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Tag: noir music

A Relentlessly Dark, Chilly Soundtrack For a Relentlessly Dark, Chilly Time

Joseph Trapanese‘s epic soundtrack to season two of The Witcher – streaming at Spotify – is a feast for fans of unrelenting, dark music. And yet, throughout the album’s thirty-two tracks, Trapanese works a vast dynamic range, from a whisper to a roar. Plenty of familiar tropes take centerstage: gloomy minor-key vamps, shivery violins, ominously drifting low-register ambience, and the occasional stormy orchestral interlude or horror-stricken swell. There are plenty of less expected sounds as well: gamelanesque belltones, guttural monstrous allusions and rhythms that run the gamut from motorik to Frankensteinian.

Sudden bursts of sound pounce in from the shadows at the edge of a vast desolation. There’s a long sequence that starts out as a surreal, echoey, solitary nocturnal trip on a subway of the mind and grows to a frantic, thundering chase scene. Down-the-drainpipe industrial ambience gives way to stalker footfalls. A funereal Balkan-tinged tableau recedes into the mist and then makes an unexpected return. An oboe sails mournfully above the waves.

Joey Batey, who plays the role of Jaskier in the series, takes the mic for three songs. Burn Butcher Burn is a soaringly vengeful, Elizabethan folk-tinged art-rock ballad. Whoreson Prison Blues is a funny proto-bluegrass tune; there’s another number that seems to be a spoof of mythological faux-Celtic pop.

Don Davis’ Relentless, Harrowing Matrix Score Finally Available on Vinyl

If reissuing classic film soundtracks on vinyl is a meme, it’s long overdue. One auspicious development is the recent release of Don Davis‘ complete music from The Matrix, just out as a triple vinyl record and streaming at Spotify. Much of the score is very still, with tense highs from the strings and occasionally the cymbals. Suspense is everything, until in a split second something goes haywire, or trouble looms and then explodes, often triggering frenetic bouts of activity. Themes or riffs burst into the sonic picture, only to be cut off mid-phrase. Several of the interludes are especially fleeting, under the one-minute mark.

Big swells and striking, loopy phrasing are recurrent tropes: Philip Glass’ film work appears to be a big influence. An anvil rhythm returns as a foreshadowing device. While the overall sense of terror seldom lifts, Davis’ sense of humor occasionally percolates to the surface, whether in a galloping gamelanesque interlude, or a ridiculously blithe passage for solo harp. One of the tracks is titled Switches Brew. A steady, pulsing theme, Switch Works Her Boa gets frantically fleshed out as Switch Woks Her Boar.

There are also a couple of smartly chosen references to a fugitive riff from Shostakovich’s macabre String Quartet No. 8. The last disc is where Davis gets the orchestra’s brass to dig in hard throughout a long series of stormy, bellicose passages. Taken as a microtonally-tinged stand-alone suite for orchestra and occasional keyboards, this is as entertaining as it is forward-looking – which dovetails with the sensibility of the film.

Roberto Prosseda Brings Rare Morricone Solo Piano Music to Life

Ennio Morricone is best remembered for his film scores, notably his Sergio Leone spaghetti western soundtracks, where he built the foundation for what would become known as the southwestern gothic genre. Although Morricone was a pianist, he didn’t write a lot of solo piano music, and much of that material remains obscure. On his latest album, pianist Roberto Prosseda has unearthed some of those works along with some better-known title themes, courageously recorded in Sacile, Italy last spring and streaming at Spotify.

He opens with a starry, spare, neoromantic miniature, The Legend of 1900 theme and closes with the jarringly polyrhythmic modernism of the conclusion of the Four Studies For Pedal Piano. In between, Prosseda has grimly precise fun with the carnivalesque, Lynchian strut of Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion: the way Morricone shifts the melody from righthand to left is a typically artful move. It’s fascinating to hear how the composer hides a border-rock melody just beneath the surface of Love Circle, and somewhat deeper in The Tartar Desert.

