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Best CDs of 2009

 

Electronic

 

Best Overall (tie): Javi Canovas "In This Moment, In This Place"

Best Overall (tie): Ramp "Debris"

 

These were both such excellent CDs in their own way. Javi's is everything I love about melodic upbeat Berlin school with dashes of all my favorites seemingly mixed in - Redshift, Radio Massacre International, Tangerine Dream, and more.

 

Stephen Parsick's Ramp project is the bolder, edgier one that goes for the darker side of Redshift as well as Node, and just nails it. Best yet Stephen, great job!

 

And the rest, in alphabetical order...no descriptions this year, see the reviews, several of which are new this month on the Reviews page.

 

Blutiger Fluss "Extrema"

Broekhuis, Keller & Schonwalder "Blue"

John Christian "Susbarbatus"

Joost Egelie "Music For Mars Missions"

Jeffrey Koepper "Quadranteon"        

Pollard-Daniel-Booth "Pollard-Daniel-Booth"

Radio Massacre International "E-Live 2008"

Erik Wollo & Bernhard Wostenrich "Arcadia Borealis"

 

Best Free Download: Joost Egelie "Boundaries of Infinity" (not counting his Top Ten album above - both are free downloads)  

                        

Best New Artist (tie): Blutiger Fluss and Joost Egelie                  

 

Ambient

 

Best Overall (tie): 3 Seconds of Air "The Flight of Song"

Best Overall (tie): Steve Roach "Immersion: Four"

 

Steve Roach and Dirk Serrie (vidnaObmana) haven't collaborated in a while, but they both reached the pinnacle of 2009 releases in my opinion. Dirk's side project 3 Seconds of Air produced a unique CD in early krautrock improvisational style that really spoke to me in a way that's hard to describe. Just trying to decide which category to put it in wasn't easy - it's not exactly Electronic or Ambient, but it does have the floating characteristics I associate with the latter, so here it is.

 

As for Steve, he is of course no stranger to the top spot in my year-end polls. He had several releases this year, and others could've made the top ten but I wanted to make room to mention other artists. Of the many he did put out in 2009, my favorite, and the truest ambient in my estimation, is the fourth in his superb Immersion series. Warm and inviting, this is 70 minutes that you don't want to end.

 

And the rest, in alphabetical order...again, see the Reviews page.

 

Between Interval "The Edge of a Fairy Tale"

Max Corbacho "Ars Lucis"

Robert Davies "Gallery of Spirits" review coming next month

Forrest Fang "Phantoms"

Igneous Flame & Disturbed Earth "Harmonium"

Elisa Luu "Chromatic Sigh" review coming next month

Mark Mahoney "Beyond the Vaulting Sky"

Spiraleye "Still"                  

     

Best Free Download: 2009 "Wixel - Clouds"

                   

Congratulations to all these excellent musicians and their albums that made this year's list.

 

 

The Best CDs of 2008

 

Electronic

 

Best Overall: Free System Projekt "Narrow Lane" - I make no apologies for loving the pure retro EM sound, and neither does FSP, a band whom I’ve loved from the beginning. But Narrow Lane takes their Berlin school approach to another level, and it was an easy choice for my favorite CD of 2008.

 

And the rest, in alphabetical order...

 

Cosmic Hoffmann “Outerspace Gems” – We are talking serious outerspace journey here. More excellent music from Klaus Hoffmann-Hoock’s archives.

 

Evan Marc + Steve Hillage "Dreamtime Submersible" - Trance-inducing pulsations run through the entire CD, an active rhythmic treat from newcomer Evan Marc and seasoned veteran Steve Hillage. Superb.

 

Jeffrey Koepper "Sequentaria" -  A perfect blend of melodic synths and sequencing; I’ve enjoyed every CD Koepper has put out, and he seems to only improve with each release. Don’t be surprised to see his early 2009 release Luminosity on next year’s list.

 

Logic Gate "Voyages" - For Schmoelling era TD fans, it doesn’t get much better than Steve Grace’s sophomore release.

 

Radio Massacre International "Philadelphia Air-Shot" - RMI took their track “Bettr’r Day-S” and converted it from a solid 11:45 track to an improvisational masterpiece running nearly an hour. My runner-up choice for best of the year.

 

Radio Massacre International "Rain Falls In A Different Way" - Having been weaned into the space rock thing over the past few years by these guys, I was ready to enjoy it this time – and wasn’t surprised when I did.

 

Redshift "Turning Towards Us" - Redshift has perfected their ballsy, aggressive take on the retro sound and created something wholly their own.

 

Spyra "Gasoline 91 Octane" - When I want something a little more diverse than my usual Berlin school favorites, particularly for driving music, I almost always reach for Spyra. My most played disc last summer.

 

VoLt "HjVi" - Four side-long slabs of retro music in the very capable hands of Michael Shipway and Steve Smith.

 

Best New Electronic Artist: Gert Blokzjil - Haven’t heard of him yet? You will. Check your Groove sampler Analogy Volume 3, and then look for his new release coming soon, which he was kind enough to send me an early CDR version of. This guy’s good.

 

 

Ambient

 

Best Overall Ambient:  Steve Roach & Erik Wøllo "Stream of Thought" - If you get tired of me picking Steve Roach for the best ambient CD every year, tell him to stop making such damn good music. On second thought, please don’t.

 

And the rest of the ambient best in alphabetical order...

 

Max Corbacho "BreathStream" - Best pure floating ambient CD of 2008.

 

Glen Darcey "Ambiata" - Wow, where did this guy come from? Ambient new age that goes down easy.

 

Robert Davies "Dawn" - I love Davies’ mellow sound, and this EP was a free download to boot, from http://www.dataobscura.com/free.php

 

Deepspace “Subantarctic Sessions” – Mirko Ruckels does it again with another totally cool deep ambient journey, perfect for your next space flight.

 

M Griffin "Fabrications" - Perhaps the most challenging and most creative ambient CD on this year’s list, Mike stretches the bounds of sound sources used for music.

 

Numina "Sound Symbols" - I’m listening to it again as I type up this Best Of list. Aah, so relaxing.

 

Robert Rich and Faryus "Zerkalo" - If you like your ambient a touch on the dark side, you can always count on Robert Rich, this time ably assisted by Russian musician Faryus.

 

Steve Roach "Landmass" - Just the right amount of pulsating rhythms make this ambient music on the move.

 

Steve Roach "A Deeper Silence" - How many cool floating 70+ minute tracks can one guy make?

 

Various Artists "Message from a Subatomic World" - This cohesive Hypnos compilation features favorites like Austere, Evan Bartholomew, Numina, Stephen Philips and Oöphoi, and adds several new names to watch and listen for.

 

Best New Ambient Artist: Glen Darcey - I love finding undiscovered gems like Glen’s Ambiata CD, and I hope there’s more where that came from.

 

 

 

January 2008

Best CDs of 2007

 

“And the award goes to…”

 

Electronic

 

Best Overall: Radio Massacre International “Rain Falls in Grey” – This is not pure electronic music, it is psychedelic space rock. However, I was so impressed with the musicianship, the passion, the boldness, and the overall sound of it that RMI totally won me over with an album that I frankly didn’t expect to like all that much. 

 

And the rest of the top 10 for 2007, in no particular order...

 

Redshift “Last” – The band is still recording, but had this been the last it would have been ending on a high note.

 

Klaus Hoffmann-Hoock and Bernard Wöstheinrich “Conundrum” – This was one of my favorite surprises of 2007, bursting with creative energy that stretches the bounds of retro and modern electronic music, creating something new in the process.

 

Mac “Silent Seas” – Mac of BIOnighT from Italy has been releasing a variety of creative solo albums, and this is my favorite so far. Also check out A Fake Live Album, both are excellent melodic Berlin school offerings.

 

Rudy Adrian “Par Avion” – Rudy sent me an advance copy of this in 2006, which I played to death at the time; I almost forgot that it was technically a 2007 release. Two albums in one, half Berlin school and half ambient, all excellent.

 

Fanger & Schönwälder “Analog Overdose 4” – Looking forward to #5 already.

 

Brendan Pollard “Flux Echoes” – Second solo effort from half of Rogue Element, classic analog sounds galore.

 

Frank Klare “Digitalic” – loops and beats on steroids, Schulze with attitude. Great workout music.

 

Indra “Tripura Sundari” – the cover looks like this would be ethnic music with a Middle Eastern flavor, but it is vintage Schulze done virtually as well as the master himself, circa 1976.

 

Klaus Schulze “Kontinuum” – Speaking of Klaus, he’s still around, and this album proves he should not retire anytime soon. “Sequenzer (From 70 to 07)” sums it up perfectly.

 

Free System Projekt “Gent” – Another great retro sounding band with perhaps their best yet. The TD sound from 1975 bottled and perfected.

 

Best New Artist: Hashtronaut – this year’s two free download releases (see below) were top notch, on the heels of some excellent 2006 releases.

 

 

Ambient

 

Best Overall (tie): Steve Roach “Immersion Three” – Perfect for deep chilling or drifting off to sleep, this is the biggest and best of the Immersion series so far. The packaging is as beautiful as the music in this 3-CD set. I don’t know how Steve keeps managing to top himself, but more power to him.

 

Best Overall (tie): Sleep Research Facility “Deep Frieze” – Refreshingly different, barely qualifying as music in the conventional sense, it is ambient in the purest sense. I find it totally captivating.

 

And the rest of the top 10 for 2007, again in no particular order...

 

Deepspace “The Barometric Sea” – Thoroughly soothing echoing soundscapes, with just the right balance between light and dark as expansive synth sounds breathe alongside sparse piano and other sounds, textures and treatments.

 

Jonathan Block & The Circular Ruins “Shadows on Water” – A great collaboration between two artists whose styles mesh well and result in something new.

 

Telomere “The Stellar Sea” – Chris McDonald playing his mighty Serge Modular. Look up at the stars while listening.

 

Pete Namlook & Tetsu Inoue “2350 Broadway 4” – The third in the series was long ago, so it was a welcome surprise when this one appeared. Minimal ambient at its best.

 

Numina “Symbiotic Spaces” – A 2-CD collection of new and previously unreleased tracks from Jesse Sola. This album has great flow, esp. for a compilation.

 

Natural Frequencies aka Andreas Leifeld “Tranquility in Motion” – A little more melodic than most ambient, accessible and yet fresh sounding.

 

Robert Rich “Illumination” – Mostly short snippets of dark ambience, signature Rich in bite-sized slices.

 

Beta Two Agonist “Zero Point Field” – A great new talent in ambient electronica from Databloem.

 

David Helpling & Jon Jenkins “Treasure” – A perfect blend of electronic and new age, plays like good soundtrack.

 

Best New Artist: Deepspace – Mirko Ruckels is a great new talent, a cross between Steve Roach and Stars of the Lid, with a dash of Budd and Eno.

 

 

Best Downloads

 

Radio Massacre International “October Gallery (redux)” – What a treat for RMI fans, the complete 1997 concert, which previously was available only in excerpts, on a CDR only available to those who attended the gig. Available exclusively at www.musiczeit.com, run by Ian Boddy and Graham Getty. I promptly, happily plunked down $13 for my copy, complete with all artwork with just a few points and clicks and a little ink from my printer. Thank you RMI and MusicZeit!

 

Lammergeyer “Backwater” EP – Free from Databloem, go to their website and get this.

 

Vir Unis “Henry Hud” – EP from AtmoWorks, soft ambient dedicated to John’s 2 year-old. Charming and without pretense.

 

Ion “Future Forever” – This might be available as a conventional CD also, but my copy was via download. Good electronics, great melodies.

 

Hashtronaut “Soundcheck 1970”

Hashtronaut “Event One” – Mick Daniel started strong with The Lambda Variant in 2006 and these new download releases are even better.

 

All features on this page © 2008 Phil Derby / Electroambient Space. Any reprint in whole or in part must be appropriately credited.

