Category Archives: 2011 in review

[2011 in Review: Occult Modem Settings, ‘Compression Artifacts’]

Occult Modem Settings–a name that evokes the concrete and the intransigent, the mystical and the material. On Compression Artifacts, Rochester’s Steven Danglis blends this duality into a series of soundscapes–or perhaps a better term would be ‘tone poems’–as the notion of conventional song structure is completely absent. What we have instead is essentially a single drone piece that is divided up into six smaller fragments, i.e. songs, over the course of the album.

There is not much “music,” per se, on Compression Artifacts; instead, most of the instrumentation consists largely of sustained guitar and synth feedback, coupled with synthesized pedal tones. Along with that there are strategically sprinkled bits and pieces of vocals, hushed and dreamlike, sometimes so hushed and dreamlike that they are rendered unintelligible, conveying more mood than message.

The actual notes being played are rather fixed and don’t change much over the course of the album, as is consistent with the whole ‘drone’ philosophy. It is a type of minimalism taken to an extreme, almost to the point of it being a form of theta-wave meditation inducement, something that all the art freaks and the cyber-stoners will enjoy zoning out to.

Toward the middle of the album, however, the listener is confronted with the most dramatic tonal shift of Compression Artifacts, whereby the steady drone swings from a major key into a minor key. While this represents a pivotal moment in Compression Artifacts, it is perhaps the only one. Instead, this is an album built more around subtler changes that demand close attention to detect.

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Review by Liam McManus


[2011 in Review: soundBarn, ‘Valentine’]

While soundBarn is the experimental guitar project of Thomas Lail and Patrick Weklar, the name soundBarn also refers to a performance space–run by Lail and his artist/gallerist wife Tara Fracalossi located in Valatie, NY–which often hosts performances by the Albany Sonic Arts Collective. Furthermore, soundBarn exists as a press entity and recently published a series of poetry chapbooks including one from Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth.

The connection between the music of soundBarn and Sonic Youth is apparent on the duo’s 2011 CD Valentine whereby–true to Sonic Youth ideals–the duo utilizes prepared guitars to create sprawling tracks loaded with feedback-laced mayhem.

Yet, for a recording of some guys simply making noise with their guitars, there are moments throughout Valentine that defy what one expects. What is particularly striking about the recording is how, as the sound unfolds, the listener is able to find a wide range of moods and emotions to be enveloped in. There are points where the screeching noise drops down to delicate-sounding spots, where it then builds back up to a cacophonous clatter, or eerily shifts into a horror film score-like atmosphere. In other words, this diversity and unpredictability makes this one of those longer tracks that you are able to keep on repeat, letting the sound circle you while the shifting moods in the track color the experiences around you.

Surprisingly, Valentine, released by Tape Drift—the label of fellow Albany Sonic Arts Collective member Eric Hardiman–is the duo’s first release in the twenty years of their making music together. The single track that comprises the release was recorded live at the soundBarn venue around Valentine’s day (hence the name) with only minimal editing prior to its release.

Valentine is a great release and hopefully it will not take the duo another twenty years to release something else. Fortunately, the duo performs regularly in the Albany area, and at the soundBarn venue, including an upcoming fundraiser for a local gallery and ASAC venue the Upstate Artists Guild.

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Review by Andrew White


[2011 in Review: All of Them Witches, ‘Breathers vs. Drivers’]

Authentic rock music has always dealt in extremes. With notoriously small patience for all things temperate or graduated, the style’s impact is largely due to its constant juxtaposition of opposites. One particular stylistic derivation of this principle–minimal riffs delivered with maximal intensity–has gathered such historical momentum so as to imbed itself squarely in the standard rock formula.

The success of this particular approach has, in fact, been so total as to leave other potential derivations untouched within the mainstream and beyond. Today, however, thanks to the small but persistent lineage of peripheral experimenters, there has emerged a generation of rock artists with refreshingly little in the way of formal presupposition who explicitly challenge such formulas. Those that succeed demonstrate the fundamental understanding that contrast itself– rather than any particular brand or instance of contrast–fuels the drama of music. This insight is the legacy of innovation that has been persistently inveighing from the margins since rock’s inception.

