Roberto Crippa – Reverse (2014)

Debut LP from Italian Noise and Ambient artist Roberto Crippa with Reverse, out on the We Can Elude Control label.

We open with “Reflection” as we begin to peer through the looking glass down into the still but murky waters of what lies beyond. It’s a dark and brooding piece from the outset and it’s determined to get us into an unsettled mood ready for the journey ahead with its wet synth slaps, mysterious and shifting scuttles and scrapes and evocative drone spans. It’s a surprisingly organic piece for something that’s so sparse and menacing, full of little skittering lifeforms. It eventually crawls its way to followup “Order, which is entirely more active and driven right from the get go. A slow and carefully placed drumline sets the slow marching pace of its namesake and becomes something of the axis of the track, the distortion swirling around it and fraying its edges with chaos whilst binding together the light wafts of ethereal backing drone. Piercing shafts of synth light bring some illumination to affairs but its a stark and harsh one, revealing the hard contrast between order and chaos.

As we go on little progress is made with the soundscape; “Still” arrives on a similar platter as the opener did and evolves loosely into a wash of jittering electronic noise and glitches, menacing bells tolling and sending these restless microorganisms of sound skittering in its wake, like tiny fish in a pond. Despite my imagery its a surprisingly lifeless piece to my ears; it’s fairly content to just stay practically motionless and only in the closing moments do we hear something vaguely reminiscent of a delicate synth riff. Metaphysical references continue onwards with “Spectrum” and we’re starting to get into a sound I can get behind. Thick, buried and stilted synth lines throb in the heart of the mix as they try to burst free, encased in that stuttering glitch fuzz, those low and broad wavelengths on the EM spectrum drowned out by the background noise of the small wavelength stuff. Finally it doesn’t feel aimless and it’s got a sense of scale, of progression, clearly and slowly expanding in scope and eeriness with its twisted, inhuman sounds.

“Matter” is probably the finest work of the album, a clear and conscientious mass of lush, ordered drones weaving the fabric of reality, populated by gorgeously gritty pulses of growling guitar and spastic glitch. Much like our expanding universe the piece balloons in volume and scope and ferocity in a dark but most intimate crescendo across its duration. It’s the realisation of the scale of our universe as a child, the overwhelming anxiety of the seemingly infinite black that extends in every direction and our microscopic part in the cosmic dance. It’s a stunner for sure, and “Vector” is not bad itself, skirting “Matter”‘s coattails with a pulsating bassline and repetitive riffs, synonymous with the infinitely scalable and beautifully precise algorithms of its namesake. It’s a little unambitious for sure though, and ends rather abruptly to allow it to shift gears into the cavernous rumbles of “Curved”, whose echoic drone opener slipstreams into a complex plethora of piercing skiffs and juddering bass of epic proportion but in a kind of restrained and reserved sort of way.

Finally “Helix” arrives to close the album for us in perhaps the most alarming way possible. Whilst it’s nothing we havent already heard before, there’s something about the bent and smeared guitars in this final track that make it so much more dangerous and imposing than anything else, the music refreshing and resetting itself on every turn of the circle as it quickly cycles towards its point of origin, curling back upon itself in a dramatic and self-destructive finalé of panicked and oppressive noise. And just like that, just as we find ourselves at the terrifying yet mesmerising peak, it cuts out and we lapse back into silence.

I’m hesitant to conclude because the reality of this album is that I have no idea what it’s trying to convey as a whole. Perhaps nothing; there does seem to be something of a lose metaphysical theme and much of the sonic repertoire is repeated throughout, it’s relatively cohesive in that sense, I just dont get what I’m supposed to get out of it. That being said I’m not Noise’s biggest campaigner and I often dont understand the appeal of those records that dont have the scale and rawness and catharsis of my genre favourites, but there’s some pretty stunning tracks here nonetheless. It took me a while to get into but there’s something in the refined style of “Matter” and the brash “Helix” that I love wholeheartedly, I just wish there were a little more dynamism and progression in some of the other works.

