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Matthew Barlow is a guitarist and ambient synthesis sound artist living in Asheville, North Carolina. He also hosts a radio show called “Notes From the Underground” on Asheville FM. At the time of writing, he has five releases listed on Bandcamp.

“Fields” has two tracks, and is just shy of half an hour long. Both are named after letters of the Greek alphabet. On his Bandcamp page, the artist describes the music as being “created & inspired largely from processing two 15 min sessions of electric guitar recorded to tape”. The album is available to buy as a limited edition cassette (only 5 remaining), and can be streamed and downloaded freely.

The first track, “ψ” (Psi), fades in with a gorgeous ambient wash, gentle guitar textures glimmering off to one side, and opens out into a lovely haze of sustained chords. Glittering guitar work is laid over the top, and the chords move from major to minor, and from simple to complex, under soft high delayed notes; the chords slowly shape themselves into dark ambient drones. Delicate guitar work shifts across the high end, creating an immense wall of sound. The drones drop out, leaving us in a bright, ethereal space. It’s breathtaking.

Track two, “ϕ” (Phi), starts with a deep drone and ominous cavernous sounds, before a slow seven-note pattern appears and begins to repeat. There’s a much darker atmosphere here than on “ψ”. Just after five minutes in, a pulsing rhythm starts, and it echoes and bounces around the soundfield. Deep dark drones draw out, pinning the music down with their sheer mass. It’s dark, yes, but almost like being wrapped in a cocoon; it’s not uncomfortable listening at all. The music fades with a whine, and is suddenly gone.

We’re left with one question: what have we to make of the track titles? “Sci-fi”, perhaps? A Ramachandran plot? Only the artist knows for certain. Whatever their meaning, this release is highly recommended.

Label: Bandcamp   Cat: -     Artist: Matthew Barlow   Price: $5 / free

True story: Les Scott (a.k.a. Neu Gestalt) and I live in the same city, and worked in the same organisation, and yet we’ve never met. “Altered Carbon”, his début release, was an astonishing tour de force. Indeed, it’s one of my five favourite electronica albums ever. “Weightless Hours” has been three years in the making. That’s a long time by any standards. Given how much I love his first album, I hoped so much that I wouldn’t be disappointed. Thankfully, I had nothing to fear.

“Toxicology” begins with lapping water and breathy shakuhachi over band-passed crackles and phased synths. A glitchy pattern breaks out, underpinned by an immense bass. Simple piano notes are then draped over all of this, creating a fabulous contrast of acoustic and electronic instruments. It’s a cracker of an opener, signalling in advance how the album might develop. “Abandoned Cities” has a cinematic oriental feel, with melted shakuhachi notes warping themselves around a highly structured, intricate rhythm. On “Cold Wave”, a bright chiming pair of stereo synths lead us into a shuffling, loping beat, lurching relentlessly forward under reverb-drenched stabs and icy flickers.

“Saturn Park”‘ is the most rhythm-driven track here, liquid keys burbling as the beat is fuelled by odd synthetic springs and coils which fit perfectly. Again, there’s piano, though with much more reverb, and wide panoramic pads. Sublime music for daytime train travel, as the listener follows both an internal, and external, landscape. “Winter” is truly beautiful, soft notes suspended in pointed shards of ice as the music stutters and shivers; tiny aural snowflakes fall to left and right as a gentle beat builds. The half-way point in the album, “Sub Rosa”, is reluctant to give up its secrets; a pad shimmers above water and a highly complex organic rhythm, which crackles and spirals off into the distance, then somehow reassembles itself.

The second half begins with “Curtain of Rust”, which gives a nod to electronic music of an earlier decade, though this is dragged firmly into the present by an almost mathematical beat. It’s dense and multi-layered, with shakuhachi making a reappearance over a gentle series of metallic riffs, contrasting elegantly against the sound of water. “On Haunted Shores” evokes the ghosts of industry, as dead machinery pulls its sound across the decades into the present; it grinds and clicks, a forgotten memory projected onto a lonely, dark shore of minor pads. These two tracks together are the most reminiscent of “Altered Carbon”, albeit with more emphasis on rhythm, though with similarities in texture.

My favourite track here is “Aerial Eleven”. This is electronica at its most sublime and artistic. I defy anyone who says the genre has no soul to listen to this and not change their view. Beginning with a distant rumble, a muffled keyboard lays down a few plaintive chords. Suddenly we’re inside the most luscious environment imaginable. Fluffy pads push slowly forward and back against the gentlest of rhythms. Languid shakuhachi notes come and go. Metallic coils, organic noises and processed birdsong slither off to the sides. The effect is absolutely stunning, and unlike anything else I’ve heard.