 

 

September 2007

Label Spotlight: Databloem

 

With this month’s interview with Databloem founder Dennis Knopper, it seemed an appropriate time to do a Label Spotlight on them again, including their new sublabels. They are releasing so much stuff it is hard to keep up with it all.  It’s a difficult job listening to all this great music, but here at EAS we are up to the task.

 

Amir Baghiri “Planet X”

(www.databloem.com, 2006)

9 tracks, 76.45 mins

 

From the Bluebox sublabel of Databloem comes Amir Baghiri’s Planet X, a unique blend of modern and tribal influenced recordings from 2003-2005. “Oort Cloud” makes for a quite primitive beginning with very ethnic sounding chanting and percussion, although synths are deftly folded into the mix as well, until it catches a vaguely jazz-like groove. Baghiri has always had a unique take on electronic music, and that ability is on full display in this unusual but effective number. Behind the groove are wide open expanses of sound like one might expect from Steve Roach, not to mention the aboriginal sounds that return for a time. We do shift down into deep space mode for the last couple of minutes, more befitting the track’s title. The title track comes next, a low bubbly bass sequence moving things into a more traditional Berlin school sound, albeit on the mellow side. It sets a subdued atmosphere early on that really works, an outstanding track. We drift slowly off into deep space in “Halley” and “Varuna,” moving on soft sound pillows. It grows gradually darker through these two, turning black by the end of “Varuna.” “Acheron” adds tribal beats but remains amongst the distant stars, as does the epic 21-minute “Quaoar.” Incidentally, all these titles are quite fun to look up on Wikipedia and will increase your knowledge of both astronomy and mythology. Fans of deep space and dark ambient music should really enjoy Planet X.

 

 

Beta Two Agonist “Zero Point Field”

(www.databloem.com, 2007)

8 tracks, 52.04 mins

 

Databloem is so good at finding new talent in ambient electronica, and they have really outdone themselves this time in bringing listeners the fresh sounds of Beta Two Agonist. From the opening floating ambience of “Midian” you will be drawn right in. It is sparse and yet lush as pinging experimental noises move deftly across a bed of warm synth pads. The music manages to be highly organic and highly synthetic in the same breath. One-word song titles conjure vaguely scientific or sci-fi imagery. Whether “Horta” is named after a creature from one of my favorite Star Trek episodes I can’t say, but it’s a cool notion regardless. Strings add a bit more melancholia to this one. though the relaxed effortlessness remains. “Cesar” is a bit more random, scattered bits of electronics jumping out here and there, though it too settles down into dreamier tones. The music is pretty in its own way, despite the frequent lack of a distinct melody or rhythmic component. “Geode” is the sort of pleasant sonic abstraction that Saul Stokes might come up with in a mellower moment. A crisp, quirky loop forms the foundation for “Rainbow,” with lots of other electronic sounds layered in to keep it company. Even when there’s a lot going on though, the mood remains laid back, even calm. A narrative about the properties of rainbows runs through the background in the latter part of the piece. Things gets a bit more glitchy but not overly so during “Inkling” and “Mesm.” “Fontana” finishes Zero Point Field in relaxed fashion. Highly recommended.

 

 

Robert Davies “Primordial”

(www.databloem.com, 2007)

10 tracks, 64.15 mins

 

I loved Robert Davies debut Sub Rosa, and his new release Primordial is just as good, again exploring various sonic niches of minimal ambience. “Carboniferous Mist” seems on the surface to not do particularly much, but it is a lovely atmospheric piece full of nuance, calming and tranquil.  Even softer is “Encrusted Alcoves,” with just a dash of pretty to it, though one will hardly mistake it for new age. Track titles like “Peat Bogs and Lycopods” conjure up the intended images of a primitive world from millions of years ago, when life was abundant but quite different, even alien by comparison to modern day, and that carries across in the music. There is a smooth easy flow to all of it, though each track paints its own distinctive picture. I can almost see the warm steam rising on both “Serpukhoven Swamp Steam” and “Paleozoic Humidity Rising.”“Crustacean Lake” shimmers with warmth, as does “Of Fern and Conifer.” Discernible melodies and rhythms are virtually absent throughout, as the music is all about floating atmospheres. Sit back, relax, and enjoy.

 

 

 

False Mirror “Chronostatic Scenes”

(www.databloem.com, 2007)

8 tracks, 63.06 mins

 

Databloem and dataObscura continue the label’s penchant for discovering new talent, in this case Germany’s Tobias Hornberger, who records as False Mirror. His debut CD Chronostatic Scenes is full of dark, primordial soup stuff of the sort that Robert Rich fans would do well to check out. “Plato’s Last Dream” sounds very much like the haunting lap guitar and deep organic drones that often open Robert’s albums. An effortless segue into “A Divine Passage” brings synths that wail plaintively. Colder and harsher is “Beyond the White Plainscapes,” the sonic equivalent of a cold dry desert wind.“The Tower of Deception,” is a gurgling heady brew of synthetic soundscapes. Strange softly clunking sounds appear in “Drift Towards Zero.” Water is a recurring theme, and appears prominently on “The Subterranean Border.” Rather than dripping or flowing, it sort of churns restlessly, becoming more active as it goes. “An Instant Drowning” adds white noise to the water, a seemingly monochromatic piece that is nonetheless fully engaging. The album is rich with textured sounds that are more like layered sound experiments than music at times, but the result is always interesting and in its own way quite soothing. Sometimes when I want to relax I want the music to be less intrusive, but more interesting than a simple drone, and Chronostatic Scenes fills the bill very nicely in that regard.

 

 

 

Mathias Grassow & Thomas Weiss “Insights”

(www.databloem.com, 2007)

5 tracks, 61.22 mins

 

On Databloem’s Practising Nature sublabel comes another new release from Germany’s Mathias Grassow and Thomas Weiss. Their Conscience CD was an excellent purely meditative CD, and Insights is equally good if slightly more active, though only relatively speaking. There is a surprisingly playful bouncing bass line in the undercurrent of “In,” the first track. But even the bass line is used in that repetitive, hypnotizing fashion that epitomizes Grassow’s style. More surprising is the appearance of sequencing as “Circles” fades in. Still, a choir hangs in the air saying “ah” into infinity, so this is still deeply trance-inducing stuff. And the loop is not your typical Berlin school fare, it has a quirky tribal yet modern percussive quality to it, very cool indeed. I still don’t know how they do it, picking a simple tone or phrase and making it so warm and soothing that it seems to echo forever, and you want it to. “Whole Pulse” arrives on a single drone after the various elements of “Circles” are gradually stripped away over its final minutes. The drone pulses slowly, and has a string sound that lends an orchestral feel, but it is a dark minimal symphony. Whereas “Circles” slowly evolved into distinct movements, “Whole Pulse” is only slight variants on itself over its 17 minutes, and as usual that’s just fine, perfect for contemplation or just tripping out. Brighter shimmers of sound herald “Language of Silence,” which adds just a bit of grit in the form of soft buzzes over the warm drones. Synthetic night sounds, almost alien, punctuate the air at the end. “Sights” is lighter than the rest, dreamy and ethereal, with gentle tribal elements as the disc draws to a close. As with many Grassow discs, you will be hard pressed to stay awake to the end, but you’ll be smiling while you dream. Grassow and Weiss make a winning team once again.

 

 

 

Off the Sky “Zero Point Field”

(www.databloem.com, 2007)

8 tracks, 52.04 mins

 

A child’s music box makes a conspicuous introduction to The Geist Cycles, the latest from Jason Corder aka Off the Sky. Ten short stories are told in electronics, samples, and glitch. In addition, Corder is joined by a host of others, apparently all from Lexington, Kentucky, united in a musical vision about “life in transit to afterlife.” Other instruments appearing include vocals, violin, cello, percussion and vibes, but all are carefully weaved into the whole so that individual contributions are not readily discernible. Corder’s approach makes experimental noise and fragments fit together like a unique abstract puzzle. The key is that the elements do come together into a cohesive sonic fusion. Some, like “Feather in a Needle,” are barely there, wisps of noise assembled quietly together. Others, like “The Persistence of Visions,” remain quiet but have bits that stand out more, in this case some punchy synthetic percussion. Percussion is even more prominent in “Of Acids and Angels,” but the modern electronica overshadows the tribal undertones; together they form a deep pulse that runs through it. Corder has a knack for making music that is both challenging and accessible, though I suppose the average person on the street might not think so – but if you are an EM fan at all, The Geist Cycles should not be that difficult to appreciate.

 

All reviews © 2007 Phil Derby / Electroambient Space. Any reprint in whole or in part must be appropriately credited.

 

 

 

January 2007 Feature

The Best Electronic and Ambient Music of 2006

 

I always love looking back at the past year and reflecting on all the great electronic music, and 2006 is no exception. From minimal drone music to tribal to synth pop to my favorite Berlin school, there was plenty to choose from. Here’s the ones that stood out to me, in approximate order:

 

Electronic

 

Radio Massacre InternationalLost In Space. This one should come as no surprise. A 6-CDR retrospective of my favorite EM band that had been in the works for a couple of years was finally released just before year-end. And I can say it was worth the wait, just a fantastic set from start to finish. My favorites are discs 3 and 4, but I enjoy it all. See the full review on this month’s Reviews page.

 

SpyraOrphan Waves. Another musician consistently at the top of my list, Wolfram der Spyra easily makes this year’s list with another cool set of tunes with his unique style of EM, blending bits of jazz, lounge, electronica, Berlin school, and whatever else strikes his fancy at any given moment. Brilliant.

 

RampOughtibridge. As much as Stephen Parsick tries to eschew the Berlin school label, rarely have I heard a better example of it than this. He likes to call it doombient; I like to call it fantastic. Think of a darker RMI and you’ve pretty much got the idea. And yes, this was technically a 2005 release, but I didn’t hear it until 2006. My webzine, my rules.

 

Fanger & SchönwälderAnalog Overdose 0.9  Somehow this series just keeps getting better every time, even when they start counting backwards.

 

Jeffrey Koepper – Momentium. Jeffrey had an awesome debut in Etherea and he does himself one better with his sophomore release. Deftly handled EM compositions, carefully crafted. 

 

Ian BoddyElemental. Dave Law at SMD said this is his favorite Ian Boddy album to date. I agree.

 

Steve RoachProof Positive. A perennial choice on my ambient list, Steve has been delving more into the purely electronic side of things lately, and this disc was a great hypnotic heady brew of electronics.

 

Klaus SchulzeIrrlicht. I don’t usually include reissues on my list, but this is one of my favorite KS discs, and it had an excellent 24-minute bonus track as well.

 

The Omega Syndicate – Apocalypse. A late addition to the list, check out the review in the Feb. 2007 issue on the Reviews page. Great stuff, and possibly a landmark in that Dave Law tells me his Neu Harmony label may be going to all-downloadable music, no pressed CDs anymore. If this is the last physical product from them, it is a worthy way to finish an era.

 

NattefrostAbsorbed in dreams and yearning. This one is a “sneaker” favorite, one that I originally found to be good but not great, but I find myself playing it more and more in recent weeks.

 

Frank Van BogaertOne Out Of Five. Beautiful packaging, beautiful retrospective of his music.

 

 

Ambient

 

Steve Roach & Loren NerellTerraform. There is a difference between good minimal ambient and great minimal ambient. Viva la difference.

 

Forrest Fang & Carl WeingartenInvisibility. This one really took me by surprise, though it shouldn’t have, given the superlative talent of these two. Put them together, and it turns out to be heaven. Ambient for active listening, as contradictory as that sounds.

 

Robert RichElectric Ladder. I played this to death for the first few months after I received it. Robert’s best work, and that’s saying something.

 

John VorusTransmuting Currents. John Vorus is easily my pick for favorite new ambient artist. A fantastic and daring debut, both the music and the packaging are stunning.

 

Between IntervalAutumn Continent. Another great new talent is Stefan Jonsson, who paints beautiful pictures both dark and light. From drones to softly structured Eno-esque soundscapes.

