CD/Digital releases

20 years on: The Orb – Blue Room

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Twenty years ago today, The Orb released one of their finest and most legendary creations, the single Blue Room. It became famous immediately due to its length; at 39’58”, it was tantalisingly close to the durational limit set by Gallup, who ran the UK charts, which classified anything of 40 minutes or more as an album. Not surprisingly, therefore, Blue Room instantly became the longest single in UK chart history, which it remains to this day. But Blue Room deserves to be remembered and celebrated most for its embodiment of The Orb’s unique approach to music-making, seamlessly integrating the ostensibly incongruous and hitherto distant idioms of dub and ambient, garnished with elements of minimalism, house and psychedelia.

The track took five months to create, The Orb’s Alex Paterson and Thrash joined by the renowned Steve Hillage and Jah Wobble, whose guitar and bass contributions sat alongside synth from Miquette Giraudy (Hillage’s partner and bandmate from their days as Gong), and a vocal riff by Aisha, sampled from her 1986 track ‘The Creator’. Combined with the ambient dub electronics of Paterson and Thrash, these were the raw elements from which Blue Room was created. The track’s title, incidentally, is a reference to a hangar located at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, which certain conspiracy theorists have convinced themselves houses “extraterrestrial spacecraft and bodies“; this theme would be taken further on The Orb’s second album, U.F.Orb, which includes a drastically shortened version of Blue Room. Read more

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Giving voice to the indescribable: Aaron Cassidy – The Crutch of Memory

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There are times when a composer wins you over instantly, the cogency of their arguments captured in a transparent marriage of sound and idea that’s instantly familiar and welcoming. This has emphatically not been my experience with the music of Aaron Cassidy. Over the last few years, i’ve oscillated around Cassidy’s music with the regularity of a comet, never quite pulled into orbit (or should that be a collision?), but constantly drawn back nonetheless. With the release, a few months ago, of the first CD devoted to his music, i figured it was time to try to pin down my thoughts about what Aaron Cassidy is up to. The CD, The Crutch of Memory, focuses on works for one or two players, encompassing both Cassidy’s earliest music as well as relatively recent pieces, the latest of which is around three years old. Both the spread of output as well as the restricted forces involved make this a superb primer for Cassidy’s work.

To begin to understand his compositional approach, take a look at the score excerpt below, taken from Richard Barrett’s 1988 work for trombone and percussion, EARTH (click for high-res).

At this point, towards the end of the piece, the trombone’s music abruptly bifurcates into two staves, the upper showing the slide positions, the lower showing the harmonics being sounded. This fundamentally undermines the way a trombonist is used to playing, where these two parameters imply each other within conventional notation; yet by ‘decoupling’ those parameters, and destroying their traditional connection, Barrett creates a remarkable effect—which, in context, is both profoundly moving and deeply distressing—that could not have been achieved any other way.
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Emancipated beats: voidesque – as if it never existed

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Despite my fondness for more avant-garde beat-oriented music, for a long time it’s been disappointing to see the current state of such idioms overshadowed by its champions. The likes of Aphex Twin, Autechre and Aaron Funk have, on the one hand, deeply moved and inspired composers and musicians to seek to explore what can be done with beats that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with dancing, while on the other hand intimidating these same musicians to the point of pastiche and parody. It’s possible to count the really imaginative beat-artists of the last decade on one hand. All the more reason, then, to celebrate someone who brings some fresh invention to the genre.

Derek Jeppsen is a composer based in San Diego, California, a recent graduate in electroacoustic composition, and he piqued my interest when i read the description of his first release:

The album is really quite simple, and draws from certain things that may seem antiquated (drum samples), but this collection is about staying away from my “sound art” experiments and academic work. Many “popular” idioms make it to my music (use of a beat, repetition, etc.), but also many things that wouldn’t fit that context, especially in the rhythmic and form realms (polymeter, metric modulation, tempo changes), which often reflect the fact that I play Javanese gamelan professionally. The album is generally about creating an atmospheric artistic space, and including some stylized elements from dance music. There are also moments about randomness and aggression, and one of the tracks is an algorithmic composition, generalizing “beats” and playing with modal melodic generation.

