New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: ambient music

Guitarist Kurt Leege Reinvents Jazz Classics As Envelopingly Ambient, Richly Psychedelic Soundscapes

There’s considerable irony in that Kurt Leege, one of the most interesting guitarists in all of ambient music, first made his mark as a feral lead player, beginning with Curdlefur, then Noxes Pond and finally System Noise, New York’s best art-rock band of the zeros. Leege’s new album Sleepytime Jazz – streaming at Bandcamp – is his second solo release, a similarly celestial follow-up to his 2018 record Sleepytime Guitar, where he reinvented old folk tunes and spirituals as lullabies.

This one is calm, elegant, drifty music with a subtle, soulful edge, a mix of jazz classics from John Coltrane, to Miles Davis, to Herbie Hancock and Louis Armstrong. Leege layers these tracks meticulously, typically using his ebow to build a deep-space wash and then adding terse, thoughtful, often strikingly dynamic multitracks overhead. This may be on the quiet side, but it’s also incredibly psychedelic. Play it at low volume if you feel like drifting off; crank it and discover the beast lurking deep within.

Blue in Green has spiky, starry chords and resonant David Gilmour-like phrases fading deep into spacious, hypnotically echoing ebow vastness. Leege has always been a connoisseur of the blues, and that cuts through – literally – in At Last, his spare, gentle but incisive single-note lines over the starry resonance behind him. And Coltrane’s Spiritual is much the same, and even more starkly bluesy: shine on you distant diamond.

Georgia on My Mind comes across as opiated Wes Montgomery with distant Memphis soul echoes. Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage could be a particularly immersive, atmospheric interlude by 70s art-rock cult favorites Nektar.

Leege reinvents My Funny Valentine, artfully shifting up the metrics with equal parts Pink Floyd grandeur and Bill Frisell tenderness. He hits waltz time even more head-on in his version of Naima, the fastest and most hauntingly direct of all these slow numbers.

Neferititi, appropriately, is the album’s most delicate and hypnotic piece. The echoes come in waves most noticeably throughout Tenderly, tersely layered from top to bottom. And Leege’s take of What a Wonderful World is as anthemic as it is warmly enveloping. What a gorgeous record. It’s a real find for fans of jazz, ambient music, psychedelic rock, or for that matter anyone who just wants to escape to a comforting sonic cocoon

Troubled, Intertwining Atmospherics in Trumpeter Nate Wooley’s Latest Seven Storey Mountain Installment

Trumpeter Nate Wooley’s ongoing Seven Storey Mountain project has a new sixth edition available and streaming at Bandcamp. It’s nothing like anything else in the series: haunting, often chaotic and even downright macabre in places. Although it was recorded prior to the lockdown, it uncannily seems to prefigure what the world has suffered this year.

The single 45-minute work begins with allusions to Renaissance polyphony fueled by the slightly off-key violins of C. Spencer Yeh and Samara Lubelski. Met by droning washes of harmonies from Susan Alcorn’s pedal steel, the atmosphere grows more ominous, Emily Manzo’s spare piano building funereal ambience.

Isabelle O’Connor’s similarly minimalist Rhodes piano enters the picture and suddenly a disorientingly syncopated clockwork interweave appears, with the flutters from drummers Chris Corsano, Ryan Sawyer and Ben Hall. From there it grows even loopier, circular riffs and nebulous atmospherics filtering through the mix in the vein of a contemporary, electronically-enhanced horror film score. It’s here that Wooley’s agitated, echoey lines first appear through the sonic thicket.

Sirening violins, broodingly steady Rhodes chords and a kaleidoscope of flickering noise ensue. It’s not clear where or even whether guitarists Ava Mendoza or Julien Desprez join in, or whether those scrapes which could be guitar strings are coming from the percussion section, until finally an icy, squalling patch played through an analog chorus pedal. It’s probably Mendoza but maybe not.

Drums and guitars and who knows what else reach a terrorized Brandon Seabrook-like stampede as the band hit fever pitch. The group bring it full circle with what seems to be a twisted parody of an organ prelude and a baroque chorale: the final mantra is “You can’t scare me.” This is by far the darkest, most psychedelic, and ultimately most assaultive segment in Wooley’s series yet, perhaps an inevitability considering the state of the world in 2020.

