2009 Review Part Three: The Year in the Compact Disc

Discs of the Year

Emeralds 'What Happened'
(No Fun Productions)

It's hard to say what will come of the blossoming underground synth movement. Will it continue to grow? in the next 5, 10, or 15 years will there still be kosmiche obsessed kids manufacturing homemade tapes in rented basement suites? Or is the whole thing just a fad that's going to lose steam and fizzle out in a year? I sincerely hope for the former scenario. Speculation aside, when the age of the post-hypnagog, or the (post-) post-new-age does fall upon us, Emeralds' What Happened will without a doubt be heralded as a landmark achievement, an album that set the bar to an unsurpassable height. That's about all I can say.

Past Emeralds post: Emeralds, A Kosmixtape

Jason Kahn 'Vanishing Point'
(23five Inc.)

Not one, but two releases from the 23five roster have found their way onto this list. Every release of this humble label, dedicated to the increased awareness of sound works in the public arena, is worthy of repeated listens. Kahn's contribution to 23five just might be my favourite one to date. Not one to brood on the release of a work, kahn's hyper-prolific backlog can be intimidating to the unfamiliar and although the bulk of it-as far as what I've heard-is quite extraordinary, Vanishing Point diverges itself as a truly groundbreaking album among the lot. Though he never outright states it, the album is in a way a dedication to the death of Kahn's daughter a few years back, who he was thinking of a lot while constructing the work, and in which the title refers too. The end product exercises a right in sustain, with many meandering streams of layered hiss flowing in tandem with hushed percussive agitations, resulting in an expertly constructed and highly enjoyable album.

Read my review of this album from August of '09 here.


Jim Haynes 'Sever'

What hasn't Jim had a hand in in '09? As an active member of Aquarius, 23five, and Helen Scarsdale, and a music writer for the Wire, visual artist and musician--both solo and collaborative, Jim seems an ever present pulse, a guru in the epicenter of West-coast musical fringe culture, while simultaneously remaining a ghostly, unknown figure. Not to worry though Jim, because for those of us who are paying attention, your clandestine nature will not hinder your talents and efforts. The one and only time I stepped foot into Aquarius Jim was behind the counter and I remember asking him if I could take some pictures of the store. His response was sure I could, as long as he wasn't in any of them. I may be way out on a limb here, but I felt as though there was a hidden message in that interaction, and in all off Haynes' work, like to be known as an unknown can be a noble thing, or something along those lines. Or maybe I'm just talking out of my ass. Hard to say.

Along with all of his accomplishments to date, Haynes can now pencil in Sever on his CV, as this is a work he should most certainly be proud of. I cannot provide a review even close to on par with what Haynes has already summarized of his album, nor am I going to try. But I will state that when a borderline clinical obsession can be broken down to the rudimentary ingredients of tactility, decay and drone, one truly has something to behold. And I'm sure that Jim could talk your face off about all three.

"One of the first reviews that had ever been authored about my sound work (this being in Coelacanth with Loren Chasse) referenced Small Cruel Party. At the time, I only had the Drone single from Small Cruel Party; and admittedly, that was a single that didn't ignite my imagination. Many years later, I had come realize that this reference should be read as a huge compliment, as the Small Cruel Party albumsIslands Of Sleep, Stain On Pure Glass, and In Thicket are all masterworks of tactile sound construction. Each displays a minimalist ethos at its heart, with compositions that proceed along taut linear arcs for little more than a set of bells, a crunching of sand, and a drone. Sever owes its inception to Small Cruel Party. Although if this were considered an homage, it's certainly a failure, as my persistent needling into the details of a parametric filter sweep or my insistence upon the conceit of a flickered melody prevents Sever from adopting the true strategies and thus the true success of Small Cruel Party. That said, there are bells, there is sand, and there are plenty of drones." -- Jim Haynes

Tarab 'Take all the Ships from the Harbour, and Sail then Straight into Hell'
(23five Inc.)

"Take all the Ships..." is a big leap forward in Eamon Sprod's musical career, and a drastic improvement from his previous efforts. Elaborating on a conscious decision he made before tackling his last release Wind Keeps Even Dust Away, Sprod decided to incorporate "...quicker shifts and abrupt sounds [...] rather than just beds of sound [into his music]." This album, the follow up to Wind Keeps... takes this notion of implementing dynamic elements to an even more focused realm, yielding a calculated blueprint for microscopic sound design.

Read my review of this album from August of '09 here.

irr. app. (ext.) 'Kreiselwelle'
(Helen Scarsdale)

The third installment of a trilogy of albums dedicated to Wilhelm Reich. Limiting himself to only objects with spiraling origins, M.S. Waldron succeeds in his explorations of richly spewed transforming sound scapes rife with sonic activity: fluttering phrases giving way to organic tones, subdued chimes and distant dronings, rusting saw blades clanging into each other underwater while a barrel of detritus awaits it's turn to get thrown in the mix. Everything sounding so alive, always churning, but never sticking around long enough to be unmasked.

