Review: Alex Maerbach – Will the Low E Still Be There Once You’ve Come Down? (Orb Tapes, Mar 16)

The Middle Ages was a strange time for a great deal of reasons, not the least of which is the bizarre medical theories and practices that were used. Leech treatments, bloodletting, trepanation, astrology-based anatomy, and who knows what else are all pretty horrifying, but what always unsettled me the most was the idea of the four humors (blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm) that must be kept in balance in order for an individual to be healthy. Such a spectacularly incorrect and misguided conception about the human body makes me uneasy, but admittedly also a bit intrigued. Composer and bandleader Alex Maerbach might have had a similar reaction when he was inspired to create Will the Low E Still Be There Once You’ve Come Down?, a self-described “rumination on the IV humors, medieval pseudoscience, alchemy [and] gnosticism.” The music on this C60 is just as unusual as the cover design, and seems to function, structurally, in a similar way as well; skulking drones and drifting fuzz occupy grayish liminal spaces before more conventional stretches of instrumentation materialize, the arrangements sounding somewhere between composition and improvisation as a drum set, double bass, accordion, singing saw, and brass cascade and careen off each other. The acoustic formations on “Melancholic” sound medieval enough, but “Sanguine” leaves the feudal folk behind in favor of heavens-reaching, atmospheric post-rock jams. The latter track just sort of… dissolves into a gossamer drift, languid clouds of space dust that linger until a soothing recording of waves ushers in some whimsical, yet slightly somber string plucks, led by the haunting hollow of a mandolin (most likely played by Maerbach himself). The monstrous final track “Choleric + Phlegmatic” ambles on a cosmic scale, its threads of rock music submerged within a dense smog of nebulae, but the electric currents are once again tempered by the arrival of a devotional folk reprieve—that in turn gives way to meandering electronic detritus. By summarizing these long, patient tracks I make it sound like the transitions are whiplash-inducing, but the exact opposite is true; nothing throughout Low E is rushed or unpleasant. It’s perfect calming music for the undesirable situation of having your cranium viciously stabbed by a dagger.

Review: Согра – Кудрявая кассета (Sketchbook Sounds, Mar 11)

I don’t speak or read Russian, and as we all know Google Translate can be pretty suspect, but to the best of my knowledge the single phrase that adorns the page for Кудрявая кассета roughly translates to “a few jammed moments…,” which seems pretty appropriate (the title itself means “curly cassette”). From what I can discern, Согра (“Sogra” in English) is one of the many aliases of sound artist Vitaly Maklakov, who also releases music as Light Collapse, Obozdur, Corpuscle, and many other monikers. Far from the subversive lo-fi wall noise of his untitled CD on Perpetual Abjection a month ago, Maklakov’s new digital release for The Sketchbook Sounds (which may or may not be also run by him) consists of more than a few jammed moments; it’s a set of two 25-minute tracks of soupy tape manipulation and effects pedal fuckery, materializing in some elusive no-man’s land between earthy and ethereal. “A” begins with a torrent of looping feedback that steadily becomes fuzzier and quirkier before dissolving into an undammed flow of indiscernible tape recordings and hiss, a hypnotic current within which time seems to stand still. The ascending and descending layers of “B” are even more fitting for the release’s titular quality, as tendrils of warbly electronica twist and tangle around each other.

Review: Zorya & Brice Catherin – Algiz (Pan y Rosas Discos, Mar 1)

There’s a quote on the back of my copy of John Hawkes’ 1961 novel The Lime Twig that I can never seem to stop thinking about. Making ample use of the subtle horror that somehow lurks in even her most innocuous sentences, Flannery O’Connor states, “You suffer The Lime Twig like a dream. It seems to be something that is happening to you, that you want to escape from but can’t. The reader even has that slight feeling of suffocation that you have when you can’t wake up and some evil is being worked on you. This… I might have been dreaming myself.” It may just be the fact that I listened to Algiz for the first time right when I woke up, but my experience was quite similar to what O’Connor describes. Much of this document from the collaboration of American duo Zorya (Katie Oswell and Maria Sappho) and French musician Brice Catherin is heard at a distance; playing “zither, gong, celeste, piano, flutes, a christmas tree, organ, and tubular bells,” as well as their own voices, the three artists create a nightmarish sonic environment that makes use of the full dimensions of the church where they recorded (and even beyond, like when a siren is heard at the end of “Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz”). Rustles, shudders, and gasps cling to the walls of the space as louder elements occasionally burst to the forefront: choked organ, clanking metal, somber piano. Like The Lime Twig, the dark, decaying atmospherics and the central dramas are equally important aspects of our experience.

