Skalpel – Transit

PlugAudio (PL02), 2014

Generally, I applaud when artists decide to release their own work. Going independent allows for more freedom, of course, while shouldering the burden of the entire process. The only reservations I have are about the material’s quality and direction; perhaps the artist was splintering away to such a large degree that any new music will sound nothing like the past works I enjoy.

With Skalpel, there were no such reservations. Once they left the pioneering label Ninja Tune, I figured Skalpel dropped off the map for good. Not so. Marcin Cichy and Igor Pudlo released their 2014 album Transit via their own label, PlugAudio, preceded by the Simple EP, which hinted at evolution rather than rebirth. Following the lauded albums Skalpel and Konfusion, two of the finest examples of future jazz to date, Transit reduces the sampling and increases the original production, resulting in arguably the duo’s best release.

As its name implies, Transit is a transition; a moving from one place to another. It can be seen as a departure, but with an uncertain destination. The album is cleverly named, for it is akin to a tour of places as they pass by, like a series of snapshots from a vacation. As with Skalpel’s previous work, you’ll still hear the same plucked bass strings, deft percussion, and looped vocal samples taken from dusty jazz recordings (vinyl-sourced static present and accounted for), but there’s more going on now. Programming touches such as synth sequences and glitch-studded percussion enhance the tracks rather than demanding attention; Skalpel is interested in creating a solid product rather than showing off technical skill, which the duo has tastefully displayed since their first release.

There’s a sun-drenched and distinctly European road-trip flavor in the music that gives Transit newfound appeal and vibrancy. It’s immediately apparent in the opening track, “Siesta,” with its combination of strummed harp-strings and plinking xylophone that create a laid-back, somehow coastal vibe. The horns and spliced vocal samples are present as well, but the feel is a far cry from the black-and-white dance kitsch of classic Skalpel tracks from the past (“1958”).

Skalpel doesn’t entirely abandon its roots, however. Tracks such as “Simple” and “Switch” fit comfortably with prior material, but one of the best things about Transit is how smooth the transition has been. “Snow” is calm and meditative, and the plucked guitar of “Saragossa” is playfully engaging. The vocal samples remain the focus in places, such as the lovely female croon of “Sea” and the soulful male loop of “Surround’; while this technique isn’t new for Skalpel, the effect certainly is. (And yes, in case you noticed, the names of eleven of the thirteen tracks begin with the letter “s.”)

Skalpel is still cool, hip, and slyly self-aware, but their idea of the self has expanded beyond the art-deco dancefloor to the outside world. While the added electronics may turn off some electro-jazz purists, Transit is an example of accomplished artists who have committed to expanding their sound while preserving their identity’s core. Skalpel can no longer be pegged as strictly electro-jazz. Transit announces there’s more to them than mere cut-and-paste panache.

Tor Lundvall – Rain Studies

Dais Records (DAIS 089.3), 2016

Rain Studies, the second all-new album contained in Tor Lundvall’s 2016 box set, Nature Laughs As Time Slips By, is something of a culmination of styles. While it’s not as cohesive in concept as The Violet-Blue House or Night Studies – the former (also contained in the box set) being the soundtrack to a specific locale while the latter (from Lundvall’s previous box set Structures and Solitude) portrayed the nocturnal identity of a single town – it remains a focused collection of music that’s also a showcase for how Lundvall’s curious and mystical style of ambient composing operates.

Rain Studies is not merely “Tor Lundvall backed by the sounds of rain”, although such examples do exist: “Girl Through Rainy Window,” “Music in the Walls,” “Pastel Sky.” Such tracks typify the recent direction Lundvall has taken: hazy blooming drones and minimal loops that are neither overly dark nor too flighty, and always with one eye fixed on the shadowed realm of the imagined.  His work – both his music and his painting – are haunting without morbidity, mysterious without dread; his music is sometimes labeled “ghost ambient” for good reason. Lundvall has always excelled at evoking the waking dream and the drawing forth the unusual, and he has proven throughout his discography that he has a talent for doing this via the sparsest of frameworks. If the entirety of Rain Studies followed this structure, it would be remarkable, but Lundvall moves beyond his own established concept.

