Umber – Sunshine Young (2013)

Despite what I say, there’s always an album that I regret not hearing sooner. It’s inevitable, really, that I’m bound to find albums from the year passed that I love and wished I’d heard earlier in the year so that they could have made it onto the list.  I tend not to worry about it, but since Umber’s debut came out all the way back in April, I feel a little ashamed that I hadn’t heard it sooner.

Sunshine Young casts a warm, Post-Rock meets Ambient look at the world not too far removed from the work of Helios and their album last year Moiety. These delicate little affairs always catch me off guard and I knew instantly this would be a great album right from the opener, the title track. Soft drone laps assist the distant workings and rattlings of city life, thumps and voices squirreling away in the background, before taking off true to its Post Rock roots with a more driven but rather simplistic and naive outlook, cruising easily through the whirling hustle and bustle in a protective blanket of youthfulness. It’s chased up by further field recordings early on in “All The Ships”, the chirruping of birds these oases of calm nature within the drab urban sprawl. Much of the track is devoted to keeping this peaceful, secluded atmosphere alive with gentle drones, eventually tumbling into guitar lead melodies  with subtle violin hints towards the end.

“Through Rocks & Fog” is something of a more uncomfortable and more unsettling movement, with electronic scrapings and rustlings permeating the dense backfield whilst the fore is dominated by quivering and thrumming drones. There’s little movement through the fog other than the creaks and cracks and we become uncertain as to what we’ll find ahead, what life has in store for us once we pass through these golden days of youth. But there is a blissful reprieve in one of my favourite tracks perhaps of this year in the stunning “The Warm Calm”. Whilst it makes no allusions to the fact that the future could potentially be a dark and unknown place, it soothes our uneasy minds following the wavering, oscillating electronic with vast swathes of thick, suppressant drones and careful, pandering violin strings. It’s a soft voice of calm logic to ease our restless minds and it just keeps on growing and making sure that every last ounce of self-doubt has been permeated by this nepenthe.

“Gött Mos” wants us to move away from these clearly distressing conversation topics and embrace the fun side of life again with more easygoing blankets of glacial drone accompanied by field recordings of far off and heavily muted children’s voices shouting and laughing and playing. A heavy current of luminous guitar drone forms the gripping core of the track at first, before it goes “All The Ships” on us and slips back into its Post Rock mindset and ekes out some acoustic instrumentation in the latter half, those hazy memories of our childhood replaced by a more mature and somewhat wistful reality. It slips naturally into closely titled “Sunshine Youth” but unlike the title track it has a blearier feel, the melodies more steeped in reverb and slower than before. Everything just sounds increasingly more distant and nostalgic, the years racking up and the gulf separating childhood and adult life growing with each moment. What we would give to go back and relish those innocent moments again.

Finally closer Öpik-Oort is introduced to lead us out on the closing recordings of the previous track. It’s curious that the closing track be named after the cloud of comets that enshrouds our Solar System, it seems like such an odd choice, but when we consider what it is, the exiled remains of our Sun’s distant youth, the leftovers of stellar birth, it fits into place nicely. Its overlapping violin and drone work in tandem to create a largely syncopated sound that holds onto the fragments of our childhood, pushing them to the fringes of our minds but also where we occasionally get visitors and fleeting memories flung in as pulses of activity.

This is a really beautiful little 30 minute release; there’s seems to be something of a push lately to condense content and meaning into nice, bitesized packages and this album seems to be another one. It shares our feelings on the value of childhood through maturity, the desperation we seek to cling onto those easier and more naive times, but the importance of ultimately letting go and reminiscing only when it’s needed. Heart-warming.

Raum – Event Of Your Leaving (2013)

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We continue with recent 2013 albums in the wake of the Top 20 list published a few days ago with the new collaborative effort between Grouper’s Liz Harris and Jefre Cantu Ledesma with Event of Your Leaving. It’s a collaboration I was very excited to see happen; two somewhat disparate but relatively thematically similar artists coming together, but the result is somewhat lacking. Liz takes over a great deal and we dont see much of Ledesma’s abrasion here, but that’s not to say it’s a bad release, quite the opposite in fact.

