Mkaio – A Far Off Horizon (2012)

Long time coming, for which I apologise, Mkaio’s A Far Off Horizon LP.

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“Deep in the mountains of Hawai’i, buried under pine needles and brush, a cracked and worn cassette tape was found.”

Uh oh. This is a snippet from the rather length description that Mkaio has written about his album on its Bandcamp page; I’m not a fan of artists waxing lyrical about their own work and writing heady, poetic descriptors, it just sounds ridiculous. I don’t want to sound particularly damning but that single paragraph and the album art (seen above) have definitely been a contributing factor in my avoidance of this review. That and the rather inordinate length of 1 hour and 17 minutes.

Admittedly, it’s not a dreadful start with the title track opening, but there is a long way ahead. It and the followup “The First Kiss” are rather woozy, stereotypical chillwave tunes with clear synths and a distinct warmth, but do feel a bit distant. “The Gold Was On You” begins to introduce the vocals that we find littered intermittently throughout, and that chillwave sound begins to become even more ensconced. It really is painfully obvious that this is a bedroom-produced piece and sadly that ship has sailed, that fad has passed; now it just feels kind of cheap and cheesy. But it’s ok, because the track is nicely rounded off to the gentle lapping of waves on the shore.

“Happiness is smoke in my lungs

Gimme just one toke and I’m done”

starts “Tried and True” in a quasi-rapping style which might not actually be that bad if not for the fact that it, like most of the tracks on this album, spins out for far, far too long. Over 6 minutes of the same riff and (clichéd) repeated lyrics is quite dull. But this first half isnt all bad, there are a couple of decent tracks; “Summer Heart” is a rather relaxed instrumental track that breaks the album up quite nicely with its easygoing beats, and “Light At The End”, although long, has some sweet, circular synths that evoke those sunlight seashore memories I think this album is sort of angling for. The second half begins with a track so drenched in the chillwave aesthetic it’s almost stifling; sadly what it also brings with it is once again that semi-rapping approach to the lyrics and some faux record scratching faintly in the background; frankly it’s downright cheesy and every second makes me understand where this album is coming from less and less.

It doesn’t make sense that tracks like that can be followed up by other tracks like “Fall For You” which are actually well done, toned down and have a modicum of restraint and intelligently designed beats. The vocals are absolutely the weakest part of this release so when they’re even just a little obscured by reverb as they are here they are actually tolerable. Then again, as I understand it, the tracks here were recorded over an extensive period of time, possibly two or three years, and it really does show. Despite that, “Brush of the Cheek” continues in a good vein for another few minutes with a purely instrumental track; repetitive for sure but pleasant and soothing.

“Maui” returns to the side of the album that once again makes no sense and causes it to lose all sense of cohesion; unintelligible baby gurgles alongside bright synths? And then it’s chased up by “Is This Love”, some kind of half baked Bob Marley reinterpretation which does absolutely no justice to the classic in any way. I have a very cynical approach to tracks like these, where people take material other people have done already (and frequently done very well) and adapt it for their own devices, simply because so frequently it just does not work, much like here. The vocals aren’t bad, sure, but it just sounds so cheap, the electronics really denigrate the music. Fortunately the end is in sight, but we do have to get over an 11 minute closer before then.

“A Prelude” is a nice ambient interlude to segue us into the final tracks, and it actually moves pretty gracefully into the terrible “Sunsets”, which is really depressing. The rapping, why. It just is absolutely not necessary and I’ll never understand why he chose to take that angle on so many of the tracks, it’s quite honestly embarrassing. The actual content, musically, is actually decent, and that’s what pisses me off about this entire album; there’s some potentially good tunes buried in here that are just smothered by mediocre singing. Lastly, we come to the aforementioned 11 minute closer “Adagio For Jen” which, once again, takes a turn for the frustrating as it spins out delicate synth drones across its duration. It’s actually a really nice way to round the album off, I’m just saddened that it couldnt be more like this or at the very least somewhat more consistent throughout.

It’s too long, too tryhard, perhaps even a little bit full of itself. I never really felt that I knew where the album was coming from and truth be told I was pretty overwhelmed at the content and how inconsistent it was; it’s clear that this was produced over an extensive period of time because some tracks are obviously much more polished than others and have a very different personality to them. It doesnt come together well but there is room for improvement, and it’s not entirely terrible, but I’m just not digging it.

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D.Rhone – Eelium (2012-13)

Mathias Van Eecloo of Monolyth & Cobalt fame sent me his latest release, this time under yet another mysterious moniker, with D.Rhone and Eelium.

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I remember the previous album Myths Landscapes being an interesting journey, one that summoned exquisite ambient soundscapes with delicate acoustic instrumentation to forge quite a nostalgic and wistful experience, but Eelium is obviously something of a different animal right from the off. The first track “9.21” (the tracks are named according to their length) opens initially to silence, the emptiness that precedes the darkness to come, because this album is anything but lightweight or airy. “9.21” is a dark and minimal introduction to the album, with 9 minutes of unwavering drone, dark bass pulses and some unrecognisable snippets of instrumentation; it smacks strongly of a Koner production actually, just with a little less…oomph.

