After four years and 124 releases, it took a 12-minute EP to draw our attention to the incredible Aviary Bridge label. This is one of our favorite discoveries, and now we’re hooked. (Of course, saying that we “discovered” the label is like saying Columbus discovered America; by this we mean we found something great that had been there all along.)
Specializing in instrumental hip hop, trip hop and downtempo, this Netherlands imprint is actually three: Aviary Bridge, Aviary Day and Aviary Night. Founded in 2016 by Elleodin (Laura Mason) and LeVirya (Leon Permentier) as a venue for their own music, it swiftly expanded to become the 21st century version of Hed Kandi. Offering music for chilling, dancing, and/or driving, the imprint has been releasing a steady stream of artist albums, EPs and seasonal compilations, the latest of which is Summer Days. But before we get there, let’s give credit where credit’s due and start with rocomoco & The Hidden, whose Wishing the Clouds Away enchanted us from the get-go with fantastic art and engaging beats.
The EP begins with the sound of a key in a lock, followed by piano, a gentle entry. Then those lovely beats begin. This is music to soothe and surround, marked by a sense of safety. The EP follows an arc, dancing around the entry and exit of birds, who serve as a metaphor of light. They are, as they say, wishing the clouds away, a possible reference to Sesame Street but a more direct nod to the art of the daydream. As birds (freed from the aviary?) frolic in the brook, the mind slips away to peaceful premises. The slower “When the Birds Fell Silent” offers a reflective break in the middle of the EP, but the reverie returns in the gentle horns of “I’ll be right with you.” Hint as they might of night, rocomoco & The Hidden are too warm to unnerve. Even closer “After the darkness” skips the darkness itself and gets right back to the sunrise. But wait, there’s more! The trio (rocomoco is two) also released 3:30pm earlier this year on the same label. The birds return on “How is your Karma?” The title / opening track refers to tea, while a 2018 album by one of the label’s founders serves as an ode to coffee. We’re very in tune with the label’s vibe, which coincidentally is communicated here via vibraphone.
Now let’s dance across the label’s 20 releases for 2020 before they get away from us. They can be divided into four sections: two singles, 14 EPs (some as short as 4 minutes long, most in the 15 minute range), two short albums (around 30 minutes each) and two seasonal compilations, Spring Nights and Summer Days, which will eventually be joined by Autumn Nights and Winter Days. While the compilations offer an overview, the artist sets offer insight into the individual flavors.
The latest single, “Portsea,” comes from Inf, Stan Forebee & Tomas Delfgaauw, and is billed as “the ultimate summer of ’20 soundtrack.” We’d agree if summer were only 2:24, but thankfully, despite the pandemic, it’s the usual three months. Saxophone, ocean sounds and happy timbres back up the claim. The earlier “Spiral Clap” by Inf and nephew Captain Waves is more laid back, with the pleasantly retro flavor of ambient disco-era strings.
The many EPs are a joy to spin. The slow, smoky tone of Talks After Ten is a counterbalance to the 3:30 tea break, as the liner notes suggest it be played at 3 a.m. Mr. Hilroy is clearly a night owl, staying up late to write tracks such as “Dreamland” for the rest of us. The soothing vocal samples act as lullabies for the insomniac. With three tracks breezing by in under four minutes, Elsei‘s Haru turns out to augur the seasonal compilations; “Haru,” “Natsu” and “Aki” are the Japanese words for spring, summer and fall. France’s drchamploo offers a quarter-hour of hip-hop jazz on Celeste, which bursts with warmth: light scratches, singalong samples and a sense of being at one with the world. One can imagine sitting on a brick stoop back in the 70s while these jams are playing.
Manchester’s fthmlss has two 2020 EPs, the first of which is Inbetween Skies, permeated by an intensely laid-back vibe despite the fire on the cover. We hear some recurring themes, including dreams and (for more obvious reasons) birds, which resurface on “Cosmos.” The label seems most interested in the liminal spaces between waking and sleeping, darkness and light. “I am so troubled by this soul of mine,” sings the protagonist of the opening track, but the music lifts her up. The same is true of fthmiss’ collaboration with Catch92. The very titles of Altruism ~ “Patience,” “Optimist” ~ lend themselves well to a peaceful, easy feeling. There’s even a t-shirt and hoodie available! Released during a time of international anxiety, this EP is the first to purposely address its time. Continuing on the theme of dreams, we find a parental advisory label on Fdluxx‘s Half Awake, which seems a bit unfair as it implies the album is something other than the thoughtful and collaborative effort it is. While obviously not entirely instrumental, it’s fair game for a lo-fi hip-hop label to include some rap, or in this case, one rap. Meanwhile, Jav C‘s Story of a City Night continues the theme, even referring directly to 3:00 a.m. on one track. One of the label’s jazzier releases, it goes down as smoothly as “Moonlight” and “Feather Pillows.”