Opener “In Stellar Orbit” is a hefty introduction to this album, clocking in at a mighty 13 minutes and dominating the runtime of this relatively compact release. Those already familiar with Grouper’s sound will perhaps be relatively unsurprised by this track; dreamy and simple repetitious guitars float unambitiously and lazily in the night sky, circling round and round in a hypnotic and endless fashion, serenaded by Liz’s hushed and smeared vocals and a secondary set of warped and clipped vocals shining and wavering uncomfortably above. There’s practically no hint of Ledesma anywhere here except in perhaps the deeply distorted vocal snippets that warble dangerously, but it’s a long piece and there’s room for maneuver; the closing minutes abandon the previous warmth and turn cold and harsh, with unforgiving drone piercing through a background fuzz that has seeped in surreptitiously. It’s the onset of the winter months in our annual rotation around our local star following the pleasant and easygoing haze of summer, the freezing of our hearts following the passing of a loved one that previously warmed it.

Ledesma kicks the life back into the album following the mournful end of the opener in “Blood Moon”, however, with a fiery but non-abrasive thicket of noisy guitar drone creating an entirely more turbulent piece. Banished are Grouper’s delicate and naively simplistic little melodies and in are the rich and empowered works Ledesma so lovingly crafts. Liz can still be heard serenading this boiling noise and Ledesma also seems to have some kind of even more distant overprint, and they’re beautiful additions to the textural onslaught. But the torrent dies away the same way as it did in the opener to be replaced by soft and cool reverbed drones right at the end as the full moon sets below the horizon and the night truly envelopes the land once more.

The title track creates a sandwich of sound as it returns to the seemingly Grouper lead style of sparse and reverb drenched guitar, minimal piano and barely there voices. There’s distinct sadness and sense of loss in this piece that reflect it’s namesake however, something that has not been present thus far. Liz sounds far away and not just literally but also emotionally, there’s a flatness and melancholy palpable through the quietly mourning music that has suddenly sprung up. This theme continues somewhat through into perhaps my favourite track of the album “In Held Company”, which sounds almost like it could have come out of AIA, but with a twist. The piano is brought right to the fore, promoted upon realisation of its potential as an instrument to induce sadness. All the extraneous detail and faint record crackle fall away only to be replaced by Liz alone, consoling herself in the empty darkness for a short while before the barely-there sequences of drone appear once more in the extremely minimalistic final throes of the track. It says so little but the void speaks far more than the music ever could.

It’s difficult to follow up the incredible peacefulness, even if it was somewhat unsettling, of the previous track, but closer “Blood Loss” does it somehow. The message is startlingly clear and totally at peace with the decision that life is just not worth living without you in it. Liz’s voice comes in the same gentle pulses as it always does but there’s something dark and menacing underlying the track, a deep and growing rumble that shakes the track at its very core, a distant yet immediately affecting disruption in the fabric of the music; the blood rushing out of our ears, right out of our body. It never really gets going because it doesn’t have anywhere to go, the entire thing just fades away into a crumbling, rumbling oblivion, a peaceful and uneventful movement into darkness and then…nothing.

It’s a strange release in that, as we progress through the album it’s difficult to see the bigger picture of what the pair are leading up to and trying to put across but once it comes down to the closing moments the leadup really is everything and the jigsaw slots into place at last. Suicide is not an instantaneous decision, it’s not something that just pops into your head and then happens, there’s a slow and drawn out process of realisation. In this case the turbulence and disarray proceeding loss is made known in “Blood Moon” and goes downhill from there as we sit wistfully in silence bringing back up old memories and trying to make sense of it all before we go ahead and slip away into the darkness ourselves in the closer. It’s a dark album, there isn’t much in the way of light listening, but it’s easygoing and relatively accessible, even if it has challenging themes. I like it a lot, but I think there could have been something else if Ledesma had been given the chance to craft some of his bigger and bolder pieces a little more.

