Thursday, October 30, 2008

REVIEW: DARSHAN AMBIENT- from pale hands to weary skies

from pale hands to weary skies
Lotuspike (2008)
11 tracks: 56:53
Rating: A

After a three-year absence from the ambient recording scene, Michael Allison (Darshan Ambient) has resurfaced with his most ambitious and multifaceted release yet, from pale hands to weary skies. Before getting to the meat of the review, I’d like to first give thanks to all who helped him pull through his gravely serious illness back in April of 2007, most notably his wife, Nicky. More info about this is available as part of the album’s liner notes, but suffice it to say that I was relieved and thrilled when Nicky notified me that Michael had emerged from his coma, was recovering, and eventually rejoined the living, reuniting with his loved ones. The possibility of future music from him was, frankly, the furthest thing from my mind. Now, however, as this new recording sees the light of day, it’s like a bonus for the ambient music community since not only is Michael back with us, but he has apparently tapped into a wellspring of inspiration that has let loose a flood of creativity and innovation. From near tragedy springs newfound wonder and beauty.

Musically, the eleven songs on from pale hands to weary skies probably encompass more of Allison’s rhythmic side (e.g. as heard on Autumn’s Apple and re: Karma) than his more pastoral drifting soundscapes (e.g. The Zen Master’s Diary and Providence), although some tracks manage to meld elements of both, yielding an amalgam of the artist’s two disparate “personalities.” Even though I enjoy Allison’s duality, on this particular release I think I prefer his cheerful peppy percolating beat-driven pieces a bit more. The thing about Allison’s version of glitchy/rhythmic ambient music is that, unlike many contemporaries, it’s essentially “happy” music, not mired in moribund solemnity or shadowy darkness. However, it’s also not airy, puffy or insubstantial. By putting his reverbed/sustained piano against a backdrop of shimmering textures and punctuated by skittering rhythms and/or hand drum percussion, he achieves a pluralistic impact. The listener can’t help but smile with childlike delight, yet the warmth of the music permeates the soul with a calming sense of contentment.

Spotlighting tracks on the CD is difficult because describing the music itself would require a fair amount of detail, as Allison features an wide assortment of beats/rhythms and melodic structure (e.g. the hand percussion on the opening “The Furniture of Time” leads into the more glitchy rhythms of “Slowly Toward the North”). And not all songs have rhythms, as I indicated earlier. “The Look of Amber” (co-written by Jourdan Laik) layers guitar ambient textures in a lazy-hazy collage evoking summery sensations while “Suffering Softens Stones” reminds me of the minimal piano and soundscape beauty of previous releases such as Autumn Light (which I think is sadly out of print). “I Await You” is simplicity incarnate with sedate classically inflected piano set against swashes of atmospheric guitar.

But it’s the percolating pieces here that make me want to play from pale hands to weary skies over and over. The skitching rhythms of “Palace of The Windowed Rocks” skip lightly over sustained guitar, gently plaintive piano notes and occasional sighs of muted chorals. More propulsive insistent bassy beats march underneath an assortment of quirky electronics and textures on “Multiplication of the Arcs,” while “The Rapidity of Sleep” (another song co-written by Laik) features pseudo-tribal percussion mixed with more contemporary electronica beats.

Since there is no detail listed about the album’s specific instrumentation, I’m assuming what I hear that sounds like guitar is, in fact, guitar, but in today’s recording world, who really knows. What I do know is that from pale hands to weary skies is a triumphant return for one of the more under-appreciated ambient artists out there. While Michael Allison believes this is his best work to date, I can’t wholly agree but only because I’d be hard pressed to make that statement about any of his releases since, frankly, so many of them are uniformly excellent. However, this CD is, to my ears, his most complex from a musical standpoint. He’s really pushed his personal envelope. I certainly wish he and his loved ones hadn’t had to suffer what he and they went through but all of us can take some measure of comfort that Michael came through the darkness into the light and this album is a testament to him and the power of love from those who surrounded him in his time of need. Bravo, Michael, and Welcome Back!

