Robert Haigh – Black Sarabande

Everything I’ve ever written about any album, concert or piece of music is wrong.

I know this because of something that happened while I was quietly listening to ‘Arc Of Crows’ by pianist Robert Haigh, a track taken from his new album Black Sarabande, at the weekend while reorganising my loft. The experience was a poignant one in more ways than one, but not because of the crawling around on my knees sorting out boxes; that was just painful.

‘Arc Of Crows’ is an arresting, quiet, delicate piece of piano music nodding gently and reverently in the direction of Satie and it immediately stopped me in my tracks, a box of Christmas decorations in hand, and I found myself standing there for the entirety of its three minutes and forty-eight second duration, in that brief passage of time contemplating everything I have ever done, everything I have ever hoped for, the highs, the lows, the disappointments, the missed opportunities, the what-ifs, the future – the lot.

It very possibly had the profoundest effect on me that any piece of music has had or will ever have. Possibly this was owing to its sparseness, being simply Haigh’s piano accompanied by a soft, imperceptible sound in the background, somewhere between a brushed cymbal, muted traffic noise or a curtain of rain; or possibly because of its textures, its hidden depths and its delicate, resolute, outline.

Toward the end of my immersion in my thoughts, my teenage daughter arrived in the room in which the loft happens to be, and visibly and audibly recoiled at Haigh’s piece. She complained of it making her feel claustrophobic, panicked, uncomfortable and very possibly called it ‘weird’ (both of my daughters call all of the music I listen to ‘weird’, incidentally). She was still griping about it over lunch the next day. I’m at a loss to understand what it is that she heard that I didn’t, what quality it was that I found mesmerising but which she found anxiety-inducing.

Hence my conclusion that you can’t trust anything I write. Read on at your peril.

The reason Black Sarabande might have got me in a contemplative mood is possibly because it finds Haigh ruminating on his own life, specifically his childhood in the mining village of Worsbrough in South Yorkshire; his father was a miner and his early years were spent among the strange culture clash between the vestiges of the Victorian Industrial Age and the rural hills and dales through which progress had permanently left its mark.

That tension can be be found mournfully lurking in pieces like ‘Stranger On The Lake’ or ‘Ghosts Of Blacker Dyke’, not in an air of machine-driven harshness but just a sort of echo of one; little sounds drift in and out of view, sometimes melodically, sometimes as what could be a distant train clattering on its tracks, sometimes as unidentifiable noises with a brittle edge as if broken forcibly from something else, leaving only a vague impression of what was there before. Other pieces, like the genteel arpeggios of ‘Progressive Music’ are simply unadorned moments of intense wonder, like a hopeful sunrise on a frosty morning, full of promise and serenity and freighted with a welcome, disarming clarity.

Black Sarabande by Robert Haigh is released January 24 2020 by Unseen Worlds.

(c) 2020 Further.

2019: From The Side Of The Desk

My desk at home is a mess, as Mrs S continually points out to me.

It is a place for incoming mail to accumulate, a home for broken bits of things that need to be repaired, seven-inch singles that were taken out of their alphabetised boxes and which never quite found their way back, research materials for projects I may or may not ever finish, an in-tray containing goodness-knows-what and somewhere, somewhere, somewhere, a miniature Zen garden; I imagine that if the bird statue could come to life it would be shaking its head in dismay at the very un-Zen chaos that surrounds it.

On the left hand side of the desk is a pile of CD promos graciously sent to me over the course of the year which never quite got reviewed. This troubles me endlessly. And so, in an effort to repay that generosity and goodwill, and so I can show Mrs S that I’ve cleared at least some of the detritus off my desk, here’s a clutch of short reviews of some of the albums I never quite got around to in 2019.

“A good many back payments are included,” said Ebenezer Scrooge as he whispered his donation to the same charity collectors he had dismissed several pages before in A Christmas Carol, and so this is for all the labels and PRs and artists who graciously shared their music with me this year but which I then seemed to uncharitably ignore.

I’ll keep the desk – both physical and digital – clearer in 2020; I promise.

Jazzrausch Bigband – Dancing Wittgenstein (ACT)

In which the Roman Sladek and Leonhard Kuhn-led forty-piece big band’s 2018 self-released album gets a shiny reissue by the ACT imprint. The album found the band showcasing their distinctive flavour of acoustic jazz augmented by techno beats and authentic synth flourishes, with lyrics derived directly from the work of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. It’s bonkers, but it works – honest.

