Posts Tagged ‘Ambient’

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Stationary/Moving Pictures

February 24, 2010

It is early in the evening and I am reading John Dos Passos. And I am listening to Stars of the Lid, because Stars of the Lid make the only music that I can listen to while studying. Their drones and long-held notes frame my existence for short periods of time before they shift into another form.

I have been extremely tired lately. Tired, apathetic, lethargic. But not depressed or anxious, which is a big change. But my limbs are very heavy, I don’t have much motivation to do much, and I can’t seem to get excited about anything. This is not to say that I feel that things bore me or that I feel as if I’m above being excited by anything in my life right now. I realize that this is a personal problem and I would like to rectify it, but I’m not sure what I can do. Exercise is a possibility, but the thought of going to the gym makes me tired and uncomfortable, but it would still most likely be a good idea. In any case, I just find myself wanting to retreat to bed almost all the time, and when I have time planned to do something like study, read or write, I’m often just stricken with a really overwhelming sleepiness. If I then do go lay down on the couch or my bed, I can’t close my eyes and go to sleep, and so I get bored, get out of bed, go somewhere, and the cycle begins anew. Writing and music are still things I spend time on, but mostly because I’m bored, and they don’t really excite me like they used to. Maybe someone would just call all of this laziness, and it very well might be, but that I haven’t really pinned it as this makes me think there is more to it than that. My psychiatrist didn’t seem to take much notice of it when I told him about it, but my counselor did. I’ll ask my psychiatrist about it again when I next see him, and I’ll continue to explore the issue weekly with my counselor.

I feel like I need to remove myself from this time and place. I can’t do either but I can at least pretend, and maybe that would make me feel somewhat better. I’m going to take a cheese grater to my jeans tonight. I’ve been showering every other day, and I don’t find myself to be smelly. I’ve been listening to Love Battery and Hole, and Nirvana are beginning to excite me again. I’m going to buy converse sneakers, next time I need a new pair of shoes. I’ll probably buy a pack of Turkish Golds and get rid of the pack very, very slowly. I’m wondering why it is exactly that I want to do all this. I’m thinking there may be a deep seeded reason, some kind of desire for a certain culture that I never got to experience. A lot of people may call it pretending to be something I’m not. I don’t think that. I think it’s finally becoming someone I want to be. My biggest hate is people pretending to be someone else. “Myself” is someone I know deeply and closely, and it’s about time I let him out as much as humanly possible.

This week I’ve been reading Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” for my class on American Literature from 1865 to the present day, and I’ve been enjoying the hell out of it. Granted, the thing is exhausting. I can typically only stand to sit and go through about five to ten pages at a time, because the way it is written is exhausting and hard to follow. But it seems pretty self-evidently brilliant. Faulkner’s characters are just incredibly human, despite the fact that their actions and the way they are written is quite surreal. The story seems to be viewed through a blurred looking glass, the immediate, stream-of-consciousness perspectives of individual characters. It is a willfully difficult story and Faulkner clearly knew this, but still there are many rewards to be found here, though I’ve yet to isolate more than a few of them, and there are no doubt more. I need to teach a class session on this book, and I’m looking forward to that. I think it will be refreshing and informative to have a conversation with my class about this book.

I am looking for things to take pictures of. I want to get through this last roll so I can develop what I have and get back the pictures of the snow filled Washington DC. It is supposed to snow again tonight, a lot. I’ve heard upwards of a foot. Maybe more pictures? Hopefully my aunt will send me the old camera soon, the antique. I would love to take pictures with it. I want to pursue photography now that I have a camera, even though I’m not in a photography class anymore. If you would let me take pictures of you, please let me know.

For now, more Stars.

Best

ATB

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Off This Century – My Favorite Albums of 2000-2009

December 25, 2009
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Mew – No More Stories / Are Told Today / I'm Sorry / They Washed Away // No More Stories / The World Is Grey / I'm Tired / Let's Wash Away

September 12, 2009

I don’t have a lot of energy right now, as it is late and I am back late from a show, but I am now listening to this album and feel that it deserves a shout out. So I’m going to give my incomplete, unedited take on it.