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Joyous and infectiously playful: Lindstrøm – Six Cups of Rebel

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Having spent several weeks focusing on music of an introspective and ascetic nature, it’s time to let off some steam, and to that end let me flag up the latest release from Lindstrøm, titled Six Cups of Rebel. In nearly 10 years of music-making, this is only Hans-Peter Lindstrøm’s third album (which is not to suggest his output is small; he’s put out over twenty 12″ singles over the years), but the large-scale format clearly suits him. Six Cups of Rebel is a somewhat strange entity to try to define, opening in dazzling fashion with a cascading piece of organ minimalism (‘No Release’), its static, Steve Reich-like epicentre chasing itself in circles over a glowering pedal part of rising Shepard tones. None of which really suggests the full-on party atmosphere that’s about to ensue, with multitudinous but astutely-judged throwbacks to an earlier time; but Lindstrøm’s not just another statistic in the endless parade of latter-day retrophiliacs; he’s far more subtle, opting – for the most part – for whiffs of suggestion rather than a faceful of the past. Lindstrøm has assimilated his influences, and when they appear—funk and house gestures in ‘De Javu’; ’80s synth arpeggios and power chords in ‘Quiet Place to Live’—they’re merely elements in an experiment that’s very much bigger and more original. Read more

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A crazily convoluted crucible of ideas: Three Trapped Tigers – Numbers: 1–13

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Turning away from the Lent series for a bit, for some time now i’ve been itching to write about Three Trapped Tigers. They’re a trio of musicians from London, and despite the fact they consist of keyboards, bass guitar and drums, despite the fact their music is given labels such as ‘math rock’ or ‘instrumental noise rock’, and despite the fact their live gigs subject one’s eardrums to the kind of pummelling one might expect from, say, Meshuggah, it just doesn’t feel right to describe them as a ‘band’. Superficially, they fit the mould, but their music is significantly different—in both conception and execution—from pretty much everyone else of that ilk.

Their debut album, Route One or Die, was released last year, and the fact i placed it second on my Best Albums of 2011 perhaps says something. It’s an astonishing tour de force of heavyweight invention and lightweight agility, but this shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. For a full three years beforehand, Tom Rogerson (keyboards/vocals), Matt Calvert (guitar/electronics) and Adam Betts (drums) evolved their unique mode of expression through a series of 13 compositions; simply numbered in order rather than given names, these pieces were released on three EPs with similarly functional titles, EP (2008), EP2 (2009) and EP3 (2010). Released in relatively small quantities, these EPs have became hard to find, so they’ve recently been re-released both as digital downloads as well as on a “remastered” compilation album, Numbers: 1–13; more about these later. Read more

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New digital EP: Simulated Music – postscript

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i’ve released today a new EP of electronic music, titled Simulated Music – postscript. As that name suggests, the EP contains material related to my album Simulated Music, released a few months ago. Here’s an excerpt from the blurb:

Simulated Music, released in June 2011, was a cycle of music created at speed. As i wrote at the time, “critical decisions … were made with a minimum of deliberation. Once they were decided, i worked quickly, not concerning myself much with minutiæ, thinking instead about the broader, gestural shape of the music as a whole”. Nonetheless, the process that led to each ‘Simulation’, while relatively brief, contained a considerable amount of experimentation, as it was worked into its final form. On several occasions, i produced more than one version of a piece, uncertain of which i preferred; only when finally assembling Simulated Music did it become clear which versions of the pieces should be used. This EP contains nearly all of the alternate versions.

As with my earlier EPs, Simulated Music – postscript is only available as a free digital download, via my Bandcamp site.

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The Softness War: Chubby Wolf – Los que No Son Gentos & Celer – Noctilucent Clouds

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A little under a year ago, reviewing Celer’s then latest release Dying Star, i made the rather rash remark that with its “quietly massive majesty … [it] may just be Celer’s masterpiece”. i’m not going to retract that statement—it remains for me the most striking album in the Celer corpus—but it’s been fascinating to hear a pair of albums this year that draw very near to it, in terms of both aspiration and execution.

