Tuesday, April 15, 2014

REVIEW: THIERRY DAVID - Stellar Connection

Stellar Connection
Real Music (2012)

The last thing that any long-time fan of the Real Music label would expect was for them to release a serious spacemusic recording - and I don't mean "la-di-da" flowery spacemusic, I mean spacemusic, (in the same vein as Meg Bowles and John Lyell). Maybe I'm wrong in that assumption, but I've reviewing music from Real Music for 17 years and I know I sure as hell was shocked the first time I listened to Thierry David's Stellar Connection. The opening track, "Portal Quest," kicks off the album with darkly tinted drones, swirling synths, and a palpable sense of forlorn loneliness. I did a double take and made sure the right CD had been in the jewel case. Yup, the CD was the right one. I settled in and played the album all the way through and thought, "Well, I'll be damned." Stellar Connection is a spot-on soundtrack for a first-class cruising expedition past the limits of our solar system, out toward the Andromeda galaxy or the Crab nebula or even beyond. Stellar work (pun intended) by David, indeed!

The French artist, whose previous releases on Real Music were either chill-out (Zen Pause), New Age/world beat (Zen World) or new age/world vocal (The Veil of Whispers), reveals an incredible talent for crafting ambient/spacemusic that drifts and cruises. Some tracks flow darkly, painting a sonic portrait of the desolate emptiness of space, tinted with a terrible sense of awe mixed with subtle, somber beauty. Other selections may infuse rhythms that suggest slow but purposeful cruising among the cosmos, perhaps planet hopping in different solar systems, or maybe surveying a distant world's surface. Track titles make it abundantly clear that David is purposefully training his musician's eye toward the distant stars. While some selections are melodic enough in a structured way that this disc will not alienate (no pun intended this time) his new age or chill-out fans, even songs that use echoed piano and warmer synth sounds still contain enough of an outer space atmospheric texture and feel that this album should find acceptance among an ambient fanbase, provided they are not looking for dronefests devoid of any melodic or rhythmic content.

Make no mistake, though. Some of the cuts on Stellar Connection are decidedly not new age (at least not by definition I would use). Besides the opening "Portal Quest," there is "Magnetic Spiral" which opens with layers of drones and pure textural sounds and eerie effects, before slowly evolving into a repeating series of pulses, tribal-esque rhythms, and a minor key echoed piano refrain, the latter of which evokes a deep loneliness and solitude. "Feeling a Stellar Pulse" blends alien-ish electronic textures with a repeating reverbed melodic pattern (again in a minor key) and more tribal percussion (this track reminded me of Robyn Miller's superb soundtrack for the computer game "Riven"). The short (2:00) "The Realm of the Golden helix" is pure, dark, deep spacedrift, with overlapping synth washes, drones, and vaguely metallic tones, as is the closing song, "A Silent Voice Answers," which ups the "creepy but cool" factor to a solid 11.

Other selections on the album include "Plenty of Space" (smooth layers of gently sighing keyboards blended with long, lonely peals of deeply echoed electric guitar), "A Long Crossing" (slow, metronomic rhythms, trumpet-like solos, and a forlorn sparse piano melody with a discernible sense of sadness, anchoring it all), "Surfing the Blue Orbit" (a relatively bubbly mixture of assorted bell and hang drum-like tones, shimmering textures, piano, and a rhythmic textures that are somewhere between mid and fast tempo), and "Galactic Bliss" (beginning as a warm space-drifting number and morphs into pleasantly chattering keyboards set against synth washes infused with some uptempo chill-out flavors as the track progresses).

There are thirteen tracks on Stellar Connection (some not mentioned above) for the listener to delve into and this album will reward total immersion using headphones. The carefully nuanced background music and textural effects will emerge on each successive play. Thierry David's recordings on Real Music have revealed him to be a meticulous artist who knows the magic is in the details, and Stellar Connection is proof of that. I consider the album near essential if you enjoy spacemusic that can really take you "out there" (provided you have the imagination for just such a trip). The album is a wholly unexpected delight from one of the shining lights in new age music and showcases a side of Thierry David that I sure hope to hear more from in the future.

The album is available directly from Real Music, or at  iTunes, Amazon download or Amazon (CD).


