Category Archives: album review

[2012 in Review: M. Mucci, host of Sounds from the Tall House]

Over the next couple of week’s we will posting several [2012 in Review] lists that feature the favorite releases of some notable people from the Upstate experimental community.

First up is Michael Mucci, host of Sounds from the Tall House on Guelph, ON’s CFRU 93.3 FM. Every Sunday morning at 10am, Michael graces the airwaves with a radio show that features all kinds of experimental music and sound, focusing especially on long, improvisational pieces that you don’t often hear on the radio. Perfect Sunday morning radio.

Michael also runs the Tall House Recordings label and record guitar works as M. Mucci. Here are is 10 favorite releases in no particular order.

Ulaan Khol, Los Angeles EP (Worstward)

This is the work of Steven R. Smith, a perennial favorite of mine.  I always look forward to his releases and this one doesn’t disappoint.  So far, this is a download only release, but hopefully that will change in the near future.


Suzuki Junzo, Ode to a Blue Ghost (Utech)

This year was, as always, a year full of new discoveries.  A friend gave me a copy of Julian Cope’s book Japrocksampler which may just end up costing me a few hundred dollars chasing down some amazing records from Japan.  This record isn’t on that list (and I’m not suggesting it should be), but it is a great record of solo guitar explorations.  Bluesy, but not in the traditional sense, he’s also capable of blasting out sheets of feedback reminiscent of Keiji Haino.


Swans, The Seer (Young God Records) + live show Oct. 25/12 @ Lee’s Palace, Toronto

A good friend of mine let me hear this record and convinced me to go see the band in Toronto.  I had seen Gira solo a few years back and he was intimidating as hell with just an acoustic guitar in his hands.  The guy is intense and that’s probably an understatement!  Swans was hands down the best live show I saw all year.  I haven’t been knocked out by a live band like this in ages.  I went home exhausted after being subjected to their sonic beating for almost 2 hours.  Oh, the album’s pretty damn great too.


Robert Turman, Flux (Editions Mego)

This record kind of caught me by surprise, having never heard anything by Robert Turman before.  Seeing his name associated with folks like Aaron Dilloway was probably what caused the surprise.  There’s no harsh noise here though.  It’s probably closer to minimalism than anything else with its shaky kalimba, piano, and drum machine tape loops.  A mesmerizing record to say the least.


Richard Skelton, Ridgelines (Aeolian)

There are a few musicians whose music just makes me stop and listen; I can’t do anything else, not reading, not writing, not thinking of other things, just listening.  It’s almost tranquilizing in its effect on me.  These two tracks contain many of Skelton’s signature sounds (circular patterns of various bowed stringed instruments, for instance) but seems to stretch out into some new territory, especially on the second track “Cappanawalla.”  The strings are there, but something unusually menacing, too (organ? synth? or maybe some recordings slowed way down?).  Truly wonderful.


Reuben Son, Days Gone By (Wagtail)

A fantastic guitar soli release by this Boston-based musician.  I’m never quite sure what to expect from him (past tape releases on his own Private Chronology imprint saw him manipulating tapes, synths, and field recordings to great effect).  Here, it’s just him and a guitar (if you listen closely though, there’s some really nice tape manipulation/delay happening too).  Stunning packaging by the folks at Wagtail.  I really hope Reuben has some more guitar work in store for future releases.


Hallock Hill, The Union/A Hem of Evening (Mie Music)

Hallock Hill is Tom Lecky, once of Upstate NY, but now residing closer to NYC.  The Union was previously released in a small CD run a few years back and I didn’t get a chance to hear it.  Mie picked it up, repressed it on LP and added a new album A Hem of Evening” to make this a double LP package.  Hallock Hill plays solo guitar music, but it strays quite a ways from the well-worn guitar soli/Takoma school.  This is a really beautifully recorded, played, and packaged record.


