New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: instrumental music

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.

Wild, Surreal, Psychedelic Keyboard Mashups From Brian Charette

The latest artist to defiy the odds and put the grim early days of the lockdown to good use is Brian Charette, arguably the most cutting-edge organist in jazz. As you will see on his first-ever solo album, Like the Sun – streaming at his music page – he plays a whole slew of other styles. Challenging himself to compose and improvise against a wild bunch of rhythmic loops in all sorts of weird time signatures, he pulled together one of his most entertaining records. This one’s definitely the most surreal, psychedelic and playful of all of them – and he has made a lot.

Basically, this is a guy alone in his man cave mashing up sounds as diverse as twinkly Hollywood Hills boudoir soul, squiggly dancefloor jams, P-Funk stoner interludes, Alan Parsons Project sine-wave vamps and New Orleans marches, most of them ultimately under the rubric of organ jazz.

At the heart of the opening track, 15 Minutes of Fame lies a catchy gutbucket Hammond organ riff and variations…in this case surrounded by all sorts of warpy textures and strange, interwoven rhythms. Time Piece, the second track, could be a synthy late 70s ELO miniature set to a shuffly drum machine loop, with a rapidfire B3 crescendo.

Slasher is not a horror theme but a reference to a chord with an unusual bass note – as Charette says in his priceless liner notes, “If they can get along, why can’t we?” This one’s basically a soul song without words with some tricky changes.

Honeymoon Phase could be a balmy Earth Wind and Fire ballad, Charette’s layers of keys taking the place of the brass. He builds the album’s title track around an Arabic vocal sample, with all sorts of wry touches surrounding a spacy, catchy theme and variations in 5/8 time.

Mela’s Cha Cha – inspired by Charette’s wife, the electrifyingly multistylistic singer Melanie Scholtz – is what might have happened if George Clinton, Larry Young and Ruben Blades were all in the same room together circa 1983. Three Lights has a warmly exploratory groove over a catchy bassline and a hypnotic syndrum beat.

Break Tune is a rare opportunity to hear Charette play guitar, adding a little Muscle Shoals flavor to this gospel-tinged, Spike Lee-influenced mashup. You might not expect a melody ripped “from a punchy synth brass preset on the Korg Minilogue,” as Charette puts it, or changes influenced by the great Nashville pianist Floyd Cramer in an organ jazz tune, but that’s what Charette is up to in From Like to Love.

Creole is a more traditional number, with a New Orleans-inflected groove and a handful of devious Joni Mitchell quotes. 7th St. Busker, inspired by a cellist playing on the street in the West Village, follows in the same vein but with a strange vocal sample underneath the good-natured, reflective organ solo.

Robot Heart would make a solid hip-hop backing track; Charette closes the record with 57 Chevy, a funky shout-out to Dr. Lonnie Smith, who goes back to that era.

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.

Ride the Highway to Hell with the Death Wheelers

The Death Wheelers play heavy psychedelic rock instrumental soundtracks to imaginary sleazy biker flicks. They like gritty, gear-grinding bass, heavy drums and guitar textures that shift from sandpaper distortion to blue-flame Lynchian twang, Their new album Divine Filth – streaming at Bandcamp – is the heaviest one yet.

They open with a swooshy, crunchy title theme that’s over in less than two minutes, slide guitar hovering over Max Tremblay’s chainsaw downtuned bass and Richard Turcotte’s drums. Ditchfinder General is an epic mashup of a twisted ba-BUMP theme as early Sabbath would have done it, along with the Stooges’ TV Eye, thrash metal and spaghetti western textures.

Suicycle Tendencies is a heavy biker theme: imagine Agent Orange covering a Davie Allan & the Arrows tune, with an outro by Sabbath. The title track is a gritty battle theme where the whole gang unites against the enemy, throttles rumbling at full volume beneath Ed Desaulniers and Hugo Bertacci’s shreddy wah guitars.

Lobotomobile, a creepy spiderwalking horror surf tune, is the album’s most gleefully phantasmagorical track. Corps Morts starts off like a heavier Radio Birdman, decays to grim sludge and then rises from the lagoon. Murder Machines – Biker Mortis, true to its title, is part horror film theme, part evilly strutting Harley chopper rock.

