AMN Reviews: Capricorni Pneumatici – Nibbas (1989/2022; Eighth Tower Records)

Capricorni Pneumatici was a prototype electroacoustic / ambient effort that began in the mid 1980s and was still a going concern as of a few years ago. Nibbas is a cassette release from 1989 recently reissued by Eighth Tower Records.

The music is tempered and gritty with a great deal of variety on the micro level while maintaining a fairly consistent level of activity and volume. The underlying sources include field recordings of natural and human-made sounds, as well as synth and vocal elements. The recordings are more heavily employed on the first three tracks (which appeared on side A of the tape), while the final three tracks (which appeared on side B of the tape) are more focused on layers of synth.

Regarding the former, the 9-plus minute title track hisses and shimmers as if backward masked. Passages are relatively quiet yet busily structured in a fashion mildly resembling post-industrial clangs and booming. Heavily processed voices are interspersed with clicks and pops, though might not be recognized as having human origin.

Regarding the latter, L’enfantement de la mort also clocks in at just over 9 minutes, but is constructed from sweeping textures, waves, and oscillations centered around a repeating pattern of 5-7 notes. Eventually, this pattern is drowned out by chords, drones, and walls of sound before making a reprise in a different form toward the end of the track.

Once again, Eighth Tower has dug up an experimental gem from the past. This release is one that is not just relevant for purposes of nostalgia but also for how it uncannily predicted the future directions of a genre that did not exist at the time.

AMN Reviews: Biliana Voutchkova & Jeff Surak – The Truth About the Key [Relative Pitch Records]

The Truth About the Key is the sixth installation in violinist Biliana Voutchkova’s DUOS2022 series of duets with musicians of various backgrounds. Voutchkova, who resides half the year in Berlin and the other half on the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria, recorded these duets with American experimental musician Jeff Surak in Berlin, where Surak spent much of this past summer. It was a two-day session, the first day of which was spent recording musical and other activities at different places—location-based “guerilla” interventions, something of a specialty for Surak–followed by a studio session the next day. Surak, who’s credited with playing tape recorder and amplified objects, subsequently took the recordings and composed them into the three sound collages appearing on the album.

Safely Uncivilized captures an outdoor ambience pervaded by the sound of a police siren, the thrum of traffic, and snatches of conversation, which provide background for jangling metal in a four-beat rhythm and tremolo bowing on the violin. Unraveled Over Time combines the hiss and scuff of an imaginary untuned radio with Voutchkova’s pizzicato violin, followed by a charming personal travelogue/reminiscence narrated by Voutchkova. At twenty-six minutes long the title track is an abstract sound mass of variable densities bringing together sounds recalling a gamelan, crisply recorded pizzicato and lo-fi arco violin, colliding objects awash in echo, and a phone conversation—culminating in an abrupt halt.

Voutchkova’s repertoire of extended techniques complements the unpredictable and sometimes messy ambient sounds surrounding her as well as Surak’s noise-based sensibilities. They are an unconventional, and yet dissonantly harmonious, match.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Lars Bröndum & Per Gärdin: Fractal Symmetry, Hum and Toot [Bandcamp]

Fractal Symmetry, Hum and Toot is a set of three long improvisations combining the organic and the synthetic, recorded live in the studio from the duo of Swedes Lars Bröndum & Per Gärdin. Although made by only two musicians, Bröndum and Gärdin’s sound contains multitudes, largely thanks to Bröndum’s array of modular synthesizers, Theremin, Buchla Music Easel, Sidrax organ, and miscellaneous electronics, over which Gärdin contributes contrasting, convoluted lines on soprano and alto saxophone.