REVIEW: JEFF PEARCE - Rainshadow Sky

Rainshadow Sky
Jeff Pearce Music (2008)
12 tracks: 48:34
Rating: A+

Culled from direct-to-computer recordings made at assorted “house concerts” from 2007 and 2008, Jeff Pearce’s Rainshadow Sky stands as a notable achievement for two reasons. One is, as on Lingering Light, all the music here comes from a sole instrument, the Chapman Stick. Per the liner notes, no post-production fixing was done, no after-concert enhancement is heard throughout the CD’s twelve tracks. I’ve always considered Pearce a bit of a musical genius ever since first hearing The Hidden Rift (No synths on that album? Yeah, right!), and this stellar recording may be the final piece of the puzzle which illustrates clearly the artist’s brilliance (I can almost feel him grimace as Jeff is way too modest about his talent). The other aspect of Rainshadow Sky that bears mentioning is the music itself, which is damn bloody beautiful. I didn’t think he could top the gentle subdued nuance and deep-seated emotion of Lingering Light, but he has done so and with considerable ease. Without reading any further, if you loved LL, you’ll fall for this album from the first minute of the opening title song, a slightly jaunty affair with cascading notes “raining” down over a bed of naturally sustained Chapman textures. Gorgeous!

All but two songs here are originals. The two “reworked tunes” are the achingly sad “A Secret to Hide” and the gently minimalist “Through Tears.” One of the new tunes even harkens back to Pearce’s more ambient-ish “soundscape” era, the darkly droning “Harvest Storms.” I had to specifically ask Jeff, via email, if he didn’t sneak a guitar song onto this CD, but nope, this is still just Chapman Stick. I stand corrected and flabbergasted.

While Pearce, in his well-written and revealing liner notes, states that “The music on this release covers quite a few moods and textures…” I would offer a semi-contrary opinion, only to the degree that this is still very much late night music, a lot of it colored in grey and brown tones, much like the incredible cover photo of a wheat field beneath a stormcloud-filled sky. While nothing here is cheery, per se, in deference to the artist’s view, I admit that this is not the descent into melancholy that Lingering Light was or the aching grief of Bleed (neither of which is a bad thing since I loved both those albums, too).

“Autumn Clouds” has a lazy semi-blues thing going on while “The Last Warm Day in October” bears some resemblance to the autumnal minimalism of Will Ackerman’s solo work. “And we Prayed for Rain” is a gentle meditation on variations of a musical theme while “Ashes of Grace” has a delicate sense of beauty…fragile like crystal refracting a sunbeam. “Deluge” is inarguably the most “active” track on the CD, again featuring a cascading effect of notes shimmering against what sounds like a myriad of background textures (one Chapman Stick, one man…shaking my head in disbelief).

While Pearce fans who long for his previous more pastoral efforts (The Light Beyond or To The Shores Of Heaven) or his darker more foreboding textural works (Vestiges, Daylight Slowly) may muse “When is he gonna go back to his gee-tar?” I’m too busy luxuriating in Rainshadow Sky’s evocative sensitive wonders. Jeff Pearce is surely one of the most talented yet also most humble guys walking the Earth. While he himself mentions not being prolific when it comes to releasing music, I say “Better to uncover one diamond every three years than be unimpressed by numerous cubic zirconia found laying about!”

Thursday, September 18, 2008

REVIEW: MICO NONET - The Marmalade Balloon

The Marmalade Balloon
Mico Nonet Records (2007)
13 tracks: 36:42
Grade: A

Mico Nonet is a self-described “ambient chamber” ensemble and their debut release is The Marmalade Balloon, a CD somewhat difficult to slot into a single genre. Essentially, it’s a classical music album featuring chamber music played on viola (Carrie Dennis), cello (Efe Baltacigil), French horn (Paul LaFollette) and oboe (Katherine Needleman). All of these four people play professionally for various orchestras from Berlin to Philadelphia to Baltimore to Richmond, by the way. However, labeling it “classical” doesn’t take into account that, layered amidst the elegant string and wind instruments, are Joshua Lee Kramer’s subtle yet evocative analogue synthesizer textures. You may not always be consciously aware of them (even with attentive headphone listening, Kramer’s washes, pads, and shadings are discrete and under the surface). Yet, however slight the electronics may be, they add a dimension to the music that would otherwise be missing. For many ambient fans, though, The Marmalade Balloon may hew too closely to “long hair” music. That’s a shame because this is a beautiful and deeply moving work, unique without being abstract, frequently suffused with tangible melancholy.

