Saturday, December 23, 2023

REVIEW: ANN LICATER - Between the Stars

Between The Stars
Cul de Sac Mystic Productions

This is flutist Ann Licater’s seventh album and, as if it needs stating, she deservedly sits with the best flutists in the New Age Music genre, and it becomes more apparent with each successive release. Between the Stars is sub-titled “flute passages for meditation and inspiration” and that is 100 percent on the money in encapsulating what these fourteen tracks excel at for every minute of playing time.

One thing worth mentioning is that, unlike other meditative/relaxation albums, the album’s tracks never run past five minutes and most are considerably shorter (the longest is 4:51 and the shortest is 2:15). Now, for some, this may seem out of character for this subgenre of music, but personally, I loved the shorter track duration as it allowed Licater to criscross between her assortment of flutes (see details below) and their different “voices” which really added to my enjoyment. I felt like she was taking me on a voyage of discovery of different flute heritages which I found delightful. Even with the short track times, the album is completely cohesive and it should prove ideal for not just meditation but also massage, bodywork, or purposeful reflection. The transition from one flute to another is handled with adroitness and I myself never experienced a disruption of the soothing, calming mood whenever I listened to Between the Stars.

Licater is joined by multi-instrumentalist Ivar Lunde, Jr. (see details below) and he provides perfect accompaniment (and I do mean perfect as whatever instrument he performs on, it blends seamlessly with her flutes). As for Licater, it wasn’t until I read the liner notes that I discovered she played piano on two tracks and she displays an uncommon naturalness using a sparse approach to notes from the piano. Just the right amount of melody from the keyboard to accompany the lead flute on the two songs in question.

Every single song on Between the Stars is a gem, and while the mood between tracks can shift subtly, the overall effect of these instrumentals is pure relaxation and stress relief. That said, under attentive (as opposed to background) listening, the excellent recording quality is revealed as well as the attention to nuance for both Licater’s flutes and Lunde’s assorted background accompaniment. If you enjoy relaxing flute music, this album is a must have.

Note that Ann also has traveled widely giving performances, workshops, and basically revealing the healing effects of the assorted flutes in her repertoire and guiding people all over the world to a more centered and healthy way of life.

Executive producer: Ann Licater
Album produced by Ann Licater and Ivar Lunde, Jr.
All songs composed by Ann Licater
Recorded, mixed, and mastered by Ivar Lunde, Jr. at Skyline Studios, Eau Claire, WI

Ann Licater: Alto flute, folk flute, Mayan-style drone flute, Native American flute, Native American-style flute, Ocarina, Silver C flute, piano
Ivar Lunde, Jr. : Frame drum, acoustic bass, guitar, synthesizer


QDV Music

One thing any casual observer of new age/contemporary instrumental music can state with certainty is that multi-instrumentalist David Arkenstone is both prolific and versatile and he has proven this over four decades of recordings starting with 1987’s Valley in the Clouds. One can merely read some of the dozens of album titles to glean how he is a master of multiple sub-genres, styles, and influences. Whether It’s any of his classic new age releases, his chill-out albums, or his ambient, or his orchestral, or take your pick of others. I went to his Wikipedia discography page (seriously, his discography is so extensive, it gets its own Wikipedia page)  and I gave up counting when I got to 70 albums since his debut.

What does all this have to do my review of his newest album (well, until a month or so from now, it seems, LOL), Winterlude? Well, if I am being honest, with his worldwide success and God knows how many accolades from fans and the press alike, my review seems a bit unnecessary. But, after only getting through half of Winterlude, I wanted to sing its praises, as redundant as that might seem.

Truthfully, the Arkenstone album that made me realize his genius (yeah, I went there) was 2002’s Sketches from an American Journey, especially the tracks on which he plays with a full orchestra and the tracks have an overt Aaron Coland sound to them (those songs are “Full Sail” and “The American Journey”). I consider both these tracks would be in the new age/contemporary instrumental music Hall of Fame, if such a thing existed. This ties into my reaction when I first listened to Winterlude, i.e., I was astounded at how Arkenstone, as performer, composer, and arranger (uncredited) navigates these gorgeous “wintery” soundscapes without resorting to any traditional holiday cliches. Only a few artists (that I am aware of) have made non-holiday winter-themed albums (two that come to mind are Kevin Kendle’s Winter and Shirley Cason’s Winter Mornings).