Breathers vs. Drivers, the full-length release from Buffalo’s All of Them Witches, is just such an experiment, and one with particularly crisp results. The immediate textural approach is, in fact, a precise inversion of the aforementioned formula. Rather than minimal riffs delivered with maximal intensity, guitarist Phillip Freedenberg and drummer Cam Rogers deliver maximal riffs with minimal intensity. Intricate, quirky phrases are modestly finger tapped through an exposed, practically under-driven guitar tone– a simple shift that opens up a curious and compelling musical space.

This contrast of the minimal and maximal exists not only in the immediate visceral texture of the music, but also more broadly through its compositional form. Here, akin to bands like Hella, Lightning Bolt, or Battles, loop and repetition serve as a counterbalance against prog-rock’s constant threat of excess. Borrowing a lesson from IDM, All of Them Witches compartmentalize and repeat intricate morsels such that emergent from the micro-complexity of each tune is a macro-groove that pulses with surprisingly inviting ease.

Guitarist Phillip Freedenberg characterizes the band’s relation to the past by analogy to an old wartime parable in which a general explodes his own ship, removing the only hope for escape and redoubling his men’s commitment to the task at hand. Breathers vs. Drivers hasn’t blown up the ship it rode in on, but dismantled it and rearranged its parts. Through simple variation on an old design, All of Them Witches invented an unlikely new vehicle– and happily, the contraption works.

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Review byJohn Tiberio


[2011 in Review: Chapels, ‘I Have Tried’]

Chapels, 'I Have Tried' (House of Alchemy)

Adam Richards, the mastermind behind both Chapels and the Buffalo-based label House of Alchemy, has long cultivated an audio/visual aesthetic that is both antiquated and, shall we say, creepy. Whether it is the strangely archaic pictures that adorn many of his label’s releases or the weird collision of disquieting tape-warped sounds found on his Chapels recordings, one would not be totally out of line to wonder if Mr. Richards was perhaps a rather odd fellow from decades past.

And while both of these assumptions prove to be a complete misconception when one listens to the rather pleasant interview that Mr. Richards conducted on air with Upstate Soundscape host Needles Numark back in September, his 2011 mini-CD-R release I Have Tried only seems to re-affirm this guy’s antediluvian weirdness.  

In fact, to offer a visual comparison to I Have Tried–and much of Chapels’ work—one could look to the Japanese horror film Ringu or even David Cronenberg’s classic scifi-mindfuck Videodrome, whereby old analog sources like VHS tapes seem to serve as conduits to sinister supernatural realms. Likewise, this 3-track mini-disc could easily convince the unsuspecting listener that it—format aside—was created decades ago and contains within it latent paranormal possibilities. The purring voice that emerges among the bell-like clattering on “Part 1” or the warbled background discussion that underlies “Part 2” both infuse I Have Tried with a haunted aura that threatens to reach out and grab the listener by the you-know-whats.

The fact that I Have Tried was released on mini-disc–a format that many are no longer able to utilize—and in a super limited run only adds to this release’s well-crafted mystique.

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Review by Taylor Waite


[2011 in Review: throuRoof, ‘Feathers & Blood’]

throuRoof’s Feathers & Blood cassette seems designed to evoke deep-seeded emotions from listeners that attune themselves to the graceful arrangements and hypnotic structures. Like a psychic depth charge, this cassette aims to blast open the murkier contents of the mind so that they can be analyzed closer in a conscious state.

Released by the Rochester label Cae-Sur-A, this cassette features two tracks, one per side, each twenty minutes in length. Both tracks are drone-based constructions that feature harmonic overlays punctuated with tones that are sustained to the limits of perception, reminiscent of the La Monte Young school of drone. And like those classic droners, throuRoof’s brand of drone leans more toward the transcendental, as opposed to the academic.

