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This Month's Pick:

Helpling-Jenkins - Found

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(December 2013)

David Helpling and Jon Jenkins

Found

Following Treasure and The Crossing, both previous CD of the Month picks, Found marks the end of a six year odyssey for the two veteran musicians, both of whom made their mark as solo artists first. Helpling is primarily a guitarist and Jenkins a synthesist, but their worlds merge in their 21st century electronic orchestra. (more...)

you can read the full review, and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

Previous Echoes CD of the Month Picks:

Moby - Innocents

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(November 2013)

Moby

Innocents

I don’t know if Moby intended it this way, but Innocents sounds like the conclusion of a trilogy, joining Wait for Me and Destroyed, his two previous albums. As on those recordings, Moby plays the ambient song-smith, crafting odes of haunting and poignant beauty, making a music that sounds like it’s rooted in an earlier, more rustic time, except it’s electronic. (more...)

you can read the full review, and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

 

Akara - The World Beyond

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(October 2013)

Akara

The World Beyond

With the sound of Chinese cymbals, Akara opens their second album with appropriately-titled “Unlocking the Portal” taking us to The World Beyond. It’s their second album of music inspired by “the luminous beings,” and it’s not long before those beings make their presence heard in the voice of Femke Weidema, singing in her imaginary language. (more...)

you can read the full review, and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

 

Darshan Ambient - Little Things

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(September 2013)

Darshan Ambient

Little Things

Listening to Darshan Ambient you might not suspect that Michael Allison, the man behind DA, spent years playing edgy R&B with Nona Hendryx and punk with Richard Hell. That’s not an overt influence in Darshan Ambient’s music, and that’s especially true on his new CD, Little Things. But it’s there: in the musicality of his sound, the hook of his melodies, and the gentle tug of grooves that range from Jon Hassell-like rhythmic amalgams to jazz syncopations. (more...)

you can read the full review, and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

 

Melorman - Waves

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(August 2013)

Melorman

Waves

If you thought the only electronic-based music coming out of Greece was from Yanni and Vangelis, then you haven’t been keeping up on a wave of electronic artists who are more plugged in to Boards of Canada’s textural melancholy than Yanni’s grandiose orchestrations. Melorman is one of those artists. That’s the parody-ready moniker of Antonis Haniotakis from Athens. He says the name refers to “melody” and “man.” He’s been at the electronic game for a few years now and his new CD, Waves, may be his signature work. (more...)

you can read the full review, and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

 

Olivier Libaux

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(July 2013)

Olivier Libaux

Uncovered Queens of the Stone Age

I initially heard Olivier Libaux’s CD Uncovered Queens of the Stone Age without knowing the source material. In fact, I didn’t know there was source material. I just instantly fell in love with these haunting, languid songs that sounded like refrains from the last call at the bar.

Then I discovered that all the songs were covers of tunes by Queens of the Stone Age. This hard-rocking alternative band has a sound that borders on Heavy Metal. Their latest CD …Like Clockwork was a number one album in early June. (more...)

you can read the full review, and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

 

 

Rachel Zeffira - Deserters

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(June 2013)

Rachel Zeffira

Deserters

She turns her opera-trained soprano into a caressing hush; mixes circus organ with a song about suicide; and uses oboe arrangements that sound like the The Left Banke’s “Pretty Ballerina.” That’s only part of the allure in Rachel Zeffira’s debut album, The Deserters. (more...)

you can read the full review, and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

 

Rhuan Sheehan-Stories From Elsewhere

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(May 2013)

Rhian Sheehan

Stories from Elsewhere

In a music style built on translucent hues, there are many shades of ambient chamber music. There’s Harold Budd’s minimal austerity and Ludovico Einaudi’s classical melodicism. Ólafur Arnalds trades in glitchy, haunted moods while Kevin Keller charts a more romantic course. But Rhian Sheehan may have created one of the most sublime shadings on his 7th album, Stories from Elsewhere. It’s a magical CD of soaring strings, surging rhythms, childlike music boxes and ambient expanses that sounds both familiar and timeless. (more...)

you can read the full review, and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

 

Olafur Arnalds - For Now I am Winter

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(April 2013)

Olafur Arnalds

For Now I am Winter

Icelandic artists are subjected to many clichés: most commonly that their music reflects the frozen north, land of glaciers, fjords, and endless nights. As a critic, you try to avoid that trap. But Ólafur Arnalds has released two albums in a row that truly seem to emerge from the heart of Icelandic winter darkness. If his 2010 album, And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness, was the sound of Iceland’s sunless winter days, his latest release, For Now I Am Winter, turns the Nordic freeze into heroic rapture. (more...)

you can read the full review, and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

 

Ludovico Einaudi - In a Time Lapse

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(March 2013)

Ludovico Einaudi
In Time Lapse

You could pretty much stop listening to Ludovico Einaudi’s new album In a Time Lapse after the second track and that would be enough for a perfect CD. The piece is called “Time Lapse” and it’s a perfect sculpture of minimalist ostinatos and Arvo Pärt-like sustains, with ambient electronics hanging off the edges like shimmering specters. It’s one of those pieces, like Pachelbel’s “Canon,” that builds without ever resolving itself. And you don’t want it to. (more...)

you can read the full review, and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

 

Ulrich Schnauss - A Long Way to Fall

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(February 2013)

Ulrich Schnauss

A Long Way To Fall

Five years after his stormy, end-of-the-world electro-shoegaze treatise called Goodbye, German downtempo synth scientist Ulrich Schnauss returns with a new CD. Gone are the layers of distorted sound, aggressive grooves and over-driven guitar timbres that marked Goodbye. A Long Way to Fall has a cleaner sound, letting Schnauss’ electronic melodies breathe in clear air instead of an electric haze. (more...)

you can read the full review, and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

 

The Ambient Zone: Just Music Cafe Volume 4

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(January 2013)

The Ambient Zone

Just Music Café volume 4

Within the electronic folds and acoustic shifts of The Ambient Zone – Just Music Café Volume 4, is a sound world that’s both exploratory and serene. The Ambient Zone is an album that feels like the world is peeling away, layer by layer, into multi-colored panoramas, just for you. (more...)

you can read the full review, and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

 

Hammock - Departure Songs

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(December 2012)

Hammock

Departure Songs

In an immersive experience where time loses meaning and there is no up nor down, it takes a quantum physicist’s sense of time and an astronaut’s sense of space to navigate. Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson are neither scientists nor pilots, but as Hammock they negotiate similar terrain in their sea of deep ambient guitar, enveloping washes of echoes, and intricate, shifting melodies. (more...)

you can read the full review, and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

 

Johnson-Keaggy

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(November 2012)

Jeff Johnson and Phil Keaggy

WaterSky

WaterSky is as fluid as its title, moving though plaintive themes from Johnson on piano and Keaggy on multiple guitars and bass. Each piece is a multi-themed work: the opening, “When We were Young,” starts with a lyrical solo piano line and ends in a heroic, guitar strummed anthem with Keaggy’s quiet siren guitar lead. (more...)

you can read the full review, and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

 

Christian-Manx

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(October 2012)

Hans Christian and Harry Manx

You Are the Music of My Silence

Every song on this album is a journey. Sometimes it’s a slow river ride like “Harmonious Convergence,” which lazes along on the laziest, haziest summer day. But more often, it takes off on the melodic flights like those on “Apparently an Apparition,” mixing electronic grooves, string sections and solos on Mohan Vina, in an exhilarating swirl. (more...)

you can read the full review, and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

 

Dead Can Dance

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Anastasis - Dead Can Dance


(September 2012)

Dead Can Dance
Anastasis

Anastasis is Greek for “resurrection” and that’s what happens here with Dead Can Dance, the gothic rock band who took deep atmospheres, ritual songs and supralingua dialects to ecstatic, transcendent heights in the 1980s and 90s. There hasn’t been any new music from the band since founders Lisa Gerard and Brendan Perry broke up in ’98, first romantically and then musically. Gerrard went on to expand the Dead Can Dance sound on a series of solo albums and film scores, including Gladiator. Perry went into relative obscurity, until releasing his second solo album, Ark in 2011. It’s the sound of Ark, with its drum machine loops and sustained string pads that informs the first new DCD album since 1996’s rhythmically charged, globally influenced, Spiritchaser. The rhythms of Anastasis fall into mid-tempo caravan-crossing grooves, both ominous and mystical at the same time. He decorates those patterns with string pads and exotic percussion, including frame drums and the Hang drum on “Anabasis”, another Greek word meaning “journey up country.” (more...)

you can read the full review, and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

 

 

Sebastian Plano

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The Arrhythmical Part of Hearts - Sebastian Plano


(August 2012)

Sebastian Plano

The Arrythmical Part of Hearts

There are classical artists who still live in a musical world that existed 80 or 200 hundred years ago. Then there are classical musicians who embrace the modern world we live in today. That’s what Sebastian Plano does. Primarily a cellist and pianist, he’s the child of a musical family of string players in Argentina. But he’s also the child of modern electronic music in all its forms. He got his first Vangelis album when he was eight years old. Now living in San Francisco, he brings those elements together on The Arrhythmical Part of Hearts.

you can read the full review, and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

 

 

Marconi Union

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(July 2012)





Marconi Union

Different Colors

Six years years ago, Marconi Union entranced us with their second album, Distance. It was music that emerged from a smoke shrouded city, both luxurious in its atmospheres and dangerous in its menace...

you can read the full review, and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

 

 

Todd Boston

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(June 2012)





Todd Boston

Touched by the Sun

In June, the month when the sun has unchallenged dominion, guitarist Todd Boston has released the perfect album for summer days. Touched by the Sun is a thematic suite centered on images of the solar orb and built around the global chamber sound that Boston has been working with for a few years...

you can see a complete review, and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

 

Coyote Jump

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(May 2012)





Coyote Jump

Waking from the Roots

Coyote Jumpís debut album, Waking from the Roots, is slightly deceiving. The cover, with its neo-primitive rendering of a coyote, looks like a typical Canyon Records sleeve for a Pow-Wow or Peyote song album. However, the first notes of a Middle Eastern frame drum and buzz stick announce that this CD is different, and once the violin and strings arrive, itís clear this is not a Native American chant recording....

you can read the full review and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

Join the Echoes CD of the Month Club

Thierry David

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(April 2012)





Thierry David

Stellar Connection

&It takes a lot of discipline for a skilled, classically trained keyboardist to put his technique on hold and instead, give in to the mood and atmosphere the music requires. On his latest album, Stellar Connection, any one of Thierry Davidís musical lines would be simple to the point of boredom on its own. But when interlocked with other lines and cast over gently pulsing rhythms and undulating textures, the result is as vast as the imagery that guides this album....

you can see the complete review, and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

 

 

Air  - Le Voyage Dans La Lune

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(March 2012)





Air

Le Voyage Dans La Lune

The duo called Air is one the most influential acts to come out of France since Jean-Michel Jarre in the early 1970s. Their debut album, Moon Safari is an enduring classic and its cinematic moods got them into films, notably scoring Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. Now they’ve gone back to a silent film from 1902 called Le Voyage Dans La Lune (Trip to the Moon)directed by George Méliès. It’s a ground-breaking work whose imagery is still being used today in videos for Queen and Smashing Pumpkins and most recently playing a central role in the movie Hugo.

Le Voyage Dans La Lune follows a group of astronomers who build a rocket, go to the moon, see magic mushrooms, meet moon men (Selenites), have a battle and then return home. The surreal images and hand-colored tints immediately call to mind another psychedelic era: the English brand of pastoral Victorian whimsy favored by early Pink Floyd, Traffic, and most notably, The Beatles. With images that include dream sequences, astronomers in wizard’s costumes with pointed hats, magic mushrooms and a rocket landing in the moons eye, a psychedelic mindscape is conjured up. Air taps into that, but with a distinctly 21st century sensibility.

The album has that old-time, vaudevillian music hall sound that was embedded in the acid-laced fantasies of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They even use timpani on several tracks, including the bombastic “Astronomic Club” and the jungle march of “Décollage.”