Flickering Nocturnes and Big Sky Atmospherics From Suss

Back in 2018, this blog called New York cinematic instrumenalists Suss “the missing link beween Brian Eno and Ennio Morricone.” Their debut album was aptly titled Ghost; the release show, at a black-box theatre in Long Island City, was magically sepulchral and unexpectedly energetic, the band taking their time expanding on the record’s distantly Lynchian themes. Their new vinyl album Promise – streaming at Bandcamp – is even more vast and atmospheric. It’s best appreciated as a cohesive whole – with a pause to flip the record over.

The opening number, Midnight is a characteristic, glacially unwinding big-sky tableau, pedal steel player Jonathan Gregg’s minimalist lines washing over the ambience from guitarists Pat Irwin, Bob Holmes and keyboardist Gary Lieb.

Drift, the second cut, is exactly that, a flicker of low, twangy reverb guitar finally puncturing the enveloping, misty layers. Individual instruments become more distinct in Home, a minimistically folksy Great Plains nocturne.

The guitars get a little grittier and starrier in No Man’s Land – and is that a harmonium shadowing them? Mission is Pink Floyd spacerock with half the notes and layers of guitar, while  Echo Lake is a clever study in sound bouncing off one distant surface back to another.

Pensively strummed acoustic chords and the occasional troubled, watery electric guitar phrase linger beneath the hovering atmospherics in Winter Light, the album’s most ominous and memorable interlude. They close with the hypnotically twinkling Nightlight.

Darkly Enveloping, Vastly Symphonic Atmospherics From Elif Yalvaç

It’s impossible to imagine a more inspiringly apt title for an album released in 2020 than ambient composer Elif Yalvaç’s Mountains Become Stepping Stones, streaming at Bandcamp. May we someday look back and see how accurate her metaphor was. And it should be, dammit: there are seven billion of us and only a few thousand, maybe many less, actively plotting or enforcing the lockdown. We have the numbers!

This is a long album and a great wind-down record. The opening track is Broken Spectre, shifting through storm-drain sonics, channel-changing blips, crescendoing loops and then calm. Under the Aurora is built around a couple of spare, plaintive minor seventh guitar chords and morphs into a surreal blend of clock chimes and white noise. Yalvaç revisits the theme later in the album as a rainy-day spacerock anthem cloaked in dense clouds.

Sketchy, gritty echoes, dopplers and majestic whooshes pan the channels in Painted In Pitch Black. Stormy waves of sound surround a simple C-A-B loop in Breaking My Rose Tinted Glasses. In the next track, Huginn and Muninn, Yalvaç constructs similarly looming density around what sounds like a nest of ravens.

Icily processed jazz chords ring out over echoey washes in Black Sand Beach. The waves grow longer in Bifroest, while Freak Box could be R2D2 under siege – or in lockdown, for that matter, finally escaping (escaping?) into the storm drain introduced in the album’s initial track.

Tense industrial low/high contrasts resonate in Mossy Moon; Two Compartments follows the same dynamic, blips and nebulosity versus barely concealed roar and rumble. Yalvaç closes this stormy dreamscape of an album with the unexpectedly delicate Kintsugi, its pinging web of temple bells and forest sounds.

Andrée Burelli Builds Elegant Ambience with Classical Tinges

Keyboardist Andrée Burelli writes drifting, hypnotic ambient music with pensive, sometimes distinctly dark neoromantic themes. Her album De Sidera- streaming at Bandcamp – is a good choice for meditation, multitasking to a pleasant backdrop, or drifting away in a cloud of bluish smoke on a rainy weekend afternoon.

As she sees it, the first track, Mediterraneo, is a sad place, portrayed by loopy, stark piano awash in echo and spiced with frequent splashes up against the shore. Those, in turn, eventually waft through the echo patch, a recurrent device here.