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As the year progresses, more and more albums are catching my ear that impress me. I’ll be blunt by saying that No More Stories… is one of those albums. It is different from Mew’s previous LP, And The Glass Handed Kites (which, man, came out four years ago already?) in that it is very much a set of songs as opposed to a long suite. Each song is individual and memorable. This is due in part to Mew’s frequent tendency to experiment a little, and thus we get songs like “New Terrain” (which when played backwards reveals a completely different song. what’s shocking is that both songs are actually good), “Introducing Palace Players” (a fractured, no-tempo stomp), and “Cartoons and Macrame Wounds” (which begins at it’s climax and works backwards). These songs are pretty out there at first listen, but give them a little time and the pieces click into place and they are ultimately enticing. They are just new and different enough to be fascinating but they also have more conventional, melodic elements to them, and Mew are very good at melody. The album isn’t all experimentalism though; there are a couple more streamlined tunes here, but they aren’t by any means radio pop. “Repeaterbeater” reminisces of “Apocalypso” off of Glass Handed Kites in that it is shamelessly riffy hard rock. I’ll put another thing bluntly. This album is loaded. It’s got a lot of really memorable songs, and really no bad songs. Even the longer, downtempo pieces (“Silas the Magic Car,” “Cartoons and Macrame Wounds”) are top notch chamber dream pop despite being a little less involving. After maybe two listens, everything here is as familiar and excellent sounding as on Mew’s previous albums. The selection of songs that are excellent here is pretty overwhelming. Besides what I’ve already mentioned, “Beach,” “Hawaii Dream” (the album’s centerpiece, a tiny interlude. how funny that it ends up being one of the more memorable tracks on the album.), “Hawaii” (this one is just perfect, a charming tropical pop song complete with marimbas and skybound reverberating vocals), and “Sometimes Life Isn’t Easy” are all instantly classic Mew. And on the latter, Mew manage to match their awesome guest spot from J Mascis on Glass Handed Kites’ “Why Are You Looking Grave” with a showstopping performance from Mari Helgerlikova, an 88 year old Danish avant-garde singer. Basically, get this album for Christ’s sake. Mew make music that is, like much great art, just new and interesting enough to be engaging, but isn’t too far out. They are completely unabashed in their pop and rock sensibilities while still having the bravery to utilize conventions of many of their favorite genres such as shoegaze, dream pop, progressive rock and even classical pop. You could make a pretty good case that this is Mew’s best album to date. I can hear the complaint already that some might think that this album is tired, but it aknowledges this in it’s title, and knows it. Life can be weary and overbearing but finding refuge in quality music, whether it is music you can rock out to or curl up on the couch with, is pure satisfaction.

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My Twenty Favorite Aphex Twin Tracks

June 16, 2009

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of one of my favorite artists, Richard D. James (most commonly known as Aphex Twin) and I’ve been kind of sorting through in my head which of his songs are my favorites. I haven’t numbered anything on this list because I think that would be both disrespectful and useless, as my favorite Aphex tracks are always changing anyway. There is a loose hierarchy here, but in general I’m taking this as an opportunity not to judge anything objectively but more to explore some of my favorite songs.

Once again, these just scrape the surface of my favorite RDJ tracks, so before you complain about stuff that is missing from the list, I promise you that I’m not trying to compile a timeline or history here. I’m just trying to aknowledge some good songs. I tried to get youtube links for as many songs as I could, and the official music videos for the songs that have them (“On,” “Windowlicker” and “Nannou”). Understand that the sound quality of videos on youtube are inferior to what you get from playing these songs out of a stereo or nice headphones, so the best way to hear them would be to dig in and explore Aphex Twin’s music for yourself, and in the process uncover some of your own favorites.

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Hangable Auto Bulb

Laughable Butane Bob

Aphex Twin’s first foray into the “Drill ‘n Bass” style which would come to characterize his later work was the Hangable Auto Bulb EP series, which had more than a few gems of the genre. The full picture of the series comes when all eight songs in the series are put together in the Hangable Auto Bulb compilation, and when you put them all back to back, “Laughable Butane Bob” stands out most to me. The experimental rhythm plays out perfectly, and this is the perfect introduction to RDJ’s new, crazy style, and the methodology of listening to his breakbeat work is still the same as it is for his creation; let it simmer a while and it’s pure funk.

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...I Care Because You Do

Acrid Avid Jam Shred

By the time fans of the Selected Ambient Works albums realized that the first song on Aphex Twin’s new album was an anagram for Richard David James, it had probably already occurred to them that the track was a scrambled incarnation of everything James had previously worked on. The song features the hard techno beats of his early AFX days slowed down to a creeping pace, playful electronic flourishes present on Selected Ambient Works 85-92, and elegant atmospherics that would have been at home on Selected Ambient Works Volume 2. The fact that all of these elements work together to great success and without seeming forced to make both this song and …I Care Because You Do indicates that James is not only talented as a musician, but also as an arranger.