In some respects this is the wildest music Air has produced. “Sonic Armada” - the score for meeting the aliens - manages to tie together 1970s electric Herbie Hancock with 1967 Pink Floyd. Sound effects course through the driving track which is topped by a squeezed and filter swept electric keyboard solo that might have come from Hancock’s Headhunters.

But amidst the aggressive sounds are moments of contemplation. There is a purely new-agey dream sequence of dripping chime tones and the the flowing, pensive mood of “Moon Fever.”

Several tracks from the DVD, like the building-the-rocket music, don’t appear on the CD, and other tracks like “Moon Fever” only appear on the CD. That includes a pair of tripped-out nursery rhyme songs: “Seven Stars,” sung by the band and Victoria Legrand and “Who Am I Now,” sung by Au Revoir Simone.

The film itself is a trippy mix of dated Jules Verne quaintness, imaginatively surreal juxtapositions and colonialist jingoism. They meet the moon men, kill them, and bring one home on a leash for the victory parade. And there are always women standing around in matron’s uniforms, navy uniforms or dancing like showgirls. Even the alien moon men have terrestrial girls decorating the throne.

Le Voyage Dans La Lune is a funhouse of a CD and tracks like “Parade,” which closes the film, will leave you smiling. CD of the Month club members will not only get the CD, but the deluxe edition which includes the DVD of Le Voyage Dans La Lune with Air’s soundtrack.

Air has taken us on a different kind of “Moon Safari”. Next stop: Mars?

~© 2012 John Diliberto

you can see videos, including the complete film Le Voyage Dans La Lune, and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

Join the Echoes CD of the Month Club

Forastiere - From 1-8

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(February 2012)






Forastiere

From 1 to 8

Most instrumental musicians name their songs after they’re written, but on his new CD, From 1 to 8, Italian guitarist Pino Forastiere skips that exercise entirely. The compositions’ names are simply “Studio n.1,” through “Studio n.8.” But you won’t need the names to tell them apart. Each composition is a unique journey of impeccable technique and melodic invention.

Pino Forastiere is a scientist of the guitar, but a scientist with soul. Even though he gives his compositions generic names, the music itself is full of melodic exploration and emotional turns.

“Studio n.1” is a delicate pastoral reverie, a walk through trellised gardens and dappled shadows as Forastiere does his finger dance on the guitar. While there’s no doubt that Forastiere is influenced by American finger-style guitarists from John Fahey to Michael Hedges, his sound is also deeply embedded in his own Italian heritage. There is a signature lilt and passionate depth to his music, as heard on introspective songs like “Studio n. 2.” It deserves a far more evocative title, it could be a song of loss or just reflection.

Forastiere’s playing isn’t all pretty filigree. He whips it out on tracks like “Studio n.3,” aggressively tapping his instrument, creating percussive effects and rhythmic accents on this road song. Then he explores his classical side on the multi-themed “Studio n.5,” although there are few nods to jazz as well, as the tune romps like a gazelle. On the third movement of his mini-epic, “Studio n.8” he creates a kinetic, circular theme that’s rooted in the repetition of minimalism, but with playful melodies spinning like gyroscopes, perfectly balanced but just on the edge of spinning out of control. .

Having watched Forastiere perform in the Echoes living room a few times, it’s easy for me to imagine him hunched over his guitar, bending into notes, arching his thick Groucho Marx eyebrows as if the music was bouncing them on a trampoline.

There are many great acoustic guitar players these days, but Pino Forastiere is one of the few who can match impeccable technique with evocative compositions. From 1 to 8 is a study in guitar invention.

~© 2012 John Diliberto

you can see a video and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

 

Tino Izzo - Morning Scapes

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(January 2012)





Tino Izzo
Morning Scapes

Tino Izzo is a musician you may not know but you’ve probably heard his work over the last two decades because he’s recorded with popular artists like Celine Dion. But those sounds will not prepare you for the music he makes under his own name. I first heard Izzo in 1994 when we started playing Blue Desires by an artist calling himself One. One was just that: a single artist, Tino Izzo, playing everything. He started recording under his own name shortly after that but the modus operandi remained the same: lushly melodic compositions built around a lattice-like interplay of multi-tracked electric and acoustic guitars.

That’s what you’ll hear on his latest album, Morning Scapes. He says it was composed for quiet Sunday mornings, but it’s much more expansive than that, its sound reflecting his secondary influence, Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” With cinematic landscapes laced by touches of folky Americana and electric guitar bliss, it’s a soundtrack for a cross country road trip.

You can hear the influence of Mike Oldfield in much of Izzo’s music, especially his intricate guitar overdubs and siren electric leads. The folk quality of it reminds me of Mark O’Connor’s album False Dawn, which likewise shows the influence of Oldfield. There’s certainly a touch of English folk on songs like “The Light of Other Days” with echoes of Ralph McTell’s “Streets of London.” But it’s American folk that pervades much of this music, from the bluegrass arpeggios of “Homeward Bound” to the forlorn harmonica of “Grapes of Wrath,” which rests on the bittersweet imagery of that John Steinbeck reference.

Morning Scapes is not all pastoral reveries. There is a triumphal exultance on “St. Elziar” with chugging acoustic guitar strums and slide guitar straight out of The Eagles’ “Take It Easy” that isn’t going to keep you in bed on Sunday mornings. It’s going to send you down Kerouac’s Route 66 of the spirit. “The Orange Line” recalls one of Jan Hammer’s Miami Vice vamps with a flashy electric lead and shredding melodies that turn back on themselves. He rips it up again on the album closer, “And the Sun.”

I’ve cited a lot of influences and references here for Tino Izzo, but the guitarist has created his own fusion of these elements, orchestrating a soundtrack that’s rooted in folk music and reaching towards the skies. Morning Scapes is a masterful album from a veteran who should be much more widely known.

~© 2012 John Diliberto

you can listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

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Darshan Ambient - Dream in Blue

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(December 2011)





Darshan Ambient
Dream in Blue

You can’t go wrong with Miles Davis as an influence but you can go wrong paying tribute to the jazz giant with fawning recreations or banal interpretations. Michael Allison, recording as Darshan Ambient, doesn’t go wrong. With a title that references Miles’ Kind of Blue, Darshan Ambient’s Dream in Blue succeeds in paying homage while maintaining fidelity to his own unique voice.

The opening track, “Upon Reflection” begins with the kinds of synth pads, bass lines and electronica grooves we’ve come to expect from Darshan Ambient, ever since his days of releasing his music on MP3.com. Then, at two minutes he introduces us to the concept of the album with an ostinato bass line and ride cymbal drive that take this into the terrain of electric Miles. Yet there’s no doubt this is Darshan Ambient, as electric piano tolls against guitar triplets and melodic synth hooks.

This is a brave recording for Darshan Ambient, who has matured with each album, releasing some melodically arresting and texturally deep albums over the last few years including A Day Within Days, From Pale Hands to Weary Skies and Autumn’s Apple.

Change is what you might expect from a guy who started out playing bass with artists like Nona Hendryx and Richard Hell. Despite those credits, Allison was no member of the “blank generation.” His sources were more like Patrick O’Hearn, Steve Roach, King Crimson and Brian Eno.

Dream in Blue alternates more typical Darshan tracks with his jazz-inflected moods. “Mirage” may be the most haunting piece, with a delayed bass line thudding though a landscape of yearning slide guitars, whirling synths, pizzicato strings and echoing duduk. It’s a track that shows you the promised land, but the trip is dark and ominous.

It’s Miles Davis’ tone-painting that’s the biggest influence on Darshan Ambient’s Dream in Blue, but he includes a few more overt nods to the iconic artist. “When Will My Someday Come”, a play on “Someday My Prince Will Come,” a tune famously covered by Miles Davis, uses trumpet over a jazz-tinged rhythm section. “Silent Smile” uses a gospel-hued piano theme to stage a soulful trumpet interlude.

Dream in Blue is an album that plays with expectations. “A Letter from Home” could be from one of Darshan Ambient’s more ambient recordings, with pensive piano over textures that hover like fog. Then jump to “Sahara Sun,”a very stylistically different track with a progressive rock rhythm and a ripping guitar solo that recalls Steve Hackett.

Many electronic artists who came from the same traditions as Darshan Ambient tend towards the monochromatic in tone, with careers, let alone albums, that don’t vary much over the years. But Darshan Ambient has created a CD of wide-ranging stylistic scope while still maintaining a coherent voice. Whatever color you dream in, Dream in Blue might be your perfect soundtrack.

~© 2011 John Diliberto

you can see videos and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

 

Akara

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(November 2011)





Akara
Extradimensional Ethnography

If Afro Celt Sound System had brought Philip Glass and Dead Can Dance into their trans-global orbit, it might have sounded like Akara. It’s a fantasy meeting of orchestral, electronic and world-music elements with a couple of wrinkles tossed in that are strictly from the imagination of Joshua Penman.

But this isn’t just music, it’s a conceptual project. Music can take you to another world, whether it be the dystopian regions of Nine Inch Nails or the fantasy realms of Yes. Akara wants you to believe that their music actually comes from another world. Penman posits the idea that there is another dimension that he has tapped into, that was here before us and maybe even begat us. Extradimensional Ethnography presents the music of that other dimension, and the lyrics on the album are attributed to the “Luminous beings” from the other side.

Here’s what he writes on the website:

You awoke. You were there, among the luminous beings. You did not know how you had arrived, or what language they were speaking, but you understood they meant no harm and they wished to sing you a story.
It was important.

Wherever the music comes from, it’s an exotic and intoxicating sound that nods to the world fusion of Afro Celt Sound System and the supralingua vocalese of Lisa Gerrard. But Penman, the brain trust behind the project, has his own take on the global electronica formula: he brings in orchestras, live ethnic instruments and a compelling sense of melody.

Femke Weidema is the vehicle for the lyrics of the “luminous beings.” She sings in a fragile soprano, usually multi-tracked, that emerges through the ether like a voice calling from the spirit world. Like Gerrard, she makes her wordless vocalese sound like an actual language, while at the same time filling more of an instrumental than lyrical role.

It may not emanate from another world, but Akara creates a global orchestral music of the furthest imagination, one that propels you with surging rhythms and melodies that caress like the gentlest hands. Ethnic elements are uprooted: the Indian mandolin could very well be a middle eastern oud; the flutes sound more eastern than western; the strings could often be mistaken for a sarangi or erhu; and the percussion flows east and west between dance marches and shifting bendir beats. Only the electronics always sound electronic, with gurgling saw-tooth buzzes and stutters.

It’s the use of classical orchestral elements, that really sets this project apart. Joshua Penman has spent a lot of his young career composing orchestral works and he’s brought that experience into Akara with organic, elegant horn and string arrangements. The orchestral midsection of “Dissolving the Veil,” could fit perfectly on a classical concert stage.

But the stage for Akara is definitely between your ears where they construct: a ritual temple of prayer and dance, contemplation and ecstasy. Akara’s Extradimensional Ethnography is our CD of the Month for November.

~© 2011 John Diliberto

you can listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

 

Patrick Phearn - Transitions

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(October 2011)





Patrick O’Hearn
Transitions

From the opening notes of transition, an echoing piano against a delayed pulse, it’s obvious that Transitions is a Patrick O’Hearn album. It brings up memories of CDs like Indigo and Metaphor with its dark melancholy, hushed lyricism and synth pads of doom. But that’s not to say that Transitions is a retread. Instead it takes him further out on an trail that began in 1985 with his solo debut, Ancient Dreams, on the Private Music label. More than any other artist on that label, O’Hearn lived up to that spirit with deeply personal, introspective recordings. He said he composed that first album alone in hotel rooms while touring with Missing Persons, just him, a synthesizer and a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon.


In that regard, it seems not much has changed. Each track on Transitions is a deep exploration of mood. “Restless” pulses with an insistent percussive rhythm while the somnolent melody is carried by O’Hearn on electric bass and arco acoustic bass. It’s one of those tunes that manages to be mournful and quietly triumphal at the same time. Transitions retains some of the spartan textures of Glaciation, his austere album of ambient chamber music from 2007. There are no big crescendos and the layers aren’t quite as thick as on his classic albums. Even the surging groove of “Reaching Land” is muted. Instead, he lets his melodies stand on their own, like the acoustic “Well Mannered” a trio for acoustic bass, piano and classical guitar, the latter played by Bryan Johnson. It’s a nice contrast to the more synth laden sounds of most of Transitions.


