To experience fear is, in some ways, to be returned to a childlike state, to a position of powerlessness and vulnerability. In this condition, the normal terms of engagement with one’s accustomed environment are hidden or missing altogether. The terrain, psychic or real, turns threatening, and unfamiliar, unforseen aspects of one’s personality can sometimes emerge. A ruthless, cunning aggressor takes charge of one’s personality, or one becomes a weakened, helpless victim. The change is sudden, overwhelming and total in its affect.
Explorers are unusual in that they tend to seek out this terrain, to challenge themselves by testing the limits of their endurance and resourcefulness and, along the way, stare back at their own fears, and all in the name of science. But for every Admiral Byrd that has succeeded, there have been dozens more that did not. Conditions turned lethal, materials failed, time and money ran out. Bad luck caught up with them and killed them.
Varde, from Norwegian artist Elegi (otherwise known as Tommy Jansen) on Erik K. Skodvin‘s Miasmah label, pays homage to polar exploration, while also exploring the territory of fear itself.
Jansen has imagined a trip across a wasted tundra and manufactured a sonic interpretation of what it may have been like for the explorers who ventured forward and never returned. The evocation, despite the compelling deployment of recognizable noises, is of an emotional or psychic landscape, as much as an actual polar one. The sounds of a shovel weakly scraping against something hard and unyielding, later replicated in a bow scraping the coiled surface of a taut string, until it warms and opens into a lament. Slow, string-filled surges crest and recede, renew their drives only to fall back again, buttressed by chthonic, bass-heavy rumblings. Untethered voices pass, muttering to no one. Fractured melodic lines cut into and interrupt themselves and then disappear altogether. Tolling notes from a piano’s lower register protrude from the gloomy morass of sound like steps leading downward to an unseen floor. Sled dogs are heard howling and whimpering. Taken together, these all suggest a larger failure, a doomed effort — the futility of struggle against unstoppable forces.
This is ambient music, but where ambient music once suggested peaceful, idealized zones that reflected internalized, utopian (read “drug-induced”) states of being, this new strain (which is called, without a trace of irony, “acoustic doom”) demarks a drug-free zone, a sober, somber investigation into the darker, scarier thoughts just beneath our surfaces.
There is also an alluring sadness and intrigue to this music, a familiar emotional tug, particularly when individual instruments come to the fore. Jansen manages to conjure up notions of a post-human world, the dying out and disappearance of our race. It’s an exorcism of fear, a sonic realization of the last days, a svanesang or swan song, as the third track is called. With this unflinching disc, he has turned a part of his psyche inside out and captured it in musical form as it left its hiding place.
It’s short walk around a Casio keyboard but Leighton Craig knows of more than a few hidden paths and hideouts tucked into his. His first collection on the always-interesting label Room 40, is called 11 Easy Pieces, and it offers a variety of mostly short works that are satisfyingly complete and emotionally diverse.
There is plenty of pleasing simplicity here as well as humor, particularly on the audio cartoon of Self-portrait, Underwater. Another similarly illustrative piece is Vertical Lines Descending, which sounds like streamers of cascading notes overlapping and racing down their scales. The careful balance in the ordering of all these pieces ensures that, no matter the length, each one stands on its own and none overshadows any other, not unlike the qualities of uniformity, lightness and solidity associated with Agnes Martin’s work, a noted inspiration for Craig.
Eno’s influence is ever present here, and in some ways this disc is like a companion piece to his Music For Films in that both offer brief, evocative essays in the form of song. But where Eno strives to use the studio as an instrument, Craig is content to stick with his keyboards, mining them for a myriad of sounds as if he were a medium for their inner lives. Appropriately enough, Threnody, which was recorded during the initial invasion of Iraq, is an extended, rumbling drone that near the halfway point reveals a keening, high-pitched harmony that seems to come unbidden from the keyboard itself. In Memoriam heralds its arrival from the ether with a processed trumpet call, sounding as if it was somehow recorded centuries ago, while retaining the contemporary feel of a numberless transmission from the eerie Conet Project.
