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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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I have to confess that I hadn’t heard of Encomiast before. The collective’s membership varies; they have released over a dozen albums, and have also been involved in film music and occasional live performances. “Gravity Is Very Compelling” was created out of incidental music and sounds created for a production of Sarah Ruhl’s play “Eurydice“. It’s a single piece of music, just over half-an-hour long, which the artist states “attempts to roughly parallel the play’s 3-movement plot structure, moving from our world, to the underworld, and finally to the tragic meeting of [Orpheus and Eurydice]”.

Our story begins with gently lapping waves, which are joined by a subtle chord progression of pads that open the track out into an almost angelic beginning. The pads thicken and swell, and a muted choir adds to the density, creating giant slabs of sustained, languorous beauty. The pads and voices move in and out of step, and the pattern repeats itself slowly, building and ever-shifting in an expectation of what’s to come.

We progress to a change: a shift from our world to the underworld. Discordant, distressed voices begin to appear above the shimmering sound of the pads and choir. Minor chords begin to appear mirrored with what sounds like filtered white noise. Rain, perhaps. A distant thunderclap, and rumbling. The constant noise is louder, drowning out the opening sequence. Occasional quiet clicks accompanied by static echo across the soundfield, like valves opening and closing; almost intakes of breath. Around the halfway mark, everything moves off-kilter, as though we’re physically sliding downwards. Long, dark ambient chords transfix us in a fearful place.

Some resistance is met again by the influx of the brighter voices from the first part. A whirling sound speeds up and slows down again, and the darkness has almost gone. The listener is placed in a vantage point to prepare to witness the couple’s tragic end. A bell strikes, while distant string plucks begin behind the sound of water droplets. The sounds start a slow fade, punctuated by a chime and bowls. We’re in a desolate space. There is no music, only sound. Very slowly, luscious chords are introduced. The waves are lapping again, as we fade towards the play’s conclusion.

Gravity is, indeed, very compelling, as is Encomiast’s elegant, descriptive soundtrack.

Label: Vuzh Music   Cat: VUZH035   Artist: Encomiast   Price: Free

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