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.
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.
Underneath the Stars, the engaging new release from Tom Honey’s Good Weather for an Airstrike project, is immediately pleasing to the ear even as it perhaps takes some risks with its image. The release notes remind us that Honey began recording in connection with his aim of relieving his own tinnitus, and the tone of the new album is consistently soothing and almost entirely free of dissonance. The Goldberg Variations notwithstanding, if music was composed for therapeutic purposes it’s easy to wonder if it will also succeed as art. Add to that an ambient concept album based around the phases of sleep and including field recordings of gentle rain and thunder, and casual associations with faceless New Age collections of nature sounds and insomnia aids rather than serious listening might be forgiven. The fact that the album is released on the estimable Hibernate label, however, is considerable cause for optimism, and indeed there is more here than might first meet the eye (or ear). You can stream it below as you read.
Here as elsewhere, 2011 finished with the customary best-of-year lists, inevitably confronting the dedicated music lover with large numbers of as yet unpurchased albums said to be the cream of the crop; catching up would cost a small fortune, even if 2012 held no new promises. Well, 2011 also saw the release of some excellent albums offered for free download, and a few of the Music is Good authors have put together a list of their favorites across several genres. All of the albums listed below can be downloaded either for free or on a “name your own price” basis (donations encouraged, but with no minimum) from the artists or labels or at bandcamp. You can also stream some of them below. Our thanks to these artists for making such good music freely available.
This is part of a series suggesting ingredients for mixtapes or playlists on a variety of themes.
Trains are such a common theme in some genres of music (especially country and blues) that Smithsonian Folkways has a generous compilation, there are online guides to releases, and Wikipedia offers a lengthy list of train songs. But this piece is not concerned with songs about trains. I’m more interested in instrumental music, and in trains as instruments. I’m going to suggest below a short playlist, much of which can be had for free and all of which involve the sound of trains. First, however, I’ll turn to the “why?” question.
Train sounds and modern music have long gone hand in hand. In the mid-twentieth century, recordings of train sounds played a significant role in the development and marketing of high fidelity recordings and, a little later, of stereo. Cook Laboratories rose to prominence in the early high-fidelity movement after scoring a hit with recordings of locomotives at the 1949 Audio Fair – apparently “fevered audiomaniacs” were “blanching with ecstasy at the tremendous whooshes and roars.” (The quotation comes from Greg Milner’s fascinating bookPerfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music, in which the story of these developments is colorfully told.) A special exhibit at the 1953 fair wowed and/or alarmed visitors with a three-channel recording that created the illusion of a locomotive bearing down on listeners.
I confess to being a skeptic regarding best-of-year lists, though I suspect I am far from alone. The general arbitrariness of the exercise (my own list might look different if you asked me in a different week*) combines with inevitable comparison of apples and oranges (is it really possible to say that a given ambient release is slightly “better” than a given rock album?). What’s more, I usually fail to find my own listening reflected in most published lists (this year I trawled several prominent top 50 and top 100 lists and found almost zero overlap with my own personal list). Adding another may well be simply adding to the futility.
I’m going to go ahead though, largely because of the small chance that as a result someone might discover one of the titles listed below and come to love it. After all, I discovered several of them through the gratefully received recommendations of others. Moreover, each of these releases deserves to be noted on a list somewhere. I make no claim to judge cosmic significance, attribute enduring worth, or arbitrate taste. The following albums are simply 2011 releases that I’ve played many times each and that have left me delighted or fascinated and wanting to keep hearing them in 2012.
After gathering a selection of music that survived Christmas recently, I found myself wondering what a good ambient/drone Christmas album would sound like. That thought immediately requires clarification. Just about every kind of Christmas music takes on the ambient mantle at this time of year in the thin sense that it burbles away in the background and submits to being ignored. Even narrowing the notion down to music likely to get tagged as “ambient” at the online store, unappealing possibilities lurk: it’s not hard to imagine Christmas standards invoked in a syrupy, sentimental wash of insipidly cheerful chimes – Santa goes New Age, as it were. But what would a Christmas album sound like that was also serious ambient/drone music? Could it stay recognizably tethered both to Christmas and to the grainy soundscapes generated by the likes of Tim Hecker or Kyle Bobby Dunn? Well, no sooner had I begun to ponder than an answer arrived in the form of a Christmas release from the Hibernate and Home Normal labels titled Festive Greetings.
I was an easy recruit. I stumbled across a new label called Wist Rec and one of its early projects, the Book Report Series. The series consists of releases of music inspired by literary works selected from among the Penguin Mini Modern Classics. Each release takes the form of a 3” CDR attached to a copy of the book upon which it was based. A translucent dustjacket mingles the names of musician and author. This combination of book and music is, according to the Wist Rec site, intended to “allow one to glean new, immediate connections between differing art forms,” and each release is limited to 100 copies. This was already intriguing. Add the twin facts that one of the works chosen was a short story by H.G. Wells that I remembered particularly admiring some years ago, and that the artist who would be covering this work was one already responsible for well over 200 tracks in my music library, and it was an easy decision to order The Door in the Wall by offthesky.