KMRU – Giant Steps

Back in 2020, the unofficial year of Covid, I first heard Nairobi-born, now Berlin-based musician Joseph Kamaru’s aka KMRU’s album, Peel (released on Editions Mego.)

Peel is stunning, epic in scope and emotional impact. Each track on it is rich and complex with presence, but my favorites include the majestic slowburn of “Why Are You Here,” the somber, haunted, high plains atmosphere of “Solace,” the densely layered, crisply textured, sinister mysteries of “Klang,” and the steady ascent of “Peel,” which begins in darkness and accrues glittering, shimmering detail as it reaches its radiant peak. Much of what makes this music uniquely powerful and affecting is Kamaru’s absolute mastery of pacing, in allowing tracks to determine their own shape while layering sounds and textures around them so that what’s there seems to develop and transform in an almost sculptural dimension.

I mention Covid not because it’s all behind us or anyone has forgotten what it is. But 2020, when it first took root, was also the year of self-quarantining and lockdowns, and most of the music of Kamaru’s that I’m looking at was released in that year. If someone in the future were to wonder if anything good came out of all that isolation, I’d have to point them in this direction.

Continual”, a release from 2020 mastered by Simon Scott (whom I’ve written about here) presents a dialectical approach to sound and narrative.

The title track plunges the listener in a welter of bass rumble, distorted plinking sounds, and searching pads. Keening strings soon drift in, accompanied by the odd, scratching burlap patch of noise. With its parts assembled, the piece hovers in place, permanently on the verge of cohering yet ultimately unable to. It’s a restless, homeless thing, and unexpectedly beautiful. The second track, “Contrasts,” is almost over before it’s begun. Shot through with static, the track rolls in quietly like a fog, almost unnoticeable, staying close to the ground. The static transforms to a sound of sifting sand, a clap of thunder is heard in the distance, and you find yourself lost in the dunes, cutting through beach grass with a storm closing in behind you. A sudden, insistent, off-kilter rhythm drives you away.

Released as part of 2020’s celebration of Drone Day, the “Saal” EP presents two tracks, equal in length and equally matched in sustained intensity.

That cover image of electrical lines found at tram stations says it all. This music buzzes and hums with physicality, while at the same time creating a kind of steady-state serenity. Not to suggest that there’s anything static about these pieces.

“Saal” starts as a slow-throbbing cycle of cavernous bass that gradually acquires an overlay of pure electrical fizz of a subliminal nature, something, say, like the hidden sound of overhead telephone wires. About halfway through, a single tone drops in and repeats, not unlike a gentle warning from a meter that a peak has been reached. The track gradually fades under increasing static and heavy rumbling, as if the power expended to create and sustain the thick chord of itself has finally pitched into the red.

Where “Saal” conjures up a world of power and control (without being in any way oppressive), “Haal” presents something more passive, more along the lines of potential as opposed to kinetic energy, while suggesting a vast, untapped reserve. A low unbroken drone is sustained throughout the entire track, while something long and snaky arrives, twisting and rubbing itself in passing along the underside of it, nearly breaking through the surface. From this friction a thin, shifting, bending tone emerges, like the flaring whine of a circular saw, but it gets absorbed back into the gravitational force field generated by the drone until the piece folds in on itself and retreats to silence. KMRU’s catalog is filled with gems, but this EP is exceptional.

Moving in a different direction, we come to Jar, released in 2020 on the Seil label out of Frankfurt.

In keeping with Seil’s stated attempt “to make the world a more optimistic place,” the overall mood of Jar feels more placid in comparison to the other releases. In addition, the track lengths are shorter, and in terms of production, there’s a stripped-down simplicity – everything’s constructed from pads, keys, and found sounds – that somehow feels singular for KMRU’s body of work. He’s still expertly layering his elements in these tracks but they stand out with greater distinction, like parts of a mobile as opposed to ingredients seamlessly blended into a singular work. “Life at ouri,” “ulmma,” “note 43,” and “behind there” are all dreamy moods captured, vibrant with colors and textures and pockets of mystery and – with the inclusion of found sounds – a grounded sense of place and immediacy. Still, Jar feels more to me like a series of sketches and experiments with temporal and material constraints than Kamaru’s other work. But perhaps you should go and listen for yourself.

Rounding out 2020 is another EP, “ftpim.” Not unlike “Saal”and“Continual,” “ftpim” is two tracks, nearly equal in length yet opposite in feeling and impact.

The opener, “figures emerge,” pours out a steady feed of clicks and pops and ticks, a dispersion of metallic insects that hover over a placid river of drifting tones. Progress isn’t the motive here. It’s a musical tableau and a tranquil one at that. The flipside, however, “from the people i met,” is not dissimilar in terms of sonic elements, but the mood certainly is. This is a journey through darkness, surrounded by unseen beings, that somehow manages to reach a culmination, a kind of ultimate state of awareness, at which point Kamaru introduces a slow, steady rhythmic panting sound, as if we were suddenly right next to the creature we’d been seeking as much as dreading. “ftpim” is a powerful, eerie work, and this EP is deeply satisfying.

What’s amazing to me is that I’ve only selected what I consider to be KMRU’s best work from 2020. There are a number of other pieces that came out that same year that are worth investigating. Kind of astonishing to consider.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t take things up to the present.

Aside from a fantastic EP, “there was nothing in between,” released in February of 2022 …

… and a lovely, twenty-minute–plus single, “Imperceptible Perceptible,” for Longform Editions (a label I’ve written about here) …

… KMRU also released Temporary Stored.