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Analord 10

Fenix Funk

The only EP in the Analord series, Aphex Twin’s extensive return to analog synthesizer programming, to be released under the name “Aphex Twin” as opposed to “AFX” was Analord 10, and it was released before any of the other EPs, which were thereafter released in numerical order. Also, Analord 10 was packaged with a full sized binder with spots for the rest of the Analords. This odd non sequitur is understandable when you listen to Analord 10, as the EP contains arguably the best two songs in the series, the most notable being “Fenix Funk.” The track contains not only the smoothest of James’ funky breakbeats but also some of his most distinctive atmospherics. The rest of the series is downhill from this track, which fuses styles of RDJ’s two most significant discographies, thus making his persona that much more decipherable.

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Drukqs

Vordhosbn

Drukqs was the final frontier for Aphex Twin’s Drill ‘n Bass exploration, and “Vordhosbn” might be the highlight of the album’s more hard hitting half. It moves at a breakneck tempo with mile-a-minute development, hitting on more great new ideas in just under five minutes than most other Drill ‘n Bass artists can manage to pull off in entire albums. It’s got the intense thought provoking rhythms in God only knows what time signature as well as subtle a subtle atmospheric backdrop. Despite the complexity, this also manages to be one of the more exciting and listenable Drill ‘n Bass achievements Aphex Twin has yet put out, and hopefully not the last.

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Analogue Bubblebath

Analogue Bubblebath

The song that gave RDJ’s first massive EP series it’s name, Analogue Bubblebath is almost too humble to be a namesake. It’s whimsical ascending and descending synths accompany soft rhythms to make a finished product that contrasts with the majority of the acid techno in the series. The song more closely resembles the work James would subsequently release on his first album under the Aphex Twin name, Selected Ambient Works 85-92. With that said, “Analogue Bubblebath” foreshadows great things to come while still holding its own as a fun, relaxed cut, and a classic of early IDM.

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On

On

Aphex Twin’s early single “On” bridges two of his styles, the early IDM of  the Selected Ambient Works albums and the harsher rhythmic noise on …I Care Because You Do. The song and it’s accompanying music video directed by Jarvis Cocker are composed in similar ways, moving at a frenetic pace and progressively adding and subtracting different parts of the composition. The rhythm is too rough for the track to be danceable, and too eventful and funky to be ambient, thus moving away from any of James’ previously explored genres. In this sense it is one of the earliest examples of his avant garde single series, even more fun and stylish than “Digeridoo” and the beginning of his experimental modus operandi which would persist through the rest of his career.

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Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2

Rhubarb

The best justice I can do to explain Rhubarb is that it’s one of the most beautiful things ever recorded. I say this with great conviction. Of course beauty is subjective, but hearing is also believing, and this song is one of the most believable that Aphex Twin has ever composed. It is Richard D. James submitting himself completely to the concept of beauty and contentment through Eno styled ambient music, and the end product even gives Eno a run for his money. Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2 is an album filled with progressive ambient experimentation, but throughout the the album are a few tracks of simple clarity, this being the most poignant on merit of delicate songwriting alone. I can’t think of anything less pretentious that fully does this song justice than saying that it is not only music you can live to but is also music that you can die to.

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Windowlicker

Nannou

The Windowlicker single may have rode on the strength of whimsical humor, the title track being Aphex Twin’s most fun single to date and “Equation” an indulgent experiment, but that makes the juxtaposition of the last song on the single, “Nannou,” that much more fascinating. The song was created with nothing but samples from music boxes: winding, clicking, clacking, chiming. The song is not only pleasing as a pretty, nostalgic gem, but also a piece of aural art crafted from things that have themselves already been crafted. Even in this musical sampling culture, it’s rare that we get something sampled that is so humble and quaint.

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Selected Ambient Works 85-92

Tha

The longest piece on Selected Ambient Works 85-92 contrasts with the rest of the album rather heavily. While “Tha” shares the infectious beat and playful synthesizer melodies that the rest of the album possesses, the song is also easily the most forward thinking the album has to offer, less pop or dance and more ambient and experimental. Clocking in at nine minutes, the piece is a slowly shifting ambient composition which immediately brings to mind contrasting speeds involved with the visual aspect of a train ride. The song represents the best of what SAW 85-92 has to offer, both cutting edge as well as vintage. This is what the year 3000 will sound like in the year 4000.

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Richard D. James Album

4

That Aphex Twin would ever be inspired by classical music was a head scratcher concept before 1997 when he released Richard D. James Album, which cemented him as a modern composer. The album’s opener, “4,” is one of its more poignant pieces, not only utilizing beautiful string parts but also structuring breakbeats in ways that imitate the structures of classical composition. But the breakbeats are hard and piercing in texture, making the resulting song both relaxing and riveting. When avant-garde classical ensemble Alarm Will Sound played the song on their 2005 Aphex Twin cover album Acoustica, it only further proved that compositions like these will be remembered for a long time as modern masterpieces.

