Thursday, November 9, 2023

REVIEW: ANN SWEETEN - Love Walks Through Rain


Love Walks Through Rain
Orange Band Records (2023)

Pianist Ann Sweeten’s composing and performing style is among the most unique and almost instantly recognizable among her contemporaries. Stretching back to her 1998 release, Passage, which reviewed in the printed version of Wind and Wire (of which I wrote “One soothing and beautiful song after another. Ann has a solid command of technique and rich melodic sensibility. She aims for your heart, and hits the mark every time.”), I have followed her recording career and have consistently been impressed by her heartfelt melodies married to a blend of somber reflection, somewhat melancholy remembrance, and warm friendliness. Another aspect of her recordings which are only known if you buy her albums in physical format (I assume) is her in-depth and highly personal liner notes which may be the unflinchingly honest in the instrumental/new age field. These liner notes serve to both enhance her music and, more importantly, invite the listener “inside” Sweeten as a living and breathing person.

Her latest album, Love Walks Through Rain, may be her most intensely personal yet (which is saying something). The songs reflect her personal trials of recent times including her medical issues and, more impactful if I interpret her notes correctly, the loss of her truly beloved dogs. However, with her usual artistry and talent, the album is not a walk through a funeral-type sorrowful soundscape, but instead a work evoking not just pain and sadness but also growth and healing.

Sweeten once again returned to work with the duo team of Will Ackerman and Tom Eaton at Imaginary Road Studios with Sweeten sharing production credits and Eaton manning the boards for engineering, mixing, and mastering. So, production quality is, obviously, flawless. Some of the IR usual suspects join in some tracks (see full list below) along with Nancy Rumbel on English Horn. Sweeten, as usual, does the heavy lifting and her fluid piano lead lines dominate the eleven tracks which is her style, and it serves her well. As mentioned above, while the overall tone of the music is somber, there is also the artist's characteristic melodic warmth. Sweeten may be one of the most romantic pianists recording these days, using romantic in a broader sense, i.e., not just referring to love. One aspect of Ann Sweeten's music that stands out and impresses is her lack of pretension without any trace of faux sentimentality or sensation of maudlin evocations. She is, for all intents and purposes, a true "wears her heart on her sleeve" musician.

While throughout her career, Sweeten has maintained a singular style, with variations mostly being limited to recording either with guest artists or solo or embellishing her songs with discrete application of synthesizer shadings, how she differentiates in successive albums is a refinement of both artistry and literal technique, honing her talent on each release to a finer degree in subtle but perceptible ways. Certainly, she has been through a lot in recent years, but if those trials have contributed to her music and given her even more impetus, well, then that is the silver lining to her grey cloud. Some people thrive on challenges and with Ann Sweeten, she has not just risen to the challenges of her life, but she continues onward despite them. To that I say "Bravo."

All songs composed and arranged by Ann Sweeten (a Steinway Artist)
Produced by Ann Sweeten, Will Ackerman, and Tom Eaton
Engineered, mixed, and mastered by Tom Eaton
Recorded at Imaginary Road Studios
Visual Artistic Director and Photography by Randy Yoder, RBY Photography, Salem, MA

Ann Sweeten: Steinway Baby Grand, Model B
Charlie Bisharat: Violin
Tom Eaton: Bass
Premik Russell Tubbs: EWI, Soprano saxophone
Eugene Friesen: Cello
Nancy Rumbel : English horn
Will Ackerman: Guitar


REVIEW: CHRISTINA TOURIN - Geodepédie – Hidden Light

Geodepédie – Hidden Light
Emerald Harp Productions

This is my first exposure to harpist Christina Tourin’s music (not that surprising, I suppose, since this is her first album since 2010). However, the warmth and intimacy of music is enveloping that after a few tracks, it felt like rediscovering a long-lost friend. Geodepédie – Hidden Light puts Tourin’s artistry and soulfulness front and center throughout the album’s sixteen songs, although there are noteworthy contributions scattered among the tracks from others (see below). The selections are culled from an assortment of Celtic, classical, and traditional tunes (all with the artist’s own arrangements, obviously). Tourin also composed some of the tracks (again, see below).

