Dan Terminus – Automated Refrains

Blood Music, 2017

The best albums, in my opinion, cater to no particular style. They may include elements of pre-established templates, but push the envelope towards something unique. It’s not easy. While I’m a fan of genre as much as anyone, I find myself drawn to artists and albums that combine and innovate.

Dan Terminus is one of these. If you listen to his earlier releases, such as The Darkest Benthic Division and Stratospheric Cannon Symphony, you’d encounter some intriguing compositions that pull from multiple sources but seem comfortable with allowing themselves to be defined thusly. With The Wrath of Code, however, Dan Terminus found himself in altogether uncharted territory, in places even his French contemporary Perturbator seemed reluctant to go. The Wrath of Code is a hypersonic cruise missile of rhythm and energy, coursing through dizzying heights of sequence and percussion, all with a powerful cinematic bent.

That was just the beginning. Automated Refrains is the next release from Dan Terminus, and when considering his discography as a whole, everything he’d done previously was leading to this. An exhilarating combination of post-industrial grit, retrowave sci-fi, and cinematic ambient, Automated Refrains is a dense and captivating beast. “Fall of the Ancient World” has the epic scope of soundtracks, with stirring solemn keyboards punctuated by the buried intricate percussion that has marked Dan Terminus’ work since the beginning. While these elements would be enough on their own, a South American-style flute soon enters the fray, its soothing notes adding a dimension that pushes the composition over the top, especially when these melodies are echoed by chip-tune synths which soon morph into EBM sequences and ambient synth washes. Dan Terminus has announced his evolution with flair.

“Fall of the Ancient World” is merely the launch pad for the armada that is Automated Refrains. “Margaritifer” charges along a cyberpunk labyrinth with reckless abandon; this is the closest Dan Terminus allows himself to come to the controlled freneticism of Perturbator, but Dan Terminus has always shown restraint in the name of experimentation. “Angelus” is nothing less than anthemic bliss, its slow paced thudding drums flanked by post-industrial bass-lines and arrogant keyboards, but tempered by melodic and looped structures that show that Dan Terminus is at home in his virtual sonic playground.

We then encounter the album’s heart, the eight-minute hymn “Grimoire Blanc.” This is Dan Terminus at the height of his inventive powers, a masterpiece of unexpected shifts and detail, of bombastic drums and power-laden synths, of electro-tinged harpsichord and voice samples, of quiet interludes and swelling arches of programming. It’s a track so packed with twists and detail, it seems twice as long as it is, and upon repeat listens, the amount of content stuns, all without upsetting the atmosphere. Simply put, this is arguably one of the greatest tracks in this style, bar none.

Of course, it’s expected to have a bit of a comedown from such heights. “Friendship Through Clear Plastic Walls” is slower of pace but stronger in feel, until the twin-barrel blasts of “Vesubian” and “Deus Mecanicus” herald the shock-grenade stunner “Electronic Snow”, which features Dan Terminus’ most innovative drum programming alongside the plucked-bass synth that defined “The Chasm,” one of the best tracks from The Wrath of Code. “Refuge” and “Dirge of the Ancient Machines” bring Automated Refrains to the most satisfying of closes, promising to return the listener to its alternate-dimension state of mind soon enough.

Automated Refrains is kaleidoscopic in scope and scintillating in execution; Luca Carey’s dizzying Lovecraft-on-LSD artwork is the perfect visual complement. From its quietly punching drumwork – a fine-tuned fusion of snare, bass, and hi-hat that clicks, thuds, hisses, and snaps with alien momentum – to its strange otherworldly aesthetic and controlled cyborg imprinting, the album marks quite a conundrum for Dan Terminus, who’s been on a gradual rise since he arrived on the scene: what the heck is he going to do next? I was suspicious at the notion that he could top The Wrath of Code, and he pulled that off with shocking ease. I think I’ve learned my lesson.

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Mount Shrine – Winter Restlessness

Cryo Chamber, 2018

Sometimes, predictability is a good thing.

