New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: ambient music

A Rising Star Film Composer Salutes a Horror Icon

What could possibly be more Halloweenish than H.P. Lovecraft? Cthulhu’s tentacles slithering above the moonlit surface of the Miskatonic! The Old Ones in the caverns deep beneath the Mountains of Madness at the bottom of the world! Often imitated, never duplicated, the master of all things eldritch has been referenced by a gazillion metal bands and sourced for a movie, The Color Out of Space. The promo looks pretty cheesy, more Arkham House than genuine Arkham, but Colin Stetson‘s soundtrack – streaming at Spotify – is not.

All the requisite elements are in place. Moody, spare minor-key piano, check. Portentously hovering, still strings, check. Distant gurgles, ghostly washes, sudden white-knuckle swells, deep-space echoes, crashing electronic carnage, it’s all there, not necessarily in that order.

The question is where Stetson’s signature bass sax is and the answer is that it’s probably not, other than maybe that digeridoo-like drone after the “alpacalypse.” After getting a start at the crazed fringes of jazz, taking a detour into live techno and then finding a home in new classical and film music, he seems to be comfortable being more of a composer with a darkly ambient streak these days. And that’s fine. His big band arrangement of Henryk Gorecki’s iconic Third Symphony was as hypnotically poignant as anyone could want. Now if we could only go to a real theatre to enjoy all these movies he’s scoring!

Deliciously Lynchian Guitar From Ari Chersky

Guitarist Ari Chersky plays a darkly hypnotic blend of ambient soundscapes, slashing guitar jazz and film noir themes. His album Fear Sharpens the Dagger is streaming at Bandcamp, and it’s a great Halloween playlist.

The first track Take The Heart, is a noisier and eventually shreddier take on Angelo Badalamenti dub, as that iconic film composer concretized the style on the soundtrack to David Lynch’s Lost Highway.  Chersky’s bass runs a catchy loop over Craig Weinrib’s shuffling drumbeat while the guitar lingers and then cuts loose, Peter Schlamb’s tinkling vibraphone mingling with the mist of reverb in the background. It sets the stage for much of the rest of the record.

Distant elephantine snorts and warpy outer-space textures punch through the even dubbier backdrop of the second number, Dark Flow. A string section – Joanna Mattrey on viola and Christopher Hoffman on cello – plays wistfully over echoey drainpipe sonics in A Creature Divided, then Schlamb returns to add uneasy glitter over a hazy, drifting background in Magnificent Glow.

Chersky hints that he’s going to make a morose waltz out of Old Line; instead, he loops that melancholy riff as the song shifts between dissociation and minimalistic focus. Burn the Scrolls has a similar architecture, but with layers of uneasy, acidic guitar resonance.

Who Am I to You comes across as a mashup of Brian Eno, Pink Floyd and Bill Frisell in a particularly thoughtful moment. The strings return for On Heavy Wings, a gorgeously bittersweet miniature.  Then the vibes take centerstage in the loopy Lynchian dub theme In Human Form.

Sparse guitar phrases resonate over eerie, stairstepping funeral organ in the aptly titled Haunt: it’s the album’s creepiest and best track. Chersky brings in more than a hint of dusky desert rock in the brief, circling Pride in Effort (An Entity Separate).

Low growls and starry glimmer build a spacy contrast in Wizard in Grey, which segues into the album’s final cut, Out of the Shadows, a maze of loops and flickering accordion. Fans of multi-layered guitar instrumental bands like Steelism and Big Lazy, and David Lynch soundtracks have plenty to feast on here.

Christine Ott Releases the First Ever Solo Album Performed on the Rarest of Instruments

Christine Ott’s album Chimères (pour ondes Martenot) – streaming at Bandcamp – is the first record in history ever written for and performed solo on that rare machine. French inventor Maurice Martenot patented what was arguably the first-ever analog synthesizer in the early 1920s. Long since eclipsed in popular memory by the theremin, the ondes Martenot is easier to control, and as a result can generate more resonant, pitch-perfect, and less quavery sounds because a player’s fingers move across a ribbon on an electronic keyboard, rather than being activated by motion against a force field. Yet the ondes Martenot – also known as the ondea – can also replicate the sound of a theremin to the point where the two instruments are indistinguishable.

Ott is one of very few musicians alive to have mastered the ondes Martenot, and has been sought out by acts ranging from Tindersticks to Yann Tiersen. Her new album transcends the exotic, or any possible kitschy associations: this is catchy, enveloping, fascinatingly ambient music.