On his myspace page, Craig says that, “when the sun goes down, he likes nothing more than to sit at the kitchen table with his four track and record fuzzy keyboard miniatures.” Listening to this, it’s easy to imagine him warming his hands at the pulsing hearts of his beloved Casios while playing them for all they’re worth.
There’s a powerful cultural tendency to romanticize the figure of the artist in general and the poet in particular. To fetishize and valorize the suffering of poets who struggle with drug addiction and mental illness. To make saints and martyrs of them, especially the ones who commit suicide, their deaths an indictment of the rest of the human race. Say what you will about their actual poetry, death has bought for them what their work might not have: immortality. An “honor” sanctioned too often by kneejerk sentimentality.
So with this in mind, every time I came across a reference to Songs for Sad Poets, I’d roll my eyes and keep moving.
Shame on me…
There seems to be something much larger at stake on Songs for Sad Poets than the tragic plight of a select group. The scope of Amini’s lament convincingly takes in the population of the planet. This is music for doomed humans everywhere, and it is unrelentingly bleak and gloriously powerful.
Songs for Sad Poets heaves with dread-filled atmospheres that seethe and undulate, that brood and glower and erupt with merciless intensity before fading back into swarming restlessness. And while the album radiates a coherent unity, each track stands out, singular in its integrity and presence. Aside from Amini’s capacious talents and vision, the strength of these distinctions are owed in part to his dedication of each track to the life and work of a particular poet. There’s no binding correlation between the music and the poet’s work – one needn’t listen, for example, to the simmering, caustic waves, insinuating and spreading across a blighted landscape before they rise up in towering solar flare blasts in the opening track, “Obsidian Sorrows,” and be expected to instantly intuit the life and work of Gérard de Nerval, to whom it’s dedicated. With that said, Eugene Thacker has contributed a series of poems that accompany each track and exist as textual counterparts to the music. A reflection and a remix simultaneously, the poems and the music coexist as much as they thrive independently.
Like slow-rolling fog, many of these tracks quietly emerge and mutate, gathering up clouds of sound that swell and recede, blending textures and timbres as they develop while avoiding any sort of narrative progression. There’s no magnetized crescendo pulling things forward, no cataclysmic explosion or grand moment ascended to. Amini carefully, skillfully conjures his elements and then gives them ample space to transform and surprise and fade away. Even the temporal boundaries of “beginning” and “end” feel irrelevant with tracks like “Demented Skies and “Smoldering Stars” reaching a kind of premature end-like silence in mid-track before they resume and head off in new directions.
Amini also scatters elements of field recordings across his tracks. The ringing silences of “A Quiet Glow” are dusted with the chatter of crickets while “A Shape Forlorn” opens with what sounds like the cycling song of tree frogs. Details like this keep the album rooted in the “real” world – and the wretched, sorrowful state of our world is, I think, a large part of what Amini is getting at.
Running beneath this album, like a searching, smoldering subterranean river of lava, is a feeling of unrestrained anger. Not a screaming kind of anger but an indelible, resolute, silent kind that gets expressed in Amini’s relentless intensity and focus. The more I listened to Songs for Sad Poets, the more I began to think that the sad poets of its title are not only the actual poets the music is inspired by, but the people who dream and, in dreaming, turn away from the harsh realities of our future as a species. The cover art depicts a landscape bereft of any evidence of human life. Is it a photo? A speculative illustration? Is it day? Is it night? Do days now resemble nights? Was this place once inhabited and has since become uninhabitable like much of our world will become? Is it the past, the present, or the future we’re looking at? We are destroying our compromised world at this point simply by living on it. How does anyone live with this knowledge and not lose all hope?
Songs for Sad Poets is a compelling, unabashedly sincere cri de cœur that is both despairing and unforgiving at the same time. A statement while statements can still be made. Listen to it and think.
