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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).

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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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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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14

Mar

2012

Review: Tele by Pjusk

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

Pjusk - Tele

Like a whole swathe of ambient music, Pjusk‘s work relies on a scaffold of cues for the imagination to add a representational dimension to the raw sounds. Once one has learned that Pjusk are Rune Sagevik and Jostein Dahl Gjelsvik from the west coast of Norway, that their music is composed in a small cabin high in the mountains, and that their characteristic one-word track titles translate as “twilight”, “fog”, “hollow”, and the like, it is nigh impossible not to hear the murky atmospheres and dank rhythms of their music as evoking contemplation of a lonely landscape wreathed in mist and locked in a stasis measured in geological time. These associations are woven more literally than ever on their newest release, Tele. The album is released on the Glacial Movements label, a label that is single-mindedly dedicated to “glacial and isolationist ambient” and offers a growing series of releases that set out to evoke “places that man has forgotten…icy landscapes…fields of flowers covered eternally with ice… The cold and silent night that falls upon the glacial valleys…” The album’s title, Tele, is a Norwegian word for frozen underground water, and the track titles this time have also moved down into the cold earth, invoking gneiss, flint, slate, granite, crystal. It is thus not too big a surprise that the album’s opening is the most darkly monolithic of the Pjusk catalog to date; the surprise is that it ends with one of their brightest moments.

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Gareth Dickson - Quite a Way Away

When approaching Gareth Dickson’s new record it seems almost obligatory to dwell for a moment on the fact that it is released on 12k records, a label that does not usually deal with music that has lyrics, let alone releases by singer-songwriters. Dickson has toured extensively as a guitarist with folk singer Vashti Bunyan. His own music combines acoustic guitar finger-picking with an attention to atmosphere, resulting in what one might call ambient folk songs. (You can stream one of his previous albums, the lovely Collected Recordings, here.) Quite a Way Away is certainly something new enough in 12k terms to catch the eye, but it is less of a radical break than it might seem. Listen to the acoustically oriented ambience of Illuha’s recent gem Shizuku, and its inclusion of the spoken word in the form of Japanese poetry, trace the gentle contours of Ballads of the Research Department by The Boats, which also included some singing, and focus on the gently plucked guitar of Kane Ikin’s Contrail (review here), and it will be clear that while Quite a Way Away is something of a shift of genre for 12k, it has a great deal in common with its immediate predecessors in terms of aesthetic. All share a careful hush, a gentle attentiveness to delicate, small, mostly acoustic sounds. Listening back over these releases brought to mind a haiku that appeared on the sleeve of Tetsu Inoue and Carl Stone’s 2001 collaboration pict.soul on the Cycling ’74 label:

The soft breeze that stirs
this vast undulating field
deafens the spider.

Those lines capture for me 12k’s approach to music, music made for the spider rather than for the stadium, inviting the listener to find expansive worlds of sound in the rustle of a soft breeze through grass.

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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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There seems to have been a recent flurry of new creative partnerships between established solo artists working in the generous borderlands between neo-classical, electronic, and ambient music. In fairly quick succession we’ve been treated to lovely debuts from A Winged Victory for the Sullen (Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran) and Oliveray (Nils Frahm and Peter Broderick), with the first Orcas release (Benoît Pioulard and Rafael Anton Irisarri) on the horizon. Now add to that list Aaron Martin and Dag Rosenqvist (who has most commonly recorded as Jasper TX). Their debut album as From the Mouth of the Sun is to be released at the end of January on Experimedia, and is recommended listening.

Sitting in a Roofless Room

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