 

Rudy AdrianMoonWater. More beautiful ambience with delicate melodies from this talented New Zealander.

 

Max CorbachoThe Talisman. Pure float, I love my ambient like this.

 

Steve RoachImmersion : Two. Speaking of pure float, it doesn’t get any purer – or better – than this 74-minute loop.

 

Craig PadillaThe Light in the Shadow. The title of this 63-minute piece describes it perfectly, as light and shadow intertwine in supremely soothing fashion.

 

Dwight AshleyAtaxia. Dark, complex, and compelling. 

 

Markus ReuterTrepanation. Creative, original, intelligent music.

 

This feature © 2007 Phil Derby / Electroambient Space. Any reprint in whole or in part must be appropriately credited.

 

 

November 2006

 

Artist Spotlight:           

Mac of BIOnighT

 

It has been a couple of years since I did an Artist Spotlight on the music of the Italian duo BIOnighT. Mac is one of the more interesting and intense personalities I’ve “met” – via email, that is – in electronic music circles. In photographs he looks quite imposing, and reminds me quite a lot of Emperor Ming from Flash Gordon – which is funny because he loves to do music inspired by old sci-fi films. But in person he is nothing like the villain he might at first appear to be - he is a warm, sensitive individual with a big heart. Mac sent me a handful of his solo recordings from the past couple of years, so let’s take a look.

 

 

Mac “Black Light”

(www.syngate.net, 2006)

10 tracks, 60.26 mins

 

Though written during a dark time in Mac’s life, the music is typically upbeat and irresistible. “Inadequate” starts with warm synth strings much like AirSculpture often do, but within less than a minute a steady beat and cool sequencing picks up the pace. This mid-tempo piece has a wonderful groove to it. And while “Manmade Horrors” has a rather ominous title, it has wonderfully bright, brisk sequencing from the get-go. Though it reminds me of Dom F. Scab’s fast Berlin school style, it captures the classic BIOnighT sound as well. “A Deeper Pain” is equally incongruous, the bright optimistic tones belying the nature of Mac’s emotions when he wrote it. Again the sequencing, pace and melody are first-rate. “Waiting for the Winter to End” is softer and sadder, with pretty synth flutes. “Trying to Understand” starts slow but it too tends toward the brighter and more melodic end of the spectrum once it gets going. I love the really low bass sequence in “Scars,” balanced by high shimmering tones hanging above it. A lighter sequence takes up the middle ground, as does a soft synth lead. Intricately weaved synths, sequencing and rhythms form “If I Have To,” another fun one. And so it goes, well-arranged EM compositions right up to and including the title track to close things out strong. Good stuff!

 

 

Mac “A Deceitful Hand”

(www.syngate.net, 2005)

13 tracks, 54.45 mins

 

More bright and light tracks from the mysterious Mac from Italy. “Who’s Dealing the Cards?” makes for a subdued but engaging beginning. This is followed by the marching beat of “Walking Backwards,” an irresistibly catchy number, as is the even bouncier “The Right Place.” It would be hard if not impossible to be depressed while listening to these songs. Most of the tracks are bubbly and energetic, although “Some Drive” surprises by changing into a whooshing wind for the last minute. Softer and a little slower than the rest is “Not As It Should Be,” which is relaxed and quite pleasant. Though the light optimistic numbers are well done, a few more variances in the highs and lows such as this may have resulted in a stronger impact. Nonetheless, if you like upbeat melodic EM, there is plenty to appreciate here.

 

 

Mac “Spaceship Deneb”

(www.syngate.net, 2004)

9 tracks, 60.47 mins

 

This album is subtitled Space Adventures Series Vol. 1, which is apropos. Mac loves old sci-fi movies, and this fits right in, right down to the eerie alien self-portrait photo. After a brief space intro, “Threatening Planet” starts low with a sense of foreboding. A metallic pulse ebbs and flows softly. This one develops very slowly and subtly, particularly for a Mac composition. No bouncy sequencing or cute melodies here. Very cool stuff. “Stars are Beautiful” paints a similarly stark sonic picture, mostly cool abstract sounds strung together. It reminds me very much of Dr. Fiorella Terenzi’s CD of deep space transmissions, Music From The Galaxies. It is daring minimal musical experimentation, and it totally works. Mac reaches further into the outer realms with “Starless Tunnel,” and one begins to wonder how deep into space we will go. Finally, some light at the end of the black hole appears in the form of “Universe’s Perfection.” While a touch melancholy, it seems bright by comparison to its predecessors, with softly rolling synthesizers forming a gentle melody. The next three tracks are much like the alien sound worlds created on Louis and Bebe Barron’s classic soundtrack to Forbidden Planet. The disc closes with a light sequencer-based tune, “Spaceship Deneb Theme.” This is a great thematic work, my favorite Mac solo album.

 

 

Mac “Aphasia”

(www.syngate.net, 2002)

21 tracks, 68.40 mins

 

Aphasia has 21 tracks, and it starts with a 3-minute gem called “Inward.” One of the coolest sequences I’ve ever carries it along, with understated synth work in the foreground. It hits a sweet spot from the first second. With so many tracks, it’s a fair bet the listener will find their own favorites. “The Whole Picture” is bouncy EM pop, and is a more than fair imitation, intentional or not, of latter-day Tangerine Dream. Bright piano and synth guitar sounds make a pleasing melody over a fast-paced steady beat. “Rachel” has a romantic feel to it without being too sappy. “Streetlamps” even has an element of cool jazz. There’s a bit of everything here, not only in terms of style but also in terms of Mac’s history, some of the tracks dating back to the mid-1980s. As such, it feels a little more like a sampler than a solo album. This could be a good starting point if you want a broad overview of the music of Mac.

 

All reviews © 2006 Phil Derby / Electroambient Space. Any reprint in whole or in part must be appropriately credited.

 

 

October 2006 Feature

 

Concert Review

by Brian Romer

 

Steve Roach

September 23, 2006

Tucson Arizona

Berger Performing Arts Center

 

Steve Roach performed his only 2006 concert in his hometown of Tucson, in this beautiful venue on one of the Arizona State University campuses. The concert was billed as a celebration of the release of Kairos, his DVD comprised of visuals of desert cinematography and computer animation, which is accompanied to music mostly from Core, Proof Positive, Possible Planet, and Light Fantastic. Roger King, who has worked with Steve in the past, manned the sound system and mixing board.

The doors opened at 6:30 and my wife I entered to the sounds of Immersion : Two filling the hall. Immersion : Two is an extremely minimal CD, but hearing it played softly on a powerful system really reveals how much is going on within it. On stage was Steve's set-up of keyboards, mixers, laptops, and other electronics. Not present were his usual array of candles and incense, which I've seen on stage in prior shows. Also on stage was a large screen and long rectangular hanging fabrics, with gentle swirling, floating lights projected on them. If you have not seen these before at his recent concerts, you can see pictures of them on
Steve's site.

We took seats next to the mixing board, located at the center of the auditorium. About 7:30, the lights dimmed and Steve came out. After energetic applause, Steve sat down, pulled out a guitar, faded out Immersion : Two, and went on to layer waves of guitar sounds, creating a feel much like music from Streams and Currents, Midnight Moon, and his live recording from 2002, All is Now.

After about 10 or 15 minutes, Steve put down his guitar, looked up, and gave a quick nod to Roger King, who then started the Kairos DVD. Some brief technical problems getting the DVD started got sorted out just as the impressive thunderclap appeared. The sound was cranked up really loud so it was quite cool to hear such realistic yet crystal clear thunder! For the next 74 minutes, Steve accompanied Kairos with added textures, rhythms, and sequences. With a large projection screen and massive decibel level, Kairos is much more exciting and rich in person than on my TV screen and home stereo.

Most of the time Steve sat and twiddled knobs. On a few occasions I did see him play one his keyboards, and it was quite cool because he really was very expressively bending, forcing, carving, or coaxing the notes out of the keys. Unlike other concerts, he did not play any exotic percussion instruments, though twice he brought out the didgeridoo, which is always impressive to hear with its deeply earthy yet unearthly rumblings.

As Karios ended, Steve faded the music down low, stood up, everyone applauded, and he left the stage. After a few minutes of continuous applause, he came back, twiddled some knobs, then left again. The lights went up and the concert was over, 90 minutes after it started. It was sort of an odd ending to the concert. It would have been great to see another set or at least an encore. Maybe next time.

 

Thank you Brian, for giving us this great review and letting us get a taste of what the show was like-PD

 

 

 

August 2006

Artist Spotlight #1: Steve Roach

 

Already incredibly prolific over his career, Steve Roach continues to excel at his craft in both quality and quantity. In the span of just a few short weeks, he has released 5 music CDs and a DVD. Two of the CDs, Kairos and Storm Surge, include largely familiar music, arranged in fresh new ways. The other 3 are entirely new, covering the full spectrum of electronic music, from the energetically paced Proof Positive to the minimal floater Immersion : Two. Best of all is a fantastic collaboration with Loren Nerell, Terraform. Finally, the DVD version of Kairos, included with the music CD, is a feast for both the eyes and ears. Enough with the introductions, it’s time to dive in and take a closer look at all of them.

 

 

Steve Roach & Loren Nerell “Terraform”

(www.steveroach.com, 2006)

4 tracks, 73.48 mins

 

When I heard that Steve Roach and Loren Nerell were going to be releasing their first true collaboration, I was excited at the prospect, but I also had a preconception of how it would sound. Given Nerell’s penchant for gamelan music, I was expecting Indonesian influences, something tribal perhaps. Instead, Terraform is a wondrous work of subtlety, as soft and as smooth as the beautiful sandstone pictured on the DVD-sized cover and the three large postcards within. It is difficult if not impossible to tell who contributed what to the gorgeous textures and atmospheres. Starting with “Cavity of Liquids,” immediately we are treated to a feast for the ears as soothing walls of sound wash over the listener. This abstract sound painting includes hints of crickets, sounds vaguely suggestive of water, and deep otherworldly echoes. There is no melody, no rhythm. The feeling is cool, relaxed. There is darkness, but there is warmth as well. Can it be both cool and warm? Yes, it can. “Ecopoiesis” moves into a deeper fuller drone, but with interesting background noises skittering lightly about. Like Steve’s Possible Planet, this track creates a unique, alien world. “Texture Wall” is brighter, with smooth metallic resonance. The night sounds move forward in the mix, and we spend the next 28 minutes immersed in the artificially formed yet highly organic environment. “Paraterra” wraps things up with more of the same, yet different. One of the best ambient albums of 2006.

 

 

Steve Roach “Storm Surge”

(www.steveroach.com, 2006)

10 tracks, 46.01 mins

 

Steve was only given 45 minutes to show the audience at NEARfest what he could do, so he made the most of it with this set. Very much like On This Planet, it covers a wide variety of his recent material. Unlike that release, this one is the real deal, unedited, as it happened, not a studio reinterpretation. The visceral power is there, from the thunder-charged opening of “This Planet” to the softly fading didgeridoo at the end of “Darktime.” In between, the music is all familiar, representing Core, Mystic Chords, Possible Planet, Light Fantastic, even all the way back to Stormwarning. However, the arrangements and the flow are different enough that Steve Roach fans will most likely want to include this in their collection. It is worth noting that the CD that accompanies the Kairos DVD is similar musically, and runs considerably longer at 74 minutes. However, if you want to transport yourself into the concert setting and have been unable to make it to one of Steve’s shows, this is the next best thing to being there.

