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!

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.

Broken Light – Silhouette

The Vapour Library (TVL-018), 2016

Assembled from an assortment of seemingly disparate pieces, Silhouette from Broken Light is well-named. This is an indistinct, apparently incomplete record; a solution to an undefined puzzle. It’s one thing to make a conceptual record, but quite another to toss a bunch of snippets into a digital blender, with a result that doesn’t simply leave a question unanswered – Broken Light doesn’t bother with asking a question in the first place.

But here lies the mystique: somehow, it all fits. The hazy-shadow figure on the cover of Silhouette is the only initial clue we’re given: a person wearing what appears to be a long collared coat, standing quietly against a white background. The track titles provide further elusive hints, if they are hints at all. Broken Light has cleverly pieced together snippets of baroque string and classical piano, skewed melodic samples of unknown provenance, and a scattering of Asian-sourced fragments, sent through various delicate filters and manipulated by speed and timbre. There are twenty-two pieces here, few lasting longer than ninety seconds or so, but the atmosphere, somehow, remains consistent.

The manner with which Broken Light has arranged the sequence creates and maintains a sort of shadowed beauty, echoing the cover image. The piano of “Enclosure” is, I’m quite certain, pilfered from one of Chopin’s nocturnes, and a few others sound achingly familiar, but I can’t quite place them. Perhaps this contributes to the sense of mystery and loss. Then you have the sing-song beauty of “Angel”, with a pitched-up Asian vocal surely lifted from some obscure film or album, but reduced to an alien loop backed by pipe, strings, and trickling water, all combining to match the emotion twisting off the somber violin and winsome piano in curling tendrils. If there is a story here – and this certainly seems to be the case – it is a profoundly strange and buried one. On the other hand, part of the attraction of this type of minimally presented album is the welcome opportunity to create your own, should you prefer.

Since unlocking and absorbing this odd and beautifully curated music box, wisps of melody have begun to drift through my head at random intervals. At first, I thought it was my subconscious diving into the depths of memory and surfacing with some half-remembered tiny musical jewel. It remained for a while, as I fumble, amused, for a name or connection, only to have it sink back into the mysterious place from whence it came. It was only later that I realized it was a floating piece of Silhouette, turned up my ever-moving mental tide, which seems to operate by its own rules more often than not. Perhaps Broken Light’s intent was to create a tribute to the inexact elegance of memory; mission accomplished.

I’m not sure if Broken Light is a genius at sound selection and manipulation, or just happened to fit these fragments together in a pattern that is more than the sum of its parts. Likely a droplet of both. Not everyone will react to Silhouette in the same way I have, but I’d wager that there are surely others who will find themselves caught up in its hypnotic web, and be glad for it.

Die Relicta – Relicta Aeternum

MNMN Records (MNMN422), 2016

I write a lot about “ambient music,” but I’ve always grappled with that second word. Much of what I listen to isn’t really music at all, in the traditional sense, but cleverly arranged and processed sound collages that create unique atmospheres. Some of my favorite ambient albums don’t have a single note of melody in them whatsoever. So I am constantly asking myself: is this really music? What is music, at its most basic level?

Ambient music implies the creation of sounds that are part of the environment, whether natural or imagined, and tend to shift the listener’s experience from conscious to subconscious to, at times, the unconscious. It meshes with your perception in a surreal way that traditional note-based music rarely does; indeed, this is part of its attraction.

By this reasoning, I’m not entirely sure I’d call Relicta Aeternum an ambient album at all. Russian project Die Relicta’s sole release ticks the electronic and beatless boxes on the ambient checklist, but the similarities stop there. This is an album of solemn melody, of profound emotion conjured through the procession of notes. There’s tendency to label albums like this as “cinematic” or “faux soundtrack,” and while this is tempting, it’s not always applicable. Relicta Aeternum falls somewhere between the drifty compositions of the Spotted Peccary discography, and the isolationist gloom that tends to dominate Cryo Chamber and Cyclic Law labels. Die Relicta’s beauty is melancholic, but never despairingly so.

What also separates Relicta Aeternum from bright-air New-Age ambient are the lightly scraping loops of sampled noise that thread among its dusty hymn-like arias. The resulting mood – part cathedral-inspired numinous and part abandoned factory – recalls Peter Andersson’s early work as raison d’etre: a sense of awe and reverence for something elusively and exclusively beyond oneself; the mystery of The Other juxtaposed with the constructed. There’s joy and sorrow to be found in the ephemeral; how the remnants of the past hint at former glory, which once shone bright and strong but has lost its essence forever. And yet, there is wonder to be found in the fact such wonders existed at all, and the implication is that such a pinnacle will be reached once again.

This is the message Die Relicta has provided. While Relicta Aeternum is short at thirty-three minutes, each of the five tracks is a grand and stirring jewel. The album’s title translates roughly as “leaving forever,” and the reverential sense of parting and the beginning of a new path have been powerfully captured by Die Relicta. Call it ambient, call it cinematic, call it what you will – but Relicta Aeternum, by any name, is sublime.