Drawn in part from the sound archives of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, located in Tervuren, Belgium, Temporary Stored exposes and interrogates the persistent colonialist mentality of the museum acquisition process – its insensitivity and indifference to the actual meaning and function of objects taken – while reclaiming and re-contextualizing the art, or, in this case, audio recordings. To achieve this, Kamaru has “raided” the archives, taking back recordings of interviews, songs of weddings, songs of war, and songs of praise, and incorporating them into wholly new tracks. While the five shorter tracks and one long track of Temporary Stored are of a stylistic piece with Kamaru’s larger body of work, they also represent a different approach in terms of their direct reckoning with a charged sociopolitical subject as well as the use of previously recorded sound samples. The masterful layering of field recordings with subtle musical motifs that fade in and out and the recurrence of revived audio samples all imbue the album with an impressive balance of gravitas, grace, and beauty. There are no standout tracks here; Temporary Stored is a significant and profound statement and a beautiful piece of music from beginning to end.

Af Ursin – Trips to the Other Side

About five or six years ago, I picked up Aura Legato by Af Ursin, initially hooked by its creepy, funereal cover art. Since then I’ve found myself drawn back to it repeatedly by its – not surprisingly – chilling, otherworldly music.

There’s a steady conjuring feeling running through the album, with tracks composed of subtle layers of treated analogue instrumentation that start quietly and build slowly to sustained frenzies that gently subside. I remember being struck by the homemade feeling of it, the deceptive lack of slickness to the production, and how powerful that was in contributing to its unheimlich atmosphere. Aura Legato felt like a remnant retrieved from the attic of an abandoned house, a morbid antique, something deeply personal, not meant for the rest of the world to hear. Listening to it – and I did, over and over – was like listening to a musical grimoire.

Now, thanks to some recent-ish re-issues, I’m finding my way through more of the eerie, ethereal worlds of Af Ursin, aka Timo van Luijk, founder of the Belgian label La Scie Dorée.

On the surface, there’s nothing wildly disparate about these albums. They blend together in one’s memory, existing as components of some larger, brooding, crepuscular mood. But time spent with each release illuminates the differences.

While the entirety of Aika – Un Réveil Sidérant dans le Passé Décomposé is suspended in the manufactured-in-the-present, crackling surface noise of “old” vinyl, the album (first released in 2008) creates and sustains something enveloping, looming, and convincingly antiquated. It’s as if what you’re listening to is a séance from a century ago that was somehow captured and preserved.

The opening track, “Esclarmonde,” taken from the opera of the same name by Jules Massenet, is a solemn, lonely invocation for keys. The timpani on the second piece, “Marche Arrière,” calls to mind early In The Nursery recordings, but that comparison ends with the track’s halting, rusty strings and its call-and-response between a piano and some dusty woodwinds. “Sortilège,” with its distorted, disembodied operatic voices that sound both passionate and tortured, is a highlight. Van Luijk stretches the space of this track out and fills the gaps between the voices with glancing electronic blips and flutters and streaks that build to a manic crescendo before everything suddenly cuts to black, leaving the listener alone in a darkened field. Out of this emptiness comes “Ombre Oubliée,” the forgotten shadow, a cypher dressed in rain, accompanied by a sad melody on an old piano. The album closes with “Un Réveil,” in which the voices heard in “Sortilège” return, only to vaporize in a chill emptiness. The timpani return but sound more muffled, with less thunder. A piano strikes an occasional chord but it floats in ether, bereft of meaning. Suddenly a cymbal crash shreds the dream. Out of the attendant void, a procession is heard, a roaming spectral orchestra of gently rising horns that grows louder as it approaches, punctuated by widely spaced bursts of drums and cymbals. As the ensemble nears, without exactly arriving, the listener is slowly, perhaps unwillingly, brought back to a troubled consciousness before being gently but distinctly abandoned to reality.

Being back in reality, I think it’s worth mentioning that, piano aside on “Ombre Oubliée,” all of the instruments on Aika and the other albums here are played by van Luijk himself. There’s a consistency to the music he creates that I imagine he’s the only one capable of producing.

Originally released in 2012 and recently re-issued this year, Trois Mémoires Discrètes has none of the haunted atmosphere of Aika despite the bleak cover art and van Luijk’s dedication of the album to the memory of a substantial number of people.

What is clear, however, from the plaintive, searching notes of the opening track to the warm, glowing, sustained notes of the final one, is that van Luijk is a master of his craft. “Sylphide” unfurls itself across seventeen minutes in evenly spaced, lamenting, breathy banners of sound cast off from English horns, buttressed by mossy fills from a Hammond organ. There’s a sourness to the music here at times, the sound of instruments that are out of tune or simply not in harmony, but it seems to me that van Luijk is pursuing a feeling, one of loss and mourning, rather than musical perfection. He captures it completely. If you can abide by the idea that this album roughly follows stages of grief, then the next track, “Taciturne,” seems to delve into some of the hurt and confusion that can follow loss. A bleak wind gusts through this track and is echoed in the searching flute that follows it. Van Luijk’s steady bowing on double bass produces a deep growling sound as if some sort of predator were lurking just outside the field of perception. Deeper into the track we hear the sharp crack of a stick breaking, a scuffling of leaves, and the small metallic clink of what sounds like keys – but no door is opened. Instead, the track fades with the distant sound of a slamming gate. The effect is appropriately unnerving. Comfort of a sort can be found in the closing track, “Elegy.” This is a rarity among van Luijk’s music in that it’s imbued with a genuine feeling of peacefulness, a sense of a mind and heart at rest, expressed in a simple organ melody extended over a serene sustained chord. It’s a beautiful, moving finish to an album about the end of everything.

Thomas Sackville, poet and Earl of Dorset, referred to sleep in his poem of the same name as “… the cousin of death.” The original cover of De Overkant, van Luijk’s album from 2014 depicts van Luijk fast asleep and fading into the background.

De Overkant finds van Luijk working with comparatively shorter tracks, but even within these shortened ranges, he manages to get straight to the core of his visions. Highlights would have to include the crisply plucked strings, blushing keyboard washes, and rusty swinging hinges of “De Tweede Persoon,” a title that conjures up to my non-Dutch-speaking mind a kind of hidebound academic but which really means “second person.” Throbbing, wondering organs and crystalline dulcimer strikes sound as evocative as the fabulously titled “Oogsprong,” while the whispering crickets and asthmatic organ groans of “Witte Schemer” take me to a wholly singular place. Things take a surprising turn on “Schijngestalten,” where van Luijk clears a space for an array of percussion instruments. The dreamy, gauzy scrims he usually creates are replaced by the bright punctuation of claves, the call to attention of bells and triangles, and a strange plunging sound that hits like a drum but vibrates like a theremin. It’s music that wouldn’t sound out of place in an early Kurosawa film. All told, the entire album is fantastic and, like all the others here, well worth checking out.

