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Occasional Environs (Tom Roberts)

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Reveling in distraction, Tom Roberts explores achievements in atmospheric sound from 2002, as well as some nice corresponding landscapes.

Occasional Environs (Tom Roberts)

As many great records as there are in any given year, I’m generally at a loss for any single unifying factor that doesn’t verge on abstraction, as well as a tone that isn’t pointlessly authoritative. Given the subjective nature of the whole affair, I would assert that greatness is not only a relative quality, but may well be a circumstantial one. Likewise, the beauty of these moments is contingent on the environments that frame them. Broad criteria, I suppose, for a discussion of accomplishment, and yet there does appear to a greater focus of late on ambient content, in both experimental music and more traditional forms of composition. The phenomenon is not so limited to the IDM framework as it was in the past, surfacing in noise, improvisational, and lo-fi contexts, as well as they occasional pop song. These are some recent records that manage to complement, or create, an environment, as well as some contextual suggestions that seemed appropriate.

Mick TurnerMoth (Drag City) - On his third solo effort for the Drag City imprint, Turner moves away from the layered effects that characterize his live performances and previous recordings, allowing rough, round chords a very lyrical autonomy. There’s an element of descending to the whole record, a body lying down more than an object falling, moments born less of mourning than a quiet tone of resignation. Michael Krassner contributes a somber, evangelical tone with his piano work, while Turner’s guitar phrasing summons the more romantic moments of Derek Bailey. Not to be discounted is the remarkable similarity Turner bears to one Sam Hunt. The textures on Moth define the coalescence of dry cold, arid electric heat, and woolen static that makes your hair straighter than it really is in winter.

Dino FelipeFlim Toby (Schematic) - With roots in the noise-cassette underground, and a rather unapologetic approach to recording, Dino Felipe is the most compelling thing to ride out under the IDM banner in some time, as well as Schematic’s re-staked claim to schizophrenic party genius. Felipe wraps analog nostalgia, occasional perversion, and a micro-tonal sensibility in a single conceptual entity. Hi recent material on the Xanaconversex 12” explores dancier territory, and to pretty amazing effect, but the deliberate non-structure of Flim Toby suits his convoluted aesthetic a bit better. Toby, incidentally, is Felipe’s artistic counterpart, an earnest sentimentalist who balances the affinity for LSR-style laptop terrorism at the heart of the record. His skin is translucent, but in certain light you can discern the seahorses moving diagonally through his head.

Justin Shayshe said it looks like spring (We’re Twins) - Whether exploring jazz loops or quiet folk textures, Shay’s understated ruminations attain to a sincere sentimentality foreign to lo-fi ambient. His dexterity in sample selection and guitar phrasing is the stuff of reticent genius, and even dancier tracks are respectful of an overarching atmospheric. “Mimi at Fifteen” could be the romantic heir to Fahey’s “Sligo River Blues,” while other tracks entail a subtle paranoia. At either extreme, the music is generally impressionistic, almost fragile, like morning indigestion, and vaguely beautiful, like the second-hand immediacy of records playing in the next room.

Ekkehard EhlersPlays (Staubgold) - Compiles five 7” and 12” singles that Ehlers has released over the past two years, each in tribute to a different maverick genius of music, film, or literature. The devotional concept is evident but never obtrusive, and Plays functions primarily as a monolithic experiment in form. Like his occasional collaborator Christian Fennesz, Ehlers taps the latent potential of emotional resonance in just about everything: shuffling digital improvisation, jazz samples, course drones, and drum kicks. He even rounds out the record with a micro-house workout worthy of Thomas Brinkman. Soundtracks for myopic, clumsy children moving wistfully in half-time.

LambchopIs a Woman (Merge) - I didn’t much appreciate this record until I saw it performed last winter, when Kurt Wagner presented much of the material in the sextet format. The relative austerity of the performance served to highlight Tony Crow’s work on piano, and the only real departure from instrumental convention was the ethereal sounds drifting from the rear of the stage. Working tapes, acetone, and occasional guitar drones, the ambient contribution joined Wagner’s bizarre lyrical vision to form a thoughtful anomaly to gentrified country music. On Is a Woman, the soundscape technique is most evident on the first two tracks, a cold cotton pillow for the increasingly solitary tone of the balladry. By “Bugs,” the atmosphere is integrated in the compositions, a stark contrast to the beautifully garish production on Nixon and What Another Man Spills. I’d like to imagine it as a response to David Berman’s “tape hiss in the trees” line on Bright Flight, a dialogue among Nashville’s ramshackle intelligentsia: ambient sound observed in environment, and compartmentalized in an overtly pop structure.

