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.
Strom Noir, Slovakian sound artist Emil Matko, makes warm, enveloping ambient with a methodolgy similar to Hakobune’s: through the layering of faint, delayed-to-the-aether tones. Though the best entry point into his discography would be through the mysterious, endlessly trailing ostinato melodies of Dni Stratili Svoju Farbu (Days Lost their Colors), his new album ΕΣΟΠΤΡΟΝ (Espotron: Inner Mirror), released on cassette by ΠΑΝΘΕΟΝ early in March 2015, is just as lovely. Matko’s meticulous work has produced blissfully dreamy soundscapes– the early spring to Hakobune and Nobuto Suda’s late autumn. This one is a must-listen for all fans of sound art and ambient music.
樹海/sea of trees is an excellent compilation of tracks from mostly Japanese electronic producers from the netlabels Future Disorder (based in Colombia) and On Sunday Recordings (based in Japan). The album has very generously been offered free to download from soundcloud, and this sprawling collection is worthier of one’s time than most netlabel compilations, as the array of styles here is a little dizzying, and certainly also evidence of an openness in their approach and their hearts. While On Sunday’s output tends to concentrate on glitch and ambient techno, Future Disorder’s contributions run the widest gamut in terms of genre. sea of trees spans ambient techno, witch house, minimal wave, glitchy ephemera, electro-acoustic ambient, vaporwave, and quite a few who seem to overlap more than one of these idioms (Kenji Kishi and Jamie J. Ross’s contribution “Standing Tall” comes to mind); what unites these disparate tracks is an aesthetic pregnant with a sense of mystery and longing. For that matter, Future Disorder is a self-described Aokigahara record label.
There are many highlights to this collection. The Los Angeles duo Talking DÆMON sound like the tormented emotionalism of HTRK propelled by a dizzying synth riff out of a Sakamoto film score. Soma Hayato ingeniously spools beats from field recordings on the lovely “Jaburo” while Ryosuke Miyata (also of the excellent Organic Industries) takes a beatless approach to electro-acoustic ambient sounds on “Sweet Double Suicide”. Code4 and Fjell trip deep into foreboding dreams, one with the help of a suffused hip-hop beat, the other with synth strings and an eerie refrain on piano. Whatever vibe you happen to tap into here, you will definitely get hooked onto some new talents if you check this one out. Highly eclectic and highly recommended.
Spazio Sacro, the new album from sound artist Giulio Aldinucci, is covered in a thick gauze of effects that make the slightest gestures reverberate endlessly, if only to amplify their relationship to the steadily beating heart beneath. Aldinucci, who began learning music as a child, writes music for acoustic instruments, but his fine last three albums Aer, Tarsia, and now Spazio Sacro, were synthesized more from field recordings and tones generated from digital and analog hardware. The pieces on Spazio Sacro were culled from childhood memories from rural Tuscany.
One could relate the timbres of Aldinucci’s pieces to those of Simon Scott and Marsen Jules, yet the almost disorienting flurry of dreamily altered scenes and fragments layered over the minimal composition forms an overall style that is hyper-evocative and more musically emotive than their work, almost demanding the listener to search for the secrets held within. The swelling chords and drones evoke the vastness of this landscape just as much as the mystic traditions that have coexisted with it– the album creates a conversation between the epic ambiance of this environment’s accumulated history and its author’s memories. Spazio Sacro is a musically affective and sonically imagistic electro-acoustic work, and certainly the best work that Aldinucci has done to date. This release comes highly recommended to fans of sound art and modern classical music.