Fractal Symmetry, the opening performance, begins with an electronic hum and saxophone harmonics before developing into a fluttering of soprano saxophone over a rhythmic synth pulse whose regularity is kept just beyond the reach of easy counting. The overall architecture of the piece, and of the duo’s collaboration generally, is of slowly shifting synthesized soundscapes overlaid with flurries of notes from the saxophone. Hum and Honk is notable for setting Gärdin’s extended technique on alto sax over a burbling synth background that evolves into an encroaching drone. The final track, Toot and Crackle, moves from an understated beginning of twittering synth into a more thickly textured yet still laconic electronic background over which the soprano saxophone conducts a rapidly voiced soliloquy, the conclusion to which is a harsh, synthetic mass of sound culminating in a scaled-down, dirge-like drone.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Åke Parmerud – Bruit noir (2022; empreintes DIGITALes)

Like Annette Vande Gorne, another artist that has undeservedly flown under my radar is Åke Parmerud.  As I have been recently re-acquainting myself with his music the usual question comes up… where do I start?  Well, he has quite a few very strong releases on the empreintes DIGITALes label, so it came down to me engaging in a highly scientific, researched-based, empirical process… I threw a dart.  I’m glad his most recent release, Bruit noir (Black noise) was the chosen one since now I’ve been given a hook that will allow me to work my way backwards on future Parmerud installments by way of comparing/contrasting and framing some sort of evolutionary change in style.  At least that’s the plan.

Åke Parmerud seems like a guy that someone like me, someone who is “just” the listener, can deeply relate to.  In the early 90’s he wrote a paper called Tendencies in electro-acoustic composition.  I’ve linked to it for two reasons; 1) it’s really short and very easy to digest and 2) in its brevity he identifies, in layman’s terms some commonly held criticisms about electro-acoustic music, why they rightfully exist, and measures to avoid them.  I’ve personally found his opinions expressed here very relevant as they pertain to the whole electro-acoustic space so, please indulge this rather long prologue before I get to the album.  (I HIGHLY recommend reading the paper, it’s refreshingly down to earth.) 

Paraphrasing, he starts out by defining the terms “sound”, “event” and “object”.  “Sound” is the raw material in which music is constructed, “sound event” is an action taking place on a certain timeline, and “sound object” is the representation of a complex process that makes up a recognizable structure which can also be distinguished from other “sound objects”.  I see it as one or more “sound events” strung together.  It’s all very hierarchal. 

These terms are important because, as he says:

Ever since the art of instrumentation entered the music history, composers have been, to a certain extent, preoccupied with sound in its own sense. But in no music was the sound structure a major compositional means until electronic and concrete music appeared in the late forties.

Ok, well that’s great, but it’s also fraught with danger as far as the electro-acoustic composer is concerned (sorry for the long quote, but it’s salient, bolding is mine).

I sometime get the impression that some composers really don´t want to be responsible for the sound of the piece at all. If they had the money they would simply compose a structure and leave it to some skilled programmer to put sounding flesh on the bare bones. I do not believe that it is truly possible to separate event structure and sound structure in electroacoustic music. They have to be worked on in parallel, tuned and retuned until the optimal relation has been achieved. Without this relation, the music will not be artistically convincing and of little or no interest to the audience. At least it could not be regarded as sonic art, but rather as an alien form of instrumental music. I do believe that a composer of electroacoustic music must take the full responsibility for creating a complete musical structure where sound and event structures are mutually dependent and inexchangeable. If he can´t handle that, he´s most likely better off composing some other kind of music.

That all makes waaaay too much sense!  I appreciate the straightforward, non-technical language he uses… not something you run into much when reading about this music.

Starting with MIDI technology, Parmerud sees many electro-acoustic practitioners concerning themselves, and subsequently getting bogged down with the technically daunting process of making this music instead of the more important “how does it sound” result.

People in conferences and seminars and festivals will talk for hours about intricate control structures, grammars, fractals, sensors and God knows what, but surprisingly little about sound, art or music.

I still believe that a good electroacoustic composition always starts with the composer reflecting on the structural and poetic resources of the sounds from which the piece is to be built. The day composers stops wrestling and experimenting with sound-structures, the term sonic art will have no meaning anymore.

And the danger comes from the other direction too, as Parmerud points out;

Unfortunately, sonic art seems to attract some composers who have very rudimentary ideas about composing. All to often a piece may demonstrate some interesting sound material but at the same time be conspicuously void of anything even remotely related to concept, structure, dialectics or poetry. These works simply presents one attractive sound after the other or, if things gets a bit more dense, on top of each other until they eventually disappear into the silence from which they so mysteriously transmogrified themselves earlier.

