What’s that you’re playing? April 2018 reviews

image: Kyle Armstrong and Mark Templeton www.fieldsawake.com

Reviews of what I’m loving right now in ambient, downtempo and genres we don’t even have names for yet. Albums by Tom Middleton, Alecsi, Moderna Records, Porya Hatami & Arovane and The Heart Is Awake.

Sleep Better (UMC)


Although he’s usually associated with club music, versatile DJ/composer/producer Tom Middleton has also created some bonafide classics of ambient and downtempo electronica over the last 25 years. Notably, three albums with Global Communication and his stellar solo outing Lifetracks (2007). He recently become a sleep science coach and his new double-length deep ambient opus Sleep Better is – conceptually at least – a surprising and fascinating departure into therapy music. Now, ‘relaxation music’ as a genre is usually utterly barren creatively, yet I find this album an exception that works on both musical and functional levels. The beatless, glacially morphing cycles of sound are certainly conducive to relaxation and heavy eyelids, while texturally and harmonically it’s often seductively spacey and lush. The piano-led progression of “Lake” and “Awakening” is hands down one of the prettiest things he’s ever done. Whether it’s bed time or just chill time, Sleep Better is the business.

033186 (Bandcamp)


The thrill of unearthing and sharing obscure gems like this is one of the reasons I’m still doing what I do. Alesci is from Vancouver and 033186 – named after his birthday – is his debut album. As a piece of nature-inspired ambient it’s strikingly original. Instead of simply backgrounding his pastoral tones with environmental sounds, he’s kind of re-imagined how the natural world might sound on a hypersensitive and microscopic level. The resulting ambient electronica is often brilliant, a complete integration of fidgety sounds and tonal synths that’s far more soothing than the concept might suggest. When experimental music breaks through like this, when it becomes accessible and musical without losing its originality, it’s kind of humbling to witness. The closest comparison I can think of is the music of Ishq (Matt Hillier) but, honestly, I’ve run out of words.

Intervals (Moderna Records)


Québec’s mod classical label Moderna Records strikes just the right tone for International Piano Day with these eight exclusive tracks from its own artists as well as several guests. All the pieces on Intervals are contemplative and have that slightly experimental bent that distinguishes Moderna’s releases, such as the scratchy sounds of prepared piano. It’s sometimes melancholy but always warm, bathed in filtered sunlight and shimmering reflections. Ed Carlsen’s “Bliss” is a standout here, a series of spine-tingling keyboard harmonies with cello accompaniment.

Kaziwa (n5MD)


In the crowded ambient-piano-with-electronica space, Kaziwa stands well above the pack. This is a low key collaboration from a few years back between Iranian composer Porya Hatami and Germany’s Arovan, now reissued by the n5MD label to catch a new wave of listeners. Simple but sophisticated piano figures are cradled with spare synths and varied sound design. Each track is its own little universe and very much stands alone compared to, say, the drifting continuity of a classic Budd & Eno album. Sometimes pretty, sometimes dark-edged and strange, always compelling.

Ecosphere (Six Degrees)


This is gorgeous old-school drone-based exotica, steeped in the scared music and modes of the Indian subcontinent, played by multi-instrumentalist and harmonic throat singer Shingetsu Billy White. His sounds include bowls, droning tanpura, harmonium, flutes, acoustic guitar, synths and light percussion, often accompanied by the otherworldly buzz of his Tibetan-style overtone singing. The incense-soaked sound is a familar one in the ambient zone – perhaps too familiar for some – but the standard of execution and White’s exceptional poise make Ecosphere special. A must for fans of deep Eastern voyagers like David Parsons, David Hykes and early Deuter.


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