Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Loma – Loma

The fact that Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg has chosen this musical path following 2016’s Jet Plane and Oxbow is heartening. For me, Cross Record’s Wabi-Sabi, released the same year, succeeded in all the ways JPAO stumbled – by paying heed to nuance, texture, atmosphere. JPAO felt like it was over-reaching, striving in vain for universality. Loma is intimacy incarnate.

The backstory goes some way towards explaining how this album ended up sounding the way it does. Shearwater and Cross Record (Emily Cross and Dan Duszynski) toured together, then Meiburg invited the duo to collaborate with him – but it's not quite the simple overlap between Shearwater and Cross Record one might expect. Meiburg's presence is subtle rather than overt. It's only really on mesmerising closer 'Black Willow' that Meiburg's voice is clearly heard, his backing vocals blending with Cross to create something both eerie and reassuring. In writing songs for Cross to sing, Meiburg has retreated to a more affecting songwriting style that brings out the best in everyone involved. The result is an album on which every moment feels lovingly crafted and deeply felt.

Whether tracing out delicate spider webs of sound ('I Don't Want Children'), digging deep into nightmarish ambient-rock ('White Glass') or channelling the beauty of late-era Talk Talk ('Sundogs'), Loma perpetually shifts across its 10 songs, while each piece feels drawn from the same well of inspiration. Learning that Cross and Duszynski's marriage came to an end during the album's creation only lends it further resonance.

I am extremely here for these songs, this sound. I hear vulnerability, sadness, defiance and tenderness. I feel it deeply. Over and over again. I doubt I'll hear a better record this year – and it's only March.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Tor Lundvall – A Dark Place

Discovering the work of Tor Lundvall has been something of a revelation. The prolific ambient musician and painter has released nearly 20 albums in the last 20 years, both independently and via Dais Records, yet I only heard of him last month when the single 'Quiet Room' was released from his new vocal-led album A Dark Place. Luke Turner of The Quietus described it as "the sweet spot between Talk Talk and Slowdive's underrated Pygmalion" – my interest was immediately piqued.

Digging back through Lundvall's discography unearths a very deliberate, consistent aesthetic. Each release tends to be themed around a sense of place, our relationship to nature, the weather or a time of day (e.g., Rain Studies, The Park, Night Studies, The Shipyard). A Dark Place, though notably nocturnal in feel, is more of a metaphorical place – the space one enters alone while reflecting upon our mortality. It's no surprise to learn that the album was influenced by the recent loss of Lundvall's father.

While his ambient albums create a lovingly rendered instrumental space for exploration on headphones, A Dark Place features Lundvall's vocal musings front and centre. He emotes in a mesmerisingly neutral tone, which creates a curious effect. His vocal presence is the focus on each of these eight tracks, yet his delivery and lyrics seem to do everything they can to slip into the shadows so the music can do the talking.

The music itself is typically beautiful for a Lundvall album, with plenty of focus on weighty, looped figures that exhale eerie reverb trails. Befitting a vinyl release it works well as a two-sided experience. Side openers 'Quiet Room' and 'Negative Moon' feel like companion tracks with their insistent bass pulse. At its conclusion, side A feels like it's fading away with 'The Invisible Man', while side B ends on a more hopeful note with the beautiful, lilting 'The Next World'.

Listening to several of Lundvall's previous instrumental albums while waiting for this release felt like stumbling upon a treasure trove, each release fully realised and deeply emotive. My expectations for A Dark Place were high. While there's an undeniably compelling atmosphere to this release, the vocal focus means there's less space for Lundvall's immersive environments to work their magic. As a result, the listener is left in a state of suspension, pulled between the worlds of ambient and downtempo pop. Nonetheless, this release is a grower – and a worthwhile introduction to Lundvall's immense discography.

[A Dark Place is available as a digital download via Bandcamp, and on vinyl from Dais Records.] 


Tuesday, 20 February 2018

The Amazing – 'Pull'

Sweden's The Amazing are, predictably, amazing. They've been releasing albums since 2009, crafting music akin to Nick Drake reimagined by early Verve. (Plus it doesn't hinder matters to have Dungen's masterful Reine Fiske on electric guitar.)

