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12 search results for ""adventurous music""

ARANANAR: Mysteries galore

ARANANAR‘s kosti is a mysterious record. The details are not complex: ARANANAR is a collaboration between Aran Epochal (Gnu) and Anar Badalov (Metal Hearts, Travels, New Dog). They explain that the “album is a collection of odes and laments to the borderlands of the Czech Republic, shrouded in Czech mythology and symbolism.”

Truly, this 11-song, 26-minute collection is a work of art. Those odes are not traditional acoustic ones: the pieces are dusky, spartan, icy, mysterious electro pieces that work together as a unified whole. The approach to each of these songs is similar (but for one): Aran Epochal delivers the vocals in something between a whisper and a talking voice over wiry, icy synths that are bathed in reverb, delay, and other effects. The results are like looking at ’80s electro through a fractured lens. Opener “Leden (January)” is a perfect example of the style.

The most upbeat versions of this concept are the rattling beats of “Doly (Mines)” and the almost cheery arpeggiated squiggles of “Sekaná, dvě piva (Meatloaf, two beers),” while “Dnem (Through the Day)” is morose, glacially-moving post-everything reminiscent of CUTS’ grim forebodings. The majority of the tracks fall between these poles: beats, synths, bass, and vocals with lots of space, lots of atmosphere, and lots of mystery. This is a rare, unusual, intriguing release that fans of adventurous music would do well to check out.

December 2021 Singles 1

1. “Triptrap” – Big Space. This guitar/electric bass/drums trio fuses funk, post-rock, and jazz in a vibrant, exploratory piece. It’s the best type of improv, where the lead guitarist just seems to be playing whatever comes into his mind, and the back-line knows where it will likely go anyway. An excellent performance. Highly recommended.

2. “Afterlife” – Frances Luke Accord. There’s nothing that FLA does that I don’t love. This delicate, sun-dappled folk-pop piece on a nylon-string guitar is the epitome of warm sounds. The vocals only contribute to the feel. And there’s whistling! Highly recommended.

3. “Rock, Flag, & Eagle” – Consider the Source. A wild fusion of disparate ideas into a unique and distinctive whole: there’s flamenco, prog, folk, indie rock, and other bits throughout. Highly adventurous music.

4. “Kizanka (feat. Kazuki Arai)” – Takahiro Izumikawa. Izumikawa’s lo-fi hip-hop takes a very spacey, proggy turn. Unexpected and interesting!

5. “The Road” – David M. Stowell. Spacey prog with an undercurrent of hope that draws me in. So much prog reads as unemotional noodling to me, but this has heart.

6. “Parenthesis” – cecilia::eyes. Shoegaze is usually too abrasive for me, but this cloudy haze of guitar and vocals feels more like dream-pop than shoegaze proper. Wherever you want to put it, it’s a lush, laidback cushion of sound.

7. “Island Hopping” – Monster Rally. Tropical-inflected lo-fi hip-hop that will appeal to fans of Space Age Bachelor Pad and Clams Casino.

8. “Chapel” – Andy Aquarius. The image is evocative: garbed in chainmail headgear (a la Beowulf) and equipped with harp, Aquarius seems like a time traveler from the Middle Ages. The elegant, floating piece here combines fluttering harp patterns with female melismatics and Aquarius’ relaxed voice. It’s a compelling piece.

9. “Live @ Ääniä Festival Äänekoski Finland 2021 44​:​22 – Instrumental Trip​-​Hop Journey” – Juhani Saksikäsi. A headbob-inducing longform set of grimy, punchy trip-hop. Certain moments verge of industrial (metal clanks, water drips, and motorik beats abound), but the overall vibe is one of adventure instead of grim industry.

10. “Tina’s Song (Don’t Believe)” – Matthew Solberg. A fleet indie-folk tune about regrets, spoken from a person who’s clearly still working through things in their life. The lyrics are interesting and poignant.

Quick Hits: Oppenheimer’s Elevators / Havana Swim Club / Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp

Cosmogony 3000 – Oppenheimer’s Elevators. Cosmogony 3000 combines the repetition of mid-century modernism, the gently reverbed approach of dream-pop, and the guitar-centric ideas of post-rock into a deeply creative, wonderfully idiosyncratic collection. The band usually builds out one main melodic idea and repeat it with variations, counterpoints, tonal shifts, and layers; this results in tunes that are fully-realized and mature in their outlook while still being exciting. “The Verb” and “Le ciel et la terre” are evocative, engaging pieces without ever going for the big move like much post-rock does. The band is confident in its work, and therefore can easily make understated pieces shine. Highly recommended.

