Saturday, December 29, 2012




John Lyell may not be one of the more prolific artists in the spacemusic/ambient genres (this is his fourth album in 14 years, the first two being recorded and released with former fellow musician Brent Reiland), but he sure has honed his craft in just those few albums. Eternity, his second solo release, is even better than 2006's Dimensions, which was already quite impressive. While some artists in these two genres are able to crank out albums faster than their legions of fans can gobble them up, an artist like Lyell takes his own sweet time to get it right – and that's what he does throughout Eternity's ten tracks.

Before delving into the details of the music, I just wanted to clarify that, while I can see categorizing this as ambient music, it's because the song titles almost all reference space or astronomical images that I would personally list this as spacemusic, first and foremost, and I don't mean the broader sense of the word as Stephen Hill uses it, but the more exacting definition of spacemusic which includes seminal artists such as Geodesium and Jonn Serrie. That's not to say that ambient fans would dislike this disc – far from it. I'm merely emphasizing that this is music ideally suited for stargazing, either the real thing or simply laying back in a dark room, envisioning cruising through the cosmos.

I mention Geodesium (Mark Pedersen) and Serrie above because I think Lyell's music is the perfect hybrid of the two, without being overtly imitative of either one. Like Geodesium, Lyell uses pulses, tones, and electronic textural notes (not drums, though) to establish a rhythm, usually a slow cruising one (some of Geodesium's music is quite frenetic in comparison), and like Serrie, he wields a variety of sweeping synth pads and washes to impart a sensation of the vast reaches of space. Also, like both of the spacemusic pioneers, Lyell believes in a "friendly" and warm space. This music is seldom, if ever, dark or intimidating, but it's also never syrupy (as some of Serrie's mid-period releases were, e.g. Midsummer Century and Lumia Nights) and is very rarely energizing, unlike a larger percentage of Geodesium's uptempo tracks on any one of his CDs. Instead, Lyell opts for a mellow, subtle feeling of movement, if any at all, or else just a mild drifting sensation (e.g. on the second track, aptly titled "Eternal Drift"). There is one "peppy" track here, "Pulse of Destiny," on which fast tempo bass synth rhythms pulse under a variety of spacy synth pads amidst some tres cool, decidedly retro, sounds and effects.

What appeals the most to me about Eternity (and Dimensions, for that matter) is how relatively uncomplicated the music is; it carries no hidden agendas, no pretentions, yet it's not" simple" either in the sounds used or the manner in which Lyell layers his various synths. Another winning element is how easy it is to get into this music. From the first playing – hell, from the first track – I was captivated and couldn't wait to listen to the whole CD. Part of this is because Lyell eschews the more normally long track durations (normal for the ambient and sometimes spacemusic genres). The longest song, "Whispering Light," clocks in at just under 8 minutes, two tracks are under 5 minutes and five are in the six minute range. One might think this would lead to discontinuity of theme, but owing to how Lyell sticks to what I would describe as his "formula," just the opposite is true. Eternity is more cohesive a listening experience than some of the previously mentioned artists' recordings are, which is not meant as a knock on them.

All ten tracks on Eternity prove to be solid additions to the spacemusic canon, but I will admit a
a particular fondness for the following: "Eternity" and its pinging pulses, whooshing synths, and haunting keyboard melodies, the gentle percolations of "Star Seeker" with flowing cosmic synths, high-pitched sonar bleeps, and underlying quasi-vibe tones, with a base melody that perfectly captures the essence of "spaciness," and the soft sighing of somewhat mournful wafts of melody on "Dreams of Orion" blended with sparse, somber deep but warm drones and occasional twinkling star showers.

While in today's music purchasing environment of downloads (as opposed to brick and mortar stores), a CD's appearance has much less impact on drumming up potential buyer interest, Eternity is also the best looking of Lyell's previous recordings, and he made some great font and layout choices as well (if only more artists had his aptitude for that!). However, let's face it, it's still the music that matters most, and in that regard, Eternity is fantastic and, while it's a blatant cliché to state this, I consider it an essential addition to the library of any spacemusic fan. As one final inducement to pique your interest, the disc was mastered by Robert Rich at his Soundscape Studios, so you just know it's gonna sound killer on headphones.

