While I haven’t written about music for a while, I’ve liked a good many musical things since I last scribbled for this fair outlet in March 2020 (!).
Reflections regarding 2022/21’s favored and favorite 2021 and 2022 recordings follow. Relax, grab a drink, fire up the speakers (or headphones), and let’s catch up.
Esthesis (130701, UK)
But wait … an instrumental keyboard recording from the avant-cellist?
Catching on? Esthesis‘s emotional gamut may not necessarily fill metaphysical [pigeon]holes, however, it’s a low-key (but no less intense) hoot, regardless.
“Sadness” is all watery melancholia, with descending synth progressions and cascading, sampled voices. The ringing bowls and incomprehensible vocals echoing on “Anger” bring up memories of the accumulated angst from hours I’ve wasted on hold with, oh, say, Verizon and Comcast (glad you asked?). “Joy” isn’t what you’d expect; it’s merely better. Let’s skip “Fear” and move on to “Love,” a warm, fuzzy, Phil-Glassian throb that’ll leave you, well, desiring more.
Lullaby for a Stranger (Fluff & Gravy, US)
These are gorgeous acoustic guitar compositions from Pacific Northwesterner Jamie. There’s a beguiling breadth and depth to the album, and not solely because Stillway’s utilization of reverb and effects is tastefully deft. This is the best acoustic guitar recording I heard this year, and, perhaps, the past few years. Perfectly contemplative music for a rainy day and/or a long drive in the desert or forest, and it stands up remarkably well to headphone listening / detailed attention, too.
Domes (Dauw, Belgium)
Multi-instrumentalist HWB brings her cello to the foreground for this instrumental album. Those demanding genre adherence to past works (indie folk? chamber pop? neu-shoegaze?) can table such simplistic preconceptions, and just anticipate being wow’d by Heather’s impressive and wide-ranging grasp of … drone.
Yup. Drone. Soaked, sometimes dripping, even, with reverb and echo. It’s as though Broderick’s enticed you into a mossy, cozy cave, enveloped you in a warmed faux-fur comforter, set you up with a tumbler of absinthe, fired up a single candle … and serenaded you with bowed ‘n looped overtones, harmonics, sighs, and purrs.
Holotropica (Intercourse, Denmark)
I can’t come up with a glib description of Holotropica, or any of Danish treasure Sofie Birch’s other, equally essential, releases. Perhaps that’s why I admire everything she does.
Lazier critics might be tempted to file Holotropica under “downtempo”. However, attentive listening discloses Birch’s appreciation for Euro-prog and Krautrock; she pays respect to what has gone before, while infusing her sounds with a futuristic and lovely, embracing, atmosphere. The songs are dreamy and free-flowing, and inspired by nature. The only comparison I can think of is the burbling synthetic bliss of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s early material, including her collaboration with Suzanne Ciani. Holotropica channels that vibe into something fresh, and wholly organic.
Downtime Salon (Superpang, Italy)
Dania Shihab: Born in Baghdad. Raised in Tasmania. Based in Barcelona and Tasmania. This is a 55-minute, digital-only release derived from a piece commissioned for a music festival at a train station in Nuremberg. Those who know me, know I’m vulnerable to free-associative drift, and this particular hour of sound has drift for days. Weeks, even. This is sound-collage at its finest; a journey through what sounds like five or six albums (not at the same time, alas). Synthesizer snippets, offbeat percussion, piano loops, found sounds, processed voices… ideal environmental music for daydreams and reveries.
Image Language FLAC, 2xLP (Shelter Press, France)
This is another fine environmental-sound work, a companionable excursion with Dania’s Downtime Salon. Atkinson recorded it while traveling; none of it was done in a traditional studio, or, even, a home studio. There are melodic synthesizer drones, treated instruments, sotto voce murmurs in French and English, field recordings… all crafted as atmospheric aural collages that ebb, blend, and coalesce. It can be soothing, spooky, or confusing, and, at times, it’s all that at once. And it’s always entrancing.
An Overview on Phenomenal Nature LP (Ba Da Bing!, US) [from 2021]
Jenkins’ early 2021 An Overview was one of my favorite albums. Her breathy, close-mic’d vocals and touching (as well as exceedingly smart) lyrics floated atop sympathetic, deceptively-conventional instrumentation, making it a left-field joy for all who discovered it. (An Overview On) takes tracks from those sessions, and gives us a glimpse of some of them in their rawer, sketchbook forms. There’s also non-LP material.
Cassandra might be at the top of her game, but I have a feeling her next release is going to be the one that hits a larger audience square in the gut.
