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Tag: ambient music

A New Vinyl Box Set For Lovers of 70s Psychedelia, Mystical Indian and Middle Eastern Sounds

It may seem strange that an Indian-influenced German jamband would name themselves after a Mayan creation myth. But Popol Vuh’s influences, and the scope of their music, were vast. Bandleader and keyboardist Florian Fricke came out of the minimalist side of the German avant garde, but by the time the band were through, they’d taken successful plunges into ornate, High Romantic orchestral rock, psychedelia, ambient music and movie scores. Much of it is unselfconsciously beautiful.

Werner Herzog asserts that without Popul Vuh’s soundtracks, several of his best films never would have existed: endorsements don’t get better than that. This year saw the reissue of four of the band’s best-loved albums – 1973’s Seligpreisung, 1979’s Coeur de Verre, 1983’s Agape-Agape Love-Love and the 1987 score to Herzog’s film Cobra Verde – as a lavish vinyl box set complete with original artwork, posters and expanded liner notes. Considering that Popul Vuh’s albums were European imports, expensive to begin with and now command daunting prices on the collector market, this is a goldmine for 70s art-rock fans. Each of the records is streaming at Spotify (click the links in the titles below).

There’s a verdant Moody Blues Romanticism to much of Seligpreisung, fueled by Robert Eliscu’s soaring, expressive oboe over Fricke’s bright but often hypnotic, mantra-like piano and synth work. With the addition of guitarists Conny Veit and Amon Düül II’s Daniel Fichelscher, this was the group’s first real rock record, veering suddenly from moody Pink Floyd interludes to the careening Grateful Dead-influenced jams that would pervade much of the rest of their rock material. Selig sind die, die da hungem (Blessed Are Those Who Are Hungry), with a long, bluesy, Gilmouresque guitar solo from Fichelscher, perfectly encapsulates all that. As with all these records, there’s a bonus track, in this case the rare single Be in Love, a sunny chamber pop ballad.

Fricke and Fichelscher switch out the second guitar for Al Gromer’s sitar, adding both lush texture and curlicuing mystery to the Coeur de Verre soundtrack, incorporating more of the incantatory instrumental raga-rock sound of the band’s 1973 Hosianna Mantra album. Blatter aus dem Buch der Kuhnheit (Pages From the Book of Fearlessness) sounds like the Dead taking on a Scottish air with Indian tinges, while Der Ruf (The Call) comes across as a soaring, loopy three-man Dead jam. Rising from anxious minimalism to a crescendoing, clanging triumph, the big epic here is Engel de Gegenwart (Today’s Angel). There’s also a deliciously dark, chromatic interlude, Huter der Schwelle (Guardian of the Threshold). The bonus track is Earth View, a spare, sober 1977 Fricke solo piano piece.

Veit’s guitar returns on the harder-rocking Agape-Agape Love-Love, which foreshadows King Gizzard’s uneasy, chromatic Turkish trance-rock by almost forty years. Singer Renate Knaup’s crystalline, sepulchral vocalese sails over a similarly haunting Middle Eastern-inflected backdrop in the Rumi-inspired Behold, the Drover Summons. Circledance, the bonus track, fades up and eventually out like a second-set interlude by the Dead, who were arguably at their peak as a live band at the time Popul Vuh recorded this. Interestingly, the only piano-driven track is the starry closing nocturne Why Do I Sleep.

The Cobra Verde soundtrack is even more Indian-inflected and lushly symphonic, the Bavarian State Opera Chorus serving as kirtan choir in a theme and variations that hark back to Fricke’s beginnings. He reaches for the orchestra’s ominously drifting ambience in the marketplace scene with a couple of subsequent solo synthscapes. It’s a well-chosen way to bring the box set full circle.

Hauntingly Immersive, Dystopic Swirl From Resina and Avant Garde Choir 441Hz

Polish cellist and composer Karolina Rec a.k.a. Resina wrote her new album Speechless – streaming at Bandcamp – during the Women’s Strike protests there last year. Plans for the album were nearly derailed by lockdown insanity, but Rec and conductor Anna Wilczewska’s Gdańsk-based choir 441Hz worked fast during brief moments of freedom. The result is a whirling, dystopic, electroacoustic salute to nature before she gets sick of us and kicks us off the planet for good (if we don’t beat nature to the punch with lethal injections and mass sterilization).

Rec likes diptychs, ending in a sonic place completely different from where she begins. Her opening piece here is Mercury Immersion, a ghostly chorale amid a constantly shifting series of increasingly anguished, rising and falling waves. Drummer Mateusz Rychlicki takes the eerie grandeur to a boomy peak at the end.

