Monday, January 14, 2008

REVIEW: TOR LUNDVALL - The Seasons Unfold Sampler

The Seasons Unfold Sampler
Strange Fortune
4 tracks: 15:25
Grade: B+

As sometimes happens, trust me to be late to the party on yet another critically acclaimed ambient artist. Tor Lundvall (and his CD Empty City) has been mentioned (and praised) numerous times on internet venues such as and The Hypnos Forum with people waxing eloquently about his “ghost ambient” soundscapes. Sadly, I let the term “ghost” color my preconceptions and, as a result, I turned a deaf ear/eye, mistaking the term “ghost” to mean “Here’s another drab and dreary drone-o-phile.” The last thing I wanted to hear was more “music to substitute for a fan playing.” Imagine my surprise (more like shock actually), when this four-song promotional sampler arrived in the mail (it’s free, by the way, when you purchase anything at Strange Fortune ) and I discovered a subtle yet undoubtedly melodic ambient strain of minimalism, colored in pale pastels, evoking empty streets late at night, yet not in an overly melancholic way, but still deeply evocative and intensely intimate.

The four tracks are described as “Selections and alternate versions from the forthcoming 4-CD [4-CD???!!!] set The Seasons Unfold.” Based on what I’ve heard, Tor Lundvall just may be able to pull off something as audacious as a four-CD album! If this sampler is an indication of what awaits fans of low-key, forlorn but “pretty” soundscapes, they’re gonna get their money’s worth, I’d imagine.

Running about fifteen minutes, you’d be surprised at the variety of the music here (well, variety considering everything is more or less in the same vein). “Whir (mix #2)” opens things up with a repeated musical phrase on piano played off against reverbed bell tones that echo off in the distance alongside a pleasing clicking percussive effect (perfectly sublimated to the background). “29” is a vocal track, but the vocals are just as much ambient in nature as the music, although not because they are wordless (there are actual lyrics) but the haunting nature of (I would imagine it’s Lundvall’s) the voice fits in perfectly with the repeated pattern of gentle synth notes and delicate minimal bells. A softly pealing electric guitar adds an extra element of subtle sadness. If this track doesn’t bring to mind walks alone in the fading light of an autumn day, you have no imagination! “The Backyard” has a slight sense of the same kind of glitch that I heard on both Marconi Union’s Distance as well as Ben Swire’s Equilibrium, but draped in a slow sad sense of reflection with almost no kinetic movement forward. Once again there are some heavenly muted vocals (sure sounding like Neil Tennant at times!) that, instead of detracting from the mood, actually elevates it! Amazing! Finishing off this EP is “November’s Fields” which is the most brooding piece here, yet still absolutely “musical” in nature. What sounds like an echoed triangle note is panned between channels while the center channel flows with a blend of sparse melodic repetitions and very subtle bass rhythms. I was slightly reminded of one or two tracks from SAW II, but to be honest, since this clocked in at only 4:03, it didn’t wear out its welcome like some of those long cuts on SAW II do.

So, count me as those in line with bated breath and sweaty palms until The Seasons Unfold is released. Hopefully, the promise of this teaser of a sampler will be fulfilled. If it is, that 4-CD set may wind up being on a lot of Ambient Album of the Year lists!

Monday, January 7, 2008

Some pre-Best of the Year musings

As I begin the dreaded yearly ritual of preparing and posting a “Best of the Year” listing, I’m once again confronted by the usual dilemma, i.e. is it fair to lump a whole slew of very dissimilar ambient subgenres together under one genre, pitting them against one another in order to come up with one “master” list? I don’t like that idea one bit. I prefer the “Golden Globes” as opposed to the “Academy Awards” approach. Oscar does not differentiate between comedies and dramas and, as a result, a comedy has to be more or less flawless in order to be named Best Picture (or even get nominated), unless it is a dark one, e.g. Fargo. The Golden Globes make a distinction between best drama and best comedy, in effect making for a much more level playing field.

At the very least, I’m likely going to subdivide into two ambient subgenres: rhythmic and floating (maybe not use those terms, but you get my point). I actually think further delineation may be necessary. Can you really pit glitch against Berlin school EM? How about chill-out? Is the hated classification “electronica” okay for all rhythmic electronic music…and what about the forgotten sub-genre spacemusic? Then there’s beatless ambient. Does one distinguish between abstract textural music versus minimalism (a la Budd and Eno) and where does drone fit in?

This may not seem like a big deal. After all, it’s just my opinion. And I’ve even considered instead of posting a list, just singling out specific albums and coming up with a very specific “award” for each one and then listing one or two honorable mentions instead of a broad spectrum list of 10 or 20.

Finally, on an unrelated aspect of this topic (i.e. Best of the Year lists), I want to add that I didn’t get a chance to hear a LOT of prominent ambient releases this year because they weren’t sent to me for review. Now, before you think I never buy music and only listen to music sent to me, please allow me to explain that it’s much less a matter of my not spending the money and more a matter of lack of time. I barely have the time to review what is sent to me so if I start buying music (to review) it just means less time for all the other recordings. So, when I do post my list, in whatever shape or form it takes, don’t think to yourself, “What an idiot, he didn’t list Arc of Passion or Fever Dreams III or Atlas Dei or Eleven Questions” (and I don’t mean to pick on Steve Roach or Robert Rich, they just spring to my mind - sorry guys!) remember that there are only so many hours in a day, days in a week, etc. If I omitted what you think is an obvious masterpiece, it may mean I never heard it. On the other hand, maybe my taste is just better than yours!

I’d welcome any feedback, opinions, or rantings on the above topic, so here’s your chance to clue me in. Don’t waste it!