Maxwell August Croy & Sean McCann – I (Students of Decay, 2014)

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Coming this April is the new collaboration between the mysterious (to me) Maxwell August Croy and the rather more familiar Sean McCann on the Students of Decay label, the shortly and bluntly titled I.

It’s hard keeping up with promos and general music listening; lately it seems there has been a spate of music submissions to myself and I always feel under a certain amount of pressure when I have a lot of music to consume. Certain albums which I enjoy less get buried and the reviews suffer (see my previous) as a result, which is always unfair, and the pressure to try and be fair and measured whilst also creative always seems to make me write rather bland and undecorated reviews. It’s nice then that Croy and McCann offer up an album that is languid and easygoing, simple in its beauty and pandering to our current mood no matter what that may be.

This personable atmosphere is apparent in the first moments of opener “Parting Lights (Suite)” with the creakings and adjustments of chairs and instruments welcoming us to the studio or perhaps a living room before tumbling into the syncopated miscellany of the acoustic instrumentation that forges the album. Soft cello drones, riffing violins and squeaky koto fragments flit carefully between terse and chipper, with only subtle pitch shifts demarcating these emotional pirouettes. A quieter middle expanse remains quietly worried before it takes flight in the buzzing closing moments, a flurry of concerned sound to peter out dramatically into “Alexandria”. At 9 minutes long it just edges the opener out as the longest track and it’s my favourite by a long way; beautiful arcs of careful, elongate koto carve contrails into the quiet majesty of the backing cello drone sky, an opportunity to seek some introspection and daydream about her without life’s worries for a few brief moments. It catches me everytime; I just need to stop what I’m doing and gaze out the window, let myself soak in its paralysing ambience as it gently evolves from a drone cruise to a tremulous crescendo of koto in its dying moments.

There’s something of an Oriental heritage breaking through in “Momiji”, named after Japanese message dolls, with its staccato instrumentation and toybox like quality. It’s short and brief, by far the shortest track at only 3:37, nothing more than an interlude between the big boy tracks really, but it has a pleasant and laid-back aura as it spirals downwards, slowing down and easing itself out. Followup “The Inlet Arc” wants to continue this increasingly relaxed and minimalistic line as its piano strokes arrive sporadically and distantly, floating through a soft haze of their own reverb. This languid first half breaks to reveal a similar latter half that progresses in an entirely more subconscious fashion, drifting lazily along on soft drone beds through the night, warm and abed and contented, a time where we have ourselves to ourselves and relish it greatly.

“Column Of Mirror”, however, is not happy with us remaining in this happy place as it careers in abruptly on the shifting sands of uncomfortable and abrasive wails of assorted instrumentation and drone. It warbles and oscillates, unwavering in its deeply unsettling attitude and minimal evolution, its notes syncopating but scarcely evolving as doubt and self-loathing return as we awake, the nagging and ever present internal monologue droning on and on without reprieve. But we do get a break as closer “Hollow Pursuits” breaks us away from such thoughts, sparse and measured in its presentation and fragile melodies. There’s a heaviness and weightedness here, almost like the notes are being forced out rather than coming through effortlessly, a conscious effort being made to air out the unwelcome thoughts. This feeling is amplified as, for the first time since the opener, we hear those intimate scrapings and studio sounds for a few moments, as though we’re made aware of reality again.

Whilst there is something of an unforced catharsis present within I, it also does feel like there is a strongly deliberate and conscious effort to bring that which makes us uncomfortable and unhappy to the surface, as though this self-awareness will drive us to be a better person or something. That being said, as I mentioned at the start this album is somewhat open to interpretation and it’s entirely reasonable that I’m just projecting, but either way it’s incredibly nuanced and well thought out, migrating effortlessly from free-flowing, unconscious thought in loose drones to piercing and harrowing introspection in the sharp koto and angular violin. It’s rather accessible at only 36 minutes and I strongly recommend picking this up when it comes out on the 15th.

Abstractive Noise – Of The Adder’s Bite (2013)

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I think there’s an expectation raised before you listen to certain albums based on the album artwork and some of the genre descriptors, a promise that you’re going to get a certain experience out of an album. I try not to think about these things beforehand but it’s difficult to avoid, and with Abstractive Noise’s Of The Adder’s Bite there comes an expectation of big, bold and dark music, but one that fails to materialise.