“Rüya” opens the album and here the electronic effects are more pronounced, with ponging-like noises bouncing lazily amidst the cello, French horn and viola, the latter three wending their way somewhat cheerily amidst the synthesizer effects. “Kaika” features oboe prominently at the outset, and the piece has a rural/pastoral feel, with the synth shading being textural in nature, comprised of an occasional analogue-sounding wash in the background. “Maloja Pass” morphs the recording to a more mournful or introspective mood. Cello, viola and oboe are buoyed by soft electronic effects, quiet drones and what sound like tape loops.

Most of the album’s tracks are short (between two and four minutes long, with the exception of the nearly six-minute “Darana.”); in fact, three are under two minutes, including the somber elegiac “The Woolgatherer” and the solemn “Notturno” with its deep bassy synths rumbling underneath viola. “Gloaming” opens in a dark haunting vein with subtly glistening synth tones and bass drone-like washes upon which viola and cello mournfully “sing.” “Paper Sailboat” flirts with a playful mood (but still tinted with shades of grey) as flighty oboe is juxtaposed with soft swirling synths and semi-abstract effects which jump out now and then amidst the oboe’s melody. The title track hews closely to more traditional chamber music, swaying ever so slightly and again shining with a palpable yet gentle pastoral glow, gradually increasing in volume and drama as more instruments come join in the mix.

While there are obvious similarities between Mico Nonet’s music and, for example, Tim Story’s The Perfect Flaw or perhaps Kevin Keller’s Santiago’s Dream, the prominence in both the latter cases of piano as the main instrument and the more overt use of electronics means the similarities are relatively superficial. The Marmalade Balloon is, more than anything else, rooted firmly in chamber music aesthetics yet Kramer infuses enough electronics and synthesizers to differentiate it from a straight-up classical recording (“Hammock” for a good example of this combination of the two elements). More than anything else, what wowed me about this CD from the first playing was not just the emotional power and weight of the melancholic somber music but also that it’s all exercised with such grace and subtlety. This must be credited to Joshua Lee Kramer who is the driving force of Mico Nonet and the producer of this startlingly beautiful recording, although of course the quality of the performances of the four classical musicians can’t be overstated either. The Marmalade Balloon was one of the finest albums released in 2007 and I hope that it won’t be the last we hear from these five talented people.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Outer Worlds
Umbrello Records (2007)
6 tracks: 75:26
Grade: B-

Culled from an assortment of live shows, Outer Worlds from guitarist Kurt Michaels (joined by two different keyboard players and an electronic wind player on one track) falls somewhat outside the normal spectrum of what I review here at Wind and Wire, but it’s certainly an interesting and well-done recording, one that I think you readers might be intrigued by and some of you even enjoy. Featuring a plethora of retro keyboards and synths on the six tracks here and with Michaels playing electric guitar throughout, the overall category of the music is probably closer to progressive fusion or even progressive rock at times (minus drums). However, Michael’s music seldom, if ever, descends into bombast or over-the-top aural assault, i.e. when Michaels solos, it’s with taste, discretion, even delicacy and grace, not blazing away with outrageous noodling and pyrotechnics. Plus, the keyboard players (Jim Gully on tracks 1-4 and John Melnick on the opus-length 44 minute closing track “One”) really know what the hell they are doing. Whether soaring through the air on smooth washes and pads, dropping in tasty moog solos, adding a dash of jazzy fusion here and there, sprinkling in classic spacemusic flourishes, percolating with quasi-Berlin textures and effects, or even adding some Asian flavors on “Jade Princess,” Gully and Melnick display both abundant talent and technical chops aplenty. Michaels is no slouch either, exhibiting self-control (as mentioned above) but also stepping out and strutting his stuff via power chords, nimble licks, soaring textural lead lines, and various permutations of musical sounds on his electric guitar.

