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Ambient Music

JOE OLNICK: WINK OF AN EYE

(SELF-RELEASED; 2020)

You gotta have patience to appreciate straight drone music. You know that expression people commonly use where someone talks too much? They’ll say of the party in question, “Oh he just drones on and on… ” In other words, someone is making a repetitive noise that someone else quickly gets tired of. Many listeners would say that about a lot of ambient music, especially the sub-genre that is primarily drone-based. But as a devoted ambient acolyte, I appreciate a good immersive drone, and Joe Olnick offers three of them on this here self-released outing. Olnick is a guitarist and producer mostly known for a sort of rock/funk/jazz hybrid that his Joe Olnick Band traffics in (“Funky Traffic” and “Downtown” earned spins on college radio). But he also digs ambient, and has been exploring the possibilities of what the guitar can do when, well, you process the shit out of it so it doesn’t hardly sound like a guitar anymore. WINK OF AN EYE apparently began as brief sections borrowed from an earlier ambient recording called BRIGHT PAINTINGS, and Olnick used what he calls “advanced processing techniques” to conjure up some layered space music.

There are only 3 pieces on this disc, curiously titled “Slow Funky Buildings,” “Slow Bright Buildings” and “Slow Modern Buildings.” All three are, you got it, slow. These are drones that can work as background ambience, and they are pleasant and captivating enough to hold your attention should you choose to pay it. But you won’t be suddenly bombarded by rude sonic bursts of weirdness, either. The “Slow Funky” track is most assuredly NOT funky… it’s made of subtly changing soundwaves that might remind you of a wild seashore, where the water comes into shore dramatically and then recedes. “Waves” is really the best word to describe this stuff. Not that much happens, but it’s still hypnotic. At 26 minutes, the “Slow Bright” track is longest, and it starts off more abrasive and metallic than its predecessor. I was reminded of Fripp and Eno’s “An Index of Metals,” only not as ominous as that opus. Olnick is not out to unnerve anyone; this really seems to be an exercise in how ambient a guitar can get when you manipulate the output very thoroughly. The answer? VERY ambient. You could possibly drift off to sleep with this one, although I wouldn’t call it “serene” or anything. “Slow Modern Buildings” does approach a kind of serenity, though. It’s a modest 11 minutes long, and turns the “evocative” dial up to at least “7.” You could take chunks of this piece and use ‘em in some arty indie film or documentary about wild places. Without any such context? You basically get a Joe Olnick ambient drone trio, which will be enough for some of us. No less than the legendary Robert Rich mastered this recording, which should tell you two things: One, it sounds terrific and enveloping, and two, Rich thought highly enough of the sonic excursions here to put his name on them.

JOE OLNICK (publicity photo)

You could say of virtually ANY ambient disc, “it’s not for everyone.” And this may bore non aficionados, for sure. But there is something very comfortable and unassuming about Olnick’s relaxed space music; he offers it up with the confidence that some folks will find it worthwhile. Olnick is NOT one of those artists who simply “drones on and on” without purpose. He’s got plenty of other things on his plate, but knowing he is into at least the occasional drone-fest makes WINK OF AN EYE rather special. I was a contented participant in the conversation that Olnick started with this release.

WEEKS ISLAND: DROSTE

(SELF-RELEASED DIGITAL EP; 2020)

All musical genres evolve and change, no matter what they started as. When Brian Eno coined the term “ambient” for the dreamy, drifty sound he became enamored with in the mid-’70s, it would have been impossible for him to imagine the different directions this stuff would go in over the next nearly half a century. APOLLO, the absolute ambient classic Eno created with his brother Roger and producing partner Daniel Lanois in 1983, found Lanois doing a strange thing: Introducing the pedal steel into otherwise spacey, Eno-esque soundscapes. It was an attempt to comment on astronauts reported fondness for traditional country music. Although viewed as sacrilege by ambient purists, somehow this new and unfamiliar blend worked.

Jonny Campos of Weeks Island (an ambient side project for the guitarist in Cajun band the Lost City Ramblers) was listening. He has just released DROSTE, a 5-track EP that features pedal steel and atmospheric background drone that removes almost every trace of anything you’d call “country.” This is meandering, often haunting ambience that makes a statement without wearing out its welcome. “Raccoon Island” could be the soundtrack for a couple lost in a swamp somewhere, evoking a non-panicky sort of displaced feeling, very much of the background-ish aesthetic that good ambient music excels at. “Fleur Pond” is more sparse but still gently cinematic, with Campos playing his chosen notes with definite deliberation. “Bayou La Chute” doesn’t vary too much, but the bending of a single string upward or downward adds drama and an evocation of being pretty far away from any familiar scenic touchstones. Curiously, this stuff is more purely ambient than Lanois’ diversions on the previously mentioned APOLLO. “Cybrien Bay” adds a repeating low-register tone for something a shade more intense and it contrasts nicely with Campos’ by now characteristic fluid pedal-steel flourishes. And the piece never makes it to the 3-minute mark, The opening “Point Fortuna” is nearly twice as long and represents Campos’ intention here the most memorably.

