New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: ambient music

An Uneasy, Mind-Altering, Atmospheric Layer Cake From Spirit Radio

Spirit Radio is the hypnotic, frequently otherworldly, often chilling duo project of Tamalyn Miller and Stephen Spera. Their new album A LIght Is Running Along the Ropes is streaming at Bandcamp. Miller contributes vocals and plays her signature, handmade single-string horsehair fiddle, which she also wields as the lead instrument in phantasmagorical New York art-rock band Goddess.

In its natural state, it induces all sorts of goosebumps, throwing off layers of sepulchral microtones. Here, it’s typically somewhat muted. Multi-instrumentalist Spera is a loopmusic pioneer whose career in minimalist atmospherics goes back to the 80s. Themes of transformation, death and rebirth permeate this relentlessly restless suite of trance pieces.

In the opening first segment of the album’s title triptych, a low, slowly shifting distorted guitar drone anchors tinkly piano, echoing loops and eventually Miller’s magnetic, uneasy wordless vocals. The track decays into a dusty wash at the end. It’s reprised midway through the album, balancing distantly quavery fiddle, poltergeist vocal angst and simple, unadorned guitar, eventually brightening somewhat. Both Miller’s voice and the guitar drone rise in the epic, almost fourteen-minute conclusion, Miller’s macabre fiddle shivers edging to the center and then falling away as starry keys and a tabla move in.

“This is a changing course, have you fallen off?” Miller’s disembodied, increasingly staggered vocal overdubs ask as the backdrop becomes more chaotic in the album’s second track, Earthbound. Then the menace really kicks in with Something About Fire, Miller’s recollection of childhood obsession with an unnamed song about a little girl who burns down her house.

Time and Dust, awash in both envelopingly resonant and flitting textures, brings to mind Laurie Anderson. “There is no time, but there is dust,” Miller intones, allusively sultry and sinister. From there, a circling, minimalist miniature leads into Sea Monk, an uneasy tableau blending echoey footfalls and a ghostly choir on loop. Always, with its gentle bells and “Forever is a long time” mantra, brings to mind Bora Yoon at her most comforting. After that, The Poisoned Knight juxtaposes cold coppery echoes against peaceful deep-forest samples. I Took a Long Walk, with its calm spoken-word multitracks, is both the trippiest and most relaxed track here. Fire this up, lean back and enter these not-quite-parallel universes if you dare.

Sprit Radio don’t have any shows coning up, but Goddess are making a rare Queens appearance at the Queens Museum in Corona Park on June 9 at around 3 PM, preceded by readings by Miller, Jen Bevin, Nick Flynn and Rachel Zucker in conjunction with Mel Chin’s installation The Funk & Wag from A to Z. Admission is free.

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Laurie Anderson at the Town Hall: Perennially Relevant and Hilarious

Mohammed el Gharani was a teenager when he was captured by Pakistani bandits and then sold to Bush-era army troops for five thousand dollars. His case mirrors many if not all of the prisoners in the American Guantanamo gulag. In 2013, Laurie Anderson beamed his image onto a mammoth, Lincoln Memorial-esque setting at the Park Avenue Armory.

Beyond the complications of a live projection from Chad, where el Gharani returned after Reprieve.org worked to secure his release from prison, what Anderson remembered most vividly from the installation was how audiences reacted. She recounts the story in her new book All the Things I Lost in the Flood, whose release she celebrated with a solo show at the Town Hall last night. In a surveillance state, “Crowds have become very much aware of where the camera is,” she reminded.

Those who moved to the front, where their images would be transmitted back to Chad, were mouthing the words “I’m sorry.” It was the one moment in the performance where Anderson appeared to be close to tears. Considering that the book title references the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy flooding on her basement archive, and also addresses the loss of her husband, Lou Reed, her usual deadpan stoicism in this case carried even more weight than usual.

Anderson’s work has always been intrinsically political, if not in a doctrinaire or sectarian  way. Over and over again, this mostly spoken-word performance reaffirmed that fearless populist sensibility. Her work is also usually outrageously funny, and this greatest hits show of sorts reflected that as well. An archival clip staged in the back of a diner, Anderson musing about the merits of the Star Spangled Banner versus alternative, less stressfully arpeggiated national anthems was as funny as it was back in 1980. More soberingly, she contemplated how Aristophanes’ The Birds might serve as a metaphor for the current administration.