Gasoline Gathers Hands, Gathers Friends, S/T (No Shade)

Finally, a release I was able to get my hands on!  After who knows how many limited tape runs that go out of print before I even know they exist, they drop this LP.  Hamilton is home to some of the nicest musicians around and these fellows are no exception.  They’re also fairly damn talented at creating some serious vibes from creeping slow jams to all out noise murk.


Gates, Eintraum (Land of Decay)

Gates is the work of Bryan W. Bray from Toronto, also of Gardenia and Orca.  Gates is a decidedly darker, harsher project.  This one has some black metal and harsh noise overtones.  Mr. Bray has been putting out fantastic releases for some time now and its great to see them getting some wider recognition and attention.  The packaging for this tape is also stellar.


Hanged Up/Tony Conrad, Transit of Venus (Constellation)

I hadn’t heard anything from the Montreal duo Hanged Up in years, but I was quite excited when I saw their name added to Constellation’s Musique Fragiles series.  Doubly excited when I saw the name Tony Conrad.  A great collaboration here that has all the hallmarks of a Hanged Up album, with the added benefit of Mr. Conrad’s searing violin….actually it sounds like the former are just trying to keep up with the latter!

[Review: Alfred Brown, ‘The Seagull: A Song Cycle’]

It’s been a productive year for Alfred Brown, a Buffalo-based electro-acoustic composer and audio engineer. First, he contributed the excellent Music for Moving in Slow Motion to Asthmatic Kitty’s ambitious Library Catalog Music Series. Now he has put the finishing touches on a project that apparently had been hibernating inside his personal audio vault.

According to Brown, The Seagull: A Song Cycle was originally intended as a soundtrack, but then evolved into a “wordless song cycle of sorts” based around Anton Chekhov’s late-19th century play, The Seagull. And while Brown does not provide much contextual insight into the connection the play and his album share, it turns out that the lack of any artistic précis does nothing to prevent one from enjoying this  first-class instrumental production.

Masterfully composed and elegantly arranged, The Seagull will undoubtedly appeal to aficionados of the orthodox strain of ambient (Ambient with a capital ‘A,’ that is). Listener’s who revere the music of Stars of the Lid, Kyle Bobby Dunn, Nicholas Szczepanik, and of course Eno, will recognize that Brown is the real deal and he should perhaps earn consideration as a future appointment to this exclusive pantheon of neoclassical prodigies. Time will inevitably tell.

For now, it is clear that Brown’s training as an audio engineer plays an important role in his ability to construct drones that are at times faint, at other times vigorous, but always layered very carefully and teased out with long, sustained tones that glisten like elongating icicles in the sun. Ellen Fullman, and the trademark sound of her long string instrument, is a definite reference point here. In fact, it’s only a mild exaggeration to say that tracks three through eight flow as if all sound emanates from a single captivating string. That string then bends, rises, and sways under the graceful guidance of the unseen performer. The listener can either focus intently on the gentle fluctuations in rhythm and tone or absorb the cycle as a whole, which is very possible to do since the songs wisp in and out of one another in very fluid manner.

The Seagull: A Song Cycle, put out by ACrawlsPace (a sub-label for Abandoned Buildings), is the second strong release from Brown in 2012 and it will be very interesting to hear what’s in store for him in 2013.


Review by Taylor Waite

[Review: Settlers, ‘Goth Dad’]

The catchiest and most fully rounded songs on Settlers’s first album Goth Dad—“Point Breeze,” “Cicada Summer,” and the title track—function in a similar fashion: a nifty picked melody works itself out against a background of driving drums and laves of reverb-heavy distortion. This Buffalo group’s songs don’t develop like classical music, repeat like minimalist compositions, or offer the thematic exploitation of pop music; instead, as in the case of “Cicada Summer,” the musical substance (all of which was captured via 4-track in the basement of the Jungle Gym, a house venue on Buffalo’s West Side) is thickened through instrumental addition, and–after it has achieved a surfeit of density–it is meditated upon. Subtraction, rhythmic spacing, or key change is used to free the listener from the nervous excitement induced in the tracks’ more tightly wound moments.

