Tim Hecker-Konoyo: Album Review

There’s a variety of reactions to ambient music.  A genre that values waltzing around in a beautifully detailed but static–and of course, meterless–place, sometimes listening to an album can take its inhabitants on a emotional journey and other times the effect is more singular as if the listener has been staring at the same painting for an hour.  Crafting an especially textured landscape, Tim Hecker’s Konoyo feels like a group of lines coalescing to a center that doesn’t exist.  The bowels of Hecker’s deep, electronically crafted bass sounds swirl against dancing, high strings from the work of Japan’s Konoyo ensemble, all seemingly swept up into the fog of Hecker’s higher frequency electronic sounds.  The work is breathtaking and emotionally charged in it’s melodic choices, perhaps not making its fans into different people, but validating the ebb and flow of their introspection.

Now, of course this album has a more nuanced roadmap than say “The Disintegration Loops.”  The communication between Hecker and the rest of the ensemble is quite varied despite also achieving a somewhat singular emotive collage throughout.  We hear swells of Hecker’s bass sound accompanied by gestures from the instrumentalists at the very beginning and the two simultaneously increase and decrease their intensity throughout This Life, making for a natural, breathing effect.  The two musical forces are not joined at the hip for the whole album of course, there’s places where Hecker is alone, supplying a heave of electronic lights, and elsewhere the ensemble is left to its own devices.  Inflected with drums, the group can supply plenty of noise to stand on their own and particularly towards the tail end of In Mother Earth Phase, it’s as if the group is creating the sound of the beginning of the work acoustically.

As we continue to move into a new era in Hecker–one in which the synth mastermind scavenges the diverse world of instrumental world music to find new sounds to synthesize in his vision–we see how willing the composer is to adapt without losing his voice.  Konoyo is a new color for the musician to explore but even as his imprint shifts in and out of focus, the album maintains all of the qualities that make his work so capturing and forward thinking.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

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Yves Tumor-Safe in the Hands of Love: Album Review

I’m certainly not going to say that Yves Tumor came out of nowhere, as TEAMS he made music that drew all sorts of lines between sonic exploration and pop-minded accessibility, but this past is so fluid and unpredictable that it’s hard not to listen to Safe in the Hands of Love, his most fully realized work to date, as evidence of time or space travel.  Similarly to SOPHIE’s debut earlier this year, the work smashes ideas of song form, album flow, genre all in one feel swoop and somehow lands on its feet for the most part.

Single Noid is the most focused exercise of the album.  The album opens on an intro track that pushes and pulls a trumpet sound over static energy; followed by Economy of Freedom which again takes sound and stirs it up like soup, eventually adding yearning vocals; and the more structured Honesty, a song that almost sounds like something off of Laurel Halo’s Dust with an actual meter and lyrics about the early stages of love when you’re both unsure and infatuated.  All this amounts to a gradual focusing of ideas, which to an extent is what Yves Tumor is all about.  The listener is put out in the dark before a gradual sense of familiarity eventually sets in.

The beginning of Noid is thus both sudden and expected as the gradual decline from the no-man’s land of the very beginning of the album climaxes with some sort of indie-post-disco world with a tightly wound drum part and fat bass line.  Here the lyrics somewhat approach protest music, showcasing how black people feel unsafe basically anywhere outside of their homes due to police presence: “Have you, have you looked outside/I’m scared for my life/They don’t trust us.”

From there, the project meanders a bit in this familiar-ish space before blasting off with distortion on the final track.  A solemn string melody here, some punchy, sharp drums there, contrasted later by a distant maniacal preacher.  More rockist tendencies set in with the vocals between the barked out verses and screamed out choruses of Lifetime or the (dare I say new metal sounding?) calls of “I CANT RECOGNIZE MYSELF” of Recognizing the Enemy.  Even when the songforms somewhat make traditional sense with something approaching normal album flow, there’s a sense that you don’t know where anything is coming from.

The project is certainly an important exploration of sound, but to an extent its ambition is a bit over the top.  Sure, we’ve been given great albums that don’t necessarily give a lot of hooks to hold onto, or leave the listener out in the dark for periods of time to eventually bring them back to light with a big pop moment, but there needs to be some sort of sonic through line, whether it be Sophie’s hyper-fake plastic sheen or Laurel Halo’s crunchy texture feel, or the dark cloudy feel of say Massive Attack;  Tumor’s throughline seems to be the lack of one, which creates a unique experience but also makes it a bit hard to listen to repeatedly.  He’ll for sure develop as a songwriter, however, and the project is certainly going to leave a mark on a particularly vivid year of fractured musical approaches.