Track length varies widely. The opening thirteen minute-plus “Senor Wences” is followed by “Lamb Chop” (5:44), “Chucky” (2:23), “Jade Princess” (6:01) and “Hitch Hiker on Venus” (3:56), then wrapping things up with the aforementioned gargantuan “One” which clocks in at 43:46! “Senor Wences” has a mysterious air to it, accented by twinkling synths and low-key but still fiery electric guitar lines and eventually evolves into flowing washes over a bed of percussive beats peppered with Frippertonic-like notes. “Lamb Chop” is kinda playful and giddy with a non-stop cavalcade of lead lines and tone-like (almost kalimba-ish) keyboards. “Jade Princess” has that subtle but unmistakable Asian influence, although the stinging guitar solos undercut the spicy flavor at times (too bad). It goes without saying that trying to accurately sum up, in words, the monstrously long “One” is pointless. Suffice it say that when Michaels describes Melnick (in the liner notes) as a “legendary Chicago session musician” it’s easy to see why he uses those words. This track should certainly hold appeal for retro-EM fans who enjoy guitar interlaced with tons of vintage synthesizers. Swinging from powerful to ethereal (the spacemusic bell tones that emerge at 8:00 are ultra-tasty) to psychedelic to somewhat semi-abstract and winding down to a hushed whisper, the track simply has to be heard to be believed.

Outer Worlds may be not my usual cup of tea, but I admit that listening to it on headphones makes it hard to resist its charms at times. As weird as it may sound, I actually enjoyed “One” the most of anything here. But the entire CD is recommendable if what I’ve described piques your interest.


Grönland Records (2008)
12 tracks: 49:33
Grade: A

Role reversal for the artists involved pays significant dividends on inlandish, the latest collaboration between ambient pioneer Hans-Joachim Roedelius and modern chamber minimalist Tim Story. These two have been mutual admirers for awhile now and the level of simpatico that weaves all through this CD is special indeed. As mentioned in the first sentence, the two swapped instruments this time around, with Roedelius contributing the simple uncluttered piano melodies/refrains and Story adding the quirky yet appealingly accessible electronic effects and textures. In addition, previous Story contributors Martha Reikow (cello) and Kimberly Bryden (oboe), as well as newcomer Bernadette Reiter (viola) also lend their considerable talents on assorted tracks.

Mood-wise, inlandish (for the most part) hews closely to the emotional resonance of Story’s Shadowplay, The Perfect Flaw and Beguiled but not always, as this review will delve into later. Frequently, when the music features percussive effects or unusual (for Story, that is) electronics, such as the chattering beats and eerie synths on “downrivers,” Roedelius’ piano keeps things firmly planted in a safe yet somber landscape. Still, not all is gloomy, either. The warm wavering flowing keyboards on “ripple and fade” are counter-balanced by sparse minimal piano and the track actually resembles some of Richard Bone’s quieter compositions. The short “rooftree” features graceful bell tones lazily bubbling on top of Reikow’s cello and Bryden’s oboe. Opening the album, “as it were” sways gently on accordion-like keyboards and pleasantly quavering washes, while the piano and cello dance elegantly above it. The repeated melodic tones on the title track are balanced by an assortment of abstract synth textures and swatches of fuzzy tones and the piano here anchors the overly electronic aspects so that the overall musicality of the cut doesn’t stray from the established norm of the CD. “serpentining” cruises along with electric circuitry hum and buzz crackling underneath piano and Glass Green-era synths.

Towards the end of the album, the mood morphs a bit into something less low-key with the more energetic piano-driven “riddled” with its peppy (even ragtime-ish) circular melody accented by various rhythmic effects as well as Reiter’s sole appearance on viola, which, through distortion, lends a subtle dash of dissonance to the proceedings. “beforst,” contains some semi-abstract retro synths/keyboards, again balanced by piano refrains which balance out the weirdness. Likewise, “house of glances” contains some skittering quavering electronic elements which I was not overly fond of but Bryden’s oboe and Roedelius’ piano show up just in time to soften the harshness.

