Ambient

Visible Cloaks – Reassemblage

Visible Cloaks is an electronic / ambient duo based out of Portland.  Their debut full-length, Reassamblage, was released in late February, and I’ve been listening to it on and off ever since.  Like the best ambient music, it’s a subtle record, and I’ve spent close to three months trying to make heads or tales of my opinion on it.

In short, this record is really, really well-crafted.  The word ‘texture’ gets thrown around a lot in music (a friend of mine once cynically stated that people described music as ‘textured’ when they had no real opinions and were trying to sound verbose and intelligent), but it should really be reserved for albums like this one.  You really can feel all the sounds on Reassemblage, and there are a lot of them.  Synth notes, often disguised as marimbas, flutes and traditional Asian string instruments like the koto, trickle like pebbles through your hands and flutter like sticks and reads whipping your legs.  This record sounds incredibly organic.  One image that comes to mind is the surface of a pond, which, as one zooms in closer and closer, reveals itself to be teeming with life in every corner.  Another image is of a time lapse of organic life putting itself together, one step at a time, like in this video.  Both the album’s title and artwork are able descriptors.

Visible Cloaks makes excellent use of panning (placing specific sounds at various spatial locations along the left-right channels) all over the record, creating dense, colorful worlds in which a trickling chime pops up over here while a wet, splashing sound buzzes along over there.  The songs develop as a collection of disparate parts, like a series of different insect or plant species, humming along at their own unique cadence and frequency until the natural symphony reaches a breaking point, at which the songs dissipate into the sounds of shattering crystals.  Occasionally we hear voices, cloaked in chorus effects, hum and ‘oohh’ soothingly in the background.  A singular Japanese spoken word passage is presented within the empty spaces left by the gentle clanging of pipes on “Valve”. The record has a notably Japanese vibe to it, and my fiance twice asked me if I was listening to the sound track to Mushi-shi (a beautiful, calming anime that takes place in rural villages of 18th century Japan).

This is the kind of album that doesn’t lend itself to highlighting specific songs.  The ideas within each track are distinct but also make use of similar discrete pieces, and thus the work should be taken as a whole, but some moments do stand out as examples representative of what the album is doing at its best.  “Mask” lets a marimba melody build as whooshing, windswept synths envelop it further and further until it exits out of nowhere, allowing a few glimmering, glistening notes to drift about as if on a light breeze while heavily processed vocals coo softly behind.  “Bloodstream” is the record at its busiest, as rippling notes shoot in every which direction before huge, warm, earthy bass washes over the entire track.  The effect is gorgeous.  “Terrazzo” dips, bends and curls while buoyed by the mysterious sounds of a chorus of shakuhachi flutes.

Reassemblage is incredibly detailed, cohesive, pleasant and thoroughly interesting.  It represents an adept stroke of ambient song craft, and I anticipate enjoying this record at opportune times for years to come.

Score: 9/13

Arca – Arca

April 7th was a day marked on my proverbial calendar since the beginning of the year, because it was the release date for the new Father John Misty album.  I had long speculated that that 80 minute LP would be among the strongest records not just of 2017, but of the decade.  While I’m still figuring out exactly how I feel about it, it’s safe to say it wasn’t exactly the 100% slam dunk I was expecting.  However, another release from April 7th has taken me by complete surprise and is currently my pick for the high water mark this year in music.

Arca is the artistic pseudonym of Venezuelan Alejandro Ghersi, who was educated in New York and is now based out of London.  After releasing a string of very well-received electronic releases over the past three years, united by their dark, unsettling production and red and black, fleshy, creepy aesthetic, as well as producing for Bjork, Kanye, FKA Twigs and even Frank Ocean, the twenty-six year-old has returned with his strongest LP to date, and one that sets itself apart from his discography by heavily featuring his own vocals, sung entirely in his native Spanish.

