Opollo – Of a Distorted Star

bandcamp, 2017

Ambient music is no stranger to space. There have been so many albums examining the cosmic void that it would seem each visible star has its own unique soundtrack. As the universe can be interpreted in multiple ways, there are albums ranging from yawning nameless terror to wide-eyed saccharine wonder, and everything in between.

Opollo has broken the hold of Earth’s gravity before. It’s been two years since Jarek Leskiewicz launched his vessel beyond gravity’s reach, but while his two previous albums, Rover Tracks (2012) and Stone Tapes (2015), focused on our own planet’s lunar phenomena, Of a Distorted Star is destined for uncharted realms beyond our solar system. It’s a fitting shift in theme, for this is a refined and expanded Opollo, poised to navigate the corners of the starry deep with a newfound sense of assurance.

Opollo’s sound revolves around treated guitar drones, vast swaths of sonic layers that move and shift through gradual chord patterns. His earlier work as Opollo hinted at an epic scope, but shorter track times and experimentation seemed to impose limits on the music’s immersive quality. Of a Distorted Star addresses this with a flourish, as seven of the ten tracks are over five minutes in length. In addition, Leskiewicz’s guitars are more balanced with the music’s synthetic elements, resulting in a cohesive listen that retains its singular identity from start to finish.

There’s still variety here, but it’s carefully focused. The gentle twinkling sequence of “Magnitude” slowly expands into slow fuzzed-out guitar chords, but with keyboards equally prevalent in the mix. Slow-burn growth is nothing new for ambient, but Leskiewicz handles progression with confidence. “To Evaporate” is an even stronger example of this technique, with stirring chords that unfold gloriously against the uncertain light of swollen suns. “Recluse” and “The Man Who Couldn’t Breathe” are heavily cinematic, recalling Moby’s majestic track “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” and soundtrack work such as Marc Streitenfeld’s grand theme from Ridley Scott’s film Prometheus. Leskiewicz has followed this sound before, but never with such confidence, or so effectively.

Of a Distorted Star isn’t just guitar run through filters and effects. There are synthetic elements everywhere, from static-buried voices and keyboard beds to scattered samples and sequenced bursts, but these details never make the music too artificial. “Rapid Rotators,” my favorite moment of the album, and perhaps my favorite Opollo track, is almost completely guitar-free, evoking the awe and peace of orbiting a drifting celestial body while a variety of mechanisms buzz and fiddle in the background. This track seems the epitome of Opollo’s new direction, with its influences found throughout the album. Leskiewicz is no longer satisfied with just laying down overlapping drones, but has pushed his own boundaries with carefully planned and executed experimentation. The album’s closer, “Keep Shining the Dark Light,” is similarly dominated by electronics, and at over seven and a half minutes, is the longest track on the album. Its masterful blend of guitar, keyboard, and silence hints, perhaps, at the next stage of Opollo’s evolution; I do not think its title is accidental.

As signified by its closing track, Of a Distorted Star has captured a rare and delicate balance between what haunts and what illuminates. Opollo has always been too graceful to be termed strictly dark ambient, but its sound is also, thankfully, free from the overly earnest and flighty brightness that marks so many similarly themed ambient albums. Of a Distorted Star understands the mystery of the cosmos, in all its wonder and terror, and is a deeply moving soundtrack to a transforming journey into the unknown.

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Gyoza District – Gyoza District

Adhesive Sounds (AS119), 2017

The first release from Gyoza District doesn’t sound like a debut. On one hand, this isn’t surprising, because it’s a side project from veteran vaporwave producer Cvltvre, but the sound design is something new. While this self-titled album retains the Asian influence marking a good deal of vaporwave, Gyoza District has captured an elusive sense of concept and place while also providing a quality listening experience.

The atmosphere is the strongest feature of Gyoza District. The album can perhaps be best described as a laid-back combination of minimal IDM and lo-fi trip-hop, and remains consistent throughout its ten tracks. A strong rhythmic foundation forms the base, but it’s a fragile and skeletal thing, filling the role of outline for the music-box chime-work and analog-Asian melodies that give Gyoza District its unique dreamy urban feel. Adding to this are a series of vocal Asian-language samples that provide additional character. This is neither a dense city-sourced ambient experiment nor edgy street-wise Asian-gangster soundtrack, but an exercise in a relaxed and reflective vibe; urban yet never aggressive, fringed with melancholy yet consistently wistful.

Gyoza District isn’t a long album, but that’s not a mark against it. As its template is quite specific – the beats, instrumentation, and general structure of the ten brief tracks remain largely unchanged – it runs the risk of becoming repetitive. Fortunately, the tracks are cleverly planned, encouraging looped listens, and the creativity is allowed to flourish within the intentionally limited template. Despite the singular sound and sparse instrumentation, the music is smooth and stylish while retaining an elegantly understated edge. The title track is a leisurely meander accompanied by cricket-song and buried crowd noise, with a muffled twinging string as your guide; “Shibuya” plays off this template with a decidedly urban vibe, but without resorting to grit and grime, while “Yodo-Gawa” takes a quieter path along small-village fairways. Details coloring the world are noted by the listener, gauged against their backdrop, contemplated, and ultimately appreciated; Gyoza District, for all its minimalism, is headphone tourism at its most effective.

At the start, Gyoza District is purely electronic, its minimalism deliciously restrained. The miniature clockwork taiko-glitch of “Dimensions” is echoed by the hidden music-box chimes of “Yumeno Park,” the similarities perhaps made more admirable due to the reused musical elements; the tracks feel nothing alike. The album’s last few tracks move the strings into the foreground – “Setonakai” and “Rei” are particularly effective – while the electronics bubble peacefully underneath. The album closes with the surreal and beautiful “Lonely God,” the strings and synths working together in quiet harmony to produce a more amorphous and spiritual aesthetic.

