Kyle Bobby Dunn – And The Infinite Sadness (Students of Decay, 2014)


Is it possible to be in love with music? Because for the last few months I’ve scarcely wanted to listen to anything other than Kyle Bobby Dunn’s melancholic creations. Filling the gap in a post-active-Stars of the Lid world, Dunn has been releasing heart achingly beautiful Ambient and Drone music for the past 7 years, populating his delicate niche with romantic reflections and earnest fugues that, despite their melancholy, have been addictively engrossing. So finally, after some delay and thanks to the kind souls of Students of Decay, here is the latest glacial beauty from Dunn:, And The Infinite Sadness.

It’s tricky reviewing Kyle’s music without meandering into the esoteric; how can I describe and define this 2 hour, 3xLP opus to a person unfamiliar with the sound? I don’t want to come off as accidentally stereotypical by insinuating that his sonic repertoire is rather limited and predictable, but there is a certain set of parameters to Dunn’s sonic envelope that become extremely clear and familiar with only a few listens that does put people off. Admittedly I’m not adverse to a little purple prose here and there but when an album like this comes along and all it has is its softly changing, delicately evolving themes and motifs there is little one can do but select a few choice emotional highlights from across its span.

Pinning down where you are emotionally across its breadth is, first and foremost, the most challenging part of this release, with each track forging its own sad little niche. Some of the pieces are clearly titled and obvious in their internal reflection and introspection; stunning opener “Ouverture de Peter Hodge Transport” has a bus-window-gazing kind of attitude in its gauzy and fluffy drone sequences, playing itself loud and with a certain energy to hear yourself think over the background noise, punctuated at the end by eerie but gleeful screams and cries of children. Track five, “Rue de Guy-Mathieu” has a similarly contemplative attitude but with a differing presentation; no longer comfy and seated we face a more chaotic clamour to the music, filled with a stuttering, staccato washes of noise and static as we glimpse the snippets of the lives of those passing by, unknown to us as they brush past to disappear into the crowd, each one a potential friend or lover.

Some of these moments of solitude are more internally reflective and rest more upon the stronger themes of this album: relationships, love, women, loneliness. Every one of them charts some unique piece in the disjointed story; stunning pre-release single “Boring Foothills of Footfetishville”  turns slowly on its minimal riff, spinning out its peaks of shimmering love and light in gorgeous waves. “Sorrowful joy” is something I read describing this particular track, and nothing has been more accurate; love til it aches, but appearing to us in retrospect. “Duckfaced Fantasy” is another jokingly titled release but with a deeper, possibly even romantic core as it spins ethereal waves of light, daydreaming drones from a place of wist and unachievable longing, her face appearing in your various social networks and all so far away. The wonderful duo of “Ghostkeeping, Verses I-IV” and “Powers of None” seem to highlight the opposite side of this, the echoes of a relationship past being dredged up and caught, unable to shake free. The first is filled with strained, tenuous and antagonistic drones, distal and hazy but still very real and overwhelming, the second collapsing into a fugue of resignation, continuing the motifs and idiosyncrasies of the former but dialling it all back as the angst passes into melancholy.

The reason this incompleteness we feel throughout the album is never questioned is because it’s apparent that Dunn personally believes himself to be the source of this rejection; “Mon Retard”‘s quiet contemplation at his lack of expedience results in a track simmering in regret, tracking his failure  through repetitive, oscillating drone minimalism that can’t draw itself away from the thought of her and the opportunity missed; if only he’d acted sooner. It’s actually one of the most relatable pieces and  the strongest breakaway track, sounding a good deal like 36 at moments. Evocative waves radiate forth much later on in the oddly but perhaps appropriately titled “The Same (Drunk in Quebec & In Love Club Remix)” with warm washes of smeared, slurred drone duplicating some of the catharsis in early album “An Excrement Suite For Voices Lost Again” but in its own, alcohol propelled way, and “Spem In Alium & Her Unable” also seems want to drop in on this continuing failure in its slow-burning lines, carving fierce and deeprooted tracts of commanding drone in its emboldened and desirous but ultimately unsuccessful duration, but not for lack of trying.

It’s impossible for me to love an album and review it well, especially this release. Kyle’s heart-wrenching constructions hit so close to home and are just so brilliantly well crafted and compelling it’s difficult to avoid getting drawn into his melancholic existence and feel and experience its peaks and troughs with him. It’s a release that does catch itself living in the past frequently, reminiscing wistfully on those easier and less lonely times, continually bringing up those happy, blissful moments (“Those Satisfactions Are Permanent” indeed) and using them as fuel to try and evoke those sensations again, even through failure and hardships. I don’t want to call it lonely music for lonely people because that’s kind of trivialising and possibly even demeaning, but there’s something about how Dunn generates music that is deeply relatable and engrossing, even comforting, for people with similar predicaments that’s difficult to define. All I know is that this record has become the soundtrack to my life these past few days and for whatever reason I never want it to end.

Available June 10th.