Otherwise, Anderson shared a lot of remarkably candid insight into the nuts and bolts of staging provocative multimedia installations around the world. Homeland Security didn’t waste any time putting a stop to the idea of beaming in images of US prisoners serving life sentences – although the Italian government had given its stamp of approval to that same concept, which eventually springboarded Habeas Corpus, the installation el Gharani appeared in. That’s another typical Anderson trope: more often than not with her, plan B works just as well as plan A.

And she has a way of staying relevant: she allowed herself just a single moment to bask in that, recalling how she’d played her one big radio hit, O Superman, at the Town Hall right after 9/11 and found crowds resonating to it as much as they had during the Iranian hostage crisis twenty years before.

Her musical interludes, played solo on violin with plenty of pitch-shifting effects and layers stashed away digitally, only amounted to about ten uneasily wafting minutes. The stories, one after another, were very revealing, especially for an artist who ultimately doesn’t give much away about herself. As a “burnt-out multimedia artist” in Greece around the turn of the century, she recalled getting up the nerve to ask her Athens guide – a curator at the Parthenon – what happened to the country that invented western civilization. His response? That the Parthenon became so filled with tchotchkes that Athenians took their praying and philosophy private. “You can’t pray in an an art museum,” he explained.

Anderson pondered that and found it shocking. It was just as provocative to be reminded how she’s equated prisons and galleries over the years – both are heavily guarded and meant to keep what’s inside from leaving. On the lighter side, she recalled a late 90s project whose laser-fixated curator staged what could have been “group eye surgery” for extra shock appeal along with the pyrotechnics he’d mastered in the Israeli army.

At the end of the show, she sent out a salute to her husband with a brief tai chi demonstration, reminding how much she missed the banter of 21 years of marriage to a similarly legendary raconteur. One can only hope that if they ever recorded any of that, it survived the flood and future generations might be able to hear it someday.

Eerily Glimmering, Cinematic Nightscapes From Suss

Cinematic instrumental quintet Suss are the missing link between Brian Eno and Ennio Morricone – or the Lost Patrol without the drums. Which makes sense, considering that guitarist/bandleader Pat Irwin got his start with enigmatically loping and prowling 80s instrumentalists the Raybeats, but since then has made a mark in film music – when not playing in one version or another of the B-52’s, that is. The new group’s debut album, aptly titled Ghost Box is streaming at Bandcamp.

Never mind the album – if there’s any act out there that really makes their song titles come alive, it’s these guys. The band – which also comprises guitarist Bob Holmes, pedal steel player Jonathan Gregg, keyboardist Gary Lieb, and William Garrett – are  playing the release show tomorrow, Feb 4 at 8 PM for free at the Secret Theatre, 4402 23rd St. in Long Island City. Since the 7 train isn’t running, take the E or G to Court Square; the cozy black-box space is about three  blocks away.

The opening track, Wichita begins with a lingering big-sky riff answered by a wash of steel, then the echoes begin to gently swoosh and clang through the mix. Almost imperceptibly, wisps and flickers of steel and guitar begin wafting over the loop. It’s hypnotic to the extreme.

Opening with and then shadowed by a haze of feedback, Late Night Call is a slow, nostalgic conversation between guitar and steel, Likewise, Big Sky alternates between oscillating, slightly distorted washes, blippy electric piano fragments and sparse Old West riffs.

Twangy Lynchian guitar chords intersperse within a distantly menacing Angelo Badalamemti-style vamp in Rain. The band pick up the pace, at least to the extent that they ever do, with Laredo, putting reverbtoned 80s electric piano out front of the shifting clouds of guitar and spare spaghetti western licks.

Oscillating loops, disembodied dialogue, jagged clangs. resonant tremolo phrases and finally some gently acerbic, bluesy resonator guitar blend over a muted beat in Gunfighter. The album closes with a starrier, livelier, more expansive reprise of the opening theme. Drift off to your own private Twin Peaks Lodge with this.