Havana Swim Club – Havana Swim Club. This is a whole album of old-school tropicalia samples layered with beats, bass, and synths. It comes off with hazy, triumphant glory as a pitch-perfect chillwave album from when Teen Daze was new. “Peaches,” “For Blake” and “Wonder” are absolutely brilliant slices of relaxation pop. (The strings of “Wonder” set it apart as a true highlight.) “Yeah,” “1 2 3 4,” and “Jubilee” are funky neo-disco cuts (why not?). “Nature” blurs the line between homage and parody of space-age bachelor pad sounds. “Energy” blends all three of those ideas together for a truly unique experience. This is a fascinating, relaxing, immersive album.

We’re OK. But We’re Lost Anyway. Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp. You’d be forgiven if you thought that the serious orchestral composition of opener “Be Patient” and the frantic, guitar-driven, shout-along post-punk of “So Many Things (To Feel Guilty About)” came from different outfits, but nope: the Orchestre is the sort of unit that just does whatever it wants. If you’re up for adventurous music that explodes all categories with pretty much every track, apply within. Highly recommended.

September 2020 Singles: 2

1 “First to the Feast” – Stagbriar. “First to the Feast” is the rare indie-rock song that makes an immediate deep impression on me. It’s a tumultuous, torrential, raw indie-rock jam about sobriety, mental health, committed relationships, and more. It’s like raw indie rock of Quiet Company but more so. Yet through it all, there remains a sense of refined polish that keeps it from collapsing in on itself. An impressive opener to their record Suppose You Grow. Highly Recommended.

2. “Erasmus” – Ellen Andrea Wang. I’m always going to feel an affinity with bassists, no matter what the genre. Wang is the composer and bassist here, creating impressive jazz/post-rock structures with a double-bass, drums, and electric guitar combo. It’s exactly the sort of exploratory, melodic, interlocking work that makes me so interested in both jazz and post-rock. There’s a ton going on here (you try to sort out all the different things happening at the five minute mark), and it all comes together into fascinating, exciting work.

3. “And Then There Was Fire” – The Suitcase Junket. Those familiar with Matt Lorenz’s live performances as The Suitcase Junket are familiar with the mind-bending complexities shaping each song. “And Then There Was Fire” off the November release The End is Now marks Lorenz’s entrance into the 2020 soundtrack. Producer and keyboardist Steve Berlin joined Lorenz (drums, vocals) on this richly textured piece. Masterful in producing sonic waves of tension, I’m happy holding my breath until the end is really now.

4. “Not in Our City (Tracy Shedd remix)” – honeybrandy. A big, thudding electronic backline, overlaid with Tracy Shedd dreamily cooing and a powerful speech from Dr. Keith R. Anderson about addressing police brutality. The line “Not in our city” becomes the hook, as the song grooves along. It’s a song of protest and joy, and as Hanif Abdurraqib notes, these can and often do go together.

5. “Western Ave” – Josh Johnson. Starts off as a Khruangbin jam, then floats into a sax-led jazz piece, then spins off into ever-more-unclassifiable ideas. Trying to define this seems kind of like cheapening it; the expansive, omnivorous approach is so wide as to push at the edges of any description. Very cool stuff.

6. “Wholeness and the Implicate Order” – The Last Dinosaur. A big, bombastic, ominous orchestral piece; it feels like a march and the overture to a very serious film. The woodwinds bring a lot of mystery to the piece, which is always fun.

7. “pingpxng” – YĪN YĪN. If you like thai beat tunes a la Khruangbin (as I very much do), then you may connect very quickly with this thoughtful-yet-dramatic instrumental jam (as I did). Lots of great thai vibes and solid performances all around. This one has a lot of Spaghetti Western in its blood, too.

8. “Axis” – Ross Harper. Harper has a background in ’90s techno, which explains why the flowing, watery ambient lead line has the least-ambient-possible backline of clicks, snaps, rattles, and bass hits. This makes it a rather exciting club-influenced ambient track or an incredibly dreamy techno cut, depending on your viewpoint. I like either viewpoint on it! Quite a bit, actually!