Parmerud even goes as far as to hint at what needs to happen (and in my opinion, has happened to a degree) to put the electro-acoustic space back on the straight and narrow (bolding mine again);

We must dare to be more personal, more specific, more unpredictable. We need to build up a new set of sounding symbols and signs that will allow us to communicate with the audience. A new kind of spectral harmonic system, adopted to sonic art, is yet to be invented and investigated. The rhythm of electroacoustic music has to be redefined and reinstalled as a major musical attribute, which will enable us to develop more complex time-relations between an increasing number of layers of sound objects. It is time to leave the mono-linear state and learn how to expand into a multi-dimensional musical space where poly-linear composing will be the electro-acoustic equivalent of the traditional polyphony.

I think Parmerud really speaks the truth here, and he does so in the clearest, simplest, and most logical way I’ve yet to read.  I know these quotes are almost 30 years old but, for me, the message they convey is of extreme importance.  He chucks into the dumpster the high falutin tweed-jacket-speak and casts away the esoteric, hidden knowledge vibe reserved for the Hermetic few up in the Tower.  He talks to us, not AT us! 

But what about Bruit noir?  Parmerud may be talking the talk, but does he walk the walk?  Yes, he does… and you don’t have to go much further than the 33-minute opener, “Louder Than Life” to hear it.  The “polyphony” he talks about is brought out in this piece in the way he masterfully layers sound over other sound.

There are lots of moving pieces within “Louder Than Life” but all these pieces are in service to the final goal.  His pallet of raw sound is vast, but Parmerud isn’t just throwing random events against a black canvas.  The piece is split up into 5 movements, and to really appreciate the overarching beauty, I think it’s best listened to in its entirety.  Like Francis Dhomont before him, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and, when looked at in retrospect… the flow of this piece makes complete sense.

Along the way, the listener will encounter enough surprises, mood shifts, undulating sonic landscapes, (some totally alien while others are as familiar as a symphony orchestra), and especially, some uber dramatic tension build-and-release moments with incredible dynamics.  

When I was a kid, I used to listen to my King Crimson, Yes, and Gentle Giant albums where I would only pay attention to what one instrument was doing.  If I was in a Bruford mood, I would key on the drums, a Fripp mood… the guitar, a Squire mood… the bass, a Minnear mood… the keys, etc.  On “Louder Than Life”, the mind is willing, but the body is weak because Parmerud’s “polyphony” is dialed up to extremely high levels.  You can try, and I have… to key on to some of the perpetually shifting currents of sound objects but, as soon as they appear, they poof off into the mists and the brain needs to reset itself again.  By then you’ve already missed a couple more easter eggs that were already taking root.  This is still a fascinating and rewarding exercise because, experientially, each listen is its own thing. 

Bruit noir is a high recommendation for this piece alone, but the fun continues with “Raw” and “Dark Matter”, the other two works on the album.  “Raw” is a commissioned piece and was created by “the most uncontrollable software synthesizer I have ever encountered”.  Parmerud calls the piece a “composed improvisation” and I thought to myself well, here might be a good test to see if the composer can stay true to his intentions of keeping the “concept, structure, dialectics or poetry” within the music.  In other words, is “Raw” going to come out sounding like the millions of other noodling modular synth pieces I’m starting to get sick of?

Happily, no!  (You probably knew that.)  Parmerud does something here that surprised and impressed me… he uses restraint.  Instead of sounding like some bedroom knob twirling, patch cord shuffling exercise of getting your rocks off with the latest shiny object, the piece is quite reserved, in some spots… sparse.  Not only do we have some bizarre and exotic sounds and structures but there is also a sense of narrative… albeit a strange one, no matter how you look at it.  The “alien-ness” and controlled randomness of “Raw” acts as a great “other” to the more composed and organic “Louder Than Life” but then we come to “Dark Matter”.

The concept behind “Dark Matter” is compelling, to say the least.  Rather than being about esoteric, alchemical knowledge… the Dark Matter in question is;

… a sonic “ matter ” that we cannot normally hear, but which surrounds us wherever there are electrical appliances. Microwave ovens, cell phones, computers, light bulbs… all emit fields of electromagnetic energy. These fields can be measured, recorded and made audible using special detection devices. The majority of the sounds in the piece are recordings of these sounds.

