August 31, 2009

BONUS LINK: Nobukazu Takemura & Aki Tsuyuko - Live at Empty Bottle, Chicago IL 1999-11-19

This 40 minute performance by Childisc label founder Nobukazu Takemura and vocalist/synthesizer artist Aki Tsuyuko has been floating around on the web for many years, and is the only concert footage I have ever encountered. I was lucky enough to see the duo perform in Kyoto, Japan the following year during my two semesters as an exchange student and the performance was a similar style; abstract digital glitch ambiance and looping vocal textures and generative rhythms. Apart from some rather peculiar extreme close-ups, this video is very watchable and the sound quality is good.

Check out the video for "Lost Treasure" as well!

Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto - Insen (2005, Raster-Noton)

Writing about the "melancholy piano noodling" of '90s videogame soundtracks last week, I was reminded of a fantastic collaboration between piano-meister Ryuichi Sakamoto and uber-minimalist Carsten Nicolai, under his Alva Noto monicker. Sakamoto was an innovator in Japanese electronic music throughout the '70s and '80s, as a member of the Yellow Magic Orchestra, which was sort of like a Japanese Kraftwerk, and a popular soundtrack composer. With a prolific back-catalog of over 50 albums, not to mention 12"s, concert DVDs and other multimedia projects, I have to admit that I am only familiar with a handfull of Sakamoto's recordings, and mainly his material from the late '90s on. His '00 "BTTB" album of solo piano compositions on Sony Classical was a particular favorite of mine for many years, with that distinctive melancholy sound that I love. Carsten Nicolai, meanwhile, has been prolifically releasing CDs of his own since the mid-'90s, usually under the names Noto or Alva Noto. A pioneer of the micrsound genre, his compositions make use of tiny slices of digital audio, simple sine waves and noise pulses to craft intricate rhythms and textures. The majority of his releases have been on the influential Raster-Noton label, well known for their innovative and avant garde packaging and presentation, for example in their buzz-generating countdown-to-the-millenium 20' To 2000 series of 3" CDs or the [O]acis Box. While I appreciate Nicolai's craft and innovation with extremely futuristic sound design, I am not a huge fan of actually listening to most microsound CDs more than maybe once, as they tend to make me feel like I am stuck in some sort of digital computer nightmare. Even before I heard the Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto collaboration, however, I knew that the combination of Sakamoto's gentle piano textures with Nicolai's digital processing mastery would be exciting. And indeed, their '02 debut CD "Vrioon" made a big splash with critics and fans, with both artists producing a synergy of exciting ambient sound greater than the sum of its parts. Noto sculpts micro-rhythms and soft textural sequences around Sakamoto's clouds of notes, occasionally processing the piano through glitchy granular filters, making for both a meditative and other-wordly sonic experience. After a three-year break, I found their second CD "Insen" to be even more engaging and memorable, and the follow-up "Revep" EP continued to maintain the high standards, including a fascinating reconstruction of Sakamoto's "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" soundtrack theme. More recently, a CD+DVD set called "utp_", documenting a live concert with the German Ensemble Modern, was released last year, which I've not yet heard. Any of the Noto + Sakamoto CDs you can find are worth hearing, and genuinely unique music by two masters in different fields of ambient sound.

August 30, 2009

Dub Tractor - Delay (2000, FX Records)

Dub Tractor, the IDM project of Anders Remmer, is another long-time favorite of mine that I first heard about on the IDM mailing list in the late '90s. While there were a pair of albums and several 12"s released in Europe between '94 and '99, it wasn't until the '00 CD release of "Delay" that I was able to find any of his stuff in US shops. The album has a very smooth and chilled out downtempo/IDM feel, with glitchy beat programming and quirky sound design, blended with a strong dub influence. There is a heavy element of sub-bass, spring reverbs and tape echoes applied to the downtempo beats, as laid-back synthesizers breathe soft chords over the mix. While dub aesthetics and sound effects play a major role in Dub Tractor's sound, it rarely crosses over into reggae territory, besides on the very Pole-sounding "Drive". Instead "Delay" has more in common with the sound of early '90s Warp-style IDM ala The Black Dog or other "Artificial Intelligence" artists, with an updated instrumentation and lush analog-sounding dub FX. Following "Delay", Dub Tractor was picked up by City Centre Offices, home of Arovane and other soft-spoken melodic IDM producers. The excellent '01 split 12" with Opiate presented four more tracks in the same vein as "Delay", while the next full-length "More Or Less Mono", featured lush and glitchier production as well as some soft, fuzzed-out vocals and very pleasant guitar processing. Dub Tractor's most recent release was "Hideout" in '06, which I haven't heard, and City Centre Offices will be releasing a new full-length CD this November. The catchy melodies and low-key rhythms of "Delay" still get stuck in my head, nine years later.

