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Scott August "Lost Canyons"

(December 2007)

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Native Flute in an ambient west

Scott August
Lost Canyons
Scott August begins his latest CD with the pure tone of the Anasazi flute. According to his note, the flute design dates back to the 7th century. August's spare melody gradually becomes enveloped in elongated echoes and chimes which open up to the desert vista that is his latest album, Lost Canyons. August has always been a cut or two above most native flute players and his electronic arrangements around the flute are usually more than the rote synth sounds of his contemporaries. But he's taken it a step further on Lost Canyons. He’s a musician in the one-man band tradition of Mike Oldfield. He layers guitars, keyboards and all kinds of percussion into his compositions, moving from world fusion to airy ambiences. "Chasing the Sun" is an Ennio Morricone-style western landscape meeting Peruvian pan-pipes as August plays a triple barreled flute over a galloping rhythm and a slide guitar that scorches across the horizon. "Gentle Skies," on the other hand, is a gentle drift piece with no flute at all. But native flute is definitely the calling card for Lost Canyons. Scott August sets it in a vibrant global landscape of kalimba and udu drums on "Thunder on the Mesa" and lets it drift into ambient space on the title track. That piece also has udu drum and kalimba, but a completely different, more meditative mood. I've called August's arrangements electronic at times, but it's actually more of a matter of processing than synthesizing. There's very little synthesizer, instead, August sets his instruments in atmospheric ambiences and loops, letting them run through reverb and effects to create their own soundscape. On "Raven Dance" he employs subtle echo delays in a rhythm that works alongside the tabla and udu percussion grooves he orchestrates.Lost Canyons is a place where you won't mind losing your map. It's our December CD of the Month on Echoes.

© 2007 John Diliberto


"Lifetracks"

(November 2007)

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Electro-tone poems for the mind and body

Tom Middleton
Lifetracks
Lifetracks could be a career defining album for Tom Middleton. Among several other bands, he was the founder of the 90s ambient duo Global Communication, who laid much of the digital foundation for that decade's ambient and electronica music. Middleton has done a lot of side projects since then, but returns to his ambient roots on Lifetracks, a CD of tone poems that are as exuberant as they are evocative. Often sitting in a surging mid-tempo groove, Middleton sculpts soundscapes that are inspired by his world travels. I'm not sure how much a sense of place I get from them, but each track has a distinctive color and sonic signature while still merging into a cohesive CD flow. Lifetracks doesn't let up, from minimalist guitar groove of "Prana" to the free-floating send-off of "Enchanting." In between, Middleton sound checks many of his influences. There's the chilled Air-like Fender Rhodes and Moog squiggles of "Beginning of the Middle" and the X-Files sonar pings of "Shinkansen," named for the bullet train of Japan and every bit as propulsive. A couple of tracks, "Prana" and "Serendipity" reference the delayed guitar riffs of "Discipline" era King Crimson as well as the oft sampled"E2-E4" by Manual Gottsching. "Moonbathing," the track that started the project back in 1998, remains haunting and evocative with its slinky rhythm and melody built like a mosaic out of fragments of pings and piano. But it's challenged by songs like "St. Ives Bay," a seductive journey with a fretless bass line coursing through twittering synths, lush strings and delayed harp plucks. Minimalism is a strong influence on the album, and it's cited specifically on the Philip Glass-inspired "Sea of Glass" with its tooting soprano saxophone line against a cycling piano theme. Middleton makes all these influences his own in crafting an album of electronic vignettes and mini-symphonies that drift through your headphones like a film being scrolled through your mind.