“City and Sea”, with its lonely tapping percussion and vast atmosphere, recalls the parallel-world urban setting of Empty City; so does “Clouds Over Town,” painting the skies with heavy skies that are as beautiful as they are imposing, while the city sprawls beneath, full of people and industry. The metallic loops of “Clouds Over Town” also bring back elements of The Shipyard, one of Lundvall’s most enduring instrumental ambient albums; indeed, traces of that album run strong throughout Rain Studies.

But again, Rain Studies is an album that surprises as often as it satisfies. The music-box melody of “Rain Song”, fringed by calm rain and one of Lundvall’s strange trademark voice-like samples, breaks up the ambience with elegant pacing; it’s a mid-point interlude, a trace of Lundvall’s earlier and more melodic work. The sublime piano of “Blue Glass” combines this with his recent flair for the ambient, and the icy-yet-warming “Melting Snow” could have fit on the Yule EP comfortably and naturally. The subtle drama of “Overlook” and “Distant Silver Light” are reminiscent of the sense of place that has always marked Lundvall’s work, with the album The Park – also included on CD in this box set – being perhaps the best example of describing a setting through music that he has yet achieved. “The Shipyard in Rust” closes Rain Studies on a high note, with the distant hints of machines emerging slowly through tinted haze; it revisits The Shipyard with a welcoming ear.

One detail that occurred to me while listening to Rain Studies is how often Lundvall includes colors in the tracks of his titles. Indeed, five of the thirteen tracks contain a color; six if you consider “rust” as a color. I can’t help but wonder if there’s a connection between his painting and his music; there would certainly appear to be, with one format feeding the other. Lundvall’s music is a soundtrack to his art, and his art gives shape and form to his music; it’s something of a symbiotic relationship, and while Lundvall’s art graces his album covers, you don’t necessarily need to observe both in order to appreciate one or the other. They are related, but live in separate spaces. Rain Studies is an experience that works its way into you slowly, nestling with a sigh into your subconscious, and makes you see the world through its eyes. Such is the effect of Tor Lundvall, who continues cementing his place as one of the quiet geniuses of ambient music.

Donovan Hikaru & 猫 シ Corp. – CRS 3.0

Midnight Moon Tapes, 2017

If Consumer Recreation Services rings a bell in your pop-culture mind, there’s a reason. CRS is the shadowy group that pushes Michael Douglas to the edge in David Fincher’s surreal 1997 film The Game. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Donovan Hikaru, that quirky reclusive master of the global financial market, has used CRS as the inspiration for three albums.

Hikaru’s two previous CRS releases, 1.0 and 2.0, the second of which was released with a cassette hidden somewhere in San Francisco, containing exclusive tracks for the fan savvy enough to track it down. That’s certainly something Fincher’s company would approve of. The first two albums featured a different direction for Donovan Hikaru, with waves of pensive ambiance replacing the bouncy pop-inspired exuberance of DH albums such as Business Travel Bonanza!.

For CRS 3.0, the structure has seen some changes, the obvious one being that the album is now a split release with 猫 シ Corp., the versatile ambient artist responsible for the mallsoft classic Palm Mall as well as synthwave and broken transmission released under a variety of monikers. Hikaru’s tracks are up first, chock full of an eclectic mix of sax-based lounge and synthwave. The feel is, again, different from his business-based work, but there’s a definite procession from the recent mallsoft EP Kiosk Vibes. His eight tracks display an impressive amount of variety – this is arguably the most experimental DH records to date – and the final track, “They Own the Whole Building…”, veers close to the shadowed corners of dark ambient, making one wonder what Donovan could do in the genre if he devoted more of his impressive international resources in such a direction.

猫 シ Corp. has always shown such versatility, and his contributions are no different. His half of CRS 3.0 is slightly heavier and more ambient, but still has the 80s-synth-and-sax styling of side projects such as the Izusu Piazza-idolizing いすゞ・ピアッツァ ENTERPRISES. Owing to the intensity and urban-noir plot of The Game, the tone skews toward the buried tension that wracks Nicholas Van Orton. “Empty Floor” is particularly noteworthy, with its sparse percussion and mysterious chimes, and “Like My Father Before Me” is dominated by an ominous looped bass synth. It’s heavy stuff, but considering the subject matter of Fincher’s film, it makes a good deal of sense. “Left for Dead” is even more desolate, treading dark ambient waters in a surprising turn; Mexican samples echo in the background, reflecting Van Orton’s confusion upon finding himself transported south of the border. Once the bounce of “Golf Clubs” and the piano-lounge of “Happy Birthday, Nicky” kick in, however, the mood has shifted yet again, back to L.A. chic.

