New York Music Daily

Music for Transcending Dark Times

Category: ambient music

Canland: A Goldmine of Rare, Legendary New York Performances

What better time than now to launch an archive of irreplaceable live recordings from the past thirty-three years? Canland just went live a couple of days ago with several days worth of footage of concert performances by iconic figures as well as fringe players from across the worlds of the avant garde, jazz and new classical music since 1987.

On May 10 of that year, a trio of rising star composers – Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and David Lang – staged the first annual Bang on a Can Marathon of new music in a stuffy Soho loft. Over the next three decades, the mostly-annual event would take over larger and larger venues and become a New York institution.

If you ever went to one of the marathons, it was obvious that everything was being painstakingly recorded. Relatively little has made it to youtube, one of the reasons why Canland is such a goldmine. The other is that it’s still a work in progress: what’s up now is merely a greatest-hits version, along with some obscure treasures from the marathon’s early years, plus some footage from various shows by the house art-rock band, the Bang on a Can All-Stars.

In keeping with the organization’s goal of breaking down boundaries between musical genres, the diversity of the music is astonishing. Need something soothing and soul-nourishing? Innov Gnawa‘s fifteen minutes of ancient Moroccan trance-dance grooves will do the trick (for the record, this blog wasn’t there when the band played it at the 2017 marathon at the Brooklyn Museum).

If you can handle something harrowing, click on Ensemble Signal’s meticulously grim 2011 version of Wolfe’s Cruel Sister, at the World Financial Center atrium. This blog didn’t exist until a couple of months later, but that piece ended up topping the list of that year’s best songs. One of many other fascinating Wolfe works here is her microtonal, drifiting, echoey Williamsburg Bridge, from the inaugural 1987 marathon.

Lots of big names are represented: Pauline Oliveros, Guy Klucevsek, Meredith Monk, the World Saxophone Quartet, Tania Leon, Phil Kline, Tan Dun, Keeril Makan and both guitarists in Sonic Youth. There are iconic pieces like Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together – which appears many times in several different arrangements. Terry Riley’s In C is also here, less frequently. There are pioneering works by Ives, Xenakis, Glass, Andriessen and Saariaho plus snippets of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports.

As the years go on, it’s obvious the Bang on a Can hydra are keeping their collective eyes on the ball, showcasing new music by younger artists including Bora Yoon, Gabriella Smith, Amir ElSaffar, Missy Mazzoli and the late Johann Johannsson. The roots of this music also get their due. The Cassatt String Quartet revel in the otherworldliness of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s 1931 quartet. International Contemporary Ensemble play Galina Ulstvolskaya’s strange, insistent (and very brief, barely twelve-minute-long) Symphony No. 5.

And the more off-the-wall material is just as entertaining. The Kazue Sawai Koto Ensemble play one of the very first compositions to feature bass koto (some of it sounds like a posse of possums under the lid of a concert grand piano). In 1989, a pickup group who call themselves the World Casio Quartet play no wave guitar legend David First’s looming, atmospheric Plate Mass; nineteen years later, the Bang on a Can All-Stars tackle a similar yet more somber and animated Erdem Helvacioglu piece. All this is just the of the iceberg. In the mood to go way, way down the rabbit hole? This is your chance.

Dynamic, Intense String Themes From One-Man Orchestra Christopher Tignor

Violinist Christopher Tignor occupies a unique place in the New York music scene, where the worlds of new classical music, improvisation and ambient psychedelia intersect. For a guy who plays a lot of brooding, overcast music, he’s a very entertaining performer, often doing the one-man band thing with a kickdrum and his trusty loop pedal. His latest album A Light Below is streaming at Bandcamp.

What’s new about this is that it’s hardly all grey skies and moody atmospherics. The first number, Flood Cycles has warmly drifting, coccoony sheets of sound, Tignoer gradually brightening the picture

Loopy, shivery strings and a dramatic, thumping beat make their entrance in Your Slowly Moving Shadow, My Inevitable Night: the majesty and drama rise as Tignor overdubs himself into a one-man symphonic ensemble.