The first comes from the Celer-offshoot Chubby Wolf, the result of Danielle Baquet-Long’s solo explorations. As i’ve remarked in the past, left to her own devices Baquet-Long pursues a more austere, sonically complex soundworld than that of her duo work with husband Will, and new release Los que No Son Gentos is no exception. That’s not to suggest it lacks warmth—far from it—but the ‘heat’ it emits is soft and residual, not blazing; there are no overt grand gestures here. The 14 tracks are founded on slowly-moving foundations that for the most part keep themselves at a distance, not so much aloof as reserved; and their mode of expression is pithy and succinct, many of the tracks lasting under three minutes. Yet their miniature stature belies a remarkable intensity with which the music speaks. It’s a paradox neatly encapsulated in Baquet-Long’s familiarly loquacious track-titles, which (like so much poetry) are simultaneously immediate—more than once invoking desire—and alienating. One quickly realises that each track is not merely concise, but concentrated, boiled down into a richly undiluted essence, in which each shifting agglomeration of notes, each surging bass protrusion becomes utterly compelling. Thankfully, this is clearly what matters most; once again, Baquet-Long flies in the face of so much contemporary ambient music, that simply regards sounding pretty (which is, in any case, subjective) as its primary goal. Los que No Son Gentos shifts in and out of loveliness, but the weight and power of its conviction never lets up for a second. It’s perhaps perverse to single out any individual track in such a context as this, but “You are the Description that brings me out of Myself… But cannot Give Me anywhere to go” is especially impressive, bringing to mind the best work of Jonathan Coleclough. Read more

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Mika Vainio – Life (… It Eats You Up)

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For around seven minutes, you wonder where you are. Extended, sharp, contorted droning outbursts emanate from somewhere, wrestling either to cling to or break free from their origin. It’s like witnessing an alien voice learn how to speak. And then, seemingly from nowhere, IRRUPTION! the music transformed into a massive doom expansion moving with the grace and momentum of tectonic plates. It’s a breathtakingly glorious but agonising moment, one that says everything about what Mika Vainio is setting out to explore on his new album, Life (…It Eats You Up).

This album hurts. Which is not to say that it hurts the ears (although, at times, they take no little pounding), but rather that every one of its 58 minutes comes from a place of sheer, horrified and enraged pain. One hasn’t heard an essay as stark and aggressively wounded as this since Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral. Indeed, the first example of regularity on the album, third track ‘Mining’, is built on a rhythmic loop reminiscent of NIN’s ‘Closer’. Those familiar with Vainio’s work in Pan Sonic may expect otherwise, but beats are emphatically not what this album is about; if anything, their presence can appear disorienting, begging the question of what they bring to the otherwise untethered violence. For it is violence with which one is confronted most—although the nature of the confrontation is one of half-spent energy, angular and wretched. Read more

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Richard Ginns – Sea Change

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Nostalgia is a curious and dangerous thing. Its essential condition – memorialising past events, beautifying them into an idealised rendition of the original – is a kind of historical plastic surgery, and its prevalence in contemporary culture shows no sign of abating. At its best, in the realm of the hauntological, it can become a sharp, incisive exploration of half-remembered memories, in the process losing the pretence that nostalgia, unwittingly but unerringly, inflicts on its subject. At its worst, in the realm of Hipstamatic and the neo-Polaroid, it becomes a cosmetic conceit, a wistful yet phony affectation, positing the notion that things were better or more lovely ‘once upon a time’.

Richard Ginns’ Sea Change exists somewhere between these poles, although more at the Hipstamatic end of the continuum (the artwork features precisely this kind of imagery). Ginns acknowledges that his foray into “the memory of childhood visits to the seaside” is “completely personal”, and that truth presents a further difficulty emanating from nostalgia: in some ways it is so utterly personal that one can barely hope to engage without resorting to nostalgia of our own, making for a rather diffuse, even faintly solipsistic kind of empathy. This crystallises in Ginns’ hope that such imagery “produces a sensation of fondness and memory”; notwithstanding the fact that ‘memory’ isn’t a sensation, the kind of ‘fondness’ of which he speaks is, again, entirely personal, and he cannot rely on the fact that, merely by presenting the listener with ostensibly loaded material, we will instinctively relate to it and be drawn into his memories as though they were our own. Artistically, as anywhere else, nostalgia is indeed a curious and dangerous thing. Read more

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New CD: Simulated Music – out today!

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Simulated Music is my new CD, released today, Sunday 12 June 2011.