“Metalline” has skittering, fractured textures overlaid with piano. Glitchy ticks zip off to the left and right, leaving the piano as a solitary island in a sea once calm, then less so. Metallic sculptures suspend themselves above the water, rotating and reflecting the light. Again, an extraordinary mix of acoustic and electronic instrumentation. “Sheltering Skies” is perhaps the most complex track here. An oriental rhythm pushes on through all manner of electro-acoustic sounds. Phased pads cluster thickly over a clean, delayed synth bassline. Layers of percussion are built up, and long notes are drawn out above these layers. It’s complicated and fascinating.

The final cut on the album, “We Who Walk Through Walls”, in contrast to the album’s title, is drawn in thick, heavy pulses of colour, with iridescent tendrils swaying above their roots in a futuristic glimpse of something unstoppable; never menacing, never rushing, but pausing for nothing and no-one. Dense pads are glued to an organic bass, and the music threatens to break up, but instead grows even more insistent. It’s a fitting conclusion to an absolutely stunning album. The visual icing on the cake is the sumptuous fold-out cover design, which carries some fascinating background sleevenotes together with black and white photography from Les, all wrapped up in an extraordinary design. It’s simply beautiful.

Many thanks to Les for supplying me with a promo copy of the album, which is due to be released on 22 June.

Label: Alex Tronic Records  Cat: ATRCD 143   Artist: Neu Gestalt   Price: $$

I’d like to start this review on a personal note. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) has been my charity of choice for the past seven years. Every year, we sponsor a dolphin called Rainbow who lives in Scottish waters, and it’s lovely to be kept in touch with her progress. So I was delighted to see this album on Sound for Good’s page at Bandcamp, where you name your price for buying their releases and 100% of what you pay goes to a nominated charity, in this case the WDCS. The label is an excellent initiative from the artist Jack Hertz, who has already helped to support Trees for the Future with the label’s two earlier releases.

The opening track, “Spiral”, starts with an ominous rumble, static, and then an immense drone with iridescent bursts of almost rhythmic organic sound textures. It’s very complex and dense, glimmering like a strange multi-faceted crystal, and it strikes an odd balance between dark ambient and experimental music. The latter half is terrifying, yet utterly compelling listening. Next up, “Flow” begins with a cavernous descent into a soundscape of alien forms chattering and crackling. Dense pads hover and swirl around an axis which is almost impossible to locate. The track lightens somewhat around halfway through, where the music becomes briefly more conventional, albeit overlaid with intricate patterns of what sounds like alien speech. A rhythm evolves briefly before a series of organic shrieks, pummels and crackles draw us to a blistering close.

“Lens”, the album’s longest cut, pulls the listener in with heavily-effected soaring synths off to left and right and a repetitive pattern of ring-modulated tones at the high end. A metallic riff builds above deep lengthy organic swoops and pulsating drones. Everything begins to slide off-kilter around the six-and-a-half minute mark, where glistening complex sequences of notes hang above something more foreboding. Rapidly pulsing notes pan left and right and are joined by a fascinating, almost conversational series of sounds. Metal groans onto metal under a buzzing, driving pattern which zips across the listener’s ears. Mangled chords appear towards the end in a distant bow to conventionality. The experience is absolutely spellbinding.

The penultimate track “Absence of Matter Pt. 1″ is something of a slow burner, in direct contrast to its predecessor. An industrial buzz and rotating drone form a core on which organic and metallic sounds tussle for position. The track tilts and shifts, disorienting the listener before suddenly giving way to a synthetic rhythm which drops in, then out, and is replaced by another. Huge glistening leads crawl across the music, in a vain attempt to settle. Its partner, “Absence of Matter Pt. 2″, closes the album with cold, fragile jitters above mid-range, breathy pads which are then swallowed by fractured burbles and a colossal, whirling centre. A glitchy pattern kicks off around half way through, panning rapidly around left, centre and right. The pattern gives way to a bass which copies the rhythm. Vocoded speech patterns then take over this same pattern, and the music is propelled along at a fair pace, until all we’ve experienced disintegrates into complete uncertainty at the eight-minute mark. The album ends as its title suggests: everything solid has left us.

