Review: Network Glass – Idiot/Smiling (dingn\dents, Feb 16)

Pretty much everything about Idiot/Smiling is enigmatic, from the mysterious screenshot that adorns the cover to the unique mixture of digital and analog sound sources plundered to construct each track. Network Glass, one of the many aliases of artist Daniel La Porte, never even approaches the possibility of a limited or constrained palette, instead fusing together disarming, unholy amalgams of aggressive raw data textures, field recordings, and effects. The scattered, schizophrenic approach to composition works well for these short pieces, which are given a fitting introduction by the cut-up madness of “ocvbs.” La Porte explores the wide range of timbres and aesthetics of his crackling rivers of computerized noise on the album’s longest piece, “nrrrrrr,” whose growling low end and sheeny glitch wails form an overwhelming and intense soundscape. Beginning with “sm,” more organic elements begin to creep in, with the unmistakable wumping of wind against a microphone making brief appearances, and “novh1” takes it even further by basing its surreal, synthetic collages around a largely unmanipulated recording of cars racing through a tunnel. The true subliminity of Idiot/Smiling arises from its marriage of the natural and the manufactured, which, as the artifact-like textures of the wind captured in “ocsk,” are not as drastically different as we might think.

Review: Composing Listening (First Volume of the Annual SPECTRES Publication from Shelter Press and INA GRM)

Composing Listening is all-encompassing in its universality, from each copy’s built-in bilingual translation options to the rejections of formal and conceited interpretations of music that color its pages. The introduction is perhaps the purest microcosm of this proponence of a ubiquitous approach to music through abstraction; it begins by quoting Pierre Schaeffer’s essay “Vers une musique experimentale” or “Towards an Experimental Music” (1953), an ironic denouncement of the new and unfamiliar techniques being used in the composer’s own developing musique concrète ideology whose sarcasm only becomes apparent as one reads on. The next hundred or so pages are occupied by a collection of diverse writings from many well-renowned voices in contemporary sound art, including Félicia Atkinson, François Bayle, Eliane Radigue, Jim O’Rourke, and many others. Drew Daniel’s contribution, “Towards a Heterology of Sound: On Bataille and Musique Concrète,” frames discourse arguing for a recognition and integration of concrète music’s inherent ‘messiness’ within a personal listening anecdote to which I’m sure many reading it could relate; “Recording” sees Chris Watson describing his musical coming of age in the context of the burgeoning practices of tape music and field recording; Brunhild Ferrari muses on the creative uniqueness of a single person’s recording of a sound event as compared to another individual’s observation of the same source and shares stories of capturing sounds with her late husband Luc; the list goes on. I could write about any of these pieces in great detail, for despite their being united under a unifying idea each introduces, examines, or argues for a specific and fascinating facet. My only consistent complaint is that they’re all too short!

I highly recommend this book; it’s beautifully printed and edited, and very few publications compile this large and diverse a quantity of written work and reach this wide of an audience. SPECTRES is an exciting development in the modern landscape of experimental musics, and such a comprehensive collection of the current musique concrète corpus is pretty much indispensable, in my humble opinion.

Review: Ludwig Berger – Cargo (Canti Magnetici, Feb 15)

With the minimally (and ambiguously) titled Cargo, multidisciplinary artist Ludwig Berger captures the wondrous and formidable beauty of nature, both in sight and in sound. The nondescript cover of the tape shows a distant cargo truck emptying a load of rocks onto what appears to be a large field of identical rocks, the homogeneous gray landscape dwarfed by the deep emerald of the mountainous forest that extends up out of the frame. “After Nature” expands on this simple but evocative imagery with its swirling soundscapes of harmonious hums, the drones building to a gorgeous climax around the five minute mark that surrounds and enshrouds with its almost overwhelming presence. From that point the piece begins to retract, the meditative tones receding to reveal the immediately recognizable sonorities of chirping birds, rushing water, the soft ebb and flow of a steady breeze. Berger’s approach to composition (or improvisation, it’s unclear how exactly these pieces were produced) is as natural and organic as the ardent environment that these recordings capture, the piece breathing like a living thing as it moves through its phases. The end of “After Nature” sees an intrusion into Cargo‘s immersive sonic landscape when the lively conversation of two children enters our perception, an unexpected but pleasing human presence that continues into the subsequent “Before Dawn,” which paints a vivid scene of a crew of busy workers. Cargo is a work recorded with reverence and respect for its subjects, and every nuance of these diverse vignettes makes its way into our ears.