Read my full review of the Orgonosis Trilogy here.

Matt Shoemaker 'Erosion of the Analogous Eye'
(Helen Scarsdale)

2009 saw three releases by the ever evocative Matt Shoemaker, an album on the Mystery Sea cdr label, an effort for his own Human Faculties imprint, and this, his second on Helen Scarsdale. Shoemaker has a very definitive style, an organic pulse runs through the center of all of his work, often accompanied by some distant metallic clang, a bell that emits the most ominous of tolls. Shoemaker is at the top of his game here, Erosion of the Analogous Eye sits nicely alongside his best work including Spots in the Sun and Mutable Depths.

Kevin Drumm 'Imperial Horizon'
(Hospital Productions)

Unanimously declared as a masterpiece, less one Wire Magazine author who described the work as "numbing, faceless, and texturally empty drones," Drumm's 2008 Imperial Distortion was, in my point of view, a remarkably patient example of eroded minimalism, an ever-morphing body of cold ocean current drones, decrepit gongs, and sparse keys. The 2009 follow up, Imperial Horizon treads a slightly different path. Gone are the cold currents, replaced by a single hour-long flickering beam of light, the kind that reflects off the surface of a glacier, playing tricks on your eyes and dancing around as you walk towards it. Overall, Imperial Horizon is a far more terse, but equally impressive counterpart to Drumm's '08 offering. The distortion is lifted and in its place lies an unobscured horizon; ephemeral, cognizant and oh so pretty.

Velvet Cacoon 'Atropine'
(Full Moon Productions)

Not your typical black metal release, Velvet Cacoon's Atropine is two discs of absolutely dark, murky, and dissonant drone. Most of the material was recorded to DAT and buried underground for two years before being revived for the album. According to the Full Moon Productions website "[t]his album was carefully created over a four year period under the closely supervised influence of mandrake, hemlock, datura stramonium, henbane, belladonna and jesaconitine isolate." The result is an hypnotizing spell; a desolate and looped dark ambient record that after repeated listens induces psychological affects similar to the above mentioned, Imperial Distortion.

Richard Garet 'Four Malleable'

Richard Garet is a name that I'm not all too familiar with. He's a visual artist from New York who creates scores of wonderful drone music as accompaniment to his films. His collaboration with Brendan Murray released in March entitled Of Distance is a big year end favourite amongst critics. That albums in the mail, but I can assure you that if its even remotely as good as Four Malleable, its would have probably ended up on this list too. Four Malleable is another album that turns its focus on the tactile drone, a sub genre that has recently ignited every flammable part of my psyche. Garet focuses a microscope on his compositions, the fading in and out of gritty minimalist fragments is only interrupted by pockets of mini-typhoon swells and extraterrestrial frequencies. Almost two hours of material here, and its all worth while.

Fergus Kelly 'Fugitive Pitch' , 'Swarf'
(Room Temperature)

Kelly's music and Room Temperature label were a major discovery in '09, and these two releases are still getting more than regular turns in the player. The processed remnants of sonic detritus emitting from dungeonous cellars grace our ears on Fugitive Pitch, unwinding like the inner-workings of a grandfather clock, while Swarf displays the muscularity of a group like The New Blockaders fused with the sensibility of Coelacanth, and all, as seen through the lens of David Jackman. Great stuff.

View my original post about Fergus kelly and these releases here

Honorable Mention

Robert Haigh 'Notes and Crossings'

Sunn O))) 'Monoliths and Dimensions'
(Southern Lord)

William Basinski '92982'

It was a long and somewhat arduous task, but thus concludes the year end album review. Let's hope 2010 has many more gems to uncover.


2009 Review Part Two: The Year in the Cassette Tape.

Cassettes of the Year

Sean McCann 'A Wind in Their Way'
(Monorail Trespassing)

I first stumbled upon the name Sean McCann a few months back, only to later discover a hyper-prolific backlog of 20+ releases starting sometime in early 2008. I can't vouch for his other releases but A Wind in Their Way is an absolute masterpiece. Monorail has released a ton of great stuff in '09-see some others listed below-but none remain as gripping as this.

The opener, Branch Chambers pt 1 is a muted cacophony of dulled ambience and distant vocals, the layers of branches overlapping and spilling into one another. The whole thing sounding so arid and cold, yet so delicate, as if it could all fall apart at any moment. B C pt 2 follows, treading a lighter path. A blur of lopping guitar notes sustain the piece, while melancholic strings are bowed and stretched out to eternity. This is the sound of a changing season, The sound of a time of transition. The flip side, Cathedral of Limbs is the highlight. McCann strips everything back for this side long affair, revealing a true minimalism. Each elongated note seems more perfect than the last, like a long lost track from The Ballasted Orchestra. Or, 12 minutes of Perfection closing out a cassette that I'll be playing for many seasons to come.