Label: Sound for Good   Cat: -   Artist: William Spivey & Aos Crowley   Price: NYP

This double-CD equivalent from Jarguna is fresh from the Earth Mantra netlabel. With seven previous releases listed in the Italian artist’s discography, this is his debut release for EM.

“Waiting for a Call From the Unknown Part 1″ is the longest cut on the album, running at just over 36 minutes. Long slow drones set the pace for the first four and a half minutes, before being joined by a single note repeating pensively over the drones as they begin to circulate restlessly. Dark synths begin to weave in and out, and mysterious burbles float around the soundspace. There’s a sense of slow, tentative movement as a quiet rhythm starts around the nine minute mark.  Twenty-two minutes or so in, it seems as if contact might be made, but there’s no certainty.

The second track, “Dark Side of Calliope” is the shortest of four, but still weighs in at nearly sixteen minutes. It’s discordant, and dark as the title suggests. Great swells of synth washes veer off to left and right; there’s little in the way of comfort here. Long metallic drones clash with one another in a struggle of titanic proportions. Around half way though, chords begin to form, and the mood lightens, though only a little, as the sound changes from conflict to a feeling of wonder. As we float towards the end, it really feels as if we’re suspended in the vast coldness of space.

“Commutator” starts out on something of a lighter note. There are some major chords here, overlaid with percussive metallic sounds and long bass rumbles. But there’s something very otherworldly about the music; something not human. It’s almost as if we’re inside a giant machine, witnessing activity taking place that’s too difficult to comprehend. A rhythm begins around a third of the way in, and starts to shape the music into something we might be able to understand. The beat grows thicker and denser, propelling the track forward with malevolent intent. Snatches of alien speech appear, vying for our attention against a scattershot, almost Berlin School synth sequence.

The closer, “Waiting for a Call From the Unknown Part 2″, is the second longest track on the album, at just shy of 32 minutes. An eerie drone throbs underneath a minor chord and they begin to fold and unfold, like a double helix. Around the sixth minute, the drone and chord fall away leaving us with breaths and organic noises. The buzzing of unfamiliar machinery pans rapidly left and right, disorienting the listener before suspending us in darkness. Seventeen minutes in, and it feels as if the awaited connection has finally been made. Communication takes place; there’s an exchange of knowledge and information as two species, light years apart, share their experiences. The album closes with a bright, positive view towards the future.

Jarguna explains in the notes that the album is “a distillation of my musings when I focus my thought on empty spaces, the Universe, and its mysteries”. For me, it strikes a fabulous balance between space music and ambient, though leaning heavily towards the former.

Label: Earth Mantra   Cat: earman194   Artist: Jarguna   Price: Free

Saito Koji – Again

Saito Koji is a musician currently living in Fukushima in Japan. His latest release, “Again”, his seventh on the Resting Bell netlabel, consists of eight tracks, each of which is three minutes long, just like its predecessor, “Guide”. An article about the artist on the website Current tells us that “since the nuclear disaster in March 2011 in Fukushima, Saito Koji composes pieces based on distorsion [sic] and much more powerful ‘noise’ guitar sounds”, which gives us an indication of what to expect; for me, at least, that description doesn’t do justice to the music here.

The opening track, “Alone”, is a wash of power-driven guitar drone, three chords to the left and mirrored to the right, with feedback tails, repeated again and again. The chords are major rather than minor as the title might suggest. It stands as a fine opening statement of intent. Track two, “Aurora”, is blissful experimentally-tinged ambience, hazy and shimmering, hovering perfectly in the air.

“Dog” is a huge processed feedback loop of sheer, pulsing energy. I’d be happy to listen to a much longer version of this to see it evolve further, but it’s amazing as it stands. Then “Joy” leads us towards the EP’s halfway mark with a gigantic, stunning wall of metallic sound, perfectly in tune, which sears its way into our ears.

The second half kicks off with “Magic”, another wash of simple chords, driven to their maximum to create a simple, yet ethereal beauty. “Sunset” has massive peals of chord pairs firing off to the left and right in a huge tapestry of reverberant noise.

The penultimate track “Touch” has an almost aching sense of loss. A slow pulse is centred amidst a vast sonic barrage of long, strung out guitar chords, which shift ever so gently from a simple chord to a complex one. “Wash” takes us to the end of the music with an almost overpowering glow of gorgeous heavily-processed guitar which soars from one chord to another, then back.