There’s a sharp, singing quality to Rec’s cello in Horse Tail, her one-woman multitracked string section joined by the choir as they hypnotically pulse along at a quasi-gallop. The creepy electronic effect toward the end is too good to give away, and spot-on for the plandemic era.

Looping, cocooning phrases from the choir contrast with the starkness of the cello and what could be whalesong in Failed Myth Simulation, a diptych; the second half is a motorik theme. The dissociative soundscape Darwin’s Finches features birdsong field recordings by Michał Fojcik, which turn out to be more icily techy than bucolic.

Underneath the gritty textures and sepulchral washes of voices, Unveiling could be a circling Philip Glass etude. Slashes from the cello penetrate calm loopiness as track six, Manic gets underway, Rec building a somberly minimalist theme that she eventually takes in a grim industrial direction. After that, the brief tableau Hajstra makes a good segue.

Rec develops variations on a heroic marching theme in A Crooked God, again veering into industrial roar and clank. The album’s final cut is Recall, a surreal, staggered canon at quarterspeed which eventually collapses in an electronic ice storm. This is a sonic treat for those brave enough to confront it.

Drifting, Uneasy Atmospheric Vistas From Shida Shahabi

The central instrument in Shida Shahabi’s new score to Maria Eriksson-Hecht’s new short film Alvaret – streaming at Bandcamp – is Linnea Olsson’s cello. Minutely nuanced overtones flickering from her strings, it’s a well chosen vehicle for Shahabi’s slowly unfolding, minimalist vistas. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s work comes strongly to mind.

This latest ep is consistent with Shahabi’s penchant for short, concise albums. It’s best appreciated as a single, drifting whole. The composer adds subtle synth washes and bowed bass in places. You have to wait til the fourth segment for the adrenaline from her slow, ominous glissandos to kick in. There are children in this cornfield, and they do not seem friendly!

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?

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 New Album of Warm, Imaginatively Textured Sikh Spiritual Songs From Manika Kaur

For those who like the idea of Enya but find her music insubstantial and samey, singer Manika Kaur is your elixir. Her latest album Ek (“Oneness”) – streaming at Bandcamp – has everything that’s made her a favorite among fans of Sikh sacred music. It’s a mix of new and ancient kirtan themes and ambient music with occasional, playful hints of jazz.

The opening track has santoor, tabla, synth and Kaur’s airy, inviting, expressive voice. The second, spiced with melismatic violin and tanpura, is titled Magic Mantra – but it’s a lot more lively than that. After that, there’s a mix of harmonium, shennai oboe and glockenspiel, then acoustic guitar and veena: how’s all that for interesting textures?

Bansuri flute and strings? Check. Tender vocals contrasting with stark string orchestration? Doublecheck. Liberation theology? Check, check, check. There’s also a catchy folk-rock tune, a lingering, rustically rubato soundscape and a couple of quasi trip-hop anthems. Good stuff for unwinding and lighting up your chakras.

Satoko Fujii Finds Strange Magic in Ambient Music

Jazz pianist Satoko Fujii has always had an otherworldly side, but she’s really gone deep into some incredibly mystical sounds in the last few years. The title of her new album, Piano Music – streaming at Bandcamp – is funny because most of it doesn’t sound like piano music at all.

Although Fujii has recorded electroacoustic albums and has used effects and mixers live – laptop percussion pioneer Ikue Mori is a frequent collaborator – this is Fujii’s first venture into ambient music. And it’s a characteristically captivating new chapter in a wildly prolific, individualistic career that shows no sign of slowing down.

Fujii likes playing inside the piano, so on one hand she’s no stranger to evincing echoing, gently droning atmospherics via acoustic techniques like rubbing the strings or bowing them with wire and other materials. Here, she runs a kaleidoscopic series of phrases through a mixer instead.

Her autoharp-like strums and plucks under the lid make for a magically textured contrast with echoing, loopy drones and what could be whale song on the A-side, Shiroku (Japanese for “white”). When she lets the music recede to a series of spare, koto-like microtonal phrases, the effect is just as striking, especially considering where she takes it.

She begins the B-side, Fuwarito (“Softly”) as a soundscape, but hardly a quiet one – those whales are a lively bunch, and Fujii gets a snowstorm out of rubbing those strings. With a phantasmic bell choir, persistently echoey, rhythmic woodblock-like timbres, grinding industrial chords, ghostly pizzicato-like phrases and eventually quite a storm, it becomes her Revolution 9. This isn’t easy listening but it is psychedelic to the extreme, and the fun that Fujii obviously had making it is visceral. She’s gone on record as saying that her raison d’etre is to make music that the world has never heard before, and this definitely qualifies.

