Monday, October 31, 2011

N-Plants - Biosphere (CMG Review)


Touch Records.

CMG Rating: 62%
SCQ Rating: 67%

Much has been made of N-Plants‘ origin-point: a photograph of the Mihama nuclear plant which, located so near to the sea, provoked Geir Jenssen (aka Biosphere) to write an album probing both the designs of Japanese nuclear plants and the implicit dangers given its fault-lines running underneath. Recording wrapped up in February and, a month later, the Tōhoku earthquake devastated tens of thousands of lives. That the online community has jumped behind—and, in several cases, championed—N-Plants on the heels of this sad coincidence for its prophetic eeriness isn’t surprising, but it’s telling when Biosphere and Touch Music also embrace the troubling connection for press release fodder. Quoting Jenssen’s friend, who inadvertently broke news of the earthquake to him over Facebook, Biosphere’s press release closes with an unwitting cliffhanger: “But more importantly: how did you actually predict the future?”

There’s a fair amount of reaching going on behind the scenes of Biosphere’s marketing think-tank and it doesn’t take a devious mind to understand why: N-Plants is sort of boring. An ambient record that covets textural dexterity above all else, Biosphere’s latest clings to painstakingly assembled beat concoctions that interact on microscopic levels. Don’t press play expecting to hear sweeping, emotional progressions or even discernible melodies; for Jenssen, these glitchy, intricate foundations represent the compositional whole. One would think the ambition behind Jenssen’s minimal craft should be story enough, his techniques rooted in stark opposition to electronica’s quest for instant gratification (via chiptune, Balearic, chillwave, etc.). Instead Biosphere offers nine buzzing, clopping and whirling IDM tracks that, despite feeling stubbornly remote, can seep into one’s subconscious over their generous run-times.

Read the rest of the review over at CMG.

Slave Ambient - The War On Drugs (CMG Review)

Slave Ambient

The War On Drugs
Secretly Canadian.

CMG Rating: 80%
SCQ Rating: 80%

Kurt Vile leaving the War on Drugs wasn’t only one of the most amicable splits in indie rock history, it was probably among the least noteworthy as well. Besides Vile and War On Drugs frontman Adam Granduciel being longtime friends, their working relationship remains largely oriented around backing each other’s pursuits on the tour circuit. Recently Granduciel has been playing in Vile’s live band, perhaps as a way of returning the favor of Vile’s contributions toward his band’s early successes. If that back-scratching rapport reads as particularly dull amid the more scandalous beefs nowadays, at least it illustrates the two songwriters’ catalogs as separate planets sharing the same inspired atmosphere.

Nothing thrived on that utopian partnership better than Wagonwheel Blues (2008), a full-length that primed Vile for a successful solo career and greased the subsequent tendency for journalists to ponder fictitious futures of the War on Drugs “post-Vile.” Please. As if Granduciel being the brainchild behind that excellent debut wasn’t enough, let Slave Ambient put to rest the notion that Kurt Vile’s ghost is in some way haunting the War on Drugs.

If my fingers felt irresponsible enough to spin such reactionary insights on the spur of the moment, I’d say quite the opposite: that the War on Drugs might someday haunt Kurt Vile. The opening couplet alone, “Best Night” and a re-imagined take on Future Weather track “Brothers,” fills the same all-encompassing production championed on Smoke Ring For My Halo with full-blooded arrangements. Both tracks belie the highway-weary delivery of Granduciel by dealing in saturated melodies and relentless rhythms that would swagger had the band felt like aiming for radio airplay. But it’s the extended jam on the first track, delving into a chasm of echoed acoustics, twinkling ivories, and a mournful horn in the background that marginalizes Vile’s mirror-on-couch introspection, proving the band’s readiness to go abyss-diving without forgetting the pop hooks at the root of all this delicately entwined instrumentation.

Read the rest of the review over at CMG.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

SCQ's Autumn Records 2011

Maybe it’s because I spend the latter half of summer anticipating fall, but finding autumn records is never a chore. Not only are there ample amounts of releases that match this season’s sense of seclusion, but each year a few bona fide examples come along that effortlessly await October days like today.

Still, winter waits for no one. Get out into your city or town's beautiful spots and soak up the foliage while you can. These top choices won't let you down.