The Top 20 Albums of 2013

Hard to believe that another year has been crossed off. Much has changed since our last list, for HearFeel and otherwise, and I almost don’t want it to be over. 2013 has been a fine, very fine actually, year for music and it’s been a tough one hashing out the list this time. But I’ve struggled through all this excellent music to provide once more the official Best Of from HearFeel. This is purely subjective and personal, and you wont find too many of the year’s biggest albums on here, but everything on it is something I consider top quality.

As always, I just wanted to thank everyone who has taken the time to not only view the site but everyone who has subscribed and taken the time to message me their thoughts and especially music. It means a lot and if it weren’t for the feedback and the continued mails from some great labels and incredible artists, I doubt I would remain as enthusiastic about maintaining this little project. So, here’s to 2013, what a great year it’s been, and let’s all hope that next year can follow in its footsteps. Without further ado, the list.

(Links to HearFeel reviews under the album name where appropriate)

1. Lusine – The Waiting Room

No list of mine would have been complete without Lusine at the top. A powerful Ambient Pop meets Microhouse release which finally sees Lusine employ vocals and pulls it off superbly. One of my favourite all time artists and so accessible, perhaps one of the most underrated Electronic artists on Ghostly’s roster.

2. Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus

Pushing the boundaries of Neo-Pysch and alternative electronic dance, there is nobody out there that quite sounds like these guys right now. It’s their heaviest, thickest release to date, and certainly their most rhythmically driven. Alienating and metallic, but intoxicatingly brash. Some criticism to be levelled at their awkward segues but a very strong album nonetheless.

3. Tim Hecker – Virgins

Could anything ever top Ravedeath, 1972? It was a tough one to followup but Virgins manages to stand its ground by employing tonnes of startlingly clear live instrumentation in perhaps his most head-scratching and thought provoking release yet. The piano is the scalpel of choice this time round, dangerously sharp and harrowing.

4. Raffertie – Sleep of Reason

Perhaps one of the most surprising releases of the year for me; hovering on the edges of Dubstep and Art Pop, Raffertie’s debut is a bit nebulous and doesn’t quite know where to hold itself, but compensates with insatiable basslines, crooning vocals and lush guitars. Intelligently crafted, subtly experimental and utterly groove-inducing.

5. Julianna Barwick – Nepenthe

It truly was love at first sight for me. The way that Barwick manipulates her voice and interfingers it with vast clouds of indistinguishable drone makes for an album that can shift from warm and peaceful to anxious and fearful at the flip of a switch. It’s difficult not to get caught in its emotional fog but I cant imagine anything I would want to do more.

6. EUS – Sol Levit

Challenging the meaning, the purpose, of life and what it means to be alive is no mean feat, but EUS channels the hard realities of loss and musings on the afterlife in vast swathes of potent drone and lush violin and piano sequences. It wasn’t an easy pick but this album is so heartfelt and earnest it’s pretty difficult to ignore. Big, but in a refined and introspective way.

7. Roly Porter – Life Cycle of a Massive Star

“Big” isn’t the word that comes to mind when detailing the scope of this vast Noise and Dark Ambient behemoth. Spanning a mere 30 minutes, Porter expresses this vast astronomical cycle to perfection in that short time, from the calm drone tracts of deep time and stable periods, to the tumultuous, chaotic and noisy sequences following birth and destruction. Indescribable.

8. Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest

Another difficult pick, but who can deny BoC’s ability to create compelling and readily identifiable releases no matter the quality? Choosing to employ more percussion than any of their previous albums, TH creates a future nostalgic record centered in some post-apocalyptic universe, with bleary 60’s synth notes cutting through the more sophisticated modern electronica. Fascinating.

9. Witxes – A Fabric of Beliefs

An early album from this year that has managed to ride the wave and avoid demotion, saving itself thanks to its ability to juxtapose abrasive guitar and electronic dominated melodies against more ethereal synth drones and careful ambient sequences and field recordings. Incredibly detailed and texturally rich release touching on the nature and need for religion.

