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Listen to the Hypnagogue Podcast: 90-minute journeys into ambient & electronic music, every two weeks. Your trip departs from HERE. You can find current and past playlists here.


Aaron Marshall, Noir Ambiance

When I first saw the title Noir Ambiance, I expected--understandably, I think--that I should gear myself up for something dense, menacing and minimalist. You know, dark ambient. Had I nosed around Aaron Marshall's web site a bit more I might have come at it with a different expectation after finding out that he's also a filmmaker. Because that's the quality that really comes through on Noir Ambiance--a well-paced, descriptive suite of tracks crafted with a storyteller's eye and a cinematic flair. I'm taken by the distinct grace that infuses the pieces here, from the koto-style plucked strings in "Peace and Gravity" to the reverberating guitar chords that add texture to "Embark" to the simple, twinkling melodic repetition in "Alternate Universe." Everything feels like it's created out of silk and fading shadow, and always with a sense of camera motion riding under the narrative, taking us through the sonic landscape. After Marshall closes the disc with the whispery reverence of "NYC," you're ready to go back and listen again. And you will. Noir Ambiance is a Hypnagogue Highly Recommended CD.

Available at Aaron Marshall's web site.

How does Aaron Marshall's background as a filmmaker play into his music? Get a



Neuron Dreamtime, I Am My Own Mushroom

Most of the time, I wouldn't be too high on reviewing a disc that's three years old. But a) when I received a copy of Neuron Dreamtime's I Am My Own Mushroom, having requested it after finding them on Musicsubmit, I wasn't aware that there was newer music available and b) my first exposure to their music, albeit music that's three years old, was a very good one, and I think you should check them out, too. So here we go. Mushroom is a trippy mother lode of psychedelia-infused ambient, a quite-cool ride through a varying set of sensibilities blending electronic and acoustic. Take the opening track, "Lateralizations." It starts the disc off wholly in electronic territory with a raspy batch of electrowash, but then a straightforward, almost folksy guitar melody arises from within it. This is typical of the way pieces are structured here: changing identity midstream, always effectively, to take on new instruments that add a fresh dimension of solidity to dreamy, vaporous starts. These smart shifts of tone, musically and emotionally, keep the disc intriguing and act to bring your nicely lulled mind back around to the moment. Guitar is central to most of the pieces here—giving a laid-back feel to the moving "Minor Recall," which opens with the sound of rainfall; speaking its mind in edged, flashfire chords in "Flight of Anahatha"; spiraling, dipping and rising like an airborne hawk in the mesmerizing "Akashic Vapu," which may be the highlight track here; anchoring the out-of-body float of "Azul" with a set of quiet notes. Across its fourteen pieces, Mushroom proves itself to be a gentle, reflective disc that gets into your head and makes itself comfortable. You may want to ask "Self Inflicted Love" to stay a while once you've succumbed to its soothing, pulsing waves and light guitar accents—a feeling you'll get again during the aptly titled "Altered Mind." Having thoroughly enjoyed this three-year-old offering from Neuron Dreamtime, I'm definitely going to look into their newer work. Because since I Am My Own Mushroom is a Hypnagogue Highly Recommended CD, I expect the new stuff will be just as enticing

Available at the artist's myspace page.


Xumantra, The Bell Journeys

Here's a disc that by all rights shouldn't succeed. When you get right down it, it's the epitome of why most people don't like New Age or ambient music. They think nothing happens. In The Bell Journeys, the only thing that happens is that a series of bells and bowls get struck and the sound reverberates off into the distance, over and over. And that's it. It shouldn't work. That being said, I find The Bell Journeys to be a subtle, meditative CD that makes the absolute best of how these rich, ringing sounds play and wrap around one another as they fade. Marco Dolce's tones are warm and calming. There's a distinct sense of consideration to the placement of each strike, how long each is allowed to waft into the distance--and very close attention given to harmony. The sounds meld perfectly. You feel as well as hear the progression of Dolce's slow-motion, minimalist melodies. And yes, there are melodies at play here, gently stretched across time yet distinct. The Bell Journeys isn't necessarily a disc I'm going to reach for when I'm in the mood for an active listen, but then, that's not what it's for. It's for background play, quietly enhancing the atmosphere and changing the mood of the space. It's for winding down in the evenings and for clearing some headspace for meditation. I have no doubt that this disc will become a standard in New Age bookstores and massage therapists' offices around the world--as well it should. It possesses a unique beauty.