O’Hearn was never just a synthesist, he’s also a bassist who played modern jazz with Joe Henderson, beyond modern rock with Frank Zappa and new wave pop with Missing Persons. It’s one reason all his albums have such a strong melodic sensibility. A lot of electronic music gets dated, but not Patrick O’Hearn’s. Transitions is an album that you’ll keep coming back to, in those quiet moments when you need some private music. There’s a good reason why he was voted an Icon of Echoes.

~© 2011 John Diliberto

you can see a video and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

Join the Echoes CD of the Month Club

 

Jeff Oster - Surrender

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(September 2011)





Jeff Oster

Surrender


Until recently, you didn’t hear much trumpet outside of jazz in contemporary music; Jon Hassell, Mark Isham and you’re pretty much done. But lately there’s been a cavalcade of trumpeters with electronic aspirations, including Nils Petter Molvaer, Ben Neil, Giorgio Li Calzi and Arve Henriksen. Jeff Oster should be on that list as well. Until his 2005 debut, Released, he was a journeyman horn player. Now he’s the go-to trumpeter for any number of musicians, including Windham Hill Records founder, Will Ackerman.


With this third CD, Jeff Oster enters edgier terrain with an even more personal sound. Surrender is an album of 21st century lounge music, morphed through soulful melodies, snaky grooves and film noir textures. “All That Matters” establishes the terrain with a swampy rhythm redolent of Jon Hassell’s sound from about 16 years ago, during his Blue Screen phase. Oster smears harmonized and echoing trumpet across the slow groove, intoning a dark, Miles-esque minimalist melody.


Jeff Oster has made music for dark nights and rain-swept city streets, with a trumpet sound that seems as if it were blown in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio circa 1958. But this is thoroughly modern music which is by turns growling, slinky, seductive and trancey. He spaces out completely on “53 Mirrors”, echoing his flugelhorn against a cycle of tuned percussion sounds and swirling, tremulous synthesizers. Oster loves playing these long, legato lines, leaving notes hanging sustained above the firmament like frozen skyways.


While Oster’s previous album, True, featured many guest musicians, Surrender is mostly a two-man show. He’s joined by synthesist and programmer Bryan Carrington, who co-wrote all but three tracks, plays keyboards and programs and co-produced the album. The lone signature guest is Diane Arkenstone who goes Donna Summers breathy on the title track and plays the role of the affirming voice of Oster’s philosophical musings on “The Voice.”


Jeff Oster has found a personal voice in his music. While the influences are apparent - Miles, Hassell, Isham - he’s synthesized them into his own mood-evoking music: a dark, liquid, smoke-filled lounge of neon and tarnished chrome. Surrender is the Echoes CD of the Month for September.

~© 2011 John Diliberto

you can see a video and listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

 

Atomic Skunk

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(August 2011)





Atomic Skunk

Alchemy

It’s difficult finding a signature sound in the fragmented world of electronic music, but Rich Brodsky, recording as Atomic Skunk, has succeeded.  Each successive album has found him developing his own voice, one that merges influences from The Grateful Dead to The Orb, into his own sound and he’s finally reached maturity on his new CD, Alchemy.

Atomic Skunk’s compositions are built out of seemingly random sounds, some from nature, some from places undefined. These become the sonic clay that Brodsky molds into his compositions.  On “Rhino,” an abstracted forest murmurs and chirps while metallic percussion burbles to the surface of algae-covered pools. Eventually a groove enters, a little ominous, like a descent into the Amazonian canyons of the film Aguirre. Gamelan metallophones, glitch effects and a slowly assertive bass line propel the piece into its slowly-resolving arc. 

On his last album, Portals, Atomic Skunk cut a beautiful cover of The Grateful Dead’s “China Doll.”  “Equinox” seems almost like an extension of that track as Brodsky pulls his hands away from the computer keyboard and strums a plaintive guitar refrain.  It’s a nice contrast to the more hypnotic, eastern inflected central melody played on a sampled violin.  

Atomic Skunk’s music has a definite connection to the exotica of Les Baxter’s “Quiet Village.” Only now, instead of a band making jungle noises, Brodsky pulls those atmospheres from the libraries of freesound.org. And Atomic Skunk is working in a more free-form world of sound design where Balinese Gamelan can mix with Middle Eastern percussion and none of it sounds like it originally appeared in either of those traditions.  Instead, Atomic Skunk orchestrates his own culture, a global village of the imagination.  Gamelan instruments figure on many tracks, especially “Lotusmud” where they’re played in a cyclical figure that sounds so innocent next to the more frightening sounds and percussive thuds that surround it.

Brodsky’s not afraid to cut loose into more dynamic terrain including the forceful, sawtoothed, phased and harmonized buzzsaw that dives across “Sunwheel” like an avenging angel.  That sound returns on “Ghosts and Angels” the most melodically haunting track with the buzzsaw arcing over an array of metallic percussion hocketing across the stereo spectrum.

Atomic Skunk’s Alchemy concludes like every piece begins, in ambience.  Only on the final track, there’s no build or arc. There’s no groove or melodic hook to pull you out.  The ambience continues for 24 minutes on “Temple of Stars,” a deep interior space journey full of twinkling bells, groaning monks, evanescent synth pads and horror film sound effects of a creaky spaceship.  Don't put this track on at night when you're alone.

This dark ending belies the colorful journey that came before it.  Rich Brodsky has made an album that invites you in, then sends you slowly spinning through his surreal world.  Alchemy is the Echoes CD of the Month for August.

~© 2011 John Diliberto

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Fionnuala Sherry

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(July 2011)




Fionnuala Sherry
Songs from Before

On her solo debut album, Fionnuala Sherry tackles the old chestnut melodies of her Irish home, but Songs from Before is far from a traditional album.  Instead, Sherry has reimagined these songs, pulling them out of an Irish mist, coaxing them slowly from the low-lying fog of a distant past.  “An Cuilthionn,” often know as “The Coolin’” sets the tone with a dark, brooding texture of storm clouds on the horizon. Ghost strings trail Sherry’s violin over a groove that’s part bodhran drum and part electronica loop.

An Cuilthionn” signals that Songs from Before isn’t an album by Secret Garden, the Irish-Norwegian duo that Sherry also plays in.  With Secret Garden, Sherry plays sweet solos over partner Rolf Lovland's flocked velvet arrangements, but Songs from Before is something darker and more introspective.

Sherry left Lovland home for this project, but took up with another Norwegian, Kjetil Bjerkestrand.  He adds surreal and shadowed textures to these timeworn melodies.  On songs like "Our Wedding Day" (She Moved Through the Faire) and "My Lagan Love" the familiar tunes sneak up on you, forming like imagined shapes in electronic clouds.

For the most part, Bjerkestrand avoids the clichés you might expect in this kind of cross-over.  He eschews hip-hop grooves and electronica glitch strategies in favor of subtly mutated sounds and hazy textures. When he isn’t conjuring atmospherics, he’ll be laying down “Riders on the Storm” piano and tremolo guitar, like on “The Norwegian Minstrel Boy.”  Only on his own song, “The Crossing,” crosses fully over into lounge territory.

Another original composition on the album is Sherry’s “Song from Before.” It taps Balinese gamelan and Japanese koto sounds for its lilting pentatonic backing while Sherry plays a romantic melody across the top, alternating with Espen Leite’s nostalgic accordion.

Nostalgia tints much of the music on Songs from Before which isn’t surprising given the traditional source material. You don’t need the scratchy record sound effects on “The Last Rose” to tell you these are old tunes, but it creates a poignant contrast with Bjerkestrand’s modern arrangements. “The Last Rose” combines minimalist percussion in a looped groove with pipa plucks for a sound that’s far from the Emerald Isles, yet Sherry’s violin playing never leaves tradition too far behind.

Sherry’s Songs from Before is a haunting album in every sense of that word.  It summons up spirits from a distant past, childhood memories of hearing these songs on her father’s knee, and yearning for a lost time, while also placing those sounds in the modern sonic landscapes of the 21st century.

Fionnuala Sherry’s Songs from Before is the Echoes CD of the Month for July.

~© 2011 John Diliberto

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Buy It

(June 2011)




Winterlight
Hope Dies Last

The name is decidedly out of season but the music of Winterlight will soothe a sun‑seared mind on the hottest summer day, so maybe it is an appropriate selection for the June Echoes CD of the Month.  Winterlight is the recording persona of Tim Ingham from England. He's also recorded as Lightsway.  With his American debut, Hope Dies Last, he has created an album of electronic melancholy, a sound that echoes back a decade to Ulrich Schnauss's Far Away Trains Passing By with its mix of major key melodicism, minor key moods and propulsive rhythms.   They also share a penchant for shoegaze guitar textures, albeit, often rendered via computer modeling.

Winterlight takes you on a trip that begins on "A Sky Full of Clouds" with a triumphal heaven‑sent array of descending synth melodies and ascending choral voices swirled in psychedelic colors.  Like most of the other tracks on Hope Dies Last, Winterlight manages to be moody and exultant at the same time.  It's music that begins in quiet and isolation and maybe even a little pain and somehow rises above it all to joy.  Perhaps that's where "Between Joy" derives its title.

But then, Ingham finds joy and triumph even in "Plattenbauten: Palast," named for the pre‑fabricated block construction of Berlin Wall‑era East Germany.  You'd think that would inspire mechanistic music, but Winterlight's sound evokes vegetation breaking through the concrete cracks, subsuming the ugly architecture into its own, organic world.

Ingham took the name Winterlight from the Ingmar Bergman film, Winterlight, a story about loss of faith.  But again, where others might find doom and desolation, Ingham seems to find affirmation and redemption ‑ except the last track.  "I Still Hope" may have a positive message, but this drone‑zone excursion sounds like a slow motion fugue, trawling the depths of despair like Gollum wandering the wasteland of Mordor, or Bukowski in an alcoholic fog.

Tim Ingham has described Winterlight's music as "a warm light in the darkness and the cold." It's that mixture of shadow beneath the surface, a kind of serrated joy that makes Hope Dies Last an album that can follow you into the bleakest or the brightest days. It's the Echoes CD of the Month for June.

~© 2011 John Diliberto

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Moby - Destroyed

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(May 2011)




Moby
Destroyed

With Destroyed and his previous CD, Wait for Me, Moby has moved from an iconic electronic trendsetter to a singer-songwriter exploring personal stories with melancholy depth. Even his instrumentals, of which there are many on Destroyed, have the feel of diary entries. The opening track, “The Broken Pieces” sets the introspective mood of the album, playing like the soundtrack for a train moving through a rain-swept countryside.

Moby says that Destroyed was written while touring, during nights of insomnia in fluorescent-lit airports and luxurious hotel rooms. That may account for the sometimes desolate, isolated and sealed-in feel that pervades many of the songs here, although the same could be said of much of Moby’s oeuvre. He’s not a complex lyric writer, in fact, many of his songs could almost be taken as haiku or mantras. The sense of loss is powerful on the techno-driven, vocoder chant of oblivion on “Be the One.”

I’ll never see what you wanted …love
I was the hell that you needed…oh
I was the one when you needed love.

Moby repeats that technique on “After,” repeating the phrase “But my mind was low” in a hymn of insistent despair.

As he did on Wait for Me, Moby brings in several singers including Emily Zuzik who co-wrote “The Low Hum.” With the classic electronica voice, cool and a bit seductive, she contrasts with the world-weary vocals often favored by Moby. That comes from Inyang Bassey. She was a soul-belter on his 2009 tour, but she taps a more introspective side for another Moby mantra on “Rockets.” “The Right Thing,” however, presents her in more of a torch song mode.