Murky, Dissociative Cinematics From the EFG Trio

Trumpeter Frank London has one of the most immense discographies of any New York musician. He’s on over five hundred records, which date back before his band the Klezmatics springboarded the carnivalesque sound that morphed into circus rock and Romany punk in the 90s. Some of London’s latest adventures have been especially adventurous: jazz poetry, Indian/klezmer mashups, and now a darkly cinematic trio album as part of the EFG Trio with guitarist Eyal Maoz and composer/keyboardist Guy Barash. Their new album Transluminal Rites is streaming at Bandcamp.

Often it’s impossible to figure out who’s doing what here – even the trumpet could be processed beyond the point of recognition, such is the grey disquiet of this morass. Many of the tracke here re brooding miniatures that suddenly rise with industrial abrasiveness, squirrel around, stroll briskly like a spy or offer moments of comic relief, One has a calmly circling, Indian-inspired trumpet melody that gets slowly decentered; its sequel is pure industrial noise

Spectralogy, one of the more epic numbers here, begins as an eerily warping guitarscape with traces of Maoz’s signature, incisively Middle Eastern-tinged sound, then Barash’s electric piano shifts to a much more noirish interlude before everything’s spun through a fuzzy patch. London’s circling, snorting lines rescue everyone from dystopia, more or less.

Winds of ill omen circle around London’s animated curlicues in Polysemia Deluxe, another largescale piece that leaps and bounds, out of focus, towards an abyss, London finally sounding an elephantine warning..

The big idystopic diptych here is titled Eau de Pataphysique: strange rumblings inside the drainpipe, short circuits and wheels going off the axle in the projection room. The concluding largescale piece, Sweet Thanatos is platform for some of London’s most plaintive, chromatically bristling resonance of recent years.

Dark and oppressive sounds for dark and oppressive times: those brave enough to plunge in, especially at the end, will be rewarded.

An Otherworldly, Drifting Diptych by Joe O’Connor, Theo Carbo and Tim Green

An eclogue is a pastoral poem. How bucolic is Eclogue, the new album by Joe O’Connor, Theo Carbo and Tim Green? It’s streaming at Bandcamp – you decide. The trio create a warmly drifting sunrise ambience with subtle textures and minimalist accents, plus the occasional creak or quaver as tectonic sheets of sound make their way slowly through the frame. Overtones and harmonics rule in this comfortably enveloping universe.

Without knowing the instrumentation, you might think that the slow oscillations and echoey blips could be electronic, but they’re actually from O’Connor’s prepared piano, Green’s brushed drumheads and Carbo’s guitar.

There are two tracks here. The first is about fourteen minutes and rises to watery rivulets over a steady calm, echoing a familiar Pink Floyd dynamic originally manufactured using a vintage analog chorus pedal. Rustles from the drums and a single somber, recurrent piano note hint that the forest or faraway galaxy here is about to awaken, and it seems more of a galaxy than a bright, green naturescape as it does.

Keening highs and squirrelly, muted percussive activity contrast as the twenty-minute second half gets underway. Playful figures that could be whale song, or beavers gnawing out the raw materials for a new home, appear amid the stillness. Gentle cymbal washes and that persistent low piano note add a second dichotomy, then the two reverse roles, Erik Satie at quarterspeed. A warped quasi-gamelan ensues, then it’s back to Satie territory to close on an absolutely otherworldly note.

A Triumphant Action Movie For the Ears by Laura Masotto

Violinist Laura Masotto transforms into a one-woman orchestra on her new suite WE, streaming at Bandcamp. Much of this bright, riff-driven theme and variaitons is an action movie for the ears. A lot of this could be called loopmusic, although Masotto fleshes out her anthemic, stadium-worthy hooks with lush but terse harmonies and melodic shifts that transcend the usual vamping, circling limitations of playing against a backing track.

The album’s overture, Atoms, is a shimmery, shivery, minimalist tune seemingly based on a very famous raga (or maybe the first song on side two of Sergeant Pepper). Refugees, with Roger Goula on atmospheric keys, rises to a brisk motorik pulse: this sequence triumphantly reaches the shore rather than capsizing in the Mediterranean.

Blue Marble is awash in big sweeping broken chords, followed by Ithaki,. a muted, suspenseful variation on the refugee theme with Hior Chronik on twinkly keys. After that, 2020 starts out ambient but the energy returns: this is quite an optimistic record.

The title theme turns out to be an understatedly joyous, pulsing love ballad without words. Masotto returns to lavish variations on the central, arpeggiated melody. There’s a long descent through swirly, calming ambience as the music grows loopier and more baroque on the way out.