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.

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.

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.

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.