 

 

Steve Roach “Proof Positive”

(www.steveroach.com, 2006)

5 tracks, 73.54 mins

 

Steve continues to rediscover the fun of analog modular synthesizers on Proof Positive. “Westwind” gets the disc up and running quickly and stays that way for about half of its 22 minutes. The brisk sequencing calls Stormwarning to mind, albeit in a somewhat mellower fashion despite the speed. By the twelfth minute the sequencing has faded away and we drift dreamily along to the end. Perhaps the biggest surprise is “Living the Pulse,” which sounds eerily similar to some of Klaus Schulze’s output in recent years. I half expected an operatic vocal sample to appear (well, not really). There is a jazz flavor to it, and though the rhythm and the sounds used are clearly Steve’s, it is yet another style to add to his already stocked sonic arsenal. It crossfades into “Essential Occurrence,” which serves as a reminder that when Steve uses a sequencer it doesn’t sound retro, it sounds fresh and new. Yes, I have heard Berlin school bands with a sequencer loop similar to the one featured here, but not quite, and not with the subtle ambient textures surrounding it. “Adreno Stream” starts soft but soon takes off in similar fashion to “Westwind” although it has a percolating sound like the main theme in Klaus Schulze’s classic “Totem” from 1973’s Picture Music. But again, that’s not to say that Steve has gone retro. He continues to build on his wealth of experience to continually create anew. The 33-minute title track keeps the rapid pace but manages to instill a laid back feel such that it is a long, relaxing ride to the end. The disc is proof positive that Steve continues to excel at his craft.

 

 

Steve Roach “Kairos”

(www.steveroach.com, 2006)

DVD + CD, 8 tracks each, 74:46 + 73.27 mins

 

Handsomely packaged, Kairos makes an excellent DVD follow up to Steve’s Day Out Of Time. At first, it appears it will be very similar to the nature scenes of its predecessor, as a blood red sun rises and then we see desert sands. But this gives way in short order to an array of stunning visuals from a variety of cutting-edge artists. Some are murky billows of soft smoke; others are sharp sci-fi graphics, including the now-familiar dazzling yellow, purple and orange hues and curves from Steve’s Body Electric CD with Vir Unis, art courtesy of Steven Rooke. Musically, the set is quite similar to the recent Storm Surge release, but in a significantly expanded version. The mind-altering visuals are like having your own laser light show at home. If you like staring at the graphics on Windows Media Player while playing your music, you should really enjoy stepping up to the next level with this. Aside from the excellent compilation of music and visuals, as an added treat there is a bonus feature called Live Montage, a series of images from several Steve Roach concerts with musical accompaniment that is perfectly synched with the video. Though less than 15 minutes long, this is my favorite part of the DVD, as it serves to remind myself what it was like at the two shows of Steve’s that I have had the good fortune to attend. In a big plus from Day Out Of Time, which had separate releases of the music-only CD and the music-plus-visuals DVD, Kairos includes both at a very reasonable price. Excellent visuals, excellent music, cool bonus features – what more could you want?

 

 

Steve Roach “Immersion : Two”

(www.steveroach.com, 2006)

1 track, 73.29 mins

 

If you liked Immersion : One, it is no stretch of the imagination to virtually assure that you will like volume two in the series. And if the title “Artifact Ghost” sounds familiar to fans, it should – a shorter version appeared on Texture Maps. And in another cross-reference, the beautiful violet and teal cover art is courtesy of John Vega, whose trend-defying graphics appear on Steve’s Kairos DVD. While the first in the Immersion series was quite minimal, a sort of softly undulating white noise almost, this one has just a bit more going on. Oh, there’s still no discernible melody and no rhythm to speak of, but there are more shadings in the depth of the various sonic textures – some are deep and resonant, others are feather-light wisps of sound, all gently rolled into one delicate decanter. Though familiar musical phrasings meander throughout, subtle and yet distinctive changes do occur. Sometimes dark drones slowly roll in like thunder, at other times the sound plays more like slender intertwining tendrils. And while this ghost definitely has a haunting quality about it, there is considerable warmth as well. Another one to immerse yourself in as we look forward to volume three.

 

All reviews © 2006 Phil Derby / Electroambient Space. Any reprint in whole or in part must be appropriately credited. Thank you.

 

August 2006

Artist Spotlight #2: Seren Ffordd

 

This month’s second artist spotlight is on a name that I would imagine is unknown to most EAS readers. Seren Ffordd is the pseudonym for Andy Benford. His releases are on Oöphoi’s highly regarded hand crafted Italian labels Umbra and Penumbra. As is the case with most Umbra releases, these are beautifully if somewhat unconventionally packaged, with brilliant abstract paintings or graphic designs on larger-than-standard cards, with the CDRs slipped in a clear plastic envelope inside. The music is bright and airy. Andy sent me four of his titles; two of them are full-length works and two of them are CD singles, or EPs, or whatever you want to call them. As you’ll see in the reviews below, all are worth seeking out. Check out http://www.deeplistenings.it/ for ordering information about these and other titles.

 

Seren Ffordd “A Melancholy Light”

(Penumbra, 2005)

1 track, 23.32 mins

 

Inspired by David Darling’s cello, Andy Benford explains that he intentionally used notes quite sparsely here, no more than three at a time. Gearheads will be glad to know that Andy listed exactly the equipment used. The music is subdued as the name implies, but not altogether sad. One can easily imagine this as the soundtrack to a dramatic film. All the elements are there, including a cohesive central musical theme, a strong emotional component, and an orchestral feel. At 23 minutes it is over too soon, but the journey is nice while it lasts.

 

 

Seren Ffordd “Aurora”

(Penumbra, 2005)

1 track, 23.02 mins

 

Before discussing the music, I have to say how much I love the beautiful colors in the artwork, both on the CDR and the insert card. A brilliant, brighter-than-life rainbow beams down over trees on the front, and the CD itself is adorned in soft wonderful shades of blue and indigo, one of my favorite color combinations. It is a good pictorial representation of the ethereal music. Barely audible at first, a low drone fades in, then a lower note wavers ominously over that. The sound seems to vibrate the speakers even at low volume, but the vibration is inherent in the sound itself. This is deep dark stuff to begin with, but the disc does brighten as it goes. Slow washes of sound gently cascade over one another. Although the sound remains tinged with darkness throughout, there is enough light for you to see your way through. Darkly relaxing stuff.

 

 

Seren Ffordd “Arhythmia”

(Umbra, 2005)

1 track, 70.05 mins

 

Interestingly with a title like Arhythmia, the artwork on the front of this one looks much like the inside of a heart valve, albeit softened in both texture and color. As for the music, hopefully it won’t give you any cardiac trouble. Darker and more experimental than his other discs, here Benford takes us into what he calls “an exploration of rhythms that can be heard and felt but not danced to.” Rumbling and churning sounds are joined by a steady rain in the background. Benford notes that the music is divided into five parts, although it plays as a single track. The movements are distinct and easily identifiable. The rain and rumbles fade away and are gone within 15 seconds of the start of part II, which takes a long slow descent to parts unknown. It plays like an infinite downward spiral, a rather creepy but cool effect. Unusual brushing sounds pan back and forth forming a unique percussive element. Its clear by this point that the disc is more sound collage than music in the conventional sense. Metallic bells ring out to start part III, and we breathe a sigh of relief as the ominous rumbling drones from part II gradually disappear. Though still quite stark and minimal, this part is bright and cheery by comparison. Part IV swirls similarly to part II, though in more of a holding pattern than a deep dive. I’d call it grey noise rather than white. This one plays like a blank canvas for your mind to imagine various subtleties that may or may not be there. The last part follows a similar pattern, creating another unique sound world to explore for the last 15 minutes before coming back to reality. Arhythmia is daring adventurous fun.

 

 

Seren Ffordd “Floating”

(Umbra, 2006)

1 track, 70.30 mins

 

Not to be confused with the classic Klaus Schulze track of the same name, this 70-minute track is pure ambient. Those who think synths sound cold and calculating would do well to listen to this to correct that misperception. The sounds here are filled with warmth, depth, and nuance. Things develop quite slowly and deliberately. Melody is hinted at, as one might be able to say a note hanging in the air is a C or an F-sharp or whatever, but that’s as far as musical structure goes here. Completely devoid of rhythm, this truly is all about the floating. Though timbres are by and large bright and shimmering, the mood is somewhat subdued if not outright somber. Like Aurora, this disc has no liner notes whatsoever, so it is completely up to you to decide where your imagination will take you as you listen. I like that. This is a beautiful piece of music that will surely reward repeat listening to capture all the details.
 
All reviews © 2006 Phil Derby / Electroambient Space. Any reprint in whole or in part must be appropriately credited. Thank you.

The World According to Spyra

July 2006 Artist Spotlight

 

One only has to look at Wolfram der Spyra’s website to know that he marches to the beat of a different, creative drummer – with plenty of bass and xylophone thrown in as well. The magical tones of Spyra’s albums have captivated me ever since I was introduced to his work through Sferics. Though I find something to enjoy in all of his albums, I am particularly drawn to his series of FAX releases that began with Phonehead and ended recently with Orphan Waves. It seemed a good time to look back with fondness on this collection of music dedicated to radio waves.

 

Spyra “Phonehead”

(FAX, 1997)

8 tracks, 72.27 mins

 

The earliest and by far the hardest to find these days, Phonehead is where it all began, at least on FAX. Technically it isn’t part of the radio waves series. Although that’s true, and though I don’t rank Phonehead quite as highly as the others, it gives plenty of hints of what was to come and is worthy of inclusion in this feature. Tracks one and five make up the two-part “7Homes & 8Spyrits.” Xylophone somehow comes across as ultra cool spy music, a clever pun on top of a pun  - spy as in spyrits, as in sprits by Spyra. Spyra virtually invents the genre called IDM (intelligent dance music) on the spot. The second part appears later, starting with pads and crisp tinkling watery electronics. A pulsing synth triplet and a percussion loop add rhythm, and the feel is similar to yet distinct from part one. Both parts have energy to spare once they get cooking. In between are a variety of other sounds and themes. “VCM 100F” gurgles and chugs its way in after the opener fades, quickly jumping into all things warbly and electronic. A strong bass line enters and stays for the duration – a bit too strong perhaps, though the surrounding echoes and effects again score quite high on the coolness factor. “Ocean” is more of a challenge, the little speech running through it chopped up and regurgitated a few times too often. “Level, Voice” is a cool experiment with minimal synths, percussion and voice. After getting into a toe-tapping groove it abruptly halts, moving into a dark psychedelic atmospheric section before it goes back to the original theme. Piano is used sparingly for a nice dramatic effect. “VCF CS20” is a cool minimal synth piece with a little lesson in synthesizers, waveforms, and harmonics. The disc finishes strong with “Ωmega est Alpha,” a dreamlike piece not unlike The Orb’s classic “Fluffy White Clouds” to start, with Schulze-like synth leads on occasion. The finale, “Hommage a Satie,” is self explanatory, and sets the tone for its reprise of sorts at the beginning and end of Sferics.

 

 

Spyra “Sferics”

(FAX, 1998)

8 tracks, 74 mins

 

“Mechanic Piano” defies conventional logic about track placement, a simple brief piano piece. This is followed by the title track, a shuffling little ditty with a jazz sensibility, softly moaning female vocals, and occasional static. On the one hand, this hardly sounds like the stuff of which a classic album is made. On the other hand, defying convention is what great albums are about. Hearing only these two tracks, I knew Sferics was going to be something special, something different. Having been raised on Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze on the Berlin school side, and Steve Roach and Robert Rich on the ambient side, this was something between the two, or off in its own unique corner. It was and still remains fresh to my ears, something that I can enjoy in a variety of ways, depending on my mood, the time of day, and so many other intangibles that make listening to good music so much fun. “Interzen” continues the mellow coolness with two Spyra staples, a gently meandering bass line and playful xylophone tones. The percussion is freeform, active but not overly busy. By the early going of “10-12 Meters,” it appears that the disc is going to be one laid-back affair, but au contraire. Going from the third to the fourth minute, percussion is joined by a steady beat, followed by assertive gritty synth chords. The energy builds enthusiastically, infectiously. By the time a wall of organ music breaks through along about 8 to 9 minutes in, check your pulse if you aren’t fully reeled in. After another cool trip in the form of “Gentle Machines” comes the 16-minute trip “Crossing the Channel.” This one features the coolest groove yet, a sensual elegant piece that floats by. Light bass and beats come visit for a time, then fade as wisps of female choirs echo hauntingly. These two alternating main themes play a gentle tug of war throughout, each getting a few turns before it’s over. I have no idea what “Vinyl vs. Cards” is about, or what the girl is talking about exactly, but she has a great voice just the same. “V.C. Piano” brings the disc full circle, a cool reworking of “Mechanic Piano.” And yes, I have way overused the word “cool” in this review, but that’s only because I feel that the dictionary definition should include Sferics as the very essence of it.

