KATE BUSH – 50 Words For Snow (2011)

Review by: Eric Pember
Album assigned by: Jeremiah Methven


This is an album I feel like I can write an actual review for, as opposed to a Christgauian blurb.

Yes, I will be writing more than fifty words for 50 Words for Snow.

Before I go on, I must confess that I prefer Kate Bush when she was at least trying to be pop. She kinda went too far off the deep end after Hounds of Love for my tastes. This kinda continues that.

For the first two tracks, the lack of dynamics honestly kinda bored me. I don’t particularly need busyness, but I thought they were curiously minimalistic for such a dense sound. The dynamics, however, started kicking in with “Misty”. From there, I was able to start getting into this album.

I think this album is meant to have the feel of background music, but set you off guard and make you start feeling for it just when you start to think you can ignore it. She has a lot of imitators who try to do this stuff nowadays, but she is still the best at it by some distance.

The sheer grandeur of the album is quite awe-striking. I wouldn’t want to listen to it everyday, but it perfectly hits the spot when you’re in the mood for it. I definitely agree with Jaime that her continuing to follow her muse like this is quite admirable. I suspect that, when I’m his age, I will start to feel a serious need for this album in my life.

As of now, I personally prefer to listen to her older albums that combine this juxtaposition of elements with accessible poppiness. I can’t fault her for not doing that anymore, though. Her still trying to be a pop star at her age would honestly be fairly embarrassing, to say the least.

This is definitely an album I will need to come back to eventually, and I admire her ability to keep up her unique vision for as long as she has. 
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SLEEP RESEARCH FACILITY – Deep_Frieze (2007)

Review by: Andreas Georgi
Album assigned by: Michael Strait

This album sounds the way it looks. I needed a hot tea after listening to it:) This is dark ambient, and as with all ambient music, it’s somewhat difficult to discuss in specifics. There are no chord progressions, to say nothing of melodies or rhythms, on this album. There are, in fact, very few musical elements, in the traditional sense. Only occasionally does one hear an extended note or chord on a recognizable instrument, which fades in and out of the background. The roughly hour-long album is divided into 5 pieces, all titled after the latitude and longitude coordinates of places in Antarctica. Not having the liner notes I have no explanation, but I’m not sure if it would make much difference to the listening experience. The division into 5 tracks honestly seems arbitrary, because they entire album consists of a continuous wash of sounds which ever so slowly and subtly changes. The mood, as I suggested, is indeed icy and it doesn’t really vary from one track to another. There is no point in trying to give a track by track summary. Nothing “happens” in this music. 

Listening to this album I think it does very effectively elicit the stark beauty and forbidding and threatening vastness of Antarctica. Apparently on the inside of the booklet is the following text: …there is a certain comforting warmth in the encroaching slumber of hypothermia . This is DARK ambient after all 🙂

SRF is the creation of Kevin Doherty. Apparently Mr. Doherty intends his music to be sleep-conducive. It might be an interesting experiment to have this playing on repeat at a low volume while you sleep, but it might lead to some harrowing dreams. I’ve listened to it a few of times – the first time with headphones, and the next couple of times while reading. I don’t think the album stands up to repeated “active” listening but, as with any ambient music, perhaps the best way to approach this music is not to “actively” listen, but to let it wash over you as you go about your day, letting it draw your attention from time to time. This is intentionally “furniture music”, to use a term coined by Erik Satie. 

This is not an album that I am likely to go back to repeatedly, but it is an interesting listening experience, and I do think that it effectively achieves what it was meant to do, so THUMBS UP.

This review is also posted on Amazon:

GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR – F♯ A♯ ∞ (1997)

Review by: Nina A
Album assigned by: Tristan Peterson

To my most alas, I know nothing about Godspeed You! Black Emperor because I have always taken band names such as this one as a good clue that I should probably steer clear. I also know very little about the social and political situation in 90s North America and its capacity to inspire apocalyptic-sounding soundtracks but I do find that this does not significantly detract from the experience of delving into F♯ A♯ ∞ (and after all, the end of time has been an universal concern since at least the time of the Gospels and especially so in the 20th century), so let’s dive right in.