Swagger Thief‘s This Will Pass, presciently released just as the world was beginning to grapple with the reality of the pandemic, is a hopeful reflection on grief, a sign that the label has greater things on its collective mind as well. It’s meant as a solace and serves as a salve, even sporting the label’s most ambient cover. Heather Gray‘s “He Said / She Said” is a short, double-sided single, lacking lyrics but with an obvious theme; in the current climate, the genders are interchangeable. This would make a great 45! The Gardener is a little confusing, as the EP is named Light Through Leaves on the top of the release page and Azaleas in the Dark in the body of the text; we prefer the former, especially as that does not seem to be an azalea on the cover. Again, day and night perform a pas-de-deux, along with the timbres of England and Asia. The pandemic has produced an abundance of gardeners; this EP is their soundtrack.
As summer lands, we are introduced to Tabi‘s Just Lounging with a beach umbrella and two chairs by the sea. We hear the sound of the ocean, and if we listen closely, we may hear sirens. We deserve some lounge time after all we’ve been through. “Sunday Morning” is particularly languid. Another ocean-themed release surfaces from LeVirya & Broey. Where the Crawfish Sing tells the story of a crawfish who becomes a human, a la The Little Mermaid. While this seems a relatively placid experience, we’re not sure; we’re missing the scene where the crawfish heads to market and sees his relatives for sale.
This brings us to the compilations, of which there are four: two EPs and two albums. Aviary Day presents: Vol. 1. Sakura includes tracks from Fthmlss (here with capital letter), Bun.E and Book of Kel, and while the music flows beautifully, the presentation seems at war with itself: released in winter, featuring a cherry blossom spring cover and described as “summery guitars and beach vibes,” it may have surfaced a bit out of season. Vol. 2: Eucalyptus fares better with its forest theme and tracks from Ayzic, Jonah Tuska and Tabi, further evidence of the label’s interest in introducing new artists. Tabi’s “Edison” is the highlight, brass exploding from the speakers.
All this is sorted by the 21-track Spring Nights, which features many of the artists already mentioned, along with a slew of new names. Our favorites are all bunched in the center of the album, beginning with LaVirya & The Hidden’s “Head Held High”: a change of partners yielding sublime strings and chimes, positive from beginning to end. This is followed by Fthlmss’ “Peninsula,” the album’s most summer-like, uptempo track (even by title), but we do love summer! Wind chimes launch Terain‘s subtle “Awaken,” the set’s most distinctive piece, which folds guitar, strings, brass, field recordings and louder bells into its two minute ambient frame. And then of course an album with an owl on its cover needs at least one night track; Nomenclature complies with the shaded mood of “At Night.”
And this brings us all the way back to the place where we began: the new compilation Summer Days, featuring the synthesizing artwork of Anna Kuptsova. The 34 tracks were all released as singles in July, which made for one exciting month. And in addition, this one is being pressed to double vinyl. For those who are wondering, there’s a clear difference between this compilation and its predecessor; although Spring Nights contains its share of uptempo tracks, it concentrates on the more ambient side of the spectrum as befits the season. Summer Days throws the windows wide open.
Again there are a few standouts, although the album flows remarkably well as a whole. At this juncture we finally realize the benefit of all those 2-minute tracks; 34 pieces can all fit on a single burned disc (which is what we’re using until the vinyl comes along). The sample of Deph‘s “Oh Yeah” puts us right in the head-nodding, hip-hop mood. Scratches and samples galore decorate the set. evoH & Catch92‘s “A Day at the Park” sounds exactly like what the title promises, as does Tabi’s “Sunshiny Day.” The trumpet is a bonus. Late in the set, Ile Flottante breaks through with the warped, abraded timbres of “Strawbs,” while Chrle slows the pace with the late-night piano of “Flickers.” The record ends on an uplifting note in title and timbre, as Behind the Clouds offers “The Best of What Might Be.”
While listening to all of this warm music, one starts to get the impression that the world is a kind and beautiful place. If that seems a bit skewed to the positive side, all the better ~ it’s a counterbalance to what we normally encounter in media. There’s never a bad time for reassurance, and Aviary Bridge seems prepared to offer it year-long. We’re looking forward to hearing what comes next, especially the winter set, but let’s not rush it; as DJ Kryptonite says, now is the time to get outside. (Richard Allen)