Split releases often run the risk of sounding, well, uneven, and CRS 3.0 is somewhat guilty of this, especially when compared to the consistent conceptual execution of the previous two albums in the series. However, like the film that inspired it, the album runs an impressive gauntlet of emotion, reflected in the deftly conceived and executed range of styles. What CRS 3.0 might lack in consistency, it more than makes up for with hefty doses of creativity and experimentation.

Broken Light – Silhouette

The Vapour Library (TVL-018), 2016

Assembled from an assortment of seemingly disparate pieces, Silhouette from Broken Light is well-named. This is an indistinct, apparently incomplete record; a solution to an undefined puzzle. It’s one thing to make a conceptual record, but quite another to toss a bunch of snippets into a digital blender, with a result that doesn’t simply leave a question unanswered – Broken Light doesn’t bother with asking a question in the first place.

But here lies the mystique: somehow, it all fits. The hazy-shadow figure on the cover of Silhouette is the only initial clue we’re given: a person wearing what appears to be a long collared coat, standing quietly against a white background. The track titles provide further elusive hints, if they are hints at all. Broken Light has cleverly pieced together snippets of baroque string and classical piano, skewed melodic samples of unknown provenance, and a scattering of Asian-sourced fragments, sent through various delicate filters and manipulated by speed and timbre. There are twenty-two pieces here, few lasting longer than ninety seconds or so, but the atmosphere, somehow, remains consistent.

The manner with which Broken Light has arranged the sequence creates and maintains a sort of shadowed beauty, echoing the cover image. The piano of “Enclosure” is, I’m quite certain, pilfered from one of Chopin’s nocturnes, and a few others sound achingly familiar, but I can’t quite place them. Perhaps this contributes to the sense of mystery and loss. Then you have the sing-song beauty of “Angel”, with a pitched-up Asian vocal surely lifted from some obscure film or album, but reduced to an alien loop backed by pipe, strings, and trickling water, all combining to match the emotion twisting off the somber violin and winsome piano in curling tendrils. If there is a story here – and this certainly seems to be the case – it is a profoundly strange and buried one. On the other hand, part of the attraction of this type of minimally presented album is the welcome opportunity to create your own, should you prefer.

Since unlocking and absorbing this odd and beautifully curated music box, wisps of melody have begun to drift through my head at random intervals. At first, I thought it was my subconscious diving into the depths of memory and surfacing with some half-remembered tiny musical jewel. It remained for a while, as I fumble, amused, for a name or connection, only to have it sink back into the mysterious place from whence it came. It was only later that I realized it was a floating piece of Silhouette, turned up my ever-moving mental tide, which seems to operate by its own rules more often than not. Perhaps Broken Light’s intent was to create a tribute to the inexact elegance of memory; mission accomplished.

I’m not sure if Broken Light is a genius at sound selection and manipulation, or just happened to fit these fragments together in a pattern that is more than the sum of its parts. Likely a droplet of both. Not everyone will react to Silhouette in the same way I have, but I’d wager that there are surely others who will find themselves caught up in its hypnotic web, and be glad for it.

Die Relicta – Relicta Aeternum

MNMN Records (MNMN422), 2016

I write a lot about “ambient music,” but I’ve always grappled with that second word. Much of what I listen to isn’t really music at all, in the traditional sense, but cleverly arranged and processed sound collages that create unique atmospheres. Some of my favorite ambient albums don’t have a single note of melody in them whatsoever. So I am constantly asking myself: is this really music? What is music, at its most basic level?

Ambient music implies the creation of sounds that are part of the environment, whether natural or imagined, and tend to shift the listener’s experience from conscious to subconscious to, at times, the unconscious. It meshes with your perception in a surreal way that traditional note-based music rarely does; indeed, this is part of its attraction.

By this reasoning, I’m not entirely sure I’d call Relicta Aeternum an ambient album at all. Russian project Die Relicta’s sole release ticks the electronic and beatless boxes on the ambient checklist, but the similarities stop there. This is an album of solemn melody, of profound emotion conjured through the procession of notes. There’s tendency to label albums like this as “cinematic” or “faux soundtrack,” and while this is tempting, it’s not always applicable. Relicta Aeternum falls somewhere between the drifty compositions of the Spotted Peccary discography, and the isolationist gloom that tends to dominate Cryo Chamber and Cyclic Law labels. Die Relicta’s beauty is melancholic, but never despairingly so.

