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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

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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

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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

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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

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Gregg Plummer – 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

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Chris Russell – Bloom

“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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Ethereal Live has been one of my favourite labels since its launch just over a year ago. The label describes itself as a place for “archiving live performances of ambient, dark ambient, drone, minimal, and space musics”. The key word for me here is “live”, as it puts a keen twist on perspectives that we don’t always get from genres of music which are often produced, tweaked and perfected in a studio, whether real or virtual.

Symatic Star is Simon Walsh, who lives in Western Australia. This is Simon’s second release on this label; in addition, he has a number of tracks available for download or streaming on Bandcamp and SoundCloud.

The album comprises of a single live set, just over 35 minutes in length. What’s particularly fascinating about the set is the mix of acoustic instruments, drones, and other synth textures. The acoustic instrumentation played live on the set includes didgeridoo, gongs, and an African instrument called the mbira, which I hadn’t heard of before – it sounds to me a little similar to a marimba, though it looks nothing like one.

So, how’s the music? Well, it begins with twinned synths pairing off in stereo, before being joined by a didgeridoo. Space sounds peel off at the high end, before the mbira appears. It makes a series of statements, then questions. These two sounds, from two completely different cultures, complement each other perfectly here. Synth spirals flow in above the mbira. More didgeridoo opens out to space synths, this time dense and more complex, with muffled chords filling the midrange. A lead synth appears, sounding unresolved above a dense ambient wash.

A pulsing rhythm begins around halfway through the track, and it starts to pull the music along, but the rhythm is soon swallowed by an immense drone, then obliterated by darkness. A conflict between high and low begins and confuses the senses, before the listener is immersed in a protracted wall of drones, piercing synth notes and percussive effects. The music then fades to conclusion.

I haven’t heard every release on this label yet, but I think “Transmissions” is definitely their best one to date.

Label: Ethereal Live   Cat: EL021   Artist: Symatic Star   Price: Free

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