The album is available from Amazon, iTunes, or CDBaby.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

REVIEW: KEVIN KELLER - the day I met myself

the day I met myself
Kevin Keller Productions (2012)

It's difficult, to say the least, to capture in words my reaction to Kevin Keller's masterful recording, the day I met myself. Part of this dilemma is that I have far less experience reviewing contemporary classical music, which this likely will resemble for many readers of my reviews (and likely is best categorized as such). The other aspect, though, is the same reaction I had to Kevin Keller's (and his ensemble) earlier work, in absentia. This is intensely emotional, personal, and intimate music, not easily deconstructed into components or interpreted into analogies or metaphors. The sheer weight of the music, its gravitas if you will, is staggering if one really delves into it. It's perhaps like investing oneself in therapy (which I have done). Traveling the road that the day I met myself lays out for the listener is a journey that is at once scary and rewarding. On the other hand, from a more superficial perspective, i.e. on the mere surface, the music itself is so beautiful, so lovely, so intriguing that even a casual listen will likely draw a person into an uncommon listening experience.

As on in absentia, Keller is once again joined by his ensemble, although this time minus percussionist Tomm Roland. Present on the CD are Christa Robinson (oboe, English horn), Courtney Orlando (violin), John Pickford Richards (viola), and Clarice Jensen (cello). Keller plays celesta as well as piano. Every accompanist plays an important role, albeit their relative impact varies track to track.

Every one of the ten pieces has a single word title, addressing a state of mind or a state of being. Musical mood and tempo vary, although if one were to listen to the entire album in one sitting, the variation would be less obvious unless one intentionally listened for it. This cohesiveness is difficult to concretize but easy to absorb. There is no overriding "theme," but instead a trip through a cavalcade of emotional expression and musical motifs. "Innocence" has an air of melancholy to it, presenting a paradox to the usual titular aspect of joyfulness and exploration. "Unfolding" carries a hint of excitation and enthusiasm, albeit tinted by the inclusion of minor key notes which leans the impact in the direction of subtly unsettling. Keller's celesta tones, in particular, stand out, counterpointing the oboe and plucked strings. "Evanescence" is a more emotionally neutral track, on which Keller's piano and the ensemble play as a unit more than on other selections – it’s one of the more straightforward chamber-esque pieces here. "Searching" (one of favorites on this disc) conveys the titular reference through a rhythmic theme carried by plucked strings as well as a sense of urgency via Keller's piano. However, what makes this track so interesting is the slightly macabre cast it has, almost gothic at times. The piano refrain makes me think of walking down shadowed hallways in a deserted mansion, where furniture is draped with dust-layered sheets. It's this incredibly rich imagistic component of Keller's music that makes the day I met myself so rewarding a listen (well, that and the considerable performing talent of Keller and his ensemble members, of course).

"Remembering" will evoke comparison to Mychael Danna and Tim Story for fans of those two artists – the selection shares a tragically sad minimalism with those two, especially with the repeated string refrain set against the piano. "Beckoning" opens in an almost ethereal mood, but soon veers into somberness and even mournfulness. While the mood is downcast, the music itself is so achingly beautiful that this juxtaposition may pose the question "How does one come to 'love' music that is so rife with pensiveness?" Yet, that is the ultimate riddle of the day I myself.

I have not done my usual adequate job of properly describing the music on this CD, which is what I try to do in my reviews. As I stated earlier, the day I met myself is beyond mere written description. It's probably obvious that unless you at least tolerate (and better yet, enjoy) classical music, you may not warm to this CD as I have. There are no synths here, and the intent to create a chamber music-like aesthetic is easily apparent. However, what Keller is doing with his music transcends the conventions of classical and chamber music (and that is not meant to belittle either genre). Keller is digging deep into the human experience on this album. It's beautiful and also somewhat intimidating, in the sense that if you open up to this music, and allow it to penetrate you, if you give yourself over to it (in the words of "V" from V for Vendetta, if you "commit to it"), listening to the CD will be a revelatory experience. And if that isn't enough of an endorsement for a recording, I don’t know what is. 

