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.

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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.

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.

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.

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!