While I haven’t yet decided if inlandish is in the same league as The Perfect Flaw or Beguiled, that’s no knock on it since I consider the former two releases to be among the very finest albums released in this genre. Speaking of which, I’m hard pressed to categorize this recording. I read in a press sheet which accompanied the CD that Roedelius thinks the term “ambient” doesn’t fit the CD well at all, and in essence, I agree. The overt electronics scattered throughout inlandish are certainly not contemporary classical in nature, but there’s the presence of cello, oboe and viola which do point in that direction. Still, I wouldn’t dare lump it into that genre, either. At times I was reminded of the neo-chamber minimalism of Beguiled and…Flaw, while at other moments, the more abstract elements brought Glass Green, Lunz (a previous Roedelius-Story effort) and Shadowplay to mind.

For now, it suffices to state that Story and Roedelius have combined their considerable talents to produce an emotionally rich, carefully nuanced, complex yet inviting blend of piano minimalism, neo-chamber string and wind instruments, and subtle unconventional electronic textures and effects, the result being a recording that invites both close inspection and/or casual listening. inlandish is, for lack of a better definition, intelligent introspective instrumentalism, a journey down hallways that alternate between the sun-streaked and the shadowy, a trip through lives both playfully innocent and those plagued by regret and melancholic remembrance. inlandish is a masterful album from two musical masters. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

CDs awaiting review

Okay, here are the ambient and electronica albums that I WILL be reviewing. Some of these may appear on a different site (other than this one or New Age Reporter...more info to follow when that site goes live). Also, this list doesn't include about 20 or so albums that I haven't properly listened to enough to decide if they will be reviewed or not. And it doesn't include any new age, acoustic instrumental, or world fusion albums, the list of which is actually longer than this one! I do hope to start putting up reviews this week.

DWIGHT ASHLEY: Watermelon Sugar
AUTISTICI: Volume Objects
BETWEEN INTERVAL: Autumn Continent
cyberCHUMP: Sankhara
DARSHAN AMBIENT: from pale hands to weary skies
DEOSIL: lucid dreaming
WILLIAM EDGE: Kaleidoscope
WILLIAM EDGE: Soundchamber
WILLIAM EDGE: Secret Diary
GEODESIUM: Hubble Vision 2
THE GLIMMER ROOM: now we are six
JIM GORDON: Escape Velocity Now
MAT JARVIS: gas0095
KEVOZ: Digital
MARK MAHONEY AND M PECK: The Gallery of Subtle Smiles
MEMORY GEIST: Funereal Cavern
MIKRONESIA: Iris Or Comfortable Too
NUMINA: Symbiotic Spaces
OZONE PLAYER: Orange Apples
CRAIG PADILLA: Below the Moutain
JEFF PEARCE: Rainshadow Sky
M PECK: Glacial
MARCONI UNION: A Lost Connection
MARKUS REUTER: Trepanation
RHIZOMORPH: Xenofilika
DARREN ROGERS: The Alternate Realms
JEFF SAMPSON: Outside Inner Space
SURFACE 10: Surface Tensions
TELOMERE: The Stellar Sea
V/A: Cosmik Chill Orange

Monday, September 1, 2008

An update on all those unwritten reviews since March

My writer's block (see earlier post on this blog) really clamped down on me after my last posted review and it's only barely lifting as summer ends, but I'm now going to force myself to write, regardless. The writing itself hasn't really gotten any easier so, as a result, expect my reviews to be considerably shorter than my usual length. My ambient and electronic music review backlog is around 50 CDs and everyone has been so patient that it's time for me to get something written about all these fine recordings, even if it's just a few hundred words, or even less. I can't believe I have albums that I placed on my best of 2007 list that I still haven't reviewed!

If you are an artist and are awaiting a review, please accept my sincere and abject apology as well as my appreciative thanks for waiting and not nagging me. If you're a fan of my reviews, provided I have any of those even left ;-) , look for new material in the coming week.

