New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: ambient music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

A Spare, Edgy, Incisive Jazz Poetry Album From Brilliant Violinist Sarah Bernstein

Sarah Bernstein has to be the most fearlessly protean violinist in any style of music. Just when you think you have her sussed, she completely flips the script. Beyond her brilliance as an improviser, she’s a master of eerie microtonal music. As a result, she’s constantly in demand, most recently this past weekend at Barbes as part of thereminist Pamelia Stickney’s hypnotically haunting quartet.

But Bernstein’s best music is her own. Her previous release, Propolis was a live benefit album for Planned Parenthood with an alternately stormy and squirrelly improvisational quartet including Alexis Marcelo on keys, Stuart Popejoy on bass and Nick Podgursky on drums. Her latest release, Crazy Lights Shining – streaming at Bandcamp – is with her Unearthish duo featuring percussionist Satoshi Takeishi, a return to the acerbic jazz poetry she was exploring a few years ago. Patti Smith’s adventures in ambient music are a good comparison; Jane LeCroy’s Ohmslice project with Bradford Reed on electronics is another. Bernstein’s playing the album release show on a great triplebill on May 30 at around 10 PM at Wonders of Nature; cover is $10. Similarly edgy, eclectic loopmusic violinist Laura Ortman opens solo at 8, followed by fearlessly relevant no wave-ish songwriter Emilie Lesbros.

“Come in to feel free, no fear,” Bernstein’s echoey, disemodied voice beckons as the album’s initial soundscape, For Plants gets underway. Takeishi’s playfully twinkling bells mingle with Bernstein’s shimmery ambience and resonant, emphatic vocalese.

Bernstein has never sung as storngly as she does here, particularly in the delicately dancing, sardonic Safe:

No one can find you
No one can eat you
You’re not alive
You are safe

Is that a balafon that Takeishi’s using for that rippling, plinking tone, or is that  Bernstein’s violin through a patch?

She subtly caches her microtones in the deceptively catchy, balletesque leaps and bound of Map or Meaningless Map:

…A calm enthusiasm should suffice
The fuzziness of an empty sleep
The rush to extrovert, sure thing!
Expressing can feel like living…

Bernstein’s uneasily echoey pizzicato blends with Takeishi’s rattles in the album’s title track, which could be the metaphorically-charged account of a suicide…or just an escape narrative. In the instrumental version of The Place, the two musicians build from a spare, slowly shifting mood piece to a slowly marching crescendo. A bit later in the vocal version, Bernstein sings rather than speaks: “There are war crimes and recipes and kisses remaining,” she muses.

The acerbically brief Drastic Times starts out as a snippy cut-and-paste piece:

Drastic times require tragic measures?
We live under a system (drastic)
…Like anyplace where thought control is under physical control
..Maybe that will change when the rest has exploded
Drastic time
Maybe that is something to look forward to!

Little Drops follows an allusively twisted narrative into chaos, in the same vein as Meaghan Burke’s most assaultive work. The album’s final cut is the kinetic Four Equals Two, its catchiest and seemingly most composed number, complete with a nifty little drum solo. Count this among the most intriguingly relevant albums of 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quirk and Charm in David Lee Myers’ Analog Electronic Soundscapes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Innovative, Intriguing New Guitar Sounds From Lucas Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ominously Enveloping Ambience in La Equidistancia

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

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

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

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

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

A Brooding, Resonant Subterranean Soundscape for Halloween Month

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

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

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

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

Bleak, Chilly, Distantly Menacing Urban Soundscapes From the Metro Riders

In somber recognition of Halloween month, today’s album – streaming at Bandcamp – is Europe By Night, by Stockholm soundscaper Henrik Stelzer a.k.a. the Metro Riders. The album title is apt: Stelzer’s world is relentlessly overcast and stops after black fades to grey. The production is opaque and sounds analog, an early 80s lo-fi atmosphere Stelzer builds with vintage or neo-vintage synth textures spun through walkmans and other oldschool devices.