Like “JLTF” from Wait for Me, Moby’s songs are often about friends lost to drugs and disease. “The Day” covers both angles as a bedside prayer to his mother who is heading toward the light that also doubles as a lament for friends struggling with addiction. Although Moby’s voice is as flat as the western plains, like Brian Eno, he’s somehow able to make it work in these soulful, heart-rending songs of loss. That song also has a sound design and rhythm machine groove that recalls Eno’s “Cindy Tells Me.” (Dig Heather Graham as an animated Valkyrie angel in the video.)

Moby doesn’t break any new ground on Destroyed, but like seeds in a garden, his music sprouts in different ways with every growth cycle. “Lie Down in Darkness” evokes the vocal sampling of his earlier recording Play: this time Moby deploys a gospel-like hymn sung by Joy Malcolm over a surging rhythm and symphonic synth strings. He also still includes anthemic instrumentals like “The Violent Bear It Away” which uses a repeated piano arpeggio to build tension amid a wave of synth strings and percussion. “Victoria Lucas,” a pen name of Sylvia Plath, is a throwback to the more techno-driven sounds of “Go!” His chilled electronics have the 1980s synth feel of Arp String Ensembles, drum machines and vocoders.

Much of Moby’s music is about framing. And you can see that in the companion photographic book. He places a border around an object that would otherwise go unnoticed in the babble and clutter of the real world, drawing it out of the background, like the title in the cover shot of the album. The word “Destroyed” is in the frame of an LED scroll at an airport, pulled out of the context of the warning that “Unattended luggage will be destroyed.”

I was destroyed by Moby’s latest, which is why Destroyed is the Echoes CD of the Month for May.


~© 2011 John Diliberto

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Vicki Richards

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(April 2011)




Vicki Richards
She Vanishes

Vicki Richards is a violinist who’s plugged in and globally wired. And she has been since we started playing her music back at the dawn of Echoes in 1989 with the original version of her album, Parting The Waters. She’s played on albums by Steve Roach (The Serpent’s Lair) and Black Tape for a Blue Girl (Remnants of a Deeper Purity) and released four solo albums since then, but her latest, She Vanishes, is the most complete realization of a sound that was always based in world fusion motifs and classically-tinged melodies.

You can hear it in the energized groove of “Trail Head (Berkshires)” with Richards soloing freely across the two-handed guitar maze of Mitch Kopp and the Indian tabla percolations of Jeff Deen. The title track on the other hand, takes a more elegiac approach, with Richards and Koop dueting as Richards layers and loops her violin creating electric string sections in a work that soars over a serengeti plain.

While the imagery Vicki Richards has employed in the past have put her in the New Age category, (and a CD of guided meditations called Cleansing Water – Pura Vida amplified that image), her music has always exhibited an edge and improvisational daring that reveals her to be a fusion burner at heart. You can hear it in her freewheeling solos as well as the arpeggiated guitar riff that runs through “Midnight Whisper,” recalling The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Birds of Fire” without the electric firestorm roar.

Richards is a modern violinist, expanding her instrument with loops, harmonizers and other effects that often turn her into an orchestra as she does on the serene but relentlessly moving “Driving Till Dawn,” creating string beds while soloing down the midnight highway. Even when she plays solo, it’s not merely solo as she turns herself into a string ensemble on tracks like”Riding the Thermals.” She plays with the expression of an Indian sarangi on another solo track, “It Was Love,” an alap of serpentine violin and trailing string pads.

Richards has had good musicians on all her albums, but there seems to be a special simpatico between her current trio. Kopp and Deen latch onto grooves that seem to hover between India and Africa and Kopp especially lays the groundwork for several tracks, like “Ocean Sun.” His two-handed tapping brings out bass lines and ostinato pads that propel the track.

Vicki Richards’ She Vanishes is an album of intimate moods, but expansive designs. It’s the Echoes CD of the Month for April.

~© 2011 John Diliberto

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Skulli Sverisson

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(March 2011)




Skúli Sverrisson
Seria II

A sideman to New York's music elite turns in a solo electric chamber work
masterpiece.

Ambient chamber music is often atmospheric, melancholy and serene, but rarely is it as charming as Seria II by multi-instrumentalist and composer Skúli Sverrisson. This Icelandic musician via New York's downtown music scene - has sculpted an album that sounds like a Mediterranean fling tossed into space. Sverrisson manages to have a folkloric sense of melody and an ambient sense of sound design.

Sverrisson has been on the American music scene since the late 1980s. He was a member of an early techno-tribal group, Mo Boma, that cut four CDs and he's performed with people like Laurie Anderson, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and David Sylvian. Anderson even appears on the first Seria CD.

Sverrisson can play wild fusion with the likes of Allan Holdsworth, but Seria II takes him in a deeper, more contemplative direction. These detailed and imaginative works have a more European flair with cinematic hints of Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone on some tracks, elements of Brian Eno and Philip Glass on others. With a string section consisting of just Eyvind Kang and Hildur Gudnadottir on viola and cello, Sverrisson gets a ghostly chamber music sound on several tracks like the lilting "Unbend" and more classically pastoral "Módir." Even though there is only cello and viola on those tracks, they sound like an orchestra wafting in from across the lake.

It's the details that make this album, with instrumental accents from celeste, omnichord and charango decorating Sverrisson and Amedeo Pace's often arpegiatted guitar lines. "Volumes" brings in toy piano, autoharp and glockenspiel set in mediaeval mode with Indian undertones before a cycling rhythm track emerges with a melody that sounds folky and gothic at the same time.

Ólof Arnalds (cousin of Ólafur Arnalds) sings on most of the tracks, and like the strings, she effects a wistful sound with wordless vocals in phantom choirs on "The Sound of Snow," "Divena" and "Her Looking Back." The latter tune starts as a plaintive folk song before turning into a cinematic mood piece.

Sverrisson is best known as a bassist, but he also plays guitar, keyboards, and dobro on the album. There's no denying his melodic gifts on the over-dubbed "Instants" where he plays bass and electric guitar in a wistful, end of summer song that again, plays like a Rota score.

Skúli Sverrisson has composed a quietly masterful recording that draws you into a world that brims with nostalgia, while being thoroughly part of the 21st century.

~© 2011 John Diliberto

you can listen to songs from the CD on the Echoes Blog>>

 


Ambient World
(Febuary 2011)

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A master craftsman taps a deeper, more introspective side

David Arkenstone
Ambient World


David Arkenstone and ambient are not two names I'd expect to see together. The composer and multi-instrumentalist built his reputation as the sultan of symphonic new age music, mixing synthesizer, orchestras, guitars and more in dynamic compositions that could've been off a Hollywood film score or an Aaron Copland homage. Arkenstone has been a bit of an opportunistic trend hopper, with Celtic albums, world fusion under the guise of Ah-Nee-Mah and electronica as Earthtrybe, Ambient World still comes as a surprise because it has none of the conventional Arkenstone signposts at all. Instead, the composer has turned off the bombast and turned on his introspective and textural side with an enticing album that sustains itself over a double CD.

"Acquiring Satellites" launches the album and it sounds like nothing else Arkenstone has done before. It's a delicately painted track with thinly brushed atmospherics and twangy electric guitar while a downtempo thud centers percolating synthesizers. It sets the tone for the next two hours of music

While a lot of atmospheric downtempo recordings tend to blur together, Arkenstone creates a coherent sound while still making each track distinctive. "Nightscape" perks along a bubbling sequencer line with electronic swirls, while "Tunnels" emerges into a snarling Blade Runner groove with echoing guitar.

Within each track, Arkenstone orchestrates a sound world that has the precise placement of a zen garden, but the forward momentum of a slo-mo rollercoaster. You get on a track like “Gargouille” and watch it all swirl by, with a double thump heart beat groove against twinkling star light synthesizers and vibe-like keyboards. Rhythms are subtly augmented while a liquid, psychedelic guitar trawls the atmosphere like a schooner surveying the high seas of ambience.

The retro-synth lead of "Liquid Sky" is like something out of a late 1960's Moog album. Twittering and fluttering like a space flute over more contemporary grooves and textures provides one of the many textural interests on Ambient World, along with the Pink Floyd "Echoes" ping on the song. In fact subtle references abound on Ambient World. Is the opening of “Star Fall” a reference to the original Star Trek theme? I don't know, but Arkenstone uses it to launch a menacing track of slowly moving chords and chilly, metallic accents. Even with purely ambient, drift tracks like the abstract designs of "Collective Dream" it's not all dark and moody. He lights up a downtempo dance groove on "Shinkansen" that contrasts with its spare, yearning synth line and "Time Lapse" has a slowly unfolding, earth-turning melody that recalls the 1980s work of Michael Stearns.

This is a much darker music than listeners are accustomed to hearing from David Arkenstone. But it reveals the composer once again as a master craftsman capable of tapping a deeper, more introspective side.

~© 2011 John Diliberto

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Philharmonics
(January 2011)

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Minimalist songs of melancholy from Denmark

Agnes Obel
Philharmonics


From the first nursery rhyme piano solo, "Falling, Catching" to the last breathy vocal of "On Powdered Ground," Agnes Obel's debut album has captured my melancholy midwinter mood like no other. If only for the second track, "Riverside," Agnes Obel will be in your head forever on first listening. A heartbreaking song about the ebb, flow and emotional turmoil of life's currents, Obel brings her lilting, slightly slurred soprano to bear on lyrics of memory and loss. Singing over a spare cyclical piano riff, she deftly layers her voice into plaintive harmonies that will have you swimming in her bittersweet stream. And so goes all of Philharmonics, a subtlety powerful and singular debut.

Born in Denmark, and now living in Germany, Agnes Obel has that ethereal, mournful sound we've come to know from Nordic singers like Anna Ternheim and Emiliana Torrini. Her songs have a stark simplicity with an almost childlike accompaniment, but like Yann Tiersen's Amélie score, there is depth and portent between those spare, melancholy notes. With arrangements that are Spartan yet evocative, Obel plays keyboards and guitar, deploying them in zen minimalist canons.

Obel's lyrics are ambiguously oblique, approaching her subjects from odd angles like the coy "Beast," a song of pursuit and abandon that will have you hitting repeat to glimpse its curious and addictive chorus.

One sign of a true artist is when they can take someone else's song and make it wholly their own. That's the case with "Close Watch," a cover of John Cale's "I Keep A Close Watch." Over what sounds like a prepared piano or muted guitar, Obel builds this poignant work from yearning to heroic with the contrapuntal choirs of her voice.

Philharmonics is peppered with a handful of instrumentals like "Louretta" with a circus electronic keyboard sound that could fit in a John Carpenter "Halloween" score until Obel brings in piano and makes it haunting rather than frightening. That theme continues into "Avenue," a song about wrong choices we make, even when we know they are wrong.

Philharmonics takes a symphonic name, and it sits comfortably among a new generation of ambient chamber musicians like Ludovico Einaudi, Tim Story and Nico Muhly, not to mention Steve Reich and Michael Nyman. It's only January, but this is already simply the most beautiful album of the year.

Right now, Philharmonics is only available on iTunes in the US. But Echoes CD of the Month Club members will be receiving some of the few actual CD copies in the U.S.

~© 2011 John Diliberto


Under the Wonder Sky
(December 2010)

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A pastoral Celtic Christmas

Jeff Johnson, Brian Dunning & Wendy Goodwin
Under the Wonder Sky


It's been seven years since we had a seasonal album as our Echoes December CD of the Month. That was A Windham Hill Christmas, Vol. 2.  Not coincidentally, two of the artists on that album were Jeff Johnson and Brian Dunning.

Like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Jeff Johnson and Brian Dunning have forged an enduring, if not nearly as tumultuous or lucrative, relationship. They've been together for more than 20 years, since they met in Portland, Oregon. At that time, Johnson was a rising Christian artist while Dunning was in the popular Windham Hill Celtic fusion group, Nightnoise. Despite the fact that Dunning now lives in his native Ireland and Johnson has moved to Camano Island in Washington, they continue to work and record together.

The duo has made some of my favorite Christmas music over the years, beginning with several tracks on Windham Hill Winter Solstice and Christmas samplers to their own albums like the haunting A Quiet Knowing Christmas. With Under the Wonder Sky, they've thrown the log on the fire of yet another near perfect seasonal recording.

