Favourites from the first half of 2022
The final part of Wander Lines’ half-year review collects another 11 albums from the realms of jazz, neo-classical, and experimental music. Diverse as the selections are, there are common threads that run through many of them—a connection to nature, a commitment to introspection, an emphasis on repetition and minimalism. With a couple of exceptions, these are albums for inward journies, using the power of unorthodox structures and unusual instrumentation to capture what it is to try to stay rooted in a period of extended uncertainty and ambiguity.
Akusmi – Fleeting Future
A strong start for new label Tonal Union, and a gorgeous debut from French-born, London-based composer and musician Pascal Bideau. Fleeting Future’s blend of gamelan scales, multilayered Reichian loops, and spiraling cosmic jazz comes across equally cerebral and spiritual, and song titles like “Cogito” and “Divine Moments of Truth” gesture towards that intermingling of philosophical inquiry and questing for transcendence. It’s as if each tightly wound composition is a sort of clockwork mechanism for understanding the universe, a musical reflection of those early sci-fi visions where the right assemblage of gears and pendulums seemed destined to summon utopia.
Alabaster DePlume – Gold – Go Forward in the Courage of Your Love
Alabaster DePlume embraces the healing power of jazz and spoken-word poetry to an extent that would verge on parody if it wasn’t so utterly convincing. “Don’t Forget You’re Precious,” Gold’s second track, doubles as its statement of purpose, a self-help mantra transformed into a profound assurance through sheer force of conviction. Musically, Gold is mercurial, rooted in spiritual jazz but embracing afrobeat strut, reassuring girl-group harmonies, even a Leonard Cohen-ish ballad on “I’m Gonna Say Seven”. But even as he flutters between musical modes, DePlume is never just playing dress-up. Each song feels rooted in a moment and an idea, fully embodied and chosen with purpose, another path for DePlume’s musical pursuit of love and care.
Amanda Whiting – Lost in Abstraction
Despite a handful of prominent practitioners, the harp has rarely played a central role in jazz—which makes it hard to talk about Welsh harpist Amanda Whiting without involking Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane. While there’s certainly a spiritual component to her songwriting, Whiting’s compositions are much more indebted to the former, focused on groove and melody, using the angelic quality of the harp as a counterpoint to Aiden Thorne and Jon Reynolds’ tastefully grounded rhythm section. Chip Wickham’s flute complements the core trio beautifully, adding an airiness to Lost in Abstraction’s mid-century lounge.
Carcáscara – 2
Recorded in 2014 but only now seeing a release on Texas’ Aural Canyon and London’s Basque-focused Hegoa Records, Carcáscara’s second album is an unfussed, unhurried collection of minimal acoustic guitar. While other instrumentation adds colour throughout (the liner notes list harmonium, bells, marimba, ukeleles, flutes, synths and field recordings), they’re like specks of life in a desert landscape, moments of contrast to heighten the sepia-toned beauty of the whole.
Esmerine – Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More
It’s almost impossible to keep up with the array musical projects in the general orbit of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Esmerine has apparently been one of my blind spots. That’s changed with Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More. Taking its title from a history of the end of the Soviet empire, the album is immersed in uncertainty. Piano plays a dominant role in many of the compositions, lending a comforting melancholy to interludes like the shimmering “Fractals for Any Tonality” and the sombre “Wakesleep.” “Imaginary Pasts” gives the album its most optimistic moment, though the title could be read a few different ways—is it about escaping into false nostalgia, or finding freedom in new narratives? “Number Stations” ends the album on a similarly ambiguous note, a minor-key guitar melody, warm upright bass and mystical glockenspeil leaving off on an unresolved note, less a conclusion than a promise of more to come, a reminder like the album’s title that not even endings are eternal.
