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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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.

Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – Songs of Forgiveness (Baro Records, 2014)

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Jefre Cantu-Ledesma has been a relatively influential name in the world of Noise and Drone music for the last seven years or so, producing sometimes twisted, but always evocative, thick vistas of mulched sound; his 2010 release Love Is A Stream is widely accepted as his best work and certainly one of my favourites also, melding Fennesz-esque Electro-acoustic destruction to glorious sequences of glowing, romantic Drone. It seems strange the, for a man who has  produced albums named Shining Skull Breath and Speaking Corpse to produce an album like Songs of Forgiveness which, one could argue, appears to have more than a few fingers in the Vaporwave pie.

I’m hesitant to outright call this a Vapourwave release though, since by and large it doesn’t seem to subscribe to the “aesthetic” of which Vapourwave has built for itself, one of retro nostalgia and the deconstruction of  aged commercial and background music for conceptual purposes, even if perhaps it does have some of the idiosyncrasies. I mean, it’s hard not to make some connections right from the off, as Side A spins out 10 minutes (in its first sequence) of dreamy, reductionist guitar and slowed drums, all encased in a gauzy haze of pink reverb. That sort of echoic, VHS vibe that Vaporwave seems to exude isn’t too far removed from the hypnagogy of its quiet and circular reflection. Things abruptly get mixed up in the second half of Side A as the stable and repetitious initial chapter is switched out for one that admittedly is almost identical in its riff but more distal in its reverb and more decrepit and damaged, little skips in the melody and currents of grating low-fidelity abrading its passage.

Side B, predictably, is more of the same tired riffs rolling over each other, although whilst there is a hint of original damage shining through from the first side as expressed in a warbling and tattered backing drone line, everything else seems to be just that little bit clearer and brighter, the original distortion and speed reduction dialled back just enough to let the melody come through just that bit clearer. As it shifts into its second chapter it does so rather abrasively, phasing into its next lot of circular riffs through pointed and obnoxious laser beam synths, each one rolling into a stuttering and grating mass. That being said, once the interlude has cleared it moves into a rather pleasant and drifting set of downtempo riffs that are content to see us to the end in a wash of lazing, mellow reverb. The ending is surprising then; a final third sequence that comes out of nowhere with an extremely minimal guitar line and intermittently abrasive intrusions that squeal and writhe through the mix like a detuned radio, whilst the entire entity slowly fades to black and closes the curtains finally.

If there was to ever be a reinvention of William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops as Hypnagogic Pop, this would probably be it, carving out its beauteous and mellow loops in a placid haze of wistful and acceptant reverb. Whilst in some capacity they’re comparable, of course Cantu-Ledesma’s own constructions do not rival that of Basinski’s, and I’m really uncertain as to the stopping power of this release. It’s charming and beauteous in its own way, and I do find it a pleasantly relaxing record for downtime listening, but it just feels deeply shallow and hollow to me, drawn out for too long and with too little meaningful content. The electronically grating moments are also rather damaging to the overall mood as well I feel. It’s an interesting but largely underwhelming experience for me.