PHARMAKON | Devour | ALBUM REVIEW

Pharmakon | Devour | Album review

Review by: Jimmy Hutchinson

‘Devour’ is the fourth album from Margaret Chardiet’s recording project Pharmakon, and it was recorded live in the studio by Ben Greenberg from hardcore act Uniform. The listener is encouraged to engage with the live nature of the recording, and to that end the digital copy of this album is provided in two continuous sides as well as five individual tracks.

‘Homeostasis’ and ‘Spit It Out’ begin the proceedings in a sinister but fairly minimal vein, employing looped noise, electronic drones, indecipherable vocals and the occasional beat to establish a disquieting atmosphere. By ‘Self-Regulating System’ at the end of Side A, however, the album starts to sound (for all intents and purposes) like a building site. In the grand tradition of early Einstürzende Neubauten, whirring, screeching and distorted yelling are all present.

The second side continues in similar aggressive fashion with a deluge of feedback and further screaming. ‘Deprivation’ could be a ‘Metal Machine Music’ for the 21st century, except that the production values aren’t much higher than they were in 1975. The vocals on ‘Pristine Panic/ Cheek by Jowl’ take on an insistent, rhythmic quality over a repetitive mechanical whir before further chaos ensues, and this is probably the most fertile section of the album. The relentless noise calls to mind a factory methodically destroying itself – a vision which ties in with Chardiet’s stated theme of cannibalism and human self-destruction. (Jim Jarmusch’s new film The Dead Don’t Die explores similar thematic territory.)

Not for the faint-hearted then, but if you are interested in music that pushes extremes to explore concepts then this album may well be of interest to you. In an era of randomly generated playlists, it’s refreshing when artists still encourage their audiences to experience music in longer forms.

RUSSIAN CIRCLES | Blood Year | ALBUM REVIEW

Russian Circles | Blood Year | Album review

Review by: Jimmy Hutchinson

Chicagoans Russian Circles have been steadily releasing material since 2004’s self-titled EP, and Blood Year is their seventh LP to date.

The record begins with the mournful, restrained ‘Hunter Moon’, before segueing rapidly into album highlight ‘Arluck’. This second track begins with insistent drumming and a distorted bassline, before guitarist Mike Sullivan unleashes a series of intricate lines and riffs which jump out of both sides of the stereo field. Despite its sonic assault, the track is restrained in its layering, and therefore retains a fairly sparse quality. This allows the drums – recorded in Steve Albini’s studio – room to breathe.

Blood Year may arguably be Russian Circles’ heaviest and least compromising record yet, although the band members take their time to develop the dynamics on even the busiest tracks. ‘Kohokia’, for example, features an excellent performance from the rhythm section (Dave Turncrantz on drums and Brian Cook on bass), who anchor the piece while Sullivan runs through a varied set of textures – including an uplifting harmonic break reminiscent of 2011’s ‘Mladek’.

Most of the songs are over six minutes long – the two quieter, shorter pieces serving as introductions to each side of the record. ‘Sinaia’ is Blood Year’s longest piece, and one of its most intense. After seven minutes of furious tremolo picking, the guitars drop out altogether, leaving Turncrantz to finish the track on his own.

Judging by the relentless, sludgy riffs on ‘Quartered’, someone was ‘hung and drawn’ too… It’s a dark and stormy end from a band who have often finished their albums with quieter, pensive pieces (e.g. ‘Praise Be Man’ on 2011’s Empros, or the title track on 2013’s Memorial). 15 years into their career, Russian Circles show no signs of compromising their vision, although their ability to structure tracks and balance dynamics continues to grow.

Blood Year is available on vinyl and CD (or as a digital download) from Sargent House on the 2nd of August. Make sure you get a copy, and try to catch them live as well.

HAWKEYES | Last Light of Future Failure | ALBUM REVIEW

Hawkeyes | Last Light of Future Failure | Album review

Review by: Jimmy Hutchinson

Hailing from Pittsburgh (correction) Kitchener, Ontario and boasting no less than four guitarists, Hawkeyes released their riff-laden first album Poison Slows You Down four years ago. Last Night of Future Failure finds the band experimenting with different styles, continuing the evolution already witnessed on their collaborative releases and soundtrack contributions over the intervening period.

Album opener ‘The Lickening‘ has a psychedelic, raga-esque feel. A strummed acoustic guitar establishes the rhythm while a synth adds texture, before the rest of the band joins in and the dynamics intensify. However, it’s a fairly restrained piece in comparison with the tracks on their debut.

‘Look At ‘Em Scramble’ is a lively slice of Stooges-flavoured rock, driven by wah-wah guitar. There’s so much going on that it’s a little hard to keep track of where one guitar line ends and another begins, but the propulsive rhythm sustains interest throughout the track’s six-minute duration.

‘Nude Karate’ starts with kosmische-style drums and a heavily modulated guitar riff. It’s another energetic and densely layered instrumental piece, in which the shifting tempo provides some interesting variation.

‘Full of Secrets’, the title of which may or may not be a Twin Peaks reference, brings proceedings to a close with an 18-minute slab of desert rock. Despite its initial bombast, there is greater clarity in the mix on this track. There is also a dramatic dynamic shift halfway through, when the track almost grinds to a halt; a minimalist section of white noise and atonal guitar tones is a nice development, before the track builds back up to a noisy finale.