WEEKS ISLAND (Jonny Campos) (photo credit: WILL HAGAN)

With any sort of weird ambient music, it’s a given that it’s an “acquired taste.” But this is actually a nice little surprise… short, purposeful and totally authentic in its aims to create a southern-tinged atmospheric mini-set that has ambient textures but with pedal steel and the processing of it at the forefront. Let’s keep an eye and an ear on Jonny Campos; he’s demonstrated that he has a feel for this stuff, and meatier works may be in the offing down the road.

JON HASSELL: VERNAL EQUINOX

(NDEYA RECORDS; 2020 reissue)

Some artists stubbornly resist pigeonholing. I could put any number of Jon Hassell records on (and I have a fair number) at a social gathering, and I’d bet that at least one listener would come up and say, “What the heck is THIS?” It’s strange music, that’s all. And being helpful by saying “it occupies a space between ambient, Miles Davis-type jazz and world music” may or may not prepare the uninitiated. Hassell himself would eventually start branding his recordings as “Fourth World,” to signify a kind of foreign, multi-ethnic sound that, while centered around his very distinct trumpet style, would also take you somewhere new. A sort of “traditional” sound from a country that doesn’t truly exist.

JON HASSELL (David Rosenboom, Jon Hassell in 1977) (uncredited photo)

His first official album was VERNAL EQUINOX, which initially came out in 1977. It has now been remastered and reissued on Hassell’s own label. It’s kind of a disorienting little beast of a record, but it was original enough to catch the ears of Brian Eno, who wrote liner notes for this edition. Eno, of course, would go on to collaborate with Hassell on POSSIBLE MUSICS in 1980, and to produce a few records for the artist after that. For whatever it might illustrate, the noted music website Pitchfork included VERNAL EQUINOX as one of their “50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time” (it was listed at #47). And the evocative, often spacious quality of Hassell’s compositions does indeed fit comfortably into an ambient (albeit the edgy reaches of the genre) mode.

JON HASSELL (photo credit: ROMAN KOVAL)

Most of the six pieces here are exotic, a bit misty-sounding and in thrall to the otherworldly timbre of Hassell’s trumpet. The instrument is sometimes processed to sound either partially muted, or vaporous, wafting through the air of whatever planet it’s coming from. “Viva Shona” features birdsong and sparse background instrumentation, the trumpet placed front and center. “Hex” lets Hassell carry on a very distinctive conversation, his tones developing in such a lively manner that you listen close to catch the amazing process as it evolves. What sounds like rainstick and bass adorns the background. Most listeners will be especially riveted by the two centerpiece tracks “Blues Nile” and the title track. The former piece gives us a slightly distorted, granular-sounding drone over which Hassell delivers sonic bursts that sound for all the world like a warning or “call to attention” for the citizens of an alien culture. Could be a pending invasion from that tribe over the hill! The clear separation between the trumpet and the sharp-edged drone is dramatic and compelling. Around the climax of the piece, Hassell lets loose a series of notes going up and down the scale of his chosen key, and you’ll likely stop whatever you’re doing to listen closely. As for the nearly 22-minute “Vernal Equinox,” it’s thoroughly engrossing, setting up a sparse but hypnotic landscape of background drone, hand drumming and a casually meandering trumpet, as though Hassell were patiently walking a lush rainforest trail, stopping to observe here and there but recording his observations in music with great passion at appropriate intervals. It’s a marvel, this track. I can only imagine the reactions of listeners encountering it for the first time. Things finish off with the short closer “Caracas Night,” with nocturnal nature sounds and some Miles-style blowing to bid you adieu in a slightly more traditional manner. It’s not a long album, this outing, but it will definitely make you feel like you’ve been somewhere.

JON HASSELL (photo credit: ROMAN KOVAL)

Hassell’s later outings with Eno would bring him more acclaim (POWER SPOT is one of those distinct offerings), and there is more textural richness on the dramatically titled THE SURGEON OF THE NIGHT SKY RESTORES DEAD THINGS BY THE POWER OF SOUND and DREAM THEORY IN MALAYA, to name just a couple of gems. But it started here, with …EQUINOX. He’s a genuinely visionary player who took a much featured instrument and did things with it no one had ever done before. That takes a special kind of musicality and love of exploration that should certainly be celebrated.

BRENNER AND MOLENAAR: UNINVITED SAVIOR

(NEFARIOUS INDUSTRIES; 2020)

It’s a lonely life sometimes, being an ambient music fanatic. You move about each day among the uninformed, knowing you’re not like them, knowing that only this weird droning stuff speaks to you, while they’re behind the wheels of their cars uninhibitedly singing the chorus to some hip hop or indie rock thingy they recently heard streaming. Sometimes you get pulled into a conversation where you gotta answer questions like, “What IS ambient?” (this happened to me just recently), and you mumble something like, ‘Well, it’s this kinda background music that’s also interesting, that you can immerse yourself in if you want to.” Your well-meaning friends might have HEARD of Brian Eno (“didn’t he have something to do with U2 for a while?”), but start dropping names like Stars of the Lid, Biosphere or William Basinski, and more than likely you’re gonna get blank looks. That’s okay, though. I’m proud of being able to explain why ambient is NOT the same as “new age,” what qualities characterize “dark ambient,” and how some drones really transport you to another realm, while others just…drone on and on. Kinda like some of your friends. And if you get TWO ambient aficionados in a room together, well, it’s likely gonna be a LIVELY discussion. And those guys will probably stay friends. Ambient has that effect.

