Lawrence English – The Peregrine

01/10/2011 § Leave a comment

“Wherever he goes, this winter, I will follow him. I will share the fear, and the exaltation, and the boredom, of the hunting life. I will follow him till my predatory human shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye. My pagan head shall sink into the winter land, and there be purified.”

A trip to London several years ago brought Lawrence English into contact with JA Baker’s book The Peregrine, one of only two pieces penned by this little-known author. On picking it up and reading a few words on the hunting practises of the barn owl, English commented, “before I finished the paragraph I knew I needed to own this book”. It’s easy to see why. The novel covers in explicitly personal, articulate and poetical detail Baker’s experiences obsessively following a pair of peregrines from early autumn to late winter in the landscape of East Anglia. Little is known about JA Baker at all – who he was, where he worked, what his other interests were, or even his true name – apparently he gave nothing of himself away. The book had such an effect on English that he centred a 12″ vinyl album around it, and his ambient work of the same name is a heartfelt homage to Baker’s publication.

Such selflessness was apparently the main thread of his writing. More intent on his cause than himself, English reports, “at no point does the idea of humanness come to dominate”: Baker appeared to see himself as little more than a medium, an envoy, a passage for nature that could be shaped and folded by his experiences. He was nothing but a channel in the landscape with a deep understanding of the frequency of his surroundings on a highly subtle level. The same could also be said for English’s own music. This album is an extremely downplayed piece of work indeed, giving us tier upon tier of smooth, cold ambience, but laid so crisply and thinly upon one another that their seams are almost entirely imperceptible. English created The Peregrine intentionally in such a manner, not spoon-feeding us with meaning and suggestion but letting us entirely work our own edifications, experiences, and natural desires into his piece. It is the freezing point of the colder months in musical format, beckoning our own interpretations.

Initially, the album is not a work to be heard but felt, indirectly sensed, not presupposed. The Peregrine hinges on minimalist changes all pinned down by harmonic, elevating, ethereal ambient chord progressions. Occasionally English will throw very slight touches of other instrumentation in, but the majority of the work is one long, sustained free-float through a cold ambient landscape. The music is not so much about discovery, but about reminder, the reawakening of the discovered. There is a sense of totality, of familiarity all the way through, English’s uplifting choral ambience making us feel all the more enlivened and positive.

The Peregrine is very much a soundtrack piece though. It is the song of flight, the song of air’s essence, the song of freedom. It is about not moving while remaining static, of transport through thought as well as movement. Unfortunately, as a piece of work which changes very little for the 34 minutes of its length, it may be a little too inactive for most of us. It reveals its great twinges and subtleties casually and conspicuously over time but they are so minimal that most of the album will come across to many as overly similar. For most of us there’s a danger that it’s simply too inactive and changeless to be consistently interesting. This is not ambience with spice, with core, with a beginning and an end. It is one axle of an ever-spinning cycle of nature, two interchangeable halves of a circle. Some parts never feel truly complete while others come across as airy, heavenly environs in which we have left our past self.

To me though, this album is not so much a compliment to the work of JA Baker, as an introduction. The is doubtless English’s intention since he has used the descriptions and the imagery of the novel to map out the sound of the album, and he hopes it’s one which will inspire others to pick up the words of the author themselves. As a standalone work of ambient it’s maybe too transitory: the beautiful sounds herein may be uplifting and in a sense, purifying, but if we don’t possess the same pages of reference as English does, the album comes across as too sparse in variety and content to inspire multiple playthroughs. However, this may well be English’s last laugh – on reading Baker’s book we may find hidden messages and passageways open themselves to us, enacting the imagery of both this musician and his inspiration. It’s a clever concept, and one which English would be all too delighted for us to explore.