10. Jasper TX – An Index of Failure

Yet another one that has endured from the earliest parts of the year, Jasper TX’s final album under the alias is every bit as painful as you’d expect. Summoning deeply rooted Ambient melodies he places them in a Post-Rock framework to create powerfully poignant and expansive pieces that blossom with a slow and wistful sadness

11. 36 – Shadow Play

Sadly not able to breach the top 10 this year following Lithea’s success, Shadow Play is his most ambitious and intelligent release to date but suffers from an incoherent coherence in that, it tries so hard to be and mean something, that it just doesn’t quite achieve it. Some of his best Ambient singles and some incredible Drone sequences but could have kept it together better.

12. Grouper – The Man Who Died In His Boat

For those fans of Liz Harris and her continuing work as Ethereal Folk persona Grouper, I doubt this album will come as a surprise. It does however nicely straddle the divide from her older, more Lo-Fi and more Folk lead albums and her work like AIA which has a stronger Dream Pop focus. Perfect compromise between vocals and instrumentation.

13. Saåad Orbs & Channels

Saåad are beginning to define for me a particular brand of heart-wrenching Drone and Dark Ambient that involves the deep processing of growling guitars and the distant wailing of voices. Every track sounds like it’s suspended in some vast room with much unseen space hinting at the political and social undercurrents retained within. It’s thick and meaty and I love it.

14. Oneohtrix Point Never – R Plus Seven

Taking a swipe at the homogeneity of Electronic Dance whilst avoiding criticism for aimlessness at the same time is tough, and OPN couldnt do it. But there is something in the torrent of MIDI samples and whirling miscellaneous electronica that’s thoroughly compelling and almost naive in its sound that I find interesting in its irony.

15. Kiln – meadow:watt

A remnant of Ghostly International’s old roster, Kiln have brought me hope that more unconventional music still remains somewhere in their heart. Kiln fans will be pleased to note that this follows very similar blueprints to their earlier releases, with lackadaisical and jovial minimal electronic and IDM to the max. Just fun, sunny and lightweight, perfect for Autumn listening.

16. Aaron Martin/Christoph Berg – Day Has Ended

The best splits are those that have two artists that are practically indistinguishable rather than totally disparate. Day Has Ended charts a beautiful procession from day to night from someone burdened with depression and desperate for alone time, reflected in the simply gorgeous minimal violin and piano seamlessly migrating from one artist to the next.

17. Daughter – If You Leave

First record I bought this year; while my enjoyment of this album has somewhat waned over recent months, I still do love the slightly lilted and accented vocals and their empowered but not dominating supporting Folk instrumentation. It knows when it needs to be stripped back and go one-on-one, forging more minimal and heartfelt soundscapes.

18. Jon Hopkins – Immunity

While I’ve never been entirely sold on the premise of this album and the fact it welds two very opposing Dance and Ambient electronic strands together rather awkwardly, I like a lot of the core aspects. Some of the big-beat tracks are positively club ready, whilst some of the latter, easier going tracks are just fantastically blissful.

19. Apparat – Krieg Und Frieden (Music For Theatre)

Soundtracks almost certainly work best in their given context, but that doesn’t stop them being great pieces of art alone. Apparat has created some amazing pieces of Modern Classical and Ambient music here, fusing piano with glitch, noise, synth and even some astonishing vocals right at the end.

20. CHVRCHES –  The Bones Of What You Believe

Don’t deny me this one guilty pleasure. Every year I have one; last year was Carly Rae, this year it’s the Scottish Electro-Pop of Chvrches. Ok, it’s not the most ambitious or progressive release but there’s a tonne of great singles in here that follow the same catchy blueprint that’s hard not to get caught up in. OH O-O-OH, OH OH OH, O-O-OH

Very honourable mention to Raum – Event Of Your Leaving, which I sadly have not had time to properly enjoy. Would certainly be a Top10 contender though I feel.

If that’s still not enough for you, here’s 80 more on my Rate Your Music page.