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.


DONATO DOZZY: DIMENSIONS

(MENTAL GROOVE RECORDS 12” vinyl EP; 2014)

Donato Dozzy Dimensions

This EP is a reissue of a 2006 recording by the multi-talented Italian DJ and techno producer who has released a plethora of works on many different labels, and is known for an interest in the trippy, psychedelic side of electronica (a style combining acid, techno and ambient). Rather than boring you with facts about Dozzy’s two-decades-plus long career, I’ll just describe these two tracks, which are fairly representative of at least the stuff I have heard by him: hypnotically repetitious, danceable (if you’re into that), and somewhat edgy. Most listeners of techno, ambient techno, or name-that-subgenre of electronica don’t care what the instrumentation is, only the result matters. What you want in this kind of music is something that serves up a potent groove, builds an atmosphere, and engages other parts of your anatomy than just your footsies.

Donato Dozzy (uncredited photo)

Donato Dozzy (uncredited photo)

These two tracks succeed in doing just that. “Gol” is the more interesting piece, with a pinging synth in the foreground, steady mechanized percussion, and percolating sonics moving in and out of the mix. The central groove is a strong one here; this is a ride you WANT to take. Halfway through, the ambient washes become pronounced and rather evocative, adding aural color in a way that complements the danceable tempo. This would be just about a perfect track for a ride to the store about three miles away, and its consistent edge makes it pretty damn engrossing. “Fazah,” a slightly shorter track, commences with some nice neo-tribal rhythm programming, wiry undercurrents laced with periodic crashes and whizzy sound effects, and ghostly, ambient pads that punctuate the mix just often enough to diversify the texture. Which is good, because the beat turns 4/4 dancefloor stomp pretty early on, and that’s fine if you wanna dance but would grow tedious if those other sounds weren’t there. At any rate, this EP is a nice, economical burst of energy that demands little but serves up just the tasty, tantalizing techno tidbits you didn’t know you were craving. This kind of music is sometimes best experienced in immersive but reasonably timed chunks like this, and as such, DIMENSIONS is, well, of just the right dimensions to please most casual electronica buffs.


LIARS: MESS

(MUTE RECORDS; 2014)

liars_mess

Anxious times require anxious music. For some of us, anyway. Oh sure, it’s great to put on a platter that soothes and comforts and makes you forget all your dreary, unsolvable problems, while giving you a false sense of hope that all will most likely be well. But if you’re really tensed up about things, and pretty sure the human race is on a downward spiral, and you just want to hear a band that not only soundtracks that MESS of a mood, but somehow makes it exciting and even a communal, deliriously cathartic experience, well then, Liars are your band. Honestly, these guys are one of the most hypnotic, darkly alluring rock acts putting sound to disc these days, and whether you know about them or not, I’m here to tell you they’ve made seven straight fantastic albums in the new millennium, and there ain’t many who can make that claim. Based in LA these days (but having originated in Brooklyn), the trio of Angus Andrew (one of rock’s most ferociously original presences), Aaron Hemphill and Julian Gross embody an aesthetic that’s hard to pin down; they stray away from formula as a rule, and try to make each album as different as possible from the last one, yet the truth about Liars is that the music occupies a “post punk” sort of realm which allows for clang-banging industrial grooves, atonal freneticism, evocative ambient, danceable rock/techno riffs and witchy, twitchy, tribal chants to co-exist in a unified, original blend. No album is exactly like the last one, but none are as radically different as the band would sometimes have you believe. They are consistent in the mesmerizing, unsettling brew they serve up, owing to Andrew’s memorable vocal style (he can careen from snarling low tones to gorgeously evocative falsetto in an instant), insistent rhythm tracks throughout their recorded oeuvre, and a willingness to experiment with electronica in a mostly rocking context. No one song is necessarily all that original, but Liars seem to accumulate a more and more unique sonic perspective as time goes on. They have attitude a-plenty.

