experimental music reviews


Reviews for Tuesday August 16, 2022

Sheriffs of Nothingness - An Autumn Night at the Crooked Forest, four fireplaces (in reality only one)
Released August 21, 2020

[[ Listen To and/or Buy Here ]]
Genre(s): Free improvisation, field recordings

Seemingly named after folk heroRobin Hood's archenemy, the Sheriff of Nottingham, the Sheriffs of Nothingness are a free-improvising string duo of Norwegian background. Its two members are violinist Kari Rønnekleiv and violist Ole Henrik Moe. Both have played and play together in the jazz pop group The Island Band and as part of The Olsens, a musical act who have accompanied the much feted Norwegian house producer Todd Terje (the stage name of Terje Olsen which references the maestro of New York's house music scene, Todd Terry).

The Sheriffs of Nothingness have to date recorded four previous albums, three of which have been for Sofa Music (who publish this album as well), and one which is as featured guests on album by heavy metal band Motorpsycho for the German Stickman Records. Although the title of this album is quite a mouthful, four fireplaces has a rather unique concept behind it: Rønnekleiv and Moe collectively accompany/emulate the sounds/rhythms of various different varieties of timber burning and crackling away in the fireplace, the name of each piece is taken from a source of kindling, e.g. track three's Great Spruce-log. (In the opinion of this author, maybe this album would be better suited to the "Another Timber" label.) It would be an interesting juxtaposition to pair the likes of a Fireplace Channel or the Yule Log with this music. This album by the Sheriffs of Nothingness is beautifully understated, but also quite technically challenging--both for the players undoubtedly and certainly for some listeners. Nonetheless, its subtlety is not quite at the level one might find starkly overwhelming such as the likes of Wandelweiser composers like Frey or Pisaro-Liu, but fans of those two will probably find much to enjoy here as well.

Stars of the Lid - The Ballasted Orchestra
Released March 10, 1997

[[ Listen To and/or Buy Here ]]
Genre(s): Drone, ambient, classical
Stars of the Lid are a duo originally based in Austin, Texas, USA, one of whom now calls Brussels, Belgium home. They have a few sideprojects between them, the best known of which would be A Winged Victory for the Sullen a duet between SotL's Adam Wiltzie with Dustin O'Halloran. The rather peculiarly named Stars of the Lid are named after the phenomenon known as prisoner's cinema a type of hallucination caused by prolonged exposure to darkness and being away from light. They claim inspiration from a few sources including Polish composers Zbigniew Preisner and Henryk Górecki, the pioneering post rock bands Labradford and Talk Talk, as well as the man famous for calling himself a nonmusician, despite his many brilliant records, Brian Eno.

The Ballasted Orchestra is Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride's third album together and the first they recorded for Chicago, Illinois' Kranky. It is an album which is mostly rather dark and lethargic. Although it can feel cold in a few places, I find it to be rather hot and sometimes even sticky. This is evidenced by tracks (and sometimes their titles) such as "Sun Drugs", one of the album's highlights and one of four tracks over twelve minutes in length. Heavily treated guitars, orchestral strings, and other sound sources contribute throughout this album to bring layers upon layers of wafting drone sometimes drifting like massive clouds and other times bubbling like hot tar. The fourth track, "Taphead", shares its name with a piece on what many consider the second ever post rock album, Spirit of Eden by the group Talk Talk, who famously started out as a synthpop group who became more of an art pop act and then ended their run with a couple of albums which are nowadays heralded as the start of what critic Simon Reynolds coined post rock.

At the time of The Ballasted Orchestra's release a quarter century ago, Mark Frost and David Lynch's show Twin Peaks was mostly one with a cult following, not quite the immense critical darling it is today. Being fans of the show, and presumably also its score by Angelo Badalamenti, Stars of the Lid decided to write some music inspired by an imagined and then nonexistent thirtieth episode of the program. Although these two tracks are rather bleak, they give way to a spellbindingly gorgeous album closer and one of the group's most hopeful compositions: the humorously titled The Artificial Pine Arch Song. The version of this work found on CD is about eighteen minutes, but if you're lucky enough to have the double LP, you get three extra minutes (as well as a six minute bonus track after "Sun Drugs" called "24 Inch Cymbal" replacing "Down II"). This album is considered by many to be their first mature release, though I must say for my own part, I quite enjoy its predecessor from 1996, Gravitational Pull vs. the Desire for an Aquatic Life a great deal too. It is the first to really showcase the duo's love for drones and was reissued by Kranky in 1997.

