Yep, this is the second half of this month’s Electronic Observations, which covers the second half of the alphabet (approximately) and any numbers that might be involved – I had things ordered the iTunes way, so 555 got unceremoniously bumped from top to bottom in one fell swoop. Enough of my yakking – on with the reviews… (Jeremy Bye)
Moonlets / Ben Q Best ~ Moonlets / Ben Q Best
Approximately half of the releases covered in this month’s column have been on cassette, which is pretty impressive going for a format I had pegged as no longer relevant several years ago (and had cleared out most of my own collection), and ties in with the newly launched Cassette Store Day. There’s a clip in the middle of Ben Q Best’s side in which the speaker mentions having a Sony Walkman, a tape player in the car and one at home, in an era when cinema tickets cost $4 (apologies to our American readers, I have no idea when that was but if it is comparable to UK prices it is a good 20 years ago) – for a while, the tape was ubiquitous as the portable music medium of choice. Now it’s ideal for people who still like their music physical and analogue and for labels who haven’t got the resources to splash out on a vinyl edition. Tapes also make a lot of sense for a split release like this; Moonlets and Ben Q Best get a side each (around 30 minutes), and their analogue synth pieces complement each other perfectly. Ben’s side is the lighter, bubblier half; there’s a tangible sense of fun in the music here, as you might expect from someone who names their last track after a YouTube link (to Diana Ross’s “If We Hold On Together”). Moonlets create busy, pulsing tracks, often bookended by beatless interludes; given that they, like Ben, are based in Utah, I guess it’s like being stuck at school or work and then gazing longingly out at the outside world of lakes and mountains; calm, peaceful and unknowable. Two strong mini-albums in one convenient package – I think it’s time to dust off the Walkman.
No Paris ~ Past Decussations
This is the coldest album of month; whilst most artists featured here chuck a hint of guitar or percussion into their musical stew, No Paris is the purest distillation of electronic machinery, and a bleak place it is too, with no space for anything that might be considered natural or organic. I imagine this is what will get listened to in the robot factories of the future, where no human dare step. The opening “Forged Words” is uncharacteristic – a synth played with one finger, like the most minimal John Carpenter soundtrack possible; for a simple-sounding piece it is certainly effective in creating a sense of unease. “Constraints” adopts a different tack altogether, and it’s considerably more creepy; the slow-changing synth chords are given additional levels of sinister by the metal vines that cling to the sound. The final track, “Expectation” is more of the same, an oppressive mix of drone and metallic screed – it’s not necessarily pleasant listening, the aural equivalent of the tension winding up in a horror film before the inevitable disappointment of the reveal – which doesn’t happen here. Past Decussations keeps all the secrets hidden away; you might not want to live in this soundworld but it’s ideal for a visit.
Sangam ~ Sour Face & Broken Nights
This is an album that’s heavy on the atmospherics, but it isn’t what you’d classify as ambient. The closest comparison I can come up with isn’t musical either, but a movie reference: remember watching Se7en or Blade Runner, and after about half an hour the realisation sinks in that it is constantly raining, and the sound of the weather is an intrinsic part of the soundtrack? That’s the feeling on Sour Face & Broken Nights – although the atmosphere isn’t always rain (it is sometimes static hum, or a hubbub of voices) the impression is the same. The way Sangam composes, it seems that the shifting backdrop matters more than the foreground instrumentation, which often sticks to repeating a few bars over the duration. The constancy of the music means it is possible to drift away and just let the music play – it’s almost trance-inducing, and if the tracks were longer than the 4-6 minutes they are, you might wonder where the day went. The album is very well sequenced with beats brightening up a few tracks in just the right places, and the mood does get more darker the further we go (it’s not in No Paris’s league thankfully), right up to the optimistic closer, the end credits moment. I could live without the sampled speech on a couple of tracks, but that is minor quibbling – I have to say I’m a fan of Sangam’s style.
Saroos ~ Return
There seems to be an infinite number of bands that the core members of the Morr and Anticon labels have formed; I’m unaware of the exact quantity but I imagine that it’ll be the subject of Stephen Hawking’s next tome, if he can drag himself away from appearing on The Big Bang Theory long enough to work out such a complex figure. If I was to list the side-projects that the trio who make up Saroos have appeared in, there would be precious little space to mention the music, so let’s skip to the good stuff. This is a record inspired by train journeys which, as regular readers might know, automatically gets a thumbs up from me. You can definitely hear the chugga-chugga-chugga rhythm on many of the tracks, the sound of listless questing and perpetual motion. At times, it’s a little more motorik, such as on “Tsalal Nights”, but that’s no bad thing, as the variety of rhythm keeps the music fresh. In fact, this is an album borne of live jam sessions, and is definitely more organic than might be expected, although there’s plenty of warm and fuzzy electronics present – the hum of the circuits on “Spiaggia Di Pluto” is especially pleasing as are the incidental one-off moments scattered across the duration. Overall, then, very good indeed – if they carry on making records like this they can split into as many groups as they want.
