New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: instrumental music

Lingering Mystery and Lynchian Sonics From the Royal Arctic Institute

If you have to hang a label on the Royal Arctic Institute, you could call them a cinematic surf band. They have a Lynchian side, a jazzy side and also a space-surf side. Their latest album Sodium Light is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number, the vampy Prince of Wisconsin has an easygoing sway, Gramercy Arms keyboardist Carl Bagaly’s bubbly Rhodes piano giving way to bandleader John Leon’s reverby twang and then grit. The distant wistfulness in Christmases At Sea is visceral, the jangly mingle of guitar over David Motamed’s tense bass pulse and Lyle Hysen’s muted drums.

We Begin on Familiar Ground is a real chiller: the big bite at the beginning is just a hint of what’s to come over spare, creepy, mutedly lingering ambience. The trick ending, and the searing guitar solo from And the Wiremen‘s Lynn Wright, are just plain awesome. Is this a lockdown parable? Who knows: the album was recorded clandestinely somewhere in the tri-state area last year.

The fourth track, Different in Sodium Light is a return to balmy Summer Place calm, Wright adding just a tinge of ominousness with his elegant solo. The final cut, Tomorrowmorrowland is the closest thing here to And the Wiremen’s ominous, Morricone-esque southwestern gothic, with a slashing organ break. On a very short list of rock albums released in 2021 so far, this is one of the best.. And it’s available on cassette!

A Picturesque, Psychedelic New Instrumental Soul Album From the Menahan Street Band

Of all the oldschool soul groups that followed Sharon Jones’ ascendancy out of New York in the mid-zeros, Menahan Street Band were the most distinctive, psychedelic and also the darkest. Nobody did noir soul in New York like these guys. And they didn’t even have a singer. It’s been a long time between albums for them, but that’s because everybody in the band is also involved with other projects, or at least was before the lockdown. Their long-awaited new album The Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band lives up to its title and is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number, Midnight Morning, sums up how these guys work. It’s a steady oldschool 70s groove, bandleader/multi-instrumentalist Thomas Brenneck’s twinkling keys and sheets of organ over the graceful, understated rhythm section of guest bassist “Bosco Mann” – hmmm, now who could that be – and drummer Homer Steinweiss. But the gently gusting harmonies from Leon Michels’ tenor sax and Dave Guy’s trumpet are more bracing than they are balmy.

Regular bassist Nick Movshon takes over with a spare, trebly hollow-body feel on the second track, Rainy Day Lady, Brenneck’s sparse, eerily Satie-esque piano exchanging with the horns and Michels’ organ as the sun pushes the clouds away. They completely flip the script with The Starchaser, a gritty, tensely cinematic, Morricone-ish tableau driven by Brenneck’s trebly, careening guitar and Michels’ trailing sax lines.

Silkworm rises out of dubwise trip-hop mystery with Brenneck on keening portamento synth along with the horns. Cabin Fever is surreal fuzztone Afrobeat; after that, the band return to enigmatic oldschool slow jam territory with Rising Dawn and its blazing layers of guitar.

The album’s most tantalizingly short interlude is Glovebox Pistol, a slinky desert rock theme in wee-hours deep Brooklyn disguise. Likewise, Queens Highway is a slow, spacious after-midnight miniature.

Michels’ organ swirls, the horns waft and Brenneck’s layers of regal soul chords permeate the next track, Snow Day. Brian Profilio takes over the drums on the cheery, dub-inflected miniature Parlour Trick. Mike Deller’s Farfisa loops and washes filter over a funky strut in The Duke, Ray Mason’s trombone beefing up the brass. Stepping Through Shadow has a wistful tiptoe pulse and elegant Stylistics jazz chords.

Devil’s Respite is the album’s best track, a darkly anthemic vamp with couple of unexpected tarpit interludes before the brass kick back in again. They close the record with There Was a Man, a slow, fond 12/8 ballad without words with the feel of a late 60s classic soul instrumental like The Horse. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2021 page here – and there’s going to be one. Spring is coming to New York right now, and it’s about time!

