still maintaining his original artistic aesthetic. These later albums were excellent in their own right but stylistically different than his earlier works.
The reason I believe Normandeau’s work is a good gateway to the Acousmatic world is because he does not shy away from melody. He creates notes that are relative to each other, thus creating intervals which in turn create harmonic figures, something that can be interpreted as melody. This may provide a bit of a lifeline to someone’s first encounter with this music. Instead of an initial reaction like “what is this noise I’m hearing”, it may give the listener a feeling of familiarity or safe harbor. Maybe some respite from all the other “alien” sounds that are also being presented. Additionally, the later releases (Puzzles, Palimpsests, Domes) have sounds/drones that may resemble what is coming out of the Ambient/Dark Ambient or even Industrial world. This material may hold more familiarity with some.
Figures is comprised of four long pieces ranging from 13 to 19 minutes. Three of the pieces were constructed strictly in the studio with no human interaction other than the composer. Only “Figures de rhetorique” had a live performer interacting with the tape (Jacques Drouin on piano).
The first piece, “The Fox and the Rose” relies heavily on Normandeau’s fondness for using the human voice as a sound source. The voice appears quite frequently in many of his releases across his catalog. In this instance, it is used not to convey language but more of a reservoir for various sounds. Laughs, grunts and guttural exclamations are sampled and manipulated to produce actual beats and other features throughout. This piece is a fascinating journey that flows along in a linear fashion, constantly morphing in a very natural manner where the listener might not realize the changes that are taking place until it’s over. This, as in all the pieces on Figures packs a lot of power and is quite the riveting listen. It crescendos in grand Parmegiani-esq fashion with a twisting kaleidoscopic whirlwind of sound.
The next piece, “Figures de rhetorique” has the added benefit of a live performer on piano. The piano contribution is scored in parts and improvised in others and is a wonderful foil to the synthetic wrangling from Normandeau. This results in a very successful studio marriage between the acoustic and the electric. Over it’s 14 minute time frame we have a frenetic work out of spikey Don Pullen-like piano clusters augmented by the omnipresent studio mutations by the composer. This clip is performed by Vasyl Tsanko handling the piano duties.
Next comes “Venture”. This is my second favorite work on the album behind “The Fox and the Rose”, but it is a bit of an outlier. This is Normandeau’s homage to day’s gone by, namely 70’ rock…and to be even more precise, 70’s prog rock. This piece seems to be constructed exclusively of samples from his prog rock record collection, although I’m finding it difficult to identify the source material on most of this. (Maybe I’m not as big of a fan as I thought I was, shame on me I guess!) Normandeau did a masterful job of stitching taped snippets of this material together and the end result is otherworldly. It doesn’t have the punchy attack of everything else on this record, instead it’s an endless flow of layered sounds that all seem to coalesce within each other. I see it as a gentle excursion into the past and I believe Tod Dockstader would be proud of him.
Finally, we get to “Ellipse”. This is a collaboration between Normandeau and guitarist Arturo Parra. Parra typically works within the crossroads of fixed medium mixed with acoustic guitar. He has an excellent release, also on empreintes DIGITALes called Parr (A) Cousmatic that I’d like to write about eventually and is well worth checking out. This piece is another brilliant pairing that just works. Parra’s level of playing is technically precise as well as emotionally charged, and the synergies released from this combination is brilliant. You can hear a short sample (which unfortunately does not do the piece justice) as well as the liner notes for the album and other biographical information here.
Figures is my most played Normandeau album but I can recommend his entire catalog. He is another (in a long line) of composers on the empreintes DIGITALes label that deserve a level of higher recognition in the electronic music world. This record provides a great starting point if you have yet to experience him.
Here is where I post, at a frequency of about once a week, a list of the new music that has caught my attention that week. All of the releases listed below I’ve heard for the first time this week and come recommended.
Because of current events, these postings may be coming more frequently than once a week for a while.
TAK Ensemble / Taylor Brook – Star Maker Fragments (2021) Paula Shocron / Pablo Díaz – Algo en un Espacio Vacio (2021) BLOOP (Allemano / Smith) – Proof (2021) Lina Allemano Four – Vegetables (2021)
John Zorn: Heaven And Earth Magick [#8378]
Heaven and Earth Magick showcases Zorn’s fabulous and compelling blending of classical virtuosic instrumental writing with the improvisational world of Jazz. Completely notated works for piano and vibraphone brilliantly performed by Steve Gosling and Sae Hashimoto are set against a dynamic improvisational rhythm section of Jorge Roeder and Ches Smith. An exciting new musical world filled with an exhilarating sense of drama and a mischievous wit. Zorn’s unique mastery of instrumental writing and wild improvisational conducting skills are here in all their thorny complexity. Essential!
John Zorn: Teresa De Avila [#8379]
Preceded by “Nove Cantici per Francesco d’Assis”” and “Virtue (for Julian of Norwich)”, “Teresa de Avila” is the third and final CD in Zorn’s trilogy inspired by towering figures of Christian mysticism. Written for the all-star acoustic guitar trio of Bill Frisell, Julian Lage and Gyan Riley whose performances are steeped in a feeling of love and mutual respect, the music is both beautifully simple and strangely complex, drawing equally on classical modernism, bluegrass, jazz, Jewish and renaissance music. Filled with compositional surprises, mysterious moods, beautiful harmonies and a stunning lyricism, Teresa de Ávila is a must-have for all fans of acoustic guitar music. This is one of the most personal and varied books of music Zorn has yet written—a lovely tribute to the enduring legacy of one of the world’s most beloved spiritual figures. Includes an extended appreciation by renown philosopher Arnold Davidson.
John Zorn: Chaos Magick [#8380]
Chaos Magick is a contemporary magical practice based on the ideas of Austin Osman Spare. Remarkably inclusive, it embraces and has influenced the work of William Burroughs, Robert Anton Wilson, Aleister Crowley and many others. Inspired by these magical practices, Zorn enlists the three members of his most powerful 21st century ensemble Simulacrum with special guest Brian Marsella on electric piano into this eclectic new quartet Chaos Magick. A fast moving, improvisational and intensely focused ensemble that draws upon classical, jazz, funk, improvisation, metal and more. This music is even crazier than Electric Masada—a must for all fans of the outer realms!