Saturday, September 29, 2012

Valtari - Sigur Ros


Sigur Ros
XL Records.

SCQ Rating: 73%

There are hundreds of go-to words that seek to magnify Sigur Ros’ transcendent allure – among them “glacial”, “earth-shaking”, “ethereal”, etc. – and most fans acknowledge them for lack of a clearer way of articulating such a singular sound. “Nice” shouldn’t be one of those descriptors but Valtari, the band’s fifth studio full-length, doesn’t offer a surplus of alternate doorways by which we might offer in-depth commentary.

As what can be loosely considered Sigur Ros’ “choral” album, Valtari does deviate from the life-affirming bombast that dominated Takk… and half of með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust. But these eight songs don’t play out any progressive intentions, instead retracing the Hopelandic ambience they pioneered on ( ) with their symphonic habits still calling the shots. Far from minimal, the results dial up the distilled beauty of Jonsi + Alex’s Riceboy Sleeps through the full band’s sensitive approach. Given how successfully Sigur Ros have built evocative, full-length spanning sound-environments in the past, Valtari nevertheless comes off as unsure of itself, hiding a handful of lovely, true-to-form compositions within a transient cloud of lavish indecision.

With highlights dominating the first half and the final three tracks forming a delicate instrumental suite, Valtari resembles a super-generous EP (in the tradition of Hvarf/Heim or their various maxi-singles) moreso than a self-sustaining album. However one chooses to view or describe Valtari, it finds Sigur Ros quietly thriving off their own laurels, unbothered by the boundaries they’re dwelling in. For a band that has spent half a decade leveling post-rock, they’ve earned the right to play nice.

Mirror Gazer - Onuinu

Mirror Gazer

Rocket Science Records.

SCQ Rating: 76%

It’ll come as no surprise to learn that Dorian Duvall, mastermind of Onuinu, has an eclectic taste in music. Listening to Duvall’s debut Mirror Gazer can be likened to tangling oneself in several records sequenced to play and coexist perfectly. There’s no single root; instead Duvall pits R&B grooves against house beats, synth-heavy swells on top of hip hop beats. And although these distinct capacities risk getting mangled by Onuinu’s extroverted ambition, Mirror Gazer perseveres as an outlandishly fun forty minutes.

Distinguishing which tracks on this debut flirt with disaster varies by the supply of ideas and layers Duvall’s tossing at the wall. On the tracks where everything sticks, such as “A Step In the Right Direction” and “Last Word”, Onuinu wipes away the clutter in favour of prominent grooves that inspire an insatiable momentum. Other instances, like “Happy Home”, can require several listens to fully weed through, its various gears overwhelming what is, at its core, a good tune. And that’s the learning curve with Mirror Gazer: the compositional focus, while tight throughout, is occasionally masked by what sounds like a kitchen-sink approach. With time, the disc proves more fine-tuned than any slapdash technique with Onuinu ultimately holding the reins.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Low Volume Music - Steve Roach & Dirk Serries

Low Volume Music

Steve Roach & Dirk Serries
Projekt Records.

SCQ Rating: 78%

Not since Brian Eno’s original Ambient series in the late 70s and early 80s have artists geared their work toward such a direct and practical purpose as Steve Roach and Dirk Serries’ first collaboration in ten years. Like Eno’s Music For Airports or On Land, projects that dropped listeners into sterile moods or organic field-recordings, respectively, Low Volume Music’s primary focus can be detected from its title.

While it’s true that from conception Roach and Serries were planning a minimalist release of “sound meditations”, imbued with harmony and drifting textures, these five resulting tracks have a sneaking ambition underpinning their inoffensive nature. With Low Volume Music, Roach and Serries set forth on creating an alternate reality, a zen-like refuge from the noise pollution we’ve grown so accustomed to in our daily routines. The opening track “Here” represents a gateway, one intended to cleanse the mind and usher in a relaxed atmosphere, and even as one suspects that Roach and Serries are officially rubbing shoulders with New Age tenets, the composition works wonders. Choosing to encircle a mood instead of conquering several, subsequent meditations “Closed” and “Bow” shimmer like iridescent details in one’s mental landscape. They simply exist and the gentle mutations that unfurl over time radiate to one’s environment as unobtrusively as watching sunrays crawl across one’s wall.

