Gorgeous interpretations of traditional Hungarian folk songs, fleshed out in full color with synth and drum machine textures. Effortless vocals predominantly by Sebestyén Márta, a folk singer, composer, and actress who has also worked with Deep Forest (!). There’s something Virginia Astley-esque about the deliberately innocent quality of her voice, though perhaps that’s a typical affect of traditional Hungarian folk singing–I sadly wouldn’t know. The prolific musician and songwriter Szörényi Levente contributes some vocals as well (presumably in addition to much of this instrumentation, though I can’t find full credits anywhere), and his brother Szörényi Szabolcs produced the record.
I’ve listed the song titles in Hungarian followed by their English translations where applicable. There’s a lot to love here, texturally: rolling, churning synth and drum machine on tracks like “Segélj El Uramisten” and “Szerelem, Szerelem” that reminds me of Sakamoto; more abstract chirping sample play on “Este Lett;” but the centerpiece is the floating, sinewy stunner “András,” previewed below. Impressively, Szerelmeslemez (“Love Record”) only gets increasingly generous with additional eartime. Enjoy!
Last year was brutal in almost every aspect, from the social to the international to the personal. Amid such rubble, there was a bit of a silver lining, in that I achieved a noteworthy professional achievement: interviewing Ryuichi Sakamoto for the Gray Lady. We sat one afternoon and sipped tea at a café near his West Village home and discussed his stunning new album, async, and also drifted onto some other topics. He talked about his recent interest in La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 #5 as well as the works of Japanese sound artist Akio Suzuki. “One of his early pieces was a big concrete cube in a gallery and he pushed it so it made a sound of friction on the floor,” Sakamoto enthused. “It’s beauuuutiful music.”
We even briefly touched on one of my favorite solo albums of his, 1985’s Esperanto. Originally commissioned for a dance performance from New York-based choreographer Molissa Fenley, it’s one of Sakamoto’s earliest forays into sample-based music and it’s as bewildering, playful, formidable and forward-looking as anything in his catalog. He told me that the computer he used to make the album was massive, holding his hands out wider than his body to show the size of the actual discs that stored mere seconds of sound. The album also features tasteful percussion work from Yas-Kaz and some guitar slashes courtesy of Arto Lindsay.
There’s news that Light in the Attic will be reissuing an incredible amount of Japanese music over the next few years and while I’m sure that Sakamoto’s work will receive some long overdue reassessment in the west (almost none of his groundbreaking 80’s work is available for streaming, which is just ridiculous), I wonder if an album as far-out as Esperanto will be high on the priority list. That said, recently graphic designer and album illustrator Robert Beatty enthused about Sakamoto’s work and this album in particular, which prompted a reply from Visible Cloaks’ Spencer Doran:
esperanto fun fact: all the tracks are actually 15 minutes long. they recorded it before was finished and didn’t know how long each dance section needed to be edited to so they intentionally overshot the length of each piece. the tapes still exist!
Here’s hoping that full 15-minute immersions into pieces like “A Rain Song” and “A Carved Stone” might re-emerge one day. Until then, enjoy for a limited time this visionary work from the master.
Morgan Fisher, a London-born musician and photographer, has had a long and dense career in which he’s covered a lot of ground–both literally and figuratively. You can read about it in detail here, but some highlights include touring with Queen, building an ambient music studio in Japan (at which Water Music was recorded, among others), and working with Hosono, dip in the pool (he plays piano on “Dormir”), Roedelius, Yoko Ono, Yasuaki Shimizu, and Julee Cruise. He is still very active.
It seems that he’s acquired many names over the course of his life, and I can’t find any information about the origin of Veetdharm, under which this and a few of his other releases are listed on Discogs, but my guess would be that it was given to him either during his time living in India or in Medina Rajneesh, a Suffolk commune of Osho disciples housed in a giant mock-Tudor manor.
