Seattle-based singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and sound artist Thomas Meluch’s Benoît Pioulard project made a full-length return to its more experimental underpinnings in March with Sonnet, a collection of mostly instrumental pieces composed with magnetic tape, guitar, and voice, off Kranky. Sonnet was followed by two stylistically-similar companions: Stanza in April and Stanza II earlier this month. Following the net release of Stanza II, Meluch collaborated with my friend Ant’lrd’s Baro Records and Portland experimental mainstay Beacon Sound for a limited series of tapes combining both Stanza and Stanza II in one collection. Both installments of Stanza were mastered by Rafael Anton Irisarri and recorded in 2015.
Most of Meluch’s albums under the Benoît Pioulard moniker have been made up of wispy, echo-laden folk songs, similar in their sensitivity and mysterious experimental undercurrents to work by Gareth Dickson, Liz Harris, and Richard Youngs. Bearing this in mind, it seems natural that Sonnet and its two companion albums were devised to stand out among the yearly deluge of thoughtful and texturally-varied ambient releases, in both a conceptual and aesthetic sense. Wordless except for the drowned vocal melody of “A Shade of Celadon”, Sonnet is all ephemeral isolation ambient– and it has a fairly specific form: fourteen lines irregular in length, yet following the same dreamy meter. The two stanzas that follow the sonnet are a refinement of this concept: a sextet of nameless 4-minute-long lines followed by another sextet of nameless 6-minute-long lines. Interestingly, the concept seems to be made clearer on the combined release from Baro, as the standalone edition of Stanza ended with the 6 minute-long first line of what is seemingly the diegesis’s second stanza, and Stanza II’s standalone release included two titled tracks at its end (“Held In” and “Courtesy”) that could not be included on the C60.
Sonnet and Stanza I & II represent the most poetic, organically-beautiful offerings from modern ambient music. Like Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, Meluch paints in saturated colors so as to evoke heavy vibes of nostalgia and melancholy. Tape decay and heavily-processed electric guitar are looped into a sonic ocean in which subtle harmonies swell and echo– the sheer immensity of these soundscapes is on the level of Tim Hecker’s white noise odysseys, and, like Hecker, Meluch knows well that one can’t exactly recreate the blurry beauty of organic decay with software. I would say though, that Sonnet goes even further into these realms than anything by Hecker, and with more of a pastoral, impressionistic sensibility in which more attention is paid to melody and harmony. What’s more, the textures of Stanza I & II venture deeper into the shade cast by Sonnet.
Stanza is, for the most part, muted and thoughtful– an afternoon lying in the grass on a beautiful day near the end of summer. Stanza II is the slow crawl of orange light over the earth as evening approaches– it steadily grows more mysterious and plaintive, with the emotionalism of Meluch’s guitar surfacing more frequently in the mix as the the sun dips out of sight. The tones that Meluch has struck here, as well as the conciseness of his phrases, particularly in the last three pieces of Stanza II, are marks of a master. Stanza and Stanza II are all of a piece, and they are ultimately even more melodically, harmonically captivating than their precursor.
Along with Deupree, Sakamoto, and Illuha’s Perpetual, Benoît Pioulard’s trio should be at the forefront of the must-listens of the year for enthusiasts of sound art and ambient music. Stanza II is already one of my favorites of the year. Here’s hoping you check all three out soon…drink deeply.
Criminally overlooked electronic producer Matthew Mercer has been putting out dynamite for over a decade both under his own name and as one half of the electro-pop duo Microfilm. Even considering the impressive level of quality that can be seen in his numerous techno productions up to this point, his new release Supernatant is a truly jaw-dropping tour-de-force– nearly an hour of mind-bending soundscapes. And to think that for more than half of his career, Matthew was laboring right here in Portland, my town (Ohio-raised Mercer relocated here from Chicago some years ago).
