Morgan Szymanski and Tommy Perman – Music for the Moon and the Trees

An unorthodox and engrossing set of electroacoustic compositions, Music for the Moon and the Trees is an intercontinental collaboration between Mexican classical guitarist Morgan Szymanski and Scottish multidisciplinary artist Tommy Perman. Recorded in and around a cottage in rural Scotland, with samples and field recordings pulled into the mix, it is an album deeply rooted in the place it was created and the relationship between the two artists.

The album opens with “Moonrise (Luna de la Rosa)”, a lilting waltz spotlighting Szymanski’s inviting sense of melody. From that seemingly straightforward beginning, the album coaxes you into its world, becoming more mysterious with each track. The sparse, percussive “The Road to the Cottage” follows, the inventiveness of Perman’s production and the fluidity of Szymanski’s guitar coming into focus over the song’s six-minute run. You can almost feel the fog gathering round your ankles in “Danza del Fuego,” or picture yourself wandering into a clearing for “Canción de la Luna (Homage to Debussy),” enraptured by glimpses of nameless stars. By the time you reach the steady thrum of “Sarabande for the Souls,” the music has moved fully into the mystical, the night coming to life in the space where waking and dreams collide.

Unlike many albums that explore isolated locales and musical improvisation, Music for the Moon and the Trees doesn’t fall back on tape hiss or other lo-fi production to create its atmosphere. Clarity is the keyword here, every percussive pluck of Szymanski’s guitar captured with a crisp precision, even if it ends up run through a haze of reverb. As the wind rustles through the trees on closer “Down by Paddy’s Burn,” birds chirping in the distance, Perman and Szymanski return us safely to the waking world—refreshed and renewed, and if we’re lucky, a little more open to the magic of the night.

The Hardy Tree – Common Grounds

Serene and subtly haunting, the latest from The Hardy Tree takes a twilight stroll through empty streets and abandoned shops, capturing a portrait of a neighbourhood in the midst of the pandemic. Castle, the force behind the excellent Clay Pipe Records as well as an acclaimed illustrator and musician, would spend her days walking the mostly empty streets and her evenings writing and recording the music that would become Common Grounds. The draft recordings would become the soundtrack to the next walk, which would inspire the next round of composition, an ongoing dialogue of place, sound, and movement.

Ambient-leaning music can sometimes feel academic, lost in its own head. That’s not the case here. The conversational approach to Common Grounds‘ composition has lead to an album that feels embodied, anchored in movement and place. The songs have the leisurely pace of an aimless walk, open-minded and observant. The mellotron and synth textures are comforting but uneasy, expertly capturing the eerie beauty of spaces that are empty by circumstance rather than choice. That ambiguity disappears for album closer “Up on the Hill,” its triumphant strings and swelling drums seemingly a sign of life returning to the world—a grand way to end an album that’s otherwise defined by smaller moments.

Music from the First Half of 2022 p.4: Jazz & Experimental

Favourites from the first half of 2022

Part One: Electronic

Part Two: Folk, Pop, & Pop Adjacent

Part Three: Rock & Psych

Part Four: Jazz & Experimental

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.

Music from the First Half of 2022 p.3: Rock & Psych

Favourites from the first half of 2022

Part One: Electronic

Part Two: Folk, Pop, & Pop Adjacent

Part Three: Rock & Psych

Part Four: Jazz & Experimental

Continuing on from the electronic and pop-adjacent selections of the first two posts, these 10 albums and EPs run the gamut from wiry post-punk to ocean-breeze dream-pop, with an emphasis on reverb, echo, and lysergic tendencies. Most of the artists here have found a way to balance nostalgic tendencies with forward-thinking restlessness, carving new niches in old sounds and proving there’s still plenty of mileage to be wrung from six strings and a distortion pedal.

Cola – Deep in View

Post-punk from two of the folks who brought you Ought, and Cola definitely sips from the same mug of angular post-punk guitars, elliptical lyrics, and caffeinated rhythms that fueled that earlier project. Tim Darcy’s songwriting is more concise here, and his melodies are more fleshed out, but the songs still have that blend of urgency and inscrutability that has always made him such a fascinating voice.

Congotronics International – Where’s the One?

Overkill in every sense, but if you approach this maximalist intercontinental collaboration in the right frame of mind, be ready to be overwhelmed by sheer joy. A decade in the making and recorded via fragments traded between 19 musicians across four continents (including members of Konono No. 1, Deerhoof, Juana Molina, and more), the songs are understandably eclectic, with distorted likembé rave-ups, indie-rock stompers, live fragments, and call-and-response anthems bubbling up for a minute or two, jamming on a theme, and moving on to the next idea. It’s all a bit much, but you rarely find music this freewheeling.