Known By Heart is closer to his earlier work, alternating between hazy unease and ominously crescendoing cumulo-nimbus ambience: imagine a Noveller piece for string orchestra instead of guitar loops. Tignor builds A Mirrored Reliquary from steady, spare overlays to an elegant, plaintive, baroque-tinged theme and arresting swirls – and then brings it back down.

I, Autocorrelations (that’s the title) is a bracingly lush, loopily syncopated dance in 12/4 time. The dancing pulse continues, for awhile at least, in the album’s most epic track, The Resonance Canons, a partita. Echoey pizzicato loops leap beneath shimmery metal gongs, then an enveloping atmosphere return, followed by an oscillating, gamelanesque interlude. Tignor runs an otherworldly, pinging, microtone-spiced riff over organ textures as the looming lows rise; the ending is unexpected.

He winds up the album with the only slightly less expansive What You Must Make of Me, an increasingly disorienting web of simple, translucent motives mingling over a muted piledriver beat; then they filter out, leaving the most anthemic ones in place. The coda seems to be a guarded benediction. Good to see this rugged individualist expanding his sound into new terrain.

Relentlessly Uneasy, Dystopic Soundscapes From Austin Rockman

Today’s pick for music here is cold, mechanical, dystopic…and trippy as hell. There’s a lot going on in electronic composer Austin Rockman‘s new maxi-single Sonde Aim/Seek No End – streaming at Bandcamp – so it’s more persistently uneasy than it is desolate. If you need about thirteen minutes to get lost in, this will work.

The rhythmic center of the first track is a loop of what sounds like the needle on a turntable bouncing off the face of a weatherbeaten record. Fleeting doppler smears pass through the sonic picture in a split second, echoed by low rumbles; eventually, keening, minimal highs and fragmentary backward masked effects begin to take centerstage.

The second is a more grimly hazy, echoey tableau, with slowly shifting sheets of sound in place of dopplers: as with the A-side, Rockman eventually brings the highs up in the mix. Neither piece offers any kind of resolution: life is like that.

Saluting a Century of the Wacky, Versatile First Electronic Instrument

Now that live music – and movies, and sports, and museums, and galleries – in New York have been shut down by the coronavirus scare, what can a person do for entertainment? Spring is here: you could go for a good, long run…or listen to a creepy fifty-one track album of theremin music. Or do both at once – it’s on Bandcamp.

To be fair, the NY Theremin Society’s compilation album Theremin 100 isn’t always creepy. While Russian scientist Leon Theremin’s 1920 invention may be most readily recognized for its uncanny evocations of creaky doors in a million horror movies, there are thousands of artists from around the world who have mastered the granddaddy of all sci-fi instruments’ magical force field for both good and evil. A lot of them are on this record. And one of the best, Pamelia Stickney – who’s surprisingly not on it – had a scheduled gig on March 20 at the Owl, but like pretty much everything going on around town, it’s been cancelled.

The album’s first track, Christopher Payne’s Somnambulist is a loopy, swoopy, chromatic nocturne that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie: are those strings and bass real, or an expert theremin imitation? Other tracks in the same vein include Herb Deutsch’s Longing – one of many with just theremin and darkly neoromantic piano, and Ei and Kuli Schreiber’s surreal tunnel narrative Train Jumper, at the top of a substantial list.

Often the theremin will evoke a violin, as in Peg Ming’s Therexotica, a gentle, brisk bolero with retro 50s twinkle; About Aphrodite’s lustrous Membran Music; or where Gregoire Blanc adds just a hint of shudder over eerily glimmering piano in Waves – with a bridge that’s too gleefully grisly to give away.

Therminal C’s Sputnik Crash powerfully demonstrates the instrument’s vast range and little-used percussive potential, as does Thorwald Jorgenson’s epic seaside tableau Distant Shores. The theremin gets backward masked in Hekla’s Twin Peaks pop tune Indenderro, used for squiggles and ominous banks of sound in Aetherghul’s Fire in the Sky, and an imploring vocal analogue in Jeff Pagano’s The Ancient Sea.

