Christopher Willits – Opening (Ghostly International, 2014)

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Last year, fellow Ghostly International signee Scott Hansen of Tycho unveiled his latest LP Awake, much to my dissatisfaction. After becoming increasingly more band-oriented over the years and especially welcoming guitarist Dusty Brown into the fold, it felt like Tycho had abandoned much of his original electronic character in favour of bland percussion and over-represented guitar work, allowing his own synth lines to become crushed and inconsequential. Luckily, it seems like Christopher Willits has produced the album that I wished that Awake was in his gorgeously flowing Opening.

Opener “Vision” is the bleariest and perhaps the most replete piece of the record, opening us to the emerging beachscape through thick MIDI chorals (oft repeated through the album), softly chirping local wildlife and thick, blissful drone lines that demarcate the horizon with their soft light. It’s all very plain and unassuming; beautiful but quietly and selflessly introspective, slowly waking to the vista unfolding before us and evoking some sense of satisfaction. “Clear” continues this forward progression, gaining some more traction and allowing the synth riffs a little playful space. The pacing is still luxuriously slow, however, with only the merest hint of propulsion emanating from light percussion as the drones shift and migrate away from their centre of obfuscation.

It’s almost as if Willits feels like he’s letting things get the better of him and the music is perceived as getting away, since “Ground” appears to almost stem the tide of increasingly growing instrumentation by relegating the lightly riffing synth into the far backfield and neatly out of the way, squashing whatever remnants are left behind into a thickly smeared reverbed haze. Some suggestion of evolution and breakout is tantalisingly played out in a few shuffling beats and a rising wave of increasingly urgent drones but it’s caught and the track fades quickly. The suppression continues into “Now” as well, initially enveloped in a thin layer of glitch fuzz to supplement the crushed melodies and recurrent chorals. There’s a certain downtrodden wist detectable here as the piece unravels, metamorphosing into a bigger and more expressive mass of big synth drones and assistant but intermittent percussion; a jovial facade to the underlying melancholia, perhaps?

Or perhaps not, as “Connect” rolls in and takes things to sweet new heights, introducing the acoustic guitar with some clarity for the first time alongside some playful Tycho-esque synth flutters and chaotic but empowering miscellaneous electronica. It proceeds rather tentatively at first but slips into a beautifully intimate and emotionally probing guitar solo of exquisite delicacy that just makes the entire track, a soft profession of desire and relatedness sold through its organic motions, all coy and sensitive, hesitant. The vast and uncertain vista of followup “Wide” ruminates on whether or not that display of affection was such a good idea, spinning out many of the familiar synth riffs and smeared choral samples we’ve heard thus far into endless, repetitive oblivion, mulling over the same things again and again, fruitlessly. It’s a little dry but a nice pulse of instrumentation towards the end makes up for it, a little surge of hope amidst the fugue.

We’re finally taken out of “Wide”‘s misery in closer “Release”, the summation of all our confined emotional consideration through this album and its cathartic abandonment. It’s the satisfied yang to “Vision”‘s yin, a twilight hour closer that rests contented in deep drone minimalism and the recorded snippets of the surf washing against the inside of our mind, the tide of sleep returning after this productive day. Sweet, faint guitar work melts out of the sun-kissed lo-fi haze that sugar-coats the closer, a faint smile on our lips as the album sinks into sleep. It’s a fragile and minimal emotional journey we’re taken on through Opening, but one that absolutely has a clear storyline and a satisfying resolution, migrating effortlessly and imperceptibly through lonely and hopeless fugues before seeing the opportunity and acting upon it, being a little bold and throwing this dissatisfyingly lonely and resigned existence to the wind, saying goodbye to the early emotional insecurities and finally becoming comfortably in its own shoes.

Lusine – Arterial (EP, Ghostly International, 2014)

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In an unusual turn of events, Lusine’s Jeff McIlwain has released his first EP in 4 years, and better than that it’s the first EP since 2003’s Push that features non-album content, so it’s a relatively exciting time to be a Lusine fan like myself. Across his 15 years of producing various electronic musics, there’s always been an unquestionable sensation of knowing that you’re listening to a Lusine (or L’usine, or Lusine ICL) production, despite the subtle shifts in sonic style over the years. Every album seems to build on the experience and unique evolution of its predecessors, and despite being something of an intermediary, Arterial clearly demonstrates a progression in sound since his 2013 stunner The Waiting Room.

Much of the heartache and emotional insecurity that made itself plain on The Waiting Room has also seemingly been brought forward into the constructions here, feeding off the sensations of loss and absence, of being kept at a distance and left alone to question the nature of a relationship. Arterial to me really seems to highlight the nature of technology in the fabric of relationships and friendships, supplementing The Waiting Room’s tenuous and out-of-the-loop grey zone demarcating that technological void that is the airplane. Opener and title track “Arterial” represents the lifeblood of that digital connection, the seething mass of wires and circuit boards filled with an electrical blood that transmits our messages for us, connects us and keeps us together, a dark and urgent mass of shuffling synth lines and clarinet whoops amidst the muttered and unintelligable fragments of voice smeared into the digital abyss.