The premise here is that it is a concept album, a journey through a machine-world in which the male protagonist in his travels discovers is a woman (or a woman in the form of a machine). It’s quite an unusual concept, one that perhaps does not make itself superficially obvious; first to be explored is the first chapter, the realisation of the machine’s existence. It’s opened by “Outcast” by lonely and slowly swelling drones as we come to. Vision materialises quickly and there is something of a mechanical feel to the repetitive sequences of violins and hushed percussion, but it’s slow and even at its peak never really feels grand or big. It tumbles into the machinations of…”Machine (Phase 1)”, a short interlude that finally begins to hint at space in its dark sub-bass currents, combined with aggressive and cold glitch fragments writhing over the top. Phase 2 is significantly more active as it moves away into more expanded melodies and rigourously structured music, but it has replaced all emotion with pretty unassuming and uninteresting recombinations of the same constructions we’ve heard for the last 10 minutes. Admittedly the staccato footfalls in the abrupt final throes are pretty cool and menacing.

The second chapter is presented as being the struggle for escape. “Trap” finally has some frantic energy to it that I’ve  been waiting for; the violins are as highly strung as they’ve ever been but there’s an alarming pace in the underlying cellos(?) and powerful percussion that sets things into a flat spin. There are then moments of despair and hopelessness in the next effort, here in the first movement of the title track. Piano is introduced for the first time with powerful effect, crushing the pacing and with slow stringed wails sending us into a pit of despair. It is something of an overdone moment though, exaggerating this plight somewhat, and it switches gears abruptly into the more surreptitious and plotting “Vengeance”, the uselessness of the previous track suddenly abandoned in favour of sharper and more determined music. Little xylophones ring out in the dark and the plucked and manipulated strings set out this tiptoeing and creeping image, deviously working in the candlelight.

Lastly, the final chapter presents us of the realisation that our escape is not possible. “Poisonous Well” begins to proposition this idea of acceptance; seemingly the plans from “Vengeance” have not materialised and we’re left with the broad swathes of, well I’m not quite sure how to describe it. The music is stylistically close to everything else we’ve heard so far so there’s not much to go on. It’s a bit more downtrodden I suppose, more resigned. This is especially true in the second movement of the title track; faint screams can be heard in the distance alongside the sad creaks of doors and other mechanical oddities in some quiet corner of this terrible machine. The violins are back to serenade us through this clichéd experience, but it is touching despite it. Frustrated bangs and smashes punctuate the quieter moments in madness. Finally, closer and longest track “of Betrayers and Betrayed” takes us out over its 10 minute span. It’s content to simply soldier on through, suck it up and just deal with it, but sadly that means we’re presenting with a relatively unwavering and unchanging track throughout, not migrating far from the usual, almost boring at this point, combinations of limited strings and percussion.

It’s a nice idea and concept, but I’m sceptical as to how well it can be deciphered through the music alone without reading the press kit. On my first listen without the context I felt the album as a whole felt pretty loose and not particularly progressive, and I still maintain that there is a disappointing amount of variety. I just wish it had more ferocity, a bit more fire in the belly that would just make it a little more entertaining and dramatic; some noise here and more glitch fragments there. Well executed and produced but a bit thin in the ideas department, using the overarching concept as something of a crutch.

 

Aaron Martin & Christoph Berg – Day Has Ended (2013)

The first collaborative album between these two Ambient and Modern Classical rooted artists, Day Has Ended.

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There haven’t been many albums this year that have left me quite as lost for words as Day Has Ended. It seems to invoke something so intimate and relatable that it’s difficult to describe how it makes me feel, despite its short duration. I often try to write something brief about the release before I go headfirst into the review itself but this time I think the music should speak for itself, especially since I’m writing this last and have written too much already.

Martin opens the first half of this 36 minute effort with the delicate acoustic guitar pecks of “Slow Wake”, a track that emerges gracefully out of the dark on harmonious violin and delicate tinklings of some xylophone relative, bobbing on the waves of the growing dawn’s warm light. This initial flurry of activity marks the moment of sunrise, the peeking of the sun above the horizon after the long night, perhaps filtering through the low clouds and sparkling on the thin frost coating every available surface. We’re not quite at that point in the year for that yet, but the wist for a frosty morning is palpable, although tentative.