Available at Xonic.

Orion's Belt, Ecumenicals: The Mysteries of Time

The first three words I wrote down when trying to capture my impression of the new release from Orion's Belt were: Dark. Shapeless. Adrift. And these are good things. In their final outing together, Darren Rogers and Jim Brenholts--who passed away a month after the disc was complete--stir together a mix of grim dronework, the spoken word and spacey electronics. It's deep and, in spots, a bit unsettling. If you don't get a shudder as "The Dirge of Time" deconstructs itself in your ears, the spoken narrative scraping away at itself to become a guttural recitation in some ur-tongue as funeral chords shift around it, there may be something wrong with you. In his solo work as Rigel Orionis, Brenholts was fond of sparse, long drifts that sometimes felt like they were testing your listening patience while still maintaining your interest. You'll find that element here, paired with and augmented by Rogers' own sonic sensibilities. The chemistry between the two is evident in each moment. Appropriately, The Mysteries of Time takes it time, crafting long-form meditations that evolve slowly, cloud formations moving in an eon-long time-lapse movie. This is never more true than in "The Image of Time," the CD's centerpiece, a 30-minute voyage that begins with tinkling electronics hinting at a beat over a white-noise backdrop and morphs into a soft, almost somber, prayer-like drift with touches of loneliness and uncertainty. Definitely of note is "The Legacy of Time," which drops clips of famous speeches behind the flow to nudge a sense of thematic context and understanding into the listener. Nicely done. Overall, Ecumenicals has the ability to surround you in washes of sound, make you think a bit and take you deeply inside yourself, a bit at a time. Plus, it's a moving tribute to the art Jim Brenholts brought to the ambient community and a reminder of the unfortunate gap he leaves behind. Ecumenicals is a Hypnagogue Highly Recommended CD.

Available from Dark Duck.

Praguedren, Painting Over Scenery

There's something about the slow, sexy dub on Praguedren's new disc that makes me want to put on my 70s-style late-night-DJ voice, lean into a mic and purr, "Awwww, yeah...this one goes out to anyone who's gonna get down with gettin' down tonight. Solid." This Czech duo lay down some serious funk-laced sounds, thick with sweet and chewy bass lines and dripping with smooth grooves. I like this disc as a backdrop for winding down in the evening. It's trippy without going overboard, and stands up to a close listen, but when it's just allowed to sort of lope around the room, quietly filling the space, its downtempo ease becomes absolutely infectious.You're paying it no real mind and then you realize your head's bobbing to the beat of a track like "House Built of Dub" (one of my favorites) or your body's been taken over by the cool flow of the disc's highlight track, "Stax of Bass." (You want a bass line you could eat with a fork? This is the track for you, served with a side order of psychedelic guitar.) I know this isn't always what musicians want to hear about their work, but the thing about Painting Over Scenery is that it's just plain nice. Easy on the ears, loungey without being pretentious, smoothly played and expertly built, all but demanding repeat play. If you're looking for rhythmic tracks with an authentic funk vibe and unmistakable dub cred, slide on over to Dank Disk and check this one out. You'll be gettin' down with gettin' down in no time. Awww, yeah.

Available from Dank Disk.