Some of the acts here employ a theremin for laughs. The Radio Science Orchestra contribute Atom Age Girl, a wry space-surf theme; Everling throws in his droll, bloopy Playing Theremin Is My Madness. The joke is simpler yet subtler in Hyperbubble’s I’m Your Satellite, while Robert Meyer’s deadpan teutonic boudoir groove Taxi is pretty ridiculous. Matt Dallow’s circus rock theme Tailor Made Destination isn’t far behind.

A handful of these pieces are massively orchestrated, like the Nightterrors’ macabre, Alan Parsons Project-ish Megafauna. Others, including Dorit Chrysler’s atmospherically circling Murderballad and Elizabeth Brown’s desolate March 21, are more spare. Twenty-nine tracks in, an electric guitar finally appears in Veronik’s Anomala, which is sort of House of the Rising Sun with a theremin. Song number 38, by the Keystone, is a strangely drifting duet for lapsteel and theremin. The most atmospheric track here, Gabriel and Rachel Guma’s Balloons Tied Up in the Sky, evokes whalesong. The weirdest one, Aileen Adler’s Piezoelectric Dreaming, is a mashup of Balkan reggae and spaghetti western themes.

Much of the rest of this material is classically-tinged: Japan Theremin Oldschool’s take of Ave Maria; Tears of Sirens’ Under the Milky Way (an original, not the Church classic), and Lydia Kavina’s In Green, a pretty piano-and-theremin ballad that wouldn’t be out of place in the ELO catalog if that band had a theremin. Maurizio Mansueti does a great job getting his contraption to emulate bel canto singing in the moody Blindfolded, while there’s a real aria in Robert Schillinger’s Bury Me, Bury Me Wind. The compilers who put this thing together deserve enormous credit for the consistently high quality, vast scope and imagination of most everything here.

Dusky, Enveloping Ambience and a West Village Album Release Show by Cellist Clarice Jensen

Clarice Jensen has been one of the prime movers of the New York scene in new classical music for over a decade, both as a cellist and as artistic director of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. But she’s also a composer. Her long awaited, atmospheric solo debut album, For This From That Will Be Filled is streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing the release show with a typically stellar cast this Friday night, March 13 at 8 PM at the Tenri Institute; cover is $25.

The album’s ten-minute opening epic, BC, is a co-write with the late film composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Its slowly shifting, hypnotic series of tectonic sheets and simple chords drifts through the sonic picture, sometimes with subtle doppler, backward-masked or pitch-shifting effects. The encroaching unease of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s work comes to mind.

Awash in low, sitar-like drones, keening harmonics, pulsing echo effects and circling oscillations, Cello Constellations, by Michael Harrison comes across as a more stately take on Brian Jones-style loopmusic – or Brian Eno in darkly enigmatic mode. The unexpected coda packs such a punch that it’s too good to give away.

The opening echoes and textures of Jensen’s title diptych – a Dag Hammarskjold reference – are much more icily otherworldly. Here she begins to sound more like a one-woman orchestra. In the second part, Jensen blends Eno-esque layers amid a gathering storm that recalls Gebhard Ullmann‘s rumbling multi-bass adventures in ambient music as much as it does Bach cello suites. Those who gravitate toward both the calmer and more psychedelic fringes of the new music world have a lot to savor here.

Catchy, Edgy Themes and Contrasting Textures From Big Dog Little Dog

The duo of violinist Jessie Montgomery and bassist Eleonore Oppenheim call themselves Big Dog Little Dog. That may have something to do with the relative size of their instruments, or maybe not. The two were asked who is which animal at a show at a mesmerizing show at Metropolis Ensemble’s Lower East Side digs late last year: “We switch off,” Montgomery grinned. Their edgy, dynamic debut album is streaming at Bandcamp. As a unit, they like long crescendos and playing off catchy, direct ideas.

It begins with a brief, nocturnal bit of found sound: somebody crosses a yard and approaches a house, tree frogs contentedly peeping in the background. Then the duo launch into the first piece, Panorama, a catchy, swaying series of variations on a couple of terse, blues-rooted riffs, Oppenheim bowing steady, overtone-rich chords as Montgomery plays slithery, rapidfire arpeggios and cascades.