Overall, the album demonstrates Hawkeyes developing their sound and tackling different styles. Fans of their debut may miss the all-out guitar assault, but the more varied structures and dynamics of this sophomore effort should attract a wider audience.

Last Night of Future Failure is available from Cardinal Fuzz from the 28th of June.

DARK MORPH | Dark Morph | ALBUM REVIEW

Dark Morph – Dark Morph | Album review

Review by: Jimmy Hutchinson

A palpable and sustained atmosphere of dread is not necessarily what one would expect from Sigur Rós’ vocalist/ multi-instrumentalist Jónsi, but that’s exactly what he has created on Dark Morph: a collaboration with Swedish composer Carl Michael von Hausswolff. These recordings were made using sampled hydrophone and field recordings, especially of humpback whales and the titular ‘dark morph’ heron of the Fiji islands. Von Hausswolff used the recorded sounds as the bases for drones, which were then developed into musical pieces by Jónsi.

The resulting album is a disquieting collection of pieces in the dark ambient vein of Robert Rich and B. Lustmord’s Stalker, or William Basinski’s more recent On Time Out Of Time. It’s something of a departure for Jónsi, whose collaboration with his partner Alex, Riceboy Sleeps, was more melodic and featured orchestral elements. Fans of Sigur Rós will miss his striking vocals on this release. It’s perhaps more typical of von Hausswolff’s work, which often uses found sounds and explores electricity, frequency and tone.

Opening track ‘So(ng)qe’ is built on a bed of mysterious wailing noises, which do call to mind whale song but which also have an oddly artificial, digital quality. ‘Ura Dardanella’ is ostensibly more musical, in that it uses sampled noise as a rhythmic device while a synthesizer plays a subtle harmonic progression over the top. Pieces such as ‘Wai’ and ‘Bani Manumanu’ are more atonal. The album perhaps succeeds the most when it strikes a delicate balance between its sampled sounds and its musical elements, such as on the atmospheric ‘Kavura’, where it’s hard to tell which sounds are natural, which have been manipulated and which are being generated by instruments. Overall, it’s an interesting and original piece of work, in what is shaping up to be a great year for dark ambient releases.

Dark Morph is available digitally on Bandcamp, and on vinyl from The Vinyl Factory. The duo performed in Venice last month to celebrate the album’s release.

KANKYŌ ONGAKU | JAPANESE AMBIENT, ENVIRONMENTAL AND NEW AGE MUSIC. 1980–1990 | REVIEW

Kankyō Ongaku (Various Artists) | Japanese Ambient, Environmental and New Age Music | Review

Review by: Jimmy Hutchinson

Ambient music’s origins lie in Erik Satie’s ‘furniture music’, which was designed to blend with atmospheric noise (the sound of cutlery during dining, for instance) rather than serving as the focus of attention. The term ‘ambient music’ itself was then first used by Brian Eno (whose pioneering albums include ‘Discreet Music’, ‘Ambient 1: Music for Airports’ and ‘Ambient 4: On Land’) in the 1970s. ‘Ambient’ has evolved over the subsequent years to become a byword for ‘atmospheric’, and the label often overlaps with modern classical, music concrète,  jazz, post-rock, drone and even techno. There are often debates about whether or not rhythmic elements can exist in ambient music, but suffice it to say that the selections for this album appear to have been made on the basis of what sounds good, rather than overly rigid definitions.

Like Scottish whisky, ambient music is a phenomenon that has been greatly appreciated, explored and reverse-engineered in Japan. This compilation of Japanese ambient music recorded in the 1980s was assembled by Spencer Doran from Visible Cloaks. It features an elegant front cover and a title that means ‘environmental music’.

Many of these tracks call the natural world to mind, whether it’s in their titles (Takashi Toyoda’s ‘Snow’ and Interior’s ‘Park’) or in their sonic characteristics (Yellow Magic Orchestra’s ‘Loom’ features the sound of dripping water, and Akira Ito’s ‘Praying for Mother/ Earth Part 1’ prominently incorporates the sound of running water underneath its gentle wash of synths).

Joe Hisaishi’s ‘Islander’, meanwhile, is reminiscent of Terry Riley’s ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air’, and closing track ‘Original BGM’ by Haruomi Hosono is a not-so distant cousin of the pieces on 1978’s Music for Airports. However, it’s natural that musicians working in this period would show the influence of such prominent figures, and while they share sonic characteristics, these are not slavish imitations and are worthwhile compositions in their own right.

One of the highlights is Hiroshi Yoshimura’s ‘Blink’: an extremely delicate piece played on electric piano with a barely audible synth accompaniment. In less than five minutes, it creates a very unique and beautiful atmosphere.

In an unusual move, Light in the Attic Records has limited the digital version of the album to just ten tracks, rather than the full set of 23. This frustratingly obliges the listener to invest in one of the expensive physical formats in order to hear the full compilation. However, the double CD and triple vinyl releases include an essay by Spencer Doran and extensive liner notes, so are bound to attract collectors.