Bandcamp Picks: February 2023

Sonic Ceremonies, '90s Indie Haze, and the Limits of Sonic Ontological Integrity

Jacob J + Eldar T + Brian G + Ryan G · 02/03/23

Bandcamp Friday is back! Today, Bandcamp is waiving its revenue share of all sales in order to send profits directly to the artists and labels whose music you buy. So whether you're into experimental music, dance, ambient, indie, or anything else—head over to Bandcamp today to support independent labels and musicians. Here are a few of our recent favorite tunes and ear-ticklers to get you started.

Sonic Ritual: Alapastel's Ceremony

In this February edition of Bandcmap Friday, I'll be stepping back in time to 2021 to shine a spotlight on Ceremony by Alapastel, the artist name of Slovakian neo-classical composer Lukáš Bulko.

Ceremony falls into the growing category of ambient/neo-classical records featuring a sort of hybrid orchestration—that is, combining traditional acoustic instruments and electronic elements, whether with audio processing, synthesized instruments, or both. Music in this style becomes especially interesting when a composer, like Bulko, has mastered the understanding of how different acoustic timbres may be augmented and supported with electronic layers. For me as a listener, this is really exciting—my ears are always looking for new and unfamiliar sounds, and there are no shortage of those in Ceremony.

In fact, the opening track "Transmission" reveals what Ceremony is all about, which is to serve as a sort of sonic ritual in itself. Recontextualizing shakers, vocals, and field recordings with the accompaniment of synthesizers, tremorous low-end drones, and evocative sound design conjures feelings of transformation and change. As conveyed by Bulko and featured violinist Ján Kružliak Jr. in the brief documentary clip below, this was a large compositional goal that was executed to perfection. Kružliak mentions that his process of recording to early versions of the tracks was a meditative and ceremonial experience for himself, and this feeling is carried through to the final result. "New World Healing Centre" largely features Kružliak's solo violin performance—several minutes of expressive, rubato playing filled out with synthetic undertones, before descending beneath murky electronic textures in the last minute of the track.

Believe it or not, another one of the most prominent instruments used on Ceremony is the didgeridoo, but it totally makes sense in the context of this music. Within the spheres of electronic and computer music, certain synthesis methods involve direct manipulation of overtones as they are generated. And when it comes to wind instruments, and especially didgeridoo, there's no shortage of ways to manipulate airflows for various timbres and overtones. For example, "In The Service of Life" opens with truly gorgeous yet haunting string pads gliding through notes, before handing the spotlight over to a droning didgeridoo punctuated by jaw harp.

But remember, it's not just real acoustic instruments used on Ceremony—there are synths and electronic effects all over the place! "Mass to Free Us" is perhaps one of the most blatant uses of synthetic sounds on the album, featuring glitchy, machine-like modular synthesizer contributions from Adam Dekan. "Flight Over Utopia" opens with a synth pad, serving as a harmonic bed upon which piano and other textures are built upon.

For the advocate of hybrid instrumentation or the fan of ambient-tinged music that demands to be anywhere but the background, we whole-heartedly recommend a deep listening of Ceremony.

Link: check out Ceremony on Bandcamp!

Collision of Sonic Energies: Rian Treanor + Ocen James's Saccades

All collaborations, in one way or another, forge an opportunity for something new to emerge. This, of course, is contoured by many things, including the level of openness of participants, their backgrounds, individual experiences, and importantly, "chemistry". As such, releases rooted in collaboration always unveil the unique dynamics between performers, manifesting as a fusion of potentially very different creative worlds. Duos, in particular, are interesting as they allow us to observe an uninhibited interplay between two distinct energies. Such an arrangement makes it easy to stay on track and follow contributions from each performer. Saccades is a great example of this—a synthesis of two diverse sonic realms, one of the UK sound artist Rian Treanor, and another of the Ugandan musician Ocen James. The result is an obscurely potent blend of electro-acoustic avant-garde, experimental techno-ish outbursts, and traditional Acholi tones.

