Archive for the 'Ethereal' Category


A Soundtrack for Sunsets: Tycho–Dive (Ghostly International, 2011)

It’s no surprise Scott Hansen is a native Californian. He’s known by two aliases: Tycho for music and ISO50 for graphic design. The faded warm colors and sixties inspired aesthetics of his visual works undoubtedly correspond to the sun inspired arrangements of his music. Hansen owns a large collection of vintage analog synthesizers including a Minimoog and Korg Mono/Poly, which explains his music’s frequent use of rich timbres and ethereal layers, an integral characteristic established in his debut LP Sunrise Projector (later released as Past is Prologue) and a continued theme in Dive

With shimmery tones floating over celestial pads and down-tempo beats of opening track “A Walk,” my memory immediately revisits a time spent in Santa Monica where I watched the sun slowly sink below the Pacific Ocean’s horizon. Later in the song, an acoustic guitar breaks up the relaxed vibe and switches the tempo, adding claps, more drum fills and swells, almost like going from a calm, pleasant walk to a fast, exhilarating run.

In “Daydream” the title speaks for itself. A simple guitar melody fades in and subtly dwells throughout the majority of the song, underlying the dreamy flowing instrumentation of ambient synth inflections, definitely making it a relaxing, mesmerizing tune. Following the sonic surreality is title track “Dive,” the eight minute atmospheric voyage which in my opinion is the climactic point of the album. Brief, incomprehensible female coos introduce the eighties pop beat and heavily reverberated poly-synths. It sounds like it could be a theme song for an aquatic journey.

Dive is a buoyant, sunny adventure filled with ambient lullabies like “Epigram” and soothing harmonies heard in “Coastal Brake”, a musical interpretation of the experience and need to “brake” when witnessing the beauty while driving on the Pacific Coast Highway. Tycho’s repeated combination of similar synth textures and basic guitar riffs with mellow rhythms is what defines his familiar yet distinct brand of sound.

For me, listening to Tycho is analogous to spending a day at the beach—the tranquil ambience of closing your eyes while basking in sunlight or watching reflections in the waves continuously crashing. It evokes a very meditative and spiritual feeling and is great complementary music for a positive, pensive and peaceful state of mind.


Apparat – The Devil’s Walk (Mute Records, 2011)

Sascha Ring, working under the moniker, Apparat, has transcended to a new level of composing as indicated by his latest endeavor, titled after a poem by 19th century romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The German musician’s 2007 LP Walls showcased a dreamier blend of ambient and electronic pop, suitable for an array of moods. Whereas The Devil’s Walk uses minimal percussive elements and focuses on beautifully crafted pieces; most soaked in melancholy and poetic lyricism while others include smatterings of uplifting string arrangements and tonal progressions.

The album starts with “Sweet Unrest”, which creates an aura of curiosity and wonder experienced when beginning a new chapter in your life. Definitely an appropriate opening track laden with vocal ooh’s, atmospheric textures and a string motif.

Two singles released prior to the album’s release were “Black Water” and “Ash/Black Veil.” (color coincidence or dark thematic implication?) While the former stands as one of the more powerful, cinematic moments on The Devil’s Walk, both tracks are equally poignant and mesmerizing. Once the instrumentation thickens in “Black Water”, a crescendo builds and a climactic point of the song is reached when these lyrics are sung, “Fact isn’t what you see. Not anymore than it used to be.” “Ash/Black Veil” brings string layers and vocals to the forefront, adding a nice touch of progressing percussion that enhances this compositional journey. These two tranquil songs are great tunes to listen to when in transit, especially as day turns into night or when darkness turns to light.

Goodbye” is a song you imagine accompanying a funeral or death scene in a movie. It starts off with ambient noise, when a ritual sounding drum enters, setting the tempo. Then guitar harmonics, prominent piano chords and haunting lyrics sung by Anja Plaschg contribute to the somber tone of this farewell inspired piece.

Another soundtrack style composition is “The Soft Voices Die.” The strength of this song unfolds at the two minute mark, when violins and subtle percussion aid to the bell and xylophone introduction, a nice tempo transition from slow to fast.

There are some truly grandeur sections throughout this album, but it’s lacking the rhythmic elements that Apparat mastered in his previous solo record. Though he began his career making techno oriented beats, even collaborating with electronic heavyweights Modeselektor in 2009 (Moderat), the shift is expected when Apparat mentioned he aimed to “design sounds rather than beats.” Sure, my expectations were high after hearing the first two gorgeous singles but I felt the entire album fell a tiny bit short of its epic potential. Overall, it’s a pensive, ambient soundtrack suitable for rainy and gloomy days.



william basinski: the disintegration loops

Entropy is the physical process by which things fall apart. Order merges into chaos. Things decay and die. For those of you unlucky enough to have suffered through a full course in thermodynamics (by far my least favorite part of physics) you find out that it has a firm mathematical foundation in the physical workings of the universe as the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I firmly prefer Isaac Asimov’s treatment of it in his famous short story “The Last Question”. I’ve read this story aloud in my physics, math and astronomy courses as a special treat when the semester is coming to an end, with reactions ranging from awe to utter confusion.

It’s such a simple concept though, that it’s almost second nature to us, from the expected state of affairs in one’s house if you have small children, to the fact that food rots if you leave it out and “let nature take its course”. Perhaps as discussed in Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, we must in some sense be born knowing of our own mortality.

