Although Nils Frahm has released just one full-length album, a collaboration with cellist Anne Müller and two EPs, he belongs to the most respected artists on the contemporary classical scene. I believe it’s his classical education and training in piano playing since his childhood what differs his composition and way of musical communication from his mostly self-taught contemporaries. Firstly, it was Nahum Brodski – a student of the last scholar of Tchaikovsky, who taught him techniques and the “right” perception of the music. Later came Peter Broderick who became some kind of mentor and director during improvising recording sessions in Grunewald Church which resulted in Frahm’s defining debut, The Bells, one of musicAddicted’s favourite 2009 albums (article in Slovak language).
However, it doesn’t matter how many geniuses moved around him, it was (and had to be) Nils Frahm, who found his own voice; not only in the selected techniques, but also way of composing, arranging and finally, breathing in his unique signature. Luckily, he was more than successful in this task and his blueprint is an obviously personal, intimate relationship with piano and romanticist and emotional feel of his compositions which are advanced in the complexity of sound and technique. While most of his contemporaries bet on sentimentality and lush simplicity, Frahm goes beyond this – his work is dramatic and intricate.
Yet, his second full-length FELT (out on October 10th) finds him moving in new direction – towards minimalism and intentional calm. Unter is placed in the middle of FELT hints the future sound: delicate, inward sound where the rushes of piano’s hammers is one of the strangely warm stirs accompanying Frahm’s playing. The playing itself is surprisingly simple and straightforward with a clear line of melody and its short and simple variance. In spite or maybe because of the melodic ease Unter sounds overly warm and welcoming – it’s a composition for a sincere enjoyment. It seems that FELT will be another jewel toErased Tapes' admirable cont.–classical collection.
Loneliness and austerity seem to be the driving forces behind Noveller, the one-woman project of Brooklyn’s Sarah Lipstate. Everything about her musical persona is connected with solitude: shows performed alone with only her instruments; the imagery found in the names of her releases – desert fires, red rainbows, and now a glacial glow – which evoke only thoughts of absence and abandonment; and, most importantly, the structure and consistency of her music, which is shaped around the sound of a single guitar. Granted, that sound is echoed, destructed, fragmented and evolved from simple melody into a tame beast of droning lullabies, but its solitariness is inherent and of an intentional and soothing kind; even though Lipstate’s compositions may sound blue or even dark, their loneliness is wanted, welcome, and used to instill a deep focus on the humble guitar and its many possibilities.
Compared with Lipstate’s earlier works, this second full-length is more diverse and melodic. Where she used to experiment more openly with intensity, texture and form, Glacial Glow finds her focusing more on the smaller details and on creating a sense of natural flow within and outside of each composition. This ability to see the bigger picture and the interconnection between its fragments makes the album compelling, and somehow easier to digest and understand without ever being straightforward or simple; Lipstate plays with nicely contrasting elements right from the beginning. The album deals with icy coldness, but the sound of the guitar layered into a short and pastoral melody in the introductory Entering (the actual song which is streamed above) is warm and inviting, as if Lipstate were welcoming us into the hot heart of an Icelandic glaciovolcano. Combined with the yearning sound of an amplified, e-bow picked guitar, the ever-rising melody evokes a graceful simplicity.
Imagine Sunn O))) meeting A Place To Bury Strangers in hell and deciding to make a industrial techno record. The result would be no more unsettling and brutal than Life (… It Eats You Up) (out on Editions Mego), new album by Mika Vainio. Surprisingly, he has abandoned his simple-named moniker Ø and releases this fresh smack-in-your-face under his own name. The main difference between his older material and Life is Vainio’s re-invented passion for grinding and reverberated guitar which is the core element of almost hour of new music.
Mining is the most up-beat song on the entire album, reminding Vainio’s techno-oriented Ø and earlier work of Pansonic, his much-acclaimed project with Ilpo Väisänen. Going further with resemblances, the combination of mechanic, inhuman beats with electrified cutting sound of guitar brings to mind Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails. The industrial wail of guitar which wails like a grinding of a metal combined with a sound of chains beating into each other. What is more striking is the cold exactness and persistence of the basic beat which doesn’t change for the entire Mining. Frequencies change, the intensity of grinding and sawing modifies, but the underlining beat stays forever in its eternally chilly form. This is a heavy stuff Mika Vainio feeds us with, but the odd pain and uneasiness of listening to it repeatedly morphs into a weird pleasure. Delving deeper into Life (…It Eats You Up) rewards the listener’s patience with unimaginable sounds’ installations and combinations of industrial noise with brutal smartness. This album is Mika Vainio's another win.