Simon Bainton ~ Visiting Tides
It’s a(nother) little quirk of my iTunes ordering, but Simon Bainton‘s Visiting Tides sits next to Simon Scott’s Below Sea Level on my iPod which, given that they are both inspired by the English coastline, and use its sound as a starting point, is a happy coincidence. That’s about the end of similarities, though, for whilst Scott used his field recordings as the base of his work, with instruments being added as extra colour, Bainton tends to work in the opposite manner, composing pieces that occasionally have the sound of the sea added as a complementary texture. The piano and Danny Norbury’s cello on the delicate “Porlock” have their own natural ebb and flow, and the field recordings of waves add to the musical image that is created. That is about as organic as Visiting Tides gets, though, with electronic burbles on “Lepe” leading into the wall-of-drone that fills “Ruffydd”, and acts as the central musical tone for the next few tracks, gradually moving to the background as more instrumentation appears, before coming back in force on the closing “Haven”. The combination of field recordings and drone work well, and “Porlock” is sequenced sensibly enough so it fits in amongst the harsher-sounding pieces. Listening to Visiting Tides is like looking at the sea from inside a house or car and then, going outside, having to push against the weight of the wind when walking along the beach, and it’s a powerful record that can capture all that.
Stray Theories ~ Those Who Remain
Melancholic ambience is the order of the day here, from New Zealand based composer Micah Templeton-Wolfe. The opening “The Day We Were Silent” is centred around a Sakamoto-esque piano, embedded in an arrangement that’s spare yet richly warm, with discreet percussion adding an inventive additional texture. On about half the tracks, the piano is substituted by a synth but that is a surface change and the mood is pretty much the same across the album, albeit with delightful little touches that raise Those Who Remain above the ordinary – the choir of breaths on “Remembrance” for example, or the late-flowering melody of “Exposure”. The pulse that crops up from time to time helps nudge the album along, lest it gets too caught up in its own inner sadness and becomes too insular. As it stands, Templeton-Wolfe strikes the perfect balance; there’s clearly a weight of feeling pressing down on the music composed here, but it isn’t one of those emotionally-overwhelming records that can only be played at certain times in your life. Full of sadness yet uplifting, Those Who Remain is a truly special album.
Warm Digits ~ Interchange
It’s a bit cheeky to include this as Warm Digits is essentially a krautrock-inspired rock band but there’s enough electronic weirdness on here to give them a pass – that and, like Saroos, they’ve been inspired by trains, in this case the Newcastle Metro system, on which I was travelling only a couple of weeks ago. Besides the Rough Trade Electronic 01 compilation featured both Can and Faust, so clearly the rules are there to be bent from time to time. On “Cut and Cover” the motorik-style drums pound away as the band end up sounding quite a lot like Appliance, an overloaded synth providing the busy basslines and a suitably frazzled guitar being shredded through any number of effects pedals. This more or less sets the pattern for the remaining five workouts, which, as seems traditional nowadays, ignore Neu’s avant-garde noodly bits in favour of taking a cue the bits with beats and hooks. Even the tracks which go a touch impressionistic soon recover; indeed from its metallic fuzz opening, “The Connected Coast” adds a piano and ends up being ridiculously tuneful; it’s like late period Roxy Music covering “Isi” offof Neu 75. OK, Interchange might be a touch derivative in places but when it’s done this well, really, who cares?
555 ~ Solar Express
Rather than fall in step with the dream pop artists who use a similar sound palette, 555 is exploring recognisable territory but from a slightly different angle. Instead of going all the way back to the hazy analogue synth sound of the 70s and early 80s, Solar Express references the ambient techno sound that was synonymous with Rising High records back in the 90s. It has faded from memory somewhat, so it is doubly pleasing that Chris Farstad is not only interested with bringing it back but doing so with an album that comfortably holds its own when measured against the work of Mixmaster Morris et al. The synths are beguilingly floaty, the percussion hints at tribal ritual beats played on a Linndrum rather than a wooden log, and the melodies are layered in a manner so thick it’s as if you could lay on them – a big mattress of sound, as nobody will call it. The whole of Solar Express is a lushly beautiful listening experience, none of the tracks sounding that similar to each other, but all fitting together perfectly. It seems a shame to single one track for praise after that, but I’m going to do it anyway – the opener “Rainbow Death” is sensibly placed to the fore and is the best tune to grace the column this month.