On a brief side note, van Luijk is quite prolific, particularly in his collaborations. Check his work as Elodie with Andrew Chalk, his album Vang Circular with Mark Harwood, his work with Frederik Croene, or some of the music he’s made with Kris Vanderstraeten.

All of which brings us to 2016’s Itinera.

Where the other recordings that make up the Af Ursin oeuvre are played primarily on acoustic instruments with the occasional electric organ and the odd studio tweak, Itinera is van Luijk’s first entirely electronic album. The distinction is telling. The atmosphere of the album feels chillier without the texture and friction of analogue instruments to provide a bit of heat, but titles like “Altitude 111” and “Cepheïde” and “Axis Cosmo” indicate a gesture toward things celestial. Van Luijk himself describes the album as:

“An imaginary one way trip through microcosmic oscillations in seven macrosonic constellations. The space of sound versus the sound of space.”

While Itinera is clearly of a piece with the Af Ursin catalogue, the tracks put me in mind more often than not of speculative soundtracks to science fiction films from the 1950s – without any of the deadening kitsch. “Cepheïde” throbs and sways, kicking up diaphanous waves of queasy-making cosmic dust while “Radiation” is an overwhelming, granulated blizzard of sonic crystals tearing across a lunar landscape. And where “Axis Cosmo” radiates towering dry ice spikes that bloom and flirt with stinging feedback, “Turbulence” casts you out into deepest space before disintegrating you in roving, thousand-mile-high curtains from the aurora borealis. And though I imagine he had something else entirely in mind, Sun Ra’s “Space Loneliness” strikes me as the perfect title for the gorgeous opening and closing tracks, “Altitude 111” and “Meta Libre.” Itinera is a step forward for van Luijk, and like the other albums mentioned here, it’s gripping from start to finish.

Sine of the Times

This is an oscillator, a tiny cyclopean vault that produces one thing: sine waves.

It’s not much to look at, but in the hands of the Ensemble d’oscillateurs, a group of musicians assembled by sound and installation artist Nicolas Bernier, it becomes an instrument of real ingenuity, capable of bold and startling expression.

As to the question of how someone actually plays an oscillator, I direct your attention back to the image above. The big dial establishes a base frequency, the knob on the lower left allows a performer to multiply the amount of repetitions of that frequency – X1, X10, X100, up to X10K, adjusting the speed of it, essentially – and the knob on the lower right determines the amplitude or volume of that frequency, which is measured in decibels. The ports on the bottom are for output. And that’s about it. But from such limitations, the Ensemble d’oscillateurs create rich and strange worlds.

In 2018, Richard Chartier’s LINE label released 4 compositions, consisting of three pieces written specifically for the group and one interpretation of a graphic score.

“États Altérés” by Xavier Ménard is a fitting opening for the album, punchy and dynamic, while exploring dialectics of sound that push and pull and grind and glide before cutting out in random guillotine chops that open onto breathtaking chasms of emptiness. It has a clean electronic purity to it but never feels cold or merely mechanized.

“Shaping Things (A Simple Spectrum)” by Francisco Meirino sounds surprisingly organic in comparison. The oscillators are made to crunch and drip and hiss and leak on their way to an unsettled realm of ascending and descending tones buttressed by sporadic, pulsing bass pressure. There’s something mournful to this track, like the sound of fog horns both warning and lamenting a lost ship, and it’s in this piece especially that the oscillators effectively mimic the timbres of horns and woodwind instruments, a feature that can be directly attributed to the skill and care the ensemble players bring.

Referencing the eerie light that sometimes appears over swampy ground, “Ignis Fatuus (Solis)” by Kevin Gironnay is suitably crepuscular and hazy, built from braided, sustained tones that hover and fade in overlapping layers. After pulling the listener in, that atmosphere is torn away, and any suggestion of something on a spiritual plane is transformed to high pitches, staticky clicks, and the crackling sounds of things short-circuiting. The piece eventually stabilizes but the more ethereal quality established at the start is replaced by something harder and metallic, something less enticing, less forgiving.

The album closes with “SYN-Phon,” a piece scored in graphic notation by Candaş Şişman.  Rather than attempt to describe how it sounds, I’ll post two videos: one of a live performance of SYN-Phon featuring Barabás Lőrinc on trumpet, Ölveti Mátyás on cello, and Sisman on “electronics and objects,” the other featuring the Ensemble’s interpretation of the same score.

It’s said that constraints can foster creativity by forcing a person to come up with approaches they might not have taken otherwise. But as much as I enjoy both performances, I find the Ensemble’s interpretation more faithful to the score, more exacting, and maybe because of the limitations of their instruments, more imaginative. You decide.

While I’m confessing here, I’ll add that as much as I liked 4 compositions at the time of its release three years ago, I wasn’t directing any speculative thought toward a follow-up. The work presented had managed to fulfill any unforeseen longings I’d had for oscillator-generated music. So imagine my surprise when I heard Ensemble d’oscillateurs’ 2 Transcriptions (Oliveros + Pade).

Accompanying this new recording is an extensive, bilingual booklet describing the mind-melting work that went into transcribing the works, “Jar Piece (a Piece of)” by composer and founder of the original Deep Listening Institute, Pauline Oliveros, and “Faust” by electronic and musique concrète composer Else Marie Pade. The trope “labor of love” does little justice to the challenges Bernier and company faced to bring new life to these works. After listening to what they’ve achieved, I can say without hesitation that it’s a huge accomplishment.

