New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: ambient music

Heather Trost Goes into Lush Psychedelia With Her New Solo Album

Violinist Heather Trost may be best known as the ferocious lead instrumentalist in Balkan band A Hawk and a Hacksaw, but she’s also proficient on several other instruments. Her new solo album Petrichor – streaming at Bandcamp – is quite a change. It’s a playful psychedelic rock album in the same vein as another solo debut from a couple of years ago by a similarly talented instrumentalist, Lake Street Dive bassist Bridget Kearney.

Trost opens the record with Let It In, a pulsing, shoegazy psychedelic tableau, layers of keys wafting around over distantly flurrying drums. For someone whose instrumental chops are so fierce, her voice is surprisingly delicate and airy.

The second song, Love It Grows is part Mamas & the Papas at their most warily autumnal, part Alec K. Redfearn Balkan noir – with fractured French lyrics. Tracks to Nowhere grows ghostlier over steady, spare electric guitar arpeggios, then the bass and drums come in and it takes shape as a moody, soul-tinged ballad.

Trost keeps the stately 6/8 rhythm going through I’ll Think Of You, a lullaby of sorts buoyed by her soaring violin. Burbling high keys contrast with a Velvets drone in VK09, a dead ringer for the Black Angels. Trost brings the album full circle with the hypnotically echoey Sunrise. The only miss here is the album’s lone cover – 70s hippie pop, ugh.

Get Lost in Southeast of Rain’s Magical Soundscapes

Back in the spring of 2017, singer Lemon Guo opened an outdoor festival along the Hudson River sponsored by Columbia University. Her calmly hypnotic yet gently playful electroacoustic set, a blend of ambient music with traditional Asian tinges, could have gone on twice as long as it did and the crowd stretched across the lawn would have been happy to hear it. Fast forward to 2021: Guo has a new album, 42 Days, by her  duo project Southeast of Rain, an online collaboration with pipa player Sophia Shen streaming at Bandcamp. Recorded remotely over the web during the lockdown, it’s similarly intimate, intriguing, inviting music.

Shen plays solo in Constellations, the first number, making her way from delicate tremolo-picking, through spare bends, enigmatic thickets and echoey harmonics, pushing the limits of traditional pentatonic Chinese modes. That was day four of the two musicians’ collaboration. Day eight, Between Fleeting Somethings has a coastal California rainstorm, fleeting vocal peaks, slow doppler-like ambience and gentle rattles from Shen’s pipa.

The eleventh day of the two musicians’ collaboration was a productive one, a trance-inducing Shen soundscape peppering immersive ambience with sudden metallic flickers. Day eighteen is titled To Frank the Owl. a steady, catchy, balletesque theme: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Sofia Rei catalog.

Guo’s plaintive, hauntingly microtonal chorale, Luminescence, descends from Bulgarian-inflected leaps and bounds to more stark, spaciously drifting figures. Day 25, Traveler, has Guo’s Balkan melismas far back in the mix behind an enigmatic calm.

If Improvising at the Gym reflects actual events, it’s a beautiful, stark and slowly unwinding example of what a couple of composers can do when the endorphins kick in, Guo’s warmly mapled clarity over Shen’s elegant tremolo-picking. The two wind up the album with Unwanted Bits, Shen’s wounded, exploratory plucking over a surreal pastiche of found sounds. If this is what Guo and Shen can do without the the chemistry of actually playing together in person, imagine what magic they’ll be able to conjure once we’re all free of the lockdown.

Gorgeously Tuneful, Atmospheric Oldtime Gospel and Blues-Inspired Sounds From Trombonist Danny Lubin Laden

Trombonist Danny Lubin Laden‘s new album Through Our Time – streaming at Bandcamp – makes a great companion piece to Chris Pattishall‘s reinterpretation of Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite. Both albums are built around oldtime gospel and blues riffs, and both have trippy electronic touches. This one is even closer to psychedelia or ambient music.

Lubin Laden is a very thoughtful, purposeful player. He knows his blues inside out and has a killer lineup: Ari Chersky is the one-man orchestra, on guitar, bass, keys and endless loops, with Christopher Hoffman on cello and drummer Craig Weinrib rustling on his rims and toms for extra suspense. Chersky put out a considerably darker record of his own, Fear Sharpens the Dagger, in a similar vein a couple of years back and fans of that one should check this out as well.

The album opens with Sun Rays, an aptly warm, contemplative spiritual riff and variations over drifting electronic ambience. Track two, Depth and Distance, is anchored by a a terse, muted, altered soul bassline from Chersky as Lubin Laden plays dark blues amid the swirl. The atmosphere warms again with Smiling in a Dream, the trombone awash in twinkly synth and a synthesized haze.

