New York Music Daily

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Category: electronic music

Rafiq Bhatia Brings His Surreal Soundscapes to a Summer Series in Midtown

It’s hard to think of a guitarist who personifies the state of the art in ambient jazz more individualistically or interestingly than Rafiq Bhatia. He’s just as much at home reinventing Mary Lou Williams tunes with his longtime collaborator Chris Pattishall as he is creating an immersive electronic swirl. Bhatia’s next gig is outdoors at Bryant Park at 7 PM on August 19.

Bhatia had the good fortune to release his most recent album, Standards Vol. 1 – streaming at Bandcamp – in January of 2020. It’s a characteristically outside-the-box series of interpretations of iconic jazz tunes. He opens it by transforming In A Sentimental Mood into a disquieting series of sheets of sound, running Riley Mulherkar’s trumpet and Stephen Riley’s tenor sax through several patches including an icy choir effect.

Cécile McLorin Salvant sings The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face with alternatingly coy charm and outright menace, enhanced electronically by Bhatia’s minimalist textural washes. The only track that Bhatia plays guitar on here is Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman, which he reinvents as an utterly desolate, surrealistically looped, raga-tinged nightscape, Craig Weinrib a fugitive on the run with his palms on the drum heads. The two horns take it out with a dusky wee-hours conversation.

The album’s final number is The Single Petal of a Rose, Pattishall’s spare, raindrop piano licks subtly processed (and maybe cut and pasted) to flit into and out of the sonic picture. It’s a prime example of how Bhatia builds a space to get lost in.

Allusive, Intriguingly Lyrical Songs and a Long Island City Gig From Singer Sofia Rei

Singer Sofia Rei has carved out an individualistic niche somewhere between the folk music and nueva cancion of her native Argentina, jazz, and the techier side of the avant garde. She has a thing for pastiches, loops and surrealism, although there’s often a very serious undercurrent beneath the lively vocal acrobatics. Her latest album, Umbral – streaming at her music page – hit the web just before the fleeting few weeks of freedom here in New York in June of last year. She sings in Spanish with her usual blend of disarming directness and constant dynamic shifts.

The opening number, Un Mismo Cielo is loopmusic as Bjork might have done it in Spanish, with Martin Vejarano’s gaita flute throwing off rustic overtones before Leo Genovese’s swirly psychedelic synth and steady, spare piano enter the mix behind the cheery, enticing vocals. It’s a “when will I see you again” scenario – symbolism much?

The loops grow swirlier and more hypnotic as the second track, La Otra coalesces, then Rei shifts into a trickier, more emphatic rhythm with her charango. It’s quite a contrast with the creepy, mythologically symbolist lyrics.

Escarabajo Digital (Digital Beetle) is a blippy, soaring, metaphorically loaded mashup of 80s electropop and Argentine plains folk:

Herencia de otros tiempos
Difícil cambiar la ecuación
La sílaba equivocada del poema
[Inheritance from another time
Hard to change the equation
Wrong stanza of the poem]

The backdrop is much the same in Helvetica 12, a playful, stream-of-consciousness salute to the fine points of language. Rei’s charango mingles with JC Maillard’s spare ukulele in La Caida (The Fall), her anguished, elegaic vocals again contrasting with an alternately atmospheric and blithely rhythmic background.

La Quinta Pata (Fifth Leg) is a snide dis, Rei’s collage of multitracks flitting over Jorge Roeder’s dancing bass and Tupac Mantilla’s bounding but restrained drums. As upbeat as the album is, the final cut, Negro Sobre Blanco (Black on White) is downright chilling, with its spare, stark layers of charango, guitars and cuatro from guest Jorge Glem. Is this a portrait of a lockdown suicide, or a death from the lethal Covid shot?

Comenzó en la mañana de hoy
Sin saber
Percibió que el aire le era hostil
Algo rondaba su corazón
Algo decía que iba a explotar por dentro
[It started this morning
Not knowing
He felt the hostile air around him
Something haunted his heart
Something said it was going to explode inside him]

Sofia Rei’s next gig is outdoors at 7 PM on August 16 at Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City. Take the to 7 to Vernon-Jackson or the G to 21st/Van Alst and walk to the river.

Chilly Suspense and Subtle Humor in Tori Letzler’s In From the Cold Soundtrack

In her soundtrack to the sci-fi Russian spy series In From the Cold – streaming at SpotifyTori Letzler packs a lot into some very brief passages: the action is nonstop. What’s coolest about this is that she sidesteps the usual tropes: no late-night subway sonics, massed cellos, bongos announcing an intruder on the doorstep. or Terminator coldly surveying the aftermath. Instead, Letzler runs with motorik sequences alternating with chilly, drifting atmospherics. toxic industrial textures and simple, brooding piano riffs. Aircraft are also involved, or so it would seem.