Oval - Oktober 91
Released October 1991

[[ Listen To Here ]]
Genre(s): Ambient pop, indietronica, postindustrial


[[Listen To Here]]
Genre(s): Ambient pop, glitch pop, glitch, art pop, trip hop

Released January 20, 1998

[[Listen To and/or Buy Here]]
Genre(s): Glitch, ambient
Oval are best known for being pioneers of glitch music, a highly postmodern style emulating the sounds of failing machines including that of CD or record skipping. There is a very small amount of this which can sort of be heard in the use of some of the music on Oktober 91, Oval's first demo, a seventeen minute cassette which sounds next to nothing like the act we all know and love. It is mostly of interest for curiosity's sake. Two years later, we have 1993's Wohnton, which roughly translated would mean "living sound". It is not shambolic in the way the group's first demo is and although it does not contain the pure glitch sound many of Oval's fanbase most love, it is nonetheless a fully formed album (which even includes some more fully sketched out versions of tracks from Oktober 91 like "Buntstift") with perhaps surprisingly, a decent amount of pop sensibility to it. In many ways this album presages some of Markus Popp's future experiments with marrying glitch aesthetics with more conventionally musical styles found on later albums like 2013's Calidostópia! where he collaborated with a number of Brazilian singers. Most fans of Oval who have first come to the act's works through the 1995 album 94diskont will be delighted upon hearing the minute long interlude "Kardamom", the instrumental ode to a favourite spice of the author is the foundation for Oval's best known song "Do While". Some may be offput by the soft lyrical singing here but I think that would be hard to do unless you're too caught up in your listening experience being Oval's trademark austere mechanical yet arrhythmic sputterings and scrapings.

The year between Wohnton and 94diskont saw the release of the first recognizable glitch album as such, with Systemisch. Although some consider Nicolas Collins to have laid the groundwork for the style in the previous decade, Oval usually receive the credit since under their auspices was the sound first recognizable as a touchstone to what has come since. A few years after 94diskont was 1998's dok

Reviews for Saturday January 15, 2022

Masayoshi Fujita - Bird Ambience
Released May 28, 2021

[[ Listen To and/or Buy Here ]]
Genre(s): Ambient, electroacoustic, drone
Masayoshi Fujita, also sometimes known as El Fog, is a Japanese vibraphone player and ambient musician. He has mostly recorded for Erased Tapes Records, a label started by Robert Raths, Yasuhiko Fukuzono's flau, and the label Faitiche of his frequent collaborator Jan Jelinek, with whom he has produced two full length albums and one EP.

On Bird Ambience, Fujita creates a range of textural moods, by means of of varied instrumentation: vibraphone, synthesizer, drums, marimba, effects units, and audio recordings all come together to form a collection with strong continuity but variability. The tracks are evocatively titled, some more concretely such as "Thunder", "Morocco", and "Fabric", and sometimes more abstractly, such as "Cumulonimbus Dream", and the tune named for the ancient Greek lyric poet known for his drinking songs and erotic poems, Anakreon. Saturated mallets and gentle pads alike deliver sounds from steady and rhythmic to more amorphous, drifting ambient excursions. The 12 tracks of Bird Ambience vary in mood but offer a unified atmosphere.

Merzbow - Tauromachine
Released July 21, 1998

[[ Listen To and/or Buy Here ]]
Genre(s): Harsh noise
Masami Akita is one of the most prolific musicians in the world of noise music and has been so since the late 1970s. Merzbow's musical oeuvre rewards both neophytes and heads alike, and 1998's Tauromachine is often considered a good entry point into noise music for the uninitiated. One of the things that makes this wonderful album more accessible to those who are not as familiar with harsh noise is the number of tracks and their lengths. It has seven tracks, most of which are under eight minutes, a sharp contrast to the genre's mainstay of sidelong behemoths. Another is that the tracks are less sonically dense than many works by Akita or his peers.

