Blanck Mass – Blanck Mass (2011)

Inspired by their recent appearance in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, my Sunday Night Ambient review is Blanck Mass’s self-titled debut LP.  This isn’t going to be long (or good), since my motivation is nil right now.

I believe that many people see Drone as a single faceted genre, that they dont truly understand nor appreciate the scope and incredible power it holds. Drone, much like the label “ambient”, is a broad and loosely defined term that incorporates within it an enormous variety of sounds; for instance, Thomas Koner sounds nothing like Tim Hecker, nor either of them like Boris, and so on. It doesn’t “all sound the same”, and most importantly, yes, it does impart a powerful emotional impression on the listener. Blanck Mass is a truly cerebral listening experience.

Blanck Mass is a leviathan of an album, its glacial pace and vast walls of glistening, shimmering sound just hang in the darkness for an eternity, smothering the listener in its oppressive weight. Yet, within this galactic-scale sound that inches forwards at a positively geological speed, there are short-lived eddies and flurries that break the “monotony”; failed evolutionary offshoots that just add extra textural flavours to the tracks. Opener “Sifted Gold” deviates little from its path, save for a few samples, just those little textures to add to the whole.

The track that reminded me of this album’s existence during the Olympic Ceremony, “Sundowner”, is my absolute favourite track. Not since Fennesz’s “Glide” have I heard a piece of drone so massive and so euphoric; its vast walls of feedbacked guitar and the shimmering majesty of some sparkly flanger feel like an 8 minute crescendo, evoking a spine-tingling sense of wonder and ecstasy that just refuses to end. It churns, it grinds, it yearns, it soars; there is no other way to listen to this other than at the loudest tolerable volume. Only a few drone pieces have ever really brought tears to my eyes (Yellow Swans “Going Places” being one), but its difficult not to get caught up in the majesty and power of this piece.

The rest of the album is curious; no other track quite reaches the climactic peak of “Sundowner” but instead mostly takes a more subdued, even melancholic tone. The gargantuan “Land Disasters” wallows in a vast wall of abrasive guitar feedback, but is carried along by a beautiful wash of triumphant, piercing drone, the piece evolving from one of fugue and sadness to hope and light. “Chernobyl” is also not the disaster zone you’d anticipate; instead it is a low-key affair, its sound feels distal and sad, like someone surveying the aftermath of the event in slow-motion. Even “Fuckers” is not the cacophonic sound you’d anticipate; it feels restrained and mournful, a simplistic wave of drone oscillating back and forth for its short duration.

Blanck Mass is a strange album; the power and abrasiveness of Fuck Buttons is nowhere to be seen; instead we have tracks that feel dilated and restrained, sailing smoothly and without interruption through the abyss. Even so there is an underlying anxiety and melancholy throughout the entire album; while sometimes it is quelled and replaced by a heady and overwhelming optimism (“Sundowner”), there is too little of it to hold back the wall of sound that is concern and worry.

7/10

Ps, maybe you’ll understand why I love this track so much:

Kurt Andrew – Souvenirs EP (2012)

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My first review request direct from an artist; debut(?) EP from folktronica artist Kurt Andrew, Souvenirs.

I like getting requests. I do, it’s flattering. I like getting recommendations as well. Except…I sort of don’t. With both of them I always feel  pressured; someone has taken the time to think about me and suggest some music for me to listen to. Often it’s music that the individual in question likes and thinks I’ll like, sometimes it’s just “here, let me give you some music”. In either case I always feel like I need to like the music they’re giving me, or at least try to play it up and show it in a good light. Sometimes I really like the music and know I don’t need to worry about lying, but sometimes I don’t.

I guess I’m trying, in a polite way, to say that I don’t really enjoy Kurt’s music, and that makes me feel like a dick. Kurt himself has pointed me towards his music so that I might review it; admittedly the purpose of a review is to analyse the good and bad sides of an album objectively, but there’s something about being handed the music by the artist and then turning around and saying you don’t like it to the Internet.

The music itself is actually quite interesting; self-defined as being a darkwave/folktronica fusion, a descriptor that isn’t far from the truth, I’ve not heard anything quite like it. It wraps acoustic guitar progressions around plenty of glitchy, choppy electronic beats while Kurt croons in the background. It’s a curious sound, managing to sound both simultaneously modern in its production whilst also holding on to quite an 80’s vibe thanks to its darkwave and lo-fi influences. It’s an intelligent sound, but in places (“The Voyage”) the glitch overtones start to become quite obnoxious and overbearing and as a result the coherency of the music breaks down. It’s a bit messy, a bit chaotic, but in a clearly deliberate and organised way.