Something these new recordings have going for them, compared with the tracks on 4 compositions, is brevity. “Jar Piece” takes off with what sounds like squalling feedback before climbing to the upper registers where it hangs in suspended tones, mobile and free as a hawk riding thermals. Those elongated tones gradually break up into arrhythmic fragments punctuated by swoops and glides while still maintaining their purchase on that upper realm. As the piece begins drawing toward its close, a high steady ringing emerges and stabilizes, pulling a few straggling tones in line with it while others fade to nothing, creating a solid yet airy sense of closure in its wake. In the six short minutes it takes for “Jar Piece” to play out, it artfully wields a laser to your skull and opens your mind to the sun.

The first movement of “Faust” had me convinced that someone was accompanying the ensemble on keys. This is easily the most melodic the ensemble has sounded so far and that sense of melody continues throughout as it sharpens and fuzzes and glints. A genuinely eerie mood is conjured in the second movement with its theremin-esque tones and timbre and the spreading haze of static that subtly drifts in and overlaps. Where Oliveros’ track feels elevated and Apollonian, Pade’s feels mired and earthbound, interior in comparison, like a kind of psychological soundtrack for a displaced person. The third movement is perhaps my favorite: spare, tentative, and gently pulsing with undesignated worry. Unexpectedly, Movement 5 drops the listener on a windswept shore and buffets them with bracing squalls of static before filling that new headspace with a chorus of what sound like crickets overlayed with rumbling growls and almost at times like someone violently bowing a cello. (This section reminded me of Kassel Jaeger’s Swamps/Things, which I’ve written about here.) “Faust” wraps up with a recapitulation of theme and mood and texture, a brief, creepy, narcotized crawl to something more of an ending than a clear-cut finish. It leaves a spooky residue behind it.

2 Transcriptions make it clear that the skills and techniques of the ensemble have grown exponentially in the time between recording their first album and this one. To listen to it and consider that the impressive arrays of sounds produced are coming only from sine waves makes me want to run out and snap up the nearest oscillator I can find just to see what else it can do.

Sometimes you don’t know what you need until somebody shows you. If I’ve done my job properly, you might just need this music too.

Yellow Swans – Going Places & Being There – Nowhere Now Here

Yellow Swans’ 2010 album, Going Places, is a juggernaut of paradox, contradiction, stoner irony, vertiginous heights, mind-erasing intensities, and to my ears, indelible sadness. A sadness combined with the unshakeable awareness of an existential void. It’s confrontational and surprisingly affirming. It will cleanse and annihilate you like a sodium hydroxide colonic. And that, friends, is a good thing.

One of the many pleasures of submitting to Going Places – and this is an album you very much submit to, something perhaps best experienced while lying on the floor in a darkened room – is the unknowability of some of the source material. Wherever these sounds came from (and I imagine it’s from nothing too arcane or occultish), band members Pete Swanson and Gabriel Saloman captured and then distorted and shredded and stretched and prinked and tweaked the holy hell out of them. There’s a singular atmosphere created, something both interstellar and intercellular, as if we were listening to the hurtling edge of our expanding universe and the fission of our cells. I’ve lost myself in this record many times in the ten years that I’ve owned it, and it’s one of a select group that continues to offer up something new whenever I dive back in. The majestic thirteen-minute epic “Opt Out” still gives me fresh goose bumps while it re-fries every last synapse in my skull.

This isn’t a collection of similarly structured tracks that all start quietly, build to a blistering cacophony, and then fade with a “Was that good enough for you?” swagger. The aptly named “Sovereign,” with its steady pulse, somber, keening melody, and barely contained threats of feedback suggests a quiet dominion watched over by an august presence. “Limited Space” with its synced pulse and chiming ceremonial bells conjures up the unstoppable approach of that juggernaut I mentioned in the first sentence, only it’s coming at you and you have nowhere to go. It’s placidly indifferent. You can feel the humid gusts of its breath on your face as it gets closer, yet its arrival ends in a kind of colossal collapse rather than apocalypse, leaving you pressed face to face with a giant, unblinking eye.

The final track, “Going Places,” barely begins, feinting and procrastinating for a minute and a half before the song proper leaves the dock, accompanied by what sounds like the most slowed-down human voice in recorded history and the odd flare of melodic feedback. Setting out toward its nine-minute-mark, the track takes on some thudding bass ballast while a squalling sonic wind kicks up overhead. As that wind begins to gust, shreds of a screaming chorus can be heard, part angelic, part human. The sky darkens. The vessel begins to yaw and pitch as the maelstrom envelopes it. A high-pitched tone rings out – and the song freezes. There is no destination.

Have I mentioned that I love this album?

Anyway, imagine my delight when I heard that Swanson and Saloman had started putting all sorts of Yellow Swans material up on Bandcamp, including not only Going Places but Being There, a supplemental EP – chunks of which were used in the creation of Going Places – that was available in different iterations and formats back in the day. If you liked Going Places, or you’re now curious about it, you know what to do.

While the majority of tracks on Going Places are models of efficiency – trips to the edge of the known and beyond in an average of about five-and-a-half minutes – the four tracks on Being There are extended sixteen-to eighteen-minute raids into sound and un/consciousness. But this isn’t a case of fans-only indulgence on offer. Being There is the sound of artists harnessing the energy of solar flares and making music from them. It has the raw quality of exploration and jamming but also the focus and control of synchronized minds working toward the same thing. It’s raucous and gritty and the exact definition of loud. If you undertake the journey, be sure to strap yourself in tight. Being There will take you further than you might have wanted and leave you with singed eyebrows, smoking hair, and a deranged but satisfied glint in your eyes.

Laurence Pike – Prophecy – What Comes Next?

Australia has been the site of some of the most devastating and horrifying natural disasters in recent years, specifically its climate-crisis-driven bushfires of late 2019 and 2020. Scorching temperatures, drastic loss of wildlife, decimated crops, and sudden floods have all been visited on the country, making it a bellwether of sorts for future life on the rest of the planet.