9. “Auras (single edit)” -Brendon Randall-Myers/Dither. Engaging, interesting multi-guitar work that consists of delicate, intricate, carefully planned patterns of staccato tones against a spartan sonic backdrop. This eerie, shadowy work draws heavily on the work of minimalists like Steve Reich and Terry Riley; fans of those composers will find much to love in this piece.

10. “Coac” – Qoniak. A synth/drums duo that is half dance-rock and half jammy synth melodies. The duo is tightly in-sync, with the drums and synths really meshing well. It’s a fun piece!

11. “We Came Through the Storm” – Jonathan Scales Fourchestra. This, my friends, is steel-drum-led fury jazz. This is a madcap mashup of things that don’t usually go together, and it works amazingly. I love steel drum and I have been getting into jazz, and the Fourchestra is (apparently) a thing I have been looking for without knowing it. This is adventurous music of the highest order–definitely check it out if you’re interested in unusual sonic experiments or Snarky Puppy-esque maximal jazz.

12. “Night Owl” – Dizzy Spells. Woozy, lightly-psychedelic alt-pop with a whole lot of whiplash moments; questions like “wait, is that an R&B harmony? is that a gospel choir? is that a toy piano?” abound. Makes me think back to when I first heard The Format; Dizzy Spells is a shooting star out of a field of people all trying to do the same thing, but somehow, not quite as well as Dizzy Spells. Lotsa fun here.

13. “The Earth is Flat” – Alexander Wren. This here is the rare “we are about to get divorced” song, usually the province of storytellers like John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats. The mature, easygoing folk backdrop is reminiscent of Gregory Alan Isakov’s careful work, and with lovely saxophones included for color. The lyrics are well-drawn but sad, as the topic of the song would suggest: “Honey, you love me / and yeah, the earth is flat.” Ouch. It’s a beautiful arrangement regardless.

14. “Tuesday Get” – Dovie Beams Love Child. A push-pull instrumental dream-pop track that features a martial, percussive stomp under a cascading piano melody. The pairing creates a warm, interesting tension between punchy electronica and loose melancholia.

15. “Sizwile” – SPAZA. I’m told that SPAZA is a South African Avant Garde/Jazz improvisational group, which is good, because I do not know what labels I would even begin to try to give to SPAZA. This is a 8.5-minute journey that travels through mystery, exuberance, lament, and more emotional states. The song is built from piano, vocals, and hand percussion, with brass loping in late to give some heft to the proceedings. It’s an amazing, impressive piece. It’s part of a soundtrack for a documentary film about the 1976 Soweto uprising, and whoa, that film is going to have a lot of weight if it inspired this music.

Relatives Schoensen

In the past couple years, I’ve recommended particularly genre-blending or atypical work with the phrase “for fans of adventurous music“. Little did I know that in April 2019, the phrase adventurous music came to life as Adventurous Music, a German music label for experimental sounds. The outfit has corrected my lack of knowledge and presented me with a truly adventurous collection called Relatives Schoensein

The album is a 40-song (!) compilation and accompanying 92-page (!!) book that surveys all manner of experimental electronic music. Work spans the gamut of electronic stuff. The far end is very nearly white-noise: the long, harsh, atonal “Erode” by Fail; the far shorter, more tonal opener “Leipziger Elsterbecken (Gungan).” The inverse is lush ambient: the Lucho Ripley-esque “Il Tuo Glow Infinito” by Carlo Giustini, “Still Flowing” by Gallery Six. There’s also drone (the title track by Hendecagon, “Yellow” by Nyppy), left-field dance/electro (the busy “Sunworn” by Coppice Halifax, the punchy techno cut “Entity” by Johann Eiriksson), and truly unclassifiable work (“Transitions” by Jo Montgomery, “EKEA” by TBEX). There’s something for everyone here.

I am personally drawn to the melodic ambient and left-field dance, but there was less of that than the experimental, noisier, drone-ier tracks. “UUH (Reprise)” by Signalstoerung is a lovely ambient flutter, while “Southern Hemisphere” by The Empath (feat. Cosmic Noise Crew) is an intriguingly spacey jam leaning on arpeggiators. “Behind the Wall” by Vrum turns an ambient intro into a glitchy, eerie techno stomp, which is one of my favorite turns in the record. Closer “Breakstreet” by 16Pad Noise Terrorist morphs breakbeats and ominous bass with the inclusion of hazy textures to create a strange, inviting brew: it’s as if an orchestra and a rave are happening in rooms next to you, and you’re overhearing both at once. Also there’s some sweet turntable action, which sounds great.

