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Pjusk - Drowning in the Sky

Pjusk – Drowning in the Sky

I visited Ulsteinvik recently, and found time for an all-too-brief hiking excursion up along the cliffs under the guidance of a local school principal. As we clambered up steep slopes in the gathering dusk, buffeted by a stiff wind, keeping an eye out for patches of ice amid the heather, talking about fishing boats and hidden reefs, I realized that Pjusk were playing in my head. Listening to music in its country of origin is one of the perks of traveling, and I had been punctuating my trip around Norway with Terje Rypdal, Jan Garbarek, and Biosphere, among others. But now that I was out on the bare hillside, surf threshing below, all human habitation out of sight, and the iPod safely back at the hotel, it became evident again that somewhere in my brain Pjusk’s music has become what the Norwegian landscape sounds like.

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Any list implies criteria, but let’s eliminate some obvious candidates. This is not a list of the most original, or significant, or skilled, or successful releases of 2013. There is so much that I simply did not listen to that those kinds of judgments are out of reach (for me as for everyone else). Instead, I asked myself: if I were to be separated from my music for a month or two and could only keep 20 albums from my collection with me, all released in 2013, which would I choose? This approach keeps me from adding or skipping things because I somehow feel I ought to. Worthy or not in the ears of the world, this is what I liked most from this year’s releases. Listen in; who knows, you might like it too.

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Winter's Fire - The Ashes of Piemonte

Winter’s Fire – The Ashes of Piemonte

A palimpsest.

First layer: Blood and hate and keening grief. In the mid-17th century the Duke of Savoy pursues a brutal campaign to suppress communities of Waldensians living in the mountains of Piedmont. The Waldensians are followers of Peter Waldo, a Bible-oriented group excommunicated in 1215 because of their departure from various Catholic teachings. Despite repeated persecution, they have been able to establish small mountain communities. In 1655 an attempt at forced conversion meets with rejection, and is followed by an orgy of rape, torture, and murder that shocks Europe. 1700 men, women, and children are burned alive, dismembered, variously and gruesomely massacred.

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Here it is finally, my list of the best of what I found among 2012’s new releases. (I found a lot of great jazz from before I was born too, but that’s another story.) I no more listened to everything out there than anyone else did, but these are releases from 2012 that I listened to repeatedly and expect to be returning to in 2013 and beyond. The exact order is arbitrary and could change on any given day, though albums are probably roughly in the right quarter of the list. I’ve included at the end an honor roll of another 20 that did not quite make my list but were also greatly enjoyed. After all, I think the main function of lists like this is help folk find things (at least that’s how I use all the other lists out there).

Pjusk300x300
#1 Pjusk – Tele
Norway’s Pjusk have become one my favorite ambient/electronic artists on the strength of three stellar releases. Tele (full review here) takes us deep into the glacial cold of northern Norwegian landscapes – the tracks are themed around layers of rock and ice. Deep in the earth, we are taken on a dark and resonant atmospheric journey that ends in light and life. Creation is not all sunlit beaches, and this release gives us a masterful aural tour of its frozen recesses.

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Kane Ikin – Sublunar

The opening track of Sublunar, Kane Ikin’s debut full length release on 12k, clearly announces the theme and aesthetic of the album, and at the same time sets the standard very high for what follows. The album title places us on the ground; the track title, “Europa”, directs our gaze toward the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus (Io, Titan, Hyperion, Rhea, and Oberon are still to come). The track opens with a gently oscillating wash of haze and static, out of which a hesitant, lurching rhythm emerges, sounding like something assembled from various sources and precariously held together by sticky tape and string. The rhythmic effect is somewhat reminiscent of some of Giuseppe Ielasi’s off-kilter beats. A wobbly, ghostly, faintly choral note like a decayed tape recording of music from a decades-old science fiction movie adds a mournful melodic line and a further duality – are we listening to signals from distant moons (as the accompanying video seems to suggest) or the voices of our own past dreams of the future?

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13

Aug

2012

Three Analog Delights

By David Smith. Posted in Ambient, Drone, Electronic, Reviews | No Comments »


Compared with more traditional instruments that have been played for centuries, the analog synthesizer went from cutting-edge to retro in a remarkably short space of time. With the advent of digital processing and the laptop as the music tool of choice for a new generation of electronic musicians, there was a time when it felt as if the analog synthesizer, which came into its own in the 1960s, might have had a shelf-life measured in mere decades. It had offered a couple of distinctive motifs to the musical world – cosmic atmospherics and the insistently pulsing sequencer rhythm – before ceding the stage, like the protagonists of Toy Story, to more up-to-date electronic playthings. The association of early analog synth sounds with an era in science fiction whose ray-guns-and-jetpacks vision of the future now seems quaint added to the curious cultural positioning of synth music as futuristic yet almost immediately retro. For at least some of us who grew up with Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis, Kraftwerk, and Tangerine Dream, the digital revolution was not all unalloyed gain. Thankfully, fears of obsolescence have proved premature – a steady flow of recent releases continues to unfold the possibilities of the synthesizer sound world, whether with vintage equipment or its hand-constructed descendants. The three albums below are my favorites from the first half of 2012.