“11.41” follows in a similar vein with an early 20 seconds of silence before the music begins, and this time it is something more magical. There was a particular track from Myths Landscapes that I loved called “EcuME” which had the most wonderfully balanced instrumentation; carefully managed strings, delicate plucks and drones weaving in and out of one another to create an unsettled and on-edge atmosphere, and “11.41” pulls that sensation off again. But these beautiful strings disappear almost as quickly as they arrived as the piece moves into its second half, chasing up the yin of the acoustics with the yang of electronics as coarser, more granular syncopated synths make their way ungracefully through.

The centerpiece I suppose you could say is the lengthy “29.01”, a track which once again chases up the same themes as the preceding track and takes the dark, granular tones of the end of “11.41” and spins them out for a frankly unbelievable 30 minutes. While the mood does lighten and the general tone becomes less dark and harsh, I still find it difficult to allow this piece to capture my attention for that length of time and I find myself zoning out. Luckily closer “13.28” takes a much different initial approach to revitalise my interest, with its sparkly and barely there piano wanderings seguing into more electronic accompanied musical territory with patters of noise and mysterious oscillating beats that spin menacingly in the air.

Eelium is definitely something else, something different compared to my previous experiences with his work. The fine and careful evolution of his pieces has been replaced with more repetitious melodies that work harder to establish and maintain a specific direction as opposed to what felt like a more effortlessly organic style, one that felt simultaneously refined and mature and yet spontaneous. On the other hand, this album is certainly not in the same emotional vein, taking on an inherently darker and emptier mood, capturing a much more grey, more lonely and empty world devoid of sympathy, that at times smacks of the cold landscapes that Thomas Koner emulates in his work as well as the passages of time that William Basinski distills so neatly into his. I feel pretty ambivalent over it, but it’s not unpleasant.

Christoph Berg – Paraphrases (2012)

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Debut album of Field Rotation’s Christoph Berg, Paraphrases.

Three instruments alone form this heartbreaking album; the double bass, the piano and the violin. Of course, this is a point that has been raised in numerous reviews of this release, but it’s an important point to make I feel; the narrow range of classical instrumentation results in a clean, pure and more intimate sound, one that is not so easy to pull off. The sparsity of the textures lays everything out to dry and any slight imperfection would ruin it; luckily Berg seems to be a man who knows what he’s doing.

The opening track “Falling Asleep” introduces the somewhat uncomfortable nature of the album; while the soft sounds of the violin in all its multi-layered, multi-textural beauty are calming and soothing there is also a distinctly unsettling and dark tone, reminiscent of the dark thoughts that swill within our subdued unconscious while sleeping. “Elegy” moves us along and is every iota of its namesake; a “piece of music in a mournful style”. The double bass begins to make its presence known as it sets a slow pace whilst the wistful strings force some mournful notes out.

As we move into “Poems Written  By An Old (Prepared) Piano”, delicate field recordings begin to seep into the sound as the clack of the typewriter mirrors the lightly distorted piano chords that patter quietly. The music is even more minimal than before, stripped back to the absolute bare bones as we sit down to write a few words on the memories we have of sitting behind the old piano. The piano is disharmonious, sketches of memories of music from our childhood, the sound tired and dusty. “Buildings At Night” is our escape from this  nostalgia, bringing those piercing, elongate violin strings back again and submerging the night view with a light drone fog, or perhaps the bleak and ever present background rumbles and noises of any city.

Maybe the mid-album “Interlude” is going to introduce us to a somewhat less intense second half; a return to the warmth of daylight is summoned by the muffled shouts and chatter of a crowd, making way for a richer, drone filled latter track as we complete our escape to the countryside, away from the grey misery of the city. Crows and other admittedly ominous sounds begin to intrude; the crunch of leaves underfoot, the rustling of hedgerows; you never know quite where you’re at with this piece, nor indeed with this album. After a true interlude with minute “Paraphrases (Vinyl)” we approach my favourite track of the album, “A Small Path Crossing”. Defining quite what is appealing to me about this is tricky; there is a moment of focus and clarity where the overlapping violin textures seem to align and conjoin around 3 and 4 minutes in, the meeting of man and nature in a gesture as simple as crossing a stream over a bridge and pausing for a few seconds to look down its course.

And that’s all but it for this album; closer “Quiet Times At The Library” instills an atmosphere of calm and contemplation as we leave this gentle release behind, somehow making the prospect of sitting at a desk working an enjoyable task. Almost undetectable taps and scratches remind us we often dont work alone and draws us back to the work at hand at a time when perhaps our attention may waiver as our eyes cast over the other busy souls and the myriad of books.

It’s a minimal album for sure, and the frequent moments of disharmony may challenge listeners, but there are some real Modern Classical/Ambient gems here and I find myself being continually drawn back to the thin richness of the sound and the obviously meticulous and careful nature of its construction.