BiosphereShenhzou (Touch) - A Leonard Bernstein for the headphone set, Geir Jennsen does justice to the music of Claude Debussy, arranging orchestral fragments in anxious ambient passages. The distinctive production on Shenhzou highlights the bass and timpani of the source material, and often augments these anchor elements with synth drones. The result is a dense, teeming field of sound, from which melodic phrases occasionally rise, arc sharply, and fall quietly to the swell until the loop renews itself. Like all of Jennsen’s Biosphere material, there’s a sense of the crepuscular metropolis at work, mechanical activity turned organic because someone deigned to look at it that way, to score it with music like this, to frame the whole scenario in nascent morning light.

Keith Fullerton WhitmanPlaythroughs (Kranky) - Kranky releases nearly dominated my autumn, with this, Out Hud’s S.T.R.E.E.T. D.A.D. and the Christmas Decorations LP dropping right around the same time. Playthroughs absconds from the breakbeat fixation central to Whitman’s Hrvatski material, stretching the theoretical focus of his music to encompass minimalism. Whitman’s basic premise, guitar tones subject to laptop treatment, is straightforward enough, but he shapes the material with a techno predilection for drama, allowing each track to culminate through gradual layering. The music itself is still, almost barren in its concision, but gestures to intense, fervent activity beyond an observational threshold, like cold windowpanes in a warm, static sitting room.

Black DiceBeaches and Canyons (DFA) - Atmospheric doesn’t begin to do justice to this record: less environmental than birthing an environment entirely its own. On Beaches and Canyons, they work their way through improvisational ambient and exercises in ephemeral ascension until it comes full circle, rock music transfigured, to channel brutal guitar textures in the full group dynamic. “The Big Drop,” incidentally, is the single most redeeming thing I can recall from last August. Black Dice plays the way you should live: bombastic, craven, psycho-spiritual, and ethereal.

Client/ServerEnd of Client/Server (Three Lonely Kaiju) - “And yet the notes recur. They hover oddly in anticipation of silence.”

ReqSketchbook (Warp) - The man behind Req spends his time producing arabesque graffiti art in Brighton, England, which would somewhat account for the impressionistic hip hop beats on Sketchbook. More anonymous, and less synthetic, than much of the recent Warp fare, the tracks imply dancing but with no requisite for human participation. Weather patterns, insects, concrete, and the like have equal priority in the Req abstraction of synchronized movement.

Sigur Ros() (MCA/Fat Cat) - Bearing less overt production than Agaetis Byrjun, the new recording finds Sigur Ros in a more corporeal, but no less ambient, form, trading ephemeral removal for more organic realms. On the latter half of the album, the technique manifests itself in two ways, mostly as somber, gorgeous psych, with occasional forays into medieval melodrama in the minor key. Still, the record’s opening suite is enough to validate the band’s entire oeuvre: framed in piano contemplation, everything is rising, as isolation resolves itself in solitary triumph. “Alafoss” is the little boy on the album cover, lifted by invisible hands. Music for train travel, commuters borne forward not so much by industrial propulsion as a crowded, collective will, emanating from a singular instant of surrender and a decentralized personal gravity.

Phill NiblockG2,44+/x2 (Moikai) - In theory, this recording does as much to validate the ethos of American minimalism as In C and Dreyblatt’s Modal Excitation, the complexity of presumed austerity, perceived here through two juxtaposed approaches to a single extended note. Toral’s production derives delicate, shifting planes from static sound, while Jim O’Rourke fields an opposite extreme of tonal collision and channel manipulation. In practice, the two 30-minute pieces, each about as long as a television sitcom, have the potential to encapsulate an entire human experience, departure to arrival.

By Tom Roberts

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