Pussy Riot sing the opening credits theme, like a techier version of the Bad Brains with a woman out front. Letzler’s score begins with an airy, drifting hint of a Carpathian-tinged lullaby, followed by a brief, brisk, apprehensive motorway theme as Abba might have done it. This ride leaves the road fast.

A sparse, moody piano interlude disappears into electronic crackles. The loopy motorik piece after that has some of the lowest tones you’ll ever hear blipping from a sequencer. A love theme rises to the level of sarcastic new wave loopiness, but no further. Backward-masked footfalls in a pursuit scene are a similarly wry, deft touch. The way Letzler finally brings the mountain lullaby theme back around is even more artful. This is good driving music: it’ll definitely keep you awake behind the wheel.

Eclectic Digital Sounds Trace the Development of an Analog World

Multi-instrumentalist Uèle Lamore‘s new instrumental album Loom – streaming at Spotify – traces the evolution of life on earth. The music is more airy and playful than you would probably expect from such an ambitious theme. Lamore blends elements of psychedelia, downtempo, chillwave, ambient and film music in a series of succinct, relatively brief tracks with occasional vocals.

A loon, or the electronic equivalent, calls out in the darkness, then a swaying, echoing, slickly 80s-style trip-hop theme develops to open the record. Lamore takes a flippant little piano phrase, flips it upside down and then runs the riff and variations through a series of patches for the second track, The Dark.

The Creation begins with gamelan-like chimes, then a flute patch moves to the forefront over puffy, rhythmic synth.

The First Tree is a sweeping, vaguely mysterious hip-hop tune.The next track, Breathe is not a Pink Floyd cover but a motorik-flavored theme that reminds of a big hit by Prince.

Currents has a wry vocoder track over the swirl, while Gene Pool is a return to fun things that can be done with a simple piano riff and textural variations.

Lamore follows Pollen, an atmospheric neosoul tune, with Predation, a muted whoomp-whoomp dancefloor jam. By the time we reach Dominance, are we in the dinosaur era yet? This loopy, cinematic segment is much more futuristic. Lamore winds up the album with Warm Blood, her vocals adrift in an echoey sheen.

Magically Diverse Solo Harp Improvisations From Jacqueline Kerrod

Jacqueline Kerrod was Robert Paterson’s not-so-secret weapon on his lusciously noir album Star Crossing, and also his contrastingly sparkling Book of Goddesses. But she’s probably better known for her time as the New York City Opera’s principal harpist…and for playing with a rapper who, if his improbable Presidential run had vaulted him into the Oval Office, would be a more lucid presence than what we have at the present moment.

Yet Kerrod’s arguably most foundational collaboration was with Anthony Braxton. Inspired by touring as a duo with the Tri-Centric icon, she made the best of 2020 lockdown time and recorded an often mesmerizing album of solo improvisations, 17 Days in December. streaming at Bandcamp. It’s unlike any other harp record you will ever hear. Jazz harpists are an individualistic bunch to begin with: Zeena Parkins, with her blend of acerbity and atmosphere; Alice Coltrane and her melodic rapture; Dorothy Ashby, who shifted the paradigm by employing everything but harp voicings, and to an extent, Brandee Younger following in her wake. Kerrod is a welcome member of that rare, celestial body.

The chilling, menacing opening tableau, titled Trill to Begin, no doubt reflects the dire circumstances under which Kerrod made it, almost exactly a year ago. It’s a series of eerie modal phrases against a tremolo-picked pedal note, punctuated by low funereal bell accents and otherworldly close harmonies. What a way to kick off the project!

The squiggly web she builds on her electric harp on the second track is 180 degrees from that. She returns to ominous portents, but more spaciously, in a short piece she calls Gentle Jangle. Jazz guitar-like voicings give way to disquietly circling phrases and icy deep-sky sparkle in An Impression, then Kerrod breaks out her electric harp again for the woozily skronky Sugar Up.

Likewise, Glare is a sunbaked, resonant piece that could be mistaken for an ebow guitar soundscape. After that, she assembles an echoey lattice that brings to mind Robert Fripp’s early 80s work. Kerrod employs a glass bowl to enhance the shimmering, steel pan-like microtones in Glassy Fingers. then takes it toward vortical Pink Floyd gloom.

