softest — hidden guitar & water music

It's a small (musical) world indeed. We recently discussed the new label Heavy Mess, started by braeyden jae. As we noted, braeyden was the founder of the Inner Islands label, now run by Sean Conrad, aka Ashan, the artist with the most recent release on Heavy Mess. Well, braeyden is not just a cassette label mogul, he also performs as softest and he has a new release on Inner Islands. There's something wonderful about the interconnections of so much of the New New Age stuff, what appears to be the return of another West Coast scene. I hope that we can do whatever we can to help grow that scene. The obvious one is to continue to review all of the wonderful releases that they are producing, so with that, here are some thoughts on hidden guitar & water music.

 

Mysteries Of Science ‎— Mysteries Of Science

Mysteries Of Science, "Virtual Wake"

Mysteries Of Science, "The Interweave Conundrum"

Mysteries Of Science, "Diffusion"

Mysteries Of Science, Mysteries Of Science

Since we are almost in danger of becoming contemporary and of-the-moment, it seemed like a good time to dig back into the archives and highlight a (possibly forgotten) classics. We're going to try to weave a few different musical moments together over the next week or two in our effort to use the past and present to chart out the future, so wish us luck. Naturally, one of those past moments is one of our favorite periods, that glorious early 1990s era when ambient ruled the club or, at least, was given a small room off to the side. We'll take what we can get!

This one, in a convoluted way, is another path out of the Freezone, that SSR Records compilation that we looked at weeks ago and have imagined as an actual physical space subsequently. I had initially planned to discuss Moby's Ambient, the album from which "Myopia," his contribution to Freezone 1 - The Phenomenology Of Ambient, came from. That one was released on Instinct Records in 1994, one of a trio of records that helped take the dude from rave fixture to dance music star to insufferable celebrity. While I was listening to that one, I started to dig back into Instinct's discography, since it was one of the key labels from the 1990s that brought the ambient turn to life and lo and behold, we redisovered this cosmic acid classic. Seriously, my friends, skip reading the next few paragraphs and download this immediately; this is that grade A, steal your face cosmic shit that will reveal new worlds and galaxies.

Since I assume everyone listened and is skipping these paragraphs to dive in, I can just mail this description in. Mysteries Of Science is the alias of Dominic Woosey, strike that, this is one of more than 20 aliases that Woosey used over the course of a career that appears to span the first half of the 1990s. Woozy only released 2 LPs and one 12" as Mysteries Of Science; but if you nail it right away, no need to overdue it. And Woosey nailed it on his first try with this self-titled LP, Mysteries Of Science. If I were to try to categorize the album's sound, it would be something along the lines of cosmic acid ambient; those three terms capture the three general sonic movements that Woosey makes: soaring, Berlin School-y sequencer flights, creeping, winding bass, and the ethereal, almost-static pads. This is spacemusic in the best sense, providing a soundtrack to a journey into the desolate and unknown; this journey provides moments of both complete bliss and sublime tension.

Check out the phenomenal opener "Virtual Wake" to hear all three sounds/movements interact. It begins with about 30 seconds of swirling squeals. At this point, the synth bass comes through and your life will never be the same. Woosey creates this echo-y dub acid line that brilliantly gives the sense of vastness, of being dwarfed by an environment. It is both beautiful and anxious, perfectly sublime. That acid sound will come and go over the course of the next 9 minutes, dissipating into growling, droning bass or replaced by drifting, soaring string-like synths or lush, melodic keys. At more than 10 minutes long, the track has the room to breathe and lets the listener really drift off to explore inner and outer space. Phenomenal.

Another track has a heavier vibe, as those uplifting synths are replaced by marching band-like bass drum, wailing siren-like synths and deep bass. It's an interesting track, a nautical techno that gives all a real sense of rising and falling, both through those buoyant sirens and drum-only passages. Finally, the album's closer, "Diffusion," is a wonderful example of chill-out music at its finest, 12+ minutes of the most gentle, soft pads that you just float away into the clouds on. Around 5 minutes in, knocks of percussion emerge, like a reminder to not fall asleep, that you want to be present for all of this. The pace stays chill af throughout, making this the perfect ending to an essential ambient record. Enjoy, more chill af stuff on the way.

Gossimer — Close the Circle, Lay the Stones

I want to keep the Heavy Mess momentum going and take a look at another one of the new label's most recent releases, Gossimer's Close the Circle, Lay the Stones. In our eternal quest for cross-post connections, this one is a slam dunk. Gossismer is the work of Jennifer Williams, who you will remember as one-half of the band Orra. The other half? Sean Conrad! Ah man, that feels so satisfying. Anyway, while this is my first time hearing Gossimer, this is not a new project. Williams has been making music as Gossimer since the summer of 2012, with a few official releases and some self-released live material and demo tracks in the ensuing years. Beyond making great music, Williams is also an accomplished writer and poet, with work published in various journals and anthologies.