Gwerkova label their music as a basement hardware but what you finally hear is a mixture of number of genres that share a dreamy nature and solid electronic core. Call them dream pop, but you won’t hear much pop in it; mark it as ambient with vocals, but their echoed guitars and glitch electronics will wake up you from the comforts of easy sleep; label them as minimalist electronica and the layered textures will prove you bit wrong. Luckily, this trio from Slovakia was smart enough to cook a musical meal hard to pigeonhole, but even easy to like.
After the last year’s initial EP 6EARS, where the band firstly explored how to cross genre boundaries, Gwerkova come with a debut album NADA which consists of six new songs along with a remix of the longest song, D-Day. What impressed me more is the raw energy of NADA’s central piece called Rats In Our Temple. It starts quietly from a simple guitar riff sounding somewhere between The XX's guitar austerity and Tamaryn's gothic-romantic glum. Disonancy and destruction come early to enhance the unhappy picture pained by Gaspi's doleful vocals which move towards everything but apocalypse of “rats biting our brains.” Guitar graudally multiplies its echoes into shoegazing agony which is even strengthened by fervent electronics which resemble Lamb's Trans Fatty Acid from ’90s. Rats In Our Temple is an unhappy, but fulfilling image of an arcane world where “filth flows from the clouds.” NADA is a land of hallucinations worth your deeper exploration.
UPDATE on July 27th: The original stream of entire song Rats In Our Temple was changed to the NADA LP Preview which contains one minute snippets of all songs from the album; Rats In Our Temple can be found after third minute of the stream.
There’s surely no time in the year when Nico Muhly doesn’t work on some peculiar project. Julliard-graduated composer has worked on soundtracks, arrangements and productions for other artists; old, sacred music; electronic experiments done with Bedroom Community's peers and mildly shocking opera Two Boys. Luckily for us, classical music - from Gregorian chorals to minimalism of 20th century - has stayed his most important area of interest.
Seeing Is Believing, Muhly’s first release this year, has two dominant compositions of his own placed in the beginning and the end of the album along with another two shorter pieces from his pen. In Muhly’s own wordsMotion is inspired by Orlando Gibbons, English Renaissance composer, whose composition This is the Record of John is also present on Seeing Is Believing in Muhly’s arrangements. Motion is a truly distinctive piece thanks mainly to the vigorous dialogue between Thomas Gould's expressive electric violin and Oliver Coates' mourning violoncello. They cry, they shriek, they unstoppably progress towards greater cacophony and complexity.
Motion is true its name: the composition is in perpetual move. However, its numerous pauses, whether they last half a second or few, are the greatest catalysts of vigour and force. The sharp and sudden introduction into the motive reminds me of Daníel Bjarnason's last year's astonishing Processions, musicAddicted's second favourite album. Most prominently, this vitality is evolved by pretty detailed strings which are best suited for bearing the emotional dynamism. Still, they are not alone: entire Aurora Orchestra plays a great support to their half-egoistic, fully satisfying solo. Also, John Reid's passionate, sharp and flexible piano deserves greater attention that is probably receives thanks to its later burial under layers of strings and winds. Nico Muhly smartly saves many tricks and surprises for a few later passages of Motion with amazing and fulfilling climax. I won’t go into detail for the listener will find his favourite passages and uncovering the point would lessen the genius of Motion, one of the most complex and remarkable compositions this year.
Having Dustin O’Halloran collaborating with Adam Wiltzie from Stars Of The Lid is like being served with a square of the orchestrated ambient. Pairing O’Halloran’s ear for simplicity and emotionality with Wiltzie’s mastery in shadowy atmospheres results in a strangely named project A Winged Victory For The Sullen. Although their name itself looks bit cliché with its references to wings and victory as bearers of some unexpected triumph for the skeptical and glum, the first song from their forthcoming self-titled debut somehow proves their lucky hand in choosing appropriate name for their project.
