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Bandcamp Picks - April 2022

Gritty Ambiences, Dusty Distant Textures, and Tradition Recontextualized

Perfect Circuit · 04/01/22

The first of the month has rolled around, and another Bandcamp Friday is upon us! Take some time to peruse Bandcamp today—all proceeds from sales today go directly to the artists and labels that make the platform possible. And you never know...your new favorite music might be waiting. There's a load of music to talk about, of course...but here are some of the things we've been listening to, ourselves.

Noise, Grit, and Ambience: 't Geruis's Various Thoughts and Places

On Various Thoughts and Places, 'T Geruis explores the more textural sides of ambient music. There are many ways to create space and sustained moods, and perhaps for many of us musicians our first instinct might be to drop a few slow moving chords on a synth pad. And while this is definitely a valid approach to getting that result, there are just as many worlds of feelings, emotions, and experiences to be found outside of tonal music. But by combining the two approaches, evocative works like this are possible.

As described on the Bandcamp page, this release is "...an exercise in finding the balance between beauty and what is broken, or generally what might be considered so." I wouldn't go so far as to call this a dark ambient work per se, but the embrace of noise, grit, and chopped up audio goes further towards that realm than much of the "pretty" ambient music I hear these days. Thus rather than solely gravitating towards an extreme of soothing calm or swelling tension, VT&P lies somewhere in the middle: slightly unsettled with waxing and waning phases of comfort throughout.

Sonically, much of VT&P relies on piano and the occasional synthesizer, string section, or brass instrument, all circulating among noise, texture, or other sounds without immediate identifiers. The first track "Tree Weeping (Lacrima)" opens the record with distant piano lines, punctuated by gaps of silence and the occasional wow and flutter-like pitch warble, before being joined later by soaring strings and a subdued, rounded synthesizer line. Though from that point onward, melody and harmony are largely equal to, or even subordinate to, dense and murky walls of texture. Take the opening sounds of a track like "Le Cadeau d'Alice" which clearly has tonal components buried within the noise, but with bursts and crackles that give it a character somewhere between a living, breathing thing and a steam-powered machine.

For me personally, some of the most interesting textures 'T Geruis has to offer here are found on the track "Where Birds Resonate." Rather than featuring mostly melodic instruments, the sounds of a sort of synthesized environment persist throughout the track. The circular panning and introduction of sparse piano and synthesizers combined with the gradual tonal shifts gives the impression of traversing through a real space, where natural life and ambiences are subtly shifting as you turn your head and travel along. Another favorite is "Samen Alleen," beginning with layers of piano loops—one bright and present, one muffled and subdued—barely sitting on top of a sustained, noisy pad that soon grows to envelope the entirety of the sonic space.

To quote one of the press excerpts on the Bandcamp page for Various Thoughts and Places, "Beauty can be seen in decay," and this record serves as a reminder that change and growth are inevitable. Embracing this inevitability, as both the musician and listener, might aid in coping with the shifts happening in all of our lives.

Undying Rhythms: Shelley Parker's Wisteria

In recent times, the brilliant stylings of breakbeats have reared their energetic and hypnotic grooves back into the mainstream with growing collectives and genres taking influence. Pushed to their limits via chops, stretches, and classic AKAI sampler techniques, breaks can go beyond their typical usage heard throughout jungle, EDM, and the more recent fast and heavy breakcore stylings. Shelley Parker forgoes cheap tricks for elegantly stacked, warehouse-shaking experiences in her latest album, Wisteria, a collection of ominous vibes paired with dance-ready rhythms. All tracks on Wisteria present more modern psychedelic and grungy sound design choices with rock-steady breaks driving each track to its final destination, and not to mention killer mixdowns that will swindle your aural perception if you let your attention slip.

