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.

Donovan Hikaru – Kiosk Vibes

bandcamp, 2016

Donovan Hikaru, arguably the most ambitious executive of the corporate-wave genre, has set his sights on a new prize: the shopping mall. At first, this might seem like an odd choice, until one remembers the lucrative possibilities of the retail industry; ah yes, the profit-minded Donovan will fit right in. Conceptual pondering aside, what makes David Jackman’s music so gratifying is how easily and creatively it fits into its target concept: a soundtrack to his alter ego’s global business ventures. Mallsoft functions in much the same way, aiming to provide an ambient backdrop to the shopping experience. Whether focused on field recordings taken from real-life malls or on the “muzak” that often drifts through those cavernous monuments to commerce (or both), mallsoft is a curious, intentionally non-intrusive style of ambient.

While Kiosk Vibes, the first mallsoft foray from Donovan Hikaru, follows some of the sub-genre’s established rules, it’s first and foremost a DH record. The five tracks (with a sixth available on a very limited CD-R, along with a background story showing that the music is indeed a soundtrack) have an intentionally muffled sound, making the music sound like it’s being heard from a distance. This technique is a defining characteristic of the mallsoft style – it’s background music after all – and it’s a highly effective one, creating an accurate audio illusion of vast grand spaces.

Like usual, however, there’s more to Donovan Hikaru than meets the ear. Beneath the expected muted layering of Kiosk Vibes courses the same unexpected and exuberant lifeblood of past DH albums, manifested as melodic energy and groovy hooks. There’s also not a single drop of the marketing cynicism or mindless consumerism that defines many mallsoft records; Kiosk Vibes is about exploring the wonders of one’s surroundings rather than making an economical statement.

As with most Donovan Hikaru releases, there’s practically zero sampled ambiance. The music is the focus, rather than a collage of assembled samples. The buried sound palette might catch DH fans off-guard at first, but the effect is smoothly implemented, and one’s ears quickly adjust. Beneath the thick hazy synths, the romantic vibe of “Nighttime Promenade” and the wavering “Concierge” include the classy saxophone melodies that have always a vital part of Donovan’s musical DNA.

The middle three tracks, however, are pure synth, and show Kiosk Vibes at its most experimental. “Mint Chocolate Chip” features the same kind of irresistible keyboard hook that Donovan has always specialized in; the jangling off-key stab that bursts forth as the track winds down is exactly the kind of left-of-center detail that sets Jackman’s work apart from his peers. It also enhances the track’s carnival-like feel; anyone who’s been to an ice-cream parlor will undoubtedly take note of the perfect nostalgia of this track. The heavily reverbed drums, floating melody, and light synth taps of “Macys Run” are delightfully retro, while remaining perfectly suited to the mallsoft vibe. “Lost in the Galleria” portrays the joy of losing one’s way in a brightly lit commercial paradise. Rather than a panicked or stressful feel, the beatless wandering keys are drenched in comforting whimsy; this Galleria is a safe haven for the aimless. While there aren’t many tracks in the Donovan discography that are free from beats, they’re all superb, and “Lost in the Galleria” is no exception.

Kiosk Vibes is a departure for Donovan Hikaru, but it’s a skillfully subtle one. There’s no celebratory buffet or San Tablos sunset here, but the music – and equally important, the conceptual aesthetic – retains the same playfully experimental vibe that has defined Donovan Hikaru since his first appearance. Jackman is a talented musical sandboxer, happily toying with genre convention while indulging his catchy songwriting verve, and this release shows there’s more to DH than the corporate boardroom and huge expense accounts. If Donovan Hikaru is indeed turning his attention to new financial vistas to conquer, Kiosk Vibes is strong evidence that his off-kilter quirk will remain as engaging as ever.

Sangam – You Forget This

Dream Catalogue (DREAM_133), 2016

You Forget This is an album steeped in sadness, regret, and grief. From the first of its twenty tracks to the last, electronic producer Sangam creates a mood of rain-soaked melancholy and profound introspection. In some ways, You Forget This is a single track, a near-palpable outpouring of hurt, and it’s almost impossible to escape the album’s spell. There’s much beauty to be heard in the web of beatless organ-dirge synth tones, but there’s little ignoring the isolated upheaval that wraps its sorrowful arms around every moment.

For the emotionally impressionable, You Forget This is the most potent of pills; a modern-day hymn for the lost and displaced. The cover image is of a city seen through a rain-streaked upper-story window; a fitting setting for the isolation that an urban sprawl can generate. When the world outside is chaotic and confusing, one can tend to turn inward, replaying memories and pondering past decisions; dwelling on mistakes through hindsight can be a dark and tempting mistress. Sangam is a conduit for all of this, conjuring the beauty of sadness with a magician’s refined flourish.

You Forget This is not an album of conceptual ambience. Aside from the sounds of rain and thunder that permeates the album, Sangam unfurls waves of synth chords that flow in deep blues and static grays. The focus here is on the music, which recalls basic organ chords from the quieter side of classic Bach. From the heavy loops of “Blue” and the sorrowful tones of “Purple Lights” to the choirlike feel of “Endmost,” the album wears its dark cloak proudly. There are harsher moments to be heard, like the strident noise of “Held in the Dialogue” and the high-pitched whining keys of “Egotistical,” and these instances are just enough to keep the mood at bay, if only temporarily.