The album’s finest moments arrive on the eponymous opening ten-minute piece – replete with cycles of Terry Riley motifs – and the hypnotic house pianos of ‘Continuous Dirichlet’, the latter forcing headache-inducing Googling of incomprehensible statistical theory.

Lumen Drones – Umbra (Hubro)

Umbra is the second album from Norway’s Lumen Drones, a trio of esteemed fiddle maestro Nils Økland, guitarist Per Steinar Lie, and drummer Ørjan Haaland. Lie and Haaland’s day jobs in the post-rockers The Low Frequency In Stereo provides the weighty folk-blues bedrock of the standout ‘Droneslag’, whereupon Økland’s Hardanger fiddle provides a noisy, discordant tension.

In complete contrast, the trio’s seamless interplay on ‘Etnir’ produces the album’s most serene and dreamlike piece, full of beguiling wonder and ethereal, mystical texture. Umbra was released on the inestimable Hubro label, the first of three releases in this list that I failed to review this year.

Elephant9 – Psychedelic Backfire I & II (Rune Grammofon)

Norway jazz-rock supergroup Elephant9’s double live collection was recorded at Oslo’s Kampen Bistro in January 2019 and finds the trio of Ståle Storløkken (Hammond, Rhodes, Minimoog, Mellotron), Nicolai Hængsle (bass) and Torstein Lofthus (drums) ripping through white-hot takes of tracks from their five studio albums.

The first set features energetic re-treads of their debut album’s title track ‘Dodovoodoo’, which here seems to traverse the paper-thin frontier between Can at their most freeform Chick Corea’s Return To Forever at their most lysergic. Two versions of the evolving groove of ‘Habanera Rocket’ – one on the first set as a trio performance and one on the second augmented by Reine Fiske’s additional guitar – riff on the track’s central rhythmic shuffle, the latter featuring Fiske’s guitar prowling feistily around Storløkken’s dexterous keyboard work in a truly breathtaking duel.

Afenginn – Klingra (Tutl Records)

The work of Danish composer Kim Rafael Nyberg, Afenginn offers a distinctive take on modern classical composition that draws parallels with the work of Yann Tiersen. Tiersen’s vocal collaborator Ólavur Jákupsson can be heard across the eight pieces included here, as can The Danish String Quartet, percussionist Knut Finsrud, bassist Mikael Blak, drummer Ulrik Brohuus, the twin pianos of Teitur and Dánjal á Neystab and the mournful violin of Niels Skovmand.

To call this body of work haunting would be an understatement, with the gentle melodic washes, electronic textures and layered jazz percussion of ‘Ivin’ and the growling analogue synth-heavy coda on the towering ‘Skapanin’ having a particular resonance.

Jo Berger Myhre / Ólafur Björn Ólafsson – Lanzarote (Hubro)

Lanzarote is the second outing on Hubro for Norwegian bassist Jo Merger Myhre and keyboard / percussion guru and Jóhann Jóhannsson collaborator Ólafur Björn Ólafsson, and follows 2017’s The Third Script.

Their new album finds their simpatico approach to texture and sound augmented by resonant brass contributions from Ingi Garðar Garðarsson and Eiríkur Orri Ólafsson. The slow-build and ultimately noisy layered crescendo of ‘Atomised – All We’ve Got’, features buzzing electronics, urgent drumming and anguished horns, the whole thing sounding a lot like the end of days before collapsing into a passage of muted reflection. The tuned drums of the quiet ‘Current’ evokes comparisons with Manu Delago, its percussive core offset by Myhre’s searing double bass melodies and gentle spirals of delicate, inchoate Moog.

Armin Lorenz Gerold – Scaffold Eyes (The Wormhole)

Armin Lorenz Gerold is a an Austrian multimedia artist who also performs under the name wirefoxterrier. Currently based in Berlin, Gerold’s primary focus of late has been on altering perceptions of the radio play, with Scaffold Eyes taking the form of a live performance for Gerold’s voice augmented by pre-recorded sounds delivered through a binaural speaker installation.

Originally performed at Berlin’s KW Institute in November 2017, the CD release on The Wormhole presents Gerold’s rich narrative as a noir soundworld, featuring occasional forays into café jazz, harpsichord classicism and delicate sections of pianissimo texture. Gerold’s soft diaristic delivery is accompanied by additional segments performed by Doireann O’Malley and Miriam Stoney, each word imbued with a strange, haunting resonance, even when describing quotidian events and observations. The effect is not dissimilar to the strange, unresolved ambience of Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person, and it’s hard not to imagine Gerold’s work resplendent in murky monochrome, lit by the diffuseness of ineffective street lighting.