An Alphabet City Psychedelic Twinbill to Get Lost In On the 20th

Guitarist J.R. Bohannon a.k.a. Ancient Ocean’s latest album Titan’s Island – streaming at Bandcamp – was inspired by the Cassini spacecraft’s observations of Titan, the moon of Saturn. That’s 90% of what you need to know.

Here’s the other ten. The most obvious reference points for the ambient composer’s immersive, echoey soundscapes are Eno and Laaraji, which testifies to the album’s tunefulness and dynamics. It opens with the title track, slowly rising out of a hazy wash with elegantly pulsing steel guitar, echoing BJ Cole’s memorable work on the live remake of Eno’s Icebreaker album. The epic, almost fifteen-minute Casssini-Huygens is a slowly crescendoing, kaleidoscopic series of layers methodically filtering through the mix, rising to an  unexpectedly catchy, recurrent four-note riff; then the steel guitar enters gracefully. Bohannon takes his time using pretty much every pedal on his board.

Rift Valleys is all about floating, slowly oscillating, glacially tectonic shifts, again with stately steel accents spicing the mix as Bohannon builds momentum. The final track, Life at the Surface has slightly more organic textures including facsimiles of accordion, cello and high strings – as you would expect from life on other planets, or orbiting them, right? 

Ancient Ocean opens a killer psychedelic twinbill on Jan 20 at 8 PM at Berlin; the pounding but similarly hypnotic, trippy Myrrors headline afterward. Cover is ten bucks for the best super spaceout night of the month.

An Album That Puts Your Kids to Sleep But Doesn’t Bore You to Death

Just about the worst thing you can say about an album is that it’s good to fall asleep to. Yet there’s a ton of great, lulling music that will do the job. Just for starters: Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, Philip Glass’ String Quartets, and pretty much anything by Brian Eno.

But is there an album that will help a baby fall asleep, so YOU can finally get some rest? Sure, there are a million easy-listening playlists on Spotify. But they’re saccharine and they’ll give you a headache.

So Kurt Leege sat down with his Strat and his pedalboard, came up with a bunch of instrumental lullabies, roadtested them on his infant daughter – and they worked like a charm. So well, in fact, that the great guitarist decided to release these dreamy nocturnes as an album aptly titled Sleepytime Guitar – streaming at Bandcamp – for the sake of saving the sanity of sleep-deprived parents everywhere.

Kid wakes up in the middle of the night? Pull this up, hit play and everybody will drift off sooner than later. It’s a long album, a total of fourteen tracks to keep you and the little one in REM mode for as long as you need. Most of the songs are lushly enveloping new arrangements of familiar folk tunes, along with a couple of gospel numbers and two Leege originals that bend in seamlessly.

Some of the arrangements draw on Bill Frisell’s most atmospheric adventures in gentle, rapturous loopmusic. Eno, and the Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie also seem to be obvious influences. And Leege doesn’t play like he’s falling asleep – it seems like he’s having a lot of fun, quietly. His formula pretty much all the way through is to build gentle waves and washes in the background, add some thoughtful fingerpicking over that and put the melody and variations front and center. He plays most of it way up the fretboard: this is a twinkly, trebly album.

If you’re making your own playlist with it, start with the rapt, Frisellian take of Down By the Riverside, segue with the wistful version of Danny Boy and then Wild Mountain Thyme, which Leege anchors with subtly polyrhythmic deep-space pulses. The other tracks are just as warmly enveloping, but the guitar is livelier.

He does Shenandoah as David Gilmour might, with lots of long-tone bends, if not the anguished screams of Pink Floyd. There are all sorts of neat little flourishes in Wayfaring Stranger: a couple of funny Gilmour quotes, and a little Bill Withers, maybe. Leege finds the doo-wop stashed away deep within the calmly lilting melody of the old Welsh tune Ar Hyd y Nos, and reinvents Swing Low, Sweet Chariot as a waltz.

A Curvature of Shadow, the first Leege oriiginal, is a one-chord jam, series of hypnotic variations that drift further from a folk-flavored theme toward spacerock. Scarborough Fair circles around, Leege having fun playing the melody with his volume knob – the effect is similar to a talkbox. Peter Frampton would approve – at least until Leege distantly channels Pink Floyd.

