Sunday, December 8, 2013

REVIEW: John Malvey - "Silent Night" and "Noel"

"Silent Night" and "Noel" 

Electronic keyboard/guitarist artist John Malvey has two holiday carols on his soundclick page that are worth hearing as they represent unique spins on two traditional holiday songs. First is a synth-pop/electronica take on "Silent Night" that manages to sound contemporary and upbeat but not at the expense of the basic allure of this beloved carol. It opens with a wonderful sweeping synth wash, set alight with twinkling bell tones, before settling into a midtempo rhythm backdrop for the carol's melody, which by turns is played by the duo of synth-bass and keyboard. The second verse is played by flute with a backdrop of a bass/alto male choir. The bridge is quite lovely with a gentle improvisation on a piano-like keyboard surrounded by glistening and flowing textures and a lovely flute line, before the final verse ignites the sky with some snazzy electric guitar, well-mixed so as to not overpower the carol's spiritual aspect. The other carol is "Noel" which begins in a much more restrained style, with piano and subtle bell and chime tones, as well as subdued strings. Acoustic guitar takes over the lead melody at about the midpoint, and then once again, Malvey introduces electric guitar (this time with the added "oomph" of snare drums) for a brief injection of fire, before bringing the song to a gentler close. While traditionalists might bristle at the chill-out take on "Silent Night" or the brief flurry of stinging guitar on "Noel," I admire the artist's attempt to put a new, modern wrinkle on the two carols. Even rockers celebrate the holidays, don’t they? The two tracks can be heard (along with the artist's other works) at this link

REVIEW: Kathryn Toyama and Renaud Schmitt - "Silent Night"

"Silent Night"

Pianist Kathryn Toyama, working with Renaud Schmitt (orchestrations and arranger), have given holiday music lovers an early Christmas present–a free download of a wonderful version of "Silent Night." In Kathryn's words "We offer our rendition of 'Silent Night' with heartfelt intentions to raise vibrations throughout the world… may there be peace and harmony among all living beings." With music this lovely as inspiration, perhaps that hopeful vision is in sight. Toyama's sensitive piano performance is enhanced by Schmitt's orchestral embellishments (strings, horns, bells, percussion). Opening with an exquisitely serene first verse, the carol moves into a more dramatic passage with a choir and timpani adding even power and passion, before reverting to the gentler motif, the carol's melody carried by piano, bells, and strings. The track's magic makes me wish for a more fully realized holiday album by these two talented artists, so I guess that will have to be one of my wishes for the New Year. The track can be downloaded at Kathryn Toyama's bandcamp page here:

Saturday, November 30, 2013

REVIEW: Bryan Carrigan - below zero

below zero

In the short span of four releases, electronic music composer Bryan Carrigan has established himself as one of the brightest rising stars in the chill-out, ambient, world fusion, and electronica genres. For his latest venture, below zero, Carrigan unfurls his sails and sets out for dub and chill-out land, eschewing (for the most part) his flirtations with world and new age from his last two albums. What stays the same from the past is Carrigan's adept layering of his mélange of keyboards and synths, incorporating both retro and contemporary musical and rhythmic elements as well as his knack for crafting infectious melodic refrains and catchy beats that entice toes to tap floors and fingers to rap table tops.

When I first spun below zero's opening tracks, what came to mind were the assorted A.D. compilations on Waveform, as well as a few other recordings on that ground-breaking dub/downtempo/chill label. The same high level of production quality on that label's releases is mirrored here by Carrigan. Nothing on below zero is cut-rate: synths sizzle, beats pop, and keyboard melodies caress the airwaves. Even though Carrigan's previous three albums (windows, focus, and passing lights) all exhibited a high degree of quality in production and engineering, on below zero he ups the ante to where this self-released album is the equal of any label release. This guy clearly knows his way around mixing and mastering technologies.

