Akiko Yano – “Tadaima” (1981 / 2018)

I’m currently reading Haruki Murakami’s most recent novel, Killing Commendatore.  It’s probably the fifth or sixth of his books I’ve read, and like most of the perennial Nobel Prize short-lister’s works it’s starting to get weird, the protagonist being occasionally visited by a two foot tall, sword carrying personification of the concept of “Idea” that only he can see and converse with (at least so far).  Music always plays some kind of role in Murakami’s fiction, which makes sense given that the author himself is a well-known jazz aficionado and vinyl collector (allegedly 10,000 records strong).  In fact, prior to becoming a full-time writer he owned a small jazz bar in Tokyo.  While the music references in Killing Commendatore have been almost exclusively classical (at least through the first 250 or so pages that I’ve read so far), there are passages about specific compositions, as well as details about various character’s stereo setups.

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In taking a break from reading this morning, I decided to drop the needle on this newly arrived re-release of Akiko Yano’s 1981 synth-pop milestone Tadaima.  This caught my attention because of the involvement of the legendary Ryuichi Sakamoto (♠), and since I love synth-pop I wanted to give it a try.  It’s an intriguing piece of work, one that ambles about seemingly at random, but that when you listen carefully exudes intentionality.  At times it almost reaches the point of sterility, but then something like unexpected “Taiyo No Onara” comes on and Yano’s voice is allowed to express warmth and wonder.  I can’t help but at times to hear traces of dj. flugvél og geimskip in Tadaima, both in the music and the vocals, which is slightly disorienting for me.  Regardless, though, this is an enjoyable if somewhat quirky album that still sounds fresh nearly 40 years later.

(♠) To this day I can’t hear or see Sakamoto’s name and not immediately think of the scene in High Fidelity when John Cusack catches the skateboarding shoplifters.

“Live At Maldoror: Volume One” Compilation Cassette (2015)

liveatmaldororAmoeba Music has a cool YouTube! series called “What’s In My Bag?”, where they take musicians and other assorted interesting people into the back room to show us what they just bought at Amoeba.  Some of these episodes are pretty fantastic, and they serve the dual purpose of both being entertaining while also sometimes turning you onto stuff you’d never heard of before.  And it was while watching the Henry Rollins video a few weeks back that I first came to hear of the label Chondritic Sound.  That led me to its Bandcamp page, which in turn led me to the PayPal login page as I threw a bunch of money at them for some of the crazy sounds I heard on Bandcamp.  And the other day a box of vinyl and cassettes arrived at my door, making me as giddy as a kid who just got a package in the mail for their birthday, anticipating something awesome but also secretly hoping it doesn’t contain a sweater.

The Maldoror is a club/bar in Los Angeles that, once a month, does a showcase of dark electronica, and Live At Maldoror: Volume One collects nine of those artists on one tape.  Stylistically there’s a thread of bleakness running through all the performances, but there’s a lot of variety here as well.  Inhalt’s “Vehicle” is reminiscent of Warsaw, a sort of electronic post-punk, while Burial Hex’s “Fire Sign” is dark-goth-industrial, a bit more Bela Lugosi’s Dracula than Freddie Krueger, but still plenty frightening.  As for Victor Portsmouth’s “March 27, 1895”, well, this is purely distilled nightmare juice.  This tape is like a black hole, sucking all light from the room and leaving you with only uncertainty and dread as your companions.

Live At Maldoror: Volume One is available for listening on Bandcamp HERE, and you can also still pick up copies of the cassette (edition of 250) for just eight bucks – and the tape comes with a download card, so it’s definitely worthwhile.

Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson & BJNilsen – “The Found Tapes” (2018)

The creation of music is, for the musician, a personal process.  Whether making the most seemingly vapid sugary pop or the most challenging avant garde, the creator brings at least some elements of his/her personal experience to the process.  And while we as listeners can never fully feel that place, we can hear the result, and what is produced is, at least scientifically speaking, the same for all of us.  Sure, one person’s hearing may be better than another’s, but at the end of the day we can use equipment to show precisely what the sound waves look like.  So while the artist’s personal experience is still unique to them, the rest of us have a framework (the song) through which to try to comprehend it.

Dreams, on the other hand, are a totally different story.  In theory we all dream, though I’ve known a few people over the years who say they never, ever remember their dreams upon waking.  That seems so strange to me, because while I don’t always remember my dreams, I’d say that most mornings immediately upon waking I have at least some recollection of what I dreamed.  These memories are often quite fragmented, sometimes even down to just a snapshot-like image or two, and they’re certainly hard to keep in my mind, fading like an ice cube melting on hot concrete.  I’ve even been fortunate enough to have a few lucid dreams, which is a total trip and can be quite a lot of fun if you can manage to stay asleep.  But have you ever tried explaining your dream to someone else, or listened as they tried to explain theirs to you?  The entire thing often sound so bizarre, and often quite different from your own dream experiences.  Do we all dream the same way?  It doesn’t seem like it.  Some people’s dreams are quite linear, while others are complete chaos.  And what about the emotional connection to your dreams?  We’re talking about something that is a shared human experience, but one which we literally have no way of truly sharing with others.  Maybe I could make a film or a song that captured some dream I had, but the disconnect is at a very deep level.