In-keeping with their apposite band name, new song 'Pull' really pulls you in with its density and gravitas. It's an exquisite bummer of a track, fading gently into existence and lolling around in gorgeous melancholy for the majority of its 7.5-minute run-time. But there are at least two alchemical moments when the song shifts into another dimension and makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. The first point of take-off is 2:13, when fresh waves of heavily effected guitars loom into view, carrying the song into similar territory to My Bloody Valentine. Then, at 4:56, the dreamy guitars get sucked through a flanger (a classic Slowdive trick), making the song soar even more majestically.

While there's currently no mention of a new album, fingers crossed that 'Pull' is taken from a forthcoming record that will no doubt prove to be another essential addition to The Amazing's stellar discography.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Sleep Decade – Collapse

While I can identify plenty of beloved precedents for Sleep Decade’s new album Collapse – Bark Psychosis, Low and Slint come to mind – there’s a dark magic at work here that makes it unique, rather than a studied retread of atmospheric guitar music of years gone by. Everything about Collapse feels carefully considered to extract maximum resonance from minimum instrumental ingredients – and the effects are devastating.

Upon first listen there’s an immediate sense of weight to the sound, thanks to meticulous production work from Casey Hartnett, Nick Huggins and Lawrence Greenwood, and mastering by the legendary Rashad Becker. However, Collapse is no one-dimensional doom-fest. The poised performances and enveloping low end are counterbalanced beautifully by the vulnerability of Hartnett’s vocals, especially when he is joined by Laura Baxter on ‘Bind Particles’ and ‘Hologram’ to trace out the lyrics’ faintly hopeful refrains. Quicksilver bursts of brass, woodwinds and synthesizer shine aching light on these emotive soundscapes.

Bookended by instrumentals, the songwriting on Collapse constantly feels threatened by entropy, with both ‘Transparent’ and ‘Bind Particles’ bleeding out in gaseous swells of tone. On the climactic ‘Exploding Suns’, a more destructive force leans in to clear a path, but rather than erupt into a cathartic storm of fuzz and noise, the restraint is unbelievable, reminiscent of how Earth sustain such churningly slow, gouging tempos. On the concluding title track, there’s no sense of resolution, just dissolution as billowing clouds of synth and brass lay waste to the sonic field.

A deeply immersive listen, and occasionally overwhelming, Collapse is definitely worth investing time in. It’s far from a summery experience, but as the Australian autumn approaches, I foresee spending plenty of fruitful headphone hours exploring its shadowy depths.

[Collapse is available in digital and vinyl formats from Sleep Decade’s Bandcamp page.]

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Auburn Lull – Hypha

Back when I used to buy CDs, I ended up with two copies of Auburn Lull’s 1999 debut, Alone I Admire, which is a majestic slice of dreamy guitar surge. Comparing that cloud-scaling opus with new album Hypha, their first album in nine years, is like comparing a cathedral to a meticulously maintained garden. I stand in awed witness to Alone I Admire, amen; I live inside Hypha’s minutely detailed ecosystem and feel the profound loneliness of nature.

Thanks to being on emailing terms with Auburn Lull’s Jason Kolb, I’ve learned that the sound of Hypha evolved from the band taking battery-powered music gear on camping trips. Kolb describes these trips as “electronic/pulse-heavy sessions in the middle of nowhere, with the sound of wind, crickets, birds, etc. in the background and the natural reverb of the surroundings”. Knowing this makes perfect sense when listening to these 36 minutes of carefully crafted sound.  

While the band’s Hiber EP (released on cassette in 2014 by Geographic North), plus two albums by Billow Observatory (Kolb’s collaboration with Jonas Munk), partly prepared me for Hypha’s minimalism, I’m still coming to terms with exactly how minimal it is. At times, listening to Hypha feels like walking into a stark white room, turning around and not being able to find the door.

Despite spending several months with this record, I still feel as though it’s evading my efforts to apprehend its secrets. To step inside its intimidating, glacial spaces means being rendered paralysingly lonely by the music, while being simultaneously reassured by Sean Heenan’s comforting vocal presence and koan-esque lyrical fragments. It’s a work of art that makes me feel all-too human – and for that I feel thankful.  