Another trademark component of Carrigan's music (unlike some similar artists, such as Ryan Farish) is how his tracks can be quite varied while still maintaining a noticeable Carrigan "sound."  Some artists in the chill-out and lounge genres craft one or two templates and stick with them. Carrigan re-invents himself over and over on below zero. First up on the disc, the title track slides out amidst shuffling dub beats, echoed piano, and spacy synth effects. "premise" glitters with shimmerings juxtaposed with an eerie, melancholic lead keyboard melodic refrain, offset by moody background ambient textures and anchored by a slow tempo dubbish rhythm. "new day" ramps the tempo, energy, and mood up to a pleasant level of daytime cruising in the sunshine (this is one of those great put-the-convertible's-top-down songs), with peppery synths, pumping synth bass notes, and a catchy keyboard refrain. "twist of lime" does an about face and veers into a deep, dark, downtempo cyber-jazz landscape, with layers of ambient keyboards underneath a bluesy trumpet line (a real trumpet, played by Carrigan himself), matched by a wailing synth co-lead and a funkified beat. Later in the CD, Carrigan dips his toes into semi-glitch waters on "runway" melding those contemporary elements with some quasi-Berlin touches (nice hybrid!). "detour" opens with a spooky series of sparkly synth notes, adding in a dub-like beat and thumping bass line - Carrigan has a knack for fashioning uptempo pieces that have a darkness embedded in them, music that has bite, tension, and a foreboding sense of moodiness. "frisky martini" brings back Carrigan's bluesy trumpet, but opens with cascading, twinkling piano and synth notes, before dialing in iridescent bell tones and mid tempo trap kit drum rhythms and bass. One of my favorite tracks on the CD is "tgv" which, if you don’t know it, is the acronym for the high-speed rail line in France. Obviously, this song moves at the fastest pace of anything on the album, and gone is any moodiness, replaced with an exhilarating feeling of great speed and giddy cheerfulness. The song begs comparison to Farish's work, but is not in any way imitative (it's much faster paced and, frankly, simply more fun to listen to than most of Farish's work, as well as densely layered with more synth elements).

below zero should be the final piece of evidence needed to cement Bryan Carrigan's place among the best purveyors of electronic keyboard instrumental music working today. His versatility and creativity apparently know practically no bounds (I wonder what he will tackle next?), his studio wizardry is as good as it gets, and his acumen when it comes to composing songs which combine memorable melodies and catchy beats is evidenced throughout his four releases. I mean, honestly, what more do you need to convince you that this guy is the real deal?

The album is available from the artist's website, Amazon, CDBaby, and iTunes.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

REVIEW: CHAD LAWSON - The Space Between

The Space Between
Hillset Records (2013)

When I first listened to Chad Lawson's debut recording, Set on a Hill, I knew I was hearing the birth of a remarkable talent. Now, four years later, Lawson has fulfilled that vision I had of his career by releasing one of the most sublime piano albums of recent years, The Space Between. Decidedly not for everyone, this exercise in muted minimalism may test the patience of those who enjoy a more structured approach to piano music, but for those seeking a recording to become immersed in, one that doesn’t give answers as much as asks questions, they will be rewarded with exquisitely nuanced tone poems that explore "the space between" the notes as much as it rings the emotional essence out of the notes themselves.

For this recording, Lawson took a chance and altered his instrument in a fairly radical way. He laid felt fabric down between the piano's hammers and the strings, muting the notes to a noticeable degree. He also mic'ed the piano in such a way as to ensure that nearly every sound made during his playing was picked up by the microphone and recorded. These two sonic elements (along with the emotionally rich yet musically sparse melodies) make The Space Between an intensely personal and intimate recording. Despite the addition of the felt material, the piano notes themselves sound glorious - not truly distorted or altered as much as softened with all harshness or shrillness removed. This technique establishes a mood of quiet repose, deep reflection, and the melodies themselves (with rare exception) contribute to the mood by being predominantly melancholy, sometimes starkly so. However, this darkness is counterbalanced - brilliantly I might add - by the beauty of Lawson's playing and depth of the humanity which is evidenced throughout.

Lawson is joined on several tracks by one of two guest artists: either cellist Rubin Kodheli or guitarist James Duke. Compositions are by Lawson, except for two extremely disparate covers - the hymn "Ave Maria" and the Band of Horses' song "No One's Gonna Love You." Both of these accompanists add something to the tracks they appear on. Cellist Kodheli's sorrowful textures give "Falling Together" an added layer of sadness, while Duke's textural electric guitar shadings color "I Wish I Knew" with a complex mixture of, at first, somber atmosphere, and later, an infusion of dramatic tension. This later explosion of looped rapid-fire notes, while obviously meant to be ambient in scope, may prove a bit distracting to some listeners. I will grant you that the somewhat cacophonic passage takes some getting used to, but the small amount of time in which it occurs shouldn't act as any kind of deterrent to your enthusiasm for the album. You can simply skip the track if you find it too intrusive.