Hypnotically pulsing, loopy bass anchors Montgomery’s drifting airiness and incisive pizzicato chords as Man Without a Face builds momentum, up to a stabbing peak with echoes of Appalachian music. In Ice, the two shift between variations on coyly slipsliding, “wheeeeeee” phrases and a keening, rather wistful horizontality over Oppenheim’s rich, chocolatey chords.

With its punchy, rhythmic drive, Woods seems to be an increasingly lively woodchopper’s ball. Wafting sheets of harmonics slowly make their way through the sonic picture and finally coalesce into stern chords in the album’s most expansive and most horizontal track, Blue Hour. The coda, a contrast between Montgomery’s enigmatic close harmonies and Oppenheim’s rumbling low E drone, is just plain luscious.

Brisk wave pulses echo with an increasingly animated syncopation in Cipher, one of several tracks here that bring to mind Julia Wolfe‘s work for strings. Ultraviolet makes a good segue, Montgomery’s stabbing, muted phrases and uneasy movement outward from a central note above Oppenheim’s deadpan bump-bump and glissandos. They go out the way they came in, peepers and all.

The 50 Best Albums of 2019

This is a playlist, plus one last record at the very end that can’t be heard anywhere online but might be the best of all of them. You can listen to everything else here, almost all of it ad-free: it couldn’t hurt to bookmark this page.

Lots of triage was involved. A very ambitious listener with a dayjob that allows for multitasking can hear maybe eight or nine hundred new albums a year, all the way through. An insanely dedicated blogger can hear bits and pieces of maybe five thousand more. That’s about the limit of what one human can do. You may see a few stragglers here which were technically 2018 releases but got overlooked that year. If your favorite album from 2019 isn’t here, that doesn’t mean it isn’t any good…and it might just turn up here next year.

Other than the very top of the list, there’s no hierarchical ranking. Being chosen as the #50 band out of 50 is like getting picked last for kickball, and that’s kind of mean. Besides, if an album is one of the fifty best out of the literally hundreds of thousands released every year, it has to be damn good. Here we go!

Big Lazy – Dear Trouble
The subtlest, most desolate and ultimately most dynamic album from a group synonymous with cinematic noir menace. Guitarist Steve Ulrich’s sense of irony has never been more refined, and the rhythm section of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion has never been slinkier. Ulrich is the only musician in history who has been on three albums rated #1 for the year here. Listen at youtube

Changing Modes – What September Brings
Best album of the year with lyrics, the New York art-rockers’ finest, most cinematic, and most political release, a savagely lyrical, spot-on reflection on Trump-era narcissism and repression, laced with shapeshifting instrumentals and frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam’s disquietingly lush harmonies. Listen at youtube

The Bright Smoke – Gross National Happiness
The title reflects frontwoman/guitarist Mia Wilson’s signature, withering sarcasm. It’s the band’s most savagely political record, a grimly allusive measure of Trump-era inequality, despair and resistance against all that, with a haunting Joy Division undercurrent. Listen at Bandcamp

Karen Dahlstrom – No Man’s Land
The best short album of the year, with metaphorically-loaded, sharply picturesque narratives referencing apocalypse, smalltown anomie, late-night despondency and a ferocious, defiant anthem for the Metoo era from the powerful Bobtown alto singer and Americana songstress. Listen at her music page 

Hearing Things – Here’s Hearing Things
The best debut albun of 2019, by Brooklyn’s funnest dance band, mashes up horror surt, Booker T & the MG’s, twisted go-go music, Afrobeat, Ethiopiques and the Doors, with organ, sax and surf drums. Listen at Bandcamp

The Dream Syndicate – These Times
Steve Wynn‘s iconic, feral, influential psychedelic guitar-duel band’s quietest, most allusively political and arguably most brilliantly lyrical album. Not bad for a group who put out their first record back in the 80s. Listen at youtube

Michael Winograd – Kosher Style
Unsurpassed for his sizzling clarinet chops, Winograd is also a very colorful composer. With sabretoothed chromatics and slashing minor keys, these new klezmer tunes run the gamut from blisteringly fun to mournful to sardonic, and the band is killer. Listen at Bandcamp