August 25, 2009

GENRE PROFILE: '90s-era Videogame Piano Collections from Squaresoft + Falcom

Many fans of ambient music have a soft spot for subdued, melancholy piano noodlings as composed by Harold Budd or Ryuichi Sakamoto. While technically this might be more appropriately classified as "neo-classical" music, it is essentially just really pleasant keyboard music. One source for music in this same style is Japanese videogame soundtracks, which often were inspired by the early works of Sakamoto or fellow-Yellow Magic Orchestra-founder Haruomi Hosono, who composed many game and anime soundtracks from the '80s to current day (his sublime Night On The Galactic Railroad is a personal favorite). Beginning in '92, Squaresoft began releasing Piano Collections for their Final Fantasy games, beginning with volume IV, which was FF2 in America. As a bit of a game/Japan nerd in my teenage years, I tracked down an import copy of the "Final Fantasy IV Piano Collections" CD and was blown away by the gentle reinterpretations of the many catchy pieces of music featured in the game. While vol. V of the game was not released domestically, vol. VI, released as FF3 in the US, was a classic among many of my friends, and the Piano Collection was equally impressive. All of the pieces in the Final Fantasy series were composed by Nobuo Uematsu, whose distinctive composition style reminds me vaguely of Debussy and Tchaikovsky. The soundtracks also came with piano sheet music, but I have to admit I never got my chops up enough to play any of it smoothly. I haven't kept up with the newer editions in the Final Fantasy series as I stopped buying video games after the Sony Playstation, but the music is still memorable and the CDs stand on their own. While Squaresoft got a lot of the attention of game music fans in the US, there was also some fantastic music produced for the under-appreciated Turbo Grafx 16/Turbo Duo system, known as the PC Engine in Japan. The Ys game series in particular gained a strong cult appreciation for some of the highest quality game music ever produced at the time (early '90s), and a pair of "Ys Piano Collections" were produced. While both were enjoyable, my personal favorite was "Symphony Ys '95", which featured long-form synthesized symphony renditions of themes from the first three games in the series. As far as I can tell, all of the game music was credited to Falcom's in-house Sound Team J.D.K., a shifting group of fantastic composers whom I have never heard of otherwise. While these CDs were only released in Japan, they were occasionally available via import mail order in the '90s, or at weird little bootleg shops in Chinatown, NYC, where I found many gems. One particularly amazing find was the "Legend Of Heroes Piano Collection" released in '96, also by members of Sound Team JDK. Legend Of Heroes was pretty much unknown in the US, with only one volume of the series released on the Turbo Duo under the name "Dragon Slayer". The piano collection has tracks from the first four games in the series, so much of it is unfamiliar to me, but the overall sound and vibe is just beautiful, with a melancholy edge strongly colored by childhood nostalgia. If you are not familiar with the games, I could see how the music might make less of an impression, but much of it stands on its own and makes for very soothing, evocative ambient sound. Finally, no discussion of videogame music can forget to mention Yasunori Mitsuda, composer of the epic Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross series and many more. Unfortunately, a Chrono Trigger piano collection CD never came to pass, but the sheet music is out there and people are posting their renditions on youtube...

August 20, 2009

SUMMER UPDATE & BOOK REVIEW: The Franklin Scandal - Nick Bryant (2009, Trine Day Publishing)

I realized again I have been so busy that I've been neglecting this blog. Luckily I did not get caught up in the recent round of lay-offs at my college, and I am nearly finished with my first online class that I've been taking since June. My taste lately has been swinging back and forth between very minimalist ambient music and early '90s alt. rock from my youth, neither of which I feel particularly motivated to write about. A lot of the time that I'm not working on my class assignments, I've been either working on my own music or just reading books, so I haven't been in "reviewing mode" lately.

I did want to make a point of posting a link to this new book that arrived in my mailbox this week. The book is called "The Franklin Scandal: A Story Of Powerbrokers, Child Abuse & Betrayal" by Nick Bryant. It is an in-depth investigation into a major political scandal that happened in Nebraska. The scandal was originally exposed in a book by Senator John DeCamp in the late '80s, and updated in the mid '90s as details and witnesses have continued to emerge. A British production company made a documentary on the scandal called "Conspiracy Of Silence" that was to be shown on the Discovery Channel, but the airing was canceled at the last minute for undefined reasons. An unfinished production copy of the documentary has since been leaked onto the internet and has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on Youtube and Google Video. What originally appeared to be a "simple" case of stolen funds from a local credit union, led to the unearthing of a nationwide child prostitution ring catering to the political elite of America, with implications of black-mail at the highest levels of government. As more details emerged for public scrutiny, a massive and obvious cover-up by law enforcement and FBI went into action like something out of an X-Files script, leaving a trail of mysterious deaths and "suicides" in its wake. Bryant spent seven years uncovering even greater levels of detail, more witnesses and tons of corroboration on what actually happened, all of which adds up to an expose of serious corruption in our government that has been ongoing for decades. The book can be ordered from Trine Day Publishing, who offer a wide variety of fascinating material, in fact right on the front page I am seeing Anthony Sutton's "America's Secret Establishment" which I also recommend strongly.

