Monday, October 8, 2018

DVD REVIEW: New Horizon - Aerial Ambience Relaxing the Mind, Calming the Spirit

Relaxing the Mind, Calming the Spirit
A collaboration between Sky Lakes Media
and the music duo Minstrel Streams

For a brief time (mid '80s to early '90s) the now-defunct Miramar record label took some new age music albums and joined the evocative music with equally beautiful nature photography, creating, in essence, a video music album using the VHS format. The first two were well-known collaborations between David Lanz and Paul Speer (Natural States in 1985 and Desert Vision in 1987). Those were followed by Pete Bardens' (R.I.P.) Water Colours in 1991 and Tangerine Dreams' Canyon Dreams in 1992. This format never really caught on, although I personally enjoyed them (the label also released some ground-breaking computer animation videos in the "Mind's Eye" series).

Fast forward to now, and nature videography has grown by leaps and bounds due to two technological advances: high definition digital video and drone videography (allowing pictures never before possible via helicopter). As a result, Mark and Michelle Unger decided to resurrect the concept of nature videos set to new age music via their company Sky Lakes Media. The pair joined forces with another couple, Matt and Rebecca Stuart (who record under the name of Minstrel Streams) and the result is the video "album" (on DVD format) titled New Horizon (this appears to be the first release in a series entitled Aerial Ambience). The DVD title is also the title  of the album by the Stuarts and features music from that well-reviewed album (of which I wrote "The music has a timeless grace, a rich beauty, and an overwhelmingly lovely and simple charm, [simple meaning not cluttered with artifice or embellished needlessly]. There is so much inherent warmth and good will present throughout all thirteen selections that it would be damn near impossible to stay in a bad mood (if you started out that way) and played the whole album through.").

The thirteen selections feature beautifully shot videos of locations in southern Oregon and northern California and the images are, indeed, stunning! From the opening selection, "Ancient Mariner," with video of Indian Sands on the majestic southern Oregon coastline, we then set out for the Smith River area of northern California on the track "Come to the Waters," and progress on from there, visiting lakes, canyons, mountain ranges, more coastline, and even a vineyard! Some videos are ground-based, many are from drones in flight, and there are even some underwater shots! The amazing visuals are wedded to the wonderful melodies of the Stuarts' music (who even appear on camera in the vineyard track, "Golden Treasures"). I am particularly awed by the coastal videos, but that's a matter of my being emotionally drawn to coastlines, because the rivers, the canyons, the mountains, are all beautiful.

Joining Matt (guitar and piano) and Rebecca (flutes) are some stellar guest artists, including Jill Haley (English horn), Paul Kochanski (string bass), Eugene Friesen (cello), Noah Wilding (vocals), Matt Heaton (bodhran), and Tom Eaton on percussion and accordion. The music was recorded at Will Ackerman's Imaginary Road Studios in Vermont and Tom Eaton handled the engineering, mixing and mastering, so you know this is a video album that will sound as good as it looks!

Hopefully, New Horizon (the DVD) will inspire others to bring this format back to life. With the aforementioned advances in technology, the time is right. Viewed on a big screen HDTV with good speakers (e.g. a high end soundbar such as I have) it's quite the experience (especially the drone fly-overs). Tempo and energy level of the songs vary, but not distractingly so. However, one can always just watch one or two of the videos as a way of "whisking away" from the everyday and de-stressing. Or one might also view this as a precursor to voyaging to these locales to glimpse what lies ahead! Either way, or however you experience this DVD, it's a fantastic merging of the two mediums. I applaud both the Ungers and the Stuarts – well done, folks!

The DVD seems to be only available at CDBaby. I haven;t been able to find any sample videos (sorry).