 

 

Spyra “Etherlands”

(FAX, 1999)

9 tracks, 74 mins

 

Sferics went for a subtle, low-key opening. “The Synthesizer Experience” opens Etherlands in virtually the opposite manner. Squelchy bouncy synths and playful beats show Wolfram’s humorous side, either that or he has completely sold out in a blatant attempt to get EM on the charts. Didn’t happen, but it’s good fun just the same. “Radio Noordzee” goes back to form, loaded with laid back bass and beats, interesting pirate DJ samples, and the usual Spyra groove and attitude. Two of Spyra’s best tracks take the form of “Monotonous Stereo,” the two parts being tracks three and six. The first percolates with restrained energy and features an elegant little xylophone hook. Next is the saddest song Spyra has ever written, “Birds on the Wire.” Melancholy violins mourn beautifully alongside gently played electric piano. It runs just a shade long, but it is breathtaking nevertheless. Thankfully, we quickly shake off the sadness with “Six Miles South of Hastings,” one of Spyra’s most lively tracks, followed by the catchy second part of the “Monotonous Stereo” suite. At this point the disc is really hitting its stride, moving in for the kill with the two-part 24-minute title track. Once part one picks up speed, it sounds like the perfect amalgamation of Berlin school and modern electronica. A killer sequence is backed up by solid bass and beats. Whooshing sounds like the panning effect in Jean-Michel Jarre’s “Oxygene Part V” dance around in the background. A solid theme runs throughout, but with plenty of variation to keep it interesting. As “Etherlands Part II” begins it sounds like we’re trying to find the pirate radio station on the dial and having trouble locking in, but it smoothes out quickly into a dreamy ethereal (sorry, couldn’t resist) section. It threatens to spin out of control again at times, the music warping through space and time for a bit. But Spyra always pulls back on the reins at seemingly just the right moments, allowing the perfect interplay between structured music and atmospheric exploration. “Mellotron Etude” makes a fitting brief epilogue to a great album.

 

 

Spyra “Invisible Fields”

(FAX, 2002)                

8 tracks, 73.57 mins  

 

If “The Synthesizer Experience” on Etherlands was a nudge a wink and a grin, “Test Transmission” must be an all-out belly laugh to open Invisible Fields. It takes some nerve to open your electronic music album with computer samples saying, “This computer…sucks, sucks!” My wife can’t stand it, my kids are highly amused and entertained by it, and so am I. But if you prefer to take your electronic music a little more seriously, proceed directly to track two and three, coyly titled “Entropy Is Just…” and “…a Seven Letter Word.” This is by now a quite familiar, tried-and-true Spyra formula of relaxed bass, slow soft beats, xylophone and other synths, expertly weaved together into something more than the sum of its relatively simple parts. The bass line actually provides much of the melody, with light tinkling synths forming a counterpoint melody. The synth chords change timbre ever so slightly moving into “…a Seven Letter Word,” the drums slow up a bit and get heavier, everything calms down another half notch from the already leisurely pace. This is music that can help slow down the whole world around you so that you can catch your breath. After a brief interlude comes “Xylocity,” two parts totaling nearly 21 minutes of vintage Spyra. But then the surprise comes, big time, in the form of “Bath,” a 24-minute epic of experimentation. If I’m correctly placing this from Spyra’s bio on his webpage, this is actually one of his oldest recordings, and a fascinating one at that. Clocks tick, things rumble dramatically, voice samples loop like a madman’s thoughts, soft music plays nearly silent, lots of different things happening here from one moment to the next, although it flows quite well considering the range of sonic landscape covered. It’s not for everyone to be sure, but I think it’s brilliant and absolutely works. “Temporarily Not Available” is the now trademark short closing piano track to finish off yet another great Spyra album.

 

Spyra “Orphan Waves”

(FAX, 2006)

7 tracks, 62.04 mins

 

It is my understanding that Orphan Waves is the last of the series of CDs that started way back with Sferics in 1998, fully devoted to the theme of radio waves. If this is really the end then I’m a bit sad about it, because these FAX releases have been something special even by Spyra standards. The laid back jazzy tones and scratchy glitches are immediately back on “Aerial,” and away we go. Those cool xylophone tones, can’t get enough of them. And what would a good Spyra album be without some amusing background conversations like we hear on “Kingoldrum”? This one is very mellow, oddly uplifting for a quirky little ditty, perfect lazy sunny afternoon music. “PsychoCity” starts with a sprightly little sequence, and I am once again awestruck at Wolfram’s ability to take a simple tune on electric keys and breathe life into it. Watch for the abrupt change to wild freeform jazz jamming midway through this one. Intense, breathtaking, excellent. “XyloCity Part III” turns unusually dark, with a reading of text by Theater of Cruelty advocate Antonin Artaud. Interestingly Artaud, like Spyra, had an affinity for the xylophone apparently, according to Wikipedia. Thankfully Spyra is much more clear-headed and rational, or if he suffers from Artaud’s afflictions he channels them brilliantly through his music. On the surface Orphan Waves, like the other albums in this series, is somewhat unassuming, yet Spyra’s music draws me in like virtually no one else can. For example, check out the dramatic moment that starts at 4:32 on “XyloCity Part IV.” And then there’s the poignant title track, beautifully rendered classical piano. Moments like these, not to mention so many others, make me want to scream from the mountaintops and give everyone a copy of this CD and MAKE them like it! Orphan Waves is that good.

 

All reviews © 2006 Phil Derby / Electroambient Space. Any reprint in whole or in part must be appropriately credited. Thank you.

 

June 2006

Feature #1

Label Spotlight: Spotted Peccary

 

American label Spotted Peccary has been around for several years now, the brainchild of Howard Givens, who not only runs the label but also contributes musically to many of the CDs. The label tends toward music with a cinematic feel, that is, music that sounds like the soundtrack to a film. Often sweeping and majestic, with a variety of influences from world to new age to electronic, the label has plenty to offer. Below is just a sampling, please check out their webpage at www.spottedpeccary.com for much more.

 

 

Between Interval “Secret Observatory”

(Spotted Peccary, 2005)

4 tracks, 56.20 mins

 

One of my favorite deep ambient discoveries of 2005, Secret Observatory is a wonderful entry into the genre. The man behind Between Interval is a Scandinavian by the name of Stefan Jönsson, and like compatriot Geir Jenssen of Biosphere, he manages to coax warmth out of the depths of cold frosty ambience. Four lengthy dark excursions are featured, beginning with the icy floes of “Garden of the Divine,” a smooth flowing piece that seems to echo off of cavern walls. It melds seamlessly into “Surreptitious Ritual,” another churning brooding number, a shade darker than its predecessor. “Forested Veins” gives the first hint of rhythm, more of an abstract pulse. Although dreamy shadowy atmospheric textures continue to dominate the sonic palette, this one is a bit more active and dramatic, relatively speaking. It is organic as well as restless. “Entropy” is enhanced by some chilling processed vocal samples, lending an alien feel to the proceedings. This would make a great soundtrack to a dark stylish sci-fi thriller. For dark ambient fans it doesn’t get any better than Secret Observatory.

 

 

Green Isac “Etnotronica”

(www.spottedpeccary.com, 2004)

13 tracks, 44.36 mins

 

Combine future and past, western and world music, and you get the unique hybrid called Etnotronica. Vaguely reminiscent of Paul Haslinger’s Future Primitive and World Without Rules, Green Isac takes the approach a step further into ethnotribal realms, several steps removed from western synth and rock music. “Siamese Drum” is firmly rooted in world music, with little noticeable modern elements. However, “Ahab” is more in the down tempo chill out music arena, with modern loops, bass and beats. “Black Hands, White Skin” is a cool brief bridging piece, one of several that appears, as mellow keys plink out a few soft notes over synth textures. The oddly named “Dr. Talks Bagpipe” lists several unusual instruments that lay down a rather cool groove conspicuously absent of bagpipes or anything remotely Scottish for that matter. Musical influences throughout seem a 50-50 split of African and dub/dance/trance, though my expertise in such genres is slim to none. A cool beat shuffles through “Ambino,” with a very enjoyable electronic piano part, quite relaxed and soothing. “Subman” cranks up the tempo and is easily the catchiest number. “Zu-puls” appropriately gives the first musical credit for “drum hits,” which dominate the piece in a powerful manner, along with very hip moogbass. Despite the wide range of sounds used on Etnotronica, there is a strongly cohesive musical identity running through all of it. If you like tribal and world instrumentation fused with downtempo, this could be just the thing.

 

 

Jon Jenkins “Beyond City Light”

(www.spottedpeccary.com, 2005)

10 tracks, 63.01 mins

 

Like his prior releases, Jon Jenkins’ Beyond City Light combines smooth synth textures with powerful rhythms, creating sweeping majestic sound worlds familiar to listeners of Flow and his other works. “Zzyzx Road” skillfully blends sparse piano, pounding percussion, and loads of atmosphere in a way similar to Patrick O’Hearn. Though Jenkins’ eschews the new age label, it is appropriate insofar as this is very much picture music, like the soundtrack to a stirring motion picture or short film. There is considerable depth and warmth to the music, provided by Jenkins and a strong supporting cast on everything from voice to electric guitars to bamboo. For example, “The Source” features beautiful haunting flutes, perfectly enhancing the dreamlike synths. A wide variety of moods are captured, from bittersweet to triumphant to peaceful and all things in between. Beautifully rendered, Beyond City Light is a relaxing treat.

 

 

Deborah Martin & Cheryl Gallagher “Tibet”

(Spotted Peccary, 2004)

8 tracks, 56.20 mins

 

I was very afraid to open and review this CD, as it had “new age” written all over it – the title, the imagery, and the credits for location recordings of sherpas and Tibetan monks and nuns. My preconceptions and prejudices were thankfully cast aside almost immediately, as “Palace” is a fantastic opener. Starting with light tinkling electronics, it then moves into a dramatic orchestral section. Emotionally stirring, it is like the sweeping epic soundtrack to a movie. “Glacier” has a delicate ethnic tribal touch, nicely balanced with synth textures. “Morning in Tibet” starts with soft bells then moves into a floating reverie as bright shimmering sounds blend with deeper richer atmospherics. The combining of primitive and modern instruments is expertly done. “Essence” brings more of the same, another display of subtlety and grace. The music is fully allowed to breathe in and out. “Seeker and Sought” features a pretty electronic sequence in the middle, joined by a smattering of thumping tribal drumbeats that play off the synths extremely well. This middle section is set off perfectly by a dreamy intro and outro of a couple minutes each. “Leaving Sigatse” is one of the few overtly new age pieces, dominated by strings and flutes. Even though this style is less to my liking, I can’t deny it is a thoughtfully and skillfully crafted composition. The disc closes with the beautifully spacious “Procession.” It is here where most of the native vocals can be heard, in the background as a sort of sound collage, painting a picture of Tibetan life through music. Tibet is a perfect marriage of electronic, new age and world music.