What also separates Relicta Aeternum from bright-air New-Age ambient are the lightly scraping loops of sampled noise that thread among its dusty hymn-like arias. The resulting mood – part cathedral-inspired numinous and part abandoned factory – recalls Peter Andersson’s early work as raison d’etre: a sense of awe and reverence for something elusively and exclusively beyond oneself; the mystery of The Other juxtaposed with the constructed. There’s joy and sorrow to be found in the ephemeral; how the remnants of the past hint at former glory, which once shone bright and strong but has lost its essence forever. And yet, there is wonder to be found in the fact such wonders existed at all, and the implication is that such a pinnacle will be reached once again.

This is the message Die Relicta has provided. While Relicta Aeternum is short at thirty-three minutes, each of the five tracks is a grand and stirring jewel. The album’s title translates roughly as “leaving forever,” and the reverential sense of parting and the beginning of a new path have been powerfully captured by Die Relicta. Call it ambient, call it cinematic, call it what you will – but Relicta Aeternum, by any name, is sublime.

Kammarheit – Kollektionen

bandcamp, 2016

Kammarheit is a project that needs little introduction. Pär Boström’s flagship project is celebrated in dark ambient circles, and for good reason: it has an elemental and timeless sound that seems drawn directly from some alternate dimension of meditative shadow. There’s little dispute that albums such as Asleep and Well Hidden and The Starwheel are staples of the genre, if not outright classics, but there’s more depth to Kammarheit.

Kollektionen is, as its title suggests, a collection of tracks taken from various compilations, ranging from the mammoth Kalpamantra comps to more obscure oddities such as Compilation for a Cat. In addition to these, there is an unreleased track, “Arch,” all of which have been remastered by Cryo Chamber mastermind Simon Heath. Available only as a download from Kammarheit’s bandcamp site, Kollektionen is a must-listen, as it contains some of Boström’s best work.

It’s not easy to pinpoint the reason why Kammarheit is considered such an enduring and effective project. On the surface, the music follows a simple template: gradually interlaced beds of drone are punctuated by carefully placed loops. Part of Boström’s talent is in his arrangement. He allows silence to voice itself as much as his content; Kammarheit tracks are never overburdened or sluggish, and rarely do they overstay their welcome. Boström is also a gifted sound sculptor, able to draw strange, hauntingly organic, and near-familiar sounds from his machines. He occasionally imparts a musical sense to his compositions; the muted dulcimer-like chime of “Adrift” and the gracefully solemn chords of “Provenience” are of particular note. Regardless of structure, his work as Kammarheit (and as his superlative conceptual side-project Cities Last Broadcast), is ripe with awe and mystery. Kammarheit tracks seem to breathe, slowly and calmly, with natural rhythm. When the volume is cranked, new details are revealed, and the easier it is to fall into the dimensions unfolding from the speakers – quality headphones are recommended.

Take, for example, “I Found It Weeping in the Field.” It paints a stark landscape under a streaked sky, and the alien whimpers and lonely bleats of the curious entity hidden within the tall grass and ancient hillocks. The emotion is palpable without being threatening; it’s one of the finest examples of how Kammarheit’s work is often not dark at all, but hypnotically strange. It is the voice of abandoned places, and here, of the inhabitants who rarely show themselves.

Two of the most recent tracks, “Arch” and “The Excavation Site,” recall the subterranean majesty of Kammarheit’s 2016 album The Nest. Through use of vast echo and meticulous sonic placement and pacing, one feels instantly transported to the depths of the earth, to huge halls supported by grand pillars that dwarf the surface world’s most massive and aged trees. We can only speculate who carved these places, and why; Boström leaves it for us to decide, limiting his vision to the conjuring of atmosphere that envelops the listener. When Kammarheit adopts this concept, the aesthetics and immersion tread boldly through unmarked territory.

Add the arctic landscape of “Tundra,” the void-embracing “Kosmos,” and the dim serenity of “Landfall,” and Kollektionen starts to become a tour of Boström’s personal dreamlands. Taking this into account, and the album is just that – an album – rather than a jumble of randomly assembled tracks. This is an archive of Kammarheit finery that is, in many ways, the equal of the project’s official albums, and in my view, contains more quality than the six-disc Unearthed retrospective set (which is no slouch). Kollektionen is a genre essential, providing further proof that Boström is high king of the half-lit ambient realms.