Warmly Minimalist, Oceanically-Inspired Electroacoustic Piano Themes From Kumi Takahara

Go out to watch the ocean just as the sun is about to slip under the horizon and you’ll get a good idea of what keyboardist Kumi Takahara’s gently rippling new album See-Through – streaming at Bandcamp – is all about. Her pensive, elegant themes are minimalist to the core: she most definitely does not waste notes. Philip Glass seems to be an influence. This is a great album for winding down or meditation.

She opens the album with Artegio, a warmly minimalist, simple major-key piano piece with subtle ambient electronic touches. Roll, the second track, has variations on a catchy, ratchetingly circling piano riff and what sounds like a wistful melodica in places. Nostalgia is even simpler and just as loopy, Takahara moving methodically up and down the scale as echoey, hypnotically ambient phrases drift into the foreground.

Tide, with its intricate web of string orchestration, is even more hypnotic but also majestic as it swells and brightens. Chime, on the other hand, has more distinct disquiet (and a droll reference to a very famous clock). The strings return, rising with a stark resonance against the bell-like piano, in Kai-kou. 

Layers of wordless vocals permeate Chant along with the strings and sheer simplicity of the piano. Takahara runs subtle, increasingly wistful variations on a four-note riff over what sounds like a viola drone in Sea. She closes the album with Log, well over seven minutes of hazy horizontality and then what turns out to be the album’s most anthemic interlude, punctuated by gentle vocalizing, sparse piano and light electronics. There are also a couple of remixes here that don’t really add anything.

Intriguingly Moody, Individualistic Piano Instrumentals From Alexandra Stréliski

On her album Inscape – streaming at Bandcamp – Montreal pianist Alexandra Stréliski plays wistful chamber pop songs without words, often multitracking herself for textural contrasts. This kind of thing has been done before, although stylistically Streliski is much more classically oriented than early rock keyboard instrumentalists like Floyd Cramer. She sometimes uses folky guitar voicings; her songs can be very catchy. Catchy enough to became a gold record on her home turf – if this is what gold records were in 2020, it’s a good omen.

The opening number, Plus Tôt (meaning “soon”) hints at where she’s going to go later in the album, but this folk-pop theme, with its steady triplets, doesn’t move far from one place and isn’t one of her strongest numbers. You can start your playlist – and hum along – with The Quiet Voice, a gently strolling pastoral pop tune.

Par le Fenêtre de Theo (Through Theo’s Window) is where Streliski really puts the rubber to the road: it’s a big, melancholy rainy-day anthem in classical disguise. In Ellipse, she maintains the pensive ambience more spaciously, with light electronic touches. Then she goes back to terse, moody folk-pop with the waltz Changing Winds.

The simply titled Interlude is a study in persistent, loopy minimalism. Blind Vision has a recurrent reference to the Exorcist Theme, but it’s more just plain sad than creepy. The subtle variations of Burnout Fugue – great title, huh? – have a surprising, intricately rippling energy and precision,

As she often does here, she moves a simple bassline around beneath elegant broken chords, tersely emphatic riffs and a Beatles quote in Overturn, the album’s longest track. She closes the record with the more pop-themed Revient le Jour (Daylight Comes Once More) and then Materials, a robotic attempt at glitchy electronic sounds. Other than that, somewhere there’s an arthouse movie director who needs music like this.

Artfully Shifting New Ambient Music From Enona

Ambient ensemble Enona were born out of the most popular musical meme of 2020: trading files over the web. When the group, featuring members of Ensemble Et Al. and Quatre Vingt Neuf, realized that their remote experiments during the ugliest early days of the lockdown were worth releasing, they put a trio of them up at Bandcamp as their debut album, The Challenge Is in the Moment. As with most drifty, immersive music, it’s best appreciated as a cohesive whole, letting the subtle thematic development carry you off to a better place…like a year ago, when the members of the group were free to play and record wherever they chose, and invite audiences to see them.