The uniquely soft sound of a solo flute, traced and refracted by its warbling, water-logged echo, opens the gates to floatings, the captivating new album by Mathias Lystbæk, aka This Floating World, released on England’s Whitelabrecs.
A “concept album,” without any of the cringe-inducing bombast that one might associate with the term, floatings simply and elegantly examines a single instrument, the flute, and various ways in which its sound can be manipulated through effects pedals. While that might seem a bit aloof or analytical on paper, the music Lystbæk has created is rich with mood, color, and mystery.
A number of the tracks are improvised, which contributes to the ethereal, dreamy atmosphere. “Flicker,” breathing in long harmonized notes, glows with wintry warmth before evaporating in a windy spiral. “Winds I” is a simple, descending three-note figure that cycles in a mournful, questioning gesture while “Winds II” has a yearning reach, with Lystbæk pushing his notes upward before letting them fall into a stirring pool of distorted reverb that becomes ascendant before all fades to black. Except for a brief span of breathy texture, “Drops” is one of the least flute-like tracks, sounding more like swelling keyboard pads peppered with random clusters of percussion, as if Lystbæk had recorded his drumming fingers on the keys of his flute while not playing it. “Dust” is another outlier, opening with what sounds like the distant whine of a dopplering train whistle brushed over with silty wind gusts while a bright, high-pitched flute carves a shining figure in the air above. The longest of these particular tracks doesn’t even reach three minutes, and it’s a testament to Lystbæk’s vision for everything on floatings that when working with such breathtaking reticence, he still manages to conjure fully realized worlds. Floatings is a beguiling collection of songs, tableaux snatched from a dream journal.
As with Floatings, the material on Her Watery Eyes, from 2020 is minimally composed and relies heavily on improvisation while maintaining an intimate and subdued aesthetic. In this case, however, the music is built from acoustic guitar, flute, cello, and keys.
Silence and space are integral. The first two sections of Her Watery Eyes are of a piece, with minor key cello, guitar, and keys played sparingly – including an audible sigh or the occasional draw along the coils of a cello string to suggest a creaking floorboard – all of it working together to evoke the feeling of an abandoned house, one in which something awful has happened and which still carries the sense of it in its atmosphere. The ensemble stretches out and wanders this dread-filled zone, exploring and expanding it into music. The second section introduces flute and voice to lend the proceedings a touch of immediacy while adding a richer, more melancholic air.
After all the foreboding, the final section arrives as a bit of a surprise. Gauzy washes of keys predominate, punctuated here and there by odd strums on the guitar or a random stroke on the cello, but as the piece progresses, the heaviness of the established mood begins to abate. The feeling of dread recedes, replaced by an uneasy, tentative calm.
Ghost of Trakl from 2021, inspired by the troubled life and poetry of Georg Trakl, is fittingly anguished and despondent, but no less beautiful or engaging for it.
Delivered in three brief sections and sonically linked by the faint sounds of a trickling stream between each part, Ghost of Trakl has a uniformly sonorous, sighing quality that sounds at times like lamenting earthbound spirits and at times like super-slow versions of songs from The Cure’s Seventeen Seconds/Faith era. (In case you’re wondering, this is meant as a compliment.) Where Her Watery Eyes generally favors acoustic instrumentation, Ghost of Trakl relies a bit more on electric instruments. The guitar has more glint and bite, for instance, while the keys are made to wobble and growl when they aren’t providing bass accompaniment. Tactility is replaced with a kind of goth-like weight. It’s somber sounding, as a tribute to Trakl should be, but the gorgeous melodies keep it all from sinking into a morass. If there’s a quibble, it’s that it’s over too soon.