Raphael Severe with the Trio Messiaen – Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time
Here’s another world-class clarinetist and ensemble playing an especially dynamic, inescapably vivid take on one of the most iconic, haunting pieces of classical music ever written (much of it composed in a Nazi prison camp). Riveting as it is, it raises questions as to how fair it is for this blog to rank it alongside the rest of the artists here. Listen at Spotify

Layale Chaker – Inner Rhyme
The brilliant violinist writes vivid, intense, often hauntingly beautiful compositions built around the rhythmic sophistication of classical Arabic poetry, equal parts Lebanese, Egyptian and western classical music, with occasional detours toward jazz or film score atmospherics. Listen at her music page

Los Wembler’s de Iquitos – Vision Del Ayahuasca
With almost all of their original members, this iconic psychedelic cumbia jamband from the heart of the Peruvian Amazon are as wildly trippy and original as they were fifty years ago. Along with Hearing Things‘ debut, this is the best party record of the year. Listen at Bandcamp

Miguel Zenon and the Spektral Quartet – Yo Soy la Tradicion
The formidable alto saxophonist teams up with one of the world’s edgiest string quartets for a mix of acerbic works with an unselfconsciously Bartokian intensity Listen at their music page

Rev. Screaming Fingers – Music for Driving and Film, vol iII (The Desert Years)
Dusky, loping southwestern gothic tableaux, twangy noir Americana, a little horror surf and ominous big-sky themes from these great guitar instrumentalists. Listen at their music page

Girls on Grass – Dirty Power
Like a female-fronted Dream Syndicate, guitar goddess Barbara Endes’ band rips through paisley underground psychedelia, spaghetti westen themes, snarling new wave and garage rock, with a defiant, politically fearless lyricism Listen at Bandcamp

Russ Tolman – Goodbye El Dorado
Jangly, vividly lyrical western noir rock: disappeances, shattered Hollywood dreams, dead-end kids who don’t have a prayer, and roadtrip anomie from the leader of 80s legends True West. Listen at youtube

Julia Haltigan – Trouble
Turns out that the torchy mistress of Manhattan noir is just as fluent with new wave and vintage CB’s-style powerpop, throughout these tales of nocturnal prowling in the East Village before it was yuppified and whitewashed. Listen at Bandcamp

The Felice Bros. – Undress
This could have been the great lyrical, populist record that Springsgteen made in between Born to Run and Darkness: surreal political broadsides, down-and-out characters and death lingering over everything. Listen at Bandcamp

Jay Vilnai – Thorns All Over
Poet Rachel Abramowitz supplies the lyrics for this haunting, mysterious collection of new murder ballads, over the guitarist/bandleader’s cold starscapes, Lynchian dirges and a relentless, lingering guitar menace. Listen at Bandcamp

Karine Poghosyan – Rachmaninoff & Stravinsky
Nobody plays the Russian Romantics with as much insighful flair as this irrepressible virtuoso. As with Raphael Severe above, it is fair to rate this ravishingly intuitive, picturesque performance of achingly beautiful Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableaux and punishingly difficult Stravinsky piano transcriptions against the current-day artists here? Listen at Spotify

Dina Maccabee – The Sharpening Machine
Epically eclectic, trippy art-rock, chamber pop, pastoral themes and occasional coy new wave from this shapeshifting violinist and songwriter. Listen at Soundcloud

The Sirius Quartet – New World
This adventurous, microtonally-inclined string quartet’s collection of original compositions is a fierce concept album in defiance of the current fascist climate in the US. Listen at Spotify

Yale Strom’s Broken Consort – Shimmering Lights
The un-cheesiest Hanukah instrumental record ever made, the violinist-bandleader’s new arrangements blazing with ferocious solos and bracing Middle Eastern modes. Listen at rockpaperscissors

Eleni Mandell – Wake Up Again
The iconic dark Americana and torch singer’s most hauntingly political album is a series of narratives set behind bars, inspired by her experiences teaching songwriting in the prison-industrial complex. Listen at Bandcamp

Charming Disaster – Spells & Rituals
The constantly shapeshifting murder ballad and dark rock superduo dive further into latin noir, 60s Britrock and even garagey psychedelic sounds, all with their colorfully dark lyricism. Listen at Bandcamp