Gossimer's most recent, Close the Circle, Lay the Stones is the seventh release on Heavy Mess, maintaining the high quality control and its slightly skewed aesthetic. Hmm, slightly skewed might sound insulting, but it is not meant to; what I mean is that the label seems to be adept at defamiliarizing, upsetting one's expectations. We touched on this with the Death Is New Life review, as that record seemed to allow a darker undercurrent to emerge with the Ashan sound, to upset my preconceived New New Age expectations if you will. While I didn't have any expectations with Close the Circle, Lay the Stones, the opening tracks suggested what the Gossimer sound was—an updated pastoral, psyche folk, bringing to mind Shirley Collins or The Pentangle. You hear Williams' beautiful, slightly haunting vocals over finger picked guitar notes and you feel like you get it. But, then after the first two tracks, her voice disappears, the songs stretch out, tempos slow to a crawl, guitar notes get sparser, noise, drones and static starts to emerge out of the background; you can still hear those folk beginnings through all 6 tracks and 48 minutes, but they feel like they are warping right before your ears. It's really wonderful stuff that gets better with each spin and ever closer listening.

Of course, with multiple listens, you start to realize that that initial reading of the opening tracks wasn't quite as accurate and straightforward as you thought. Give a listen to the sample above, as I think it captures perfectly this subtle estrangement that makes the album so wonderful. "Stranger Family" has the framework of what I think of as the Gossimer template—lush acoustic instrumentation, dark lyrics, beautiful, emotive vocals, looping guitar notes, deliberate pace—that creates a gothy psychedelic folk. But, closer listening reveals exhilarating moments of dissonance, as the machine gets into the garden. Perhaps my favorite example comes around 40 seconds in; just as the guitar notes loop and pick up steam, a sudden burst of feedback briefly punctures the pastoral vibe and leaves the listener unnerved. Love love love. There's a (probably unintended) structure to the album with 3 sets of similar length 2-song sets, moving from the 4 and half minute openers to the 7+ minute middle section to the epic, 11+ minute closers. Those final two sections/4 songs need to be heard, especially "Close the Circle," a 11 and a half minute gem that mixes minimal guitar with ghostly ambient sounds to create the highlight of the album for me. 

This release is everything I look for from a new label, as it subtly expands my own listening and introduces an artist that deserves a much wider audience. It gets a definite recommendation and not just for fans of folk; anyone interested in adventurous music should buy a copy right now. Head to the Heavy Mess Bandcamp store, where you can buy Close the Circle, Lay the Stones as either a limited edition cassette (+free digital download) for $7 or as a digital album in the format of your choice for $5. Like I keep saying, there can never be enough labels exploring the sonic edges and buying this music is the only way to assure ourselves that we will get more of it. Once you have done that, check out the Heavy Mess main page for more info on the label and their soundcloud for more music samples. For the social media kids, link up with braeyden and the label on Twitter and Instagram. For more Gossimer, check out past releases at the Bandcamp store and grab more sonic samples on soundcloud; for more on Jennifer Williams and her fiction writing, head to her main page! That should all keep you busy while I work on the next post. Ok bye.

Ashan — Death Is New Life

I was going to wait on this, but I am just bursting at the seams with excitement and had to move it up in the queue. You know there are two things I love in this world: expanding the Pound for Pound network by introducing new labels and Sean Conrad's music. You can imagine my joy when these two loves come together in a single release. So, I am honored to introduce a new label to the Pound for Pound world, Heavy Mess, and its most recent release, Ashan's Death Is New Life.

Based in Oakland, California, the label is a reminder of just how small the world is. Heavy Mess is the brainchild of braeyden jae, who records as softest, who we have discussed here before; braeyden was also the founder of the Inner Islands label, which we obsess about every few months here. Quietly, stealthily, thankfully, braeyden has returned to the role of curator, starting up a tape label that is now 8 releases deep. I love everything about the 3 adjectives that the label uses to describes itself: "disgruntled. hopeful. complicit." It might be the most concise way to describe the utopian impulse, with its sense of dissatisfaction with the status and willingness born of optimism to come together with others to experiment. Probably closer to what braeyden's meaning, the adjectives also offer the first clue that this project is shaping up to be something different than what one might have in mind when you hear names like softest, Sean Conrad, Inner Labels. This new batch of records—Death Is New Life, Gossimer's Close the Circle, Lay the Stones and Heejin Jang's Binary Breath—have New New Age moments of bliss and meditation, but those are mixed in with dark drones, weird field recordings and psychedelic folk.

For long-time readers, you will remember that I first came to Sean Conrad's music through his Ashan project; works like To Return To and Ancient Forever were incredibly influential, shaping our desire for a music that activates quiet places. I actually had thought that this alias might have been jettisoned, as it had been nearly 2 years since the last release, Earth Magic Life Celebration, so you can imagine my surprise and excitement when I learned of this new LP. With an initial, cursory glance, looking at the album title and song names like "Warm Decay," hearing a feedback-only track, I wondered if Ashan had become a drone metal band during the hiatus. There is something to this initial reading, as a darker element does run through the 9 tracks, a heaviness that fits perfectly with the political climate these days. "Trance Formation," the album's second song, might be a perfect reflection of this new edge and of potential new musical directions it opens up. The heart of the song is the big, hefty drums that recalled the unforgettable beat of Faust's "It's A Rainy Day (Sunshine Girl)"; seriously, this is a monster, a mix of hypnotic tribal with the clang of industrial. Mama. That bottom end is augmented by distorted guitar chords, waves of curling feedback, vocal wails and synth notes that all get built up into a frenzied jubilee that I imagine playing right before the riot breaks out. 

