AMN Reviews: loadbang – Quiver [New Focus Recordings fcr 342]

The chamber ensemble loadbang may well be unique in its instrumentation of trumpet, trombone, bass clarinet, and baritone voice. A strange combination, yes, but one capable of producing interesting timbres and textures. Accordingly, some of the most effective music on this album of eight compositions by seven composers, three of whom are members of the ensemble, involves the dramatic extensions and juxtapositions of loadbang’s instrumental and human voices.

Disquiet (2016), by loadbang’s bass clarinetist Carlos Cordeiro, is a setting of a text by Fernando Pessoa suggestive of an individual’s experience of multiple personalities; Cordeiro emphasizes the characteristic qualities of the group’s instrumentation by arranging them as separate, abutting presences within a deliberately discordant and fragmentary whole. By contrast, vocalist Jeffrey Gavett’s Proverbial (2009), a setting of three of William Blake’s Proverbs from Hell, assembles the winds into massed and dissonant long tones. Washington DC area composer Heather Stebbins’ Quiver (2014), which was inspired by a trip the composer took to Iceland, uses muted brass and extended techniques for wordless voice to craft a spluttering, choppy allusion in sound to the lurching action of geological processes.

Further along on the spectrum of extended technique, Zong Yun We’s Flower (2015/2017) is a gestural work drawing heavily on unpitched sounds; something of a polar opposite is Quinn Mason’s harmonically conventional composition Aging (2017), a somber setting of a two-line poem by Adam Lefaivre anchored by the bass clarinet. Quiver also includes trumpeter Andy Kozar’s To Keep My Loneliness Warm (2016), a two-part setting of a text by Lydia Davis built around a microtonal drone and shards of words; Chaya Czernowin’s Irrational (2019), an assemblage of pulsing patterns, unpitched timbres, and wordless vocals; and Gavett’s 2016 quis det ut, a work for just intonation based on a 15-16th century Franco-Flemish motet.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: John Luther Adams – Sila: The Breath of the World (2022; Cantaloupe Music)

John Luther Adams makes classical music for people who are not that into classical music. His pieces use classical instruments and voice to create drones, textures, and colors that combine to produce something that goes beyond the constraints of the sonata, symphony, or string quartet. His inspirations are often natural or environmental, and the resulting music explores vast expanses of desert, tundra, or ocean.

Sila: The Breath of the World is based on an Inuit notion of Gaia-like intelligence undergirding all of nature. It is not a composition per se, but rather a meta-composition – a set of rules from which conductor-less compositions can be derived. These rules incorporate the use of physical space as a variable. This is best described in the liner notes:

Sila is scored for five ensembles of 16 musicians —woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings, and voices— who may perform the music in any combination, successively or simultaneously, outdoors, or in a large indoor space. The musicians are dispersed widely, surrounding the listeners, who are free to move around and discover their own individual listening points.

This recording is a single track spanning 55 minutes, and represents just one possible representation of Sila. Each of the ensembles produces drones, chords, and long-held notes that ebb and flow at a tectonic pace. The percussionists contribute dense rumblings that move in and out of the foreground, as well as more punctuated appearances of cymbals and gongs. Slightly prior to the one-third mark, the vocalists become more prominent with slow chants that partially blend with the woodwinds and strings. The result is a set of shimmering and modulating sound walls that are trancelike but without obvious repetition.

To appreciate Sila, it needs to be heard at a high volume, preferably in a large room. But even if experienced through headphones, this latest addition to Adams’ oeuvre is an unconventional and compelling effort that can be enjoyed passively for its cinematic aspects or more actively in an attempt to unravel its many overlapping themes.

The album will come out on September 23 from Cantaloupe Music.

AMN Reviews: Mombi Yuleman – Hours Lost (2022; ZeroK)

UFOologists refer to a concept known as “missing time” – typically several hours or more that a person allegedly abducted by aliens has erased from their memory. Mombi Yuleman invokes this notion in Hours Lost, an experimental and weird ambient release inspired by one of the first self-reported kidnappings by extra-terrestrials – that of Barney and Betty Hill.