Gyoza District is remarkably grounded, neither too airy nor too melancholy, and is wisely balanced thanks to Cvltvre’s veteran touch. It switches gears from a somewhat mechanical beginning to a more organic feel as the album progresses, all the while staying close to its foundation. The ambient samples add depth to the sparse but deft instrumentation, but the nebulous urban subtlety is never compromised. This was an album that settled into my consciousness easily and gradually, and once it did, it nestled comfortably, as if it had found a new home, and I welcomed it.

Memoirs – Memories of Old Friends and Days Past…

bandcamp, 2015

I’m not entirely sure how to categorize this one. Boardwalk ambient? Bioshock plunderphonics? Less an original production and more a curated playlist, Memories of Old Friends and Days Past… is a collection of golden-age radio tunes, mostly in their entirety, given the static-bed treatment by director Memoirs.

The album certainly evokes a former age, dominated as it is by tinny 1930s orchestra and distant warbling vocals, levels and fades delicately manipulated. As these tracks are lifted directly from what I assume is the public domain, they could be recognized by fans of the era, whether the titles Memoirs has given them are new or otherwise. “The Age of Reason” is a highlight, with a muted wistful piano backed by light percussion and incidental horns; a perfect backdrop to the submerged utopia of Rapture from the Bioshock video game series. In a similar vein, “Blue Bell Boy (To The Lost)” is just creepy enough to fit in Kubrick’s haunted Overlook Hotel.

The second half of Memories is less soundtrack and more ambient, though the retro melodies, audio tweaking, and grounded identity tend to nudge it from the subconscious into the realm of active listening. The thin reeds of “Margate Sands” seem lifted from a bit of triumphant propaganda, while “Havre de Grace” creates longing elegance through its lonesome and dramatic strings. The changing pace and mood of “The Good Listener” seem a perfect fit for a silent film, and the album closes with my favorite, “The Devil You Know,” a jaunting and haunting piano ditty that sounds as if it’s coming from the corner of a huge dusty mansion through multiple doors, the halls and rooms silent and decadent.

Memoirs has created an original retro radio station, harking back to a past era of history. The variety keeps the album from becoming stale, and it is a perfect audio portrait of a certain age. Perhaps Memories of Old Friends and Days Past… can be faulted for its lack of original production, but it still delivers an impressive listening and conceptual experience. One final note: if you’re into steampunk, you are hereby required to give this a listen immediately!

Ocean Shores – Luminous Romance

Illuminated Paths (IP-382), 2017

Sliding between genre borders, Luminous Romance from Ocean Shores is a wondrous and intriguing piece of work. Buried under lo-fi static like the best mallsoft, defined by simple looped retro-plunderphonic melody, and versatile enough to dwell in the background or as primary audio, it’s an album that shows a marked evolution from earlier releases.

As its name implies, Ocean Shores aims at capturing the relaxing sound of beach-music ambience. Most tracks feature a guitar or horn melody that drifts through loops with airy ease; some of these tunes may be recognizable as instrumental easy-listening versions of pop songs, but with Luminous Romance, Ocean Shores has either nabbed from the fringes of obscurity, or is now using original compositions. I suspect the latter. Gone, too, are the well-used “weather channel” samples and broken transmission structure; it’s now mostly about the music alone.

Mostly. One of the techniques that Ocean Shores has used is manipulation of static; at unanticipated intervals, the music will become even more drowned and fuzzy than it usually does. This effect plays a couple of important roles. First, it adds a layer of drama that keeps one’s ear guessing. More impressively, it creates a sense of place: the changes could be caused by an old-school radio losing its signal, or by the natural distortion of the listener diving underwater, whether the radio is poolside, at the edge of the beach, or on the deck of a boat drifting lazily in the shallows. It’s much more organic now, and as a result, more effective.

“Return” is vintage Ocean Shores, enhanced and refined, with a perfectly timed break and guitar chords that don’t stick to your brain quite enough, bearing you along the gauzy summer afternoon. “Not Enough Time in the World” starts hesitantly, as if the radio is searching for a clear signal, then locks in, the saxophone capturing timeless connection and possibility – this is a luminous romance after all. The wonderfully loungey “Perfume and Cigarettes” perfectly illustrates the unknown potential of new romance, while the repeating (and irresistible) melody would appear to hint that the whole thing is ephemeral, despite its initial allure. Similarly, the flamenco-style string-plucks of “Meaningless” are a nod to the joys of the superficial, and the links to intentionally soporific mallsoft are impossible to ignore. Well played, Ocean Shores.

Luminous Romance ventures beyond the gauzy sands and waters, however. The album’s second half delves into the experimental. The bittersweet synths of “Window of Opportunity” carry a tinge of regret – one of the first times Ocean Shores has let it slip – while the loops retain the mallsoft connection. “Patience” is its atmospheric cousin, with light congos and airy keyboards wavering with a touch of shadow. The metaphorical sunset continues with the chimes of “Closing Time,” as beautiful as they are melancholic, before the downtempo guitar of “There is No Escape” sadly watches the vestiges of light shimmer on the shrinking waves.

Luminous Romance can surely be labeled idealistic – a large part of the attraction – but there’s a retro kitsch that makes the whole thing just a tiny bit insincere, and endearingly so. Is nostalgia’s hold as strong when you know it’s nostalgia? I, for one, am unsure. I’m far more certain, however, that Ocean Shores is a sneakily talented assembler of vibe, with just a bit of commentary gliding beneath the glossy surface. Come to Luminous Romance for the bright melody, sun-soaked atmosphere, and radio-broadcast audio trickery, but stay for the passing hints of buried meaning.

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.