Rating: 3.5/5

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The Peoples Republic of Europe – Solipsism

01/10/2011 § Leave a comment

The essence of ‘dark ambient’ is becoming misunderstood. Nowadays artists seem too intent on jumbling unrelated, nondescript eerie sounds into one album, the resultant product being little more than a pastiche of unrealised ideas and underdeveloped forms. The very best dark ambient works are those that put you in a particular place, that make you feel included in a setting, whilst giving allowance for space and exploration along with the music. Dutch power noise project The Peoples Republic of Europe understand this all too well and have taken a break from their expeditions into the realms of harsher sonic scenes by completing a trilogy of pure dark ambient albums. Solipsism comes on the back of Cumulonimbus I and II, released in 2000 and 2005 respectively, and now, six years down the line, the third part drifts into the ambient arena. TPROE prove that an understanding of the flipside is all too crucial to making ambient music and years confidently traversing the power noise world have made this foray into the field of dark ambient all the more effective.

This is very much an understated work. Solipsism’s intention is not to affront, invade or overturn as much as to creep into your aural spectrum and slowly turn it darker. It’s like a slow-breeding virus, a tightening vine or a drifting oil slick that looms into your field of vision but whose magnitude is too colossal to ignore. Cut from the same cloth as the more subtle works of Lustmord or the little-known UK Leviathan and Chinese IHVHLXXII, its static black noise and fluid aural swathes come split from an ever-blackening firmament of hopelessness and desolation, providing the perfect backdrop for a world in moral fallout. But Solipsism is more than just a backdrop: it’s an axis, a centrifuge, a cause. It’s the cloud of enveloping darkness that turns the world sour and breeds sourness in return. It is the might and central constituent of our natural return to expiration through uninterrupted entropy. It is greyness and blackness in sonic format.

But don’t expect much to occur though the 71 minutes of Solipsism’s length. Most of the tracks found herein are long, uninterrupted howls from a black beyond underlined with deep, misty drones and distant roars. Occasionally we’ll hear the hum and repeated click of an abandoned machine churning its way past us, or lost, purgatorised spirits speaking in tongues with forgotten meaning. It’s a very slow-burner indeed, presenting us with long sections of thick, atmospheric emptiness echoing into eternity and stretched-out, ruined halls of vast length leading to an ominous and unknown destination. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether these places, wherever they are, leave us free to wonder their massive landscape or whether we are trapped in a permanent location at the mercy of a rotation of ever-blackening seasons.

TPROE theme the album around secret societies, science fiction and the occult, but apart from the track titles, the true inclusion of these ideas is up to any of us to discern. In “Empty City” we exist under an iron-red cloud holding up a deadened sky as rusted machines whirr and tick about us; in the gargantuan “Carved in Basalt” the might of nature engulfs us in a rumbling, booming display of authority; while in “Chthon” we spiral through a submarine world of disturbing depth and force. Solipsism loves to engulf us in its power – the power of the natural world, the power of man’s avarice for dominance, and the power of emptiness and silence.

Solipsism is an extremely compelling work. There is little melody here, more melancholia, but its strongest asset is its understanding of what a dark ambient album needs to be successful and convincing. It’s a nicely unchallenging work on a direct level, though its long, drawn-out sections of minimal activity may still test a few listeners. Solipsism occurs both underneath us and around us, and like some Gorgan of dark ambient, direct orientation into its centre will fix us to the spot. With a few too many artists mimicking their masters and producing tonnes of unconvincing, incidental overspawn, this modest album crept into the market and is one of the most accurate depictions of what true dark ambient should be like, carrying the same ethos as Nurse With Wound’s excellently effective Soliloquy For Lilith. TPROE clearly know the laws and imports of extremes, and Solipsism is the perfect illustration of their expertise.

Rating: 4/5

Gru – Cosmogenesis

01/10/2011 § Leave a comment

Piotrek Gruszka has created a monster, a behemoth among progressive metal music when it’s at its direst need of rehabilitative innovation. For me the Lerpouses, The Animals as Leaders and the Unexpects of this world aren’t cutting it. There was a time when progressive metal still had a soul, and that soul is frequently ripped out and replaced with over-technicality and glib showmanship. All too often we forget that it is possible to have both feeling with technique and though they’re not mutually exclusive, it’s a very difficult elixir to concoct. I’ll admit I was concerned about this one, yet another progressive album with space-like artwork and space-like themes which hackney the underground to saturation, but Gru seems to have an understanding of this subject which works at a genetic level. This is a reasoning-through of the macrocosmos from a microcosmic perspective.