As expected, Steep Hills Of Vicodin Tears is a moody and dreamy piece on the border between lush ambient and bare contemporary classical music. What differentiates A Winged Victory For The Sullen from their contemporaries is the right balance between sentimentality and warm melancholy and a magic equilibrium of minimalism, which is not too simple, but still not complicated or ornate. In their first “single" Steep Hills Of Vicodin Tears O’Halloran and Wiltzie work with gradual building of the upcoming and slowly evolving grandeur. I believe it’s the patience which ensures that the moment of delightful beatitude expressed by blissful strings comes in the right moment – the texture below is massive, the layers of horns and piano in absolute harmony and the listener in the highest peak of his anticipation.
The climax of Steep Hills Of Vicodin Tears reminds me a bit of Ólafur Arnalds' composition Þau hafa sloppið undan þunga myrkursins, which closes his second album. Along with vigorous strings and piano Arnalds uses heavy percussion and drums that even strengthen the immediacy and resilience of the most important culmination on his record. Yet, A Winged Victory For The Sullen decided for something different: it’s a tiny dose of holding and retaining the composition from peaking what results in even a greater crescendo. Therefore, Steep Hills Of Vicodin Tears is not just a flow of splendour, but also an exhibition of O’Halloran and Wiltzie’s arranger talent. Their self-titled debut is soon out on Erased Tapes, home to Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm among others.
Yes, Anthony Gonzales is finally back with the sixth album of his currently one-man band M83. And it seems that ’80s kitsch of his ground-breaking Saturdays=Youth stayed in him more intensely than one would guess. Although Gonzales declared that his then unnamed new album would be very, very epic and very orchestrated, the first teaser from promisingly titled Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is more fun than the promised epic-nature.
Prepare yourself for hands-in-the-air chorus, verse-chorus-bridge structure and a big dose of analogue synthesizers. That’s what Midnight City sounds like: huge shout-along refrain which can be simply described as joyous. Obviously, this song is unashamed and honest expression of inner happiness and joy. These shiny feelings are even strengthened by the saxophone stormy improvisation in its last minute. Synthy, shoegaze, moonshine pop is M83's specialty – I believe the entire two-discs Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is going to be similarly anthemic. After all, there’s still something in this world to be thrilled about. By the way, Midnight City is offered for free download on M83’s official page.
Marsen Jules, artistic pseudonym for German-based Martin Juhls, is undeniably good at picking appropriate word describing his music. He debuted with Herbstlaub, German word for autumn leaves, which fittingly expressed its melancholic character, easily connected with fall from the visual point of view. What is moodier and bluer than falling leaves, chilly winds and early dusk? Here, he was one of first ambient artists combining mellow orchestration with hush electronics and while many compare Herbstlaub to the early work Deaf Center or Rafael Anton Irisarri, Jules was attempting for globally lighter and easier (but not simpler) music in the vein that was better evolved in the later years by Julien Neto or last year’s exceptional Olan Mill.
Les Fleurs, Golden and Lazy Sunday Funerals, the last one prequel to his career, evolved his ideas of dreamy, not too dark, but still quite impenetrable ideal of ambient music. True to their name, these albums were mainly focused on the overall feeling, intentionally forgetting about the music itself and thus shifting listener’s attention inward.
Jules’ new album Nostalgia is once again a fittingly named work full of strangely unapproachable beauty. In contrast to his latest pieces, Nostalgia plays more as a concept album rather than a collection of moody images. His fifth album sets its shadowy mood right from the beginning. A Moment Of Grace starts with a warm, dedicated half-drone, half-caress of dark, ever-repeating harmony played in the lower spectrum of cello, possibly bass. Soon it’s accompanied by a washed, embracing sound of touching strings which follow the basic structure of mounting the accord in its highest strength and then letting it pale and hush. Their repetition and omnipresent constancy makes the moment in its name an eternity – never-ending moment of tender touch, which is not too concrete, but not really invented.
The album is really strong in the consistency: what is laid in the first composition is further evolved during the following forty minutes. In few moments the overall emotion becomes richer and more intense, as the string evolution in its title song Nostalgia (described in my earlier feature, here). In other instants Jules falls deeper into dark abstraction of repetitive pulsing as performed in the third Through Blood And Fire which is a collection of half-shimmering, half-shivering drones complemented by strings synthesized into crystalline slides.
Luckily, Jules goes even deeper in the subsequent composition, aptly named Endless Whisper Of The Old Brigade. There he leaves his slow motionless and calmness for challenging droning darkness which swallows the listener with its thick mass. Listening to Endless… feels like swimming on the bottom of the sea without any light and drowning even deeper without any oxygen with a dark, cryptic passion to explore something hidden and unseen. Even stronger and more mature impression is given in Kunderas Dream, the longest composition on Nostalgia. The limpid sound of strings in their highest register is combined with exotic percussion combined with strums on echoed guitar. The chaos of these words is in a strong opposition to the ordered and clear sound of Kunderas Dream, impressive take on dreams, almost hallucinations.