BRENNER AND MOLENAAR (Dave Brenner, Christian Molenaar) (photo manipulation: DAVE BRENNER)

So, David Brenner, known for his gritty sonic excursions in GridFailure, and Christian Molenaar of San Diego’s Those Darn Gnomes, have made this 82-minute monster dronefest that doesn’t really lend itself to an “easy” review. I could tell you that it sounds like the inhabitants of a nearby planet enduring yet another stormy day in the harsh environment on their planet, or you in a sort of druggy state driving your car, caught in a relentless traffic jam where you only move a few yards every 10 minutes or so, and you’re losing your ability to tell reality from haunting scenes from your subconscious, which are intermingling randomly, your desire to just sleep continuously stymied. Or, I could quote from an actual press release for this’un, which reads: “Infusing vocals, electric/acoustic/bass/pedal steel guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, organs, xylophone, harmonica, 1970s cult field recordings, resynthesis, tape manipulation, contact mic and power electronics effects, and other instrumentation tactics embodied in a vaporous haze, the three lumbering movements range between 20 and 35 minutes in length, suspending the listener within its abyssal vacuum.” I kinda like that phrase “abyssal vacuum.” Because for sure, this heavy dose of sound is dark enough to change your perception, your sense of WHERE the hell you are. “Burial Delerium” (unsettling title, that) is rather hypnotic and indicative of an unfriendly environment, sonically speaking, with sirens appearing a third of the way through, and some recognizable guitar stuff breaking the potential tedium of the ultra-thick drone. As the press release says, there is also plenty of other stuff going in and out of the mix.

As unsettling as this track might be, it’s almost PRETTY compared with the mega-darkness of the nearly 26-minute “Transfixed.” The music journal CAPTURED HOWLS has a good line: “Feels like the disorienting soundtrack that might be playing in the waiting room outside an executioner’s chamber.” I was going to say that this music would be appropriate to accompany footage of some hopeless middle east slaughter, like seeing dozens and dozens of innocents in northwest Syria blown to smithereens as they try to flee the madness of relentless attacks. It’s THAT dark, desolate and grim. The prominence of big bass flareups and elements of distortion would likely make it impossible to relax to this stuff in any way. T’ain’t pretty. When it ends, you may feel grateful.

BRENNER AND MOLENAAR (Dave Brenner, Christian Molenaar) (photo manipulation: DAVE BRENNER)

Oh, but the aural carnage is not over yet. We go from a 20-minute track to a 26-minute track to the 35-minute “Hallelujah (27 Years).” It begins with a background organ that is rather soothing compared to what preceded it, although it doesn’t last long. That’s soon swallowed up by abrasive background static with not-quite-decipherable human dialogue in the foreground. The dialogue grows more prominent until you can start making out distinctive utterances like “I have a terrible burning feeling inside.” Which you, the listener, may have in your eardrums by this point, in fact. A section that follows could be appropriate for watching the end of the world unfold: It’s just all-out apocalyptic, crossing the line from “ambient” to what I would call “hardcore experimental music.” Thick, unsympathetic dark drone. In a lengthy section about halfway through, the drama intensifies when two combative voices go at it again, possibly a pissed-off exorcist and a devilish entity of some sort. Byrne and Eno might have dug this sort of thing when they were making MY LIFE IN THE BUSH OF GHOSTS, but that album was easy listening compared to the relentless stuff assaulting the listener here. “In the name of Jesus,” one voice yells late in the mix, “You are defeated, Satan.” God, I hope so. I wouldn’t want this quarrel to continue much longer…

You may wonder at this point, “Well why, then, would I want to subject myself to this kinda thing?” It’s a valid question. There’s a place for punishing music, otherwise extreme death metal and the like would have no audience. Personally, I find most contemporary pop on the radio almost as unpleasant as this. And I’ll certainly allow that this brutal last track pushes the limits; I would likely NOT leave it on my car stereo past maybe the 20-minute mark unless I was in one of THOSE moods. It’s relentless. That said, I admire the aesthetics here. Clearly Brenner and Molenaar put serious hours of recording into this project. They wanted to create a dark, swirling SOUNDSTORM, something you could get completely lost in and overpowered by if you’re that sort. And I’d genuinely love to hear their thoughts on good and evil and the state of the world today. This record is somewhat of an apt soundtrack to the completely deteriorating state of modern civilization and morality, a real end-times missive. No, it won’t be anyone’s idea of a good time, except the most depressive fans of super dark drone-based ambient, perhaps. But it does carve out a space at the very edge of a certain kind of listening experience, and the experimental freedom you can claim when there are no commercial considerations to bother with whatsoever. I admire this UNINVITED SAVIOR project. And I did get caught up in a big chunk of the maelstrom these two guys plunge us into. But no, I won’t listen to this before I go to bed, or driving on a scenic road or anything. I mostly listen to ambient to remind me of the beauty and hope that are still out there. UNINVITED SAVIOR sounds a little too much like the wretched results of greed and hate that are pretty much wrecking up the world these days. If you need that catharsis, okay. But don’t say you haven’t been warned.