While the overarching theme and mood of the album is, as befitting the harp in most cases, serene and contemplative, every now and then a song emerges with a different mood, such as the subdued liveliness heard on “Icelandic Northern Lights,” where her harp dances playfully alongside Peter Sprague’s guitar). For the most part, though, this is an album for quieter times; however, not in a somber or darker fashion at all. The flow of positivity that permeates Geodepédie – Hidden Light is palpable. Near the end, she even migrates over into spacemusic territory with the longest track on the album, “As Above, So Below,” on which synths play a more prominent role.

Now and then, on the classical pieces, you will likely recognize the familiar refrain or two, e.g., “Grieg’s Morning Mood,” where her harp is expertly accompanied with subtly applied orchestral synths, mirroring when the piece is performed with an orchestra.

While there are some vocals (wordless) here and there (ably performed by Buvana Gerlach), this is a wholly instrumental album to my mind. As such, you can enjoy this as background accompaniment to gentle activities, meditation, daydreaming, or anything where the music can be heard either intently or as a soothing sonic backdrop.

As long-time readers know who have followed me for years, I am a giant fan of all sorts of harp music and I am pleased to include Christina Tourin among those whom I have heard and can solidly recommend.


Tracks are traditional/classical with arrangements by Christina Tourin except “Music Is Love,“ “Walk Through The Sunflowers,” “Reminisce,” “Amethyst Of Avalon,” “As Above, So Below,” and “Colors Of The Season.”

Produced by Christina Tourin

Engineered by Peter Sprague

Christina Tourin (harp)
Peter Sprague (guitar/synth)
David Eastoe (synth)
Suzanne Doucet (synth)
Buvana Gerlach (vocals)
Lies Joosten (harp on track 1)



While this is not literally Randal L. Meek’s debut recording, upon reading his biography, this review will treat it as such, since the recording and release of longings is the artist’s fulfillment of a long-held dream. In addition, again, even seeing as this is Meek’s second album, the level of talent, artistry, soulfulness, and emotion displayed throughout the CD’s thirteen tracks would mark it as a superb album even if it was his fourth, fifth or tenth. Simply put, longings is a magnificent recording and signals that Randal L. Meek already deserves a seat at the table with the best acoustic guitarists currently residing in the instrumental music genre. Hyperbole? Not from where I sit.

longings emerged from a profound loss in the artist’s life, that of his wife of many, many years, and that immense grief does flow through a few of the tracks, however, also present are evocations of peace, beauty, warmth, love, and acceptance. Having reviewed for as long as I have and knowing how powerful life turns (both joyous and sorrowful) can influence and inspire a musician, I am not surprised at the depth of emotion present throughout this album’s entirety. What did surprise me is, coming from a relative newbie, how effortless Meek seems to make it. This will sound horribly cliché, but it’s almost as if he was born to make this specific album from the day when he first picked up a guitar.

Technically speaking, since this is yet another in a seemingly endless stream of recordings emerging from Will Ackerman’s Imaginary Road Studios, and helmed by Ackerman and Tom Eaton, the production quality is flawless. longings deserves to be played through either high quality speakers or, at the least, studio-quality headphones.

While some of the IR “usual suspects” do make appearances on various tracks, I would be doing Meek a disservice if I didn’t state flatly this is his show. Having gotten to know Randal through many email exchanges, I have little doubt he would state the opposite, i.e., his guests are the ones who elevate his playing, and yes, they do contribute when they are featured, but Meek’s playing stands out as something so special that I would be remiss not to state that, for me, he is the main draw on the album. That said, Ackerman plays lead guitar on some songs, and I imagine that was a joint decision made by both Meek and Ackerman. That does not take away from Randal’s mastery, whether he is playing lead or Will is.

Some songs by their titles and their style indicate an obvious influence from where the artist lives permanently now, which is Hawaii, e.g. “Waves of Makena,” “Mo’olio Place,” and “Liliko’I” while others evoke some of the beauty of his former “home away from home” in Boulder, Colorado (Meek split his time between the two venues until recently), such as “Boulder Sunrise,” “Prairie Dog Sky,” “and “River Place.” Overall, the mood is absolutely laid back, sometimes wafting a bit more reflective with traces of somberness, while other times a gentle playfulness or feelings of peace and contentment are conveyed.