Whatever the philosophy of it may be, it is inevitable that things break, run down, become more randomized. William Basinski has managed to capture this concept of entropy in a unique and utterly effective way. A well-known figure in the field of ambient electronic music, Basinski’s compositions are definitely down-tempo, oozing sublimely usually without a hint of percussion over sedate but stark landscapes.

As the story goes, Basinski was in the process of digitizing some 20-year old tape loops when he noticed that the brittle magnetic coating was starting to flake off. These 5-10 second loops were disintegrating, and with them the music encoded on them started to die. Little by little, bit by bit, the sound would change subtly in an unpredictable and uncontrollable way. A way that could only come from the realm of analog sound reproduction. Basinski decided to capture this process of nature taking its course on the four album set The Disintegration Loops.

Now, a five hour selection of repetitive tape loops breaking down might not seem like something that would hold anybody’s interest for very long. However there is something compelling about it all. The loops themselves have a distantly resonant and solemn quality to them, as if coming from a string orchestra echoed to infinity. Haunting and somber tones ache with a sad beauty, and to hear them fail bit by bit is more than a little heartbreaking. Even if it is easy to restore the loop to its original glory by going back to the beginning of the track, the sense of loss is palpable and one feels powerless to stop the inevitable process, the sinister decay.

Each track falls apart in a different way. Some take much longer than others, stretching their death knells across the better part of an hour. For those with shorter attention spans who want to hear noteworthy changes after only a few iterations, the track “d|p 4″ from Volume III is your best bet. It decays in rapid fashion after about the half way mark 10 minutes in. The last few loops are merely fragments and pops and clicks.

To call it a gimmick seems grossly unfair. This is the universe, nature, doing what it does best: follow the rules built into the very fabric of itself. Is it the music dying, art destroying itself? Perhaps. But Basinski has merely shown us an accelerated version of the fated outcome of everything from magnetic tapes to buildings to people. The unique, almost loving treatment of it, of entropy, is what makes The Disintegration Loops mesmerizing, unforgettable, irresistible.


Splashdown – Stars and Garters (2006)

Splashdown-StarsMusical neighbors, to a certain extent, of Boo Trundle and Laika, but encompassing a more user-friendly presentation, Splashdown has grabbed hold of something here, and you can too. It’s part groovy dance-trance that goes for the jugular, complete with synthesized sitars

(“Thunder,” which could have been penned by the likes of Laika), part understated Hooverphonics (“Presumed Lost”), part snarling evil-woman, Throwing Muse-ish burn (“Beguiled”) and even part historical, I’m-too-clever-for-my-own-good Jane Siberry (“So Ha,” a quirky gem). Owner of that voice, Melissa Kaplan, with little or no effects on her vocals easily flips back and forth between sounding lovely and menacing, as cute and disturbing as a pretty little girl burning ants with a magnifying glass.

When Splashdown aren’t rocking out, or being whimsical, the loose funkys are the norm, and they’ll make you move as well as anyone. But it’s with the more unusual, complex tunes that they do the most for me. The flowing, mysterious timbre of “Deserter,” as well as the equally unusual “So Ha” are eagerly relished, the former showcasing just how remarkable a vocalist Ms. Kaplan is.

 Somewhat drum-n-bass in the guise of Lida Husik, “Running With Scissors” closes an unusual and very often compelling album. By the time it finishes, you may very well do a double-take, or you might just be so enchanted that minutes pass before you realize the music’s stopped.

Splashdown’s Stars and Garters receives a score of 3.5 out of 5 stars


Lycia – The Burning Circle And Then Dust (2006)

Lycia-BurningCircleWhat, another Lycia album? Didn’t I say they were kinda formulaic? It’s true they’re usually working with a restricted palette, however this is the Lycia album you should get if you want to check them out. Then if you like what you hear, get Estrella. Both recordings are essential. Everything clicked on this album.

Lycia found out they could make beautiful music. It’s still gorgeously dark and haunting, and Mike VanPortfleet still half-whispers his vocals as if from the grave, but wow, there is actually some melody here! The general impression from all the heavily treated guitar and synth is of the glory days of shoegaze, and the band Slowdive in particular. The sound is so full, electric and alive that you want to keep reaching for the volume knob because more = better, without limit. You simply cannot turn up the volume too loud on this album, and it has the distinction of being the loudest thing I have ever played on my stereo. It’s a good thing the neighbors were away!

More deep, deep burbling bass and drum machine, more densely layered washes of guitar and keyboards yearning for the stars. As opposed to other Lycia offerings, the warmth here is a definite and welcoming presence, Even in the macabre “In the Fire and Flames” there is familiar humanity. They come very close to creating a pop song with “Pray” which is further notable as the first time the beatbox has been turned up past 20 bpm (not much of an exaggeration). The other standout track, “Where Has All The Time Gone” presents a magnificent and melancholy paean of dark romanticism. The heights reached by the humming symphony of lush sustained reverberations are mesmerizing. Gorgeous!

The Burning Circle And Then Dust was originally released as a double album, but was then scaled back to include just the first disc, definitely the better half. You have probably not heard much like Lycia, so let their sonic masterpiece be your introduction.

The Burning Circle And Then Dust receives 5 out of 5 stars.

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