by Paul Ashby
The holidays: a time to reflect with family, enjoy cozy nights indoors with blustery weather beating at the door, imbibe festive drink and hearty seasonal fare, celebrate surviving yet another year, endure exploitative ads and other craven commercialization, and fight insane traffic and all manner of undue sensory bombardment.
‘Tis the season! But where can one turn when one has had enough? O brothers and sisters: I believe I glimpse the ghost of Christmas adult-beverage present over there next to the hi-fi, feebly waving its hands in the air. And as it is, so it shall be. These are, to my jingle-weary ear, key 2014 releases that enable travel to a temporary oasis far from the year-end chaos. Please pour yourself a festive drink and join me, won’t you?
Since the Kranky and Erased Tapes labels pop up repeatedly among the following paragraphs (Have Yourself A Kranky Little Christmas?), consider this an acknowledgment that:
1) I work for a music distributor that sells these and other titles on the labels to stores and directly to consumers, and
2) I am, evidently, not above some occasional craven commercialization my own bad self.
As my friends in Hollywood (of which I have none) would tell you, it’s not a conflict of interest. It’s synergy.
A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Atomos (2xLP) (Kranky/Erased Tapes)
AWVFTS’s 2011 self-titled debut was majestically understated, but it still had some, y’know, songs. Morose, maybe, melancholy, definitely, but recognizable melodies. The 2014 followup, Atomos has moods and atmospheres (mainly permeated with shifting gradations of ozone-infused haze) … but there’s not much going on that might transport you to the realm of the hummable.
And that’s okay. More than okay.
More than okay as in this-is-my-favorite-album-of-2014.
The progressive dearth of traditional song structure likely has something to do with the fact that Atomos contains music from the score to Wayne MacGregor’s choreography for the dance performance by the same name. That choreography was inspired by the molecular, considering the name of the piece. And due to the dance aspect, there’s also a not-inconsiderable visual element to the music’s inspiration.
But this album works just dandy on its own. Take “Atomos VII,” for instance. If you’ve heard a better piece of gravity-defying, classically-inspired music this year, well…just keep it to yourself, okay?
(There’s an extended live version of this song on YouTube, however, apparent PA problems introduce some rude static at some of the most inappropriate times).
And, for those of you who prefer a bit more ozone in the monitors, there’s this Ben Frost remix:
AWVFTS’s reliance on effects processing varies from stratospheric to sub-surface; often there’s an underwater feel to the doppler-like distortion. So if there actually is a molecular facet to Atomos, H20 (along with helium) is definitely an elemental player. Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic seems to carry some weight here.
Live, A Winged Victory for the Sullen pulls this off with a three- or four-piece string section, a piano, a synth or two, and a lot of volume-pedal’d/heavily effected electric guitar. The grainy wheeze of a sampled harmonium merges with cellos and violins. The odd arpeggiated synth wends a staccato path through echoing strings. The beatless pace rarely passes larghissimo, the bass-dominated crescendoes swell and bloom, the drones take you to where you need to be (and, sometimes, beyond), and reverb washes everything to divinely baptismal degrees. People walk out of their concerts with tears running down their slack jaws. Whoa.
It’s what passes for a good time, Winged-Victory-style.
DDD/AAD/ADD SPARS-code trainspotters should take note that the tour press release states “all songs were processed completely analogue straight to magnetic tape.” So it could be safe to assume the vinyl of Atomos is an AAA release — in more ways than one. And the Erased Tapes label sells 24/96 WAVs of Atomos. Life is good.
Janet Feder + Paul Fowler, Leavings (FLAC)
Boulder, CO resident Feder is joined by Paul Fowler on this film score. Apparently a bunch of the music here didn’t actually find its way to the film in question, so I’m especially curious about what visuals might have inspired this thang. Janet is the low-key superstar of the prepared acoustic guitar, and Leavings displays her talents as much as all her other wonderful releases. Fowler’s keyboard and piano perfectly complement Feder’s minimalist style, and this unassuming digital-only release is a lovely, quiet storm.
There are some percussive pieces whose tone reminds me a little of a more sedate Steve Tibbetts (sedate or no, never a bad thing) and there’s also some more outside avant-guitar excursions (“Fighting Fire”). The banjo-centered songs have a Bruce Langhorne/Hired Hand vibe — if anything can help redeem the banjo, it’s Feder’s tasteful flavor of non-Deliverance delivery.
Christina Vantzou, No2, (LP) (Kranky)
Nº2 is filmmaker/composer Vantzou’s second album for the Kranky label. I imagine paid professional describers might tag this post-classical, or neoclassical, or even modern chamber music. There are strings, synths, and, sometimes, sampled vocals. All but one of the songs on No2 was produced by Adam Wiltzie, one half of A Winged Victory For the Sullen and Stars of the Lid.
This isn’t an album with a great deal of what you’d call momentum. Or, rather, the momentum here isn’t exactly going to pin your ears back. The pacing of the tracks on No2 is moderately…glacial. But the songs are memorable, perhaps in a deja-vu kind of way. After listening to this album a couple times, melodies and motifs begin to emerge and lodge themselves into your brain.
And since these reviews seem to have some sort of visual-element trend: another bonus with Christina’s music is you can go on YouTube and get unsettling, dreamlike, Vantzou-produced slo-mo videos for free.
The somber tone of the album also seems maybe to owe a little to Pieter Nooten and Michael Brook’s Sleeps With the Fishes, one of 4AD’s better (and less-promoted) late-80s releases. Think “melancholy” tinged with “haunting” then amp it down. ‘Way down. This is perfect music for a gray, rainy weekend morning.