© 2007 John Diliberto


Japancakes "Giving Machines"
(October 2007)

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Japancakes
Giving Machines
Japancakes has been around for a while, but their new CD, Giving Machines, is their most coherent statement to date. This was a band originally formed to play one melody for 45 minutes, but they've apparently found a lot more since then. Based in Athens, Georgia, they're the descendants of a city rife with eclecticism and guitar-centric music--think R.E.M.--but they've expanded that frontier in a mixture of alt-rock, country music and classicism.
The opening track, "double-jointed," establishes the parameters with minimalist cycling guitars, high plains pedal steel guitar and Beatlesque strings. The pedal steel guitar playing off the strings on "Lalita" is a brilliant collaboration that evokes country roads in a cinematic array, as the pedal steel becomes a string section in itself. The reedy synthesizer lines they deploy throughout the album give it a strangely nostalgic hue. Powered by insistent rhythms, Japancakes hang in a ground between ambient chamber music and ambient rock with touches of Penguin Café Orchestra whimsy. "Recovering Australia" is like a country air out of Ireland that will leave you breathless and in tears. Like many guitar-centric bands, shoegazer music is part of Japancakes’ make-up and the Cocteau Twins loom large in their pantheon. They acknowledge the influence directly, covering a later Cocteaus song, "Heaven or Las Vegas," turning it into an alt-country jam. A lot of people have an immediate negative reflex when you mention country, but Japancakes taps into a particularly atmospheric strain of Americana that places them alongside masterworks like Bill Frisell's Nashville and Moodswings' Horizontal. And despite all the name dropping in this review, Japancakes produce a singular sound out of these influences on an album that never hits a wrong note.

© 2007 John Diliberto



(September 2007)

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Jeff Oster
True
It was exactly two years ago that Jeff Oster's debut album, Released, was picked as an Echoes CD of the Month. For his second album, the fluegelhorn and trumpet player expands and goes beyond the themes of that album. Co-produced again with guitarist and Windham Hill founder, Will Ackerman, True maintains many of the characteristics of Released with sophisticated electronic looping, harmonized and multi-tracked fluegelhorn lines and textured, ambient arrangements.

The opening track "Saturn Calling" sets the pace with a quietly heroic, surging groove that alternates with pensive, wind blown fluegelhorn cries. After the ambient loops and textures of his first album, you can hear Oster's jazz fusion and progressive rock tendencies leaking out. From the opening track, you can hear the jazz voicings in his harmonized trumpet lines, but the loops and delayed U2/The Edge guitar sets a mood you won't find in jazz.

There are some gorgeous arrangements like "Violet," which features Patrick Gorman (sounding remarkably like Will Ackerman) on acoustic guitar, while also playing electric guitar textures. With swirling cello from Eugene Friesen and one of those open plains piano breaks by Philip Aaberg it's a plangent elegy topped by Oster's yearning horn.
A couple of tracks take the smooth jazz slide, notably "Serengeti" with its cool lounge rhythm, but it’s redeemed by one of Samite's transcendent vocal choirs. I would not have put the funky "Once In A Blue Moonlight," with its R&B wordless testifying vocal from Melissa R. Kaplan, on this album, but a trio with Ackerman and Aaberg, the ruminative "On One Knee," gently gets the album back on track.

With its illusory edges and blurring of electric and acoustic textures, much of which is provided by sound designer Brian Carrigan, True is deftly sequenced. It accommodates dark film noir moods on "This Place" along with the jubilant, uplifting "Mumbai," a triumphant ode with a surging drum loop, Kaplan's wailing wordless vocals and Oster's clarion fluegelhorn cries sounding the charge.

Jeff Oster has been true to the promise of his debut album and True is our Echoes CD of the Month for September.

© 2007 John Diliberto


Rise

(August 2007)

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Russel Walder
Rise

We travelled all the way to New Zealand for our August CD of the Month but it was worth the trip. Russel Walder should be familiar to longtime Echoes listeners, as half of a duo with pianist Ira Stein in the 1980s and early 90s. They recorded a few albums on Windham Hill and Narada, and had a minor New Age hit called "The Underground." They even appear on the very first Echoes Living Room Concert CD, 1990's A Door in the Air. But none of that quite prepares you for the ambient fourth world chamber music journey of Rise.
The album opens with a short mind-clearing track called "Undressed." It's not a song so much as a gateway into the album, shedding clothes and wiping away the sound of the world with chirping flutes and backwards tapes. Once purified, the journey begins. "Gift of Fire" is a dark, syncopated march with an almost military groove and surging string pads. Walder's oboe cuts through and it's instantly recognizable, a sound that is both keening and soulful, weaving the voice of the renaissance with Middle Eastern bends and slurs. Walder alternates rhythmically heavier tracks with spacious meditations. "Standing-Falling" sounds like one of those ECM recordings made in a church while "Divine in Me" has a hymnal feel that recalls Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings." There's an epic feel to tracks like "Long Revealing" with its Middle Eastern overtones and trancey, Peter Gabriel "Passion" style groove. In addition to his searing oboe work, Walder also picks up the Armenian duduk which he plays on the darkly emotional "The World Goes Through My Mind." For those who might have been thrown off by the smooth jazz of his last album, Pure Joy, Rise will truly be a revelation.