Vocals aren’t vocals in the sense of pronounced lyrical content, but rather like voices carried on breezes; over the course of their journey they’ve somewhat dissipated and it would appear that what the voices are saying is less important than how they’re saying it. On the latter count, there is more than a hint of longing, melancholy, and homesickness; nonetheless, it avoids becoming schmaltz through balance with the music’s ecstatic presentation.

The Los Angeles-based duo No Age provides an obvious comparison (though Goth Dad is closer to the fragmented punk blusters/ambient blossoms of Weirdo Rippers, than the lush pop of Nouns) not only in terms of technique but also in terms of quality of feeling. It’s probably no coincidence the band’s website features a video of a skater (slo-mo, summer day) as visual accompaniment to the songs. The whoosh, clank, and roll rhythm of skateboarding lends a real world similitude to the inner life depicted in Goth Dad.

The tunes, when not moving about frantically,

“. . . as in a wanton freak”,

engage the listener more patiently:

“. . . perhaps to show its black and golden wings

Pausing upon its yellow flutterings.”

As Keats interpreted the schizoid temperament of the goldfinch.

Attempting to decant the significance of the music’s movement into a proposition is a tricky business, but, taking a speculative leap, I’d say the driving emotional force of Settlers is found in the frenzied state of imposing oneself upon experience and taking in as much as possible, in order to make up for that which one is constantly pouring out.

Several tracks (“Sleepy Dan,” “Dirty Eyes,” and “Days Park”) never make it past the gnarly intention present at conception. “Doing Nothing,” another in this mode, may be the most aptly titled song on the album. Meanwhile, the album’s two heavier tracks (“White-Out” and “Dead Kids”) edge into that goth-surf-garage stuff you may remember hearing at the Mohawk Place circa 2000.

At times a somewhat unbalanced first set, but, like other promising first sets, Goth Dad offers an abundance of charm that makes up for any lack in execution.


Review by Shane Meyer

[Review: Reedbeds, ‘Heirloom Rust Garden’]

Hamilton, Ontario label Old Frontiers is a unique entity in the music game. While you can locate some CDs and art on their website, they almost exclusively deal in (incredibly fascinating) cassettes. Every entry is a story – a mystical puzzle box – waiting to be unfolded by the right person, the next more enticing than the last. Take for instance, Reedbed’s Heirloom Rust Garden. This soothing album is a worthy addition to any eclectic music collection, offering two sides of pure instrumental joy.

Both sides are very similar, which isn’t to say you’ll confuse the two. Rather, listening to the cassette compares to visiting a gallery; each side is its own floor with a carefully curated exhibit. The cassette fades in and out between songs, continuing this analogy; the mental symphony conducts as you consider a piece of artwork, and then dissipates as you travel to the next texture that begins the cycle again.

It is a few minutes before the first impressions of crackling static fully builds into a “song,” but this is well-executed. It begins with a melody that arises from the plucking of a very pleasant ukulele-like instrument. The production utilizes a great deal of looping, strategically composed to fluctuate just as you get comfortable. In fact, that statement is a great way to describe the cassette as a whole; it’s repetitious and familiar enough to create a song, without being predictable and uninteresting. And just as soon as it seems to have faded in, we’re onto the next exhibit.

This is a good example of how each song plays out. It’s unimportant to do a track-by-track analysis of each side, because they’re all variations on the same theme. Again, I really don’t want to give the impression it all sounds similar or follows any formula. It is just hard to describe each bit without the descriptions running into each other. This is by design, as the cassette excels in creating expectations only to defy them moments later. It makes for an incredibly satisfying experience of comfortably walking the line between conventional and experimental.

