Album cover for Flare by Erik K. Skodvin

Erik K. Skodvin: Flare (Sonic Pieces, 2010)
£4.20 from [eMusic] (requires membership) – £6.99 from [Boomkat]

Norwegian musician, graphic designer and all-round creative force Erik K. Skodvin (one half of experimentalists Deaf Center) had until last year only released solo material under a pseudonym, Svarte Greiner.

In Flare, his latest work, Skodvin has pulled away from the rich, noise-tinged soundscapes of his previous output. In doing so, he has decided to give his own name to the stripped back, almost pastoral, filmic vignettes the album contains.

Across the ten pieces, Skodvin conjures – with a limited sound palette of piano, guitar and violin – a world of simple beauty suffused with tragedy, suspense.

Brooding second track “Matiné” exemplifies this, building its repeated refrain over five minutes before releasing it into silence. “Pitch Dark” and “Graves” add a plaintive female voice to atonal piano notes and sudden strikes against the acoustic guitar’s body. The effect is unsettling.

The album deftly treads the fine line between instrumental minimalism and a kind of dystopian folk, often recalling (such as on “Neither Dust”) the solo work of Scott Tuma and the experimental rural-rock of Montreal bands like Esmerine and Sackville.

The two closing pieces capture the album’s troubled beauty perhaps best. On “Vanished” a sustained piano note ebbs and flows beneath a tentative, half remembered melody that gradually vanishes before your ears.

“Caught In Flickering Lights” pairs a gently percussive brush of a guitar – like a moth repeatedly hitting a lantern – with a mournful violin and portentous rolling piano notes.

All of the album’s sorrow (and some of your own) is played out here so that when the album finishes, the silence seems quieter than usual. Listen for yourself, below.

close to 94 rating: ★★★★★

This review is part of close to 94‘s [emusic club], which reviews releases from the eMusic catalogue.


Album cover for Grower by Gareth Davis & Machinefabriek

Gareth Davis & Machinefabriek: Grower (Sonic Pieces, 2011)
£0.84 from [eMusic] (requires membership) – £2.50 from [Boomkat]

Grower is not the first collaboration between Dutch sound artist Rutger Zuyderveldt – a.k.a. Machinefabriek – and British-born, Netherlands-based clarinettist Gareth Davis. The two created two 3-inch CD-R releases in 2009 – Soundlines and Ghost Lanes – before their first long-player release, last year’s Drape (Home Normal).

It is the Ghost Lanes sessions that have defined their partnership to date, as they also spawned the recordings for both Drape – which sounds like a scratchy, parched meditation on hunger and thirst – and the more cavernous atmosphere of Grower (released as a beautifully packaged CD by Sonic Pieces).

“Part 1” feels almost serpentine in character, with Davis’ bass clarinet motifs charming the reptile from its lair, the ebbs and flows of Zuyderveldt’s seductive drones suggesting its undulating motion as the creature slowly and ominously feels its way into and around your imagination. That it feels a little slight is in part a testament to the lightness of the musicians’ touch.

“Part 2”, meanwhile, ploughs a deeper furrow. Davis coaxes from his instrument a more dynamic range of timbres – rasps, breaths, clicks – across a more atonal palette of notes while Zuyderveldt gradually tightens the screws, intensifying the atmosphere by degress across its 17 minutes. It is simultaneously freer and more coiled than “Part 1” and is the stronger of the two pieces.

Like Drape before it, Grower showcases the balance of intelligence and intuition, of knowing and sensing, required for electronic/acoustic improvisation to work. It may not break new ground, but it adds a richness and a little mystery to territory you thought you already knew.

To continue to tread this rewarding path, I recommend exploring the copious solo work of Machinefabriek (start with 2008’s excellent Dauw), German kindred spirit Jan Jelinek (a.k.a. Farben) and much of the output of Rune Grammafon (Arve Henriksen, Supersilent).

Sonic Pieces has kindly put Grower onto Soundcloud, so you can explore for yourself:

close to 94 rating: ★★★★★★★

This review is part of close to 94‘s [emusic club], which reviews releases from the eMusic catalogue.