The third track, "Soft Water Rhinoceros", is unequivocally considered one of the album's highlights. It's not hard to see why. Continuing the pulsing rhythms of the two previous cuts (present throughout most of the album), it exhibits a greater diversity of texture in its nine minutes, including a lovely recording of running water. Even beside the delicious analog screeches and scratches found throughout the album, if you're like me, the sound of water is a nice addition to almost any music. From there, "Minotauros", continues to build and build upon its predecessor. Many of the same blistering textures from before persist and are joined by rhythmic synthesizer blips and laser sounds. The sounds thin out some for "Heads of Clouds", another highlight.

Jan Jelinek - Zwischen
Released May 4, 2018

[[ Listen To and/or Buy Here ]]
Genre(s): Sound poetry, electroacoustic
Jan Jelinek is a German musician who has been fairly steadily releasing music since 1999. He was born in Darmstadt, a city already much associated with experimental music due to it being home of the Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt, which at its summer school course cum bienniale has hosted a veritable who's who of modern avantgarde composers. Most of Jelinek's music involves electroacoustic manipulation, with varying amounts of abstraction. On his much beloved 2001 album for ~scape, Loop-Finding-Jazz-Records, he fairly seamlessly incorporated drum machine sounds, rhythmic looping, creating a sound which can be described techno in the absolute loosest sense possible.

Originally developed as a radio play is 2018's Zwischen, whose name means "between" in German, a highly conceptual and very creative work in 12 parts, totalling just eight seconds shy of a half hour. The idea is based on the sounds between words, the sounds between thoughts, the so called "asemantic" content of speech, e.g. the 'um's, 'er's, coughs, and laughter. In this case, these sounds are taken from interviews with public figures, some are visual artists, like Yoko Ono and Max Ernst, musician/composers Lady Gaga and John Cage, journalist Alice Schwarzer, and poet Ernst Jandl. Each of these 12 movements is not much longer than three minutes at the most and is titled after the question posed by the person in question's interlocutor, e.g. "Friederike Mayröcker, When You Write, Do You Feel Like the Creator of the Work or More Like a Medium?". In addition to the hemming and hawing, what one might term something like "the sound of thought", are some rather excellent abstract electronic squiggles. The melodic/harmonic content of these synthesized flourishes complement the recordings in each part, which are themselves only the slightest bit edited.

Reviews for Sunday January 16, 2022

Burkhard Beins, John Butcher, Werner Dafeldecker - induction
Released January 1, 2022

[[ Listen To and/or Buy Here ]]
Genre(s): Free improvisation, free jazz
induction is one of five albums released New Year's Day by saxophonist John Butcheron the Luxembourgois record label Ni Vu Ni Connu whose name means "neither seen nor known" in French. In this case he forms a trio with Austrian double bassist Werner Dafeldecker and German percussionist Burkhard Beins. Butcher has been releasing music since 1985 and since about 2001 has been releasing a few albums every year, which is rather an impressive feat (though not unheard of) to maintain for more than a decade. All three men have played with the fairly established supergroup Polwechsel and a sizeable number of other outfits. Some of these include Dafeldecker having played with a chamber music/post rock/slowcore band, Autistic Daughters with vibraphonist Martin Brandlmayr and multi-instrumentalist Dean Roberts who have released two albums on ambient/post rock/dream pop label Kranky. One group Beins has played with numerous groups including the group now twenty years old and running, The Sealed Knot with English cellist Mark Wastell and Welsh harpist Rhodri Davies. The latter of these groups is to be profiled in a future profile.