NeuHuman

Decidedly one of the most intriguing and hard-to-classify CDs I've received in a while, the debut offering from NeuHuman (aka Albert Azar) is a twisted skein of sounds and influences. The tracks here whip through jazz phrasing and lounge beats, weaving in and out of spoken-word samples from Azar (reading from "1984" and Dennis Lehane's "Mystic River," among other things), along with samples from David Gilmour and Roger Waters, Martin Luther King Jr. and, as the press release notes, "some of the world's leading scientists and philosophers." Heady, indeed, as a listen to "How to Walk Through a Concrete Jungle" quickly reveals. It starts off with a calm piano melody, but then Azar drops in a quote and uses the pause to wrench the wheel in a whole new direction, and you're being taken along. On the other hand, sometimes he presents you with a piece that simply roars off in a single direction, like "On the Fritz," which is pretty much just a tribute to Nine Inch Nails--and a damn good tribute, at that. Or "Scissorhands," which (like "Fritz") ought to find a place on alt-rock stations everywhere if only for the lo-fi feel of the vocals. It's a rock song, period. Much of Azar's music has a post-modern rock edge to it, something of a deconstructive approach where the elements are all apparent but they've been torn up, twisted, snipped, clipped and set back where they don't exactly belong but where they somehow make sense when you listen closely. The centerpiece here is "Generational Curse," an 8-minute track where Azar's playing really shines, building from a hypnotic, jazzy piano riff and then just exploring, shifting time signatures and piling on and plowing through layers of sound. It's soothing but still requires your attention. Some may find the track-to-track disconnect here something to contend with; I like that Azar isn't settling on an easy identity and isn't giving anything away. If you give it a chance, this CD will make you listen and will nicely reward you for the effort with a credibly mixed bag of feels, influences and types.

Find it at NeuHuman's web site.

Undo, 9.9.99

In his guise as Undo, David Kirkdorffer passes his guitar playing through a variety of effects and delays to produce, as he says, "un-guitar-like sounds." That's a less flattering term than the result actually deserves, and sells it almost embarrassingly short. On 9.9.99, Undo lays down a solid set of ambient guitar pieces that range from the soft and warm ("Sugar Blue," "9.9.99," "Morning" and "Home") to the purposefully harsh and challenging ("Apprehender," "Ender" and the nod-to-Neuromancer-titled "Wintermute"), all with hardly a hint of their source instrument. The guitar asserts itself briefly in a flurry of warbling notes coursing through the mesmerizing, foggy churn of "Suspension," but by and large the sound here would readily and understandably be mistaken for a synth. Kirkdorffer's arsenal is apparently endless. New sounds birth out of the swirl constantly to add dimension and voice. Percussive elements--still guitar--spike the mix in just the right spots. The layering here is dense and effective, each additional element in a piece perfectly complementary to the feel and flow that Undo has worked to establish. The more I listen to this disc, the more I like it--and I liked it pretty well from the first play. It's the perfect blend of sonic attack and retreat, of mind massage and pay-attention listening. Kirkdorffer recorded this, as the title suggests, back in September of 1999. About that, just let me say: Dave, there's no way you should have sat on this music for ten years. It deserves to be heard and appreciated. To the ambient community at large, I say: you need to hear and appreciate what Undo has to offer here. 9.9.99 is a rich, completely engaging and expertly performed collection of ambient-guitar beauty. It is a Hypnagogue Highly Recommended CD.

Available at Undo's myspace page.

Steve Roach, Live at Grace Cathedral

In his live performances, Steve Roach is known for upping the volume. He believes that you need to feel the music as well as hear it. That being said, on your first listen to the new two-disc Live at Grace Cathedral, you'll want to crank it up a bit to get the feeling. Although it starts off softly, this live set from 2007 increases in intensity, swirling elements driving upward to peak before exhaling back down into a quiet-mind space. The first disc, "Embracing the Space," is the shorter of the two, a 45-minute set that begins with long pads that rise reverently to fill the cathedral. There's a distinct sacred music feel, almost choral in nature, to the beginning as Roach pays homage to the room by shaping his sounds into the space. In his press materials, Roach notes that the acoustics of the cathedral played a large part in how he proceeded, musically—he considered it a partner. In the middle of Part Two the intent shifts—sound snippets that cull memories of Serpent's Lair and Spirit Dome creeping forth to spread shadowy lower-world tendrils. Magnificent Void-style chords urge in, rumbling and glistening darkly through the air, pushing the space wide again. In the closing minutes, Roach introduces a subtle didgeridoo tone before a dust-devil wind spins up screaming, cutting everything off to a final hushed flow. Disc two, "Merging with Grace," is a full-length (73-minute) CD that kicks off with skittering, insectile sounds familiar from Possible Planet before gliding down into another long stretch of quiet pads. Part Two of this disc may be the best section of the entire set, 25 absolutely engaging, drift-filled minutes where Roach builds a meditative soundbase which he then breathes life into with the didgeridoo, merging the electronic and the organic. The energy level rises, bring a sense of upward motion with analog synths evoking a feel similar to the middle portions of his last live release, Landmass. The final 12 minutes or so of this journey, coming after a rush that culminates in a nova-burst of sound, are as soft, cleansing and deep as Quiet Music or Structures from Silence. Roach, having amped up the velocity, skillfully edges it downward into a perfect state of quietness. Remain in there as long as you need, until the resonance from this superb voyage fades. Then listen again. Live at Grace Cathedral is a Hypnagogue Highly Recommended CD.