While my initial thoughts speculated that this was a new Ashan, with repeated listens and thought, I feel like this fits perfectly within the continuum of the project. Ashan has always struck me as a exploration of the natural, of our place within our landscapes, as the label puts it, where "the physical meets the spiritual and how the two influence and dialogue each other." Death Is New Life puts me in mind of snags or wildlife trees, which are essentially dead trees that become spaces for new life; this 2004 Mother Earth News article looks at the teeming life that finds shelter, storage and much more in these dying entities. I have always felt that Ashan's music evokes forests and it seems a fitting reference again. At its finest moments, which are numerous, there are these almost heartbreaking moments of beauty and energy that emerge out of darkness and decay. The album's closing track, "Flickering," captures this feeling of hope and life that can emerge out of desolation; it begins with a didgeridoo-like drone and melancholy synth pads. Out of this stark soundscape come these tentative signs of life, in the form of twinkling chimes; 

Obviously, I think that this is an essential new release and gets my highest recommendation, so I suggest you buy a copy for yourself ASAP. Head to the Heavy Mess Bandcamp store, where you can buy Death Is New Life as either a beautiful, limited edition cassette for $7 or as a digital album in the format of your choice for $5. braeyden has been kind enough to let me share these tracks, so I ask that you return the kindness and purchase the album in its entirety. More importantly, there can never be enough labels exploring the sonic edges and buying this music is the only way to assure ourselves that we will get more of it. I highly recommend checking out the Heavy Mess main page for more info on the label and their soundcloud for more music samples. For the social media kids, link up with braeyden and the label on Twitter and Instagram. Oh, and of course, you can find out more info on what Sean is up to at both his personal site and the Inner Islands home. Don't forget to check out his amazing mix as Mist Connections that kicked off our Pound for Pound Mix Series. 

That's all for now, we'll be back shortly with more new stuff from softest, Heavy Mess, Epoch Tapes, Constellation Tatsu, The Orb and much more. Have a great weekend my friends!

William Ackerman — In Search Of The Turtle's Navel

William Ackerman, "Barbara's Song"

William Ackerman, "Gazos"

William Ackerman, "Slow Motion Roast Beef Restaurant Seduction"

William Ackerman, In Search Of The Turtle's Navel

It turns out it's not that easy to return from a vacation and write again! It was not our most productive week, as it was basically the blogger equivalent of playing solitaire on our work computer every day. When in doubt, head into the country. In this case, we are heading up to Windham Hill, a spot we have actually been to before when we looked at Robbie Basho's wonderful Visions Of The Country LP. I thought of Basho as I listened to and thought about Sean Conrad's solo guitar explorations on the new Channelers album. In terms of precedents for Arden Tapes, it seems a short (and justified) leap from Basho to William Ackerman, who not only started the Windham Hill label but also helped define its sound through his many releases. We'll be digging into Ackerman's own and the label's discography over time, but there seemed like no better place to start than at the very beginning with his first LP, 1976's The Search For The Turtle's Navel, which was not only his first record but would eventually become the first release on Windham Hill.

Recorded in 1975, that year a group of friends and fans reportedly got together and raised $300 to allow Ackerman to book a recording studio; he cranked out the tracks that would make up The Search For The Turtle's Navel in 3 two-hour sessions and released that album as a private press edition the following year. It would later get renamed In Search Of The Turtle's Navel, starting with the 1982 edition, and lose one of its tracks ("Woman She Ride"). For those interested in a history of the album and its various pressings, I highly recommend checking out the page dedicated to the record at the essential Windhaming site

Sonically, what you get is 10 tracks and 46 minutes of solo acoustic guitar explorations from Ackerman, which see him mining influences like Fahey, Kottke and Basho in an effort to discover his own sound. Since most of us aren't APG experts and that doesn't mean much, one can expect a series of finger-picked solo guitar instrumentals that simultaneously showcase dexterity and restraint, as Ackerman beautifully plays with tempo and pacing. If hearing the names Will Ackerman and Windham Hill conjure up thoughts of the soft and meditative, this first recording will surprise you. There is an edge to it and not just with the occasionally unserious song titles; it comes through in the sharp guitar notes and deluges of sound that dominate throughout. If Channelers was tentative, repetitive and inward-looking, this would be brash, ornamental and surface; while Conrad evoked images of the hearth, this one has me thinking of rushing rivers and Baroque façades.

Take the opener, "The Pink Chiffon Tricycle Queen," which showcases Ackerman's skill with tempo. Over the course of 5 and a half minutes, the song moves from relaxed and deliberate to an almost-breathless speed and back again, leaving one feeling like you are exposed to the elements and going which way the wind blows.  "Barbara's Song" helped me clue in on Ackerman's technique and uniqueness. From what I can tell, he has given up any thumping bass accompaniment and replaced it with a more percussive one. Rather than the American folk reference, this one suggested flamenco and jazz, as it has a lighter, airier sound than his influences. Throughout the second half of the record, on tracks like "Gazos" and "Slow Motion Roast Beef Seduction," this same penchant for ornament comes through, as melodies seem to twist around and accent the rhythmic strums and The album's longest song at seven and a half minutes, the extra time allows the listener to settle back more and seems to have let Ackerman relax as well as this one feels more relaxed and consistent.

