Though much of the music that’s covered by this site tends to defy description, works as choice and subtle as Grisha Shakhnes’ being there are especially difficult to write about. Not the music itself per se, but its impact, the qualities that make it such an emotional experience. That being said, this doesn’t seem to hinder Shakhnes himself from providing a wonderfully succinct summary of his approach to the album: “I’ll just say that what has been increasingly important in my work… is this gap between what you know and what I know, between what I choose to tell you and what I choose not to, between the sounds you think you hear and you actually hear. The most significant difference between this release and the previous ones is probably my choice to eliminate some of this gap. My choice to let you know all these things; that this is a record about an artist, a musician, and his living room. It’s about his presence in this room. It’s about his environment, and his relationship with his environment. It’s about [the] listener’s relationship to the artist’s environment and also his own environment. And it’s about listening and the choices we make—as artists and as listeners.” Such simple yet evocatively relationary language hits at the core of being there, a work that’s ultimately about representing and creating connections; conveyed to the listener are the comfort of recognizable environmental sounds, the wordless conversation Shakhnes is engaged in with those sounds (one of my favorite examples of this is his call and response to flutters of birdsong midway through “Occurrences at the End of a Curve”), and the moments of otherworldly beauty when the borders between artist and environment fall away completely. Though entirely unique, it’s another fantastic entry in the genre that Thomas DeAngelo so aptly dubbed “focused ennui.”
The picture used as the cover of the digital release of Pasvikdalen (taken by the artist herself) almost looks like part painting, part photograph; the sky and distant hills in the upper half are recognizably “real,” but to me at least the colorful tenements below are like the work of a skilled oil painter in comparison, all rich tans and burgundies and soft mountain grey-blues. I begin with these observations because like the photograph, Jana Winderen’s phonography compositions portray some aspects of reality in unique ways such that they often sound like something more synthetic—take for example the granular textures of the recordings of shrimp in The Noisiest Guys on the Planet—but there are also always swathes of unconcealed reality woven in, and it’s a testament to Winderen’s skill as an artist that she’s able to convey such powerful atmosphere and emotion via both elements. Spectral and somber, Pasvikdalen is at times as austere as the mysterious, misty landscapes of Nikel, Russia, where the source recordings were gathered, but throughout its nearly 40 minute run time there are also moments of the therapeutic calmness that only such environments can provide. Also of note are the animal sounds of which Winderen makes use; the wails of dogs and sea creatures evoke almost human-like feelings of grief and lament, making this sonic portrait all the more poignant.
I sat down to listen to Anamorphoses for the first time without any idea of what to expect, and ended up emerging from a trance-like state partway through the third section and realizing how utterly enraptured I’d been. I know next to nothing about this London-based project, but whoever’s behind it has graciously provided an abstract for the release that introduces even more fascination. The arcane explanations of “auditive projection broadcasting, elaborated through perspective spatial experimentation of infinite harmonics elements” is difficult to grasp at first, mostly because I’m unsure of the context of the work—whether it’s a pre-programmed installation, a performance, or some combination of both—but one thing I can wrap my head around are the vivid descriptions of the music itself: “A mechanical echo wraps the glittering metallic fabric in a spectral soundscape. Underground transmissions that bounce in the ether and asymmetrical pulsations from long tunnels are like a message from an unknown world.” These touch on the aspects of Anamorphoses I am most drawn to: the contrasts between spacious, reverb-filled expanses and more closely captured tangible elements; the richly subterranean atmosphere evoked throughout (especially by the recognizably tunnel-like sounds, such as the echo-y air currents and distant voices in part two or the whooshing train recordings in part three); and the presence of “glittering” light that never seems to fade even in the release’s most nocturnal stretches. Though the length of Anamorphoses may be intimidating at first, but it is truly one of the most immersive things I’ve heard recently, and I can assure you that you’ll be left wondering where the hell all that time went once it’s over.