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Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2

Blue Calx

The songs that fans of Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2 would play for a non-ambient fan might be the more digestible tracks, particularly “Rhubarb,” “Lichen,” “Stone in Focus” or “Hexagon.” Although all of these tracks are great, they aren’t part of the more experimental three quarters of the brilliant double album, and “Blue Calx” might cover that essential experimental nature while still being accessible to new ears. It is ambient music at heart, both appropriate for background or forefront listening, and it encapsulates contrasting emotions, both safety and unease. The slow, unique beat mixes with the melancholy synthesizers and the sound of a clock ticking to make one of the most unique and memorable tracks on SAW2.

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Selected Ambient Works 85-92

We Are The Music Makers

“We Are The Music Makers” is typically noted as being the exception to the rule for Selected Ambient Works 85-92 as the only track to contain a vocal sample, but is usually only cited to differentiate the album from it’s house and dance music contemporaries as being more focused on texture and less hook oriented. But the song stands tall as one of the album’s finest moments, featuring an unstoppable groove and the signature ever-shifting dynamics that would come to be hallmarks of Intelligent Dance Music. And that single vocal sample from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, although originally utilized by 808 State, could be considered his original mission statement and will echo through the minds of chilled out early morning ravers for years to come.

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...I Care Because You Do

Alberto Basalm

In terms of sheer listenability, one would be hard pressed to find an RDJ track more addictive and pleasing than “Alberto Basalm.” By far the most popular track on …I Care Because You Do, the mysterious rhythmic groove is pure noir artistry, constructing its beat out of the sounds of cigarette lighters and clanging garbage cans. If I could think of a visual artist to paralell the song, Hopper would be the most appropriate comparison. It’s the Aphex Twin song that, were it tangible and visible, would be the modern masterpiece that the masses would oogle over in a prestigious art museum. His “Mystery and Melancholy of a Beat,” perhaps?

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Windowlicker

Windowlicker

Of Aphex Twin’s experimental singles, “Windowlicker” may be the most outwardly commercial. It is, after all, clearly a shot at the porn industry, as exemplified by its electronic funk style and accompanying over-the-top music video directed by Chris Cunningham. But both of the aforementioned elements come together to make one of Aphex Twin’s most successful and memorable songs to date. The chorus is classic, funky ass sexual chocolate, and the free flowing rhythm is easily Aphex’s most compelling, varied and memorable. And again, I stress, the video. I am told that Aphex Twin once said that he wanted to put a face to his music, which existed in a genre of faceless artists. After hearing this song and seeing that video, you’ll never forget his face, sense of humor, and unique musicality.

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Drukqs

Avril 14th

It is strange that Aphex Twin’s most well known track is also one of his most uncharacteristic. From the illegally used sample on a Lonely Island short on Saturday Night Live to being used in Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, this song is the Aphex Twin track that any given person is most likely to have heard due to its wide exposure and undying popularity. 2001’s Drukqs contained a treasure trove of simple melodies played on piano and prepared piano, and “Avril 14th” is likely the most memorable. It’s the walking-to-Sunday-school melody that even the most naive of children probably wouldn’t believe in when their age had a single digit, and yet it seems to take every listener to a simple, happy place like no other track. That the song is flanked on the album by two of RDJ’s harshest breakbeat tracks is a testament to his versatility.

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Richard D. James Album

Girl/Boy Song

While Richard D. James claims that he wrote “Girl/Boy Song” as a response to the fact that most songs are either “boy” songs or “girl” songs and thus wanted to make a song for both genders, you would guess at first listen that it was meant for asexual aliens. However, upon repeated listens the song opens up like a flower, and new perspectives become more salient. It is possible that “Girl/Boy Song” is actually a realistic love story of simple melodic beauty (fairy-tale pizzicato string arrangements) juxtaposed next to frenetic insanity (intense, disarming breakbeats). The end product is the epitome of what RDJ Album has to offer, and in some ineffable way beautiful and human, an aural representation of what real, yearning love might sound like.

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Drukqs

Btoum-Roumada

Drukqs was an album of several principle ideas, one of which was the exploration of simple melodies which proved Richard D. James to be not only a master of electronics but also of classical composition. “Btoum-Roumada” may only be one of the album’s melodic triumphs, but it is the one that pops out the most, embossed with the use of a twinkling organ. While James may have emerged from the acid house underground, we can practically hear him playing from a quaint church on this track. The spirituality and finality of the song are enough to make it one of his most memorable and undeniably touching, and the ending brings the most satisfying epiphany – ah! This song isn’t alone. Is it possible that James has a heart under his mechanical exterior?

