The Haxan Cloak – Excavation (2013)

Sophomore release of Tri-Angle artist The Haxan Cloak with Excavation.

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Excavation has something of a reputation as being recognised as being one of the darkest albums of the year so far, and I am in no position to refute that, but I must admit I find it somewhat strange seeing his name on the Tri-Angle Records label. That’s not to say that Tri-Angle’s other artists dont tinker with the darker sides of music either, Balam Acab for example had considerable moody undercurrents in Wonder/Wander, but The Haxan Cloak is in a league of his own.

Opener “Consumed” arrives on a bed of deep sub-bass, a feature we are about to become rather familiar with in this 50 minute journey through darkness. Suddenly it bursts open to a rush of squealing electronica and pounding bass beats before slipping away into the abyss; a short and sharp introduction that makes it perfectly clear we are in for an interesting and probably scary experience. The two-part title track arrives to low-key, repetitive dub beats, slowly growing in textural complexity and volume as we dig deeper and deeper into the core of the album. Distal chanting sets an even more eerie atmosphere through the first part whilst the second sets your teeth on edge with fractured noise punctuating the heavy basslines alongside even creepier xylophonic tinkles and piercing drone notes.

The album’s interior continues to increase the sensation of claustrophobia and oppression with “Mara” with thin guitar wails supplementing the pulses of thick bass that shake and rattle the black emptiness stretching out in front of us but never able to fill it. Whilst the bass revvs and rumbles at substantial volume it’s just never quite able to saturate the void the sub-bass seems to generate. And that is Excavation‘s secret; as the deep bass smothers our vision our minds jump to fill the gaps, but there is of course that portion that we can’t account for, that portion that remains unknown that seeps through. That’s the fear factor when it comes to darkness, the not knowing and the assumptions that follow.

Whilst much of the album labours under a barely restrained panic, a carefully measured level of claustrophobia, part two of “The Mirror Reflecting” sets a much quicker pace than the rest, at least at first. The synth fiddles remind me of some dusty Aphex Twin piece before the bass kicks slow the heartbeat down after about 3 minutes, but by that time the thin violin strings appear and the Witch House fractured synths come with them. There’s an element of musicality here that isn’t present in much of the record and I enjoy it a lot; it’s probably the best balanced and most interesting piece in that it still maintains that strained atmosphere but manages to make something interesting out of it.

This change of heart actually continues into penultimate track “Dieu” as the Dub and Glitch overtones come through again; clipped vocal snippets, percussive taps and shimmies and oscillating processed guitar blats create a sparse and unforgiving yet intoxicating soundscape. It’s 5 minutes in length and somehow, just like every track on this album, it feels like it takes years to complete. It draws you in close and blankets you, waiting until it’s done before it spits you back out. Finally we approach the 13 minute finalé ironically called “The Drop”; after an initial burst of light through the first half with shimmering, repetitive synth riffs we are slowly segued back into darkness, ushered away from the prospect of hope with violin and noise. The album’s early concepts are being repeated again, slowly taking us away from the light and burying our senses in the blackness.

I don’t know what to say, Excavation is exactly as cold and as bleak as everyone has said, but hopelessness and melancholy do not necessarily a good album make. It has its good moments, but usually those are not when the album is encasing itself in a shield of basslines; instead it’s where Bobby actually takes the time to set out a few simple rhythms and create a sense of unease through it, where the Dub is given an opportunity to create something inherently more compelling. It’s dark, sure, but I get the feeling something more important was compromised just to make it happen.

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III Professor – Wire & Air (2013)

Debut(?) album Wire & Air from Zelienople’s Brian Harding on the Constellation Tatsu label.

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It’s such a beautiful day today, I just couldnt face reviewing Montren’s new album; too much drone, too cool and dark for one that is so warm and content. Instead we’re going to dive headfirst into the carefully crafted low-fidelity world of III Professor and his syncopated acoustic instrumentation. We open with the title track, a track that lives up to its namesake with its acoustic instrumentation, the interaction of the subtleties of vibrating strings in contact with the air to generate sounds. Both the piano and the guitar work in quiet harmony in this slow burning but surprisingly texturally active piece, which moves somewhat jerkily into “The Bird and the Moon”, which bottoms out a little after the opener. It chases the refined duotone instrumentation with a cool, linear stream of flute and guitars and drone instead that flows relatively undisturbed and rather eerily.

There’s another rather rapid change of pace as my favourite track of the album “Slate Line” appears, seeing the guitars return in their truest form (albeit a little faded around the edges). Despite this they still feel lively and interesting consistently, sporadically adding a little extra weight with a few additional chords adding bursts of quick energy into the equation before we once again fall into a downtempo phase of the music with the cerebral flutes of “Lapsed Time”; it feels like that quiet hour in the early morning where we sit at the table with our breakfast of choice and can’t work out how 20 minutes have suddenly passed, a slow and deceptive feeling.