Exek – Advertise Here

Fusing elements of dub, post-punk, and psychedelic pop, Melbourne’s Exek make music that feels perpetually off-kilter, teetering on the brink of accessibility but always ready to wobble into realms of high weirdness. Picture pre-ambient Brian Eno fronting PiL and you wouldn’t be worlds way from the sound of Advertise Here; dispassionate vocals and deadpan grooves, woozy synths and motorik beats, this is serious strangeness delivered with a wink and a barely visible smile.

gerry – gerry EP

Four stoned krautrock jams that throb with consciousness-expanding joy. The gnarled synths on “Grimpy” are what initially caught my ear, but each of the four instrumentals is a gem in its own right, from the rollicking opener “Tune2” to the big-beat bliss of “Bloody” and the end-credit crawl of mid-tempo closer “Low Prophie.” Here’s hoping this project amounts to more than just a one-off EP.

Ghostkeeper – Multidimensional Culture

After the synth-heavy atmospherics of 2017’s Sheer Blouse Buffalo Knocks, it’s tempting to call Multidimensional Culture a return to form, but that doesn’t give credit to the last album’s quality, or to the new one’s adventurousness. Still, as a long-time fan of Shane Ghostkeeper’s corkscrew solos and occasional Beefheartian skronk, it’s nice to hear him returning to the guitar. Multidimensional Culture finds the band embracing a rich sense of melody, with string arrangements, choral backings, and gospel energy enriching Shane’s usual singsong-spoken delivery—his growth as a singer is startling. It’s the sentimental moments that really stun here, though, the gorgeous “This is How I Know You” and psychedelic ballad “Summer Child” showing a sweetness that suits the band surprisingly well.

Kikagaku Moyo – Kumoyo Island

There’s something to be said for going out on a high note, but it still seems slightly unfair that Kikagaku Moyo would choose their swan song to release their most focused, infectious, exhuberant album. In a way it’s almost an antithesis to last year’s Ryley Walker collaboration Deep Fried Grandeur, trading in that album’s two side-long jams for some of the catchiest tunes the band has put to wax. Things still get plenty spacy—”Meu Mar” is vintage Moyo in that regard—but the sitar hook and wah-wah guitar on “Monaka” and the woozy groove of “Dancing Blue” open the album with a pop flourish that they’ve only hinted at before. Clearly the band felt the project has run its course, but there’s no sign of creative fatigue on Kumoyo Island.

Large Plants – The Carrier

The artists on Ghost Box recordings are frequently steeped in nostalgia, but they usually lean towards haunted synths and radiophonic sound effects to conjure their vintage atmospheres. Wolf People’s Jack Sharp takes a different approach for his debut as Large Plants, channeling a strain of fuzzed-out folk-psych that sounds like it was summened straight from the 1960s via an acid-tinged ritual. Still, it’s not hard to see why The Carrier ended up on the Ghost Box roster. Listen to the library-funk groove on “How Far” or the mournful melody of “Hold Onto,” and you’ll find that this is every bit as haunted as anything from the Advisory Circle or Belbury Poly—just with distorted guitars and the occasional cowbell.

Modern Nature – Island of Noise

This one’s here on a technicality, as it was officially released in 2021 as a vinyl box set, but the digital release didn’t come until January, 2022. That scarcity was certainly part of the album’s initial appeal, but Island of Noise isn’t one of the year’s best albums because of a marketing approach. Jack Cooper’s post-Ultimate Painting project shares his former band’s impeccable taste, but nothing in that catalogue foreshadowed the nuanced arrangement and improvisatory feel that have come to define Modern Nature. Loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Island’s songs feel timeless, even elemental. The music more an ecosystem than a collection of songs, themes decaying and re-emerging, new patterns growing like wildflowers in fields, comforting and unpredictable all at once.

Persica 3 – Tangerine

A too-brief collection of lush dream-pop released on France’s always-reliable Hidden Bay Records. There’s a distinctly coastal feel to this mini-LP despite its Parisian origins, a modern extrapolation of the Beach Boys’ proto-dream pop in its sun-soaked synths and reverb-heavy harmonies, refreshing as an ocean breeze. Album closers “Elliot” and “Unflattering / Untitled” end Tangerine on a melancholy note, but the impression the album leaves you with isn’t of sadness or even bittersweet; it’s the lighter-than-air feeling of a pleasant memory, distant in time but alive in the mind and ready to be recalled again.

Yoo Doo Right – A Murmur, Boundless to the East

Clocking in at nearly 45 minutes over the course of just five songs, it’s fair to say Yoo Doo Right approach their songwriting with a fair bit of ambition. Refining their heady blend of krautrock, shoegaze and Montreal post-rock, A Murmur, Boundless to the East is a more subdued patient record than last year’s Don’t Think You Can Escape Your Purpose, and more patient, too. The Morricone-in-space atmspherics of “The Failure of Stiff, Tired Friends” (just over six minutes long and still the album’s shortest track) makes for a solid entry point, but the closer “Feet Together, Face Up on the Front Lawn” is the album’s highpoint, showing off everything Yoo Doo Right do right. With apocalyptic strings courtesy of Jessica Moss, pounding motorik drums, and car-crash guitar, it’s up there with the peaks of Constellation’s dystopian post-rock, cacophany and catharsis doled out over 16 thundering minutes.

