Wednesday, March 19, 2008

REVIEW: NELSON FOLTZ and TOM LYNN - Still Life Volume Three

Still Life Volume Three
Self-released (2007)
1 track, 43:43
Grade: A+

Nelson Foltz and Tom Lynn are the men behind the curtain for Still Life, a series of recordings of which this is Volume Three although actually the fourth in the series (there was a release entitled Interlude which came between Volume One and Volume Two). Sadly, this was the first one of the collection which I was fortunate enough to hear, although based on a little reading on the Internet, I gather they are all of a piece, even if they are dissimilar. Obviously, I thought highly enough of this album that I gave it a spot on my Best of 2008 listing, so you already know this review will be a rave.

Comprised of a single track nearly 44 minutes long, Still Life Volume Three (hereafter just Volume Three) moves patiently through several distinct movements, not unlike an ambient overture (although longer than your standard overture, obviously). What will most likely raise the eyebrows of some listeners is that no electronic instruments were used in making this music. Instead, found sounds (manipulated and altered through studio magic) and real instruments (notably trombone, played in a relaxed bluesy fashion) are melded, resulting in some of the most blissful yet somber and perhaps somewhat melancholic drone-type music I’ve heard in quite a while. In fact, this is one of those relatively rare ambient recordings that, as far as I’m concerned, you’re going to enjoy more by immersing yourself in, although when played in the background it exemplifies what makes ambient music, well, ambient (i.e. pleasantly ignorable but resonating with the listener on an unconscious level).

Volume Three is a quiet recording. Its charms may even sneak up on you. Things start off with a muted warm drone and soon other elements fade in gradually, musical tones with a reverberating quality, an occasional brief solo from the aforementioned trombone, and at about the two minute mark, the first emergence of a beat comes into play. It’s organic in nature, heartbeat-like, and fades away quickly but emerges more pronounced later on. What sounds like orchestral string samples lend an air of beauty and sadness, mixing with the innate bluesiness of the horn, both of these being balanced by the unmistakable ambience of the drones and textures so that it all coalesces into a deeply felt yet never overbearing or overpowering auditory sensation.

Later, when the heartbeat rhythm becomes more prevalent, a radar-like blooping echo shares center stage, pinging softly into the distance. It’s at this point that I realized what a masterpiece Foltz and Lynn had crafted. To make music this “subtly” beautiful, this organic in feel, yet also obviously displaying the engineering know-how of the 21st century, well, it’s mind-boggling, frankly. As I listened time after time, more background touches revealed themselves as layers of effects came and went, always adding something to the “whole.” There is no waste here, nothing is superfluous. Despite all the “stuff” going on, what it really sounds like is a single musical entity, hence why I refer to it as organic (that and the fluid nature to the tones and drones and textures).

The second half of the recording becomes more drifting, sometimes comparable to vintage spacemusic, featuring drones that are even warmer than the previous ones. The tones stretch out and change their sonic characteristics with near glacial patience. On their website, the artists use the terms “levitate” and “float” in describing this last passage and those are apt descriptors.

Throughout all its phases, Volume Three finds a way to introduce comfort and warmth in the music but never loses touch with the core ambient aesthetic. Foltz and Lynn have tapped into something very special on this disc. They have created an ambient music that resonates deeply with the listener but in a way that never really “points” to any emotion (i.e. the way dark ambient might elicit fear or foreboding). While I mention the terms somber and melancholic above, I’m using them to describe the music more than my reaction to it. If anything, this music pleases me to no end. I finish hearing it and feel content and at peace, yet intellectually stimulated and alert - quite the paradox. I can’t imagine any self-professed fan of ambient music who wouldn’t love this, unless that person so hated the occasional use of trombone that it would destroy any mood the music was attempting to establish in him/her. My highest recommendation.

REVIEW: MANITOU - All Points North

All Points North
Slo-Bor Media (2007)
19 tracks, 68:26
Grade: A

(I’ll preface this review by stating that I have no info on how the sounds on this CD were made, whether through guitar, keyboard, synth, or manipulated sound sources, so take my comments with some laxness as far as my interpretation of what I’m actually “hearing”)

Manitou’s All Points North finished in a three-way tie as Best Ambient Album of the Year on my list over at New Age Reporter, and for good reason. For me, this recording epitomizes what makes ambient music so appealing. While musically the content here is relatively sparse and minimal (comprised of mostly tones, drones, reverberations, and textural synth applications) there is great emotional depth at this CD’s core. If I was prone to pretentious puffery, I’d label it “truth.” Manitou’s inspiration are the artist’s physical surroundings, evidenced by track titles such as “Dirty Streets of Winter,” “Woodward Avenue Serenade,” “Snowy Night Riding the Peoplemover” and “Hart Plaza Rainstorm.” The music contains deep-rooted evocations of a gentle melancholy (not over-bearing but palpable), moments of calm resignation, the sensation of memories floating in and out of recognition, both happy and sad remembrances, and a gentle flow of somber warmth, all of which makes All Points North the stunner it is.

I can’t overstate how much I appreciate the artist’s decision to record “miniatures,” i.e. only one of the nineteen tracks clock in at over 4:31 and six are under three minutes long. While with some kinds of ambient music this might be interpreted as a lack of thematic development in the music, such is not the case here. In fact, I’ll hazard a guess that this is the artist’s intent, i.e. these pieces are meant to be mere “glimpses” or better yet, “snapshots.” As I wrote over at NAR, “Manitou's masterpiece of intimate minimalism features brief ambient sketches comprised of warm drones, tones and textures that ‘sounds like’ the emotions evoked by perusing the faded photograph album of a good friend.” These beautiful yet short tone poems are ambient musical “snapshots” of places and times that, for the artist, have personal meaning.

For the sake of those who need the music described, read on for details on selected tracks. “Dirty Streets of Winter” blends reverberating echoed whistling tones with an underlying soft bassy drone. “Just North of Eight Mile Road” has what sounds like echoed textural electric guitar set against slow arrhythmic effects with a crystalline quality. “Woodward Avenue Serenade” is a deep dense yet musical drone that ebbs and flows with a circular sensation. “Snowy Night Riding the Peoplemover” is darker but not oppressive and more like deep spacemusic in its long stretches of rumbling tone. “Listening to Classical Music, Sipping Tea on Your Veranda - Time Stood Still” blends looped synth strings with altered choral samples, while the singular lush/dense tone on “Things Are Different Now, but the Street Signs Haven’t Changed” undulates fluidly. The closing “Looking Up Grand River, From Here All Points North” layers several synth washes together, weaving a beautiful tapestry of autumnal evocation, overflowing with a profound sense of heartrending loss married to contemplative serenity.

Sadly, album packaging is a bit lackluster, although I may be in singular disagreement with most folks who enjoy the idiosyncratic methodology employed by the folks at SloBor Media. The relatively plain brown cardboard sleeve adorned with a barely discernible silver ink block print of something or other doesn’t begin to convey the beauty or emotional resonance of the music contained within. However, it is the music that counts after all. On that front, All Points North belongs in any drone or minimalist ambient fan’s collection. It’s a brilliant recording. I’ve played it at least ten times and it never fails to transport me away from whatever I am doing.