Kompjotr Eplektrika - Polyspærion (Self-Released, 2016)
A strange record in a striking LP jacket that contains on it letters that are as indecipherable (but weirdly beautiful) as the music contained within. Kompjotr Eplektrika is music as hieroglyphics. Communication in digital jolts and whistles, the swift pop of slowed oscillating frequencies and glitched alien club tracks recorded and sealed up in a thin black tomb. Communiques that lack a Rosetta Stone, although Nurse with Wound, August Traeger and Oval offer clues and peeks into what is going on in that laptop of Mats Björk. The Danish musician works over wet analog sputtering, metronome stuck in a polar reversal and future ceremonial rhythms to create a record that never quite lets you sink in and get comfortable. While never grating, its anxious, the jittery rhythms and smeared harsh tones mimic the sound of a computer throwing up its hard drive or a full synth rack becoming self-aware the moment before falling down a flight of stairs. Out of these loosely held together bits and pieces, Björk is able to tie just enough melody into a percussive lunge forward with notes hitting all over the tonal range. A strange and beautiful record.
Black Eagle Child – Lobelia (Geology Records, 2016)
Black Eagle Child has the uncanny ability to marry pastoral post-folk – high humidity front porch rambles to sparse and exploratory arpeggios that are thick with pathos and tinged with nostalgia for the disappearing horizon of definable memories – and soaring guitar lines that ascend above the field recordings and layers of looped acoustic and electric guitars. Lobelia creates emotional landscapes of great loss combined with those flying dreams that we have where we are soaring above the fragments of broken lives. Through little else than manual dexterity, a few pedals, field recordings and sparse percussion, Lobelia is able to cover extensive ground. Songs like “The Rivers Course” and “Summer Street” are bucolic explorations on blues-informed guitar lines with cavernous space between lines filled with field recordings of glistening afternoons under forest canopies. “The Quarry Slide” contains one of those irresistible eliding guitar passages over looped guitar passages and auxiliary percussion in the vein of Marc McGuire’s more heroic phrasings. A blissful exploration of an imagined utopia.
Secret Pyramid – Distant Works II (Self-Released, 2016)
Amir Abbey’s work carries a distinct sense of holiness to it. Enshrouded under thick mists that envelop a coastline in one gulp, Distant Works operates as if lost in a dense fog. All sharp points are blurred to their most vital components, landmarks obscured through the passage of time. On this latest self-released collection – following two stunning releases on Cincinnati’s Students of Decay – Abbey creates works of subtle movement and shift, dense ambient passages that feature stirring arrangements for strings, piano and synth as well as the Theremin sounding ondes martenot. These passages are bolstered by a thick shroud of field recordings, tape manipulation and soul-searing drones that ride the razor’s edge between bucolic and warm and dark and unsettling. Distant Works is an album for deep contemplation. An ambiguous blank canvas that can hold anxiety as much as it can wonder and reverence.
Vapor Lanes – Hieratic Teen (Usonian, 2016)
Pressed on vivid pink vinyl and housed in a melty, goopy blue jacket, entombed within is a collection of A. Karuna’s unsettling and nervous drones. Starting with the lovely arpeggiated “Appearing”, which meditates on a three note ascending and descending pattern, Hieratic Teen soon veers into the sort of unsettling, nocturnal micro-tones of that appear and disappear beneath your hearing threshold. “Mary” is one of those sorts of tracks, a constant digital wind through digital glass. It is a whistling, throbbing, roiling sea of drones and distant, sacred percussion. The album’s centerpiece and best track “ Embers” is the most dynamic noise/drone 10 + minute experience on the album. Submerged synth lines surface into the red while doubling back on themselves to create moving, whole cloth tonal shifts that tug on weary heartstrings and suspend heavy-lidded eyes. It’s a surprising moment of warmth and beauty on an album that tends to use tonal frequency to keep listeners at arm’s length. It is an album of true solipsism and solitude, an album of indulgences, risks and large payoffs.
Shovels Beat the Sun – Sky Wires (Bitrot, 2016)
Sky Wires is intense. Like buckle yourself in and expect not to see daylight for an hour intense. Buried under concrete slabs of drone from a variety of inputs - cello, lap steel guitar, synthesizers, processed trombone, electronics - not that you would be able to parse out any of them individually. Sky Wires hits you up front with an impregnable wall of drone, with tonal shifts happening throughout the entirety of the song, sometimes incomprehensibly within the whole. Shovels Beat the Sun is comprised of two German drone-aficionados Bjorn Granzow (End of the World Championship) and Steve Fors (Aeronaut) and find the two sculpting melodies out of metric tons of static and bending rebar-thick processed noise into monolithic structures and haunting melodies. This interplay between overwhelming amplifier worship and musical superstructure highlight the album’s two best features: Sky Wire’s tendency to crush and then coddle. Punish and forgive.