The first sound heard on Anthony Moore’s CSound & Saz, released on Touch, acts as a commanding call to attention, circular and slicing, something that sounds like metal on metal. But as that sound decays, it transforms into a glowing drone. As Moore explains it in this recent WIRE magazine article:
“I attached a contact microphone to my Turkish saz, strummed it and harmonised the sound with resonant filters, so it became like an organ drone…. Letting that ring on, I used an E-bow to produce a further layer of zinging harmonics and shifting timbres. Then samples of saz were manipulated in various ways, using the CSound coding system. The instrument’s sound became more and more transformed from its natural state….”
What transpires from that bold opening is essentially a live performance, albeit online, and offered in lieu of an engagement Moore was scheduled for at a Touch 40th Anniversary performance, but had to cancel owing to Covid.
That’s the technical and logistical background of the piece (though I admit I lack the space and the courage to delve here into Moore’s 50-plus year career as an experimental musician, writer and singer of complex rock, and soundtrack artist). Even the album title is as functionally descriptive as a recipe, avoiding the slightest gesture of interpretation or suggestion. The heart of the matter is, as always, the music itself and, like the glowing, resplendent image of the wheat field on the album cover, it is radiant, inviting, and glorious.
The drone established at the start and unbroken throughout the track – though continually changing shape, texture, and timbre across its 30-minute span – becomes the field, the foundation from which Moore sets off. Across this field, Moore is playing against himself, but the playing is more an exploration of sounds he can wring from the strings of the saz than an opportunity to burnish his technical dexterity or indulge in noodling. It’s also an exploration of what the CSound makes of music as it’s played and fed straight back into its system. So like the opening attack that becomes a drone, the track in its entirety becomes a record of transformation on numerous levels and scales.
Recognizable strums continue to be heard as the piece progresses, but transforming echoes behind them eventually come forward to obscure and replace their source. Near the halfway point, something that sounds like wooden bells begin to ring (an indication of Moore’s artistry with manipulating sound) just before the saz returns in a fit of heated strumming. The entirety ascends and expands in a radiating crescendo. From that apex, the music falls back, slowly, in steady pulses and sighs, as it fades to rest, leaving you somewhere else entirely from where you began.
There’s a powerful emotional intensity to this piece, and when I listen to it and look at the shimmering field of wheat on the cover, it’s hard to not think of harvesting, of seasonal change, of nature’s cycles of death and rebirth, of how at risk all of those things are now. One of the many beauties and pleasures of this piece is how open it is, not only in terms of space and sound, but interpretation. Walk out into it and see what you find.
The more basic emotional responses one might have to music – it’s beautiful, it’s sad, it’s thrilling – rarely seem to apply when faced with the work of Cindytalk. Cinder, founder and primary member of Cindytalk, after starting the band in 1982, eschews traditional choices and modes in their music, an approach which yields endlessly new experiences in listening. If there’s a consistent emotional response for me toward their work, it’s a continually renewed sense of astonishment. Needless to say, this is rare. If only more artists would be so bold.
The first Cindytalk album I heard back in 1994 was 1990’s The Wind is Strong…, which was also the soundtrack to Ivan Unwin’s unreleased film, Eclipse (The Amateur Enthusiast’s Guide To Virus Deployment).
I wasn’t ready for it at the time, mired as I was in the dregs of a dying interest in more conventional rockist music. The album felt inverted to me, like some kind of wounded creature, mournful and grim and riddled with hidden recesses of pain that would occasionally rupture – between recordings of birdsong and plaintive piano – into prickly, caterwauling, electronic squalls. It mystified and mesmerized me, and spawned countless speculative visions of what that Eclipse film might have looked like. The more I listened to it, the further it pulled me in a new direction, away from the tired music I’d known, and deeper toward the startling, the unknown, and the unknowable. I wanted more.
I managed to track down a previous album, In This World, but failed to connect with it. So I made do with what I had and kept an eye out for signs of life.
Then in 2009, The Crackle Of My Soul, was released on the legendary label, Editions Mego. Fifteen years after my first encounter, I was thrilled to discover I still wasn’t ready.
