Songs for Doomed Humans – Siavash Amini’s Songs for Sad Poets

The title of Iranian musician Siavash Amini’s latest album, Songs for Sad Poets, put me off listening to it for a few months.

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.

Mood, Color, and Mystery – This Floating World and the EQS Ensemble

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.

And if that intrigues, check out Her Watery Eyes and Ghost of Trakl, both released on Lystbæk’s label A Quiet Room Recording, and featuring him as a member of the EQS Ensemble.

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.

Change Is The Only Constant – A Look at the Work of Cindytalk

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.

A Life Is Everywhere from 2013, presents the sound of Cinder reinventing themselves once again.

“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.

Like Hold Everything Dear, 2016’s The Labyrinth of The Straight Line shares a kind of thanatotic strain.

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.

Cinder’s most recent full-length works, 2021’s Of Ghosts and Buildings, released on the Japanese remodel label, and 2022’s Subterminal, released on False Walls, present a new set of changes.

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.

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.

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.

Touch – Isolation – Natural Selection

In the early days of the coronavirus lockdown, Touch launched their Isolation project. In exchange for a nominal subscription fee, Touch began offering bi-weekly emails containing two previously unreleased tracks (and one back-catalogue track) from their line-up of artists.

To anyone familiar with the Touch label, this was something to be excited about.

Now that they’ve reached the end – twenty-eight tracks, totaling three and half hours of music and sound – I can tell you straight: if you can afford to, buy it. Touch is offering the entire collection as a one-off album. To call it a worthwhile investment is to grossly understate its actual value. What they’ve assembled is a both a perfect distillation of their ethos and output as well as an essential compilation for anyone interested in the ways that music and sound engage and hybridize while creating something new in the process.

By purchasing this, you’d also be helping out a lot of artists whose lives and livelihoods have been upended by COVID-19.

Starting in the natural world, Isolation opens with “Surge,” a head-clearingly windswept track from Jana Winderen (whom I’ve written about elsewhere), recorded at a family-owned farm in Sweden where she’s been staying with relatives since the start of the lockdown. (I should mention that it’s worth your time to look up the stories that go along with many of these recordings, all of which can be found on the musicians’ individual Bandcamp pages, and are accompanied by gorgeous photos taken by Touch co-founder Jon Wozencroft.) Chris Watson follows Winderen with the brooding “Gobabeb,” which uses field recordings captured in the Namib Desert in Southwest Africa. Bana Haffar, a new addition to the Touch line-up, is next with “Conference of the Birds,” offering a tense standoff between seething, pulsing static and the simple calls of an array of birds before settling them into an ethereal rapprochement.

And then we’re off, expanding the parameters of approaches to the project. With “Rewilding,” Mark Van Hoen (one half of drøne, a band he shares with Touch co-founder Mike Harding), combines a sub-vocal radio broadcast (intoning such phrases as “Your fundamental nature is beyond your choice…”) with some simple chords on his piano and the wildlife sounds recorded around his house, which had become more pronounced thanks to the lockdown’s reduction of traffic. Next, “Away,” from Richard Chartier seems to eschew any notions of “natural” field recordings altogether by creating, as he’s done in so much of his work, an enveloping, granulated sound that suggests something both empty and teeming. In the process he subtly calls into question ideas about what nature actually is: A swamp? A tended garden? A concept?

Zachary Paul’s “Aeolus” is the epic, heart-rending sound of forty-seven layered violin tracks, and is matched in beauty by the comparatively austere guitar/piano follow-up,  “Kizuna,” from Christian Fennesz and Ryuichi Sakamoto.

And at that point we’re only seven tracks in.

To be honest, this compilation is overwhelming. And I haven’t said a word yet about ELEH or Geneva Skeen or Simon Scott or Oren Ambarchi or UnicaZürn or Bethan Kellough or Strafe F.R. or Philip Jeck or Rosy Parlane or Claire M Singer or Heitor Alvelos or Charlie Campagna – all of whom contribute many more highlights.

To reduce these tracks to bytes or blurbs would be a disservice. They really need to be experienced firsthand. The trouble is – and this is the best sort of trouble – most everything on the compilation is fantastic.

Isolation is a bounteous, polyphonic gift to Touch fans, newcomers to the label, lovers of field recordings, lovers of music, or anyone feeling starved for contact with the world outside. Listen to it straight through. Listen to it in reverse order. Play it loud or dial it down. Anywhere you dive in, you’ll be met with work that’s gritty, smooth, jarring, soothing, warm, cool. I can’t stress enough the rewarding impact of it. I urge you simply to get it. It’s something I know I’ll be returning to long after this lockdown is over.

Gultskra Artikler – Kasha iz Topora – Trailblazer

Erik K. Skodvin’s Miasmah label has beguiled and seduced me more than once with its intriguing design work alone, tempting me to snap up a CD before having heard a note inside it. In nearly fifteen years, I can’t recall a time when I was ever disappointed.

Kasha iz Topora by Gultskra Artikler (aka Alexey Devyanin) almost escaped my notice the first time I came across it back in 2007, only because the cover art was so markedly different from the usual sepulchral Miasmah vibe.

When I got it home and played it, the differences continued. What struck me then as moody and mysterious and even at times creepy – as sounding like five different albums crammed into one, in fact – still strikes me that way. What deepened all that mystery was the fact that the album’s copious liner notes were written in Cyrillic. As it turns out, they contain an updated version of an old Russian fairytale “about a man with an axe that makes flying porridge.” The idea seemed to be that the music on Kasha iz Topora was a kind of soundtrack to that story. While that may be the case, none of that information has ever contextualized the work for me – something for which I’m truly grateful.

Kasha iz Topora is first and foremost the sound of things, the late night confessions of the left behind objects in a second-hand shop. On the opening track, “Po Derevne” (“In the Village”), a wonky guitar is accompanied by a keening Casio, and what sounds like a wind-up toy, a clinking stack of obsolete tokens, and a rusted carpenter’s rasp.

“Po Derevne”

Musique concrète to be sure, but with an emphasis on expressing and conjuring emotion instead of highlighting technique or artifice. The album unspools and blooms and mystifies and changes its mind again from there. It’s a challenge to determine what’s actually played from what’s sampled, yet the pleasure lies in letting the totality of it animate your imagination with speculative images of what on earth could be making that sound.

“Medicinski Rabotnik”

Surprisingly, considering the frequently grotty, fingerprint-smudged, silt-choked sounds, the music almost achieves a kind of sunny transcendence, particularly in some of the later tracks like “Votpusk.” But even a word like that is almost too suggestive. Kasha iz Topora makes and follows its own path, and that path is wide open.