Review: Elder Devil – The Light Dimmed Eternal (Crown & Throne Ltd, Feb 15)

From the second the distorted speech sample and growling dissonance of “Empty” tears its way into your eardrums, The Light Dimmed Eternal establishes a dark, oppressive, and absolutely crushing atmosphere that never ceases until the last mud-dripping chord rings out into silence. Though Elder Devil consists of only two members, their sound is dense and weighty, and every note smashes with nothing less than full force. The Light Dimmed Eternal also never concerns itself with relieving the pregnant tension that the staggering, barely-held-together unison hits of the opening track introduce; there are no predictable tempo changes precipitated by speedy drum fills or satisfying conclusions that wrap everything up nicely. Instead, the duo maintains its deliberate, lurching pace even in the fastest blast sections, focusing on the dark and hypnotic atmosphere that they weave through meditative, droning repetition. Stephen Muir’s anguished yells grate across the chunky soundscapes without the hindrance of high-pitched guitars or even cymbals—moments like the coda of “May the Light Be Dimmed Eternal” where a merciless low end is led by Jacob Lee’s forceful tom and bass hits while the vocals fill the remaining void are by far the album’s strongest and most magnetic. The Light Dimmed Eternal is clearly a product of two musicians with a defined vision, a quality that comes across in every minute of its carefully composed chaos.

Review: Savvas Metaxas – Hypnos (Coherent States, Jan 28)

Hypnos is the sound of tension, a spiderweb of stretched strings that hum, vibrate, and rattle. This is not to say that Greek artist Savvas Metaxas’ palette was limited to just materials commonly thought of as tensile; instead, he sculpts straining, groaning structures from modular synth and and processed percussion samples to complement the restless scratches of a piano’s inner strings. The hooks that adorn the album cover aren’t just for show—Hypnos takes a step past intense aural immersion into an almost physical domain, trapping the listener in its claustrophobic, carefully woven tunnels. Don’t be put off by the spoken word intro, which took a while to win me over; the sound-world of Hypnos is much more adventurous and ambitious than its opening moments would lead you to believe, and by the time concluding track “Morpheus” rolls around the female vocals are back, this time providing a spectral counterpoint to the shifting mixtures of sound, bookending the tape with hints of escape from its visceral, unsettling intensity. Even just the masterful construction of this work warrants a listen—it’s one of those albums that can only be fully explored after the initial intimidation its density invokes—but I’d go so far as to say that there’s something here for everyone.

Review: Mal du Siècle – Dark Ceremonies Under a Cursed Moon (Death Kvlt Productions, Feb 1)

If you’ve ever been to an eclectic music shop, there was probably a decent amount of black metal tapes, whether meticulously organized on shelves or stacked haphazardly in a corner. With their ornate medieval fonts, depressive imagery, and overwhelming use of (surprise) the color black, it’s hard for just one to stand out. Dark Ceremonies Under a Cursed Moon fits that tape kvlt triad to a T, but it also hits on another aspect of why buying obscure metal tapes is such a fulfilling pastime: occasionally you find a random one that is just fantastic. One-man Spanish project Mal du Siècle (‘sickness of the century’ in French) doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel here when it comes to raw black metal, but it’s a homogeneous genre for a reason, and all of the essential elements are here in flawless form. The drums, while obviously programmed, are draped in enough dust to add texture while grounding the airy tremolo riffs in a constant rhythm. They also add a unique propulsiveness to the music, especially on “Martyrium Mysteriis,” which blazes forward on the back of a beefy double bass assault. True to the project’s name, the vocals are sufficiently tortured and full of anguish, communicating the “ennui, disillusionment, and melancholy” that the unnamed artist cites as their musical provocation, even without clearly discernible lyrics. Dark Ceremonies Under a Cursed Moon barely reaches 16 minutes with its four tracks, but by the time the angular 6/8 riff hits right before the fadeout in “Lost Relics From the Satanic Cult,” I’m ready to go all over again.