Leege transcends cheesiness in Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star by playing harmonies and then implying the melody: a lot of moms are going to be singing karaoke to this one. Down to the River to Pray is much the same, as Leege works variations on the verse over what sounds like a vocal drone.

He cuts loose just a little bit with some spare, purist, bluesy playing and then some charming glockenspiel-like tones in the Irish folk song Bonnie Lass o’Fyvie. The Brahms Lullaby sounds more like the Tennessee Waltz; the album closes with a slow, enigmatic instrumental version of Riverbed, the title track of his current funky Americana jamband the Sometime Boys’ second album. 

Fun fact: since now you know how peaceful and calming Leege’s compositions can be, it’s time to let the cat out of the bag. He is renowned in New York rock circles as one of the most diversely tuneful, and most assaultive players around. His celestial moods here, and his elegantly eclectic virtuosity in the Sometime Boys don’t offer a clue to his past as co-leader of the gloriously acidic, pummeling, aptly named System Noise.

Quirk and Charm in David Lee Myers’ Analog Electronic Soundscapes

David Lee Myers released his debut, Gravity and Its Discontents, on cassette in 1984. Since then, he has a long history of coaxing unexpected sounds out of arcane devices, which was the name he recorded under for many years. His self-styled “feedback music” is 180 degrees from the shriek or whine of an overdriven amp. It’s both lively and atmospheric, which may seem like an oxymoron until you hear it, or find out that two of his major influences are electronic pioneer Tod Dockstader – with whom Myers collaborated – and also the Beatles. 

Myers’ extensive body of work comprises analog electronic music created completely free of interference from outside frequencies – which are almost invariably the reason why an amp will howl and scream if you push it under less than ideal sonic circumstances. His aptly titled yet dynamically diverse new album Ether Music is streaming at Starkland’s Bandcamp page, and he’s making a rare live appearance this Friday night, Dec 15 at 9 PM at New York’s Experimental Intermedia, 224 Centre St. at Grand, third floor; admission is $5.

Myers ges his sounds from what he calls a Feedback Workstation, which looks like Captain Sulu’s post on the Starship Enterprise but in the shape of an upright piano. Without getting overly technical, one of Myers’ great innovations is that each of its hundreds of channels is not only linked to every other one, but also loops back on itself. Myers at the controls is the orchestrator.

The result can be surreal, or lulling and peaceful, and deliciously psychedelic. The opening track has a subtly shifting drone behind what sounds like calm, matter-of-bact footfalls around a laboratory – this particular professor is anything but mad. Rigid and Fluid Bodies starts out as a bubbly aquarium, then goes into playfully echoey, blinking R2D2 territory and morphs into deep-space whale song.

Mysers works a series of shifts in Astabilized: cold, grim post-industrial Cousin Silas-style sonics, a quasar pulse through a Martian Leslie speaker, keening drones and sputters. What’s Happening Inside Highs and Lows is a rather wry study in slow fades and echoes. shifting between lathe and harmonica timbres. Arabic Science, as Myers sees it, is a contrast between calm ambience and and lava lamp waveforms rather than anything specifically Middle Eastern.

The Dynamics of Particles is sort of a sonic counterpart to those old screensavers where the ball rises until it bounces off the top of the frame – it becomes more animated as it goes along. Echoey long-tone phrases and sputters fade out, replaced by pitchy, asymmetrical loops in Radial-Axial: imagine Terry Riley at his tranciest.

Royale Polytechnique is Myers’ On the Run, followed by Growth Cones, the only instance where the music takes on a discernible melody in the traditional western scale – but it’s more Revolution 9  than, say, A Day in the Life. Myers closes with the epic Dorsal Streaming, neatly synopsizing the album with keening lathe tones, rhythmic and ambient contrasts, a mechanical dog in heat. Turn on, tune in, you know the drill.