Benjamin Finger – The Bet (Watery Starve, 2014)


Benjamin Finger is back making music again following his unusual field recordings dominated release last year Listen To My Nerves Hum,  a storytelling piece that charted his migration across Europe and the hardships of upheaval. I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t the album’s biggest fan, it didn’t really bowl me over or anything like that; I thought it had something of an alienating quality despite its attempts at introspection and empathy. So I was naturally a little hesitant coming into Finger’s latest The Bet, which strikes an even more experimental line of attack than its predecessor.

There’s quite a strong Free Folk vibe emanating from this album at times, which is rather refreshing since it’s not something I come across very often. Opener “Faintheadedness” is a short and warped introduction to this soundscape, flowing effortlessly on gentle piano strokes and chopped but harmonious coos and moans before bowing out to the organic tumult of clanging triangles and assorted metallic instruments. This childlike attitude is immediately lost as we slip into the oxymoronically titled “Kids Dreaming Landscapes (That Might Have Astonished Parrots)”. What the content of these parrot-astonishing dreamscapes is we’ll perhaps never know, there’s an evasive and brooding atmosphere that seems to separate us from this subconscious world, the track filled with the shifting sands of carefully migrating drones stacked upon one another, distal shouts and cries sometimes breaking through the thick oppressive surface of the piece. The piano still grounds us and leads us out and away at the very end once the fog has lifted and we’re turned away.

That sort of alternative Folk side of things reappears on the slow and minimal turnings of mysterious “Rosencrans Exits”, the piano all smeared and warbling in this mindful mirage filled with hushed female whisperings. It’s a gorgeously delicate track, almost too good to be true; intimate and careful at its core, content to meander and not follow any established path: free. “Sulfurous Fog” flips this on its head and twists things around, suddenly desirous to introduce rhythmic elements wrapped in a much darker framework, establishing a distantly thudding synth line to propel the track through the skittering, warped glitches, echoic drone and faded feminine hums far in the distance. It’s a kaleidoscope in the dark, subtly bending and distressing that which can hardly be seen in the first place, and it’s almost like “Bad-Luck Planet” flips the switch and lets us see what we’re missing out on as it carries the disjointed but ultimately driven lines of melody out of the darkness, the twitching, chaotic mass available to see with some greater clarity as it ticks and jitters along uncomfortably.

“Nasal Breakdown” is a refreshing diversion from the aimless chaos of the previous couple of tracks, a beautiful and delicate mid-album interlude that removes all sense of confusion and randomness in its slow and measured piano and gorgeous reverbed vocals, not sounding too dissimilar to the beautiful Otavasiset Otsakkaha by Nuojova from 2012, another album that touched similar Free Folk vibes in the same vein as these tracks. Sadly the reprieve is minimal and “Angel-less Halo” is perhaps the most twisted piece so far, with words and conversations quite literally bubbling up through a muddied mix; like a radio between stations it jumps from fragmental guitar sounds to the thudded bassline of some far-removed, alien EDM piece for a few moments as it makes its bizarre journey across the airwaves. It eventually runs out of battery power and judders to an abrupt end and we’re turned once again to another enigmatically beauteous piece in “Time Steps”, the album continuing to flip-flop between disorder and peacefulness as those intimate coos float ethereally out of its heart, stable and stationary entities to deflect the occasional rushes of light static and tympanic beats.

Penultimate “Care In Motion” can’t let us down now that we’re so close to the end, and you’re right, it keeps this yin-yang approach up as it twists and distorts everything that was good about “Time Steps”, smothering the harmonious attitude and bringing the darker male voice at the back of the last piece closer to the action, whilst throwing on a blanket of swirling, misshapen, fragmentary instrumentation to poison its heart. Yet not everything is lost, for its closing moments seem want to reverse some of the destruction and speak out briefly, a final ray of light in the jumbled, uncomfortable dreamworld before we shift gears into closer “Horizonless Brain”, unquestionably the weirdest track of the album. The unlimited nature of our imagination is seemingly unveiled as Finger throws every conceivable texture he can at the wall; the distant throbbing of some pounding bassline matches the miserable, delicate guitar lines and cruising constant of the background drone, fed all by the writhing mass of disjointed, glitched instruments at the fore, only to close on a bizarre parting shot of deeply active, heck even danceable, synth.

I’ve written a number of conclusions that sort of come down pretty hard on the album but I think that’s unfair; I know, despite my purple prose I still do come away from this album with a sense of inconclusion and disappointment, a feeling that I’m missing some vitally important facet of this album that’s the key to unlocking its jumbled randomness and enjoying it. Sadly it’s too dysfunctional and aimless for me to really get into, once again wanting to force us away and hold us at a distance as we watch its partially-crystallised ideas unfold, frustrated that those beauteous Free Folk excursions are not more prominent and that its chaos didn’t feel so harshly deliberate. On on the cusp of falling in love but it’s still a ways off yet for me, unfortunately.