Liars (photo credit: ZEN SEKIZAWA)

Liars (photo credit: ZEN SEKIZAWA)

So, what of this new MESS recording? Well, it’s got a lot of catchy synth-based electronica grooves, a veneer of angsty (yet often comical) dismay at the state of things, and a fairly polished production (despite that title). If you remember that news item from a few years back about a drug-addled nutcase who tried to eat another man’s face off, the distorted spoken word spook-chants that open “Mask Maker” won’t put you in the most ebullient mood, but the basic track is standard electronic riffage that you can tap your feet to. In general, the lyrics on Liars recordings aren’t what you notice; you probably won’t pick out verses such as “I can’t get better/I want the best though/If I’m running out of lifetime/You should just say so” on the track “Vox Tuned DED,” but you’ll be bobbing your head and taking note of the gripping aural atmosphere that is beginning to build. Check off references like Depeche Mode, Joy Division, Ultravox and Underworld if you want, but this is Liars’ world; you just stumble around in it. “I’m No Gold” is a relatively long track (six plus minutes), but the rockin’ is solid and the distorted vocals will take you prisoner fairly quickly. And “Pro Anti Anti” is genuinely a hypnotic track, with some minimal keyboard sorcery, a proggy latter section and a lyric that seems rather emblematic of these guys: “They brood in ecstasy, a thought to wrap your head ’round.” Yeah, CHECK! “Can’t Hear Well” features Andrew singing through a voice-muddling device over a repeating 3-tone synth riff that you simply can’t ignore; It’s even kinda sad. This music is just NOT like other music. Tune it in, mofos, or get da ef outa here! But if you’ve been sorta “meh” up to this point, “Mess On a Mission” will lasso your full attention with its contrapuntal rhythms, a Talking Heads kinda vibe, Andrew’s going both full falsetto (on what passes for a chorus here, something like “our next solution” repeated over and over) and the inescapable refrain, “Facts are facts and fiction’s fiction,” pounded at your eardrums like it’s the most important utterance ever made, and who knows, perhaps it is. This is one damned memorable slab of music. “Darkslide” is a creepy instrumental that harkens back to THEY WERE WRONG, SO WE DROWNED, the group’s maligned but underrated 2003 opus on all things witchy and witchcrafty. “Dress Walker” is danceable and irresistible, just simple, captivating modern electro-rock that does its thing efficiently and evocatively, with the bonus of interesting lyrics such as “From the floor, another new passage, another exit/I refused, I was exactly where I belonged/When the world sings from the halls and the demon’s at the door/Let the one inside and sing along,” if you care to read the booklet while you are listening. Liars, by the way, do NOT usually feature the lyrics on their releases. “Perpetual Village” is quintessential Liars: weird, trancey, dark and long (nine glorious minutes!), doing a wonderfully Bowie-esque job of keeping your attention through its determinedly insular electro-murk. And then things close out with the downright haunting “Left Speaker Blown,” which seems to evoke both Brian Eno in its ambient overtones and Joy Division in its underlying bleakness. But ear pleasing, nonetheless. Liars really can’t be pigeonholed; though they can be dissonant at times, they are NOT all that abrasive, and they are drawn to hypnotic, recurring sounds and rhythms, which serves them well. They behave like a tribe, honestly, and their music has always had tribal elements in it. If you happen to wander into their part of the sonic jungle, which is a bit of an unsettling place, they won’t hurt you or “eat your face off,” despite whatever fears you might have. In fact, they’d probably invite you to their camp for some homemade beer and mad late-night dancing. Just don’t expect them to stick around or see to your accommodations, though. Liars are on the MOVE, driven by some force that only they truly understand. A decade-plus of their sonic sojourns has been a compelling thing for us fans of adventurous music. Sure, the results may be a MESS at times, but there’s pure MAGIC just as often. As for me, I’m puttin’ on the face paint, drinking something potent and getting ready to dance around the fire. In my head, anyway, which Liars have sent me far down the twisting corridors of. Anxiety may be pressing in from the darkness, but ya know what? I ain’t that scared no more! Liars got my back…