Innovative, Intriguing New Guitar Sounds From Lucas Brode

Lucas Brode is one of New York’s most individualistic guitarists. Rather than picking or strumming, he typically taps the strings. Because he uses a lot of pedals, the sound is a lot more varied and dynamic than you would think. Most of the compositions on his new solo album I Lick the Kerosene of Progress – streaming at Bandcamp – are on the short and cinematic side. He’s got an intriguing gig tomorrow night, Nov 19 at around 9 with brilliant drummer Kevin Shea (of Mostly Other People Do the Killing) at the Glove, 885 Lexington Ave. just off Broadway in Bushwick. Sepulchral string band Whispers of Night follow at around 10; violist Jessica Pavone, who’s as iconic as you can get in improvised music circles, headlines. Cover is $8; be aware that there are no J or M trains this weekend, but if you can find a way to get to Broadway, maybe you can catch a bus.

Train whistle effects and echoey Lynchian sonics pervade the brief prelude that opens the album: it’s impossible to tell how Brode is working the strings. On Ankles & Elbows, the technique is obvious – at least until he hits his backward-masking pedal. It’s an interesting new spin on what would otherwise be a bluesy stroll.

Brode segues from there into We’ll Burn that Bridge When We Cross It, an upbeat, loopy lattice of bluegrass-tinged riffs that grow more mininal as it goes on. Dedicated to the Memory of Lilith Fair turns out not to be a nostalgic lesbian folk-pop song but an Eno-esque railyard soundscape – or at least something that evokes early morning in the switching yard.

Brode’s fingers get busy again in All is Based in Basic Truths, an airy, echoey rainy-day web of sound. The World Is Strip Malls & Parking Lots – Brode is awfully good with titles – shifts abruptly from spare and spacious to frenetic and allusively bluegrass-inflected, until it starts to go haywire. A metaphor for McMansion devastation, maybe?

Brode sets skronk and disquietly swooping Jeff Beck-style slide work over loopy mechanical ambience in Recession, followed by Intermission, a surreal miniature. He builds raindrop-like variations on an insistent, echoey theme in the album’s title track and then gets busy again in Today is a Long Uphill Battle I Will Stalemate at Best.

Sudden Subtle Shift is sort of a mashup of early 80s Robert Fripp and Bill Frisell. Git is a rapidfire fret-tapping take on blues and boogie-blues riffage, while Either Hemisphere (In Two Dimensions) is  the simplest and maybe catchiest set of variations here.The album comes full circle with the industrial ambience of Epilogue. Dare you to make something this trippy and interesting alone at night in your bedroom with your guitar and Protools.

A Multimedia Extravaganza With Two Great Jazz Improvisers at Lincoln Center This November 15

Fans of first-class jazz improvisation are in for a treat on Weds Nov 15 at 7:30 PM when pianist Chris Pattishall and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill  team up to play a live score to the debut of visual artist Kambui’s new video project, Where Does the Time Go, at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd Street. The film stars Irungu Mutu and Jessica Allie. As with all the mostly-weekly free performances here, the earlier you get in, the better your chances of getting a seat.

Magical things could happen: these players are both tremendous improvisers. O’Farrill has a thoughtful approach to match his awe-inspiring chops and extended technique, and Pattishall makes flying without a net look easy. The pianist played a rapturous, largely improvised set this past spring at St. Paul’s Chapel downtown with his old North Carolina guitarist pal Rafiq Bhatia.

Pattishall has become one of the world’s foremost champions of Mary Lou Williams’ gospel-and-blues-inspired music, notably her Zodiac Suite. He opened solo with two segments, Aquarius and Pisces, first shifting from uneasy, nebulous low-register resonance to a sleek, low-key midtempo swing in the first movement. Likewise, he traced the arc of Pisces from a darkly restrained Chopinesque waltz toward Scott Joplin ragtime.

Then Bhatia joined him: the two hadn’t played a New York gig together in more than ten years. To dovetail with the concert series’ Debussy-inspired water-justice theme, Pattishall encouraged the crowd to pay close attention to subtle changes in sonority, and textures, and attack and decay. Those came into focus immediately with the first sepulchral, keening washes from Bhatia’s Telecaster and pedalboard as Pattishall colored them with bell-like phrases. As the piece built steam, Bhatia channeled Jerry Garcia in spiraling, exploratory mode, taking advantage of the space’s natural reverb. 