As far as what you can expect to hear, there is a substantial amount of looping and backmasked instrumentation, limited to mostly a few stringed and electronic instruments. The sounds are very calming and tranquil. The different instruments playing together are absolutely entrancing and I found it very hard to keep my concentration during every listen, whether it was my focus or it was only playing in the background. It just makes your mind flow and jumpstarts whatever part of your imagination causes you to spontaneously daydream. I really enjoyed that aspect of the work.

This is present through most of the work, but it was on the first listen (about halfway into Side B) that I first noticed the two guitars playing entirely different compositions over complementary electronics and the single harmony it created, without harmonizing. The dual guitars (or any instruments they’re using at the time) blend without dueling, combining to be one. Whenever that’s done properly, and this cassette is a prime example, it is simply beautiful. That alone is worth the price of admission. Highly recommend as with anything released by Old Frontiers. Great for anyone who likes calming music that will take their imaginations for a chariot ride across the stars.


Review by Roth’s Child

[Review: Ay Fast, ‘Nice Arps’]

Tuning through the galactic interference of interstellar radio, Ay Fast‘s new album Nice Arps opens with vibrating frequencies.  Eerie darkness floats across the Buffalo-by-way-of-Cleveland artist’s sonic backdrop, rattling distortion bending into jabbering dissonance.  Upbeat waves of “Shriggda” roll outward, hollow conversation beating back and forth between mumbling visitors.

Dropping octaves to “Blue Rabs,” echoed mutterings flit across empty space rising above the shadows cast by a chiming undercurrent.  Syllables stretch across space and time, a chorus of yearning coalescing momentarily before disbursing once more.  Staccato bursts help the darkness flee, eyes gazing starward once more across the heavens.  A moment’s respite sparkling through the night sky.

Meandering toward more earthly locales leads into concurrent conversations gathered unbidden, the gurgling ambiance of a sandwich shop in the “Escaglade” drifts in an out of focus while passing through.  Heading outside after lunch, glitched orchestration “For Shemmmm” pulsing allows rhythm to regain control for a moment before straying back toward darker corners.

Life is jittery at best as this sonic exploration saunters forward.  Surviving the mass-produced madness of every day is a burdensome task for some, endless jabbering distorting through the sounds of community existence.   Metal clacking into one another above the din before the endless whine of productivity grates on. Fast and slow toward the finish, “Shit Tahiti’s” constructed repetition scratches suddenly into a sonic morass buzzing about “Buffy Dragon.”  Slogging across this strange creature’s domain stumbles upon a gathering of the “Fluteish” performing brilliantly amongst the murky gloom.

All pieces pushing air in concerted harmony, Nice Arps draws to a close with woodwind and percussion gliding effortlessly around one another.  Fading back into the dim Ay Fast signs off, looping into the silence.


Review by a career in the haw haw haw haw 

[Review: Thoughts on Air, ‘Random Tandem’]

Random Tandem, the double cassette from Hamilton, Ontario’s Thoughts on Air, begins with the two-chord, whispering moan of “Commuter Special,” is momentarily suspended in the expansive guitar drone of “Double Helix” (think a less arpeggiated version of Neil Young’s guitar work from the Dead Man soundtrack), and washes out near the end with the additive minimalism of “Waver” and “Woven.”

Nevertheless, ToA’s Scott Johnson doesn’t eschew the more ragged edges of experimentation. “Screaming U at Mimi,” the meditation of a post-blues lothario, mixes a rocking chair riff with warbling vocals and screeching guitars (the last mercifully low in the mix): “Ooh baby, the mystery / is in my mind / but my heart is warm / all the time.” The sentiment of the lines pervades much of the album—even where there is no lyrical content to spell it out.

“Hop (with Scotch)” is an especially captivating track: distorted drums, peeling vocals/guitar, and a kinda raga vibe raise it above the rest of the album. Soon enough, the dissonant picking and slurred vocals of “Fiddle Crap (with Bacon Grooves)” brings the album back into the realm of exhausted self. The latter track sounds like it could be a missing cut from Steropathetic Soul Manure, Beck’s early 90s ode to his own frustration with the musical arts.