Yuleman employs layered drones, cracking static, patterned and patternless percussion elements, deep rumblings, and simulated vocalizations to generate haunting soundscapes. He loops aspects of these sounds to create hypnogogic and modestly catchy harmonies – for example, Hypnosis has a repeating trance-like synth pattern accompanied by abstract radio noises and electroacoustics. The Visitors combines slowly-oscillating yet massive waves of sound with aleatoric percussion and effects in a cinematic fashion. Other tracks utilize sequenced arrangements with undulating chords, subtle beats with otherworldly tones, and airy layers with machine sounds of non-human origin.

Each of these pieces is relatively short at between 4 and 7 minutes, and has its own distinctive character. Given the above description, any fan of disturbing ambient, dark drones with strange post-industrial sounds, or modern takes on Kosmiche music will find plenty to like here.

Ultimately, like all reports of supernatural findings subjected to scientific scrutiny, the abduction of the Hills was debunked (or, at least, the Hills were unable to provide convincing evidence of its truth). But one does not have to be a believer in order to enjoy all kinds of media that explore these concepts. Thus, in the grand tradition of speculative science fiction, Yuleman explores fantastical ideas – in this case giving such inquiries a concrete and enjoyable musical grounding.

Hours Lost came out on August 26 on the ZeroK label, a subsidiary of the Unexplained Sounds Group.

AMN Reviews: Whit Dickey Quartet – Root Perspectives (2022; TAO Forms)

There is more than a lot of free jazz that has emerged over the last several decades. Nonetheless, it is rare for a recording to juxtapose outside sax leads, classically oriented piano accompaniment, and a relentlessly busy rhythm section in a joyously abstract manner. On Root Perspectives, the latest effort from the Whit Dickey Quartet, drummer Dickey and company accomplish that and much more.

This particular lineup includes Tony Malaby on sax, Matthew Shipp on piano, and Brandon Lopez on bass, representing a switch-out of half of the members that released an album under the same moniker earlier this year. Providing four tracks spanning 50 minutes of dense improv, this grouping manages to stand out in a crowded field.

Malaby’s blowing is rough-edged, aggressive, and at times just plain in-your-face. His coarse texturalism and brief diversions into extended techniques are in sharp contrast to Shipp’s relatively structured playing. As a sideman, Shipp is able to fill space with notes in a subtle yet compelling fashion. Indeed, I often find that I enjoy Shipp’s rhythms and harmonies at least as much as his leads. On later tracks, Malaby leans more toward the lyrical and the overall tone of the recording heads – at times – ever so slightly toward traditional jazz even as Shipp’s complex lines keep the group squarely on the outside.

Lopez and Dickey both have the ability to draw from multiple genres and blend their influences in seamless patterns. Lopez alternatively plucks, bows, and slaps at his instrument. Dickey generates a non-stop and largely non-repetitive mass of beats and rattling, with a heavy emphasis on snare and cymbals.

Root Perspectives will be released on October 21 by TAO Forms. As they say, don’t let this one pass you by…

AMN Reviews: Jason Blake – The Compromise Rationale (2022; Wayfarer Records)

Jason Blake is a Chicago-based Warr guitarist, and The Compromise Rationale is a solo release of ambient progressive metal. Despite being the only performer, Blake gives the album a thick, rich sound. This is due, at least in part, to the very nature of his instrument, a 12-string touch guitar on which bass and electric guitar parts can be played simultaneously. He may have employed some overdubbing as well, since there are often more than two distinct voices.

Contentwise, Blake combines arpeggiated chords, distorted riffs, and layered drones in various arrangements. He provides rhythmic and melodic elements but replaces what would have otherwise been a percussion track with ambient tones lingering in the background. As an example, Euphoria with Repercussions begins with said arpeggiations and a background drone, then is joined by two overdriven guitar-like lines, one riffing while the other explores a slow theme. Blake varies these elements throughout the track’s seven minutes.

