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

Reviews of what I’m loving right now in ambient, downtempo and genres we don’t even have names for yet. New albums by Brian Eno, Jeff Greinke, One Arc Degree, Bruno Sanfilippo, Kuba, Peppermoth, I-One, Baby Grand and Shunkan Idou.

Music For Installations (Opal)

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Okay, I recant: not all the ambient that Brian Eno has created for art installations is limited, functional wallpaper. I just never got to hear the sounds on Music for Installations. The new album contains over five hours of music, dating mostly from the mid 90’s onward, either never released or only featured on absurdly limited edition CD’s. This is his best ambient album since the Fripp collaboration The Equatorial Stars (2003), the only other Eno ambient release since the 90’s that I rate highly. It’s all classically Eno, and quite cool and clinical in places, yet overall there is more textural and tonal variety, more human warmth and more simple musicality than I’ve heard in Eno’s ambient world for a long time. Its best pieces – including “Kazakhstan” “I Dormienti” and all of 4th disc “Making Space” – are both calming and thoughtful, sprinkled with guitar, piano, voice bytes and other tonal spices not of pure electronic origin. This electro-acoustic space is where his most powerful instrumental music has usually come from; what a joy it is to visit it anew.

The Glow Beneath (Synphaera)

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Third album, third masterwork. As they’ve done so impressively with each successive album, versatile electronica duo One Arc Degree once again take a different stylistic focus on their latest long player. This time the grounding is very much in the 4/4 pulses of dub techno. Astonishingly, they’ve brought a whole new level of musicality to this subgenre without crowding out the oceanic ‘dubmarine’ reverberations so fundamental to the style. The Glow Beneath is an absolute must for lovers of dance music-savvy chillout, in fact anyone who loves ambient beats with heart and brains. Now, please excuse me while I go and take another dive in this magnificent dubalicious ocean of tech.

And Dream Of (Club Grand/Bandcamp)

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And Dream Of is lush retro lounge and bachelor pad music done with an incredibly deft touch by UK composer Barry Thompson and friends. Think bossa nova beats, lazy island grooves, Havana breezes, Euro soundtracks and the ghosts of Les Baxter and Mantovani. Yet, like more recent chillout classics by UK acts like Bent and Kinobe, it’s done with a nod and a wink and the subtle but unmistakable touch of modern electronica that distinguishes it from its sources. Texturally it’s perfect; the strings are so insanely sumptuous it blows my mind that Thompson is not conducting a full live orchestra. The airy female vocals on several tracks are pure sex, especially on the title track, an Ennio Morricone pastiche that could have come straight from one of Italian director Dario Argento’s super stylish 70’s thrillers.

Perspective (Cosmicleaf)

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This is a phenomenal debut album from a new Greek-based duo. The electronica of Perspective sits comfortably enough under Cosmicleaf’s broad banner of eclectic downtempo and melodic psychill, but it’s also something distinctive and new. Much of the album sits in a unique space somewhere between IDM techno, space ambient and the sadder, more sombre corners of beatless film music. To call it ‘chill’ wouldn’t do it justice. It hovers on the edges of darkness without dousing you in dissonance, its shadowy moods finely balanced by the harmonic beauty of its bleeps and washes. I love the restraint of the album’s first 30 minutes, the tendency towards spare arrangements, the emotional power that comes from what’s left unsaid. Kudos to Nick at Cosmicleaf for the discovery; every year he broadens the label’s repertoire with a few surprises and this one is a keeper.

Before Sunrise (Spotted Peccary)

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Active since the 80’s, American composer Greinke remains the musical equivalent of a gifted impressionist painter. But where once it was often pure electronic soundscapes,recently there’s been a change. The gorgeous and atmospheric Before Sunrise finds him crafting a kind of 21st century chamber music enhanced with subtle electronica. Sometimes it’s clearly composed, like the layered, spinning melodies of “Under Falling Stars”. At other times the players are improvising, and their sounds – piano, cello, viola, winds, brass, and vibraphone – are deconstructed into varying degrees of blur and drone. “Slow Train on an Open Plain” is but one standout example, and overall it’s a beautifully rounded album. Before Sunrise is a good deal more spaced out than the mod classical of its predecessor Scenes From A Train (2013); it feels like the full flowering of an intriguing new direction.

Glimmer Tide (Eccodek/Six Degrees)

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Fans of mod classical, ambient jazz, and the art rock sensibilities of Jon Hassell and Harold Budd will all find much to love on this brilliant second album by Peppermoth, a loose assemblage of players revolving around Canadian multi-instrumentalist Andrew McPherson. Instruments like piano, trumpet and upright bass mesh with analog synths and weird tape manipulations on 11 diverse pieces that range from chamber music to post-rock reveries to stark soundscapes.  I suppose its experimental music but it’s also melodic, proving the two are not mutually exclusive. What’s really striking about Glimmer Tide is how spare the sound is. Instead of soaking the spaces in between with reverb to create size and scale, the space remains largely empty, allowing every instrument and sound its own distinct place and creating a beautiful intimacy in the process.

Unity (Dronarivm)

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Active since the 90’s, Bruno Sanfilippo is one of the most gifted and sensitive artists working on the ambient/mod-classical axis. With his new album Unity words like refined, emotional and regal all come to mind. Conceptually it’s all pretty familiar for the style – mostly melodic piano-led pieces, elegantly crafted, sometimes with violin, cello or choral layers. Emotionally, though, the album is as rich and beguiling as anything in the genre. Top and tailing the album are two exceptions to his piano-led sound, and very good ones. “Spiral” is a haunting, understated prologue for organ, synths and female choir. The exquisitely beautiful closing piece is a stately, circular progression of synths, cellos, choir, trumpet, piano and harp, ending with a long, looping coda before finally dissolving in a bed of soft bleepy loveliness.

Animalia (Liquid Sound Design)

Singularity (Liquid Sound Design)

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Liquid Sound Design (yeah, LSD) is owned by esteemed dub and electronica producer Youth and was resurrected in 2015 after a long hiatus. LSD currently has two fine albums out which, interestingly, largely avoid dub styles, demonstrating both the label’s depth and breadth.

The polished downtempo grooves of Animalia from UK artist Kuba come at you in an unassuming way, but they really reward after repeated listens. “Before They Slip Away” is a sparkling slice of exotic midtempo house, its simple groove providing the backdrop for stuttering guitar licks and bubbling xylophones. Both “Submission” and “Room With A View” are cut from the same cloth as chillout master Abakus at his best, with that same distinctive combo of pop smarts, crisp gleaming surfaces and a subtle lysergic glow.

By contrast, Singularity by I-One (Czech multi-instrumentalist Ivan Jasek) is a one-hour psychedelic tapestry that’s quite unlike any electronica coming out of the psychill universe right now. Nominally it contains 9 tracks but it really needs to be a heard in a single sitting. If you remember The Orb’s surreal epic “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain” you’ll have some idea of what to expect. It’s beatless but episodic, meshing euphoric glides, cosmic arpeggios and meditative interludes, laced with voice and nature samples. It’s a trip and a half, somehow fresh in 2018 and perfect music for psychonauts.


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