Since only one guest artist is mentioned in the liner notes (cellist Carlyn Kessler), it’s safe to credit everything else to Arkenstone, which brings up yet another one of the artist’s talents, namely his adroitness, skill, and artistry on a vast array of keyboards. You’ll witness it right away on the lovely album opener, “warm lights flicker across the lake,” and yes, the images conjured by the beguiling melody can evoke exactly that image; well, for me it did. Throughout the remaining nine tracks, Arkenstone takes the listener on somber yet beautiful soundscapes, sometimes bordering on melancholy (“the icy brook finds its way”) and other times delicately beautiful (“kisses from the falling snow”). As mentioned above, he also amply displays his versatility, such as the floating ambience/spacemusic-esque “the world sleeps,” or the propulsive drama of “darkening skies.” No matter what colors he paints with, David Arkenstone creates one mini-masterpiece after the other. The best part of Winterlude is that its appeal will not fade after New Year’s Day but last well through, well, winter (and, to be honest, likely be year round for his legion of fans).

Album composed performed and produced by David Arkenstone
Recorded at the Bamboo Room, Arroyo Grande, CA and RUSK Studios, Hollywood, CA
Mixed and mastered by Jill Tengan

Guest artist: Carlyn Kessler on solo cello

Friday, December 22, 2023



Welcome Winter
Vineyard Music Productions

Welcome Winter, from guitarist Bryan Lubeck, injects some subtle jazz liveliness into a few traditional holiday/Christmas classics (and one original) but leaving the essence of these carols intact and all their familiarity easily discernible. That is no small feat as many recordings that “liven up the proceedings” do so to a degree that purists, such as this reviewer, grow weary of shortly. That is not the case here, whether it’s Bryan’s stellar guitar work or his guest artists (see full details below). Not every track receives this treatment, but when Lubeck and company do spice things up, such as on the opening “Deck The Halls” it works…oh yes, it works!

I’d like to compliment Lubeck and all his (many) guest artists, each one doing a bang-up job when they are featured in a song. Also worth mentioning are Lubeck's and Ryan Herma's arrangements, which are where the album truly shines.

While Lubeck’s guitar takes the lead melody, many of the other players get their turn in the spotlight, e.g., the violin on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” (sadly, there are three violinists listed so I can’t pinpoint which one is on this track), or Eric Salazar’s superb mellow clarinet on “The Christmas Song” (one of the more laid back carols, and fittingly so). “Jingle Bells” is anchored by solid trap kit drumming as it bounces merrily along, as well as wonderful vibraphone play by Joel Norman and great violin work too. “Carol of the Bells” has the more appropriate somber evocation even if the tempo is upped a bit and the dulcimer and flute accompaniment (by Ted Yoder and Nick Bisesi, respectively) also feature prominently. The sole original tune here is the title track and, obviously, it’s difficult to say that a new song (as opposed to an ages-old classic) sounds “seasonal” or “Christmasy,” but the song’s relaxed and reflective main melody fits in perfectly with the surrounding traditional carols. For me, it does a great job of matching the gorgeous cover artwork, i.e., perhaps it’s the soundtrack to returning home for the holidays.

All in all, Welcome Winter would make a most worthy addition to any instrumental music lover’s holiday collection. As Lubeck states in the liner notes, the album “…harkens back to growing up listening to the artists on the Windham Hill instrumental record label with a fresh perspective on those memories.” He pretty much nails it with that description. And I concur that more than once I fondly recalled listening to some of that label’s holiday offerings while listening to this album. I imagine its too late to purchase the CD in time for playing it on Christmas Eve, but I strongly recommend you either download it or stream it, especially during festive gatherings, although it would just as great listening to it by oneself in front of the glow of Christmas tree lights.

