Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Eloy - Floating (1974)

Eloy are a German band that played psychedelic rock in a somewhat British vein, steering largely away from the free form improvisational nature of their Krautrock contemporaries, instead drawing inspiration from bands like Deep Purple and Pink Floyd. "Floating" is their third LP, and the first on which they really refined their sound as a band.

Eloy's later career would be dominated by concept albums with a somewhat gentle space rock vibe. There is no concept here, nor is there any gentleness to speak of. This is hard psych to be sure. Hammond organs scream through walls of distortion and the guitars are turned up to eleven. The third difference between this and later Eloy releases is the marked absence of synthesizers, further emphasizing the heaviness of the record.

The album consists of five somewhat lengthy tracks, with the centerpiece being the fourteen minute "The Light From Deep Darkness," a splendid prog rock track that contains numerous tempo changes, catchy melodies, great solos and a wide variety of moods. On this song, as well as on the rest of the album, wah pedals and other watery guitar effects add to the trippy nature of the music, living up nicely to the title "Floating." The vocals are not terribly strong, but they are infrequent, mixed low and take a backseat to the music anyway.

The instrumentalists are all very proficient and at the top of their game. I particularly enjoy the way the guitar, bass and organ trade lines and play off one another, often in quite complex ways. Although most of the songs rely on one or two (mostly awesome) riffs that are repeated over several minutes, the band manages to keep it interesting by changing instrumentation, mixing up the rhythm section and overlaying countermelodies in the form of solos.

Anyone who has an interest in the heavier side of psychedelic rock should give this album a spin. With its combination of superior musicianship, trippy textures and a talent for coming up with memorable melodies it is a great find in a genre that is sometimes overwhelming and difficult to navigate.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Terry Riley - Shri Camel (1980)

The New York Minimalist scene is often summed up in the trifecta of three popular composers, Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley. Of the three, Riley has arguably been the most overtly experimental in his compositions, with groundbreaking pieces like "In C" and his pioneering use of tape delays to create overdubs in live performances. His music also tends to contain an element of spirituality, and like the old hippy that he is, he has not neglected the world of Eastern mysticism.

Shri Camel is Riley's exploration of the techniques he learned from years of studying Indian ragas. Indeed, his music has often been lauded as ideal for use in meditation. However, he has incorporated these techniques into his own style of composition and the music does not, in itself, sound particularly Indian. There are no sitars or tablas present, yet the complexity and form of the raga is present throughout and the pieces are at times extremely involved, with up to sixteen lines of counterpoint happening at once.

The album consists of four lengthy pieces, each performed live in the studio by Riley on a Yamaha organ, resulting in a musical palette that is somewhat monochromatic. Riley uses a similar technique to that which Brian Eno and Robert Fripp put to great use in the seventies, looping his performance and adding parts on top of it in real time. If done recklessly, this can result in aural chaos that is impossibly to make sense of, but Riley has been practicing the method for decades and takes care to maintain transparency across the various lines. He also differentiates the parts by changing the settings on his organ, altering timbres and percussiveness so that the listener can distinguish his phrasing. This gives the music more depth and color, wile still maintaining a unity of sound across all four pieces.

The other unique aspect of Shri Camel is the fact that Riley has tuned his instrument using the "Just Intonation" system which, in contrast to the equal temperament tuning used in 99.9% of Western Music, follows more closely the physical overtone series found in nature. The difference, in terms of sound, is that "Just Intonation" sounds slightly alien to the practiced ears of a modern Westerner. It strikes us as ever so slightly "off." This can be disconcerting at first, but once you are able to let go of your preconceived notions about tuning and appreciate sound for sound's sake, it comes as a welcome relief from the sameness of the music we hear every day.

