Sunday, November 4, 2007

Laura :: Radio Swan is Down

Artist: Laura
Album: Radio Swan is Down
Label: Alone Again
Year: 2006

Hailing from Melbourne, Laura are one of the few Australian post-rock bands who play in a style that can be easily compared to contemporaries such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Explosions in the Sky. On first examination, their music sounds like the midpoint of those two bands. Closer examination, however, reveals a greater depth to Laura's music and a much broader range of sounds. Laura employ a wide range of instruments on Radio Swan is Down; guitars, synthesisers, samplers, strings, male and female vocals, brass and various percussion instruments all make welcome appearances throughout the record. Released just over a year after their full-length debut, Radio Swan is Down is the conclusion of an enormous amount of work in a small amount of time. Radio Swan is Down is an intense album that deals with a number of different emotional states; depression, paranoia and joy all seem to be fairly strong themes throughout the album.

The strongest point of Radio Swan is Down is, undoubtedly, the fact that there is just so much in it. The album goes through many different emotions and musical ideas in just one hour, perhaps unsurprising considering that all of the music written for this album originally clocked in at 200 minutes. It is incredibly rare for an album to have so much diversity yet be so cohesive, but Radio Swan is Down achieves this and then some; when playing the album all the way through, its 11 tracks meld together to make the album feel like one long song that takes the listener on a rich and detailed journey. That's not to say that the songs don't stand up by themselves, because the majority of the album's tracks are certainly wonderful songs in their own right. 'Every Light', the album's single, runs for just under 4 minutes and is quite possibly one of the most uplifting songs released this year. 'I Hope' and 'Patterns Not People' feature some amazing male vocal work while 'Cambridge Bypass' starts as an ambient piece before mutating into a very full song.

Though Laura are quite obviously talented musicians, their real strength lies in their songwriting. Their ability to incorporate such a wide variety of sounds, textures and emotions into an album while keeping it cohesive is matched by very few bands. Radio Swan is Down is unique, in that every song is very different from the one before it, yet the songs seamlessly blend together to create a whole. In this way, it is entirely possible to listen to the album many times and still not grasp everything that is happening in the songs. In the realm of post-rock, this is certainly one of the best releases of the year. -

At Swim Two Birds :: Returning to the Scene of the Crime

Artist: At Swim Two Birds
Album: Returning to the Scene of the Crime
Label: Vespertine & Son
Year: 2007

As one half of The Montgolfier Brothers, Roger Quigley has dazzled with some lovely, sweet melancholic tunes. His solo work is another kettle of fish altogether though; resorting to grittier language and uncomfortable scenarios. So now we have 'Returning To The Scene Of The Crime...', a collection of older Quigley tracks re-interpreted as he now sees them.

True to form, the mood is hardly light for opening track 'In Bed With Your Best Friend' as Quigley effortlessly recalls the feeling of regret after a night of drinking perhaps a little too much ("And I swear I was drunk, I can't believe the depths to which I've sunk") whilst 'Giggling Fits' promises "never to mention the names of past girlfriends. I'm over them now, for the time being I think". As well as removing the prettiness and twinkling instrumentation (songs are largely acoustic-based), one of the main differences between The Montgolfier Brothers and Quigley's solo project is that so many of these songs leave a bitter taste in the mouth as one unloving relationship is documented after another. Now more than ever, Quigley is capturing the kitchen sink dramas; there's even a song called 'A Kind Of Loving', which is presumably inspired by the Alan Bates-starring film of the same name. Naturally, as well as the downbeat poetry, Quigley picks out some fine tunes too (the doleful 'Wine Destroys The Memory' perhaps the best of them) but the stripped-back, inescapably bleak outlook doesn't make for easy listening.

Auburn Lull :: Alone I Admire

Artist: Auburn Lull
Album: Alone I Admire
Label: Burnt Hair / Darla (reissue)
Year: 1999 / 2002 (reissue)

Occasionally you'll come across a band name that describes its aura more succinctly than you ever could. The 'Auburn Lull'-- that warm, radiant feeling that stays with you when your girlfriend's gone home, after a psychedelic trip or just a long, lazy day at the beach. It's an apt name for the musicians, who holed up between the summer of 1997 and the spring of 1998 and carved out the thick slabs of resonance that became Alone I Admire. The album was originally released in 1999 on Burnt Hair Records, the Michigan label known for drone excursions by groups like Fuxa and Windy & Carl, and it's been out-of-print since shortly thereafter. Darla was wise to secure the reissue: this is a classic, transcending notions of space-rock and shoegazing to reach an apotheosis of pure, vibrant sound.

