Sunday, March 31, 2013

Félicia Atkinson ~ Visions / Voices

Originally published on A Closer Listen

A wall is the antithesis of a waterfall. Right angles are unnatural, but they define our world. The enigmatic New York City tour guide Speed Levitch once said, “People do have a tendency to build walls in the face of boundlessness.” The wild, the great wide open, the truth; they are terrifying prospects for humans. Visions/Voices uses a waterfall framed inside a box to invite listeners along for a strange, discursive journey.  Félicia Atkinson recorded these pieces in a private space likely made from walls, but the mercurial and erosive nature of water is an apt description for the music that emerged.

Behind the waterfall is a collection of tracks previously scattered between highly limited CD-Rs and cassetes over a three year period. It’s a soup containing evocative soundscapes, disembodied folk tunes, a lost lake, woodland dirges, and lonely towns on a windswept hillside. The mastering by James Plotkin helps to bind the myriad ideas together, but in truth Visions/Voices comes across like a series of short stories rather than a novel. While voice is not on every track, it ends up being the unifying thread.

Atkinson’s voice-in-the-haze gets her many Grouper comparisons, but her vocals appear under so many guises on this album it helps to distinguish her style. On “Badlands” the vocals sound like chants expressed with the final ounces of one’s lifeforce. At times the voices crack or rumble with gravel in the throat, as if the words were sung softly by a wolf in disguise. On “Infant Vampire” the vocals sound like the title, but expressed through a trumpet mouthpiece. Ghostly “oohs” join in while a squeezebox takes a terminal series of breaths. To say this album is a breath of fresh air would be incorrect as the fog and cobwebs are plentiful, but the voices and music are constantly breathing, making it uncomfortably human. The spooky lyrics on tracks like ”Franny” and “Entomology” are also heavy on the hush, the words breathed as much as sung. Be careful not to mistake her for the forest ghost of Tori Amos!

Atkinson’s approach is very different from track to track. Celtic harp graces the intimate and haunted “Badlands”. “This Impermanent Gold” emits a defininite Grouper vibe. “Hooves Drummed” expands like Fabio Orsi or Tim Hecker. “Franny” mimics the dread of Demdike Stare. And it sure sounds like the Mars Volta used the same sound sample used in “The Owls.” With such non-linearity between songs, narrative stability is established within the context of the longer pieces. ”The Owls” is a definite highlight at over 17 minutes, expressing a playfulness and sense of genuine wonder that is only hinted at on the other tracks.

While Visions/Voices does strike as a collection of songs, it is highly intriguing. The music echoes and drifts, yet it consistently feels close to the surface, as if our own skin were expressing itself. There is a distinct air of decomposition throughout, where death gives way to life. That rush of wet, black earth full of fungus. Breath is the most fundamental aspect of human nature, and this artist seems to be playing at its edge. In a sense, Atkinson’s songs are the dreams of the unrealized human, pawing at authenticity. It’s a message we ignore most of the time. Levitch poetically said small trees were planted in the shadows of skyscrapers, “to show us how much larger our illusions are than our true nature.” Visions/Voices is that little tree with so much to share if we only put an ear to it.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Barn Owl ~ V

Originally published on A Closer Listen

Evan Caminiti and Jon Porras have been exploring the more electronic facets of textural guitar compositions on a lot of solo outings, and they really bring it all together on their fifth Barn Owl album. The San Francisco duo’s provocative ambiance is an invitation to city dwellers to explore their roots, the call back to the wild, to the unknown. With V, the vision is even grander and yet more simplified.

Barn Owl took advantage of the studio as an instrument, composing each part separately with a fine toothed comb. As the fuzzy synths and ebowed guitars raise the clouds, V’s rhythms slowly sculpt the geology. They are at times pulsating well beneath the album’s vast sonic landscape, and at others they are a dynamic set of gears over top. Pretty and a bit disarming, the album behaves like an unpopulated earth millions of years in the past. Barn Owl’s recent exploration of rhythm has opened a new dimension to their sound, and on V the effect is highly grounding, making for a more dynamic and even holier listening experience than in albums’ past.

An eerie tone on “Void Redux” draws the curtain. Shooting stars disintegrate, and the thrum of a dark synth uncoils. The desert rock aspect makes Barn Owl an awesome choice to watch landscapes to, and if you sit still long enough things start to happen. Drum sticks rap and echo and the simplest of guitar plucks establish an evolutionary pace. It’s easy to imagine lava in canyons, wind-torn archaeopteryx eggs, and such, but then a lone human voice sails in like a pale sun. This promise of human life firmly grounds us in the magic of V.

Each track blooms and burns with many layers. Organ and guitar weave “The Long Shadow” while electronic storms form icicles in “Against The Night.” The tectonic apex comes with “Blood Echo,” a track which is captivating on its own, but within the album’s context it is a revelation. Rising with a rolling cymbal and ritualistic chimes, the first ominous life forms begin to take shape and lumber into view, like a Diplodocus made of burning embers. The synthetic temperature rises and what unfolds is as majestic as it is intimidating. Here the percussion takes on a sumptuous leading role as the synths helix and divide into the cosmos. Barn Owl are in total command.

In entertaining the idea of creating “doom dub” for years, the band has now created a very strong narrative, one that enthralls with a momentum uncanny for music that is “slow”. Each piece changes color and timbre throughout, so no two moments are alike. Like the earth, this music is constantly shifting. The drums Barn Owl introduced on 2011’s Lost In The Glare are now fully realized and integrated beautifully. This is without a doubt their best album to date.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Crusade ~ EP

The Sperm Whale has long been woven into epic tales of adventure and dread. Killer of Ahab. Devourer of 30 foot squid. Because so little is still known about them, these creatures live more as monsters than icons of science. There is no doubt the three New Jersey-ites who comprise Crusade went big in choosing a suitable emblem for their first entry into the post metal universe. It is their energetic compositions and oceanic tone that help them make a mark.

Guitarist Keven Garetz created the EP’s striking cover, and it tells of the fascination humans have with beings we cannot see. At first glance, a massive creature appearing dead and vomiting the contents of its stomach seems a bit odd, but when you know that sperm whale vomit transforms into one of the most valuable natural commodities in human history, ambergris, one wonders what kind of magical contents this album might hold.

The four tracks are all between three and five minutes, with the overall tempo being more of a jaunt than a plod. EP comes across like Isis going punk rock, with the guitar swimming in reverb most of the time and the drums and bass being full of energy. Post-rock does not have to have big highs and big lows; sometimes it can be high all the time, and for Crusade the EP format suits this approach. Everything is big and ready to roll. “A Picture In The Wall” is a head-crunching tale with a lot of tempo changes and a brief respite with acoustic guitar. For a few chords the deluge subsides with a pleasant rolling of the snare before we plunge back into the squall. Opener “Turkish Ambassador” and closer “Pythagorus” even share a thematic guitar motif, a technique we at A Closer Listen really enjoy. Is Pythagorus sailing in disguise on a mission of espionage in Turkey, only to sail home a hero? The track titles push the narrative.

Crusade approach the music more playfully on “Amethyst,” sounding more like Beware of Safety with spritely bass cues, high hat and more acoustic strumming. But it isn’t long before the crash of the distortion returns. There is a lot of sound with just three people, and the compositional twists and turns are myriad, making for an engaging listen. The warbly reverb guitar tone is present throughout, and while it defines the sound, it tends to blur the songs into one lump of ambergris. It will be exciting to see if the band switches things up even more the next time around on their full length debut, expected this summer.