In response to this rapidly evolving problem, Australian percussionist Laurence Pike has come up with Prophecy, a gentle, limber, searching collection of tracks that expresses both Pike’s anxiety about the state of the world as well as his hope for what can still be done. As he puts it: “Beyond an interest in exploring a musical language to express my own experience, my hope is that the music might share the possibility that we are truly free in spirit, and free to determine our future.”

The opening track, “Goldens” sets the tone, beginning with a ringing, metallic drumroll that sounds somewhat like a distant alarm, soon followed by Pike’s spare, jazz-inflected drumming. A stepped bassline drops in followed by a bright if muted motif on keys – and suddenly a song is born. Pike keeps all the elements in play, adding additional keys and chimes at one point to create a colorful mobile of sound before the piece drops to an abrupt close.

That appealing, loosely wrapped quality of “Goldens” is braided through the entirety of Prophecy and is indicative of Pike’s feel and vision for his music. “Nero” is a perfect example, a driving, questing track, undergirded by a fuzzed-out, monophonic drone. Pike provides tons of energy here, avoiding any sort of bombast, while worrying a tiny shaker, slapping occasionally at a China cymbal, or banging on an array of percussive instruments. You rarely get the sense that he’s using more than one or two drums from his kit at any given time, as if to suggest this is what drumming will be like in a diminished future – less grandiose perhaps, quite different than what we’ve become accustomed to, but entirely possible. It’s tight but very much open.

“Heart Of The Sky” keeps all that energy going. Pike piles on new percussive ideas and textures while a slowly pulsing keyboard throbs in counterpoint before gradually taking over the direction of the piece and pulling it to ground in an uneasy truce. Melody predominates on the pensive “Ember” which features intimate piano, sporadic, tentative percussion, and the occasional presence of a ghostly, backward-masked vocal. The track feels almost alien yet never alienating; it’s a highlight.

The second half of the album has a somewhat more subdued quality, but is no less compelling for it. The title track “Prophecy” is a stately waltz of glittering chimes, cycling keys, and tumbling drums, suspended over a subterranean pulse. “New Normal,” with the steady tension of its drumming and the cinematic intrigue of what sounds like a dulcimer, resembles a kit of parts that fit together precisely while retaining their independent functions. The burning organ drone, random flute sample, and spattered drum patterns of “Rapture,” come across like a miniature template for something by The Necks. And the album closer, “Echoes Of Earth” is evocative of an empty vista at midday, glints of light rising here and there from a dusty landscape, while Pike’s close, quietly frenzied drumming suggests a busy world of unseen wildlife.  

Considering the enormous motivating themes this album is addressing, Prophecy could have become an overblown if sincere cri de cœur. By focusing on the future, however, instead of obsessing over feeling powerless in the present, Pike has avoided that pitfall and produced an album that teems with ideas and emotion. It’s improvisational but it feels carefully structured. It flirts with jazz without committing to it. You can listen to it over and over (as I have) and always find something fresh, some new hook, or idea, or feeling. Give it a try.

And while you’re at it, check out this dazzling video for “Nero,” directed by Clemens Habicht.

Kassel Jaeger – Swamps/Things – Coming Home

The album begins before you’re aware of it. A sonic mist encroaches, building slowly out of silence. Soon we hear burbling water and the squelching, squishing sound of steps wading into the muck of a swamp. Tones rise up, almost painful in nature, sounding like metal rubbing against metal. Then suddenly we’re hit with towering, wince-inducing squalls of feedback buttressed by chest-rattling bass. The feedback gradually stabilizes somewhat and comes to sound like the hollow blasts of a pipe organ, suggesting that we’ve entered a kind of open-air cathedral. But there’s no implied sanctity, nothing ceremonial at work, just revolving, layering sounds occupying space without establishing fixed contours. Then all of this is swept back, leaving a woozy, cycling buzz in its wake, the return of running water, and the sound of footsteps wading away.

If such a thing could be materialized, the title of that opening track, “Fog Constellation (approaching)” could serve as a kind of model for the myriad ideas and impulses at work on Swamps/Things, the new album from Kassel Jaeger on Shelter Press. It suggests something both nebulous and pinpoint specific, something that approaches from no known direction and heads toward no known destination, calling into question your own location in relation to it.

With this album, Jaeger (aka François Bonnet, musician, composer, author of The Infra-World and The Order of Sounds, as well as artistic director of Ina GRM in France) approaches the swamp as an idea – a metaphorical cauldron and locus of creativity where decay and growth are interchangeable components in a larger process of constant becoming. To further clarify, Jaeger states:

The Swamp is us. Our own disappearance, populated by all the beasts we have turned into, by the places we have haunted, and by the time we have consumed. We are traces in an always intermediate state.

As the album progresses, it explores, in a relatively more subdued fashion than the opening track, an array of liminal states and concepts. All is flux in Jaeger’s moody realm. From the stealthy, oscillating pulses and hidden high tones of “River Wensum Roe Deer” to the incremental emergence of a gentle chorus of creatures in the nocturnal landscape of “Patience in Kassari,” each track mutates and evolves according to its own DNA. A peak example is “Accalmie (light gaps)” which begins with withered, high-pitched aspirations furling out over a shifting, layered drone. In the midst of this studied abyss come distant percussive pops, metallic, bright, and randomly clustered. As they approach and disappear, the droning foundation rises in volume and mass, and the aspirations transform to gritty neon contrails that hang in the air, leaving streamers as they decay. After reaching a peak, the aspirations return and the original landscape slowly recedes.

Jaeger draws things to a close with “Ré Island Fireflies (in a distance).” Chirping crickets, throbbing bowed marimbas, and something sounding like distant vocals merge over an increasingly ominous drone. Thanks to the languid, almost narcotized pace of the piece’s near-15-minute length, however, tensions never arise and the moment becomes re-absorbed into the mysterious quagmire it arose from. The piece is gorgeously immersive and powerfully evocative. And it ends with a slow fade to black on a human-free world of crickets.