This piece, and the entire album, has a moody and dark thematic character. Blake avoids any notion of guitar heroics and instead focuses on a more holistic, cinematic approach with haunting undercurrents and occasional hypnogogic passages. Thus, while his restrained energy works as background music, there is more than enough detail and compositional sophistication to keep your ears busy across multiple fully-attentive listenings.

The Compromise Rationale will be released on September 23 by Wayfarer Records.

AMN Reviews: Pierfrancesco Mucari & Gianni Mimmo – How to Get Rid of the Darkness [Amirani AMRN070]; Clairvoyance – Transient [Amirani AMRN069]

The newest two offerings from Amirani Records, the label curated by Gianni Mimmo, find the Milanese soprano saxophonist in two very different settings.

The first is a duet with Sicilian saxophonist Pierfrancesco Mucari, who plays soprano, alto, and prepared saxophone, as well as the marranzano, a Sicilian jaw harp. Mimmo is no stranger to the unusual format of the saxophone duet, and here as on his earlier collaborations with saxophonist Harri Sjöström, he demonstrates how two similarly pitched and timbrally closely related instruments can create a music of noticeable differences. His and Mucari’s voices in this series of improvisations are readily distinguishable; Mimmo, who often favors a kind of musical cubism based on repeated melodic fragments, pushes the style to contrast it with Mucari, who tends to weave a longer and more sinuous line. Although this appears to be Mimmo and Mucari’s first collaboration, at least on record, there’s an almost telepathic rapport between them, as they double each other’s lines, complete each other’s phrases, and provide counterpoint and harmonies nimbly assembled in real time. The music is complemented by an illuminating liner note from Ettore Garzia.

Mimmo also appears on Transient, the second release from the superb trio Clairvoyance, which in addition to Mimmo includes the Sardinian duo of pianist/toy pianist Silvia Corda and double bassist Adriano Orrù. The album is a relatively short, LP-length set of forceful improvisations. Although the performances are energetic, they don’t cross the line into chaos, largely because each player leavens the whole with his or her sense of structural constraints and coherence. As she has with this trio in the past, Corda often provides an overall framework constructed of patterned chords and regular rhythms, most notably on the track Shinjuku. Mimmo alternates between a free lyricism and—as on the set of duets with Mucari—an elaborate cubism in which he arranges and rearranges handfuls of notes to give the audio equivalent of a view from every possible angle. Orrù underpins it all with darting pizzicato lines and judiciously applied extended techniques with fingers and bow. This is a group that can balance a restless impressionism, as on the track Rippling Lake, with the fortissimo collision of overblown saxophone and double-bass-reinforced, lower register piano that defines the track Talking at Crazy Angles. A stimulating synthesis of intelligence and intensity.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: New Experimental Ambient from Conflux Coldwell, Grune Maar, and Concussed

Conflux Coldwell – The Phantomatic Coast (2022; Subexotic Records)

Michael C. Coldwell spent several years traveling the east coast of England, gathering field recordings of waves and fog signals. He used them as the basis of this album, along with sweeping drones, loops, and sculpted static. Ultimately a hauntological exercise, The Phantomatic Coast explores how erosion causes the sea to change landscapes, leaving only hints and memories of what once was. Accordingly, there is a distinct forlorn feel to these recordings, with additional frictive elements and background spoken word passages. This sense of sadness and loss is coupled with a handful of distinct melodic patterns that repeat for short periods of time along with the layered synth. The album will be released on September 23.

Grune Maar – Within the Abyss (2022; Bandcamp)

Within the Abyss is something of a monolith, in that it is largely based on shifting arrangments of smooth drones that take a slightly dark path. But the album remains compelling throughout despite its uniformity – there is nothing wrong with having a lot of a good thing. Grune Maar is Romanian artist Laurentiu Danu, who has self-released a series of albums this year. In spirit at least, this one is reminiscent of Steve Roach’s more spacious ambient recordings. The addition of a few voice-like pads and some crackling here and there do little to change this focus. Danu is in no hurry as his progressions move along at a tectonic pace, making the album well suited for meditative pursuits.