The voiceover that kicks off Motorgasm – Canal Pleasures Pt. 1 is pretty priceless: the song. part Isaac Hayes psychedelic funk, part crunchy stoner riff-rock, is just as tongue-in-cheek. Chopped Back to Life is a 70s stoner boogie repurposed as crispy all-terrain vehicle music.

Road Rite shifts between hardcore punk and a strutting, vaguely Stonesy tune. The group close the record with Nitrus, a pummeling horror surf number, like Strange But Surf with distortion and a chunkier rhythm section. It’s the band’s best album so far and one of the most entertainingly cinematic releases of the year.

A Broodingly Gorgeous, Haunted New Soundtrack From Morricone Youth

What’s more Halloweenish than porn? You want real-life abduction, torture and worse?

Dating back to the late 90s, Morricone Youth have scored a daunting number of films, many of them classics from the silent era. Their latest release is the original score to Kire Papputs’ The Last Porno Show, a suspense flick about a kid who inherits a seedy Brooklyn X-rated theatre and decides to try to monetize it despite formidable odds. If the band’s composer/frontman/guitarist Devon E. Levins is to be believed, it’s an incredibly sad place. On one hand, this is an absolutely gorgeous soundtrack, streaming at Bandcamp. On the other, it really captures the hopelessness of an exploitative industry. Like all of Morricone Youth’s scores, it’s best experienced as a cohesive whole. For those who want a breakdown of the nitty gritty, here goes.

The main title theme is a trickily rhythmic, marionettish strut, part Angelo Badalamenti Twin Peaks score, part Tschaikovsky. Levins’ eerie, clanging multitracks ring out over a brooding 6/8 groove from bassist John Castro and drummer Brian Kantor in one of the longer, more haunting interludes, Method Acting.

The coldly methodical third track, sarcastically titled Best Show XXX in Town, sways above Scott Hollingsworth’s orchestral keys. Sean McCaul’s echoey vibraphone sets the stage for a tense scene in Al’s Apartment. An audition for something is involved, Dan Kessler’s Rhodes electric piano and the bandleader’s gritty surf guitar reverberating over an eerie Ethiopian pulse.

From there the music gets quieter and more melancholy. Levins breaks out his glockenspiel for creepy twinkle, viola sorceress Karen Waltuch and torchy chanteuse Sami Stevens waft into an increasingly zombie-ish picture (something the band excel at – their George Romero soundtracks are to die for).

Motorik loops give way to sarcastic 70s vintage keys lowlit by Levins’ desolate, spare guitar and finally a rise to a big, menacing peak. Levins brings the score full circle with surprising subtlety. It’s been a cruelly bleak year for albums and the arts in general: good thing we still have these irrepressible, increasingly iconic soundtrackers.

Some Sobering Context For Tredici Bacci’s Latest Funny Video

Tredici Bacci make very funny videos. But the best joke in the lavish, cinematic band’s latest one, Defino De Venezia, is musical rather than visual. It starts at about 1:58 – but it won’t be as funny if you don’t watch from the beginning

What’s most amazing about it is that all seventeen people who play on it recorded their parts while sequestered – via Zoom, most likely. This is a case study in how video connections enable musicmaking, but also how they imperil it. On one hand, getting seventeen people in seventeen different places to sound anything like a cohesive unit is quite the feat. Bandleader Simon Hanes obviously went deep into his address book for the talent to pull this off (musician credits are listed below the video).

Let’s also give props to mixing engineer Myles Boisen for whatever mojo he was able to work to tighten everything up.

And that right there is the problem. You can’t fault anybody involved with the project, really. It’s just that Tredici Bacci are a funny band. Onstage they tend to be loose and spontaneous, and they can swing like hell. And that kind of magic, which really defines them, is missing here. Everybody seems so fixated on getting their parts right that there’s literally no chemistry. Which testifies to the limits of this kind of technology.

Obviously, anybody can take a stab at improvising over a video connection. But the camaraderie that enables a good jam can never be there. Not to be a killjoy, but ultimately this only underscores the undeniable truth that virtual reality can never be more than a pale imitation of the real thing, good jokes or not. And it’s frustrating to have to wait for the day when all this madness is over and we can see Tredici Bacci play live, for real, and not from six feet away. Ok, six feet away from the band, for sure, but not from each other.