Water Music is immediately reminiscent of Yoshimura’s Surround, though it predates it by a year. If anything, it’s slightly denser and more piano-driven, but aside from an obvious thematic interest in water, the two records share a delicacy and a proclivity towards synth pads that seem to evaporate rather than decay. As I understand it, the entirety of this record was improvised and recorded over the course of two days on synthesizer, piano, tape delays, bowed guitar, and shell chimes. The original was released on the legendary Cherry Red label; this extended version is from a CD-reissue released in, I believe, 1997. It’s very, very beautiful. Thank you, Ian, for bringing me here!
A favorite. Not purely an ambient record, as there are a handful of more jittery, percussive tracks in the second half, but a good deal of this is, for me, ideal music to work to. Ringing, jewel-like washes of synth, but with a certain weight that similarly intentioned records seem to be lacking. The navy blue cover feels very apt–there’s something angular and a bit severe about this that I love. Recontextualized elements of traditional Japanese drumming throughout. I think this was made for a modern dance performance, but can’t find any additional information online–if anyone knows, please fill us in. Enjoy.
Difficult to put into words. How to describe Sarah’s Crime? Smooth, evocative, dreamy, and deeply romantic. Perfect solo listening. Much like Soichiro Suzuki of World Standard on later albums like Canon, I’d dub Toshifumi Hinata a master of thoughtful, gentle composition.
While there’s very little information available about his background, it’s known that Hinata spent time in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Surrey, South of England. Lazy English Sundays have certainly been captured on “Premonition.” You can almost hear his cream tea and plate of buttered scones rattling on the piano as he plays, looking out of a window onto the lawn. “Pavement,” with its pastoral field recordings, rain, thunder, and church bells, might also tell of his time in Surrey. Like those two tracks, so the rest of Sarah’s Crime has a cinematic quality that evokes a feeling, a place, even a storyline.
“Boardwalk” is a jazzy little moocher: sandy toes, seagulls in the South of France, and a sweet melodica/accordian duet. More than a hint of Pink Floyd’s “St. Tropez” but with a winking ballroom grandeur. The remarkable opening title track instantly conjures up a yacht slipping towards the horizon as the credits roll. Swells of violin filling the sails, synth pads rolling in and out like ocean waves, with perfectly prim drum machine drama. Like much of the record, it’s unabashedly romantic, but stops just short of saccharine. Tasteful as ever.
“Memories” feels like a take on the Korgis’ “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime.” Plaintive piano chords, reverb-drenched harmonica, and a touch of Angelo Badalementi mystery transport you to a swaying cornfield. The standout track, however, which is alone worth the price of admission, is “Chaconne.” Vaporous whisps of slow curving chords pinned down by a Philip Glass/John Carpenter style repetitive chiming bell loop. Just as you’re drifting away on it (I often have this on my sleep playlists), it spikes up a notch, almost into drama, but the heartrate remains relaxed and sleep is only moments away. I adore this track. Four years of hearing it nearly every night and I never tire of it.
Something worth mentioning about this album, and Hinata’s style generally, is that his use of melody and phrasing over sublime chord patterns is like having someone reading aloud to you. Chord changes set up a scene while melodies conjure up slow but meaningful narratives. If An Artist Of The Floating World is ever made into a movie, the soundtrack is ready to go.
Finally, I’ll leave this review, as Hinata does, on closing track “Pentimento” with a question mark: does a failed romance amount to nothing? Or does the second half, where happy memories appear to come drifting back in passionate swells mean that it was worth it even if it’s over? Sit by the window, listen, and try to figure it out. I’m still trying. It’s alright not knowing sometimes.
A dense and dream-like collaboration between members of Spanish avant-garde trio Orquestra de las Nubes, Spanish guitarist Miguel Herrero (on synths well as electric guitar throughout), and American percussionist, four-time Grammy winner, and John Cage collaborator Glen Velez. Soprano vocalist María Villa (of Orquesta) is featured in the first two tracks in a more textural, compositional way, with short crescendos and light, whispery Sprechgesang before returning on the third track to a more improvisational, avant-garde style. Much of the recordings’ dynamism relies on Velez’s virtuosic performance on the Irish frame drum, the Bodhrán, with its signature scraping and clacking. As in his other recordings, he uses the drum as a resonant instrument, not simply as a tool to move the music along.