On his new release from the consistently great Eilean Records, Lueurs, ieva (Kyoto-dwelling French sound artist and founder/curator of Pollen Recordings Samuel André) shows how he has progressed by leaps and bounds from the absorbing, but scattered textures of his beginnings as a recording artist to deliver a dizzyingly epic vision. The last we heard from him in the way of a musical release was the gentle A New Morning, a collaboration with Hakobune. On that album one could see the beginning of what has culminated in Lueurs, a dream-travelogue worthy of the finest moments from Hakobune, Celer, and Chubby Wolf. Perhaps the collaborations ieva has made with Hakobune and Nobuto Suda over the past few years gave him the confidence to attempt at this warm, grand style of ambient music.
ieva’s style on Lueurs makes heavy use of field recordings of nature– the murmur of slow-moving water through a forest scene is the steadily ebbing undercurrent of ieva’s new perspective on crafting sound art. The textures of this album are varied, though. On “Forêt Vierge” and “Eclipse”, cloudy, grainy drones set the backdrop for the melancholy fornent tones– this is deep listening material. Elsewhere, on “Vers Le Soleil”, ieva unveils an emotionally overwhelming synth wash reminiscent of Chronovalve. ieva is as adventurous in evoking a varied palette of moods as he is experimenting on the textural level– a particularly memorable detail is the suffused hiss of a match being struck towards the end of “Poussière”, in the midst of a Buddhist ceremony. An ambient album of admirable scope, and certainly one of the best of the year. Highly recommended.
Lianas is the latest full-length album from Los Angeles based sound artist Sublamp (Ryan Connors), released on the excellent French label Eilean Records. The album is made up of three pieces under the twenty-minute mark, preceded by a brief forty second preface. For this album it sounds like Connors mostly relied on teasing soft droplets of sound out of his guitar, though field recordings are also sparingly incorporated into the fabric of this album.
The pieces on this album represent the highest level of discretion and pacing that can be brought to warm drone. Connors’s pieces develop slowly, building up intensity until you’ve become lost in the layers of sound. He doesn’t bowl the listener over with cinematic, sentimental effects, and yet these pieces pull you in with their sense of mystery and wonder, as should be the case with great ambient and drone. Sublamp reminds me a little bit of the Portland based droner Eluder, only while Eluder often has made music that brings you to rather eerie headspaces, Sublamp is much warmer, but nonetheless ambivalent, with a sense of the unknown looming heavily over these drones. Lianas are climbing vines. This album is like a slow journey from out of the darkness of the forest floor, up through the understory, into the canopy, where the scorchingly harsh guitar tone that concludes “Our Bodies Draped in Moss and Cloud” finally leaves us.
Lianas is a work of rare sensitivity and goes down in my mind as one of the best drone records of the year.
Ecovillage are a dream pop duo from Sweden, and their new album One Step Above will no doubt go down as one of my all-time favorite submissions to this blog, as well as one of my favorite releases from this year!
Ecovillage (Emil Holmström and Peter Wikström) make dream pop for the dub techno and ambient set. Their previous efforts left me with mixed impressions: Phoenix Asteroid and With Fragile Wings We Reach the Sun deserve credit for some attempts to fuse languid pop tunes with ambient exploration and some intriguing spiritual and ecological lyrical themes, but for some reason I felt as though the execution of these ideas fell a little short. The truth is, awkward vocal delivery can make a huge difference on a song. They were on the cusp of making something great, but I was not one-hundred percent on board with Ecovillage with regards to their choice to meld pop melodies with ambience. On this rich, lovely new album, Ecovillage play to their strengths and bring their unique vision of pastoral pop music to the fullest realization it’s had yet.
One Step Above was released on the ambient label Nature Bliss, and though Ecovillage fall in line stylistically with electronic shoegaze producers like M83, their new music also summons up a whole bevy of more interesting loosely associated ancestors: Seefeel is one of the most obvious, but even moreso this record evokes the Arctic ambience of fellow Scandinavian Geir Jenssen. And yet, as I have said, Ecovillage are really rather unique in their approach. To get an idea of what this album is like, think of chilly 90s ambient music with a warm heart– dreamy melodies echoing in a tundra. These songs are for the most part wordless, aside from some spare vocal features here and there, the most memorable of which is Hjalmark Norberg’s on “The Beating of Your Heart”. Though this album is very much minimal in its overall approach, these musical spaces are crowded with delicately beautiful details. One Step Above is one of 2014’s finest hidden treasures and a masterpiece of ambient music.