Cosmic Diva
Sante Music (2013)

Stephanie Sante has been bopping and cruising along since her debut, Into Light, in 2000. Originally slotted in as a spacemusic artist, Sante offered some unique twists on the genre, not just stylistically (her electronic soundscapes usually blended elements of new age into the more traditional Serrie-esque motifs), but also because she played a midi-guitar controller to make her synth sounds (similar to what Mark Dwane does). I have been reviewing her through the years and watched in admiration as she changed course in 2005 with Coffee Culture, embracing her guitar as the recognizable lead instrument and crossing over into a new arena of jazzy, funky licks married to infectious beats. Over the next two albums (2007's Shine and 2010's superb release, Prismatic), Sante rebooted herself, with the end result being some of the tastiest chill-out, lounge, and Nu Jazz music out there, inflected with some sensuous bossa nova leanings at times. Prismatic is criminally overlooked as one of the best ear candy releases of that year and is also the first album where she stopped using a midi-guitar and played all her synths through a keyboard, using guitar as, well, a guitar.

Cosmic Diva, Sante's latest release, explores the nooks and crannies of this talented and imaginative artist's career so far. While Sante herself thinks this marks a return to spacemusic (and there are spacy moments here, no doubt), the eleven tracks actually encapsulate the many styles and genres that she has recorded over the last 14 years. Knowing Stephanie Sante as I do, it's funny that the title contains the word "diva" as Stephanie is as undiva-ish as they come, instead being a sincere, humble, and unpretentious artist who works hard at perfecting her craft. For Cosmic Diva, Sante received inspiration (per the liner notes) from the science fiction trilogy "The Way" (by author Greg Bear) comprised of the books Eon, Eternity and Legacy.

Musically, the eleven tracks draw from all of her other releases, but not in any way derivatively or as a repetitive exercise. The spaciness of the opening "Foreplay" is accented with tribal rhythms and an exotic sounding Middle Eastern wind instrument. "The Quickening" opens with mellow ambient chill tones before spiraling into a jazzy, funky horn-driven affair punctuated by snare beats. "Moments of Clarity" percolates with an assortment of rhythms and layers of synths, adding some mellow vibes later in the track with halting rhythms. Chattering synths pepper the start of "Link with Me" alongside reverbed tones and jazz-inflected cymbal rhythms. "Group Mind" has a science-fiction meets chill-out mood going on with whirly-gigging synths, sonar-echoes, midtempo beats, and smooth synth pads. Gently strummed guitar opens "Genesis of Creation" soon buoyed by bossa nova rhythms and an undercurrent of silky smooth synth textures. "Crossing the Threshold" features iridescent tones amidst a shuffling beat and funkified horns while "Points of Embarkation" has plaintive echoed piano and plucked orchestral strings, set off by a snazzy, jazzy cymbal rhythm, but then starts shifting between that and an excursion into quasi-Berlin school territory. "Promise Me This" has an light, airy quality to it, dominated by synth strings and a delicate repeating tone melody, anchored by subdued rhythms. The last two tracks are "Love's Journey" which races along at a rapid pace propelled by layers of keyboards and snare beats and some tasty guitar licks, and "Light Always Glistens" which is an apt title for another spacy selection with retro synth sounds lighting up the skies amidst shimmering reverbed bell tones.

For me, Prismatic is still Stephanie Sante's best recording, but Cosmic Diva isn't far behind. Sante has been making great music for a long time and if you haven't checked her out yet, what are you waiting for? Fans of this artist's recent previous work will almost certainly love this album, and newbie listeners looking for cosmic chillage, space-age lounge/jazz, or even just some mellow tunes to bop to will find much to revel in on Cosmic Diva, Sante's most completely realized musical vision yet.

The album is available at CDBaby, Amazon, iTunes, and Digital Tunes.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

REVIEW: MEG BOWLES - The Shimmering Land

The Shimmering Land
Kumatone Records (2013)

Synthesist Meg Bowles underscores the brilliance of her return to ambient and spacemusic (the acclaimed 2011 recording, A Quiet Light) with The Shimmering Land. After a 12 year absence from music, Bowles reemerged in 2011 and immediately took her place among the finest practitioners of floating, atmospheric electronic music recording today. With The Shimmering Land, Bowles ascends to the plateau of preeminent and essential artists in the genre. I don’t believe this to be mere opinion, but more or less fact. Her body of work is relatively small compared to some other notables (e.g. Roach, Serrie, et al.), yet her artistry, whether one listens to her earlier works, such as Blue Cosmos or From the Dark Earth or her recent albums, makes it difficult to dismiss her stature in the genre. While some might deem it important to emphasize that Meg is, after all, a woman in a predominantly male field of music, that actually devalues her music (although I believe her "femaleness" contributes something special to her style). Falling back on "she is one of the few women in this genre" demeans her, making it seem that being a woman somehow makes her music more special. The truth is that Meg Bowles' music stands apart from so many other artists not because it's crafted by a woman but because it is so damn good! Not just good, but singularly unique and expertly executed. With that said, I do not ignore the issue that Bowles is relatively alone in the spacemusic genre as a woman musician, but her gender neither adds nor detracts from her brilliance as an artist in this field populated by repetitive drone-meisters.