Your Future, For Now darkens over a churning backdrop. Lubin Laden builds After You around a gorgeous, 19th century style pastoral theme: imagine Bryan and the Aardvarks playing a Bill Frisell tune. The atmosphere grows more nebulous with Hopes, then Chersky loops a gentle oldschool soul riff for Throwing Pennies in a Fountain of Luck, which could be a deconstructed Smokey Robinson ballad.

Now Fast Forward comes across as a long intro, Chersky’s spare, emphatic chords and Hoffman’s triumphant sustained lines back in the mix. The group go back toward wistful rusticity in A Glimpse of Faint Fir Vistas and then move to more ominous, acidic terrain with What’s At Stake.

Lubin Laden multitracks himself to expand on a stirring gospel theme laced with grim neoromanticism in Through His Eyes and closes the album with the swirly vignette Lost Bones. Whether you consider this jazz or ambient music, you will be humming it to yourself afterward.

Composer Jen Kutler’s Fascinating New Album Transcends Evocations of Trauma

As if the early days of the lockdown in New York weren’t terroristic enough, composer Jen Kutler spent them further terrorizing herself by watching a long sequence of violent movie scenes. Murder, rape, torture, verbal abuse, the works. Before exposing herself to this barrage of disturbing stimuli, she hooked herself up to electrodes to record the magnetic response time from her skin. Then she ran the data set through MIDI and orchestrated it electronically. The result is an alternately soothing and menacing new album, Sonified Physiological Indicators of Empathy, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s transcendent in the purest sense: a work of art drawn from what must have been a viscerally painful experience.

Kutler was intrigued by the prospect that human response to sounds of trauma might be an indicator of a capacity for empathy – or lack thereof. We speak of people as being warm or cold. Is there scientific evidence to back up such an observation? Kutler discovered research which suggests there is. A psychopath can feign compassion, but skin response to stimuli is a reflex action which can’t be controlled.

Research in this area is still in its infancy, especially as far as sound is concerned, and it has become clear that the wider the set of stimuli used in an experiment, the more unique an individual’s responses will be. However, there does seem to be a correlation between desensitization to traumatic sounds and self-identification with psychopathic behavior on one scale or another. Kutler is quick to point out that we need more research in this area, and is involved with a new project examining human response to various environmental and linguistic cues. And as our body of knowledge in this field grows, we need to be careful to consider individual experiences that may have desensitized us – from childhood trauma, to the environment around us. How many times does an urban dweller hear a scream and assume it’s just a crazy crackhead? What does that say about us?

The sounds on Kutler’s album drift toward the more industrial side of ambient music: Philip Blackburn‘s work often comes to mind. The six tracks here draw the listener in as Kutler’s allusive, methodically shifting timbres and tones waft through the sonic picture. Fragments of stately organ melody give way to what could be monks throat-singing in unison through a garage wall. Echoey drainpipes, wheels shedding overtones at high velocity, elevators, rainstorms and gently wobbling pulleys all come to mind. Sunlight looms in on the most shadowy moments, and vice versa.

The calmest, most enveloping track here is perhaps ironically titled Long Term Memory Loss, an atmosphere that drifts over into the next one, Fairness, although that piece grows more enigmatic. The shifts arrive faster and more uneasily in Short Term Memory Loss. Flickers of minimalistic melody take centerstage in Borders, but even there the textures remain on the cold and plasticky side. Kutler likes synthesized choir patches, which oscillate and pulse in the album’s final cut, A Piece For Amplified Children. It has a funny ending.

Kutler is also an inventor. One recent creation of hers that’s genuinely heartwarming is part of her In Loving Memory of Being Touched project. During the early part of the lockdown last year, Kutler found herself alone and discovered how, like probably billions of people around the world at the time, she missed a simple human touch. So she built a touch simulator which people can use to send each other anything from a playful tap to more emotionally complex tactile messages. Beyond the fun you could have with this, it has immense potential as a means of transmitting secret codes.

Warmly Minimalist, Oceanically-Inspired Electroacoustic Piano Themes From Kumi Takahara

Go out to watch the ocean just as the sun is about to slip under the horizon and you’ll get a good idea of what keyboardist Kumi Takahara’s gently rippling new album See-Through – streaming at Bandcamp – is all about. Her pensive, elegant themes are minimalist to the core: she most definitely does not waste notes. Philip Glass seems to be an influence. This is a great album for winding down or meditation.