Joined by violinist Wendy Goodwin, Johnson & Dunning take the schlock out of Christmas, with inventive song selection and arrangements that fall between the moody and the pastoral. You won't find any sleigh bells on this CD. Although a bouncy rendition of "Greensleeves" opens the album, it's the second track, "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus" that sets the tone. A traditional Christmas hymn based on "Gloria In Excelsis Deo," Brian Dunning trades off the melody with Wendy Goodwin in a song that is at once yearning and wistful.

Many of the songs here are lesser known carols and hymns like "As With Gladness, Men of Old" and "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent." But even when they play a chestnut like "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear" Johnson, Dunning and Goodwin shear it of the corny sentimentality usually associated with that melody and turn it into a quietly classical chamber work full of atmosphere that seems to literally emerge out of a crystal night sky, wafting in luminous hues.

Although "Away in a Manger" resists their attempts to turn it into a pastoral meditation, it's hard to go wrong with "Wexford Carol." They give the Irish tune a deceptive opening with Dunning stating the theme on a deep bass flute over an ominous drone but then it breaks into a lively rhythm suitable for wassailing.

Jeff Johnson and Brian Dunning are wonderful composers and if this album has a flaw, it's that there aren't more of their original compositions on it. That's borne out by Johnson's lone contribution of the title track. Loosely based on "I Wonder as I Wander," Johnson orchestrates a pensive two-note piano bass line, then starts building up sparse, echoing sampled and electronic percussion, followed by Dunning's percussive flute. A slow build crests the hill and opens up on a rolling panorama of strummed guitar and Dunning's flute interweaving again with Goodwin's lilting violin.

Brian Dunning's "As the Child Sleeps" uses a rapid arpeggio guitar riff from Tim Ellis to set the mood before it slips into a wistful ballad with Dunning playing low whistle.

The album ends on a parlor music note in a trio as Johnson sits at an acoustic piano with Dunning and Goodwin on flute and violin. But even here, Johnson can't resist some electronic keyboard harmonizing of the sacred melody.

Whether you celebrate Christmas with spiritual intent or just love the quiet mood and reflective atmosphere of the winter season, Under the Wonder Sky is a perfect soundtrack.

© 2010 John Diliberto


Mark Preston
(November 2010)

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Mark Preston
Nature & Design


A lot of artists get lost in the land of glitch, exulting in the sonic mutations and stuttering effects that create a kinetic groove, but tend to sound less musical with every new strategy. Mark Preston isn't one of them. From the opening keyboard chords of "Essex," he invites you into a world of prismatic colors, understated melodies and rhythms that never pummel but instead, like a fractal moiré pattern, they seduce as much as they dazzle.

Mark Preston went to music school in Boston to study drumming but along the way, he became entranced by electronic music and the idea of creating fully realized compositions in his computer. He traded drum sticks for mouse clicks and in 2007 released his debut album, "…and it will rise with the sun." That album was good, but his new CD, Nature & Design takes a quantum leap.

Much of the music is inspired by a cross-country trip he took, visiting national parks across the U.S. from Maine to Arizona. But Preston avoids the gift-store syndrome of nature themed albums and instead, taps into deeper emotions that transcend his sources. "Casco" could be about a forest landscape in Maine where Sebago Lake resides, but it plays more like an inner landscape of peace and joy, churning along its glitched, syncopated rhythm, skipping through its light-flecked melody.

Since Preston is only in his mid-20s, his influences are still showing. So you could be forgiven a few times if you think you slipped an Album Leaf CD on by mistake. Songs like "Leaving the Tetons" with its mix of minimalist keyboards, glitching rhythms and Arvo Pärt-like strings, played by Dayla Stoerzbach, certainly owe a debt to that band.

Mark is a composer who lets the electronics be the electronics. When he needs an acoustic instrument, he brings it in, including Josh Sturgeon, who plays guitar on "Sage Creek, SD," a jazz-funk track that betrays Preston's time spent at music school.

Preston hasn't given up the drums completely. Look at his studio photos on-line and you'll see he has an electronic trap set. And I suspect that's what he's playing on the shifting rhythms of "Light At Certain Angles." But even his electronic grooves have a bounce to them, like the ping-ponging chatter of "Changing Colors,"

Nature & Design ends with a pensive composition called "The Great Sand Dunes: Alone at Night," It's a quiet piece of Harold Budd like piano over chirping crickets and sheer, ambient curtains of sound. It's a calming ending to an album that spins through its landscapes with the shifting patterns of a car cruising the open road of 90 West, which is also the name of a track on the album. Get lost in the patterns of Nature & Design, one of the most joyful albums of 2010

© 2010 John Diliberto


Todd Boston, Alive
(October 2010)

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An auspicious debut from a soulful musician




Todd Boston
Alive


Todd Boston is a child of Windham Hill records and Shakti and you can hear that with his world fusion duo, Urban Nature and on Alive, his solo debut. Although to call it solo might be a misnomer. Boston plays acoustic guitar as well as flute, bass and percussion and he's joined on many tracks by his Urban Nature partner, Ramesh Kannan on tabla.

He's also doing live looping. He'll lay a guitar line down and just as you're getting lost in the melody, a new theme comes in, played in real time while the original melody continues in a loop.

That makes Alive a lot more than your standard finger-style solo guitar album. Boston creates deep meditative pieces that swirl with melody, from the refined strains of "Harmony" with Boston weaving flute melodies through his guitar filigree to the gentle sound of "The Brightest Night," where he plays a simple solo line, plucking harmonics against a back drop of bass and crickets. "Midnight Dreaming," is a caravan crossing, with Kannan's tabla groove loping underneath Boston who first plays guitar and then brings in the bansuri flute.

Calling this album meditative might be misleading. Much of it is buoyant, like "Just The Beginning" with its Celtic trilling once Boston hits the solo run. The folk-like refrains of "Skipping" sound like an Appalachian folk song with Indian percussion. Boston isn't afraid to toss anything into the mix, including some country slide guitar on “3AM.”

Todd Boston is getting into a different sound on Alive. You can hear his roots, but he has a more pastoral feel than Shakti, especially when cellist Matthew Schoening guests on the luxurious expanse of "Twilight." There's also a more expansive approach to melody than you'll find on most Windham Hill records.

Todd Boston is now working with Windham Hill founder/guitarist Will Ackerman, but I'm not sure how much that can improve upon Alive, an auspicious debut from a soulful musician.

© 2010 John Diliberto

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The Crossing
(September 2010)

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Cinematic music
in search of
an epic film





David Helpling and Jon Jenkins
The Crossing


The summer of 2010 won't be remembered for many great movies, but David Helpling and Jon Jenkins have brought us a great soundtrack. It’s just that movie will be in your imagination. Mixing keyboards, guitars and programming, their latest CD, The Crossing states its cinematic theme from the start. The sound emerges out of a long silence, with a slow motion reveal like you would see in an Imax nature film as the camera slowly widens while zooming in on a desert landscape or out into a starfield. That's the sound of "Awake," the opening track from The Crossing.

From there, Helpling and Jenkins take you on a 70 minute trip of interlaced delayed guitar melodies, ringing keyboards, and dramatic percussion flourishes. Like their previous studio album, Treasure, our Echoes CD of the Month in July 2007, The Crossing is unremittingly pretty, bathing itself in electronic orchestral colors. It manages to remain outside both the mainstream and avant-garde of contemporary electronic music. There's no hip-hop rhythms, glitched sounds or fractured digital strategies here. Instead, there's almost a nostalgic future-is -now sheen to their work which luxuriates in deep textures, rich, full-bodied timbres and major key melodies to the beyond.

Timbrally, melodically and rhythmically, the shadow of Patrick O'Hearn drapes their work. You can hear it in the suspended keyboard chords hanging in deep reverb on tracks like "The Same Sky" and the rhythmic trot of "Two Paths." The title track is a caravan journey traversing an endless sky of distant keyboards, time-stepping percussion and slow guitar arpeggios drenched in reverb until Helpling laces a beautifully constructed guitar solo that twists and pivots on the crescendo. Then there’s "For the Fallen," a slo-mo journey that's more reverb than actual instrumental sound, recalling Steve Roach's most ambient dreamscapes until a now patented Helpling-Jenkins keyboard cycle filters in as the clouds of reverb part.

You can't help but be swept up in the cinematic expanse of The Crossing, which ends on a dynamic note of roaring synth orchestrations, tribal drums and another of Helpling's screaming guitar solos on "Lifted."
The Crossing would be a perfect soundtrack to a film deserving music of such epic scope. For now, it'll have to be the movie in your head.

© 2010 John Diliberto


Elements
(August 2010)

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A tour-de-force that sends you looping through Matthew Schoening’s cello cycles in a live concert




Matthew Schoening
Elements


We get inundated by looping cellists at Echoes. For some reason, players of that most soulful of orchestral instruments have a predilection for hearing their own sound refracted in looping mirrors and digital delays. For Matthew Schoening, it's a mirror worth gazing into.

Recorded live, Matthew Schoening shows right from the start that this isn't going to be some elegiac cello recital. He uses the percussive aspects of his instrument, plucking a pizzicato line then looping in an elliptical rhythmic smack as he slaps the strings. Against a chordal legato bed, he roars into a searing melody, his cello sound edged by slight phasing to give it that other-worldly, though not ethereal effect.

While a lot of looping musicians simply set up a cycle and jam over it for 10 minutes, Schoening's loops evolve as part of a compositional process. Loops are faded in and out, shifting tempos and key changes, interlocking in new patterns. Although every piece has momentum, it's not a train rushing to the end of the track. "Air" shifts on its rails and takes turns that you don't expect. It's a ride in which you won't recognize the beginning at the end.

Elements was recorded live, and in this case that doesn't mean live and edited later. It is completely live, every note originating on Schoening's fingers in concert, playing non-stop from beginning to end as the cellist moves from one composition to the next in a single, 45 minute performance. And thanks to the audience for knowing how to STFU until the very end. I've sat in front of Schoening as he played live in the Echoes Living Room, so I know their experience was awe-inspiring, but their presence doesn't interfere with your intimate relationship with this music as it forms before you.

For all his technical skill and technological assistance, it's the music that keeps drawing you back into Matthew Schoening's looping soundscapes. He crafts melodies like an architect of air and he gets deep into the groove, using electronics to often pitch his instrument down into low bass range. It's a new kind of classical music, a modern iteration of Bach and Mozart filtered through Jimi Hendrix and Steve Reich.

© 2010 John Diliberto


Looking Through Leaves
(July 2010)



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Carmen Rizzo
Looking Through Leaves


You've heard Carmen Rizzo a lot on Echoes, you probably just didn't realize it. He's a member of the Persian fusion group Niyaz, produced Israeli singer Inbar Bakal and collaborated with the Tuvan throat singing group, Huun-Huur-Tu. He's also a producer, programmer and keyboard player who has worked on dozens of recordings for people like Seal, BT, Alanis Morissette and Michael Nyman. He's a behind-the-scenes player there, but even on his own albums, he stays in the background, writing music for a cast of great singers. He does that again on his third album of seductive songs called Looking Through Leaves. It's a meeting of club music, electronica, and torch song ballads that are shaken and stirred into an intoxicating brew.

Rizzo has a penchant for sultry singers. Shana Halligan from The Supreme Beings of Leisure and Bitter:Sweet sings of haunted love on "Until You Find Another," with a hint of Billie Holiday in her aching voice. That jazz reference is amplified by Gabriel Johnson who adds a moody, Mark Isham-style trumpet solo. Over a percolating electronic back-beat and surging textures, January Thompson's voice echoes through a song of lost love and promise, "Passing By," while Norway's Kate Havnevik takes a dance floor beat and does a diva turn on "This Life."

The most uplifting song may be "Bring the Mountain Down" with Grant-Lee Phillips, a singer-songwriter whom Rizzo has produced. The song borrows lyric inspiration from the story of Hanuman, the Hindu Monkey God. But with Phillips' soulful vocal rendition over Rizzo's lush lounge moods, it becomes sensual as much as spiritual.

