Adding to a long, eclectic discography, Phantom Brickworks sees the English electronic musician’s acoustic side ruminating in ambient space. Although Bibio describes the work as a collection of improvisations, there’s an effortless flow between the tracks, particularly in the first six, where he alternates between hollow, somber energy and more uplifting piano flourishes, culminating in the stunning moment of clarity in “Phantom Brickworks III” where loud pillars of piano descend in shimmering glory. Perhaps this could be seen as a return to his pastoral explorations, but these productions are more muted and meditative with an amplified sense of vulnerability — a hauntingly beautiful collection.
On the apply titled “New Energy,” esteemed prince of subdued UK dance Four Tet finds inspiration in his older material and later explorations. The singles operate as such with pulsing, driving grooves and complementary melodies, yet the album blooms in a gradual manner, making the moments where the planets align truly pop. It’s an album for fans true and casual, sure to suit the boiler room stage with a bit more dance-able material.
After an intro, “Two Thousand Seventeen” is the slow burn highlight of the work. With the pillow of soupy base lines and the sparks of high vocals crafting the atmosphere, Tet’s huge bastion of a centerpiece looms. Despite priding himself on his minimalist recording process, Tet manages to find a great deal of different textures throughout the album. Here, the big melodic force evokes strings with its plucked timbres and oddly paced loops.
Foreboding melody marks the next string of tracks as melodies allude to oncoming action, before “Lush” and “Scientists” give it to you. Light on its feet, “Lush” remains sensible, but it’s biting speed reaches for the rafters as a mixed bag of gentle melodies combine for a heavenly atmosphere. “Scientists” is Four Tet’s songwriting at its finest. The pillars of bass line bounce over the acoustic sounding high-hat. Gradually more drums enter, before the track implodes with smoldering vocal combinations and a rogue trumpet solo.
“You Are Loved” is life affirming with its humanist, simmering synths, before “SW9 9SL” delivers the summary track. With the mean straightforward beat setting in right away, this track doesn’t mess around. Even the head room isn’t too lofty, focusing all energy on the rhythmic energy. Momentum seems to completely shift around the midpoint as Tet builds a “bass drop” type of effect out in open space. Melodies wander without a true rhythmic foundation, growing and boiling to a climax that immediately cuts back to the distilled groove that opened, except this time it’s adopted one of the signature warmly emotional bass melodies beneath it. The overall spirit of the work is funneled into this track as the tried and true dance spills into ambience, then brings something back for the fans.
“Daughter” is another standout with a gorgeous combination of bright vocal loops and more warm synths, before “Planet” brings it home with a pummeling victory lap. Perhaps some would classify the work as Four Tet doing Four Tet, however, his career path is evident in the music. Even on tracks that burn with dance energy he seems to find a bit of “Morning/Evening’s” ambient meditation to underpin his ideas. It’s a front to back experience that also features some of the guy’s best songwriting. There’s not many on his level right now.
Kelly Lee Owens-Kelly Lee Owens
“taps into ambient and drone traditions while also delivering a constant stream of danceable bass lines and bouncy synth arpeggiations.”
“Lorde took a while to come back, but the last four years have been all growth and her empire is just beginning.”
“SZA pinpoints relatability while avoiding tired cliché”
“a great deal of variety in the project and the logical march from light to mean makes it digestible and addicting”
Vince Staples-Big Fish Theory
“Staples maintains his usual drawl speech and coy attitude as huge, biting electronic-influenced beats explode beneath him and hooks talk up his come up, moving from little pond problems to ‘countin’ up hundreds by the thousands.'”
“‘Grafts’ is one of her more condensed projects and although works like “A-480” and “Aftertouches” certainly offer blissful sublimity from beginning to end, “Grafts” is certainly her most no-moment-wasted work to date.”
After a nine-year hiatus, the return of Berlin’s Miwon sees a sensible addition to his catalogue with more bright ambient landscapes and techno sensibilities. True to the nature of N5MD records, the album continuously emphasizes melody with each 4-5 minute tune having a great deal of replay value while also expertly navigating open sonic terrain.
