Archive | September 2014

(New Album Review) Matteah Baim- Falling Theater

Matteah Baim has returned from a five year recording hiatus for Falling Theater, her new solo album. It is not quite as good as 2009’s excellent The Laughing Boy, but it is one of the best American folk albums of the year.

Though she has experimented often in her career, for example, with the glossolalia of Metallic Falcons, her collaboration with Sierra Casady of Cocorosie, the greatest asset of Baim’s work is its clarity.   Baim’s gentle contralto voice and compassionate, symbolism-heavy lyrics make her one of the more accessible of the so-called “Freak Folk” songwriters. Like Marissa Nadler, Baim is not a purist, and some elements of rock and dream pop occasionally stray into the arrangements. To be honest, I find the way that Baim incorporates other styles of music into her folksongs to be a good deal more satisfying than the way that some of her contemporaries pull it off.

Moreover, there is something of a jazzy, relaxed style that takes hold of this very charming lady at times. One can sense it coming through loud and clear on “Good for Two,” a memorable duet with Antony Hegarty. It’s a deftness and pleasantness that sidesteps boringness that makes this album, to me at least, a bit reminiscent of the good old stuff, like, say, L.A. Turnaround by Bert Jansch. The spell is enhanced by composer Maxim Moston’s fine arrangements, the best of which is the one for the sweet love song “Dude”. Truth be told, Baim does not rock much at all on this record, which was not also the case on The Laughing BoyFalling Theater is like a a long letter from a friend, detailing a rather picturesque road trip– it is a mild-tempered and wistful collection of sketches.

And the album has a particularly memorable finale: the open chords of “Familiar Way” open seamlessly into the slow, hypnotic “Blindman’s Hand”, the most experimental track out of the whole undertaking. Falling Theater will no doubt be an album that will build up a cult following over time.

For my readers in Portland, be sure to check out Matteah for her appearance in support of Perfume Genius at Mississippi Studios on October 24th. I will try to make it out for that show.

(New Album Review) Blakkr Nið- War Time [EP]

This next submission comes from Canada. Peter McNestry’s Blakkr Nið, one of an almost endless array of bandcamp’s bedroom avant-garde projects, is dark ambient made with guitars and synths. I checked up on War Time,  his EP from earlier this year, and found myself getting intrigued.

Blakkr Nið seems to me to be a project following the path being crafted by groups like Locrian– fans of black metal sounding out the territories of the avant garde with ghostly instrumental drones with a combination of guitar feedback and synths. There is a lot of overlap between avant garde music and the darker end of metal, as Chelsea Wolfe’s burgeoning success would suggest. For a while, metal was sort of excluded or at least avoided within certain circles in music, but now I suppose people have come full circle to feeling more open minded towards it. Cool projects like Blakkr Nið will certainly benefit from the surge of interest in this nascent genre-mixing.

Both the opener “Chernobyl” and “Rusted Carousel” carry on in the vein of bone-chilling ambient atmospheres to satisfying effect. However the real treat of the album is the closer, “Reactor Bay”, a collaboration with Newgrange. This angelic track departs from the eerie mood of the first two tracks. It is this track that has a real richness to it, and seems to me to be very clear evidence of an interesting vision in McNestry’s music. The first two tracks weave some horror, then this last one weaves some hope. All three tracks use synths while eskewing guitars, unlike some of McNestry’s other albums which I checked up on. It is really cool to see so many artists feeling kind enough to put their work out there on bandcamp and offer it at “name your price“. Be sure to return the favor and check this out. File it next to KTL and Locrian.

(Film Review) HYPNOSIS DISPLAY (Directed by Paul Clipson, Music by Liz Harris) @ Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland State University

Hypnosis Display, a collaboration between filmmaker Paul Clipson and Portland musician Liz Harris (also known as Grouper), is a haunting and poignant experience, and worthy of the status of a minor classic, at least among experimental films. The film was screened as part of the annual Time Based Arts Festival, at the Lincoln Performance Hall on the Portland State University campus. Harris live-mixed the soundtrack with an array of tapes and notes on a desk next to the screen.