Sound clips available here. The CD is available for purchase at iTunes, the artist's website, Amazon.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

REVIEW: This Mortal Night - This Mortal Night

This Mortal Night
This Mortal Night
Download release only
Release date: 10/21/12

I fully admit to being an old-school person when it comes to recorded music, i.e. I cut my teeth on buying LPs at underground record stores in the late '60s and early '70s. Because of this, I am not up to date on the plethora of ambient netlabels out there, many of which I believe are releasing some excellent music. I only wish my limited time could be spent scouring the limits of the World Wide Web looking for gems such as the one I am reviewing now, the debut from This Mortal Night on the netlabel Katabaz records. The label queried me about this release and I thank my lucky stars I clicked on the link in the email.

This Mortal Night is an anonymous one-person "band" (according to the label) who, when I asked for further info, replied with "…we prefer not to give personal info (name, country), essentially because our music is based on imagination, fantasy and evocative atmosphere... and, of course, we are just a bunch of normal people so we don't really want to show what's going on "behind the magician curtain" if you know what I mean." Which I think is fair enough.

Instrumentation on the album consists of piano, synths, and some field recordings. The "tags" on the album page on bandcamp run the gamut: "ambient," "electronic," "dark ambient," "black metal" and even "dungeon synth" and "hell." If I had read those tags without streaming the music, I would've expected to hate this recording. While this certainly fits under the ambient banner and perhaps to some degree under the dark ambient one as well, the eight tracks are less "dark" than some might interpret the word, and instead might be classified more as atmospheric, moody, somber, with some elements of tragic melancholy (a la Tim Story, Mychael Danna or Jeff Greinke – his more recent works). The piano plays a lead role in much of the music, with an emphasis on minor notes and chords, but synths certainly contribute at times.

The first track, "Moan of the Winter Wind," starts off with, what else, wind, punctuated by mournful piano notes and a reverberating tone that has an eerie element to it (it sounds like a twangy guitar with a lot of reverb). This is probably the "darkest" song on the album, but it's more creepy and scary in a walking-through-a-graveyard-at-night way than a bottomless-pit-of-despair way which a lot of what I would label dark ambient tends to sound like to me. "My Cold and Beautiful Nights" strips away to just minimal piano, drenched in sustain/reverb, so that the notes overlap link ripples in water. A smattering of textural synth effects add some sepia tone to the sorrowful, melancholy of the piano, and on this track comparisons to Danna's recordings such as skys or North of Niagara would be accurate. "Echoes of Long Ago" bumps up the contributions from synthesizers while still having the piano a featured player. Classic retro synth chords underlie the piano while metallic-sounding noises float above the proceedings. "Field and Stream" is positively light by comparison to "Moan of the Winter Wind," as the reverbed piano melody has a warmish tint to it. Crickets open "Midnight Lake" and the mood is tranquil, as if one were sitting down by a dock off of the titular lake, watching the moon reflected on the blackness of the water, serenaded by the sounds of the night. A brushing of ethereal synths adds the perfect amount of ambient atmosphere. At just 1:43 in duration, the track is way too short (but then, the sure sign of good music is that it leaves the audience wanting more, yes?). "A Dark Sinister" opens with female chorals that are more angelic than sinister, although not in a syrupy way. Mournful synth horns and high pitched tones merge with the chorals which come and go from background to foreground and back again. The way the various synths are layered on this track is impressive (I'm listening on headphones and the mix is perfectly amorphous as it should be, i.e. the sounds all coalesce to surround you rather than being placed at unique positions in the soundfield). The last two tracks are "The Great White Hollow," which is another solemn piano tone poem with an emotionally neutral evocation, less impactful than the other tracks on the album and, as a result, it suffers somewhat by comparison, and "Those Were The Nights" on which the sound of wind and sparkling bell tones reminds me of Jeff Greinke's recent beautiful minimalism.

This Mortal Night (the album) flits between darkish creepiness, atmospheric pensiveness, and soothing calmness, but these mood swings are bathed in the unifying aspect of the piano's presence on most tracks as well as a general pervasive feeling of gentle melancholy occasionally tinted with unease on one end and somber reflection on the other. I know all too well that characterizing an ambient song as "beautiful" or, even worse, "pretty" is the kiss of death, but some of the tracks here are just that, e.g. "Midnight Lake." Finally, the cover image, a black and white ink drawing of a lonely, hooded figure, walking in the dead of night against a driving rain storm in a rural landscape, perfectly captures the mood of this solidly recommended album.

