Croatian Amor – The Wild Palms (via nude selfie, 2014)

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Artists and audience rarely get to experience a real sense of intimacy with one another; the listener is often allowed a frank insight into an artist’s emotions as expressed through their music but it’s difficult for the artist to get anything in return. Croatian Amor’s Loke Rabhek recognised this one-sidedness and decided to only make his latest release available…if you send him a nude selfie. Admittedly I came by this album the cheat’s way through a leak but I like the notion of giving something more personal and intimate than money in reward for music, although at the same time the prospect does make me a little queasy knowing an unknown number of nudes are going to be stored away on Loke’s computer indefinitely.

Regardless, our personal display of intimacy is reciprocated with a certain quiet and sparse familiarity in the dismal, low-key synth lines, piano fragments and processed guitar that primarily create this record. Opener “The Madness of Summer” invokes some of the feelings of cabin fever and heavy, sleepless nights trapped in a muggy and humid lo-fi fuzz, our minds ticking over restlessly as we fret on how much sleep we’re going to get as the synth riff ticks over slowly and endlessly. Sleep finally seems to be granted to us in followup “Forever Wild Palms” as the pacing is crushed, with minimal piano tinklings draped in a fuzzy layer of subconsciousness welcoming us into the dark and uneasy dream world.

This disquieted sleep turns into the ethereal setting of “There Is Always Tomorrow”, with distal synth drones floating mysteriously through thick cassette fuzz. There’s a certain present hopelessness and darkness that’s allowed to manifest unchecked now that the conscious mind is no longer able to quell its worries and concerns, but there remains a lingering belief that whatever is wrong may still be righted in a new day. It’s perhaps one of the strongest pieces of the record alongside its companion “Everything Must Go”, which seems to contain something of a late 90s Psytrance or Progressive Electronic vibe in its destroyed but playful rhythms, teasingly migrating through the destruction to breach the surface as distorted echoes of their former selves, remnants of a time long since passed. It feels like a call to abandon the belief that the things we love are going to come back, a reminder that there exists a shinier future ahead but only waning nostalgia behind us.

The final two pieces of this short, 30 minute excursion are perhaps something of a weaker display than what we’ve seen thus far in my opinion; longest track of the album “Angels of the Afternoon” pushes the limits of repetitive acceptability that the other tracks dared not approach as it spins out admittedly suspenseful swirling fragments of processed guitar strums and piano snippets, but this heaviness and menacing synth drone fabric is allowed to continue without significant evolution for nigh-on 7 minutes and honestly I find it tiring. Luckily, closer “Only The Strongest” does pull things back a little bit in its very empowered movements of energised guitar riffs and jangling electronica, surfing the rush of the noisy crowd we hear peeking through the distortion at the beginning. It’s been a productive sleep, perhaps, since it feels like we’ve processed and digested something in doing so and overcome some particular internal emotional struggle, ready to face the tomorrow we dreamt about.

I love the uniqueness of this concept and the controversy it seems to have stirred up in people, with many questioning “artistic integrity”, others saying things like “true fans will buy the music regardless” and generally talking about how demeaning it all is. But I think it makes a pretty great point not just in regard to the disconnect between artist and listener but also how we’ve seemingly become fearful of our own bodies collectively, scared of having other people see them and not trusting others with images of it. Humans have been paying for sex for a long, long time, lots of people vehemently shun that as well as, apparently, using it to “pay” for music. A clever concept, and it’s not bad on the music front either.

 

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Scuba Death – Nitrogen Narcosis (Further Records, 2014)

I think it can be difficult to create a concise record that adequately summarises its thematic device in just a few tracks and with almost the bare minimum amount of musical content; Ambient Techno can be a bit hit and miss in that regard, often floundering under the nature of its minimalism and failing to make its point sufficiently clear and interesting across its span. Fortunately Scuba Death’s dark and evocative Nitrogen Narcosis perfectly illustrates our rightful fear of the oceanic abyss and the particular dangers of exploring it too deeply for human beings.

I love the way that there’s a certain deliberate flow in the album that sees us descend into oblivion that’s demarcated through the track titles as well as the music itself; opener “Receptor Antagonist” marks the aquatic beginnings of the record, interposing mechanical clangings with dripping water as we prepare to descend, supplanted by the intermittent washes of light waves that splash on our body alongside the energised and almost excitable beats as we begin our descent. Everything feels very anechoic and tight, a closed and muffled space where we’re left alone. But the danger is real and our initial submergence is nought but a memory by the time “50-70 Metres” comes along; somehow we’ve slipped a quarter of the way into the photic zone and our narcosis has already reached the point of drowsiness and delayed responsiveness. Heavy breathing squeezes its way through the mix, obsessed by it, reeling in flurries of lucid terror as whining glitch strobes infrequently out of the deep, dark drone void.

