Thursday, October 30, 2008

REVIEW: DARSHAN AMBIENT- from pale hands to weary skies

from pale hands to weary skies
Lotuspike (2008)
11 tracks: 56:53
Rating: A

After a three-year absence from the ambient recording scene, Michael Allison (Darshan Ambient) has resurfaced with his most ambitious and multifaceted release yet, from pale hands to weary skies. Before getting to the meat of the review, I’d like to first give thanks to all who helped him pull through his gravely serious illness back in April of 2007, most notably his wife, Nicky. More info about this is available as part of the album’s liner notes, but suffice it to say that I was relieved and thrilled when Nicky notified me that Michael had emerged from his coma, was recovering, and eventually rejoined the living, reuniting with his loved ones. The possibility of future music from him was, frankly, the furthest thing from my mind. Now, however, as this new recording sees the light of day, it’s like a bonus for the ambient music community since not only is Michael back with us, but he has apparently tapped into a wellspring of inspiration that has let loose a flood of creativity and innovation. From near tragedy springs newfound wonder and beauty.

Musically, the eleven songs on from pale hands to weary skies probably encompass more of Allison’s rhythmic side (e.g. as heard on Autumn’s Apple and re: Karma) than his more pastoral drifting soundscapes (e.g. The Zen Master’s Diary and Providence), although some tracks manage to meld elements of both, yielding an amalgam of the artist’s two disparate “personalities.” Even though I enjoy Allison’s duality, on this particular release I think I prefer his cheerful peppy percolating beat-driven pieces a bit more. The thing about Allison’s version of glitchy/rhythmic ambient music is that, unlike many contemporaries, it’s essentially “happy” music, not mired in moribund solemnity or shadowy darkness. However, it’s also not airy, puffy or insubstantial. By putting his reverbed/sustained piano against a backdrop of shimmering textures and punctuated by skittering rhythms and/or hand drum percussion, he achieves a pluralistic impact. The listener can’t help but smile with childlike delight, yet the warmth of the music permeates the soul with a calming sense of contentment.

Spotlighting tracks on the CD is difficult because describing the music itself would require a fair amount of detail, as Allison features an wide assortment of beats/rhythms and melodic structure (e.g. the hand percussion on the opening “The Furniture of Time” leads into the more glitchy rhythms of “Slowly Toward the North”). And not all songs have rhythms, as I indicated earlier. “The Look of Amber” (co-written by Jourdan Laik) layers guitar ambient textures in a lazy-hazy collage evoking summery sensations while “Suffering Softens Stones” reminds me of the minimal piano and soundscape beauty of previous releases such as Autumn Light (which I think is sadly out of print). “I Await You” is simplicity incarnate with sedate classically inflected piano set against swashes of atmospheric guitar.

But it’s the percolating pieces here that make me want to play from pale hands to weary skies over and over. The skitching rhythms of “Palace of The Windowed Rocks” skip lightly over sustained guitar, gently plaintive piano notes and occasional sighs of muted chorals. More propulsive insistent bassy beats march underneath an assortment of quirky electronics and textures on “Multiplication of the Arcs,” while “The Rapidity of Sleep” (another song co-written by Laik) features pseudo-tribal percussion mixed with more contemporary electronica beats.

Since there is no detail listed about the album’s specific instrumentation, I’m assuming what I hear that sounds like guitar is, in fact, guitar, but in today’s recording world, who really knows. What I do know is that from pale hands to weary skies is a triumphant return for one of the more under-appreciated ambient artists out there. While Michael Allison believes this is his best work to date, I can’t wholly agree but only because I’d be hard pressed to make that statement about any of his releases since, frankly, so many of them are uniformly excellent. However, this CD is, to my ears, his most complex from a musical standpoint. He’s really pushed his personal envelope. I certainly wish he and his loved ones hadn’t had to suffer what he and they went through but all of us can take some measure of comfort that Michael came through the darkness into the light and this album is a testament to him and the power of love from those who surrounded him in his time of need. Bravo, Michael, and Welcome Back!

REVIEW: JEFF PEARCE - Rainshadow Sky

Rainshadow Sky
Jeff Pearce Music (2008)
12 tracks: 48:34
Rating: A+

Culled from direct-to-computer recordings made at assorted “house concerts” from 2007 and 2008, Jeff Pearce’s Rainshadow Sky stands as a notable achievement for two reasons. One is, as on Lingering Light, all the music here comes from a sole instrument, the Chapman Stick. Per the liner notes, no post-production fixing was done, no after-concert enhancement is heard throughout the CD’s twelve tracks. I’ve always considered Pearce a bit of a musical genius ever since first hearing The Hidden Rift (No synths on that album? Yeah, right!), and this stellar recording may be the final piece of the puzzle which illustrates clearly the artist’s brilliance (I can almost feel him grimace as Jeff is way too modest about his talent). The other aspect of Rainshadow Sky that bears mentioning is the music itself, which is damn bloody beautiful. I didn’t think he could top the gentle subdued nuance and deep-seated emotion of Lingering Light, but he has done so and with considerable ease. Without reading any further, if you loved LL, you’ll fall for this album from the first minute of the opening title song, a slightly jaunty affair with cascading notes “raining” down over a bed of naturally sustained Chapman textures. Gorgeous!

All but two songs here are originals. The two “reworked tunes” are the achingly sad “A Secret to Hide” and the gently minimalist “Through Tears.” One of the new tunes even harkens back to Pearce’s more ambient-ish “soundscape” era, the darkly droning “Harvest Storms.” I had to specifically ask Jeff, via email, if he didn’t sneak a guitar song onto this CD, but nope, this is still just Chapman Stick. I stand corrected and flabbergasted.

While Pearce, in his well-written and revealing liner notes, states that “The music on this release covers quite a few moods and textures…” I would offer a semi-contrary opinion, only to the degree that this is still very much late night music, a lot of it colored in grey and brown tones, much like the incredible cover photo of a wheat field beneath a stormcloud-filled sky. While nothing here is cheery, per se, in deference to the artist’s view, I admit that this is not the descent into melancholy that Lingering Light was or the aching grief of Bleed (neither of which is a bad thing since I loved both those albums, too).

“Autumn Clouds” has a lazy semi-blues thing going on while “The Last Warm Day in October” bears some resemblance to the autumnal minimalism of Will Ackerman’s solo work. “And we Prayed for Rain” is a gentle meditation on variations of a musical theme while “Ashes of Grace” has a delicate sense of beauty…fragile like crystal refracting a sunbeam. “Deluge” is inarguably the most “active” track on the CD, again featuring a cascading effect of notes shimmering against what sounds like a myriad of background textures (one Chapman Stick, one man…shaking my head in disbelief).

While Pearce fans who long for his previous more pastoral efforts (The Light Beyond or To The Shores Of Heaven) or his darker more foreboding textural works (Vestiges, Daylight Slowly) may muse “When is he gonna go back to his gee-tar?” I’m too busy luxuriating in Rainshadow Sky’s evocative sensitive wonders. Jeff Pearce is surely one of the most talented yet also most humble guys walking the Earth. While he himself mentions not being prolific when it comes to releasing music, I say “Better to uncover one diamond every three years than be unimpressed by numerous cubic zirconia found laying about!”