What I think fascinates me so much about Ackerman, and this record in particular, is the way that it sits at the crossroads of American Primitive Guitar and the New Age, two genres that we love and love to connect. Allmusic claims that "For many people, this is the album that invented new-age music." Yet, it is clear from Ackerman's liner notes to this 1998 CD edition that he sees it as his attempt to offer his take on the American Primitive Guitar sound. It's intriguing that the line separating these two sounds gets blurry, as . I don't really have an answer as to why that is or how to sharpen it, but hope that we can explore those questions over time. My instinct is that both emerge from the same impulse, a desire to minimize, to strip bare, in order to find new spaces and times. This quote from Peter Lang on John Fahey's teaching suggests we might be on to something with that: "...Fahey suggested the idea of joining similar themes, and exploring both time and space. He also wanted me to try using dissonance and minor tunings. Maybe the biggest thing he put into me was the idea that a major part of music exists in the space between notes and chords. Interestingly, Ackerman is well-known for his use of non-standardized guitar tunings. As he explained it in this 2012 New Age Music World interview, "By creating a new tuning I am removing intellect completely from the process of “composing.” I simply don’t know the landscape I’m in and so have nothing but emotion to guide me. I’m lost, but in a beautiful, emotionally connected way. I inevitably find a bit of an alpha state and wander about in that landscape until I find various paths which I employ intellect to connect later. So the music is about emotion, not thought. It’s about heart, not mind."

Soundcloud

Bonjour bonjour bonjour, we are back at Pound for Pound HQ, coming down from the high of a trip up north to Montreal and a glorious close-out to the summer. Apologies for the silence, but I wanted to stay as screen-free as possible and thoroughly enjoy my first time in that city. All I will say is that I spent various points during the week drinking a cold brew while listening to the Grateful Dead and Kurt Vile, so yeah it was epic. Thanks to SL for making it happen and for making each day so great.

A few updates: we have started an official Soundcloud page, where we uploaded Pound for Pound 001: Approaching Stillness, Mist Connection's phenomenal kick-off to our mix series. Please follow us there, as we will be uploading mixes, reposting some favorites and using it as a means of posting odds and ends that don't quite fit at the blog. 

For the rest of this week, we will be discussing new music from Inner Islands and Epoch Tapes, plus introducing a new label or two. There's also going to be a trip up Windham Hill, as we connect these new releases to some earlier moments in ambient history. OK bye.

Pound for Pound Mix Series!

The Pound for Pound Mix listening experience will be exactly like this except you won't be blown away but gently lulled.

The Pound for Pound Mix listening experience will be exactly like this except you won't be blown away but gently lulled.

My dearest readers, I wanted to make sure you knew about the newest, most exciting development yet here at Pound for Pound. Yesterday we kicked off our newest feature here with the first volume in the Pound for Pound mix series, a 43-minute journey to a musical oasis courtesy of Mist Connections, aka Sean Conrad of Inner Islands. Head over to the Mixes page, where you can listen to Sean's mix, download for mobile bliss and read a short interview with Sean. I know that there are like a billion mixes floating around the Internet, but I hope to make this one a unique series that offers something a little different and well worth your time. Feel free to get in touch at mixes at poundforpound dot us to submit or to let me know who/what you would like to hear. More to come. In the meantime, go listen!

Channelers — Arden Tapes

The remainder of this week and some of next is dedicated to Sean Conrad and his music world. As long-time readers will remember, Conrad is the man behind both the Ashan, gkfoes vjgoaf, Orra and River Spirit Dragon projects and the Inner Islands label, the Oakland label at the forefront of the New New Age. Today we are looking at Arden Tapes, his newest release as Channelers, which appears to be his main project these days. This, along with a new album from softest, is part of a summer digital-only batch that everyone should grab immediately, if they haven't already. Per usual, I say way too much below about the music, so let me just say upfront that this is a beautiful, contemplative album of solo guitar explorations. These are not fiery pyrotechnic jams, but slowly unfolding meditations, where the smallest chord change provides an enormous impact. Highly, highly recommended, grab a copy now for the insanely cheap price of $3. Like, seriously, 3 bucks, let's do this!

There are moments where I feel like the universe gives me exactly what I need when I need it and Arden Tapes is a perfect example of this phenomenon. As I have gone through a rough stretch and anxiety levels have risen to threat level red recently, this 15-song album appears and re-centers me. I forget sometimes the power of music, how it demands that we be present, the way it brings us to appreciate the tiniest gestures, how it can remind us that a single person can create something beautiful from nothing. Sean's music, in particular, brings these concepts to the fore, while also helping us envision new inner and outer spaces. 

Sean informs us about the album emerged out of a "taking time to feel my song of the moment. a brief practice largely explored through the first months of the year." As always, he captures perfectly and succinctly his work, as this 15-track album features Conrad unaccompanied, playing his guitar to create a stripped-to-the-core ambient folk music. I think there is something inherent in solo guitar that evokes practice and spontaneity, an artist alone sketching out ideas and working on technique; while this album evokes that, it doesn't feel rough like a demo or unfocused like a jam session. It feels like each track sits on the border between planned and spontaneous, like there was a map for the hike, but an openness to explore the unexpected trail or sight. I don't have any immediate reference points, which has been a wake-up call that I need to step up my solo guitar work. While Robbie Basho comes to mind, Arden Tapes feels more peaceful and measured, less cascading notes and more ripples in still water.

