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Here is my top 20 music releases for 2015, with no claim that they are somehow objectively the best or that I listened to everything anyone else did. I have found things that delighted me on other people’s lists, and the point of the exercise is not to replicate or compete with those lists but to highlight some things you may not have found, things that might delight you. The sequence changed every time I made a shortlist, so take the numbers with a pinch of salt – all of them could be at least plus or minus 5 on a given day.

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14

Dec

2015

Review: City of Brides by En

By David Smith. Posted in Ambient, Drone, Electronic, Reviews | No Comments »
City of Brides by En

City of Brides by En

En’s last album, Already Gone, (review here) was notable both for its distinctive palette of sounds and for its cohesion. It offered a succession of tracks of increasing length, culminating and resolving in a 20-minute meditation on Elysium, the mythical Greek isle of the blessed. City of Brides (the title of the new double LP and of its closing track – another eschatological tinge, I wonder?) is less linear. Indeed it thrives on a restless exploration of shifting and contrasting sounds, skipping from noise to clarity, from stasis to rippling motion, from soft to abrasive as we wander from moment to moment and from track to track. And yet there remains a sense of deep unity, as if the various tracks are somehow probing the same question, prodding at the same possibility.

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Arovane - dwell_tevvel_structure

dwell_tevvel_structure by Arovane

Germany’s Arovane has been putting out some striking ambient material of late, including the recent dwell_tevvel_structure on the UK label …txt recordings. I have no idea what a tevvel is, and neither does Google; it’s an anagram of velvet and bears a passing resemblance to the Dutch teviel (“too much”), but who knows if that is relevant. Dwelling, in the sense of settling down and taking time, and structure, here in the form of careful layers of sound, are both terms that illuminate the music on this album. The album consists of four long sound pieces (ranging from 14 to 20 minutes), each with its own distinct character yet tied together sonically in an arc that suggests four movements of a whole. The first opens with a gently undulating drift and fluttering patters of brightness – perhaps it’s the cover art, but I find it hard not to think of sunlight sparkling on waves.

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Shallow Remixed

Shallow Remixed

Porya Hatami increased his profile in 2014 with a string of excellent releases on various labels. Shallow was my favorite album of the year, and I am still listening to it regularly a year after its release. (Review and stream here.) It was therefore intriguing to learn that a remix album was in the works, with contributions from notables such as Loscil and The Green Kingdom. Would it extend the listening pleasure or render the sublime mundane?

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I didn’t listen to everything this year. Neither did you. I have no objective way of knowing that these are (or are not) the 20 best albums released this year. Neither do you. But these are the ones I most loved and most want to spend more time with next year, and who knows, maybe you’ll find something special here too, something you missed but can connect with and find riches in, something off your usual menu that you might come to be thankful for. If that happens even once, the list will be worthwhile. And as always, if any of the musicians drop by, thank you for the work, care, commitment, and creativity represented below.

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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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Porya Hatami - Shallow

Porya Hatami – Shallow

 

I’ve been listening a lot to Porya Hatami recently, and it has been a delightful experience. It all started with a bandcamp sale by the Flaming Pines label to celebrate their third anniversary – a different album was offered for free download every two days. That drew my attention to their wonderful Birds of a Feather 3″ CD series, and to the first in that series, The Black Woodpecker by Porya Hatami, and that led me to his impressive new CD on Tench, which I will review below. But first a few words about The Black Woodpecker, since that was the piece that tuned my ear to Hatami’s sounds.

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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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