Frode Haltli – Border Woods (Hubro)

Frode Haltli is an accordionist and no stranger to the Hubro imprint. For Border Woods, he is joined by the esoteric percussion of Håkon Stene and Eirik Raude, and his distinctive accordion playing is interwoven with Emilia Amper’s nyckelharpa (a Swedish keyed fiddle).

On tracks like the concluding ‘Quietly The Language Dies’, the quartet’s unified sound centres on a seamless interplay between the accordion and nyckelharp, veering from stirring (if mournful) melodic alignment to powerfully discordant drones. Beneath them, Stene and Raude’s percussion is ephemeral and textural, a gentle foundation of tuned drums providing an unexpected counterweight. At the other extreme, the fifteen minute ‘Mostamägg Polska’ channels a particularly vivid flavour of traditional Nordic folk music, interspersed with moments of beatific ambience.

With thanks (and apologies) to Ian, Jim and Philip.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Further.

Laura Agnusdei – Laurisilva

Laura Agnusdei is an Italian saxophonist, electronic musician and all-round deep thinker, whose musical endeavours range from studying electronic music in The Hague to playing sax in psych groups to producing complex melodic music fusing together all of her seemingly incompatible disparate interests. Laurisilva, her debut full-length album takes its name from ancient subtropical forests, the first part of its name providing a link to the Latin etymological root word that begat her first name.

Recorded in The Hague where she completed her Masters in electronic music and her Bologna bedroom, Laurisilva is an absorbing suite of six pieces that seek to evoke the natural environments of the forests that inspired its creation. Here, on tracks like the mesmerising title track or ‘Epiphyte Blues’, you find Agnusdei’s sax playing providing effortlessly evocative motifs, augmented by gurgling analogue electronics, intricate sound design flourishes and delicate processing, occasionally seeing a range of collaborators dropping in jazzy reeds, flutes and trumpet. The result is a sort of wonky electroacoustic big band music somewhere on the continuum between jazz, exotica, Warp electronica and modern classical (whatever that is).

The departure from woodland concerns arrives in the form of ‘Shaky Situation’, a skittish, randomised composition that finds Agnusdei layering in insistent spoken word instructions from what sounds like a particularly curmudgeonly jazz band leader about the need to practice playing daily. Here the sound palette moves from hooky electronic passages that nod to both Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works and Terry Riley’s In C, blurry sax lines and dissonant clashes of instrumentation, the result being something unpredictable, intentionally messy and gleefully disjointed.

The standout moment ‘Jungle Shuffle’ is the closest Agnusdei gets to a form of traditional jazz, her playing running the gamut from early 1920s swing to wild free jazz, underpinned by a fractured rhythm belonging on a long out-of-print Disney album of Polynesian sounds subjected to a precision-sharp digital scalpel. By the track’s conclusion, all traces of reverential jazz reference points have become buried, mere distant aural memories beneath a forest floor carpeted with broken beats and splintered percussion.

Note to listener: to unintentionally evoke the legacy of Mr John Peel, this album also sounds superb at 45rpm.

Laurisilva by Laura Agnusdei was released November 29 2019 by The Wormhole. With thanks to Don Wyrm for coffee, comversation and cassettes.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Further.

Doug Wieselman – From Water

Clarinettist Doug Wieselman is one of those adaptable players that can alternate between New York’s music scenes effortlessly, straddling involvement with artsy bandleaders like Laurie Anderson and Yoko Ono, the left-of-mainstream pop of Martha Wainwright or the freedom of the city’s jazz firmament. From Water is a solo album consisting of several Doug Wieselmans in the form of a many-layered suite of eleven pieces whose melodies were inspired by water, beaches, rivers and hot springs.

Each piece here is led by a fluid, evocative melody operating somewhere on a continuum stretching between classical minimalism, delicate ambience and the most lyrical phrasings of jazz. Those melodies have a lightness of touch yet also a largesse and grandeur befitting of pieces often inspired by the vastness of oceans. It would have been all too easy for Wieselman to leave From Water precisely there, and it would have been compelling enough as an album were he to have done that. Instead, his approach was to add loops, layers, discordancy, drones, and, on ‘Tennessee Valley’, a whole-instrument technique involving vocalising rhythmic sounds through the reed. He also adopted a technique of playing predominantly deployed in Turkish folk music, giving pieces like ‘Gloria Fleur Madre’ an exotic mystique, like detritus arriving on the shores of the Hudson from the cargo of a sunken vessel running the historic trade routes of the Middle East.