© 2007 John Diliberto


Treasure

(July 2007)

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David Helpling & Jon Jenkins
Treasure
David Helpling and Jon Jenkins are both veterans of ambient electronic music. Although we've been waiting eight years for a new album by David Helpling, his 1999 release Sleeping on the Edge of the World remains an Echoes favorite with its seductive melodies and rhythms. Jon Jenkins last graced us with his subtle and exotic orchestral electronics on Beyond City Light a couple of years ago.

Treasure is a deceptive recording as collaborations go. Just when you think you have a melody or groove nailed as coming from Helpling, an element slips in that makes you think, no, Jenkins must have created this moment. You can never be sure on a CD that revels in the sonic sleight of hand of moody atmospheres that morph like cloud drifts and intoxicating melodies played on instruments that are just on the edge of conventional timbres, but have something slightly off. But while Helpling is a sonic chameleon, his ringing guitar lines do add a comforting touchstone when you can recognize it on tracks like "The Knowing."

My ears instantly go to the more rhythmic, quietly affirming tracks like "Grand Collision," "Treasure," and "The Knowing." These compositions emerge wraithlike out of swirling atmospheres and textures to quietly thundering percussion. But the texture works provide their own charm, like the siren-like loops of "Beyond Words" or the cinematic expanse of "The Frozen Channel." That song actually began life as a soundtrack and the genesis of this project.

Treasure isn't something you discover, following the map to where X marks the spot. Instead, it's an album you'll cherish like a treasure, a secret, personal gift of lush, sonic immersion that carries a message from another world.

© 2007 John Diliberto


After the Night Falls

After the Night Falls
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Before the Day Breaks
Before the Day Breaks
Buy It
(June 2007)


Harold Budd & Robin Guthrie
After the Night Falls
and
Before the Day Breaks

It's been more than 20 years since pianist Harold Budd's first full collaboration with guitarist Robin Guthrie's former group, the Cocteau Twins, on The Moon and the Melodies. Primed by their atmospheric collaboration on the score to Mysterious Skin, they pick up where they left off, sans the voice of Elizabeth Fraser, on a pair of matched CDs, After the Night Falls and Before the Day Breaks. Guthrie lays down his signature deep-echo guitar arpeggios and shimmering electric glissandos while Budd drops piano notes, each placed with the elegance and thought of a Zen garden. The latter, whose 2005 retirement appears to have been greatly exaggerated, has lately been stripping away the electronics and making an introspective solo piano music, often born from melodic fragments and languid improvisations. It's nice to hear them framed by Guthrie in an electric gossamer where melodies flutter like tattered cobwebs in the echoing wind. So it's not surprising that some tracks have a tendency to vaporize. Songs with a bit of grounding like "Seven Thousand Sunny Years," with its spare rhythm track and refracting guitars, tend to hold up a little better, while "My Monochrome Vision" wanders into the drone zone. Of the two albums, After the Night Falls is more structured and formed, although Budd and Guthrie do wait until the last track of Before the Day Breaks to unleash a welcome slice of contrasting aggression with "Turn on the Moon." Together, these CDs have more than enough moments of sublime melancholy and deep ruminations to provide a soundtrack for that long lonesome film in your mind.