Prosseda brings a spacious, bittersweet rapture to the Cinema Paradiso theme and a striking dynamic range to the broodingly immersive, Satie-esque minimalism of the First Study For Piano and then the steadier White Dog.

Other works on the program here include the saturnine, rather wistful The Two Stages of Life; the Second Study for Piano, where Prosseda works a startling-versus-calm dichotomy; and the absolutely gorgeous Angels of Power, shifting between a love theme and a moody, baroque-tinged melody.

There’s also a bounding invention, a boldly crescendoing processional, and an altered canon that bring to mind the work of Vincent Persichetti. Morricone was a lyrical composer and excelled at capturing a vast expanse of moods. Doctrinaire Second Viennese School atonality was not his thing.

Magically Diverse Solo Harp Improvisations From Jacqueline Kerrod

Jacqueline Kerrod was Robert Paterson’s not-so-secret weapon on his lusciously noir album Star Crossing, and also his contrastingly sparkling Book of Goddesses. But she’s probably better known for her time as the New York City Opera’s principal harpist…and for playing with a rapper who, if his improbable Presidential run had vaulted him into the Oval Office, would be a more lucid presence than what we have at the present moment.

Yet Kerrod’s arguably most foundational collaboration was with Anthony Braxton. Inspired by touring as a duo with the Tri-Centric icon, she made the best of 2020 lockdown time and recorded an often mesmerizing album of solo improvisations, 17 Days in December. streaming at Bandcamp. It’s unlike any other harp record you will ever hear. Jazz harpists are an individualistic bunch to begin with: Zeena Parkins, with her blend of acerbity and atmosphere; Alice Coltrane and her melodic rapture; Dorothy Ashby, who shifted the paradigm by employing everything but harp voicings, and to an extent, Brandee Younger following in her wake. Kerrod is a welcome member of that rare, celestial body.

The chilling, menacing opening tableau, titled Trill to Begin, no doubt reflects the dire circumstances under which Kerrod made it, almost exactly a year ago. It’s a series of eerie modal phrases against a tremolo-picked pedal note, punctuated by low funereal bell accents and otherworldly close harmonies. What a way to kick off the project!

The squiggly web she builds on her electric harp on the second track is 180 degrees from that. She returns to ominous portents, but more spaciously, in a short piece she calls Gentle Jangle. Jazz guitar-like voicings give way to disquietly circling phrases and icy deep-sky sparkle in An Impression, then Kerrod breaks out her electric harp again for the woozily skronky Sugar Up.

Likewise, Glare is a sunbaked, resonant piece that could be mistaken for an ebow guitar soundscape. After that, she assembles an echoey lattice that brings to mind Robert Fripp’s early 80s work. Kerrod employs a glass bowl to enhance the shimmering, steel pan-like microtones in Glassy Fingers. then takes it toward vortical Pink Floyd gloom.

Next, she coalesces toward a warped music-box theme, following with Fluttering Alberti, where she works a hypnotic/spiky dichotomy. Can-Can is not a latin number but a return to steady, sinister mode. In the album’s longest improvisation, Kerrod sprinkles spare incisions over a gritty low drone which she plays with a bow.

The album’s concluding tracks range from playful electronics, to a ghostly National Steel guitar-like miniature, a gently insistent, Debussy-esque interlude and a cheerily ornamented electric harp finale.

A Haunting, Starry Night with Guitarist Andre Matos

One of the most rapturous, magical albums of 2021 is guitarist André Matos‘ solo acoustic record Estelar, streaming at Bandcamp. He recorded the collection of “comprovisational” nocturnes alone this past May in Harlem, using a cheap practice model from the 1960s.

Among jazz guitarists, Matos is one of the kings of melody (Bill Frisell and Tom Csatari are good reference points if not necessarily comparisons). But where Csatari comes to jazz via Americana, Matos cut his teeth on the blues, and remains a brilliant blues player. There’s a lot of that here, even if if it’s often allusive, adrift in the stars.