The album somewhat loses the rhythmic directness of 2008’s A to B and perhaps strikes a less emotionally moving tone. Save the late-album dives into darkness, these songs are breezy and light. Still, the project keeps the listener engaged with spot-on songwriting with each passing track.
The beginning of the album serves as a decent representation of much of the project. Opener “Fuzzy Words” builds swells above the active rhythmic foundation before the simple, but infectious melody comes in gently over the top. This track doesn’t dig too deep as it sort of stagnates forward, but it works great as an introduction to Miwon’s particular aesthetic.
“Wolkengedoens” and “Shutter” are a bit more of the meat of the work. Here, Miwon works in more drastic developments by continuously pilling on layers and emphasizing new melodic ideas. “Wolkengedoens,” for instance brings in a high synth melody towards the last 30 seconds of the tune to give a new splash of color that contrasts the slightly melancholy melodic centerpiece of the song. “Shutter” is sluggish in tempo, opening the space for a blissful, wandering melody that gradually gets surrounded by more and more rhythmic activity, making for a natural, unpredictable development.
“Mondharke”—track 7—serves as the first full-fledged look at violence and darkness. The crackling industrial sounds put the song on edge with pulsing low-end synths adding to the drama. “Cool Your Jets” doesn’t necessarily read as violent, but it maintains the dark, smoldering nature of the previous track with an especially bouncy melody over brooding chords and low-end rhythmic sounds.
Although these two tracks contrast the sonic pallet of the beginning of the project, the exploration of this territory comes a bit late into the work. Without these additions, the album would’ve been a bit one-dimensional, but it doesn’t feel all that well integrated into the project. If Miwon had issued one of his more violent songs sooner into the track listing and then let that sound influence the tracks that followed the tug and pull between smoldering darkness and bright ambient sounds would’ve been more constant.
There’s no shortage of great songwriting and it’s great to hear a long-anticipated work that bites like “Jigsawtooth,” but it might have been a bit more impactful had Miwon dabbled into the violent, smoldering side of his sound aesthetic more often in the work.
On AvantNOIR, Lisa Mezzacappa showcases a knack for achieving a great overall ensemble sound in an aesthetic that strikes a balance between noisy avant-garde jazz and more straight-ahead materials. Beginning with a quirky three-minute tune, diving into some ambient realms in the middle, and ending with a floating, back-beat jolt, this album truly offers seven contrasting tunes, yet there’s a moody quality that connects each number. Mezzacappa has been around the bay-area jazz scene for quite some time now, but this is my personal introduction to her music and it’s clear that she will become a staple of my jazz listening for years to come.
After giving a taste of the players on the record with the introductory “Fillmore Street,” Mezzacappa beckons in the tightly syncopated blues sensibilities of “The Ballad of Big Flora” with a brooding bass solo over textural electronics and samples. By leaving a great deal of space between phrases in the middle of the track, Mezzacappa opens up a lot of room for drummer Jordan Glenn and electrician Tim Perkis to trade ideas.
“Army Street” offers another quick tune not unlike the first before the hefty “Medley on the Big Knockover” offers many interlocking sections over the course of ten minutes. First, we hear a pressing rock groove with some pounding drums and disorienting, screeching-tire sound effects. Later, we get free-metered space with sparse ideas from each member of the ensemble, before a frantic swing feel with exquisitely broken ride patterns from Glenn.
This track does feature my main reservation on the record, which is the sarcastic dive into a twangy country sound with up-beat accompaniment. Between this and the sound effects, there’s certainly an element of humor on this track, but the country idea didn’t go over so well for me. It’s clear that the first half of the record offers a great deal of different sounds, without losing accessibility; there’s a constant melodic focus that primes the listener for later experimental ploys.
The second half of the record distills melodic activity with a great deal of open-ended space. “Bird in the Hand” comes first with some really well-integrated vocal samples from a movie. It doesn’t feel like Mezzacappa is forcing anything here as the tune is sort of haunting and empty, with the samples operating as blips on the radar. Even at the end, with more action in the film sampling, the ensemble remains floating and detached. It’s great to here sonic work like this on a jazz record.