"night brings a new energy" captures this dynamic well, as it unfolds so patiently and minimally that it feels like you are hearing the effects of each musical gesture as they expand outward and grow fainter. There are these beautiful moments, like right around the 1-minute mark, where the border between sound and silence is erased. There is also a lovely textural dynamic at play, as fuzzier, more resonant chords are played off against sharp notes, evoking that general sense of nighttime haze and our strengthened awareness of all the things moving in that darkness. Normally with Conrad's music, nature and the natural world never feels far off. This release, though, more than anything else I have heard from him, suggests a distance, a remove. This album, like Forest Moon's A Northern Star A Perfect Stone, evokes images of retreat, home, sanctuary; stems from the solo guitar, which evokes interior spaces for me, of bedroom lessons and living room jams, and the intimacy of the recording, which at times captures Conrad's body and its movments. While there are no field recordings, no forest visions, no clearings in the woods, the looping, cyclical guitar patterns of "taking time to pray for more love in the world" reminds us of the seasons and natural time, giving a sense that this is only a temporary retreat inside.

Finally, the highlight of the album for me sits at its center, "calm rainy window." As I have said before, his music, more than any other, has clarified my own thinking on music, space and politics. I have occasionally spoken of lowercase sound, picking up on Steve Roden's concept. As Roden wrote of lowercase, "“It bears a certain sense of quiet and humility; it doesn't demand attention, it must be discovered... It’s the opposite of capital letters—loud things which draw attention to themselves.” With each new album from Conrad, I see this idea as more and more powerful, part of his project of activating quiet places. I know that the fact that the song titles are all in lowercase is probably a coincidence, but this is my blog and I am going to pretend that they are not a coincidence at all! THEY ARE CONFIRMING MY WRITING! Seriously though, it is a great lens to view this record through, as it has a sense of quiet and humility; more powerfully, if you can give it the attention, if you can find the right spaces to hear it, it will enrapture you. "calm rainy window" confirmed the power of this idea, as I became almost obsessed by a few notes in the song. It comes in for the first time around the 30 second mark; after a pattern of gentle strums has built up; suddenly these bending notes emerge and it is like a bolt of lightning. They sound so beautiful and melancholy it leaves me speechless. It deserves your $3 alone.

As always, this is the part of the post where I ask you to buy the album. I consider Sean and his label like Pound for Pound family, so it means a lot to me to learn that my readers are supporting Inner Islands. Skip the morning coffee and instead head to the Inner Islands Bandcamp and buy Arden Tapes for $3. You will feel less anxious from the lack of caffeine, then you will put this on and fall into a state of pure calm and bliss. Win win. You can also find out more about Sean, his music, his photography and his upcoming gigs at his personal site. Find more info on Inner Islands at their site and become a fan at their Facebook. Thanks my friends, big surprise coming tomorrow, so stoked!

Astralasia ‎— Whatever Happened To Utopia?

Astralasia, "Aphasia"

Astralasia, Whatever Happened To Utopia?

Astralasia, "A.N.D.E. Part 1"

Astralasia, "...And Finally"

Astralasia, Whatever Happened To Utopia? Bonus Disc

I feel like the beginning of the week demands chill-out music and who am I to fight time? We're going to get all rhizomatic here as we take a path off of a path out of the Freezone, highlighting Astralasia's Whatever Happened To Utopia? You will remember the name Astralasia from our recent post on Voyage 34, as the group remixed "Phase III," the album's third track and highlight. There are times when I feel like earlier music was made just for me, like artists on some Terminator shit found out exactly what I want to hear today and were sent back two decades to metaphorically kill it. This 8-track album from 1994 is definitely one of those times. I mean, DO YOU SEE THE ALBUM TITLE?!!?!? Friends, this entire site is essentially me typing 5 million words that add up to this very question: what ever happened to utopia? Add in the fact that this is a chill-out record, confirming my belief that that that space is one of reimagining the world, and it is love at first sight.

How does it sound, you ask? Good question. The group describes itself as "Early creators of original Euphoric Trance, Psychedelic Trance, Astral Dub, Trance, Experimantal Techno, Ambient Dance" (nice to know the boys are as concise with descriptions as I am). Most seem to place them on the trance continuum; I must confess that I am probably not the person to be speaking about trance or what particularly subgenre this record falls under, but speak I will. The original LP and 4-track bonus disc feature 12 tracks that move between downtempo trance, kosmische flights, dubby techno and space-y ambient expanses, occasionally all within the same song. I'd say the closest comparison sound and vibe-wise, in terms of artists we have discussed, is the work of Spacetime Continuum, as I can't help but think of Jonah Sharp when I hear the slow, didgeridoo-like 303, the mystical vocal samples and complex drums on "Genesis - The Spark Of Life." At just over 7 minutes long, it is nonetheless the album's shortest track; these extended times and complete lack of peaks and drops confirm that this was the band's re-imagining of trance. 