Slowly pulsing long tones hold the center as slashy electronic thunderbolts enter and then recede in the almost 22-minute opening title track. Eventually, Ron Tucker’s electric piano punctures the surface, tentatively and sparely: the melody would be a wistful ballad if played at quadruplespeed. Arun Antonyraj’s simple electric guitar echoes coalesce into a countermelody to variations on a piano loop; from there, an elegant web of contrastingly calm and gritty tonalities develops.

Another Kind of Open could be a scary proposition, a slow, brooding series of synth chords flecked with echoey, muted hits on what sounds like an acoustic guitar. Again, a loopy electric guitar phrase ties it all together, bittersweetly.

The final theme, Present Air Will Have to Do is more of a shimmery dreampop guitar tableau, spiced with simple, jaunty electric piano flourishes and electroacoustic ambience from saxophonist Jason Candler. It’s always rewarding to hear an album of slowly unwinding music like this and find substance in it beyond “This is a great record to help you stay centered while you multitask!”

Warmly Drifting, Epically Atmospheric Instrumentals From Numun

Atmospheric instrumentalists Numun comprises members of cinematic, pastoral noir band Suss as well as New York’s most popular Balinese bell orchestra, Gamelan Dharma Swara.  Multi-instrumentalists Joel Mellin and Bob Holmes’ new album Voyage au Soleil – streaming at Bandcamp – is pretty much what you would expect from those influences: vast, slowly hovering tableaux with the occasional Asian tinge.

The opening track, Tranceport rises from slowly shifting atmospherics and the occsional boom of what could be a gong, to a swaying, gorgeously lush acoustic guitar groove spiced with cumbus lute and airy, tremoloing keys. First Steps starts with wry, robotic keys over a trip-hop beat, percolating organ and menacing reverb guitar, then rises to a darker but equally sweeping crescendo.

With its keening, tinkling synth lines and surreal spoken-word vocals half-buried in the mix, Tranquility Base is a hyperactive stab at a nocturne: the slow acoustic guitar-based sway returns, more loopy this time. The alarm motif that kicks off Mission Loss could have been faded down more mercifully for the listener, as a thicket of short pulses and then the warmly predictable acoustic guitar vmp takes over.

Expanse is the one track that begins with guitars and then drifts into an echoey vortex with dubwise bass anchoring starry keys: it’s the album’s most interesting and psychedelic number. The final cut is the title track, which with the cumbus could be an Asian-tinged outtake of an interlude from Pink Floyd’s Animals. Cue this up and set the controls for the heart of the…

Lively Ambience From Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti and Anna Thorvaldsdottir

Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti is a violist on a mission to build the repertoire for her instrument. One of the most captivating, immersive albums she’s released to date is her recording of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s electroacoustic triptych Sola, streaming at Bandcamp.

For many listeners and critics, Thorvaldsdottir epitomizes the vast, windswept Icelandic compositional sensibility of recent decades. This mini-suite is on the livelier side of that zeitgeist. The first movement begins with slow modulations, dopplers and flickers of wind in the rafters of some abandoned barn on the tundra – or at least its sonic equivalent. However, Lanzilotti gets many chances to add austere color and the occasional moment of levity via steady, emphatic phrases and the occasional coy glissando.

There are places where it’s hard to figure out which is which, Lanzilotti’s nuanced, delicate harmonics, or Thorvaldsdottir’s own keening electronics, which are processed samples recorded earlier on the viola. The brooding, droning, fleeting second movement seems to be all Lanzilotti – at least until the puckish ending. The conclusion is more lush, similarly moody and enigmatically microtonal, again with the occasional playful flourish. Even in the badlands, life is sprouting in the ruts.

As a bonus, the album includes a podcast of sorts with both performers discussing all sorts of fascinating nuts-and-bolts details, from composing to performing. Listening to Thorvaldsdottir enthusing about traveling to premieres and leading master classes will break your heart: based in the UK, her career as a working composer has been crushed by the Boris Johnson regime.