Nicholas Szczepanik – Not Knowing (2014)

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Released today on his Bandcamp page, Not Knowing is Szczepanik’s 9th full length album by my count, and I was lucky enough for Nicholas to send me a copy of the album pre-release to formulate some words on. The prospect of a new, 50 minute Ambient/Drone album from the producer of one of my favourite Drone albums of all time (Please Stop Loving Me) was an exciting one, but my thoughts on this latest LP are somewhat mixed.

Whilst Please Stop Loving Me basks in warm, sunlit drones and extensive synth onlaps, the opening moments of Not Knowing are almost entirely the opposite of these. The dark, brooding pur of a thick and oscillating sub-bass note throbs menacingly in the foreground and continues to do so for quite some time, like some sort of big, black cat. Still, despite the generally menacing sound, unwavering in its pulsing tones, there’s something almost lulling and soothing in its presentation, something vaguely comforting about its determined rhythms, not to mention more than just a hint of mystery; where is it going and how is it going to unfold from here? Well, for all we know it could very well go on forever at this point, and perhaps that wouldnt be a shame.

At some point (I dont really know when) a thin, quivering drone slowly sneaks its way into the mix, a piercing but somehow subtle ray of light floating through this eternal darkness, slowly coming into view but still a far off and distant, indistinct blob. It heralds change within the sound and finally, 13 minutes in we get the first semblance of music and melody, soft swells of sound shepherded in on the shoulders of that drone splinter, opening and exploiting the crack, the chink in the armour of this persistent night. It should be instantly recognisable by pretty much anyone who’s ever listened to Classical music as the slowed and slightly smeared tones of Elgar’s famous “Nimrod”and how appropriate it is. “Nimrod” comes from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, each piece crafted with something “missing”, hidden themes that remain unknown and unsolved. And so Nicholas has folded Elgar’s mysterious music into his own, reappropriating it for his own devices, creating it in debt to another person in the same way as Elgar did originally (in this case French composer Eliane Radique) whilst leaving an air of mystery to proceedings.

And so “Nimrod” almost entirely takes over the piece, cycling over and over again with something of the same echoic and bright instrumentation we’ve seen before, the notes slow and deliberate, vaguely mournful but also with that certain enigmatic quality that makes it hover on the border of optimism and relief. All of the original darkness is castigated and abandoned during this main phase of instrumentation, with none of the oppressive drone to be heard except for the soft thrum of some deep, dark and smothered sub-bass undercurrent that scarcely allows itself to be seen. Yet somehow these empowered melodies somehow allow themselves to become subservient to these bassy waves, rapidly pushing themselves under and slipping away around the 25 minute mark to a far distant place in which only their echoes can be heard and some new, creeping and mysterious phase comes through in pulses of uncomfortable drone coos.

At some point those vaguely melancholic drones seem to just slowly and imperceptibly melt away and once more we’re left with the original core of the piece; those purring bass notes and thin drone lines in the closing 10 minutes, reversing the clock and slowly descending back into the original darkness from whence they came. It all seems like a wonderful and all too brief dream, a quick foray into a bright and optimistic world that slowly unfurls as we slip deeper into the dreamspace before we’re slowly and blearily brought back into the real world once more. Sleep is the solace, that welcome reprieve from the all-to-often dismal day-to-day existence. It’s a fascinating and an engrossing listen if you take the time to engage with the piece but I fear that many may not have sufficient patience to fully explore and enjoy this rather long and oftentimes cumbersome release.

Valentin Stip – Sigh (2014)

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Sigh is one of those records where little information can be gleaned about the content within from its title, project name and artwork. Given that Valentin Stip are something of a new and relatively low-key project there isn’t a vast repository of knowledge online about them, so giving this a spin was something of a leap of faith. But being on Nicholas Jaar’s newly formed label alongside Psychic means that it certainly couldn’t be terrible, and sure enough it isn’t, but it’s every bit as unclassifiable and mysterious as Psychic is.