Check out the album's 9-minute closer to hear just how far that re-imagining went, as this one is stripped down to static-y bursts, a deep, pulsating bass drone, a repeating percussion phrase, intermittent feedback squeas and haunting synths that sound like ghostly moans. This is some serious, heavy music that could either lull you into peace or scare the shit out of you. Me likey. Finally, there's "A.N.D.E. Part 1," the first of 2 parts and the heart of the bonus disc. To me, this sounds like the tranciest, with its upbeat arpeggios, lush keys, build to a climax structure, and its melodic beauty. However, all of that isn't backed up with a kick drum 4/4 beat, but instead an ethereal ambience and angelic female singing. It's a nice song, perhaps a gateway tune to become a full-on trance addict.

I did want to return to "Genesis - The Spark Of Life" one more time, as you couldn't possibly think I would pass up the chance to blab about utopia. As it turns out, the vocal samples come from Dr. Carol Marcus, a character in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. While Star Trek might be the only area further my skill-set than trance, I was interested in the use of this character and that particular quote of hers. Astralasia have taken a sample of Marcus discussing her Project Genesis, a scientific research project whose goal was to develop a process whereby uninhabitable planets could be made suitable for humanoid life." I'm especially interested in this within the context of an album pondering the status of utopia and would like to connect it to some key utopian thinking. First, in this idea of reclaiming the lifeless, I hear echoes of Buenaventura Durruti. As he responded to an interviewer's remark that even if the Left won the Spanish Civil War, he would be sitting on "a pile of ruins":

You must not forget, we also know how to build. It is we the workers who built these palaces and cities, here in Spain and in America, and everywhere. We, the workers, can build others to take their place, and better ones! We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth, there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world, here, in our hearts. That world is growing this minute.

It's a quote that has always inspired me with both its confidence and its imagination. There's a tendency towards pessimism on the Left these days, so to see someone so defiant is exhilarating. More importantly though, Durruti counters the notion that utopia only emerges from a clean slate; that desire for a tabula rasa has lead to utopia's greatest tragedies. Instead of looking for new lands or planets, what if we began to create another world from the ruins of this one? This vision of envisioning the new from the outdated and abandoned suggests a connection to David Harvey's spaces of hope and his dialectical utopianism concept. While this is not the space to try to summarize Spaces of Hope, I do want to highlight this one passage in which Harvey discusses the difficult leap from the present into an imagined future that often paralyzes us in inaction: 

It is on this point that we need to mark well the lessons of capitalist historical geography. For that historical geography was created through innumerable forms of speculative action, by a preparedness to take risks and be undone by them. While we laborers (and philosophical underlaborers) may for good reasons ‘lack the courage of our minds,’ the capitalists have rarely lacked the courage of theirs. And, arguably, when they have given in to doubt they have lost their capacity to make and re-make the world. Marx and Keynes, both, understood that it was the ‘animal spirits,’ the speculative passions and expectations of the capitalist (like those that Zola so dramatically depicted) that bore the system along, taking it in new directions and into new spaces (both literal and metaphorical). And it is perhaps no accident that architecture as a supremely speculative and heroic profession (rather than as either a Platonic metaphor or a craft) emerged in Italy along with the merchant capitalists who began upon their globalizing ventures through commercial speculations in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It was that speculative spirit that opened up new spaces for human thought and action in all manner of ways. [Harvey, 254-255]

It seems counter-intuitive to look to capital to imagine something different, but this emphasis on speculation strikes me as essential. We must imagine and we must invest and build those imaginations,, regardless of the risk of failure. No matter how small-scale, even down to the size of a chill-out room.

Epoch Tapes — Winterfields / World of Ornament — New Lands [for Arpeggi]

Here is a quick post, as I wanted to keep the Epoch Tapes momentum going while I work on a larger post about another one of their releases. I know that it is often tough to take the leap with new labels and sounds, so it seemed like a good idea to highlight these two digital releases, which are available free from the label's Bandcamp. While they are clearly just the first inklings of what the label is working towards, I think they are nice sketches to get a sense of their direction, their philosophy and their sound. In the spirit of both releases, this post will be more sketch of future thoughts on Epoch Tapes than any final statements.

First up, Winterfields is a free, end-of-year compilation that the label dropped to celebrate their first year of existence in 2015. As the labels describes it, "Here we have collected some choice pieces of sound for you to explore and download for free. Some are the building blocks of our young collection, while others are unreleased demos of future projects: a private look into our creative processes outside of monikers." 11 tracks + 3 bonus surprises. Folk, classical, ambient, indie rock, even New Age emerge over the course 51 minutes. Opener "Spirit Radio" is a stunner, as a rocking krautrock rager erupts halfway through out of static-y ambience. The crackling, static-y percussion, heartbeat bass and guitar strums of "Prelude [to a Poem]" evoke friends jamming around a fireplace, while the music box instrumental of "Belldanser [Fleeted Minds]" suggests a return to a childhood bedroom. 

Notes for future thinking: Bedroom, hearth, warmth, creaks and crackles, ghostly vocals—a music about home and the spaces we inhabit. Winterfields as inspiration? Or motivation? This is not the sound of arctic house or dark ambient, but the sounds who have found refuge from the harsh environment. Jam sessions, late-night covers of Bon Iver and The Smiths, no names necessary. "Thank you to our families, to our brothers and sisters in sound, to the memories of our betters, to you: our supporters." Again, not a music of retreat, but one of turning inward to create our own spaces and sounds. No artists listed for the tracks, just the label. Group before individual. Lowercase sounds. Lowercase politics. Microutopia. 