The stage for the album was set back in 2018 when Treanor was invited to Kampala for a residency at the renowned Nyege Nyege studio. Reportedly, that stay made an indelible impression on the musician and inspired the creation of his acclaimed 2020 release File Under UK Metaplasm. However, the residency had another creatively fruitful consequence for Treanor—there he began a collaboration with the rigi rigi player, Ocen James.

For clarification, rigi rigi (also known as endingidi) is a traditional single-string violin, which as this album demonstrates is an amazingly expressive instrument. Intentionally, the duo approached the record with a very improvisational spirit, and this stimulated Treanor to develop a special setup. The artist wanted an electronic instrument that allowed him to transmute timbres, textures, and rhythms as seamlessly and in real-time as James does so with his fiddle. Treanor's efforts led to the creation of the peculiar physical modeling synthesizer whose tone and behavior are inspired by another Ugandan instrument, a bow harp called a'dungu. And while the two instruments, digital and physical, clearly occupy distinct spaces within the emergent sonic microcosm, there are plenty of spots on the record where the line separating the two starts to blur.

The ten compositions presented on the record vary dramatically, which makes Saccades decidedly immune to genre categorization. From one track to another, the album's sound constantly drifts between high-energy rave-grade rhythms, heartfelt folky melodies, minimalistic meanderings, and dense ethereal textures. The opener, "Bunga Bule", as well as the following track "As it Happens" grab the listener's attention right away with arbitrarily pulsing and free-roaming tides of electronic percussion layered with what feels like James summoning the spirit of an ancient creature out of his fiddle (daxophone fans will certainly find these sounds relatable). The fourth track, "Agoya" changes the feel of the record completely exposing James' more melodic side, accented by a defined groove from Treanor. Later, in "Tiyo Ki" the duo fuse mangled jungle beats, lush pads, textures, and noisy screeches from both digital and acoustic instruments. The album ends with a "Remo Rom", an alloy of metallic cadences, voices, and fiddle squeaks remixed by the Viennese art collective Farmers Manual.

While it may be difficult to describe the sound of Saccades, one simply has to experience it, it is certain that whatever your expectations are, the album is filled with twists and turns that will often skirt around your initial intuitions. And this is a good thing, as it exemplifies the potential of music to not be confined to the predefined norms that somehow always manage to appear even in realms inherently based on experimentation. So, for the best experience of the record, approach it with a sense of openness and curiosity.

Link: check out Saccades on Bandcamp!

Testing the Limits of Sonic Identity: Scott Cazan's THREE

"Composition consists of creating worlds in which objects emerge and evolve from the 'field' of the composition itself and the listener is a non-extractable participant in the compositional process."

My original draft of this review became far too disjunct to publish. This is meant, more or less, to be a space dedicated to describing the sound and context of music, so that you (the reader) might feel compelled to go listen to it, yourself. But when encountering a work with such clearly-outlined conceptual depth, it's tempting to devolve into talking purely about ideas rather than sound. But you know what? Maybe that's fine. Based on the extensive liner notes exploring concepts in ontology, auditory scene analysis, and more, I think this is a fine spot to think while we listen.

Scott Cazan's THREE, recently released on Superpang, explores concepts in ontology by exploiting psychoacoustic processes and some of the bizarre truths about...well, how our ears work, and how we encode meaning into (or decode meaning from?) the things that they perceive. Technically, THREE focuses strongly on the use of sonically dense and often abrasive textures, auditory distortion products, other auditory illusions, and sounds that evoke the human voice in order to bring many questions into focus: how do we separate one sound from another? Why do multiple simultaneous sounds seem so obviously distinct? What happens in that infinite conceptual space between something being simply one thing, or being two instead? How can two things become three?

I first heard Cazan's music at a concert in 2015—coincidentally, also the first time I had consciously experienced auditory distortion products in a musical context. What are auditory distortion products? Well, to keep things simple, let's say this: it's quite possible for the ear to perceive tones that aren't explicitly encoded into the literal sound waves passing through the air. That is to say, it's possible to perceive a sound that emerges from the interaction between other sounds, your environment, and the very nature of your own ears. These tones are often induced in music by a composer carefully calculating the difference tones of multiple higher-frequency simple sounds. So, for instance, it's quite possible for the composer to generate two high-frequency sine waves, and for you to actually hear a third, lower tone emerge from their interaction. What's even more peculiar is that the nature of that third tone can change due to a number of variables, many of them fairly dynamic in nature.