Concussed – Electromagnetic Dust (2022; SomewhereCold Records)

Concussed is a project of Texan Jim Branstetter, and serves as an exploration into cinematic dark ambient with gritty drones, dramatic percussion, light static, and ominous bass tones. There is quite a lot going on throughout this release, with Branstetter using his palette to generate a dense and busy mix of sounds. Some of these are odd and textural, incorporating acousmatic influences. Bits and pieces of acoustic instrumentation and spoken word pop in as well. Starting on the second track, Branstetter introduces snippets of awkwardly-timed percussion to counterpoint lilting voice-like abstractions. Processed voices, rubbing and scraping, and bassy drones are the main features of The Rectal Exorcism of Vladimir Putin, a track that gets my vote for song title of the year.

AMN Reviews: Ascending Divers – Watery Domain (2022; Cyclic Law)

Deep, airy drones…lilting voices and chamber instrumentation…minimalist yet throbbing beat patterns…there is nothing not to like about the first few minutes Watery Domain. The album is the latest from Ascending Divers (Hugo Champion), and is an exploration of oceanic myths. These core elements of windswept synth layers, voices, hints of strings, and the occasional thump or drum roll are arranged in various ways throughout this offering.

Indeed, the droning chords and vocals often blend in a hazy fashion, for example on Clamor of an Off-Shore Dismissal and Ear the Shell Peach. This gives the album a strange presence of dull anxiety that warns of ever-present danger. Low bass notes contribute to this ominous feel, with subtle rumbling or jarring spikes. Occasional noises from field recordings or manipulation of objects also find their way into these pieces, while the beats become fewer and further between.

This general approach continues until the final (and longest) track, Wreck. It is initially an amalgam of non-musical elements – wind, water, echoes, and the rumbling of large structures. Thick synth lines slowly integrate themselves into the mix, gradually taking over with slow-moving melodies. This continues for several minutes until the seascape acoustics return and then fade.

AMN Reviews: Titan to Tachyons – Vonals (2022; Tzadik)

Two years ago Titan to Tachyons put themselves on the map with a stellar debut, and now they return with an expanded lineup and yet another compelling release. A true genre-blending outfit led by guitarist Sally Gates, on Vonals the group fuses technical metal, prog rock, jazz, blues, and generally heavy weirdness across 45 minutes.

Joining Gates are prior bandmates Matt Hollenberg on bass VI and Kenny Grohowski on drums. Trevor Dunn, who guested on bass for one track on the last go-around, is a full member this time. Hollenberg and Grohowski are two-thirds of John Zorn’s Simulacrum and half of Zorn’s Chao Magick, while Dunn has collaborated with Zorn on at least a dozen releases. Nonetheless, while Titan to Tachyons exhibits the occasional Zorn-ism, its sound is largely driven by Gates. She is a muscular player who combines heavy riffing with blues-oriented soloing and an understated lyricism that bleeds into abstraction. Indeed, her melodies and themes are memorable, bursting with ideas that dance about the angular / catchy and inside / outside axes.

Hollenberg and Dunn both taking on bass duties adds a unique flavor to Vonals. Particularly, the bass VI is a six-string bass that is tuned like a guitar but an octave lower. Hollenberg plays it both like a guitar and a bass, which allows him to counterpoint Gates, Dunn, or both. In addition, the three guitars can combine into a massive wall of sound or delicate interlocking rhythms. And lest we forget, Grohowski is a creative monster on the drum kit.

All of this adds up to another brilliant piece of work from Gates and company. In short, if you appreciate the first Titan to Tachyons album, Vonals should be a no-brainer. It will be released on September 16 by Tzadik Records.

AMN Reviews: Forest Swords – Compassion (2017; Bandcamp)

By Mikey McDonald

Forest Swords is the moniker of Merseyside musician Matthew Barnes who broke onto the scene with the magnificent Engravings back in 2013. The Forest Swords moniker perfectly encapsulates the sounds of the music which combines the ancient with the modern through tribal rhythms and dark, eerie atmospheres. There’s no doubt Forest Swords has his own unique sound which is often described as ambient dub. Compassion marks the second full-length release from this producer who is preparing for a long-awaited follow-up later this year.