The first time I visited Australia, my initial reaction was one of familiarity.  Everyone spoke English, had lawns they needed to mow, there were birds flying, insects chirping, strip malls everywhere.  It wasn’t till later that I started to “notice” things.  The grass on those lawns didn’t look like the grass I was familiar with, the birds certainly didn’t look the same, don’t get me started with the insects, and the strip malls had stores that sold things made by companies I’d never heard of.  Well, listening to “Dark Matter” I got that sense of the familiar but, upon further review… and knowing where the sounds are coming from, this is truly a different, unfamiliar type of sound.  And, keeping true to form…  these “different” sounds still manage to flow in a natural manner.  It’s comforting in a way, when the mind doesn’t have to be at odds with the music… it makes the experience that much easier and pleasurable.

“Dark Matter”, like its two other brethren on Bruit noir demonstrates Parmerud’s intent at building a “new kind of spectral harmonic system”.  I think the musical concepts used in all three of these excellent works can be used as jumping-off points for further study and future compositions.  I’m looking forward to more detailed forays into his back catalog to see how he got there but, in the meantime… Bruit noir did an excellent job of connecting with this listener on a multitude of levels.

Mike Eisenberg
Twitter: @bigaudio999

AMN Reviews: The Attic (Amado / Almeida / Govaert) – Love Ghosts (2022; NoBusiness Records)

Free jazz can be a bit like gambling. Sometimes it works out better than others. But given the right amount of skill and discipline, you can thumb the scale to get the odds tipping more in your favor. The Attic, comprising Rodrigo Amado on sax, Gonçalo Almeida on bass, and Onno Govaert on drums, does not need much in the way of luck as they are overflowing with skill and discipline.

This, their second release, has a title that invokes Albert Ayler but the actual playing at most gives a nod in that general direction. Instead, this is prime-grade freely improvised music. Almeida and Govaert set down densely-packed rhythm tracks that incorporate distinct patterns, but these structures shift, move, and evolve in unpredictable directions. Almeida’s tones are clear, deep, and develop in an exploratory manner. Govaert makes unconventional use of a conventional drum kit, hitting beats and cymbal sequences when you least expect it. High points for these two include the beginning of Encounter with its oddly-timed staggering tempo, as well as the bass solo to open Outer Fields that Govaert eventually accompanies with sparse and disjointed playing.

Amado has a style of his own. He plays a short melodic structure or motif, varies it a bit, briefly pauses, and then moves on. This gives each track an endless supply of novelty with very little repetition. He incorporates staccato bursts and tunefulness, as well as heading slightly outside from time to time. Amado goes on to channel his inner Coltrane on the latter half of the aforementioned Outer Fields, stopping just short of a full blowout.

With four tracks clocking in between 12 and 17 minutes each, Love Ghosts is a must-have for the serious listener. It can be enjoyed on multiple levels – whether taken at face value or deconstructed for deeper understanding. Bravo.

AMN Reviews: Biliana Voutchkova / Tomeka Reid – Bricolage III (2022; Relative Pitch)

This is the fifth release in violinist Biliana Voutchkova’s DUOS2022 project, which pairs her with other creative music composer / improviser / performers. Here, she teams with Chicago-based cellist Tomeka Reid – bandleader, collaborator, and recent MacArthur fellow. While only 28 minutes in length, Bricolage III provides a compelling tour of novel textures and colors that can be extracted from stringed instruments over 500 years old.

For Showing is the longest track and initially exhibits a slow-paced sparseness. Voutchkova and Reid explore the higher registers of their instruments, stopping just this side of discordance. Seamlessly, they move into contrapuntal lines that begin gently enough before evolving into assertive, abstract statements. Along the way, bells and wordlessly fricative vocalizations are included. Toward the end of this piece, the two move in a direction that straddles modern classical clustering and free improvisation. It is a chaotic approach that eventually incorporates tapping and hammering on the bodies of their instruments in arrhythmic patterns.