To end on some musical notes, I was sad to hear that Daniel Baquet-Long from the prolific ambient duo Celer passed away recently. I only recently became familiar with their music, but I am very impressed by what I've heard so far ("Capri" and the sublime "Nacreous Clouds"). The latter was put out on CD by the excellent, ultra-minimalist/field recording label and/OAR, who released a CD by one of my professors at Mills, Maggi Payne, several years back which was great but you can't get it anymore. I have also been fiending for the hand-made, limited releases on Andrew Chalk's new label Faraway Press, but you have to order them directly from the UK and I am too broke right now. An mp3 from my Kranky CD has been making the rounds on some music websites, and I also have a little blurb (and photo!) in the Electronic Reviews section of The Wire magazine, that blew me away. Finally, here is an early '80s post-punk track by music journalist Vivien Goldman that has been stuck in my head recently:

August 13, 2009

BONUS LINK: Dub War NYC presents Podcast #09: Headhunter

[from the “there's so much free music on the internet, I'm not sure why anyone would ever want to pay for a CD again” department] I came across this DJ mix by dubstep master Headhunter, whose “Nomad” album was a favorite of mine last year. It is the ninth Podcast in a series produced by Dub War NYC, and many innovative artists have been featured, including other personal favorites like Peverelist and Ramadanman. The mixes are available on iTunes or for direct download from the RSS feed. The link was posted on the Dubstep Forum, which seems to be a very active discussion board worth checking out:

August 11, 2009

Tom Heasley - On The Sensations Of Tone (2002, Innova Recordings)

During my time at Mills College in '03-'04, I got to see many concerts of cutting-edge electronic and avant-garde music all over the SF Bay Area. One evening, some friends wanted to go into SF to a performance space in The Mission that was having an ambient night. By the time we got there, all the bands had already played, including the one my friends wanted to see, except for the last performer of the evening, Tom Heasley. When we entered the space, which was upstairs in a big funky warehouse loft full of art/junk/debris, I was struck by a blissed-out wall of sound composed of deep, soothing tones and a washed-out shimmer and crackle reminiscent of ancient records. My first thoughts were that it must be a cutting-edge laptop performer making electronic ambient music in the vein of the recent Kompakt Pop Ambient series I had been enjoying at the time. Instead, when I got to the top of the stairs, I was surprised to encounter a man sitting on a stool playing a tuba, with a bank of pedals at his feet. As I watched him play long sustained tones on his horn and occasionally stoop to adjust settings on his pedals, I realized the entire texture was being created in real-time via his tuba! Using a loop pedal, Heasley would layer up harmonic notes, breaths and vocalisations through his tuba, similar to creating tape loops on an old reel-to-reel, resulting in an immense and enveloping sound with a fabulous organic, bass-y character. Everyone in the space was reclining on pillows and the place was fairly full, making me wish I had been there for the whole evening. Even now I have no idea what the name of the place was, it may have just been an artist's/collective's residence for all I know. After the performance, I picked up Heasley's then-newest CD "On The Sensations Of Tone", subtitled "Ambient Tuba". Consisting of two long tracks adding up to about an hour, the aesthetic of the concert was reproduced with great effect, both soothing and haunting at times. I lost track of Heasley's more recent work until earlier this year when I came across his myspace page, where he has posted some fascinating blogs including an announcement that he will be working with Stuart Dempster of Deep Listening Band fame. His more recent recordings have featured Heasley on dijeridoo as well as chanting/overtone singing, and his most recent CD is a collaboration with drummer Toss Panos. Heasley's music is an exciting, unique organic sound for people who think they've "heard it all" in the drone/ambient genre!

August 6, 2009

Alio Die - Password To Entheogenic Experience (1998, Hic Sunt Leones)

Alio Die is the ambient project of Italian musician Stefano Musso. Since the early '90s, Stefano has been running his own Hic Sunt Leones label, releasing CDs of his own and many other contemporary Italian ambient artists. His first CD "Under An Holy Ritual" was released in the US in '93 by influential gothic/darkwave label Projekt, and generated a lot of attention in that scene. In '97, Stefano collaborated with ambient pioneer and originator of the "sleep concert", Robert Rich on the "Fissures" album, released on Fathom, a sub-label of Hearts Of Space, home of Steve Roach, Michael Stearns and others throughout the '90s. Alio Die makes use of many organic instruments such as frame drums, gongs, bells and stringed instruments along with field recordings and mellow electronic sounds to sculpt meditative, introspective textures. "Password For Entheogenic Experience" was a personal favorite of mine, consisting of one long track lasting a little over an hour. Beginning with the soft buzz of insect noise and birds, the album slowly slides into an endless drone of what sound alternatingly like bowed strings and soft horns, playing a gentle sustaining chord that is both soothing and mysterious. The meditative, other-wordly energy of the album is expressed by the ancient mushroom shaman artwork on the cover. The drone is occasionally punctuated by soft frame drum and chimes, as the tones rise and fall in amplitude, until the last ten minutes or so when a crescendo beings to build, suggestive of buzzing reeds or obscure Asian instruments. The album is timeless and calming, and one I've returned to many times. Stefano has continued releasing albums every year, and has recently been playing shows in Europe.