-Donovan Burtan

7/10

Profligate: Somewhere Else: ALBUM REVIEW

Riding a wave of arpeggiated synths, minimal drum machines, and dance-able bass lines, Noah Anthony’s Profligate conjures a seething aura on Somewhere Else.  A mainstay of the DIY electronic community, Anthony steps into somewhat of a new realm here.  The ominous landscape that sets in with distant percussion and oscillating keyboards on the title track finds a mood not unlike 2014’s Finding the Floor, but the rhythmic drive is left up to swells of the instruments and noise at his disposal rather than a consistent techno sensibility.

After Somewhere Else sputters out, A Circle of opens with screaming shots of noise, eventually jolting itself into a post-punk feeling groove highlighted by eerie high vocals from Anthony’s new collaborator Elaine Kahn.  Enlist exhilarates with a punchy bass line and another spike in energy as a massively distorted melody draws viciously outside the lines.  The project is remarkable in its unity, always seeming to pick up where the last track left off and over the first three tracks, the album evolves from a muttering wind to a barreling freight-train.

Elsewhere, the rhythmic momentum stalls and Kahn’s lyrical side adds complementary poetic imagery to the anxious darkness of the sonic pallet.  After the haunting melodic line on Lose a Little dissipates, she takes over the droney landscape, speaking about “the water’s grey narcotic web” and how “to live is to disorganize.”  Anthony’s vocals tend to remain contained and monotone and Kahn’s ability to both match that and add instances of heightened energy elsewhere helps flesh out the swells of activity.

Between the loosened rhythmic feel and the edition of Kahn, Profligate has reached a new zone.  There’s room to grow from here, but Somewhere Else is a masterful amalgamation of DIY experiments.  Who’s counting but a singular work spanning noise, spoken-word, post-punk-rock, electronic feels so right on Wharf Cat Records and so fresh in the year of our lord 2018.

8/10

The Uncoverables: Jane/Kin LIVE on CKUT

Next up in the live line-up was Montreal experimental duo Jane/Kin. Bridging the efforts of saxophonist Ida Toninato and laptop musician/Foley artist Ana Dall’Ara-Majek, Jane/Kin seeks to blur all lines and boundaries and provide the listener with an immersive musical experience.  I’m sure even the most trained ears will be shocked to hear what was used in this particular creation.

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Arca-Arca: Album Review

Arca’s video “Reverie” is a good marker for the overall effect of his self-titled work and a true must see of 2017.  Stilted up like a gazelle, Alejandro Ghersi painstakingly inches back and forth on screen, before an animalistic phallic shape emerges out of his groin and takes control of his body, leaving his face in even more pain.  From his rear, the viewer sees blood stains.  It’s confrontational, unsettling, and carries the scars of the queer experience.

Sonically, this is embodied with the violent, minimal sound space that underpins Arca’s whispery vocals—a new addition to his songwriting.  With lyrics in Spanish, I’m admittedly not listening for a lyrical or poetic experience.  Those interested can find translations online, but Arca also conveys his message with his sound alone.  His sense of space is breathtaking and the vocals offer another gateway to his psyche.

The album requires a front to back experience.  With a couple stand-alone tracks coming towards the end, the listener needs to hear the way the work builds up into “Reverie” and “Fugaces” to fully get absorbed.  Pressing play on the opener “Piel,” there’s just a presence there with vocals harping on a simple descending melodic pattern.  Florescent flashes come next with high drones squealing to add to the atmosphere and white noise giving a cushion to the low end.  “Anoche” beefs itself up a little bit at the chorus, but it still carries the same patience as instrumental cues come only with the lilt of the vocals.

“Reverie” becomes the first singular piece, as all the ideas thus far coalesce into one jolting mass.  The tempo is still a bit abstracted, but as the catchy chorus seeps into your pores, smearing rhythmic activity gives the illusion of speed and spilling noise.  Three tracks later, “Desafio” falls along the same wavelength with another sing-able chorus and a great deal of rhythmic activity making the track sing, but before then Arca takes a step back.

