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.