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.

[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.

Vitaly Maklakov & Lefterna – Solar Mycelium

Ostroga Records (OTR-069), 2016

It’s one thing to put together a successful ambient album. It’s quite another to tap into the mind of the listener, to make him or her forget that they’re listening, and provide a doorway into a synthetic mode of consciousness. I have often thought that the best ambient albums are those that provide not just an unexpected technical experience, but a form of mental escapism that walks a fine line between subtle guidance and allowing enough freedom for the listener to collaborate on the creation of something beyond just the sounds. Inspired by the ambiance, the listener molds an imaginary world; a unique imaginary state that can be revisited time and again, sometimes with different results.

Solar Mycelium is among the rare breed of ambient works that achieves both states. Lefterna (Boban Ristevski) and Vitaly Maklakov have fused minimal electronic drone and field recording into an exploration of the unseen world that flows all around us. The album begins with “Fairy Rings,” in which a gentle bed of static buoys a series of quiet metallic creaks and scrapes. As the track progresses, you can feel the heat of summer rising from the ground, and the sounds shift into the noise of insects on a heavy, lazy, dream-invoking afternoon. There’s just enough evolution to keep the track from becoming mechanical, which is vital in an organic framework such as this.

“Cradle of the Information Snare” is a tad heavier and darker, with odd sampled warbles replacing the field recording, but the drowsy hypnotic effect is the same. Much similar ambient music that leans on such a minimal structure often fades into the background, and the bond between mood and listener dissolves. Not here.

The final two tracks show Ristevski and Maklakov indulging their deep-listening and longform muses, and over the thirty-one combined minutes, Solar Mycelium reaches its surreal peak. The title track is thick with strangeness despite its simple structure; it’s easy to imagine the air about you dotted with invisible fairies flitting and darting about, but this is no wispy aria. The odd buzzes and tiny buried whines ground the track and shroud it in hazy mystery, with a tinge of shadow tracing the edges. It’s a haunting piece of work that displays a delicate balance of its components without losing sight of the overall structure. At nineteen and a half minutes, “Fluorescent Landscape” is the album’s longest, and while the distortion is enhanced, the aesthetic is the same. It’s not quite as trance-inducing as the previous track, as its sonic range is wider, but the patterns of hidden static pops keep the immersion high for its duration.

Albums in the mold of Solar Mycelium are easy to come by these days, but precious few walk the tightrope between overbearing and inconsequential as surely as this one does. Deftly placed between active collaboration and consuming escapism, this unusual album nails the elusive state sought by so many similar artists. Maklakov and Ristevski might not blow your ears away with studio trickery, but that’s not their goal. For a strikingly creative minimal ambient experience that gently treads the waters of the deep subconscious, I haven’t heard an album all year that equals the strangely mythical poise of this one.