Album cover for Permafrost by Thomas Köner

Thomas Köner: Permafrost (Barooni, 1993; re-released by Type, 2010)
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Originally released in 1993, Permafrost was the final work in sound artist Thomas Köner‘s seminal arctic ambient trilogy – the others being Nunatak Gongamur (1990) and Teimo (1992); both excellent.

The two earlier works (Köner’s first CD releases) sought to locate and reveal an underlying musicality in the frozen landscapes of the North Pole. Nunatak explored a sonic analogy between treated gong recordings and the crystalline, waterlogged drifts to sometimes disturbing effect, while Teimo divined meditative harmonies from the subsonic rumblings of centuries old glaciers.

Permafrost saw Köner going deeper into the ice to find its core, its essence. In it overt musical language is sublimated by an unrelenting sound climate that creates the eponymous permafrost: throbs, hisses, gusts and a strange kind of audible silence.

The effect, simultaneously unnerving and comforting, feels profound.

The music hasn’t been excised entirely. On “Firn”, for example, the crackling hum is joined by a distant, intangible choral harmony, and the final piece’s (“…”) drone resolves to a tantalisingly tonal state. But music is perhaps present only as a memory of what came before.

The album’s titular centrepiece captures its true form most persuasively – its overwhelming emptiness leads you to grab at any hint of musical sustenance as if your life depended on it. The sense it leaves behind, as it disappears like melting ice, is one of sublime hunger.

In Permafrost (and its companion albums) Köner manufactured the sound – the entire atmosphere – of a world perpetually frozen so utterly that it almost transcends experience of the real thing. (Though not quite; see my review of Chris Watson’s “Vatnajökull”.)

As a genuine work of art it requires silent, undisturbed contemplation and focus to fully appreciate it. Take the trouble to immerse yourself in its habitat and the rewards are substantial.

Long out of print, Köner’s trilogy was re-released on all formats last year by Type Records. Not only that, it is available to listen to for free via Type’s SoundCloud presence. Bitter, beautiful cold is but one click away.

close to 94 rating: ★★★★★★★

This review is part of close to 94‘s [emusic club], which reviews releases from the eMusic catalogue.

Album cover for Kompilation by Jürgen Paape

Jürgen Paape: Kompilation (Kompakt, 2010)
£5.46 from [eMusic] (requires membership) – £6.99 from [Boomkat]

As co-founder (with Wolfgang Voigt and Michael Mayer) of legendary Cologne house and techno label Kompakt, it’s perhaps surprising we haven’t seen more from Jürgen Paape over the last dozen years or so. While he’s released a sprinkling of EPs since the late 1990s he’s shunned publicity and live appearances, which is fair enough.

Now, though, he’s decided to step into the (relative) limelight alongside his label peers by releasing an album that collects tracks from across his career to date – a greatest hits of sorts: Kompilation.

As you’d expect it’s solid stuff, reflecting the minimal ethos of Kompakt but with a poppier edge. Indeed it’s the pop that provides some of the best moments on Kompilation: We Love (from 2007) features Aksel Schaufler (a.k.a. Superpitcher) on vocals in a track Kelley Polar would be proud of; So Weit Wie Noch Nie (“Further than ever before” from 2002) satisfyingly captures the special, unthinking state only the dancefloor can induce; Come Into My Life, a European club hit in 2008, creates an irresistable Cerrone-like disco groove.

Other highlights include Fruity Loops #2 – killer dancefloor tech-house – and, as a bit of light relief, Ofterschwang, an alpine oompa ditty combined with an seventies sitcom style melody – great fun. And new single So Wird Die Zeit Gemacht (“This is how time is made”) is a classy exercise in hypnotic trance-pop.

Although the tracks were recorded over a 12 year period there’s a remarkable coherence to them. They each share a solid but light sound palette (gliding rather than flying, as it were) and a restrained, precise emotional palette typical of German electronic music ever since Kraftwerk – the Kompakt signature. Recommended.

close to 94 rating: ★★★★★★★

This review is part of close to 94‘s [emusic club], which reviews releases from the eMusic catalogue.