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Selected Ambient Works 85-92

Xtal

The first song on the first album released under the Aphex Twin name, “Xtal” is pure IDM bliss. It marks the beginning as well as the immediate perfection of one of the many styles that Richard D. James would pick up and quickly move on from in his heyday, and it is all the more significant because those albums released under the Aphex Twin moniker would reach a mass audience. For that reason, “Xtal” is often the first song anyone hears by RDJ, and not inappropriately. Other IDM artists would try to replicate the subtle beauty of this track for years. It’s not like James’ was the first person to incorporate breathy female vocals, subtle beats and glowing ambient textures into dance music, but I’ll be damned if anyone has done it quite so well since.

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Come to Daddy

Flim

While the title track of the Come to Daddy EP might have been one of Aphex Twin’s most successful experimental pop jokes that resulted in as much approval as disgust, the track that proceeds it will turn whatever expression it elicited into a warm grin. Despite the fact that “Flim” is one of the most widely loved songs among Aphex Twin fans, many have a hard time expressing exactly why. After all, its not like this was the first RDJ track to mix delicate melody with an ever-changing ambient breakbeat, but this is certainly where he masters the art. The rhythm is, like his other breakbeat tracks, carefully planned and different for each measure, and thus stays engaging as well as structured throughout. Rhythmic flourishes echo into the back of the track while the simple synthesizer dances under a simplistic, soaring string part. It’s grace is so aurally embossed that it almost doesn’t even need to be explained once heard, forwards or backwards. A true gem.

And…

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26 Mixes for Cash

Raising the Titanic (Big Drum Mix)

Found on the 2003 remix compilation 26 Mixes for Cash, Raising the Titanic might at first be of debatable authorship, either of Richard D. James or composer Gavin Bryars who wrote the original minimalist piece Sinking the Titanic in 1969. But Aphex Twin undoubtedly makes the piece his own with his electronic rendition. The track is worthy of its new name, and if we are judging it by the age old avant-garde standard of whether songs match their titles, it could be argued that Raising the Titanic is even more accomplished than the piece from which it finds its origin. Possibly the hugest sounding recording ever put to plastic, the song almost seems to be too big for its own environment; the thundering beat sputters while it lumbers and the strings and choral samples are often violently distorted, but not without singular beauty. It is the beautiful sound of decay, heaved upwards by the colossal rhythm and yearning melodies ad infinitum. The arrangement might as well be the most ambitious James has ever attempted, and he succeeds perfectly at combining an incredibly strong beat with beautiful atmospherics, and the result is a lucid masterpiece.

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Grouper / City Center – Split 7": False Horizon / This is How We See in the Dark

March 13, 2009

Grouper / City Center - Split 7

Grouper / City Center - Split 7"

In 2007, ambient/drone artist Liz Harris, otherwise known as Grouper, released a split LP with fellow West Coast experimental drone artist Eva Saelens, otherwise known as Inca Ore. At the time, the two artists were contemporaries in every way, coming from the same general geographical area as solo artists, both crafting eerie dark ambient music and having had a few albums under their belts. Grouper gave a taste of the succulent melodicism that was to come in full force on her subsequent album Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, and Inca Ore provided ambient noise soundscapes that wouldn’t sound out of place on the soundtrack of a horror film.

In the end the scales tipped toward Grouper, the reason being that Inca Ore’s material really only catered to fans of noise and the most difficult of dark ambient, and the songs Grouper provided were the most advanced as well as accessible of any other work she had yet done. With that said, the progression of Grouper’s catalogue is very traceable. Starting with the impenetrable dark ambient of her debut album, Way Their Crept, through the slightly more experimental but still drone heavy Wide, then to the subtly melodic Cover The Windows and the Walls, then the aforementioned bittersweet melodies on the Split LP,  and up to the sublimely melodic Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill; Harris’ output has always moved closer and closer to flat out folk music, and her contribution to this split single, “False Horizon,” is finally the pinnacle of that progression.