Really my biggest disappointment with this EP is the vocals. At first I was really interested; the title track opens the EP to some decent keyboards, guitar and distant lo-fi vocals, like an acoustic Matthew Dear or something. The writhing electronic sequences, the instrumentation and vocals just all slott together nicely. As “The Traveler” chases it up, however, I can’t help but feel disappointed; the beats are non-progressive and quite uninspiring, and when the vocals come to the fore they have a flat, bordering spoken-word, delivery. It’s not inherently bad in itself, but I feel like they could have more energy. “The End” has a similar problem melodically but also with Kurt pushing his voice in strange ways, almost forcing out the lyrics. Through one listen I was skipping through this track for a particular section and I had to check the timer to see if it was actually working, it is disappointingly “same-y” throughout.

For a debut I think it could be worse, a lot worse. I think this darkwave/electroacoustic/folktronica fusion does have some potential but I definitely think it needs some refining, making the melodies a bit more thoughtful and balanced. There’s some inconsistency here (to be expected, not holding it against him) but I think there’s also an inherent musical understanding and talent here. Not really my cup of tea in its current state, but certainly not terrible.

5.5/10.

Padang Food Tigers – Ready Country Nimbus (2012)

Well I’m back in England now and have caught up on sleep and general ongoings, so it’s business as usual. On today’s menu is a pretty underground, free folk group called Padang Food Tigers with their sophomore LP Ready Country Nimbus. 

Firstly I suppose we should answer the question of, what exactly is “free folk”? Well, I’m not 100% sure on that myself if I’m honest, but from what I’ve heard and what definitions I’ve seen, I think the best description available is: imagine ambient meeting folk. Loose, unstructured melodies with typical folk sounds and instrumentation with the mismatched meanderings of ambient.

There’s no vocals, almost no beats or rhythms, nothing electronic within 100 miles of this album, all it is is delicate acoustic instrumentation and soft field recordings to occupy what would otherwise be a rather empty background. “Signifyin’ Nothing” typifies the sound very well early on, floating along effortlessly to irregular pulses of improptu acoustic guitar fiddlings and piano tinklings, accompanied by bird song.

Distant church bells ring out in “Pymers Mead”, reinforcing this idyllic countryside vista growing in our mind, buried under a heap of processing almost to the brink of recognition, just barely holding a semblance of their original self, like the fading edges of a well worn memory. The trouble is that before each track has the opportunity to unfold it is swept up and carried away by the next; “Lone Carson” is so quiet and beautiful with its faint drone that it deserves more than 90 seconds of air-time before being smothered by the determined guitar and violin of “In My Heart I’m Already Gone”. That’s the biggest qualm I have with this release, it’s just too short. 32 minutes and 15 tracks is great for putting down lots of snippets of ideas but it means that nothing is fully fledged, there’s no growing room. “Pucker Boo” just randomly terminates after 30 seconds, for instance.

The longest track, the title track, really is something special because of its standout length. Ok only 3 minutes, but that’s 1 minute more than the others, and we’ve already established that 1 minutes to PFT is quite a long time. It’s nearly clichéd raindrops falling in the background reflect the mournful attitude of the acoustic instrumentation unfolding above it, lamenting their day stuck indoors. It’s the epitome of the stereotypical holiday here in England, and who better to tell it than this London-based duo? Sadly, the latter half following the title track is quite disappointing, lacking more coherence than the first half and becoming increasingly more irritating in its aimlessness. “Nobody’s Religion”, with its sample of a drink being poured, just feels too out of place, even within this album and its lack of structure.

“For Esmé” is a bit of a redeeming feature as we get to the penultimate track, with gentle running water samples and very clear guitar melody. Finally, some sense of purpose, nearly too little too late as it segues into the stunning closer “Hey, Relaxer”. Are those bagpipes or is it simply drone? I can’t tell, but its cute, naive, toybox sound and hopeful drone is a welcome relief and certainly lives up to its name.

If you want a sonic comparison, the closest I can get is this: imagine Stars of the Lid mixed with Celer (ala Capri), throw in a little more instrumentation and you’re there. Just…somewhat more aimless and less purposeful than either of the above. I want to really enjoy this, I know that I should, but it kind of frustrates me in an irrational way. I understand that the entire point of this music is to be freeform and loose, but it should at least contain a level of consistent aimlessness.

6.5/10