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.

Tor Lundvall – The Violet-Blue House

Dais Records (DAIS 089.2), 2016

At an initial glance, Tor Lundvall may not be a prolific artist, but he is a dedicated and thoughtful one. As the year closes, Dais Records has once again released a five-disc box set of Lundvall’s curiously hypnotic creations: Nature Laughs as Time Slips By. In the spirit of his previous set, 2013’s Structures and Solitude, this newest release contains a first-time CD version (The Park, a previously LP-only album from 2015) and an expanded version of earlier work (Field Trip, first released on cassette in 2011), but this time, there are three discs of all-new material. Lundvall has been hard at work.

The first of these is a second collection of early ambient material, titled Insect Wings, Leaf Matter, and Broken Twigs, the first volume of which appeared in 2009. The final two albums of Nature Laughs are new, containing the most recent of Lundvall’s themed instrumental music: Rain Studies and The Violet-Blue House.

If this review was to properly explore all of this material, it would be quite a weighty read. (I have already reviewed The Park, which was my Album of the Year in 2015). The Violet-Blue House seems to be something of a centerpiece for this set, as there is a promotional video for it, as well as unique oil portraits inspired by the album available with the set on a very limited basis, painted by Lundvall himself. (Hard at work, indeed.)

Like most of Tor Lundvall’s instrumental ambient, the music of The Violet-Blue House is deceptively simplistic. Taking cues from The Park and Night Studies, the electronic tones, gentle passes of noise, and sparse rhythms are stripped down, when compared to earlier albums such as Empty City. And yet, Lundvall’s ability to create a unique sense of space continues to develop.

The Violet-Blue House is, in a sense, a guided tour of the house itself. And this is a deeply odd and surreal place, existing on the border of dream and reality. Lundvall’s music has always defied easy categorization; while its effect is certainly ambient, its form is elusive. Most of the tracks are around three minutes in length, and many feature loops of keyboard tones and percussive taps, with the calls of eerie voices and whistling drifting phantom-like through the atmospheres that spill from Lundvall’s imagination. The mood is utterly unique: simultaneously detached as if viewed remotely, and deeply immersed. This house is not a dark place, but it is a shadowed one, rife with secrets in every corner and behind every door. It is a place that invites wandering, and we can only guess at its nature and origins.

We approach along a “Garden Path”, accompanied by an analog bass sequence and looped taps that impart a sense of motion. We hear a distant voice, perhaps beckoning us inside the house itself, and the furtive rustles of something unseen. “Her Shadow” is an example of Lundvall’s ambient skill at its height, creating a vivid mental portrait of something intimate and mysterious; twin tones mesh with distant muffled metallic clinks and whistles, building a mood that’s thick and compelling without being ominous. “Night Breeze” provides a glance outside, to an empty porch where wind chimes are disturbed by a stray gust of gentle wind. The footstep-like taps and whistled half-tune of “Wanderer” resolve themselves into the signs of someone in the house; perhaps it is us, perhaps not. “Soft Colors” and “Lavender Twilight” display the half-lit hues Lundvall has draped over the album; the house is in a place of perpetual dusk, comforting and unreal.

The final two tracks, “Paper Hearts” and “Moon Worship”, show Lundvall experimenting with his usual template. Each track runs past the ten-minute mark, aiming to deepen the immersion through drawn-out tones and reduction of momentum. Lundvall has tinkered with longform before, and is skilled in the format; here, his created shadows lengthen to reach beyond the walls of the house, into the uncertain country beyond. Length aside, the tracks follow the same structure as the rest of the album, providing us ample opportunity to remain in one place and drink in the strange and lulling aura enveloping us.

The Violet-Blue House is both warmer and darker than Lundvall’s recent work. It’s easy to apply the “haunted house” template, but Lundvall’s ghosts aren’t harmful, just very, very unusual. The observational portraits of albums like Empty City and The Shipyard have been replaced by an exploration of a place that’s very much unreal; while The Park teased with this dreamlike border, Lundvall has entered this surreal haven fully. He seems at home here, among the apparitions and specters that roam the halls and rooms, and thanks to the depth of his conjuring powers, so do we.

Donovan Hikaru – Kiosk Vibes

bandcamp, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

[existence_sounds] – The Biography of Industrial City

Green Field Recordings, 2016

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

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

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

Western Digital – Lost Signal

Fantasy Deluxe (FNTSY21), 2016

Lost Signal, the new album by Western Digital, is twelve minutes long.

Yes, you read correctly: the entire ten-track album totals twelve minutes. The longest track, “beyond,” lasts all of one minute and fifty-four seconds.

But this should not deter you from it. I was certainly skeptical going in. Little did I anticipate that Lost Signal would soon reveal itself as one of the most mysterious and unusual pieces of audio I’ve heard in some time. The track titles – “calling,” “m shaped cave,” “dune,” “appear” – provide curious hints without divulging their meaning too easily. There’s plenty of room for interpretation; while Western Digital has provided an outline, it’s one of the sparsest I’ve ever encountered. It’s the audio equivalent of the infamous video clip from the film Ringu – haunting, deeply hypnotic, and full of obscure, linked symbolism.