Arca is an immersive album, incredibly detailed and layered, made by one of the best and most inventive electronic producers in the game in his absolute prime.  The songs are very carefully arranged, abstract, surrealist soundscapes, but they never feel cluttered.  There aren’t a million synths holding out single notes.  Ghersi is careful to leave plenty of open space, especially on the record’s slower, more ambient tracks.  There is almost no percussion, no drum machine.  This is not a dance album in the slightest.  The songs are longing and romantic, and Spanish is the perfect language to encapsulate the torture and beauty present in the themes.  With almost no harmonies or vocal overdubs, Ghersi’s singular voice, covered in natural echo and reverb, sounds like it’s coming straight out of an ancient stone monastery or cathedral.

Kicking off with ‘Piel’, which features only some high pitched notes alongside Gerhi’s soft, surprisingly capable falsetto, he sings of wishing to shed his skin and awake a new person, a sentiment perhaps reflective of his struggle to come out as gay.  Deep bass envelops the vocals in the song’s final third, and we’re on to standout ‘Anoche’, which features a lyric sheet and vocal performance that feels like it could have come out of an 18th century Spanish opera.  “Anoche yo soñé Nuestra muerte simultánea / Anoche yo lloré / De felicidad, qué extraño me sentí [Last night I dreamt / Of our simultaneous death /Last night I cried / Out of happiness]” he sings as shuffling rhythms, compiled from unknowable instruments, mingle with delicate pianos.  The record then moves to ‘Saunter’, which hisses, crackles and squeals from all sides before Ghersi comes through with a stronger, more defiant vocal performance, reiterating a line from ‘Piel’: “Quítame la piel de ayer [Take my skin off from yesterday]”.

The record delves further into dark, explosive, industrial territory on ‘Urchin’, which sounds like a steam-punk-esque, underwater factory pumping out synth blast after blast.  Lonely pianos take back the reigns briefly before the song erupts in an epic climax.  ‘Urchin’ is also one of several purely instrumental tracks, which offer a chance for Ghersi to put certain impressive production tricks and instrumental effects front and center.  ‘Reverie’ (which comes with a rather artistic and unsettling music video), doesn’t let up on the gas, again delving into bombastic, devastating territory with each crackling fourth beat bigger and more expansive than the last.  ‘Castration’ is pummeling, offering tense anticipation in the form of zig-zagging synths before destroying the listener with a flurry of beats that arrive like jabs to the face.

The midpoint of the record is ‘Sin Rumbo’, which offers a breather of sorts.  The airy production, while still plenty terrifying, makes way for Ghersi’s incredible operatic skills, as he reaches higher and higher to sing still longingly about unrequited love: ‘Desde la distancia te añoraré / Camino sin rumbo [From a distance I will yearn for you / I walk aimlessly]”.  The follow-up, ‘Coraje’, continues in this vein, opting for sparse, celestial synths and vibraphone variants to accompany the record’s most bizarre and surreal vocal performance.

The eye of the hurricane of the record’s center is immediately displaced by the album’s most abrasive track, ‘Whip’, which very prominently features the ominous and frightening sound of whips cracking all over the sound spectrum.  The record falls onto a climax of sorts with ‘Desafío’, one of the most insisting and melodic tracks, and one with an honest to goodness verse-chorus structure.  Followup ‘Fugaces’ continues in this anthemic style, and is even uplifting in the face of the album’s continuing theme of pining for a lover from a past so distant it feels more like a dream, with Ghersi singing “Que desilusión / Que solo me quedan / Recuerdos fugaces / Tus ojos de luto [What a disappointment / That I only have / Fleeting memories / Your eyes of mourning“.  The penultimate ‘Miel’ is somber and pleading, the final chance Gerhi takes to speak to the object of his affections, before the record ends with the beautiful, glitchy ‘Child’, the musical soundtrack to walls of stained-glass shattering into a million pieces in slow motion.

If Arca was purely instrumental, it would still be a triumph.  The fact that Ghersi has such a wonderful voice, which so well accommodates his haunting, harrowing music, and sings in a language that does so well to express feelings of sadness, love and disillusionment, sets this record far apart from all his emotional ambient counterparts.  Add in the fact that the album is thematic and features two distinctive sides – the challenging and riveting front, the grandiose and atmospheric back – and you have the makings one of the year’s best albums and a new name to place at the top of the genre, if he wasn’t already there. This is one of the best producers in the game taking a compositional risk that pays off massive dividends while failing to compromise what garnered his acclaim in the first place.  My only gripe with the record is the feeling that the more engaging production work on the front side sets the bar so high that the slower, come-down back side is slightly less exciting.  That aside, Arca is excellent, and I very highly recommend it.

