Archive for the ‘ambient’ Category

Album Review: Leon Alvarado – Music From an Expanded Universe

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

The album cover art is an unashamed homage to H.R. Giger, so you might expect something foreboding, or at least challenging. The five-track album (one of which is a “bonus track”) is surprisingly understated, even with such able guests as Trey Gunn (King Crimson), and Jerry Marotta (David Bowie and many others). It’s a gauzy, nearly ambient recording that manages to convey a spectrum of emotions wordlessly. In places the album feels like Jean Luc Ponty‘s late 70s work (sans violin). On “Cinemania ‘Alive’” the energy level increases briefly. Think ambient instrumental progressive rock meets chillwave a la Zero 7.

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Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 2 (Part 1)

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Marc Ribot (Again)
The second day of Big Ears 2014 kicked off with a most unusual event: Marc Ribot seated in total darkness, armed with only a classical acoustic guitar. Above him on the Bijou stage was a projection screen, upon which was shown Charlie Chaplin‘s 1921 silent film, The Kid. Ribot’s charge was to create a real-time audio accompaniment for the film. This he did with amazing skill.

In fact, while this was ostensibly a Ribot solo gig, in fact the guitarist’s presence meshed so seamlessly with the film that it seemed almost not to exist on its own. His highly expressive guitar lines fit so perfectly with the onscreen images – alternately conveying, joy, menace, whimsy, pathos and the other sensations that encompass the human experience – that one could easily forget about them and simply enjoy the movie.

Which is exactly what the packed house did. Fro the entire film’s run time (approximately an hour), the audience, laughed, gasped and otherwise sat enthralled with the antics portrayed by Chaplin and his seven-year old sidekick Jackie Coogan (known best to my generation as The Addams Family‘s Uncle Fester). Ribot’s real-time score was so perfectly integrated that one could have been forgiven for thinking it has been pre-recorded. As it was, the solo performance was a tour de force, one not likely to be bettered.

David Greenberger
Greenberger and I have been Facebook friends for years, but as a byproduct of his status postings there, I know of him primarily as a writer and visual artist. So when I learned that he’d be doing a sort of spoken-word piece at Big Ears, I knew I’d have to catch the performance.

It was a thrill. In the intimate setting of the Square Room, Greenberger took the stage accompanied by a lively and expressive upright bassist (Evan Lipson), nimble and nuanced drummer/percussionist Bob Stagner, and Amanda Rose Cagle, a multi- instrumentalist who played piano, melodica, accordion, electric guitar, percussion and Theremin (and that’s only a partial list).

The premise was rather straightforward, on paper at least: Greenberger read a number of shortish pieces (“a dozen and a half or so,” he told us), all monologues by characters based on conversations he’s had with residents of nursing homes. These raged from barely-lucid ramblings to bitter tirades to bizarre, Dada-ish rants that made little or no sense in any context. And they were unfailingly entertaining.

The musical backing was as varied as Cagle’s instrumental arsenal. Always well-suited for the monologue at hand, the trio provided deep tone color backdrops to Greenberger’s monologues. Initially I thought the trio was improvising; it quickly became apparent that they were instead working from a highly structured – although often seemingly abstract – plan. The only pop-culture equivalent I can think of to describe Greenberger’s performance (with the trio dubbed And Prime Lens — an anagram of their mutual friend, collaborator and guiding light, the recently-deceased Dennis Palmer) is the word-jazz work of Ken Nordine. While Greenberger’s delivery is less stylized than Nordine’s, it’s every bit as enthralling.

Dawn of MIDI
The festival guide’s preview of this trio painted an intriguing picture: a lineup that essentially follows the classic jazz trio format (piano, bass, drums) plays a highly repetitive, minimalistic totally acoustic kind of music that evokes the sound and feel of early synthesizer music ad/or motorik. The truth was, I suppose, quite close to that description, but my reaction to it was unexpected.

As my sweetheart and I arrived at the darkened confines of the Bijou, we could barely see our hands in front of our faces as we crawled around looking for seats. Once we found those seats, we sat down and I snapped a few photos. The next thing I recall took place approximately thirty minutes later, when I was awoken by my sweetie’s whispered words: “I have two words for you: water torture.” While the insistently repetitive music had almost immediately lulled me to slumber, it had given my partner a headache. Looking around into the darkness, I saw that several nearby fellow concertgoers were also splayed out in their seats, fast asleep. One guy, however, was physically gyrating his torso and head in (attempted) time with the music. Go figure.

My coverage of the second day of Big Ears 2014 will continue.