Of Which One Knows (Room 40, Australia)
In Front of You (Room 40, Australia)
You awoke at 4:30 AM. You’re on the brink of easing back into slumberland. Maybe you’re not sure if you’re asleep yet, but there’s this weird, semi-waking dream…a variation, perhaps, on a dream you had a month, a year, or seven years ago?
Beridze is from Tbilisi, Georgia. This is her seventh album, and the first I’ve heard. Shame on me.
Of Which One Knows features tracks (“Drift”) that seem to channel Sheila Chandra’s 1996 classic, ABoneCroneDrone, and there’s something of a touch of (again) Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith in the ethereal vocals and gossamer synth washes. The overriding vibe here is early-morning ozone, a sense of elevation mixed with pleasantly befuddling haze.
In Front Of You is Natalie’s second 2022 release. It’s less dependent on voice, and perhaps more random and less structured, but no less dreamlike and provocative.
Under the Lilac Sky (Leaving Records, US) [from 2021]
In 2019, I got severely injured carrying my synthesizer on tour in India. Due to this, I’ve had limited movement in my right hand which has proven to be quite difficult for programming, composing, and performance purposes. Given that I was no longer able to sequence my modular synthesizer using my keyboard, I had to create more creative ways that didn’t require the use of my hands.
This led to the creation of ektara, a tool built using Max MSP that enables me to sing a melody into a microphone and directly sequence my synthesizer.
This explains some of the enchantment behind Under the Lilac Sky. However, there’s a dearth of words that can relate to the sound of this album. All instruments but arushi’s voice are synthesized, and, as described above, even some of her vocals are altered (although it’s sometimes difficult to determine which are vocals, vocals modified by synthesis, or synths).
“My People Have Deep Roots” features deep, simple tones accompanied only by wordless singing. “The Sun Swirls Within You” is not only 10 minutes of melodically droning neo-bliss; it’s also an exemplary subwoofer workout. “Cultivating Self Love” and the title track — all twelve minutes, 43 seconds of it — spotlight bubbling, flowing synths, and positively percolate with a Terry Riley feel.
This is an intriguing work that veers, dips, sways, and peaks … all in the direction of perfection.
Aquatic and Other Worlds (Buh Records, Peru)
This is an archive release compiling instrumental recordings from 1983 to 1989 by Venezuelan synthesist Oksana Linde.
In the early 80s, Linde experienced health setbacks as a result of her employment as a lab researcher, leading her to set up a home studio and concentrate on music full-time. As her work progressed, some of her equipment was stolen, and many of her notebooks lost. Now, at 75, she’s enjoying renewed, and much-deserved interest in her recordings.
Created with hardware and on recording equipment that was often difficult to obtain and maintain — many of the tracks here mastered from cassettes, or decades-old reel-to-reel tapes — Aquatic is an imaginative, sprawling collection, exhibiting curiosity, exploration, determination, and joy.
Heaven Come Crashing (NNA Tapes, US)
This is a many-layered album from guitarist/synthesist Nayar. The foundation of the opening track, “Our Wretched Fantasy,” builds on a sequenced n’ sublime melody recalling the chiming, charming constancy of music boxes. The pedigree of “Tetramorph”‘s first few moments seems to verge on industrial; there’s a tense, relentless mood. But it then, well … morphs into repetitively melodic guitar churn that ends on a high note.
Other tracks also possess that Glass / Reich propulsivity; it’s a varied magic Nayar works with guitar, synths, and an array of pedals and effects. This isn’t a predominately beatless album; witness the drum-and-bass bliss-out workout of the title track, its The Sight Below (Rafael Anton Irisarri) remix, “Our Wretched Fate”, and “The Price of Serenity”‘s doppler-dappled climax. All of these would sound, yes, even more amazing in a large public space with a mercilessly good PA.
Heaven is yet one more example of technology used to create something brimming with emotion and natural beauty.
AND you can dance to it.
Space 1.8 (Warp, UK) [from 2021]
Jazz. I’m writing about jazz!
Okay, Caribbean-Belgian visionary Sinephro’s pulchritudinous debut might be influenced more by chill-out and DJ culture than trad jazz.
But jazz there is. And it is good.
And not just “ambient jazz.” Although that would be OK, too.
This album sounds remarkably good in the car during, say, daylight hours, but it shines especially brightly once you get home after dark. Turn the lights down, and your listening space transforms into a space where beanbag chairs are de rigueur. I can envision hearing this around 4 am in an unheated warehouse off Townsend in San Francisco circa 1995. And that’s a feature, not a bug.
Closer Away (Luckystar, US)
Disclosure: I helped mix this, and Kate’s my partner and sweetheart.
Kate lost her younger sister in an accident in 2015. The song and video render further descriptions unnecessary.
Thank you for reading, and for listening.
Here’s to a more peaceful, stable, and healthier 2023.
— Paul Ashby