Bowles' flawless production, engineering, and mixing talents are in evidence throughout The Shimmering Land – the album sounds fantastic on headphones – while her husband, Richard Price, did an excellent job mastering the six tracks. One aspect in which Bowles excels is layering her assorted synthesizer shadings, washes, pads, and various rhythmic textures and effects. While The Shimmering Land can be enjoyed played in the background, it shines under direct listening where every detail of placement and balance of the synthesizers can be deciphered and appreciated. The spaciousness of the soundfield in the final mix, the detail of the assorted synths, the overall encompassing effect of the assembled parts is staggeringly beautiful, and that is the word to use when describing Bowles' music – beautiful. She has the unique ability to make music that flows with an organic humanity while also brimming with cosmic wonder and awe. Never truly dark or foreboding, yet also not saccharine or too "pretty," these soundscapes also are not "neutral" in essence. It's difficult to put into words the emotional resonance of this music…mysterious, haunting, and other usual descriptors seem both cliché and inadequate. More than anything else, what the astute listener will discern from Bowles' music is the sense of humanity at work under the surface, which is startling when one realizes the overt electronic nature of these six pieces, i.e. no easily recognized sampled elements, e.g. strings. This is pure spacemusic, whether one subscribes to the Jonn Serrie school definition (outer space) or the Stephen Hill version (inner space).

Describing the music itself is problematic because words are too limiting, yet this being a review, here are some snapshot observations. "Undulant Sea" with its ebbing and flowing washes and warm tones, imparts the evocation of being adrift on an ocean under a canopy of stars (the emergence of an interesting clacking percussive effect is not out of place, despite the sonic resemblance to a train rolling down the tracks), and the overall mood is somewhat sad, as if one is leaving something which one is fond of behind. "The Sweetness of Mist" is noticeably lighter at the outset, the pads and washes are relatively amorphous at first and the embracing comfort of warmth and serenity seem palpable. Isolated bell tones pepper parts of the track as if fireflies pop into and out of view. "Venus Rising" epitomizes celestial spacemusic with its wide-vista opening drones and washes, as if one were witnessing the planet come into view with the darkening night sky. Radar-ish blooping pulses lend even spacier evocations to the music, as if satellites were beaming their signals direct to you (but then, I'm from the generation which watched crude animation of satellites on black and white TVs with those same sound effects, as if satellites themselves made such noises in outer space). Even though the track is fourteen and half minutes long, the subtle variations that Bowles creates within the framework of the song make the time fly by (this is something she displays on every track, i.e. the morphing of each composition to evolve and vary over its playing time). "Into the Gloaming" begins in a brooding mood, with bass pulses amidst a lower pitched drone. At the outset, I was reminded of James Reynold's sublime piece "Leaving the Bonds of Earth" from his soundtrack to The Mind's Eye video. This piece shares the same sense of movement and more than a hint of shadow (this is the closest that Bowles gets to being "dark"). "Beneath the Radiant Stars" reverses the somewhat shadowy nature of the preceding track and installs a sense of gentle awe and wonder. Around the 2:30 mark, Bowles introduces an interesting rhythmic effect, comprised of a clicking sound married to electronic tonalities which over the course of the track's nearly eleven minutes subside into the background and occasionally make their presence subtly known. The closing track is "Nightwalk Across The Isle of Dream" and rather than detail it, suffice it to say that the title says it all.

Is The Shimmering Land Meg Bowles' masterpiece? I am reluctant to state that because her talent, in my opinion, is limitless. Surely this album represents a pinnacle of sorts for her. On the other hand, who knows where this artist is headed in the future. The Shimmering Land is essential spacemusic (and, as far as I am concerned, a top ambient release from 2013 as well). It's majestic but human, beautiful but not overpowering, warm but not cloying, inviting yet also somewhat intimidating in how it makes the listener feel (appropriately) insignificant in comparison to the wonders of both the universe and our own planet. One thing I can state definitively about both the CD and Meg Bowles is borrowed, somewhat strangely, from the last line of the film The Color of Money starring Paul Newman, when his character states emphatically to his antagonist (Tom Cruise), "I'm back!" Fellow ambient and spacemusic artists take note…Meg Bowles IS back! 