TIRILL: SAID THE SUN TO THE MOON

(FAIRY MUSIC; Norwegian import, 2019)

In a world turned increasingly ugly and amoral, sometimes all you can do is listen to your heart, and hang onto beauty wherever you can find it. That might be on the faces of loved ones, in the changing of the seasons, or in watching waves rolling into some wild shore. Norwegian singer/songwriter Tirill Mohn clearly thinks about such things, and her new album, SAID THE SUN TO THE MOON, is an elegantly simple, melancholy and yet hopeful reminder that all we see and feel is worth pausing to appreciate. The strong impression this lovely recording leaves overall is that of a weary traveler stopping for tea at the home of a trusted friend, having a sweet and empathetic conversation while unburdening his sorrows, and then continuing his journey, now just slightly more centered. Or maybe that’s just the way I felt, wishing I was that traveler, and appreciating what Tirill has to say here.

TIRILL (publicity photo)

Let’s start by mentioning the cover, the sort of thing more typically seen on ambient albums. I will never tire of seeing a CD become a beautiful object itself, in this case, one featuring a minimalist, darkish grey shoreline under a mostly cloudy sky, with photos in the booklet of leaves, seascapes and in one case, a fog-enshrouded dock, adorning the individual pages along with the lyrics in a script font. It’s all quite lovely and beckoning. “This album is dedicated to the shift of the seasons, to the beauty of nature in all its phases and changes, and to the human heart that wanders along with it, moon after moon, lifetime after lifetime,” the notes on the inside sleeve tell us. I was already shivering after I read this; I’ve never thought more about that “human heart” than I’ve done in the past couple of years. But then the music starts, as delicate as soft rain on a wooden boat dock or living room window. Tirill’s voice is gentle, soothing, with casual wisdom underscoring the words (some she wrote, some written by others). Soon you’re responding to Uno Alexander Vesje’s evocative harp playing, Sigrun Eng’s cello, Bjarne Magnus Jensen’s violin, other almost medieval-sounding instrumentation and Tirill herself singing like a woodland goddess, playing guitar sweetly for all who will listen. Season-centric songs such as “Autumn” and “Winter” are short and evocative; nothing lasts too long on this album. But there is a lovely, inspired cover of Nick Drake’s “Clothes of Sand”; it’s worth mentioning that Tirill is a devoted fan of Drake and took part in a tribute concert to him a few years ago. This is one of the best Drake covers I’ve heard, truly. The whole album is dedicated to Rudolf Steiner, who wrote about and developed a spiritual philosophy of the “relationship between nature and the human spirit,” with many of his poems here being translated by Owen Barfield for Tirill’s ethereal musings, principally those titled after individual seasons. There is a poem “associated” with the exquisite chamber-folk piece “To the Realms of the Spirit,” but it’s presented here as a string-laden instrumental, a haunting one. “Spring” is a bright and beautiful song fragment, with that harp really luring you in, but then the song is over in just a minute and 15. Much too short, like the actual season of Spring itself. Two of the best tracks are “Shapes of a Dream,” a rumination on mother and son that Tirill penned which has an aching sadness suffused throughout (is it about an unwanted separation? A tribute to the loving memory of one who departed?) and the title track, featuring lyrics by Kathleen Jessie Raine. That one is about change, how it is both inevitable and something to face with understanding and clarity. The quiet, folksy sound of this piece could induce tears, and Tirill’s musicians play with the most evocative, understated grace for such a timeless theme. “Iridescent Horizon” begins sounding like an eerie ambient sonic, but is actually one of two spoken word pieces here, and it’s worth following along with the words if you have the patience for this kind of thing. It’s subtitled “To a Beloved,” and in fact, many of these pieces have a subtitle clearly chosen for what the song’s added meaning might be (the Drake cover says “To a Past Love”, the memorable “Under the Small Fire of Winter Stars” is subtitled “To a Friend”). In that one, a whispering goddess, half-dream meditation, which comes and goes on a nocturnal ambient breeze, Tirill implores her listener “And if it happens that you cannot go on or turn back/And you find yourself where you will be at the end, tell yourself in that final flowing of cold through your limbs, that you love what you are.” I could use such gentle persuasions and all the other impossibly empathetic sentiments Tirill gifts us with on this fragile song cycle, as I continue winding my own way across the sometimes mean, merciless landscapes of modern times.

TOR LUNDVALL: A STRANGENESS IN MOTION: EARLY POP RECORDINGS 1989-1999

(DAIS RECORDS; 2019)

Sometimes an artist can be quite prolific without most folks knowing who they are. That seems to be the case with Tor Lundvall, an East Hampton based electronica auteur whose largely ambient works tend to be limited editions. He was on a label called Strange Fortune from 2004-2006, where I first heard his evocative works LAST LIGHT and EMPTY CITY, the latter a perfectly satisfying dark-ish ambient platter that worked fine as immersive mood music. Lundvall has categorized his own music as “ghost ambient,” which, while not an official sub-genre in most texts I have read, sums it up tidily. Before the Strange Fortune years, he released a series of seasons-themed platters (something not unsurprisingly common in ambient circles) such as THE MIST and UNDER THE SHADOWS OF TREES. Lundvall is an introspective observer of nature, it seems, and woodlands, fields and changing weather informs his sound rather pervasively. Works for me, as I am a total ambient freak.