 

 

Craig Padilla “Genesis”

(Spotted Peccary, 2004)

4 tracks, 71.17 mins

 

Spotted Peccary is known more for their ambient, world and new age sound than pure space music, but that could change with Craig Padilla’s Genesis, featuring 4 lengthy deep space excursions. The title track pulses and gyrates for over 20 minutes as sequencers bubble and percolate forth. A little heavy at first, I like it better as it softens heading past the 6:00 mark, as the unadorned loops are mesmerizing. Squelchy electronics ping back and forth. Bass tones add richness just past 10:00 in. An oboe-like synth floats nicely over the top for the next few minutes, followed by a long slow gradual stripping away of the various electronic elements, leaving just the whooshing wind of deep space at the end. “Moon Tides” is the shortest track but still checks in at over 13 minutes. Bright shimmers have both a metallic and a glassy timbre to them. Gentle synth pads float into the mix. Sparse piano like Harold Budd makes a surprising but welcome appearance. Then we move into a classic vintage section like Tangerine Dream’s Ricochet, as the piano is joined by vibrant synth strings and a stuttering bass sequence. “Ascension” is next, moving into deep floating textures highly reminiscent of Jean-Michel Jarre’s classics Oxygene and Equinoxe. Lastly is “Message From Within,” a swirling vortex of dreamy sounds that seem to circle ever outward into the outer reaches of space. Sweet dreams.

 

 

J. Arif Verner “From a Distant Horizon”

(www.spottedpeccary.com, 2005)

10 tracks, 52.50 mins

 

Though the song titles and cover art are suggestive of greenery and mists, “Follow the Stream Entry” sounds like classic space music, expansive and reflective. Gorgeous synth strings and pads are joined by a lightly tribal beat. Lushly layered sounds are beautifully rendered, and the end result is eminently listenable. “Heart of the Pearl” starts a bit on the melancholy side but it adds brighter elements as it goes, all the while remaining silky soft. Though this is closer to new age than I normally care to go, it is exceedingly well done and very soothing. Even softer is “In the Color of Air,” a wonderful piece that slowly breathes in and out, the longest track on the disc and deservedly so, comparing favorably with classic Steve Roach material like Quiet Music or Structures From Silence. Verner shifts with ease from formless textural pieces to shorter, more structured numbers with acoustic elements, such as the title track and “Hermetica.” Gently plucked strings and high shimmering tones ring out prettily. Judicious use of percussion on a few tracks adds nice variety as well. “Between the Divide” rumbles like thunder at first, then hangs on a simple repeating bass line, gentle percussion, and synth washes. The arranging of the tracks for flow and pace is excellent. From a Distant Horizon is a gem.

 

 

Erik Wøllo “Blue Sky, Red Guitars”

(Spotted Peccary, 2004)

11 tracks, 55.49 mins

 

With Blue Sky, Red Guitars Erik Wøllo shows his musical dexterity. Wøllo’s trademark lush electronic atmospheres serve primarily as a backdrop for his guitar playing. “Morning Dew” is a fitting title, the sparse ambience conjuring images of glistening water on blades of grass as the sun shines down. “Blue Sky” reminds me of a similarly titled album, Tony Gerber’s Blue Western Sky, which blended guitars and synths in similar fashion. This falls squarely in the middle between new age and instrumental light rock, as does “Red Guitars,” with the strumming even more apparent and removed from an electronic sound. By the time “Sedona” rolls around, it’s clear that the emphasis is on the softer acoustic side of Wøllo’s sound. In fact, believe or not Wøllo takes perhaps the most synthetic-sounding band ever, Kraftwerk, and does unplugged versions of “Computerlove” and “In the Hall of Mirrors.” I’m not that well acquainted with Kraftwerk, but a German friend of mine listened and loved these new renderings. Blue Sky, Red Guitars is good music for a lazy Sunday afternoon.

 

All reviews © 2006 Phil Derby / Electroambient Space. Any reprint in whole or in part must be appropriately credited.
 
 

June 2006

Feature #2

Label Spotlight: Databloem, dataObscura, and Practising Nature

 

I’ve done a feature on the Dutch label Databloem and dataObscura before, but now the label is expanding further, with a side project called Practising Nature. As I understand it from Anthony Paul Kerby, this side label was originally designed to release the many recordings of German ambient guru Mathias Grassow, but has expanded to include other artists as well. Given the volume of releases in recent months, another label spotlight seemed in order.

 

 

Amir Baghiri “Exosphere”

(www.databloem.com, www.amirbaghiri.de, 2005)

10 tracks, 68.37 mins

 

Amir Baghiri’s latest, Exosphere, is dedicated to George Lucas. At first, “The Orbit” sounds nothing like space music, beginning with dark tribal ambience and rain sticks. Then, about halfway through, a simple sequence starts. It reminds me of Steve Roach’s early works such as Empetus. A playful bass line and vintage synths are added in a couple of minutes later. The intensity gradually builds until it fades back into atmospheric ambience at the end. “Troposphere” starts tribal as well, with pounding drums and otherworldly sounds that are no doubt created by some of the more primitive instruments listed in the tray insert. The drums in particular really go wild, not slowing down until they flow into the equally tribal “Cryosphere,” a quite organic and nicely layered piece. The music seems to come from all directions, with particularly good spatial dimension to the various sounds. “Magnetosphere” slows things way down, with expansive echoes and shimmers, and a low rumble. Drums reappear midway through, again quite powerful and tribal. To this point the disc reminds me a lot of Steve Roach’s live performances, alternating between dark floating passages and pounding percussion. However, from here forward Baghiri shifts into deep space mode, the tribal elements more or less gone for the duration. “Stratosphere” is similar to Roach’s The Magnificent Void, and parts of Mystic Chords, dark yet relaxing. Things are really cooling down by the time we reach “Mesophere,” as the music gets more and more spacey. I can clearly picture myself out in the wild at night as I hear the crickets and crackling sounds of “Lonosphere,” perfect night music. “Auroras” is relatively quiet, but it is haunting and intense as well. By the end of Exosphere, you will be thoroughly relaxed if not fully asleep. One of Baghiri’s best efforts yet.

 

 

Robert Davies “Sub Rosa”

(www.databloem.com, 2006)

13 tracks, 68.11 mins

 

What an ethereal beginning to this CD, as “Cloud Shadows” ebbs and flows beautifully. It is subtle yet thoroughly captivating. It marks a welcome introduction to the music of Robert Davies. “Moon Chart” starts with a cool slightly warbly synth loop and a subtly repeating double-pulse that serves as a soft rhythmic element. Gently pinging synths add depth, never quite coalescing into a distinct melody but serving that function in understated fashion. The melding of organic and synthetic textures reminds me vaguely of Patrick O’Hearn. “Encrypted Sleep” delicately moves along, silky smooth, as does its companion piece later in the disc, “Encrypted Dreams.” This is my favorite kind of deep ambient, slowly shifting atmospherics that sooth the ear and relax the mind. “Her Refracted Eyes” is brighter, and smooth as glass. “Fragrance of Ether” is closer to pure drone, but warmth resonates through it as well. “River Willow Shadows” rings out with sparse synths in a manner evocative of Budd and Eno. This is an unusual dataObscura release, in that the typical modern electronica touches – glitch, static, abstract quirkiness – are all conspicuously absent. Sub Rosa is pure smoothness, pure float, ambient music in the truest and best sense.

 

 

Mathias Grassow “Dronament”

(www.databloem.com, 2005)

2 tracks, 77.43 mins

 

Mathias Grassow is to minimal ambient what Pete Namlook is to intelligent dance music, perhaps the most prolific artist in the genre. Practising Nature is described as a “side CDR project” by Databloem label founder Dennis Knopper, and is designed to produce at least some small fraction of Grassow’s voluminous recordings. The disc is comprised of the two-part “Al Hayal,” each track clocking in at just less than 39 minutes. It is vintage Grassow, from the sounds to the cast, which includes frequent collaborators Klaus Wiese and Carsten Agthe, as well as Markus Reuter, plus two names I’m not familiar with, Holger Brune and SiRenée. The disc is difficult to review because I find myself just wanting to listen instead of write about it. Part swirling drones, part tribal, part environmental, it has a little of everything Grassow is known for. Starting with birds and a deep drone, “Part I” then has some clanging bells of some sort, with a world music flavor. Then for several minutes it swirls about, filled with warm soft sounds. A single drum beat starts pounding just before the 5:00 mark, sending it into a tribal passage for several minutes, though still in quite relaxed fashion. Then the oddest thing happens at 15:30, 22:10, and 29:45 – a bunch of clanging is followed by someone blowing a horn just for the sake of making noise. These are thankfully brief moments, but I have to say I just don’t get it, it kills the mood each time it happens. The rest is brilliant, however. “Part II” is equally good, beginning with a low drone and soft cymbals. This one has a more cinematic feel to it, less of the pure ambient and tribal elements. There is a surprising section near the end with a lengthy blistering guitar solo, though it is carefully mixed in as sort of a background element, and works much better than the horn did. It’s really quite different from “Part I,” they don’t seem that closely related, though both are clearly Grassow compositions. At any rate, no Grassow fan should be without this.

 

 

Off The Sky “Gently Down The Stream”

(www.databloem.com, 2005)

12 tracks, 62.03 mins

 

Jason Corder’s Databloem debut Cold Distances under his Off The Sky moniker was a solid piece of adventurous yet accessible glitchy electronica. Corder’s sophomore release Gently Down The Stream continues to offer large doses of quirky experimental fun. “Adagio, À Deux” is a unique blend of glitch, ambient and classical themes. The title track has a softly meandering Spyra-like bass line and the coolest percussion samples, crisp and bright. Gentle bell tones round out the complete package. Soft keys, birds, a bit of static, and enchanting wordless vocals provided by Lina Tharsing make “Agonic Drift” a little gem, gone too soon. “Low Tide” is a low-key little number with just the right touch of lounge, ultra-hip. “Channel Movement” is equally mellow but a bit restless in its churning blips, bleeps and static. I’m reminded much of Spyra on “Floating Point,” due once again to the deep reverberant bass tones and the laid back feel. As Spyra is one of my favorite artists in EM, it should come as no surprise that I love Gently Down The Stream from start to finish.

 

 

Rumforskning “Fremtiden”

(www.databloem.com, 2005)

6 tracks, 66.16 mins

 

Rumforskning is solo Databloem/dataObscura artist Danny Kreutzfeldt and Mads Weitling, with whom I’m not at all familiar. The track titles are, I’m guessing, all in Dutch, adding to the mystery of the cool ambience within. “Vægtios” is a very unassuming beginning, echoing little crackles of sound, a brighter synth sound adding pulses of shifting drones over the top, all set upon a backdrop of soft white noise. It is a delicate piece that is minimal, original, and strikingly beautiful.

“Lysår” seems to emerge from an icy ocean floor, calling forth images of Biosphere’s crisp cold ambience. Melody and rhythm are only hinted at throughout as freeform drifting experimentation reigns supreme. On occasion the music grows coarser, as in the middle of “Dagslys,” but oftentimes even the rough edges have been seamlessly folded into the mix. The lengthy two-part “Rumtid” goes deep into underwater caverns of dark ambience, deliciously chilling. The haunting atmospheres continue into the title track, which closes out the disc. Fremtiden starts cold and chills down from there, another excellent dataObscura release.

 

 

Spielerei “Publix”

(www.databloem.com, 2005)

10 tracks, 57.41 mins

 

Databloem label founder Dennis Knopper continues to show that he has his finger on the pulse of cool modern ambient electronica with Publix. “Tradition” is a unique collage blending deep pulses, swirling synths, and soft sequencing. Strings add an emotive touch. “Delight” is just that, a feather-light composition that is full of wispy happy sounds. Having laid down a wonderfully wistful mood with these two, “Movement” comes in and totally disrupts it with a buzzing sound that abruptly starts and stops every few seconds. Once it settles down it is standard Databloem glitchy goodness, but the beginning ruins it. Fortunately this is the only misstep on an otherwise fantastic disc. “Opinion” features brisk hypnotic loops that are decidedly different from traditional Berlin school fare, a cool bass line, and bubbly little synths running through it. “Exit” is low key, sparse and very chilled like Biosphere, as is “Domain,” both excellent. Like “Opinion,” “Statement” is notable for its brilliant sequencing. Fast paced yet restrained, it ably carries the track along for the duration, hanging various electronics on it as it chugs along. And so it goes, nimbly skillfully shifting between chilled and energetic pieces with aplomb. Publix is excellent.