Noctorum – The Afterlife
Lush, characteristically lyrical, jangly art-rock from iconic twelve-string guitarist Marty Willson-Piper – late of Australian psychedelic legends the Church – with a similarly allstar backing band. Listen at Bandcamp

Laura Carbone – Empty Sea
Bleak, Lynchian panoramas, highway-of-death narratives and some guitarishly snarling gutter blues from one of this era’s great noir singers. Listen at Bandcamp

Unnatural Ways – The Paranoia Party
A grimly surreal, volcanically noisy, rhytmically disorienting concept about contact with aliens from guitarist Ava Mendoza’s searing doom/art-rock power trio. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Maureen Choi Quartet – Theia
Epically twisting, high-voltage, flamenco and Romany-inspired string band music from the violinist and her equally eclectic ensemble Listen at Bandcamp

Budos Band – V
The imaginative Afrobeat and Ethiopiques instrumentalists’ most doom metal-inspired album yet. Listen at Bandcamp

JD Allen – Barracoon
A big comeback of sorts for this era’s most potent tenor saxophonist, scorching his way through a Zora Neale Hurston-inspired mix of ominously modal, tersely evocative protest jazz tunes with a new trio. Listen at youtube

Nancy Braithwaite – To Paradise For Onions: Songs and Chamber Works of Edith Hemenway
The classical clarinetist and her dynamic, nuanced chamber ensemble explore stunningly imagistic, darkly clever, tersely crafted pieces by a now Rhode Island-based, nonagenarian composer whose work has never been released on album before. A major rediscovery. Listen at Spotify

Fabian Almazan – This Land Abounds with Life
A glittering, epically cascading eco-disaster themed concept album from one of this era’s most tunefully virtuosic jazz pianists and his dynamic rhythm section Listen at Bandcamp

Doomstress – Sleep Among the Dead
Pervasive gloom, minor keys, purposeful guitar and unusual elegance from frontwoman Alexis Hollada on the Texas doom metal band’s debut album. Listen at Bandcamp

Bobtown – Chasing the Sun
Bewitching three-part harmonies from Katherine Etzel, Karen Dahlstrom and Jen McDearman and folk noir songwriting that’s just a hair less relentlessly dark than the material that put them on the map. Listen at Bandcamp

Petros Klampanis – Irrationalities
Slinky, brooding, Middle Eastern and Greek-inflected ballads and more kinetic, pulsing material from the eclecic bassist and his excellent trio. Listen at Spotify 

The Well – Death & Consolation
Grim, Sabbathy dirges, paint-peeling Stooges sonics and ornately macabre heavy psychedelia from this Texas band. Listen at Bandcamp

Jason Yeager – New Songs of Resistance
A short parade of first-class pan-latin singers deliver the pianist’s protest jazz reinventions of classic nueva cancion from across the Americas in the 70s, alongside some chillingly lyrical, politically-fueled instrumentals. Listen at Bandcamp

Amy Allison – Pop Tunes & the Setting Sun
A characteristically bittersweet, brilliantly crystallized, lyrical collection of rarities and outtakes by the inimitable Americana singer. Listen at youtube

Soundwalk Collective with Patti Smith – Mummer Love
Rousingly hypnotic North African grooves and immersive atmospherics behind acerbic, often savage poetry by Patti Smith and one of her big influences, Arthur Rimbaud. Listen at Bandcamp

Andplay – Playlist
The meticulously focused, tightly intertwining, colorful violin/viola duo negotiate the dynamic twists and turns of pieces by David Bird, Ashkan Behzadi and Clara Iannotta on their debut ep. Listen at Bandcamp

The Shootouts – Quick Draw
Spot-on, classic 1965-style honkytonk, hard country, Bakersfield twang and a little rockabilly from this slyly aphoristic Akron, Ohio band. Listen at Soundcloud 

The Ragas Live Retrospective
Members of the paradigm-shifting Brooklyn Raga Massive, who put all kinds of radical new spins on classic Indian raga themes, captured live in the studio over more than sixteen hours worth of music. Most of it is sublime; nobody at this blog has listened to the entire record yet. You can start at Bandcamp

