Marble Sky – Marble Sky (Students of Decay, 2014)

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I’ve thought long and hard about how to talk about this album and every version just didn’t seem quite right; I went to walk the dog a little while ago and thought to myself that perhaps I was approaching this album the wrong way, that instead of talking about human love and emotional fugues I should talk about how it could be interpreted in this moment. The realisation came after looking up at that orange, dismal curtain of light pollution overhead, that which would otherwise be grey in daylight; a part of Autumn’s encroachment and the subtle shift of weather from Summer’s vaguely acceptable heights to Winter’s ultimately grey, dismal fugues, and I think that seasonal evolution is perhaps the best way to approach Jeff Witscher’s new compilation album Marble Sky. 

His two previous albums are fused and appear chronologically, with debut The Sad Return appearing first. This first half for me feels like the more emotionally damaged, the more morose and resigned of the two; the opener of “Pulling Up Grass Under a Blanket” arrives in tidal washes of white noise, pulses of melancholic drone supplementing it with their vague, hazy turnings. Like each of the pieces it grows in textural and emotional complexity across its span, with thick horn blats eventually calling out of the foggy mire, waking us up with urgency as the first Autumnal mist descends. “Dull Hue” puts on a stronger performance, the new day dawning fully and with it a cavalcade of smeared, processed guitar drones cutting through the background fuzz. We’re becoming aware of the liveliness of Autumn in its crashing waves of drone, with bolder and more colourful, piercing notes cutting through the mulch as life picks up the pace to ready itself.

“What You Might Forget” attempts to keep us grounded and not forgetful of the next chapter in the story, trying to get us to remember Winter’s woes through its scouring walls of obfuscating static. It’s a track long struggle that eventually sees the softer drone lines make themselves heard above the clamour with an accepting heaviness, seguing into almost violin reminiscent oscillations at its end, a confused and fluxing emotional journey that can’t decide whether it’s pleased or sad to see the end of this life-year.

The second half sees a portion of Marble Sky’s sophomore release featured: Low God/Lady. “A Shining Juniper” makes for an initially menacing introduction to this side of things as it moves in on dark, growling distortion, but it quickly falls away into perhaps the airiest and most beauteous piece of the record, unwinding a blissful haze of distant, delicate drones. Golden light shines through the trees in warm, joyful flutters of sharper and brighter synth lines later in the piece before it dips low enough to be continuously present, beaming out of the mix. Followup “Sunset on Low” is the shortest piece at a mere 5 minutes long and is something of a bleak, minimalistic and chugging interlude between its bigger brothers, sitting motionless in melancholic hibernation as time slides miserably past in a bleary, dim haze of shifting drone, just waiting for that final day.

The closer “Lea; Crossed Eyes” is where it all comes to a head though, and is unquestionably my favourite track of the album and one of the finest drone pieces I’ve heard in a long while. Early, miserable drones swirl and sit in their fugue, turning uneasily before a bolder line chastises them over their misery and castigates them from the piece in favour of an emergent synth line that bathes the track’s extensive midsection with a contented and quietly satisfied light; thin and shimmery it unwinds ahead of the stunning final four minutes of overwhelming, eviscerating catharsis. It grows to a wall of stereo release, a destructive wave that terminates our lovely green leaves with pleasure now that we’re ready to move on and tackle Winter, leaving our concerns behind now that it’s too late, embracing our fate head on.

The changing of the seasons is an unstoppable force that nature must bear without question; the first half buries its head in the sand and struggles toaccept its impending fate, not ready to shed its leaves or go back to school or university following the luxurious Summer months. But Marble Sky comes to terms with that inevitability in its second half, embracing the challenge and enjoying basking in Autumn’s crispness and soft, golden glow one last time before the fleeting moment passes and the dirge of Winter arrives. I’m floored by the beauty and cohesion of this release and I honestly can’t get enough of it; there’s no question that this is making the end of year list for me.

You can find more details on the impending vinyl reissue, and stream The Sad Return, at Students of Decay

 

Hanetration – Murmurist EP (2014)

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It’s not unusual these days to listen to music that expresses its tiredness of modernity and the certain rituals and habits we become locked into, day in and day out; it’s a fairly universal desire to not be constrained by the limitations of working hours and the daily grind, all of it feeling so meaningless and soul-destroying. Hanetration’s latest EP Murmurist is not the first to tackle this theme and certainly won’t be the last to do so, but his unusual take on IDM and Ambient sound design makes this release just a little different from the rest.

Opener “Morning” rises slowly as we come to, warped and distorted drone lines making minimal progress in these early and dim hours. They shift and swell over one another gently, slowly and surely dispelling the darkness that’s accumulated through the night as well as coming to terms with the prospect of the day ahead. There’s a definite melancholy expressed here, one that longs to stay in bed for a little longer and not have to get out for work, but the minimal beats that eventually emerge cement the reality of the situation and we have to soldier on. “Begin” is where the covers are finally kicked off and the foreground drone sequences are put to the wayside temporarily, with light glitch rhythms and tympanic miscellaneous electronica rolling round and round forming the repetitive heart of the piece. These habitual motions pause and dim briefly near the halfway mark, a slight divot or hiccup in the usual routine that disturbs us briefly but we return to the loop soon enough.