There’s a certain clarity through this gaseous drunkenness within “Nociception”, or the sense of potential or impending harm. It’s the bleakest and darkest track thus far as the drone movements fraught with tension and doom close around us, a muffled watery expanse that contains a few sparks of synth beats trying to get those neurons to fire cohesively and act to rectify our increasingly desperate situation. Squeals of some horrendous electronic creature create bridging spans of unrestrained but inoperable fear, trapped and unable to right ourselves. “Helium Tremors” sets in, although perhaps it’s not as jittery and incapacitated as its namesake would suggest. Much of the piece cruises along at the same pace as the others but there’s a faint textural evolution that inches us towards a darker place; there’s a certain collected attitude about it in the face of danger but it also feels blissfully unaware, drifting deeper downwards and spirally delicately out of control.

“90 metres” informs us that we’ve slipped even further, the light levels diminishing increasingly as our tunnel vision sets in and as we fall deeper from the surface light. More concerningly, unconsciousness is just around the corner for us at this juncture, but at this point all hope is lost and we don’t even know or care; it’s watery and disquiet, sharp in its presentation but merely an alarming interlude before “Rapture of the Deep” arrives to close the album. Another name for the intoxicating effect of certain gases at high pressure (ala the LP title), the longest track of the album is allowed the most growing room, as well as being permitted to be the most sparse and dark. Fragmented stutters of glitching synth wails form the pulses of audiovisual hallucinations that we’d expect but the beat driven pace of the album is restored to supplement the menacing drone cruise of the backfield, the abyss calling to us as we drift down into its heart. It fades away slowly, consciousness finally ebbing in the final few minutes as we become lost to the dark.

I love the strength of concept displayed here, and the fact that whilst the evolution across its span is subtle there’s definitely a sensation of losing control of our senses and ultimately of the situation, our fear of the deep dark overcome by the increasing depth and its effects on our body. There’s a few weak spots and I wish there was perhaps a little more variegation in the beats displayed but I love how engrossing and twistingly morbid it turned out to be, invoking some of Umberto’s darker and emptier moments at times. Surprisingly excellent and deeply thought provoking release.

Vhr-1.7 – Lost Angle (Eilean Records, 2014)

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Komatsu Kei, aka Vhr-1.7, is a Japanese sound designer, focused on researching sonic textures and “accidental intents”. I often have a hard time coming to grips with albums produced in a fashion that seems more focused on generating the greatest array of textures possible with, it seems like, little to no regard for how each of the pieces comes together as a whole. Lost Angle doesn’t quite conform to my admittedly heavy handed bias but it certainly feels like some important emotional facet and thematic concept has been lost here that makes it a little hard for me to love.

Opener “Lake Side” introduces us to this fascinatingly detailed textural world but ultimately unemotional cerebral experience, opening to delicate looped fragments of birdsong that become slowly crushed and warped as the piece progresses, marrying themselves with the crunching emergent drone as our little pleasant corner of the world becomes cloaked in night and turns into something wholly more eerie. It’s just a shame that it gets dragged out for so long; six and a half minutes in span where half that would have been sufficient. It’s here that the album also becomes separated into its two distinct and repeating halves; the first, the glowing drones and dense, oppressive, miscellaneous electronica, and the second, the sparse and quiet introspective moments of delicate synth ambience that yearning title track “Lost Angle” takes. The synth is jaded and oscillating, supplemented by thin waves of hopeful and ethereal drone as it seeks to remember what was once lost.

“Meon” is even more dark and crushed than its predecessor, rolling out in fragile meanderings of minimal synth movements and stuttering drone to fill the void. It feels like we’re under the microscope, gazing rapt at the molecules floating aimlessly about in the vacuum and occasionally nudging one another, slight disturbances throwing chaos into this tiny and delicate world. This sparseness is never invoked in the same capacity again, although there are some interesting counterparts; “Kalon” brings a moment of reprieve with processed wind and rain and passing car noise filling out its introspective moment, lazy guitar twangs quietly and gently rising through the wist. “Tope” is perhaps the last instance of contemplation, haunting a café afterhours and hearing the clatter of the preparation for tomorrow as it spins out almost clichéd piano tinklings from its smokey corner, something almost film noir reminiscent.

What’s left are the tracks with a little more oomph and bluster; “Occasion” turns “Meon”‘s microscopic delicacy around and disperses its fragility in its own rushing and luxurious dronescape, becoming kaleidoscopic in its glittering and fragmental tinklings, a deep moment deconstructed in a thousand slices with a thousand more possible outcomes. “Para” meanwhile brings back some of that suggestive menace of the opener but sends wailing and thickly distorted human voice up through the beacons of the urgent electronic foam above, their distress palpable but lost in space and time. The closer of “Meoncentric Theory” is perhaps my favourite piece of the record, however, carving out possibly the best structured and most evocative track thus far in a wash of thick drone and patterned, neo-psych reminiscent synthesiser, the slow and heavy handed macroscopic world interacting with the minute chaos of the microscopic, of God over Man.

It’s a decent enough release, to be sure, but I find it so hard to get into the groove and align myself with its emotional intents; everything is so coldly precise it really feels alienating and even in its most intimate moments it feels like we’re only allowed a fraction of a peek inside its disquiet mind. I realise it’s not necessary for an album to display a sense of continuity and overarching theme but I still like to feel that there’s a story I can latch onto, and with the lack of sympathetic moments here that thematic loss really hits home. I love a lot of singular moments on this, but as an album it really has a time of maintaining my attention.