Title: The Withdrawing Room
Artist: Mary Lattimore
Label: Desire Path
This also appeared at the Liminal.
There’s a lot to be said for living with a record for a period of months before trying to write something coherent about it. You build a series of reference points and a haze of ideas, some of which get picked up from various sources, others of which you either invent yourself, or grow out of a vague mulch of experience and data gathering. The Withdrawing Room, the debut album from Mary Lattimore, a Philadelphia based harpist, has been a signature example of this. And the name I keep coming back to is Emily Dickinson. There’s something in the title that is very Dickinsonian, for sure (that sense of self-imposed isolation and pent up desire), and this is carried over into the music, which, on the surface, is similarly austere and controlled, but out of which streams great gouts of passion and a kind of billowing, engulfing numinosity. Lattimore’s method is to use long form compositions and to follow simple melodic progressions until they fracture and spread. In places, such as on the opening track (‘You’ll Be Fiiinnne’, at 24 minutes), Jeff Ziegler, her long-time collaborator, adds to this spreading effect via the subtle warping intrusions of his korg mono/poly synth. The effect is like throwing open the windows of solitude and letting the outside world in, with the synth bubbling and whistling like so many wheeling birds. Other touch points I’ve heard mentioned are more by association than anything else, ie woman + harp, well it must be like Joanna Newsom or even Alice Coltrane. Neither comparison is particularly useful or accurate, though if you were to plump for one, then perhaps the latter Ashram recordings of Alice Coltrane might function as a useful signifier in terms of Lattimore’s New Age leanings. Bucketful of reference points aside, the truth of it is that The Withdrawing Room is an original and quietly beautiful album that continues to reveal itself over many listens and is another triumph for the excellent Desire Path label.
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Entries tagged as music reviews
Title: The End
Artist: Black Boned Angel
Label: Handmade Birds
This first appeared at the Liminal.
Campbell Kneale has been exploring the potential of the drone for more than 15 years now (in terms of releases, at least – before that, in the wilds of New Zealand and the wilds of interiority, who knows?). In high flung terms, his explorations call for a re-scaling of the word epic, a re-calibration of what’s possible in terms of sheer endurance, not to mention our very understanding of the phenomenological potential of the extended note and its psychedelic implications; more crassly put, his work is monstrous and alluring and repulsive in equal measure – and no more so than with his doom project, Black Boned Angel.
Kneale started Black Boned Angel 10 years ago as a duo along with James Kirk (more recently the band has incorporated Jules Desmond and Anthony Milton), the act creating blackened doom music, a kind of purist metal drone built around those early Earth recordings and the more unadorned Sunn O))) releases. There has always been something of a grand gothic edge to them, too – in the stage imagery, the backgrounded ranks of choral voices, and the themes of their records: Supereclipse, The Witch Must Be Killed, Verdun. Now the band have decided to call it a day, and The End is to be their last album, their epitaph. And it’s as if this has freed them up, somehow, given them an impetus to throw everything skyward, because that aforementioned grandeur is very much apparent, making The End an emotional masterpiece as well as one concerned with exploring the crushing sonic possibilities of all out heaviness.
The End is in three-parts, which add up to over an hour of music. It’s gruelling, yes, but that’s part of the point. A good chunk of Kneale’s aesthetic has always been invested in making you experience his time, so the listening experience is something akin to surrender. ‘Part 1’ is a magmatic, elephantine thing, guitar noise ripped to bursting point hoisted on blackened shrieks and Nadja-style programmed drums. This gives way, in ‘Part 2’, to something more unsettling, with swirling metallic drones and churning disembodied voices, like a choir buried hundreds of miles deep in the ground. The grinding riff, when it comes, is almost a relief. And it’s here that the emotional heft becomes really apparent, with the guitars buoyed by a vast organ patter that eventually decays into a simple fugue state lit by a simple piano figure. The closest comparison I can think of in recent times, in tone if not always in content, is another swansong – that of Corrupted, whose Garten der Unbewusstheit from 2011 had a similar soaring trajectory.
‘Part 3’ is built around another sludgy chord pattern that’s more lava flow than riff, above which flits a choral line treated until it becomes an almost theremin-like warble. Similar to ‘Part 2’ the track devolves into rubble and decay, as if the sonic fabric were unable to bear up under the strain. Which kind of adds up in terms of an elegy for Black Boned Angel; and there’s an admirable restraint in realising an idea has been pushed as far as it can go. The End stands (and crumbles) as a definitive final statement.
Title: Liquid Light Forms
Artist: Koen Holtkamp
This first appeared at The Liminal.