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Mountain Oasis Electronic Summit: Recap Part 3

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

The third and final night of the Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit featured a host of names with which I was largely unfamiliar. So I took the opportunity to pop into several shows in hopes of finding something that struck my fancy. I was intermittently successful.

Darkside
Seemingly having ingested a steady diet of Wish You Were Here-era Pink Floyd – specifically, “Shine On you Crazy Diamond” Parts 1 and 2, the aptly-named Darkside created a vibe more than they did actually play songs. True both men operated instruments: the Guy on The Right staffed some analog synthesizers and a bank of effects and sequencers, while the Guy on The Left actually played some very subtle (in terms of its volume) electric guitar. Washes of sound with – as the set progressed – more and more bass bombs, Darkside’s set got a more enthusiastic response form the Sunday night crowd than might have been expected.

Alan Howarth
Howarth would be the big Mountain Oasis surprise for me. A composer who does most of his work at home and/or in studios, Howarth is responsible for the evocative, scene-setting music used in a long list of John Carpenter films (among others). It’s his work you hear when you watch Friday the 13th, Halloween, They Live, Big Trouble in Little China and a host of others. Howarth spent most of his set at a keyboard, laying down spooky, fully-formed arrangements of songs that are hooky in their own way. Other than a quick occasional right-hand wave to acknowledge the rapturous applause he earned, Howarth did take time at the beginning and end of his set to speak to the audience. The visuals were some custom-edited, stuttery captures from the films he’s scored; they were fascinating and repetitive and actually complimented his music, which is the opposite way that things usually work for Howarth’s compositions. Howarth did leave the keyboard once or twice to play some electric guitar (while the keys laid out a sequence or three). Fascinating stuff that might lead attendees back to some overlooked soundtracks.

The Orb
In the world of techno/ambient/rave/whatever, there is an outfit called The Orb, and another called Orbital. In the past, when I even thought about them, I often confused the two. No more: because now I know that Orbital is easily the more interesting of the two. How do I know this? Because I saw and heard The Orb. A total snoozefest, The Orb is two middle aged English blokes standing at a table in near total darkness. One of then has headphones around his neck and a file folder packed with CDs; he takes one of discs these out every few seconds and pops another into a machine. The other bloke did something that was even less worthy of visual attention. And the formless sounds they created (well, did they create or merely present them? You decide.) left nary an impression on my mind as I exited The Orange Peel.

Summary
As the supposed successor to Moogfest (which, as reported previously, will continue in 2014) Mountain Oasis pretty much got it right. A well-run festival with a wide variety of acts, it succeeded at what it set out to achieve. Attendance seemed healthy, yet not jam-packed; of course that’s good for the individual concertgoer, but less so for the organizers. Although few of the acts fall into my must-see category, on the whole it was easily worth the time and expense, and I hope to attend again in 2014.

Album Review: Iasos – Celestial Soul Portrait

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

Near the tail-end of the 20th century, I played piano in the “house band” for a monthly coffeehouse in the suburbs of Atlanta. Since my bandmates often played acoustic twelve-string guitars, there were occasional gaps of time between songs, given over to tuning. I gamely filled those gaps with musician jokes. A favorite was this: Q: What does new age music sound like when it’s played backwards? A: New age music.

It got some laughs; more than the jokes about singer/songwriters, anyway. And while it’s true that to the uninitiated, music that falls into the new age bag can sound like nothing’s-going-on-here, a more close listen – to the good stuff, anyway– can be a rewarding experience.

In fact, the best of the genre probably is better described as minimalist (think: Philip Glass) or ambient (such as Brian Eno). And within this little-explored genre, some very interesting work has been created. Among these are the works of an enigmatic artist known only as Iasos. Those wily archivists at Numero Group have put together a single-disc career survey of the man’s work with thirteen tracks spanning the last few decades.

Celestial Soul Portrait takes a unique and potentially risky approach: though the booklet that accompanies the disc is substantial, it provides little to nothing in the way of discographical information. Some of the tracks are discussed within their historical context, but there’s no chronology or anything of the sort in the package. Listeners are left to experience the instrumental music unfettered by such details as what-instrument-is-that and so forth.

What we can discern is that Iasos makes intelligent use of effects pedals, MIDI technology, analog synthesizers and other machinery in service of his atmospheric compositions. There’s nary a click of percussion on theses thirteen tracks; everything floats by in a soft, slightly out-of-focus way, and clearly that’s Iasos’ intent.