GrassLung 'In Bad Fields'
(Black Horizons)

The first release on Black Horizons by Phaserprone label head Jonas Asher aka GrassLung, and it's easily the darkest and possibly the most baffling tape of the year. In Bad Fields is littered with ominous pools of hushed electro-static pulses and high end frequency waves. No use tearing your hair out over the origins of these sounds, because in the end, it's what Asher is able to do with the sounds that matters. The tracks here are heavily brooding works of darkly chiseled noise, peppered with electronic pops and crackles on par with the more palpable works of Small Cruel Party, Chop Shop, and Jim Haynes; and that's saying a lot. Short but oh so sweet.

Bryter Layter 'Imprinted Season' (Arbor)

No, this isn't a Nick Drake cover band. Bryter Layter is Mr. Treetops and Arbor head Mike Pollard in tandem with Raglani producing some nice ambient waves, ranging from heavily saturated guitar/synth tracks ala Oneohtrix Point Never, to more subdued new age drone-y drift. Plenty of material here to let burrow under your skin. Nice work guys.

Solars 'Shadow/Cave' (Pop Drones)

Vancouver's very own Solars. Yes, this tape is incredible, released by Mark Richardson of Thee Expressway. Shadow/Cave is another short but sweet affair, but perfectly exemplifies two very distinct sides to this multifaceted band. Shadow commences with jangling bells that gradually give way to a wall of gauzy guitar drift. Cave slows things down, cradling a hazily plucked guitar that's eventually dissected into a free flowing arch of trickling tones. Keep an eye out for these guys as they're about ready to explode onto the scene. And if you happen to see one of them, maybe on the street devouring a breakfast sandwich, make sure to say hello.

Terrors 'Inequipoise' (Monorail Trespassing)

Warbly and totally catchy, noise flecked, depressive bedroom pop from Terrors. An unexpected favourite of mine from '09 and another winner from the Monorail catalogue. Read my full review of this from a prior post I did here.

Emaciator 'Appease' (Monorail Trespassing)

Jon Borges 'ambient' side is a much welcomed one on The Scrapyard. There is always a time and a place to bring the noise but as far as I'm concerned, Appease is a tape for any occasion. Sustained tones and levitating pockets of meditative synth swells combine to form a unique brand of what Aquarius Records aptly calls a "deep cosmic dronemusik."

Stroma 's/t' (Razors and Medicine)

This is the only release that I am aware of from the enigmatic dronescapers known simply as Stroma. Mentioning the names Mirror and Thomas Koner should give you a good idea as to the foreboding nature of these sounds. Yes, this music is dark and glacial paced, but it unfolds with a particular isolationist quality that is not easily mastered. With three tracks per side, this could have easily been expanded into two, maybe even three cassettes. Here's to hoping for future releases.

Toby Aronson 'Tonal Music' (NNA Tapes)

Toby Aronson is another unknown in my musical world. He appears to be an up and comer, and if anything he produces in the future is as good as Tonal Music, then jot me down for one of each. The A side Gong and the B side Organ appear to be the instruments of choice here. Both tracks unfold at a La Monte Young pace, and both exhibit a sense of balance and an understanding of the broad capabilities of a single instrument. Nice work.

Honorable Mention

Jefre Sei Getsu Ledesma 'Namu Kie Butsu' (NNA Tapes)

Ordinary Machinery 'Accumulate and Acclimatize'
(Three Songs of Lenin)


2009 Rewind Part One: The Year in the 12"

It's hard to believe that we're already nine days into the new decade. The single digit start of the century could not have ended on a better year for music. 2009 was probably the single best year of new tunes for me. Noteworthy bands seemed to pop up all over the place. I could not have foreseen the compelling rise of the post new-age and hypnagogic movements and I'd like to personally thank Daniel Lapotin and the Emeralds crew for their devoted efforts. Here's to hoping those ethereal synth rays don't evaporate like so many other short lived trends. The veteran droners also remained strong with fantastic releases from San Fransisco's 23five, Helen Scarsdale and isounderscore labels. An incredible year in tapes from Monorail Tresspassing, NNA, and many brilliant efforts from the always commendable Arbor label. The list goes on.

This year I've decided to separate the best-of list into three format categories: 12"s, compact discs, and cassette tapes, as there are many highlights from each. So this, the month of January, is dedicated to 2009, a great year in music.

Records of the Year

Charlemagne Palestine and Christoph Heemann
'Saiten In Flammen' (Streamline)

Charlemagne's hammering of the Bosendorfer piano mixed and smeared by Heemann is the perfect blending of musical aesthetics. 'Saiten In Flammern' is a work of pure form that breaks all ephemeral boundaries and reminds us that in the right hands, even a train wreck can be beautiful thing to listen to.