The piece marks something of a departure from my previous electronic music. In Simulated Music, i have allowed the sound materials much more freedom to ‘do their own thing’, leaving them to unfold with minimal intervention. Both in duration and content, the nine ‘Simulations’ heard on the album are a diverse collection, encompassing large-scale, thundering noisescapes and soft, intimate whispers, wide clusters and narrow drones, piercing high pitches and powerful deep bass surges. Ever shifting and transforming, they are together suggestive of the worlds of noise, drone and ambient, yet stand apart from them all, occupying an abstract sonic space that is strange yet beguiling.

Simulated Music is dedicated to the memory of the great Roland Kayn, who died in January of this year.

The album is a limited edition of 50 numbered copies. For more details, to hear excerpts and to order a copy, go here.

There’s also a brief article about Simulated Music on Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s contemporary music blog The Rambler, here.

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Noveller – Glacial Glow

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Since departing from rock outfit Parts & Labor in 2009, Sarah Lipstate has taken to exploring deeply experimental territory. Under the nom de guerre of Noveller, armed with only a guitar and the determination to subject it to all manner of treatments, she has spent the last couple of years establishing a unique sonic language. In some ways, the title of last year’s album Desert Fires seems an apt description of the kind of soundworld Lipstate creates in her music. From the outset, on 2009’s Paint on the Shadows, her music has often evoked wide, open spaces, although suggestive less of grandeur than the perspective of being alone in the midst of a vast environment. In every sense, Sarah Lipstate creates ‘wilderness music’ (think Gus Van Sant’s film Gerry and you’ll be in the right aesthetic area), combining a sensitive use of restrained dynamics with an impressive sense of patience, allowing her material time to move, rather than hurrying it from place to place. Sometimes this leads in the direction of drones; elsewhere, pulsating, angular shapes are made, like bizarre rock formations.

Her new album, Glacial Glow, finds her in a different kind of wilderness, but one no less austere. Read more

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A flawless reverie for the end of the world: The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation – Anthropomorphic

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From time to time, an album comes along that doesn’t just confound expectations, but actually goes so far as to widen one’s understanding of what music is capable of being. Scott Walker’s The Drift (which recently turned five years old) is, for me, the most memorable example of that; the most recent, released three months ago, is Anthropomorphic, from The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation, the live performance configuration of The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble. If you’ve not heard of them, and/or if the word ‘jazz’ in those titles puts you off, have no fear. In their original Kilimanjaro guise, stylistic mannerisms such as the muted trombone and double bass action raise the superficial spectre of jazz without its substance. As Mount Fuji, barely a trace remains; if anything, it’s almost like a palimpsest of jazz, over which multiple layers of obtuse musings have accumulated, and that’s particularly true of Anthropomorphic. Put together from three separate live performances (in, respectively, Utrecht, Wroclaw and Moscow), it is a single, hour-long piece divided into four equal sections, given the headings “Space”, “Dimension”, “Form” and “Function”.

Despite its 15-minute duration, the first part is something of an overture. Soft and calm at first, “Space” opens with a trombone making shapes while a guitar ebbs elsewhere. A few minutes in, an ultra-deep bass throb begins—more felt than heard—gently unsettling everything, and perhaps indirectly initiating all that follows. Five more minutes pass in relative quietude, the guitar gradually easing out of the shadows, after which some threatening electronic stabs briefly but brutally interrupt the flow. The trombone’s soliloquy splits in response, and its duties are continued by a new voice in the texture: a sliding sine tone (at first sounding like a bending trombone note); it starts an acrobatic counterpoint to the previous material, causing a series of aggressive, industrial surges beneath, increasingly electronic in tone. “Space” culminates in a focused, forceful drone, the trombone joining in, buzzing and spitting on its surface. Read more

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Mind-bogglingly beautiful: Fovea Hex – Here Is Where We Used To Sing

