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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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Savages

Every year the Twin Cities benefits from Pitchfork Music Festival being in Chicago when several of the bands add a stop on their way to or from Chicago.  This year that meant the first local date for the ferocious post punk buzz band of the moment Savages.

The show was at the 400 person capacity Triple Rock Social Club in Minneapolis, and sold out so quickly (despite shows at the Triple Rock selling out rarely enough that a sign on the door announced “Tonight’s show is completely sold out.  Seriously.”) that a return date has already been added at the 1,500 capacity First Avenue Mainroom in September.  If you read nothing else of this review, read this: See them now before the rooms get even bigger.

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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).

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#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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Last night I was at the Calvin College Fine Arts Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for what turned out to be one of the more memorable shows I’ve ever attended. I was there for Tinariwen (on whom more below). I had never heard of the opener, Kishi Bashi, not even via the use of his music (as I now learn) in a familiar Windows 8 commercial, and even if I had made the connection I would not have expected his music to be my thing. Support bands you’ve never heard of are often a bit of a lottery, and as two guys with a violin and a banjo took the stage I was ready for anything, but little expected what followed. Working with an amplified violin, various looping devices, and the assistance for half the set of Mike Savino of Tall Tall Trees on banjo and bass, Kishi Bashi (real name K. Ishibashi) strung together a series of loop-based pieces that defied genre categorization. He is blessed with formidable skills on the violin, a pure and powerful voice, and apparently boundless energy and musical imagination. Picture Jónsi Birgisson of Sigur Rós singing bluegrass-classical-folk-pop-experimental pieces structured like miniature progressive rock epics interspersed with beatboxing and driven by double-speed loops created live and you’ll be half way there.

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The Blue Nature of Everyday

I confess that I had no plans to review this album. I only bought it in the first place because of a robbery. I learned from the ever useful Ambientblog that the head of a couple of netlabels had been the victim of theft and had lost, among other things, his laptop. Seeing that the person concerned was Leonardo Rosado, and that he was selling his newest album on bandcamp for a modest price to raise funds to replace his equipment, my attention was snagged.

Rosado curates the Feedbackloop netlabel, several of whose releases I have downloaded and enjoyed free of charge, including Rosado’s own 2011 release Opaque Glitter. He also runs Heart and Soul, which recently put out the wonderful poetry/jazz/ambient release Allegories by the Dwindlers, also on my shelf and much enjoyed. The fact that someone running two music labels in Portugal from which I had enjoyed several releases is working on a scale where the theft of a laptop is debilitating, that I would hear about it before too long in Michigan, and that I could immediately in a modest way help put it right by buying a fresh release on bandcamp highlights the potential of the netlabel world for human-scale connections around music. I was on board, and figured the music would be pleasant anyway. $7 later, The Blue Nature of Everyday was on my hard drive. (More below the player.)

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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 is the second and concluding part of an interview with Jayne Amara Ross and Frédéric D. Oberland of the Parisian band FareWell Poetry. Read the first part here.

Jayne, are there any moments in the album where the shape the music has taken added something to your sense of the poetry you had written?

Yes definitely, we try to create pieces where each individual element (the poetry, the music, the films) stand alone but work as a whole also. When we have done a good, thorough job every element should enrich the other. It is only when all the mediums align behind the same very precise objective that you get that feeling of something whole, and enveloping. I wouldn’t, however, rely on the music to give meaning to the poetry or the films. Music is able to sublimate and carry meaning but not to impose it. At its best, it can be the wondrous, intoxicating glue that holds everything together. In all my films, including those that I have made outside FareWell Poetry, music is a really important part and I have always shared a privileged dialogue with the musicians that I have worked with. You can also go really wrong when you add music to film, you can easily trip yourself up by making the wrong choices. Having a close relationship with the composer, and learning to communicate in their ‘language’ can help prevent this.

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In the closing months of 2011, a new band from Paris called FareWell Poetry leapt from obscurity to a prominent place on various best-of-2011 lists, thanks to their arresting debut album Hoping for the Invisible to Ignite. (Read a review and stream the music here). Weaving together spoken word, a literary narrative backdrop, film, and compelling, slow-burning instrumental soundscapes, the album combined a high-art conceptual seriousness with an accessible musical appeal. It evidenced a capacity to delight and move and fascinate while appealing to the intellect as well as the gut, allowing the listener to be carried away by the guitar crescendos or ponder the poetic allusions or both at once.  Jayne Amara Ross composed and performed the poetry and directed the accompanying film. Frédéric D. Oberland (whose recent collaboration with Richard Knox, The Rustle of the Stars, is also excellent), contributes guitar, fender rhodes, piano, harmonium, soundscapes. Stéphane Pigneul on bass, Eat Gas on guitar, Stanislas Grimbert on drums, and Colin JohnCo providing analog electronics complete the line-up. Jayne and Frédéric kindly agreed to talk to us about how the debut album came about, about the band’s creative process, and about plans for the next release.

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