Available at Steve Roach's web site.

Phelios, Astral Unity

My overall impression of dark ambient music, having listened to a fair amount of it now, is that it mostly falls in the realm of dense, white-noise-heavy, drone-based assaults intentionally devoid of a sense of musicality. It's anti-music, really, a relentless push against the listener designed to draw out some mental image of grimness, pending doom and woe by wearing them down with sound. And then along comes Phelios' Astral Unity, and I find I need to broaden my view. Because while the music here is distinctly dark and shot through with a barrage of the standard-issue memes of the sub-genre--bassy drones, percussion like a two-ton iron press falling--it's also remarkably listenable. Phelios shows himself to be adept at playing both ends of the spectrum--harsh when he needs to be, but then able to craft a meditative wash to give the listener a little respite. The best example here is "Deadspace," which rockets the listener through galactic turbulence at its outset, but settles into a powered-down spinward drift toward the end, all without feeling forced or contrived. Toward the end of the disc, Phelios fires up the drums to bring solid, aggressive beats to bear on broad pads and washes. (Is this the start of a "space-tribal" style?) It begins in the excellent track "Voyager," carries neatly through "Cloud Sector Beta," and really hits stride in the closing track, "Cold Unity," whereupon Phelios unleashes an unexpected sequencer line and completely changes the feel of the disc--without disrupting, if you'll pardon the pun, its unity. It's done smoothly, and it makes total sense. All in all, Phelios here offers up dark music I can completely wrap my head around and dive fully into. Grim and shadowy but majestic, and varied enough to hold my interest track after track without feeling like I'm enduring it rather than listening to it.

Available from Malignant Records.

Wharmton Rise, Deep Water

In his most recent outing Wharmton Rise (aka Andrew Mark Lawlor) serves up nicely polished, textbook-perfect chill peppered with occasional bits of arena-rock guitar flair. Comparisons will most certainly be drawn—"Sunflight" is the clear descendant of Enigma, with hints of Jarre at the corners; "Cocentric Circles" brings Oldfield's TB3 directly to mind. Ethereal, operatic vocals, along with Middle Eastern melodies, fall like silk ribbons across the sound, reminiscent of the short-lived "Aria" series, another of the many Enigma offspring. But the influences don't detract from what Lawlor is putting forth—they're comfortably familiar, not forced, not lifted part and parcel from the source. The grooves are soft and smooth, the sound palette is lush and warm, and an infusion of New Age undertones keeps the hipster aspects of chill toned down. And then there's that guitar* . . . Although he only introduces it in a few spots, when he does it's with plenty of attitude and energy, taking a tune just a bit higher. It's never overdone. He unleashes it in the opening track, "Footprints in the Sand" with Santana-esque runs and pure rock wail, but then sends it to the back to patiently wait its turn again. (Which would be playing out the latter part of the aforementioned "Cocentric Circles.") Lawlor is at his best on Deep Water with the pure beauty of "Siren's Song," which will both enthrall you and ease you into a state of warm-bath relaxation. Or if you want something a little more fiery, "The Augur Revisited" is a splendid spacerock tune that lifts off as a downtempo flow, adds beats and a sequencer line for fuel and then heads for the stars under full power. Borne on the wings of the best of his influences, Lawlor as Wharmton Rise has created a great disc you'll happily go back to. I'll be watching for more from Wharmton Rise in the future.