I will try to post a list later today of all the pending reviews so you (i.e. if you are artist and have submitted music to me) know if a review is still on the way.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

REVIEW: NELSON FOLTZ and TOM LYNN - Still Life Volume Three

Still Life Volume Three
Self-released (2007)
1 track, 43:43
Grade: A+

Nelson Foltz and Tom Lynn are the men behind the curtain for Still Life, a series of recordings of which this is Volume Three although actually the fourth in the series (there was a release entitled Interlude which came between Volume One and Volume Two). Sadly, this was the first one of the collection which I was fortunate enough to hear, although based on a little reading on the Internet, I gather they are all of a piece, even if they are dissimilar. Obviously, I thought highly enough of this album that I gave it a spot on my Best of 2008 listing, so you already know this review will be a rave.

Comprised of a single track nearly 44 minutes long, Still Life Volume Three (hereafter just Volume Three) moves patiently through several distinct movements, not unlike an ambient overture (although longer than your standard overture, obviously). What will most likely raise the eyebrows of some listeners is that no electronic instruments were used in making this music. Instead, found sounds (manipulated and altered through studio magic) and real instruments (notably trombone, played in a relaxed bluesy fashion) are melded, resulting in some of the most blissful yet somber and perhaps somewhat melancholic drone-type music I’ve heard in quite a while. In fact, this is one of those relatively rare ambient recordings that, as far as I’m concerned, you’re going to enjoy more by immersing yourself in, although when played in the background it exemplifies what makes ambient music, well, ambient (i.e. pleasantly ignorable but resonating with the listener on an unconscious level).

Volume Three is a quiet recording. Its charms may even sneak up on you. Things start off with a muted warm drone and soon other elements fade in gradually, musical tones with a reverberating quality, an occasional brief solo from the aforementioned trombone, and at about the two minute mark, the first emergence of a beat comes into play. It’s organic in nature, heartbeat-like, and fades away quickly but emerges more pronounced later on. What sounds like orchestral string samples lend an air of beauty and sadness, mixing with the innate bluesiness of the horn, both of these being balanced by the unmistakable ambience of the drones and textures so that it all coalesces into a deeply felt yet never overbearing or overpowering auditory sensation.

Later, when the heartbeat rhythm becomes more prevalent, a radar-like blooping echo shares center stage, pinging softly into the distance. It’s at this point that I realized what a masterpiece Foltz and Lynn had crafted. To make music this “subtly” beautiful, this organic in feel, yet also obviously displaying the engineering know-how of the 21st century, well, it’s mind-boggling, frankly. As I listened time after time, more background touches revealed themselves as layers of effects came and went, always adding something to the “whole.” There is no waste here, nothing is superfluous. Despite all the “stuff” going on, what it really sounds like is a single musical entity, hence why I refer to it as organic (that and the fluid nature to the tones and drones and textures).

The second half of the recording becomes more drifting, sometimes comparable to vintage spacemusic, featuring drones that are even warmer than the previous ones. The tones stretch out and change their sonic characteristics with near glacial patience. On their website, the artists use the terms “levitate” and “float” in describing this last passage and those are apt descriptors.

Throughout all its phases, Volume Three finds a way to introduce comfort and warmth in the music but never loses touch with the core ambient aesthetic. Foltz and Lynn have tapped into something very special on this disc. They have created an ambient music that resonates deeply with the listener but in a way that never really “points” to any emotion (i.e. the way dark ambient might elicit fear or foreboding). While I mention the terms somber and melancholic above, I’m using them to describe the music more than my reaction to it. If anything, this music pleases me to no end. I finish hearing it and feel content and at peace, yet intellectually stimulated and alert - quite the paradox. I can’t imagine any self-professed fan of ambient music who wouldn’t love this, unless that person so hated the occasional use of trombone that it would destroy any mood the music was attempting to establish in him/her. My highest recommendation.