I’m all for experimentation and new adventures, but in this hectic world, there are moments when it’s best to lean on something familiar. Not everything is intended to expand your mind and life experience, and not everything has to break new ground to have merit. You know that favorite restaurant you frequent? That comfortable pair of shoes? The person you might share your life with? That’s the point I’m reinforcing.

With this in mind, that’s not to imply that Winter Restlessness by Mount Shrine is going to be your new best friend. However, its strength lies in its familiarity; the ease with which it sockets itself into your consciousness, the sense of recalled nostalgia, the consistency of its temperament. Mount Shrine is a Brazilian project which has released several albums of gray-tinted slow-motion nature-themed ambient, but that was enough to capture the attention of Cryo Chamber.

Winter Restlessness haunts a realm somewhere between Kave’s Dismal Radiance, Kammarheit’s ghost-steeped landscapes, and Sleep Research Facility’s arctic epic Deep Frieze. However, Mount Shrine has none of the desolation of Kave, the sepulchral ruinous reflection of Kammarheit, nor the density of SRF. The first few moments of the first track, “Winter Restlessness,” provides an exacting example of what the album is: a bed of analog loops merged with a gentle river of assorted static and distant field-recorded sources like rain and thunder. The track winds its way languorously through drifting haze, with a variety of samples and loops waking and slumbering with muted grace. At ten minutes long, the track feels shorter, due to the singular mood and Mount Shrine’s firm grasp of gradual evolution.

Atmosphere established, the album reveals itself one shade at a time. While it might seem an odd choice to release a winter-themed album in the middle of July, the season is inconsequential; it meshes easily with slanted afternoon light through trees, gently lapping waves, and breathtaking mountainous vistas (I’ve made a point of experiencing each accompanied by Mount Shrine, and Winter Restlessness fits them all with equal ease).

Does “Moon’s Distrust,” the second track, sound the same as its predecessor? Basically, yes. The keys are slightly different, but the quiet reflectiveness remains the same. The same applies to “The Silence Between Our Houses”, “Foggy Deck,” and the rest of the album. However, this should not be taken as criticism; rather, Mount Shrine has a clear understanding of what form and function Winter Restlessness was made to fulfill, and if you listen closely (which can be difficult, given the album’s tendency to fade into your headspace), you’ll notice how precisely it is directed, and how cleverly it is assembled. The album works best when the field recordings share the air equally, and perhaps the rain samples of “Lifeless Indoors” are a shade too harsh, but that’s really all the criticism I can level at this majestically constructed waking dream.

Winter Restlessness is anti-progressive, anti-stimulation, and anti-groundbreaking, but those are all to its merit. I’ve heard too many albums in this genre that try too hard at creating a synthetic space, or seem content to flaunt technical skill or ambitious concept. Many artists have attempted to create a similar sensation, but are either too busy or too soporific. Mount Shrine is content with immersing the listener in a particular state, a drifting odyssey through an indistinct territory where the noise of modern culture is reduced to a whisper, and the serenity of the world’s unseen places encourage reflection and detachment. Winter Restlessness achieves an all-too-rare balance between holding too tight and letting go too soon. I, for one, couldn’t be more grateful.

Tor Lundvall – A Dark Place

DAIS Records (DAIS110), 2018

A new Tor Lundvall album is always an intriguing mystery. His discography runs the gamut from instrumental ambient to vocal synthpop to a combination of the two, but the albums slip between the conventions of genre – a fine fit, considering the shadowed and ghostly template that pervades the music. There has always been something compellingly uncertain about Lundvall’s music; a large part of the listening attraction, as the listener is presented a landscape in which to roam, free to discover secrets and details present only in her or his head.

When word emerged that Lundvall’s new album would mark a return to his vocal style, I’m betting eyebrows were raised. I know mine were. Not in a disappointing way, mind you, but as it had been nine years since the last album in this format, Sleeping and Hiding, the news was a surprise, especially considering that Lundvall had entered new territories of his trademark spectral-minimalist instrumental ambient. I must also confess that I have always preferred Lundvall’s music to his vocals, with the exception of the sublime Yule EP, so when A Dark Place arrived, I approached it with the slightest edge of hesitation.

