AMFJ - BÆN
Here's a pretty idiosyncratic release from Iceland. FALK released this album in December of '11, but the man behind AMFJ, Adalsteinn Jorundsson, has recently been sending some copies stateside, and you can order/listen on BandCamp as well (so much stuff going through BandCamp these days!). Strange Maine should have a few stateside physical copies on CD, and this packaging is really cool, with rich color and multiple panels of composite/superimposed photographs of the artist-in-motion that are very illustrative of the music.
My first impression of BÆN was how complimentary this album is to Arvo Zylo's "333" record that I reviewed last year--both records feature their respective composers working alone in noise/industrial surroundings, and both composed their records within the confines of a single musical interface. In the case of AMFJ, Jorundsson works in a software package called Jeskola Buzz, which looks sort of like a freeware version of Reason. For those unfamiliar with the basic concept behind either of those bits of software, one makes sounds in virtual synth modules, which can then be combined in various configurations, run through one another or through effects, etc.
Though it's a considerably more spacious environment than the RM1X sequencer that Zylo employed for his "333," it's still quite a self-imposed limitation compared to the resources most electronic musicians avail themselves of for any recording session. But under many conditions, I think these kinds of limitations can save folks a lot wasted energy spent in "paradox of choice" deliberations and keep the focus on creating the music itself. I remember reading a John McLaughlin quote about perfect freedom coming from perfect discipline, or something to that effect--though he was talking about keeping your chops in shape for improvisation, the concept translates into the world of composition/recording beautifully: pick a small palette of materials, learn to use them efficiently, almost unconsciously, and you're ready for inspiration to strike.
AMFJ is often tagged as a power electronics/harsh industrial act. I definitely hear elements of those genres in this music, but BÆN definitely falls toward the more melodic/atmospheric end of the "harsh" continuum. Vocally, a couple of the tracks in the middle of the album ("Mammon" and "Retoria") get into some really aggro vocal work, and Jorundsson sounds briefly like a 1000 year old tree struggling to stay upright in a punishing storm of percussion and metallic drones. But I think the best moments of the record show a lot of restraint--Lofun," for example, dedicated to his fiance, features a ground-loop sounding hum interrupted by a curious percussion break which repeats multiple times. It's a delicate piece that never rises above a mezzo piano, but it shows a lot of distinction in its poise. The opening track, "Utburdur Umskiptingur," becomes loud and impenetrable, but it shows a lot of patience getting there, its sample of a child's whine gradually layered with itself and effected in ways that emphasize the fundamental resonant points of the sample, like a shorter industrial-tinged take on Lucier's "I Am Sitting in a Room."
My favorite piece, though, is the album's closer, "Husid Andar." The longest track at almost 9 minutes, Jorundsson sings in a clear, clean voice, grasping at transcendence amid a dense clatter of fluctuating synths, metallic clanging, menacing machines and idling motors. I hear some awesome late-oughts Ulver vibes at moments: subtle vocal harmonies push through the din, trainlike rhythms rise and drown in acid reverb, and a long minute of silence hangs in the air at the end of the disc. There are some great ideas happening in this piece, and I hope that future AMFJ efforts continue to work with the epic potential in both harsh noise and near-silence.
The Dept. of Harmonic Integrity - In Deck and Depth, A Whim, A Weft
A Beest has just been born in Iowa City, and among the first releases of this new label is the debut of The Dept. of Harmonic Integrity. Before I even begin to address this music, though, I have to say that I find this album art almost impossibly beautiful. Like fetish object beautiful. Head over to the BandCamp page for this recording to look at the other Beest releases in the right column. Go ahead and click on "more releases," while you're at it. I love the colors, the font choices, the layout template, and that Beest logo itself, a clever stylization of a chord fingering diagram. While I'm much more interested in music than visual design, these are seriously awesome, and a damned striking way to launch a label.
As it turns out, the fellow behind these eye-popping album covers is also half of The Dept. of Harmonic Integrity. You may already know "Wayne Longer" as "Adderall Canyonly" from Field Hymns, and along with "Min Roach," the pair have delivered a marvelous debut.
This kind of recording is totally refreshing to me from a review perspective, because I like the music immediately while still having to do a lot of work to describe what I think is happening here. In the last few years, particularly coming from cassette labels like Field Hymns and Orange Milk, there is a new genre coalescing, a subset of electronic music that is heavy on synths and sprinkled with samples and field recordings. In terms of influence, these recordings seem to draw from musique concrete/early electronic music without taking themselves too seriously and disappearing into academia, while absorbing technical and emotionally evocative contents from a potpourri of under-respected musical forms: B-movie horror and sci-fi soundtracks, cartoons, early video game sound design, library music, cheesy Moog albums, 80s neon shapes and stripes and cracklepaint, Wal-Mart synths, early/naive iterations of consumer culture, etc. In other words, whatever one would call this genre (is there a name that I don't know yet?), it unites highbrow and lowbrow forms of music with an ease that reminds me of what Juxtapoz magazine did in the '90s for under-appreciated forms of visual art like hot rods and graffiti.