The album title, Swamps/Things references the half-human/half-plant creature Swamp Thing from DC Comics, while two other tracks, “NYC Bobcats” and “Paris Mustangs” conjure up images of free-roaming, undomesticated animals set in hyper-developed metropolitan environments. As the escalating climate crisis drives both humans and animal species from their habitats into new environments simply to stay alive, forcing a kind of evolutionary hand, it becomes apparent that in Swamps/Things, Jaeger is looking at not only his and our past/s, but also considering the future of our planet, with or without humans. We came from the primordial swamp and, he seems to be saying, that’s where we’ll finally return.

Ryuichi Sakamoto & Taylor Deupree – Live In London – Back In the Moment

The expectations one brings to a live performance can be complicated. There’s straight-up fandom – being in the same space as the person whose work you love, seeing them in the flesh and maybe having them see you. There’s the hope that the pressure of performing live will pull something special out of the artist, some thrilling technical mastery or virtuosic singing or playing that they might not reach in the confines of a recording studio. Then there’s the built-in evanescence of a performance, the unrepeatable, one-time-only element that gives any show an additional charge. Finally, there’s the experience of watching someone believe in themselves for you, seeing someone live out the dream you maybe can’t get to on your own.

It’s no wonder then that live recordings are so often disappointing. So much of them have to do with the physical presence of both performer and audience – something that can’t be manufactured.

Live In London from Ryuichi Sakamoto and Taylor Deupree was originally released in 2016 but only as a double LP. 12k, Deupree’s label, has seen fit to make a digital recording of the entire concert available, and if you’re at all familiar with the work of either of these forward-thinking and boundary-stretching musicians, then you should definitely check this out.

There’s palpable tension running beneath the placid surface of this pristine recording. Deupree starts things off by laying down a benevolent, pulsating layer of tones and, almost immediately, Sakamoto can be heard strumming on the strings inside the upper register of his piano, producing a brittle, glassy sound as both a counterbalance and means of introduction. He further explores his instrument, playing the body of it both inside and out while only occasionally playing an actual note or two. Deupree’s backdrop is anything but static, however, as it acquires richer tones and overtones while continuing its steady throb. The two artists quickly and impressively establish a harmonious synchrony, a connection they maintain and deepen throughout the fifty-five minutes of their performance.

About eight minutes in, Deupree’s reclusive backdrop takes a somewhat sinister, alien turn, as elements of hiss encroach and an intermittent rumble trades places with a soured, atonal buzz. Sakamoto abandons notes almost entirely in this stretch (except for an obsessive, repetitive, surprisingly humorous march of low-end strikes on the keyboard) in favor of the solidly percussive, continuing his attack on the piano body itself. When the low-end march is done, we’re suddenly at the edge of a field steeped in fog. The soundtrack composer in Sakamoto appears, sawing and bending his piano strings against Deupree’s ethereal sonic mist, and together we move forward into the unknown, as Deupree and Sakamoto fuse their approaches and styles into something exploratory, cautious, and pleasingly immediate.

What comes through so forcefully in this recording is the sense of shared commitment from Sakamoto and Deupree, not to self-expression per se but to the creation and exploration of the work at hand. This is music about disappearance, about erasure of the artist’s ego, about surrendering of the self to what the given moment offers. There are no blistering solos, no spotlight-on-me moments. Instead there’s curiosity and patience, movement and discovery, music and sound. Given the distilled results of the work, it’s no surprise that Deupree and Sakamoto are both relentless collaborators, the two of them individually having worked with, among others, David Sylvian, Richard Chartier, P.I.L., Simon Scott, and more recently Alva Noto. (The two of them also recorded an album together on 12k in 2013 called, appropriately enough, Disappearance. I strongly recommend it.)

On Live In London, the idea of time gradually dissolves and is replaced by sound. Deupree unfurls a breathing canvas against which Sakamoto splashes an array of multi-colored chords and prismatic idea fragments. Silence arrives, is considered and afforded small spaces between notes, but is never allowed to settle in. More space is opened, accompanied by a frozen, leaking sound, as if a small hole has been torn in the universe. Everything gets slowly sucked toward that opening, so much so that when I hear an audience member cough and I’m suddenly back on earth, I’m not disappointed so much as amazed at how far away I’d managed to get.

And we’re only halfway through at that point.

Collaborations between formidable talents don’t always yield the most vital results. One listen to Live In London, however, and you’ll understand why this was re-released. This is a live recording that feels absolutely alive. It’s special and deserves a new audience.

Shuta Hiraki – Voicing In Oblivion – Escaping Nostalgia

Nostalgia is a dangerous source for art. Too much contact with the past can provoke an overload of material, much of it deceptively comforting. By further wallowing in it, by straining to recoup what’s been lost to time, the true nature of what’s longed for can be replaced with a sentimental facsimile, or worse, it can result in a self-portrait of creeping despair.

Shuta Hiraki (who also goes by the name Obalto) explores the complex experiences of nostalgia, loss, and the erasure of time with his latest album, Voicing In Oblivion, released on Rottenman Editions out of Spain.

According to the website, the album was “created mainly with old LP records left by his mother in the warehouse, mixing her own recordings of old upright detuned piano from the Nagasaki Sound Bath Museum with field recordings recorded on cassette.” In reaching back into the past, Hiraki has come up with something that pays homage to the meaning and power of personal and cultural history while reframing it in evocative new contexts.

A delicate tension runs throughout Voicing In Oblivion, starting with the first of its four unnamed tracks. Over reverb-laden organ music that sounds very much like a cicada, we hear the sounds of a young child speaking – a classic nostalgic trope. Hiraki quickly moves on, opening up a somber ceremonial atmosphere filled with a mournful shakuhachi flute, portentous atmospherics, irregular crackling, and washes of organ. As a deep rumbling rises up, a spare yet stentorian drum announces itself – but any further suggestions of ritual soon fades into the solitary sounds of someone or something sifting through dried leaves, accompanied by crickets and a distant chiming bell. A broken chord is suddenly played on a piano announcing a change of scenery, followed by individual prodding notes that sound as random and absent-minded as they sound intentional. Someone feels palpably present in the moment of the recording. Is this the child we first heard, now grown? Is it a random sample? Should we even try to create a narrative from these fragments? There’s a secret at the heart of this track that makes for a compelling encounter.

