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Bandcamp Picks - November 2021

Melting Field Recordings to Effect-Laden Piano and Masterful Vocal Manipulation

Perfect Circuit · 11/05/21

Bandcamp Friday is upon us once again—so we're taking a closer look at music that we've been appreciating lately. From unearthed early electronic music to effect-laden piano, there's something here for all lovers of electronic music...so take some time to listen and discover something new. Your new favorite sounds could be waiting! Without further ado, here's the music that's been frequenting our headphones.

Eerily Enchanting: aya's im hole

Via Iain: aya's debut album, im hole, is a whirlwind of sonic exploration that takes you from syncopated half-time beats to odd ever-rising electronic tracks to even atmospheric and otherworldly soundscapes, exciting and exercising every crevice of your cochleas. One moment I'm in a club bouncing to the beat, while another moment I'm being auarally assaulted by stacked vocals and warping synth lines—and honestly, I'm here for every second of it. Be it through subtle nuances or the entire track, there is this dark and alluring vibe that weaves in and out of the sonic foreground, but always present nevertheless. The mastery behind a well done mix is not only graceful, but complementary to expressive and topographically deep sound design, arrangement, and track progression, and aya surely understood this.

Focusing on the pristine quality of the sound design, im hole takes simple sounds and comprehensively manipulates them to an elevated status. Take the track "dis yacky" for example, where a simple pulse wave lead and thumping square bass drive the entire track while still adding melodic interest with bends, twists, and turns—the flattering vocal breaths, chirps, and breaks emphasize and add interest to these repetitive figures. The same thought can be applied to "the only solution i have found is to simply jump higher", where aya takes a quite barebones pluck and bends it to her will while the maddening, looping vowels and impactful bass stabs ensue around it, allowing the pluck to breathe and configure itself. These tracks are balanced by their counterparts, in which aya takes a step back on harmonic or metric complexity to showcase morphing and transmuting textures. Such tracks include "once wen't west" where you can't quite hold your footing to a central beat, and "tailwind", constantly descending and rising simultaneously while sticking to a simple yet effectively sparse percussive section.

There is also a great focus on aya's vocal performance and manipulation, in which she spends a lot of time adding odd phase and frequency manipulation that adds warbly and jarring characteristics. The gargliness of her vocals heard in "what if i should fall asleep and slipp under" is complemented by an 808 for conscious and precise sound placement, mixed to give off that buzzy and distorted texture. Another element heard in the previously mentioned track as well as "Emley lights us moor" is the fascinating use of microphone recording, where aya gets extremely close to the mic to pick up syllabic and intimate vibrations typically heard more in ASMR videos—I find this technique is actually quite clever as it's been used by renowned artists such as Björk in many of her tracks via microphone selection.

aya is truly a remarkable artist with such creative breadth and the ability to capture her ideas and portray them in such immersive and soul-commanding ways.

Probing Extremes: Luca Longobardi's Segments

Via Jacob: Simple musical ideas expounded upon with effects and electronics are an instant entry point into my heart, especially when executed well. This is the reason I've followed Italian artist Luca Longobardi for a while—the pianist turned synthesist and electronic composer has exhibited a refined taste for combining sensibilities of his background in classical music with modern effects and instruments. The results are melodic and textural, often striking a perfect balance between interest and accessibility. Of Longobardi's catalog, the release currently in my listening rotation is Segments.

Described as such by Longobardi himself, "Segments is an investigation into sound and noise seen as extremes of the segments that create a complex and multifaceted shape." Explaining further in the description on the Bandcamp page, he goes on to say that because sound itself is a crucial element of human perception, its presence or absence in certain moments has a vital role in the memories of specific moments in time. With this in mind, Segments is constructed as a nearly continuous stream of music from start to finish, fixating upon abstract musical ideas for a few minutes before shifting focus into something else entirely. And within some of these moments, small looped phrases bounce around like thoughts caught in a mental cycle.

Opening with "Étude 24," Longobardi sets the mood with sparse piano accompanied with effects. Often creating a dialogue of call and response between player and texture, musical phrases jump out of the wash and into the forefront of awareness, before immersing themselves in the background again, much as how ideas or memories can suddenly appear seemingly out of nowhere. But personally, the title track is a standout moment on this release, beginning with field recordings and electronic clicks before combining phrases of Longobardi's piano playing with shimmering loops, gentle synths, and minimal, distant rhythms establishing a faint sense of pulse. It's a continuous journey from one place to another in a way that's both candid and dreamlike.