My first thought about this album's cover is that it looks like the world's most awesome "library album" jacket. And the music really manages to sustain that kind of vibe, sounding both exotic and vaguely familiar at once. It's all synths, unfolding with a deliberate patience I associate with highbrow minimalism and timbres from early Tangerine Dream/Klaus Schulze and the like. Tempo choices are laid-back, and layers of synths rise and fall to build space. Smoother waveforms generally form slowly-evolving pads, and slightly more aggressive timbres are introduced when melodies need some differentiation. Some pieces like "Limbs +" focus on rhythmic and textural ideas, while others like "Upon the Starry Skies" have much more emphasis on harmonic content.
In addition to the more "classical" and early komische influences on this music, moments of sci-fi or horror soundtrack drama creep into the album at times: the last few minutes of "Upon the Starry Skies," for example, has a tense organ bass melody and ethereal synth chords seems to indicate trouble in a spaceship in a dark forest, and "The Ouudan" could serve as an alternate soundtrack to "Chariots of the Gods" in my book. That's my favorite track here, which is broken into two sections. The first third phases a metallic-sounding riff against itself within a rich bath of delay and reverb, and gradually fades out into a long metamorphosis of aviation-sounding drones finding their way back to ancient synths and sirens and feedback-like drones. It's a real treat of spatial and dynamic effects.
But in general, this music is made from a very minimal collection of elements--the quality of the synth sounds themselves is such an important factor in digging this music, I suggest swinging over to that BandCamp page again. If you dig these synths, you'll have a good time getting lost in this album. Here's to hoping Beest gets a chance to release this stuff on vinyl, too, as this music and its artwork already seem like a treasured relic from the retrofuture.
Boron - The Beige Album
Back when I first started writing for Killed in Cars, I heard a bit of the first Boron release on Field Hymns, "Decrresscenndo." That album was a focused affair, loaded with squealing, throbbing, rumbling oscillations from a Moog iiip (press for the album calls that synth "the size of a room," but isn't that just a suitcase model?). With the addition of a few well-placed classical samples, the music concentrated on the extremes of Moogscapes, falling somewhere along the vibes of old tape-music from "serious" music circles but with a bit of 8-bit retrocool vibe mixed in.
On The Beige Album, Boron expands in many directions at once: vintage synth abuse remains at the nucleus of the project, but there are lots of synth tones from other eras at work in these pieces--I think I'm hearing a lot of Casio/Yamaha tones and percussion pads from the early 80s, if my memories of stretching my little arms to bang on the tiny blue drum pads of those old Yamaha department store machines serve me correctly. As before, samples get employed occasionally on this record, and field recordings seem to pop up, too: nocturnal outdoor/jungle sounds on "Moons Over My Panamax" and wind/fire sounds that occasionally dominate "Sunset Tunnel," etc. Vocals and guitars have prominent roles in several pieces, as well. And guest musicians are featured on roughly half of the album, taking Boron's sole member Dan Nelson in new directions.
There's a bit of every extreme in electronica represented on Beige: if you want subdued textures and environmental sounds, a little ominous but left at a low, exploratory volume, you'll dig the "Moons Over..." track mentioned above. For something louder and more aggressive, try "Borong" a few tracks later, which itself segues into a more docile exposition of similar textures in "The Boroner's Report." The first few tracks on the album feel like close cousins of the "Decrresscenndo" music, while there are some more melodic ideas heading in the direction of projects like Giant Claw in tunes like "Tomato Upload" and "G-Rated Grope" (though this stuff is weirder and less heavily-arranged than the 'Claw).
A few of my favorites here take the basic Boron sound into new dimensions: the almost operatic female vocals of "Glamour Science," coupled with its waspy bass drones, remind me of early Residents mixed with early Zappa vocal writing in the best of ways, but with a more modern, self-aware feeling. "Mountain Dewd" starts with a retro-cheeziod synth drum/bass groove, which gets molested by some seriously reverbed-out psych guitar overdubs: think Acid Mothers Temple robbing a GameStop. And "Boron Squad" is a seriously bizarre surprise in the middle of the album, a full "song" evoking the spirit of Snakefinger crashing at an Occupy camp with beats, guitars, and hilarious f-bombing vocals. Mic Check!
As the album stretches in so many directions, one subtle-but-cool technique for establishing continuity across the seas of Beige is simply to re-use bits of sound in contrasting pairs of songs. For example, "Nonsensebeard" and "Clamburgler" both use a "Yeah Boron" sample; "Moons Over..." and "Sunset Tunnel" use similar nocturnal/outdoor sounds, and "Viking Ballet" re-uses a strange popping passage from "PongSong," which I think is made by smacking a microphone running into an envelope filter. It's a great way to introduce a little cohesion to such a multifarious batch of music. Altogether, this is a strong record that succeeds at almost every deviant style it tries, and I'm going to go back and explore the sophomore Boron release "Aria Statica" to get some more Boron in my speakers.
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