AMN Reviews: Dark Ambient for Summer Evenings (Kammarheit, Leila Abdul-Rauf, and Dronny Darko & G M Slater)

To counter the summer heat currently being experienced here in the northern hemisphere, spending time with dark ambient recordings can bring a chill to one’s bones. The reviews below cover a new release and also catch up with two others that have come out in the last couple of years.

Kammarheit – Thronal (2020; Cyclic Law)

Released 18 months ago, Thronal is one of those albums that slipped under the radar. And it is good that it popped up in the queue because Kammarheit (Pär Boström) produces quintessential dark ambient. Quiet and slow-moving, these drones and layers of synth are haunting journeys through ancient forests, caverns, and abandoned villages. Deep tones rumble and echo in a nearly-hypnogogic fashion. As the album progresses, the drones take on a rougher, grittier nature. A standout track is The Two Houses, which combines all of these features into discordant yet subtle pulses of noise.

Leila Abdul-Rauf – Phantasiai (2021; Cyclic Law)

Still in catch-up mode, Phantasiai is an unusual mid-2021 effort from multi-instrumentalist Leila Abdul-Rauf. Employing just processed trumpet, glockenspiel, and voice, Abdul-Rauf offers two 20-minute, multi-movement suites entitled Distortions in Phantasy and The I Emerges. The trumpet provides background tones that form layered drones or short motifs, while she sounds out ominous melodies on the glockenspiel. She sings or vocalizes on several tracks in a non-Western fashion that accentuates the sparse yet foreboding character of these pieces.

Dronny Darko & G M Slater – Dissolving into Solitary Landscapes (2022; Cryo Chamber)

Dronny Darko (Oleg Puzan) has been a favorite in these parts for some time – all of his recordings are worth owning. Here, he teams with G M Slater for a set of tracks that explore a futuristic dystopia in which Earth’s remaining humans are forced to live underground due to a climate crisis. The synth patterns are more subtle than usual, quiet but often looping in mechanical patterns. A large degree of the activity on the album is in the objects and field recordings used in the foreground – footsteps, water, crackling, voice-like sounds, and environmental noises. These elements paint a dark and apprehensive picture of the hopelessness of a future that is all too likely given our current trajectory.

AMN Reviews: Various Artists – Tomb of Primordials (2022; Cryo Chamber)

This is the sixth collection in Cryo Chamber’s “Tomb” series and is intended to explore Sumerian mythology. The six tracks all fall squarely within the cinematic dark ambient genre, with contributions by Dahlia’s Tear, Skadi, Svartsinn & Letum, New Risen Throne & Mortiis, Inner Vision Laboratory, and Desiderii Marginis. All of these pieces are excellent, especially those on the second half.

Dahlia’s Tear kicks things off with Crystal Scars Beneath a Bleak Sky, a brooding piece with layered drones and crackling electroacoustic elements. This general approach continues on Seed of Pestilence by Skadi, though with the addition of deep, echoing drum beats and well as patterns of martial percussion.

The offering from Svartsinn & Letum, One By One I Broke their Wings, is quiet and windswept, with abundant environmental noises. The other pairing, Chants for Isimud from New Risen Throne & Mortiis, provides a compelling combination of mechanistic percussion, string-like synth washes, and haunting vocalizations for a distinctly Middle-Eastern feel.

Inner Vision Laboratory’s Vermin Wiped Clean is a complex layering of drones that exhibit both doomy and brighter aspects, with low-frequency rumbling constantly in the background. Desiderii Marginis wraps up the album with The Faceless Bringers of Pain. This track begins with a thick, suffocating set of drones, some layers exhibiting insect-like noises, which evolve into glacially-paced synth chording and simulated chants.

AMN Reviews: WEB [Modulisme 067]; Ernie Morgan [Modulisme 060]

Performing in the early 1970s as WEB, an acronym made from the initials of their first names, Warren Burt, Ernie Morgan, and Bruce Rittenbach were among the first artists to give live collaborative concerts using the analogue electronic instruments of the day. Given the ungainliness and frequent unreliability of the analogue synthesizers then available it was a challenging proposition to be sure, but one often justified by the unconventional beauty of the new sonic worlds that opened up. Modulisme’s release of a performance the three gave in autumn of 1972 is a fascinating document of one group’s creative response to the state-of-the-art technologies of fifty years ago.