Album cover for Generator by Keith Fullerton Whitman

Keith Fullerton Whitman: Generator (Root Strata/Morr Music, 2010)
£2.94 from [eMusic] (requires membership) – £4.99 from [Boomkat]

Had it been released ten (certainly 15) years ago, this excellent album would not have reached a fraction of the listeners (one hopes) it will in this age of internet distribution. As a cassette-only release limited to a run of 200 worldwide, Generator would no doubt have accrued some scarcity value but what good is that to the rest of us? Root Strata‘s decision to allow those late to the party, or without an object fetish (or with a no-object fetish) to acquire the album digitally is to be applauded.

It seems Keith Fullerton Whitman spent much of 2009 immersing himself in process or systems music: that is, music built around repeating tonal or rhythmic patterns, incrementally modifying them over time using additive, phasing, algorithmic or other iterative techniques. (Try the variations in this wonderful Whitney Music Box to get an idea.)

Modern process composition dates back to the minimalist music movement of the 1960s, exemplified by the early works of Terry Riley and Steve Reich. The latter also set out the movement’s written constitution in Music As A Gradual Process (1968).

This approach to music-making marks a shift for Massachusetts-born Whitman. Until now his diverse range of experimental output has tended to be more drone-focused, with human intervention dictating pace and direction, moving listeners on through the meditation.

On Generator, Whitman creates the conditions for the machine to direct proceedings. Meticulously patching together his bespoke rig of modular synthesisers (see this video for a demo), his principal contribution to the performance of each numbered piece is apparently pressing ‘record’. Once the performance is underway the orchestra for the most part leads its conductor, whose role becomes to infer and respond to cues generated during the automated cascade of analogue notes. Whitman may from time to time re-patch modules to tilt the timbre, octave range or other properties of the music – nudging its narrative course this way or that – but the show belongs to the machines.

It’s mesmerising. In some ways it’s not useful to dissect tracks individually, though there’s ample variation among them to warrant it. From the blissful arpeggios of 1 to the atonal space communications of 3, from the minimal techno of 7b to the white noise of 8, the constant is a purity of expression – a vacuum into which you can pour your own meaning.

The final track, 2, is worth lingering on – at over 23 minutes it accounts for nearly half the album. It is an automatic symphony: bubbling, ever-evolving note runs; Reichesque phasing; kick drum click-pulses; high-pitched alarm calls – all building, receding then building again with increasing intensity. It does something strangely wonderful to you to the extent that the silence that follows its end feels like an extension of its magic.

Whitman has reached many ‘best of the year’ lists with another release, Disingenuity/Disingenuousness (PAN). I’ve not yet had the pleasure of listening to it but it must be incredible to better this album (it reportedly is incredible). Regardless, Generator is one of the finest releases of 2010 and it would be, ahem, disingenuous not to give it the recognition it deserves.

close to 94 rating: ★★★★★★

This review is part of close to 94‘s [emusic club], which reviews one album from the eMusic catalogue every week from a selection refreshed every month.

Album cover for Nothing Else by Lorn

Lorn: Nothing Else (Brainfeeder, 2010)
£5.04 from [eMusic] (requires membership) – £6.99 from [Boomkat]

Released back in May, Nothing Else marked the first release on Steven Ellison’s (a.k.a. Flying Lotus) Brainfeeder label by an artist not from Los Angeles – 23 year old producer Lorn (Marcos Ortega) hails from Illinois.

Perhaps because of this, the album isn’t the cosmopolitan melting pot of sounds and sources that FlyLo and the rest of the LA contingent throw at you, wearing their eclecticism on their sleeves (albeit often quite brilliantly).

Nothing Else is a more focused, defined and altogether darker work than its label peers – all of which counts in its favour. The timbres Lorn has chosen are a satisfying mix of industrial, synthpop and dubstep – crunchy, metallic and clean with sub-sonic undertones. And every one of the twelve tracks (some editions carry a 13th bonus track) on the album draws on the same palette making it flow and cohere more than the fleeting, fragmentary nature of the music would otherwise allow. (This double-concentrate album mix illustrates the point nicely.)

So what of the music? Ranging between one and four minutes in duration (the album lasts just over half-an-hour), many of the tracks on Nothing Else represent musical ideas rather than fully realised works – something it shares with other Brainfeeder/FlyLo releases. And therein, like those other releases, lies its weaknesses.