My concerns quickly evaporated. A Dark Place is not only the best of Lundvall’s vocal work, it is the most emotional music he’s ever produced, and it is a refined display of his amorphous ambient style. In describing the album, Lundvall says:

Finding the words to describe this album is almost as difficult as the past couple of years. There is a lot of pain, fear and sadness wrapped into these eight songs. More so than usual, I think. The loss of my father in 2015 and coping with his absence certainly hangs heavily here.

This is a welcome insight, especially considering Lundvall’s traditionally reclusive nature, and it sets the mood for what is to come.

Lundvall’s lyrics have taken on a new sophistication. They are delivered in rhyming couplets drenched in reverb, and are given ample space by the music. Lundvall’s high voice follows delicate melodies with confident ease; he has never sounded this comfortable. As Lundvall is also a practiced painter, there’s a stark visual quality to his minimal poetry, often using motifs of color and light. However, there’s an added layer to A Dark Place: it appears that in some cases, the words are spoken by one who has lost someone dear, while in others, the spirit itself is the one mourning. The split nature of the ghostly face gracing the album’s cover – Lundvall always creates the art for his albums, and sometimes his paintings influence his music – seems to support such a duality. Whether the face is half Lundvall and half Lundvall’s departed father is open to interpretation, but this two-sided theme is strongly apparent throughout A Dark Place.

Compared to Lundvall’s ambient-leaning work (Empty City, The Shipyard), A Dark Place is much more structured. An unobtrusive beat sets the tempo, plodding away thoughtfully, and Lundvall surrounds it with the vaporous synth washes and odd bits of samples that have always defined his music. The music is more focused and grounded, as it is the foundation for the vocals, but it’s immediately obvious that A Dark Place owes a great deal to the recent albums The Park, The Violet-Blue House, and Rain Studies. The same hazy sense of place and half-lit atmosphere is present, but Lundvall builds on these tropes with electric guitar – a surprise that is included thoughtfully and naturally – and an increased but gentle presence of processed noise (most prevalent on “The Moment”). From the perfectly paced bassline, crackling static, and synth tones of “Negative Moon” to the open pastoral night-space of “Haunted By The Sky”, Lundvall’s music is as evocative as ever.

A Dark Place belies its title. Even when Lundvall sings about “pale fingers sharp as knives”, the music never revels in its darkness, always reaching out from the shadows. Lundvall’s music has been called cold and impersonal in the past, but these critiques cannot be applied to this graceful album. Structurally, it’s a culmination of what has given Lundvall’s music its unique sound; it acknowledges the past while remaining experimental, and has found an ideal balance between music and voice. The poignant longing of “The Next World” would seem to be voiced by both the living and the dead; it’s a celebration of life from the perspective of what comes after, and I’d argue it’s the most touching song Lundvall has ever written. The track is a fitting closure to what is, ultimately, as moving a portrait of loss as we’re ever likely to hear. A Dark Place is a reminder that there cannot be dark without light, and Lundvall has crafted a guide for acceptance.

Pilotpriest – Trans

bandcamp, 2016

When you listen to Pilotpriest’s album Trans, the cinematic angle is clear. Film often acts as an influence for experimental electronic music circles, but it’s a little different here. Pilotpriest is the musical outlet of Anthony Scott Burns, who is a visual effects artist and filmmaker who has worked on movies such as The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh and the horror anthology Holidays.

Trans is a soundtrack to a science fiction film that exists only in Burns’ mind (and ours, by extension). Despite its lo-fi tendencies and retro-analog sound, the composition is post-modern, bringing to mind genre artists like Oxyd, Polygon, and Forma Tadre. High praise, yes, but Pilotpriest belongs in that conversation, for Trans is a quietly stunning work.