3-song EP, "a series of collected acoustic sounds, guitarwork, and choral samples. " The work of C. Ballantyne, it is the label's most ambient release to date. Short songs bursting with pulses, haunting voices, guitar noodles, like looking at a classic orchestra work under a microscope. Or perhaps more accurately, we are looking under the winterfields, where life is teeming, repeating, morphing, growing, buzzing. I want more; what happens to the 1-minute "Idir" when it becomes 10 minutes long? 100 minutes?! What new lands emerge then?

Notes for future thinking: "Landscapes became textural, softly transition to voices." Ambient music creates a liminal space between nature and human. Ambient music as a landscape/urban strategy? New Lands—a utopian impulse becomes explicit. What would a world of ornament look like? Must we give up our belief that ornament is crime? 

Porcupine Tree — Voyage 34

Porcupine Tree, "Phase II"

Porcupine Tree, "Phase III"

Porcupine Tree, Voyage 34: The Complete Trip

I feel like it hasn't been very weird around these parts lately, so let us fly the freak flag again here at Pound for Pound. This means following Another path that emerges out of the Freezone, Porcupine Tree's "Voyage 34"; an excerpt of that song appeared on that excellent compilation and was reputedly "a big hit in the ambient/chill out club scene of the early 1990s (when it was originally issued as two 12 inch singles)." It turns out that it is actually an excerpt of 1 song in a 4-song suite, so obviously I had to explore the whole shebang. This is definitely more of an acquired taste, combining prog rock and ambient techno, so it may not work for many of you. It seemed worth sharing, as at the very least it showcases just how unexpected and strange the chill-out room could get.

For those like me that don't know, Porcupine Tree was an English rock band, which began in 1987 and disbanded in 2009. For a band that I didn't know much about beyond this single, they have an enormous discography, with 73 official and 75 unofficial releases. The group actually began as a hoax by British musician Steven Wilson and Malcolm Stocks, as they "fabricated a detailed back-story including information on alleged band members and album titles, as well as a "colourful" history which purportedly included events such as a meeting at a 1970s rock festival and several trips in and out of prison." From there, Wilson began to make music to back up the story, releasing his initial home recording experiments as Tarquin's Seaweed Farm on cassette in 1989. In 1991, Wilson would sign with Delerium Records, who would issue the band's second LP, Up The Downstair, in 1993.

Up The Downstair was originally intended to be a double album, with the second disc being a 30-minute track called "Voyage 34." Instead, it was released as a 12" later that year, with a second 12" coming out the following year that featured a remix by the trance group Astralasia and one by Wilson himself. It is the latter two tracks that became popular in the chill-out rooms, which makes good sense, as they have a dreamier, more ambient sound than Parts I and II, which center more on Wilson's guitar flights and rock grooves. In a 2012 Rolling Stone India interview, Wilson gave the background behind Voyage 34:

The whole point about Voyage 34 was it an exercise in genre. In that sense it stands apart from the rest of the catalogue. I don’t know what it was like in India, but back in the early Nineties, there was an explosion in ambient music, a fusion of electronic music and techno music with the philosophy of people like Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream. I thought there was an interesting opportunity to do something that would bring progressive rock and psychedelia into that mixture. I wouldn’t say Voyage 34 was a technical exercise, that makes it sound like a science project, but I was a one-off experiment in a particular genre in which I knew I wouldn’t be staying for very long.

It's an odd, off-putting quote to be honest, which is only made worse in the second paragraph, where he states about ambient music that "Even at the time, I think that sort of music was already passing. Music that is too attached to a trend very soon starts to sound very dated. I was always interested in existing outside the bubble of whatever was hip, and that kind of music was very briefly hip. Voyage 34 sits inside that bubble. I’m still very proud of it. It was a unique piece of music, but of all the catalogue, it’s one of the pieces which relates most closely to the era that it was created in." The mixture of opportunism and arrogance is not a good look, but I will put away my personal feelings and stick to the music!

In short, if you can imagine someone mashing up those Tim Leary records we posted awhile back with cheesy prog guitar solos and The Orb, you have a good start on what to expect. Like the Leary stuff, there is this running thread of a guided journey through an acid trip, which is made explicit by LSD-referencing vocal samples. As Wilson tells it, "I was given a tape of a guy having a bad trip in the Sixties. It was an anti-LSD propaganda album and it was perfect to from a narrative around which I could form this long, hypnotic, trippy piece of music." For those interested, you can check out the anti-LSD documentary that Wilson sampled, which is narrated by Dr. Stanley Cohen and, bringing it all full circle, features Dr. Timothy Leary, as well as Allen Ginsburg, Ken Kesey and Aldous Huxley's wife Laura. The trip concept extends to the music structurally, as the first half is more aggressive and turbulent, much rockier if you will, while the second half is calmer and more expansive, trancier if you will again.