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

Spot-On Protest Songs and Spare, Eclectic Guitar Instrumentals From Austin Legend Matt Smith

Multi-instrumentalist Matt Smith is one of the great guitarists in Americana, among many other things. These days, most importantly, he writes protest songs.

Check out How We Got to Here, a spare, fingerpicked, dobro-infused number from his most recent album Being Human. In under four minutes, he paints a grim picture of recent American history, from the coup d’etat in 2000, up to the lockdown and how social media has paralyzed so many of us when we’re needed most:

We all saw it coming but we’re too self-involved to stand
Against the ones back in the shadows who wait to implement the plan
When they told us this was normal and did not believe the news
We took pictures of our dinnes and proselytized our views

Smith finds optimism in historical rebellions against past tyrannies: let’s hope he’s right.

The rest of the record – streaming at youtube – mirrors Smith’s long career as a bandleader, sideman to the stars and owner of a recording studio, the 6 String Ranch, revered as one of the go-to spots if you really want a vintage Americana sound from across many decades. There’s another great protest song here, Sanctuary, a dusky minor-key Robert Cray-style blues about the xenophobia that South American refugees run up against once they cross the US border.

“Why does it feel like the sky is falling?” Smith asks in the cynical, loping title track. After that, Smith channels a vast range of styles ranging from early 80s Midnight Starr stoner funk, to the Who.

Smith also has a charming all-instrumental solo acoustic album, Parlor – streamin at Spotify – where he plays a beautifully restored heirloom 1890’s Thompson and Odell parlor guitar. Most of the tracks are on the short side, some less than two minutes. Blind Blake-inspired ragtime fingerpicking, Piedmont and delta blues, Yorkshire-style balladry, Indian music, Leo Kottke wizardry, and, improbably, indie rock all figure into Smith’s distinctive, sometimes stark, sometimes opaque compositions.

The Kolotov Mocktails Play Dynamic, Interesting, Subtly Amusing Cross-Genre Instrumentals

As you would imagine, instrumental jamband the Kolotov Mocktails have a sense of humor. The mocktail part of the band might be a characteristically wry admission of how many styles and ideas they appropriate; and yet, they are absolutely unique. Their songs tend to be upbeat, the solos are purposeful and the tunes are catchy. Their latest album Ivy Hall is streaming at Spotify.

They open with Between the Ranges, a lively Grateful Dead-style instrumental by drummer Rob McKendrick. Violinist George Mason’s wildly spiraling solo is a highlight; the southern rock quotes at the end are predictably amusing.

Mason and pedal steel player Dave Easley take centerstage in Dancing on the Wall, McKendrick and bassist John Lang giving it a tight jazz waltz beat. Lang contributes Mr. Pants Pants, which could be the Alan Parsons Project with a more organic groove, guest Allan Walters’ Scottish smallpipes mingling with the layers of keys.

Easley contributes A Visit to the Zoo: with his percussive hammer-ons and ambiguously lingering lines, along with Mason’s long, moody solo, this seems to reflect the inhabitants’ unease rather than a joyous family outing. The shift toward a marching raga, with Mason on guitar sitar, makes for an unexpected coda.

The group shift back toward newgrass rock with Acoustic Alchemy, a brisk number in an Old Crow Medicine Show vein. Fueled by Lang’s strutting, circling bassline, Coming to an Alley Near You is a bizarrely entertaining mashup of Jean-Luc Ponty, Kraftwerk and maybe Dave Tronzo in a particularly terse moment. Likewise, imagine Ponty trying his hand at Meters funk in, say, 1974 – with a pedal steel – and you get The Fuzz.

Mason and Easley trade punchy riffs in Raw Eel Sheets, a similarly mind-warping blend of Django Reinhardt and New Orleans funk. The Crack of Noon features Walters on the pipes again: it could be a Greer Coppins tune, or the Dead taking a stab at a highlands air. The band segue from there to close the record with Time Ebbing: the guitar/violin duel is pure Terrapin Station. If you smell something skunky and smoky coming from under your neighbor’s door, it might be this album.