Available at Soundclick.

*Andrew told me, after he'd read the review, that the guitar parts are done on synth. Tell you what, folks--it sure as heck fooled me, and however it's played it still seriously rocks out. Well done!

Lawrence Crow, 1/f

Listening to Lawrence Crow's 1/f it occurs to me that there aren't many curves or smooth surfaces here. Crow composes his short pieces using the Supercollider program and the result comes out as either tight, geometrically rigid signatures or densely burred walls of jittery electrosound. The tracks feel like sonic snippets and the smoking aftermath of happy accidents rather than fleshed-out work. Crow seems interested in almost randomly setting his software and then jumping away while it clashes, collides and creates. And yet the work here can be intriguing—that is, if you're willing to be open-minded about electronic music and what constitutes "music" in the first place. This is rhythm via algorithm, watched over and shaped by the composer. (Although I'm not sure to what degree either of those things are true.) I found myself needing to keep listening so I could see what Crow was planning next and how it would affect me. If you're into the purely experimental/noise side of things, 1/f is a disc you should look into.

Available from Lawrence Crow's web site.

jazzcomputer.org, Life Unfolding

A lightweight blend of New Age and sequencer electronica, Life Unfolding is an easy listen, though not a deeply engaging one. I was several tracks in before I really took much notice of what was going on, and that was largely because composer Yves Potin had unslung his guitar, on the track "Air and Water Laps," to fire off fast-jazz riffs over an unchanging bass bounce. That track is the best piece here, a 12-minute journey with a jazzy backdrop. In fact, it's Potin's jazz guitar playing that holds this disc up--and for most of the disc it's too restrained to really help. (The guitar work in "Drawing Forth" stands out.) It's not that there's anything wrong with Life Unfolding; there's just nothing here that makes the disc stand out. On low volume it would probably make for good background sound. As an active listen, it just falls short for me.

Check out samples at jazzcomputer.org's web site and judge for yourself.

Level Pi, Electronic Sheep

I was deep into "String Theorie," the first track on Level Pi's new disc, Electronic Sheep, when I got the strange idea that I was actually somewhere in the middle of Pink Floyd's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond." And truth be told, I don't think Uwe Cremer, the man behind Level Pi, would mind the comparison. Cremer proudly flies the "Krautrock" flag as he unloads this well-packed set of analogue-driven, prog-inspired tracks. Fans of 70s-style electronic music will find much to like here. Twanging analogue synths carve out blocky waveform rhythms over which Cremer launches high-soaring melodies. Most tracks follow a genre-familiar start-slow-then-kick-it model. But there are a couple of "Huh?" moments along the way. A drum solo (which I have to assume is programmed) in "String Theorie" goes on a bit too long and seems to sometimes lose track of the rhythm. There's an odd moment in the middle of "S.E.T.I."—a track I quite enjoy—where what I can only describe as TV sports-show intro music crops up out of nowhere, distracting the listener and disrupting the flow. I would guess that the idea is to make us think of broadcast signals beamed through space, but it doesn't work. However, when Cremer's on, he is spot on—as shown in "Elfenstraub," the best offering here, a romantic anthem to Cremer's many influences. He also locks on with "Theta Null" and "Sonnenwind," which feel very much like long-lost T-Dream tracks. All in all, the few stumbling blocks in Electronic Sheep don't keep it from being a well-made homage to this old-school style.

Available at Level Pi's web site.