The A-side is “Birdism,” a loosely woven and organic  20-minute piece that is built on extremely simple tones with elegant phrasing that ebbs and flows like the separate breathing patterns of two people in bed and fast asleep. Punctuated with the flapping of wings and other assorted bird noises, “Birdism” creates an eerie dream-like feel that leads the listener to believe that bird sounds are not meant to be understood literally, but rather in the syntax of dream symbolism.

On the flip side is the title track where strings give way to synths and the birds are replaced with a submerged undercurrent-like beat that takes the entire track to fully emerge. This is a sprawling, more electronically based composition that Foxy Digitalis correctly described as “some sort of minimalist drone-pop.”

Put together, both sides of Feathers & Blood make up an exquisitely crafted cassette that demands repeated listens.

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Review by Jamie Moore


[2011 in Review: SIGHUP, ‘City Passage’]

SIGHUP, 'City Passage' (Feedback Loop)

For more than a decade, Toronto-based artist Steve Hamann has been crafting sound under the guise of SIGHUP, a project where Hamann combines his ambient/drone compositions with a wide array of personal field recordings.  His latest release, under the Feedback Loop Label, is City Passage a meditative 3-track, 20-minute journey through Toronto’s urban soundscape.

Hamann explains that the concept of City Passage was inspired by “the daily routine of slowly passing through a city, a meditation on both listening to and ignoring the metropolitan experience.” Close listening seems to reveal Hamann traversing through industrial areas of the city due to the slow-moving, low-pitched mechanical sounds that are looped over churning metallic synth drones.

With the explosion of the Greater Toronto Area, along with the overhaul of its densely populated urban core, one wonders if this industrial-feeling rumination by Hamann is almost an attempt to capture a soundscape that is quickly fading (or perhaps faded) in the post-industrial world. After all, Toronto’s identity as an industrial center has long given way to that of a financial capital. But with that transition has come an explosion of construction as the financial sector has fueled a building boom, mainly in towering condos. It is impossible not to be overwhelmed by these high-rent waterfront citadels as one drives north on the Gardiner Expressway into the heart of this thriving metropolis.

So perhaps City Passage is a subtle commentary on this ramping up of construction, and perhaps the voice of what sounds like a young child in the title track “City Passage” symbolizes a sort of new urbanism in its infancy. Whatever it symbolizes, this looped recording is clearly the centerpiece of the album, as it is the most singular sound, as if the artists was building up to it all along.

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Review by Jamie Moore 


[2011 in Review: Bob Ohrum, ‘All Around Me’]

Bob Ohrum, 'All Around Me' (Relaxed Machinery)

Combining dronescapes reminiscent of Windy & Carl with simple but impressionistic field recordings, Buffalo-based ambient artist Bob Ohrum continued to refine his sound in 2011 with All Around Me, his third release for the Relaxed Machinery netlabel.

Ohrum’s pieces are sparsely colored with delicate, far away sounding guitar work that rides along serene, but somehow tense soundscapes. His heavy hanging guitar strings resonate with muted emotion, while various supporting instruments like chimes or bells twinkle softly in the background.

There is an immersive feel to Ohrum’s compositions in that–like most quality ambient music–they are not trying to take you anywhere, but rather they are trying to draw you in. The focus of your attention is not directed toward an endpoint, but rather toward a center that may not be visible at first, but comes into view after careful listening. Attaining a glimpse of Ohrum’s ‘centers’ can be profound; something akin to sensing the divine fingerprints in natural phenomenon like a fleeting rainbow or the sounds of the deep woods on a dark night.

Because of the non-linearity of Ohrum’s work, tracks like the above “Beauty in the Aftermath” could easily work as a film score for a melancholic mood piece, like Gus Van Sant’s Gerry or Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff. And like the beautiful, but hauntingly vacant desert settings depicted in both Gerry and Meek’s Cutoff, Ohrum’s worlds are filled with many paths that are mentally difficult to avoid going down and getting lost in.

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Review by Taylor Waite