Matos’ phrasing here is very spare, so much that fret noise becomes an essential part of the picture. There are no wasted notes and no big chords, just little chordlets intermingled amid gently floating slide licks. While there are dreamy interludes, overall this is a pretty dark record, no surprise considering the circumstances under which it was made.

Most of these tracks appear to be single takes; a few feature overdubs. The first is Ao Relento (Outside), Matos’ desolate, spare slide phrases congealing into a spare, mournful minor-key blues anchored by a persistent low E.

After the rustic Aguda (Acute), a crepuscular atmosphere lingers throughout Miradouro (Perspective), as Matos reaches toward a bittersweet downward resolution. The suspense in Pensomentos builds as Matos hints at where he might take the hypnotically atmospheric central vamp. Luz Subita, true to its title, is one of the warmest numbers here.

Track six, So (The Only One), is absolutely forlorn and the most album’s most Lynchian interlude. With its throaty, keening slide riffs, Fadiga Do Concreto (literally: Concrete Fatigue) makes a good segue, Matos building to a punchy intensity over a drone.

There are wry hints at a ba-BUMP roadhouse theme in Plantas Medicinas…hmmm, you be the judge.

After that, the unease rises amid lustrous resonance in Chuva Miuda (Drizzle). Matos winds up this quietly edgy suite of sorts with the allusively sinister mood piece Consciencia do Mundo. Assuming that world events don’t derail the best albums of 2021 page here at the end of the year, you’ll see this one on it.

Dark, Dreamy, Evocative, Sophisticated Americana-Inspired Tunesmithing From Peggy James

Peggy James’ 2018 album Nothing in Between was a lush, Lynchian masterpiece. The Milwaukee Americana singer’s latest album, The Parade – streaming at Soundcloud – is a little more stripped down, but guitarist Jim Eannelli rises to the occasion, supplying layers of keys as well. James’ misty, down-to-earth vocals are as unselfconsciously poignant as ever.

The opening track,I Go With Me is an escape anthem, but the past haunts her narrator “A brand new destination doesn’t change my reputation,” she confides over a mix of late 60s countrypolitan and 80s new wave textures that give away Eannelli’s roots.

Willow is a straight-up oldschool 60s-style country ballad with a grittier guitar edge and some tasty twin leads from Eannelli on slide. Thousand Reasons starts out like a demo by an iconic band from James’ home turf, the BoDeans, with a woman out front; Eannelli’s drifty, dreamy, late-period ELO style production from there is spot-on.

There’s more slide guitar and a steady gallop in Guardian Angel, which rocks harder without losing the nocturnal ambience. Hard Times, a steady, backbeat country tune, seems to reflect both the destruction in the wake of the BLM protests last summer, and then the devastation of the plandemic:

What will it take to bind us all together?
Hope to God it’s not another 9/11
We don’t miss the slogans that we never would forget
Now we’re more divided than we ever have been

There’s stark contrast between James’ acoustic guitar and Eannelli’s spacious, resonant electric leads in Best in Me. The guitar layers grow more luscious in the Buddy Holly-inspired So Subtle. Joan of Arc, a venomous, fire-and-brimstone political broadside, is a mashup of Badfinger and 70s Nashville: lyrically, it’s the strongest song on the record.

Likewise, the relentless storm metaphors throughout the most ghostly track here, the ELO-tinged Indoor Cat. James goes back to country in the loping, twangy Crossroad Moment and closes with the unexpectedly raucous but sobering title cut: the fall from grace James chronicles is a personal one, but you can’t help but wonder if that’s symbolic of a greater malaise. And her knowing, wounded voice really drives the song home. It’s a solid follow-up after a career high for James; here’s hoping there’s more from her sooner than later.

Colorful, Dynamic, Meticulously Arranged Loopmusic From Baritone Saxophonist Patrick Shiroishi

The big recording meme of 2020 was solo albums. Among the most interesting to hit the web so far is baritone saxophonist Patrick Shiroishi’s new solo release Hidemi, streaming at Bandcamp. Often using a loop pedal, he multitracks himself into a sometimes elegantly brooding, sometimes exuberantly rhythmic, catchy wind ensemble.