Love SCQ

I Found Your Faces Of Montreal - You Are My Symphonic (SCQ's Autumn Records 2011)

I Found Your Faces Of Montreal

You Are My Symphonic

SCQ Rating: 88%

Some records you hold onto for just the right moment; still, this was a tough one. Released on the cusp of summer after a three-year recording process, Vishal Kassie’s second record under his You Are My Symphonic moniker instills a still-life beauty ideal for autumn wanderings. Granted, June worked out pretty well regardless, as one can actually hear these songs blossoming into being via pristine acoustic instrumentation and crisp electronic layers. But it’s Kassie’s mournful edge that offers I Found Your Faces Of Montreal its auburn melancholy, a reflective spirit that touches gently on love and loss – themes this record knows all too well.

The record has in effect been written twice; the first being halfway finished when stolen as part of a laptop heist in 2008, the second being Kassie’s present labour of love – rewritten, rearranged, expanded upon and (if we can trust the author’s word) greatly improved. Following 2009’s instrumental wedding-score Afternoon Birds Of Arima, I Found Your Faces Of Montreal has the air of a debut proper. Capturing the same bucolic loveliness that coloured his past ambient efforts, opener ‘Meet Me In Trinity’ unlocks a door by ushering in Kassie’s prowess on the acoustic guitar and a new dimension to You Are My Symphonic’s sound. It has a widescreen appeal, expanding in echo-drenched ivories on ‘Autumn Will Fall In Love’ and rippling over the Ulrich Schnauss-approved ‘Under Your Umbrella, with grandiose aspirations that should no doubt turn off some cynics. Yes, that latter example finds melodies fully maximized, stretched to their life-affirming potential without much thought of restraint, and on early listens can be misunderstood as schmaltzy.

That sentimental veneer is to be cherished, however, as it coats some of the record’s devastating highlights. ‘Rooftop’’s shimmering reverberations house biting details of a dead relationship, the soaring synth on ‘My Father And His Sister’ counteracts some rather glitchy beats, while the title track bears Kassie’s haunting yet irresistible multi-tracked vocals. Like the storied history of the recording process itself, emotions run deep throughout I Found Your Faces Of Montreal’s sprawling eight compositions. Uplifting and heartbreaking – often all at once – You Are My Symphonic has staked himself proprietor of an ambient-folk scene positively alien to Montreal. And on that island’s island, I Found Your Faces Of Montreal is a landmark release waiting to be found.

Autumn Will Fall In Love from You Are My Symphonic on Vimeo.

Thelma - Benoît Honoré Pioulard (SCQ's Autumn Records 2011)

Benoît Honoré Pioulard Plays Thelma

Benoît Honoré Pioulard
Desire Path Recordings.

SCQ Rating: 84%

The hit-or-miss qualities of ambient music are intensely personal; a patient test of tonal shifts and buried details which eventually latch onto one’s mind-frame, their personality, or fall by the wayside. The majority of today’s ambient fare assumes the latter’s fate but those rare exceptions, in my experience, usually become the sort I cherish for years on end. Finding records of this quality used to be difficult but Desire Path Recordings is dutifully making my search easier. Setting pace with memorable releases by Solo Andata and Kyle Bobby Dunn, the new imprint has now struck a three-peat with Benoît Pioulard’s enigmatic score Thelma.

Documenting an imaginary landscape – what Pioulard refers to as “a lake within a haze” – this mini-album wastes no time transporting listeners to a foreign place. ‘Malick’ opens the set already in bloom; a reserved piece circling its quaint corners but also instilling a sense of familiarity, of belonging. That warmth bleeds into the stretching strings of ‘A Land Which Has No End’, tuneful bouts of reverberation in ‘Calder’, and the heavenly coda of aptly titled ‘Autochoral’ with a retiring, autumnal sensibility. Pioulard’s gift for incepting so many mixed emotions in these pieces is trumped only by an ability to place listeners within his aural geography. Yes, Thelma’s lovely cover-art (featuring photograph done by Sean Curtis Patrick) goes some distance in establishing the song-cycle’s peaceful, remote vibe but Pioulard imparts each track with its own textural character – be it one that lurches from the clouds (‘Malick’), one that pools as if from a leaky tap (‘Pidgin’) or as a textile of lost voices (‘Hushes Gasp’).

