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.