As a listener, I'm not usually seeking out music because it was made with specific gear, but I do appreciate the occasional insight into an artist's creative process when a gear list is provided. In this particular case, track numbers are even provided next to each item, leaving few doubts in determining how an instrument or effect might have been used in the creation of Segments. Indeed, the opening and closing piano etudes feel enhanced with the use of the Strymon Timeline and Bigsky, fleshing out the minimal phrasing with flutters of reverse delays and reverb, while on "440" they turn the piano into an ethereal, almost vocal-like texture. Likewise, attributing the sounds of some of our favorite synths to specific tracks, such as the Roland Boutique JU-06A, Novation Peak, and the now-discontinued Polyend Medusa, makes their specific strengths shine through in listening to how they were used.

Armchair Travel Through Time and Space: Li Yilei's 之/OF

Via Brian: Li Yilei's 之/OF (Métron Records) creates immersive sound worlds using a combination of synthesizers and instrument samples with field recordings that feel focused, yet vast in the terrain they traverse. The great strength of this collection is the seamlessness in which they move through these different realms—bubbling fields of synths morph into dense thickets of audio samples unfolding into sparse ethereal vocals in a bed of rippling field recordings. Started in London and completed in their Shanghai home, Li's tracks are described as "...a study in horology..." using hours of a day to influence the compositional direction.

Just like the hours of a day, each track is part of an arc that is not always linear—like temporal memories that are conflations of dreams and reality. The album opens slowly with a track called TAN, like a gentle roust from the bed humming gently into the second track CHU feeling like the start of a long journey. Indeed, over the course of these 12 tracks a trip is taken with NEI, MUU, SAN and XUN a few of stand-outs that illustrate the dynamic quality and variation of 之/OF.

As an artist, Li focuses on creating recorded material, but their work is also often tied to site-specific sound pieces that are durational and experiential. Fully encapsulating the experience in recorded form is difficult: often the journey of unfolding a performance is intuitive and cannot be easily condensed. Each of these pieces, however, manages to create a complete snapshot of what an extended performance would feel like. I would imagine many of these tracks are carefully curated excerpts from longer meditations on the aforementioned temporal interest.

Have a listen to Li Yilei's 之/OF and experience a rich varied world of sonic textures that balances natural acoustics and synthesized sounds. Perfect for aural potpourri to hang in the air during an afternoon lounge, or as an accompaniment to your soothing ablution ritual, this album takes you wherever you need to go—and some places you didn't think of.

Intimacy Hidden Amidst Chaos: Patricia Taxxon's New Piranesi

Via Ryan: Santa Cruz musician Patricia Taxxon is, to put it lightly, productive. Having recently discovered her work via recommendation from a friend, I was surprised to find a Bandcamp page with 60 releases—each as intricately detailed as the rest. Moreover, these aren't just albums of the same sort of material released ad nauseum—each of the releases that I've gotten to know so far has a distinct character, exploring different sonic ideas from unnervingly upbeat electronic dance-style tracks to outright abrasive noise. This type of stylistic variety always piques my interest, and as such, I've been happy to dive in to Taxxon's music headfirst.

So far, Taxxon has released six albums in 2021 alone—and while each deserves its own close focus, today I'm taking a closer look at May's New Piranesi, a particularly fascinating collection of pieces that evoke classic computer music, harsh noise, and peaceful ambient post-new-age music from the dawn of the computer era. Though we can only assume that the title is a reference to Susanna Clarke's 2020 novel Piranesi, the album's liner notes are starkly minimal, offering only a simple dedication: "For Gabriel, Mary Anne, Abraham." Who they are is unclear...and while the album's intense beginnings might feel threatening, by the end of its continuous sonic journey, what was once terrifying seems somehow sweet and intimate.