The song pulses with lightly strummed guitars that are no longer completely submerged but only knee deep in liquidic reverberation. The only melodic tools used here are a single acoustic guitar and several layers of harmonized vocals. It is the barest Harris has ever left herself or any of her music, no longer a claustrophobic cacophony that we heard on Way Their Crept and Wide, as engaging as they were. As usual, the vocals here are only partially intelligible. We can almost be sure that Harris sings “where bodies float down,” at some point, but it is hard to tell, and this sense of mystery has served her well before, but never quite in such an accessible context. In effect, this is Liz Harris relying solely on her songwriting ability, which we can say with great certainty now is excellent. The result is a dark, addictive, intriguing single that is very tangible, what was hinted at on Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, which never quite reached the bare bones nature of “False Horizon.”

The other single here, “This is How We See in the Dark” by newcomers City Center, is also significant. The band, a duo of Brooklyn natives Ryan Howard and Fred Thomas, make experimental folk music in the same way as Grouper, but with a more eclectic sonic palette. This is mostly to their advantage, and many of their songs are sonically standout as well as charmingly melodic, but they don’t have the sticking power that Grouper’s music does. But if they have more songs like “This is How We See in the Dark” in store, then they are a band that we would be best to trace the progress of. The song sounds a bit like a warped carnival song, but with more melancholy than creepiness. In a few instances, the group’s experimental sound encroaches on the body of the song, but not without purpose. The hazy, contorted melody is about as memorable as “False Horizon,” and in the end both songs are good.

Although both sides of this single are quality songs, “False Horizon” really steals the show here, the reason being that Liz Harris commands attention with every release she makes and is by this time a reliable guru of her craft. The quality of her music has increased on an exponential curve, and she shows no sign of slowing down. With all due respect to City Center, this is really Grouper’s triumph. The release’s biggest problem is undoubtedly availability. The single is limited to self-released limited edition appropriately colored “dirty water gray” vinyl only, which is now out of stock, so acquiring these songs means either doing it illegally or hunting down and shelling out a high price for the vinyl, which is frustrating. But until the day when these songs are (hopefully) released on CD or through iTunes like the Inca Ore / Grouper split was, or the possibility that they will be released on forthcoming albums is fruitful, these excellent singles will be heard by few. The Split album with Inca Ore showed promise that Harris was capable of something outstanding. She delivered on that promise with Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill. We can be hopeful that history will repeat itself and Grouper will release yet another masterpiece.

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2. Grouper – Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill

December 31, 2008
Grouper - Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill

Grouper - Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill

Portland Oregon’s Liz Harris, otherwise known as Grouper, has moved toward a more melodic sound with Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill. She has transformed from a studio hermit who crafts ambient slowcore to a troubador who crafts folk music, and the cloud of ambiance that she created to hang over her head has simply followed her. Her earliest albums, Way Their Crept and Wide, were notable ambient experiments and hinted at real melodic talent, but Dead Deer fleshes out these promises. The listener watches from a box seat in an otherwise empty theater as Harris weaves an intricate story through music. The result is an album that is at once haunting and beautiful, answers questions that her earlier albums posed, and raises even more. The first of which will undoubtedly be, “what is she saying?” The lyrics on Dead Deer are nearly unintelligible, but here they break through the fog more often than on previous works. The music mostly consists of simple guitar and vocal melodies, produced in a very full way. This formula, without much change, should have made for an extremely boring album, and at first that was what it seemed like to me. But I came back to this album, and not because anyone told me to. It has an eerie gravity due in part to it’s obscurity. Dead Deer is structured as a musical narrative that we want to materialize into something we can fully understand, but it always floats just out of reach. The understandable lyrical content in conjunction with the song titles can be vaguely but not completely understood; the narrator has a fascination with water, sleep, and dissociation from reality. The mood is melancholy throughout, but Harris’ melodic talent as well as careful attention to dynamics and slight variations make for utterly gripping pieces that demand further attention. After repeated listens, each song becomes individual and creates its own world. Songs match their titles. The album’s two instrumentals (although they do have bits of vocal ambiance in them), Wind and Snow and Tidal Wave, replicate desolate loneliness and a swirling wall of sound respectively. The longest song on the album, Stuck, flounders hopelessly like a fish out of water and can’t seem to find a chorus, verse, or bridge. Invisible sounds like a children’s song with a dark, unidentifiable twist. And I’m Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, which acts as the centerpiece of the album, creates an aural representation of what dragging said deer (be it literal or metaphorical) up a hill would feel like. The emotional experience is very double edged, and thus that much more intriguing. It is both comforting and haunting, and it traces a path that seems to be close to the human condition. Liz Harris has tapped into something mysterious with Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, and I wonder if she knows exactly what it is. Regardless of whether she does, Dead Deer is a masterwork that is a result of astounding musicianship, and a sign of more great things to come.

