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Posts Tagged ‘ambient’

I’ve wanted to review an album by the prolific Jack Hertz for a while, and the timing of his latest album, “Speleo” is just right. Jack runs the Sound for Good netlabel, where profits from sales of downloads and CDs go to charity. Eagle-eyed readers may recall me talking about Sound for Good on my earlier review of William Spivey and Aos Crowley’s “Absence of Matter“. It’s notable that, in just four months, already the label has reached its sixth release.

The album’s notes state that the recordings “are inspired by and dedicated to the amazing subterranean worlds of the underground.” There are four tracks, ranging from 10 to nearly 17 minutes long. “Mineral Dreams” starts with a thin, reedy pipe; a slow minor chord draws out, and vocal textures are laid over a pulsating drone. The music is exceedingly atmospheric, transporting the listener into a descriptive environment in an effective way. Around 4:30, soft synth notes percolate the air like the glint of crystals. The track shimmers along, an occasional repetitive motif fading in and out after 10 minutes or so. The second cut, “Dusk at Stalagmite Forest” is eerie; a high chord is pitchbent across the soundfield, to be overlaid by uncertain synth voices which hang suspended in the air; a distant bat/bird-like call can be heard from time to time. The track has a great air of loneliness.

“Endless Cavern” has a gorgeous opening, jagged synths tinkling and jangling over luscious thick pads. Long notes shoot off into the darkness, disappearing quickly into the cavern’s void. There’s fabulous use of the stereo soundfield here. Around 4:30, everything seems to tilt sideways and then rebalances itself again. Coils and springs dance around the periphery like sprites. A gentle rhythmic pattern is introduced just after 8:30, driving the listener further forward. This one’s my own favourite; the whole album will bear repeated listening, though, as there’s so much to discover here. “Cave Pearls”, the final track, has breathy pads drifting across a two-chord structure. It has a warmer sound than the previous three, with vast, dense notes layered thickly atop a soft rhythmic pattern. A multitude of different tones, some open, some closed, create a huge sonic tapestry. It’s absolutely superb.

“Speleo” is a complex and rewarding journey, and I’ll certainly be revisiting it many times.

Label: Sound for Good   Cat: –   Artist: Jack Hertz   Price: NYP

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Jaja – Ascend

“Ascend” is the second solo album by the German musician Jaja (Jana Rockstroh), and is released on the netlabel she co-founded, CYAN Music; its predecessor “Oum” was issued in 2011. She is also one half of the psytrance duo “New Age Hippies“. Jaja describes her music as live electronic compositions, where she plays and arranges nearly everything live on her keyboard, which always makes for interesting listening.

The album is an epic project, clocking in at over two-and-a-half hours. “Aero” has a stately opening, with grand washes of synths pulling around vortex-like under an ethereal choir. “Entity” is dark and dense, with snippets of alien speech floating above huge dramatic chord clusters and a Vangelis-like lead. “Stellae” is the longest track here at 21:00, its massive textures rolling around the soundfield, almost filling every last atom in the air, leading to breathtakingly gorgeous note shifts. It’s utterly stunning.

“Ever” starts quite unsettled, before minor chords lay out almost hymnal tones under static ticks and long, low rumbles, offset by distant piano-like keys; the track is somewhat restless, never quite resolving itself. “Novae” shimmers and shifts elegantly above an undercurrent of dark activity. “Devoid” opens with alien speech as a centre-point, almost percussive in nature; warm spacey chords drift lazily around under light oriental bell-like sounds.

“Once” is a gentle journey, lone notes ringing out slowly above clear skies like an anthem. The music is much more minimal than the previous tracks, which provides us with a great contrast. The long minor pads of “Connect” slowly shift to major and back as unearthly rain bounces endlessly to and fro, and lonely string synths paint sadness. “Talis” has great cosmic roars and smaller metallic coils rotating around thin bellows of keys. Again, there’s no resolution to the music – it shifts and whirls, conjuring a gigantic picture.

“IO” has Jaja’s voice (I presume) talking, then reversed, over slow-moving synths and light piano melodies; a dense stack of notes piles up before fading away. “Rain” is light and almost acoustic in nature. Cello-like strings are accompanied by guitar, weaving an intricate, evocative pattern. The closing track, “Run”, is a solo keyboard exposition, lovely reverb tailing off of single notes; there are no real chords as such, other than those created by the overlapping tails. It’s very pretty, and a lovely finish to a fine album.

Label: CYAN Music   Cat: CYAN 014   Artist: Jaja   Price: Free

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The newest release on the Ethereal Live netlabel, “Inner Place” is a project by an artist “IX” from Tehran, Iran. This seems to be his second album under this name. The first appears to be “Substratum” on the Russian Subwise netlabel. According to “Substratum”‘s page on Discogs, the first album was released in July 2011. The Russian Otium netlabel lists a number of other projects under different names: Alphaxone, Spuntic, Monolith Cycle and Altitude-X.

The album’s tracks are all named “Transition”, and numbered from “Transition I” to “Transition VIII”. I’ll shorten the titles to just their numbers here for the sake of brevity. “I” is a sweet opener, all wide open chords with slow, pensive changes between non-minor keys. It’s very peaceful and gentle. “II” is a mysterious wash of barely-present ambience, until delayed bells and a gentle hit appear and echo lazily around the periphery. NASA-style speech floats in and away again. “III” is a little bit darker; not dark ambient as such, but with more gravity and edge than the first two cuts. Lapping water opens “IV”, giving way to deep gurgles and tiny, uncertain sounds bobbing along on the surface.

“V” is metallic and droney, placed in a fog of uncertainty and hesitance. An organic synth makes occasional statements in reply to questioning pads. “VI” in contrast is dense, circling like a gigantic black hole or whirlpool, its long ambient tentacles grabbing anything that veers too close to the edges. “VII” is very much dark ambient, unsettling and uncomfortable; a machine-like hum hovers over dark chords, then leaves us as the chords draw out, feeling their way around in darkness like tendrils. The final track, “VIII”, draws the album to a close in an echo-laden environment with almost palpable, shimmering heat. Minor pads drag out, to be replaced by major, under an ever-present oppressive weight.

There’s an odd warm hiss in parts of the album, particularly so on the first track, which makes it sound slightly dated, and hence it’s difficult to tell exactly when the album was recorded. This may have been added deliberately, or it’s perhaps simply an unintended artefact. Whichever is the case it’s by no means an unpleasant sound. Altogether, a fascinating listen.

Label: Ethereal Live   Cat: EL023   Artist: Inner Place   Price: Free

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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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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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