I love this album. The only thing I’d change about No2 is to snap my fingers and make it available as 24/96 files. Please? I’ve been rilly good and I promise not to share them!
No2 is a subtly gorgeous album that rewards patient and perceptive listeners. And savvy, good-looking audiophiles such as yourself. Indulge.
Listen to Christina Vantzou, No2, on Tidal HiFi
Loscil, Sea Island (Kranky LP)
Loscil is instrumental electronic music. It pulses with a distinctly analogue feel. There’s an intangible…earthiness to what Scott Morgan does, and how he does it.
The songs aren’t distinct little beginning-middle-and-end journeys, but they’re not shallow tone-poems, either. There’s little of the blip, bloop or tin-eared bombast that dominates mush of recent synthesized music. And please slap me upside the back of the head if I ever even consider using the word “dreamscape,” but the songs on Sea Island seem to tug at the subconscious. The structures may be simple, but deceptively so — there’s something deeper going on here.
This is great road music, too, by the way. Play it loud in your car while driving through fog at dusk and you just might have something resembling a transformative experience (as much as that sort of thing should happen at 65mph, of course. Your mileage might vary).
One thing I do know is (warning: moderate digression ahead) that the new Pink Floyd album isn’t, as its marketing materials claim, “ambient” — and, when compared to, say, Ambient 4: On Land, Sea Island isn’t, either. It’s close enough, though. The tracks have more of a Music For Films vibe, anyway. Maybe the reason Sea Island is so good is the fact that it’s hard to figure out. But attempting to grok Loscil’s oeuvre isn’t exhausting. I mean, it’s not going to make you as tired as an Endless David Gilmour guitar solo. Trust me.
Listen to Loscil, Sea Island on Tidal HiFi
Hildur Guðnadóttir, Saman, (LP) (Touch UK)
Hildur Guðnadóttir (pronounced “guth-nah-door-tier”) is an Icelandic cellist who’s released six albums since 2006. She just finished touring the US as an opening performer for (and playing in) A Winged Victory for the Sullen. Saman is predominately solo cello, although Hildur does accompany herself with the occasional voice and…more cellos. It’s the instrument whose reputation is prone to drone, but Guðnadóttir can make the cello sing — by its lonesome, or multitracked — in a manner far beyond its usual sonorous overtones.
Guðnadóttir won’t settle for fighting the cello’s notorious penchant for feedback in an amplified stage environment, either. She’s reinvented the instrument’s physical form and tamed it in ways that actually set it free when amplified in a variety of settings.
When Hildur sings — as on this Icelandic hymn dating back to 1208 — the effect is nothing short of magical.
Like A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Janet Feder, and Christina Vantzou, Hildur knows the value of silence. It helps that this album is a high-quality pressing/recording (both LP and CD); its glorious resonance has a nearly infinite sheen to it.
Tired of your red-nosed uncle forcing you (again) to listen to double-disc sets of Yo-Yo Ma after/during a drink or three? Wait until around 2am, place this LP on the turntable, pull up a couple of chairs, turn off the lights and prepare to go someplace far away.
Fripp/Eno, Evening Star (LP) (Discipline Global Mobile/Opal, UK)
This is a long-overdue and very necessary vinyl reissue of the 1975 collaboration. It’s on Robert Fripp’s Discipline Global Mobile imprint, in conjunction with Brian Eno’s Opal label.
After cleaning off this sucker in the VPI machine, I carefully lowered the needle on side one, only to immediately (and repeatedly) wince at a loud, once-around-the-circumference scritch noise during the opening sixty-second fade-up of “Wind on Water.” As I’d bought the album a couple of months before and never cracked it open ’til just then, returning it for replacement wasn’t an option. Argh. Drat. Bleah. Etc.
The four songs on side one of Evening Star are probably some of the sweetest Fripp playing — the flipside of his best rock solos, like the screamers on Bowie’s “It’s No Game,” and “Fashion,” and Eno’s “I’ll Come Running” and “St. Elmo’s Fire”. Evening Star’s guitar isn’t so much an instrument as it is a drug. One of those non-existent, very good euphoric drugs, with no side effects, or hangover. I don’t think it can be overdosed upon.
Eno’s synthesizers and loops are there, but in a supporting role (other than “Wind on Wind”‘s calming lull, which is an excerpt from what was to become Discreet Music). The star of Evening Star is Robert Fripp.
Side two’s side-long “An Index of Metals” is an altogether different kettle of arsenic. Resembling 1973’s (No Pussyfooting) more than Discreet Music, it’s a swirling, atonal, alienating swarm of Fripp loops and Eno’s modulated square waves — presaging industrial music at a time before Throbbing Gristle’s “Hamburger Lady” was even a twinkle in Genesis P. Orridge’s situationist bank account. As such, it’s probably some variety of historical document, but it’s just not something I want to listen to more than once every five years or so — and is about as far from side one’s pastoral minimalism as you can get.
The mastering on this reissue is good. Other than that tragic first minute (which was probably just careless initial sleeving of the disc, rather than a pressing defect), the quality of the vinyl is okay — not good, or excellent. It’s not as though it was pressed on recycled tire rubber, but for an LP that costs this much, it should be much better.
And, in conclusion, myself, Billy Nelson and Little Bobby Fripp wish you the happiest of holidays and most silent of nights, enhanced by your music, company, food and drink of choice. Cheers.