Score: 11 / 13

Peter Silberman – Impermanence

Peter Silberman is the front man for New York trio The Antlers, an indie-pop / dream-pop band that’s three for three on solid LPs, though may suffer from the dreaded “peaked on their first album” malady.  That album, 2009’s Hospice, is perhaps the best narrative-based concept album of the 2000s, telling the tragic and beautiful story of an abusive relationship between a hospice care employee and a terminally ill patient.  There are seriously chilling and wrenching moments on that record, and I would very highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t heard.  What amazed me, in some recent cursory background research, was that Silberman wrote the album when he was only a twenty-one year-old student!  Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii

Anyway, his new record is the definition of atmospheric, low-stakes minimalism.  Forget the xx – it often takes these six tracks multiple minutes to add a single instrument to the omnipresent reverb-dripping, finger-picked guitar riffs.  The constant presence of tape hiss and Silberman’s bare, prominent vocals, with only sparing use of harmonies, make this album an incredibly intimate experience.  It really does sound like you’re sitting in Silberman’s New York apartment alongside him – you can even hear him get up from his chair at the end of tracks.  These songs are skeletal, to be certain, but they often add just the right instrumental touch to give them some understated grandeur.  My favorite, the second-sequenced “New York”, brings in an absolutely gorgeous flute section, one that still sounds charmingly fuzzy and analog, half-way through.  French horns follow suit through the song’s closing.  “Gone Beyond” adds light percussion and bass to its guitar arpeggios, as well as some additional vocals and the sound of rain, to close out the track with the album’s biggest ‘crescendo’.  The rain opens up the following track, “Maya”, which abandons all instrumentation aside from a single guitar.  Halfway into “Ahimsa”, Silberman brings in a gentle bass drum and light synthesizers that sound dawn’s first rays of sunlight, peeking over the horizon and casting the world in a glowing warmth, completing the touch with the sounds of birds chirping.

That being said, the production work is still sparse, the musical equivalent of Hemingway’s iceberg theory.  But the sound of the record perfectly accompanies the general theme – accepting impermanence, imperfection and the fleetingness of time as essential elements of the human condition.  On opener “Kuruna”, Silberman demonstrates incredible patience, allowing the song to meditate on his voice and guitar for close to six minutes before a finale featuring repetitions of the titular phrase, a Buddhist concept of compassion and awareness.  The slow and drawn-out build seems to suggest Silberman’s own desire to take things slowly despite his limited time on earth.  On “Maya”, he delivers the album’s thesis on a platter – “Our bodies are temporary, let it be known / From the start we start to lose them”, a somewhat depressing sentiment until it’s followed by “Try to see like you see at your very last light / Like you’re watching a flood from a comfortable height.”  Rather than succumb to existential dread, Silberman uses mankind’s temporality as an excuse to appreciate the little things in life, and live each day like it’s his last.

“New York” serves both as an homage to Silberman’s home and also a meditation, an exercise in appreciating the world carefully and with fresh ears and eyes – “When the room grew loud / I learned to stand in back / Behind the crowd / Dam canals with cork / Like I never heard New York”.  “Ahisma” (another Buddhist concept, this one of non-violence) opens by stating “Time is all we have / I hope I have enough / Enough to show you love” before a lullaby-like melody finds Silberman singing “No violence / No violence today”.  The album closes with an instrumental that takes a page out of William Basinski’s book, allowing analog organs and pianos to decay and submit to static and tape hiss, a sonic representation of the album’s theme of inevitable submission.

For a six song, 37 minute side project, this is about as good as it gets.  The album is conceptually focused, the arrangements are beautiful, the songs feature some great melodies, and the sparse instrumentation and production are done with tact and purpose.  The record is beyond gentle, so some might critique it as ‘boring’, but there’s a whole genre based around ‘boring’, and I think this record is a welcome addition to the canon of lyrical, melodic ambient music.  The album doesn’t shoot for the moon, it knows what it is, but like the Buddhist philosophy it so frequently quotes, it executes splendidly its modest intentions.  Impermanence delivers on all counts, and I anticipate enjoying it for years to come.