Thursday, June 21, 2018

REVIEW: TOM CAUFIELD - Deep Cuts from the Moral Wilderness

Deep Cuts from the Moral Wilderness

Guitarist Tom Caufield possesses a truly unique and particularly intriguing musical vision. Every album of his that I have heard reveals something new about his composing and performing talent. Even knowing this, though, I was still startled by his new album, Deep Cuts from the Moral Wilderness. While Caufield has never lacked for ambition, the departure from his signature styles is marked. The backstory of how this wonderful recording came to be is worth recounting. Performing at a candlelight service at a Presbyterian church in Los Angeles, he had the chance to see performances by cellist Judy Kang and violinist Alicia Spillias. In Caufield's own words " [I was] impressed by their artistry and enchanted by the ancient sound of strings, [so I] asked them to collaborate with [me] on an upcoming set, as [I] wanted to hear [my] melodies played with this burnished, haunting magic." A second violinist, Zach Paul, joined the trio for a performance at The Last Bookstore in downtown LA and the die was cast, so to speak. Before heading into the recording studio, a second cellist, Mark Edward Lewis, was added.

Deep Cuts from the Moral Wilderness (a cryptic title if there ever was one) flows forth with a sense of subtle vibrancy and artistic creativity, a fusion of the chamber music aesthetic with a minimalist approach to ambient guitar music that is, by turns, beautifully touching, hauntingly sad, and elegantly playful. The feeling of simpatico put forth by these artists who, if one were to be straightforward about it, are relative strangers, is a revelation of how quickly musicians can come to know each other and meld their talents into a cohesive visionary musical expression.

Long-time fans of Caufield's music may be surprised at how unselfishly he has surrendered the spotlight for nearly the entire 25-minutes of music on Deep Cuts… As a music reviewer, I have often extolled those "lead" artists of an ensemble who push their fellow players to step forward rather than he/she hogging center stage (in jazz, pianist Lisa Hilton is another shining example of this trait). It's not that Caufield's guitar mastery is absent on the recording, but more that it is relegated to a supporting role. Again, in his own words "I’ve moved the guitar to the back and brought cello and violin forward, letting them showcase the melodies, harmonies and movement. Instead of fretwork, I focused on arrangements, mood and sequence, aiming to create a half-hour ambient cloud, all cut of one cloth, but with enough detail and movement to also be engaging." Taking these sentences as a statement of the mission of Deep Cuts… leads me to conclude that he has succeeded in every way possible. There is an elegant simplicity to these six pieces, yet it is simplicity wedded to an emotional richness and deep resonance of feeling so that it would be difficult to not be intensely moved (as I was) when listening to this music (provided one has any appreciation whatsoever for the acoustic/neo-classical sound which permeates the recording).

Detailing the individual six pieces, there is the somber and mournful opening "Warszawa" (penned by David Bowie and Brian Eno, one of two pieces here not composed by Caufield, although the arrangement is his), with its plaintive mixture of strummed acoustic guitar and violin, followed by the relatively cheery, mildly uptempo elegance of "Fresh Astonishments," with a fusion of fingerstyle guitar and cello/violin which evokes sunlight and springtime. "Written on the Sky" (composed by Max Richter) begins with a semi-Mediterranean guitar, melding with a gorgeous cello/violin melody that evokes the feeling of fond remembrance, adding in some haunting sorrow in the conclusion. Delicate fingerstyle guitar likewise opens "The Nature of a Heart is to Yearn," and, as one might surmise from the title, here the mood is romantic, and the higher pitched violin melody imparts a subtle feeling of wistfulness which is counterpointed by the underlying sweetly flowing cello line. Reflection and somberness come to the forefront on "In the Realm of the Senses" with its deliberate, slow cadence of the strummed guitar chords and violin/cello melodies which echo each other. The concluding "The Weakness that Leads to Strength" is an emotional "wrapping up" of the themes presented in the previous five selections, with an evocation of a  mood that is both content yet also a tiny bit hoping for something more. The string refrain on this track is too beautiful to describe in words, as the key it's played in gets higher and higher, as if painting a musical portrait of the title, i.e. one becomes stronger through one's weakness.