The consistency and compactness of Nostalgia is on the other side bit too restrictive and preserves Jules from discovering new sounds. To retain its lush blue nature, Jules operates with the same sounds and structures which are too similar to each other. That leaves the second half of the album less inventive and exciting in comparison the first few compositions; obviously, almost all the weapons of nostalgic melancholia were used. This is mostly the case of closing Sleep My Brother, Sleep, which is simply one cute motive repeated for five minutes.
Fortunately for the listener, such moments are rare and Nostalgia sounds globally rewarding and enjoyable. Smartly balancing between dark ambient and gorgeous electronic minimalism, Marsen Jules has prepared a distinct kind of blue, charming and delicious melancholy – the emotion which is best evolved on Nostalgia in Jules’ entire career.
It seems that the acoustic guitar is gaining momentum for the second time in its contemporary history. Interpretations of old guitar music - from transcripts for renaissance lute to late romanticism in Latin music - tend to be explained as a return to its roots. The argument goes that today’s pop music is too far from the relatively arty and natural music of 30’s to 50’s and it’s almost impossible to invent something new and original these days – even with the seemingly unlimited possibilities of sophisticated software. Certainly, even contemporary pop makes use of the guitar, but too often in its raw form of electric guitar or electric bass, which are nearly every pop artist’s unnecessary tool. Going back to basics and reinventing the sincere and absolutely natural sound of the Spanish guitar seems to be a logical step in the never-ending circle of trends which come and go.
Ryan Teague’s decision to record an album played solely and entirely on acoustic guitar does not follow any of these logics. First of all, Teague doesn’t re-interpret or cover other artists; all of his compositions are his own creations. More importantly, Teague has already proved his status as an avant-garde composer par excellence. His Six Preludes EP and full-length debut Coins & Crosses, both released on Type, exhibited his ability to merge electronic manipulations with stupendous arrangements for chamber orchestra resulting in breathe-taking grandiosity merging old elegance with newish experimentation. These works were undeniably demanding on the listener’s knowledge and attention; they served as an exhibition not only of Teague’s talent and hard work, but also of his self-evident ambition for high art – something uncommon in today’s overly minimalist contemporary classical scene.
In contemporary art, the city serves as a coulisse for a portrait of a cold, anonymous, almost inhuman place, full of hopeless human entities that just pretend their life while living in machine-like cycles of work and insomnia. Whether in grim, industrial, information-age chaos or futuristic, supernatural order, the city acts as synonym for oppression of the masses and ceaseless pandemonium. Music captures the severity of cities in a handful of stark genres, predominantly with a dark, electric atmosphere existing in a volatile equilibrium of collapsing maelstrom versus strict order. Elizabeth Walling’s debut album as Gazelle Twin definitely possesses these glum vibrations, but the overall feeling derived from the first few listens is a slight hesitance as to whether the concept of her city, which lies in an unspecified time, is a fully dystopian portrait or one of a utopia on its way into apocalypse. Perhaps this was her very intention – to retain the uncertainty and vagueness right to the final impression. Inspired by surrealist painter Max Ernst, The Entire City is a surrealist mirage of dark and idyllic, soothing and oppressive.
When describing Walling’s artistic sensibility, it’s impossible not to mention Karin Dreijer Andersson (The Knife, Fever Ray) and Janine Rostron (Planningtorock), with whom she shares many aesthetic features. Like both these artists, masks and costumes are an integral part of Walling’s performance, with two advantages: not only can she keep characteristics not fitting with the concept out of sight, but her ingenious outfits allow Walling to assume different roles and shift the attention from her true self to the music itself. Vocal manipulation is another crucial piece of the Gazelle Twin puzzle, and again like Andersson and Rostron, the prevalent electronic processing does not prevent the album from dealing in an expansive range of emotions. And when Walling turns off her numerous machines and leaves her voice bare, as documented in ‘Changelings’, the effect is one of surprising beauty. ‘Organic’ and ‘natural’ are not the most appropriate adjectives for Walling’s art, but these naked tracks sound more human and straightforward.