TOR LUNDVALL in Washington DC, 1990 (uncredited photo)

Now, however, in one of several retrospective collections he has put out (a couple being very limited-edition box sets), he’s gone back to his youthful coffers to gather up the material that comprises A STRANGENESS IN MOTION: EARLY POP RECORDINGS 1989-1999. This does not qualify as ambient, although the evocative and tonally rich keyboards Lundvall plays could certainly serve it up, and HAVE on later recordings. But we get vocals throughout, and unless you’re Elizabeth Fraser or that guy who sang on a track on Eno/Budd’s classic THE PLATEAUX OF MIRROR, or any number of nameless ethereal female vocalists who’ve spruced up more heavenly music-style outings than I could name, you don’t get invited to the “Ambient Party.” What Lundvall was doing in yonder years was essentially synth pop, music with two or three well-known IDM type beats, simple but atmospheric keyboard sounds generally mixed upfront, and soft but clear vocals.

TOR LUNDVALL in the studio, 1994 (uncredited photo)

Original One” comes right out of the speakers with a four-on-the-floor dancey beat and a rather distracting male vocal occasionally barking something unintelligible. No lyrics, but… no “ambience” in the classic manor, either. But it’s kinda fun. “Procession Day” is better, centered around a lovely descending minor fourth interval and an airy Lundvall vocal: “From my window, leaves are turning/From my window, I watch the changing world,” he sings, and there are plenty of casual observations like that throughout the remaining tracks. This is genuinely pleasant, however, and may remind you of classic Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. “The Clearing” features dual vocal tracks, one virtually whispered, the other a gentle, higher-register vocal that, when occurring in tandem with the other, creates a hypnotic effect. There are three or four different keyboard elements in the mix, so Lundvall was clearly already a master of light electronica, and he has too much serious intent to let any of this approach the shallow side of the electronica pool. That said, much of this music sounds like standard ‘80s synth-pop, something that many of us were listening to in colleges and clubs at the time. “The Melting Hour” has a rather driving rhythm that recalls early Echo and the Bunnymen (Lundvall’s sweet lead vocal sounds like a lyric he sings, “haunted by dreams”), and “Watched” is rather hypnotic in its purposeful airy pop sound, even if you get the sense that this kind of music was and still is being made by any competent electronica musician with the right computer setup.

As the album progresses, though, you realize you are hearing an artist that loves getting lost in the music. “Hidden” has a 1-2-2-1 keyboard phrase that repeats over and over, effectively, while Lundvall’s shy, boy-ish vocal seems to hover between the background and the foreground. There’s a kind of hazy allure to this track that leaves a lasting impression. “The Night Watch” is even better, a cumulatively mesmerizing song offering more of those evocative lyrics: “I see a tree sitting on the field/The twisted limbs, its leaves conceal/The small dark birds fly against the sky/Along the black streets, the shadows try… ” I let this one play three times. “Lessons That Kill” offers bright, pinging electronics that call the French duo Air to mind, and convey a sense of underlying drama that would have made for a fine instrumental. There is a cool shift in the main melody just after the two-minute mark. Lundvall does sing again, though, and the vocals don’t really command attention, even though they are pleasant enough. The closing “August Rain” features cool, fizzy keyboards in the foreground and a dreamlike, half-whispered vocal firmly in the background. The effect is like lucid dreaming… are you fully awake in reality or not? And how important is it to you to even KNOW what the lyrics are saying? These final few tracks raise that question.

TOR LUNDVALL, 2016 (publicity photo)

Ironically, even though this isn’t a Tor Lundvall ambient release, it would sound pretty good in the background at a social event. I can’t imagine this soft, pop-tronica style really bothering anyone. Lundvall has focus and clarity in his music; you could tell he was thinking things over, and trying to direct his sonic assembly to do his artistic bidding. His later work may be more entrancing to those of us into the ambient immersion thing, but A STRANGENESS IN MOTION… , while not particularly “strange” by my reckoning, does showcase an artist making strides towards a promising musical destiny.

ABJECTION RITUAL: SOUL OF RUIN, BODY OF FILTH

(MALIGNANT RECORDS; 2018)

I am the type of person that likes to thoroughly research any artist that I write about, mentioning each band member and any guest musician’s contribution to the particular recording up for review. Finding ANY information about Abjection Ritual is like collecting hen’s teeth. However, after much scouring of various online data bases, I was able to identify the man behind the sounds. Now, after some soul-searching, I have decided that if this gentleman has gone to such extremes to keep his identity a mystery, I won’t blow it for him here. Suffice to say, the man is genuinely disturbed… the kind of disturbed that all true geniuses seem to share. These are the men and women who create the most adventurous and thought-provoking music, movies, literature, art… each a statement on the world, its populace or, indeed, the inner machinations of the creator of said piece. So… with that out of the way, let’s take a look at SOUL OF RUIN, BODY OF FILTH, the fourth overall release from Abjection Ritual and second for Malignant Records.