The day speeds past in a blur of uneventful and meaningless activity in the 37 second interlude of “Fly”, separating the two halves of the EP with its hollow and brainless tapping; nothing of merit has happened in the hours that we fill between sleeps and this highlights that strongly. The painful “Wither” returns those melancholic, warbling drone lines from before, spinning out slowly and miserably as we feel our life-force slowly dribbling away and the distinct lack of energy and enthusiasm we have for continuing this mindless enterprise. It’s heavy and mournful and perhaps the most downtrodden track. Lastly, closer “Sundown” comes around entirely too quickly, another day melting away. It’s by far the most evocative and interesting piece for me, supplementing glowing drones with an almost tribal pseudo-melody, a thin and hesitant, jerky riff creeping out of the tired and mechanical ritual we resume before bedtime. There’s a deep tiredness and resignation here as the drones become overwhelming, thrumming in their rich crescendo as the bliss of sleep washes over us, ready to restart the cycle all over again.

I like this EP a lot; it feels a lot more consistent and relatable than his last effort on Timelapse as well as being rather more fully formed from a conceptual standpoint. Whilst there’s nothing especially unique in the theme that’s not really a valid criticism, especially when the music itself is rather unusual and so thoughtfully crafted. The interplay between the wishful, sad drones that yearn for something more and the mechanistic, deliberate rhythms of the daily routine is beautifully played out as the story of the EP unfolds, and since it’s free and only 20 minutes long I can’t think of a valid reason to not listen to this gorgeous little number.

Ian William Craig – A Turn Of Breath (Recital, 2014)

Not since Julianna Barwick’s Nepenthe last year have I felt this attached and empathetic to an Ambient Pop record; comprised of 12 tracks it reworks ethereal vocals and minimalistic lyrical content through cassette tape manipulations, crushing human and acoustic drone into a lo-fi fabric that weaves emotionally fraught and confused pieces from air. The beautiful opener “Before Meaning Comes” delivers this sound perfectly in smooth, fluidic stutters of thin glitch lines before delicate vocal filaments light up and coo through the warm static currents, so small and light and naive. In fact, the first three pieces follow this charming innocence before reality strikes; “On The Reach of Explanations” ensconces its angelic vocal lines in echoic distortions, speaking introspectively to the inside of a quiet mind before turning its Cantu-Ledesma-esque smooth drones into choppy and decayed fragments. Then “Red Gate With Starling” rounds out this initial trio with angelic beginnings as its human songs shine softly outwards, slowly unravelling and falling apart as its gentle loops fray and tatter.

It’s this that instigates the onset of the lonely rest of the album; “Rooms” is one of a couple of acoustic guitar lead pieces that crushes its lyrical content in aural obfuscation, its message buried and hidden away, too shy to come to light. But it’s largely an interlude, a bridging piece; “A Slight Grip, A Gentle Hold, Pt. 1” and then a little later Pt. 2 hold the key to the melancholic heart of this album.

“I allow my heaviness

a slight grip,

knowing something has shifted”

The first truly discernible lyrics peek out of the oscillatory tape malfunctions and speak of weariness in the face of change, of allowing sadness a little ground in the internal struggle. Part 2 is much like its predecessor but the lyrical content comes in straight away and alone, intimate and unafraid; it’s the first real clarity we get to witness and it’s striking as a result. Thick accordion drones melt in and heighten that downtrodden vibe in their sombre and slow motions, collapsing abruptly at the end and revealing the abandonment of caring as fading footsteps shuffle out of the desolate static. It’s a sign of the heavy resignation much of this album conveys; “Second Lens” sees the world through another set of eyes in its obscured and muffled electronica, soft Barwick-esque coos and sighs floating through the thickening fog before our eyes, while “Either Or” settles on weaving juxtaposing deep and soulful human thrums against more eager and active cries, at war with oneself. “I thought I was a hero”, Craig says with a heavy and resigned heart.

The heavy and damaged “The Edges” is not far removed from that indecision and confusion either, spinning around in a whirl of warbling, dense drone lines and fragmented vocal snippets, a blur of emotion and passing faces offering judgment and advice, none of it helping. So it’s up to closer “A Forgetting Place” for us to find solitude and internal peace; the second of the two acoustic guitar tracks it’s wholly more intimate as it allows us one last parting song, just between us. It’s heartfelt and minimal, the words unintelligible and distant despite everything, but the pained yet angelic coos alongside the tempered strums in its final throes are all we need to realise catharsis before we hear the guitar being put down and the album with it.

This is an album that uncovers more and more and yet divulges less and less with each listen, every spin managing to hold onto its confused jumble of emotional secrets whilst somehow offloading more onto the listener in its myriad of damaged tape transfers and ethereal vocals. Barwick taught me that the human sound can be expressive and exploratory, but Craig has shown me that it can be every bit as elusive and enigmatic and difficult to vocalise as our internalised thought, no one sound referring to one emotion, no set of sound representing hosts of feelings. This may be one of the best Ambient records of the year, simply because it puts itself on the line and opens its heart and head to us. Incredible.