With its tentative semaphore feed and parched whistling sounds slowly becoming surrounded by low-flying drones, “Signaling Through The Flames” sets the tone for the album, which unfolds into an apocalyptic landscape with negligible boundaries and little sanctuary. “Of Ghosts and Buildings” is all buzzing paranoia and disembodied surveillance, the audio feed of a captured nightmare. “Troubled Aria” is a pulsing shortwave broadcast from an abandoned post, marbled with radioactive wow and flutter, trapped in aether and recorded on a Geiger counter. Distant voices are heard in “Our Shadow Remembered” and “Feathers Burn” but they’re cold, bloodless things, contextualized in ruins of static and disrepair. Tension eases momentarily with the arrival of the “Transgender Warrior,” a floating, radiant being – and a stand-in for Cinder – cloaked in gently pulsing, diaphanous tones, but it’s the final track that completely disarms.
In “Debris of A Smile,” merciful rain is heard and very nearly felt after the relentless crackle and hiss of what’s come before, and it’s accompanied by simple, introspective piano, pointing back in some ways to the album’s title. The track slowly fades into scratch and static, but gently so, and by the song’s end, those elements are being warmed by a soothing sunlit melody that’s forced its way through the pall. Crackle is harsh, alien, single-minded in its realization, jarring yet atmospherically cohesive. Cinder’s pacing and control of their materials keeps it from becoming monotonous, or worse, claustrophobic.
On the surface, the next Cindytalk album, Up Here In The Clouds from 2010 appears to be a companion piece to Crackle but similarities stop with the cover art.
Where tracks tend to exist unto themselves on Crackle in a largely self-contained way, they instead build and cycle and mutate on Up Here, gathering disparate elements along the way while discarding others toward each track’s fully realized expression. There’s a fresh range of textures and dynamics at work, combinatory clashes in extremes. A feeling of a search for something wholly new, rooted in recognizable, raw emotions yet expressed in a revelatory light.
Highlights are hard to choose, but the opener “The Eighth Sea,” with its panning washes of granulated static, conjures up a familiar stormy mood complete with lost souls adrift – yet the emotional affect is cool, stoic, spectral. The emphasis is on the totality of the scene, not the drama in it. A slow, steady, chugging rhythm undergirding hissing gaseous vapors initially propels “We Are Without Words” until the engine collapses and the scene is enveloped in penetrating metallic tones, subterranean groans, and warping sheets of feedback. The term ambi-dustrial, originally coined by Cinder to describe their work, fits precisely here.
“Hollow Stare” dials things back at first, setting up a gently chiming, buzzed atmosphere before bringing down a head-cleaving axe of caustic, shattering noise that thoroughly scratches every last unreachable itch for me. The nacreous, ethereal opening of “Multiple Landings” slowly gives way to frozen blasts from ancient ceremonial horns that call forth rushing layered streams before fading to silence beneath the ring of a closing bell. It feels righteously epic while gracefully avoiding grandiosity. The album closes with “Up Here In The Clouds,” a simple melody played on a keyboard, but its modest splashes of color and warmth provide the perfect ending.
Cindytalk’s next album was Hold Everything Dear , released in 2011. It takes its title from a book of the same name by writer/polymath John Berger (who took it in turn from a poem of the same name by Gareth Davis that serves as the book’s introduction) and it represents another evolution in sound for Cinder.
Some of the material for the album was written and recorded with former Cindytalk bassist Matt Kinnison during the years 2006 – 2011 (Kinnison died of cancer in 2008; the album is dedicated to both him and John Berger). The title, like the poem it’s taken from, is essentially an exhortation to open oneself to a deeper appreciation of existence, one’s own and those of others, before one ceases to be. And from the opening track, “How Soon Now,” with its field recordings of raucous children, echoing wind chimes, and dreaming acoustic piano, through to the album’s closer, “…Until We Disappear,” which seems to answer the question posited in the first title both verbally and musically, it’s clear that Cinder has rooted themselves more directly in the immediate and the temporal than on their two previous albums. The result is a more somber, reflective work, with space and silence given greater prominence.