Sarah Pagé – Dose Curves
Hypotically shimmery electroacoustic psychedelia and an Indian raga performed on the concert harp. Unselfconsciously magical,  cutting-edge stuff. Listen at Bandcamp 

Zosha Di Castri – Tachitipo
Vocal ensemble Ekmeles, the Jack Quartet, pianist Julia Den Boer, percussion ensemble Yarn/Wire  and a chamber orchestra join the thoughtfully eclectic pianist/composer in a diverse mix of acerbic, socially relevant compositions and art-songs. Listen at Bandcamp

Funkrust Brass Band – Bones & Burning
Sizzling Balkan chromatics, undulating New Orleans grooves and a pretty relentless sense of doom on the theatrical, sprawling brass band’s latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

Castle Black – Dead in a Dream
The ferocious female-fronted power trio look back to the most darkly ambitious of the first wave punk bands with their surreal, often haunting latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Manimals – Multiverse
Crunchy, catchy powerpop and a darkly pervasive Bowie influence on the new album from New York’s’ most entertainingly theatrical band. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 compilation
Digitized and somewhat sonically tweaked field recordings of icons like Howlin’ Wolf and cult figures like Magic Sam, shredding and wailing in their element onstage, captured by a college kid with a cheap tape recorder. Listen at Bandcamp

Beat Circus – These Wicked Things
One of the first and best of the carnivalesque rock bands of the 90s, back and revitalized with a lavish, darkly picturesque southwestern gothic concept album. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Sometime Boys – The Perfect Home
A characteristically enigmatic mix of distantly Americana-influenced, slinky originals and imaginatively reinvented covers from New York’s most charismatic, kinetically psychedelic band. Listen at Bandcamp

Locobeach – Psychedelic Disco Cumbia
Truth in advertising: trippy chicha, serpentine highway themes and some woozy dub from this tropical supergroup led by members of Los Crema Paraiso and Chicha Libre. Listen at Bandcamp 

Ran Blake & Jeanne Lee – The Newest Sound You Never Heard
Recorded live and in the studio for Belgian radio in 1966 and 1967, these radical reinventions and a handful of originals by the iconic noir pianist and the shatteringly subtle jazz singer rival the brilliance of their iconic 1961 debut. Not streaming anywhere but available on vinyl.

Lush, Low-Register Rainy-Day Sonics from One-Woman Orchestra Maya Beiser

What does the famous Adagio from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata sound like on a cello? Lush, and trippy, and as gothic as gothic gets. That’s how cellist Maya Beiser plays it, overdubbing herself into a broodingly lustrous one-woman string orchestra, with some magical overtones trailing toward the end. And that’s not even the most memorable track on her allusively apocalyptic latest album delugEON, streaming at Spotify.

Beiser’s choice of material is as diversely interesting as usual, with more of a loopmusic influence than ever. The light electronic touches are unobtrusive, mostly limited to sustain effects and subtle rhythmic loops. The album’s centerpiece is Slow Seasons, a stunningly saturnine, somewhat abridged reinvention of the iconic Vivaldi suite, completely transformed by transpositions to the lower registers and tempos at halfspeed or less. She opens with the slow, expressive Autumn, followed by the shivery, rather chilly Summer. By contrast, Spring can’t seem to extricate itself from winter’s icy grip. Winter itself, a delicate canon pulsing along with echoey pizzicato, seems balmy by comparison.

Lkewise, Water is a stripped-down, moodily atmospheric take on a glacially paced, famously apocalyptic Messiaen theme, Beiser’s overdubs imbued with such a cantabile quality that it’s practically a chorale. Then she raises the energy somewhat with a windswept, tectonically shifting take of Monteverdi’s Ah Dolente Partita

Beiser’s Stabat Mater has a dirgey, minimalist rusticity consistent with its medieval origins. The album ends with its most epic yet minimalistically baroque track, Purcell’s When I Am Laid in Earth, its aching rises and falls grounded in Beiser’s most somber textures here. Rainy-day music at the end of the decade doesn’t get much better than this.