The CD edition of this album is structured into three “movements” that each contain 3-5 sections with mostly appropriately minimalist sound, and it opens with the movement titled “The Dead Flag Blues”. A beautiful string arrangement is shortly complemented by some nihilistic voiceover about lonely suicides, corrupt governments, people on drugs and an admirable graphic depiction of life inside a machine that is breaking down – if you are a fan of that kind of lyrical exploration you might find it beautifully poignant. But even if you aren’t (and I most certainly am not) you can still appreciate the high quality of lyrical detail that might well surpass many other versions on this general theme by the cohesive picture it paints and the amount of actual information it delivers. Also notable here is that musical dynamic is used very competently and to a great effect, thus giving some spatial depth to the sound.

This first section of the movement segues into a claustrophobic and suffocating sounding sequence that is immediately preceded by a train rolling away from a station (maybe it took all remaining hope away) around the 8th minute and comes back with a beautiful mournful tune that evokes to me the image of Pink Floyd doing one of Mark Knopfler’s western-themed compositions, and is resolved with a bright waltzy rendering of the first section theme with some folky violin.

The second movement – titled East Hastings – opens with some traffic noises and a prominent street preacher voice but then transits into something else altogether – the winds of the hopeless black desert of abandoned nothingness that awaits Earth after a nuclear war, most probably. But wait, it is not completely void, there is a solitary voice here. The gentle voice of a mournful guitar in the distance. It gradually gathers confidence to deliver an uninterrupted phrase. Yes, this is our solitary hero whose steady steps through the desert we shall now follow. He feels like the hero of a tragedy who marches forth to meet his destiny with grim resolution because now even the desert wind chorus is backing him much like the chorus of a classical greek drama would. And when the rhythm section joins in we can conclude that he is now the leader of a whole marching ragged group of desert heroes who even add in their own voices at some point (via a lovely string arrangement). This epic pilgrimage through the desert possibly in Biblical times arrives at a similarly epic conclusion around minute 12, and after a short radio transmission sample the desert winds take over once again, stronger this time in the aftermath of the epic culmination. You know, maybe we can even agree that East Hastings refers to some city way in the East and the opening traffic and preaching took place on a busy marketplace instead of the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood in Vancouver after which this movement is titled.

Providence, the third and final movement of this record, opens with a conversation in a bar on a busy street possibly, which possibly discusses what the preacher of the previous movement has said. You know, it is ordinary people losing faith now. In fact, I may well label this movement the personal introspection one because of the wonderful external-internal contrast that the beeping machinery samples of cruel objective reality vs the string arrangements of mournful internal monologue create. The subdued entrance of the strings may remind you of the way films are scored; however, the faint beeping sound still doesn’t vanish altogether and therefore it reminds you that outside of the internal strings monologue there is still the silence of the external world. This sound later develops into a more full one as some percussions and guitar join and the tempo increases, before coming to a stop around minute 11. There are some more sonically interesting solutions for the remainder of the track including some wistful chanting at the side of a waterfall or possibly on a very rainy day in the second half of the track but eventually it peters out into some actual silence before the arrival of the outro that is named after John Lee Hooker and includes some very intense metal bashing.

So bearing in mind that this record gets labelled as post-rock, experimental rock and instrumental rock, is it actually pretentious? Yeah, somewhat probably. But not really. After all, it is a record concerned with apocalypsis and it is concerned with it in a very humane way – taking into account the people living inside a machine, the street preacher in East Hastings, and perhaps even the internal monologue of one of the people conversing at the beginning of the third movement. I get the feeling that it was made mostly because of those people and those are the heroes that make their pilgrimage through the black desert of oblivion.

It also reminds me of something I once heard in Art History class – that 20th century art developed the position that art does not have to be beautiful, and that it decided to concentrate instead on the eternal suffering of the human soul. Now, the concept of the bleak beauty of human frailty is not something nowadays unheard of, and maybe this may prompt you to label the sound of F♯ A♯ ∞ beautiful. I will personally abstain from making such a statement but I am certainly glad that I got to experience the sonic richness of it during my pilgrimage through this album, even if probably no amount of coaxing will convince me to ever do it again.

