Tuesday, December 18, 2007

REVIEW: PARALLEL WORLDS - Obsessive Surrealism

Obsessive Surrealism
DiN (2007)
11 tracks, 63:29
Grade: A

Bakis Sirros (Parallel Worlds) reinvents retro-EM on Obsessive Surrealism, one of the best EM recordings of the year. As he weaves his way through eleven tracks (many under six minutes - a decision that I applaud, frankly), he immerses the listener in a shadowy realm where a myriad of past EM and electronica influences (chief among them are John Carpenter’s soundtracks) merge with a dark yet lush contemporary tint. A smattering of synth-pop touches, perhaps trace elements of Jarre, Tangerine Dream, or Synergy also surface, as well as echoes of contemporaries like Current, Di Evantile, and others. The music (much of it created on modular analogue instruments) is always couched in an atmosphere permeated with dread, foreboding, menace and mystery. Because the music frequently has a cinematic aspect to it, I think Sirros’ biggest influences were the music from films such as Escape from New York, The Fog, and to lesser degrees, Big Trouble in Little China and The Thing (and yes, I know The Thing soundtrack was actually composed by Ennio Morricone, thankyouverymuch). Regardless whether you will agree with me on this point, Obsessive Surrealism is an entertaining disc and certainly plays better in the foreground rather than as sonic wallpaper. You’ll really want to listen to this one.

The opening “Beneath Fear” gives you a good indication what to expect. Muted bell tones are set off against assorted skittering electronic FX and minor chord washes. Rhythms emerge gradually but build in intensity along with the addition of moody chorals. “Different Pathways” begins with a steady snare and bass drum beat. Burbling static and organ-like chords are right out of The Thing, and have that same “hair stands up on the back of your neck” effect, as if something is approaching and it’s not gonna be pleasant. Yet, the energy of the song (unlike Carpenter’s soundtracks) is dialed up to a higher intensity level. It’s almost infectious, an intriguing counterpoint to music suffused with dread. “Empty Human Cells” evokes Escape from New York at times, with the same pulsing rhythms and flurry of synths that marked one of Carpenter’s more sought after works.

Sirros settles down only occasionally (too bad) e.g. on “Increasing Complexity” with its echoed piano, bell tones, and undulating drones, eventually married to some midtempo synth bass beats and weird effects. He takes aim at a mixture of ‘80s dance/synth pop crossed with neon-lit Berlin on the bouncy, energetic “Distracted.” Harold Faltemeyer meets Tangerine Dream, perhaps? The CD ends with the dark Sturm und Drang of “Crying Spells,” a welling-up dose of propulsive yet oppressive power, reminding me of Big Trouble in Little China crossed with The Keep (soundtrack by Tangerine Dream).

Despite my numerous allusions to other artists (notably Carpenter and his unnamed accomplice Alan Howarth), don’t be mistaken in thinking Obsessive Surrealism reeks of copycatting. Bakis Sirros is certainly an original. The music here is a hybrid of retro analogue-driven and contemporary EM, with the emphasis on the former but not in a derivative fashion. More than anything else, what Sirros’ infuses this CD with is a delightfully sly mixture of fun and frights. Charged with a shadowy spookiness and a dose of creepy menace around every corner, the album is very highly recommended.


Dreamfall: Veils and Visions
Muamer Music (2007)

3 tracks, 58:45
Grade: A

Few subgenres of ambient have a greater ability to transport the listener than ethno-tribal when performed/recorded by an artist who knows what he/she is doing. I recall listening to albums such as Soma or Rainforest or more recent releases, e.g. The Shaman’s Dream or Moontribe and thinking how unlike any other type of ambient music they were. I would feel whisked away to caverns, dank and dark, or to humid landscapes where strange creatures lurked in the lush underbrush lit by campfires and populated by ancient peoples who practiced ceremonies of power and mystery. Such is the heritage of Dreamfalls: Veils and Visions from Na-Koja-Abad. Turn out the lights and prepare to find yourself in a primal, sensual and yet strangely comforting landscape.

Comprised of three tracks (twenty-five, twenty-three and ten-plus minutes in length), Dreamfall…is exquisite. Here is the highest praise I can give it: Few recordings cross my desk these days that I wish I had time to delve into and explore in detail. Such is the artistry of Dreamfall: Veils and Visions.

What puts this CD in the esteemed company of the ones I mentioned earlier? Perhaps the careful attention to detail which the artist brings to all the elements in the mix. On “Traversing the Dusk,” the opening track, what makes it work so well is the seamless integration of nature sounds, such as bird song, with the undulating drones, the electric guitar peals, the assorted shakers, rattles and rainstick. It’s so immersive, as if one were walking through this landscape - the sun setting, the shadows lengthening, and the hint of something not necessarily scary but certainly unknown and disquieting hanging in the air. After fifteen minutes of ambient-esque sound sculpting, Na-Koha-Abad folds in the tribal elements (frame and hand drums) and the sensuality of the piece elevates pronouncedly. The tempo is slow, sexual, primal and the heat is palpable. Obvious comparisons for me are to Soma, a huge compliment as I have many times stated I consider it a true masterpiece of ethno-tribal ambient music.

“Devouring the Sky” reverse the order of the previous track, starting off with the percussive elements (hand drums reminiscent of the recordings mentioned earlier with the exception of Rainforest) and water burbling over rocks. Liquid drones and dark shadowy synth textures flow over the beats. When the rhythms subside, drones take over and wave after wave of them wash over you, carrying you along in their eddy, but never in a threatening way, more as if to say “Come with us…we have wonders to show you.” Midtempo tribal drum beats and rattles slowly emerge from the darkness and as they intensify, you feel energized rather than terrified, as if you were heading toward something wondrous and fulfilling, not dark and disturbing. This sensation of a shadowy realm but not one of fear runs throughout Dreamfall…and it’s this juxtaposition (which Soma has as well) which makes the CD so alluring, intoxicating and begs the listener to return time and time again.