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Clodagh Simonds likes to take her time. Following an early spell of musical incandescence in the late ’60s and early ’70s (in her own group, the fascinating prog folk outfit Mellow Candle), the Irish singer was content to hover in the fringes for three and half decades before taking centre stage again in 2005. But even then, her return was a gradual one; in a new guise, Fovea Hex, Simonds took a further three years to unveil a one-hour cycle of music, titled Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent. But what music it was! the nine tracks—released as three EPs: Bloom (2005), Huge (2006) and Allure (2007)—did nothing less than reinvent from the bottom up the notions of what song is and can be. This was no irreverant act of avant-garde ruthlessness, however; Simonds’ folk leanings (and they are only leanings; she has repeatedly stated that she neither thinks of herself as a folk singer, nor does she feel part of a tradition)—despite their proximity in an apparently alien context—were loudly and proudly proclaimed seemingly at every moment. It was, in short, an almost incredible blending of ancient and modern ideas, an enterprise made all the more successful and telling by the contributions of such figures as Brian Eno, Colin Potter, Carter Burwell and The Hafler Trio‘s Andrew M. McKenzie, who also mesmerisingly reworked each EP for an accompanying CD series.

That choice of title, Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent, could not have been chosen more wisely; it encapsulates perfectly the paradox confronting the listener in Fovea Hex’s music. On the one hand, as already stated, the folk elements are emphatically foregrounded, and folk music is at its heart communal music, not to be sat back and listened to, thought about and critiqued; on the contrary, it invites our participation, we are compelled to join in, to speak. Yet equally emphatic is a profound sense of ritual—not exactly a religious sense, it’s more diffuse and unfocused than that, but nonetheless a potent, perhaps pagan forcefulness that invokes a rather different kind of response. Rituals are communal acts too, of course, but participation here has more ebb and flow; at times, whether by rubrics or by our inner sense of the numinous, we are compelled to be silent. This unique, magical paradox has returned in dazzling fashion on Fovea Hex’s new album, Here Is Where We Used To Sing, released last month. Read more

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A complete counterpoint to untold destruction: Ex Confusion – Too Late, They Are Gone

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Sometimes, timing changes everything. Tomorrow sees the release of a new EP from Japan’s Atsuhito Omori, better known as Ex Confusion, titled Too Late, They Are Gone. That a work of such sublime quietude from a Japanese artist should come at such a desperate time for that country—which has, in the space of a few days, become synonymous with violent destruction, brought to the brink of despair—lends the music an emotional weight that is, admittedly, extra-musical, but no less real for that. This is to take nothing away from Omori; the timing is entirely coincidental, and i was marvelling at its beauty for several days before the earth shook. But music has an uncanny ability to escape from the clutches of its creator, becoming more and other things to its listeners than they could ever have imagined.

At a little under 18 minutes, and despite its ambient ethereality, Omori’s material is kept focused, particularly through the three tracks at the EP’s epicentre. The opener, “Asking You Why” is contrastingly diaphanous, simple, drawn-out notes reverberating like distant brass through a dense fog. “I See You Breathe” continues in a similar vein, although higher, with a more mobile tonal centre, rocking back and forth beneath soft dissonances that are gently mesmerising. The title track swiftly follows, bringing an abrupt change of texture, more static, resonating outwards from a fixed central cluster. Despite the lack of anything approximating bass, it’s a rich, even slightly heady soundworld; occasional notes protrude sharply out, but their shimmer prevents them from jarring on the ear, adding to the entrancingly hypnotic tone that pervades this track. Read more

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The familiar and the strange playing together as friends: Radiohead – The King of Limbs

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As an occasion, Valentine’s Day is polarising enough, split between they who regard it with importance, and those for whom it’s little more than an overhyped, vacuous sham. But that polarisation was exacerbated further on this particular Valentine’s Day, bringing as it did Radiohead‘s announcement that their eighth album, The King of Limbs, would be forthcoming just a few days later. It’s surprising that so many music sites and blogs have been so precipitate in their quest to get out the earliest possible review (The Telegraph‘s Neil McCormick, as usual, being the most egregious; his track-by-track “review”, written on the day of release, was pointless, cliché-ridden doggerel)—Radiohead have demonstrated more times than most that their output takes no little time to speak, and even longer to be heard. In October last year, when i wrote my 10-year retrospective of Kid A, i couldn’t help feeling it had taken much of that decade to make sufficiently meaningful inroads to the material; from that perspective, to be responding to The King of Limbs barely more than a fortnight after its release seems absurdly premature. But the dust has finally begun to settle, and now one can at least start to try to make sense of those first impressions. Read more

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Aidan Baker – Lost in the Rat Maze