The track that drew me to this album is “Now Be The Light,” an immediately arresting and melancholic space-opera anthem built around a wistful sing-song voice sample. Burns slowly surrounds the sample with a variety of carefully shaped sequences and keyboard chords, anchored by bass-synth and percussive loops, coaxing the track toward thrilling pinnacles before diving into slow-motion near-silence, only to ascend anew like a scintillating digital phoenix. As the track progresses, it always circles back to the little robotic tune, perhaps voiced by some infinitely lonelier cousin of WALL-E. Each component serves as foundation and amplification for this tiny voice, and the creative and technical spark flashes bright and often, gliding gracefully through its passages with the ease and wonder of breathing. This is the kind of track that you can listen to just to appreciate how well everything fits together – it’s neither too long nor too short, neither too experimental nor too predictable, and its sense of myriad rhythms impeccably wrought – but it’s more than its structure, tapping into the shared human experience in a way that all artists strive for but few achieve. For all its disparate parts, “Now Be The Light” is a singular and natural track, the kind that accompanies you through the day and welcomes you each time you plug in to revisit. I have a short list of electronic tracks that I consider perfect, and “Now Be The Light” holds a permanent place on it.

And this is just the beginning. “Now Be The Light” is the second of twelve tracks on Trans, and while the rest of the album never quite reaches the interstellar heights of “Now Be The Light,” Pilotpriest is quickly proven to be no mere one-hit wonder. Trans is a post-industrial classic alongside Oxyd’s Larva, Forma Tadre’s Navigator, and Polygon’s [images], managing a timeless sound with a fresh take on expression and assemblage. Most of the tracks on Trans are over five minutes in length, and all are solemn yet somehow playful outer-space anthems. Slow tempo and untreated piano are commonplace, the latter often twisting through melancholic melodies giving voice to the near-human yearnings of computers tasked to operate defunct and forgotten interstellar ghost ships for eternity, with nothing but their own memories to accompany them. Pilotpriest’s muses are the descendants of Kraftwerk’s playful man-machine, heir to infinite possibility but removed from history by error and circumstance. “Entrance” is particularly effective at expressing this bittersweet sadness, a tone enhanced when Burns’ lost AIs insert fragments of the voices of their long-gone human masters into the music, such as the trip-hoppish IDM hymns “I Am You” and “Skin.” Elsewhere, 4/4 structures are the backbone for “Lipstick” and “Strangle Part Two,” but these are crystalline designs, much too intricate for the raw power of the dancefloor.

Trans is a hidden classic, a burnished gem lost in a corner of the internet. Pilotpriest might not be a well-known name among post-industrial circles, but Burns’ project is more than deserving. Perhaps Trans is a bit too long, owing to the three comparatively rote bonus tracks, and perhaps the tone is a bit static, but when the music is so grounded, satisfying, and consistently brilliant, these issues cease being issues at all. Any album that not only contains a track like “Now Be The Light” but somehow manages to maintain the bar it sets is something rare and special. Pilotpriest is a particularly well-named project. Trans is a deeply reverential work, moving forward while embracing history and mourning its passage.

Timecop1983 – Running in the Dark

bandcamp, 2016

We live in an age that seems to suffer from an identity crisis. The cause of this is certainly debatable, but it’s likely due to many factors: the splintering of culture, the breakneck speed of modern life, the constant search for immediate meaning, the constantly growing population…..we can go on and on. Whatever the cause, more people are looking backward than ever before, and there comes a point when you wonder why.

The Eighties are a popular target, and it’s not just for nostalgic purposes (though I freely confess this is certainly a factor for me). Many people exist who are drawn to the 1980s of the United States in spite of the fact they were born in the following decades. Clearly, there is a reason.

Beyond the decadence of shows like Miami Vice, which exhibits indulgent materialism and the perceived cool that came with it, were a wide range of movies that were personal and deeply genuine, with an emotional spectrum created by the emerging sound of synth-based new wave music. The music has become to symbolize the coming-of-age angst of the films, while also recalling open white linen jackets and neon-streaked lines of slick Ferraris cruising the downtown strip. These are powerful connections, regardless of their origin.

Jordy Leenaerts has no doubt felt these effects. It’s tough to determine whether the Dutch artist, who records as Timecop1983, encountered the Eighties first-hand or through the ever-expanding retro scene lead by works such as Mitch Murder’s musical discography and Nicolas Winding Refn’s film Drive. We must remember, however, that examples such as these are undoubtedly modern works which are inspired by the Eighties rather than simply mimicking them.