If you’re into harsh electronic, experimental stuff, there is a ton of it on this compilation that will thrill you. If you’re more into melodic work, there are some gems, but not quite as many. Regardless, this is a truly adventurous compilation, and it makes me interested to see what else comes out of Adventurous Music. In addition to the full work, you can download 36 of the 42 pieces here as a benefit release, with proceeds going to Firesticks, Amnesty International, Target-Nehberg, Artist Relief and Campaign Zero.

Under the Reefs Orchestra / The People of 2020 / TENGGER

Under the Reefs Orchestra is a jazz ensemble that sounds like a post-rock band trying to be an electronic outfit. The bass saxophone, guitar, and drums trio create crunchy, groove-laden, thunderous, and seemingly seamless work that could appeal to fans of any of the types of music I mentioned above. “Sumo” is a good place to start: the distorted (!) baritone sax barrels out its riff while the drums give a slo-mo headbanging stomp, and the guitar whirls and clangs above it in a supremely post-rock experience.

“Eldorado” is more heavily electronic, as the drums are processed into an electronic beat and noodly synths wander around the delicate, mysterious guitar line. Closer “Le Naufrage” is a distorted, rumbling, post-apocalyptic landscape driven by the baritone sax that is almost as terrifying as Colin Stetson’s fear-suffused work. “Tucuman” is as close to jazz as this record gets, with the sax playing some jazz-inspired patterns to guide the rest of the band in their still partially-apocalyptic explorations. This whole record sounds like it was recorded late at night in a dimly-lit room, with the trio scoring a particularly edgy noir film. Under the Reefs Orchestra’s self-titled record is a wild ride for those interested in adventurous music. Highly recommended.

A lot of people put out quarantine songs (Grimes put out a whole record!), but The People of 2020 have the most unique quarantine record, in my estimation. The self-titled five-song collection was composed by 40 people over a 14-day span, with each person having 24 hours to contribute their parts to the songs as they grew. The three main works (two are opening/closing interludes) span a wide gamut, but it’s generally jazz. It’s big jazz, as you might expect from 40 people working on a record. There are all sorts of influences that come from those large amount of players: on the seven-minute “Flattening,” there’s steel pan, synths, classic-rock-inflected electric guitar, flute, horn line, trombone, solo sax, hand percussion, kit percussion (and boy, the drummer gets after it), and more. The lengths of the tunes help corral some of this largesse into shape, but in general this is a big ‘ol asynchronous jam session, and I am fully here for it. It’s dreamy, it’s woozy, it’s a little wacky, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

“The Climb” is a little less kitchen-sink vibe, as it opens with a slinky sax, a smooth clarinet, and smoky piano to set the vibe. The drums once again ratchet the track’s energy into the stratosphere (your mileage may vary on if this is a good thing or not, I tend to think it could have come down a bit), but the vocals and instruments do a good job of keeping that smoky, slinky vibe going throughout, even with a raucous number of players. The coda is just as noisy as “Flattening,” but it feels a little more in service of the track itself.

“Slide Out” opens up in a much more hip-hop-infused jazz mode, with electric keys, wah guitar, and spoken word vocals leading the funky, snappy charge. Of the three tracks, this one is the most focused and tight, with powerful female sung vocals, somewhat restrained drums, challenging bass work, and saxophone swirling around each other to create an impressive whirligig. If you’d told me that this was a live-gig-weathered outfit that made this track, I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s more surprising that the jam is this tight for a group that has never and probably will never play together in one room. It’s the highlight, for sure.

There’s a lot more info about the record at the record label Infinity Gritty’s site. If you’re up for some kitchen-sink maximalist jazz-funk-hip-hop vibes, hit this one up.

TENGGER‘s Nomad is a collection of mostly-instrumental synth-heavy landscapes. The married duo’s last album Spiritual 2 drew heavily on motorik / krautrock sorts of repetition, but Nomad works more with drone, delicate ostinato patterns, and nature-inspired work to invoke its sense of centering calm. Opener “Achime” has subtle percussion clicks to keep the flow moving, and the steady pulse of the arpeggiator on “Eurasia” functions as percussion before a semblance of a kit comes in. Those are limited palettes, compared to prior work, but the rest of the tracks (“Bliss,” “Water,” “Flow,” “Us”) eschew even that. Instead, these are flowing pieces that rely as much on nature recordings (“Bliss”) and subtle evocations of nature (a pattern here, a tone there) to do their work.