None of these strengths properly explain my obsessive connection to Thelma, but that’s par for the course with desirable ambient records. As a mini-album, Benoît Honoré Pioulard Plays Thelma’s direct but still teasing, engaging but fleeting. It colours moods that are explicitly autumn to me, and I’ve no doubt that Pioulard’s latest will remain a coveted favourite of mine for years to come.

Benoît Honoré Pioulard - Calder by desire path recordings

Gravity the Seducer - Ladytron (SCQ's Autumn Records 2011)

Gravity the Seducer

Nettwerk Records.

SCQ Rating: 76%

Ladytron provoked a collective balk from just about everyone earlier this year when they released Best Of 00 – 10, not because their catalog didn’t warrant a retrospective but that such a compilation actually extended, yeah, ten years. Perhaps the idea of Ladytron nurturing a legacy never dawned on most of us because their breed of noir electro-pop always clung to the brittle edge of fashion, a cult-ready notion of cool dependent on sleek wardrobe choices and a disaffection bordering on robotic. It wasn’t until 2005’s Witching Hour that the English quartet’s songwriting caught up to their visual sensibilities but, then and now, Ladytron have always existed in their own bubble; impervious to destruction but perpetually floating a great distance from any given year’s movers and shakers.

As the first LP separating their first decade from a new one, Gravity the Seducer – bearing perhaps the most Ladytron-esque title to date – immediately shifts gears from the propulsive dynamics of Witching Hour and Velocifero for a dreamier, layered approach. ‘White Elephant’ still contains a foundation of synthetic bass and drum-machine effects but its hooks rely on soaring string and horn orchestration, a flight of fancy that contributes to Helen Marnie and Mira Aroyo’s vocals sounding less devious, more ABBA. Subsequent tracks such as ‘Mirage’ and ‘Ritual’ reclaim the band’s drive without abandoning their newfound love of cosmetic spaciousness, allowing the majority of the disc to unfurl as a slow-motion swan-dive into an erratic but no less beautiful daydream.

Gravity the Seducer creates such an ear-pleasing, if suspiciously surface, universe that the rare stumble merely demonstrates further how Ladytron cannot pierce their consistency bubble. It isn’t difficult to find something of worth in lightweight tunes like ‘Altitude Blues’ or the instrumental ‘Transparent Days’, but they don’t sink their talons into listeners either. That counters top tracks ’90 Degrees’ and ‘White Gold’, which score points for fitting the typical Ladytron energy bursts into evocative aural expanses. Carrying on where the last decade left off, Gravity the Seducer nonetheless works best when you meet Ladytron half-way.

Ladytron - White Elephant by nettwerkmusicgroup

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Shit Camera Exposé: Jerry Granelli Trio (National Arts Centre)

As anyone who closely monitors my tweeting habits can attest, I’ve developed a new disconnect among my peers: I like jazz. A few hesitant experiments have flourished into a full tower of CDs and records spanning the genre’s canon. From 1950s hard-bop and 70s avant-garde to modern day ambient-jazz creators, I’ve been warming to a series of scenes that percussionist Jerry Granelli has lived to tell the tale of.

So a round of firsts, then: my premiere jazz concert, the first time stepping inside the clean confines of the National Arts Centre, and my first attempt at reviewing live, often freeform jazz. Naturally, this called for a round of seconds as well, in terms of pints my friend Shane and I had before crossing the street to the NAC. And as an evening rain began misting over downtown’s lit-up buildings, the time felt right for some jazz.

After finding seats among the casually arranged tables and chairs of the NAC’s fourth stage, we greeted the Craig Pedersen Quartet to the step-up stage. Opening for Granelli and a well-known local act around Ottawa, Pedersen and his crew delved into a selection of tracks hot from their forthcoming album. ‘Little Bird’ roused the dimly lit room with deep drum-fills and a synchronized attack of trumpet and sax, while bass and drum duties stirred up a late-night, urban vibe which neatly emboldened the horns. Over the following tracks – of which ‘Early Winter’, with its suffocated trumpet solo, was a highlight – the Craig Pedersen Quartet showed great syncopation, working tightly controlled arrangements but opening generous pockets for improvisation. What made their whole set so engaging was that each member brought something significant to the table; the percussion (by Mike Essoudry) was dexterous, the bass (by Joel Kerr) restless, and the two horns (Linsey Wellman on sax, Pedersen on trumpet) continually upped the ante when soloing.