 

All reviews © 2006 Phil Derby / Electroambient Space. Any reprint in whole or in part must be appropriately credited. Thank you.

March 2006 Feature

Artist Spotlight: Ron Berry

 

Ron Berry is a UK synthesist who made a lot of music in the 1980s, and continues to do so up through the present. I had not heard of him until 2005, when some of his back catalog started being released on CD. If you check his website, you can find out lots more about each title, the story behind it, and when each disc was originally recorded and released. If they are all as good as the ones I’ve heard so far, which are reviewed below, then I have some gaps in my collection to fill in short order!

 

Ron Berry “A Voice in the Wilderness”

(www.ronberry.freeuk.com, 2005)

2 tracks, 44.11 mins

 

Recorded in 1981, this was Ron’s second release, and the oldest I’ve had the pleasure of hearing. It holds up well, while retaining the charm of the sounds and style of a quarter century ago. Being a release before the dawn of CDs, it has two tracks that were obviously side one and two of a vinyl LP. Each goes through a myriad of musical themes and moods. Starting soft and slow, the first sequence arrives at about the 4:30 mark after some excellent warm atmospherics. A big fat sounding synth lead brings a smile, rounded out by another layer of sequencing and some nice full bass sounds percolating from beneath. A couple minutes later we’re into a haunting section, and though the shifts in tone are often fairly dramatic it all works quite well. Berry shows a knack for how lengthy pieces should evolve, similar to the way Tangerine Dream did on classics like “Tangram” and “Mojave Plan.” The last several minutes of “Part 1,” in particular should have retro fans aglow with enthusiasm, chugging along at just the right tempo. “Part 2” starts quietly with whooshing wind and soft tinkling electronics. The music gets so minimal and sparse as to be nearly silent at times. Strange sounds pan back and forth, gurgling about. A slow bass line meanders about in the best style of Baumann-era TD. It isn’t until 4 minutes left to go in this 20-minute epic that the pace picks up, and even then it stays mellow. As the saying goes, less is more, and that principle works well here. I love this album.

 

Ron Berry “Osiris”

(www.ronberry.freeuk.com, 2005)

4 tracks, 56.15 mins

 

Osiris is from 1983, and like Ron Berry’s other CDs it is filled with warm synths, bright sequencing, light percussion, and masterful melodies that form beautiful pictures with sound. “Heliotropolis” makes a strong opener, sure to please fans of the Berlin school style. Though it does sound of that age, it weathers well, sounding fresh and enjoyable to these ears over two decades after its origination. “Dreams of Osiris” jumps more into the Egyptian theme that inspired the album, although the modern space music influence is always there as well. The percussion marches softly by, and string pads fill out the sound nicely as a gentle synth melody meanders its way along. A dark haunting passage makes a surprise appearance midway through, though bright and bouncy synths and rhythms return again in fairly short order, taking it through to the end. “Lake of Horus” is an abstract textural piece with an ominous character, a really cool change of pace from the rest. “Passage Through the Temple of Maat” is epic storytelling on a grand scale over its nearly 17-minute course. The opening section is again abstract, but considerably more aggressive than “Lake of Horus.” Eventually it settles down into a quiet bubbly sequence that moves things along in understated fashion for a few minutes until another more experimental section ensues, with cool metallic synths panning back and forth. More traditional Teutonic touches finally occur as we pass the 11:00 mark, but as good and as welcome as that is, the journey in getting there was quite adventurous and fun. Ron Berry shows that there continues to be plenty of room in the genre to infuse new blood, even coming from an album nearly a quarter of a century old. Fantastic.

 

Ron Berry “Wastelands”

(www.ronberry.freeuk.com, 2005)

4 tracks, 52.11 mins

 

A 1984 release, Wastelands is not surprisingly somewhat similar to its predecessor Osiris. Beginning with “Eastwinds,” we start with rich-sounding pads, hovering for a long time with other subtle atmospheric touches. Bubbly little synths come and go, along with a few softly clanging bells. It all sort of stops just before the 4:30 mark, and we then kick things up a notch with slow, steady rhythm and a strong synth lead, somewhat like a Klaus Schulze solo, though it is a unique sound that clips in an unusual manner. Different and unexpected themes emerge as it goes through a variety of moods and timbres. Berry really has a nice melodic touch and strong sense of composition. The music sounds comfortable, almost easygoing, but also fresh. “Spectre of the Ruin” features a cool metallic sound that washes over everything at the start. But it abruptly fades, replaced by tinkling little keys that give more of a lounge or jazz flavor. It is surprises like this that make Berry’s music so enjoyable. Halfway through we are in completely different territory, a sparse ambient spacey section that makes you wonder how we got there from where things started. The 22-minute epic title track continues this trend, exploring a vast array of sounds and styles, though somehow weaving unifying themes together into a satisfying whole. And if you just love cool EM sounds, there are a lot of them here – some reminiscent of Tangerine Dream, some of Schulze, Jarre or Vangelis, all of it entertaining and good, including the spooky finish of “The Deserted Tower.” Highly recommended.

 

Ron Berry “The Reaper”

(www.ronberry.freeuk.com, 2005)

4 tracks, 55.19 mins

 

The Reaper was recorded in 1986, and it sounds a lot like melodic TD output from that same era, when Paul Haslinger joined the group. “A Fist full of nand gates” uses a unique sound that is similar to the harpsichord patch Edgar Froese fell in love with and used ad nauseum, but thankfully it seems to be enhanced or processed in some way to keep it from being pedestrian. Also, it is used sparingly and judiciously. The title track shows Berry’s unique spin on melodic electronic music. Starting low and dramatic, a bouncy little sequence pops in around 2:00, followed by nice warm synth strings. Where things get different is at exactly 4:41, as a very metallic, very brusque tone comes in. It gives a rather jarring effect; it might have been okay in smaller doses, but as it is it overpowers the rest of the music. The sections before and after this are light, airy and good. It makes me want to rerecord the track splicing those sections together and dropping out the middle. But this is only one bad section on one track out of 6 Ron Berry CDs I’ve heard, so the signal-to-noise ratio is still excellent. “Spectre of the Ruin” goes back to form, with odd but effective percussion snapping back and forth, a surprisingly ambient and somewhat experimental piece that works well. “Genesis” is a 19-minute epic to close, and it follows a similar haunting vein, perhaps even more so than “Spectre.” Cool chilling stuff, if a bit more challenging than his other albums.

 

Ron Berry “Heavens and Highlands”

(www.ronberry.freeuk.com, 2005)

9 tracks, 66.25 mins

 

Here we find Berry back in light melodic mode, with this offering from 1992. “The Path” immediately starts on an upbeat note with a moderate steady tempo and pleasant synths. “Pegasus” also starts quickly, with a punchy little sequence right up front. I think of earlier Ian Boddy works like The Climb, not bad company at all to keep. Again melody is a strong suit. “Sky Bird” moves into more delicate territory with crystal bell tones, more than a bit new agey but enjoyable enough. “Highlands” is mellower still, but with more depth and substance to it. As the title suggests, there is a strong Scottish feel to this, almost a processional except that it includes some vocoder-type samples to remind the listener that this is indeed electronic music. “Time Warp” brings the energy back to a moderate level, much more synthetic sounding, with great pacing and varied electronics. Though similar to Tangerine Dream soundtracks from the eighties, it retains Berry’s own style, and it’s stronger than most TD soundtrack material. “Nebula Walse” combines two ideas I would never think to bring together. The emotion and majesty of this one have Vangelis written all over it, and perhaps a bit of nineties TD, but again this is only a frame of reference for comparison’s sake, it is not merely copying those who have gone before. If you like light, bright melodic EM, there is plenty to enjoy on Heavens and Highlands.

 

Ron Berry “Temples”

(www.ronberry.freeuk.com, 2005)

11 tracks, 73.08 mins

 

After hearing some of Ron’s older works, it was a treat to delve into this album of brand new music. “Forgotten Temples” starts slowly and dramatically. After floating aimlessly for a bit, a smattering of bass notes, some piano, and a gentle synth sequence add a little structure. It is low key and yet a grabber at the same time. Metallic shimmers ring out. The music is so content to stay subdued that it doesn’t make any pretense that it’s going to build into something else; it simply fades softly away. “Gateway to the East” has an appropriately ethnic flavor, with wood blocks, flutes and other embellishments. “Temple of the Night” is dark and eerie as its title suggests, although female choirs lend an angelic touch midway through. “Pilgrim’s track,” on the other hand, is more majestic in feel as it marches slowly along. Throughout, the music is fully emotive, without being overly sweet or new age. The music is theatrical, sweeping in scope without being grandiose. From subdued to light to dramatic, all the pieces on Temples work very well together to form a complete package.

 

All reviews © 2006 Phil Derby / Electroambient Space. Any reprint in whole or in part must be appropriately credited. Thank you.

 

 

 

Feature #2

Label Spotlight: Groove Unlimited

 

I did a Groove Unlimited feature in the last hardcopy issue of Electroambient Space the magazine a little over a year ago. But they have so many new releases coming out all the time that it seemed time for another focus on this prolific label. In fact, with Groove the label, E-dition the magazine, and EMForum.nl all run by Groove, one could say that Ron Boots and Kees Aerts are the Bill Gates and Paul Allen of the EM industry. Hopefully this EM conglomerate will only lead to lots of good music, not lawsuits and boycotts! Be sure to check out www.groove.nl for lots more information on their past, current and future releases, as well as an extensive library of sound clips for all sorts of EM, both on their own and other labels.

 

Andreas Akwara “Synthetic Horizon”

(Self released, distributed by Groove Unlimited, 2005)

10 tracks, 73 mins

 

Simply titled parts one through ten, Synthetic Horizon is another in a string of recent releases from Andreas Akwara of Spain. Though Akwara technically is not on the Groove label, all of his independent recordings have been distributed by them. “Part I” is a stirring introduction, a perfect hybrid of orchestral and synthetic timbres. “Part II” shimmers brightly as breathy synths and bubbly electronics spring forth. A sequencer loop sounds like it is equal parts synth and acoustic guitar. “Part III” is a melodramatic piece with a wall of noise panning back and forth over symphonic sounds. “Part IV” explores deep space for 17 minutes. I particularly like the middle section of this piece. The opening and closing movements are similar, with a quirky stop-and-start pattern to the electronics that is unique if a little unsettling. “Part V” uses a similar effect, almost sounding as if the synthesizer is shorting out as notes fade, which I found jarring. “Part VII” has a danceable toe-tapping beat to go with the synthesizers. In contrast, “Part VIII” is one of the quietest pieces, a soothing floater with various abstract sounds inserted here and there. “Part IX” is equally quiet but goes back to a more symphonic as opposed to synthetic sound. Water and wind begin “Part X,” which ends the disc on a moderately lively note. Though Andreas’ albums haven’t quite caught on with me, I give credit to him for being a unique voice, definitely recognizable and distinct from those who have gone before.

 

Create “From Earth To Mars”

(Groove Unlimited, 2005)

7 tracks, 75.16 mins

 

Steve Humphries is back with his follow up to his strong debut Reflections From The Inner Light. Once again he has created a disc rife with classic space and retro sounds, presented in a fresh way, sure to please most discriminating e-music fans. “Light Bank” builds and builds in a thoroughly enjoyable manner, a terrific track to start things out. Though the sounds are familiar and again pay homage to his favorite band AirSculpture, the arrangements are invigorating and exciting. Even better is the exquisite title track. A steady thumping beat and synths find a cool groove and run with it for nearly 20 minutes. I think of AirSculpture’s excellent first album Impossible Geometries when I hear this one. The great music continues with “Gethsemane,” another energizer sure to get your brain tripping out to the hypnotic sequencing and your toes tapping to the infectious rhythms. Continuing on to “Solar Flare,” Steve relentlessly keeps the energy and the fun going. Once it picks up speed this one is almost dance-floor ready, though still firmly rooted in Teutonic origins. “Re-Entry” has a steady rhythm as well, and is full of great synth sounds. No synth oboes or guitars, just 100% pure electronic bliss. “Goodbye” is a soft, tasteful tribute to the late Michael Garrison, a beautiful gently layered piece to close things out. From Earth To Mars is excellent from start to finish.