“Castration” sees the absence of vocals and a rumination on a single industrial loop, whereas “Sin Rumbo” shifts back to the vocals with some stunning high notes.  Arca isn’t necessarily adding songs to the world for other folks to sing, but the experience of the ups and downs of the recording makes it emotionally moving.  Perhaps by the standards of a more straightforward pop artist, his sonic design wouldn’t be so strong, but within the atmosphere of this project, they stick out.

Arca’s talent for pure sound also comes through in his use of sound effects and fascinating textures.  The track “Whip” presents the most obvious example with his on-going artistic connection between sex and violence coming through in the BDSM sounding whip sample that opens the track.  Elsewhere, sound-art type decisions are more used to highlight the space.  “Saunter,” for instance, evokes sci-fi with alien surface noise.

The record’s “ballad”—if you will—is beautiful, but perhaps could’ve been blown out a bit more.  Drones and keyboards float in and Arca’s voice is deeper than most spots on the record.  The chorus is pure bliss with a cushion of backing vocals and a distant melodic device, but it just fades out a bit too quickly.  This could’ve been a five-minute mammoth, making for a slightly more flourishing centerpiece.  After that, the record wraps up with a vocal epilogue of sorts in “Miel” and an instrumental epilogue of sorts in “Child.”

Arca’s got such a unique sonic fingerprint.  Everything he does is completely left-field, but relatable at the same time and the addition of his voice is flawless.  Perhaps some architectural issues could sort themselves out on the next record, but his self-titled has again left a great impression on the electronic art-musical landscape.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Astvaldur-At Least: Album Review

On his debut record At Least, Icelandic producer Astvaldur paints a grim industrial picture that never really reaches the level of violence that the anticipatory tones allude to.  Instead, the tunes play with the listener’s ear, holding a cloud of approaching danger over every musical decision.  Aesthetically, the work features constantly shifting sands that pass key musical themes and motives through different contexts and instrumentations.  To some degree this results in a bit of a mixed bag as it can a bit difficult to grasp the individual songs, however, the variety of sounds presented makes for striking textural explorations and an especially dynamic overall sonic portrait.

“Hark” kicks things off with an almost incomplete sounding rhythmic motive that obsessively repeats itself.  Following the anxious pulses that begin the track, the motive is first uttered in the high range by this icy keyboard sound, before getting transferred to a more mellow instrumental sound.  Tense machinery sounds surround the action constantly from metallic quarter notes to more pressing, arpeggiating synths.  This track perfectly exemplifies the anticipatory nature of many of the tracks on this album.  The whole thing feels like a build-up, making for an almost off-putting emotional affect as we’re never treated to a stagnant dance beat.

Following is “Rotary Credo” with a more acoustic-sounding opening provided by circulating violin samples.  Popping surface noise enters, serving a bit of a rhythmic function as tense countermelodies building up the anxious nature of the track.  Here, we get an example of Astvaldur’s skill of changing the context of a melody.  At the beginning of the track, the aesthetic is especially human-sounding, but by the end the song is more metallic and sterile.  Rather than building layers and layers in a traditional dance way, the track takes one set-up and puts it through a different lens.

“Flesh” is perhaps the most traditionally contrived song structure.  Opening with non-specific robotics, the track eventually dives into an almost hand-drum patterns with quick, subdued rhythmic sounds.  This becomes the foundation for the track as sweeping electric sounds develop over top serving a quasi-melodic role.  Still, there’s a bit of a detached mood to the track, but this would probably be the tune most worthy for the trance/dance setting.

The last major accomplishment of the record is probably the intriguing textures that Astvaldur is able to put together.  This is something that’s achieved over the course of the whole picture.  It’s not just that Astvaldur achieves a unique sound-space and works with it on each track, it’s moreso that he’s consistently able to offer new musical findings.  From the scratchy acoustics of the beginning of “Rotary Credo” to the swirling candy of “Mother” that gets bottomed out by pressing piano pulses and even the plucked electronics of “Punture”, At Least proves that Astvaldur’s bag of sounds is especially large and unique.

At seven tracks, the album is certainly a quick listen and the slight lack of standout singles makes it a bit forgettable.  In the future, it would probably be best for Astvaldur to focus his energy on structured pieces, but his ability to play with anticipation and conjure unique sonic spaces is clear and his work could offer a nice balance between dance-able and violent experimentation with a bit more focus on songwriting down the road.

-Donovan Burtan

7/10

Lisa Mezzacappa-avantNOIR: Album Review

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.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10