In the title piece, Burelli positions a distant, spare bassline amid washes of sound, raising the energy with her wordless, melismatically Balkan-tinged vocals.

Ultimi Raggi has what sounds like mutedly flaring guitar amid the swirl and the occasional shooting star falling to earth. In Pezzi Sopra La Tua Pelle is a sunny, slowly uwinding, Eno-ish tune, followed by the cheery miniature Aquilone Perduto, an evocation of birdsong.

Burelli’s airy vocals raise Cum Sidera out of desolation and suspense, then she brings back the spare, elegant piano in Natura Domina. She winds up the record with Cuore Di Piume, a sort of baroque chorale study in wave motion, and the windswept, pensive Leggeri Come Cenere.

A Chilly Album of Solo Atmospherics For Our Time From Violinist Sarah Bernstein

Violinist Sarah Bernstein has written everything from microtonal jazz to string quartets to jazz poetry. As many artists have done this year, she’s released a solo album, Exolinger, streaming at Bandcamp. As you would expect, it’s her most minimalist yet, a chilly series of reverb-drenched instrumental and vocal soundscapes that directly and more opaquely reflect the alienation and inhumanity we’ve all suffered under the lockdown – outside of Sweden, or Nicaragua, or South Dakota, anyway.

The album’s first track, Carry This is a series of loopy car horn-like phrases that get pushed out of the picture by noisy fragments pulsing through the sonic picture, the reverb on Bernstein’s violin up so high that it isn’t immediately obvious she’s plucking the strings. It could be a song by Siouxsie & the Banshees spinoff the Creatures.

The second track, Ratiocinations is an increasingly assaultive series of variations on echo effects using a variety of chilly reverb timbres. The third piece, Tree, is definitely one for our time:

Crisis of mixed proportions
Manageable in ways
Mitigated, maximized, handled, contained
Sitting outside the birds have sirens
Fresh city air
The tree has been here awhile,
Has always been here
Before 1984, before 2020

Does Ghosts Become Crowds refer to a return toward normalcy…or a parade of the dead? The mechanical strobe of the grey noise behind Bernstein’s spare vocalese seems to indicate the latter.

The Plot works on multiple levels. On the surface, it’s a lengthy, shivery, blustery commentary – and demonstration – of the music inherent in language, and vice versa. In this case, apocalyptic industrial chaos trumps pretty much everything.

Through Havoc is a series of echoey, crunchy, noisy loops. “How strong is your will? Do you last a few hours?” Bernstein asks in We Coast, a moody study in resonance versus rhythm. She closes the album with its one moment of levity, Whirling Statue, which opens with what sounds like a talkbox.

Still, Spacious, Meditative Sounds From Shida Shahabi

The title of keyboardist and ambient composer Shida Shahabi’s Lake On Fire triptych – streaming at Bandcamp – is a misnomer. Her new ep is calm, centering music. For a quick, ten-minute meditative interlude, this fits the bill just fine.

Slow waves and gently rising guitar-like figures permeate the prologue. The main theme rises like a plane on takeoff and then morphs into a gentle, distantly baroque-tinged organ prelude. The final movement follows a series of minimalist, spacious sustained chords. The ep also includes a stately piano version of the main theme including a creaky percussion track, as if the levers inside the instrument were close-miked.

Given Unlimited Time, Catherine Christer Hennix and Hans Isgren Wrapped It Up in Under an Hour

What if the time available to musicians was unlimited? Not only in terms of how long a venue might be open, or willing to put up with musical self-indulgence, but in terms of eternity? What would music sound like if a beat didn’t have to land, or a there was no limit to how long a tone could resonate…or if the guy behind the sound board was never going to pass out no matter how long the show went on?  That’s what Karlheinz Stockhausen sought to explore with Unbegrenzt, his 1968 score that relies on poetic cues rather than notation.

Fifty years after he proposed it, the idea is just as radical, realized even more radically by percussion duo Catherine Christer Hennix and Hans Isgren in 1974. What’s just as extraordinary as their performance – a cleverly terse, generally calm, metallic experience – is that they had the presence of mind to record it. And that there would be an organization as far-reaching as Blank Forms to track down the original analog recording, and digitize it, and release it this year. That kind of dedication transcends accolades. You can hear the whole sometimes ghostly, fitfully turbulent 52-minute concert as a single track at Bandcamp.