Album opener "Sugars" is a textural delight: bombastic washes of unabashedly digital noise, pairing repetitive downward filter sweeps with accumulations of granular chatters, prickles, and blasts of noise. Their harshness is, of course, striking...but their repetition (each time with new variation) gradually turns into a slow and reassuring structural rhythm, like waves patiently and powerfully crashing over you. "Waters" is structurally not dissimilar, pairing a constant grounding of lo-fi background chords with overwhelming, abrasive percussion-like textures and unexpected blasting interjections, eventually turning into a large, stuttering, reverberated piano ambience. "Black" is one of the album's most aggressive tracks, playing out like a combination of a broken radio tuner, skipping CD, and something altogether more horrifying. "Spider" continues "Black's" harsh brightness—but instead of blasting rhythms, it instead uses its harshness as a high-end bed for a vast ambient soundscape. "Wings" continues in a somewhat texturally sparser (albeit still quite noisy) fashion, ending with an enormous series of abrupt, grating chords that dissolve one by one into a chatter evocative of the album's opening track.

This is when things take a dramatic turn. After over 33 minutes of noise-littered ambiences and harsh sonic assaults, we're left in with "Snows," a soft, empty, vast space with low washes of noise—and an unexpected, surprisingly sweet song emerges, complete with triangle synth leads, mandolin, toy piano, and a voice assuring Gabriel, Mary Anne, and Abraham one by one that they shouldn't "run to the dark." We then venture from this peaceful, sentimental place into a quiet world of "White": metallic clashes and chatters, eventually evolving into a sweet piano reprise of "Snows," an ensuing sine wave fade, and the eventual cathartic, explosive, expansive, and still subtly harsh arpeggio-laden universe of the album closer, "Piranesi."

Though New Piranesi might at the onset seem like an aggressive affront of harsh noise, as you become engulfed in its peculiarities and eventually emerge into its single, sweetly sentimental refuge, all of its seeming aggression is re-contextualized: from there, the same sorts of abrasive digital sounds just seem like delicate prickles and soft brushes, the sort of which can only be noticed in the most intimate of settings. On a repeat listen, the dissolving particles of noise that at first seemed like an assault instead seem like thousands of soft, familiar touches amidst the typical chaos.

A New History? Ann McMillan's Gateway Summer Sound

Via Ryan: Folkways Records's stated mission is to "document the entire world of sound." This mission has led them to publish an astonishing range of material from spoken word and global traditional music, to poetry and prose, all the way to anthologies of experimental music. The documentary-like thrust of the "label" reminds me distinctly of the spread of American folk music via the early years of field recording (at the hands of Alan Lomax and others)—but its enthnographic approach extends beyond music alone, into documents about religion, protest, and many of the greater themes of the last century.

The ethnomusicological appreciation of music is perhaps somewhat different from enjoyment of sound for its own sake. While trends from the early years of enthomusicology as a field certainly had a slant toward study of traditional musics, in more recent decades, the field has expanded to include observation and documentation of all sorts of music—and if we adopt the perspective that all music is made by humans who live in social circumstances, we can begin to appreciate things that are otherwise unfamiliar to us. And through the process of shining such light on specific, previously under-represented music, institutions like Folkways Records have the capacity to re-build recent history...which, when left to its own devices, provides an unbalanced level of privilege to particular people and places.

Gateway Summer Sound: Abstracted Animal & Other Sounds is a fascinating release of archival recordings from Ann McMillan: an otherwise little-known electronic composer. Remastered from the original 1979 master tapes, the Folkways reissue of these five works represents a much-needed effort to further document and understand the variety of music produced in the early days of American experimental electronic music. Interestingly, despite these recordings being made in the late 1970s, they don't make use of synthesizers or computers for their sound material: instead, McMillan relies on classic electronic tape manipulation techniques, turning field recordings of ambient environments, frogs, and insects into peculiar tapestries of sounds simultaneously familiar and foreign.

I was turned onto this album by resident Patch Pal Wes—and frankly, was surprised I hadn't heard of Ann McMillan previously. She was a student of well-regarded iconoclastic composer Edgard Varèse, and produced the works on Gateway Summer Sound in the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, a facility known for releasing quite a number of seminal recordings of American experimental electronic music. McMillan, like many of her women contemporaries, are only recently finding their way into discourse about the history of electronic music—but happily, endeavors like Folkways are doing the work to correct this.

I can't help but be amazed at the eerie environments that McMillan coaxes from the tape studio: evocative of field recordings throughout, she crafts a peculiar set of dissolving realities, with birds melting into time-stretched gongs and inharmonic, cut-up rhythmic textures that abruptly dance around the stereo field. From loon calls to alarming metallic clangs and accumulations of chattering, wavering pseudo-instrumental textures, Gateway Summer Sound is a set of meandering explorations into the peculiar ends of music and sound design...one that happily has not been lost to time.