The guitarist then flipped the script, taking the music into enveloping Eno-esque territory, peppering the vast expanse with coy backward-masking riffs. Pattishall pulled the music toward triumphant title-theme cinematics, then Bhatia responded with watery juxtapositions, ripples over a dark undercurrent. Pattishall felt it take over the space and pulled back, doubling Bhatia’s enigmatically insistent chords before reaching toward epic grandeur once again.

The two reverted to echoey atmospherics and doppler effects, Pattishall on synth, letting the cloud drift off into terse, minimal icicle piano lines and a few final circling volleys of guitar arpeggios. It was music to get completely lost in.

You can watch the whole show here; the Lincoln Center gig will no doubt be completely different, but this will give you an idea of how Pattishall works in an intimate setting. 

Ominously Enveloping Ambience in La Equidistancia

Today’s Halloween album, streaming at Bandcamp, is A Strangely Isolated Place, by La Equidistancia, the dark ambient project of Kompakt’s Leandro Fresco and Rafael Anton Irisarri of Room 40. It’s less overtly menacing than allusively ominous, a storm looming on the distant horizon but with shafts of light filtering through.

A nebulous choir of voices awash in reverb rise as the first track, Cuando El Misterio Es Demasiado Impresionante, Es Imposible Desobedecer (When the Mystery Is Too Much, It’s Impossible to Disobey) gets underway. Bubbles of keys linger back in the mix, then a steady, staccato synth-piano rhythm moves to the center. Likewise, densely layered clouds shift through Bajo un Ocaso Desteñido (Under a Fading Sunset), the waves circling more tightly as the piece develops, then shifting to an unexpected calm.

Drips of wind chimes flicker against the synths’  echoing major third interval in Lo Esencial Es Invisible a Los Ojos (The Essential Is Invisible to the Eye): the way the duo imply a catchy folk tune as lingering, sustained guitar phrases rise is especially artful.

Las Palabras Son Fuente De Malentendidos (Words Are a Source of Misunderstanding – great title for an instrumental, huh?) – has a vaster, deep-space unease with hints of a brooding chromatic melody amid the grey expanse, Entre la Niebla (In the Mist) whirs and echoes, with what’s by now become a consistent trope: echoing highs in the right channel, tidally shifting lows in the left punctuated by the occasional blip, click or strike of one thing against another.

The final cut is Un Horizonte En Llamas (Horizon in Flames), a slow, tectonic gothic theme pushing wispy waterfall sonics out of the picture for moody minimalist guitar in the same vein as Brian Eno’s Apollo suite. Not for use while operating machinery.

A Brooding, Resonant Subterranean Soundscape for Halloween Month

Today’s installment for Halloween month is Philip Blackburn’s album Music of Shadows – streaming at Spotify – which was written to be played in the St. Paul, Minnesota sewer system. Innova Records put out this bleak, tectonically and ineluctably shifting triptych in 2014, and it may be the high point of the composer’s career so far.

Blackburn is sort of the shadow image of Brian Eno – his enveloping, often darkly majestic electroacoustic soundscapes tend to whoosh and resonate in the lows, sometimes with provocative samples. His recent works have addressed the struggles of Vietnamese refugees and have lampooned right-wing bigotry. This one is more of a relentless mood piece. Even the mathrock-y bubbles as the second movement opens give way to a coldly echoing, oscillating resonance.

About five minutes into the icy lead-pipe ambience of the opening movement, there are doors slamming and children playing, but the effect evokes a prison vastly more than it does a playground. And the disembodied choir fading in and out eventually blend with the rest of the ghosts.

And for anyone living in an urban area, the album has value to match its gloomy, entrancing artistic merits. Your neighbors might bang on the ceiling if you crank a loud rock record in the middle of the night to drown out the crackhead or the creeps down the hall, but if you blast this, nobody can really complain – and if you’re tired enough, it will eventually lull you back to sleep.  After all, nobody can tell you that you can’t vacuum your floor at four in the morning, can they? That movie you were just blasting? What movie, wink wink! Any nightmares you might have are incidental. Or are they?