Timecop1983 has carved its own corner into this burgeoning scene by focusing on what Leenaerts calls “a melancholic and romantic feeling” perhaps best expressed by the filmography of John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). In Hughes’ films, there’s a good deal of idealistic longing expressed by the main characters, who struggle to find themselves while caught in a web of social expectation, among other stresses of the industrialized West. Hughes’ films are noted for their soundtracks, often brought to fierce emotive life by bands of the time, and Timecop1983 aims to recapture this fiery vulnerability that has likely been experienced by every modern young person in some manner or other.

Running in the Dark is a seven-track EP of instrumental songs that Leenaerts composed for his live performances. What’s remarkable is how well these tracks fit together; they are inspired, infectious, and cleverly assembled. The 80s synths are deliciously airy, drifting through simple but affecting melodies within a pop framework; sometimes Timecop1983 teams with synthwave vocalists, and while these instances are remarkable indeed, the project’s strength lies in its instrumentation, as it is here. The keyboards are anchored by thudding 4/4 beats that powerfully offset the music’s grace; these are delicate but potent emotions, and the music portrays this perfectly. While retro/modern acts like Perturbator and, at times, Mitch Murder himself, focus on the sci-fi or action-film culture of the Eighties, Timecop1983 is concerned with the battleground inside, always restraining aggression in favor of mood.

“Come With Me” is both anthemic and hopeful, “Running in the Dark” swells with escapist drama, and “Dimensions” inspires and thrills with its glittering yet introspective refrain. And yet, the EP is not simply a tribute to the 80s, but also a product of the times that have passed since. Leenaerts keeps the listener guessing with percussive shifts, filtering effects, techno-inspired loops (“Somewhere We Can Go”) and a refined cinematic angle (“Visions”). But Timecop1983 is in no way defined by studio trickery. Regardless of the modern stylistic touches, the music’s heart thumps strong and clear: this is music about emerging and discovering, about recalling past loves, about dreaming of and reaching for the ideal. It is about the realization of genuine emotion, and the exploration that follows. These are timeless and transforming themes, which explains, perhaps, the project’s popularity among young and old throughout the world.

Regardless of the level of your attachment to the 80s, Timecop1983’s music is still noteworthy. Its singular identity, meticulous craftsmanship, and wistful energy combine to provide a listening experience that satisfies through its rhythms and lifts through its complex but powerful emotions. Add the retro layer, however, and Running in the Dark, along with the rest of the project’s discography, moves into another space entirely. This is music created with deep respect for a particular era in history, and while it certainly succeeds at engaging multiple eras at once, Leenaerts is careful to keep the blood of the Eighties pulsing and vital. Somewhere, John Hughes is surely smiling.

Atrium Carceri, Cities Last Broadcast, God Body Disconnect – Miles to Midnight

Cryo Chamber, 2018

Collaborations are nothing new for the prolific Cryo Chamber label, but Miles to Midnight is notably different. Atrium Carceri and Cities Last Broadcast return, fresh from last year’s Black Corner Den, and are joined by God Body Disconnect for what is described as a “foggy noir” album. There’s a skeletal conceptual narrative on Cryo Chamber’s bandcamp page for the album – a downtrodden detective and a hotel harboring secrets – but it wisely leaves the details to the listener. It’s an immediately intriguing angle on the dark ambient formula, especially given the contributors, but Miles to Midnight is not what one might expect.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the album is how natural it sounds; a remarkable feat, given its minimalist structure. Immediately apparent is its attention to tempo, set by light snare drums that give the music shape. The title track sets the tone perfectly, as the shuffling percussion is draped in a wispy veil of toned and dusty ambiance. “A Thousand Empty Rooms” is graced by a delicate piano loop that, when mixed with the drum’s lazy tempo and sparse atmosphere, creates a surprisingly relaxing atmosphere, guiding us through drifting dust motes and dusky light trickling through yellowed windowpanes. Its sparse elements belie the thick mood, and it startles with its unified vision.