An argument could be made that just about any ambient record should, by definition, achieve Low Volume Music’s intention. But true ambience attains to indifference – a tonal scale that listeners will mirror their emotions to – and that’s a quality that even celebrated ambient recordings don’t adhere to. Unlike White Rainbow’s psychedelic adventurousness on Prism Of Eternal Now or Tim Hecker’s aggressive leanings on Ravedeath, 1972, Low Volume Music’s only obvious sonic distinction is that it bears none. To some listeners this release will sound boring but that’s the nature of real ambience. Neither optimistic nor depressing, Low Volume Music achieves a curious calm that truly offsets the clamor of our noisy lives.

Meld - Stephen Hummel


Stephen Hummel

SCQ Rating: 76%

Its synths sound sharper and the vocals sound a tad more processed but, with open-armed opener “Phoenix”, Stephen Hummel’s new project bears a bizarre-o resemblance to M83. Branching off with an electro-pop compass, the man behind subtractiveLAD finds sensuous vocals and massive synthesized anthems at the heart of Meld, ones that would rightly appeal to fans of Anthony Gonzalez’s dreamy oeuvre.

This first release under his birth name marks a significant change of pace for Hummel, whose subtractiveLAD work typically eschews vocals and last left us in the expansive, industrial tizzy of Kindred. While remaining true to Hummel’s bold experimentation but fitting a pop framework, Meld leaps into an emotive world of deep percussion and sparkling synth workouts. Occasionally the song-cycle feels too heavy to digest over a single sitting, as if the multitude of layers building “Birds” and “Forever” are competing for equal attention. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this writer has discovered that Meld’s constant busyness only wears thin when played over basic computer speakers; when listened to on headphones, Hummel’s exhaustive approach pays off with a dedication to detail that most fringe-dance records would prefer to loop over.

Highlights such as “Away” and “Beautiful”, in particular, remain saturated in evolving progressions and soaring melodies but the physicality of their construction outweighs most dream-pop outings I’ve heard so far in 2012. Besides his vocal-assisted tracks, Hummel really hits his stride with ambient-leaning mood pieces like kosmische choral “Wait” and the Tycho-reminiscent “Sunshine”; both tracks the sort that’ll make longtime subtractiveLAD fans get behind this promising u-turn.

Slimer (7 Inch) - Cold Warps


Cold Warps
Fundog Records.

SCQ Rating: 74%

My turntable had until recently been off-limits, boxed-up for months while Skeleton Crew Quarterly moved its headquarters out of Ottawa. That span of time was oppressive enough without knowing the riff-packed sweet spot laying in wait behind Slimer’s immaculate album-art. It may not be glow-in-the-dark like Dog Day’s Deformera prior Fundog release, but Slimer reveals a no-frills foursome basking in authentic garage hooks and DIY slap-dashery.

The title track achieves the feat of getting two different hooks plastered to my brain; the opening seesaw of guitars exploring high and low registers and then the punishing brilliance of Cold Warps’ distorted middle ground. B-side “Dream Creepin’” keeps the momentum going like a two-way chorus, the first stomping through lyrical warnings and the latter a surf-tinged crest of expansion. Both songs depart on salacious grounds, making me wish they’d committed each composition to another minute or two. But admittedly that might negate the blitz that Cold Warps clearly thrives on, of executing upbeat slacker-rock quickly and cleverly.

Slimer’s whole storm passes in less than five minutes, a brevity by which some listeners may scoff as too impractical for a physical listening experience. Yet this seven-inch feels more like a collectors item than anything else; Cold Warps’ foreshadowing of some awesome maturation on the power-pop horizon.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Pink - Four Tet


Four Tet
Text Records.

SCQ Rating: 74%

In many ways it’s hard to evaluate Pink without first trying to determine what the hell happened to Four Tet. Here’s one of the brilliant minds of the early 00s, a beat-mashing genius who contributed to tearing down a lot of prejudices and walls that existed between electronic music and, well, every other genre, now assimilating himself into the UK dance scene. On the surface that appears as natural a slope as gravity itself; that Kieran Hebden would follow the 4/4 techno impulses of 2010’s There Is Love In You with an even more club-oriented song-cycle. But Four Tet’s whole game until now has been about resisting categorization, about mixing genre devices like chemical concoctions and making a fresh, unique identity out of the fusion. That daring playfulness has coined enduring, if unfortunate, terms (Rounds’ “Folktronica”) and earned an air that feels completely out of time (Everything Ecstatic’s jazzed-out, BoC-inspired throw-down).