The strongest tracks set a rueful, if not mournful, tone: Glass & Silver utilises nostalgic synthpop beats and arpeggios while Cherry Moon offers a more contemporary – and effective – reprise of the same mood via its bell-tone melody line, slow-attack strings and rattling percussion. Automaton‘s ricocheting beats and glissando rave-synth melody and Grandfather‘s ominous prelude aren’t bad either.

Opportunities to extend the connection elsewhere on the album are squandered, however: Void‘s slo-mo dubstep could have built over an extended period to provide the album’s most potent moments had it not been annoyingly and pointlessly cut into two shorter vignettes. Meanwhile, Army Of Fear – an aptly-named militaristic piece with ghostly overtones – is fun but doesn’t develop much beyond ‘game menu screen’ music status (Call Of Duty: Zombie Ops anyone?).

The other tracks simply don’t cut through musically, their value almost wholly reliant Lorn’s abundant production skills – he is a much better producer than composer.

In this respect, Nothing Else brings to mind Ratatat, the New York electronic indie duo who similarly trade in phrases, sketches and motifs. Lorn offers a grimier version of Ratatat’s work, and is similarly enticing – and frustrating.

Ortega clearly harbours musical as well as technical ambition, but he doesn’t quite do the former justice on his debut album. There’s still time though, and there are enough promising clues on Nothing Else to suggest Lorn is one to watch.

close to 94 rating: ★★★★★★★

This review is part of close to 94‘s [emusic club], which reviews one album from the eMusic catalogue every week from a selection refreshed every month.

Album cover for You Make Me Real by Brandt Brauer Frick

Brandt Brauer Frick: You Make Me Real (!K7 Records, 2010)
£3.78 from [eMusic] (requires membership) – £6.99 from [Boomkat]

German trio Brandt Brauer Frick (Daniel, Jan and Paul respectively) have gained a lot of mainstream coverage for their distinctive take on house and techno; pretty good going for a group whose key reference points are Steve Reich, John Cage (of 4’33” fame) and Helmut Lachenmann.

BBF create dance music using (almost) only acoustic instruments – piano/prepared piano, strings, brass, various types of orchestral percussion and a Moog synthesiser. And incredibly clever it is too – astonishing in places (check out this lovely widget that interactively dissects how tracks are layered).

The relationship between minimalist classical and electronic dance musics (deterministic or otherwise) is well documented, and tackling the latter using the tools of the former is not a new idea – c.f. Alarm Will Sound‘s 2005 interpretation of Aphex Twin’s work, Acoustica. The dexterity with which BBF bend and rend, slice and splice their organic timbres takes the practice to a whole new level however.

Opener Corky Prelude is a confident introduction to the album’s sound and approach. The short, frenetic combination of a multitude of wooden knocks, it sets energy levels high and whets the appetite for more to come.

But across the tracks that follow You Make Me Real doesn’t quite satisfy. It’s hard to put your finger on why. Creatively, it unequivocally succeeds on a intellectual and technical level – an intriguing idea executed perfectly. But, like many ideas that are great on paper, you only have to demonstrate it once to explain it fully, to reveal its secrets. After that initial airing the album becomes, weirdly, kind of trapped by its acoustic richness.

Maybe I’m too enamoured of ‘traditional’ minimal techno but when consumed as a recording, the music (most of which, as straight-ahead house or techno, doesn’t possess the subtlety of Reich or the counter-intuitiveness of Cage) is somewhat overwhelmed by the relative sonic complexity of the ensemble producing it. Much of it would have worked better with a stripped back electronic palette.

There are a couple of exceptions: the title track is a wonderful piece of cosmic dub whose slower tempo gives the instruments more space to breathe, allowing them to facilitate just a little thematic development; and Teufelsleiter‘s jazzy harmonics and syncopation provide a satisfying close to the album.

I qualified my assessment as applying to You Make Me Real “as a recording” deliberately. BBF have assembled a 10-strong chamber orchestra of sorts for the next round of their live performances and, on the evidence of this rehearsal video, it looks like they will be something special.

Inventive and initially dazzling, You Make Me Real is, I fear, subject to the law of (sharply) diminishing returns as an album. Better get some tickets then.

close to 94 rating: ★★★★★★

This review is part of close to 94‘s [emusic club], which reviews one album from the eMusic catalogue every week from a selection refreshed every month.