The Shimmering Land is available from Amazon CDBaby and iTunes

Thursday, January 9, 2014

REVIEW: Anawaty/Russell - Analog Universe

Analog Universe

The curiously titled Analog Universe is a recording from the duo of pianist/keyboardist/guitarist Cass Anawaty and guitarist/keyboardist/synthesist and rhythm programmer Paul Russell They're joined (on various tracks) by a crew of able accompanists: Don Latarksi (lead guitar), Jeff Leonard (bass), Romy Benton (flute), Charley Langer (sax), Benjy Wertheimer (esraj), Peter Hollens (vocals), Dale Bradley (cello), and Mark Zonder (drums). I say "curiously titled" because the words "analog universe" evoke (musically) for me retro/Berlin school synths and outer space soundscapes. In reality, while there are moments here and there on the album where ambient/spacemusic textures surface, the overwhelming evocation for me is closer to jazz and blues, somewhat akin to the sensational jazz fusion duo from the '90s, Dancing Fantasy (Curtis McLaw and Chris Williamson). Anawaty and Russell infuse their music with somewhat the same mixture of jazz, rock, and pop, but they also introduce world music elements. Where Dancing Fantasy was slick and polished to a chromium sheen of synth-pop hooks and danceable rhythms, Anawaty and Russell are aiming for something a little less, for lack of a better word, superficial. If Dancing Fantasy was ear candy, Analog Universe is more like a substantial meal - tasty for sure, but more varied (you got your veggies, your carbs, your protein, your spices, etc.).

This isn’t to say that these two cats don't kick out some snazzy licks (especially on guitar) to go along with gently rockin' rhythms (check out the blues-tinted electric leads on the title track), but they can also kick back and lounge a bit as well, witness the mellow synth, reverberating bells and flute on "On the Beach" along with some seriously sensual hand drum percussion. You can almost hear the ocean waves lapping, taste the margarita on your lips, and feel the gentle rays of the setting sun warm your skin. "Where You Hide" opens with a quavering series of synth notes, joined by a plaintive but warm guitar melody. This track also elicits the feel of the tropics at times, less so when piano is folded into the mix and the mood becomes somewhat somber, only to revert to the original synth and guitar motif. Jazz flute opens "If Only I Could," flitting gracefully over a subtle bed of keyboards, soon joined by more of the mellow jazz/blues guitar (the guitar itself is played in somewhat the same style as Mark Knopfler, especially on his various soundtracks). A slow tempo trap kit drum backing track comes into play and the guitar switches briefly to a Spanish-flavored acoustic one. At 6:35 "Another Worldly" is far and away the longest track on the album, but despite its title, the predominant vibe here is still rooted in jazz/jazz fusion, although with some well-executed spacey synth work added to the mix. About half-way through the song, the assorted drums and percussion becomes more pronounced and dials in some tropical-spiced funk into the track. "A Space in Time" has the most overt spacemusic sound (at its outset) with flowing synths sounding like a cross between Jonn Serrie Meg Bowles, but the introduction of Wertheimer's esraj (an Asian "violin" like instrument) moves the sound into less of a spacemusic direction and more in an ethnic-ambient vein - haunting and mysterious. The closing track, "Deep Sighting" begins in with Eno-esque minimalism (sparse piano and subtle synth backdrops) before taking on some Asian influence via what I assume to be sampled koto. Dale Bradley's cello descends over all the other instruments near the end, lending an air of both elegance and profound somberness, if not even downright sorrow of a sort.

Analog Universe is both quite varied yet remarkably cohesive, but I'm at a loss to explain how I judge it thusly. Part of it is because many of the songs wind up introducing an element of jazz or jazz fusion at some point during their durations. The beautiful, albeit short, opening piece, "Theme For an Imaginary Noir," may remind you of "Memories of Green" from the Blade Runner soundtrack, and illustrates what I mean. The track begins as an ambient piano piece and folds in silky smooth sax and bluesy guitar. This seems to be a modus operandi for Anawaty and Russell, i.e. they introduce a spacey/ambient theme at the outset and slowly but surely mold it into something with touches of jazz, blues, maybe a hint of rock, or even world beat. They do all this will anchoring each song in solid accessibility, catchy rhythms, and inviting melodies, even when they venture into world music territory. In the end, Analog Universe is about kicking back and indulging in the semi-tropical, breezy vibe from the majority of the album's tracks. Every now and then something unexpected hits your "aural taste buds," but that's what makes a great meal, yes? 

Analog Universe is available at CDBaby, Amazon, and iTunes.