And their work is deeply relaxing–it’s more motion-oriented than most ambient tunes, but that only serves to further calm me. Instead of trying to become fully, maximally chill, these tunes seem to gently bring me down to a level of peace-within-gentle-motion that my amped-up self can be comfortable with. “Bliss” is pretty much what it says on the tin, a space where no negative thoughts seem allowed. “Water” sounds like a steady, peaceful stream through masterful synth tone manipulation. “Flow” is ten minutes that opens with a pitched-down, sped-up version of “Water” and layers spacey pad synths on top of it, putting me in a good headspace. Female vocals waft throughout this and other pieces, adding a wordless layer of enthusiasm on the lovely space. It is a bit of a contradiction that it can be enthusiastic and ambient at the same time, but that’s why I like it. Nomad is a lovely, elegant, peaceful work, and I commend it to anyone looking for those qualities.

Singles February: 1

1. “No Más” – Irreversible Entanglements. I’ve been getting into jazz and world music simultaneously this year, and this track hits my interest in both: I love the interplay of instruments that jazz provides, and I love to find groove and rhythm in unexpected places. This 8-minute jam has all sorts of interplay between the horns and deep grooves (check that long bass/drums section). It’s very exciting music.

2. “Sweater” – Black Midi. Black Midi caught my ear the first time I heard them: I knew that there was some serious weirdness available for Black Midi to tap into, even if the song in front of me didn’t capitalize. Lo. This is that serious weirdness. This steals ideas from ambient, slowcore, krautrock, Sigur Ros, Pink Floyd, Lord Buffalo, and more in an 11.5-minute epic that defies concise description. If you like adventurous music, this is the stuff you’re looking for.

3. “Sawbones” – Anna Meredith. Synths, cello, tuba, drums, and guitar compose this unusual combo. This is very much synth-driven work, but it’s got a composerly approach to it; part of the work is built around a music theory trick/sonic illusion called the Shepherd’s Tone that sounds like it is infinitely ascending. This is a wild thing to build a whole piece of music around, but it works anyway. I haven’t heard much that sounds like Meredith’s work, and that’s always exciting.

4. “Scene Suspended” – Jon Hopkins. Hopkins is a master of peaceful yet revelatory music, and this latest composition is no different. It’s piano-heavy, but by no means a solo piano piece; little sounds and melodies float in and out, creating a warm environment for the calming piano to live in.

5. “Perspective” – Trevor Ransom. A delicate, airy start to this ambient piece slowly gives way to layers of piano, percussion, and guitar for a heavy dose of gravitas. Then it drops to almost nothing and builds again. A lovely piece.

6. “Gizmo” – Camel Power Club. Throw some funky bass, some disco rhythms and a flute solo together and you’ve got quite the fun indie-pop piece.

7. “Footsteps” – Jim Perkins. “Footsteps is a meditation on stillness, peace and calm,” notes Perkins, and he’s right: the piano-and-violin track is peaceful, careful, and calming. Perkins stole all my thunder on this one. Sorry everyone.

8. “All Things New” – Page CXVI. Latifah Alattas’ new work is a swirling, synth-laden ode to the God who makes all things new. It’s a midpoint between the angular, dark, textured work of her solo project Moda Spira and the patiently jubilant work of early Page CXVI. It’s a compelling new direction.

9. “Hallelujah Sing” – Porter’s Gate feat. Latifah Alattas and Audrey Assad. This stripped-down worship tune relies heavily on Rhodes keys and Alattas’ passionate alto voice. Even in celebration, she brings forward the sense of mourning that lives in the background of all jubilation–even if only as a counterpoint, the thing that is not. Put another way: this is work with a depth of emotional performance that is rare.

10. “Time I Got Goin’” – House Above the Sun. A major-key folk-rock song that’s heavy on old-school folk vibes (bright guitar, lush harmonies, way-up-front vocal mixing). It’s like a ray of sunshine breaking out of a bank of clouds; like the previous track, just enough minor key to show the major in a great light. The short trumpet solo is particularly throwback in tone and particularly enjoyable.

11. “Sudden Steps” – Night Gestalt and Nicholas Paschburg. Fuses slow-moving ambient crescendo roar with semi-erratic bouncy synth dots to create a productive tension in a very urban, very nighttime setting.