Koen Holtkamp’s Liquid Light Forms has been around in digital format for a few months now, but the delayed vinyl release (out on Barge in early March) has meant a slow accumulation of experience – the record has kind of percolated into me over an extended period. My initial impression was that it was merely another appropriation of the firmly 70s-rooted kosmische sound, with all the attendant baggage that brings, but repeated listens have revealed it to be a subtle and thematically interesting recording. I guess part of it comes down to trust in the end: Holtkamp, as part of the duo Mountains, has always had an ear for the skilful blending (of albeit mainly acoustic) sounds, and it’s this that comes through on Liquid Light Forms. He might have changed the means (he’s using modular synths and sequencers, instead of say an egg whisk) but the sophisticated layering is there, as is the emotional engagement. Named after the Hudson River, and two of its tributaries, the 3 long tracks glisten and shimmer, readily evoking the play of light on water. There isn’t a traditional bassline undertow as such; instead the various modulated melodies intertwine and roll across one another creating an illusion of riverine gravity. The closing track, ‘Hudson Static (Live at Shea Stadium)’ is the most ebullient here, and almost crosses into punch-the-air Emeralds territory. The lingering sonic memory of the previous tracks and Holtkamp’s poise thankfully keeps this in check. Worth the wait, this one.
Label: Self released
This first appeared at The Liminal.
Ore are Sam Underwood and Stuart Estell. They are based in Birmingham. They make intricately composed and cavernously deep doom music. With tubas (a York front-action EEb and a Besson BE983 front-action compensating EEb tuba, respectively). Granolthic is their debut album and it’s quite a thing. The title is pretty instructive in that the accumulated effect of the sounds they produce is crushing and granitic – like being slowly compressed by a throbbing slab of warm stone. And that warmth is key here, because for all of the sheer density and low-end weight of their sound, it always remains human and absorbing – not least because of the presence of so much breath, both implied and actual. This is especially apparent on the opening track ‘Sospan Ddu’ (seemingly named after a Dutch dredger) on which the sharp intakes of breath act like a doubling mechanism of the slow percussive moment of the military drums. ‘Ustvolskaya’ (named for the elusive Russian composer?) is nominally the ‘brightest’ thing here, with both tuba players using higher registers. That said, the track still feels very like an elegy. Closing epic ‘St Michael’ – the longest track at 17mins 22 – is gruelling in its way, and close in places to the doom ethic of Sunn O))). The track suddenly mutates into a harsh bellow around the 14 minute mark, sounding for all the world like someone playing an enraged bull. Which is meant as a total compliment and absolutely left me wanting more. Where the duo goes with this sound is anyone’s guess, but on this evidence it’ll be worth keeping up with.
Title: Spindle and the Bregnut Tree
Artist: Ix Tab
Label: Ix Tab
Spindle and the Bregnut Tree is an unsettling listen. Unsettling because it’s strange at a basic sonic level and unsettling because it feels so profoundly personal. There are worlds woven into these tracks and this depth of abstracted emotional content seems to make the music vibrate at a molecular level and as such expand beyond the available sonic terrain. The 12 tracks are pieced together from recordings made as far back as 1987 and ‘collected in a variety of locations, mostly midway between the deepest West Country hallows & the skaen boundaries of the 303’ so the collection also functions as a kind of aural incunabulum (here be monsters) – though I’d be dubious as to how useful it’d be as a dowsing tool to locate specific places. It’s a difficult job to merely describe how the album sounds, as these feel as much like landscape eructations and captured neuronal blips as anything else; but, if pushed, this has elements of Richard James’ early psychedelic explorations and the outer reaches of Coil’s more nocturnal experiments. (Or, more obscurely, the feedback from some afterlife machine onto which ‘they’ uploaded the combined yammer of Balance and Sleazy’s consciousnesses.) There’s also something of the analogue bubbling of Cluster, particularly on the 18-minute epic of ‘Oggle Hatch’ which resolves out of a welter of psychic babble into a beautifully simple synth refrain. But influences aside, this is very much a unique project with its own peculiar sonic idiolect, and it’s a project that clearly deserves to be more widely heard. Go forth.
More minimals over at The Liminal.
These first appeared at the Liminal.
