Matthew Barlow - Hatha (Inner Islands, 2016)
"Just being, without striving. A place of stillness." For those with Type A tendencies, such as myself, "just being" would be easier to obtain if "just being" weren't an reward unto itself and came with some kind of trophy. Instead, any mindfulness techniques I employ all have utilitarian purposes. My morning meditations start usually like this: "This 10 minutes of meditation this morning will help me be 60 % less stressed today as measured by the fewer times I clench my fists in anger to prevent punching a wall". Matthew Barlow's Hatha is an album, however, I can put on and leave on as a steady stream through my consciousness: either through intent, purposeful listens or existing an illuminating glow somewhere beyond the edges of determined mental processing. Pan flute, riverside glenn field recordings and harp-like synths that appear and disappear in similar intervals to rain through thick foliage make up the "Sun" side while nocturnal insect sounds, even more distant pan flute and macrotonal drones streak through the sky like a comet's slow procession on the B Side "Moon". An end unto itself, Hatha is near perfect.
- Ryan H.
Black Spirituals - Black Tape (Astral Spirits, 2016)
Black Spirituals are an act that defy easy categorization. Upon first listening to the Oakland duo’s recently released Black Tape, one immediately encounters the raw, elemental power of Marshall Trammel’s percussive improvisations. Comparisons may be made to some of the free jazz drummers of yore, but then the listener is presented with the heavy drones and mournful squeals of electronics, performed by Zachary James Watkins. Just the very idea of two artists like these collaborating in the same sonic and physical space is already enough to invite adventurous listeners in.
Each of the two long form pieces that make up either side of Black Tape begin with a theme presented as a group of tones or a percussive pattern that is performed as a way for the either member to offer a response. What ensues is a performative dynamic, wherein the individual paths of both artists intersect and diverge at varying points throughout the composition. It’s as if two soloists are improvising separately and simultaneously, and indeed that is what occurs throughout the duration of the tape; as soon as one can pick up on a groove, it’s abandoned for another idea or theme. Eventually, it too ebbs and another swell of percussive blasts and noise take over. Ideas, themes, and sonic dynamics are presented here in such a barrage and without pause, that one has to wonder just how the duo have tapped into such an instinctual pace. It is a performance dynamic that I’m sure is a delicate one to uphold, but at the same time it most assuredly grants each artist plenty of space to explore their individual ideas and innermost workings of their shared craft. For Wakins and Trammel, improvisation isn’t just a means to some sonic end, it is a method of investigation, of ferreting out the shared ancestral space that free jazz, drone, and Black spiritual music all inhabit.
- Kyle Mace
Bloodwall - Tonic (Lighten Up Sounds, 2016)
Minneapolis native Graham Baldwin has been making drone-heavy sounds with a number of outfits over the years, most notably with Visitor, Three Walls, and Land. All of which aimed for stellar heights, and with compelling results.
Tonic is Baldwin’s latest effort, released under his solo moniker Bloodwall, and with less personnel comes an even more focused and minimal sound. Where previous efforts with other musicians have focused on the usage of guitar and drums to create epic dronescapes, Bloodwall’s sound is significantly less percussive, marked by the use of only synthesizer, organ, and guitar.
This pared-down approach works quite well on Tonic, where looping, analogue phrases of organ and synthesizer give Baldwin the framework upon which he weaves improvised, serpentine melodies that morph and mutate over the course of each composition. “Pink Head With Child” is a great example of this approach, where the track crests and coasts along its trajectory, guided by Baldwin’s instinctual and intricate loop work. In fact, this is how each track on Tonic works; compositions alter and shift according to a hidden, liminal plan that guides each track, and this is something that Bloodwall as a project taps into remarkably well.
- Kyle Mace
Andrew Elaban - Gestalt (Hollow Eyes, 2016)
Composed of two 20 minute tracks, Andrew Elaban's Gestalt hits on some golden mean of longform ambient-drone tapes. Through the eliding, tonal shifts from golden dawn to golden dusk we hear dips into Eno-style heavily pawed synthesizers, blown-out drones of Belong and the unhurried patience and pacing of Stars of the Lid. Elaban, a Cleveland/Cincinnati based musician, approaches these tracks with a meditative clarity, marshaling tones that are always present in our environment - but amplified, fleshed out and corralled under Elaban's deft arrangements. These tracks aren't meditative in that they have much in the way of New Age synthesizer music. There is a basement rattling low end here that could unravel into harshness if knobs were cranked a little more to the left. Rather, it is meditative in the sense that there is little judgement, but plenty of discernment, of the massive river of sound flowing through these tracks, the end result being Elaban's observations and careful nudges into compositions that feel wholly formed from their creation instead of stitched together in post.
- Ryan H.