He constructs the opening number, Beachside Lonelyhearts from a somber tableau to an aggressively circling intensity, only to let it drift away into the waves. Tule Lake Like Yesterday is a lattice of staggered, minor-key blues loops with a solo at the center that moves from ominousness to a frantic squall. No surprise, considering that the title refers to the World War II concentration camp where Japanese-Americans were imprisoned.

Shiroishi follows the same pattern in Jellyfish in the Sky, but with a considerably more squiggly, playful series of concentric phrases. What Happens When People Open Their Hearts begins airy, spacious, and genuinely tender, but watch out!

Stand Up and Let Us Witness This Ourselves is built around a staggered bassline, and much shorter than that long title might imply. Shiroishi pulls out some daunting extended technique for the laserlike precision of the fluttery phrases in To Kill a Wind-up Bird: it’s the most cynically funny track here.

If Shiroishi is to be taken at face value, Without the Threat of Punishment There Is No Joy in Flight is bullshit, for many obvious reasons. He could also mean that sarcastically: the theme itself is on the carefree side and the most improvisational one here.

He goes for cartoonish in The Dowager’s Clipped Wings: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Daniel Bennett catalog. Shiroishi closes the album with The Long Bright Dark, a showcase for rapidfire articulation and prowess on alto sax as well, and is the lone moment with vocals: “Is this the end of the storm?” Shiroishi hollers in Japanese.

A Chilling Civil War-Inspired Reflection For Halloween

The annual October-long Halloween celebration of dark music comes to a close today with one of the most somberly beautiful songs ever featured here. Guitarist Chris Jentsch was inspired to write Meeting at Surratt‘s by the events surrounding the trial of Mary Surratt, the first woman in American history executed for a federal crime.

She may have been innocent.

Surratt owned the Washington, DC boardinghouse where John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators hatched the plot to assassinate President Lincoln. She was convicted based on the testimony of others convicted in the conspiracy, who asserted that she’d assisted in providing and hiding their weapons. Evidence at the trial was conflicting; she proclaimed her innocence, and several of those arrested offered supporting testimony. One of her slaves testified as a character witness (although it’s hard to imagine a slave saying anything other than complimentary things under the circumstances).

So is this song an elegy for a woman murdered for being at the wrong place at the wrong time? Or an anthem for assassins who call themselves patriots? Either way, it’s a gorgeous, melancholy, Ashokan Farewell-style folk ballad. Jentsch’s background is jazz, but no style is off limits in his wide-ranging work. The nonet version on his 2019 Topics in American History album is more ominously robust and guitar-fueled, with lush multitracks. The quartet version from the 2018 album Fractured Pop, seems a little faster, with a warmly wistful, gorgeous Pharaoh Sanders-ish Matt Renzi sax solo.

And the way Jentsch ends the big band version, especially, will give you chills. See, Mary Surratt, age forty-three, mother of two children, didn’t so much fall from the gallows as she slid to the end of the rope.

A Brilliantly Dark, Purposeful Debut From Guitarist Nick Rousseau

Guitarist Nick Rousseau‘s debut full-length album Rest/Unrest – streaming at Bandcamp – is strikingly vivid, often troubled music that reflects the struggles of our time. Rousseau plays purposefully, often sparely, with an uncluttered, slightly reverb-tinged tone and writes darkly translucent themes.

The title track begins spaciously and pensively, guest trumpeter Alex Sipiagin doubling Rousseau’s steady, moody, resonant lines, up to a warily reflective solo. Bassist Sean Hannon, pianist Carlin Lee and drummer Anton Kot provide a smartly lowlit backdrop.

The second number, Lucid Awakening shifts quickly from a dreamy bass-and-guitar introduction to somberly descending chromatics, then the band pick up the pace with incisive piano and guitar solos over Kot’s oceanic forward drive. The outro is spot-on beyond words.