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Various Artists - Hidden Landscapes 2

There are so many compilations of electronically or classically tinged ambient music appearing these days, many of them for free, that it would be reasonable to wonder: why should I pay particular attention to this one? Let me answer that in two ways.

If you are already familiar with the recent outpouring of music that melds electronic, found sound, and classical elements into gentle, emotionally evocative instrumental vignettes, then there is a fairly simple answer to the question. You should get this one because you already know about the rewards to be found in giving yourself to the music of Marsen Jules, Talvihorros, Danny Norbury, Lawrence English, Konntinent, Pjusk, offthesky, Field Rotation, Ian Hawgood, and the like. Each of these, together with a few perhaps less familiar names, offers a strong contribution here; it’s an album full of very enjoyable pieces from folk who know what they are doing. You also already know that Hibernate and Audio Gourmet, the labels collaborating on this release, have a strong pedigree in this area and aren’t going to waste your time. In sum, if you like this genre, this is one of the good ones.

If the above names mean little to you, and you are a newcomer to the genre, this album would serve very well as an entry point. It showcases a representative range of approaches, and they are sequenced wisely, beginning with material that most will find tuneful and gradually moving to slightly more challenging sounds. If you’re open to exploring a little, here’s what I suggest you should do.

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En - Already Gone

I was struck the other day by how often I had seen the word “intense” used to praise music while browsing recent reviews. Perhaps it was just the particular reviews I happened to sample. Perhaps it was an appropriate celebration of the passion invested in those recordings. Or perhaps it was a reflection of the ongoing quest for the next, even-more-vivid experience in a media-weary culture. Whichever it was, there certainly seems to be no shortage of music designed to fill the horizon and the frequency range without remnant, built to hook the ear within seconds and keep it wriggling helplessly until exhaustion sets in.

Tiring of the fray, I find myself at the moment more inclined to celebrate releases that make me smile with quiet surprises. I rejoice when gently touched by music that is not going for the arresting, big-screen effect, but is instead chasing small moments of beauty wrested from the noise. Already Gone, the sophomore release by Google-proof band En, is such an album. Released on Students of Decay, it is the latest of a series of small wonders distributed by Experimedia.

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This mixtape recipe is not just a collection of songs, but a collection of films with music, and the connection between the pieces is one of visual feel. Long gone are the days when a music video was strictly a promotional accompaniment to a new single release. A growing array of film makers choose existing musical material as a stimulus for creating loosely related short pieces of visual art. Other projects emerge in which film-making and music-making are parts of a larger artistic project, each carrying its own weight. In many cases the resulting film has little to do with showcasing a band or titillating with cavorting divas; the focus is rather on exploring another dimension of the aesthetics of a piece of music. Below are three recent videos that are worth a look and that share a common wintry palette and a certain captivating forlornness.

Pjusk – Sus
Pjusk are a Norwegian electronic duo who specialize in tense, icy soundscapes and have a new album due March 12 on the Glacial Movements label. A song from their 2010 album Sval was recently made the subject of a short film by Till Nowak, a German digital artist. The video works with snowy aerial footage of the Nordic landscape that indwells Pjusk’s music, but springs some visual surprises, taking things off-kilter enough to match the track’s uneasy ambience.

Pjusk – Sus on Vimeo.

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31

Jan

2012

Review: Contrail by Kane Ikin

By David Smith. Posted in Ambient, Drone, Electronic, Reviews | No Comments »

Kane Ikin - Contrail

The other day I spent a while listening to a couple of free ambient netlabel releases that turned out to be just OK. Don’t get me wrong, there are many, many excellent free netlabel releases. These were just not two of them. They brought some interesting sounds together, but lost any sense of the space between them, ending up projecting a kind of mushy hum with various little noises floating stickily in the porridge as it gurgled thickly by. Returning after that listening foray to Kane Ikin’s new EP on 12k records was an exercise in contrasts. Anything that comes out on 12k is going to be painstakingly assembled and mastered, and this recording is no exception. It too works with stretched tones and assorted small sounds, but especially on headphones it opens them up into a delicate and spacious conversation.

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