San Francisco ambient musician Christopher Willits’s precise instructions for listening to Sunset, his latest collection of five ephemeral pieces for his long term Ghostly label home, asks you to “Begin the music fifteen minutes before the sun sets.” The collection is designed to reflect the changing light and warmth of the end of the day, in so doing allowing a deep connection to form between the listener and her or his surroundings, concurrently creating a Zen-like spiritual appreciation of the moment.
I didn’t listen to this at sunset, nor was I particularly aware of my surroundings at the time: I first played this after a difficult June evening, in the early morning, on a train; the sun was hidden behind a screen of impenetrable rain clouds and its warmth was utterly absent. It was arguably the opposite of what Willits intended for his music, but it presented a sort of stillness and reassuring calm that felt necessary at that point.
That’s not to suggest that these pieces are devoid of colour and emotion. Amid long electronic tones, overlapping drones, and some heavily-processed and virtually unrecognisable guitars, moments of tension arise before quietly resolving themselves and moving on; subtle harmonic ebbs and flows give rise to unintentional melodies, while the woodland sounds of ‘Transpire’ transport you from the synthetic world to the real one. It is a collection of resolute, irrepressible beauty, and one that might just leave you feeling a little altered (for the better) after.
Sunset by Christopher Willits is released by Ghostly International on June 14 2019. The timing of this post’s publication coincided with the estimated time of sunset in the UK town where I live.
Since arriving in 2017 with her debut self-titled EP, LA-based electronic artist Dresage (Keeley Bumford) has quietly issued track after track of disarmingly emotional modern synthpop music full of the crystalline melodies that get all but the most hard-hearted synth heads excited accompanied by introspective, poetic wordplay. Keeley is also one half of the electronic unit More Giraffes with Mark Hadley, which they view as a place to experiment freely within the confines of pop.
Her most recent single, ‘Therapy’, a collaboration with fellow electronic chanteuse G. Smith, was released in April 2019, and a second Dresage EP is being worked on right now. A new More Giraffes collaboration with Brooklyn’s Sweater Beats (Antonio Cuna), ‘Playground’, is officially released on June 14.
What is your earliest memory?
I grew up in the mountains of Washington State, between Seattle and Vancouver in Canada. I remember always hiking and backpacking with my parents as a toddler around Mount Baker. Even as a tiny human only a couple feet tall, I can still recall the view I had from so close to the ground as I marched up and over ridges, snow patches and past glacial lakes. The damp ground, dark green trees and crystal blue skies of the Pacific Northwest are deeply engrained geography in my being. I feel very grateful for that.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone’s given you?
My friend Connie, who goes by the artist name MILCK, always drops massive knowledge when I spend time with her. She told me once that “clarity is kindness.” I’ve always been deeply afraid of confrontation in all aspects of my life, but when I try and practice setting clear boundaries for myself, I find it to be the kindest thing you can do in any situation, as opposed to being unclear and inefficient in communication because I’m afraid to be harsh, judged, or thought of as rude. This is something I try to apply to my professional life all the time. It’s a work in progress, but I think I’m getting better.
When are you most productive or inspired?
I’m most productive or inspired when I feel empowered by myself. It’s a cat-and-mouse game I play with my psyche, but when I’m kindest to me, I tend to do my best work. Speaking, looking, thinking with self-love goes a long way as opposed to an inner dialogue of anger, fear or self deprecation. Also candles, incense and meditation always help me get to a better place. This is also a constant work in progress: I start back at square one with every morning.
Therapy by Dresage and G. Smith is out now. Listen to Therapy at Spotify. Playground by More Giraffes and Sweater Beats is released June 14. Listen to Playground at Spotify.
What separates the natural world from that of synthetic recreations? Is it not just all vibrating molecules arranged into rhythmic patterns? Polymer, a Greek derived word meaning ‘many parts’ and used to describe both natural and synthetic macromolecules composed of repeating patterns of monomer molecules, accurately describes Plaid’s latest release.
Similarly to the ages-long process of specific natural elements converging with each other to form sparkling jewels, Plaid have been synthetically honing their craft since 1991 – longer if you include Ed Handley and Andy Turner’s start with Black Dog Productions. The result has been a slow, subtle evolution of electronic aural alchemy sounding unlike any of their peers at Warp and beyond. Plaid have long been masters of crystalline, interlocking comb-filtered percussive FM synthesis forming almost euphoric (and sometimes melancholic) melodies, and Polymer has plenty of that.