David Newlyn – Linen (Polar Seas Recordings, 2016)
Linen takes the shape of whatever hard surface it covers. For David Newlyn’s shape-shifting album of solo-piano and modular synthesizer, Newlyn’s work envelops many different spaces while maintaining constant motifs of placidity and subtle, shifting movement. Linen begins with a beautifully wistful piano piece with violin accompaniment. An elegant and sparse arrangement that serves as a perfect mise en scène for the rest of the record that traverses between the unsettling and the divine. Linen then takes a sharp left turn into the modular synthesizer driven “Chemical” which lays thick tendrils of processed tones and wisps of fragmentary births and death of augmented tone over a vague superstructure. Much more bed sheet blowing in the analog wind than covering for ghosts. This push and pull between easily won beauty of solo piano and the patient, but more challenging synthesizer pieces, create an album that rejects stasis and placidity often associated with modern classical music while operating under aesthetic of minimal ripples in a mountain lake. The production on this album is amazing, utilizing ample amounts of natural reverb, the notes sound cavernous and distant. Album closer “I’ll Walk Home” is able to pull both of these tendencies together and create a stately elegant fade out perfect for bleary walks home under the influence of fatigue and alcohol.
M. Ostermeier – Tiny Birds (Home Normal, 2016)
M. Ostermeier’s latest album on Home Normal is a further exploration of the interplay between sparse solo piano compositions and micro-tonal embellishments. As a reductive explanation, Ostermeier composes contemplative solo piano pieces of arranged melodies with plenty of room for exploratory note clusters before striking out into a new melodic phrase before returning to the anchoring composition. Ostermeier’s compositions perennially inhabits rainy Saturday afternoons spent indoors. Even the brightest notes are put to the service of some unnamed nostalgia. These compositions are bolstered by manipulated sound objects that tend to support the avian theme of this record. Mechanical squeals tuned to the chirp of a bird, rattles, pops, clinks inhabit the spaces between the deep caverns between notes denoting and mimicking the aleatoric and often patternless flight of birds in repose. An occasional violin joins Ostermeier’s solipsism, this time joined by Christoph Berg. M. Ostermeier has long been one of my favorite pianists and modern composers. Deep listens to this record reveal melodies that pull on the heartstrings while creating stirring mood pieces to lose an afternoon in.
MJ Guider – Precious Systems (Kranky, 2016)
After an impressive EP on the always meticulously curated Constellation Tatsu, the enigmatic MJ Guider’s debut on Kranky would seem like a major leap if Precious Systems wasn’t so fucking perfect. Cold and distant Roland 808 marshal eliding drones reflecting swamp lights dancing across the ruins of a hurricane sunken city, and that voice – Melissa Guion’s voice sounds as if it has never smoked a cigarette or huffed gasoline – no sharp edges while remaining the driving factor of each song. Precious Systems isn’t a sterile coldwave affair – when the album gets its hooks into you, the syncopated groove conjures night drives through bombed out cities at recklessly high speeds. There is this sickened synth sound that sounds like a decaying siren on the album opener “Lit Negative” that I can’t get out of my head. MJ Guider has received comparisons to Liz Harris’s project Grouper, on tracks like “Former Future Beings” Guion channels Harris’s aching vocal delivery sounding out beneath the pall of slowly chugging guitars underneath mountains of reverb. “Evencycle”, the album’s 10 minute centerpiece, unfolds as a slow-motion dance track with Guion’s voice as a percussive instrument. It is a driving, highly positivist song that reaches rapturous heights when listened to under the right circumstances. One of 2016’s best debuts by far.
Patkus – These are But Dreaming Men, Breathe and They Fade (Self-Released, 2016)
The Philadelphia based musician Patkus has composed a highly emotive album that straddles the line between ambient and highly orchestrated post-rock. Composed from the ground up from looped guitar lines, “These Are But Dreaming Men…” takes additive movements and breaks them wide open into lush, evocative soundscapes that breathe with tension and catharsis. The album opens with “Tanam Shud” which starts with a desaturated, fuzzed out guitar line, adding line after line as well as distant percussion to create a composition that wades into the uneasy and mysterious deep waters of unexplained cold war murder mystery. The album’s centerpiece is the deeply affecting “The Doorbell Requiem of Catherine Philomena” – led by swelling strings a handbell rung main melodic motif – the song is a highly satisfying and emotionally resonant exploration into memory and loss. The album closer, “The Minutes”, is the album’s most poignant moment of underserved beauty. Pulling, aching drones, ringing bells and subtly looped guitars that bleed out into a distortion-filled melody that envelops the entire track before slowly fading out – like a pinhole aperture closing on an empty boardwalk.