Above is the 2004 remastered edition of the 2000 release on Delerium Records that compiled both 12"s onto a single CD. The samples cover both the rock (Phase II) and trance (Phase III) sides. While "Phase I" feels like a prog number with the occasional ambient passage cut and pasted in, "Phase II" more successfully combines the two. This one builds out of a droning soundscape with water drop-like percussion, over which our boy Tim Leary and an anonymous head discuss the LSD pilgrimage. Around the 5-minute, guitar, bass, sequencer and effects come in to give some form to the proceedings; the best moments come when the guitar chords are left to hang in the air, creating a dubby, expansive space rock sound; when the guitar takes center stage, soloing over the synth background, it sounds like more like a cheesy kosmische number. It drops and peaks over the course of 17 and a half minutes. That earlier quote captures the problem with these two songs, as it feels often like someone who thinks that their genius can overcome their complete lack of understanding of genre. Wilson didn't really know about ambient, but wanted to take advantage of its hipness. Truthfully, I feel like the closest the dude has come to an LSD experience was listening to that documentary; the music is so controlled and composed that the acid comments feel like they are meant for another song.

"Phase III" shows that Wilson should have actually tried to understand the ambient bubble, as the trance group Astralasia produce a wonderful 19 and a half minute drift into the cosmos. What really stands out on this track is the treatment of the vocal samples; as opposed to the untouched, 50s science lecture ironic vibe, the group chops up, echoes, repeats, morphs them, creating a truly haunting and psychedelic space. Especially cool is the way that closing line of Phase II, "Is this trip really necessary?" emerges at the beginning of "Phase III," fragmented and whisper-y, as if we are about to truly find out if this LSD experience is worth it. The first 6 minutes or so are a hesitant stretch, as repeating bell phrase, vocals, chimes, keys emerge out of a droning black hole background. When the hi-hats kick in, you start for launch. Again though, the group lets this tension stand, not rushing to bring the kick drum and sequencer in. Once they do though, it feels so good and you can just sit back and chill the fuck out. Good stuff.

Solar Quest — Orgship

Solar Quest, "Awaken Kundalini"

Solar Quest, Orgship

Solar Quest, Orgisms Disc 2

Ok, I lied. We are going to postpone that focus on one of my current favorite artists/labels for a week. I feel like this is the second lie in the last few weeks and I feel terrible; please know that it is not you, it's me. I hope that you will accept my apology and continue to put your trust in me, as we continue to build the hacienda together. In the meantime, as you ponder all of that, let's head down some of the paths that emerge out of the Freezone.

The first path that presented itself was that of Solar Quest, aka George Fleming-Saunders, and his first LP, Orgship. I have been unable to dig up much info about the man himself or how he fit into the UK dance and chill-out worlds, other than a reference to his setting up tents powered by solar energy at Glastonbury Festival. What i do know for certain is that two Solar Quest tracks featured on Freezone 1: The Phenomenology of Ambient—"Cherchez La Lumiere" and "Save The Whales"with the latter featuring on this solo record; Fleming-Saunders was also tasked with editing and sequencing the compilation, so you know that he knows what's up. I forgot just how much he knew what's up, as re-listening to this 1994 album is mind-blowing, like someone made a record that would be exactly what I wanted to hear 20+ years later. 

Right from jump street, Solar Quest makes it clear that this is a retreat from the club, as the album's opening track, "The Bells of Atlantis," begins with the sounds of the ocean lapping against the shore. More than any of the other chill-out records, this one has a New Age consciousness; it's not just spiritual song titles like "Awaken Kundalini" and "The Open Path," but the sounds themselves. The 11 and a half minute opener takes the sounds of that meditative music—flute, nature field recordings and what almost sounds like a singing bell to me—and adds in a laconic bass and minimal drum click to create the most dreamy, relaxing ambient techno you will ever hear. As opposed to the more typical celestial/interstellar vibes of this genre, this one feels very grounded to me

What makes Fleming-Saunders and his Solar Quest alias such an interesting project is that it had two faces; while there is stuff like this blissful ambient work, he is actually best known for his acid tracks, in particular "Acid Air Raid," which was released on Choci's Chewns the very same year as Orgship. Obviously for us it's exciting to have those genres, two of our favorites, connected, but I've been trying to think if there is any connection between the releases, if the acid informed the ambience. On "Awaken Kundalini," one begins to hear the slightest of connections, as over a tribal beat, this twisting, swirling, humming drone unfolds over the course the track's six and three quarter minutes. This might sound weird, but that drone reminds me of a Tibetan singing bowl in its continuous harmonic hum; even weirder, it struck me as a similar effect as a nasty 303 line in the way it sorts of sneaks up from below and morphs around you. In this case though, instead of anxiety and dread, it produces relaxation and serenity. Phenomenal. 

How good is this album? I haven't even mentioned the album's finest moment, the epic, nearly 16-minute close "Flying Spirals." And because I love you, I have also shared the continuous mix of the album, released as a bonus Disc 2 of his 2000 Orgisms LP. It is definitely the best way to listen to this, as it gives you that feeling of a journey into bliss that is essential to the best of the chill-out room. Oh and before I end this, let me just say that I don't really know what the music business is like these days, if curated compilations still have any place in it, but I seriously hope so. Freezone 1 is a perfect example of their beauty, as its snapshot of a particular sound that opens up so many threads to trace and rediscover. In an age when record stores are dying off, these sorts of releases are more important than ever for that act of digging. We'll keep digging over the course of this week, so check back for other interesting Freezone trails.