Where Polymer stands apart from Plaid’s recent past releases is that it doesn’t feel just like a loose collection of tracks, but rather a tightly-bonded, cohesive yet diverse album informed by Ed and Andy’s manifesto for the project: “Polyphony, Pollution, and Politics”. Their many years of experimentation in the Plaid laboratory have enabled them the ability to create dazzlingly refined and complex tracks where everything melds perfectly while still pushing the boundaries of contemporary electronic music.
The opening ‘Meds Fade’ is something new from Plaid, a sci-fi, almost darkwave track which buzzes and drifts over alien landscapes sounding like the soundtrack Zaxxon never had. It feels like the chaotic and polluted external route one must take to get to the inner sanctum of the Polymer experience. Once there, we are greeted by the lab experiment that is ‘Los’, complete with cyclical machine percussion and bubbling 303 (a nod to this album having the prestigious Warp catalogue number 303, perhaps?). Later, ‘Ops’ combines a natural human vocal element to provide an effective rhythmic phrase punctuated by percussive syncopated vibrating plucks. One is constantly impressed with the spatial dimension Plaid is able to produce in their music and it is especially apparent on Polymer.
Further along the experience, ‘Drowned Sea’ – a dark, brooding Coil-like track with hauntingly subtle pitched and warped vocal samples – reminds us that with great modern advances oftentimes comes the failings of humankind’s ability to properly deal with the remains of their creations. Informing this particular track are the ever-present micro-plastics in the food chain and massive plastic tides. It is no wonder that plastic debris was recently found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, which, at 11km, is deeper than the tallest mountain is high. On a more optimistic tone, albeit a deeply melancholic one, ‘Dancers’ lifts one up as only Plaid can do with their signature melodic chimes and ethereal pads floating over skittering fragile drums. With light there is dark and ‘Recall’ brings thing back around with the sounds of glitched and sputtering synths akin to malfunctioning lab equipment.
However synthetic the title Polymer hints at, and with Plaid’s music in general, they are no strangers to incorporating natural elements seamlessly, if not subtly, into their array. Polymer follows other plaid albums with the addition of guitar and other acoustic staccato sounds which can be found in the likes of ‘The Pale Moth’, ‘Nurula’, and ‘Crown Shy’, satisfying perhaps their long-standing threat of recording an entire album with nothing other than a slowly deconstructed guitar. Nothing in Plaid’s discography comes quite as close to the full-on acoustic mark, however, as Polymer’s closing track does. ‘Praze’ – an old word for meadow – is a strikingly enchanted mediaeval bard-esque strain that relates to Britain’s disappearing wildflower meadows. In ‘Praze’s final melancholy there is also hope, not unlike stepping into a field after the daunting journey which began with ‘Meds Fade’, travelling through Plaid’s polymerisation laboratory experience until finally closing on a sole harpsichord.
Polymer is a wonderful and emotionally diverse experience that manages to retain the playfulness of past releases such as Rest Proof Clockwork to the darkness of Greedy Baby. As the word implies, Polymer is a complete album made of many parts, made of songs of many parts, made of machines and instruments of many parts, and so on down to the realm of mere vibration. For even in the realm of electronics and their perceived artificial means of creation, a most natural experience can be created – one known as music.
Polymer by Plaid is out now on Warp.
Words: Bryan Michael. Bryan Michael is a founding member of Philadelphia electronics unit Alka. Listen to Alka’s The Colour Of Terrible Crystal at Spotify.
Alice Hubble is the new solo project of Alice Hubley, known for her work with Rodney Cromwell (Adam Creswell) in Arthur & Martha, Mass Datura, Cosines and several other groups. Her debut Alice Hubble LP, Polarlichter, arrives in August – I’ve heard it and it’s an absolutely sensational melting pot of electronic music reference points underpinned by Hubley’s own international wanderlust that will be well worth waiting for.
The first single from Polarlichter, ‘Goddess’, was released in May by Happy Robots.
What is your earliest memory?
My earliest memory, rather tragically, is being about three or four years old and watching the first episode of the Care Bears. I remember watching it on our old 80s white TV thinking, “They get me,” (hmm…) and that it was the best thing ever.
This sort of makes sense as I do love watching TV. I had very similar reactions later on in life watching Buffy, Girls and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone’s given you?