Next, she coalesces toward a warped music-box theme, following with Fluttering Alberti, where she works a hypnotic/spiky dichotomy. Can-Can is not a latin number but a return to steady, sinister mode. In the album’s longest improvisation, Kerrod sprinkles spare incisions over a gritty low drone which she plays with a bow.

The album’s concluding tracks range from playful electronics, to a ghostly National Steel guitar-like miniature, a gently insistent, Debussy-esque interlude and a cheerily ornamented electric harp finale.

Ambient Sonic Comfort From Austin Rockman

The last time electronic composer Austin Rockman was featured on this page, it was for a couple of chilly, disquieting down-the-drainpipe tableaux. This time out he’s totally flipped the script with his latest album Our Own Unknown, streaming at Bandcamp.

It’s a warm, bright, enveloping series of soundscapes. Allusive implied melody is one of Rockman’s most persistent and effective devices: he leaves you humming something that he only hinted at. A lot of the pieces here start out spare and echoey and grow more lush or increasingly textured. Sparse guitar-like accents typically develop more resonantly as Rockman brings the lights up.

There are a couple of moments where he falls back on tropes like simulated tape wow effects, or in one place, a spastically arrythmic loop, but he takes the listener back to the womb from there. Contrasts are on the gentle side, and striking when they’re not, as in the interludes where he runs crackles akin to a film projector against shifting sheets of simple, single-note melody. But most of this is a soothing musical hug with enough going on where it won’t send you off to dreamland. And who couldn’t use a hug right about now?

Brooding, Cinematic, Synthesized Dancefloor Jams From Reza Safinia

Keyboardist and composer Reza Safinia likes diptychs and triptychs. Kraftwerk and the rest of the icy, mechanical, electronically-fixated bands of the 70s are a big influence. The techier side of Arabic habibi pop and suspense film music also factor into his hypnotically propulsive instrumentals. He likes long jams that go on for nine or ten minutes at a clip. There’s a pervasive darkness in his work, but it’s closer to a flashing digital billboard approximation of evil than the genuine, ugly item. His latest album Yang is streaming at Bandcamp. If you need dance music for your Halloween party this year, this will do just fine.

He opens it with Yantra, a habibi pop Exorcist Theme of sorts, a choir patch from the synth rising behind the chimes and flutters. Watercolor is an insistently rippling piano theme teleported into quasi-diabolical Alan Parsons Project hyper-gamma space.

Shiva is also a throwback, closer to Tangerine Dream’s mechanically pulsing, hypnotic mid/late 70s themes, then morphs into a moody, motorik theme closer to the title’s Indian destroyer spirit. Eddy begins as such a close relative to an iconic/monotonous green-eyed New Order hit from the early 80s that it’s funny, but then Safinia does a 180 and brings down the lights.

Loopy, warpy, increasingly warm and playful sequencer riffs intertwine in the next track, Dream.

Vitruvian is closer to 21st century EDM here, a picturesque bullet train passing through a padlocked nighttime industrial wasteland of the mind. And when you least expect, Safinia transforms it into an angry anthem.

Prana is even techier and, ironically, more breathless. Shushumma doesn’t get interesting until the playful clockwork counterpoint midway through. Wary, surrealistically echoing phrases filter through the mix in Helix: this transhuman DNA is twisted! Then all of a sudden it’s a whistling, windy nocturne, and then an increasingly droll, squirrelly theme.

Funkbible is the lone dud here: that phony cassette wow effect is annoying. Safinia brings the album full circle, more or less, with the trip-hop Tantra.

Smart, Broodingly Evocative Spoken Word and Electronics From Blue Lick

Today’s Halloween installment – streaming at Bandcamp – is Hold On, Hold Fast, Chicago duo Blue Lick‘s disquieting album of spoken word and electronics. There’s nothing traditionally Halloweenish about this, although frontwoman Havadine Stone’s worldview is relentlessly unflinching. Ben Baker Billington gives her provocative, poetic imagery a typically chilly, squiggly synth backdrop.

The album is best appreciated as a contiguous whole: the individual segments vary from very brief to around the three minute range. “If I’m not brave enough to drop it I’ll turn it upside down,” Stone muses in the first track

“If something is flat and wide open, you can’t hide in it, can you?” Stone asks at one point during the second. She’s talking about the Midwest, but there’s obvious subtext. Not a pivotal moment, but it’s characteristic of how Stone works

“Every human you see was pushed and pulled out of a wet dark place, of course there is no question we grope, eyes shut in the dark…I am my own endless void, I am my own iron weight, I am my own tapeworm.”