Opener ‘War It’ is both glitchy and anthemic and kicks the album off in a big way. Clipped brass samples, clattering drums, and wide synths akin to swirling missiles serve to create tension and straight away get the pulse racing. In contrast to Engravings which is tightly packed and even at times claustrophobic, Compassion yields more space; tracks often break down and disintegrate or meander completely before returning to course. ‘War It’ is an excellent example of this and explores the calm before the storm as synthesisers cascade and plummet like a plane caught in a fatal tailspin, which further heighten the senses.

‘The Highest Flood’ stirs up piercing synth lines, rattling percussion, and signature vocal passages that Barnes has become renowned for. These vocals stem from a choir and are chopped up into unintelligible phrases yet you still might find yourself trying to sing along. Along with the opener, this is a deeply rich, textured piece full of cinematic soundscapes and grainy atmospheres. A saxophone draws curtains to the track which adds a rather unexpected nice touch.

‘Panic’ sounds fresh out of the jungle and is driven by a rumbling cello and chiming bells. This track samples Lou Johnson’s ‘The Panic Is On’ and is the only Forest Swords tune to date with intelligible vocals. Of course, these vocals are distorted and re-pitched, it’s just not Barnes’ style to throw in a sample untouched. Field recordings can be heard all over Compassion with sounds coming from old air conditioners, the outside environment, and even boats clanking against docks which Barnes himself recorded when out and about.

In an interview Barnes explains “There are so many amazing plug-ins now that can mimic real instruments, so not letting listeners in on what’s live and what’s computer generated is quite fun to me” and he’s right, Compassion is enigmatic by design. Some of the strings and brass featured on the album are real whilst some of it is fake but they’re fused together and woven so intricately it’s impossible to tell one apart from the other.

‘Exalter’ means to rise in rank or status and glancing at some of the track titles it’s fair to say war could be one of the themes of Compassion. ‘Exalter’ features bombastic drums, fluttering flutes, and medieval-like vocal chants that play almost like a ritual. Clearly, this was composed very recently but you could be forgiven for thinking you had been transported back in time and were part of a tribe some several hundred thousand years ago.

Centrepiece ‘Arms Out’ is otherworldly and is another ancient grind full of prehistoric chanting. The introduction of this track is very windy before tribal-sounding drums and cymbal rolls enter the mix – seriously, it sounds like a sacrifice is about to take place. Instead, we’re treated to some breathtaking male vocal samples which again are hard to make sense of, and ecstatic horns which could be conducting a march into battle. I don’t know the origin of said vocal samples but if I were to hazard a guess I would say ‘Creed – With Arms Wide Open’. Such is the skill and expertise of Barnes it’s just impossible to tell as he manipulates the vocals in such a way to perfectly complement the instrumental – in that sense, it reminds me of Fever Ray’s stunning debut where the pitch-shifted vocals really dance with the music.

‘Sjurvival’ recalls Pan’s Lullaby and includes recordings from a railway station in both the build up and finish. It is truly melancholic and offers some time to rest before the album reaches its conclusion.

Closer ‘Knife Edge’ is the epitome of sonic decay and is highly cinematic. Fractured pianos, rustling wind chimes and mournful strings are met with distant vocal yelps, like cries from the bottom of the ocean. The razor-sharp glitch at 2:14 is like a muffled call for help and feels essential to the track – Barnes has an incredible ear, it’s like he knows exactly what sound is needed and where it should go. Eastern-inspired twangs come in and out of the mix and somehow manage to convey devastation and utter despair whilst remaining full of hope and optimism – perhaps the battle is lost but not the war. It is the perfect ending to an album that is haunting yet colourful and wholly inspirational.

I could be doing Barnes a disservice but I’m not sure if he plays any single instrument at expert level. What he is on the other hand is a musical genius. A master of processing, layering and sequencing. A master of composition. Barnes is as much a sound artist as he is a musician born to make albums. Engravings blew my mind on first listen and was one of the first albums that made me think about sound design and production. Compassion is no different and took everything that was great about Engravings and sculpted it into something even grander with more space, more complexities, and more emotion. I just can’t wait to hear what he’s got in store for us next…