I remember, at that concert in 2015, realizing that if I moved my head even the slightest amount, the sound of the music altogether would change. Certain tones would emerge or disappear while others changed in timbre and intensity. It became clear that much of what I was hearing wasn't so much happening in the air of the space as it was simply manifesting literally in my head. It's an uncanny phenomenon, one that has been explored by musicians such as Maryanne Amacher for some time.

In the context of Cazan's music, these auditory distortion products/"head tones" become an interesting way of testing concepts in auditory perception altogether...and by extension, concepts in ontology and phenomenology. Why can we hear these things if, in another sense, they don't exist? What does it mean that we can perceive tones that aren't explicitly part of the literal waveforms that are pushing the cones of our speakers? What does it mean that the way we perceive these phenomena is itself so fickle, shifting and evolving with the slightest turn of the head?

THREE features a range of sound—from stark textures of high-pitched sine waves to broken-down speech synthesis, extreme Benjolin chaos, and dense walls of crunchy digital noise, Shepard tones, and voice-like structures. Especially if you set your headphones aside and listen through speakers, you'll start to realize that in each piece, there are multiple ways to continually re-focus your listening. You'll realize that structures you instinctively recognize as being singular can be broken apart into multiple streams simply by shifting your attention; you'll hear new tones sporadically emerging from repeating textures, such that you question whether they were actually there all along. And you'll hear what might at first seem like completely distinct sonic phenomena fuse together, revealing commonalities that make you question whether you were ever right to have questioned their singularity in the first place. If you like testing the boundaries of your perception or casually pondering the ontological integrity of sound(s), THREE lays out an expansive, intimate, and open-ended perceptual geography.

Link: check out THREE on Bandcamp!

Hazy Underground 1990s Indie: Secret Square

We usually try to review all-new music in our Bandcamp Friday articles...but every once in a while, we notice an older release that deserves a spotlight. This month, I'd like to bring your attention to a hazy, effect-laden indie release from 1995: the self-titled sole studio album by Elephant 6's Secret Square. I recently noticed that this was added to The High Water Marks's bandcamp page (a current group led in part by Secret Square's Hilarie Sidney), and it felt like a great opportunity to shine some light on this truly exceptional example of 1990s self-produced indie rock.

Discussing the Elephant 6 Recording Company, of course, can be a bit complex. This loose collection of musicians and performance artists made quite a splash in the world of 1990s indie rock; and in the years since, several groups from this collective have become profoundly influential. In fact, when describing more obscure Elephant 6 groups, it can be tempting to digress into comparisons to related groups—especially since so many of the individual "bands" shared members. In some ways, it can be difficult to talk about Olivia Tremor Control's psychedelia without also talking about Neutral Milk Hotel's embrace of surreal noise; similarly, it can be difficult to discuss of Montreal's fanciful, turn-on-a-dime antics without acknowledging The Music Tapes and Julian Koster's own proclivities toward animated, vaudevillian storytelling. Look! I'm already doing exactly the thing I'm talking about.

My point is this: when the accomplishments of groups like Neutral Milk Hotel, Apples in Stereo, Elf Power, Olivia Tremor Control, and of Montreal are so notable, it becomes difficult to recognize some of the more obscure groups that surround(ed) them...especially when each individual group's discography is so extensive. This makes it easy to overlook the extensive collection of bizarre, charming, and beautiful music that came out of all of the other groups in the collective, each spearheaded by some truly brilliant, creative, and resourceful musicians. (I'll note...it's well worth checking out Adam Clair's book Endless Endless if you're curious to better understand the history and inner workings of this expansive collective and their body of work.)

Again, I'd like to bring your focus to one such group in particular: Secret Square, a very early Elephant 6 project led by Hilarie Sidney and Lisa Janssen (and one of the few women-led groups in the Elephant 6 family). Both Sidney and Janssen were actively involved in other Elephant 6 projects at the time—Sidney in the Apples in Stereo, and both Sidney and Janssen in Neutral Milk Hotel—and ultimately, energy spent on these projects led in part to Secret Square fizzling out early, producing only two releases altogether. It includes seven original songs and four demos (produced by Jim McIntyre of Von Hemmling), including a Velvet Underground cover.