Probably the only question that remains for me is what the title F♯ A♯ ∞ actually means but since apparently the vinyl edition of the album has a technically infinite running time due to the locked groove of the final track, I am going to assume that F sharp and A sharp are also some kind of clever reference to the music on the album.

LYCIA – Cold (1996)

Review by: Red Heylin
Album assigned by: Hipster Sokushinbutsu


For those who did not know, Lycia is a group/project headed by Mike VanPortfleet, a guitarist from Michigan, with his wife Tara Vanflower, contributing textural whispers and wails as well as appearing on record covers, and bassist David Galas. “Cold” was the group’s fifth release and appeared in 1996.

These, though, are not the main performers on this record. Rather it is dominated by two small boxes, an Alesis SR-16 drum machine and a Lexicon LXP-5 digital effects unit, backed by a variety of synthesisers and, probably, an Akai sampler. Guitar and bass are in there somewhere, lost in the mix, as is a piano, but, once again, these are mainly for textural effect.

In fact, the technology makes “Cold” very much a creature of its time, for it had just become possible, in the comfort of your own bedroom, to give the impression that you had hired a symphony orchestra to play at the far end of the catacombs of Rome. Anything that The Beatles aimed at with tracks like “Tomorrow Never Knows” could now be achieved far more impressively with a thousand pounds’ worth of equipment. Lycia are very much a home studio project – gigs were once attempted but VanPortfleet has said “Lycia never truly made the live transition… In retrospect I never should have done it.” He keeps his day job, churns out his CDs and fair enough.

Anyhow, the basic sound of this record consists of ponderous drum-kit loops emerging through a cavernous echo also inhabited by massive textural synthesiser pads and simple repeating bass, guitar and piano parts, along with the mentioned half-audible vocals. All of it. That’s all you get. Do not expect to be able to make out anything like a solo, or even a melody, though a couple of the tracks have chord-changes. As for the lyrics, I had to look them up and, for instance, the track “Polaris”, typically, runs for seven minutes and twenty-five seconds with the following sum lyric content;

“I am loving again
I am loving again
Polaris
I am nothing again
I am nothing again
Polaris
Polaris”

So there you are. This is ambient music par excellence – it inhabits your space with a certain mood and that is that. Just like, say, some of the efforts of Terry Riley or Jean-Michel Jarre. Really the only reason there is more than one track is so that it goes on longer. And it does – almost an hour. It is for this reason, my pop-picking friends, that I shall not trouble you with a track-by-track breakdown.

Do I sound dismissive? That’s just my temperament. There’s a place for such records. Despite the titles and the bleak, gothic reputation, it’s not really eerie, edgy, bleak or scary. I mean, you can call it “dark” – there’s very little treble on anything, just a huge wash of nondescript synth tones (also from the far end of the catacombs) – but it’s quite peaceful. Heroin users could love it, because not only does nothing happen, it happens very slowly. A smart-arse might argue that one could just as easily extract a nice, slow, pompous riff from Pink Floyd or someone, make a loop out of it and play it at half-speed while your friends mumble in the bathroom – but “smart-arsed” is neither you nor I, dear reader, as I am sure you partly agree.

No, this record has the slightly chilly immensity of Spirit’s “Clear” or maybe “The Marble Index” (again if you played them at half-speed, or it could get too busy). It’s pleasant. It could suit those who want a musical wallpaper that lacks the conceptualism and minimalism of Eno or who find “New Age” records shallow or hackneyed or the various electro-poppers of Germany overwhelming in their tendency to change mood or tempo after a quarter-hour or to insist upon merry melodies. No such problem here. It just goes on… and on… and on. And I can imagine, given a proper CD and good headphones, all those distant massive echoey synthesisers could be truly immersive, and those repeating piano figures hypnotic. It’s really quite nice. I might buy it if I didn’t own those sorts of machines myself. But one thing I can say – I can’t imagine buying more than one. Why did they do a dozen? 

(Thus endeth this review)