Score: 10/13

William Basinski – A Shadow in Time

Ambient and experimental composer William Basinski is likely best known for The Disintegration Loops, the most melancholically beautiful piece of ambient music I’ve ever heard.  The story goes that Basinski had been transferring an old magnetic tape to a digital format, but as the tape played over and over again, it physically disintegrated, leaving the short, 10 second or so sample to deteriorate, a grain of sand at a time, to complete silence over the course of an hour.  The project was completed on September 11, 2001, before Basinski and friends watched smoke from the World Trade Centers through the twilight hours from their rooftop in Brooklyn.  The music subsequently became the soundtrack to footage of that event.  Some patience is required to endure an hour of a single sample repeating over and over, but the emotional payoff of the effect, which settles in slowly but surely, is certainly worth the time.

Basinski’s newest project, A Shadow in Time, consists of two tracks, each just over twenty minutes in length.  The first, “For David Robert Jones” (aka David Bowie), echoes The Disintegration Loops in structure, looping a few samples that have been treated so heavily with reverb effects that they feel as if they’re artifacts being pulled from somewhere in the distant past.  Early in, a mysterious and haunting saxophone sample makes an appearance and lingers throughout.  The song gradually gets louder and spacier, building so slowly and organically the effect is hard to notice.  The saxophone gradually dulls and disintegrates, and soon the song becomes swallowed by a vast an ominous ocean of deep bass tones.  The piece then spends its last few minutes fading out.

The piece feels like an eerie black and white image that morphs and changes slowly, becoming something much darker and scarier so subtly its nearly imperceptible.  Its worth noting that between the song’s title and the prominent saxophone, which was Bowie’s signature instrument, the song is both an homage to the late singer’s death and an interpretation of him reaching out to listeners from beyond the grave (not that Bowie hasn’t already done that), and I wouldn’t be surprised if the sample was pulled straight from a Bowie song.

The second track, from which the album takes its name, immediately juxtaposes itself with a bright bell tone and horns before evolving into another dreamy, cavernous and ominous soundscape.  Soon distorted fuzz and oscillating bass fill in around high string notes and creepy, echoing ‘everyday’ noises as well as mutated bell and organ sounds.   Late in the song, old, vintage pianos that sound as if they’re peeling away from a decrepit wall plink soft, pleasant melodies, an effect similar to the repurposed 30s and 40s dancehall music on The Caretaker’s outstanding An Empty Bliss Beyond This World.  The bass relinquishes its grip on the track, and the ghostly white noise, ever present, finally subsides to end the piece on an optimistic note.

The project represents long-form ambient music done very well.  The music moves along at a glacial pace, but that’s kind of the point – to show how sounds and moods can evolve through a single note here, or a subsiding effect there.  The title also hints at what I think is the predominant theme of the record, the passage of time and the ability to capture snapshots of it.  The first song is a swelling, black and white glimpse of Bowie from his earlier years or from the afterlife.  The second is a representation of how time heals and soothes traumatizing events until they’re nothing more than a memory.

I could have done with a little bit more variety – 3 or 4 songs, at 15 minutes a piece or so, may have really elevated this record for me.  But the project still works well in two parts.  The first sees time as a continuous loop, the second demonstrates gradual growth and decay.  Both songs are equally evocative and haunting.  While more goes down in “A Shadow of Time”, I think I prefer the staggering bass and sad, wandering saxophone from “For David Robert Jones”.  The project truly does feel like a cousin of An Empty Bliss, both in its instrumentation and its focus on the past as subject matter.

I would actually recommend A Shadow in Time as a starting spot to someone unfamiliar with the ambient genre.  While the magnum opuses of Tim Hecker and John Hopkins can be overwhelming in their breadth and complexity, A Shadow manages to be straightforward without sacrificing production value or emotion.  Though not particularly ambitious, this is one of the most satisfying and thorough ambient projects I’ve heard in a long time, and I anticipate coming back to it throughout the year.

Score:  9/13