She opens the album with Artegio, a warmly minimalist, simple major-key piano piece with subtle ambient electronic touches. Roll, the second track, has variations on a catchy, ratchetingly circling piano riff and what sounds like a wistful melodica in places. Nostalgia is even simpler and just as loopy, Takahara moving methodically up and down the scale as echoey, hypnotically ambient phrases drift into the foreground.

Tide, with its intricate web of string orchestration, is even more hypnotic but also majestic as it swells and brightens. Chime, on the other hand, has more distinct disquiet (and a droll reference to a very famous clock). The strings return, rising with a stark resonance against the bell-like piano, in Kai-kou. 

Layers of wordless vocals permeate Chant along with the strings and sheer simplicity of the piano. Takahara runs subtle, increasingly wistful variations on a four-note riff over what sounds like a viola drone in Sea. She closes the album with Log, well over seven minutes of hazy horizontality and then what turns out to be the album’s most anthemic interlude, punctuated by gentle vocalizing, sparse piano and light electronics. There are also a couple of remixes here that don’t really add anything.

Artfully Shifting New Ambient Music From Enona

Ambient ensemble Enona were born out of the most popular musical meme of 2020: trading files over the web. When the group, featuring members of Ensemble Et Al. and Quatre Vingt Neuf, realized that their remote experiments during the ugliest early days of the lockdown were worth releasing, they put a trio of them up at Bandcamp as their debut album, The Challenge Is in the Moment. As with most drifty, immersive music, it’s best appreciated as a cohesive whole, letting the subtle thematic development carry you off to a better place…like a year ago, when the members of the group were free to play and record wherever they chose, and invite audiences to see them.

Slowly pulsing long tones hold the center as slashy electronic thunderbolts enter and then recede in the almost 22-minute opening title track. Eventually, Ron Tucker’s electric piano punctures the surface, tentatively and sparely: the melody would be a wistful ballad if played at quadruplespeed. Arun Antonyraj’s simple electric guitar echoes coalesce into a countermelody to variations on a piano loop; from there, an elegant web of contrastingly calm and gritty tonalities develops.

Another Kind of Open could be a scary proposition, a slow, brooding series of synth chords flecked with echoey, muted hits on what sounds like an acoustic guitar. Again, a loopy electric guitar phrase ties it all together, bittersweetly.

The final theme, Present Air Will Have to Do is more of a shimmery dreampop guitar tableau, spiced with simple, jaunty electric piano flourishes and electroacoustic ambience from saxophonist Jason Candler. It’s always rewarding to hear an album of slowly unwinding music like this and find substance in it beyond “This is a great record to help you stay centered while you multitask!”

Somberly Relevant Ambient Music From Desdemona and Percussionist Adam Holmes

Most of us tend to think of ambient music as hypnotic and soothing. Composer/percussionist Adam Holmes has written a trio of works, Music For a Small Shelter – streaming at Bandcamp – which have more bite than you typically find in calm, horizontal music. Depicting interminable isolation, in this case the grim early days of the lockdown, is hardly an easy task for any composer, but Holmes’ minimalist approach maximizes a small supply of sonic ingredients. It’s as if to remind us that sometimes we have to make do with what’s available.

Chamber ensemble Desdemona play with stark precision, joined by the composer’s incisive, spacious hammered dulcimer rhythms on the first track, First Names. On the third and final piece, Trust Fall, his rustles and misty press rolls alternate with echoey, astringently overtone-infused string swells and accents. Eventually the string trio – violinists Adrianne Munden-Dixon and Caroline Drexler and violist Carrie Frey – converge and then triangulate acerbically.

Long tones rise and fall away suddenly in the middle piece, Scattering, the strings smoldering with similarly otherworldly harmonics. Anyone terrified at the prospect of New Abnormal totalitarianism taking over the globe can find solace in this spare, somber music.

A Mesmerizing, Psychedelic Layer Cake of an Album by Camila Fuchs

Camila Fuchs play swirly, echoey, utterly psychedelic electronically textured sounds that draw equally on vintage new wave, dub, 90s trip-hop and ambient music. The duo’s latest album Kids Talk Sun, a mix of instrumentals and vocal numbers, is streaming at Bandcamp. Frontwoman Camila De Laborde sings in heavily accented English a la Nina Hagen, no surprise considering that her esthetic so often goes straight back to the 80s.

The opening track, Sun is vampy industrial postpunk disguised as blippy, psychedelic electropop fueled by Daniel Hermann-Collini’s multi-keys. Moon’s Mountain is more of an echoey, bubbling spacescape, like a techier version of the Creatures. Then the two shift to a gloomy web of surreal, woozy textures in the aptly titled Gloss Trick: shiny as it sounds, it’s anything but.