12. “Now Neither One of Us Is Breaking” – Nick Storring. Some ambient music is averse to structure and just floats along as a mood; Storring’s composition work here manages to be so chill as to almost be ambient, but with the benefits of structure and an overall goal to the piece. To put it another way, this is something akin to a early 1900s romantic orchestral piece with trip-hop backing and bits of East Asian flair thrown in. It’s got vibes for days (light ones and dark ones), but it’s not hurried or fussy. It’s in a realm of its own.

Premiere: JPH’s hell verses

I have a deep respect for people who blaze their own paths. It’s one thing to excel at a skill that falls in a long line of artists, to carry that torch valiantly off into the future. It’s admirable, and you can often find a lot of people who liked the Beatles who will like your Beatles-inspired psych.

On the other hand, there’s outsider music, music by trailblazers for whomever comes across it and connects with it. Outsider music can range from inoffensively strange (like Half-handed Cloud) to totally inscrutable (Jandek); sometimes it’s the lyrics that are arcane, sometimes it’s the arrangement that’s inexplicable. Sometimes it’s both.

JPH’s hell verses taps an outsider vein for the lyrical content of the three-song EP: it’s exclusively the words of Jesus Christ (ok, what’s so weird?) about hell (ok, there we are). Picking the words that Jesus said about hell is ambitious (even in a three-song EP). There’s the question of why, for starters. Why would you want to put those words to song? Are you saying something? Making a point? Is the point that Jesus said only three things about hell, here they are, let’s stop making a big deal out of hell when he said so many other words about so many other things? Or maybe it’s literal: here is the word on what hell is like. Maybe it’s a socio-political commentary: now feels like the right time to remind people what hell is like, either to draw comparisons or contrasts to our contemporary moment. Helpfully, JPH gave me a statement on the EP:

“As for a comment on the album, Jesus’ words, especially in King James English, give hell a tarot-like mystery, one that feels close to my experience with the barren parts of life.”

So there’s at least an element of personal allegory/metaphor here, but I feel more. There’s the element of mystery, tarot-like mystery; mysterious is one thing when describing Jesus, but dropping in the tarot right next to Jesus is bold and fascinating. And the King James, of all translations–the King James has such cultural weight, much more than a contemporary translation like the ESV might. Even in the statement about why such an unusual concept exists, the questions abound.

But writing an EP about hell is not just complicated in the choice of lyrics. How should one put a backdrop to the words of Jesus about hell? Josh Ritter major-key folk tunes maybe aren’t right. The doom metallers and death metallers have the fire-and-brimstone market well-cornered. But then there’s JPH’s statement itself: mystery. And lo, mystery it is. These three tracks are ostensibly acoustic folk songs, but there is no stomping or clapping here. These are intimate, delicate, stark, minor-key songs that draw as much from slowcore like Jason Molina as they do Simon and Garfunkel (and there is some S&G in the vocal performances, which is basically the lot of anyone doing two male vocals in the same song, thanks for playing, everyone).

“Matthew 13:49-50” (more famously known as one of the places where we get the English idiom “weeping and gnashing of teeth”) is just as I described above: a single acoustic guitar and two male vocal lines harmonizing. The two vocal lines are almost both lead lines, as both contribute meaningfully to the sound of the song. Neither are “supporting” each other, per se. The music is not discomforting, but neither is it comforting: it is a piece of art that makes a statement. It is oddly beautiful.

“Luke 16:19-31” is much more experimental: it’s a big stack of a cappella lines repeated ostinato-style for almost two and a half minutes. JPH is a fan of mid-century modern composing styles, and this composition shows that off. To do this entirely with vocals is a unique and interesting turn. The “melody” appears around 1:30, and it’s a wailing, anguished thing that sets raw emotion against the hypnotic obstinate pastiche that the vocal lines have created. This sounds more like Napoleon’s hell in C.S. Lewis’ the Great Divorce instead of the pit that is described in the lyrics; Napoleon endlessly considering how he could have won at Waterloo, pacing, pacing, pacing.

“Mark 9:48-49” is a return to interleaved vocal lines over a moderately minor key acoustic performance. The vocal performances here have an almost medieval quality to the tone and melody; the work here is more overtly ominous than the previous two tracks. This is the “salted with fire” idiom that you may be familiar with; so there’s good reason to be a bit more overtly scary.