Most recently it’s been advice I’ve given myself to stop focussing on the things I haven’t achieved, and to just try and enjoy the here, the now and the process.
I think with the Alice Hubble LP I’ve tried not to have any expectations on what could happen, and just tried to enjoy the experience. Of course myself and Adam from Happy Robots – Adam more so – are working hard, but everything feels like a bonus to the fact that I recorded an album and it’s actually coming out.
When are you most productive or inspired?
Like most musicians I’m not really a morning person, but I’m not really that productive later on in the day. I have a small window between 11 o’clock and 4 o’clock when I’m most productive. That being said, when I’m in the studio I’m quite happy to do long days, and when we were doing the album, both myself and Mikey Collins pulled long shifts working on the LP. (You should check out his album, Hoick!)
Inspiration can hit anytime. I do find things will come to me when I’m walking out and about, and so my phone’s voice memos are filled with breathy mumblings that generally take some time to decipher!
Goddess by Alice Hubble is out now on Happy Robots.
The third cassette release in the Bibliotapes label’s pairing of iconic books to music finds Norwich’s adaptable electronic sound artist Audio Obscura (Neil Stringfellow) providing a soundtrack to George Orwell’s chillingly accurate Nineteen Eighty-Four, released to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the its publication.
To be clear, this is not an opportunity for Stringfellow to cover, or even offer an alternative to, the (controversial) soundtrack put together by Eurythmics for the movie released in the year that the book was set in; this is about interpreting the actual text through the medium of completely newly-imagined music, and, a bit like a media-controlled slogan in Nineteen Eighty-Four itself, for the purposes of this we should profusely deny the existence of said film.
What that means is that his accompaniment to the daily, mandatory ritual of venting and screaming in collective anger on ‘Two Minutes Hate’ is presented as a bleak, primal, dissonant noisefest set to a insistent post-industrial beat; the pieces soundtracking the scenes depicting Winston, the book’s protagonist, and his attempts to wilfully evade surveillance and the controlling hand of the Party are freighted with both a pastoral, naturalistic serenity and a sort of nagging tension, filled with mournful strings and birdsong; the scenes set inside Room 101 are laced with a nagging, slow-motion sense of foreboding (and the displaced voice of Frank Skinner).
In Stringfellow’s hands, the haunting familiarity of ‘Oranges And Lemons’ is presented twice, first as a shimmering, gauzy memory resplendent in childhood innocence, and later laced with harshly-processed impending operatically-voiced doom, a vestigial scrap of something that didn’t get fully processed in a memory hole.
Something about the way that Stringfellow has crafted these pieces seems to simultaneously remind us of the unflinching horror of daily life that Orwell predicted in his dystopian musings, while also presenting a sense of resignation and dismay that this is the world we currently occupy – and one that we have willingly submitted to.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by Audio Obscura is released on June 8 2019 by Bibliotapes.
Plasma Splice Trifle pairs together Vibracathedral Orchestra member Neil Campbell’s Astral Social Club project with Alexander Tucker and Daniel O’Sullivan’s Grumbling Fur. Consisting of four lengthy, many-layered, pieces occupying the electronic music’s most eclectic hinterlands, Plasma Splice Trifle was recorded over the course of three years, each piece overflowing with ideas and a constantly-moving inner turbulence.
Ahead of the album’s release, Further. spoke to Neil Campbell about the collaboration.
You hadn’t worked with Daniel or Alexander before this album. How did this collaboration come about?
I honestly can’t remember! I think we were probably hanging out after a Grumbling Fur or Vibracathedral Orchestra gig and it was mentioned by one of us – probably either Daniel or Alex – and it seemed like a good idea, in as much as none of us could imagine how such a collaboration would turn out. No better reason than that for me!
The four tracks on the LP were started in 2015 and completed last year, and involved time spent in three different recording settings. How did the process of writing these pieces work? Was there a plan for what the pieces would be like, or was each track conceived and developed relatively spontaneously?
I don’t think of it as ‘writing’, more ‘doing’, always in the present, without much of a plan. I really like how Grumbling Fur work – they’re really open to quick decisions and where they may lead you with a good sense of play / fun too.
Most of the record was generated from a day’s recording together at Tower Gardens, with three of the tracks having their genesis in an open-ended hour long live jam. We then each took the recordings away and sculpted them into four very distinct shapes and worked from there, adding and editing where appropriate, passing sounds back and forth through the e-aether. We then pulled the tracks into their final form with another studio session together at the end.