The album’s second half shows a bit more variety, moving away from our apartment into the heart of the city itself. “Bus Shelter” adds slow-motion vocal samples that recall the sounds of early Burial. The keys of “November” are much closer to drone territory, with another floating voice twisting through the air like a smoky ghost. “Noya” lifts the mood a bit, with a brighter feel and a particularly airy sample, but we’re soon back under the melancholic fog of “Cemetery”, with plaintive plucked guitar adding an extra textural layer. It’s here that Sangam hints at talent beyond the thickly layered reflection that dominates You Forget This, and it’s to the album’s benefit.

Fans of Dream Catalogue may hear numerous parallels between You Forget This and the stunning album ルートバックホーム from label-mate Remember. Both albums are based on heavily emotive and atmospheric synths, but while Remember produced an album that was primarily ambient, Sangam’s focus is much narrower; an arguably less versatile but more powerful listen. You Forget This can perhaps be faulted for being too single-minded in character; this is also not an album you want to play when you’re in a good mood (and perhaps even not when you’re particularly depressed). Where Sangam succeeds, however, is in the undeniably accurate portrayal of a certain emotional state, and from this perspective, You Forget This is almost unmatched.

Albert Zaigrov – Vacuum

R.K.B. Studio 13 (RKB-041), 2016

It’s always a tricky thing when an artist reminds you of another. Such is the case with Albert Zaigrov’s five-track EP Vacuum, which combines traditional beat-driven synth with pensive dark ambient to impressive effect, much in the way Forma Tadre once did with the classic album Navigator. Zaigrov doesn’t simply copy Andreas Meyer, but the versatile composition feels very similar.

Vacuum also features a supporting story of sorts: an unnamed man awakens in a surreal dreamspace, and wanders about searching for answers and an escape. The music can be interpreted as a soundtrack to this journey, but the music is so well-done, the concept adds to the experience rather than relying on it. There are two brief free-form atmospheric pieces, “Dark Corners” and “Garden,” which impart a narrative sense while establishing mood. In a display of Zaigrov’s creative talent, “Dark Corners” centers on a spaced looped tone while layered drone defines “Garden.” Neither track is very long, but they don’t need to be; while they are nicely placed intervals for the EP overall, they aren’t merely filler.

The remaining three tracks show Zaigrov at his most focused. Melodic piano is echoed by retro synthesizers, while minimal percussion and beats flesh out the framework. “Vacuum” and “Utopia” are similar in mood, but both tracks are very well put together; Zaigrov clearly understands how to assemble a satisfying synth track. The high-pitched piano is slightly nervous, and the backing drones a bit ominous, but the ambiance never becomes too oppressive. The momentum provided by the beats is perfectly paced, neither too slow nor too frantic, and the rhythms all play off each other in impressive fashion.

Vacuum culminates with “Narcotic Drain,” which combines the atmospherics and the percussion to great effect. The beat is slowed and distanced, while the loops and keys provide the same gray surrealism that dominates the EP. Like Meyer, Zaigrov’s songwriting is matched by his sense of the aesthetic; while there is a variety of style at work on Vacuum, the feel remains the same, never wavering from its half-lit fog-wreathed atmosphere.

Without question, Vacuum is a remarkable listen. Zaigrov has produced highly listenable music that also swirls with strange mystery. As good as the EP is, there’s clearly a good deal of untapped potential, and not just because Vacuum is only twenty minutes in length. One gets the feeling that Zaigrov has just begun to hone his craft, and it would be no surprise if subsequent releases make good on the EP’s promise. On its own, though, Vacuum is a wonderful throwback to the thrilling early days of electro, when creativity and solid production reigned over studio trickery.

[existence_sounds] – The Biography of Industrial City

Green Field Recordings, 2016

A surprisingly calming work of experimental drone, The Biography of Industrial City meshes treated guitar and electronic ambiance with practiced ease. [existence_sounds] (Stephen McCann and Kirill Makushin) avoid the doom-and-gloom atmosphere that you might expect from the album title, opting for a greyscale sound palette that follows a static structure.

Despite track titles like “Dismal Monument” and “Factory Slaves and Waste Biomass,” the feel of the album is archival rather than apocalyptic. By drone standards, the track lengths are short, with an average time of around four minutes. This works in the album’s favor, however; if it was much longer, it would risk becoming repetitive. The album’s concept is of dual drones: one electronic and one analog, from guitar to something that sounds like an accordion (the wonderfully evocative “See Place – Gray Swamp”). Following a basic and straightforward structure, each track quickly establishes its identity, flows for a brief and pleasant interval, then moves smoothly to the next. Only the final track, “Drone Gamelan Piece,” a collaboration with KG, adds details like chimes and bells to the lazily drifting fog.

Perhaps it’s too similar in sound design, and perhaps it’s too short, but I find The Biography of Industrial City to be immensely satisfying. It’s mysterious without being ominous and consistent without being soporific. The best thing about an album like this is how you can loop it, revisiting familiar ground, while remaining within its created borders. You’re not at ground level, right in the thick of the presumably abandoned city, but floating above, observing the empty streets and silent buildings without foreboding attachment. With this album, [existence_sounds] proves you don’t need a lot of studio trickery or twenty-minute track lengths to create effective immersion.