Recorded in Madrid for the Spanish label Grabacionnes Accidentales (“Accidental Recordings”), this was released in 1985, the same year as another gem from the same label, Prima Travesia by Finis Africae.
Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) is considered by many to be one of the most important English composers ever to have lived, and is definitively one of the most important composers of early choral music. His crowning achievement, “Spem In Alium,” is a ten minute long 40-part motet that borders on psychedelic: ceaselessly shifting, simultaneously hyper-precise yet almost shapeless. From Wikipedia:
The motet is laid out for eight choirs of five voices. It’s most likely that Tallis intended his singers to stand in a horseshoe shape. Beginning with a single voice from the first choir, other voices join in imitation, each in turn falling silent as the music moves around the eight choirs. All forty voices enter simultaneously for a few bars, and then the pattern of the opening is reversed with the music passing from choir eight to choir one. There is another brief full section, after which the choirs sing in antiphonal pairs, throwing the sound across the space between them. Finally all voices join for the culmination of the work. Though composed in imitative style and occasionally homophonic, its individual vocal lines act quite freely within its elegant harmonic framework, allowing for a large number of individual musical ideas to be sung during its ten- to twelve-minute performance time. The work is a study in contrasts: the individual voices sing and are silent in turns, sometimes alone, sometimes in choirs, sometimes calling and answering, sometimes all together, so that, far from being a monotonous mess, the work is continually presenting new ideas.
I’ve been listening to this album for ten years and it’s still disorientingly beautiful. The other works in this collection are gorgeous in their own right, with “Sancte Deus” and “Miserere Nostri” being personal favorites. Not included are his “Lamentations of Jeremiah,” cited as his other masterwork; I’m also a chump for “If ye love me“…there are plenty of other compilations worth seeking out. Happy December, but also, listen to this all year round.
We try to focus on records that appeal to a wide range of people and are super listenable, on-repeat records. This is an exception. Severed Heads was (for the most part) the brainchild of Tom Ellard, and their early recordings are experiments in tape looping, distorted synth, and proto-techno drum machine backbones. The results are way ahead of their time, a body of work that belongs in the same sentence as Throbbing Gristle, Coil, and the Art of Noise. In addition to being musical pioneers, Severed Heads boasts a collection of bitingly clever song titles (“Hello Donald, Merry Xmas,” “Mambo Fist Miasma,” “Larry I’m Just An Average Girl,” “Now, An Explosive New Movie,” etc.) and a daunting collection of psychotic video work, largely thanks to Stephen Jones, who developed the analog video synthesizers that he used to make music videos and manipulate live footage of Severed Heads performances. (Hard to know where to start with these, but hereareafewfavorites.)
City Slab Horror features plenty of tape looping, but Ellard’s growing taste for pop structures and more cohesive rhythms make the record more song-centric and less noisy, though dissonance and gritty textures still run rampant. Standouts are “Ayoompteyempt” and the luminous classic “We Have Come to Bless the House,” though the record as a whole functions as a tunneling trip through a cynical morbid fascination. Buried in frenzy are moments of sublime joy (“Guests”), though I can confidently say that I’m happy to be a tourist and not a permanent resident in the deranged world of Severed Heads.
Note: This version includes additional tracks from a 1989 reprint on Canadian label Nettwerk, which are advertised as “tracks from Blubberknife,” though in actuality only “Umbrella” is taken from Blubberknife, with the rest pulled from the 1985 Goodbye Tonsils 12″ and the 1985 double LP, Clifford Darling, Please Don’t Live In The Past. I chose to share this version rather than the original release because it includes the monstrous “Acme Instant Dehydrated Boulder Kit.”