ABJECTION RITUAL (publicity photo)

Previous Abjection Ritual releases have tended toward a kind of synthesized industrial metal. SOUL OF RUIN… sees the now-duo moving in a more organic direction, introducing guitar, bass and a live drummer into the mix of industrial ambience and heavy electronics. “Lamentations” is the shortest piece on the album, a droning dirge of an introduction with haunting female… uh… well, “Lamentations” leads right into “Body of Filth.” Tribal drums, eardrum-piercing feedback and an assortment of other evil sounding instrumentation replaces the hypnotic droning of the intro. Screamed male vocals are introduced before the whole thing devolves into a hive of noise, buzzing toward an unresolved terminus. “Blood Mother” is a sinister, Dio-era Sabbath wall of doom and gloom highlighted by ridiculously heavy riffs and ponderous drums. The middle section – a stinging, horror movie soundtrack – features a female voice (Rennie Resmini) and odd sci-fi sound effects before returning to the ominous bass grind of the track’s central theme. Hoarse, sore-throat inducing vocals plead and exhort, delivering what I must assume is the desired queasy effect. Author Christopher Ropes delivers a spoken word intro to “Deathbed Conversion.” The best analogy I can come up with regarding this one is that it sounds like the gates of Hell opening, inviting in the soul of a dying man. The lyrics are virtually vomited out, either Satan or the tortured soul seeking redemption (or condemnation). I’m not too sure about the conversion, but if the next song, “Ruin,” is any indication, things did not go well. The tone is oddly brighter, with a synthesized orchestra (or, is that a chorus?) seemingly offering light to the aura, if not the soul, of the entire record. Even so, the track features some crushingly heavy guitar and two guttural voices manage to give the tune and even more chaotic sound than the first half of the record. A lone voice, almost plaintive, dominates the second half grind.

“Carnassial Passage” is a kind of throbbing fever dream that somehow brings to mind the classic Alice Cooper tune, “Unfinished Sweet.” That may have more to do with the song title and the creepy drills that keep intruding into the mix. I feel fairly certain that this one would probably give even the Cooper boys nightmares. And that, friends, is a high compliment to the damaged minds behind the tune. The album ends with the nine-minute-plus magnum opus, “Old Sins.” It’s a slow descent into madness with heavily fuzzed-out guitar and bass with screamed vocals before the painful squall of a guitar’s feedback jolts you awake like electroshock therapy gone horribly wrong. Oddly effective and provocative, the minimalist drums make the cut intensely claustrophobic, forcing the listener into an unwelcome introspective haze. And we’re just a little more than halfway in; a more traditional approach is introduced at about 5:15 in, with a somewhat standard chord progression from the bass and Fripp-like sonic sweeps of guitar. Seemingly just out of listening range is what sounds like a psychotherapy session taking place. Taken by itself, “Old Sins” is a most effective and utterly disturbing piece of music; taken as a solitary piece of a larger construct, it seems to be the final abandonment of all hope, the dissolution of the final thread of sanity. The emotional turmoil that the song elicits, the journey we are forced to embark upon is exactly the desired effect that Abjection Ritual was aiming for. All good music, literature, art has the ability to lead its audience down a path that will generate a certain visceral reaction from said audience; SOUL OF RUIN, BODY OF FILTH as a whole and, particularly, “Old Sins” by itself does exactly that. I was mentally drained from the experience and, just maybe, a different person for having had that experience. That is the kind of art that one rarely experiences nowadays.

GRIDFAILURE: FURTHER LAYERS OF SOCIETAL COLLAPSE

(THE COMPOUND RECORDS; 2016)

gridfailure

I like noise! Noise is good. Particularly the conflagration of noise manifested by David Brenner, recording as the dark ambient project, Gridfailure. Five months after the release of the bone-jarring debut, ENSURING THE BLOODLINE ENDS HERE, Brenner is back with FURTHER LAYERS OF SOCIETAL COLLAPSE, an EP that is full of the best kinds of noise, utilizing field recordings, as well as heavily processed rock and pop instrumentation, lending the entire proceeding the air of a landscape decimated by industrial collapse. In less than thirty minutes, David (who is co-founder of the influential extreme music public relations firm, Earsplit) takes the listener on a trip that is – alternately – serene and pastoral, frightening and apocalyptic. In short, this is a sound pastiche for the thinking man. The seven-tracks, released on October 31 as a free download (name your own price) at Gridfailure’s Bandcamp page, is scheduled for a limited edition cassette release in the near future. In the meantime, feel free to listen below.