Artist: High Aura'd
Title: Sanguine Futures
It’s becomingly increasingly difficult to write in any meaningful way about ambient releases, such is both the proliferation of music and by extension, the sheer amount of expended digital text. It’s not an exaggeration to say that some releases have as many purple reviews as there are physical copies available. All of which means, when a record of exceptional quality does arrive you find yourself reaching for higher superlatives or more abstruse adjectives to ecstatically describe the sonic phenomena as they unfold. What this situation does do is force you back to essentials: what, precisely, makes for a good ambient recording? And the answers are fairly simple: appreciation of atmosphere, tone, duration and architecture. And safe to say, High Aura’d (the recording alias of John Kolodij) has absolute mastery of all of these facets. Broadly put Sanguine Futures is elemental ambient music. Yet there is something more than just pretty evocation at work here: Kolodij has a granular approach to his compositions meaning each strata, each seam is carefully crafted, to the point where you can almost feel the bedrock and grasp at the clouds of vapour – these are compositions that invite a kind of habitation. On a track such as ‘Sleep Like the Dead’ there is a geological heft to the outer layers of the drone, and the heartbeat, when it comes, is bulbous and warm. ‘La Chasse-galerie’, is suitably wild, like its subject matter: a wild hunt, roaring high above the trees, peaking in a glorious crescendo, redolent of Yellow Swans at their most ecstatic. Thinking of other antecdents, I keep coming back to the Eno of On Land especially on the long eerie swamp-song of ‘Mercy Brown’ which has, at its heart, the story of an exhumation of a 2-month old corpse, a corpse whose heart still contained blood… Sanguine Futures is full of these kinds of layered readings, readings that double and intensify the already dense sonic material. Stunning stuff.
Artist: Isnaj Dui
Title: Abstracts on Solitude
Isnaj Dui is the latest recording project of Kate English who has been releasing music under one guise or another since 1995. Abstracts on Solitude is her first release for Hibernate. It’s an eerie, sensual album, full of the blooming low cadences of the bass flute, a seldom-recorded member of the flute family, often overlooked for the fact that in an orchestral situation it is easily drowned out. English uses the flute to create a kind of tremulous biosphere, inside which the subtly-effected electronics, treated dulcimers and thumb pianos creak and flit. The cover of the record acts as a kind of map for the overall sound of the album. At first glance, I saw both a landscape and an abstracted view of a female chest – the fact that it is neither of these, but a blurred close-up of a circuit board is instructive. For these are intimate creations that act like body maps: the breath of the flute, the strange synaptic clicks and whirs of the electronics, the drum-hollows of the dulcimer, the percussive thumb piano. That said, the composer always maintains a sense of that which lies beyond, particularly on the beautiful closing track ‘The Last Will Become A Darker Grey’ which has an almost Delius-like pastoral melancholy.
Artist: Padang Food Tigers
Title: Ready Country Nimbus
Another strong release from Bathetic in what is proving to be quite a year for the North Carolina based label. Padang Food Tigers are Stephen Lewis and Spencer Grady, two members of Rameses III, who have released several gently beautiful long-form drone albums since their inception in the early ’00s. With Padang Food Tigers, the duo have boiled down their explorations to a spare essence, creating humid fragile miniatures from acoustic instruments and field recordings. The tracks, most no more than 2 or 2.30 mins long, are like captured moments or brief sketches of nature: a simple guitar pattern or lambent piano figure laid over distant church bells or stuttering chaffinch song. It brings to mind Bruce Langhorne’s mournful score for The Hired Hand and Scott Tuma’s rusty, elegiac folk explorations, and at times it does feel like a study in smuggled American primitivism. Should one care about spurious ‘authenticity’ when something sounds this natural and right?
Label: Handmade Birds
This isn’t nearly enough space to do justice to a record with such scope and heart, but there we are. Kentucky is ostensibly a black metal album, but it takes what are becoming tired tropes and gives them life, utilising the bursting drive of the blast beat and the icy nihilistic barrage for humanistic purposes, to give voice to the long dead. Austin Lunn (the sole member of Panopticon) has always dealt with difficult subjects (the last album, Social Disservices was about the appalling state of the youth care system in the States) but with Kentucky it’s like he’s found his perfect platform. It tells, via 3 long, more metal-based tracks and 5 shorter Appalachian folk and bluegrass workouts, the story of a state and its people’s relationship with the coal mining industry: the effect on the landscape, the horror of the daily work, the vile treatment of workers by the industry, the pitch battles between unions and the big corporations. It features, alongside the naked roar and violence of Lunn’s at times all out war approach to black metal, spoken word passages, field recordings (one particular heart-stopping moment has a 91 year old woman on a picket line declaring “I’m prepared to die, are you?”) and the simple uncanny presence of the volk in songs such as ‘Which Side Are You On’ written by Kentuckian Florence Reece in the wake of harrassment of her union founding husband by police and mining companies. If that sounds like the record might be a mess, then that’s not an unfair assessment – it’s a new juxtaposition of sounds and one that often jars. But it’s so strong on power and emotion that it builds its own deliberate structure around itself. By the 4th or 5th listen it makes perfect sense. A colossal achievement.
Artist: Dead Rat Orchestra
Title: Guga Hunters of Ness
Label: Critical Heights
This review also appeared over at The Liminal.