The beauty and wonder of the eponymous flower is often dazzling and mysterious to the eye, and Parker's sound design and arrangements present alluring yet mystical elements surrounding driving beats and percussion. I have fallen more and more in love with progressive music, and Parker's album not only feels continuous and coherent from track to track, but there's this lovely sonic architecture founded on breakbeats that introduce variety through the layering of dynamics and rhythmic feel.Presenting both stability and fluidity, breaks heard in tracks like "Coldstream" and "Cage" lift the harmonically flowing synths and samples with grace and consistency while also introducing slight rhythmic drift and an almost live-feel—not quite the break's tempo relation, but how it is played in the track. Tracks like "Scrubs Lane" and "Glisten" involve traditional yet inspiring metric switchups from half time to normal and double time with a bit of swagger (forgive me) in the non-break rhythms and percussion, found mostly in the hi hat loops and grooves.

Tonally speaking, the use of sinusoidal synth parts contrasting with monstrous bass and rumbles provides a more unsettling vibe that counterbalances the upbeat and body-moving rhythms Parker presents. You can hear some fantastic vocal-like performances from tracks like "Deepfield Way" and "Coldstream", used not only for injecting intrigue but also to supply this brilliant call and response method that works so well in any style of music. Now it'd be kind of unfair if I were to look at every track and call it breakbeat considering the standout house-esque track, "Deluge", and it feels very left-field rhythmically but still holds sonic qualities and arrangements styles that truly hold this album together. Elements like the whooshing and scraping effects along with the booming and noisier ones push and pull the tracks along while not being one-trick-ponies but instead progressing ever so slightly with layering or automation.

Wisteria cultivates development and progress through subtly complex layering and variance that I find so brilliant and refreshing, compared to OTT'd drum & bass and slapped-on amen breaks that feel more like afterthoughts in modern music.

Ambient Salve to Cure What Ails You: Ki Oni's Indoor Plant Life II

Chuck Soo-Hoo is a regular in the Los Angeles music scene, partially thanks to his work with dublab, but also as a prolific artist. Inspired by the bond that formed between him and his house plants, Indoor Plant Life II explores this relationship, a "...confluence of human artifice and nature..." where music is partially left to evolve and loop, but with hints and colors of a human's touch. The digital version of this release contains 5 longform tracks, each over 15m long, all of which are perfect for filling a room for a mellow morning or as a companion while wandering around an aquarium.

Each track has a certain life of its own, but it is also clear that this is a well-curated garden. Just as all plants have greenery in the form of leaves, but differ when it comes to blooms, so too do these tracks. Each has a fluid, swimming quality that invites you in and hypnotizes you: once you are absorbed into the world, little quirks are noticed and the presence of a creator is felt. "Plant Life I", the opening track, builds in a gentle way that adds layer on layer, then takes a satisfying turn around the 10m mark with a soaring, pitch-up line that brightens the mood.

Track two, "Plant Life II" has a similar trajectory, but its content is more sparkling with warbling cassette-like layers that add to its haunting bliss. Like waves ebbing and flowing, the looping textures swell beckoning us ever closer. A somewhat stark difference, track three ("Plant Life III") brings us right into the thick of it with a bright sun shower. It's easy to imagine this echoing through the album art's room: bright, but a little gray; damp, but not torrential.

"Plant Life IV" is the final track on the cassette—though the penultimate on the digital version—and it carries on the previous track's glistening, droplet feel, but from the perspective of observing a gentle storm while in a cove cave. The deep, resonant, woody feeling sets a foundation for lush clouds of granular bliss that wash over us like a mist. The digital bonus, "Plant Life V," is an outlier compared to the others, but a wonderful surprise. Karplus atmospheres give way to resonant sweeps and bubbles more similar to a crystal cavern, than to the previous watery environments. Moving from the string-like timbres to a warm jelly, we conclude this journey in the aural equivalent of a hot tub, surrounded by greenery staring at the night sky.