The Jingle Kings, The New Megalopolis

Okay, I admit it: When I opened the envelope and I saw The Jingle Kings written on the CD cover, I groaned and braced myself for the worst. I mean, there are some unusual names out there, but how could I possibly take seriously a name like The Jingle Kings? Instead of worrying, what I should have done was just start listening. Because The New Megalopolis is a set of thoughtful, emotive, slow-moving drifts and downtempo tunes that ease their way through your head, fully intent on making you relax. This is must-loop material; set on repeat it comes across as long, lush stretches of warm colors and soft tones punctuated with strong, attention-grabbing sonic elements--the dramatic whir that moves the title track along, the gorgeous vocals in "The Islam Courts," the sudden burst of folk singing in "Watch Out Africa." These are mile-markers charting the course of your journey, rising up briefly along the smooth road laid down in tracks like "Turn to Dust," "Eco Pain" and the hypnotically silky "No Man's Land," just to make sure you're still there. Kudos to the Jingle King himself, Jeffrey Bridges. In The New Megalopolis he has created a genuinely deep, varied and fascinating CD. No matter the name of the artist, The New Megalopolis is a Hypnagogue Highly Recommended CD.

Available at Reverb Nation.

 
 From the Hypnagogue
March 2010
Thinking and rethinking.

Now and then I look at what I'm doing here and think of how to do it better. Recently I started feeling like I was doing too much track-by-track writing--trying to find one quick sentence to describe each track. And I realized that often I was just reaching, sometimes quite unsuccessfuly.

While this month's reviews are not neccesarily shorter than usual, I have tried to not just run down a CD track by track. There are always standout tracks, or those that really encapsulate what the disc is about--those I'll call out still. But it just doesn't do much good to, over and over, describve every track on a disc. So you'll see my latest direction, or at least my attempt at a new direction, in these reviews. I don't think any of them suffer from not being a descriptive rundown of the work in question. But I do think these reviews are just a bit better than what I've been doing.

And should I come to a point where I feel this style isn't doing what it should, I'll try to find a better way. Because the musicians who submit their music for review deserve for me to give them the best I've got. After all, they're giving me the best they've got.

Peace & power,
John Shanahan
The Hypnagogue

Stay in touch with me and a number of ambient and electronic artists--friend me on Facebook! Search "Hypnagogue Reviews."

 

Off the Grid

Because I receive so much music for review, I don't usually buy or download it. Now and then, though, I just can't help myself. I don't review what I get for myself, but I do write about it here, Off the Grid.

The thing you need to know going into the Combs Creek Haller offering, Singularity, is that it's a flat-out live improvised session between three artists who'd never really met and never rehearsed. Getting ready for a City Skies monthly showcase, Jim Combs (aka Sensitive Chaos), Jez Creek (Modulator ESP) and Kevin Haller (Burning Artist Sale(s)) decided to jam--and, thankfully, thought to record it. The upshot is that you get to listen to an astonishingly deep, very cool space-music journey that you will absolutely lose yourself in. And considering that it's free from Earth Mantra, it's worth your download time. (The file is 243 MB in size.) If I was reviewing this, it would easily be a Hypnagogue Highly Recommended work.

Earth Mantra has also caught my ear with their re-release of Silvercord's Symphony of Sighs. Geoff Nostrant's swirling, sighing guitar fields express themselves beautifully over the course of four "movements." Fading reverb makes the chords intertwine and take on a breath-like quality. I like the way Nostrant quietly works in vocals, often singing in Korean. It melds perfectly with the sound. Perfect meditation music, in my opinion.

And regardless of my affiliation with Earth Mantra via stillstream.com, I have to say that they are rapidly becoming one of the most notable netlabels around. The output is consistently good, and it's nicely varied. This is why I keep coming back. I could be Darrell Burgan's brother-in-law and if his label was churning out crap, I wouldn't push it this way. But the Earth Mantra catalog has some real quality. You go listen and judge for yourself.

With all the buzz surrounding Robert Rich's new release, Ylang I had to get myself a copy. I'm not as familiar with Robert's work as I would like to be, but I'm getting there. And Ylang, as it turns out, is a great place to start. The tracks here are infused with world music overtones and lush ambient backdrops. Melodic, thoughtful and smooth, track after track. Perfect wind-down background music that also pays off in a major way when given a close, deep listen.

That's what I've been listening to...off the grid.

 

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