Thursday, 7 December 2017

My 10 favourite albums of 2017

1. Chad VanGaalen – Light Information (Sub Pop)
The man who produced Women’s eternal Public Strain offers up his own bid for eternity with his best solo album to date, a masterful take on guitar pop that takes a skewed look at 21st-century consciousness and offers a pillow for our wounded souls.

2. Art Feynman – Blasting Off Through the Wicker (Western Vinyl)
The man behind Here We Go Magic goes minimal, goes deep, and lays it all out on four track like a lo-fi road map. Head-noddy, funky and scratches all of my itches at once. A worthy successor to Arthur Russell.

3. Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins (RCA)
The four Grizzlies have left Brooklyn and scattered themselves across America, and in the process have created their deepest, darkest, most satisfying record to date. Ed Droste’s divorce may have been off limits to interviewers, but the pain of something ending and the hope of something beginning permeates this record like shadows and daylight.

4. Richard Dawson – Peasant (Weird World)
The one-of-a-kind songsmith from Newcastle has crafted an epic record as gnarled and beautiful as a storm-damaged tree. A righteous call for community at a time of individualism, narcissism and violence.

5. Machine Translations – Oh (Spunk)
Greg Walker follows up my favourite album of 2013 with my close-to-favourite album of 2017, the songwriting as excellent as ever, but ricocheting with more pitch-bent guitars.

6. Moses Sumney – Aromanticism (Jagjaguwar)
Like shining an ultraviolet light on the ocean, Sumney shows us how deep human loneliness goes. And it’s deep. Falsetto of the year, too.

7. Rafael Anton Irisarri – The Shameless Years (Umor Rex)
Every year there’s one ambient/drone/noise album that turns me inside-out. This year it was made by the man formerly known as The Sight Below. He sends us ploughing face-first into the earth’s crust, delving down, down, down into gorgeous aching misery, churning onward until you see the light at the end of the tunnel. And it’s blinding.

8. Liars – TFCF (Mute)
Angus Andrews is as beautifully incomprehensible as ever. TFCF keeps me listening because I have no fucking idea what’s going on. Despite this, and probably because of it, I know it’s brilliant.

9. Sontag Shogun – Patterns for Resonant Space (Youngbloods)
A wonderfully minimal, tactile record. Its creation started off with samples, then was decorated with delicate piano, rather than the other way around. Like receiving a massage from insects.

10. Everything Everything – A Fever Dream (Sony)
I don’t normally like epic, danceable rock, but Everything Everything are smart enough to juxtapose their shamelessly anthemic melodies with just enough left-field production wizardry to keep things compelling. A fist-pumper for the apocalypse.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Feather Beds – Blooming

Michael Orange (The Star Department, Soft Bones) is a chef of the sublime, bringing familiar musical elements together so beautifully that it occasionally defies belief. Don’t get me wrong, the recipe is simple: impossibly dreamy washes of guitars, synths and other hard-to-identify textures, juxtaposed against crisp drum patterns. On recent single ‘Soft Yellow’, the real magic lies in the drop at 2:29 – the moment after the break when the beat returns, ratcheted up a notch, and the song starts to run away at a heady clip, chased by a gorgeous synth melody, raising the hairs on the back of your neck. Get a load of this:

Elsewhere, the momentum is sustained from the get-go by surges of guitars ('Drip Feed'), or is withheld in favour of vertiginous, atmospheric drifting ('Fear of Water'). While Feather Beds' debut The Skeletal System sounded more vulnerable and home-spun, Blooming feels lush and robust, able to carry the listener a significant distance, suspended aloft on clouds of ambient-pop.

The only criticism I could level at this release is that Michael’s vocal melodies tend to follow a similar contour from song to song, but when the overall feel of the album is this beatific, such nit-picking feels mean-spirited. Especially when not a moment is wasted across these 35 minutes. The only option is to go back for more.

And the more I listen to Blooming, the more it keeps, y’know, what’s the word...

[Blooming is released on Moderna Records on 27th October.]