Though the release as a whole is quite the head-scratcher, the opening moments of Astor’s new tape The Aubergine Dream are, to me, profoundly disconcerting. “Aubergine dream. I love aubergine. I fucking love it,” states the immediately recognizable voice of a text-to-speech program. It’s not the use of text-to-speech itself, but instead that the actual text being transferred to speech is so colloquial and earnest that hearing it spoken in such a flat, synthetic manner is disturbing. In fact, though, most of the elements that make The Aubergine Dream so befuddling arise from this apathetic warping of humanity. The material on the tape was performed in 2017 at Cafe Oto, a London venue known for its ongoing support of experimental arts, but in trying to decipher the expected sonic space that a live performance provides we’re left floundering. The deafening contact mic shuffles and mysterious hum that materialize after the spoken introduction fade away around five minutes into side A, and after an extremely muffled bout of applause—and I wonder if it’s even the same audience that was watching Astor perform that day—we’re left in complete silence for nearly 30 seconds before the entry of some reverently struck piano chords and grimy hiss. Further on in the side the “live” identity of the piece becomes even less concrete as warbly tape manipulations distort what we’re inclined to believe are recordings of the surrounding environment, but at this point I’ve given up trying to align The Aubergine Dream with any preconceived musical templates I’ve stored away in my brain, and as the stuttering, segmented collages of side B unspool, it’s clear that’s the best approach. Unpredictable to say the least, endlessly subversive, fascinatingly strange, and ultimately sublime, Astor’s newest release is one I’ll be returning to many times.
The fittingly titled “Ex Musica” rises into being with a wonderfully delicate, deliberate touch not at all unexpected in the work of VipCancro, a quartet comprised of sound artists Alberto Picchi, Andrea Borghi, Nicola Quiriconi, and David Lucchesi. Though their music is free by every meaning of the word, liberated from conventional melody and structure through instantaneous sonic interaction, the group’s philosophy doesn’t focus on the inherent impermanence of improvisational performances; instead, they chart progressions and evolutions throughout their work, make an effort to try new approaches, work toward their own musical language. Su Se Stesso, according to them, is where this “new language” has finally been achieved, one that’s “based on the search for personal solutions oriented towards characters and gestures, according to the typical methods of a concrete matrix improvisation. The mixture of electronic and acoustic instruments reflects the attention of the quartet to spaces and sound objects organized through pure instant composition.” Like many analyses of such abstract methodology, it sounds arcane at first, but these observations couldn’t be more apparent in the music itself. Though the two pieces are quite mechanical and metallic in nature, all slithering scrapes and stifled snuffles, they’re undeniably gestural as the descriptions states; each action taken by the performers has a destination in mind, like things are being set in motion rather than entirely manipulated. The quartet’s appreciation for space is also clear, and their ability to construct vivid, immersive, physical sound-worlds like the heaving, sighing cluster of clatter on “Laterale” is astounding.
As a duo, Earthworms is not Giacomo Salis and Paolo Sanna’s first rodeo. The two abstract percussionists perform and record frequently as Salis/Sanna Percussion Duo, as well as embarking on other ventures with other artists—although, more often than not, they still appear on these releases together. I had the good fortune of being sent some video recordings of the sessions that produced the Humyth tape on Confront last year, and even with the most unconventional combinations of objects, natural ephemera, and actual percussion instruments, Salis and Sanna’s chemistry is palpable (and that’s definitely the case here). But arguably their most successful works are those which involve just one other participant, like 2016’s KIO GE with Jeph Jerman (also on Confront) and now Earthworms with Emanuele Fais. The latter is an artist I don’t know much about, but his unique role in the trio as the sole provider of electronic effects often throws the delicate interplay of the disc into strange new areas, maintaining the quiet, almost subterranean atmosphere (and that’s not just because of the title) but also introducing foreboding, murmuring flows that curl beneath the clatter and subtle glitch warps that, sometimes, shape the proceedings into something quite alien, and, at others, desperately reach for beauty.
The music world lost a truly great artist last year with the death of contemporary composer Glenn Branca. With a formidable career spanning from 1980 until his death in 2018, Branca’s work explored and stretched the possibilities of rock guitar in a classical context throughout various symphonies and live performances, but he is perhaps best known for his 1981 LP The Ascension. Serving as a meticulously arranged counterpoint to the irreverent, improvised chaos of the no wave movement with which it was closely associated, the landmark recording transposed a slightly expanded standard rock music lineup (four guitars, bass guitar, drum set) into Branca’s peerless ear for texture, dynamic progression, and catharsis. It’s indisputably one of the most influential guitar albums ever released. But unfortunately for listeners who seek more of this singular sound, there’s not a ton of material available; Branca’s 1980 EP Lesson No. 1 is fantastic and serves as a great companion to The Ascension, but apart from that there’s only 2010’s The Ascension: The Sequel in terms of legendary sextet brilliance, which for many (including me) fell flat.