Likewise, Roses brings to mind the kind you would find on a grave, awash in grit and enigmatic, looming ambience. Sandstorm sounds like a Police cover redone as a sandscape from Dune, all squiggly and slinky. The two follows that with the album’s dubbiest, most ambient cut, Silenced By Hums.

Come About comes across as Brecht/Weill through a plastic-veneered funhouse mirror: it’s the album’s trippiest and most Siouxsie-esque track. Mess is a skeletal little instrumental that’s over before you know it. The duo wind up the record with Pool of Wax: you can smell the skunky cloud seeping from under the door, even as De Laborde intones “I had no options but to die.” Spin this and get completely lost.

 

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Elori Saxl Releases a Super Spaceout Album

This observation could be completely off base, but it doesn’t seem that Elori Saxl’s new album of trippy electroacoustic soundscapes, The Blue of Distance – streaming at Bandcamp – was meant to be listened to while sober. Saxl has a good sense of humor and messes with your ears constantly, via tempos and textures and echo effects and just about every other trope in the psychedelic playbook. Whether you call this ambient music, film music, minimalism or indie classical, it’s hard not to get lost in.

Saxl processes both a chamber orchestra and field recordings of wind and water for the tracks here. The opening miniature, Before Blue is all bubble, bubble, no toil, no trouble. A couple of coy, blippy riffs at the end, and it’s over in a minuite 32. The ten-minute Blue begins more turbulently bubbly and ultimately a lot funnier, from a long bong hit to a whippit, sonically speaking. Just when you start wondering what’s wrong with your music player, the distantly ominous synth patches loom in. And then you’re back in the hall of mirrors.

Squiggles and blips and a catchy, playful clarinet hook intertwine in Wave, then a pseudo-ocean, the clarinet and strings gently rock your ears in Wave II. A Terry Riley-ish clarinet riff circles and subtly shifts against a staggered, diversely processed pizzicato violin loop in Memory of Blue, the album’s most epic track: the unexpected piano track pulls you back to earth just when it seems gravity has been left behind for good.

Soft gusts move methodically through Wave III; Saxl winds up the album with the title cut, the driftiest interlude here and an unexpectedly somber way to close an otherwise high-spirited record. Seems like the whole crew here – Finnegan Shanahan on violin, Helen Newby on cello, and a wind section of Erin Lensing on oboe, David Nagy on bassoon, Kristina Teuschler and Alec Spiegelman on clarinets, with Sarah Carrier on flute – had plenty of fun with this. 

Magical, Otherworldly Guitar Music Inspired by the Art of Sol Lewitt

The number of musicians whose albums were either sidelined, or more or less disappeared without a trace after the lockdown, is staggering. Guitarist Gabriel Birnbaum’s otherworldly, mysterious, often haunting solo record, Wall Music For Sol Lewitt – streaming at Bandcamp – was one of them. And that’s tragic. If you like magical, spacious, stark sounds, you’ll love this album: fans of the bell-like piano works of Federico Mompou are especially encouraged to check it out. It’s best appreciated as a cohesive whole rather than track by track. It was tempting to save the album for the annual October-long Halloween celebration here, but that’s way too long to deprive you, considering that Birnbaum released it six months ago.

Each piece takes its title from a number of the pieces in Lewitt’s Wall Drawings. In  keeping with Lewitt’s architectural approach, Birnbaum created graphic scores for his elegantly looping, very subtly microtonal compositions. #11 is the first, with understated polyrhythms woven into the eerily chiming, stately, circling theme.

#16 is a skeletal, somber march. His precisely plucked belltones are more delicate and intricate, akin to a carillon, in #17. He expands the sonic frame, adding harmonics on the high end in the enigmatic #19. Then he introduces lushly strummed chords for a much warmer sound in #38 – imagine Glenn Branca at low volume, without the distortion.

Birnbaum shifts gears again with the slow, sirening swoops of #46. Resonant major-key ambience alternates back and forth between creepy tritones and minimalist clock-chime phrases in #47, then he basically works that dynamic in reverse in #85

He winds up the album, taking inspiration from four works beginning with #154 over the course of thirty-eight minutes. This suite has the album’s airiest, most atmospheric moments: tritones linger briefly before an utterly hypnotic web of saxophone drones sets in. The way Birnbaum works more disquieting tonalities into it, at a glacial pace, is artful to the extreme. It makes you want to visit find the museum where Birnbaum’s inspirations are housed to see what springboarded this strange and beguiling record. Oh wait, you can’t, museums are locked and dead now in most parts of the world. Music isn’t the only art form the would-be engineers of the New Abnormal are trying to destroy.