Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Andrew Liles - Black Hole: Forming Part Two of the Vortex Vault (2007)

In 2007, British sound artist Andrew Liles rummaged through his collection of home recordings and decided to release all of them in a twelve disc set, with one album coming out each month for a year. Like a fool, I only acquired seven of these wonderful recordings before the extremely limited editions all sold out. In any case, I intend to review all the ones I have (not right in a row, don't worry) because they are all worth listening to for any fans of strange music.

The amazing thing about these discs is the sheer variety of sounds to be found on them. Culled as they were from years of experimentation, it shouldn't be surprising that these tracks have a lot of different things going on, but the fact that Liles can be so diverse and yet somehow retain a consistent sound and create a coherent album (actually, twelve coherent albums) is amazing. This volume consists of primarily short tracks with the longest coming in at just under six minutes. Liles is fond of minimal ostinatos and a number of songs feature little more than a repeated, invariably haunting melody. Vocal samples are used to great effect, particularly on my favorite track on the record "Hello, Pharaoh."

"Hello, Pharaoh" consists primarily of a woman singing the title in a sort of night-club jazz style, with a backdrop of crackling vinyl and brooding harmonium. The atmosphere created by this simple combination is breathtaking, even though it lasts a scant two and a half minutes. Elsewhere, ambient drones and dark rumblings take center stage. Actually this particular volume is a lot more ambient than some of the others, but of course that isn't a bad thing. There's some spooky lounge inspired vibraphone ("Sequential Dreaming") and glitch-like electronics that are meant to imitate a dentists tools ("Root Canal") and of course what record would be complete without samples of elephants trumpeting, african druming and tribal chanting ("Without Anaesthesia")?

As we all know, I like my music sublimely weird, and while not everything here fits that description, the series as a whole has so many wonderful oddities and non-sequiturs that it has become one of my favorites.

Kyle Bobby Dunn - A Young Persons Guide To... (2010)

Kyle Bobby Dunn is a Brooklyn based sound artist who enjoys creating long, minimal pieces of atmospheric ambient music. "A Young Person's Guide to Kyle Bobby Dunn" is his most large scale release to date, a sprawling set of tracks that unfold over two discs and runs for almost two hours. Listening to such lengthy works in their entirety is usually a daunting task, placing large demands on the listener's patience and attention span, but in this case the music is such that it can function as a pleasant backdrop just as easily as an active listening experience.

So what does the music sound like? Well, it actually sounds a lot like Stars of the Lid. Warm droning textures fade in and out over the course of the lengthy tracks, evoking tranquil thoughts of far away places where there are no deadlines and nothing to worry about. Dunn seems to have embraced Eric Satie's concept of furniture music, and his compositions sit nicely in the corners of any room, unobtrusively coloring the atmosphere in shades of beige.

There is little variation in sound across the album's running time, although a few splashes of restrained piano, tasteful electronic swirls, and some field recordings of animals and water make for some nice flavor here and there. The one spot where the sense of profound calm is disturbed lies at the end of the second track "The Tributary (For Voices Lost)," which concludes with a deep, deep bass rumble that may shake the teeth right out of your head (or at least blow out your speakers.) The album confusingly ends with a human voice persistantly asking "Looking at yourself?" to which another voice confidently replies "Yeah."

Overall, this is a record that will appeal to those of you who feel that modern ambient has become far too "busy" and would like to see a return to the Brian Eno-Harold Budd roots of the genre. The sounds are very soothing and enjoyable, and the length is such that by the end of it you will almost certainly be lulled into a relaxed state of inner peace. Certainly one of the more meditative records I've come across in recent years.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

COH - Above Air (2006)

COH is the work of the Russian soundsmith, Ivan Pavlov. The band name is actually written in the Cyrillic alphabet, is pronounced "sohn" and means "sleep." The resemblance to the English letters C, O and H is purely coincidental.

Now that we've got that cleared up, on to the music. This is an album of all electronic pieces with a common theme of airiness. While airiness may seem like a hard concept to get across, musically, Pavlov is very succssful in the implementation of his plan by using a rather restricted pallette of sound. The synths are mostly high pitched and somewhat thin, with bell like tones playing a prominent role. There is a bit of a hissing quality to many of the tracks, sounding like a jet engine might if it could only relax and turn down the volume. Some of the tracks are rather rhythmic (although nothing a sane person would dance to) and others are more free flowing and open ended. There are also elements of glitch present, such as minor clicks that sound a little like a CD skipping, and at times the music reminds me a lot of Coil's work as ELpH, which is appropriate as this release was dedicated to the memory of the recently deceased John Balance.

The overall tone of the album is very subdued and open, at times bordering on ambient. It's easy to imagine oneself drifting through the stratosphere, alone and peaceful, with only the sounds of moving air and occassional faint radio signals passing through your ears. The unity of sound that Pavlov has achieved, while still maintaining nine aurally distinct tracks is impressive. Usually albums of this sort are either overly monotonous or else they abandon their concept in search of a more varied sound. That Pavlov deftly avoids these traps and delivers a rich and satisfying listening experience is a tribute to his creativity and to his skills as an electronic musician.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

H. P. Lovecraft - H. P. Lovecraft (1967) / H. P. Lovecraft II (1968)

When most people think about psychedelic rock from the sixties, it's a pretty good bet that H. P. Lovecraft is not one of the first names they come up with. Despite having a relatively successful couple of years, and two pretty solid albums, the band has largely been forgotten in the annals of rock history. That's a shame because, although their records don't exactly qualify as lost masterpieces, there is a lot to enjoy in their music. Luckily, those of us who wish to seek it out, can pick up this two-fer (can you tell I like these?) containing both of their studio records and a couple of singles.

The style of the band is basically psychedelic folk, but with a more complex instrumental palette than other similar groups. Rather than the standard folk dominated by acoustic guitars, H. P. Lovecraft employ many orchestral instruments as well as organ, piano and harpsichord. The sound is, however, not nearly so dark as their name implies. In fact many of the songs are (unfortunately) rather standard interpretations of popular folk songs. I find these a bit tedious, and the insipid peace-and-love lyrics of these hippies drives me nuts, but that's not the whole story.

Where the band really shine is on their original compositions, most notably the six and a half minute "The White Ship." The atmosphere of this track is one of mystical gloom, with french horns and ships bells droning on somberly. It's a really nice mood piece and the vocal harmonies are quite lovely. There's also an a capella rendition of the Gloria Patria prayer at the ned of the album which is pretty cool. Finally, the faux-twenties pastiche "Time Machine" is usually derided, but I find it quite fun, although strangely out of place on the record.

Thankfully, the second album shows the band in a more adventurous mood. After wading through a bit of folk nonsense at the beginning, we are treated to some real psychedelia. "Ellectrolentando," "At The Mountains of Madness," and "Mobius Trip" deliver a three-in-a-row punch of trippy atmospherics and gloomy dirges. There's also a forty second sound collage/recitation called "Nothing's Boy" that reminds me a lot of "In The Beginning" from the Moody Blues' "On The Threshold of a Dream." Actually, this group could be compared to the Moodies in a lot of ways, now that I think of it.

Folk is not a style of music that it is very easy for me to enjoy, and I find a lot of it dated and silly. Nethertheless, H. P. Lovecraft's expansion of the genre with inventive arrangements and progressive song structures is worth hearing, whether you are a fan of the genre or simply interested in the hostory of Psychedelia and Progresive rock.