Johnson is best when blending the two impulses—the emotional fullness experienced in musical flight and the imminent return to the incomplete self—as he does on “Mutuality.” There’s a sort of alternation between the two states over the course of this double cassette, as though the trippy voyage must always be reconciled with the earthbound body and its not-so trippy cares. “Mutuality,” with its repetitive first guitar and second guitar alternating in the bass and treble ranges, simultaneously keeps the listener on the hook and eager to take off.

The final track, “Hymn for She,” has a truly rad two-guitar, two-vocal harmony and deploys that old oceanic trick of building, cresting, and washing away. Woulda been fine by me if it were a few minutes longer.  In any case, the entire set is thoroughly recommended.

Random Tandem was released by the Old Frontiers label, also out of Hamilton, and the double cassette included an absolutely astounding packaging that is made of an old converted audio tape case from the Hamilton Public Library (the disclaimer is still inside). The cover art and the 12-page booklet are both top notch and were put together by Johnson and Old Frontiers mate Sean Gadoury using a color photocopier and, according to their website, “a technique of blending images by feeding the paper back through the machine: a unique process with fortuitous results.”


Review by Shane Meyer

[Review: Loud & Sad, ‘False Intimacy’]

The liner notes found within Loud & Sad’s handmade, silk screened, numbered matchbox case cassette False Intimacy list the five slow unspooling sonic sketches as “Example 1-5.” Apparently, these aptly titled “examples” are nothing more than solo pieces of processed piano, which the liner notes seem to imply were created with only the use of the black keys. You probably wouldn’t assume as much after listening to False Intimacy, which was recorded by long-time collaborators Joe Hupert (Dust in the Light) and Nathan McLaughlin (the Blanket Fort) and released by the cae-sur-a label out of Rochester. There is a richness of sound here despite the minimal tones that the duo make use of. But the point being made seems to be that less is more. This stands in very stark contrast to the many noise/sound artists that self-consciously fill up space with unnecessary knob twiddling. Here, instead, patience is demonstrated with an austere reserve that seems determined to let sounds exist and morph through evolution, as opposed to intervention.

At times, in almost all of the pieces, there is a sense that the machines or software or whatever is creating or manipulating these sounds are just left on to breathe in and out of sync with one another, like two people lying asleep next to one another.

There is a particularly daring passage that comes at the midway point of Side A that lasts roughly five minutes (I believe its “Example 2,” but is hard to discern exactly when one track begins and one ends). Anyway, this passage consists of little more than a rhythmic buzzing sound that flickers along in the background. Eventually–and I mean eventually–a distant filtered noise begins to gently chip at the top of the audio panorama. A little clicking here, a little tape hiss there, and what you get is the sonic sweep of a desolate landscape cloaked in a nuclear winter. The piano motif is gone, while any tones or notes are also expelled. After multiple listens, this passage begins to stand out not as the barest, but as the starkest. It’s almost as ballsy as John Cage sitting at a piano doing nothing. Here the duo retreat from their instruments and simply leave them be, letting (or perhaps forcing) the listener to really sit with these sounds. It really is a compelling section for its starkness and refusal to compromise by adding even the simplest of flourishes that might hint to the listener that this seemingly static scene is in fact a movement that is slowly unfolding to something grander. No, instead the listener is given no other option but to take it as it is and deal with it.

Moving to Side B, both “Example 4” and “Example 5” contain stunning piano moments that sound as if they are reverberating while covered in analog dust (imagery reminiscent of the title of Hupert’s solo project, Dust in the Light). It is here, especially in “Example 5,”that the loneliness trope –discussed in the liner notes and explored in a more amelodic manner on Side A—really comes to the forefront.

Then for a moment, right toward the end of the cassette, the piano playing emerges uninhibited by processing and it dances gracefully as if it were the score to melancholy documentary compiled of lost footage from film’s most glorious era. The cassette then ends on a somber, but resolute note.


Review by Taylor Waite