Most people read reviews to determine if they should listen to something or not. I think that if the overall concept of hell verses left any doubt, then a short summary like “three songs about hell in an acoustic-folk style with engaging vocal performances” probably would have covered that particular concern. But I’m more interested in this work as a piece of art; not as something to listen to on the commute, but something to commune with. How do you sit with this? What does it say to you? I think it could say something to a lot more people than will sit and listen to it. But for those of you who do seek out adventurous musical experiences and don’t fret about ambiguity, complexity, and unusual approaches, there is a lot here to understand and think about.

For me it raises all sorts of questions about how artists can say what they want to say without saying it outright. Whether this is a commentary on a dark period in JPH’s life, a commentary on our American political situation, or the climate-changing world, or somehow all of that, none of that is explicitly noted. But it comes up in my mind as I listen. The concept, music, and lyrics are highly evocative. I’m particularly interested in music that says things I haven’t heard before and puts sounds in front of me that I’m not used to. Both of these boxes are checked with hell verses, and that makes this a very interesting release. Highly recommended.

JPH’s hell verses drops May 27 at Bandcamp. You can download the release there or pick up one of a cassette run that includes a physical-only bonus track! If you’re looking for even more JPH, he’ll be touring in the fall and releasing music videos here and there until then.

Cindertalk: Pushing the boundaries of what pop music can do

Cindertalk‘s All a Shimmer is an ostensibly-indie-pop album that transcends boundaries and genre labels, creating a mind-bending world of tensions: complex/spartan arrangements; huge/tiny lyrical concerns; vulnerable/brash emotive turns; dark/light moods; gentle/forceful instrumentation; subtle/powerful vocals. Jonny Rodgers’ work with tuned glass shows through consistently, but never dominates; instead, all the pieces come together into whirling, enigmatic, satisfyingly unusual pieces.

Rodgers has been working with tuned glass for a long time now, and the glass has transcended use as a side or even feature instrument. It is now an integral part of his work, an instrument that has expanded his sense of what is possible in a song. Rodgers can use the glass as a beautiful pad synth (“Ruminating,” “All A Shimmer”), a feathery mini orchestra (“You Will Suffer”),  a guitar solo (“One of Their Own”), a lead riff [“Swing (Your Low Song)”], a marimba-esque percussion element (“Mutter Mutter Mutter”) and as a foil to Imogen Heap-style autotune (“Twitter Queen”).

It’s not just that the instrument is used in so many different ways; it has so thoroughly suffused Rodgers’ songwriting that the sounds and rhythms of other instruments are intertwined and influenced by the glass. The percussion here is muted throughout, hitting with punch but not snap; whether subtle electronic beats (“The Frozen Field”), distant kit drum (“Twitter Queen,” “Hurrah Hurrah,” “One of Their Own”), or something in-between (“Mutter Mutter Mutter”), the percussion here fits perfectly in against the glass and the rest of the indie-pop arrangements. The guitars, piano, and bass (often through bass keys) have similarly unique personality as a result of their interaction with the glass. The guitar is sometimes precise and patterned like glass-tapping, while the piano often lush yet precise in its stops and starts. This is a musical album like none you’ve ever heard before.

However, it’s not just the instrumental prowess that makes this an irresistible album. The vocal tone and vocal melodies are beautiful and catchy. (Those two adjectives don’t always go together.) From the forceful indie-rock attitude of “Mutter Mutter Mutter” to the yearning beauty of “Love, I Will Remember Your Hands” to the swooping “Swing (Your Low Song),” many of these songs have distinct, precise, memorable melodies that don’t blend into each other. There’s a theme throughout (these aren’t unrelated pieces), but I find myself humming many different melodies from this album, not just one or two. This is partially due to Rodgers’ unusually wide vocal range: his voice can reach to dramatic, perfectly-sustained high notes that make the vocals seem almost as crystalline as the glass. You’ll hear his voice once and remember it.

The lyrics that Rodgers pairs with the music are equally as impressive as the music, which is no small feat. Not a single song here traffics in cliches except “Twitter Queen,” which does so to subvert them in uncomfortable, social-commentary-laden ways. Elsewhere, he writes a love song to his lover’s hands, discusses why death may not be the worst possible thing that can happen to you (solo piano elegy “I’m Only Dying”), thinks through mental and emotional suffering (“Ruminating,” “You Will Suffer,”), ponders the problem of evil (“All A Shimmer”), and more. (I’m still not entirely done pondering what the lyrics of “Hurrah Hurrah” mean when paired with the minor/major tension of the instrumental accompaniment, but it is the type of song that will make you think about it.)