For Getting also begins sporadically, but with bursts of dissonance from Voutchkova coupled with Reid’s unstructured playing. Guttural sounds come from more tapping and bouncing of the bows on strings. Voutchkova takes an unabashedly angular direction with disjointed and shambolic melodies. For Giving wraps things up with echoing and gritty lines that roll through phases of frequency and amplitude. These aspects combine into a busy and complex passage that becomes a textural drone that fades out, ending the album.

Throughout, Voutchkova and Reid employ a combination of plucking and bowing, making heavy use of extended techniques. Rather than watching another episode of your favorite sitcom, spend half an hour with Bricolage III. You will not be disappointed.

AMN Reviews: Stephen Gauci​ / ​Matt Shipp ​/ ​William Parker ​/ ​Francisco Mela – Live at Scholes Street Studio (2022; Gaucimusic)

Led by Stephen Gauci’s signature squeaking sax, this is one of his latest releases in a series of freely improvised performances. Busy recording and releasing throughout the pandemic, here he explores the classic jazz quartet lineup with the similarly prolific Matthew Shipp on piano, William Parker on bass, and Francisco Mela on drums.

The contrast between Gauci and Shipp is quite remarkable. The former plays largely outside without repetition or any distinct harmony, while the latter takes a classical / chamber jazz approach with dense, percussive chording and quick runs. Both deviate from the traditional notion of “swing”, leaving that to the rhythm section. Parker and Mela provide complex and busy patterns with enough structure to undergird the all-out playing of their bandmates. Mela, in particular, keeps things grounded in a jazz-oriented approach while maintaining highly energetic tempos.

But when listening, I had to keep focusing on Shipp. Not unlike a number of his recent recordings, he drives the group forward with aggressive soloing, staccato pounding, and counterpoint to Gauci’s blowing. One could probably just separate Shipp’s contributions into a highly engaging solo album. Despite his seriousness, you still get a sense of sheer joy from this group. Four stellar – if not legendary – musicians at the top of their game, having fun while they tie our ears in knots.

Recorded last year but released earlier this month, Live at Scholes Street Studio shares its title with several other of Gauci’s recent efforts. Nonetheless, this one stands out even in that crowded field. Two thumbs way up.

AMN Reviews: antxnio graz – LOADING//:fluids (2022; Dragon’s Eye Recordings)

LOADING//:fluids is a beautifully abstract piece of sound art from antxnio graz. Only 15 minutes in length, its three tracks cover a vast sonic and emotional ground in the context of gender theories.

ENTER//: is perhaps the weirdest of the set, exploring drones generated from synths and voice, the latter being almost entirely obscured. Slabs of sound shift and move in a sparse landscape. cadenza liquid initially continues this sparseness, with a repeating and plaintive piano motif over pops and hisses like would be heard when playing an old LP. Slowly the piano becomes more assertive and lower-frequency slows are added to the mix. This fades into the final track, .​.​.until everything is fluid, which incorporates fragments of whispered and spoken vocals with oscillating synths. The mood is peaceful and yet alien.

In the words of graz, “LOADING//:fluids presents a portal to the sonic universe of an imagined ecosystem” in which “technology, nature, and biology have come together in an organic database.” This explains the title’s URL format. But whether viewed in that context or not, this EP is a strangely moving release, one that is conducive to repeated listens. Very well done.

AMN Reviews: New Dark Ambient for Fall – Altus, Argyre Planitia, and Fionnlagh

With colder weather and shorter days, Fall represents nature’s inevitable dormancy and death. Reaching its nadir in a few weeks, this cycle is necessary for the rebirth of Spring. In the mean time, dark ambient artists have recently given us plenty of material suitable for the current season.

Altus – Hidden Realms and Vacant Spaces (2022; Altus Music)

Altus (Mike Carss) continues the general approach from last year’s Hypoxia – slowly rolling chords of gloomy synth. Occasionally, rhythmic patterns break through for short periods while long-held notes resemble guitar feedback. Like oceanic waves, these structures ebb and flow. The overall mood is foreboding and melancholy – especially with the deeper tones – though not excessively so. All said, Hidden Realms and Vacant Spaces is another great place to explore this prolific artist’s discography. Carss’ approach is more reminiscent of that of the Berlin School (minus sequencers) than more recent electroacoustic / ambient efforts. Nonetheless, he manages to take the best aspects of classic ambiance and make them sound modern and fresh.