WEB’s performance consisted of a long composition, the first thirty and final fifteen minutes of which were captured on tape and are presented here as parts one and three, respectively. (A recording glitch resulted in the loss of the piece’s middle section.) The instrumentation consisted of a tape-delay enhanced four-box Buchla 100 synthesizer divided into three systems, which allowed Burt, Morgan, and Rittenbach to play independent parts. Given that setup, the three were able to structure their compositions as a series of field/figure variations in which one could take the lead voice while the others provided background, or all three could play equally at once. This architecture comes through transparently in the sound, which unfolds as an unhurriedly developing texture of denser and sparser passages in which individual voices come through with a distinct clarity.

Included in the album are two tracks representing individual mixes Morgan and Burt made from the performance’s delay tapes. Burt’s Spider Soup is a higher-density, polyphonic piece of superimposed sounds, while Morgan’s mix, titled First Time Out, is a low-density affair made up of discrete events.

Morgan, who died in 2016, is also represented on a solo release of several pieces made on Buchla synthesizers between 1971 and 1974. The pieces were recorded while Morgan was in the PhD program at UCSD (and, seemingly incongruously, also playing in the pop group The Strawberry Alarm Clock); when he dropped out in 1974 he put the tapes in a box and abandoned electronic music to become an elementary school teacher. Burt, who acquired the tapes from Morgan’s widow, had the reel-to-reel tapes digitized and prepared for release. They’re a good find. There are two shorter pieces of ca. 16 minutes as well as a long composition originally of approximately 80 minutes and here broken into two parts. Morgan’s compositional approach, as documented here, consisted in layering themes based on brief gestures, which he repeated and varied with changes of dynamics and speed, in the process creating soundscapes shot through with a jaggedly developing, nervous urgency.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Mary Halvorson – Amaryllis (2022; Nonesuch Records)

Mary Halvorson has a formula – she just doesn’t always follow it. The first track on this new sextet release begins with a jagged rhythm over which Halvorson solos. Her bandmates (Patricia Brennan on vibraphone, Nick Dunston on bass, Tomas Fujiwara on drums, Jacob Garchik on trombone, and Adam O’Farrill on trumpet) pick up pieces of the rhythm as well as related themes. It is relatively easy to determine which parts are composed and which are improvised. These themes develop and flow around one another in a fashion that has been used by Halvorson in the past, as well as by various avant-rock (and creative jazz) groups. If you are a Halvorson fan, this is all good and not far from what you expected.

But Halvorson’s influences are wide and deep. Her innovations might hide her more conventional proclivities. She clearly appreciates the standards, whether jazz, blues, or otherwise, and this appreciation colors her own works. Subtle nods to more conventional stylings appear throughout this album, even as it leans toward the experimental end of modern jazz. The chimeric nature of Halvorson’s writing is both obvious and yet subtle as she deftly dances between genres.

Amaryllis is one of two companion albums released by Halvorson last month. It features the aforementioned players forming a sextet with Halvorson, with help from the Mivos String Quartet on the second half. The pieces are of uniformly medium length, around 6-7 minutes each.

The title track is a compelling romp with Dunston and Halvorson providing a running (as opposed to walking) pattern over which the horns provide the main melodic structures with Brennan offering up accentuations. The tune moves along at a nice clip, even as Halvorson switches to her signature note-bending. It is hard not to get caught up in the group’s joyful expressiveness.

Side Effect begins with Mivos, and eventually the core group joins in. While there is no shortage of compositional complexity and sophisticated chops (not to mention a killer solo from Dunston), the overall feel is cinematic and slightly retro despite moments of start-stop rhythms.

Hoodwink is something of an outlier, with Mivos again beginning the piece but this time with a less-structured modern classical approach until Halvorson comes in on acoustic, followed by the rest. Mivos’s playing becomes sweeter to match the emotion of Garchik and O’Farrill, while Fujiwara and Dunston gently push the boundaries, serving as a reminder that this is not your grandparent’s jazz.

Amaryllis ends wistfully, bringing its bouncy opening around 180 degrees. 892 Teeth is deliberately paced and more sparsely populated, with Mivos serving mostly in the background, beneath soloists (with kudos to Brennan). But in the last two minutes, the piece goes avant, with an effects-laden lead providing a discordant break before returning to introspection.

AMN Reviews: Various Artists – The Dystopian World of J​.​G​.​ Ballard (2022; Zero K)

This compilation is notable in both its consistency and lack thereof. Its 12 tracks, spanning about 75 minutes, each involve some form of gritty drone, many with shimming or lilting looped structures. But these efforts have their own unique identities that make them all part of a greater whole. Contributors include Grey Frequency, Mario Lino Stancati, JARL, Eraldo Bernocchi, HLER, Hector M. Reis, Lars Bröndum, Joel Gilardini, vÄäristymä, Mombi Yuleman, and Tarme Til Alle.