Deep Cuts from the Moral Wilderness showcases Tom Caufield's maturity as a composer and his talent as an arranger for neo-classical music in a string ensemble setting, as well as, once again, displaying his performing talent and deft touch on his own instrument. I can't recommend this album enough – it's a stunning, brilliant work.
Deep Cuts...and all of Tom's albums are available directly from him at his online store. Some albums are also available from the usual online retailers, e.g. CDBaby and Amazon.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

REVIEW: JOHN LYELL - Planetary Artifacts

Planetary Artifacts

Over the years, some people have come to view spacemusic and ambient music as one and the same. I do not. Obviously, spacemusic can have elements of ambient music, but the opposite is not always the case, e.g. Aphex Twin's SAW II is only tangentially spacey. There are certain definable characteristics to what I consider to be spacemusic, which explains why the genre is nowhere near as populated with artists as ambient music is. Which brings us to John Lyell. Lyell may not be the most prolific spacemusic artist around (this is his fourth solo effort, his first being Dimensions which was released in 2006), but man, he sure "gets" it when it comes to recording "pure" spacemusic.

Spacemusic, to me, embraces its connection to outer space (and, perhaps, a nod or two to science fiction themes). It is in this realm that Lyell satisfies like only a few others do as well (most notably, of course, Jonn Serrie and Meg Bowles). It's not just his albums' artwork (which, by the way, has gotten better with every release; the cover of Planetary Artifacts is gorgeous), or his song titles (e.g. "Traversing The Portal," "Red Shift 2," "Another World"), but his overall musical aesthetic which beckons the listener to don headphones in a dark room (or outside under a starry sky) and do a serious deep dive into the universe that his soundscapes evoke.

Planetary Artifacts represents a subtle departure from his earlier releases, but not in a way that makes it any less enjoyable than those previous stellar works. Here, Lyell develops his more spacy persona, using a lot of electronic effects that, to me, bring to mind science fiction films, especially his fondness for a more retro style of synthesizers and textures. You know what I mean: the bloops, bleeps, whooshes, stuff like that. He layers all his various washes, pads, and effects with expert skill and utmost dexterity. While some tracks include bass pulse rhythms, the album is much more of a "drifter" than a "cruiser,"most notably in the latter half.

I have always appreciated how Lyell, unlike a lot of artists in this genre, tends to favor shorter tracks (relatively speaking). Only "Echoes Of A Distant Past" clocks in at over 8 minutes (8:32) and a handful are in the 4 to 5 minute range or so. I may be in the minority in this regard, but I like how this feature keeps the recording "fresh."

"Arrival" is a floating piece that somehow does evoke the titular reference, partly through subtle dramatic textures, which "feels" like one is arriving (maybe to a spaceport or jumping off point?). The rhythmic pulses at the start of "Traversing The Portal" perfectly capture the feeling of rapid movement, accelerating to cruising speed, as it were. On headphones, you will hear all these cool layers of synths, washes, effects, and this song reminds me why I feel in love with spacemusic in the first place – it just grabs you and whisks you away into a whole other universe. But Lyell executes this gently. His music is never aggressive, but it's also not what I would label as passive. This is why I make a distinction between ambient and spacemusic. Ambient music colors the background unobtrusively while spacemusic invites you to partake in it, as if you were on a voyage to the stars.

Lyell is really coming into his own and the more I explored Planetary Artifacts I realized that I was witnessing an artist maturing and evolving. He has become expert at knowing which synths to use, which sound palette to choose from, and how to execute it all to perfection. It helps, of course, that Robert Rich masters his albums, but mastering can only enhance great music, it can't make it great all by itself.

Whether the effervescent "Traversing The Portal," the stately "Red Shift 2," or the haunting "Echoes Of A Distant Past" Lyell is your able pilot as you stream through the cosmos. Later in the album, the mood gets ultra-spacy as if we are journeying to the outer rim, and even beyond. It's dreamy beyond words. My only regret with an album like Planetary Artifacts is I wish I had much more time to just listen to it and get lost in its explorations and mysteries. Simply put, if you are a spacemusic fan, this is an essential album to own.

Available at CDBaby, Amazon,  or iTunes