Argyre Planitia – The Great Dark Spot (2022; Winter-Light)

The Great Dark Spot begins with a repeating bass note combined with roiled electronics. This album of space-themed drones and gritty textures is the eighth from Argyre Planitia (Stefan Voß). While also giving a nod to the Berlin School, Voß heads in a slightly more experimental direction. This involves windswept constructs, sculpted static, and crackling elements. A reasonably representative track is Cthulhu Macula, which beings with deep, cosmic tones and bassy rumbling. Fluttering and rattling noises move in and out of the foreground over slowly oscillating synth chords and the occasional bell. The piece is suffocating in its tension and density, a high point on an album full of high points.

Fionnlagh – What Came After (2022; Ambientologist)

What Came After is a set of remixes from Fionnlagh’s 2021 release, What Came Before. Featuring contributions from artists Warmth, Powlos, Hilyard, Anwalter, Logic Moon, and Seabuckthorn, the previous album’s cinematic nature is largely maintained while being taken in different directions. There are ample low-frequency pulses and resonations throughout, accompanied by higher-end drones and crackling. But overall, What Came After is quiet and introspective, sparse yet exhibiting a greater degree of structure (e.g., in the form of patterns and loops) than other examples of this genre.

AMN Reviews: James Grigsby – Illusions (2022; Bandcamp)

I had my write-up schedule for AMN all tied up for the next two months in a tidy, neat bow.  Yeah, I was going to dive into all kinds of already chosen acousmatic, hauntological, field recording, electroacoustic goodies.  My timeline was all storyboarded out and I was ready to go, and then this thing comes out… and pretty much fucked everything in my tiny world.  Now I just don’t know what to do cuz I’m a hot mess while I try to pick up the pieces of my broken life.  Why?  Because when something new comes out from, or related to the Motor Totemist Guild (which is DEFINITELY not an everyday occurrence) … well, drop everything, turn off the phone (after I call a dog walker), order take-out and stop binging streaming TV shows because this situation must be dealt with.  Thanks for ruining my life, Grigsby!

James Grigsby was the driving force behind the southern California new music ensemble Motor Totemist Guild.  I first became aware of MTG back in the mid 80’s via the Wayside Music paper catalogs.  The group’s sound was an amalgam of several styles, none of them being “rock music” per se.  I heard elements of modern classical, chamber-prog, outside jazz moves, free improv, art music, some very forward-sounding musique concrète, and tape manipulation elements, (now that I think about this, they seem to just belong there… but I sure didn’t realize it back then) and I sensed a weird musical-theater vibe.  I’ve yet to go back to re-visit some of the old recordings I have but now that this has surfaced, I very well might.

I don’t know if they would call it a “scene” but, MTG moved in the same circles as David Kerman’s 5uu’s. (latest release, after decades of silence talked about here).  Kerman played drums and percussion in both groups, and they even combined forces to form U Totem for a couple of stunning albums.  (There is a great retrospective of U Totem’s classic first album right here).  Into the 90’s and early 00’s, MTG released a couple of excellent albums, “City of Mirrors” on the Cuneiform imprint and “All America City” on their house label, Rotary Totem Records.  Both records show absolutely zero desire to pander to any sort of commercial influence, in fact, they sound more “outside” than earlier releases in their catalog.

After that, pretty much silence… until now!  While the Guild is not exactly back in town, James Grigsby has whack-a-moled into the house with Illusions and… paint me green and race me at Aqueduct… that sound is still intact!!!

Illusions times out at about 33 minutes but don’t be deceived by this abbreviated length because, like a swollen tick feasting on the girth of a pregnant Hippo, this album is flush with the fluid of perpetually morphing detail.  If ever repeat listens are called for, Illusions would be the poster child. 