Each piece was influenced in some fashion by the writings of science fiction author J.G. Ballard. Somewhat ahead of his time, Ballard is labeled with the word “dystopian”, as his stories from 50+ years ago broached subjects that have only recently lost most of their taboo nature. He famously wrote, “The advanced societies of the future will not be governed by reason. They will be driven by irrationality, by competing systems of psychopathology.” Look around and tell me that has not already happened.

In any event, the music is enjoyable in its subtle quietness, though punctuated by rumblings and spacey themes. There is a solidly retro feel to this set, with the use of field recordings as well as analog buzz and hiss. While the majority of these undertakings might be lumped into the experimental dark ambient bucket, the pair of sound collages from Lars Bröndum stand out as having more in common with the works of Tod Dockstader for example. Other tracks fall at various places on the spectrum between ambient and musique concrete.

Once again, a stellar collection of the weird and unexpected from Zero K, an Unexplained Sounds Group label.

AMN Reviews: Harriet Tubman and Gordon Grdina’s Nomad Trio in Chicago, June 25

Had the great fortune of seeing Gordon Grdina’s Nomad Trio last night at Constellation in Chicago.  This was a wonderful set of a fusion of Tim Berne-like musical adventures with a large dose of Middle Eastern melodies thanks to the Oud’s heavy presence. Excellent stuff!

Gordon, who I never heard before is a fantastic guitarist with a full, meaty sound that spends a lot of time on “the low notes” to drive the music forward (until he lets loose and solos with the white-hot intensity of a Bob Fripp circa “Islands” Sailors Tale period). His Oud playing was a very cool addition hurtling the (too short) set into unexpected directions.

Initially, drummer Jim Black was the big draw for me. During this performance he was incredibly powerful, loose and in the pocket all at the same time. He is no stranger to playing in ensembles that have a “Middle Eastern flare”.  I’m specifically thinking of Pachora here although that had more of a Horn presence.

Matt Mitchell on piano rounded out the trio adding an additional layer of top-end madness to this incendiary trio. While mostly staying in “manic mode” he did occasionally bring it down a few thousand notches with some beautiful (improved?) introductions.  The alchemy of acoustic Piano within this lineup of electric Guitar and Oud (with no Bass) yielded a very dense, but at the same time, a very open feel to the sounds. If you can catch them in your part of the world, do so!!!

In addition to the Nomad Trio, the evening’s headliner was Harriet Tubman and, like their Big Ears set I left the show with somewhat mixed feelings.

The sound at Constellation was excellent and that made a big difference in things. I don’t know if it was a function of the (in my opinion), the poor acoustic properties of the venue they played at BE’s or, a live sound guy who had a love affair with subsonic noise but, at least tonight there were none of those overdriven standing bass waves smothering everything within sight. If I wanted to see that, I would just go see Sunn O))).

Melvin Gibb’s playing was still loud, intense and at times fuzz heavy (make no mistake…that is a feature, not a bug) but at least it didn’t obliterate Brandon Ross’s guitar playing. The mix last night was pretty much perfect. 

As far as the music…well, I still think that their tunes meandered a little too much, sometimes without a hint of direction or resolution…as if the music was searching for something but never finding it, but instead, just ending and me thinking to myself…”well, ok…is that it?”

But, on the other hand, because of the much-improved sound I was able to better appreciate their overall spiritual power jazz trio vibe that was smashed down into a muddy mess at Big Ears. I love Brandon Ross’s playing and last night I finally got to actually hear him. He was playing some truly beautiful melodies.  This might go without saying, but please check out Henry Threadgill’s 1993 album “To Much Sugar for a Dime” to hear Brandon just slam-dunkin it!!

Gibb’s bass playing was devastating (as expected) but he pulled out some great solos using a lot of chording and double stops along the way.  J.T. Lewis is a no-nonsense drummer but very tasteful in the context of the music. I guess it’s only fair to say that after seeing Jim Black’s octopus-like display, a mainly “in the pocket” type drummer would seem “no-nonsense”. Regardless, he held it down quite well!

Their last piece was a rousing, Gospel-infused vocal workout. Brandon has a great, soulful voice that succeeded in uplifting the energy quotient (band and audience) and was a very fitting way to end another great night of much-missed live music in Chicago.  Keep it coming!

(Once again, thanks to Larry Blatecky for photos!)

Mike Eisenberg
Twitter: @bigaudio999

AMN Reviews: Hard Rubber Orchestra – Iguana (2022; Redshift)

Hard Rubber Orchestra is an 18-piece big band that has been around for over 30 years, and Iguana is their first release since 2014. Consisting of five drummers / percussionists, bass, guitar, pianos, synth, cello, violin, voice, and a large horn section, the group produces a thick, dense sound with layered complexity.