Grim, Haunting Lyricism and Strange Synchronicity from Soundwalk Collective with Patti Smith

One of this year’s most strangely riveting albums is Mummer Love, by Soundwalk Collective with Patti Smith, streaming at Bandcamp. What’s strangest is that its juxtapositions of what would ordinarily seem to be jarringly dissimilar styles of music – sufi chants, minimalist piano music and vintage motorik disco – actually work well together in this context, especially as far as creating hypnotic atmosphere is concerned. And the texts – by Arthur Rimbaud and Smith, who contributes the title track – are shatteringly, relentlessly elegaic.

To open the album, Mulatu Astatke sings Aw Abadir, hushed, low and a-cappella. Philip Glass plays spacious, lightly processed, deep-space piano chords and accents on La Maison de Rimbaud, a mashup of two completely separate tracks, with the steadily fervent Sufi Group of Sheikh Ibrahim encroaching further into the sonic picture. As the piano drifts further and further into minimalism, found sounds – birdsong, street noise, a microvave oven maybe? – coyly flit through the tableau.

The sufis’ gnawa-like call-and-response and Smith’s brightly anticipatory voice get cut and pasted over Glass’ low-key, circling electric piano loop in Eternity, a propulsive motorik groove. Song of the Highest Tower is much the same, but with what appear to be sampled animalian snorts and more enigmatic poetry from Smith: “Just say let go, disappear, without hope of greater joy.”

The title track, a ten-minute rainscape, is Smith at her shattering, existentialist best. “I long to hear that which I have made and then outlive it.” she declares. “I will board a ship with you, a ship to Abyssinia, to descend into the abyss, black hole of universal love.” It gets even better later:

…A visible ink peeling at the edge of my cheek
I danced at the edge of ignorance
I wept impossble dreams
I have melted nothing
I have stood in the warped curve of a life
That should have taken me away
But left me with humankind that I have never been
Everything here is a small offense
Is an attempt to peel another putrid skin
I’ll be ok
Go away

In Farewell, a steady, quasi trip-hop groove slowly emerges as Smith intones Rimbaud’s harrowing self-penned obituary:

I tried to invent new flowers, new stars, new flesh, new tongues
I thought I wa acquiring supernatural powers
Well
I must bury my imagination and my memories
An artist storyteller’s precious fame flung away
I called myself Angel
Or Seer
Exempt from all morality
I am returned to the soil with a duty to seek
And a rough reality to embrace
Peasant
Peasant
Am I mistaken?
Will charity be the sister of death for me?
At last I shall ask forgiveness

For having fed on lies
Now
Let’s go

Glass plays his signature, glistening arpeggios in tandem with the call-and-response chants of Bad Blood. The album comes full circle with Sensation, a summertime tableau, Glass and Astatke’s contrasting keyboard textures mingling above a steady shuffling acoustic beat. Fans of every style on this record – North African music, serious concert music and ferocious lyricism – will not be disappointed. Look for this on the best albums of 2019 list here at the end of the year.

Sarah Pagé Plays Hypnotically Catchy, Shimmery Psychedelia on the Concert Harp

From the droning oscillations of the title track of Sarah Pagé’s new album Dose Curves, growing increasingly metallic, shedding overtones like a circular saw cutting sheet metal, it’s hard to imagine how she could create such a vortex with a harp. Electronics are obviously a big part of the picture; still, this collection of instrumental nocturnes – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most imaginative psychedelic records in recent memory.

From the opening drone, Pagé segues into the hypnotically loopy, austerely folky Stasis:, reverb way up in the mix, her spacious plucking sometimes resembling a steel guitar, sometimes an Indian veena.

Simple, organ-like pitch-shifting harmonies permeate Lithium Taper, all the way through to a teenage wasteland of the harp (old people who listen to “classic rock” radio will get that joke). Rippling without a pause into Ephemeris, she loops a galloping phrase and builds constellations of bright, tersely attractive riffage around it. Ever wonder if a harp could echo like a Fender Rhodes piano? Here’s your answer.

The album closes with Pagé’s most epic cut, Pleaides, a softly pulsing deep-space raga, akin to a sitar drifting gently further and further from earth to the point where the vastness becomes terrifying. This isn’t just great atmospheric music: it’s great Indian music. What a strange and beautiful record.