Craig Taborn is a frequent collaborator to contemporary jazz elite but Avenging Angel is just his solo debut to prestigious ECM Records. Having contributed his top-notch improvisations to saxophonists James Carter, David Binney or bassist Michael Formanek, Taborn made his name with his enviable technique, ear for rhythm and a careful work with motives. After an unnoticed jewel of Light Made Lighter, his first solo record, Taborn freed himself from collaboration duties and recorded new album on his own after ten years.
Resulting seventy-two minutes of Avenging Angel consist of twelve impressively diverse compositions that range from short, playful experiments, fully improvised minimalist patchworks of themes and poly-rhythms and, finally, epic meditations. Forgetful, its penultimate track, definitely belongs to the third category.
From the compositional point of view, Forgetful stands on the attractive edge between contemporary classical music, minimalism in the vein of John Cage and classic jazz of Keith Jarrett. Unlike to most pieces on the album, Forgetful starts from a mellow silence and builds its motives patiently and fluidly. Here, Taborn counts on the very melody - fragile and smooth - which serves as the bridge between the moody hush of the first and third part, and the fragmental experimentation in the middle. As the melody fully blooms, it’s a signal for Taborn to start defragmenting and varying its sub-motives, what results in a strange, half-ecstatic, half-tragic climax. Luckily, Taborn is not satisfied with a half-baked result and goes on his trip in exploration all the rhythmic and melodic possibilities of piano. On Avenging Angel you’ll find more virtuosic and more brave pieces, but Forgetful is the most satisfying through the triumphant combination of all Taborn’s qualities. Avenging Angel is an extra-ordinary examination of piano’s possibilities.
Ryan Teague is an exceptional artist – any concept he comes with results in a striking perfection. After the orchestra-thru-electronics majesty of Coins & Crosses, Teague fully focused on an acoustic guitar and composed nine folklore-inspired songs solely for this intimate-sounding instrument. (Hear its opening song Causeway here, buy the entire album in Sonic Pieces shop.)
White Nights, the longest track on Causeway is another proof of Teague’s genial mind. It starts with guitar echoes manipulated into backwards effect. Then comes the main part, comprised of few key motives of which no single melody is the most dominating in the first part. The moment of their crystallization comes when Teague’s plucking fingers let one after one have its own solo. This is a nice exhibition of contrapunctus technique which secures the complexity and variance, but on the other side, lets Ryan retain the clarity and serenity of the song. In the background, the bass motive morphs into a droning monotony, which subconsciously increases the tense. Simultaneously, the main part becomes more denser, resulting in an expected collapse into simplicity and definition. Single melody is then replayed again & again and falls into a stirring oblivion.
White Nights is a striking example of how contemporary classical music can escape the stereotypes of minimalism while preserving the ease and straightforwardness. Ryan Teague is an extraordinarily gifted composer and artist who is fully devoted to his art and White Nights amazingly demonstrates both his effort for complexity and work of experienced arranger. Still, it’s the emotions of thrill and excitement which make this composition so arresting. Magnificent.
The greatest asset of music comprised of field recordings is its direct imaginative nature and straightforward effect. Whatever you hear, its origin is surely and obviously organic and natural, with the intrinsic function to wake up the subconscious emotions and associate them with particular images. Field recordings-based-music is clearly about images and impressions stimulated by simple perceptions which can be experienced just through active exploration of space and time around. Finally, although field music sounds very passive and static, its heart is opposite: active, dynamic, almost scientific from the compositional point of view.
Leonardo Rosado's full-length Opaque Glitter is an ambient album based on field recordings which are the core of Rosado’s work (the album is available onBandcamp). Luckily enough, they are just the basis for something fuller and bigger. Winds, rustlings, knocks and undefinable rushes complement the structure, but aren’t the lone component – rather, they are enhancements to the mood and refinements to the images.
It Ends Here is probably the richest and most intense composition on Opaque Glitter. Synthesizers evoking sound of organ (or processed organ instead?) are the bottom line of this track’s success: they are mournful, but not crying; blue, but not weepy; dark, but not mystic. Their repetitive motive, which serves as a backbone to It Ends Here, is underlined by aquatic, flowing drone, that guarantees the natural pulsation of the composition. Various unexpected sounds appear here and there and make this Rosado's impression an ever-living entity, which constantly refines itself to the dramatic and terminal peak in the final half-minute. It Ends Here is a stimulating and evolving capture of a single instant: first isolated, then complemented, finally terminated.