As infectious as the opener’s density is, my absolute favourite piece is followup “Eyes Give In”; self-confessed as being a piece about getting lost inside one’s own head whilst coming to terms with understanding the need for a certain distance, it broils with disorientation right from the disharmonious off, whirling in a mass of fragmented and chopped vocal lines caught in a meaty mush of pounding synth and rushing bass. “You’ll see me again”, it repeats endlessly, “I’m not falling away” she says; little reassurances replayed endlessly, not understanding. It’s astonishingly good, intimate yet groovy; I can’t stop listening. “Quiet Day”, on the other hand, seems to actually relish this downtime a little bit, subtracting out the melodic powerhouses of the previous tracks to be replaced with a heady, dark, bassy void filled with some of the same mysterious vocal content we heard out of “Another Tomorrow”, for example. The delicate and enigmatic vocals we hear out of Caitlin Sherman are again supplemented and repeated by Jeff himself, murmuring and strengthening those assurances as he sits in quiet and lonely contemplation, feeling the weight of the absence.

Closer “Forks” rounds out this short but tumultuous 20 minute affair with insatiable slow grooves, the pacing and tempo crushed as Jeff spins big, elongate beats out to even more ruinous  and chopped vocals. It’s a gritty and thick piece, the synth mean and dark and stifled with paralysing indecision as the vocal lines strobe and flicker through the mix, offshoots of thoughts and conversations, imaginings and what-ifs, dreams and what-could-have-beens. It’s perhaps the weakest of the tracks for me but it still has a powerful and deeply deliberate emotional current that’s wholly smothering.

I recognise that perhaps I’m a little biased, that maybe I have something of a soft-spot in my heart for Lusine and this particular brand of music, but he’s just so incredibly consistent in his output quality; everything is so beautifully produced, every little beat and texture a perfectly and deliberately placed entity, each piece an important part of the emotional story arc. I just love this bombastic and beat-laden facade that he summons up in each of his releases that smothers the insecurity and loneliness, making the best out of a bad situation. A must listen, truly.

Motion Sickness of Time Travel – Ballade For A Buck Moon (2014)

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The 27th release of Rachel Evans’s Motion Sickness of Time Travel project, Ballade For A Buck Moon, is an album I’m finding tremendously difficult to talk about. I’m a bit rusty and having something of an off day when it comes to writing it seems, and the right words and thoughts don’t seem to be flowing forth for some reason. Which is a shame because despite MSOTT’s prodigious but at times rather disappointing discography, Buck Moon is a really interesting little number that’s been a pretty, subdued little release for me to enjoy these last couple of weeks.

Buck Moon, along with the other 10 albums currently in the series, is the latest installment of celestially inspired music from MSOTT, with each record in the Ballade series titled for and named after the Native American designation for the full moon of each month in the year, Buck of course being July’s. The content of the album doesn’t seem too far removed sonically from the works I’ve heard from MSOTT before; synth summoned drones dominate with some sprinklings of delicate electronica interspersed throughout to give it some sense of motion, attached to occasional waves of lo-fi processings giving it some welly, and all of it deeply ethereal and hauntingly delicate.

Something that I find particularly interesting is that, despite the album having a number of discrete phases and sequences, there’s nothing preventing you from jumping in at pretty much anytime; that’s not a criticism, I think it’s definitely possible to dive in anywhere and not feel like you’ve missed out on anything, because much of the album wallows in very similar progressions of sparse, organ-like drone engaged in competitions of diminishing volume and activity levels. Quivering currents often lie beneath the more actively driving drones, squeezing out thin movements of distorted vision, the trembling mirage of the Moon through a telescope or the twinkling of its accompanying stars, jittering through atmospheric distortion in the clear Summer skies. It’s just that there’s not huge amounts of evolution here to get caught up in is all.

There’s an unavoidable sense of isolation here I feel as well, of incredible loneliness and separation, like we’ve deliberately distanced ourselves to watch the rise and progression of the Buck Moon specifically. Or perhaps it’s simply a side effect of night, a feeling of seclusion and quiet disconnect from reality and civilisation as people retreat to bed through the witching hour, us alone left to our own devices, to feel that deeper connection to nature that so many of us are losing in our steel and concrete shells. This sensation grows strongly through the later parts of the album, where hauntingly beautiful wafts of ethereal, echoic and distant vocal coos come washing through the mix, soft prayers of thanks to Mother Nature singing out alone, especially potent following the more confident and moderately more empowered/louder sequences through the mid-album as we come more to terms with that isolation.

I do have some concerns though; I think the album is really beauteous and interesting to listen to as it ebbs and flows, the Moon moving through the trees and the clouds, but it never really feels climactic and the evolution feels almost absent. I’d love there to be some sense of progression other than the rotation of the Moon from horizon to horizon but it often doesn’t feel like there’s much meat in between that, no really strong, overarching emotional progression from a personal standpoint, our thoughts and actions and perceptions warping through time. That being said, I love the way it becomes sleepy and fragile in its closing chapter, dying slowly as it sinks over the now lightening horizon and marking our turn for home and hearth as the lo-fi pulses stop appearing and the thrumming synths collapse into daylight. It’s a sparse release to be sure, and I would say that it actually demands to be listened specifically at this time of year, preferably at night and outside where you can couple it with that warm Summer breeze as you gaze skywards. Peaceful and charming, I like it.