Hold Everything Dear is an album that’s difficult to pry apart into distinct tracks with particular features. It plays out as a totality unto itself, almost as if it were one long extended work, punctuated by four brief piano interludes that offer variations on a musical theme, while reinforcing sublimated ideas of change and loss and cycles of life. Despite the leanings toward mortality, there’s nothing morose in any of it. It’s a yearning, mysterious, wistful album, rippling with evidence of lived life. Of Cinder’s Mego output, Hold Everything Dear stands apart as the work most reflective of the materialty of existence, embodying presence, absence, and impermanence.
“Time To Fall (Exterminating Angel)” opens with a bell ringing, the summoning sound of which is sent into doubling patterns and feedback before everything is subsumed in a blinding blizzard of ground glass and ascending tones. It’s this combination of the visceral and the ethereal that sets the course for the rest of the album. “My Drift Is A Ghost” is relentless with scouring blasts of static, brittle percussive cycles, and warped mournful pads, all combining to cleanse the interior of your skull as if to clear it of any preconceptions. “To A Dying Star,” a wordless homage to longing, fills that newly cleared zone, unraveling in arcing, granulated banners that spend themselves in extension before disintegrating into silence, while “Interruptum” explores even deeper space and silence with fizzing, popping depth charges, deep descending tones, and haunted notes from a church organ.
The album closes with “As If We Had Once Been,” a radiating throb of sound surrounded by clacking flashes of static. It conjures up an idea for me of what the sun might sound like in all its rotund enormity and random solar flares if it were a living, breathing thing. A bold and utterly unique album, A Life Is Everywhere at forty minutes is too short by half and one of Cindytalk’s best.
And like that album, Labyrinth is also punctuated at its beginning, middle, and end, only not by solo piano variations on a theme. In this case, they are audio clips taken from the 1983, Chris Marker-esque, non-narrative film, Ghost Dance, directed by Ken McMullen, and featuring a cameo from Jacques Derrida, who speaks of ghosts, cinema, and notions of the past. Each monologue, delivered in terse monotone (and not by Derrida), details a list of sorts. The album begins despairingly with “Sea of Lost Hopes” in which the narrator speaks over the sound of pummeling waves of a:
sea of electric eels
sea of unknown movement
far below the surface…
sea of ritualistic murder
sea of history…
sea of lost hopes
sea of despair
sea of occasional reason
sea without time
The voice is soon silenced by a welter of menacing, metallic clatter that builds before coming to an abrupt end. “Shifting Mirrors” is a track that seems to occupy a place of perpetual arrival, wherein an initial approach of creeping hiss, rattle, and crepitation is slowly layered over and replaced by an over-wound, clock-like rhythm that’s eventually pushed under by an encroaching drone that rests finally but uneasily between a somber tone and pure noise. It’s a mesmerizing, unsettling track. “In Search Of New Realities” has an almost techno-like feel with its understated rhythms and ascending pads playing out a mournful melody. It’s ironic to me that the new reality sought after is so reminiscent of an established genre, but it’s a gripping track all the same. “I Myself Am An Absolute Abyss” features a rattling snare drum set loose amidst thick waves of pressure rising and falling beneath a glittering fog of static and the occasional Quindar tone.
“Lost Unfound,” features a Cindytalk solo piano interlude; only this track also features the return of the narrator who wants:
to be inside and outside at the same time
to be the one who sees
and the one who is seen
to enter the place where space becomes time
and time stops still
to escape from time forever
Not to impose too strong a narrative on these spoken parts, but there seems to be a shift from the despair of the first piece to a kind of yearning here, even if that yearning is hopeless. Suitably the music that follows shifts gears as well. “A Wolf At The Door” at 15 minutes in length, is a vast, rain-soaked, ambi-dustrial track that swells and leans and hovers in its sonic materialization of disused space until birds can be heard chirping within it and the tone lightens. A woman’s voice surfaces, mutters something unintelligible and then is gone. Sunlight breaks through but nothing can be seen because nothing is there.