Ironically, Hennix came out of a jazz background: a teenage phenom in her native Stockholm, she’d drummed with some pretty big names before she turned twenty. By contrast to the animated rhythms of postbop jazz, this is vast, magically immersive music.

Computer-generated bubbles filter in and out of the mix as Isgren weaves reverberating quilts of sound while Hennix colors the space with steady, sharply echoey temple block riffs that echo through the electronics, sometimes seemingly despite them. The recitations from a Buddhist text are mercifully spare, leaving plenty of room – that was the point, right? – for Hennix’s electric stalactite drips and allusions to craggy drama mingled within Isgren’s creepy metallic ambience.

Listen closely and you’ll hear points where a seemingly organic thicket of mutedly echoing hits recedes for more mechanical atmosphere, then the humans quietly and defiantly regain control, and gently push into deep space. Much as machines can be useful, ultimately it’s up to us to claim our territory, not the other way around. A delightfully enveloping yet equally chilling sonic metaphor for these times.

Ward White Finds New Levels of Creepiness in a Proto-Metal Classic

Back in June this blog got all wound up about how Ward White’s Leonard at the Audit was the best rock album of 2020 at that point. Four months down the road, it’s still as strong a contender as any. White is sort of a heavier, more psychedelic and menacing Elvis Costello. Since White’s landmark non-linear art-rock record Bob topped the best albums of the year list here in 2013, violence and death have become recurrent themes in his music, even if that’s usually implied.

Although White very rarely covers other artists (under his own name, anyway – he played bass in Rawles Balls for awhile), when he does he has impeccable taste and always finds new levels of disturbing content. A few years before he got brain-drained out of New York for Los Angeles, he pulled out a plaintive, haunting take of the BeeGees’ Nights on Broadway that would rip your face off.

To celebrate Halloween this year, White has released another unlikely cover, a grimly atmospheric reinvention of the Beatles’ Helter Skelter. Hearing White in full-on crooner mode, soaring and then almost whispering over John Spiker’s desolately drifting reed organ is pure evil: the calmest moments are the most lurid. And the ending is priceless. Siouxsie slayed with her version, but this is just as good.

Deathprod’s Latest Album: Dark Anti-Fascist Ambience

As Deathprod, keyboardist and electronic musician Helge Sten has built an eclectic, often haunting and provocative body of work over the past quarter century or or so. His latest album, Occulting Disk – streaming at Bandcamp – came out late last year and is his first release since the mid-zeros. It’s described as an “anti-fascist ritual.”

Considering how many we’ve had in the streets this year, we could always use another one. This is a long album: several of the tracks are in the eight minute range or more. How ritualistic is this music? Much of it is a series of loops and variations. Is there discernible anti-fascist content? It’s icy, dystopic and mechanical, which could be construed as a cautionary tale.

This is the kind of album that’s best appreciated as a cohesive whole, rather than a series of distinct parts. It begins with a series of fuzzy loops of bass synth with a little space in between. Sten follows with the eight-part suite Occultation, which begins with shifting, atonal, eerily overtone-laden cloudbanks matched by a series of slow sirening effects. Sound familiar?

Buzzsaw oscillations subtly and glacially drift from the center. Sirens return at higher frequencies along with what sounds like the hum of a blown speaker that can’t be shut off. Dopplers and echoes mingle on a highway, though a very foggy window. Gritty, sustained bits and pieces of chords begin to emerge. An electric lawn mower struggles against something in the grass. Whale song in deep space, echo echo echo echo.

The suite is interrupted by the much louder, relentlessly bleak, practically thirteen-minute soundscape Black Transit of Jupiter’s Third Satellite. The conclusion is where the ritual starts to make sense: imagine Bill Gates, Tony Fauci and Andrew Cuomo adrift in a little boat, bound and gagged, on the Hudson river on a freezing cold January night. There’s historical precedent for that.