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.

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Richard Haswell – Asteroids (2013)

Upcoming release on Rhubarb Music, Richard Haswell and Asteroids

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Releasing 22 albums is no mean feat, and yet this is exactly the number that Richard Haswell has produced over the course of his career, under his own name as well as a couple of aliases. Admittedly, I’ve only heard of Richard and his work (under the Rhubarb pseudonym) but I’ve never actually listened to any of his work, so Asteroids is my virgin encounter with his material, and I’m pleasantly surprised for someone who appears to operate out of his home and record on his laptop (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Now, I’m a bit, ok a lot, out of practice when it comes to reviewing music that contains lyrics. It’s been some time since I’ve had to unravel the intricacies of lyrics and it hasn’t been an easy reintroduction with Haswell, whos songs are laid out more like stories in some cases as opposed to that more typical poetic or rhythmic meter. I must say, it’s quite nice not to have the endlessly repeated, entirely predictable verse-chorus-verse structure once again. Unusually titled opener “Jarvik-13” is a really impressive start to the album and introduces is immediately to that storylike or almost conversational attitude on a bed of meaty lo-fi guitar and nicely propelling percussion. It’s bold and determined and unlike on later tracks, Haswell uses a second set of quieter vocals to give his message a boost in strength and credibility as opposed to the later personal comfort and affirmation. Here he is seen to take the moral highground, as he says:

“But I was never one to vent
I’ll just quietly remember every word you’ve said
This will feed my motivation”

That kind of home-grown vibe really does seem to come through on “Routinely Armed”, which oddly enough is not the longest track in playtime yet contains more lyrics than any other track. There’s an oddly flat and anechoic tone to Haswell’s voice, as always supplemented and reinforced quietly by himself in the background, a form of aural reinforcement and comfort. There’s lots of skittering percussion here as well as crooning, wailing guitars as Richard takes a possibly political turn in his work as policemen are mentioned as the track enters its final phase, but even throughout it becomes clear that he is unhappy as he talks of humanity and “lording [it] from your pulpit”, quite apt for these politically terse times.

Tracks like “The Distance Between You and I” have something of a Post-Rock feel to them with the vast guitar-drone leads, sparse content and slow builds. Even the vocals feel muffled and lo-fi to help build that mood. The more I read the lyrics sheets, the more I think that the “relationships” I mentioned earlier are not between a person but more an entity, as possibly hinted at in the political undercurrents of “Routinely Armed”. As the defocused, lo-fi guitar goes into a sweet breakdown I cant help but feel like Haswell’s references to “former glories” and gulfs and the thickening of his skin that he’s aiming his sights not at an individual but at a group, that former agreements and relatedness has been lost and he’s beginning to see the subtle changes that have generated this gap in opinions.

We have a late-album instrumental track actually in “The Water Poet” which is appreciated. Admittedly I would have been happier to have seen it break up some of the meatier tracks of the album a little, bridge a few gaps with some nice interludes, but alas. I’m not mistaken it also uses an unusual instrument listed as a “cardboard Appalacian dulcimer”, which has a jovial, tinkling sound not too dissimilar from a harpischord, which does seem a little odd juxtaposed against the grating, noisy guitars and high electronic warbles of “Surfacing”.

I was told by Richard that closer “The Thinner The Ice” was widely accepted to be the best track of the album from what feedback he’d received and I’m in some ways inclined to agree. It’s quite a slow moving piece that relies much more heavily on the acoustic guitar to create a more downtempo attitude not seen much in the preceding album, and seems to help bring us closer to Haswell’s voice, make it a bit more intimate. It’s also something (in my mind) of the continuation of the thread picked up by those other seemingly politically orientated tracks like “The Distance Between You and I”, raising references of hungry sharks whilst also admitting to the desire to forgive and forget but seeming to resign to the fact that it is too late as he closes with the eerily poignant lines:

“This is damage
This is permanent damage”

I’m probably way off track here and we probably are dealing with a cut-and-dry album that talks of the pangs and pains of relationships as opposed to all these political undercurrents I feel like I’m introducing for my own personal gratification, but whatever way you chose to approach Haswell’s album, whether that be from the heartbroken, love-damaged relationship perspective or the eerily similar political aspect, you can’t deny that this is a finely polished and intelligently crafted album that manages to plant itself nicely between the familiar and the ever-so-slightly uncoventional, and pulls it off very well indeed.