Looking Through Leaves is rounded out by three electronic instrumentals that are a mixture of new romantic moods and edgy angst. That balance is perfectly matched on the opening track, "Through the Storm," which serves as an album prelude, the drifting ambiences of "Strada" and the CD’s closer, a Blade Runner homage called "Element of Hope."

Often, an Echoes CD of the Month is made for low lights and internal ruminations. Looking Through Leaves is contemplative as well, as long as you’re doing it driving down the highway with the windows open and the stereo cranked.

© 2010 John Diliberto


Gateway
(June 2010)



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Erik Wøllo
Gateway


Erik Wøllo is an architect of ambience, a poet of electronic landscapes. Employing “cinematic” as an adjective for this music is a tiresome cliche, and it's been applied to everything Wollo has recorded. Yet, on his latest CD, Gateway, his music does give you the sense of piloting down canyons, soaring between mountains and launching on trajectories somewhere toward the heavens. Put the title track of Gateway on loud while driving, and your car won’t be the only thing on cruise control as Wollo’s music turns an everyday commute into a fantasy journey.

On songs like “Life in Technicolor,” groups like Coldplay try (with the help of Jon Hopkins) to attain the same kind of timeless, shifting mood that is Erik Wøllo's stock in trade. And like them, he brings a minimalist’s sense of austerity and design to expansive synthesizer orchestrations like the heroic strains of “The Traveler.” It’s that perfect Wøllo mix of ping-ponging electronic rhythms and melodic pads that sweep in searchlight patterns.

With all the electronics, it’s almost easy to forget that Wøllo is a gifted guitarist. Most of the music is generated from a guitar or guitar synthesizer. He can make his six strings sound like an electronic symphony and on the highly ambient tracks that conclude the album, like "The Mental Trail" and "Full Circle," it sounds nothing like a guitar at all with their glacial motion and vast, horizon-like textures. But on pieces like “First Arrival” he can also pull out twanged liquid leads.

Erik Wøllo manages to synthesize influences from Tangerine Dream and Pink Floyd to Steve Reich and modern electronica. But as one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary music, he’s truly morphed these sounds into something that is wholly his own. Step through Erik Wøllo’s Gateway and you’ll see his world revealed.

© 2010 John Diliberto

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Chasing After Shadows...Living With the Ghosts
(May 2010)



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Hammock
Chasing After Shadows...Living With the Ghosts


There are Hammocks you swing in. They lull you into a hazy dream on a hot summer day. Hammock the band might have the same effect on you, that is until that hazy summer dream becomes a mind- altering journey into an interior space.

Hammock is Nashville-based guitarists Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson. They've made their money writing country and Christian music but their hearts reside in the shoegaze sound of 80s bands like the Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive. They were in an underrated Christian alt-rock band called Common Children that emerged from that sound. But Byrd and Thompson decided they liked the instrumental side of things and formed Hammock, releasing their first album, Kenotic, in 2005. They immediately established a penchant for recordings full of densely reverbed, layered and distorted guitars.

After drifting off into the drone zone on their previous album, Maybe They Will Sing for Us Tomorrow, Hammock have returned to the more dramatic, melodically entrancing sound of their 2007 CD, Raising Your Voice....Trying to Stop an Echo. They've also returned to elliptical Zen koan titles. Their new CD is called Chasing After Shadows...Living with the Ghosts.

Hammock's music justifies that poetic imagery. Each song is like a symphonic tone poem, but rendered in electric colors, assertive grooves and shimmering, sustain-laden guitars. They build from modal repetition: a simple guitar arpeggio is repeatedly deployed through reverb, delays and sheets of dappled distortion that moves with inevitability toward a grand crescendo.

Although Hammock create an orchestra of sound with their guitars, they also use strings, which give their music a hymn-like quality on "In the Nothing of a Night" and "The Whole Catastrophe." It's as if Estonian sacred minimalist composer Arvo Pärt plugged in, tripped out and found the spirit. Guitars have rarely sounded so celestial as they do with Hammock. Long sinuous sustains, orchestral pads that shimmer in cosmic reverb and melodies that seem to be carved out of a night sky make Chasing After Shadows.... an immersion experience.

Hammock's guitar orchestra can be heard on their latest album Chasing After Shadows...Living With the Ghosts. It's the Echoes CD of the Month for May.

© 2010 John Diliberto


Ylang
(April 2010)



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Robert Rich
Ylang


The ylang ylang is a flowering tree from South Asia, and it provides the name for Robert Rich 's latest album, Ylang. Appropriately Robert Rich goes back to some of his roots but also expands them into new branches. You can hear many of Rich's influences including psychedelic rock, German space music, Brian Eno ambiences and global trances. He got into electronic music on the heels of minimalism and especially the looping cycles of Terry Riley. That element emerges on Ylang as well as that of post-minimalist and Fourth World music creator Jon Hassell. The album abounds with murky, trancey percussion grooves and long undulating melodies that owe a debt to Hassell.

In many ways, Ylang picks up on the intoxicating melodies and rhythms of his 1990s albums, Propagation and Seven Veils. You can hear the sinewy flute melodies, the throbbing hand drum rhythms, and one of Rich's signature sounds, the lap steel guitar. He doesn't play the lap steel with aloha Hawaiian sweetness or country and western twang. Instead, it's a siren cry, like Jimi Hendrix sent into infinite sustain on tracks like "Ambergris."

With his electronic processing and analog synthesizers, Robert Rich can forge the darkest, most sonically warped sounds around, but there is a melodicist lurking in this experimenter. He lets it out on Ylang whether it's the smoke-like flute undulations of "Translucent" or the Keith Jarrett-inspired piano of "Attar."

Ylang, like most Robert Rich albums, trawls the dark side like a midnight stalker. The rhythms are often foreboding and the melodies seem to come from a dark tribal rite, as alien insects, created electronically by Rich, scutter through the sound field. But Robert Rich also has a touch of exotica. Think Les Baxter getting his Ph.D. and spinning through a time warp of 30 years of technology and world music knowledge. That exotica provides a key to Robert Rich's surreal orchestrations that sound like ancient ritual music from another planet.
© 2010 John Diliberto


Nightbook
(March 2010)



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Ludovico Einaudi
Nightbook


Pianist Ludovico Einaudi is a different kind of classical composer. He's a student of the avant-garde and the rich classical tradition of his native Italy. But the 54 year-old pianist is also a child of rock and roll and minimalism. All of that comes together in an ambient chamber music that is precise in its emotions, serene in its repose and exuberant in its realization.

On his latest album, Nightbook, Ludovico Einaudi brings avant-garde edges to rhapsodic piano works. Think George Winston remixed by The Orb, with a bit of 50's exotica, and 60's sci-fi electronics. On tracks like "In Principio" he nods to Harold Budd and Brian Eno, expanding the concept of solo piano with haunting glitched echoes and fractured reverb. It's like unearthing a digital artifact and seeing its image through a cracked lens.

In the 1970s, he might have been called a minimalist, in the '80s a New Age artist and in the 90s an ambient musician. But Einaudi is all of that and more. He brings an emotional precision and a cerebral play to his music that probably comes from his studies with Italian avant-garde icon, Luciano Berio. Listen to the calibrated emotions of "Reverie," a wistful track for piano, vibes and cello that seems like the last wave goodbye.

Ludovico Einaudi has an electro-ambient trio called Whitetree that includes electronic musician Robert Lippok. He's all over Nightbook, playing electronic sounds that don't glisten and groove like chromium clockwork. Instead, they wheeze and whisper like busted steam pipes and dream voices. "Bye Bye Mon Amour" is an ecstatic interplay between Einaudi's piano and Lippok's electronics. "The Planets" is his miniaturized, ambient take on the Gustav Holst theme. But Einaudi's planets sound more like lost transmissions and doppler echoes from the solar system.

Nightbook isn't all reverie and melancholy. Percussion drives "Lady Labyrinth" as Einaudi pounds out left hand chords against a subtly syncopated beat, like the score for the last charge into the breach.

Ludovico Einaudi has some 20 albums out in Europe where he sells out venues like the Royal Albert Hall and the Barbican Centre in London. But Nightbook may be the best introduction to the range of this artist. It's thoroughly modern music but with a texture and depth as if written on old frayed and singed paper. It's the Echoes CD of the Month for March.
© 2010 John Diliberto


Dancing into Silence
(February 2010)



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Nakai, Eaton and Clipman
Dancing into Silence

R. Carlos Nakai, William Eaton and Will Clipman have made some of the most moving and provocative music of the last 20 years. Their 1995 album Feather, Stone & Light is on my all-time top ten list for Echoes. This ensemble makes a music that defies easy categories, that seems deep in tradition, yet free from the limits of tradition.

A member of the Navajo and Ute tribes, Nakai took the Native American flute off the reservation and out of the hands of traditionalists when he released his album Canyon Trilogy in 1989. He added electronic effects to his flute and then took it global, playing with orchestras and pianists, Japanese world fusion groups and electronica artists. Regardless of the setting, it all sounds like R. Carlos Nakai.

The trio heard on his latest album, Dancing Into Silence, is where Nakai seems to do his best work. He's been recording with William Eaton for over 20 years. Eaton builds and plays hybrid stringed instruments that resemble ancient artifacts from the planet Pandora in Avatar. He's the orchestrator and atmospheric controller on the album, weaving synth textures, ringing harp strings and twangy guitar riffs like a space troubadour. The third member is Will Clipman whose percussion rig includes pony drums based on Native American designs, hang drums, African djembes, Irish bodhrans and anything else that will rattle or bang.

They've recorded several albums together, but Dancing into Silence takes them into a terrain of pure intuitive improvisation. Although the concept was to leave preconceived songs off the album, these three artists have so much melody pouring out of them and are so attuned to each other after years of playing together, that every track sounds like a through- composed work. Nakai dips his flutes in and out of the mix, at times floating free, at others pulling the ensemble behind him in an epic theme. His vocable chants are calls from the edge of consciousness.

Through deft segues between tracks, Dancing into Silence morphs from ethereal ballets to throbbing percussion trances. The aerated performances seem to hover above the ground like a desert mirage, but behind that mirage are three musicians in communion, bathed in a world of reverb, united by the rhythm of the earth. The album’s title speaks to both the joyful attunement one can hear in the making of this album, and the attainment of a quieter, more serene space after listening.
© 2010 John Diliberto

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181st Songs
(January 2010)



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Jimmy Wahlsteen
181st Songs


On the cover of his debut album, 181st Songs, Jimmy Wahlsteen just looks too stylish to be a fingerstyle guitar slinger. GQ poses and an androgynous look aren't the norm for the usual grizzled or blandly clean-cut anti-image approach favored by most fingerstyle players. But then you hear the impressive technique and realize he isn't like a lot of finger-style players anyway.

Wahlsteen has all the post-Michael Hedges guitar approaches down, including two-handed tapping, playing percussion on his guitar and more. But this isn't a simple guitar-picker's anthem. The Swedish born musician grew up as a fan of Kiss, and has spent the first part of his young career playing on pop music sessions. He brings a keen melodic ear and arranging sensibility to his music. A song like "Suffice to Say" could be a pop ballad, with its song structure and use of electric guitar accents.

Wahlsteen can burn the house down with technique, which he does on "The Urge to Gossip," a jazzy romp complete with horns, but he can also wax pastoral on "Carry Me," a gentle song backed by a string trio

Wahlsteen doesn't credit it on the album, but you can hear subtle processing effects in his playing. He introduces “Rapid Eye Movement” with a delay sound reminiscent of U2's The Edge and on “You've Gotta Run Real Fast to Stand Still,” he uses shimmering harmonics and electric guitar shadings that exhibit his open ended approach to finger-style guitar.

The title of the CD comes from the street on which Jimmy Wahlsteen lived in New York City, 181st Street. That's where he wrote most of an album on which he does it all, even picking out the cut you'll like best. It's called "It's your Favorite." Jimmy Wahlsteen's 181st Songs is our favorite for January and it's the Echoes CD of the Month.