But hardly everything here is grim and cynical. Stone’s sardonically detailed portrait of relationship angst in the fourth track is irresistibly funny. She revisits that theme, in a more allusively sinister way, in track seven. Then later there’s “An otherwise shadow-boxed conversation. There’s that pull again. Do you drop the rope, hang the line on the branch and walk away whistling a tune, thinking, “Dang, sure glad I got outta that one…”

One of the album’s more playfully loopy synth-scapes gives Stone a canvas for a reflection on autosuggestive self-empowerment…for starters, anyway. And the narrative about the kids on the beach in the tenth segment can’t conceal a dark undercurrent. Snarkiest line here: “She’s a dead ringer from the back, isn’t she.” As strong a lyricist as Stone is, what we really need from her is a book – or a Substack feed.

Pensive, Meditative Sounds From Chrystal Für

Chrystal Für‘s album Elusion – streaming at Bandcamp – seemed for a second to be a good candidate for the daily Octoberlong Halloween celebration here since the first cut is a requiem. As it turns out, there’s absolutely nothing Halloweenish or even particularly dark about most of the record’s expansive, minimalist themes. But it is a good backdrop for meditation.

The opening requiem is gently pulsing spacerock without the drums. It could be Noveller in a particularly minimalist moment. The segue into I’m Losing You introduces a moody, spare, steadily loopy piano theme.

Spark Over the Horizon is aptly titled, a theme for a perilous new day dawning. Minimalist volume-knob guitar phrases filter through the sonic picture in Memory and There Is No Second Chance, then shift to piano in Memory of a Fading Home, finally falling away in fragments.

Deep-space unease permeates the album’s most epic soundscape, I Rise at Dawn, up to an unexpected conclusion. Pass the Torch is the one interlude that follows a familiar rock chord progression. That’s where the album ought to end; it goes on for another track..

A Shimmering, Potently Relevant New Album From Fearless Composer Susie Ibarra

Percussionist and composer Susie Ibarra‘s rapturous, starkly orchestrated new album Walking on Water touches on the two most deadly ecological crises of our time: the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and global warming. Inspired by a breathtaking series of paintings by Mako Fujimura dedicated to the victims of the March 11, 2011 tsunami and subsequent nuclear explosions, Ibarra also addresses a familiar theme in her work, the perils of climate change. With the Japanese government threatening to dump millions of gallons of lethal radioactive water from the still-unstable Fukushima site into the Pacific, Ibarra could not have picked a more appropriate time to release this record of what she terms as “spirituals” at Bandcamp.

Ibarra’s DreamTime Ensemble here includes Jennifer Choi on violin, Yves Dharambaj on cello, Claudia Acuna on vocals, Jake Landau on guitar and keys, with Yuka C. Honda adding electronic elements. The music is much more dynamic than you would expect from such troubling central themes and includes many field recordings of water, from melting ice in the Himalayas to water tanks in Washington State.

The first track is Elegy in Azurite, a shimmery, circling theme, part terse, lush classical atmosphere aloft with Acuna’s vocalese, and part pointillistic Filipino kulintang music. Landau’s spiky acoustic guitar pierces the mist in the bouncy Light East of Sendai. His organ falls away, leaving Ibarra’s cymbals and gongs to mingle with melting ice sonics in Waterfalling.

Assertive, flamenco-tinged guitar chords anchor resonant, shivering phrases from violin and cello over Ibarra’s rustles in Coastal Birds The next track is High Wave, a mashup of found sounds of water amid nebulous acoustic and electronic ambience. Acuna sails soulfully above a syncopated organ groove and Ibarra’s slinky drums in the aptly titled Natural Lightness.

Night Rain sounds like exactly that, a field recording with birds chattering away as they take cover. Violin and cello rise warily over Landau’s lush arpeggios in Divine Forgiveness, followed by a fluttery tone poem, Celestial Migration. Floating Azurite makes a good segue, somber atmosphere contrasting with the mandolin-like delicacy of Landau’s guitars.

The bossa-tinged swing of New York With Grace comes as a real surprise, Landau’s spiny textures and the strings adding a surreal, disquieted edge. The album’s big epic is aptly titled Listening at Himalayan Waterfalls, a found-sound pastiche which Ibarra captured with underwater microphones. The group close with Floating Along Banares, a summery field recording of a boat trip mashed up with distantly Indian-flavored melodies. The implication seems to be that this kind of natural camaraderie is just the tip of the iceberg (pun intended) of what we stand to lose if we don’t stop burning things to power the world. The apocalypse never sounded so dreamy. Count this as one of the best and most captivating albums of 2021.