© 2007 John Diliberto


The Silver Tree

(May 2007)

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Dead Can Dance singer and Gladiator soundtrack composer creates cinematic hymns

Lisa Gerrard
The Silver Tree
It's been a decade since Lisa Gerrard's last solo album, The Mirror Pool, but we've had much music from her in that time, including two albums with Pieter Bourke and Patrick Cassidy, Duality and Immortal Memory. It's her soundtrack work, however, that informs The Silver Tree. Gerrard has composed scores to films like Gladiator, The Insider and Whale Rider that draw upon her ability to channel ancient spirits and explore darker emotional terrain. Much of that emerges on The Silver Tree. Echoes of her theme "Now We Are Free" from Gladiator turn up in "Serenity" and "The Sea Whisperer." Both sound like the wind-swept ghosts of Irish laments blown over the hills of Tara. Gerrard rarely taps the dramatic orchestral side of soundtracks. Only the ten minute long suite, "Towards the Tower," attains that epic, cinematic sweep. In 2005 Lisa recorded a beautiful overture as a demo for the movie "Constantine." With mood swings from dark textures to dramatic crescendos, "Towards the Tower" sounds like it could be from the score to that supernatural thriller.But most of Gerrard's songs are like hymns, sometimes literally like "Abwoon," the Lord's Prayer sung in Aramaic, while other times on a more abstract level, with her channeled dialect on "In Exile" and "Come Tenderness." Her backings are simple: tremulous arpeggiated guitars, a whisper of the Armenian double-reeded duduk, a hint of the Chinese hammered dulcimer called the yang ch'in, some gentle synth-string pads. While a few tracks, like the bluesy dirge "Spaceweaver," immediately get your attention, most of The Silver Tree requires extended listening. Its roots grow deeper and branches broader with each sounding, and that's why it's our Echoes CD of the Month for May.

© 2007 John Diliberto


Mark Dwane

(April 2007)

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A synthesizer guitarist creates a space music opus

Hear sample tracks

Mark Dwane
2012

Mark Dwane is a musician with a penchant for mystical, mythical and science fiction imagery. His second album was Angels, Aliens and Archetypes, The Atlantis Factor was a tone poem to the mythical lost city, and on The Nefilim he rendered an electro-symphony for an alien race of angels that seeded the gene pool of earth. Now, 2012 takes its title from the Mayan calendar, and the year that marks the end of the 12th Baktun, a cycle about 400 years long.
From his first CD, 1988's The Monuments of Mars, Dwane has wed this imagery with a cinematic music that paints the sky in electronic colors and drives the grooves with interlocking sequencers and percussion. Dwane stands apart from most electronic musicians because he's not a laptop jockey or keyboard player. He's primarily a guitar player and his songs are built around electric and acoustic guitars, and most notably, his MIDI-guitar or guitar synthesizer. He uses this device to bring an orchestra of sounds to his strings. "Skywatchers" is quintessential Mark Dwane, with a surging, filtered electronic rhythm sequence demarcated by strumming acoustic guitar and topped by swelling string-like synthesizers and some of Mark's own patented sounds like an echoing glissando trumpet choir. While many electronic musicians have given up the art of the solo, Mark Dwane whips it out, with a melodic lead that builds off his kinetic grooves. As a guitarist, Dwane has a melodic gift and dramatic sensibility that set him apart. On a song like “Baktun Cycle,” plucked strings play off each other in a contrapuntal loop, while guitar strums emerge into a chordal solo.Dwane makes effective use of environmental ambiences on songs like "The Sacred Tree" as very electronic sounding birds create stereo glissandos across his flute melody, blending into the echoes and rustles like a neon-lit jungle. The sound of rain mimics an electronic rainstick on one track and accompanies electronic droplets on another.While so many electronic musicians have headed off into the drone zone of sonic abstraction, Mark Dwane is an artist who still believes in the power of melody, the grandeur of a big crescendo and the stories held within a dramatic turn. He brings it all together on his ninth CD, 2012, our Echoes CD of the Month for April 2007.