Lawson's solo numbers are almost too exquisite for me to adequately describe them. From the opening "I Know a Love So True and Fair" which parlays extreme minimalism into an expression of profound romance to the closing cover of "No One's Gonna Love You" which perfectly captures the deep, fatalistic heartache of the Band of Horses' song, The Space Between presents an artist at the zenith of his composing and performing ability. Not a single note is wasted on the CD and "the spaces between" the notes are every bit as important as the sparse melodies. "Heart in Hand" tugs earnestly and sincerely at the heartstrings while "Loves Me, Loves Me Not, Loves Me" injects a welcome dose of gentle whimsy via its warm melody and sing-song style, a friendly respite from the beautiful but raw somber emotions evoked by the rest of the album (with the exception of "Ave Maria" on which Lawson and Kodheli join together in a patient, restrained take on Schubert's classic).

I haven't detailed the other tracks here in the review (there are ten songs altogether on the CD) because I would simply be using the same superlatives over and over. One thing worth mentioning is a brief but perhaps necessary caveat to those who will listen to this album with good headphones. As I noted above, the mic'ing technique Chad Lawson uses (he recorded and mixed the CD) means that you will hear noises that you likely never heard before (on some tracks this is more pronounced while on others it's barely, if at all, noticeable). You are hearing the piano as a living, breathing entity, its mechanical voice, as it were. This is what you would hear if you were standing extremely close to Chad while he played, hence my labeling the album as being intimate and personal. In a way, Lawson is inviting you to participate in the special relationship he has with his cherished instrument. These noises are no more "flaws" than our own flaws are as human beings, whether we laugh too loud, talk too fast, or groan when we get up from a chair (those are all flaws I personally have, by the way!). For myself, I love that Lawson found a way to capture them as a natural part of the music he made.

Finally, I want to make special mention of the cover and interior art of The Space Between. The photography on the cover by Michael Finster combined with the artwork and layout by Mark Millington, represent visual depictions of the music's beautiful minimalism. Lawson is glimpsed through a window, his face visible yet muted, and the reflection of the outside world is present, yet indistinct. The font choice is equally brilliant in its stark sans serif simplicity yet oh so artfully executed. Lastly, the inside shot of Lawson, dressed elegantly yet simply, likewise ties into the music itself. The warmth of his smile colors the extreme minimalism of his surroundings reminding us that it's our humanity that gives life meaning, even in dark times (as the dark mood of the music is anchored by the beauty of his playing). Or at least that's how I see it.

The Space Between is not just one of the best albums of 2013 (or even recent years), it's also one of the most important albums in how it seeks to connect the listener and the instrument on a fundamentally personal level. There are many moments during the playing of this recording where I am left speechless and near tears. I can’t think of higher praise than that.

The Space Between is available from iTunes, CDBaby, Amazon, GooglePlay.

Saturday, August 31, 2013


Ax Inferno
Rainstorm Records (2013)

There is a scene in Casino Royale where James Bond is getting dressed for his big high-stakes poker showdown with Le Chiffre. He picks up a tuxedo jacket from the bed and glares at it. He struts into the bathroom where his fellow provocateur, Vesper Lynn, is applying make-up and exasperatedly claims "I already have a dinner jacket." She calmly replies "There are dinner jackets and dinner jackets…this is the latter." How does this relate to the new CD from guitar wizard Paul Speer? Well, yeah, Paul does wield his guitar with the same aplomb as James Bond does with his Walther P99…but here's what I am getting at. There are guitarists and there are guitarists…Paul Speer is the latter. There are plenty of guys and gals who can rip off stinging leads and thunderous power chords, displaying blindingly fast technique aplenty. However, there are much fewer who know that it takes more than flash and fire to impress a discerning listener. It takes discretion and wisdom to know when to strut and when not to; it takes brains and heart to compose killer hooks, catchy melodies, and infectious rhythms without making it sound commonplace or commercial. Paul Speer has all those qualities - and then some.

In an email exchange, when I told Paul that I appreciated what a great song writer he was and how he didn’t just thrown in flashy solos everywhere, he told me this: "Based on your comments, something about my playing and writing that may be of interest to you is how I structure what I do is influenced mostly by singers and horn players, not so much guitar players.  Many guitarists ramble on and on whereas singers and horn players need to breathe.  Hence, I feel they put more thought into each phrase.  Listen to what I play with that in mind.  I take breaths....."