The guga hunters of the title of this documentary by Mike Day and its soundtrack by the Dead Rat Orchestra are the men of Ness, a remote community in the north part of the Isle of Lewis. For more than 400 years, every August, the men have gathered and travelled the 40 long miles by boat to the even more remote and uninhabited island of Sula Sgeir, where for two long weeks they hunt the young of gannets who use the island to breed. They then prepare the meat for the homeward journey and for distribution throughout the community. There is a short window in the birds’ life during which the flesh is edible, either side of this it’s either tough and stringy, or raw, salty and unpalatable. It used to be that the meat provided the community with much needed food throughout the winter months, but now the expedition has become pure ritual and the meat is sold as a delicacy. The hunting of young gannets is outlawed everywhere else in the EU but the hunters of Ness are given special dispensation to continue their tradition. They take 2000 birds each year.
The beautifully shot and edited and ultimately non-judgemental documentary charts one of these expeditions from beginning to end. It takes in short backstories of the men involved, their coming together and planning for the trip, plus the expedition proper, with its grim, nauseating boat journey and the two weeks in stone bothies atop the greyblack gneiss outcrop that is Sula Sgeir. In many ways the early part of the film is a depiction of the anthropologist Margaret Mead’s observations that in the villages of Samoa the men were at their happiest when they got together before a long hunting expedition - there is easy bonhomie, camaraderie. And yet there is an air of steely melancholy about the whole affair - an air that pervades the entire film. It’s partly due to the men knowing that what’s coming is two weeks of hardship, but there’s also an unspoken acknowledgement that the tradition is dying, and on a greater scale the traditions of the Western Isles in general - this may be the last generation of men that ventures forth into the wilds of the ocean.
There’s also a real sense that men are surrendering themselves to a greater force - not necessarily something religious in content, more letting themselves be drawn on by the plotlines of tradition, the hooks and pulleys of the past, a past that also reaches forward from the present and draws them on, the ghosts of memories and generations past operating outside of time. The faces of the men consequently take on the look of pilgrims, supplicants. In this sense, it feels as if the characters are performing a kind of cultural dreamwork. This gives the melancholy a strange tinge of fire, gives it life, and power.
As such, the Dead Rat Orchestra’s job (the trio are Daniel Merrill, Robin Alderton and Nathaniel Mann) seems, on the surface, a fairly straightforward one - to find a way of capturing both the power of this historical work, and to trace and trap the over-arching sense of melancholy. Yet the film already has so much music - the strange bubbling calls of the gannets, like water over rough stone, the infinite voice of the sea and the beautiful roll of the Lewisian accents, plus the hidden music of the gaelic place names: the toponymic melodies - that in truth the band’s role is almost to fade into the background, to become like an instrument of the atmosphere. And to their credit, the soundtrack is wonderfully understated. It brings to mind British Sea Power’s soundtrack to Man of Aran, which was hamstrung by the band’s over-insistence on trying to match the power of the elements, and the awesome forces of the past. The Dead Rat Orchestra’s approach is more humble.
The band worked closely with the director and also researched thoroughly old Nessian folk tales and melodies, then, with a store of traditional folk instruments, they decamped to a disused lighthouse ship on a tidal estuary in Essex, where they spent a week cut off from the outside world. From the overall sound of the album, it appears the environment seeped into the music itself, alongside their store of melodies and memories, creating a kind of bubble to work inside. So what you have is a series of vignettes, beguilingly simple and largely muted, but packing a subsumed emotional punch that mirrors the often haunted looks of the men involved in the Sula Sgeir expedition.
The individual tracks are built from simple means, like creaking shore dwellings - banjo, piano, accordion, violin - and there is the occasional field recording such as on ‘Salt Slide’ where the voices of the Ness Church Choir infiltrate the atmosphere like weather and lift the track into probably the most exuberant section of the album. The centrepiece is ostensibly ‘Heather Isle’ (also the longest track at 8 minutes), a track for the trawler which has taken the men to the island for many years. It swells from a treated accordion drone into a kind of tribal stomp before settling back into a wheeze of bowed strings. Though, in truth, the real ‘centre(s)’ of the album are the two tracks named after ‘Dods' banjo’. Dods has been the leader of the expedition for a number of years and his gneiss-like stare personifies the sense of fierce melancholy that drives the men on. These tracks are the sparest here, a barely plucked banjo like a lone voice in the night.
I think, finally, the film and the soundtrack are a gentle triumph - and by remaining relatively passive and observational, the essential power of the undertaking is slowly revealed in all its historical and personal complexity. Though part of me did wonder if there was more space for dissonance, even the slightest notion of the perpetuation of what is essentially a tradition of quiet horror.