Tradition Recontextualized: Senyawa's Alkisah

Senyawa, an Indonesian duo from Jogjakarta, is a rare kind of band that manags to create an explosive musical blend that swiftly escapes the confines of the established genre definitions. The sound threaded together by vocalist Rully Shabara and instrumentalist Wukir Suryad can be loosely described as experimental folk where the traditional, and the modern not only coexist but are effectively meshed into a new kind of sonic aesthetics further strengthened with raw and somewhat theatrical live performances. Both members of the outfit do their respective parts with a distinctly original approach. Shabara masterfully manipulates his vocal cords by jumping from soulful folklorish singing to shamanic chants to animalistic growls. At the same time, Suryad showcases the uncanny, multifaceted nature of his custom home-built instruments, which range from a sort of amplified idiophone + chordophone fusion to playable handwoven tapestry.

Since their debut record Acaraki (2014) the duo won a ton of praise from the international community of artists, leading them to world tours, further releases on such renowned record labels as Berlin's Morphine and Seatle's Sublime Frequencies, as well as a collaboration album with Stephen O'Malley, 2020's Bima Sakti. Alkisah (which translates from Indonesian as "once upon a time"), the latest release from Senyawa, is an extraordinarily fierce and beautiful work. The opener "Kekuasaan" evokes a feeling of an ancient ballad with a simple and somehow familiar melody. It is an apt introduction that instantly teleports one into a different universe outside of the present time—magical and mystical. The follow-up tracks, "Alkisah I" and "Menuju Muara," take a much different direction with high-energy chanting, roaring, and howling accompanied by hypnotic overdriven ritualistic rhythms. These two types of compositional forms continuously supplant one another, coalescing intense apocalyptic throbs, heartfelt folkloric melodies, and spellbinding drones into an odd sonic legend.

As a contemporary band bearing the difficult label of "experimental music", Senyawa checks all the right boxes for me personally. The duo's unique sound makes a blunt statement that sometimes in order to create something radically new we don't need to guess the future, but rather establish a deeper connection with our ancestral past. That, in essence, adds a certain abiding quality to Senyawa's music. As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote: "The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost."

Dusty, Distant, and Dripping: Tony Rolando's Old Cool Echoes

I expect that most of our readers should recognize the name "Tony Rolando." Rolando is a founder and primary instrument designer at Make Noise, and as a result, he has had an influence on the modern landscape of modular synthesis. For many, Make Noise instruments present a unique combination of flexibility, playability, and outright fun—making it easy to become engrossed in their sonic possibilities, uncovering sounds and interactions you might not have otherwise expected or explicitly sought out.

Rolando's ability to curate clever combinations of musical concepts and distill them into approachable and inspiring instrument designs is already a testament to his own creativity and musical instincts. And while I personally do consider instrument design to be a compositional process, Rolando has recently given us a closer look at his own direct compositional approach via the December '21 release Old Cool Echoes.

Old Cool Echoes is a 30-minute release featuring all manner of electronic sounds and textures. The liner notes provide a striking and effective setting to keep in mind as you start listening:

"Imagine you wished away your surroundings and found yourself in a synthetic landscape where the simplest 3 color pattern animated an entire horizon. If you could suppress your memory enough to experience the new beauty of it, but not so much that you lost the pieces of yourself that make life worth living, this could be your soundtrack."

This evocative description provides, in my opinion, a quite perfect footing for experiencing the ensuing sounds. Old Cool Echoes is about stark, simple colors—a vast and distant space—memory, with all its curiosities and imperfections—experiencing familiar things with a perspective of newness—and something about maintaining a sense of core truth and identity. Sonically, this all fits: the album is full of a wide range of stark but beautiful sounds floating forward and dancing over a seemingly enormous bed of silence. Some tracks fill the space with lush, warbling textures, while others feature slow evolution and deformation of simple, repeated motives surrounded by diffuse, melting textures. Playing out like something between John Carpenter, Depeche Mode instrumentals, and Charles Cohen improvisations, the sounds on Old Cool Echoes are distinctly synth-like and clear, with a dusty fog surrounding their otherwise syrupy state of gradual decay.

Regrettably, as of the time of publishing this article, the cassette has sold out...but you can still stream and download Old Cool Echoes via Bandcamp. And of course, Tony's follow-up album Breakin' Is A Memory is due to be released at the end of this month, so get in your preorders now—and keep your eyes open for more info about that release on Signal!