albums of the year 2011

February 11, 2012

A final look back at 2011, with a countdown of my ten favourite albums of last year.

#10
Tim Hecker: Ravedeath, 1972

Tim Hecker: Ravedeath, 1972 (Kranky)
Featured on the close to 94 mix reaching down

#09
Hauschka & Hildur Guðnadóttir: Pan Tone

Hauschka & Hildur Guðnadóttir: Pan Tone (Sonic Pieces)
Featured on the close to 94 mix reaching down

#08
Emika: Emika

Emika: Emika (Ninja Tune)
Featured on the close to 94 compilation good in 2011

#07
Kangding Ray: Or

Kangding Ray: Or (Raster-Noton)
Featured on the close to 94 mix reaching down

#06
Chris Watson: El Tren Fantasma

Chris Watson: El Tren Fantasma (Touch)
Featured on the close to 94 mix reaching down

#05
Kreng: Grimoire

Kreng: Grimoire (Miasmah)
Featured on the close to 94 mix reaching down

#04
Pinch & Shackleton: Pinch & Shackleton

Pinch & Shackleton: Pinch & Shackleton (Honest Jon’s)
Featured on the close to 94 mix reaching down

#03
Swod: Drei

Swod: Drei (City Centre Offices)
Featured on the close to 94 compilation good in 2011

#02
Nils Økland & Sigbjørn Apeland: Lysøen: Hommage À Ole Bull

Nils Økland & Sigbjørn Apeland: Lysøen: Hommage À Ole Bull (ECM)
Featured on the close to 94 mix reaching down

#01
Jacaszek: Glimmer

Jacaszek: Glimmer (Ghostly International)
Featured on the close to 94 mix reaching down

reaching down: a 2011 mix

February 11, 2012

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0:00:00 / Kreng: “La Poule Noire”, from the album Grimoire
[eMusic] [Boomkat] [iTunes]

Belgian sound collagist and theatre composer Pepijn Caudron’s book of magic casts a mesmerising spell over the listener, conjuring a Grimm world of shadowy threat and decaying beauty. Its dark universe becomes, at times, so oppressive it leaves you caught between seeking escape and welcoming surrender. Delicious. (Listen for yourself.)

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0:03:41 / Hana: “Tate”, from the promo Wire Tapper 25

Low key, simmering techno from Greek duo Thanos Papadopoulos and Thanos Bantis, culled from the April 2011 edition of the Wire magazine’s promo CD/download series. To date, Hana have just one album of austere analogue electronics to their name. More please.

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0:07:15 / Daphni: “Ahora”, from the single Ahora
[eMusic] [Boomkat] [iTunes]

Daphni is none other than Dan Snaith (Caribou, formerly Manitoba), so you know what to expect: lush electronics, organic rhythms, skewed melodies, solid grooves.

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0:12:41 / Hauschka & Hildur Guðnadóttir: “Cool Gray 1”, from the album Pan Tone
[eMusic] [Boomkat] [iTunes]

In Pan Tone, German pianist Volker Bertelmann (Hauschka) and Icelandic cellist Guðnadóttir collaborated to produce one of the year’s most satisfying additions to the modern classical canon. The two musicians seem to interact and play off each other like seasoned jazz partners, recalling in places the meditative improvisations of The Necks. A fine addition to the wonderful Sonic Pieces label’s catalogue. (Listen here.)

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0:19:09 / Tim Hecker: “In The Fog II”, from the album Ravedeath, 1972
[eMusic] [Boomkat] [iTunes]

2011 saw not one but two outstanding releases from Canadian noise-whisperer Tim Hecker: centrepiece Ravedeath, 1972 and a curated selection of out-takes from those sessions, Dropped Pianos. Despite being recorded in Iceland (with Ben Frost contributing production duties), Hecker’s harmonic drones on Ravedeath evoke shimmering heat mirages, tantalising yet unreachable.

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0:23:55 / Chris Watson: “El Divisadero (The Telegraph)”, from the single El Tren Fantasma (The Signal Man’s Mix)
[eMusic] [Boomkat] [iTunes]

Sound recordist Chris Watson’s output has tended to focus on the natural world, revealing new dimensions to our environment  that can only be experienced once you close your eyes (see previous posts). El Tren Fantasma (“ghost train”), Watson’s 2011 album and accompanying single – based on recordings made for a BBC television programme – mark a departure (if you’ll  pardon the pun) as it reveals the industrial grind, strain and toil of Mexico’s railway system.

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0:29:52 / Kangding Ray: “Or”, from the album Or
[eMusic] [Boomkat] [iTunes]

Kangding Ray’s (David Letellier) latest album fuses minimal techno, bass and industrial to create a kind of, well, minimal industrial – the pistons, hydraulics and drills are still there but now they operate in sterile conditions, to nanometre precision, under the control of remote CPUs. Yet the machine has a heartbeat, as the title track (featuring the ubiquitous Ben Frost) amply demonstrates.