What shines brightly throughout all of longings is the spirit and soul of Randal L. Meek. His artistry permeates every note on the thirteen tracks and, as I mentioned earlier in this review, such self-assuredness is startling to hear from someone who, while not new to playing guitar, is a newcomer to releasing his work to the world. I can only hope he will favor us with a follow-up album, sooner rather than later.


All songs composed by Randal L. Meek
Album produced by Will Ackerman and Tom Eaton. Recorded at Imaginary Road Studios June 2021
Recording engineer: Tom Eaton

Randal L. Meek (guitar)
Will Ackerman (guitar)
Tom Eaton (piano and bass)
Charlie Bisharat (violin)
Eugene Friesen (cello)
Noah Wilding (vocals)






REVIEW: AeTopus - Urbus


PROLOGUE: Some instrumental artists inhabit a small niche (e.g., when compared to solo piano) that has no real defined label. Artists in this small group include Patrick O’Hearn, John Flomer, Jon Jenkins, David Helpling, and Bryan T. Hughes, who records as AeTopus. This sub-sub-genre belongs not purely to ambient, as it usually features strong melodic content as well as rhythms that seldom occur in Eno-esque ambient music. In addition, these artists’ music benefits from direct listening for maximum enjoyment which, for most devotees of ambient, is the opposite intention of the genre. While much of their music can be electronic in nature, it certainly doesn’t belong alongside the Berlin school, dub, glitch, or any other offshoots of electronic or ambient music. Likewise, the presence on most of their releases of dynamism rules out spacemusic as well. As a result, it’s an exercise in futility to classify these excellent musicians except to state that all of them make great music. Which brings us to the latest release from AeTopus (Bryan T. Hughes), Urbus

Throughout his career (so far) one of the aspects that has always appealed to me with Hughes’ music is an element of, fort lack of a better term, a mythic sense of power, drama, steeped in a flavor combining fantasy and science fiction. It’s difficult for me to specifically state “how” he does this. However, I always feel that when I listen to his albums, and Urbus underscores these sonic elements, that I am traveling to an unknown and unexplored soundscape . Maybe it’s how he combines subtle tribal percussive rhythms with shifting sands of keyboards and brilliant lead melodies. Maybe part of it is also his song titles themselves (e.g., “Sysisys,” “Zoan,” “Creacyon, “First Ones,” et al.) which could be read as indications of a civilization that exists beyond our norm, either meaning extra-terrestrial or perhaps in a parallel dimension. I don’t propose to define it, per se, but to appreciate its (i.e., the music’s) rare blend of otherworldliness with overt “pleasant” melodic sensibility. This is simply great music to dive into and explore every nook and cranny.

Hughes’ music is never dark in any traditional sense, and while there are subtle, barely discernible moments of what could be construed as playfulness, the overarching music themes are more drenched in mystery, fog, yet with no sensation of menace or threat. For comparison’s sake, one of the albums that Hughes music reminds me of is Robyn Miller’s brilliant soundtrack to the legendary computer game, Riven. So, you can surmise from that comment that Urbus could lend its sonic pleasures to flights of fantasy if one turned out the lights and had an active and visual imagination. Truthfully, I am surprised no one has put this music to videos of something similar to those which accompanied the first two “Mind’s Eye” videos (music by James Reynolds and Jan Hammer, respectively).

A lot of this review may strike you as painting AeTopus’ Urbus as overly cerebral, which is not wholly inaccurate, but all eight tracks are also visceral (i.e., “relating to deep inward feelings rather than to the intellect.”). Depending how deep you delve into Urbus, you can be merely aurally entertained or discover hidden pathways to something beyond the notes and melodies. I will leave that crossroads up to you, but regardless of which route you take, it’s going to be a delightful trip.