After such a brisk and upbeat set, the Jerry Granelli Trio took to the stage. Famous for his involvement in many classic ensembles but foremost for playing in Vince Guaraldi Trio’s 1965 classic A Charlie Brown Christmas, Granelli’s style has been described as unclassifiable despite a life spent in jazz. And for good reason: warning us in advance that his selections wouldn’t sound as they do on record, Granelli and his two sidekicks (Simon Fisk on bass and cello, Danny Oore on saxophone) began reinterpreting tracks from their 2011 record Let Go with patient atmosphere. Neighbouring tracks ‘Under a Chinese Saloon’ and ‘A Chinese Saloon’ began with tuneless saxophone gasps, blowing like a dead breeze over Granelli’s freeform drum taps. While the mood was provided as much by Fisk and Oore as it was from a generous amount of negative space, Granelli’s momentum brought the procession into order with his ability to evoke a thousand different tones from striking the cymbals in certain ways.

Continuing on with an expanded rendition of ‘Bones’, the trio seemed at home, chuckling to each other in the midst of any unexpected improvisations. Their playful taunting hinted at the sense of brotherhood between Granelli and his much younger bandmates, with the percussionist even joking at one point that the story of how the three met was simple: he was “waiting for them to be born”. And if perhaps they grew too comfortable at times, slipping out of the groove and experimenting in near silence for stretches of time, the trio rebounded nicely with the cello, alto sax and drum surge of ‘If I Were a Clown’. Between that unreleased composition and the subsequent number entitled ‘Dance’, Granelli and Co. grew increasingly tight, offering a more direct and upbeat strategy that nonetheless contained asides of silliness (as when Oore riffed off of Fisk’s cello by squealing his stool along the floor).

While sidestepping a table in an attempt to snap a photo of the band in action, I encountered a woman interpretively dancing to the trio’s score - throwing her arms out and pivoting in close quarters, with no one seemingly noticing. Good thing, because no dance technique could predict or keep up with this performance. Frequently disjointed but always creative, the Jerry Granelli Trio perused swinging tempos as well as experimental retreats. Seeing a veteran of such prolific (and historic) musicality create on the spot kept the audience acutely aware of each progression, whether fulfilled or merely teased. And when Shane and I departed the venue into the wet streets, we felt assured we’d seen a rare show indeed.

The Jerry Granelli Trio tour continues West until the end of October, with stops in Edmonton, Vancouver and Seattle. Tour details can be found here. Don’t miss it.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Delirium Portraits - Tobias Lilja

Delirium Portraits

Tobias Lilja
n5MD Records.

SCQ Rating: 82%

Having closed out 2010 with a compilation celebrating their tenth anniversary as a pioneering post-rock/home-listening electronica label, n5MD appeared ready to jump into 2011 with their mission statement renewed. That compilation’s focus – having new signees remix old blood – plus tagging newcomer Winterlight as a member of n5MD’s “new class”, meaning artists who were directly influenced by said label’s roster, illustrated more interest in recycling established trademarks than branching outwards and, by all accounts, 2011 looked to follow the same muse n5MD has been lusting after all along.

Then, in one unassuming release, all that fans have come to expect from the Oakland, California-based imprint turns sideways with Tobias Lilja’s Delirium Portraits. (Truth be told, I missed Lilja’s 2007 record Time Is On My Side so perhaps the groundbreaking nature of this follow-up stems from that ignorance.) Call him what you will – a less brooding Matthew Dear springs to mind – but Lilja’s devious mix of house and sprawling songwriting has put n5MD back on the progressive map. Nevermind the sheer size of Delirium Portraits – after all, it’s rare to find an n5MD release clocking well below the hour-mark – but it’s hard not to marvel at how Lilja fills that space with slow-moving verses and tight rhythms that somehow never eclipse each another. ‘Spineless’ and ‘North’ open the disc on a spritely course, all rich house beats and sorrowful vocals, but Lilja’s sinister edge increasingly punctures the brisk drive of these tempos. The piano-based ‘Love Song’ takes us crawling through Lilja’s dark side, introducing a sneaky beat in its final minute, and by the time ‘No Death Star’ breaks into its elastic-snapping synth chorus, his desperation has become Delirium Portraits’ prime motivator. Still, the likes of ‘Birthday Cake’ and ‘These Bells’ peer out from these bleak shadows with enough muscle on its beats to entice the darkness in us all.