Gridfailure (David Brenner) (uncredited manipulated photo)
Gridfailure (David Brenner) (uncredited manipulated photo)

If you’re familiar with paranormal investigative shows like GHOST HUNTERS or GHOST ADVENTURES or the “found footage” of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, you will recognize the underlying vibe of “A Severing of Ties.” The entire thing plays like an EVP (electronic voice phenomena) session conducted deep in a haunted forest, with weird, disembodied voices buried in a sea of white noise. Toward the end of the track, some tribal percussion (courtesy of Full Scale Riot’s BJ Allen) peeks out of the miasma. “Digital Crush” maintains the thematic thread of the first piece, as the drums resurface briefly at the beginning, before more found sounds and other-worldly voices are introduced into the mix; what appears to be a ghostly single-note piano coda intrudes on the whole affair, while crickets, cicadas and other woodland noises filter in and out to great affect. On “Android Infusion,” the EVP detector has been replaced by a transistor radio tuned to a weak-signal free-form Jazz station transmitting from somewhere within a war zone. “Get Fucked Dance” sounds like a residual (looped) haunting at the site of a horrible train wreck, relaying images of doom, destruction, pain and… a Native American wind instrument?

With “Broken Systems,” the skittering and buzzing of insects reacting to the wildly fluctuating radio waves and apocryphal voices seem to announce the opening of the Gates of Hell. The sounds of forest creatures is slowly replaced by a fever dream of industrial cacophony on “Indian Point Direct Proximity Warning Tester.” This calm before the atomic fallout is, quite naturally, played out over the incessant drone of a warning siren. “Woodlands of Self-Impalement,” though the final track, is the pivotal centerpiece of this dystopian soundscape, encompassing nearly one third of the total time. Thunder in the distance heralds the heavy winds and the storm is upon us; the creatures – natural, spiritual, demonic – cease their chirping and moaning and laughing… the dream, the inner turmoil gains momentum as the white noise of despair overtakes all thought, leading to silence and the sweet release of…

BRIAN ENO: THE SHIP

(Warp Records; 2016)

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Brian Eno doesn’t release albums casually. It tends to be a big deal with him: He’ll start a project, mess around with it, change it substantially from the initial idea, mess around with it some more, and maybe scrap it for years, filed away in his vast archives for an unknown duration. Maybe, though, just MAYBE, he’ll like the results, or the specific parameters of the project dictate that it be released sooner rather than later, OR, a collaborator will inspire him or advise him to get the thing out, like, NOW. All those things seem to have taken place during the gestation of his latest Warp recording, THE SHIP, which began life as part of a sound installation and a provocative initial theme having to do with the Titanic and the folly of World War I, two oft-cited examples by Eno of man’s technological arrogance and delusional thinking that resulted in catastrophe and harsh lessons not learned well enough. Eno is certainly not interested in any linear history lesson, however, or even anything approaching a conventional song cycle. What we fans treasure about the man is the sonic EXPERIENCE he provides listeners: The studio innovation, haunting sounds, stylistic surprises and contextual shift from album to album. THE SHIP is a most welcome entry in Eno’s considerable canon: A consistently listenable platter that harkens back to previous releases, features familiar immersive ambient textures and breaks new ground simultaneously. Describing it is tough, but here are the main features of this remarkable work.

Brian Eno (photo credit: SHAMIL TANNA)
Brian Eno (photo credit: SHAMIL TANNA)

It consists of two very long pieces and two short ones. First up is what we used to call the “side-long” piece, “The Ship,” which commences with lovely, drifting ambience that certainly can make you think you’re on the vast open sea, under disarmingly calm skies. Much like Titanic’s passengers were, of course. Just when you’ve been lulled by a healthy slab of Eno’s familiar synthscape, the first surprise: Eno’s own vocals, intoning “The ship was from a willing land/The waves about it rose.” With his voice utilizing intervals both a fourth and an octave apart, Eno provides something we haven’t heard on one of his records for a long time. There are shades of “By This River” and the atmospheric feel of his classic ANOTHER GREEN WORLD here (which referenced water several times). “A slave to hopes of destiny/Illusion of control” is a line that pops up later in this section, clearly a key lyric in the context of the theme. Increasingly diverse sounds begin to enter… nautical beeps and pings, clanging sounds (it’s known that much of Eno’s childhood in the Woodbridge area of England found him soaking up the sounds of nearby shipyards and greats masts probably flapping in the wind), unsettling background voices and whispers. The ghosts of lost souls are active on this record, no doubt. The spell that is cast is a considerable one. You find yourself amazed that this innovative artist and composer is using all his familiar tricks, and yet somehow coming up with something fresh, something that gets under your skin once again. It’s kind of stunning. There is certainly a narrative at work here, but it doesn’t all need to be clearly discerned or “conventional.” This is MUSIC, after all. Not oral history. “Wave… after wave… after wave” a disembodied voice concludes in this shimmering, lovely track. The three-part “Fickle Sun” is up next, and this is a doozy in Eno’s vast output. The lengthy first part, titled simply “Fickle Sun,” again features ambient layers unfolding, but something really ominous quickly grabs our ears. A pulsing, uncertain bass keeps intruding at various volume levels, with distant brass and a threatening feeling imposing itself with increasing intensity. Eno’s voice again comes in, talking about “a cumulus of pride and will/Dissolved in all the oil and steel,” and other provocative lyrics. “The line is long, the line is gray/And humans turning back to clay/Right there beneath the fickle sun/The empty eyes/The end begun… ” (not sure about the last two words). Things begin to get ferociously intense after this passage. “There’s no one rowing anymore… ” Eno sings, an obvious image from the aftermath of the Titanic sinking. Then we hear pounding orchestral music, another big surprise on an Eno record. All hell has broken loose, and there wouldn’t even NEED to be words in the piece for it to be effective. But the combination of the evocative, minimalistic lyric passages and the enveloping music is simply a wonder. “All the boys are going down/Falling over one by one… ” our narrator tells us, now getting a piercing image from World War I into the mix. Sad, organ-like keys now adorn the unspooling narrative, with Eno’s voice receding or changing character dramatically. The next seven or eight minutes rank as one of the most powerful sections on any Eno album. It’s weird, it’s disturbing, it’s utterly beautiful and texturally gripping. It doesn’t need to be described in detail, but it’s classic Brian Eno, ending with a sequence of huge, lush chords and ghostly voices that are the work of a master. I’m STILL shivering from listening to this section repeatedly.