It may have swallowed him whole. Cosmogenesis was released over Bandcamp as a free download back in October 2010, and though I’m late to the party with documenting my own critique, this album is such a perfect contribution to the progressive metal genre that it should not be overlooked. Gruska has been quiet recently though. Maybe Cosmogenesis dealt with all those negative ions in his system which were released cathartically in the production of this octet; maybe he’s gone into hiding, drowned under a deluge of positive comments and amorous feedback; or maybe the call of what cynics and the embittered like to call the ‘real world’ has snared him in its lockjaw. The album has disappeared from the free download section – as has the ability to purchase the thing – but it’s still streamable and the half-savvy among you could acquire a download with ease. Gru has enigmafied himself, but his oeuvre lives on.

As caution-inducing as the spacey theme might be for some, concerns of bloated synth sounds and bubbling overlong reverb diatribes should be put to rest. Yes, this album does like to season its delivery but it’s never overdone. Gruzska is an astounding guitarist and songwriter, being able to transmit the fullest force of intense emotion in each note he plays. The guitar is not just an instrument but an annex, with an ice-clear link between his intentions and execution. Gruszka is able to syphon off each last drip of meaning from his core into the solos which pour forth on Cosmogensis, and each one has it’s own voice, it’s own call, it’s own song within a song. The guitar tone used throughout the album gives a feeling of distance, depth and regression, each note played with fervour, patience and understanding, whether they be the long, drawn-out accents of “Aurora” or the staggering artillery-fire of semiquavers which assaults us towards the end of the second track stunner “Nebula”.

All the work is undertaken by Gruszka from playing, programming and production in much the same way as the excellent Cloudkicker’s output. Where Cosmogensis excels is in its modesty. The album comes in at 34 minutes, any more would be sheer overindulgence when the message – whatever exactly that is – has been fully delivered. Piotrek chooses not to eke things out at the mercy of album-length alone and this debut is all the stronger for it. It strips its layers and reveals more to you as time go on: the extra sprinkle of melodics in “Fermi Paradox”, the beautiful introspective middle eight of “Stellar” and those tinges of rising and falling syths in the background of “Andromeda”. And these discoveries and their causal sensations will keep you coming back time and time again. No vocals are needed here, the guitar provides voice enough alone, and beams its meaning into us so directly and alchemically that no further lyrical exposition is required.

The best kinds of technical metal albums shouldn’t feel technical. As listeners we shouldn’t be thrown puzzles and musical riddles which we have to sit down and unravel over and over before they dare to show us some scuffed nugget of meaning or enjoyment. Most of the time Comosgenesis feels so genuine that it hardly comes across as to how technical and uninhibited it actually is. Give it further reruns and the tempos, the time signatures and the astounding dexterity will present themselves, but almost unwillingly. Gru isn’t here to show off technically but to present ideas, themes and emotions, which just happen to be with a thorough and skilful understanding of this genre, and in doing so gives us one of the best works of heavy music I’ve come across in the last twelve months. These days the old progressive metal superstructures may be being razed and dismantled, but Gruszka holds one of the final pieces.

Rating: 5/5

Ʌ – Wire Migraine

01/10/2011 § Leave a comment

Up till 2011 witch house had been an incapable subgenre. A cripple, an invalid among the electronic underground. It was a scene built entirely on concept rather than content with hardly any talent in its halls. The fanbase, ironically, tended to agree. Witch house albums were generally badly rated even by supporters. It was clear what we all wanted: a cross between darkwave, dark ambient and the US chopped and screwed scene, the main problem was that no-one seemed to be any good at it. Most albums had ridiculous titles and imagery, and most witch house bands had strings of symbols for names. The whole thing was – quite literally – a joke. Highly-regarded bands like White Ring, Mater Susperior Vision, oOoOO and Salem got close to producing decent material but never went the distance. There was just no consistency, no heart in a music form whose genesis was construct rather than character.