Neutral Milk Hotel @ Manchester Albert Hall, 18/5/2014

It’s hard, sitting down some hours later after a performance and writing it up after travelling and sleeping; part of me almost wishes I took some form of notes or something for reference but that’s just a ridiculous notion, especially at a Neutral Milk Hotel performance. Once again, I’m not going to be an entirely useful resource to any hard core fans in this post; I’ve listened to In The Aeroplane Over The Sea a tonne of times but I’ve never been hardcore enough to really delve into their older material. For the uninitiated, NMH can only be described as a cult status Indie Folk Rock band from the States; they only ever released two LPs in the late Nineties and only the aforementioned ITAOTS ever truly garnered critical acclaim. On first glance the music is, dare I say it, relatively unimpressive in recording, mostly live takes with varying degrees of fidelity, especially in their earlier work, and lead singer Jeff Mangum’s vocals are not perhaps the world’s greatest; they’re ambitious, quixotic, but I’ll be damned if there isn’t something just incredibly drawing and heartfelt in all of it that’s just totally indefinable. There’s a huge amount of energy and it’s so earnest, especially in the lyrics, it’s pretty hard to avoid getting drawn in just listening to the album let alone the live set.

I actually, for once, don’t have anything entertaining to say about the journey itself; I know, I almost feel disappointed that I don’t have any displays of idiocy for a change, but I came too well prepared this time; I was not prepared to let anything fuck up when the prospect of overnighting in Manchester was merely a knife edge away (which I assume the couple in front of us had to suffer after they discovered they booked coach tickets…for the day before). The fates were with me it seemed and everything went off without a hitch, even if we couldn’t work out how to navigate the damn venue and am apparently completely blind to the giant cloakroom.

I dont want to be too mean to opening act Laetitia Sadier & co., but I would be lying if I said that I enjoyed the performance. I’ve never listened to the project she’s probably best known for, Stereolab, and I don’t really have any intention of doing so following yesterday either. It wasn’t terrible, they were only a warmup act and everyone seemingly except the drummer did seem to be a little nervous, I thought. But it was a stilted performance with each track carved in into its own specific time slot, whereupon there would be a break and the next pretentiously titled track would be introduced before mumbled vocals and generic downtempo guitar was played. There were some grooves and you could nod along but it’s a push to say it was particularly compelling.

And then, after an anxious wait, Jeff finally took to the stage, alone at first, to play “Two Headed Boy”. The consensus was that this was the best way of doing it; open on a great solo track with Jeff, his guitar and the audience and then introduce the rest of the band in logical album successor and wholly instrumental “The Fool”, and it was a potent combination. I genuinely can’t think of a better way to have opened, and the atmosphere was pretty amazing. I’ve been musing on it and the only other show I’ve seen with that amount of directed love is probably Above & Beyond’s live sets, although it’s a very different crowd. It was immediately commanding and with the exception of a couple of tracks I was pretty rapt through the show from that moment on.

I’m only really familiar with their Aeroplane material, and seemingly so were many other people, the crowd being particularly responsive to explosive “Holland, 1945” and the all important title track “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea”; the excitement to have the opportunity to see NMH live and get to sing along was palpable and I’m not sure how someone couldn’t grin and sing along, it was infectious (even if you, like me, don’t quite know all the lyrics). That’s not to say the material that people didn’t recognise wasn’t good or loved though; my memory is a bit faded and it was kind of an overwhelming experience but “Ferris Wheel On Fire” was fucking incredible, seriously heartwrenching, and something about Julian and his ridiculous hat and energy playing the banjo with a violin bow, spinning out a delicate little riff, just seemed to put the icing on the cake. I hadn’t heard it before but the studio versions don’t really compare at all. Similarly “Oh Comely”, which is perhaps one of the more cumbersome tracks of ITAOTS, was pretty incomparable; the intimacy of the setting and the heaviness of the solo performance was just really fascinating to listen to.

It’s hard to differentiate some of the tracks, especially when I’m unfamiliar with a bunch; the encore was powerful though, with the energised and strongly rhythmic “Ghost” giving people a second wind in its whirlwind instrumentation; I also feel the need to point out that Julian is possibly the greatest player of the musical saw I’ve ever seen and it came out really strongly on this one where it makes a big splash near the end. I kind of thought the set should have ended as it started with Jeff alone as he played out “Two-Headed Boy Pt Two”, which was very affecting, but it came together nicely in closing “Engine” I think.

A lot of words but these things always ultimately end up being splurges as I try to regurgitate absolutely everything I can remember whilst trying to convey the nature of the performance; I knew it was going to be a good show, I’d heard a lot of good things about their live sets and I was looking forward to it, but it’s so hard to describe how visceral and impacting it turned out being. I feel bad for maybe underselling them in the past because the enthusiasm and sheen of the performance was unquestionable; it seriously makes me wonder how far they could have come if they decided to carry on making albums proper. I’m glad I saw them and I urge anyone else with even the slightest inclination to try as well, I’m sort of at a loss for words on this one.