AMN Reviews: Various Artists – The Old Alchemist (2017; Eighth Tower Records)

If nothing else, the current end-of-the-world pandemic crisis has facilitated digging through recordings that have been sitting on the shelf (or in this case, the SSD) unlistened. Case in point, I’ve had a copy of The Old Alchemist for over two years and first put it on a couple of days ago. If nothing else, it goes to show that there is a virtually unlimited amount of music being made – so much that excellent material can easily get buried.

This compilation features a cadre of dark ambient artists that have been discussed in the pages before: New Risen Throne, Monocube, Xerxes The Dark, Alphaxone, Sonologyst, and Aseptic Void. They are joined by others that are new to these ears: Self Industry, SiJ, Urs Wild, Niculta, Sounddog65, Maaurge, and Peri Esvultras. The output is over 90 minutes of haunting drones with electroacoustic manipulations. High points include the relentlessly avant and jarring offering of Sonologyst on Primeval Science, as well as Niculta’s Tundra, which sounds oddly like whale-song. But there are no weak tracks on The Old Alchemist, and each artist provides a different take on this expanding genre.

Don’t be like me – grab this one and put it on. You will have no regrets.

AMN Reviews: AJNA – Oracular (2020; Cyclic Law)

AJNA’s first release on Cyclic Law, Lucid Intrusion, was a commendable addition to the ever-expanding dark ambient compendium. Oracular, a follow-up released this month, does not deviate too far from this path, but exhibits a few novel twists and turns.

The modus operandi here includes deep, dark drones, windswept soundscapes, and manipulated sounds lurking in the background and occasionally jumping into the fore. This latter set of elements appear at times to be vocal or animal in origin, yet unidentifiable. At other points, they are mechanical in nature – the creaking of metal and giant machines or sculpted white noise. The drones are layered, each with a different pitch and wave-pattern, overlapping as they ebb and flow. This results in a palpable tension, as the drones – though foreboding – tend to lull the listener until a jarring set of processed acoustics raises its ugly head. Like a scene from a nightmare, there is nowhere to relax or run.

The high points of the album are where AJNA uses his palette of compositional tools together to create slowly-oscillating but harshly-textured alien soundscapes – ideal for dark-room listening. This is more than enough to earn Oracular an enthusiastic thumbs up.

AMN Reviews: Cenk Ergün and the JACK Quartet – Sonare and Celare [New Focus Recordings FCR238]

Sonare and Celare, the two string quartets by Turkish-born composer Cenk Ergün (b. 1978) released together on an EP, are complementary works in many senses of the word. Originally conceived of as a single piece, the two quartets instead became companion pieces whose sonic qualities are creatively opposed to one another. As is often the case when Ergün composes acoustic works, these two quartets of 2015-2016were the product of a collaborative process. In sketching and then finalizing them, Ergün worked closely with the JACK Quartet, for whom they were written.

Sonare was composed through an elaborate process of reverse-engineering: Ergün first set out rhythm patterns using the MAX program and then densified their textures through software-facilitated combination. The JACK Quartet recorded a number of rehearsals of the resulting material, which Ergün edited into a sort of master take that he then transcribed and notated for the final score. As one might expect from a process like that, Sonare is a composition of dense textures. It opens with a thick, aggressive sound evoking an asynchronous, loudly buzzing swarm of insects. A close listen, though, reveals the mass to be made up of the pulsing accents of individual bowings. The piece develops as a set of variations not only on dynamics—first very loud, then very soft, then back again to full fury—but on bow speeds as well. Pitch seems to be a secondary element—a necessary yet epiphenomenal component of mass.

Celare, by contrast, is a symmetrical three-part work whose first and third sections feature short, widely spaced bowed and plucked sound events played at low volume. The middle section of the work, which consists of a drone of microtonally spaced intervals, recalls Sonare’s buzzing dissonance but lays it out in a gradually shifting layers and steady, mid-range dynamics. Celare seems to take Sonare’s volumetric sound blocks and thin them out, retaining the latter’s microtonality and fusion of voices while dispersing them through a structural substitution of space for mass.

The JACK Quartet plays these complementary pieces with the finely calibrated degrees of energy and delicacy they call for.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Dronny Darko – Origin (2020; Cyro Chamber)

Despite its curious name, this outfit (a one-man effort of Kievian Oleg Puzan) focuses herein on the sculpted sound side of dark ambient – at least initially. Puzan takes the listener through a journey of intentional strangeness with processed and warped structures, reminiscent of the output of GRM artists. This involves a wide range of elements – crackling, static, bubbling, looping, shimmering landscapes, and watery manipulations. The four tracks of Origin, ranging in duration from 8 to 15 minutes, explore these spaces. The result has the feel of a dystopian nightmare, and would be a fit soundtrack to a science fiction or horror movie.