The album's tracks are aptly named: "Circulation", the first number has each member of the trio offer up some sonic textures which waft around and weave in and out of each other in different combinations like different scents in the air: sax and drums, bass and sax, bass and drums, all three, in no particular order but always mindful of the others' presence and contributions, which goes on until about halfway through when they come together before once more dispersing by the end. The second number "Connection", continues this, beginning with breath and percussion combining to make most of this track with bass simply droning underneath. Ultimately, induction offers up standard free improv fare. Nothing that could be called awful but unfortunately not the most interesting thing any of the three men have contributed to elsewhere.

Freddie Hubbard & Ilhan Mimaroğlu - Sing Me a Song of Songmy: A Fantasy for Electromagnetic Tape
Released 1971

Genre(s): Jazz, musique concrète, electroacoustic, spoken word
The spirit of radical musical experimentation which characterized the 20th century continued at full speed in 1971. Although it did not sell particularly well when it was first released, Sing Me a Song of Songmy is today something of a classic among record collectors. Ilhan Mimaroğlu was a Turkish musician who is most remembered for his work as a composer of musique concrète (so much so that there is a record label named after him), in fact one of the most beloved in this style outside of Western Europe and the U.S.A. Here he is joined by Freddie Hubbard, one of the most popular jazz trumpeters of the 1950s and 1960s not named Miles Davis. Together, the two composed and performed a masterful LP of incredible sonic textures and heartfelt political and social commentary.

Very much a product of its time, and a reaction against then-recent events such as the Manson Family murders, the Kent State and My Lai massacres, and the war in Vietnam, this album is nonetheless utterly timeless. Free jazz, chamber string arrangements, tape manipulation, and poetry all coalesce into a singular piece of work. Sing Me a Song of Songmy is absolutely the sort of album that could well be called a song cycle or indeed a symphony in its own right. One that I believe would hold up well to being performed live, as relevant and resonant now, a half century later in the 2020s, as in the time of its recording. This is nothing short of one of the most incredible works of music ever set to tape and I cannot recommend it enough to anyone who considers themself musically openminded. AllMusicGuide really ought to be ashamed of themselves for giving this two out of five stars.

Vidna Obmana - The River of Appearance
Released November 8, 1996

[[ Listen To and/or Buy Here ]]
Genre(s): New age, ambient, drone
Since the mid1980s, composer and multi-instrumentalist Dirk Serries of Antwerp, Belgium, has been steadily releasing album after album of well loved new age and ambient music, primarily under the alias Vidna Obmana, a moniker which he retired in 2009. His albums largely feature thick swaths of synthesizer and keyboard melodies, as well as occasional dabblings of various winds such as ocarinas, and percussion like rain sticks and various hand drums. He has many solo albums as well as a few collaborations with bigger names like Steve Roach (with whom he has seven albums), and Asmus Tietchens (with whom he has three or four).

Like the best of new age music, The River of Appearance conveys a majestic sense of grandeur. The rich textures and layers are well interwoven and the choice of consonant chords and notes convey beauty beyond words. Even at its highest peaks, alas, there remains what I consider to be the quintessential problem of new age music. The character of the music is, above all else, filmic, in the most narrow sense. New age music necessitates some level of narrative which it foists upon the listener. It may, and in the case of The River of Appearance, does, evoke such images as the splendor of nature, as if we are gazing upon the most lush, verdant forests, the stark awesome elegance of mountain ranges, and so on and so forth. Perhaps other images may come to mind, but the point is that it makes you feel like you are watching a film about these things. Some people probably like this about it. I myself do sometimes, but I'm often more fond of the abstraction of ambient. As early ambient leader Brian Eno once said, "Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting." Even though there is often overlap between the two styles, new age can waver close to being too easily ignorable, or else too much rooted in melody and therefore "interesting", to the exclusion of the other intermediate levels of listening Eno describes.

Though I am more fond of the music by the drone/ambient group Stars of the Lid, and naming compositions "Requiem for Dying Mothers" or "Gasfarming" (found on their excellent 2001 The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid) paints very particular images, I still find those works much less heavyhanded than songs like "Streamers of Stillness" and "Ephemeral Vision" found on The River of Appearance. Since there is this overlap between ambient and new age it can sometimes be difficult to gauge which one is listening to, but as I stated above, one crucial difference seems to lie in whether you can "forget" that you are listening to music. I would absolutely recommend this album, but the best parts are without question the dense clouds of wafting synthesizer pads and not the comparatively hamfisted neoclassical melodic passages.