Felbm – Elements of Nature
As Felbm, Eelco Topper makes music that is all soft edges and rounded tones, moss-covered instrumentals that you don’t so much hear as sink into. Elements of Nature expands on the musical serenity of the four-part Tape series, bringing more conceptual depth to Felbm’s already welcoming aesthetic. Compositions seem to emerge organically, inspired by the processes of nature, bursting into life on “Florissant,” seeking sustenance in “Root,” finding quiet reassurance on “Rise.” Closing with “Decay” may seem morbid, but Topper sees the beauty in the process through which everything returns to the earth, life and death cycling as naturally as breath.
Forgiveness – Next Time Could Be Your Last Time
Tempting as it is to draw distinctions between the organic and the synthetic, they aren’t always opposed. After all, even electricity is a force of nature, no matter how convinced we are that we’ve domesticated it. Forgiveness blends those two worlds seamlessly, analog synths and warm woodwinds intertwining until you forget which elements are supposed to be natural and which are technological. As s they describe it themselves, Forgiveness makes music that is “not really jazz, not really new age, not really ambient or electronica” but all those things at once. Ambient washes and arpeggiated keyboards drift along with flickers of flute and saxophone, a rich ecosystem of sounds where rhythms drip like condensation from leaves, and melodies emerge like rainforest creatures half-glimpsed between the trees.
Golden Brown – Luminous
Where last year’s Gems and Minerals used a variety of instruments to flesh out its geologically inspired sounds, Luminous finds Golden Brown’s Stefan Beck working solely with a guitar to create his Americana-influenced kosmische. The limitation suits him well; in fact, it barely feels like a limitation, given the fluidity of Beck’s musical approach. Built around daily improvisations, the compositions on Luminous radiate outwards from short loops and gentle meanderings, prefering slow evolution to dramatic arrangement. The results are restful and restless, centred and moving, a walking meditation disguised as an album of acoustic ambiance.
Joyfultalk – Familiar Science
One lesson to take from Jay Crocker’s musical output? There’s no use trying to pin him down. Even for a project that’s meant to channel his experimental impulses (as opposed to his not-insubstantial pop instincts) Joyfultalk has covered a dizzying amount of ground, from handcrafted electroacoustics to dark-synth explorations to experiments in new forms of musical notation. Though it isn’t his first foray into avant-jazz, Familiar Science is new ground for Joyfultalk, and is alternately farther out and more melodic than anything he’s done in this space before. While the bulk of the album leans towards the former, it’s the latter that gives Familiar Science its most transcendent moment — the buoyant “Blissed for a Minute,” providing exactly what the title promises.
London Odense Ensemble – Jaiyede Sessions, Vol. 1
UK jazz meets Danish psychedelia in the latest project from El Paraiso records, and the results are as heady as you’d expect. Two-part opener “Jaiyede Suite” opens the album at its jammiest, 17 minutes of freewheeling electric keyboard and saxophone over a driving psych-rock rhythm section. With that out of their system, the ensemble takes a turn for the atmospheric. “Enter Momentum” wears its jazz influence most openly, expertly building and releasing tension over its 15-minute span, but it’s the two shortest tracks that prove most compelling. Soaring flute and rolling toms evoke a desert landscape on “Sojourner,” while “Celestial Navigation” closes the album on a spacious note, the players effortlessly interweaving, glistening like the Milky Way on a clear night.
Shabaka – Afrikan Culture
Stepping away from the bombast of The Comet Is Coming and the collaborative questing of Sons of Kemet, Shabaka Hutchings has created something quieter and more contemplative for his first solo EP. Afrikan Culture sees the multi-instrumentalist putting his saxophone aside in favour of an assortment of flutes, performing with minimal accompaniment in a way that places the emphasis on squarely on air and breath. The feeling is one of intimacy, especially in arrangements this sparse, where the listener is already leaning in to discern the melody. Listening to Afrikan Culture almost feels like an intrusion, but it’s better taken as an invitation—to turn that intimacy inward, inhaling Shabaka’s melodies as fuel for your own introspection.