Now, however, the posthumous release of The Third Ascension offers a breathtaking return to form. The six track, 65 minute album documents a 2016 live performance by the Branca Ensemble—is that enough sixes for you?—and recaptures everything with which I fell in love when I first heard its original predecessor. A better opener than “Velvets and Pearls” couldn’t have been picked; it starts things off with an incendiary motorik groove that immediately immerses. Though throughout the rest of the album the guitar interplay becomes more elaborate and intricate, here the players are in wondrous tonal solidarity, evoking the trance-inducing propulsion of “The Spectacular Commodity.” From there, the elements only evolve further: there’s the mesmerizing dissonant jangle of “German Expressionism,” the indescribably powerful climax of “The Smoke,” the anxious tremolo cacophonies of “Lesson No. 4″…. I could go on. I’m not sure if there are any plans for future releases under Branca’s name, but if not, this is a perfect final statement that is sure to both resonate with longtime fans as well as introduce new listeners to the legendary composer’s oeuvre.
Few works rival the primordial sonic meditations of pioneering, hypnotically minimal drone compositions, such as Eliane Radigue’s monolithic Trilogie de la Mort, Pauline Oliveros’s Accordion and Voice, or Folke Rabe’s What??, whose simple but radiant exhalation I often describe as “the sound of a small leak in the wall of heaven.” For the first few minutes of Ventorgano, the newest release from Austrian composer Andreas Trobollowitsch (following some fascinating installations and 2016’s brilliant Roha), that same feeling of soothing, almost celestial calm is achieved. But the synthesizer Trobollowitsch used to create this piece isn’t designed to keep with such reticence for long; the titular device, built by the artist himself, “consists of guitar strings, wooden resonating bodies and converted fans which use cello-bow hair instead of propellers to set the strings into oscillation. Rotating speed, string tension and attack can be adjusted progressively, allowing the player to control micro rhythmical elements and subtle changes in the overtone spectrum.” Unsurprisingly, the music that unfolds has a very physical presence, slowly increasing in complexity as it expands outward from humble origins. And the sounds of the Ventorgano are not the menacing clanks of an industrial machine. They’re pensive, lush, even comfortingly organic at times, and the otherworldly headspace such a special instrument creates is truly something to behold. Trobollowitsch’s wondrous creations do evoke the work of the aforementioned artists, but the immersive polyrhythms and overtones conjure something even more mystical.
Though it’s an otherwise pleasant and effervescent opening track to Adam Badí Donoval and Jakub Fiala’s debut collaboration, beneath the surface of “I” lurks a nagging, slightly disconcerting tension, helped along by an out of place tone here, a dissonant guitar note there, etc. Though freely improvised, like the rest of INTERSTAT, this hint of discordance is no accident. It manifests in nearly all of the eight sections of the tape, snaking through the foundational industrial rumble of “II” to the strange, isolating distance present in “III” to the barest semblance of inharmoniousness in the drones of “IV”—and if I haven’t yet proven to you all how well I can count, we arrive at side B with “V”, where the looping synth piddles and new age electronics that had asserted themselves as crucial elements become less integrated. It’s like the unspoken formula developed via the duo’s interactions splits open and calls attention to its own parts, moving that distance I mentioned earlier from the space between listener and music to within the music itself, resulting in some of the album’s most uncanny tracks. On “VI”, the electronica sticks sullenly to the edges, and the effect is dark and spectral, something that’s explored further on the rest of the album. Having been unfamiliar with both Donoval and Fiala until now, INTERSTAT was a wonderful surprise, and is likely to appeal to fans of both straightforward ambient/drone music and more abstract improvisation in equal measure.
U.K. avant-rock project Mosquitoes released one of my favorite albums last year with the Drip Water Hollow Out Stone LP, a brief but dense exploration into the radical deconstructions pioneered by seminal no wave bands like DNA and Mars. Comparisons to these predecessors are nearly inevitable when discussing Mosquitoes, but unlike many other instances of revivalist artists in this genre, they don’t aim to emulate or even to incorporate the styles of influential bands, instead focusing on furthering and paving new ground in this ongoing approach of fragmentary, convention-defying rock music. Vortex Veering Back to Venus shares the previous record’s brevity, clocking in at just over 20 minutes across six tracks, but its subversiveness is even more total. The hints of stuffy, oppressive darkness that lurked at the edges of Drip Water Hollow Out Stone now pervade every element of the band’s style, looming over the listener like the shadow of a spreading storm with razor-sharp percussion strikes as its lightning and lumbering, muffled bass as its thunder. The pieces are even less rhythmic than before—the most we get is a plodding bass drum throb, and sometimes not even that—and instead the drums often function as stabbing punctures in the thick atmospheres being woven, crashing through layers of crackling guitar noise and low-frequency hum. Sparser and more abstract still are the vocals, which sputter and shake somewhere quite a ways away from intelligibility. It all comes to a truly majestic climax with closing track “VS,” which is perhaps Mosquitoes’ finest work yet.