“Quinn’s Serenade” then offers a somewhat stark, yet gradual change of pace. The tune kind of fades in around the same tempo of the last track, but as Bennett’s solo grows, the group fades into one of their angular melodies. This sheds light on Mezzacappa’s over-arching planning on the record. It’s a really cohesive listen, where each composition sensibly transitions into the next.
Although the record values ensemble sound over individuals as a whole, Aaron Bennett and John Finkbeiner provide standout performances. When Bennett takes over the spotlight, he’s able to really unleash emotion with this really raw and unhinged saxophone persona. Finkbeiner, on the other hand, is the character behind the operation with his off-kilter guitar tone.
AvantNOIR really strikes all the markers of a great album. Each track brings something to the table alone, but their full impact is contingent on the rest of the work. Also, the ensemble sound balances risk and tradition quite well in a collectively driven setting. I wouldn’t say it’s a work that totally transcends time and genre and there’s a handful of choices I didn’t love, but it will certainly appeal to jazz fans all over the place and it proves that Lisa Mezzacappa is a compositional force to be reckoned with.
Toting Bass Clarinet, Drums, and Guitar, Mere showcase a mastery of space on II. Their album begins in a completely open environment with sparse pieces of sound bouncing around each member of the ensemble. Eventually, huge, raw grooves come into play with subtle changes driving the music forward for large swaths of all-encompassing material. Even when the group is at the very beginning of a track, setting the foundation for large ideas in the future, there’s an immediate presence in their sound. This presence guides them through a 20-minute track that takes things down to near silence before ever-so-carefully building up back into their wall of sound to end things off. There’s a meditative quality to this work that keeps the listener enthralled from beginning to end.
After interacting in space to kick off the record, the trio sort of builds a pulse. Not necessarily moving within a regular meter the pulse is crafted with each player gravitating in and out with tiny crescendos and decrescendos. Of course the track does grasp onto a steady 4/4 rhythm later on, but this idea of pulse is key to blending the two extremes together. As far as the groove goes, it’s nice to see a sensible juxtaposition between Gareth Davis’s unrefined, raw clarinet lines against the somewhat stagnant offerings from Thomas Cruijsen and Leo Fabriek. Granted, the guitar and drum are far from slick, but having the wild clarinet going on really brings out the human element of the group.
The second track, “V,” is the most condensed track on the record. The raucous groove is immediate and still finds a way to fly off the rails; it’s smart to get a break from the more barren landscapes by offering something unrelenting between them. Perhaps this track exposes a bit of weakness melodically, as the clarinet doesn’t work a whole lot with motivic development. Davis works with small ideas in reaction to what’s going on around him rather than crafting his own musical storyline. On their next effort, it might be good to think about how the melody is developing along with the groove.
“VI” finishes things off with a huge track that completely earns its length. At the start, a contender for the messiest groove on record comes through with everyone testing the metric constraints. Slowly the clarinet shapes some beautiful melodies over the top and the track comes to a standstill before building everything up again. All of the changes to the soundscape are incredibly subtle, but again the group encapsulates the audience throughout—it’s truly an exciting 20-minutes.
We also see a nice change in hierarchy of the ensemble on this track. Particularly in the beginning, it feels like the guitar sort of serves a rhythmic role and the drums come to the foreground with solo-worthy material. Even the clarinet takes a bit of a subordinate role with droning long tones far off in the background. This adds to the dynamic quality of the work as there’s much more than a single set-up in which the group operates.
Sonically, the album feels fresh. Tapping into the constellation records ambiance, with an improviser’s flavor, Mere take an eclectic collection of ideologies to new heights. In the future, it would be nice to see a bit more melodic and motivic development, but the dynamic quality of this work certainly provides for a fascinating listen.
This week’s episode features an interview with Jesse Beaman, who writes music under the stage name My Empty Phantom. His album “Collection of Memories I/II” was reviewed on positively underground last year and we’re excited for it’s partner album due for release this year.
The episode also features and handful of exciting new rock releases.
Priests-Nothing Feels Natural from “Nothing Feels Natural”
Tim Darcy-Still Waking Up from “Saturday Night”
My Empty Phantom-Reflection and Forever from “Collection of Memories I/II”
Real Estate-Darling from “In Mind”
Parlor Walls-Play Opposites from “Opposites”