The remainder of the album also appears to be content in pursuing a quiet and conscientious direction with “The Jellyfish, The Whale & Me”, probably one of the slowest tracks on the album in fact, crawling at a glacial place with gentle plucks of slowly evolving amorphous drone being supplemented by minimal piano strokes before it culminates in a single textured block of crescendo that rises to a point and dissolves. “Sun rise and set” encapsulates something of a sun-baked Post-Rock vibe with a cool, repetitive guitar riff buried under vast layers of reverb, slowly charting the easy passage and rotation of the Summer Sun as it moves through the sky, throwing its daily light into the unloved corners.

“The Five Tones Deafen” take us out on a really beautiful final note amidst a growing mass of writhing, processed guitar and the scarcely detectable cries of children; despite its more delicate overtones the underlying music is somewhat uncomfortable and on-edge and the juxtaposition, while slightly untenable, is what really makes this track interesting.

It’s an interesting album in that while it creates an initial impression that gives off an air of nostalgia and a sense of age and tiredness, it doesnt necessarily deliver those sensations. While it is true that its downtempo and low-fidelity tones do help to evoke those slightly clichéd notions it doesnt feel necessarily feel aged or wistful, its more a bleary and tired vision of our modern world with eyes that seek simplicity and the quieter and less complicated things in life.

Benjamin Finger – Listen To My Nerves Hum (2013)

Third release from Ambient musician Benjamin Finger, upcoming on the Time Released Sound label, Listen To My Nerves Hum.

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Anxiety, much like every conceivable human emotion, is one that has featured at some point or another in music. I would in fact go as far to say that anxiety is one of the more prevalent emotions covered in music, especially within ambient. That feeling of constriction and tension is one that is highly replicable and almost perfectly suited to the quiet, minimal and easily menacing atmospheres that ambient is able to summon. Listen To My Nerves Hum hints in its title that this is a concept it wants to toy with, and it doesnt disappoint, although the outcome is perhaps not what you’d expect.

The piano forms the cornerstone of this release, underpinning every track with its lightweight, distal tinkling, spinning out these minimal, repetitive melodies which are subsequently supplemented by a wide variety of what are quite everyday and innocuous sounds that one might not necessarily expect from an album that is trying to instill a sense of nervousness.  That being said, Listen does it in a more human and more subtle way that I expected. This is an album of movement, of motion, the leaving behind of friends and family to explore new and farflung places, this is clear through the track titles; “Birthslides”, the opener, is the initiation of the tension and the start of the journey, with its ironic marching drums making way for the quiet “Leaving Linjevegen” as we move from Oslo into France and “Das Paris des Second Empire Benjamin” (with its emotionless French announcers, as though arriving at a train station or airport). It is followed by “Road To Salema” as we cross the Pyrenees into the dry, baked lands of Spain and Portugal at last. These are the musical sketches that chart the path of a man moving from his home in the cold Northern climes of Norway to the warmer shores of the Med, a journey filled with moments of indecision and angst.

The problem I have with his album is that it is intensely personal, so much so that it almost feels like it is an intrusion into Finger’s mind and deepest personal thoughts. There is a distinct feeling of homeliness on a number of the tracks, and it feels like we the listener pass through like ghosts or some other alienated 3rd person entity and gain a minimal insight into its inner workings, like on the track “Bogatynia In Mother” where you can hear the chirps of birdsong floating through the open windows and doors creaking in the breeze, or in “Sevilla On Tape” where we hear a child’s screams and shouts and other homely sounds before it segues into a considerably darker piece with heavier piano and melancholic, male sung vocals. “Ano Nuevo Acid Crackers” also has this sensation but in a different way, with less of a sense of “home through the looking glass” and more of sharing Finger’s more pleasant and entertaining life moments as New Year’s is ushered in to the crackles and whizzes of fireworks and the happy conversation of onlookers. It is a brief interlude of elation in a darker world.

I suppose in many ways, Finger achieved what he wanted with this release and made me uncomfortable listening to his album, but possibly not for the reasons I think he intended. The music itself is supposed to set you on edge, remind you of the difficulties you personally face and the hardships of life but the fact that Finger does it by so openly allowing us into his is…unnerving. As it stands, I’m not too upset about the actual content (although I was somewhat unimpressed by the simplicity and the rather tiring nature of the repetitive pianos) but rather the intrusion into his personal life as heard through his home recordings. The catharsis is tangible here, and every track seems to lighten the air just another notch as the load and strain upon him is released but it almost feels like it isnt a dissolution of the original problems and more of a transplantation, from him to us.

And I dont like that.

You can check the release out on the label here (available shortly) as well as listen to a 9 minute preview on his Soundcloud.