Atolón - Concret
Released 2012

[[ Listen To and/or Buy Here ]]
Genre(s): Electroacoustic improvisation
This trio consists of trumpeter Ruth Barberán(, guitarist/accordionist Alfredo Costa Monteiro, and electronicist/guitarist Ferran Fages. These Iberian improvisors are a perfect example of the classic AMM-inspired eai sound. The three first got together with the Japanese improvisors Masahiko Okura,who plays brass, bass clarinet, and tubes, Masafumi Ezaki, who plays trumpet and metal objects, and Taku Unami, who uses laptop and plays guitar. Then the three on this album came together as Atolón in 2004, played together with Margarida Garcia as Octante, played under their own names again for an album in 2005 called Istmo, a live set in Nantes, France in 2006, another album together called Semisferi, recorded this album in 2012 once again as Atolón, then most recently, in 2013, as Atolón collaborated with the quartet Chip Shop Music*.

*To date, all of Barberán's recorded music has been with one or the other of Monteiro and Fages, or both. When accompanied by more, these two are nonetheless among the number. I imagine thye must be quite good friends. **In the nearish future, I am going to be doing something of a deep dive focusing on the electroacoustic improvisation groups The Sealed Knot, Chip Shop Music, and The International Nothing.

Reviews for Friday February 15, 2022

p2p - Impossible Burger
Released February 11, 2022

[[ Listen To and/or Buy Here ]]
Genre(s): Electroacoustic improvisation
Impossible Burger is of the earliest releases of the year for Toronto, Canada's Rat-drifting, which is both a concert series as it is a record label. Self describes itself as "search[ing] for specificity, celebrates detail. It experiments with radical particularity and wonders about the possibilities and potentials of those experiments." In my opinion should be internationally recognized for their regularly wonderful output.
p2p is a quartet of some of Toronto's finest, though their discogs pages could use some serious revamping. They are: Karen Ng on "sax, bass, kalimba, synth, guitar, static, slide, stomach grumble" (while her discogs entry only lists her as a saxophonist), Robin Dann offers her voice, Philippe Melanson plays "percussion, electronics, field recordings, voice, guitar", and Christopher Willes makes his contributions on "synthesizers, gated tape loops, flute, tenor recorder, text-to-speech". Through several pieces recorded separately, the pieces were assembled through filesharing, the process of which gives the name to the group, which references "peer to peer" network structure, the five tracks' names spell out files, F-I-L-E-S, and the name "impossible burger" hinting at the album's being put together out of collected disparate parts.At just under half an hour, this album is brimming with eclectic textures and its myriad sounds coalesce both within the scale of each track and the release as a whole.

Rafael Toral, Hugo Antunes, João Pais Filipe, & Ricardo Webbens - Space Quartet
Released May 18, 2018

[[ Listen To and/or Buy Here]]
Genre(s): Free jazz, electroacoustic improvisation
Space Quartet is one of many albums by Rafael thematically about outer space, clearly a subject very dear to him. Here he is joined by improvising bassist Hugo Antunes, João Pais Filipe, a highly prolific drummer and percussionist perhaps best known for his work with HHY & The Macumbas, and lastly by fellow electronicist Ricardo Webbens, who has recorded the least of the four.
In a move which calls to mind Ornette Coleman's classic 1961 album Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation which featured a different quartet of musicians in each of the left and right stereo channels, Webbens and Toral's performances on Space Quartet are each found exclusvely on the right and left, respectively. The way Toral and Webbens play together so closely sonically, harmonically, etc. further echoes Coleman and Don Cherry's harmolodic style found so prevalently in the early Atlantic recordings of Ornette's classic quartet. All this under Rafael Toral's "direction", a word which here is used in a relatively loose sense. It's not for nothing that Rafael Toral considers this album to be "post-freejazz", "post-free jazz", and "space jazz". Indeed, the overall effect is noticeably different from "typical" eai.

Reviews from 2021