© 2009 John Diliberto


Neurasenia
(December 2009)



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Michael Spriggs
Neurasenia

I first heard of Michael Spriggs in 1999 when he sent us an album called Without Words. His mixture of country-tinged guitar with synthesizer textures and expansive compositions was immediately distinctive. Little did I realize that millions of people had heard Spriggs as a session musician on dozens of country hits, including some that he'd composed. Like Without Words, Neurasenia is a long way from his work with Eddie Rabbitt and Kenny Rogers, but it does share that music's a natural flow and an earthy feel that pigments his music like fallen leaves on an autumn day.

Neurasenia is a word Spriggs says he heard from his doctor to describe an essential state of existence or beingness. I can't find that anywhere, but maybe Spriggs' music is the definition. Neurasenia is a CD full of gentle melodies, lovely arrangements and pastoral moods that seem to emerge from some deeper yearning in this musician that goes beyond the confines of country. It's a music that wants to travel like "Waterfall," a track that sits between country and Kabul, with Middle Eastern percussion and a country violin.

He uses his guitars as an orchestra, mixing acoustic, electric and synthesizer guitar. The title track is a cinematic excursion down an imaginary highway. A picked acoustic guitar cycle is punctuated by sweeping chordal strums that are underpinned by a muted violin pad, creating a steady-state momentum brushed by sudden turns. On "The Wind When you Leave," he plays a spare acoustic guitar that leaves synthesizer trails in its wake, swirling like eddies behind a slowly rowed boat. Even though he's inspired by the electronic landscapes of Steve Roach, Spriggs has a pop composer’s sense of form as he spins dreamy landscapes awash in melody, all tinged by a bit of country twang.

As if Spriggs wasn't enough of a Nashville oddity, on the final track, "Xu Moon" he plays the guzheng, a Chinese zither similar to a koto. On this meditative ambient track, he improvises on the instrument over the course of 10 minutes, starting out atmospheric before converging on a looping rhythm as guitar and guzheng play counterpoints to each other.

Michael actually sent me an early version of Neurasenia seven years ago. I'm glad it's finally seeing the light of day. It was an easy pick as the final CD of the Month for 2009.

© 2009 John Diliberto


Carousel
(November 2009)



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Robin Guthrie
Carousel

Carousel is the kind of album you might expect from Robin Guthrie. Shimmering, ringing guitars, layers of echo and darkly melancholy themes played over trancey rhythm machines. It picks up on the themes of his previous CDs like Continental and Imperial. But it's a nearly perfect rendition of that sound from the pensive opening track, "Some Sort of Paradise," to the deeply textural closer, "Little Big Fish."

You've heard Robin Guthrie before. He was the guitarist with the Cocteau Twins during their entire existence from 1981 to 1998, defining an elegiac dreamworld along with singer Elizabeth Fraser. Guthrie created an archetypal guitar sound noted for its use of distortion, delays and reverb that continues to influence musicians including My Bloody Valentine, Ulrich Schnauss, Hammock, and Moby.

On Carousel, Guthrie takes this sound and expands it into a series of drifting, paisley dappled tone poems. While many of his adherents have drifted into the drone zone of pure electric ambiences, Guthrie never leaves melody or rhythm, or at least pulse, behind. Tracks like "Delight" and "Search Among the Flowers" unfold in cascading patterns rippling through the layers of his processed guitar matrix.

Guthrie is a thoroughly modern musician, yet there's a wistful, nostalgic sensibility in an album that seems autumnal in its mood. It comes through on "Sparkle," which recalls the twangy sound of 60s guitar bands like The Shadows via Twin Peaks. But there's also an older, distinctly British pastoral sensibility from this musician who grew up in Scotland and now lives in France. Titles like "The Girl with the Little Wings" and "Waiting by the Carousel" suggest a mature, reflective sound that seems appropriate from a 47-year-old musician with children. It's a personal, contemplative music that happens to be psychedelic and moody.

Robin Guthrie is one of the significant guitar stylists of the last 30 years. He's not a flash player, with ripping pyrotechnic leads and guitar shredding distortion. Instead, his sound is an electric orchestra, layering shadings, harmonies, and melodies within melodies that unfold across his compositions. If you have to pick one Robin Guthrie album to get, Carousel is it.

© 2009 John Diliberto

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Frio Suite
(October 2009)



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Jeff Johnson and Phil Keaggy
Frio Suite

Jeff Johnson and Phil Keaggy are musicians from different musical worlds.Jeff Johnson is best known for his Celtic and Persian inflected albums, draped with lush keyboards, sensual rhythms and his melodic writing. Phil Keaggy is known to a bigger slice of the world as a veteran of the psychedelic rock era with the group Glass Harp and a solo career that has embraced rock, country and new age. Among guitarists, especially finger-style players, he's a legend.

But both musicians are united by their born-again Christian backgrounds and that's how they got together at a Laity Lodge meeting on the Frio River in Texas. They've combined to make an album unlike anything either has done, yet it draws from the core of their music. Composed in their separate studios in Nashville and Washington state, Frio Suite is a CD of intricately painted landscapes, much of it inspired by the Frio River and the photography of Kathy Hastings, which adorns the album. She takes macro photos that have a painterly look, making for often surreal, abstract images of real life objects and settings. Johnson and Keaggy create the same sort of detailed, close-up music that draws you into its patterns.

"Of Time & Frio," a nicely detailed, almost folk-jazz track opens the CD with its light, gentle airs. But that's a deceptive beginning for an album of deep moods and exploratory themes. Johnson and Keaggy's compositions could be reflecting the landscape of the Frio River in Texas or Hastings' detailed macro-photos, but they play less as environmental ambiences and more as interior journeys. Take "Ride the Stone Waves." Johnson orchestrates a shifting, textured backdrop that includes gamelan sounds, ghost synthesizers and plaintive piano while Keaggy plays acoustic and electric guitars, deploying his intricate melodies while dropping Pink Floyd-like echoes, fuzz chord punctuations and some sinewy fretless bass.

Jeff Johnson's sound design has never been more inventive, with often minimalist loops, Balinese cycles and ephemeral synthesizer scrims. He remains a font of pensive, turning-to-dusk melodies. Within Johnson's ambiences Phil Keaggy sounds like twenty different guitar players, offering country twang, folky picking, spacey ambiences and jazz-inflected changes. But it all coheres into a chamber orchestra of the imagination.

From the first piano notes to last guitar strum, Jeff Johnson and Phil Keaggy have created a nearly perfect album of deeply moving chamber music on Frio Suite. It's our CD of the Month for October.

© 2009 John Diliberto


Sangita
(September 2009)



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Fernwood
Sangita

The backwoods of American music may be the last hidden realm of exotica left in the world. Brian Eno collaborator Leo Abrahams, Beck producer Tom Rothrock, ambient artist Kaya Project and jazz guitarist Bill Frisell have all tapped into a bucolic Americana, from country to rural blues, Appalachian banjo music to bluegrass fiddle cadences. But few have embraced this concept more than Fernwood, a band led by multi-instrumentalists Gayle Ellett and Todd Montgomery. They play stringed instruments from around the world whether it's a dilruba or banjo, sitar or guitar.

On their debut Almeria, they established the template for a global Americana music, mixing banjo and bouzouki, sitar and mandolin into a soundscape that's as sweet as a country fiddle tune and as beguiling as a raga. In a way, they're the American version of Iceland's Amiina, creating a gentle, slightly surreal sound like a music box with Indian tines being cranked in the Ozarks. Sangita takes a while to work its charms. Melodies are embedded in an intricate interplay of strings, like the strumming mandolins of "Mistral,” which are topped by a melody that alternates between sitar and fiddle. Indian ambiences, Appalachian picking and an elegant European nostalgia converge on "Cimarron," which sounds like a Nino Rota soundtrack for Fellini, played by a bluegrass band.

Sangita is like an undiscovered musical tributary, a meeting of the Ganges River with the Swanee River. It's a CD full of sonic details and plaintive melodies. Sangita is our CD of Month for September.

© 2009 John Diliberto


Stratagem
(August 2009)



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Chris Bocast and MJCatalin
Stratagem


What do you do when you're a guitarist playing new wave music, but you get seduced by shape-shifting players like David Gilmour, Jimi Hendrix and Bill Nelson? When Chris Bocast came to that crossroads, he dug deep into the ambient expanse and has now emerged with Stratagem, an album that is breathtaking in its scope and entrancing in its melodic thrust.

Working in a virtual, transcontinental mode with Cătălin Pîntea, a.k.a. MJCatalin, Bocast has found a meeting ground between dynamic compositions and ambient designs, a place where echoes of progressive rock are heard in electronica grooves.From the opening track, "To Cross the Sea of Clouds,” Bocast and MJCatalin establish the strategy of Stratagem. An ostinato bass line, ricochet filtered snare hits and a looping sequencer groove link up to an electronic drum loop while sweeping chords push the piece forward, It gradually opens up to Bocast's crying e-bow solos. After that, just sink into the world these two musicians orchestrate.MJCatalin is a Romanian drummer and electronic artist and he mixes both modes here. "Song of the Dodo," a lament for the extinct bird, is driven by his kinetic groove which sounds acoustically played until sound effects start streaming off his drum hits. Ironically, many of these tracks are sampled from their own works as each artist lifted from the other as well as cannibalizing their own recordings. A hidden track, "Zbor Indepartat" actually began as "Return of the Far Fleet" from Bocast's previous solo CD, Through the Airlock. MJCatalin added grooves and changed the piece completely. A track called "Nocturne" actually began as an MJCatalin piece called “That Magic Light.” Both tracks are reborn under Bocast and MJCatalin’s virtual ministrations. MJCatalin supercharges Bocast's soundscapes with swampy, churning rhythms, while Bocast adds harmonic complexity and melodic flights to MJCatalin's electronica loops. You can hear the roots of both artists in 80s synth pop (Bocast played in Tokyo Vogue) with songs like “Mr. X,” but there's also a progressive side to these musicians that emerges on the dynamic, shifting scenes of "The Hidden Face of Eva" and "Caelestis Caravel."

Stratagem is an album of cinematic sweep. It's our CD of the Month for August.

© 2009 John Diliberto

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Wait for Me
(July 2009)


A poignant song cycle that reveals its secrets over repeated listening

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Moby
Wait For Me

Moby is famous as a maker of dance and electro-pop music, but the musician has always had an ambient side. You could hear it in his early work for the Instinct label, collected on the album, Ambient, as well as later albums like Play the B-Sides and the second disc of Hotel. But Wait for Me is Moby's most deeply felt and atmospheric album yet. He mixes minor key instrumentals that roil in undertows of texture with modern hymns and laments that ask the big questions in a personal way.

You can hear echoes of Moby's previous work throughout Wait for Me. Although there's only one track, "Study War," that has the archival voice samples Moby made famous on Play, his lyric phrasing has that sense of old gospel and blues, sampled and cut. "Pale Horses,” a song contemplating death, recalls the wistful scratchy sampled vocals of Play, but are actually sung by Amelia Zirin Brown in a voice that’s tired beyond her young years.  And she does it again on the gospel hymn cadences of "Walk With Me." The title track is another song that seems to contemplate eternity of a lost soul. It's sung by Kelli Scarr, who has a fragility that breaks over the waves of Moby's ghost rhythms, minimalist piano figure and sonic scrims. She sings "I'm gonna ask you to look away, I lost my hands and it hurts to pray," like a half-remembered nursery rhyme, a paean to lost youth, a contemplation of the end. On a couple of tracks, Moby sings in a voice that's less than perfect, but like Brian Eno, it's an instrument that conveys what's needed. He's heartbreaking on "Mistake," falling somewhere between David Bowie and Lou Reed in a song of regret, singing "You never felt this lost before, and the world is closing doors/I never wanted anything more." Despite desperate lyrics, it's the only rocking tune on the CD. For all its synthesizers and processing tricks, Wait for Me is strangely quaint in its sound design, like a vision of the future from the past, covered in dust and cobwebs and attaining a deeper meaning through its archival status.