There are 13 tracks on the album and none of them are over the 3:30 mark, most of them are around 2 minutes.  To stuff this much musical coherence into such a small box is a special talent… Grigsby does it on all 13 tracks.  Each and every one of them is fully fleshed out and exquisitely developed in their brevity.

Micro-focusing on each of the 13 tracks would be futile and make this write-up novella length so I’m just going to say that Illusions is an album of moments.  Since these moments are legion, I’ll speak in generalities as well as pinpoint some of my own personal “moments” interacting with this album.

First, the concept.  Yes, Illusions is a concept album about magic.  Everyone loves magic, right?  Each of the 13 pieces was inspired by a magician and their classic illusions.  Sound-wise, think Victorian-era parlour music, but written and played by number crunching, “ringer” musicians who really know their shit.  And speaking of playing, I’m not really 100% sure some of this is played by live acoustic instruments.  I occasionally sense a Zappa, Jazz from Hell synclavier type of thing going on. 

There is one other artist credited on this album besides Grigsby, percussionist/composer/sound designer Timothy Corpus.  The kit drums and percussion (presumably played by Corpus) sound live but I’m not sure about all the woodwinds, brass, and strings.  Likewise, Grigsby was the bass player on the early MTG albums, and on Illusion there is an electric bass presence but again, there seems to be more of a sampler vibe that is persistent throughout.  This all makes sense since, on the later MTG albums, Grigsby is credited with computer and sampler.  (I reserve the right to be completely wrong about all of this.)

None of this should make any difference though if the music is good… and no worries on that front.  If it is sequenced, it’s done in such a natural manner that you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between man and machine, and anyway, enough on that.

If someone asked me what kind of music is on Illusions, the tricky answer would be something like this:  Think 3rd stream fusion, the kind coined by Gunther Schuller but instead of mixing jazz with classical, Illusions lightly, and sparingly mixes rock with classical.  What makes it unique is the “kind” of rock and the “kind” of classical.

Elaboration:  The “rock” manifests itself, like all rock music in its rhythmical content.  This is where the electric bass and kit drums come in.  It’s subtle, but it’s there, and I think it would greatly appeal to a certain “type” of listener.  Someone who enjoys the dulcet (or not) sounds of something called “chamber-prog” popularized (?) by groups like Univers Zero, Art Zoyd, Present, and even the more obscure Julverne, Nazca, and Noetra (which may come the closest).

Mind you, as I mentioned earlier… Illusions doesn’t belong in the chamber, but more in the parlour.  It becomes a matter of degrees from dark, towards the light, and this album trends toward the light.  There are so many references, styles, moods, and emotions embedded in this music that trying to mark them all would be, really, hard.  As I mentioned earlier, this is an album of moments, so without even trying, here is a list (I love my lists!) that hardly scratches the surface:

1-Tons of humor and lighthearted fun scattered everywhere.

2-The sentimentality and pathos of Sylvian’s and Sakamoto’s “Forbidden Colors.”

3-The musical complexity you would expect to hear from people like Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Davis, or Henry Threadgill in their most rehearsal intensive modern classical pieces.

4-Elegantly arranged miniatures giving more than a nod to Carla Bley.

5-A strong sense of the nostalgic, only not in the Hauntological static, crackle, and glitch of a lost future but more of a peek into times portal of historical and cultural significance.

6-The absolute joy of connecting the dots of this release back to the MTG releases of the 80’s and realizing that this modern work retains that timeless sound that I first fell in love with.

7-Finally, as an addendum to #6 and speaking as a non-creator of music… the realization of Grigsby’s musical world with 21st-century music making technology is not only fascinating as a listening experience but, possibly of more importance, provides the allowance for the artist to expand on his vision in new ways.

So, hopefully, I’ve made myself clear on the fact that Illusions is a wonderful return to a “sound”, even a “scene” that meant a whole lot to me 40 years ago.  More importantly though, the trappings of time, technology, lifestyle changes, etc. did not get in the way of moving this music forward into the “today”.  I can’t help but ponder if Grigsby has more music (along with a few rabbits and pigeons) in his proverbial top hat to share with the world.  Whatever that answer may be, what we have now, Illusions… is a pure joy.

Mike Eisenberg
Twitter: @bigaudio999