The second track is a bit more stable in comparison but only just. After a brief sound like something heavy and solid being placed on a flat surface, a lush, swirling, orchestral loop sets up – rendered almost campy in effect by being decontextualized – casting a haze over everything. Just as quickly, the glamorous aura is encroached on by a gentle, recurring atonal piano stab, which is soon followed by the appearance of a dogged, hollow, rattling sound. Eventually the piano and the rattle are all that remain until they’re joined by a distant vocal loop. The track continues to unfold and mutate, following an intuitive logic before cycling back to the scrapes and rasps of unseen objects from the material world.

Nothing is fixed or static on Voicing In Oblivion. Every track is suspended in flux, evoking a changing set of circumstances and emotions while suggesting that the past is not finished or even definable, but something that continues to evolve as much as any given present moment. By extension, our relationship to that past changes accordingly.

Hiraki builds up and subverts the many moods he so meticulously creates, yet instead of reveling in chaos, he reveals unexpected spaces and fresh perspectives. He’s attuned to the value of contrast and context, and the third track provides the starkest example. Field recordings, orchestral and operatic samples, forlorn, detuned piano, and the sudden appearance of a whispering human voice stating, “I see nothing… I hear nothing…” all fuse and pull against each other over its nine minutes before resolving in what sounds like a locked groove of an LP. The past and the present are at odds on this track, with neither side establishing primacy.

The final track opens with the crackle of an old LP before settling into a glowing serenity of sorts, complete with bright, chiming notes from a piano’s upper register. Soon enough, a somber pulse takes over, bringing with it the brief, plaintive tones of the shakuhachi. That pulse is sustained through the rest of the track, flaring up at times into ringing voids, pulling back at times to near silence. Hiraki introduces and soon retracts pipe organ, pinched vocals, and muffled fumbling sounds suggesting something being built or dismantled, maybe both, before the track stumbles and crumbles into dead silence.

While the album is dedicated to what is lost to oblivion, the atmosphere is anything but morbid. Surprising and full of emotion, Voicing In Oblivion is also a homage to everything that leads up the moment of loss as well as everything that comes after. Life, in other words.

Moving Furniture Records – Welcome to the Neighborhood! Cuspa Llullu by Anla Courtis and Daniel Menche | Various Weights by Frans de Waard and Martijn Comes

Finding new music is so much easier – and so much more challenging – now than it was when I was younger. While I miss the space and culture of record stores, I’ve found that without a curatorial framework, I’m compelled to look everywhere for something fresh. This can be a dizzying pursuit, but when you come across an artist or label that lights you up, the thrill of the encounter makes the time you put in feel unquestionably worthwhile.

Moving Furniture Records out of Amsterdam is a new discovery for me, though they’ve been putting out music since 2018. Once I began exploring their site I quickly realized that I’d been aware of much of their output over time but had never considered a context for any of it. Orphax, Machinefabriek (whom I’ve written about here), Gareth Davis, Merzbow, BJ Nilsen, and Kassel Jaeger are just a handful of the folks that have recorded for them. I can’t believe it took me this long to put it together.

What particularly snagged my attention was Cuspa Llullu, a new work by experimental musician Anla Courtis (of Reynols fame) and Daniel Menche, fellow experimental musician and a recent contributor to the Touch Isolation comp.

The first of Cuspa Llullu’s two tracks, “Sumaq T’ikraq” starts with a deeply satisfying springing sound – a struck metal string, presumably – that resonates and drones before morphing into beautiful overtones. More springing sounds are soon followed by insistent tapping and hammering on metal, undergirded by the sound of someone sifting stones or scraping the coils wrapped around a metal string. From this sparse, exploratory welter and its elemental character, a binding sort of spirit takes hold, and the piece begins to acquire momentum, accumulating depth and weight and dimension as it expands. About halfway through its twenty minutes it seems to detour to a trainyard where we hear the sounds of hydraulic steam blasts, the gong of distant bells, and the penetrating buzz of a drill heard through a floor or wall. Then the binding spirit returns and we resume our course, heading inexorably toward a clattering, throbbing, blistering totality that’s both soothing and mind-expanding. I’ve taken many trips through this piece already and I can’t get enough of it. You’ll want to use headphones for listening. And don’t be shy about the volume.

The second track, “Achka t’asla,” feels somewhat more focused in comparison though no less galvanizing. For the first half of its eighteen minutes, metallic strikes and thuds float restlessly on tumultuous waves of static that plunge and crest and writhe beneath a seamless, echoing dome of feedback. Courtis and Menche gradually cover that scene with a scrim of static and electrical confetti before folding in the unexpected but perfectly apt moans and howls of a squalling guitar in feedback hell. The piece fades to black, but the startling sounds and evocative atmosphere conjured up reverberates long after.

This is a fresh and visceral record, one that you feel as much as listen to. If you’ve got a taste for gritty atmospherics, check it out.

Hot on the heels of Cuspa Llullu, I came across Various Weights by Frans de Waard and Martijn Comes. While not a strictly collaborative effort, the album instead finds the two artists working independently yet providing each other with foundational sound material to create from: random synth and field recordings, a processed recording of a stylophone, and “recordings of the Web’s first Software-Defined Radio by the University of Twente.” From such seemingly low-key material, de Waard and Comes dig deep and come up with tracks that are vast and psychically enveloping.