Of course there are cinematic moments like the instrumental "Shot in the Back of the Head," which takes a grinding, off-center backwards riff and then launches it into a twisted Ennio Morricone-like landscape with Moby's slide guitar. On "Scream Pilots," Moby spins around Ulrich Schnauss dancing on a surf rhythm, churning electronics and ringing guitar. Moby said he wanted to make a personal album, and he did, but Wait for Me also speaks to universal yearning, in a song cycle that reveals its secrets over repeated listening. It will bring you to tears in its forlorn poignancy, but will lift you up in the end.It's our Echoes CD of the Month for July. Wait for Me is not a summer album, but a timeless album.

© 2009 John Diliberto


No Hassle
(June 2009)


A contemplative chill in down-tempo electronica

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Tosca
No Hassle

The Viennese duo called Tosca may take their name from the Puccini opera, but this plugged in pair doesn't usually have romantic intrigue and mezzo-sopranos in mind when they compose. With No Hassle, they've made an album that goes deeper than the chillout lounge. It may not make it onto the dance floor, but it will reverberate across the ballroom in your head with a sultry beckoning call and warm embrace. Richard Dorfmeister and Rupert Huber are eclectic musicians, avant-garde bred, jazz besotted and electronically wired. Their music, going back to their 1997 debut with "Chocolate Elvis," has always mixed heady atmospheres with sly asides and No Hassle is no different. But the mood is purely seductive here on tracks like "Birthday" with Julie McCarthy intoning a poem of "heaven's embroidered cloths" and "dreams laid" at your feet while her knowing chorus moans "Get Away." Tosca eschews conventional song forms and dramatic arcs on No Hassle. Each track establishes a sonic terrain and plays around inside it. They slide some blues guitar into "Joe Si Ha," a hypnotic track that offers a midnight drive through burnt neon plains. Space age keyboards, funky guitar riffs, non sequitur spoken word fragments and jazzy grooves circulate through the CD in a grab-bag of sonic references that cohere more often than they should, like on "Rosa," which mixes more blues guitar with country acoustic reverb-drenched strumming, a swirling keyboard, and conga rhythm. The result is intoxicating, especially when the guitar hits a Hawaiian-style slide. As part of the duo Kruder & Dorfmeister, Richard Dorfmeister hit the scene with sampling electronica in 1993, about the same time as Moby. "Raymondo" recalls Moby's Play both with its moody keyboard-based atmospheres and the soulful field recording calling out a fragment over an insistent groove. The second disc is a live concert from the Ars Electronica festival in Switzerland, for which No Hassle was originally conceived. If anything, it's an even more immersive experience, with alternate mixes and piano soliloquies in a seamless performance.

Tosca's No Hassle is electronica's answer to "Don't Worry, be Happy," a soundtrack to "turn off your mind, relax and float downstream." It's our Echoes CD of the Month for June.
© 2009 John Diliberto


The Grape and the Grain
(May 2009)

An ambient accomplice of Brian Eno creates pastoral music for strings
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Leo Abrahams
The Grape and the Grain


Guitarist Leo Abrahams must exist in a perpetual fugue state. Upon hearing his new CD, The Grape and the Grain, you might not suspect he's been collaborating with Brian Eno for years. His Scene Memory album of abstract, electronically manipulated guitar finds few echoes here. The Unrest Cure, his previous CD of rockin' electronica vocal tunes with longtime associates like Ed Harcourt and KT Tunstall, couldn't possibly be from the same musician. Instead, The Grape and the Grain traffics in a poetic reverie harking back to the sound of his debut album, Honeytrap, a melodic trap of gorgeous, sometimes nostalgic themes. The tone is set, though hardly frozen, on the opening track, "Masquerade." A medieval lute called the bandura doubles the Renaissance melody of Abrahams's acoustic guitar, biding time until the cello and hurdy-gurdy crank in. It's the first step on a walk in the woods through classically arranged forests, Americana-dusted plains and English folk-fed streams. The sound hits the ears as unplugged, but there's lots of 50s reverb and tremolo guitar layered into the acoustic guitars, ethnic strings, and an ensemble that could have come off the corner of a Parisian café. "From Here" has an early-60s "Ebb Tide" feel while "Spring Snow" echoes the Pat Metheny Group, with Abrahams's arpeggiated guitar riff and Tim Harris's double bass. With its twangy guitar, "Ghost on Every Corner" is a pastoral riff on spaghetti western themes.

Abrahams brings us back home on the album’s closer, "Daughter of Persuasion," a haunting piece that culminates in grinding hurdy-gurdy and distorted guitars over an insistent groove. It's back to the world, but the world looks better now. Like The Penguin Café Orchestra in the past or Ludovico Einaudi in the present, Leo Abrahams taps a vein in music that is ultimately more profound than its pleasant, quaint surface. He pulls off a rare feat, making music that looks wistfully to a simpler time, but is touched with a modernist’s hand. The Grape and the Grain is the perfect Echoes CD of the Month for May.

© 2009 John Diliberto


Other Life
(April 2009)

Drummer creates other musical worlds
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Morgan Doctor
Other Life


Morgan Doctor is one of those musicians who finds herself between worlds. The music on her new solo album, Other Life, is marked by imagery-laden journeys colored with Indian instruments and ambient designs. She's a world music percussionist who's just as likely to play tabla drums in a kirtan session with Durga Das as mount the stage with The Cliks, a Canadian power-punk band. On Other Life, Doctor mixes eight layered and textured instrumentals with a quartet of heartrending vocal tracks. The first is "There Were Horses," a sensual haiku with Clara Engel singing forlornly over Doctor's cyclical hang drum rhythm. It sets the introspective mood of the album, which contemplates themes of mortality through an eastern prism. "Namsam Sunrise" even uses a monk chanting at a Buddhist funeral in Korea. But while Doctor practices Yogic philosophies, her music is more progressive than meditative. Odd time signatures and expansive arrangements make her compositions cinematic in scope. It's a reflective mood but with hard charging grooves on tracks like "Silver City" and "Rebel." Benjy Wertheimer guests on tracks like "Come Smiling Back," playing the Indian violin called the esraj, bending out those melancholy, resonant-string drenched themes. Violin and cello are over-dubbed into soaring string choirs on "Silver City."
That leads into one of three songs with singer/lyricist Tamara Williamson. "Show Me How" is a study in epic passion, the simplest of love songs performed with heroic shoegazer moodiness. I put it right next to Heidi Berry's "Cradle." The album winds down through more ethereal terrain, beginning with the eastern trance psychedelia of "A Moment to Go," through to the aforementioned "Namsan Sunrise" and contemplative album closer, "Better Person."

Morgan Doctor’s Other Life is a CD of transcendent ecstacy and subversive melody and it's our Echoes CD of the Month for April.

© 2008 John Diliberto

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Prayer for Compassion
(March 2009)

Chilled cellos and melancholy moods
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David Darling
Prayer for Compassion


David Darling goes low on his new CD, Prayer for Compassion. His is not the cello of virtuoso playing and high flying pizzicato runs. He can do that, but on most of his CDs, and especially Prayer, he's going for a deeper, more introspective sound. It follows suit from his previous CDs like Eight-String Religion and Cello Blue (read a review) as he orchestrates a blissfully turned landscape, over-dubbing cello choirs, laying down reverb-drenched melodies and looping trancey rhythms. The opening "Untold Stories" sets the somnolent tone of the album with an udu-loop groove that drives into deeper layers of cello over-dubs. Prayer for Compassion can seem dark and foreboding, an endless largo toward the abyss. But deeper listening reveals a quiet joy on the title track with the Ars Nova Choir providing a soft Enya-like pad to Darling's mix of pizzicato and arco playing. Samite lays a kalimba cycle on "Beautiful Life" with Darling's trumpet-like vocalese making this one of the few tunes that might be considered light and airy. On "War is Outdated," the cellist takes a walk on the beach where the song title's protestations are belied by the breezy melody. Those are a few among some surprisingly light and playful moments on Prayer for Compassion. Darling even drops in a quote from "Oh Susannah" on "Shoe Strings."Throughout Prayer for Compassion, co-producer Mickey Houlihan judiciously deploys subtle environmental recordings that flow into the backdrops Darling lays down like seeds swirling from a tree.

David Darling recorded his first solo album, Journal October in 1979. Thirty years later, Prayer for Compassion, like Darling himself, gets deeper and reveals more shadings and nuances with each listening. It's our Echoes CD of the Month for March.

© 2008 John Diliberto


Other Planets
(February 2009)

A rocking bassist takes the ambient instrumental path
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Erik Scott
Other Planets


There have been a lot of virtuoso electric bass albums released over the years. Musicians like Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke tried to become gunslinging front men with an instrument that's usually holding down the bottom end of a groove. But bassist Erik Scott has taken a different approach. To say that his solo debut, Other Planets, is a bass guitar album is to miss what a powerful, cinematic release he's created. It's an album that's more Pink Floyd than Jaco Pastorius. Scott isn't a frustrated electric guitarist. He's a composer as much as a bass player who dives into the deep soul and nuances of the bass, extracting sensuous melodies and atmospheric moods.After the opening vamp tune "Bartalk," Scott untethers the bass and heads into space. The title track started life as "Sundogs" on Test Pattern, the last album from Chicago alt-rockers Sonia Dada, which whom Scott has played for nearly two decades. It's a spacious track with rolling mallet tom-tom drums underpinning Scott's rubbery fretless bass lead as synth choirs soar through the background. Although Scott plays most of the instruments, including keyboards and drum loops, he brought in some key musicians, notably, John Pirruccello on pedal-steel guitar. He adds some celestial glissandos on "Other Planets" and then brings some cosmic country to the serene "Peace on Saturn." You can hear echoes of Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour's sustained guitar leads in many of Pirruccello's lines. And remember, Gilmour played lap steel on Dark Side of the Moon. Erik Scott gets some driving, trancy grooves going on "Proper Sun" and he evokes Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western sound on "Donnie & Sancho."

Besides Sonia Dada, Erik Scott is best known for playing with Alice Cooper in the early 1980s and Flo & Eddie (singers from The Turtles and Frank Zappa) just before that. None of that really prepares you for the sensitivity and depth of Other Planets. Erik Scott's Other Planets is a bass player's album, if your idea of a bass player's album includes haunting moods and heartbreaking melodies. It's our February CD of the Month on Echoes.
© 2008 John Diliberto



(January 2009)

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Kaya Project
And So It Goes


Some records simply exude joy and dispense intoxication and that's the sound of And So It Goes, by Kaya Project. The title may suggest a certain resigned attitude or an inadvertent nod to Billy Joel, yet the music is anything but, on both counts. Seb Taylor is the master mixer of Kaya Project and on their third album, he brings in many of the same ethno-electronica elements that made the first two discs so exhilarating. "Always Waiting" serves as something of an overture to the album with cross-picking guitar, Indian percussion, and tribal vocals from Irina Mikhailova, diva of the late and lamented Lumin and countless other ethno-fusions. Equally compelling is Taylor's partner, Natasha Chamberlain. She co-composed several tracks and sings in a wordless style on songs like "Obsidian Beats," where her voice is stacked in chanting choirs against Bollywood strings. Kaya Project uses voices as instrumental colors instead of lyric vehicles. Besides Chamberlain and Mikhailova, other tracks include Deeyah, who takes a Bollywood turn on several tracks and the soulful voice of Randolph Matthews.

The vocals play alongside some virtuoso musicians including clarinetist Susi Evans and violinist Deepak Pandit, who can be found wailing on most of the tracks. Taylor, who started as a guitarist before he went digital, draws deeply on American blues and folk music in his playing, from the swampy reverb and tremolo intro of "Five Plus Eight" to the slide guitar that seems to slip into every setting he creates.

Kaya Project's ethnic brew is all-embracing, from the bluesy "Jamming with Marco" to the ethno-techno excursion of "Obsidian Beats." That's tough to do on an album that goes from Klezmer clarinet to country picking, raga sarangi to electronica grooves. Sometimes that's all on one track, but Kaya Project make it sound like one happy global party. We take it for a spin as the first Echoes CD of the Month for 2009.

© 2008 John Diliberto

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