Infinity Window ' Artificial Midnight' (Arbor)

Infinity Window is probably the least prolific project of any of the noteworthy up-and-comers of the experimental synth movement. Artificial Midnight, however, is not be overlooked. Each of the three tracks on this debut long player unfold in perfect sonic clarity, guided by a focused light, and executed with utmost definitiveness. Listen to this ten times in a row and you'll know what I mean. Perfect.


Emeralds 'Emeralds' (Wagon, Gneiss Things)

This band can do no wrong. With close to ten releases in '09, Emeralds had quite the busy year. Their self-titled LP finds the band at their most adventurous, refining the photon squawks of the bands jovial beginnings with a fluidity and sureness of a group well into their golden years. All the sides of Emeralds you've come to love are here.

D.A. 'Odeon' (Olde English Spelling Bee)

As the story goes, D.A. were completely oblivious to the ever growing North American synth movement, content with having their music heard merely through roof top performances and in flotation tanks at new age centers. Odeon plays out like the post-apocalyptic answer to the movement in question. Or, an answer to a question that was never asked. Meandering guitar and crystalline synths are forever present, stripped back to their terrestrial beginnings and left to ring out in perfect harmony with the now hell-scorn Earth. "The Eighth Planet" is worth the price of admission alone.

Dimmer 'Remissions' (isounderscore)

On Remissions, Dimuzio and Hammer blend their skills flawlessly, Hammer handling the analog tape manipulations while Dimuzio utilizes feedback, loops and archaic processing. The outcome is a dimensional rift, a bending of time through the trans-formative arrangement of sonic minutiae. Looped hushed drone fragments are sped up and slowed down and at times they are completely taken apart and stacked atop a dissolving bed of multi-coloured noise. A lo-fi drone masterpiece.

Barn Owl 'The Conjurer" (Root Strata)

Easily the best material I've heard from this San Fran duo. The Conjurer plays out like any Barn Owl album-slow burning western scores ala Ennio Morricone meets Earth 2 meets space and time-but feels more like an Elm album than anything else. This record oozes a molasses pace, filled with twinkling guitars and distant voices crying out from a giant canyon. Just watch out so as you don't get sun burned, ya hear?

Andrew Chalk & Daisuke Suzuki
'In Faxfleet Clouds Uplifted Autumn Gave Passage to Kind Nature'
(Faraway Press)

By now some of you may know of my obsession with the work of Andrew Chalk. Any record on his Faraway Press outfit is a mainstay in my everyday listening routine. Senshu, a past collaborative effort of Chalk and Suzuki's continues to be one of my favourite FP releases. In Faxfleet... is another fine display of their particular blend of delicate ambient music and rustic field recordings.

Mountains 'Choral' (Thrill Jockey)

Koen Holtkamp came to my attention when I came across his excellent Make Haste release on the A Room Forever label in '08. As good as that was, I wasn't expecting anything of his to top it in the near future, until I discovered Mountains and finally heard Choral and my preconceptions simply blew out the window with the breeze. This album has almost every conceivable instrument played on it, though never all at once, thankfully.

Svarte Greiner 'Kappe' (Type)

Another impeccable effort from Erik K. Skodvin aka Svarte Greiner. This is definitely his best and possibly his darkest album to date. Skodvin excels in creating dense looping atmospheres from little more than a guitar, a voice, and maybe a bell. Not much not to like on this offering of ambient doom from the mysterious Svarte Greiner.

Mark McGuire
'Solo Acoustic Volume Two' (Vin Du Select Qualitite)

Solo effort from Emeralds guitarist Mark McGuire. Another surprising release from '09 and a release that I didn't expect to like as much as I do. In fact, I love this album. It's a perfect blend of Fahey twang, and ambient layering and repetition. McGuire is a skilled guitarist and it just goes to show why the best bands, like Emeralds, don't have a weakest link, because all the members can shine on their own.

Oneohtrix Point Never 'Zones Without People' (Arbor)
'Russian Mind' (No Fun Productions)

The second and third part of the Rifts trilogy by Oneohtrix Point Never, aka Dan Lapotin. I really had to warm up to how 80's OPN's music feels, but once I was able to embrace it I found a lot to love. Lapotin's arpeggiating synth lines are hard to describe, there are elements of New Age, Kosmiche, a glint of video game soundtrack, all wrapped around a cloak of minimalism. Hard to describe maybe, but not hard to enjoy. I really look forward to what Dan will produce in the future.

Honorable Mention

Rale 'Whispering Gallery' (Arbor)

Mountains 'Etching' (Thrill jockey)

Emeralds 'Allegory of Allergies'
Reissue (Weird Forest)