© 2007 John Diliberto


Southwest

(March 2007)



A country sound, with a chamber music aesthetic...earthy and real

Visit Eric's MySpace page to hear sample tracks

Eric Tingstad
Southwest
Southwest was definitely the right direction for Eric Tingstad to turn in discovering a new musical path. Tingstad is best known as the guitar half of his duo with oboist and ocarina player Nancy Rumbel. They've been plying their pastoral chamber music since the mid 1980s, but Tingstad clearly had some other sounds in mind when he went southwest. From the opening track, Sunrise at Four Corners, it's obvious this isn't another acoustic chamber work as Terry Lauber's pedal steel articulates an open plains melody. While there are echoes of old country rock bands like Poco and New Riders of the Purple Sage, Tingstad's southwestern chamber music also embraces native sounds. "Voices of the Ancient Ones" has native chants from Petra Stahl and the native flutes of Gary Stroutsos creating canyon echoes. Tingstad mixes flat-picking guitar and fingerstyle on this disc, with tunes like "The Last Caballero" sounding like an old folk tune, but with a resonance that comes from glorified memory, making it feel bigger, fuller, and richer than the original probably ever was. Nancy Rumbel hasn't been left behind. She plays on several tracks, her oboe articulating the soulful refrain of "Kiva" against Stahl's chants. The pedal steel anchors this album in country, but this ain't line dances and spilled beer. Tingstad has taken a country sound, touched it with his chamber music aesthetic, and added just enough trail dust to make it earthy and real.

© 2007 John Diliberto


Erik Wollo

(February 2007)



Celestial evocations inspired by the night skies in the land of the midnight sun

Erik Wollo
Elevations

It's hard to resist picking an Erik Wollo album as a CD of the Month. We've done it once or twice when CDs have been released in close proximity, but every album could be a CD of the month no-brainer. We picked Wind Journey in 2001 and Blue Sky, Red Guitars in 2004. His music captures everything I think of as quintessentially Echoes: evocative, enveloping ambiences, soaring, heart-baring melodies, and kinetic, propulsive grooves, all orchestrated in electro-organic sound. Just about all of his CDs are perfect and Elevations is no exception. Wollo has always been a master of mixing deep churning textures with synthesized and acoustic elements. It's like folk music for the electronic village. Tracks like "The Wanderer" are cinematic adventures, surging forward on insistent, tribal rhythms that have a loping, behind the beat feel, chords that play out like slow sunrises and a lead guitar line that sings in harmonic sustains. Songs like "Evolution" are like electro-symphonies, morphing through minimalist moods, guitar exposition and crescendos into the heavens.

It's easy to characterize Wollo's music as coming from the frozen north of Norway with its blasted landscapes and long winter nights. But indeed, Elevations overflows with chilly scenes of winter and implications of Norse mythology and heroic vistas. It's music that has epic dimensions, but with a minimalist's restrained elegance. Elevations lives up to its title, which is why we picked it as our February 2007 CD of the Month.  

© 2007 John Diliberto


(January 2007)

Chamber rock duo create a dream guitar masterpiece

Hammock
Raising Your Voice...Trying to Stop an Echo
From the opening cascade of glissando-guitars and falsetto vocal wail, Hammock sets themselves up in the ambient guitar band landscape populated by Sigur Ros, Explosions in the Sky and Robin Guthrie.  But this duo from Nashville, Tennessee is etching out their own sound that owes as much to shoe-gazer bands like Slowdive as the sacred minimalism of Arvo Part. 

Although the first two tracks are vocals and despite the title, Raising Your Voice is predominantly instrumental.  Echoes listeners will appreciate track three, "Losing You," where Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson layer guitars, keyboards and an undertow of percussion into waves of sound that crescendo like the Red Sea parting. 

Raising Your Voice... is a densely layered album on which  Hammock swings between paisley dappled beauty and serrated drones.  Overtones merge into ground shuddering chords and heavenly melodies as ethereal vocal choirs morph out of the clashing sustain.  Tracks like "Clouds Cover the Stars" are immersions in cloud distortion while "Floating Away in Every Direction" emerges from that distortion on shimmering winds of vapor.  Raising Your Voice... Trying to Stop an Echo is a massive artistic statement.  A Gravity’s Rainbow of ambient chamber rock, it defies the iTunization of the world.  You want to hear the whole thing, slipping it on, cranking up the volume and riding it into an infinite sunset. 

©2007 John Diliberto


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