Co-producers Paul Régimbeau and Frédéric D. Oberland mix Ott’s live-in-the-studio performance through a series of effects for extra orchestral grandeur. In the opening track, Comma, tremoloing waves beneath keening, quavering highs give way to a calmly enveloping balance from the lower registers. The second track, Darkstar, rises to a catchy, motorik theme anchored by buzzing lows, Ott finally hitting a theremin-like crescendo way up the scale.

She builds a hauntingly nuanced theme, sliding upward into the melancholy riffs of Todeslied and then adding piercing accents. Much of this uneasy, undulating, increasingly turbulent piece is a sort of electronic analogue to Michael Hersch’s macabre work for strings.

Echo effects flutter and dance throughout Mariposas, then slowly shift to echoey drainpipe sonics and deep-space dopplers in Sirius. Then Ott completely flips the script with Pulsar and its droll, woozy lows.

Eclipse is the most ominously ambient and lowest-register track here: it seems patched through a choir effect and then oceans of loops for extra terror, up to a surprise ending. Ott closes the album with Burning, a broodingly catchy Twin Peaks theme that decays to fragmented shots from every corner of the sonic picture. Let’s hope this album reaches enough of an audience to draw other fearless artists to Martenot’s strange invention.

Soundwalk Collective and Patti Smith Salute an Influential, Psychedelic French Author

Over a triptych of albums, Soundwalk Collective and Patti Smith have explored the work of three defiantly individualistic French writers: Antonin Artaud, Arthur Rimbaud, and now, René Daumal. The primary inspiration for the collaboration’s latest and concluding chapter, Peradam – streaming at Bandcamp – is Daumal’s final, unfinished 1944 surrealist work Mount Analogue: a Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing. The album title references the philosopher’s stone in Daumal’s narrative, which is visible only to the truly enlightened.

In keeping with the rest of the records, this one features both found sounds and musical performances. Septuagenarian Sherpa Dhan Singh Rana sings the opening number, Nanda Devi a-cappella in his native vernacular over sounds of wind off the Himalayan mountain. Smith narrates the title track over Tenzin Choegyal‘s singing bowls and spare, hypnotically loopy percussion. “The gateway to the invisible must be visible; the gateway to the visible must be invisible,” she observes.

Knowledge of the Self features Anoushka Shankar’s lingering sitar: she has a distant connection to Daumal, as he went on American tour with her uncle, dancer Uday Shankar. “Your fondest theories vanish before the wall of appearances, that veil of colored shapes, sounds…this is where you started, but you chose the wrong door, instead you fell asleep at the threshold and dreamed your beliefs about the world ” Smith intones in Spiritual Death, a gnomic, Gurdjieff-like challenge to seek enlightenment.

Charlotte Gainsbourg half-whispers The Four Cardinal Times in Daumal’s original French over jungly nocturnal sounds and atmospheric keys from either the group’s Stephan Crasneanscki or Simone Merli. Smith offers an English translation of this shaman in action, which continues with greater detail over temple bells in Hymn to the Liquid.

Anoushka Shankar returns for Vera, a strangely murky tableau. Smith’s poem The Rat, an eco-disaster parable, closes the album over ambient samples and a bassy thud. This album doesn’t have the chilling intensity of the ensemble’s previous Rimbaud tribute; then again, it wasn’t meant to.

Take Half an Hour and Chill with Carl Bartlett Jr.

Did you know that August 15 is National Relaxation Day? In a year where what’s left of our liberties are increasingly under fire in every waking moment, it’s hard to think about relaxing. That’s where Carl Bartlett Jr.’s new mega-single Serene New You Sax – streaming at the project’s music page – comes in.

The alto saxophonist is best known as a fiery, articulate player in the Coltrane tradition, so this is a radical departure for him. It’s a balmy, hypnotically atmospheric album-length solo piece conceived and produced during the early days of the lockdown, perfect for meditation or just chilling.

Diehard jazz fans will notice how artfully Bartlett slows down and deconstructs the kind of phrases he would ordinarily play at maybe eight times the speed. The light ambient electronics and minimalist resonance will remind others of Brian Eno, and Bartlett develops a soothing ballad at the end. Ultimately, this is about finding a calm center, something we definitely need more of these days.

Meet Some People in a Legendary Brooklyn Graveyard This Month with Singer Gelsey Bell

Gelsey Bell devised her new album Cairns as a headphone-enhanced walking tour of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, and much of it was recorded there. As fans of the space are aware, it is a working cemetery, and it’s open daily from 7 AM to 7 PM. In order to help get people off their screens and back into the outdoors this summer, she includes a map along with the album – a collaboration with composer Joseph White – streaming at Bandcamp.