Pink doesn’t just feel tied up by the exclusivity of its dance-floor intentions; Hebden’s cornucopia of musical ideas appear as linear loops, stretched broadly over eight and nine minute runtimes for ease of comprehension. Many of these ideas are of course excellent as snapshots: the moody Aphex Twin styled synth falling ominously over “Lion”, the tight nu-jazz rhythms of “Pinnacles”, the psych guitar line that squeals into earshot on “Locked”. Hell, even the indie-rock histrionics that swell into the heart of “Pyramid” are welcome but these highlights meet no element of surprise, no curious resistance capable of setting off tension or conflict. “Ocoras” and “Jupiters” don’t doddle but they don’t exactly go someplace either, marking a distinction that in the past would explain the dividing line barring engaging middle-of-the-road electronic acts from Four Tet’s caliber. In the midst of all this steady euphoria sits “Peace For Earth”, the only beat-free composition and a testament to Hebden’s interest in early New Age records, that unveils its energy and solemnity like a suite for interpretive dance. It’s pretty fantastic. 

Beyond its obvious stylistic target, Pink reveals the extent of Four Tet’s gradual regression into dance music’s ranks through its release strategy, unveiling two tracks at a time in limited vinyl runs for the past year or so. While progressive in a capricious, when-I-feel-like-it sort of way, Hebden’s schedule literally leaves Pink the album as a last resort. No physical release equals no set release date equals no internet hype equals no big deal. Similarly, where the beats once propelled and challenged Hebden’s melodic side, Pink finds a symmetry that ensures each track goes down smooth and easy. Which is great for the club scene, I’m sure, but a sweaty dance-floor never used to be a prerequisite for enjoying Four Tet.

In the Air - Morgan Page

In the Air

Morgan Page
Nettwerk Records.

SCQ Rating: 69%

Across adult contemporary and trendy dance stations alike, the radio’s ablaze with “Body Work”, a track being repeatedly touted as the new Tegan and Sara release. And while it’s indeed the newest track we’ve heard from that duo, it isn’t exactly the Quin sisters’ song. Conversely, not knowing Morgan Page’s name in no way means you’ve never heard his music. The DJ typically shines the limelight onto guest vocalists and that’s never been more apparent than on In the Air.

Besides “Body Work” and “Video” (a second collaboration with Tegan and Sara), Morgan Page gives color and adequate BPM to the piano stunner “Addicted” (featuring Greg Laswell) and atmospheric title track (featuring Angela McCluskey). As with many collaborative DJ full-lengths, Page’s role feels closer to a curator than as an overt musical force moving through these songs, his house-beats blipping and evaporating over dance anthems like a streamlined take on The Postal Service. Page’s ability to keep things light and mobile occasionally even distracts from his contributors’ tendency to wallow around the same pool; “Light Years” (featuring Richard Walters) initially sounds like an inverted version of “Addicted”, whereas a trance-y take on Sting’s “S.O.S (Message In a Bottle)” results in a fun, if unnecessary, aside. 

This is unapologetic pop music, after all, and although Page doesn’t tend to get as much attention as his vocalists, the romantically yearning vibe that permeates In the Air would capsize without his balanced touch. 

R&S / Cedars - Marley Carroll

R&S / Cedars

Marley Carroll

SCQ Rating: 77%

Without even looking back over its obvious high watermark, we’ve apparently reached the other end of dub-step’s arc. Post-dubstep – at least that’s how an associate of Marley Carroll described the tonal language on R&S / Cedars, the digital twelve-inch self-released this summer. So… congratulations? I don’t know; how does one even approach a subgenre like post-dubstep when its parent style’s definition was obscure enough to include both Burial and Skrillex?

Luckily R&S / Cedars trumps the name game by oscillating its own contained – and tantalizingly brief – sound environment. Born out of dub-step’s generous negative space, “R&S” blossoms into a meditative excursion, merging thick bass with hopeful keys that pass like sun-rays along the wall. “Water Drumming” and “Cedars” take Marley Carroll’s contemplative locations to quicker tempos, utilizing a beautiful collage of rain, natural percussion and drone on the former. The cut-up vocals that nonsensically chatter through “Cedars” don’t hurt the track per se, but they swing the listener’s attention from its gorgeous background haze to the club-oriented artifice that screams 2012. To be clear, creating a sound for 2012 isn’t necessarily a bad thing but when R&S / Cedars has spent its majority sounding like a luxurious bamboo forest entirely devoid of time and trend, well, you can’t really put a name on that.