While not exactly melodies in the traditional sense, Iasos’ compositions are texture pieces that – if you’re antsy – might frustrate. If you’re the sort who needs your music to “go somewhere,” tracks like “Blue Fire Realms” might frustrate you. Sounding a bit like the extended textural pieces on Todd Rundgren‘s 1981 LP Healing (though, again, without percussion), the song introduces a tapestry of sounds, but they float by, creating an impression that is open ended, leaving the listener to fill in the blanks in his or her mind.

The obscure, unknowable artiste is a common theme in esoteric music, and Iasos’ character fits that to a T. While Ryan Boyle‘s liner notes chronicle enough about the musician’s life to provide some useful context, many key details (such as his last name) are intentionally left out. Iasos is certainly not nearly as “weird” as, say, Jandek, but one can assume that he values his relative anonymity as part of what he needs to create his sonic tableaux. Even Allmusic.com’s bio on the man is a mere 59 words, and no doubt Iasos likes it that way.

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Capsule Reviews: January 2013, Part 3

Monday, January 21st, 2013

Here’s another installment in my occasional series of capsule reviews; today it’s prog, ambient, worldbeat and acoustic. I had a huge stack of CDs deserving of review, but time doesn’t allow for full-length reviews of everything, and these were beginning to gather dust. They deserve better. My self-imposed limit for this particular exercise is 150 words on each album.


Under the Psycamore – I
From Stockholm comes this self-described neo-prog duo (Well, a duo of a drummer/bassist/vocalist and a singer/guitarist, augmented by a cellist). Typical of progressive rock, there’s plenty of drama, emotion and atmosphere, much of it conveyed instrumentally. The vocals here are often (but not always) used more as a textural element than as a means to deliver lyrics. It’s not necessary to be “discovered” by a tastemaker, but it rarely hurts, and Under the Psycamore was discovered by no less a luminary than former King Crimson touch guitarist Trey Gunn (he mastered and mixed I too). Guitarist Carl Blomqvist favors clean, acoustic picking over power-chording, and as such I takes on a dreamy, introspective feel through most of its eight tracks. The Enneagram in the album artwork probably means something; not sure what. But the emotional quality of the music will draw you in no matter what it all means.

Marvin Ayres – Harmogram Suite
I’m a rock’n'roll guy from way back, but beginning in the 80s, I discovered – and became quite intrigued with – ambient music. Now, the brand I discovered relied primarily on synthesizers and other electronically-based instruments, but even then I understood that the form allowed a much wider sonic palette than that. Marvin Ayres‘ work relies solely upon cellos, violins and violas to shape its sonic landscapes – six movements in all – and perhaps it’s the way the whole thing is produced, but the listening experience is so enveloping that you may (as did I) quickly stop thinking about (or caring) what’s making the sounds. Though it’s much more placid than Glenn Branca‘s music, Harmogram Suite does bear some similarities. Most notable among these is the way in which sounds seem to come out of nowhere, created (I assume) by the overtones of the instruments that are present. Recommended.

Mehran – Subterranea
Uh-oh: A concept album from a progressive artist. No fear: although the purported story line of Subterranea concerns what the liner notes describe as “an imaginary, surrealistic and utopian society,” the album is largely instrumental. And Mehran is a flamenco guitarist, so while the backing musicians provide string synth pads, electric bass and drums, there’s an undeniable worldbeat flavor to the proceedings. The lovely melodies have their basis in popular, melodic arrangements, and the new age vibe that pervades much of the music is leavened by the solid rock ensemble backing. (Mehran makes a point of letting the consumer know that those musicians created their own parts; no musical dictator he.) Imagine something halfway between the (admittedly popular) airball sounds of, say, Mannheim Steamroller or Kitaro and something much more dour and substantial, and you’ll find the something approaching the best of both worlds (so to speak) in Subterranea.

Toulouse Engelhardt – Toulousology: Definitive Guitar Soli 1976-2009
I’m not a student of “serious” music, so guitar virtuosi outside the rock spectrum often (if not always) escape my notice (I only “discovered” Wes Montgomery and Buckethead in the last year or so!). So it’s no surprise to me that I had never heard – or heard of – the work of acoustic 12-string guitarist Toulouse Engelhardt. He’s released eight album between 1976 and 2011, and recently compiled this career-spanning best-of. The nature of acoustic-based music such as this – built around Engelhardt’s finger-style guitar – is that it’s pretty damn well timeless. Thus, there’s nothing “dated” about the earlier pieces on the album. They all flow together nicely, taking in elements from various styles. “Revelations at Lunada Bay” would sound right at home on Led Zeppelin III, for example. Engelhardt synthesizes many styles, no mean feat when you’re working with just a guitar.

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