We open to “Tableau II”; who knows what happened to Tableau I. Beautiful, vast spaces are summoned up in the electronic wiggles and warbles of this piece, crushed and deeply processed snippets of guitar floating in a vast, black synth soundscape with only sparse melodies for company. Despite coming in at almost 4 minutes its sweeping desolation seems to glide by with little impact or impression, its melodies floating by aimlessly and without imposition. It transitions beautifully into the similarly structured “Pendule”, inheriting the same inky blackness and slow, languid electronic patters and taps. A thin drone line slowly allows a certain level of increased instrumentation and leads to a neat little textural climax just beyond the midpoint, a sudden burst of energy in an otherwise tranquil system.

This steady incline towards increased activity and track length begins to take stronger form with the amazing “Aletheia”, a Grecian word for disclosure or truth. The crushing quietness and secrecy of the previous two tracks are being swept away by the slow, careful, yet striking, piano notes that flourish the rolling drone fuzz and bassy synth lines. Those same, easygoing percussive elements still appear with regularity but there’s a certain tribalism to this piece that’s unnerving in the unintelligible murmurings and mysterious, distal chanting that accompanies the music. There’s a certain sensation of catharsis and relief in this rich, almost Minimal House, piece. It cruises effortlessly into “Correlation”, which sounds like it could have come right out of Darkside’s Psychic, which is convenient given that it’s also released on Nicholas Jaar’s label. Those wibbly synth lines still bob in and out of the mix rather jovially but the whole thing is led by those slow, wet, reverbed guitar chords we saw out of Psychic. It’s one of the emptier pieces, despite the plethora of unnameable textures.

Cooing ambiance makes an appearance in the lightweight interlude that “Aveu” turns out to be, resetting our incrementally longer track length clock once more as it sails by, gracefully unloading faint but empowered drums alongside echoic guitars and thin synth lines in quite a climactic closer that seems content to leave behind some of the more energetic and overly optimistic music of late. The enigmatically titled “****” devolves and sends us back to our miserable starting point, filled with cavernous drones in the beginning only to be replaced by delicate and humbling piano in the latter half. It gives a suggestion of something bigger and grander lurking behind at times; that thick guitar reverb intrudes its way into the mix on occasion, but it’s filtered out in this downtrodden, downtempo track. And the creeping piano of “****” makes way for companion toybox clicks and chimes and ringing xylophonic notes in “Regard sur l’Enfance (I et II)”, perhaps the most upbeat and carefree piece of the whole album. Eventually the relentlessly jovial tumult of repetitious xylophone riffs must burn out though; good things cant last forever and it closes on a few stuttering keystrokes of a melancholic piano that falls away in a rush of sad reverb.

So lastly we’re welcomed by the closer, the ten minute title track. It’s hard to know what to expect from it given all we’ve heard so far, but what emerges is unsurprising. Following the somewhat cresting opening minutes with their heavy drone we pick up a sad piano solo, slightly fuzzed out by a lo-fi hum, a final outro before the depressing reality hits once more and we slowly begin the downward spiral back into the dark drone fugue. with cold and thin piano strokes littering our descent. But the return journey to the bottom is a long one, we’ve come so far after all, and our final fugue is enormously protracted, slowly winding down the minute instrumentation and smearing into the background darkness over minutes.

Despite all my references to drones and pianos, there’s quite an electronic facet to this album that’s surprising at first glance. The reality is it’s nigh on impossible to appropriate Sigh to a specific genre, even a set of genres, but it’s not too much of a stretch to say it lies on the Ambient/Electronic threshold, as broad a brush as that is. The general tone of this album is uncertainty; it wants to break out of the conventional cul-de-sacs of melancholic drone and miserable piano but it doesnt quite have the impetus to sustain those bolder, more experimental and generally happier avenues. And in some ways, it seems almost content to settle back into its lonely, depressing ways in the end. It’s a good album, a little hazy sometimes but detailed and clever. I like it a lot.