I got excited about this show because I have been a long-standing fan of Liz Harris. She is a very inspiring artist who, to me at least, is one of the few musicians who have told honestly the story of the Pacific Northwest, one of rain, dark woods, and cautious people.

Clipson has been a frequent collaborator with Jefre Cantu-Ledesma. Prior to this show, Paul Clipson was just a name to me. However, I will be sure to look more into his work now. I can recommend Within Mirrors in addition to this film.

Hypnosis Display is a non-narrative film in which imagery of nature slowly transitions into imagery of human civilization. It is set in the United States, though I’m not sure if it was set in the Northwest, as a few sections looked as though they were shot in New York. Clipson shot the film on 16 millimeter, with some sections in black and white, and others in color. The film’s photographic subjects are not exactly random– the motifs that will catch the eye most are telephone poles, eyeballs, trains, traffic jams, and running water. Clipson’s images mesh and bleed chaotically, and they have a kind of “distance” to them– they are faded or saturated as if from a dream, an affect that is enhanced by Harris’s ghostly drones.

As with most experimental films, the film’s foregoing of a clear narrative sort of dooms it to invite strongly divided opinions and vague responses. My friend Gary, for instance, commented that he found the film to be a little overwhelming.  Clipson commented in this interesting piece with Light Cone that he often uses in-camera editing, in keeping with his desire to film not with specific intentions in mind, but just with creating imagery with the potential to be interesting. With this in mind it is impressive to reflect on how attuned Liz Harris’s tapes are with the images in this film. Because of this, Hypnosis Display, despite its lack of a clearly articulated narrative, is one of the most emotionally provocative “unstructured” films I have seen in my life. Though the film’s avalanche of streaking, twisting, flickering cinematography contrasts with Harris’s slowly shifting drones, about 30 minutes in something interesting started to happen for me. I began to experience the integration of sound and image as a single sensibility speaking directly to me. And towards its ending, the work begins to take on a very affecting ideological slant. Strange monologues enter into the soundtrack, and one in particular is very affecting– a young woman rambles on for a few minutes about feeling isolated from others. Her monologue quickly becomes disjointed as she transitions from talking about herself and her difficulties in connecting with others to talking about a world that she sees as being full of people who spend their waking hours dreaming about the world through their computers. All the while, streaking traffic lights and a pensive woman wandering the streets fill the frame. Later, another voice, male, talks about an image he holds to be symbolically important: a disembodied eye. The gentle sadness of this collaboration’s articulation of dissociation is very moving and seems genuine. Art like this seems to remind us that, even with all our technology, we still forget how hard it is to fully understand the world, and that the temptation to dissociate from the world can be very strong.

Liz Harris’s soundtrack for this film can be counted among her best work ever– it is, at least, the music I’ve appreciated from her the most next to her two Violet Replacement albums. For this undertaking she utilized many field recordings, in addition to her own whispers, whistles, and murmurs, which gave a cool ambience to the rolling waves of sound. Also, towards the middle of the film, she utilized some harsher-sounding noise, something I had not heard from her before.

I will be keeping my eyes peeled for a DVD release of this lovely, fascinating film in the coming months. Please also keep supporting the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art’s Time Based Art festival, which makes interesting shows like this not only possible, but very welcoming and accessible.

Photo taken on a point and shoot by me.

(New Album Review) Stefan Wesolowski- Liebestod

I have often written in my commentaries about how I believe some albums evoke impressions of the atmosphere of specific places. Stefan Wesolowski’s Liebestod, which opens with a recording of rolling waves, certainly brings to my mind impressions of towering hills and the sea. The songs from this album were initially presented at 2013’s Unsound festival, and the record itself is now being released on the American label Important Records. It was realized with the financial support of The Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, among other generous contributors.