But as the album progresses, the drones come to the fore, often bassy and heavy in the background as well as long and deep in the foreground. Sweeping lines drift and oscillate through chunks of frequencies. The musique concrète remains, taking a less aggressive but still important role.

Origin will be available on March 31 and comes easily recommended.

AMN Reviews: Jazz Sabbath – Jazz Sabbath (2020; Blacklake)

It is a rite of passage for aspiring young metal guitarists to learn a few Black Sabbath tunes, both to pay homage to icons of the genre and to be able to join a band that covers said icons. Indeed, Sabbath cover bands are in no short supply, and quite a number of entire albums have been dedicated to this endeavor. But, arguably the best Sabbath covers are those in which the band’s trademark riffs are changed up to the point that it takes some effort to identify the source material. Examples of these are the Estonian early-music group Rondellus, using period instruments and translating the lyrics to Latin, as well as two albums from 9-piece Latin funk band Brown Sabbath.

Enter Jazz Sabbath, a piano trio that has created its own alternative history in which they recorded a number of jazz pieces in the late 60’s that they were unable to release before Black Sabbath beat them to market with metal covers of their material. This album would be the first-ever release of the long-lost Jazz Sabbath tapes. Or, Jazz Sabbath is a tongue-in-cheek trio that recorded a handful of Sabbath favorites five decades later.

As might be expected, the well-known classics are represented, including Iron Man, Evil Woman, and Children of the Grave. Jazz Sabbath takes the doomy aspects out and adds vamp and bounce. Walking bass lines, piano improvs and drumming in the 50’s and 60’s bop style are the driving force. Each track is de-constructed from its original form to the point that you may have to pay careful attention to identify its source material. This is definitely the case with Evil Woman and Children of the Grave, but perhaps not so much with the piano lead of Iron Man which remains more clearly identifiable.

For those of us who grew up listening to the dark wailing of Messrs. Osbourne, Iommi, Butler, and Ward, Jazz Sabbath’s debut is a must-have. And a lot of fun, especially if you’ve ever wondered what Sabbath would sound like as dinner music.

AMN Reviews: Giancarlo Schiaffini \ Giuseppe Giuliano – What’s That Noise? [Setola di Maiale SM4000]

The liner note to What’s That Noise?, the exhilarating recent album by trombonist/composer Giancarlo Schiaffini and pianist Giuseppe Giuliano, is a manifesto of sorts. In it, Schiaffini observes that until relatively recently European music included improvisation among its accepted practices and declares that now, after the experiments of the second half of the last century, improvisation once again has become acceptable as a course of action available for use in conjunction with notated music.

Pursuing that conjunction is, in essence, the program for What’s That Noise? The album consists of five free improvisations alternating with four new and recent compositions by Giovanni Costantini, Corrado Rojac, Stanislav Makovsky, and Schiaffini himself.

As might be expected, both Schiaffini and Giuliano have deep backgrounds in improvised music as well as in the postwar European avant-garde. Giuliano’s musical sensibility was imprinted by encounters with Franco Evangelisti, Luigi Nono, Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. As a performer, he’s realized contemporary composed works in addition to playing improvised music in different settings. Schiaffini, in addition to having been part of the European free jazz movement, studied with Stockhausen, Evangelisti, György Ligeti and Vinko Globokar, and collaborated with Cage, Nono and Giacinto Scelsi.

As is apparent from the very first notes, the music on What’s That Noise? reflects both musicians’ fluency not only in the advanced vocabulary of contemporary improvisational practices, but in the expansive sound world and complex syntax of the postwar European avant-garde.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Jeb Bishop / Nate McBride / Tim Daisy – Alive at the Hideout (2020; Catalytic Sound)

Longtime Chicago improvisers Bishop (trombone and electronics), McBride (electric bass), and Daisy (drums) recently released this 33-minute set from 2011, recorded live at one of that city’s longtime music clubs, the Hideout. Consisting of two long tracks, the album captures an energetic slice of modern jazz.

From the outset, the trio is aggressive, almost to the point of being downright angry. McBride puts down assertive, jagged, and rolling rhythms that tightly couple with the busy kit-work of Daisy. Bishop serves up as much punctuation as he does melody, with pointed themes that turn sharp corners. The second piece slows things down for a while until Bishop eschews the trombone in favor of grinding electronics and effects. Eventually, he sets them up in the background and plays over them while McBride and Daisy provide another driving rhythmic exploration.

What sets these gentlemen apart – aside from the gutsiness of their approach – is that they straddle categorization. Too unusal for the traditional, but too structured to be free.  In spite of (or perhaps because of) this, Alive at the Hideout is absolutely devastating.  It was released last month as a members-only offering, but will reward any effort you take to get your hands on it.