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0:35:00 / Answer Code Request: “Escape Myself”, from the single Subway Into
[eMusic] [Boomkat] [iTunes]

It’s fortunate that this fairly obscure (apparently German) garage/electronica ditty found its way onto Marcel Dettmann‘s highly recommended minimalish techno mix, Conducted. Otherwise its pleasingly propulsive shuffle wouldn’t have slotted into this mix, right here.

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0:39:15 / Pinch & Shackleton: “Rooms Within A Room”, from the album Pinch & Shackleton
[Boomkat] [iTunes]

I didn’t know dubstep could sound like this, bristling as Pinch & Shackleton is with exoticism, intellect, imagination and emotion. On their self-titled collaboration, Rob Ellis (Pinch) and Sam Shackleton brought renewed clarity to the normally submerged soundworld of the genre, in doing so moving its narrative away from the streets and into the mind.

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0:44:32 / Regis: “Blood Witness”, from the EP In A Syrian Tongue
[eMusic] [Boomkat] [iTunes]

Erstwhile member of the apparently-defunct (and, if so, sorely missed) Sandwell District label, Regis (Karl O’Connor) exemplifies that collective’s uncompromising, muscular take on the techno ethic.

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0:50:00 / Jacaszek: “As Each Tucked String Tells”, from the album Glimmer
[eMusic] [Boomkat] [iTunes]

Polish musician Michał Jacaszek’s seventh album sounds like it was assembled by a magical tinker or watchmaker – a multitude of tiny components that combine to become one living, mechanical organism. Blending baroque, ambient and jazz, Glimmer lives up to its name, a flickering lightbulb in the musty gloom. Captivating.

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0:53:33 / Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto: “Naono”, from the album Summvs
[eMusic] [Boomkat] [iTunes]

Alva Noto‘s stark digital backdrops are the perfect foil for Sakamoto‘s melodramatic piano melodies; it’s no wonder they found each other. Summvs is their fifth collaboration in ten years, and retains its predecessors’ blend of fire and ice. The sonar motif of the beautiful “Naono” evokes an imaginary underwater journey beneath a frozen sea.

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0:59:27 / Roly Porter: “Arrakis”, from the album Aftertime
[eMusic] [Boomkat] [iTunes]

Bristolian Roly Porter’s visceral debut took analogue synthesisers, including an ondes martenot, and field recording sources and systematically mangled them with the kind of noise generators and filters beloved of the other drone connoisseur in this mix, Tim Hecker. And like Hecker, Porter’s distorted musicality is both unsettling and affecting.

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1:02:48 / Petrels: “Winchester Croydon Winchester”, from the album Haeligewielle

Oliver Barrett (a.k.a Petrels) drew on somewhat obscure historical inspiration for his solo debut (he is also a member of Bleeding Heart Narrative): pagan water sources (“haeligewielle” is the Anglo-Saxon antecedent of “holy well”) and the life and work of William Walker, a renowned diver who shored up Winchester Cathedral in the early 20th century. The result is a surprisingly coherent blend of folk, field recording and post-rock, a deserving soundtrack for a biopic yet to be filmed.

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1:05:37 / Nils Økland & Sigbjørn Apeland: “Belg Og Slag”, from the album Lysøen: Hommage À Ole Bull
[eMusic] [iTunes]

Sometimes I wonder if I should give my listening entirely to the output of the ECM label. Its studied simplicity and singular worldview brings harmony, even in dissonance, to the disequilibrium of modern life. This tribute to Ole Bull, the 19th century Norwegian violinist and composer, was recorded in his home on the island of Lysøen. The two musicians – voilinist Økland and organist Apeland – tread the line between recital, composition and improvisation so gracefully you almost feel the Nordic wind in your eyes.

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1:08:20 / Khyam Allami: “Individuation”, from the album Resonance/Dissonance
[eMusic] [iTunes]

Syria-born Londoner Khyam Allami arrived at the oud as his instrument of choice only in 2004, after playing violin, drums and bass guitar in various settings since childhood (he’s now the ripe ‘old’ age of 30). His debut album betrays the startling proficiency and intuition in both composition and performance he has accumulated in less than eight years.

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1:14:17 / ends

See also:

Album cover for Weather Report by Chris Watson

#109 Vatnajökull by Chris Watson, available on Weather Report, 2003 [buy from Amazon.co.uk] [buy from iTunes]

Field recording stretches the widely accepted definition of music as humanly-organised sound. Why should recordings of everyday life – familiar or otherwise – be considered alongside the songs and symphonies created from the imagination of artists?

To be honest I’m not sure they should, though clearly that won’t stop me from including an example in this list of favourite music.

Field recording’s contention (as an artistically rather than scientifically motivated activity) that emotional and intellectual value can be derived from active listening to the physical world around us is undoubtedly true. But it achieves this by combining both cinema’s sense of place and event and music’s more abstract imagination-stirring qualities. It is a part of – and therefore stands apart from – both traditions.

By this analysis, Chris Watson (whom I’ve written about before) is one of the world’s best cinematographer-composers, and a most persuasive argument for the power of his craft as a fully fledged art form.