Look, folks, Katabaz is only charging as little as 2 bucks for this recording (or you can pay more if you like). If you enjoy Tim Story, Jeff Greinke, Mychael Danna, or similar artists, you won't be sorry you plunked down your money on This Mortal Night. I think it's a real find, personally, and I certainly hope to hear a lot more from the artist and the new netlabel in the future.

Sound clips and download purchase info here.

Friday, November 9, 2012

REVIEW: Cindy Horstman and Michael Medina - Duets

SeaHorse Records (2012)

It's hard to believe that the fantastic music on Duets comes from only two instruments and that those two instruments are seldom heard in a duet setting. However, when electric harpist Cindy Horstman and electric bassist Michael Medina play together, the results are immensely accessible, warmly engaging, and hugely entertaining. This is the first CD by the duo since their 1997 release Tutone and I sincerely hope it won't be as long a wait for the next one (granted, Cindy and Michael released other albums during that gap which featured guest artists, all of which come recommended by yours truly). I have been a big fan of Horstman and Medina since that 1997 release, but even I was caught by surprise at the sheer excellence of their latest effort. Duets is one of the most likable discs I have heard in 2012, period.

While only two of the ten tracks on the CD are originals, of the remaining "standards" that the pair have chosen to record, only three are what I might label as "expected" (the inclusion of "America the Beautiful" as the concluding track, while the song itself is a classic, it's certainly not heard on many albums – at least the ones I am sent to review). Those three more recognizable ones are "Scarborough Fair," "The Water is Wide," and "Danny Boy." Horstman's and Medina's great taste in picking the other selections is quite impressive.

Starting right out of the gate with something unexpected, Medina takes the lead melody on the duo's interpretation of the Earth, Wind and Fire hit, "That's the Way of the World." The two artists give the famous song a laid back yet jazzy spin, and uncover the optimistic, uplifting "guts" of the song's lyrical message without having to include vocals. The next track is "My One and Only Love," a soft, romantic, ballad that smolders gently so that the passion of the piece is closer to a low and steady burn than a red hot love affair. It would make a great slow dance tune, and I can almost envision the setting – a dimly lit cocktail lounge high above a metropolis where the tinkling of ice in glasses dissolves into the background as you and your paramour gently weave your way across the dance floor to the mellow notes from the bass and harp. Man, I wish I was in that scene!

Horstman's harp takes over the lead duties on "Scarborough Fair" which drapes the melancholy nature of the song with a slight jazz accent without sacrificing the emotional weight of the composition. Cindy's fingers flit effortlessly across the strings – she is such a talented harpist and her playing style is unlike any others on this instrument (of those who I have reviewed over the years). "Septembro" (which is sometimes subtitled "Brazilian Wedding Song") was made most famous by Quincy Jones and here Medina returns to the lead. His slow bass notes take this tune into the same gentle, romantic vein as "My One and Only Love" but it has an even softer and more romantic feel to it than the former track. Midway through the song, he spins off into a slightly more edgy, overtly jazzy direction, but Horstman keeps the song grounded in a slow tempo groove through her sedate yet oh-so-pretty accompaniment. "Remembering" is one of the two originals on the disc, this one composed by Horstman, who takes over on lead (Medina's bass is barely there at times, providing sparse rhythms underneath the melody). As the title would suggest, the piece is reflective and introspective – it's one of my favorites on the album.

The remaining tracks include a nice rendering of the hymn "The Water is Wide" which maintains the heartfelt nature of the song while infusing it with extremely subtle jazziness, a splendid take on the tried-and-true "Danny Boy," capturing both the heartache and the beauty of that traditional Irish song, and the other original (co-written by both the artists), "Bonnie Brae" on which the artists liven up the proceedings – not a lot, though, just a smidgen.

I can't sing the praises of this CD enough. It's a sheer joy to listen to Cindy Horstman and Michael Medina, two artists at the top of their game throughout Duets. The album mines a unique sonic landscape, i.e. a place where soft (not smooth) jazz, folk, and pop music meet and come together. There is nary a misstep on this album (yes, even "America the Beautiful" sounds great!). Duets is ideal late-night listening, especially for hopeless romantics like this reviewer. So gather your honey to your side, pour two glasses of wine (or whichever libation you enjoy), light some candles, queue up the CD or mp3 player and commence cuddling. You can thank me in the morning! 

The CD/download is available at CDBaby, Amazon, and iTunes. Listen to samples at Cindy Horstman's website.