The whole album is a powerhouse, but there’s a suite of three songs in the middle that really took my breath away. “Ruminating” is the closest to an indie-pop song that Cindertalk gets on this record, as the glass, acoustic guitar, percussion, and harmonica come together to form a song that flips back and forth from airy openness to concrete, almost-country-esque sections. The melodies and lyrics are straightforward (at least as compared to the rest of the album), but they’re still unique and lovely. This fun tune leads into my favorite song of the record, “You Will Suffer.” The opening lyrics tell you everything you need to know about the content of the song and the complex rhythmic patterns that flow through it: “You / You will suffer / some things alone / but it / it / will show you / who you are / who you are.” The bass guitar doesn’t have too many important roles on this record (and this one may still be a guitar modulated down a couple octaves), but the bass here does some great work, along with the keys and the glass. It’s a whirling, complex song–a great microcosm of the record.

The final of the three tunes in the suite is one of the most complex-sounding on the record (although “Mutter Mutter Mutter” objectively has more going on), due to the almost-mathy patterning of the guitar and percussion rhythms. Rodgers’ vocals shine here, as he uses vocal percussion, soaring wordless arias, and lead vocals here. The song rolls, starts, stops, starts again, adds in instruments, drops out instruments, and generally never lets you walk in a straight line for four and a half minutes. It’s expertly crafted, and, again, a microcosm of the record.

I could keep going, but this is already one of my longest reviews of the year. All A Shimmer is a beautiful album that enthusiastically and successfully pushes the boundaries of what pop music can do. Rodgers shows off an incredibly unique songwriting voice, a deft arranging hand, and expert engineering skills. It was an easy choice to include in my albums of the year. If you’re into adventurous music, there was no more an adventurous album this year than this one. Highly recommended.

Albums of the year: 7-1

It’s been a good year of music, and these were the best I heard. With the notable exception of #7, all the quotes are pulled from my review of the record.

7. All A Shimmer – Cindertalk. This ostenstibly-indie-pop album transcends boundaries and genre labels, creating a mind-bending world of tensions: complex/spartan arrangements; huge/tiny lyrical concerns; vulnerable/brash emotive turns; dark/light moods; gentle/forceful instrumentation; gentle/powerful vocals. Jonny Rodgers’ work with tuned glass shows through consistently, but never dominates; instead, all the pieces come together into whirling, enigmatic, satisfyingly unusual pieces. If you’re into adventurous music, there was no more an adventurous album this year than this one. (full review forthcoming)

6. Mantra – Sunjacket. “Mantra is the rare “smart” rock album that isn’t hard to get. It’s weird, it’s quirky, it’s got a unique point of view, but it’s not grueling or punishing. You can listen to it through and hear the guitars and synths and take it at face value. (And its face value is great.) But for those who want to spend more time with their albums, Sunjacket has created an album full of nooks and crannies for listeners to explore.” (full review)

5. Skip a Sinking Stone – Mutual Benefit. “A beautiful, remarkable, even majestic album that bends the boundaries between folk, pop, and classical in the most pleasant way I’ve heard all year.” (full review)

4. Ghost of a King – The Gray Havens. Ghost expands “their core sound to include cinematic pop-rock, ambient art tunes, and even electro-pop. Their expansion of borders doesn’t diminish at all their continuing maturity in the folk-pop realm, as the album contains some of the best folk-pop tunes they’ve ever written. In short, Ghost of a King shows growth in every area, and that results in an incredible album.” (full review)

3. Young Mister – Young Mister. “So carefully and meticulously crafted that it doesn’t show any of the seams. An immense amount of effort went into making indie-pop-rock songs that sound effortless and natural. You can sing along with these songs, write the lyrics on your bedroom wall, or just let the experience wash over you.” (full review)

2. Great Falls Memorial Interchange – Kye Alfred Hillig. “Even though these songs deal with difficult emotions, nowhere do these songs become brittle or unrelatable–the clarity of the lyrics, the ease of the melodies and Hillig’s inviting voice make them fit like a new coat. I hadn’t heard any of these songs before, but they felt like old friends as soon as I had.” (full review)

1. Hope and Sorrow – Wilder Adkins. “An impeccable, gorgeous modern folk record that shows off the value of maturity. It’s the sort of record that stretches the limits of my writing ability, making me want to write simply: ‘Just go listen to this record. You won’t regret it.'” (full review)

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