Listening to The Found Tapes is like intruding into another person’s dream.  It’s like getting inside someone’s head and hearing their unconscious, the sometimes faint, sometimes bold firing of synapses.  There are threads that seems to have a logical flow to them, but at times these are sharply broken by the entirely unexpected.  Sigmarsson (part of Stilluppsteypa) and Nilsen create a universe that feels like it is set inside a hollow cranium, a confined space capable of reflecting and shifting sound in ways that can be both beautiful and unsettling.  Some places are calm and orderly, others dark and primal, superego and id co-existing and sometimes colliding like billiard balls rolling along a rubber mat, so that even when they don’t make physical contact they still change one another’s trajectories due to the curves their masses introduce onto the surface.  It’s the sound of the early days of the universe, a Jungian archetype coded into our DNA by the big bang.

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I believe there are two versions of this release.  The first is a cassette accompanied by a 112 page color art book in a limited edition of 70 copies.  The second, which is the one I have, is also an edition of 70 copies, but is simply a cassette and one signed/numbered photo in a plastic pouch.  Overall the best genre description I can come up with is experimental ambient, but what you really want it for is the dreams… the dreams…

Kælan Mikla – “Nótt Eftir Nótt” (2018)

kaelanmiklanottKælan Mikla has been stacking up the accolades as of late.  There was a lot of great press about their performances at Iceland Airwaves 2018, they made the cover of Distorted Sound Magazine, and their latest album, the recently released Nótt Eftir Nótt, came in at #14 on Revolver‘s “30 Best Albums of 2018”.  And the praise is well-deserved.  The trio have developed from being a band that caught your attention because of their raw emotional power to very talented musicians, all the while still maintaining that air of mystery tinged with an undercurrent of anxiety.  Over the last 10 years of following the Icelandic scene we’ve seen lots of bands start up and develop over time, and Kælan Mikla are right up there with Fufanu in starting strong and  then just continuing to improve release after release.

Initially the most defining characteristic of Kælan Mikla’s sound, what truly separated them from the pack, was Laufey Soffía’s vocals, the insistence of her delivery and her soul-piercing screams.  But as the band matured and their musicianship evolved they no longer needed to rely on that vocal power, giving all of them more room to explore and maneuver – not only is the music denser and more layered, but the vocals don’t have to be so reliant on making that icicle-like stab into your amygdala.  That’s not to say that songs like “Skuggadans” won’t trigger your fight-or-flight responses, because they certainly will; but there’s plenty of dark beauty to be found on Nótt Eftir Nótt too.  The hauntingly beautiful “Næturblóm” could just as easily find a home on the club dance floor, and if you’re more of an old-school Kælan Mikla fan “Andvaka” will take you back to the very first time you heard them, sitting alone in the dark, afraid of what was lurking outside your bedroom window.

You can preview the album on Bandcamp HERE, as well as purchase physical copies.  If you haven’t heard Kælan Mikla before, you owe it to yourself to give them a listen; and if you think you know them from their prior albums, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much they continue to grow and improve as artists.

Conrad Schnitzler – “Ballet Statique” (1978 / 2011)

conradschnitzlerballetBallet Statique was originally released as Con in 1978.  It was re-titled Ballet Statique on a French CD re-release in 1992, a naming convention that carried over with the 2011 German reissues by M=minimal.

Conrad Schnitzler comes across as one of those artistic eccentrics who, in past eras, gained a certain amount of attention and notoriety primarily due to their strange behaviors and relationships to their own art.  That’s something that almost seems impossible today in the post-reality-TV / YouTube! period, one that encourages people to manufacture their own partly real, partly manufactured personas.  How would a true eccentric ever bubble above the surface when they’re surrounded by other bubbles in a time when everyone strives so hard to be unique that uniqueness has become the new normal?

There is also, of course, the challenge in finding new ways to create something organized enough to be called “music” while still doing something new and unusual.  Schnitzler started making electronic music in the late 1960s at a period when an entire type of music was being born and before it started to establish a set of sub- and sub-sub-sub genres.  On Ballet Statique one feels a certain type of classicality to the compositions, but the sounds are formed in ways that more resemble drops of water or other aspects of nature, an intriguing dichotomy compared to the at time sterile electronic sounds being arranged in a very organic fashion.  There’s a little of the dreaminess of Tangerine Dream (who Schnitzler worked with for a few years), but whereas that group’s music is perfect to chill to, Ballet Statique makes me year to be out on a hiking trail on a sunny day, experiencing the music as the soundtrack to the natural world.