 

Embrase “Dreamworld”

(Groove Unlimited, 2005)

12 tracks, 79.15 mins

 

Embrase is Marc Bras, a Dutch electronic musician, and Dreamworld is his debut release. I would categorize his style as “melodic Berlin school,” with a strong emphasis on emotion and composition to go along with the synths and sequencing. For example, “Come On” is the sort of irresistibly catchy tune that gets stuck in your head for days. The majesty and musical imagery in the opening moments of “Underwater Secrets” would do Vangelis proud. But I especially like the dramatic opening of the disc. “Mysterious Landscape” starts with piano and a light smattering of synths. It is graceful and restrained, yet commands attention. As this leads into “Soundtracking” and it moves into its opening sequence, a masterful drawing in of the listener has taken place. His musical expression reminds me much of Ron Boots, who mastered the album. “Time Is Killing” sounds like it could be a Boots composition, or perhaps a Tangerine Dream piece around the Underwater Sunlight period. Judicious rhythms and bass wrap around synth pads to open the title track, again a very familiar Boots style. That may be due in part to the presence of Harold van der Heijden on drums, who fills the same role on several Boots CDs. “First Movements” features a low bass sequence, crisp cymbals, and awesome synth work that all begs to be driving music, turned up good and loud. The great tunes just keep coming, culminating in two excellent closing numbers. “Journey to the Unknown” has an awesome beat and could again be taken for a TD piece from the mid-80s. “Less Is More” would be a hit single if people were more accepting of music without lyrics. Dreamworld is an excellent debut, hopefully with more to come.

 

Harald Grosskopf “Oceanheart”

(Groove Unlimited, 2004)

6 tracks, 38.05 mins

 

This 1985 reissue comes without any extras, hence the short running time. “Eve On The Hill” starts in light pop mode, a bouncy sequence and upbeat rhythms setting the pace. “While I’m Walking” ambles leisurely along and does indeed sound like walking set to music. Again, the mood is very lighthearted and happy. The title track comes next, slowing things down considerably, quite a moody atmospheric departure from the structured tunes preceding it, a nice counterpoint to those. “Coming Out” takes us right back into toe-tapping music, pleasant and just barely avoiding being overly cute. “Pondicherry Dream” has a cool tribal beat and brisk synths, again quite cheerful. Though lamely titled, “Minimal Boogie” has a cool pulse that grabs attention right away, and the bright piano that joins it does boogie right along with it. Grosskopf creates a busy yet hypnotic number with this one. It would be extremely hard to be down while listening to Oceanheart.

 

Harald Grosskopf “Yeti Society”

(Groove Unlimited, 2004)

7 tracks, 44.07 mins

 

I’ve never cared for what I call “ya-ya music,” where someone decides to get ethnic with their EM by doing a little chanting or what have you. So I’m put off by the beginning of “Circumspection,” the opening track of Yeti Society. Fortunately, this phase doesn’t last long and some very modern synths, bass and beats take over soon enough. However, it’s now gone from ethnic to dance-floor ready, still not a plus in my book, so the album hasn’t won me over yet. “Bravery” has a similar slick sound with lots of synths and mechanized beats. “Elephant Island” slows up a bit and has nice layering to it, but we’re now three tracks in and I’m still waiting for something to make it worth my while. “Endurance” requires just that to listen to it, with a rapid thumping disco beat. “Broad Liquids” is similar, though a shade better. It isn’t until the last track, “Endeavourance,” that I finally find one I really enjoy, a mellow ambient piece with lots of cool subtle sounds melded together – although alas, female chanting near the end brings us full circle to where we started. If you like synth pop with a dance flavor this might be your thing, but it isn’t mine. Noteworthy is bonus data tracks with visuals for “Bravery” and “Endurance.”

 

John Lakveet “Proportions”

(Groove Unlimited, 2005)

10 tracks, 73.13 mins

 

 “Fractal Clouds” starts Proportions with booming sounds like distant thunder. Twittering electronics appear on top of a bed of atmospheric synths. After a couple of minutes, Lakveet’s trademark crisp sequencing comes brightly to the fore. Then a simple synth lead brings in a sparse melody so as not to detract from the already busy background effects. Sequencer fanatics will really be in heaven on this one as it is continuously in motion, gyrating and shifting constantly. After nearly 10 minutes it finally relaxes for a spell, going back to its thunderous and ambient textural origins. The last note hangs in the air, flowing into “Randomize Fractions,” a mellow reprise of the first track, or a distant inverted echo of it. “Confusion of Integral” has a cute Vangelis-like melody as softly clanging electronics loop in and out of the mix. This one wavers quite a bit in a quirky manner, playing with the pitch bend. Sequencing comes back full throttle in “Elipse O,” moving at an almost frenetic clip. Similar but better is “1 and 1 and,” which is equally rapid but more hypnotic than frantic. Perhaps best of the bunch is “Square Serial,” composed with frequent collaborator Dom F. Scab. It has a number of different themes to keep things interesting. At its heart, Proportions is extremely computer based, right down to the fractal graphics on the cover. Despite its often playful nature, it has a certain cold precision to it. If you are looking for pure synthetic sound, look no further.

 

Frank Van Bogaert “Closer”

(Groove Unlimited, 2004)

14 tracks, 64.09 mins

 

If you liked Frank Van Bogaert’s previous albums, Closer is sure to captivate as well. For those not in the know, the title track should bring you quickly up to speed with its appealing rhythm, melody and varied sound palette. “Coming up for air” features a soft sequencer pattern, rich pads, beautiful piano chords, and a classic Vangelis synth lead line. As usual, Van Bogaert’s music is finely crafted, each piece carefully constructed and thought out. “Rorogwela” is tribal drums blended surprisingly well with lighthearted piano, which builds with a sense of grandeur. “High Above” is soft and sweetly restrained with a smattering of pads and other synths. “Melting” shows Van Bogaert’s piano musicianship, another engaging number with a majestic flourish as it crescendos. “A Picture Of You” is as intricate and beautifully rendered as anything he’s done, this time with a variety of unique synths instead of piano. I don’t like the male vocals in the background on this track, but the rest works very well. On “Caleidoscope” electric keys skillfully dazzle with a jazzy flavor, complete with sax. Two of the last three tracks are achingly beautiful piano pieces. From beginning to end on Closer, Van Bogaert reminds what a skillful and varied tunesmith he is.

 

Various Artists “Analogy: Volume 1”

(Groove Unlimited, 2005)

12 tracks, 79.55 mins

 

Conceived and created by members of www.emforum.nl, these 12 previously unreleased tracks begin with Steve Humphries, a.k.a. Create, from whom we have the aptly named “Analogue Revival.” A steady driving sequence keeps this one going. A loud warbly synth sound rings out frequently, perhaps a little too frequently, but mostly it is good fun. Remotion is next with “Freeflight.” It starts with formless atmospheres, and eventually a gentle sequence and relaxed melody emerge, very nice. Next come two tracks featuring Steve Roach. He is joined by Loren Nerell and Chuck Oken on “Zone Patrol,” a bubbly brew much like Steve’s Possible Planet CD. On “Where Are You?” Steve is teamed up with Paul Ellis in a much livelier affair, with percolating rhythmic loops much like his Life Sequence CD. “Elegy” by 4m33s follows, a smooth delicate piece. “The Morning After” is signature Gert Emmens firmly rooted in the retro style. “Viking Mission II” by Syn effectively combines an array of influences from Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis and others into an appealing Berlin school selection. Three of the last five cuts are by names unfamiliar to me, beginning with New Zealander Russell Storey’s “Cosmic Kiwi.” This is cosmic indeed, with twitters, wind and bubbling noises. As a transition piece it is pretty cool, but I’m not sure what a full CD of this would sound like. The co-lead of Groove’s label, Kees Aerts, is next with “Grey Keys.” He begins by laying down a very soothing atmosphere with synth strings and sparse bass notes, before letting go with a very nice sequence. Reminiscent of early Jarre, it stays very laid back, enjoyable throughout. Next is unknown Altres, with “Brain Flame,” an all-out growling sequencer blitz that thoroughly satisfies – I definitely want to hear more from this quartet! “Tsunami” is an active piece by Modulator ESP, lots of fun knob twiddling going on here. Lastly is “Aquamarine” by Ian Tescee, a sweet but sad piece that makes a fitting ending on a slightly different note from the rest. This is an excellent compilation, highly recommended.

 

All reviews © 2006 Phil Derby / Electroambient Space. Any reprint in whole or in part must be appropriately credited. Thank you.

Feature #3

Artist Spotlight: Indra

 

Indra is Romanian Dan Bozaru, and though he has over 25 solo albums to his credit, he only started widely releasing them, relatively speaking, in 2005. He has a very good handle on the Berlin school sound, with just a bit of an Eastern touch to it, which meshes with his spiritual beliefs. I hear influences of classics from Klaus Schulze, Software, and others. Indra’s label contacted me a while back and offered to send me a sample of his extensive back catalog, reviewed below.

 

Indra “Millenium Live 2000”

(www.indramusic.ro, 2005)

6 tracks, 72.30 mins

 

 “Focus on Mind” is a wonderful beginning to Millenium Live 2000, a 17-minute epic sequencer excursion. The mesmerizing tone is set early and is allowed to run unabated for the duration – but it is such a pleasant sonic space that it is completely relaxing, not boring. “Moving (into the Solar Wind)” is quite a bit different. Assorted sci-fi synth sounds are followed by a brief female monologue from the imaginary tale, something about warding off the effects of the plague for as long as she can. There is a bit of kitsch to it, but I like it. “Brain Machine” combines equal parts Berlin school and Eastern influences into something distinctive and special. “Angel Dream” is new age with singing, a must-skip in my book I’m afraid. Thankfully, this is followed by the most powerful track, “Morpheus,” with fantastic drums and unique synth percussion, rich pads, and various other electronics. The serene “Benedictus” closes out a mostly first-rate offering.

 

Indra “Ultimate Nexus”

(www.indramusic.ro, 2005)

7 tracks, 69.31 mins

 

Ultimate Nexus starts in deep space mode with “Just Fusion” though it quickly turns into a dance/techno number. Normally I’d consider that a bad thing, but this really cooks. “Andromeda” is a dreamy space sequence, although majestic drums return before it’s over. After another energetic number in “Timewarp,” things slow down considerably with “Rue du Soleil,” a delicate meditative piece. “Rhythm of the Gods” is as you might expect, with a fun upbeat melody to go with those rhythms. A name like “Beyond Classic” begs to be made fun of, but it is very good space music, a long slow drifter. It and the title track comprise nearly 30 minutes of exciting deep space exploration.

 

Indra “Whispers of Nature”

(www.indramusic.ro, 2005)

2 tracks, 45.43 mins

 

Originally recorded in 1999, this album has two side-long tracks, beginning with “Silvania.” Gently running streams and birds are surrounded by very quiet subtle music, a considerable departure from the other Indra offerings I’ve heard. No sequencing, no rhythms, very little melody – but incredibly relaxing and pleasant music. “Silvania” seems to be developing into something more over the last five minutes or so, but then it softly fades away. “L’Amour de l”Infini” starts with crickets, which eventually fade and lead to serene music and water sounds, definitely with a more new age flavor but extremely well done. Excellent music for relaxation, meditation, or just listening and chilling out.

 

All reviews © 2006 Phil Derby / Electroambient Space. Any reprint in whole or in part must be appropriately credited. Thank you.

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Questions? Email Phil Derby, editor of Electroambient Space