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Halloween Albums

October 24, 2008

Halloween is near, and I have started to pick out some spooky favorites from the music library. I figured it might be appropriate to acknowledge some of the more genuinely scary or creepy albums I have come in contact with over the years. Six might seem like a rather arbitrary number, but these releases are of a rare breed and I find each one to be essential to the list. Of course there’s nothing wrong with traditional Halloween music (the Monster Mash, sure), or some other fun retro music that might be appropriate for the holiday (The Cramps!), but if you want something that might really creep you out, this list might be able to help.

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Alice in Chains – Dirt

Alice in Chains’ second album Dirt arrived just in time for the Halloween season in 1992, and took over the grunge scene with its spooky hard rocking style. The album is almost unbelievably advanced past the band’s debut album Facelift, every song taking on its own texturally rich identity. In terms of technical skill, every member of the band is in prime form despite their drug addictions which are reflected heavily in the album’s lyrical themes. The late and great Layne Staley spits “what the hell am I/thousand eyes a fly/lucky then I’d be/if one day deceased” on one of the album’s underhand knockouts Sickman. We can hear both the anger and anguish associated with personal breakdowns and drug abuse. The consistency of the album alone makes it one of the finest albums that grunge had to offer, with a killer lineup of singles, the hammering Them Bones, Vietnam reminiscent Rooster, and possibly the greatest grunge single ever, Would?. But the highlights don’t stop there; the album also has a slew of brooding, slow moving, moody masterpieces (Dirt, Rain When I Die, Down In A Hole), as well as many other sleeper highlights (God Smack is the origin of the name of AiC knockoffs Godsmack, to exemplify the album’s influence). Although Alice in Chains’ best work may be scattered throughout their albums and EPs, Dirt is easily their most representative and possibly most accomplished work, a scary, fun, and emotional masterpiece of its genre.

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Slint – Spiderland

Considered the premier post rock album, Slint’s second and final album Spiderland is made by a band with absolutely nothing to lose. Perhaps it is this that makes it so startlingly affecting. How out of no where the album must have seen at the time is also probably a reason that it was as vastly influential as it is. But legacy aside, Spiderland is quite a scary album by all accounts, softly building damaged melodies out of nothing and then disassembling them again. As soon as the opening arpeggiated harmonics of Breadcrumb Trail start, it sounds like the beginning of the end. This mysterious, slow urgency pulls the listener through the albums six unsettling songs with great anxiousness. All of Slint’s weaponry is fully formed here; their percussive anger, David Pajo’s atmospheric guitars and sense of instrumental tension, and Brian McMahan’s oft whispered creepy poetry. These elements make for six completely perfect songs, the rocking Nosferatu Man, the quiet, brooding Don Amon, the sadly beautiful Washer, and the extremely quiet instrumental For Dinner… It all seems to lead to something, and when it does, we get one of the single scariest and most beautiful songs of the nineties, Good Morning Captain, which evades all explanation. It may disappoint fans that the subsequent two song Slint EP was as far as the band would ever go, but Slint’s three releases, and particularly Spiderland were all they needed to be one of the most important bands of their genre.

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Boards of Canada – Geogaddi

With Board’s of Canda’s second major full length release Geogaddi, brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin make certain that their love of degradation and psychosis plays itself out on more than just their own production values. In fact, one might be given the false impression of their own mental degradation while listening to the album, it is so elaborately and eerily constructed. Although its format is essentially the same as its championing predecessor Music Has The Right To Children (long pieces dispersed with very short pieces, beat driven IDM), their style is distinctly advanced over their previous works. The album is almost extravagantly detailed with myriad fascinating jigsaw pieces of sound; reversed beats, distorted vocal samples, dissonant chords, and heavy aural contrasts provide the album’s basic groundwork. Although some pieces here are vaguely reminiscent of previous fan favorites (Sunshine Recorder, 1969, Dawn Chorus), every song is highly advanced and vaguely unsettling. Throughout the album Boards of Canada paint as they call it a vast, winding, labyrinthine “journey” through a beautiful and horribly warped dreamland. Once you follow the white rabbit down the hole, something immediately seems very, horribly wrong, and this feeling is played with, turned upside down and inside out at every turn of the album. The more you think about it, the more it scares you, and the more one recognizes its intricacies such as mathematical structures, biblical references, and distorted fascination with the occult, the more one wants to dismiss Geogaddi as pretentious and supersaturated. However, it is a genuinely creepy album, and its ominous atmosphere cannot be denied. And yet the brothers state the ultimate innocuousness of the album in interviews. “…If we’re spiritual at all, it’s purely in the sense of caring about art and inspiring people with ideas.” (interview “Play Twice Before LIstening” by Koen Poolman). Despite what its message is, Geogaddi is an album that genuinely brings you to the brink of your own mind and refuses to let you forget the experience.