“Burl” creeps in once we’ve woken up a little and cleared the sleep from our eyes, its strings plucked somewhat tersely and accompanied by bedded violin drones; meshing in the fabric below at first, but rising to the fore quickly. It has an oddly familiar feel, homely is almost the word I’d use to describe it, the same familiarity and odd sense of recognition I frequently have when listening to the home spun melodies of Free Folk. It takes a darker turn in the latter half as its violins become more distal and perhaps even more menacing, slowly drawing the curtains on this delicate but complex intermission with drawn out, almost pained notes. “Comfort Of Shadow” takes its place and we’re introduced to a more human presence in the brooding, resigned, even mournful hums and coos that open the piece. They’re voices that have seen a thousand sunrises and despite their love and appreciation at the beauty of this recognisable event ultimately resent the fact that it symbolises the start of something they dislike.

It shifts into the last track of Martin’s before Berg arrives, the stunning “Night Never Came”, possibly my favourite off the album. Bold organ cuts through the fugue like some sort of ode to the day passed by, a curiously big and bold piece that seems to celebrate at its passing, welcoming the night and its oppressive darkness at last. As it invites the heart wrenching cello back again; its repetitive melody once again reinforces the depressive realisation of routine and familiarity that Martin has made firm in his half. The sunlight only serves to highlight that which we dont want to face, content to sit in the dark and wallow in our own self-pity. Christoph Berg is keen to follow this up with his first piece, “Pillows”.  Facing the optimism of the outside world has been a stressful prospect but here we are now, back in bed with the night stretching out ahead of us at last, sounding unencumbered and even slightly happy as a low drone rumbles in the background, ushering sleep, attended by the usual suspects of violin to soothe our thoughts.

“Today Has Been Alright” decides to sit back and ruminate a little on the events. It’s quiet at first as it settles in, casting its mind back. The haze of drone and piano clears with realisation and slowly a more uncomfortable sound is brought back again, with a slowly rotating melody in the sparse piano and ethereal violin never resting, sitting like an uneasy load at the forefront of our mind. What regretful or embarrassing things have we done today that our brain can once more repeat ad nauseam  as we try to get to sleep? The starkness and minimalism sounds almost at odds to the feelings it invokes, almost like it’s taunting us, hovering close like an annoying fly. It ends rather abruptly to move into the comparatively lighter “Things Are Sorted, Finally”, those internal struggles having been wrestled with for 6 minutes finally behind us. Slowly it feels like the music is becoming more distal and focusing less on the acoustic aspects and more on the less tangible drones that are starting to make a real appearance. It floats, cruises, along almost merrily, the drone warm and thick and only occasionally disturbed by light and regular percussive beats, like eddies in the smooth waters. It cycles, but so slowly and effortlessly we can barely make it out, like the slow count of sheep as we approach sleep, the numbers blurring into one another, diffusing.

Finally, “Coda” closes this beautiful little album and I couldnt ask for a more stunning end. Our little world-weary mind has finally gone under, finally allowed to be left to its own devices in the dark warm sanctity of the bed sheets. The drone bobs and swirls distantly, with delicate violin serenading us as we slumber, the guitar making a token appearance also towards the end to round it out and create a sense of completion, of returning to the beginning and resetting ready for another day.

There are a number of ways this album can be tackled, can be interpreted. Me, I feel like Day Has Ended charts the life of someone uncomfortable in the world, too distressed by the notion of having to go out each day and go through the same rigmarole as yesterday and the day before and the day a year past. It’s the story of someone who doesn’t want their life to be counted in days but rather in nights, who sees sleep as one of the few comforts left in life, where they’re able to fully escape the problems and concerns they must tackle tomorrow, just like yesterday. It makes use of only a few instruments but it’s cleverly devised and the segue between the two artists is practically seamless; there are few instances I can think of where a collaboration has been more perfect. It’s a lovely album; somewhat depressing and melancholy to be sure but it has an intimacy and a quiet shyness to it that I really admire.