A massive amount of production work went into Alone I Admire, no doubt due in part to producer Andrew Prinz of Mahogany. The sleeve notes mention the array of microphones spread throughout the studio, centered especially around the drums to create a sensation of depth. The guitar signals were bi-amped for dense resolution, and "it should be noted that several different kinds of sampling and delay units were utilized, as well as a gregarious amount of external reverberation processors." Afterwards the songs were enhanced by further editing and tape looping, and eventually fed into a 16-channel mixing desk. As a result, these slow songs evolve gently through some of the most eyelid-shudderingly rich sonic layers I've ever heard. Audiophiles will revel in a record that finally tests their systems to the limit.

The group begins each track with a simple rhythmic idea, as with the steady cymbal tick that opens "Stockard Drive." A sheet of sound rises up, instruments completely indistinguishable, just this sustained choral hum that builds as the male singer breathes a light refrain. Nothing prepares you for the burst that follows, though, as a searing ray that was once a guitar soars upwards into a gorgeous heliosphere. The timbres throughout Alone I Admire have you reaching sheepishly for embarrassing adjectives like 'glorious' or 'sacred.' There's an all-enveloping, alien perfection to the music that even some legendarily obsessive musicians couldn't quite craft.

The Auburn Lull's success has to do somewhat with the minimal instrumentation they chose. Bass, guitar and drums are augmented by other strings and occasional tape loops and piano strains. "Old Mission" features the bowing of a cello, its solitary nature setting a melancholy counterpoint against the orchestral swell of guitars that follows. "Blur My Thoughts" brightens the mood as angelic pulse tones descend amongst the cavernous bass drum reverb, a constant shimmering that reminds me of Seefeel. That's one of the only comparisons necessary for these otherworldly atmospheres, though, and ethereal vocals intrude to draw you out of total reverie. A sample of foreign language chatter from the television ends the piece on a tense note.

The album's careful to keep enough progressions in play to avoid floating away entirely. On "Desert," the sheen of the guitar permeates the mix at first, chipped into recognizable form by the circling strokes of the percussion. Then a deep rhythm line rises, like dub played on double-bass, shifting the piece into forward motion. Again, the male/female vocal harmony chimes together like a psalm, and the lyrics ("leave without a clue...") turn the title into a verb. But despite the utterly solemn moments on the album, it's striking how nice the melodies are overall. "The Last Beat" in particular heightens the pace with a faster drum shuffle, and the oscillating scree of the guitar brings peaceful images of seagulls gliding over shorelines. It's simply beautiful, uplifting music.

Environments this pristine and patient inevitably get tagged as 'glacial,' but the Auburn Lull drift through spaces far more nebulous, like billowing clouds ringing mountaintops. Of course, some listeners might get lost in the haze, and there will be some who say that the album puts them to sleep. That's partly the point: whereas the rock-oriented shoegazer bands were content to coat their pop songs in cycles of distortion, the Auburn Lull finds an even more engrossing starting point deep within the decay of reverberation. You'll find yourself lulled by the swirling sounds, always spinning forward and yet echoing in the past's delay, caught up in the doldrums and realizing it's a lovely place to be. They may have recorded only one album, but the Auburn Lull have made music fine enough to die to, and I don't think I alone admire their ability to bring heaven to the earth.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Gianluca Becuzzi & Fabio Orsi :: Muddy Speaking Ghosts Through My Machines

Artist: Gianluca Becuzzi & Fabio Orsi
Album: Muddy Speaking Ghosts Through My Machine
Label: A Silent Place
Year: 2007

Featuring keyboards, guitars, laptop and samples of folk singers collected by Alan Lomax, “Muddy Speaking Ghosts From My Machines” is a strange ethereal album that seems to be filled with long-forgotten songs and memories. Recorded by Gianluca Becuzzi and Fabio Orsi, the album is full of pastoral drones, soft washes of guitar, and the sampled folk songs which give the album its shape and create an emotional warmth that runs through the music. -

Fourcolor :: Letter of Sounds

Artist: Fourcolor
Album: Letter of Sounds
Label: 12k
Year: 2006

Following the release of his work as part of the electro-acoustic quartet Minamo on 12k in 2005, and the proto-pop outing under his new moniker Filfla (Plop, 2005), Fourcolor (Keiichi Sugimoto) is back with his second release on 12k, "Letter of Sounds". His previous work, "Air Curtain" was a critical success selling out the first pressing in little over one month.