Liebestod is a funereal album of compositions for piano, strings, brass, and electronics. Though its content is deliberately repetitive in its structures, it is a contemporary classical of noteworthy sensitivity. The gentle, percussive electronics at the beginning of “Route” reminded me a little bit of electronic musician Loscil’s work, but as the composition’s piano and brass parts gradually come to the forefront, the piece transforms into something intangibly different. Wesolowski’s publisher has quoted him as remarking that though he respects classical music, he is not making literal references to it. This lines up with my impression of the record. “Hand Im Haar” and “Liebestod” are both chamber pieces that evoke the contemplative intimacy of the Romantic era of classical, only with repeating figures on the piano and the gently sighing strings. “What the Thunder Said” begins on a note of minimalist unease, something that should be very familiar to fans of drone, then, halfway through, abruptly speeds up as urgent notes from the piano and swelling brass begin to take over. It is music that is pregnant with a sense of loss, structurally in keeping with modern classical but also deeply reverent and allusive to the Western art music’s past.

This is an interesting and lovely album– Wesolowski is probably very strongly influenced by Steve Reich, but he has also incorporated some of the feeling one can get from classical composers from the past. The album is named from an allusion to Wagner, and the album often brings to mind impressions of a pastoral, European spirit. One hopes that Wesolowski will continue to experiment and create more work like this.

(New Album Review) Chrome- Feel It Like a Scientist

Helios Creed’s Chrome has released a new album, Feel It Like a Scientist. It is a shame that he won’t be bringing Chrome on a U.S. tour, though they did recently play a festival in Los Angeles called Berserktown.

Together as Chrome, Damon Edge and Helios Creed pioneered weirdo art punk, exerting a strong influence on much of the punk and noise made in the following decades. Even for their idiom, Chrome made music that was overwhelmingly strange– deranged punk running wild against an uneasy backdrop of menacing vocals, weird synthesizers, shortwave radios, and televisions. In a way, because they have strained so aggressively for such profound, bizarre symbolism, with little thought given to aesthetic pleasantness or even to having a clear-cut ideological “point”, Chrome are one of the most “punk” bands to ever exist. Moreover, their experiments with technology certainly prefigured the transition of sampling into mainstream music. For years, they were really just a name to me, and that’s all they may be to you as well at the moment, however I must emphasize that their albums Half Machine Lip MovesAlien Soundtracks, and the underrated Red Exposure are essential listening.

As Chrome’s fans may already know, Damon Edge sadly passed away in 1995. He had been in contact with Helios Creed before his death, and they had been discussing reforming Chrome as a duo (from the mid-80’s up to The Clairaudient Syndrome Damon Edge had been recording under the Chrome moniker without Helios), and it’s sad that he was taken so young by heart failure before this reunion could have happened. Helios has soldiered on for Chrome parallel to working on his own solo albums, and these new Chrome albums aren’t half bad. Feel It Like A Scientist is actually the first new Chrome album in about twelve years.

Creed’s manifestation of Chrome is admirably consistent not only with the work he and Damon created together, but with the Chrome that Damon made on his own.  It’s actually hard to tell a Damon-era Chrome album apart from Helios-era album. The main point of difference lies in Helios’s guitar playing– the Helios Chrome is more of a rock affair than Damon’s vision. For this record, Creed formed a new band, including vocalist Anne Dromeda, guitarist Keith Thompson, drummer Aleph Omega, bassists Lux Vibratus and Steve Fishman, and synth player Tommy Grenas. The band collectively wrote the album’s lyrics, but Creed also included some lines originally written by Damon.

Feel it Like a Scientist is considerably better than Ghost Machine and feels a little more like a Chrome album than the jammy (but nonetheless interestingly-crafted) Retro-Transmission. This is a good album that will sate old fans of the band– there are many moments here where one can feel the spirit of Chrome resurrecting for the first time in years, particularly on “Prophecy” and the haunting ambience of “Nymph Droid”. Just as they did decades ago, the feverish punk energy and the alien madness come together to create something really damn cool. This is a reunion album to be reckoned with.