‘Back To The Egg’ And ‘Toejam Boxdrum’ are very busy pieces, with lots and lots of layered detail. I’m always intrigued with very densely-packed tracks as to when you know you’re finished versus a temptation to just keep adding details – more and more layers, more and more sounds – and with three musicians that feels like it could be a challenge to know when to stop. How did that work?
Strangely, ‘Toejam Boxdrum’ is actually a really simple construct, with most of the sounds all coming from this initial jam, which was all recorded live to 2-track. We then added very little. So I guess it’s not always the way it seems.
But it’s a good question – all three of us like to work that maximal / minimal dichotomy, so there is a danger of, ahem, over-egging it. I guess someone says, “Enough!” or, “Too much!” and we trust each other to go along with their vision. ‘Toejam…’ would have been even simpler if it was left to me, but Daniel and Alex each had small additions they wanted to add underneath the initial jam, so we tried them and they worked. But, equally, if they hadn’t worked then we’d have left them out.
In contrast, ‘Three Years Apart’ is more sparse, though it also has a denseness when the drones and fluttering tones start to mesh together. To me it sounds a lot like some of John Cale’s work on the first Velvets album – urgent and expressive, but also possessing a dark spirituality.
Conversely, that’s quite a dense track from our point of view, with myriad layers of strings and processed strings.
‘Ozone Antifreeze Intelligence’ seems to be channelling the work of various celebrated groups emerging out of Germany in the 70s. Are those groups a major influence for you all? The vocals on that track are mesmerising – I like the interplay between the main vocal and the bassier voices.
Sure, I’ve enjoyed loads of those German bands for a long time now, and I’m sure the same goes for the other two. Some bands chime with me more than others though, and I’ve got a particular emotional attachment to the whole Cluster / Neu! axis. I think ‘Ozone…’ is my favourite track on the record.
After the initial sounds went through the Grumbling Fur mangle / spanglemaker, it was a very pretty instrumental that I added some sounds around the edges to. But I think we all thought it needed just an extra something, probably to create a more direct human connection. So when we met up for the final session we each brought one line of resonant text with us and sang them one at a time, pretty much first take, and the whole song unfolded from there.
As I said, I like to work quickly, and Grumbling Fur naturally work like that too. We’re all happy to take the germ of an idea and just go with it to see where it leads. Added to that, I love how those two naturally, effortlessly harmonise with each other when they sing together on their own records, like it’s the expression of a deep friendship you’re hearing, so I really wanted to get some of that on the record just for my own kicks.
You each created a piece of artwork to go with the album. How integral to your music is that visual accompaniment?
The initial idea was to each create a piece of collage art so we could layer them all on top of each other for maximum confusion/density. When we had each done out piece we realised this probably wasn’t going to work as well as just letting the pieces breath on their own. An example of someone calling, “Too much!”, and us not being too hidebound by our original concepts to throw them out the window when they weren’t working. Improvisation / praxis!
Plasma Splice Trifle by Astral Social Club & Grumbling Fur Time Machine Orchestra is released on June 7 2019 by VHF Records. Read the Further. review here.
Since arriving in 2009, LA’s Sweatson Klank (Thomas Wilson) has played around with hip-hop’s ever-flexible template, veering from heavily sample-based cuts to those built up from his own mastery of vintage synthesizer sound programming. For Super Natural Delights, this musical polymath offers up a sun-drenched series of twelve relaxed pieces showcasing his enduring ability to mix instrumental dexterity with engaging rhythms.
‘Walking On Air’ is the first of many highlights on the album, built up as it is on a bed of rich, elastic basslines and 808 beats, all carefully overlaid with gauzy strings and languid flute hooks to present a crisp, carefree, summery simplicity. Elsewhere, ‘What A Night’ captures a jazzy, 80s atmosphere with squelchy synth lines, snatches of vocals and uncluttered drum machine rhythms, while the sedate ‘Island Life Calling’ sounds like the kind of sultry, inoffensive jazz muzak played on the porch at a branch of Bahama Breeze, replete with the sound of ice cubes rattling around in a Mai Tai and a crisp beat prised straight from a vintage Sadé number.
Towering above everything else is the chunky, all-too-brief slowmo disco of ‘Fat Cookie’, containing a groove so infectious it could literally cause a musical pandemic.
Super Natural Delights by Sweatson Klank is released June 7 2019 by Friends Of Friends.