On "Air Curtain", Fourcolor explored new directions, building upon delicate, implied rhythmic structures moving away from the strictly drone based material on his debut cd "Water Mirror" (Apestaartje, 2004). With "Letter of Sounds" Sugimoto pushes his sound even further by bringing the rhythms more to the foreground and taking influences from his previous, more pop-based work, as Filfla. The album uses many dominant rhythmic structures such as on the opener “02” which couples catchy guitar harmonic hooks with sliced melodic beats or the beautiful “Rowboat” in which Sugimoto collaborates with long-time friend Naoko Sasaki/Piana (Happy) using a variety of instrumentation and vocals. Similarly, a majority of the work on "Letter of Sounds" finds itself working around tight, syncopated micro-rhythms.

Of course "Letter of Sounds" is not without its delicate undercurrents and warm, stretched-out, whispy tones that have become signature to Sugimoto’s sound (the gorgeous finale “Frame”), but his desire for a more up-front and structured approach continues the evolution from a style he has mastered into new, more challenging territory, and expands his palette as an artist. -

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Arvo Pärt :: Alina

Artist: Arvo Pärt
Album: Alina
Label: ECM
Year: 1999

Warning : this is quite possibly the most beautiful album you will ever own. Arvo Pärt has in the last few years become almost synonymous with the new wave of electronic/classical composers, one of the names almost always quoted (along with Steve Reich) as a primary influence. His blend of spiritual/sacred themes and an icy minimal neu-classical compositional style has won him masses of followers and turned heads of even people totally unconnected to the classical music genre, which maybe is his greatest gift. There is a tendency in classical music for the subgenres to become somewhat exclusive, and it can be difficult for fresher interested parties to penetrate the scene in any way whatsoever, but Pärt has become something of an entry point for so many and in that he is responsible for influencing a generation of musicians. 'Alina' is one of his most well known discs, and one of his finest, containing variations on two pieces; 'Spiegel Im Spiegel' and 'Fur Alina', both of which have been used in countless films. You might remember 'Spiegel Im Spiegel' being used in the documentary 'Touching the Void' or Gus Van Sant's unsettling buddy drama 'Gerry', and it's one of those works that while sounding familiar never fails to send shivers down your spine. This is a disc that I can safely say I can play almost any time, and I am always left stunned by Pärt's incredible ability to distill so much emotion and spirituality in his work. Whether you're a believer or not you can't help but feel moved by 'Alina', and any of you left floored by material from Marsen Jules, Max Richter, Ryan Teague or Greg Haines' owe it to themselves to find out where it all came from. Utter perfection. --

Monday, September 3, 2007

Pieter Nooten & Michael Brook :: Sleeps With The Fishes

Artist: Pieter Nooten & Michael Brook
Album: Sleeps With The Fishes
Label: 4AD
Year: 1987

It's hard to imagine this collaboration between Pieter Nooten (from Xymox) and ambient, experimental guitarist Michael Brook working any better. Sleeps With the Fishes comprises 15 excellent, moody soundscapes, given depth by Nooten's subtle vocals and instrumentation that sounds piped in from some dreamy other world. Brook's guitar rings and chimes, sounding cleaner, and his guitar work is more precise than ever. Synthesizers creep in and around the vocals and guitar to stunning effect. The album seems to define the word "mysterious." Nooten's vocals are gloomy, yet angelic as he sings about walking over clouds and worlds of unease. At times, he sounds like Martin Gore from Depeche Mode, only there's no sign of anything pop within miles. His voice is as much of an instrument as any other element in the songs; it's not important which lyrics are decipherable and which are not, as the vocals work mostly as a highlight to the mood-setting instrumentation. Some songs form out of dead silence, such as "Several Times II," which eventually layers on peaceful ambient sounds, before fading away again. An uncredited female vocalist on "Equal Ways" echoes both Lisa Gerrard and Nico, as violins, cellos, and a somber piano swirl and twirl darkly around her. "Searching" might be the album's most accessible moment; pairing gentle vocals, interesting electronic sounds (possibly courtesy of Brian Eno), and Brook's remarkably vibrant guitar, the song is a virtual manifesto, dictating the pace and themes of the remainder of the album. Sleeps With the Fishes is quite dark, but it's equally beautiful and uplifting in the same instance. Nooten and Brook are restrained in the creation of their moody aesthetic, but the songs are a delight from start to finish. It's amazing that material that's so calmly paced and atmospheric is so enjoyable. Whether a listener is playing the album as background music or paying close attention to each note or sound, there's equal reward to be found. Sleeps With the Fishes could not be a more perfect dark ambient, experimental album. It's essential listening for fans of 4AD, ambient music, minimalism, experimental electronic music, and morose themes alike. This album is an overlooked masterpiece. -- Tim DiGravina, All Music Guide