All tracks composed, performed, produced and arranged by Bryan T. Hughes
Mixing by Bill Simpkins at Alpenglow Sound Studios, Bellingham, WA
Mastered by Greg Reierson at Rare Form Mastering, Minneapolis, MN
Album color graphics by Amy Poliner


Spotted Peccary (2023)
AeTopus, a.k.a. Bryan T. Hughes, somewhat reinvents himself as he transitions from self-releasing his music to joining the star-studded label, Spotted Peccary. I believe that the (what for me are) subtle/not-so subtle changes were not brought about by the switch but instead represents an evolution in Hughes’ musical persona itself. When I posited this theory on his AeTopus Facebook page, i.e., asking if Cup represented a musical shift in his style, he replied "You are absolutely not a clueless nutball and, in fact, you are the first to express these ideas. I've really gotten into so-called 'IDM' over the past couple of years, and a lot of that glitchy detail and percussive unpredictability has apparently snuck into the sound. AeTopus seems to be evolving, and I'm really looking forward to your observations!' "
I have followed Hughes' career beginning back in 2002 with Memories of the Elder of which I wrote "Suffice it to say that Memories of the Elder explores darker territory than most modern day electronic keyboard music, but seldom, if ever, wanders over into floating ambient terrain or noir-ish scariness…What makes the work of AeTopus/Hughes so remarkable is how fresh all this sounds. There is no trace of faux sentimentality and no attempt to play it safe on this CD. While it's nothing if not accessible, it's also an exciting and different take on keyboard music that I never grew tired of, even when I played it back-to-back. I can't offer a stronger endorsement than that."
Over the next twenty years, Hughes continuously pushed both the genre's and his own personal envelope, but with Cup he has, at least somewhat, thrown away the old envelope and bought a new one. On this album, he explores some of the same stylings as on past work, i.e., meshing assorted EM and "melodic" ambient styles while also incorporating a more direct Berlin school influence at times, and adding glitch, IDM, and on some cuts, a distinctive retro electronic style from way back in the days of e.g., Michael Garrison, Patrick Gleeson, and other pioneers of synthesizer music. Explaining further, what I hear is not imitative or even directly influenced by these or other artists, because one thing that Hughes has always emphasized is his originality (see the prologue to my review of his previous album, Urbus, which is posted at the same time as this one).
Some of what was present on Urbus is either missing or subdued here and instead a somewhat darker and more fluid purer ambient/spacemusic sound surfaces here and there. I admit to missing some of his more mystical/tribal/mythic elements (as I stated in my Urbus review "For comparison’s sake, one of the albums that Hughes music reminds me of is Robyn Miller’s brilliant soundtrack to the legendary computer game, Riven. So, you can surmise from that comment that Urbus could lend its sonic pleasures to flights of fantasy if one turned out the lights and had an active and visual imagination."
Cup lends itself to the same visual imaging as his earlier work, but it's somehow different. The overt (IMO) presence of so many "call outs" in a more pronounced manner is, for me, a kind of trip down EM memory lane… e.g. I was reminded of the Groove Ultd artist Can Atilla at the four-minute mark of "Beam," and the bass-heavy techno-ish second half of "Access." On the other hand, the opening of "Clean Break" is vintage AeTopus with its ancient tribal rhythms matched with haunting snippets of melody played on some of his more usual characteristic keyboards (before incorporating a sound that, for me, reminds me what Daft Punk did on some tracks of their Tron: Legacy soundtrack.
Look, any creative artist worth his/her salt evolves over time unless they are stuck in a holding pattern of their design. Bryan T. Hughes never was "in a mold", so to speak, as his music, in and of itself, was always coloring outside the lines. Cup, though, showcases his willingness, maybe even his need, to roam farther afield than his other albums while still staying true to his core musical self. By bringing in new elements, his appeal can only broaden, except for those to whom change is anathema. I am not one of those people and I can only imagine that Hughes will have more up his sleeve in the years to come.
All tracks composed, performed, produced, and arranged by Bryan Tewell Hughes
Mixing by Bill Simpkins at Alpenglow Sound Studios, Bellingham, WA
Percussion on "Relic," "Glance," and "Sundial" performed by Mike Bajuk
Mastered by Howard Givens at Spotted Peccary Studios NW in Portland, OR
Album design by Daniel Pipitone at Spotted Peccary Studios NE in Ligonier, PA