Shri Camel is a wonderful example of what Riley does best, and while it may prove difficult listening to the average person due to its unusual tuning system and reliance on a single keyboard instrument for its entire duration, it will reward those with patience by providing them with a gentle beauty not eaily found in the music of today.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Skinny Puppy - Bites (1985)

In this reviewer's opinion, Canadian industrial pioneers Skinny Puppy never improved upon their debut album, "Bites." The earliest bands in the genre took a wildly innovative, nihilistic approach to music, tearing down traditional structures and replacing them with harsh electronics and metallic banging sounds. Skinny Puppy gladly accepts the contributions of their predecessors, Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle and Einst├╝rzende Neubauten, but reign in some of the chaos by adding a level of sophisticated artistry to their compositions. That's not to say that the music is by any means bland, however. On the contrary, "Bites" is a record that is at times chilling and even terrifying, but it terrifies with a kind of suave grace.

Throughout the first few songs frontman Nivek Ogre growls and shrieks his way through sheets of distorted keyboards and pounding drum machines. The songs are mostly danceable and believe it or not there are actually a few catchy tunes, most notably on the album opener "Assimilate." However, as the album progresses things start to get stranger and stranger. Not content to be merely fodder for goth club dance floors, the band engages in a heavy amount of experimentation. Strange little oddities start to crop up, beginning with the minimalist "Church in Hell," which is essentially just a repeated vocal sample with a gradually building backdrop of industrial noise. I should pause for a moment and mention that samples (mainly from obscure horror movies) are a huge part of Skinny Puppies sound, and they were one of the first bands to utilize them so heavily. It gives the album a very unique sound and was hugely influential on basically every electronica act ever.

Things continue to get weirder as the number of actual songs drops off and we are treated to more impressionistic miniatures built around atmospherics and movie samples. The two tracks "Film" and "Love" exemplify this short form experimentation perfectly, the latter opening with what sounds like a record being played backwards with a skip in the sound.

The original LP of "Bites" was only eight tracks long. Fortunately for us, the CD version contains more than twice that number, including some of the band's most interesting moments. At the end of the CD, the two tracks "The Centre Bullet" and "One Day" drone on in an almost pastoral vein for a good thirteen minutes. The music is calm and repetitive, but slightly unsettling, like a lullabye designed to produce nightmares. It's the most sedate you're ever likely to find Skinny Puppy, and one of my favorite parts of the record. In fact, it's hard for me to believe this wasn't the original tracklisting, because it works so perfectly as a way to wind down this fascinating album.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Jonathan Coleclough - Period (2002)

Another fine ambient record from the UK experimental scene, this time relying solely on the sounds of Bluthner grand piano for its source material. I am always intrigued by albums which severely restrict their sonic palette, and the piano is my favorite instrument, so I picked this up on a whim.

The bulk of the album is the fifty minute title track, rounded out by a remix done by increasingly prominent engineer, Colin Potter. The result is something like Harold Budd in slow motion. I know what you're thinking: "But Harold Budd is already really slow!" Yes, that's true, but this is even slower. Don't go looking for any melodies or harmonic progressions. This is sound for sound's sake (try saying that five times fast.)

In fact, it's more like a drone record with occasional punctuation provided by the piano keys. The resonance of the piano is remarkable, and if you turn up the volume (which I recommend you do) you can hear the subtle interactions of the sustained tones as their frequencies rub up against one another. The low notes are particularly dramatic in this regard, made more so by their relative rarity. Coleclough seems to prefer the tinkly upper register in general, perhaps because too many low notes would overly muddy the sound. Sixteen minutes in, Coleclough gets boreed and fades everything out, choosing to start over, with different note combinations. This results in a slightly different drone texture, somewhat lower and richer than the first.

While this piano drone is pleasant, it's not really the most engaging ambient record I've heard. The point is well made about twenty minutes in and there's not enough evolution or variety to warrant the additional half hour. However, it's worth it for Colin Potter's remix, in which he edits out the piano attacks, leaving a much more ethereal (and of a more appropriate length) web of shifting tones. The fact that you can no longer identify the piano as the sound source makes the remix a far more interesting listen.