Maxwell August Croy & Sean McCann – I (Students of Decay, 2014)

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Coming this April is the new collaboration between the mysterious (to me) Maxwell August Croy and the rather more familiar Sean McCann on the Students of Decay label, the shortly and bluntly titled I.

It’s hard keeping up with promos and general music listening; lately it seems there has been a spate of music submissions to myself and I always feel under a certain amount of pressure when I have a lot of music to consume. Certain albums which I enjoy less get buried and the reviews suffer (see my previous) as a result, which is always unfair, and the pressure to try and be fair and measured whilst also creative always seems to make me write rather bland and undecorated reviews. It’s nice then that Croy and McCann offer up an album that is languid and easygoing, simple in its beauty and pandering to our current mood no matter what that may be.

This personable atmosphere is apparent in the first moments of opener “Parting Lights (Suite)” with the creakings and adjustments of chairs and instruments welcoming us to the studio or perhaps a living room before tumbling into the syncopated miscellany of the acoustic instrumentation that forges the album. Soft cello drones, riffing violins and squeaky koto fragments flit carefully between terse and chipper, with only subtle pitch shifts demarcating these emotional pirouettes. A quieter middle expanse remains quietly worried before it takes flight in the buzzing closing moments, a flurry of concerned sound to peter out dramatically into “Alexandria”. At 9 minutes long it just edges the opener out as the longest track and it’s my favourite by a long way; beautiful arcs of careful, elongate koto carve contrails into the quiet majesty of the backing cello drone sky, an opportunity to seek some introspection and daydream about her without life’s worries for a few brief moments. It catches me everytime; I just need to stop what I’m doing and gaze out the window, let myself soak in its paralysing ambience as it gently evolves from a drone cruise to a tremulous crescendo of koto in its dying moments.

There’s something of an Oriental heritage breaking through in “Momiji”, named after Japanese message dolls, with its staccato instrumentation and toybox like quality. It’s short and brief, by far the shortest track at only 3:37, nothing more than an interlude between the big boy tracks really, but it has a pleasant and laid-back aura as it spirals downwards, slowing down and easing itself out. Followup “The Inlet Arc” wants to continue this increasingly relaxed and minimalistic line as its piano strokes arrive sporadically and distantly, floating through a soft haze of their own reverb. This languid first half breaks to reveal a similar latter half that progresses in an entirely more subconscious fashion, drifting lazily along on soft drone beds through the night, warm and abed and contented, a time where we have ourselves to ourselves and relish it greatly.

“Column Of Mirror”, however, is not happy with us remaining in this happy place as it careers in abruptly on the shifting sands of uncomfortable and abrasive wails of assorted instrumentation and drone. It warbles and oscillates, unwavering in its deeply unsettling attitude and minimal evolution, its notes syncopating but scarcely evolving as doubt and self-loathing return as we awake, the nagging and ever present internal monologue droning on and on without reprieve. But we do get a break as closer “Hollow Pursuits” breaks us away from such thoughts, sparse and measured in its presentation and fragile melodies. There’s a heaviness and weightedness here, almost like the notes are being forced out rather than coming through effortlessly, a conscious effort being made to air out the unwelcome thoughts. This feeling is amplified as, for the first time since the opener, we hear those intimate scrapings and studio sounds for a few moments, as though we’re made aware of reality again.

Whilst there is something of an unforced catharsis present within I, it also does feel like there is a strongly deliberate and conscious effort to bring that which makes us uncomfortable and unhappy to the surface, as though this self-awareness will drive us to be a better person or something. That being said, as I mentioned at the start this album is somewhat open to interpretation and it’s entirely reasonable that I’m just projecting, but either way it’s incredibly nuanced and well thought out, migrating effortlessly from free-flowing, unconscious thought in loose drones to piercing and harrowing introspection in the sharp koto and angular violin. It’s rather accessible at only 36 minutes and I strongly recommend picking this up when it comes out on the 15th.

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Alex Cobb – Marigold & Cable (Shelter Press, 2014)

The second LP to come out Alex Cobb, the head of the Students of Decay label (whom I have some new content from coming soon) is one recorded in the springtime, and who’s cool tones and atmospheres are totally reflective of this crisp transitional period .

That being said, the opener “Famosa” is as rich and as bold a piece as you can imagine. Dense wafts of lush, thick drone slowly uncoil throughout its duration, which is actually the shortest piece of the album clocking in at a meagre three and a half minutes. It’s the turn of the tide, the growing insolation of the Spring months where life is on the cusp of returning and the light is coming through in golden waves on the world turning green again. It seems this pace is entirely too optimistic and gauzy and cant be maintained, since “Rain At The Fete” wants to oppose the brief and shimmering opener with its long, vast tones. There’s a distinct cooling, a remembrance that despite the growing warmth there’s still a wintry bite in the air, a coolness and crispness carried over. And despite its namesake, there’s no hint of water here through the thin and warbling notes that drift sensitively through the mix, only a reminiscence as we stare idly out the window as the rain comes down all day and through into the darker and more evocative night-time stretch through its closing few minutes.

I’m told that it’s not the violin but the koto that creates the piercing and elongate stretches of acoustic instrumentation through beautiful “Oversong”, the drones fresh and thick, pulsing slowly and providing the much needed oomph to keep the track driven and propulsive. It’s a strange track that almost feels black and white, these two rather stark tones juxtaposed against one another; one, the smeared guitar drones ebbing the track gently forward and the koto taking a higher strung and entirely more active and even aggressive approach. And that’s when the second and final giant comes in, the closer “Marine Layer”. It’s difficult not to make some obvious comparisons through this record, and Stars of the Lid is an obvious influence; whilst perhaps not as complex and multifaceted as the inspiration there’s certainly more than a passing resemblance in the soporific and vaguely melancholic guitar drones that enshroud our final piece, unwavering in their enigmatic oscillations. But it’s thin and ambiguous, so lightweight that it’s barely there, and nothing more than a softly morphing mass of shifting drones even when it is.