All songs are traditional except “Welcome Winter” which is composed by Bryan Lubeck
Album produced by Ryan Herma
Mixed and mastered by Marc Nelson
Primary engineer: Ryan Herma
Song arrangements: Bryan Lubeck and Ryan Herma
String arrangements: Ryan Herma and Erik Rumsa

Lead guitar: Bryan Lubeck
Rhythm guitar: Bryan Lubeck and Ryan Herma
Flute: Nick Biesi
Violins: Erik Rumsa, Katherine Hughes, Lewis Hul Stahl
Cello: Matthew Agnew
Dulcimer: Ted Yoder
Vibraphone: Joel Norman
Percussion: Luke Ratley and Nate Lacny
Bass: Jon Paul
Melodica: John Erickson
Clarinet: Eric Salazar
Piano: Neil Artwick
Mandolin: Don Stiernberg and Ry Herma

Album design: Travis Raysten
Photographer: Richard Hellyer


Into The Quiet
Spotted Peccary Music

The second collaboration between Deborah Martin and Jill Haley represents the fulfillment of the promise of their earlier release, The Silence of Grace, although it’s also a marked departure from it. Into The Quiet is one of the purest blends of acoustic and electronic ambience I’ve heard in a long time. The first time I played it, I realized how special this hybrid of chamber music aesthetic, pastoral elegance, and soothing fluid atmospheres was. Look up the word sublime in a dictionary and you might see the cover of this album. Admittedly, I have praised both Martin and Haley many times over the years, especially with Deborah as far back as the late ‘90s when I reviewed her Spotted Peccary debut, Under the Moon, so it shouldn’t have surprised me that Into the Quiet would be outstanding. After all, the duo’s previous release, The Silence of Grace, elicited praise from me (“I hope that The Silence of Grace finds the huge and appreciative audience it deserves. To say I was blown away by this collaboration between two artists whose careers I have followed for years…”). However, even as well-traveled a reviewer as I am, I was shocked at the sheer beauty of this album as it unfolded with a flowing sense of serenity to which many aspire, but few achieve.

Concretely describing ambient releases like this album can be incredibly difficult if one wants to paint an accurate “written” picture of the music itself. So, this review may be less detail-oriented than some of my others. Into The Quiet presents a lush, gorgeous, and meticulously recorded/produced series of soundscapes that, as mentioned earlier, I feel are pastoral in nature, contemplative in emotional response, and neutral in mood, i.e., neither dark nor bright or cheery.

Instrument credits are not separated between the two, but I think it’s obvious that Haley is playing the oboe and English horn, while Martin plays concert flute, and Taos drum. As far as percussion, it’s anyone’s guess. And synthesizers and electronics are firmly rooted in Martin’s wheelhouse, I’d wager. Haley’s woodwinds carry the bulk of the melodies except when Martin’s flute takes the helm. However, Martin’s creative, artistic, and technically perfect use of the synths/electronic textures and effects are exceptional. Into The Quiet is one of those perfect symbiotic recordings that only happen now and then (another much older example is the landmark album, Soma, from Steve Roach and Robert Rich). The way the oboe/English horn and synths intertwine is nothing less than musical magic.

In some ways, Into The Quiet also represents a brilliant mixture of the cerebral and the sensual (in a non-sexual context). The album also excels at creating a wonderful day-dreaming/self-reflective atmosphere, instilling an almost tangible sensation of floating through a variety of both natural and surreal landscapes. The song titles alone indicate the beauty that lies within these digital “grooves” such as “Falling Away From The Earth,” “Refuge,” “Hall of Whispers,” and “Violet Night.” Granted, finding a great title for a song does not automatically mean the song will be as great, but on Into The Quiet, title and song each merit the other.

I can’t go into concrete song-by-song details without resorting to several thousand words and even then, my words could never do justice to these remarkable songs. But, to sum up, this is the pinnacle of warm flowing ambient music; it washes over you like a soft breeze, leaving you content and at peace even in these turbulent times. It’s a landmark recording for both artists, as well as for the Spotted Peccary label.

All music composed and performed by Deborah Martin and Jill Haley
Arrangements by Deborah Martin
Produced and recorded by Deborah Martin at Dreaming Edge Studios, Vancouver, WA
Album mixed by Deborah Martin and Matthew Stewart
Album mastered by Howard Givens at Spotted Peccary Studio NW, Portland, OR
Album design by Daniel Pipitone at Spotted Peccary Studio NE, Ligonier, PA

Oboe, English horn, concert flute, Taos drums, various percussion

Yamaha Motif, Roland V-synth, T Roland Integra, Spectrasonics Omnisphere