Coldly anonymous tenements, smog-stained bridges and endless expanses of concrete come to mind in the opening track, Stockholm 2024. It’s an icily syncopated, hypnotically loopy mood piece, plastically acidic Roland Juno organ swirling around over what sounds like echoey conga samples. Things get darker from there.

Tension on the Train follows a similar pattern, but with a groove that’s  not quite trip-hop and muddy, loopy synths that edge toward symphonic grandeur, but can’t escape the overwhelming claustrophobia. In lieu of plague-bearing rodents, Rats evokes more of the previous track’s motorik, semi-insulated subway car milieu.

As high-pressure waves squiggle and bubble tightly through the mix, Trauma alludes to a very, very, very famous horror movie theme (hint: the girl’s head does a 360). A New Dawn follows swirly, steady variations of an almost painfully simple synth riff where Stelzer just moves the bass around, ending with an unexpected and welcome joke.

Bruno Mattei –  an echoing shout-out to the low-budget Italian film director – sounds like something pretty much any kid messing around with Ableton could come up with. The mood lifts temporarily with Suburban Youth, which could be a cheery trip-hop stroll if not for that latin-influenced percussion loop. Endgame brings the album full circle. Fans of artists like Deathprod and Cousin Silas as well as obscure late 70s/early 80s dustbunny four-track sounds like Young Marble Giants can’t go wrong with this.

A Mesmerizing, Lushly Enveloping, Rare Maryanne Amacher Work Rescued From the Archives

Last night at the Kitchen nonprofit music advocates Blank Forms staged the first performance of Maryanne Amacher’s Adjacencies since a Carnegie Hall concert in 1966. A mesmerized, sold-out audience was there to witness a major moment in New York music history, performed by Yarn/Wire percussionists Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg.

The music shifted slowly and tectonically, from sepulchral flickers, to vast washes of sound punctuated by playful rhythmic accents, occasionally rising to an epically enveloping intensity that bordered on sheer horror and then fell away. The premise of the suite – the only surviving graphic score from Adjoins, a series the composer wrote while still in her twenties – is to subtly shift the sonic focus via quadrophonic speakers, mixed live with a meticulous, artful subtlety by Daniel Neumann and Woody Sullender.

The influence of Stockhausen – an early advocate for Amacher – and Edgar Varese (in a less wilfully assaultive moment, maybe) were apparent, but ultimately this piece is its own animal. Amacher’s score separates the passages into five specific tonal ranges, leaving the rest up to the performers. Greenberg was more or less in charge of bowing, Antonio with hitting, although they switched roles, at one point with considerable wry humor.

Both players stood amid a practically identical set of instruments: cymbals, twin snare drums, marimbas, gongs, circular bell tubes, propane canisters (presumably empty) and a big oil drum on its side. Coy oscillations contrasted with slowly rising, ominous low-register ambience. A pair of autoharps (the original score calls for concert models) were bowed, plucked and hammered in varying degrees for resonance rather than distinct melodies.

Familiar images – intentional or not – which came to mind included busy city traffic, distant conversations amid a bustling crowd, jet and electric engines, and a hailstorm or two. The most striking, creepiest moment came when Greenberg bowed the lowest tube on his marimba, channeling a murky discontent from the great beyond. A refrain eventually appeared, but from a different vantage point, at about the two o’clock mark if you consider centerstage to be high noon.

On one hand, it was tempting to the extreme to just sit back, eyes closed, and get lost in the music. On the other, the constantly shifting action onstage was also a lot of fun to watch – the suspense never let up, finally coming full circle with a whispery unease. The performance repeats tonight, Sept 30 at 8; cover is $20. In a stroke of fate, this two-night stand equals the total number of times the piece was previously performed.

The next event at the Kitchen after this is on Oct 3 at 7 PM with rare footage of golden-age CBGB bands the Talking Heads, Heartbreakers, Tuff Darts and others filmed there by the Metropolis Video collective over forty years ago. Admission is free: get there early and expect a long line.