Now, after all that, I'll start out this review by letting my inner child out - THIS ALBUM ROCKS AND ROCKS HARD! Whether Paul is playing with ace drummer Ron Krasinski or managing the beats and rhythms on his own, this baby will kick start your engine into high gear pronto. This music is lean, mean, and out for blood; a pulse-pounding mixture of instrumental rock, hard core electronic, progressive fusion, and floor-thumping techno. Ax Inferno is not what you listen to when you need to chill. Paul's guitar playing (and, by the way, he also plays bass and synthesizer) is a brilliant mixture of jaw-dropping but always tasteful (not aimless noodling) solos, solid rhythm guitar accompaniment, and melodies that grab you instantly, making you want to hit "repeat" the instant the song ends.

"Contents Under Pressure" makes a statement right out of the gate, as Speer fires off rapid staccato chords and Krasinski lays down a rock solid backing rhythm. Pulsing synth bass beats and keyboard blasts circle around superb lead lines that Speer lays down, juxtaposed by those chattering rhythm salvos. It's immediately apparent that Speer's solos and leads are pared to the bone for maximum efficiency with no waste whatsoever. Every pealing note soars into the stratosphere with a purpose. Ping-ponging synth chords (on headphones) pan from ear to ear dialing up the tracks' adrenalin rush to "11." This is only the first song! Rapid pulses of synth bass pepper the opening of "Accelerator" while Krasinski pounds away on the tom toms. Speers' lays down both a repeating motif and also soars with sustained echo notes and then tosses in chattering chords, adding even more fuel to the fire. If you play this album in your car, you may look down and see your speedometer read 100! "Tornado Warning" (the first track where Speer goes solo and the rhythms are programmed) shows that even without real drums, Speer can still rock the house. Here the mood is mysterious and eerie, with an undercurrent of swelling minor key synth pads and fast tempo drum kit rhythms with Speer offering up short, intense guitar leads. You can almost picture streaking across the flatlands of Oklahoma, in the heart of tornado alley, in pursuit of "the big one," grey skies threatening overhead and your blood racing with equal parts excitement and fear. Judicious use of sound effects (thunder, wind and a severe weather siren) only increase the palpable sense of danger in the music. Next, "Vortex" erupts with spacy synth effects anchored by seriously powerful drum work by Krasinski, followed by mournful sustained echoed leads by Speer.

The rest of the tracks include the subdued power pulses and flying fretwork of "Helion Prime," the pumping oomph bass rhythms and lush, flowing synths of "Powerglide (not to mention the delicious organ riffing alongside more superb guitar work), and the rock steady drum playing and stinging guitar fireworks of "Megatron" including some wah-wah wonder. To finish things off, Speer takes "Contents Under Pressure" and "Accelerator" and retools them for the dance floor, labeling each as the "Techno Mix." Take the already high energy of these two songs and now put a 125-140 BPM rhythm underneath it (for "Contents Under Pressure" while "Accelerator" clocks in a bit slower) and throw in a few more synths, plus strip out the drum track and substitute electronic beats.

Fans may have dreamt of an album like Ax Inferno after Speer released Hells Canyon with drummer Scott Rockenfield back in 2000. That was certainly a good album, but Ax Inferno is on an entirely different, and higher, level. Everything on this disc is polished to perfection (all booth tasks, i.e., production, engineering, mixing, were done by Speer). However, I’ll bet no one could have imagined the brilliance that Speer has captured on this recording. Seldom does this kind of electric guitar fire and fury get unleashed in such an accessible and, funny as it sounds, civilized manner. Paul Speer has brains, brawn and skills…kinda sounds a little like James Bond, huh?

The CD is available from, iTunes or from the artist.

REVIEW: BILL LESLIE - Scotland: Grace of the Wild

Scotland - Grace of the Wild
Greycliff Music (2013)

Bill Leslie (along with wife Cindy and son Will) traveled to the ancestral home of the Leslie clan recently and despite this being Bill's third visit to Scotland, for some reason, he saw the land with new eyes and a deeper sense of appreciation, fondness, and love for this country of rugged beauty, friendly people, and landscapes that are truly breathtaking. As he wandered taking photos just before and after dawn, some of the songs on this CD began to take root and grow in his mind. Scotland - Grace of the Wild is the eventual end product that sprung from those early morning walks as well as other travels during that trip. All I can say is we are fortunate he decided to get up early each morning. Leslie has blessed us with what I think is his finest album to date, a recording to cherish through many playings.