Granted, you need to be in a particular frame of mind to find all of Delirium Portraits’ long shadows engaging. That situational dilemma marks a clear distinction between this record and the enveloping, reflective nature of your average n5MD release. But its risks, for both artist and label, translate as an artistic success in this case, launching into sonic and lyrical directions that in the world of home-listening electronica are rarely so unique.

Spring/Summer 2011 - Florian Lunaire

Spring/Summer 2011

Florian Lunaire
Records Records Records Records.

SCQ Rating: 77%

Who is Florian Lunaire? Sure, his website points out that he’s a songwriter with a resume of vague credentials, having written for documentaries, theatre productions and other artists. But a single listen to the joint EP release of Spring/Summer 2011 will have many listeners uttering the same query, for the simple reason that he has created an astonishing snapshot of eccentric storytelling.

Matching Lunaire’s verbose vortexes with complimentary piano arrangements must be difficult in and of itself but ensuring that the fusion makes for good pop seems an impossible task outside of Lunaire’s hands. His aptitude for showtunes proves a powerful ally throughout, flourishing doses of drama to stream-of-conscious soliloquies like ‘Amsterdam’ and the hauntingly beautiful ‘The Persistence Of Memory’. Luckily the young songwriter knows when to pull the reins, offsetting his pageantry with breezy pop numbers that don’t belie his natural inclinations. ‘Summering Here’ feels like a classic Belle and Sebastian track somehow left off of The Boy With the Arab Strap whereas ‘One (Laplace’s Demon)’ operates like a wholly visceral slab of cocktail lounge catharsis.

In other words, it’ll leave an impression. Too full of ideas to feel scant but too damned good to be satisfying at nineteen minutes, Spring/Summer 2011 will hopefully find enough of an audience to round out Lunaire’s missing seasons. Lord, what a full-length that would be.

A Different Kind Of Fix - Bombay Bicycle Club

A Different Kind Of Fix

Bombay Bicycle Club
Universal/Island Records.

SCQ Rating: 79%

Discovering Bombay Bicycle Club as I have – upon the release of their third release in three years – has offered benefits beyond the good fortune of finding this band in the first place. From the tone of most critics, I’ve seemingly skipped the lion’s share of baggage surrounding these lads and whatever sins they’ve committed against the purebred indie crowd. Perhaps signing to the combined dark forces of Universal and Island Records was all it took to slap “spoiled kids” on these lads’ backs but none of that subtracts from A Different Kind Of Fix’s clever songwriting or accomplished sonic backdrops.

The first cut ‘How Can You Swallow So Much Sleep’ survives its inclusion on a Twilight soundtrack by proving an irresistible mix of tortured verses chanted over shoegaze-tinged waves of euphoria. The blurred guitar histrionics that dominate tracks like ‘Take the Right One’ and ‘What You Want’ reveal the band’s youthful vigor but stand in stark opposition to Jack Steadman’s matured pop instincts. The jangly pop of ‘Lights Out, Words Gone’ arrives transformed by Faith-era atmospherics (had the Cure maybe not been quite so morose) while ‘Shuffle’ proves deeper than its surface appeal thanks to an off-kilter piano sample that feeds right into the driving chorus. And while tender balladry on ‘Fracture’ and ‘Still’ stands firmly on its own merits, one must acknowledge the wizardry of producer Ben (Merriweather Post Pavilion) Allen, whose work certainly provides distinct playgrounds for ‘Favourite Day’’s pomp and ‘Bad Timing’’s chill.

Whatever rules Bombay Bicycle Club broke to become such petchulant children in the eyes of the critical elite, I’m happy to remain oblivious in my affection for this elegant rock record. An ideal mix of momentum and romanticism, A Different Kind Of Fix leaves little room for petty posturing.