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There will be some who regard Aidan Baker as not just an important part of post-rock, ambient doom music, but as a sine qua non of that scene, perhaps even the benchmark by which its practitioners should be measured and judged. Such is his perceived importance to many, and the sheer scale of his output (Discogs lists no fewer than 93 solo releases, including this one) makes for an intimidating testament to the breadth and abundance of his creative imagination. Size isn’t everything, of course, and it often follows that, the more prolific the artist, the more inconsistent is the quality of their work. Furthermore, it’s interesting how the overwhelming amount of music Baker has created through the last decade serves as both an aid and a hindrance when approaching new releases – we know, broadly speaking, what to expect; equally, we never quite know what we’re going to hear. There are few artists about which that could be said; Aidan Baker’s work is nothing if not enigmatic. Read more

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Tim Hecker – Ravedeath, 1972

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If there’s one thing that characterises Tim Hecker’s music, it’s a spirit of dichotomy, sitting comfortably betwixt smooth, rounded ambient edges and jagged points of noise. Ravedeath, 1972 continues that dichotomy, and embodies another one, combining the effervescent caprice of live improvisation with the cool consideration subsequently brought to bear on it in the studio.

From the outset, this album makes it clear that noise is going to be the order of the day. First track ‘The Piano Drop’ – presumably named for the curious event on the cover – unveils material pushed into overload, although it’s neither harsh nor forbidding, bludgeoning the ears with all the force of a pillow fight. Its spinning surface quickly erodes away due to its own constriction into a more shimmering, pulsating kind of object, that seems to fade rather too quickly (i could happily have listened to this develop for a lot longer). Read more

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United Bible Studies – The Gascoigne Observatory

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A few months ago, United Bible Studies made available in digital form their debut release, Stations of the Sun, Transits of the Moon, which first saw light of day as far back as 2003. Listened to beside the group’s latest album, The Gascoigne Observatory, released last month, makes for a fascinating and revealing contrast. In short, United Bible Studies have come a long way – so far, in fact, that their rough-hewn, folk origins are a distant memory, out of sight and most definitely out of mind.

Yet, while the language and mode of expression heard on The Gascoigne Observatory may bear little resemblance to earlier releases, the group’s strongest and most deeply-rooted characteristic – music emanating from improvisation – is more evident than ever before. And not just evident either; the fluid, coherent way in which the album’s single, 36-minute track unfolds is nothing short of breathtaking. Put simply, there’s not one single moment that doesn’t seem to make perfect sense with what went before; the sense of direction is impeccable, always straight and true, and this alone makes it a remarkable accomplishment. Read more

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Ironomi – Sketch

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While stereotypes abound when discussing music emanating from the east, an acute sensitivity to the machinations and subtleties of nature seems to be an unmistakable, almost ubiquitous characteristic. This, complimented by a profound kind of simplicity, sets such music apart from the preoccupations of the west, which so often gravitate to extremes, either abounding in cerebral filigree or playing around in frothy, superficial nonsense.

For the last few years, Japanese duo Ironomi (いろのみ) have been exploring their own response to the world around them, with a particular interest in the seasons. Pianist Junya Yanagidaira is invariably found in the foreground, generating a seemingly eternal stream of improvisations; at the fringes is Yu Isobe, using his laptop to weave impossibly delicate and restrained contexts for the piano. Despite the prevalence of the piano in contemporary ambient music, their combined approach is a distinctive and somewhat unusual one, demonstrated to good effect on a cluster of releases, of which Recode (2008) is arguably the most assured. Read more

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New digital release: at the magical hour when is becomes if / desert-tide

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The sonic poles of noise and pitched material are heard in delicate vein on my own new digital EP, which presents two works composed in June 2010. The shorter of the two, desert-tide, takes a gentle journey through a small, noise-based landscape. By contrast, at the magical hour when is becomes if focuses entirely on pitches, juxtaposing them in clouds and clusters ever in flux, drifting, dissipating and coalescing within a relatively narrow sonic space.

The EP is released at midnight on 2 October 2010, available only as a free digital download, through my own label Interrobang. It can be downloaded in a wide variety of formats from my Bandcamp site, here. Included with the download is a high-resolution PDF digital booklet, as well as a special offer to purchase both my CD releases at two for the price of one – an offer not to be missed!

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