Xavier Valentine seems to have seen these shortcomings and made a concerted effort to do something about it. Wire Migraine, the first full album from his Ʌ [Aarrcc] project, dispenses with the problems and prefabrications of the scene through staying firmly embedded in the soil of darkwave. It’s an album full of variety and flux but which never loses its own thread. It knows exactly what it wants and never wavers from its cause. It is a serious, palpable entity built on turmoil, trust and feeling, and it oozes quality from the opening notes. Throughout its twelve tracks we’re taken on a run of blissfully pained ambience; heavy, resonating EBM-like pulses; beautiful, melodious chillwave and dark gothic undertones all fronted by Xavier’s distorted vocal presence. And the whole thing never drops the ball for a moment. It is a monolith to the fabled consistency which the scene was so aridly gasping for previously.

Even though Wire Migraine consists of twelve songs, upon download you’ll find that the whole thing comes through as one track. This is doubtlessly intentional since the album is sinuously threaded together, each song bleeding and melting into the next. It is a work of wholesomeness and completion, its constituents are meant to stay uniform, not orphaned. And the segues are beautifully done, sometimes harshly and sometimes subtly. It can be the heavy bass drop into a faster number that will herald the change of track or sometimes just the humble drop into a new key from semitone to semitone. Wire Migraine is as much about achievement through subtlety as through excess.

Moments after hitting the play button it becomes apparent that we’re in for something special, that we are in the presence of a genuine artist rather than someone dubbing themselves as such for the notoriety. “Gunnell” opens the album with a staggeringly beautiful ambient track. No clichéd synths here, just echoing, gasped vocals swirling around a simple, minimalist piano track as single notes bounce us of from the distance, each one hitting with meaning and feeling. There is nothing incidental to this, we are already in a new realm, a dark underworld hollowed out through solace and lost essences. Things pick up for the excellent “Nothing” with it’s pounding, punctuating bassline and then rise to a disturbing crescendo at “Revenge City”, possibly the harshest track on the album with painfully distorted vocals. But even in these harsh moments, Valentine is able to retain an air of melody, an air of humanity, and as listeners we feel a natural empathy. These are not self-indulgent screams meant to affront us, but to communicate, to share and complete. In the varying emotions set out through the album it’s hard not to relate or to feel a familiarity with what’s on show.

“Hallowed House” in one of the album’s best moments comprising an ethereal, haunting ambient backing track with spoken vocals hammered into the foreground. Hearing a rap on a witch house album is almost as ridiculous as on a darkwave or goth one, but Valentine takes the chance here and it works astoundingly well. “Hallowed House” is, in a way, the album’s crowning moment: it shows Aarrcc as unafraid to take risks, certain of its own core and drive, pulling areas from other genres and moulding them beautifully to fit its own needs while giving us new perspectives and experiences. The album then ebbs into the harsher, more upbeat but melancholy Ambulance Muscle before dropping into the title track which serves as a wonderfully atmospheric finale.

Wire Migraine is an astounding achievement. It an album born fully from organic feeling and being. Nothing is forced. Everything about it, from it’s dripping, liquid ambient moments to its coarser, more disturbing clarion beats, is completely natural, convincing and lifelike. It is an album illustrated by an internal palette of pain, solace and sensuality, communicating each with beauty and honesty. Since the beginnings of witch house back in 2009, it’s sad that it took so long for the subgenre to come out with anything decent, but now that it has, it will take a while to top this. Wire Migraine should be seen as the hauling pin of the art form, one which other artists can look to for their own benchmark of quality. With a second album already in the works for release this Autumn, Aarrcc has his work cut out in binding this unstuck rabble.

Rating: 5/5

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