The trippy phased effects on the standout ‘Moonhaw’ lend that piece a volatility and turbulence, reminiscent of standing on a beach during a storm, while the plaintive, relatively unadorned ruminations of ‘Salmon’ contain a gentle, laconic playfulness that ultimately concludes with rippling passages of echoing upper register note clusters.

One of the most haunting moments here is a stunning, muted version of John Lennon’s ‘Julia’, its instantly-recognisable lyricism offset by the subtlest of background processing to create a moment of calm, yet pensive, tranquility.

From Water by Doug Wieselman is released October 25 2019 by Figureight Records.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Further.

Bremer / McCoy – Utopia

Utopia is the fourth album by Copenhagen duo Jonathan Bremer (bass) and Morten McCoy (keyboards and tape delay). Their music nods firmly in the direction of mellow jazz and vintage bossa nova while also hinting at classical formalism, the result being sublimely meditative and hauntingly evocative instrumental music, overflowing with ideas despite the pared-back line-up and restrained instrumentation.

The pieces on their new album carry melodies which could haunt you forever, from opener ‘Åben Bog’s Satie-esque refrains through to the tranquil gestures of ‘Vega’. Oftentimes Morten McCoy’s melodies are resplendent enough to carry these tracks, Jonathan Bremer’s subtle bass accompaniment content to wriggle gently underneath; at other times it’s the weaving of other reference points around their playing that carries the track forward. ‘Tusmørke’ is a case in point, wherein McCoy’s keyboards drift off into an echoing distance while strings evoking that most untranslatable of Brazilian concepts, that of saudade, mournfully dominate the middle section.

The album was recorded during Bremer’s divorce, and it’s hard not to hear a saddened, regretful tone in the playing on the likes of the lyrical ‘Salme’. His bass here is reduced to minimalist forward motion, while, in what feels like a sort of empathetic gesture toward his partner, McCoy offers some brilliantly-layered passages for piano and organ that have a dreamy, wistful air about them. ‘Dråber’ is perhaps the most ‘full’ track here, with the interaction between McCoy’s organ and piano and an urgency to Bremer’s bass carrying a tightness and insistence, while a pretty sequence containing something like Mellotron flutes after a patch of atmospheric nothingness provides a strangely affecting left-turn at the very end.

Meanwhile, the strident, emboldened notation of concluding track ‘Determination’ suggests a firmness, a new resolve of sorts, the interplay between electronic strings, piano and bass being a small wonder to behold.

It would be easy to let these pieces drift quietly toward the background of your existence, but to allow them to become like sonic wallpaper would be to do this duo an incredible disservice; these pieces demand and deserve your attention, leaving you ever so slightly altered in exchange.

Utopia by Bremer / McCoy is released by Luaka Bop on October 18.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Further.

Christopher Willits – Sunset

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.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Further.

Eluvium – Pianoworks

For the past sixteen years, Portland, OR’s Matthew Cooper has been issuing ambient albums full of dense layers and affecting emotional resonances. Pianoworks, as its name suggests, is an album made entirely with piano, a sequel to 2004’s An Accidental Memory In The Case Of Death. The inspiration this time around was the notion of childhood innocence and the struggle to retain that as the gravity of adulthood reveals itself.

That heavy sentiment gives pieces like ‘Quiet Children’ a hopefulness, its central melody evoking the notion of looking back on early memories through the sepia-tinged lens of time. In contrast, ‘Carrier 32’ has a subtle stridency, portraying the determination of a child to talk, walk or grab at objects that you’d rather they didn’t touch. There’s also a prevailing sadness that those days seem like a lifetime ago, with that melancholic dimension existing most notably in the concluding, unresolved melodies of ‘Empathy For A Silhouette’.

By stripping back the layers Cooper normally deploys, he has created a precise, beatific album that will leave an indelible mark on anyone – even the most curmudgeonly of souls – who are prone to bouts of wistful nostalgia for those halcyon, simple, lost days of youth.

Pianoworks by Eluvium is released on May 31 2019 by Temporary Residence.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Further.