It’s astonishing how much high-quality music can be placed into 24 short minutes. Every track fades out; there’s nothing jarring or unpleasant in anything here, though listeners may wish to keep an eye on volume levels, which are high. But the whole thing is quite a remarkable experience. I definitely want to listen to other releases by the artist.

Label: Resting Bell   Cat: RB108   Artist: Saito Koji   Price: Free

Gregg Plummer is an ambient soundscape musician from San Francisco. He has released nine CDs to date, and has also collaborated with a number of other artists. “Free” is his second release on the Earth Mantra netlabel. In addition, he has two singles which can be freely downloaded from SoundCloud.

There are four tracks on this album which are intended to take us on a journey and should therefore be listened to, at least for the first time, in their original running order.

The opening track, “Radiant World”, begins with slowly swelling chords, moving almost like ripples. Whispering pads float in from left and right. The music is light and airy, and not pinned down by any bass notes; it carries a restless pace to it which is quite unusual for this type of music. “Left Behind” starts with a well-defined rhythm of clicks and deep bass. Slow individual guitar notes are drawn across the high end, with occasional chords. There is a great sense of desolation. Guitars trade notes off against each other, then shimmer with sustain. The track fades with a degree of resolution.

“Nocturne” is very sweet and light, as its title suggests. Gentle chiming sounds fall across floating synth chords which really do tickle the ears, especially on headphones. It’s reminiscent of Debussy, all warm and comfortable, leaving the listener wrapped up in an aural blanket. The label describes the track as offering “a study of rejection and isolation”, but to me it sounds very positive and quite enchanting. I’m sorry if I’m misreading it, but whatever other listeners hear, it’s lovely music, and it’s my favourite track on the album.

The final track, “Free”, is also the longest at just over 21 minutes. Lengthy pads in the mid-range float under string synths. Around four minutes in, we’re joined by bass, and small delayed synths which flitter at the edges. It’s melancholic and pensive and almost symphonic; it seems to pose a series of unanswered questions. At around fourteen minutes, the music grows even denser, as if expressing a single, unbearably complex question about life itself. Then, just three minutes before the end, it’s as if an enormous weight has been lifted. Finally, we’re free.

Label: Earth Mantra   Cat: earman193   Artist: Gregg Plummer   Price: Free

“Bloom” is Chris Russell’s third solo album on the Relaxed Machinery label, although he collaborated with Disturbed Earth on one of the label’s earlier releases, “The Approaching Armada“. Chris explains that for “Bloom” he was inspired by nature, and used field recordings and electronic atmospheres to evoke its beauty. Indeed, all of the tracks are named after flowers.

The first track, “Dahlia”, is truly gorgeous. Gentle ambient synths are overlaid with a periodic rotating motif which draws a wonderful picture of a bud struggling to open to a flower. “Orchid” places reluctant piano notes over minor pads, with organic sounds adding to the feeling of something truly beautiful and very tangible: a process unfolding in the natural world.

On “Crocus”, a light chord sequence drifts to and fro over luscious ambient pads. From time to time the chord sequence breaks up, as if to demonstrate the fragility and uncertainty of growing to maturity, but inevitably it reaffirms itself again, gaining in confidence. In contrast, “Allium” bursts with an absolute, certain radiance as it swells to a sublime level, then becomes hesitant, and finally discovers its own inner strength and beauty.

“Scilla” begins with an organic sound and long, breathy pads. The plant’s flower opens, but takes its own time; it’s not at all unsure of itself, but rather is totally confident and will be stopped by nothing. This track is stunning, and is definitely my favourite here.

The album’s longest take, “Lilac”, opens with elongated chords, moving from harmonic to slightly discordant and back. Here is one of the original paradoxes of nature; rain battles with the flower as it attempts to open. And of course the plant needs the rain, so it strives for survival. Just after the halfway mark, the paradox begins to resolve itself, with a beatific chord which seems to signify sunlight breaking through after the rain. The plant’s growth continues.

The album closes with “Phlox”, which starts with a deep bass sequence underneath subtle keys. A bouncing, ring-modulated synth opens and closes over very distant chords, building a complex pattern. This is by far the most rhythmic track here. We are no longer listening to ambient music; this is electronic music in the most classical sense. The rhythm leaves, and the track finishes with natural sounds and long, drawn out notes which finally fade to silence.

The artist describes “Bloom” as “a celebration of the awakening and renewal of life”, and that description for me could not be more accurate.

Label: Relaxed Machinery   Cat: rM_0027   Artist: Chris Russell   Price: $$

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