The shorter drone-centered final track, “Garden of the Ineffable” is not so much an anti-climax as it is the inevitable arrival at the apex of the journey…a heartbeat rhythm melds into a series of drones and washes amidst scattered percussion and welcoming chorals (by Aida Moćević), and you realize you are home. Not the comfortable home of your hearth but the home you yearned for in your dreams, a place of fulfillment and enlightenment where knowledge is all and awareness is consummate.

Whew! Na-Koja-Abad impressed me with his previous release, Deluvia. Here, he raises the bar higher still, working in a more atmospheric and less dark but still haunting vein, crafting music which transports me to a world that I wish I could visit in reality. This is an indulgent album, one to patiently wade through and digest, to savor and linger over, until you feel sated by the sheer magic of its mystery. Highly recommended.

REVIEW: ROBERT DAVIES - Garden of Twilight

Garden of Twilight
dataObscura (2006)
10 tracks, 61:02

Grade: B

Robert Davies, whose album Sub Rosa landed on my best of 2006 list, turns his minimalist ambient eye on a landscape less melancholic (and melodic) on Garden of Twilight, a worthy follow-up but one that is (for me) more satisfying from an intellectual and aesthetic level than from an emotional one. That comment doesn’t mean this is a poor album, however. Davies works in much more subdued and subtle vein than he did on Sub Rosa. For ambientphiles who enjoy drifting minimalism with just a hint of melody among the washes, textures, drones and effects, Garden of Twilight will probably prove to be a garden of Delight.

“Among Exquisite Ruins” opens the album with layers of washes and warm drones, flowing over and under one another, some with a subtle resonating quality. “Iridescent Reflections” features those almost obscenely beautiful bell tones that I fell in love with on Sub Rosa and it also mirrors that release’s sad reflective melancholy, but with a hint of detachment. “The Ecstasy of Overgrown Sundials” blends male chorals (reminding me of early Kevin Kendle recordings, as odd as that association may appear) amidst swelling drones and delicate reverberating tones. “Hidden Colors Radiance” is anchored by what sounds like low register churning organ chords on top of which minimal synth tones lightly but only occasionally flit. Echoed piano features prominently on “Ambrosial Tapestry” but a lack of warmth somewhat undercuts the emotional impact of the track, perhaps due to how the piano sounds or the relative plainness of the background electronic textures. Drone-lovers will probably love “Entangled in Lush Green” with its drone accentuated by subtle bubby electronics and ultra-minimal tones. I didn’t much care for the stark unwavering “Sunken Garden” which epitomizes what I don’t usually care for in drone-based music, i.e. just not enough to connect with on a human level. Better is the album closing ten-minute “Beneath Strange Stars” which blends layers of flowing ambient drones with other electronic instrumentation, yielding a flowing dark (but not scary) spaciness with a palpable but pleasant sensation of mystery which I’ll bet is perfect for stargazing.

Despite my not connecting (on a personal level) with Garden of Twilight, I still recommend the CD, provided that you don’t need as much melody or warmth as was present on Davies’ Sub Rosa. In some ways, Garden of Twilight is a “purer” ambient album because it calls attention to itself much less frequently than Sub Rosa did. The only problem is that it also can flow by unnoticed for stretches at a time so that it’s only selected moments that stand out (such as “Iridescent Reflections”). Davis already has several newer albums out (I’m late with this review) and I’m curious if he has gone back to his Sub Rosa ways or has instead followed down this particular path instead. That will be revealed in a future review, I imagine. In the meantime, I recommend the album if it fits your taste as it’s certainly a very good example of this type of ambient music.

About this blog and why it exists...

Welcome to the Wind and Wire blog. Besides containing mirrors of the reviews posted on the Wind and Wire website, this blog may/will contain other ramblings by yours truly as well as whatever you, dear readers, decide to post as replies.

So, why did I jump back into reviewing for my own site after a one-and-a-year hiatus? My new age music (and associated genres) reviews will still appear at New Age Reporter, but I wanted to do something a little different with my ambient reviews than I had been up to now, especially since NAR caters more to the new age/adult contemporary/world music fan and also because ambient fans (and artists) seem to exist in their own subculture anyway (to say the least).

I’ve always tried to write lengthy detailed reviews of ambient music, a genre that, IMO, is sometimes (but not always) ill-suited for that type of analysis. Some, but not all, of the new reviews of ambient, electronica, chill-out, spacemusic, etc. you will read here will be shorter and also may come across as being more critical (some may be outright pans). This latter change reflects my reaction to what has been the most oft-criticized aspect of my reviewing in the past, i.e. I’m too “soft” and don’t write enough about my negative reactions to recordings I receive for review. Since, many artists and fans have expressed a desire to read more “critical” reviews of ambient music over the years, I decided to give them (you) what you want.

I’m also initiating a rating system (since I work at a university, I’ll use the grading scale of A+ to F), which I know will meet with a mixed reaction. Some of you have told me you hate ratings and some have told me you think they’re great.

Note that I'm still going to contribute the occasional ambient review to NAR and I also contribute to a site called Furthernoise.

Finally, for those who are going to subscribe...to make it easy to ignore my miscellaneous ramblings and only pay attention to my reviews, review blog entries will begin with the word REVIEW followed by the artist and album title.

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