Bell recommends that people who want to take the tour should download the album, since phone reception deep in the cemetery gets iffy. “It can also be experienced at home, letting the field recordings made at Green-Wood transport you there. Or you can get really weird with it and just listen walking in a totally different environment,” Bell explains. It’s meant to be an immersive experience, with helpful cues and some music too. “Let’s see if you can keep pace with me,” Bell says with a smile.

The music includes a soaring, Renaissance-influenced electroacoustic chorale, gentle accents that could be harp and bells, and lightly pulsing ambience. Bell is a friendly guide, full of historical insights and unselfconsciously poetic observations. You might not expect someone who can be such a force of nature onstage to speak as quietly as she does, with a break in her low register.

On this particular walk, she’s carrying a stone which she’s going to add to a cairn in the cemetery. There’s birdsong, sounds of wind, fragments of conversation and a vehicle or two. The first of a handful of permanent residents you will visit is an American Indian woman whose name, translated into English, means “Productive Pumpkin,” and who died while working while working for P.T. Barnum.

The others you will meet – in one way or another – include the guy who booked the Beatles into Shea Stadium; the feminist scientist who in the 1850s discovered the link between carbon dioxide emissions and global warming; a pair of women who lived beyond the century mark; and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Bell also loves trees: you will encounter several, and learn a lot about them as well.

She also doesn’t shy away from the many grim political realities associated with those who reside along the way. This is definitely a People’s History of the cemetery. And in the spirit of Pauline Oliveros, Bell suggests midway through the tour that everybody should take a five-minute break, without headphones, to listen to the musical quality of the surrounding nature.

Noveller Puts Out Yet Another Epic, Picturesque Album

Nobody writes epic, cinematic, stormy loopmusic more expertly or vividly than guitarist Sarah Lipstate, a.k.a. Noveller. Her latest album Arrow is streaming at Bandcamp. As usual, Lipstate’s sonic palette runs the gamut from blustery to soothing to distantly menacing. In general, this is one of her calmer releases so far.

Even considering the ridiculous number of digital sounds that a guitarist can get through one effect or another, the vastness of Lipstate’s orchestration is breathtaking. The album’s first track, Rune, has what could be distant cannon fire behind a simple, rising three-chord riff, minimalist jangle contrasting with blustery digital strings.

Effectology is a study in echoey, atmospheric washes with hints of Renaissance polyphony. The album’s most expansive epic is Zeaxanthin, a galaxy of somber waves, deep-space twinkle and echoey Kraftwerk loops,

In Pattern Recognition, Lipstate builds symphonic variations on a series of ringing, melancholy phrases. Canyons, with its staggered series of wave phrases, is the closest thing to a rock ballad here. From here the album grows more ambient, with the cocooning, lushly oscillating nocturne Pre-Fabled and then the slow, tectonically shifting Thorns. Lipstate introduces the album’s closing diptych, Remainder, with a poignant, Gilmouresque spaciousness, the music receding to a slow, orchestral pastiche running through what must be an immense pedalboard.

Epic, Sweeping, Gothic Nocturnes From the Moon and the Nightspirit

Don’t let the Moon and the Nightspirit’s name, or the title of their new album, Aether, lead you to think that this is hippie-dippy new age bullshit. Gothic psychedelia would be a more accurate way to describe the Hungarian band’s sound. They sing in their native language. The record is a suite, more or less; it comes with lyrics and English translations, which have a mystical focus. They like long, hypnotic, slowly crescendoing tableaux with both folk and classical influences.

Stately piano and frontwoman ‘Agnes Toth’s misty vocals blend with a whirl of white noise as the album’s opening, title track gets underway. From there Mihály Szabó takes over the mic, rising from a whisper to a roar as this one-chord jam hits a pummeling, imaginatively orchestrated sway. It comes full circle at the end.

That pretty much sets the stage for the rest of the record – streaming at Bandcamp and available on both purple and black limited-edition vinyl. The second track, Kaputlan Kapukon At (Through the Gateless Gates) has spare, circling twelve-string guitar and eerily tinkling piano over the slowly swaying neoromantic angst.

Toth moves back to lead vocals as the drifting minor-key vamp of Égi Messzeegek (Celestial Distances) gathers force; that bagpipe guitar is a tasty touch. Ringing twelve-string poignancy returns along with graceful, incisive harp above the oscillating loops and disquieting close harmonies in A Szarny (The Wing): it’s the album’s best and most majestic track.