The album takes a bewildering turn after that. “The Labyrinth of The Straight Line,” a grim, tuneless techno track with an unyielding rhythm provides sonic commentary on the perils of conformity. “Sleight of Mind,” a barren ambi-dustrial track is filled primarily with random sounds of gunfire, and “Who Will Choose My Dress” is a cross-hatched thicket of silver scratched clouds that slowly morphs into an unobscured vista floating on layered, dreamy pads. The album closes with “Filthy Sun In Diminishing Light,” a dizzying melange of corrugated, fizzing textures, piercing keyboard stabs and hovering throbs that compete with each other before the track resolves in what sounds like, of all things, steel drums. In the midst of this, the narrator returns a final time:
They’re coming closer
I’ve been expecting them
They really don’t know what’s happening
They don’t know the end
There’s not much time left
The wish to stop time
Is a deathly wish
They’re going to see an image of their own struggle
With their own persona
They’ll be left with that
I’ll leave them that at least
Who are they? Are we them? This image of a very personal struggle, is this Cinder’s “gift” to the listener? Is this Cinder’s struggle with themselves? Is it a challenge from a non-binary person to a restrictive, dominant, binary culture? All of the above? None? A trip back through the album looking for answers sounds like something you’ve never heard before all over again. The Labyrinth of The Straight Line is a manifesto of non-conformity, a puzzle, and a love letter all in one. An essential work.
The tracks on Of Ghosts and Buildings are mostly lengthy ambi-dustrial things imbued with uncanny atmospheres; haunted and inhabited spaces, as the album title suggests, that are thick and seething with the ever-present, cloudy turbulence of Cindytalk crackle and electrified burr. “Long For The Future Long For The Past” puts us in a room with live electrical cables, cut and dangling to the floor, spitting out sparks in all directions. It’s a menacing environment that feels dangerously alive. In addition, the album seems to put more of an emphasis on melody, not in any predictable, patterned sense of that term, but more for use as color and mood, another element among elements instead of a determining force. “A Different Breed Of Flower,” for example, is filled with keening chords that push back against gusts of frigid static.
All well and good, however, it feels as if something vital is missing. For all the moods evoked and textures worked up, the album strikes me as too sedate, too stationary, too vacant. The exploratory principle – a key element for me in Cinder’s work – that’s so prevalent elsewhere feels conspicuously absent here.
Like Of Ghosts and Buildings,Subterminal is made up of long tracks. And like that album, the tracks have a tendency to idle, to claim space without really exploring it.
“See, Seer, Seek” opens up a vast Vantablack chasm haunted with dubby echoes and creepy respirations but lingers in the doorway without venturing into the depths. “Where Everything Sparkles And Shines” rumbles and throbs against splashes of static and piercing church organ but the track stalls, accumulating time and little else. “Systems Are Spiraling” is the highlight for me, a mournful track of random chords rolling in like waves spending themselves on an empty beach while tuneless electric wisps flash and extinguish overhead like dying stars. There’s real emotional power in it. Still, I wish the album had closed with it rather than “We Fly Away With The Birds,” a lengthy passage to nowhere.
There are no surprises anywhere for me on Subterminal. Nothing to raise an eyebrow or a goosebump. Stranger still, I feel no sense of Cinder’s presence. There’s no heartbeat in it, no pulse.
But here’s the thing. Compared with the explosive power and range of the Mego albums, almost anything else is going to sound slight. And what’s the option? Keep rolling in the same rut? I’d rather Cinder grow and change and push their art than stagnate and recycle. And who knows? Time might change my mind. A year from now, these might be my favorite Cindytalk albums. I wasn’t ready the first time I heard their work. Perhaps I’m not ready now and I just don’t know it. Either way, I’ll jump at the next thing they deliver. There’s nobody like them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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’ 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.