Having reviewed several earlier recordings by this talented multi-instrumentalist (guitar, whistles, piano, organ, keyboards), I knew the artist had a special affinity for Gaelic/Celtic music (there are usually some Celtic-influenced tracks on each album). I have commented more than once on how he and the accompanists (always hugely talented) he plays with sometimes resembles the pioneering Celtic fusion group Nightnoise (one of the founding artists on Windham Hill). On Scotland - Grace of the Wild, this comparison to Nightnoise reaches its zenith. Not in any way as an imitation, but as an evolution, continuing the same music magic that Mícháel Ó Domhnaill, Billy Oskay, Tríona Ní Dhomnaill and Brian Dunning started with their band. It goes without saying that if you are a fan of albums such as At the End of the Evening and Shadow of Time, you will likely love this record.

Scotland - Grace of the Wild features fourteen tracks, five of them traditional and nine of them original compositions by Leslie. Taking over a lot of the piano playing duties is long-time friend Bill Covington (who also did the piano arrangement and co-produced along with Leslie and John Plymale; Plymale and Wes Lachot mixed the album, and did a splendid job). Joining Leslie and Covington (who, by the way, also plays accordion on the CD) are Jennifer Curtis (violin), Nancy Green (cello), Will Leslie (percussion), David Oh (cello) and Melanie Wilsden (oboe).

Most of the music on the album is low-key, sometimes somber and reflective, other times warm and romantic. There are a few sprightly moments here and there, e.g. the light-hearted traditional tune, "Ye Banks and Braes" and the last third of the original song "Jonathan" which is where the Leslies, joined by Curtis, Green and Covington tear it up, playing with an outpouring of joyfulness and good cheer. "Flowers of Edinburgh" (another traditional piece) features a subdued but noticeable jauntiness and the song sounds like it has been around for a long time with an almost Renaissance feel to it (a brief online search credits its origin to 1740).

Many selections capture, in music, the very essence of a country with haunting moors shrouded in fog, sheer, mountains of rock, mysterious lochs surrounded by rolling hills, castles which have stood for hundreds of years, and charming towns and villages. The focal point of much of the album is Bill Leslie's evocative whistle playing, and while all the participating players contribute at one time or another, it is the lilting tones of his whistle that resonate deepest.

I wish I had the space to detail every track, as all are worthy of mention. The title track is a gentle meditation on which every artist takes a turn in the spotlight (whistle, violin, cello, oboe) and then come together as a group, finishing with piano and guitar in the spotlight. "Loch Lomond" is emotionally rich and heartrendingly beautiful, featuring a particular nice piano arrangement by Covington. "Dunnottar" features ambient keyboards underneath a plaintive whistle melody accompanied by guitar, piano, accordion and violin (the latter which also takes the lead at times). The only solo number on the disc is the closing "Across the Moor" which brings the CD to a perfect ending, evoking the titular fog-shrouded landscape via deep echo on the Low D Michael Burke whistle and a subtle yet effective drone underneath.

One thing that has to be emphasized is how much of an ensemble affair Scotland - Grace of the Wild ultimately is. Leslie has always been an excellent band leader, never being selfish and hogging the spotlight, but giving everyone their opportunity to take over a song and put his or her stamp on it. While his whistle may seem to dominate the recording, it's only because the sound of the whistle is so deeply connected with Scotland and Leslie is such an expert player. Every single artist who is on this disc deserves credit, so if I have made it seem otherwise, my apologies. However, since Bill Leslie penned the originals, he does get an extra nod and tip o' the hat.

If you come to love Scotland - Grace of the Wild as much as I do, the only hazard you face is a hungry longing to travel there and witness its beauty and charms in person. Still, I suppose that's what our imaginations are for…traveling without traveling. With music this wonderful, all we need do is close our eyes. 

NOTE: This CD will officially be released in mid-October. Links to sale outlets will be added to this review the album is available for purchase. Past Bill Leslie recordings have been available at Amazon, CDBaby and iTunes.