With a deep-space twinkle from the harp and the keys, the album’s most hypnotic soundscape is Logos. The group follow a slow series of layers rich with somberly picked guitars, spare piano, keening microtonal violin and a wash of vocals in A Mindenseg Hivasa (Call of the Infinite). The suite ends with Asha, its Balkan folk illusions and a loop receding to the edge of the universe. Turn on, tune in, you know the rest.

A Thoughtfully Enveloping Debut Album From Innovative Composer/Organist Molly Joyce

Composer Molly Joyce performs on the rarest of vintage instruments: the toy electric organ. She accumulated a serious collection in the wake of a horrific car accident that left her with limited mobility in her left hand – so she switched from piano to an instrument with easier action but an unexpectedly rich sonic palette, especially in the high midrange and above. Her debut album Breaking and Entering is streaming at Bandcamp. At low volume, this is soothing, enveloping music: played louder, its edges reveal themselves.

The first track, Body and Being, begins with twinkling, Terry Riley-ish loops and grows denser as Simon sends tectonic sheets from across the sonic spectrum through the mix, “Do you react to me, do you contract from me?” Joyce asks.

Her airy high soprano rises to stratospheric heights in Form and Flee: “You’re not normality, but you’re mortality,” she intones over an increasingly tense, circling pulse. Stereolab seems to be an influence on that track and also the title track, which she builds around a simple accordionish blues riff,

A fluttering, oscillating interlude leads into Who Are You, the album’s most anxious vocal contrasting with a calm undercurrent and some keening new wave riffage. Joyce brings the album full circle with Front and Center: “Try to remember your truest nature,” she reminds. Words of wisdom in an interminable season of alienation and atomization. Joyce is playing a webcast to celebrate the album’s release this Friday June 26, at 5 PM at youube.

Revisiting a Rewarding, Diverse Collection of New Classical Works

Editor’s note: As longtime readers may remember, in the days before the lockdown, New York Music Daily’s coverage was focused on live music. Nobody here, or probably anywhere in the world, expected the lockdown to last so long. The first few weeks after March 16 created an opportunity to revisit some albums that had been sitting on the hard drive here but hadn’t gotten the attention they deserved. This is one of them. You may see some of those records pop up here from time to time. Enjoy!

Today’s album is Dreamfall, released by distinctive indie classical group Now Ensemble in 2015 as a follow-up to their harrowing 2012 recording of Missy Mazzoli‘s Songs From the Uproar. It’s more stylistically diverse and somewhat more upbeat but just as adventurous for this wind ensemble enhanced by guitar and piano. The album is still streaming at Bandcamp.

A low, looming metallic fog rises, keening with overtones as Scott Smallwood‘s Still in Here gets underway, flickering bits appearing from time to time. As the drone becomes more of a rumble, tectonic sheets of sound color the upper part of the picture, oscillating at a glacial pace. Although there are discernibly piano and reed textures, the rest of the murk is deliciously mysterious.

The album’s title track, by Mark Dancigers, is a triptych. The first part begins with a playfully dripping piano phrase over orchestration that grows more stark, then the casual, intricately synocopated mood returns. Big neoromantic cadenzas alternate with more carefree interludes: the appearance of the composer’s ringing, ever-so-slightly distorted electric guitar is something of a shock, all the more so because it anchors the music in an attractively wistful folk rock-tinged theme.

Part two follows a dancing, sparkling staccato tangent that grows more kaleidoscopic and then coalesces back toward the neoromantic. Clarinet floats over a gritty, insistent piano-driven glitter in the first half of the conclusion, then the group use a momentary solemn Michael Mizrahi solo piano interlude as a springboard for a lively upward drive over insistent, loopy staccato strings. It’s a fun ride.

Divine the Rest, by John Supko is still and echoey, awash in reverb, with a whispery spoken-word component and gently fluttery phrases that rise toward the end. An enigmatic calm and hammering bustle alternate in Nathan Williamson‘s Trans-Atlantic Flight of Fancy; bristling suspense-movie accents from throughout the ensemble grow more warmly agitated

Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Pale As Centuries is the album’s most striking piece. Its wary guitar theme recedes for Terry Riley-ish upper-register circles, clarinet floating amid piano turbulence and eerie concentric circles just below: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Darcy James Argue catalog.

Andrea Mazzariello‘s Trust Fall makes a great segue, from its similarly uneasy slow guitar/bass/clarinet interweave, rising to exchanges between triumphant peaks, a twinkling calm and river of a coda from the piano. The album concludes with Judd Greenstein’s City Boy, sparkling with spiky, circular motives, a bit of a jig, and hints of Carole King woven together up to an unexpectedly sober ending.