His 2003 album Weather Report remains the best distillation of his practice to date, though most people will have come across his work (without necessarily being aware of it) as sound man for countless BBC Natural History Unit documentaries.

Each of the three pieces on Weather Report is substantial and stimulating, but for its otherworldly musicality the final piece, Vatnajökull, is the one I’ve picked out (the 14-hours-in-18-minutes Masai Mara drama of Ol-Olool-O is also recommended as a complete contrast).

Vatnajökull documents, as Watson summarises, “the 10,000 year climatic journey of ice formed deep within this Icelandic glacier and its lingering flow into the Norwegian Sea”.

This incredible odyssey begins deep beneath the glacier’s surface, with the hollow creaking that opens the piece evoking the almost tectonic shifting of massive sheets of ice. Coupled with the heartbeat-like thudding it suggests the awakening of a beast from hibernation. Gradually, your perspective as listener starts to climb towards the surface – accompanied by a ghostly chorus – until, at the end of the first ‘movement’, you break into the clear, cold Icelandic air.

On you continue, among the gulls and other birds, over volcanic earth towards the coastline. The white noise of the wind whips around you as you drive, across miles and centuries, towards the sea. There, you are submerged in eery quiet until, quite suddenly, you break the water’s surface. Finally you drift – with the wildlife and the elements – until you melt away into silence.

It is astonishing. Listen to it with your eyes closed and headphones on.

This review is part of close to 94‘s [midlife 150] series, which counts down favourite music 1970-2009.

Event date: August 10, 2010

Richard Ranft, Chris Watson, Sir David Attenborough in conversation

It was a genuine privilege to be in the lecture theatre at the Royal Institution of Great Britain on Tuesday evening. To hear Chris Watson (pictured, centre) recount his experiences, and reveal some of the techniques, of recording the sounds for his Whispering In The Leaves installation (at Kew Gardens until September 5; review here) was special in itself.

But to hear him swap stories with friend and colleague Sir David Attenborough (right) – broadcaster without peer, national treasure and the 63rd greatest Briton that ever lived – about capturing sounds in the field was almost hallucinatory, too much to bear. No wonder there were a reported 500 names on the waiting list for tickets.

But bear it we did, and it was fascinating. Watson and Attenborough were joined by Richard Ranft (left), head of the British Library’s Sound Archive and an experienced sound recordist himself.

Across the 90 minutes of the conversation the audience heard excerpts of recordings made by all three participants (it is little known that Attenborough was a pioneering nature sound recordist early in his career): frogs, birds, insects, primates, giant earthworms (which, as they slide through the soil, make a sound not unlike someone with bowel trouble, to inevitable amusement) and more. These recordings were brought to life by the explanation, erudition and poetic recollection of their creators.

Richard Ranft, Chris Watson, Sir David Attenborough in conversation, with parabolic reflector

There were many highlights, in particular Watson’s “show and tell” of various microphone rigs (such as the parabolic reflector above), the extraordinary sounds made by Black Howler monkeys, and his description of how he captured the sound of one million worker ants in the rainforest while making Life In The Undergrowth.

But, naturally, the fondest memories of the evening derived from witnessing a truly great communicator in action, talking about a subject he is passionate about. Attenborough (at 84) is more charismatic, articulate and personable than most of us can imagine, let alone become.

This was no better demonstrated than his description, at the end of the conversation, of one of his favourite rainforest recordings, made for The Life Of Birds (video here). The recording was of a lyrebird, the greatest of all mimics, imitating the sound of its own coming destruction: the chainsaws that are destroying its Australian habitat.

Exhibition dates: May 29-September 5, 2010

Palm House at Kew Gardens

Chris Watson has at least two of my dream jobs. As sound recordist for countless BBC Natural History Unit productions he gets to travel to the wildest and most beautiful places the world, and hang out with Sir David Attenborough. As a sound artist (he was a founding member of Cabaret Voltiare) he crafts his recordings into standalone creative works, transporting the listener to distant, unfamiliar environments.

Whispering In The Leaves is his latest installation, comprising two pieces – Dawn and Dusk – assembled from his extensive archive of Central and South American rainforest recordings. Each piece lasts between 15 and 20 minutes – around the same time it takes darkness to lift or to fall in that habitat.

Flowers in the Palm House at Kew Gardens

The recordings are played from 80 speakers, arranged around the Palm House at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, creating an enveloping sonic environment among the exotic plants. Nonetheless, it took me a while to tune out of the children and chatter. Full immersion (in Dusk) began only once the thunder started.

The layering of sound upon sound – crickets, followed by thunder, then birds, frogs, rainfall, monkeys and more – draws you gradually into the world Watson reconstructs using only his microphone (OK, and some post-production software no doubt). The rumbles, hisses, whistles, chirps, croaks, clicks and pulses take on a (timbrally) harmonious quality.

And as the crickets fade, and the (Homo sapiens) children and chatter return all too forcefully, you immediately become aware of what disappears every time a space – even one as beautiful as Kew – is given over to human concerns.