Review: Chemiefaserwerk – Listening Stations (self-released, Feb 7)

The France-based tape label Falt is one of the leading entities in contemporary do-it-yourself experimentalism, releasing cassettes wrapped in 8.5×11 pieces of paper that contain a wide range of sound, from highly composed tape pieces to field recordings and even more abstract sources (check out the unusual techniques used to produce Phil Maguire’s Empty Damage for an example). After releasing several of his own recordings on Falt, label head Christian Schiefner (who releases music as Chemiefaserwerk) has begun an independent Bandcamp page for future works, with Listening Stations as its inaugural release. The four pieces provide a welcoming entry point into the ideas that Schiefner examines and evokes with his music, their reliance on the trademark hiss and slightly muffled acoustics of tape playback framing spectral drones and processed recordings. The tracks are subtitled with dates, presumably identifying when each was recorded, an element that introduces an interesting chronology between pieces. “For Midnight Circles” is memorable for its sustained rustling, a recognizable sonority that places the track somewhere between the familiar and unknown, while the untitled work that follows it delves deeper into subdued drones swathed in resonant mid-range frequencies. The title track presents a more fractured structure of tactile sound loops, a counterpoint to the sluggish, atonal collages of “Estaque.” With each release Schiefner seems to further refine his technique, steadily becoming more virtuosic in his stitchings of sound and noise; and therefore I couldn’t recommend following his new page more.

Review: Giovanni Lami – Sinalefe (Thalamos, Feb 12)

Giovanni Lami’s unique brand of musique concrète has an energy that is all its own. 2016’s Bias, an unmatched modern masterpiece as far as I’m concerned, distilled Lami’s examinations of degradation and interference to a brooding, nocturnal palette of immersive sound. This work is continued on the Italian sound artist’s more recent releases, notably last year’s In Chiaro / In Guardia and here on Sinalefe. The short tape is comprised of an intimate pair of pieces, their unassuming and subtle presence concealing that inexplicable dark tension that haunts so many of Lami’s compositions. “I” settles into an uneasy drone of quiet rustling and mechanical hum, slowly unraveling as stuttering VLF frequencies unseat the delicate balance of textures. The track only becomes immersive as it progresses, reaching fragile catharsis with the introduction of spidery, high pitched tones and mysterious rustling. A truly uncanny marriage of timbres is achieved here, creating a hypnotic and meditative soundscape that makes the side’s abrupt end even more disarming. “II” begins with a muffled field recording before growing into an even more harrowing mixture of electric crackles and metallic resonance. Lami really seems to be closing in on a style that I could not be more excited to hear more of, and I can’t wait to see what he conjures next.

Review: Diane – The River by the Tree (Jungle Gym, Feb 8)

I’ll never get tired of artists making music associated with green. At its heart, it’s a color that we equate to nature, environments, the living world around us, a source of sound and energy that will never be fully explored. The River by the Tree is an album that’s based heavily in the natural world, from its vibrant, mossy cover to the birdsong and flowing water that frequently emerge in its palette of sounds, but it also keeps itself at a respectful, reverent distance, examining a lush landscape through a lens of careful processing. The shimmering drones that newcomer project Diane crafts on this tape encase their organic sources much like the reflective surface of the water in the cover photo, initially obscuring with a protective shell of effects and alterations before the unmanipulated elements appear. Each of the three tracks is given plenty of time to breathe and expand naturally, especially the concluding “September,” whose quiet, meditative ambience allows soft guitar, dove calls, and bubbling brooks to slowly unfurl as the piece progresses. I can see The River by the Tree functioning both as a reminder of nature when it is far away and as a subtle augmentation when that rich green world is right there in front of you.

Review: Various Artists – Free Percussion (Tsss Tapes, Feb 6)

Free Percussion, the inaugural release on Francesco Covarino’s fledgling Tsss Tapes imprint, collects recordings by twelve abstract percussionists, each presenting an unrestricted improvisation using anything from a standard kit to toy instruments and bells. Claire Rousay, a San Antonio-based artist examining a wide range of concepts through her music, begins the set with an object-based kit performance whose unchecked scrapes, swirls, and rolls are mirrored by similarly whimsical later pieces such as Simon Camatta‘s “Concrete Love.” This is the best part about Free Percussion, that it both distinguishes and exposes similarities in these singularly creative musicians; comparisons can be drawn between the Tinguely-esque junk cacophony of Ted Byrnes’ “No” and the fluid drones explored by Tim Daisy on “For Ogden,” a kinship strengthened by their adjacent placing in the track list, even though it’s not as easy to conclude that the artists had anything alike in mind when they began playing. In addition to introducing and tracing connections between artists new to me, Free Percussion also gives me the opportunity to view pieces by my favorites in the context of their contemporaries; the intimate object orchestras of Rie Nakajima, the instantly recognizable malleted cymbals of Will Guthrie, and Covarino’s own quiet drags are even more captivating amidst kindred works.