Where other Elephant 6 bands of the time focused on energetic noise and extended sound collages, Secret Square took another approach: this album is full of understated, calm, hazy, and nearly sedate songs. Like other groups from the collective, there's a nearly-constant presence of processed sounds, collage, or peculiar instrumentation forming a sort of atmosphere around the core of each song. Strummed guitar chords and detached vocals floating over a stark emptiness recall the contemporary tones and textures of Liz Phair as much as they do the calm, sedate, slow-moving structures of Velvet Underground. Check out "Sparkly Green Couch" and "Sad Endings" and you'll get a sense of what I mean.

They also remind us of one of the most charming aspects of all of the 1990s E6 groups: the willingness to strike out and make something on your own. The incredible soundscapes they conjured with four-track cassette recorders and acoustic instruments are just stunning...and I think we'd all do well if we were only half as resourceful and creative as groups like Secret Square.

Link: check out Secret Square on Bandcamp!

Breaking from Tradition: Anthology of Exploratory Music from India

In the linear notes of Anthology Of Exploratory Music From India (released by Unexplained Sounds Group), it states that "...[the intention is] to present a comprehensive collection of sonic practices that have emerged from the desire to break away from India’s traditional sounds...while simultaneously drawing on ideas and inspirations from these lineages and auditory heritages in the form of recurring motifs and sonorities as well as textures and open-ended compositions." If you are unfamiliar with Indian Classical Music, the most prevalent form in the West is from North India, also called Hindustani classical music. Arguably, Pandit Ravi Shankar is largely responsible for introducing the mainstream Western culture to this form of music, thanks to his collaborations with The Beatles and the psychedelic movement's affinity for the meditative, longform qualities of this musical tradition. Typical instruments are Sitar and Tabla, with Sarod and Sarangi also fairly popular.

This collection of music, however, builds on that musical tradition and deliberately trudges into new territories. There are a few tracks that feature traditional instrumentation, "until... #3.1" features Sarod and Tabla, "Sky Cage (Excerpt)" uses Tabla with trumpet and electronics, and "DhvaniSutras_SmrutiRanga (Excerpt)" uses traditional vocal expression, Mridangam, Tabla, and Sitar. These tracks are reminiscent of a traditional rendition of a raga, but those familiar with the format will know it is something new—the feeling is more spontaneous at times or more minimal. These tracks are few and feel like more direct nods to a traditional approach: a bridge that guides us from the past to the future.

Most of the album uses a variety of musical expressions including field recordings, synthesized sounds, and sound that is hard to tie directly to an instrument—and that's part of the enjoyment. Free from the mind's chatter saying "this sound clearly comes from that device," your mind abandons its desire to dissect the vessel and can focus on the source; the pure sound whether electronic or acoustic, using the entire fabric as inspiration. Opening the anthology with "Illuminen" from Surabhi Saraf firmly bathes you in what you are about to hear with exceptionally deep bass pulses and expertly manipulated vocals. "Out of Reach" by Farah Mulla is a piece that invites you to listen while having you surrender to the sonic layers. Several tracks later, "Ajivika" from Hemant Sreekumar does the same but with very different textures and an electric, minimal presentation that is haunting and captivating.

Throughout the entirety of this album, you get a smattering of different sounds and musical expressions making this truly an exceptional listen. Truly just a taste of the incredible contemporary artists of India, Anthology of Exploratory Music From India is one of the best releases in this decade and serves as the only survey of contemporary Indian music (that I'm aware of). Unexpected Sound Group has released a series of these compilations that shed a light on often-overlooked countries and their experimental or contemporary music. Some notables are: An Anthology Of Experimental Music From Japan, An Anthology Of Experimental Music From China, An Anthology Of Experimental Music From Mexico, An Anthology Of Contemporary Music From Africa Continant, An Anthology Of Electroacoustic Lebanese Music, and really, their entire anthological collection is amazing.

Link: check out Anthology of Exploratory Music from India on Bandcamp!