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Coil – The Ape of Naples

If any album has ever been literally haunted, or at least come close, The Ape of Naples is the culprit. Created posthumously after Coil frontman John Balance tragically fell to his death over the banisters of his Mansfield home in a drunken stupor, The Ape of Naples is actually a collection of the industrial/electronic band’s leftover material. This makes the overall cohesion of the album nothing short of a small miracle of planning. In fact, it makes little to no sense that this album is more than a rarities compilation, and it is more, much more. Through it’s lengthy textural songs it develops many stories with real life reference points, perhaps outlining both the experiences of the unsettling said ape on the cover art as well as John Balance’s descent into alcohol addiction. The haunting opening chords of Fire of The Mind (the original title of the album) set the stage for an album loaded with treasures, all uniquely disturbing and affecting. Songs call on an eclectic selection of instruments such as accordions, marimbas, horns and pipes, and as always carefully synthesized melodies, beats, and atmospherics. Songs range from gentle to violent, and the album’s transformation is downright scary. The Ape of Naples is an all around great performance from all those involved, but John Balance remains the album’s key player. His voice touches every song in different ways, and his emotion is fluid, sometimes gracing songs with subtle melancholy and other times with spitting anger. The album comes to a close with a cover of the British sitcom Are You Being Served?’‘s theme song Going Up, featuring vocals from Balance’s final onstage performance at the Dublin Electronic Arts Festival in 2004. And with John Balance’s final vocals, locations of bedding materials, tea, and travel products as well as the final direction of an elevator, it isn’t hard to hear him simultaneously falling down and going up.

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Merzbow – 1930

Many non-noise fans may turn on Japanese noise godfather’s quintessential album, 1930, and be disgusted. It is, to put it one way, a deliberately disgusting album, barely music in any traditional sense, and more of a terrifying sound assault. Perhaps best at home in a torture chamber (just how the bondage obsessed Merzbow would like it), listening to 1930 at loud volumes is a potentially terrifying experience that can push one’s sanity to the limit. Once again, it is barely even music, but more an aural representation of a mile high battleship with cannons filling every square inch, all firing at the listener at the same time. Reach for the off switch and the terror goes away temporarily, but curiosity will make you turn it on again at some point, and when you get curious enough to listen to the entire thing, you probably won’t be able to turn it off as much as you want to. There is something almost inhuman and unearthly about 1930 that manages to consistently fascinate here, and even if you can’t bear to turn the volume up higher than a whisper, it is unspeakably overbearing. Everything from the fiery title track to the dizzying cacophony of Degradation of Tape to the final explosive, twenty two minute, ever changing Iron, Glass, Blocks and White, everything here is sheer chaos. For how brutal and unpredictable it is, it is no surprise that this horrifying album is considered a cornerstone of noise music. To say it is good or bad is irrelevant, because it definitely shouldn’t be judged by the same standards as any other album on this list, let alone any form of “art” on this planet.

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Brian Eno – Ambient 4

Brian Eno’s final installment in his Ambient series is possibly the most emotionally startling ambient album of all time, and may be considered to be the first dark ambient album. In that sense it is hard to imagine the entire genre of demonic dark ambient texture without this album as a precursor, although Ambient 4 is anything but paganistic or demonic. In fact, there is little to nothing subversive about Ambient 4 in the slightest, except perhaps its one odd song out, the deliberately creepy Shadow featuring Jon Hassell on trumpet, although if we are talking about scare factor the song is the album’s clear winner. Beyond this song, the album makes its goals known almost instantaneously and follows through with its goals systematically, like the other members of the beautiful ambient family. Moreso than any other album on this list, Ambient 4 carries a wide range of emotions with it, of which horror is only one. The collection of soundtracks to geographic locations here range from touchingly calm (A Clearing) to impendingly scary (The Lost Day). The distant chains of Lantern Marsh, the distorted miasma of Tal Coat, the birds and frogs of Leeks Hills…The album is startlingly emotional in ways that can be simultaneously relaxing and unsettling. On one hand, you get the feeling that at any point during the album someone could appear behind you and cause your heart to skip a beat, and yet at the same time the soundscapes are warm and completely safe sounding. The wide range of emotion here is mostly due to simple skill in production and crafting of music. The soundscapes sound so deftly realistic that the emotion comes quite naturally and makes the overall product quite moving. This may be the one to play on the boombox outside when the trick-or-treaters come by.

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