Tor Lundvall – The Violet-Blue House

Dais Records (DAIS 089.2), 2016

At an initial glance, Tor Lundvall may not be a prolific artist, but he is a dedicated and thoughtful one. As the year closes, Dais Records has once again released a five-disc box set of Lundvall’s curiously hypnotic creations: Nature Laughs as Time Slips By. In the spirit of his previous set, 2013’s Structures and Solitude, this newest release contains a first-time CD version (The Park, a previously LP-only album from 2015) and an expanded version of earlier work (Field Trip, first released on cassette in 2011), but this time, there are three discs of all-new material. Lundvall has been hard at work.

The first of these is a second collection of early ambient material, titled Insect Wings, Leaf Matter, and Broken Twigs, the first volume of which appeared in 2009. The final two albums of Nature Laughs are new, containing the most recent of Lundvall’s themed instrumental music: Rain Studies and The Violet-Blue House.

If this review was to properly explore all of this material, it would be quite a weighty read. (I have already reviewed The Park, which was my Album of the Year in 2015). The Violet-Blue House seems to be something of a centerpiece for this set, as there is a promotional video for it, as well as unique oil portraits inspired by the album available with the set on a very limited basis, painted by Lundvall himself. (Hard at work, indeed.)

Like most of Tor Lundvall’s instrumental ambient, the music of The Violet-Blue House is deceptively simplistic. Taking cues from The Park and Night Studies, the electronic tones, gentle passes of noise, and sparse rhythms are stripped down, when compared to earlier albums such as Empty City. And yet, Lundvall’s ability to create a unique sense of space continues to develop.

The Violet-Blue House is, in a sense, a guided tour of the house itself. And this is a deeply odd and surreal place, existing on the border of dream and reality. Lundvall’s music has always defied easy categorization; while its effect is certainly ambient, its form is elusive. Most of the tracks are around three minutes in length, and many feature loops of keyboard tones and percussive taps, with the calls of eerie voices and whistling drifting phantom-like through the atmospheres that spill from Lundvall’s imagination. The mood is utterly unique: simultaneously detached as if viewed remotely, and deeply immersed. This house is not a dark place, but it is a shadowed one, rife with secrets in every corner and behind every door. It is a place that invites wandering, and we can only guess at its nature and origins.

We approach along a “Garden Path”, accompanied by an analog bass sequence and looped taps that impart a sense of motion. We hear a distant voice, perhaps beckoning us inside the house itself, and the furtive rustles of something unseen. “Her Shadow” is an example of Lundvall’s ambient skill at its height, creating a vivid mental portrait of something intimate and mysterious; twin tones mesh with distant muffled metallic clinks and whistles, building a mood that’s thick and compelling without being ominous. “Night Breeze” provides a glance outside, to an empty porch where wind chimes are disturbed by a stray gust of gentle wind. The footstep-like taps and whistled half-tune of “Wanderer” resolve themselves into the signs of someone in the house; perhaps it is us, perhaps not. “Soft Colors” and “Lavender Twilight” display the half-lit hues Lundvall has draped over the album; the house is in a place of perpetual dusk, comforting and unreal.

The final two tracks, “Paper Hearts” and “Moon Worship”, show Lundvall experimenting with his usual template. Each track runs past the ten-minute mark, aiming to deepen the immersion through drawn-out tones and reduction of momentum. Lundvall has tinkered with longform before, and is skilled in the format; here, his created shadows lengthen to reach beyond the walls of the house, into the uncertain country beyond. Length aside, the tracks follow the same structure as the rest of the album, providing us ample opportunity to remain in one place and drink in the strange and lulling aura enveloping us.

The Violet-Blue House is both warmer and darker than Lundvall’s recent work. It’s easy to apply the “haunted house” template, but Lundvall’s ghosts aren’t harmful, just very, very unusual. The observational portraits of albums like Empty City and The Shipyard have been replaced by an exploration of a place that’s very much unreal; while The Park teased with this dreamlike border, Lundvall has entered this surreal haven fully. He seems at home here, among the apparitions and specters that roam the halls and rooms, and thanks to the depth of his conjuring powers, so do we.