Likewise, in Let Their Voices Sing, the band move quickly from a glittering, neoromantic-tinged intro to a shadowy clave, a flaring guitar solo and then a deliciously messy, heavy metal outro. Deassurance, a wistful ballad, has hints of Scottish folk and early Pat Metheny (without the ubiquitous, watery chorus-pedal ambience). The polyrhythmic interweave between Rousseau and Kot – who was only eighteen when he recorded this – is breathtaking.

Mutedly eerie piano glistens over a sketchy rhythm and dissociative loops in Soul Harvest, an increasingly animated tableau where the reaper seems to be having a feast. Rousseau launches into an ambling, guardedly optimistic theme to kick off Reconstruction, punctuating Lee’s loose-limbed, bluesy piano lines with bright, incisive spires.

Rousseau returns to somber wistfulness in Fall Rebuild, a disconsolately modal ballad: this time it’s Lee’s turn to puncture and color around a looping guitar phrase as Kot builds stormy intensity. The album’s final cut, simply and aptly titled Solemn, is a spacious, pastoral tone poem for solo guitar.

Rousseau also has a brooding, Big Lazy-esque, rather macabre single, Gaslight – good subject matter for an era of lockdowns and lethal injections, huh? – up at his Bandcamp page as a free download.

A Lush Lynchian Masterpiece From Howe Gelb and the Colorist Orchestra

It is nothing short of astonishing how after a long career leading iconic southwestern gothic pioneers Giant Sand, and then as a solo artist, Howe Gelb is arguably at the peak of his career as a songwriter. His latest album, Not on the Map – streaming at Bandcamp – is a serendipitously Lynchian collaboration with Belgian art-rock ensemble the Colorist Orchestra. As you would expect just from the artists involved, this is a lock for one of the best albums of 2021.

The group open with Counting On: “The frontlines are closing in,” Gelb mutters as the strings flutter and Sep François’ vibraphone rings eerily. It could be an especially lush Botanica number from that band’s most orchestral, mid-zeros peak.

Gelb’s voice has weathered like a good whiskey over the years, best evidenced here by his unselfconsciously saturnine delivery throughout the cover of the Glenn Campbell countrypolitan hit Gentle on My Mind.

Pieta Brown contributes two songs of her own, first joining Gelb in a duet, Sometimes I Wish, a fondly nocturnal waltz. Karel Coninx’s viola floats starkly over the enveloping backdrop from violinist Jeroen Baert, Gerrit Valckenaers’ bass clarinet and Tim Vandenbergh’s bass. Wim De Busser’s piano is a light in a windowshade alongside the twinkling percussion. Brown’s other duet here is Sweet Pretender, a hazy country ballad.

Percussionists Kobe Proesmans and Aarich Jespers anchor the lilting latin-tinged groove in Dr Goldman, a distantly sinister, enveloping twilight tableau: imagine a warmer, less synthy version of Australian legends Flash & the Pan flown in to the Arizona desert..

The closest comparison to Leonard Cohen here is Thyne Eyes, a semi-bolero gently spiced with De Busser’s plucky prepared piano and the gleam from François’ vibes. Gelb half-sings, half-whispers Ruin Everything in his weathered baritone, the album’s most hypnotic, atmospheric, subtly gospel-tinged ballad. “Now you’ve mastered the art of the undone,” he intones.

The album’s most unselfconsciously gorgeous track is Tarantula, a dusky opening-credits theme with Gelb on what sounds like a reed organ. A single, fleeting moment of menace from the bass clarinet could be the most breathtaking point here.

Vandenbergh’s spare, dancing bass gives More Exes a loping Big Lazy groove behind Gelb’s evocative, understatedly menacing railroad trestle scenario. The group close the record with the title track, a classic Gelb noir bolero awash in aching strings, keening highs from Valckenaers’ glass bowls and some deliciously uneasy, microtonal work from Coninx.