I’ll be honest I didnt invest an enormous amount of time into this album, far less than usual at any rate, because it doesnt capture me emotionally. I love the smeared guitar, the soft and cool atmospheres that are allowed to blossom and permeate through our barriers, but there’s something here that just feels a little barren. The two big tracks both feel like interesting motions in the right direction but I cant help but feel that they’re overlong and entirely too protracted, unnecessary, whilst the short pair leave a lot to be desired, either coming across as too brash or trying to shoehorn bigger themes into a tighter package. There’s some great concepts at play here and some potentially beautiful soundscapes, but it feels alienating rather than enveloping.

Segue – The Here And Now (SEM, 2014)

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How could I not be excited by the prospect of this release? Pacifica was an effortless tropical sojourn and Blue was the perfect minimalistic Autumnal album for those dark, crisp evenings. I normally give new albums a little play of their first track just to make absolutely sure it’s something I’m interested in and after 30 seconds of the opener I had to shut it off, because I knew it would be excellent and I knew I’d need some serious alone time to give this album what it deserves.

And so the beautiful circular guitar work of “Turning Patterns” introduces us to yet another direction in Segue’s variable sound; the goosebumps are already breaking out in the rich reverb of the string scratches and the gentle instrumentation, the repetitive but sumptuous lines expanded out incrementally with the light beats of a drum machine and cool synth drones as the track progresses. It’s a bleary haze of ramping up textures and slowly turning music that’s every bit as crisp as it is defocused; like a perfect opportunity missed it evokes the same sensations of quiet regret and clear hindsight wrapped up in this mournful package. The lead out is a funny one that plays a little aural trick, creating a faux beat and fades the guitars as though to segue into followup “All At Once” but ends up fading out. “All At Once” is a very different beast though, and picks up the Dub mantel stronger than the opener in its grooving 808 opener only to have its pace crushed in its core as waves of guitar drone spin a sad light into its heart for a brief time. It gets right back up though and doesnt stay down for long, somehow balancing the two opposing emotions against each other with a careful facade.

“What Could Have Been” strikes up the strongest sound so far with a billowing gust of opening drone that rolls around the soundstage throughout the piece, a slowly orbiting, vaguely gritty centerpiece that the shuffling grooves beat along to. A heart-wrenching interlude at the 2 minute mark abandons the established structure briefly to let the synths shimmer cathartically before spiralling back into their normal routine, a touching moment of radiant light in the centre of the dark bass thrums and repetitive drum lines that once again shines the depressing light of hindsight into proceedings. Things do take a surprisingly optimistic turn and it feels like we’ve suddenly found ourselves in a Constellation Tatsu release in mid-album beauty “Sometimes”, with its vaguely Neo-Psychedelic rushes of 70’s synth and skittering, rolling piano lines in its opening leg. The Dub hasn’t been forgot though, of course, and we are made firmly sure of this as this jovial uprising is quickly quenched with swirling drones that drown out the brilliantly bright introductory notes and replace them with the recurring tumbling grooves we’ve seen throughout. It’s a refreshing switch but it’s a bit black & white, even though the tapping percussion perfectly complements the pulsating drone.

The longest track of the album is upon us in the blindingly good “Settle Down”, taking all the established riffs and themes of the album so far and smearing them out into something almost monochromatic; thin wavers of glittery drone seep through slow and reverbed electronica, Dub lines that have been stretched and distorted into shape and forced to comply. Intrusions of fresher music do make their way into the tired mix though, young souls that are more adept at a slightly faster pace and crisper lines than their predecessors, tapping and pulsing along to the rhythms to their tune. But they work side by side, never one overwhelming or overpowering the other; a certain mutual respect exists with a placid middle ground filled with echoic choral vocals, although there is a distinct cruise towards reductionism towards the end as things simplify and the guitar makes its final glittery voice heard.

“Flood” is almost an unwelcome sight after the 10 minute bliss out of “Settle Down”, with its crooning initial guitar lines, the stuttering clatter of miscellaneous downtempo electronica and endless streams of dripping water. It’s like it’s being played at the bottom of a well. That being said it does evolve into a pretty chilled out track overall as the dubbier aspects begin to take over a little bit and keep things rolling with subtle beats and piercing intrusions of thin drone through the waters. The running water eventually fades out and we move into my favourite track of the album, and sadly the closer, “Northern”. As the second longest track it’s given a bit more leeway than the others and allowed to take its time, building slow beats from thick guitar thrums from the stable drone background, a layer cake of increasingly brief notes. But everything is languid and expansive in this track, nothing’s short or fast paced, it’s all calm and composed and chilled. It’s got some great grooves on it though, despite its appearance, and it’s something you can really get your teeth into; it’s got a luxurious backfield that has a sort of expansive, almost limitless, optimism, coupled with a more energetic and empowered foreground set of clipped beats that keeps that dream alive.

That’s what I love about this release, it manages to effortlessly combine tight Dub beats and interesting grooves and put them into this beautifully evocative Drone and Ambient framework. It’s refreshingly lightweight, there’s absolutely nothing oppressive in the sound at all and whilst there is a hint of repetitiveness to most, if not all, of the tracks that some people may not entirely enjoy, it’s a very progressive sound that feels as eager to break free and embrace some chaos as we are, shifting slowly from a more wistful first half into an album that is more inclined to break out of its shell and become entirely more proactive and optimistic in its warm latter half. A really excellent album all round.