Brian Eno (photo credit: SHAMIL TANNA)
Brian Eno (photo credit: SHAMIL TANNA)

A spoken word essay delivered by Peter Serafinowicz and accompanied by simple, straight melodic piano, constitutes “The Hour Is Thin,” a short and memorable interlude. Eno has had more than a fair amount of spoken word on his recordings in recent years, but this piece is effective here, clearly addressing the nightmare of post World War I England and the changes that befell the populace. I love the last line, “The universe is required. Please notify the sun.” It’s immediately followed by another delightful surprise, a gorgeous Eno-sung cover of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free.” It’s rare that Eno covers other artists, and when he does, he usually keeps such tracks tucked away in his studio. In fact, in recent interviews he talked about how much he liked this song and what it meant to him, but he couldn’t find the right context for this legendary recording until now. What a gem it is. “I’m set free to find a new illusion,” he sings, and Eno clearly regards that as a working mantra, tipping his hat to what Lou Reed and the Velvets meant to him in the process. Sweetly sad, captivating, filled with gorgeous synth work and Neil Catchpole’s fetching violin and viola contributions, “I’m Set Free” serves as an unlikely yet perfect coda for a truly stirring record. THE SHIP is the work of a master craftsman still finding ways to surprise both himself and his vast audience. Drift along with Brian Eno, folks… he’ll make sure you get safely to shore with new things to think about.

INSECT ARK: PORTAL/WELL

(Autumnsongs Records; 2015)

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For many years, I’ve worn it as a badge of pride that I was almost always the one, at whatever publication I wrote for, to champion the weirdest, darkest, most challenging music the publication received. I developed an interest in ambient and experimental music quite early, and although I don’t just automatically like things BECAUSE they are weird and dark, I sure can tell when a creative aesthetic is at work, and when the practitioners CARE what they are doing. There is no doubt that Insect Ark mean it, man. This PORTAL/WELL release, their debut, is a stunning journey to places most folks just won’t go. We’re talking serious, concentrated creepy atmospherics, a sonic template where drones exist at a frequency outside the comfort zone and metallic sounds emanating from a dark urban alley may be from a decaying structure trying to return to its original nature or from the titular “portal” to some very threatening subterranean place. And also, something WICKED this way DRUMS… the pounding, ominous percussion here on tracks like “The Collector” (I would NOT wanna know what he collects!) and “Octavia,” though played by a human being named Ashley Spungin, does NOT represent the sound of physical release, It simply is not the rhythm of anything but perhaps a tortured psyche. Spungin isn’t the auteur here, though. Remarkably, Insect Ark is almost entirely the vision of a woman, a remarkable female composer/multi-instrumentalist named Dana Schechter. Her past music includes the more luminous Bee and Flower project, and she is an animator and video artist working in the film business.

Insect Ark (Dana Schechter) (photo credit: LAUREN BILANKO)
Insect Ark (Dana Schechter) (photo credit: LAUREN BILANKO)

I can only guess Schechter’s reasons for making such unsettling, alien music. She’s probably heard some records by Lustmord and Nurse With Wound, or who knows, maybe she is working through her own inner demons with this stuff. The Insect Ark website helpfully relates: “Creating a personal soundtrack to the human psyche’s underbelly, Insect Ark weaves a brooding textural landscape, a starless night spiked with light and flash.” Yeah, THAT! Gosh, I am not seeing much light, though. “Portal” and “Parallel Twins” could be soundtracks for a modern horror film, something by a European director, perhaps, who pushes the envelope too far. Life is NOT a safe, fun thing as expressed in this music. And yet, there are moments of eerie, spellbinding ambient beauty, as on the haunting “Low Moon,” which fully falls into the genre category of “dark ambient” and probably bests a few male composers of that style in its purity. Not to put too fine an oh so sharp point ON it, but we’re not used to hearing women make music like this. It’s potent, scary and damn self-assured. Insect Ark do NOT want you to sleep comfortably or, in fact, to draw too much inspiration from the beauty of life when there’s plenty of nightmarish stuff also deserving of your attention. But still, this is only a record in the end. A vital, off-center, somewhat unhinged soundtrack to stumbling through the darkness in dangerous times. I admire what Insect Ark have conjured. It’s got a good “buzz” and you can TRANCE to it…