A classically trained musician on piano and organ, Mercer has oscillated back and forth from pulsing, angular techno to more experimental work. What strikes me about Supernatant is the sustained attack of this record– an ever-expanding horizon of tense, spookily beautiful cosmic drones. These immaculately layered and planned pieces have a nonetheless aggressive edge– take, for instance, how the watery ambience of “Somnabulism” lulls you in… only to shatter into broken shards of white noise and disembodied, wailing strings at the halfway point. The atmosphere of this record certainly shows the influence of modern art music.
This is without a doubt one of the strongest releases that could be grouped as “dark ambient” this year…particularly because it is so dynamic and unpredictable. To put it bluntly, I find this record to have such a powerful pull on me because it’s a rare example of a bleak, spooky ambient record that genuinely has some tricks up its sleeves– be they the growling drone that starts us off on “Backsliding”, the ghostly feedback squeal on “Sensorium”, or the flute on “Hive Mind”, the track on which the record’s powerful aura of fear and mystery surely reaches its apex. A minor masterpiece.
Seer, by Portland’s own mainstays Golden Retriever, may be the most interesting electro-acoustic release of the year. A synthesizer (Matt Carlson) and bass clarinet (Jonathan Sielaff ) duo, Golden Retriever are a good example of this interesting wave of experimental artists who play around with the fine line between organic and electronic. Though I guess I might poetically describe them as “minimalist”, their music would be better described as maximalist as there is always something going on in their music and it can get pretty harsh, featuring unexpected extremes in volume. This is largely due to the intensity of Sielaff’s playing as well as his experiments with modulating in tandem with Carlson– with his technical skill and with the help of their equipment, he is able to turn the bass clarinet into something harsh, booming, and very alien yet nonetheless sounding markedly similar to a guitar solo by Robert Fripp.
Though I can already think of two bands in Portland alone (Moongriffin and Grammies) that have this kind of wind instrument/synthesizer duo setup, Golden Retriever’s style is very distinctive. I randomly name-dropped Robert Fripp two sentences ago, and for good reason– in a way, this music is very similar to art rock. Golden Retriever are stately, wrapped in subtle mystery– a bugle call sounding from a seeming abyss. They make electronic music that seems very strongly influenced by jazz and classical Western art music– there is some droning, but the figures that Sielaff plays wander around and get much more complex.
Seer is the fourth album of Golden Retriever’s that I’ve heard to date. For a long time, my opinion of them was sort of just pleasantly neutral, perhaps because I hadn’t looked too much into them; you have to understand that I often feel that music can be good without exciting me that much. When I saw that this album was getting a noticeable amount of critical attention, I became curious and, after having listened to Seer, for this week I think I’ll spend a little time re-visiting them and looking for older albums of theirs I have up to now had on my listening backlog. To say the least, the new album seems as though it’s the best so far, though Light Cones was noticeably good too.
Golden Retriever’s earlier works have alternated between extended pieces of about 15 to 25 minutes, and shorter pieces under the 10 minute mark. Their albums have never been too lengthy, eschewing the “endurance listening” manifesto of so many other experimental groups. Seer is 40 minutes made up of five medium-length pieces, four under the 10-minute mark and one just under the 15. The album is thusly concise and sweet– and what’s more, it’s positively entrancing and has the potential to win many new fans. The album takes you on a journey: it starts out with the droning textures of “Petrichor”, abruptly shifts into the harsh blowing on “Sharp Stones”, swings back into the bubbly “Archipelago”, seems to find a middle ground between woodwind and synth on “Flight Song”, and then concludes very elegantly on the flowing, elliptical “Superposition”. “Flight Song” might be the signature Golden Retriever track– Sielaff’s lovely melody floats casually over the bed of chirping synths. This whole duality between the organic and the digital is exemplified very well by Golden Retriever (though many other groups pursue these ends well) as it is often hard to tell what you are hearing, yet it all bleeds together into their entrancing vision. It’s just a really good record, very well-rounded, and one can tell that they enjoyed making it. Seer is one of the best releases of the year in any genre. For any Portlanders reading my blog, I hope you can see them tonight at Holocene at 8:30!