Lost Signal is thick with mystique. There’s something profoundly alien at work during its twelve minutes. Each moment is draped in a blanket of muffled static and down-tuned distortion; Western Digital has used this technique before, most notably in the broken-transmission masterpiece Wasted Digital, but with Lost Signal, all sampled source material has been removed, leaving behind a surreal bed of warped bizarreness that casts its brief yet potent spell on one’s imagination. I find myself returning to Lost Signal time and again, hoping to detect some minute hint in the dense fog of swirling tones, eerie snippets of melody, and embedded loops. Or, if nothing else, I carry on formulating my own explanations. I can’t help but search for patterns. Considered from this perspective, Western Digital has smoothly delved into one of the most curious parts of the human psyche – the ingrained search for meaning.

I wonder if Lost Signal would be a better album if it was longer, or if its mysteries were explained in a clearer manner. Somehow, I doubt it. There are connections here, tenuous as they may seem, but that’s where the cooperative experience comes in; to develop those bridges however the listener chooses. When looped, Lost Signal is easily as immersive as most longform pieces, though I find myself wishing the tracks bled into each other rather than having traditional breaks in between. Given the effectiveness of the album overall, however, this is a negligible factor.

Lost Signal is exactly what it is described to be: a collection of scattered and related sonic fragments. Think of it as a (very) stripped-down version of Cities Last Broadcast’s The Cancelled Earth – the remnants of something long-forgotten, the nature of which we can only guess at. It’s amazing to realize that a twelve-minute album is one of the best and most interesting works of experimental conceptual ambient I’ve heard in quite a while.

Niteffect – Vanish

Kreislauf Records (Kreislauf 161), 2016

The unsung master of lurking trip-hop returns, with eyes now turned to the city’s lofty towers rather than downcast on its broken streets. Niteffect no longer snarls and slouches along back alleys in search of nefarious dealings, but has edged into the bright open air, blinking uncertainly as bits of its former shadowed shell trail behind it. Vanish marks Niteffect’s first step into unfamiliar surroundings, a freshly undertaken journey toward a destination far from its origins.

Niteffect’s reinvention is immediately evident in the bittersweet nostalgia of “Swt Mthr” – very likely a shortened “sweet mother”- drawn with personal intimacy via piano that speaks of tribute and loss in its evocative lines. Niteffect has announced its rebirth clearly and boldly. No longer does its sound bristle with the narrow-eyed suspicion and brash bravado of the city’s underbelly. It’s brighter, yes, but not naively so; it still regards the world through a lens roughened by asphalt and concrete, but now with hints of sunlight teasing at the edges.

Vestiges of the past (the sublimely murky Dark Glow) are still present, but their participation is muted. The backing keys of “Loop for Die” twist down into a grainy bed as the track ends, as if Niteffect is actively hesitant to indulge his past tendencies. While the track never escalates fully, a muffled xylophone-like sequence forms the foundation of “Hide and Seek,” along with a minimal and restrained drum track. Likewise, the skewed plucked bass and wavering sequences of “Devil May Care” sound like a prologue to something darkly streetwise, but the line is never crossed, imparting anticipation of action that doesn’t quite materialize. These remnants of rawness keep the warm analog sound of Vanish grounded with just enough grit; it’s honest in a way that similar IDM-based electronica struggles to emulate.

As Vanish nears its too-soon conclusion, NE seems to feel more comfortable with its new incarnation. “Nightfall” (rather than the expected “Nitefall”) is particularly effective, with a warbled loop shimmering among a delicately treated vocal sample. This is the epitome of the new Niteffect; tentative, but clever and assured, stepping into its new cityscape with wary confidence. The beat lurches more fully on “Lifecycle,” recalling the dirty glory of its past, but framed by flickering treatments that elevate the track into the clearing sky. The final track, “Hiatus,” is anchored by hushed organ chords, while the fluttering sparse percussion darts and flits amongst shimmering sequences. Niteffect is as sly as ever, but more refined, with a heightened awareness of the world beyond the streets.

Vanish feels transitory, but that may be due to its brevity. As few of its eight tracks break three minutes in length, it’s really a long EP rather than a proper album. One of the best features about past releases was generous length, allowing Niteffect ample room to experiment within its established parameters. Vanish hints at an unfettered direction for the project, but feels slightly unfinished, as if it’s an addenda to the body existing work rather than a full-fledged release. I, for one, hope that Vanish isn’t just a tantalizing side-path for Niteffect. Perhaps it’s a sign of its sparseness, but every time Vanish reaches its finish, I feel there’s still a chapter or two remaining. The real reason, however, is obvious: Vanish is so well-wrought and satisfying, I simply want more of it.