Review: Méryll Ampe – Residues of Time (Scum Yr Earth, Mar 2)

There isn’t much on Residues of Time that could be easily mistaken for normal, everyday sounds. Even during moments where the source material doesn’t seem to be processed at all, like the beginning section of “De Entro,” there’s still plenty of detachment; any naturalness we attempt to latch onto is always unseated by some form of digital disruption or an even less decipherable ambiguity. And yet I was very aware of my surroundings when listening to the new tape release from French sound artist Méryll Ampe, constantly removing an earbud and looking over my shoulder to see if that was really the door opening, or if some distant conversation I hallucinated is actually taking place. I attribute this phenomenon to Ampe’s singular ability to make music that truly resembles “residues of time,” removed and alien remnants that retain just the barest semblances of their much more familiar origins, the mysterious discharge of temporal passage gathered and shaped into something incredible. This is why we’re able to find so many handholds throughout this uncanny odyssey, even if they are so often yanked away before they can be used; why the cold, stripped-down drone that begins “Residues of Time III” is somehow invigorating, even triumphant; why the heavy, jarring glitches that plague “Autour du lac” are so profoundly unsettling. Residues of Time is a spellbinding album that is not only fascinating for its highly abstract sonic palette, but also for the microscopic hints of reality that it (mostly) conceals.

Review: African Ghost Valley – AAM (Jollies, Mar 5)

Geneva duo African Ghost Valley (hereafter AGV) are masters of conciseness. Very few of their releases even reach the 30-minute mark, instead restricting the project’s dense electronic soundscapes and noisy freakouts to digestible lengths. AAM is no different; AGV’s new tape release on Jollies Records feels intensely curated and carefully revised, for not even a single second of its nineteen minutes feels wasted. The oppressive, apocalyptic milieu that the duo so frequently conjures is transposed to a different abstract locale this time around. As the blurb on the album page states, the music on AAM evokes “an unmistakable scent of acrid sulphur, oppressive heat, and sandy air; a raw primitive planet,” a group of sensory images no doubt helped along by the tape’s deep yellow-orange cover and volcanic imagery. The title track begins the journey with frenetic power-noise rhythms and skull-rattling bass frequencies that trade space with ethereal synth melodies and ambience, creating a short slab of shifting sound that’s both abrasive and atmospheric. Things get a bit more deconstructed with the following two tracks, which make heavy use of granular dissection and agile glitch blasts. “USYRUP,” however, is a classic AGV track, complete with the seething drones and portents of doom that make their music so distinct, and “OUDD,” perhaps the tape’s most reserved piece, breathes boiling waves of humid distortion that hang in the air for a while and then dissipate like acid rain clouds opening their maws.

Review: Banished Pills – have mercy (Sounds Against Humanity, Mar 3)

Though have mercy runs just 17 minutes, its structure is clearly defined and it feels perfectly paced. The new tape from Turin, Italy–based sound artist Edoardo Cammisa (who releases music as Banished Pills) makes use of sounds as fleeting and diminutive as its short duration, finding a delicate beauty in the textures of clattering objects and choice bits of warbly synthesis. The opening trilogy of tracks, “bonds_I-III,” begins with a Small Cruel Party–esque symphony of closely recorded rattle and rustle, with the first piece exploring the entirety of the stereo field while retaining a palpable sense of empty space (it’s this latter quality that engendered my SCP comparison, I think). Things get even sparser with “II,” in which an array of domestic recordings forms a skeletal structure around a looping, sprightly synth melody. These tonal pieces create interesting interplay between themselves and the less conventionally musical elements whose world they occupy—though on “wounds_I,” it’s hard to even tell which is which. have mercy also doesn’t restrict itself to the familiar and the minuscule; “wounds_III” is a cut of cavernous environmental capture, which nonetheless possesses the same sense of tactile action and movement as the previous pieces. The concluding “smoke slowly surrounds her lungs” occupies some mysterious midpoint between tiny and vast, crafting a wide, intricate soundscape from the smallest of ingredients that ends beautifully.

Review: Blessing – Exquisite Tokens of Love (Pink Lemonade & Sludgelord, Mar 1)

Few things act as a better opener to a brutal sludge-hardcore album while simultaneously tapping into pandemic paranoia than a sample instructing citizens that “the bodies must be carried to the street, and- and burned. They must be burned immediately, soak them with gasoline and burn them.” Razor sharp slices of feedback plague those opening words, and once they finish a couple of snare hits signify that it’s time to be crushed. Exquisite Tokens of Love is the second release by London, Ontario quartet Blessing, and this cassette reissue brings their brand of eviscerating, heavyweight metallic hardcore to a much wider audience. The misanthropic growls and industrial strength blast beats evoke beloved bands like Friendship and Sectioned while retaining a uniquely straightforward punk backbone. The whole thing seems like a battle against feedback; “Potent Brew” begins with with a riff that trades between low and high so fast it’s dizzying, before descending into a ridiculously heavy doom breakdown with infectious dualing vocals. And just like that, the first side is over in the blink of an eye, the three bite-sized slabs of sludge offering little preparation for what’s to come on “Hand in Hand Into a Morose Extinction,” the seven-minute closer that leaves no survivors in its path. Far from the overly repetitive riff-fests that conclude many otherwise excellent powerviolence releases, the track draws its energy from the nightmarish atmosphere that surrounds its lumbering grooves and breakneck blasts, a maelstrom of misery and darkness constantly seeping in. The ending riff is pretty much exactly what I’d imagine being clubbed in the head to death would sound like. If that doesn’t motivate you to listen, I don’t know what will.