De Waard’s “There Are No Two Pianos” is a thirty-two-minute trip through a psycho-geography of fuzzed sounds and rough, crumbling textures, found and manufactured, that swell and recede, fuse and evaporate. Disembodied voices emerge from the aether and pass, leaving no trace or contextual foothold. A round, chthonic drone rides alongside for a stretch like an inquisitive leviathan before peeling off to other depths. A monophonic chorus of high-pitched tones later adds a piercing sense of unease, but that too eventually fades. About two-thirds in, de Waard strips nearly everything away, leaving only the resonating aftershock of what used to be. From that breathtaking nullity, a warm shimmer rises up, like a sun-warmed cymbal being struck, and the trip continues. Though the track ends in a tangle of echoing voices as if one had arrived in a station – radio, train or otherwise – it’s clear that there’s never been any set destination to speak of. Something familiar and otherworldly courses through this piece, and it’s that unnameable yet distinctly present absence that gives it so much of its power and allure.

Where de Waard’s track conjures a liminal soundscape, Comes’ “Boundary of Intersections” is more like a moody avatar, an austere, alien presence, impressive in its single-mindedness yet mysterious for the same reasons. As it hovers and bobs in a glowing steady-state, it slowly reveals more of itself, opening out to release rays and waves of sound that bend and swell and appear to occupy tangible space while remaining diaphanous. As the piece progresses, subtle cricket-like textures occasionally ride the fringes, and a faltering morse code tone makes a sotto voce appearance here and there. But nothing disturbs the trance-like atmosphere. Around the halfway point, the monolithic nature of the piece is swept aside and an irregular series of rising tones begins, taking flight from a rumbling base before dissolving into the occluded atmosphere. With each flight, I feel those streaming sounds rising through me, and I feel part of myself going with them, wherever that may be, every time I listen. And as mysteriously as it began, the piece ends. Rare stuff, here.

If all this weren’t enough, Moving Furniture also has a compilation of shorter pieces available for perusal. I strongly recommend that you check it out as well as the rest of their catalogue. I know I’ll be busy for a while.

Marja Ahti – The Current Inside & Marja Ahti and Judith Hamann – Portals – Uncharted Voyages

The atmosphere surrounding the earth is made up of five distinct layers. Heading skyward, we start with the troposphere, which is the atmosphere we live and breathe in. Beyond that is the stratosphere, followed by the mesosphere, the thermosphere, and the exosphere. Lacking any concrete boundary, each layer is distinguished from the one preceding it by a decreasing difference in temperature brought on by an increase in height.

Scandinavian musician/composer/sound artist Marja Ahti was commissioned by the French audio/visual institute Ina GRM to create something based on the idea of travelling through those layers. “The Altitudes,” the opening track of her latest album, The Current Inside, put out by the Hallow Ground label from Switzerland, feels surprisingly earthbound – yet all the more compelling for it.

Rather than offering conceptual program music that becomes more barren, abstract, and blood-freezingly crystalline as it progresses, Ahti instead conjures up a kind of breathing sonic organism that seems to grow and transform itself with each aspiration. The twenty-minute piece develops in a series of measured, layered, swelling tones that build out of silence and recede back into it. What surprised me at first listen and delighted me in equal measure was the early inclusion of field recordings containing squawking geese, chittering sparrows, and the drip of rain from a ledge landing in what sounds like a shallow, pebbled rut. Ahti gradually moves away from those effects but their earthy, recognizable presence remains in spirit, keeping what comes after it rooted in things material and concrete.

Not to suggest that all is even-keeled tranquility. “The Altitudes” glowers and hovers and throbs, with sounds staticky, mournful, accusing, crackling, or discomfitingly whispery and hair-raising, all of them cycling and mutating with each new iteration. Ahti’s continual stops and starts build and maintain a tremendous and satisfying tension so that when the end is eventually reached, one is left with a feeling not so much of being finished as of being released from the grip of something. You have been moved while listening but through a space with no fixed dimensions. It’s a powerful piece of work.

“The Altitudes”

The four shorter pieces that make up the rest of the album almost function as a suite. The titles – “The Currents,” “Lost Lake,” “Fluctuating Streams,” and “Sundial” – might suggest a thematic portrait, but nothing so straightforward is presented. What holds them together is Ahti’s command of her materials and her ability to create and shape the space in which they exist.

“The Currents” is spooky and spectral, a brief but creepy slice of the sounds one might hear from a night spent in a haunted house. In “Lost Lake,” an uneasy blend of metallic strikes, glowing bell tones, the crackling sounds of footsteps on leaves and twigs, and the odd plink or splash of water evokes emotion without shaping or manipulating it. “Fluctuating Streams,” the highlight of the group, is composed of layers of long tones and overtones, tentative wordless vocals and deep, magnetic rests that swallow up all the sounds that precede them. It has the pace and cadence of ritual and ceremony but without the suggestion of anything remotely spiritual. The final track, “Sundial,” is filled with the sounds of camping: the hushed roar of a campfire, the cry of seagulls, the distant laughter and screams of children playing. But a persistent presence of ominous, layered tones insinuates itself into the speculative scenario, functioning as a reminder of an underlying unease or limit that can’t be transcended.

“Fluctuating Streams”

One comes away from listening to The Current Inside with a recharged awareness of space. The spaces Ahti creates and explores in her work are intimate, segmented, elongated, vacuous, distended with pressure. They evoke uncertain emotions and forestall any opportunity to name or resolve them. With repeated listens, they reward with the continued revelation of hidden textures and new ideas.

Concurrent with the release of The Current Inside, but independent of it, is Portals, a single, twenty-two minute track featuring Ahti in collaboration with cellist Judith Hamann, released by Café Oto. Overcoming relative isolation while stuck in lockdown, the two artists traded tracks while composing Portals, relying on field recordings as well as cello, magnetic tape, and electronics. Aptly named, the piece takes listeners to all manner of locales, both actual and imaginary while never settling anywhere. Waves splash and land on a beach, a door opens somewhere, wood creaks, fat sizzles before mutating to static. An unidentifiable object is pounded and breaks into pieces. Nature and domesticity are witnessed and captured but no narrative is imposed. The disjointed, decontextualized material keeps one hooked and curious while Hamann’s sometimes sonorous, sometimes piercing, sometimes beseeching cello adds warmth, color, and emotion. Deep with intrigue and mystery, Portals is a keen response to the deprivations of lockdown and a crafty antidote to it.