The tension tightens ever so slightly on “Scene of the Crime,” but this is the only place where Miles to Midnight ventures into familiar dark ambient territory. It’s understandable, given the title, but this is the exception. “Floor 6, Please” returns to the established template; it’s largely sly bass tones and piano backed by strolling distant drums, with clever atmosphere emerging and fading like buildings glimpsed through dense fog. Given its powerful feel, it’s too bad the track’s just three minutes long. Crowd samples abound on “The Other Lobby,” and it’s here that the album becomes its most spectral, drawing clearly from The Humming Tapes, the static-drowned, electro-seance album from Cities Last Broadcast. Even here, the tendencies aren’t as bleak, eventually morphing seamlessly to meditative rather than haunting via calming synths, though the spirits do linger nearby.

Miles to Midnight becomes increasingly alien as it progresses. “The Sleep Ensemble” is a strange collage of looped tones, bizarre samples, and distant scuttling, but like the album as a whole, it’s draped in a sepia warmth, muting any foreboding elements and replacing threat with mystery. Plucked guitar headlines the dreamlike and hypnotically rendered “Quiet Days on Earth”, merged organically with reverential keyboards and nudged along by subterranean bass chords and fragile snares.

Miles to Midnight challenges and guides the listener, revealing its hidden secrets one track at a time, as we wander its dim halls and explore its forgotten corners. Repeated listens reveal its clever sound design and arrangement, and new details present themselves as elusive fragments of the overarching enigma. Miles to Midnight is an ambient journey that is neither ominous nor foreboding, but unusually and irresistibly inviting.

Chungking Mansions and Internet Goddess Shinatama – The moonlit chatlogs of a c0mrade

Ailanthus Recordings (AR 108), 2015

“We’re in!”

So declares the enthusiastic and somewhat surprised voice of a nameless young man, sampled in “Unauthorized Backdoor Access,” the opening track of The moonlit chatlogs of a c0mrade. It’s a fitting introduction to what follows: a trip through the mysterious non-world of the internet with the crowded streets of Asia as background, guided by vaporwave heavies Chungking Mansions and Internet Goddess Shinatama. It’s a pulsing, moody, and diverse album, meshing Hong Kong ambience with a variety of modern electronic techniques, while providing fragments of narrative in classic vaporwave style.

Much of the phantom story is hinted at in the track titles: “Ode to Titania,” “Visions of Chung Wan,” “Valuan Nights,” “First Course Sushi Platter for 4.” It’s fleshed out, albeit in skeletal fashion, by liner notes on the Ailanthus Recordings Bandcamp website:

In the darkest deepest chatrooms two shadowy forms communicate in pulses of energy at the speed of light. The two ghosts (a Haughty Goddess of Data and the Spirit of a Drunken Tourism Tycoon) were quarantined in Avast! and subject to a thorough investigation. I, one of these Anonymous Investigators, will now leak these findings to the world at large. The world must know of these Haunted Chatrooms.

Of course, it’s easy to tell who the two personas are: Chungking Mansions and Shinatama. The Investigator is presumed to be the hacker whose voice begins the album. What happens next is really up to the listener; c0mrade is collaborative ambience at its best.

Fortunately, the album is more than mere concept. The styles of the two personas seem made for each other; Chungking Mansion’s sly Far East urban panache is enhanced cleverly by Shinatama’s murky atmospheres and IDM-inspired rhythms. “Oxygenated Baijiu,” with its synthwave-and-downpitched-vocal foundation, is a prime example of this, with the lazy hazy broken-transmission trappings of “Dynasty” not far behind. “Do You Want To See The Ruins My Friend” is deliciously tense, and the looped sing-song vocals and icy aura of “Ode to Titania” is steeped in mystique. In spite of its diverse palette, c0mrade flows as the best soundtracks do, shaping action and forwarding plot, even when said plot is elusive at best.

Compulsively enjoyable and technically proficient, c0mrade gradually increases its hypnotic grasp as it progresses. Its identity, while sparse on detail, is thickly delivered. It appears this was a one-off collaboration, but when it’s pulled off to such a level as it is here, there’s plenty of depth in which to lose oneself. Chungking Mansions and Internet Goddess Shinatama have already proven themselves on an individual scale, but together, they tap into a rarefied realm. Music is still the best medium to provide a profound blurring between the real and the virtual, and albums such as The moonlit chatlogs of a c0mrade are proof.