Halgrath – The Whole Path of War and Acceptance

Cryo Chamber (CRYO 007), 2014

Sometimes, less is more.  There’s a difference between being simplistic and focusing on minimal elements.  Stripped down doesn’t necessarily mean basic.  However you try to word it, the foundation is the same: there’s something deeply satisfying about getting past the bells and whistles and getting to the core of what makes things work.

Halgrath’s album The Whole Path of War and Acceptance can certainly be perceived as simplistic dark ambient.  The tracks are basic in design, without a high level of activity or detail.  There’s little evolution or progression in the tracks themselves; what you hear in the first minute is what you can expect for the duration.  Beyond the inclusion of Agratha Mirrait’s vocals – more on this in a minute – there’s nothing terribly complex here, nor any amazing technical feats to be heard.

And this is a good thing.

Whole Path is a work of meditation, of the process of losing and finding oneself, of mysticism and ritual.  Despite its basic nature, it manages to be deeply personal.  Mirrait, a trained opera vocalist from Russia, is Halgrath’s sole member, and here, on her fourth official release, she taps into the nebulous realm between music you hear and music you experience.

Take the Whole Path’s second track, the twelve-minute “Consecreation.”  Here, you’ve got a synthetic-string bed – a recurring theme on the album – layered with an ever-so-slightly-unnerving high-pitched loop and a deep passage of sampled throat-singing.  And that’s it.  It meanders in an organic fashion, flowing easily from one moment to the next, at peace with itself.  As the track plays, you feel your mind slipping into a half-lit realm of hypnotism; this is an “om” chant, dark ambient style.  If you listen to “Consecreation” with your ears, you’ve missed the point; this is music for the whole being.

Mirrait varies her delivery – sparse tribal percussion, minimal melody, slightly distorted noise – but the base elements of drone foundation accompanied by two or three looped sequences remain throughout Whole Path.  This is one of those albums, too, that is ambient before it’s dark; a stirring and immersive palette that never becomes truly black, but also never becomes too airy.  The icy grandeur of “Cold Breath of Mountains” is steeped in awe, but carries an ominous edge.  Even the nature field recordings of bird and water added to “Deep Immersion and Repose” don’t move the atmosphere into new age territory.  Halgrath is too grounded.

Two tracks feature Mirrait’s singular vocal delivery in the form of mostly wordless chants, or if they are words, they’re in a language I do not recognize or understand.  Not that it makes much difference.  Reminiscent of Lisa Gerrard and Liz Frazer, but sounding ultimately like neither, Mirrait’s voice soars to sunlit heights and dives into fog-blanketed valleys (“The Opposite Mind and Mutality”) and presents a portrait of profound choral devotion (“Afflatus (Amanait Akhat)”).  It’s an assured, confident style that makes clear her operatic roots, but she doesn’t allow her obvious talents to overwhelm; rather, it’s a carefully implemented enhancement of her minimal approach.

The Whole Path of War and Acceptance is an album of quiet contemplation and open-minded awareness.  Much like the beautiful mountain range that graces its cover, it’s an experience that possesses wondrous depths beyond its initial appearance.  Perceived on the surface, or in pieces, the album may seem repetitive and unexciting, but once you let the sublime simplicity of Halgrath’s collection of wordless prayers sink into your skin, you’ll hear many echoes of affecting grace in Mirrait’s clear and basic approach.

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Niteffect – Dark Glow

Export Label (export14), 2014

Niteffect is back with a new batch of urban shadows on Dark Glow, an album of instrumental trip-hop that is earthier, heavier, and more soaked in dirty neon and smoky rain than anything the band has ever done.  In the three years since 2011’s Electric Waste, Miklos Labady has learned some new tricks and appears to have gotten some new gear, but the most notable thing about Dark Glow is Niteffect’s new level of sophistication.  Where Labady’s previous releases have been collections of beat experiments that tended to vary in quality and feel, with Dark Glow, Labady has channeled his talents into creating and maintaining a consistent atmosphere from the first moment until the last.

Not to fear, however.  The infectious head-nodding beats that define Niteffect are still present; it’s just that they’re no longer dominant.  At its core, Dark Glow is still beat-driven, but Labady has layered in levels of detail that enhance the sly percussion he’s so adept at composing.  The melodic content is enhanced (the high-pitched sequence in “Beyond Reason” is fantastic), as is the sense of space; this is indeed a late-night city, full of darkness and light; the album is aptly named.  “Revelations” showcases the new skin immediately, with a garbled sample and burst of noise that smooths into a looped over which a gritty beat slides deliciously.   “Two Dimensional” takes it a step further, with a lazy tempo and distant light key stabs and wandering synth tones.  There’s a new focus on vocal samples as well, whether discernible (“Down Down Down,” “Delusion”), or buried in the mix as part of the music (“Auld Lang Syne,” “Crime Scene”).   Labady’s increased his technical skill as well; check out how he manipulates the sequencing on the wonderfully downtempo “Frozen In The Ice Age,” how the sampled guitar strings play off glass-like percussion on “Survive A Day,” and how he chops and spaces the voice sample of “Drift Into Nothing.”  All this trickery gives Dark Glow a more powerful vibe, and keeps the listening reward high throughout the album’s twenty-track, hour-long running time.  “Lost Cause,” the final track, is a relentless lurking beast of IDM distortion and murky ambiance, easily one of the most striking and cinematic moments in Niteffect’s discography.  In spite of the layered detail and starkness of mood, the pace of Dark Glow is easy, if not languid – this is not a manic record, but one to savor.  Labady no longer feels like he’s experimenting for its own sake – now, he’s experimenting with an overall vision, keeping his eye on the big picture and how he can make it stronger.

Piano makes several appearances as well.  “Voices From Below” uses minimal piano chords to perfect effect, looping with slouching confidence as deep dub-heavy bass and a quiet beat move things along.  “Raise Hope” reverbs, reverses, and echoes the piano to dazzling effect; together with the carefully structured beat and deftly spaced keyboard, this is one of the most accomplished tracks on Dark Glow.  “Drain Away” is a similar affair, with more sampled guitar strings and dubstep-ish wobbling bass; Niteffect has shed its previous shell and moved into new corners of the nocturnal city now, finding new hidden places and alleys to guide us through.

Easily Labady’s strongest release, Dark Glow is the sign of a dedicated and talented artist who has worked hard to refine his craft, never settling for what’s worked in the past.  Despite its tight focus, there’s ample experimentation on Dark Glow that keep things unexpected, and it’s done so well, and with such a high level of listening enjoyment and satisfaction, you can’t help but loop it time and again.  This is an album that stays with you.  For anyone even remotely interested in instrumental trip-hop, Niteffect’s tour through the city’s dark heart is a no-brainer.