REVIEW: MANITOU - All Points North

All Points North
Slo-Bor Media (2007)
19 tracks, 68:26
Grade: A

(I’ll preface this review by stating that I have no info on how the sounds on this CD were made, whether through guitar, keyboard, synth, or manipulated sound sources, so take my comments with some laxness as far as my interpretation of what I’m actually “hearing”)

Manitou’s All Points North finished in a three-way tie as Best Ambient Album of the Year on my list over at New Age Reporter, and for good reason. For me, this recording epitomizes what makes ambient music so appealing. While musically the content here is relatively sparse and minimal (comprised of mostly tones, drones, reverberations, and textural synth applications) there is great emotional depth at this CD’s core. If I was prone to pretentious puffery, I’d label it “truth.” Manitou’s inspiration are the artist’s physical surroundings, evidenced by track titles such as “Dirty Streets of Winter,” “Woodward Avenue Serenade,” “Snowy Night Riding the Peoplemover” and “Hart Plaza Rainstorm.” The music contains deep-rooted evocations of a gentle melancholy (not over-bearing but palpable), moments of calm resignation, the sensation of memories floating in and out of recognition, both happy and sad remembrances, and a gentle flow of somber warmth, all of which makes All Points North the stunner it is.

I can’t overstate how much I appreciate the artist’s decision to record “miniatures,” i.e. only one of the nineteen tracks clock in at over 4:31 and six are under three minutes long. While with some kinds of ambient music this might be interpreted as a lack of thematic development in the music, such is not the case here. In fact, I’ll hazard a guess that this is the artist’s intent, i.e. these pieces are meant to be mere “glimpses” or better yet, “snapshots.” As I wrote over at NAR, “Manitou's masterpiece of intimate minimalism features brief ambient sketches comprised of warm drones, tones and textures that ‘sounds like’ the emotions evoked by perusing the faded photograph album of a good friend.” These beautiful yet short tone poems are ambient musical “snapshots” of places and times that, for the artist, have personal meaning.

For the sake of those who need the music described, read on for details on selected tracks. “Dirty Streets of Winter” blends reverberating echoed whistling tones with an underlying soft bassy drone. “Just North of Eight Mile Road” has what sounds like echoed textural electric guitar set against slow arrhythmic effects with a crystalline quality. “Woodward Avenue Serenade” is a deep dense yet musical drone that ebbs and flows with a circular sensation. “Snowy Night Riding the Peoplemover” is darker but not oppressive and more like deep spacemusic in its long stretches of rumbling tone. “Listening to Classical Music, Sipping Tea on Your Veranda - Time Stood Still” blends looped synth strings with altered choral samples, while the singular lush/dense tone on “Things Are Different Now, but the Street Signs Haven’t Changed” undulates fluidly. The closing “Looking Up Grand River, From Here All Points North” layers several synth washes together, weaving a beautiful tapestry of autumnal evocation, overflowing with a profound sense of heartrending loss married to contemplative serenity.

Sadly, album packaging is a bit lackluster, although I may be in singular disagreement with most folks who enjoy the idiosyncratic methodology employed by the folks at SloBor Media. The relatively plain brown cardboard sleeve adorned with a barely discernible silver ink block print of something or other doesn’t begin to convey the beauty or emotional resonance of the music contained within. However, it is the music that counts after all. On that front, All Points North belongs in any drone or minimalist ambient fan’s collection. It’s a brilliant recording. I’ve played it at least ten times and it never fails to transport me away from whatever I am doing.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Writer's block!

I realize that there has been a real delay in my getting more reviews posted. I'm struggling with the worst case of writer's block I've ever had since I started writing reviews in 1997. Hopefully, I will "crack through" this wall soon. I have many excellent recordings to tell you all about. I've also submitted my "Best of 2007" lists to New Age Reporter and they should be posting that soon at their site. If I don't get through this bout of writus blockus soon, I will at least put some brief comments up here about the 20 or so albums that I am ready to write about.

Also, it appears that the Wind and Wire site may be down. If it doesn't come back by Sunday (Feb. 10th) sometime, I'll shoot an email to the nice person who hosts it on his server and ask him if there's a problem. In the meantime, I have revised the links page there and once I can upload it, it'll be more current (I deleted a lot of dead links). I'll also be re-tooling it by adding some as well.

Thanks for your patience as I plow my way through this creative obstruction. It's new for me, i.e. being at a loss for words (LOL). We have a terrible few days ahead here in Minneapolis (lows in the teens below zero Fahrenheit) so maybe I can stay warm in front ofthe PC typing away. Wish me luck!

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!