The most striking piece on this album is the opener, Source Code. Composer / arranger Harry Stafylakis stated, “This piece is perhaps one of my most explicit attempts at writing contemporary progressive metal music for a non-metal ensemble.” Indeed, the heavy guitar riffs and intricate rhythms are compelling enough, but when combined with contrapuntal lines from the horn and string sections, Stafylakis takes it over the top. And, the track manages to avoid cliches of sounding like metal influences mere grafted on another style – the heaviness here is deeply integrated and a fundamental part of the composition.

Taking things in a different direction, James O’Callaghan’s a bilateral, a symmetry appears to be a pastiche of samples from a subset of the musicians. The result comes across as a blending of musique concrete and techno, with strong beats and rapid jump cuts. In further contrast, we have Peggy Lee’s Dissolver, which begins with an intense and mildly chaotic staccato horn pattern accompanied by a strained electric guitar theme. This evolves into a more conventional set of horn-driven structures.

The final three pieces are from group leader John Korsrud. The title track is a bouncy effort that is actually a reworking of a tune from 1992, with ascending melodic patterns and multiple percussionists. Eventually, its playful nature is somewhat tempered by an intense guitar / horn crescendo. From the Earth is best categorized as chamber music with a pastoral and wistful tone, played on just piano and horns. Rounding things out is Force Majeure, Korsrud’s first composition after the beginning of the pandemic. It is a tension-filled offering, again with multiple percussionists but also thick lines that merge and split apart into controlled disorder.

AMN Reviews: Amanda Irarrázabal & gabby fluke-mogul – RAYAS (2022; Bandcamp)

Experimentalists Amanda Irarrázabal (bass, vocals) and gabby fluke-mogul (violin, vocals) team up for the first time on this 2021 live recording from New York’s IBeam venue. Those familiar with fluke-mogul will find much to like here, as their signature form of relentless and gritty free improv is on display. Irarrázabal is a fitting partner for these efforts, as the focus is on creating unpredictable sequences of sound expression from their instruments rather than any reliance on melody or song per se.

Consisting of four tracks each about 10 minutes in length, this unorthodox duo employs generous extended techniques that involve scraping, sawing, scratching, and evoking percussive elements. And they do so at a brisk pace, moving from idea to idea before any wears out its welcome. The result is harsh and textural but exhibits an unusual beauty. As a result, RAYAS is extemporaneous brain candy of the highest form, with dense clusters of bent notes and patternless progressions. Highly recommended.

AMN Reviews: Amirtha Kidambi & Luke Stewart – Zenith/Nadir (2022; Tripticks Tapes)

Two of experimental music’s busiest and most creative voices join together on this set of vocal and bass duets. Stewart employs feedback, loops, and effects to generate discordant and boiling noise structures. His instrument’s natural sounds are often hidden to the point of indiscernibility behind these rumbling constructs. Kidambi also makes generous use of effects and processing, with her vocabulary stretching the notion of “singing” to haunting and plaintive wails, chant, and scat. Her wordless vocalizations are largely obscured.

But as Zenith/Nadir progresses, the instrumentation and vocals become more clearly identifiable. Indeed, the second half of the album is a pairing of largely undistorted acoustic bass and voice that serves as a contrast to the heavily distorted predecessor tracks. This progression is perhaps suggested by the title – the highs and lows of the last two years have been uniquely stirring, involving anger, sorrow, frustration, and yet moments of joy as well. Kidambi and Stewart have created a musical expression of these and other emotions that may serve to remind our future selves of this era.

AMN Reviews: Mahakaruna Quartet – Life Practice [Setola di Maiale SM4360]

From the Mahakaruna Quartet comes this substantive and thoroughly enjoyable set of jazz-based free improvisation. The group, consisting of Giorgio Pacorig (Fender Rhodes piano and electronics); Gabriele Cancelli (trumpet); Cene Resnik (tenor saxophone); and Stefano Giust (drums and cymbals), were recorded live at the Jazzmatec Festival in Udine in Northeast Italy in the covid-darkened days of September, 2020. The resulting music surely must count among the few positive things to emerge from that year.

Over the course of the set, which has been broken up into six tracks for the album, the quartet produces a cooperatively crafted improvisation notable for its vivid blending of color and intelligent use of variable dynamics. Pacorig’s Fender Rhodes and electronics play a particularly key but discreet role in weaving together the overall texture; integrating contemporary electronics into what is essentially an acoustic context can be difficult to do well, but Pacorig manages to do it with a light but sure touch. Cancelli and Resnik demonstrate themselves to be first-rate collective players, and Guist once again plays with a sensitivity and musicality virtually unequaled among improvising drummers.

Daniel Barbiero