Music from the First Half of 2022 p.2: Folk, Pop & Pop-Adjacent

Favourites from the first half of 2022

Part One: Electronic

Part Two: Folk, Pop, & Pop Adjacent

Part Three: Rock & Psych

Part Four: Jazz & Experimental

If calling the last batch of albums “electronic” felt a bit arbitrary, tagging these as “pop” is even more reductive. The artists below are pulling from a wide range of influences, some accessible, others obscure, and the collection of futuristic soul, nostalgia-minded exotica, orchestral folk and other indescribable sounds don’t comfortably fit under a single banner. The label is just there for convenience sake, so take it with a grain of salt, and enjoy these albums on their own plentiful merits.

Cate le Bon – Pompeii

A half-dozen albums into her 13 year career, Cate Le Bon still sounds as distinctive as ever. There’s a clear throughline from her 2009 debut to Pompeii’s otherworldly pop, but her sound has gotten more oblique even as it’s become more familiar. Pompeii’s songs are crystaline: polished and multifaceted, composed of hard angles and reflective surfaces, and the inescapable feeling that if you look deeply enough, you just might discover a truth about the universe.

Dana Gavanski – When It Comes

The upbeat “Indigo Highway” is the most immediately appealing track on Gavanski’s sophomore album, but if the remainder of the album takes a little more effort, it’s all the richer for its subtlety. Sharply written and impeccably produced, it’s an album of intricate details, soft flourishes, and warm countermelodies, ornate but never overblown. Add Gavanski’s detatched but affecting vocals, and you have an album perfectly crafted for inward-focused escapism.

Daniel Ögren – Laponia III

Pop probably isn’t the right classifier for this one, but then, it’s hard to say what is. Ögren has explored jazz, funk, library music, and easy listening in projects like Sven Wunder and Dina Ögon, and while Laponia III has elements of all those genres, it’s both more hushed and more expansive (with a few exceptions, like the bouncy “Midnattsol”). This seems like music inspired by mountaintop views and sun-dappled vistas, where the air is thin and magic lurks under each stone.

Fresh Pepper – Fresh Pepper

Building on the gentle brilliance of last year’s Further Up Island, songwriter Andre Ethier has recruited a veritable supergroup of Toronto avant-pop artists for his latest project, with members of Bernice, Beverly Glenn Copeland, and more contributing to an album that’s equal parts smooth jazz, indie rock and the Food Network. The arrangements are uniformly sophisticated, threading a needle between avant-garde and easy listening, but Ethier’s plainspoken confidence is the real standout here. World-weary, wistful, and brimming with humour, it’s a fantastic next step for a songwriter who never ceases to surprise.

Jenny Hval – Classic Objects

Is there a better lyricist out there right now than Jenny Hval? Setting aside the music itself, rich and multidimensional as it is, I don’t think there’s anyone else who channels the full spectrum of modern anxiety quite like Hval does. Classic Objects opens with the Norwegian singer trying to make sense of her new marriage in light of her anti-institutional feelings, and it closes with her questioning the relationship between art and copyright. In between she wonders about identity and control, quotes Gilles Deleuze while making fun of “irrelevant quotes from French philosophers,” and blurs the line between diary, confessional, and pop song.

Maylee Todd – Maloo

Maylee Todd’s hushed future r&b is a long ways removed from the indie pop she first cut her teeth on in groups like Henri Faberge and the Adorables, or the hearty disco-funk of her last solo album nearly a decade ago. That album proved that Todd can belt ’em out with the best of them, but on Maloo she keeps her performance to a breathy croon, letting the drama come from the jazzy chords and unpredictable melodies. The album is named for her digital avatar, an oddly proportioned, slightly unsettling CG creation that appears in videos for Maloo. That persona keeps the album at a conceptual remove, but restraint suits Todd well, lending a mysterious edge to her already polished songwriting.

Medusa Phase – Negative Space

Synth-led Tallahassee trio Medusa Phase provide a mostly summery complement to the vintage dream pop sounds of Young Marble Giants and the Cocteau Twins. Not the smoke-choked heatwave of the last few summers, mind you—Negative Space channels dew-dampened fields and early morning mist, refreshing and full of promise. The album’s wonky keyboards and chintzy drums give the whole affair a surreal quality, like you’re hearing the jukebox at a half-remembered, half-daydreamed lounge on a forgotten Florida highway.

L.T. Leif and APB – Newfangled Objects of Our Desires

I should declare my bias here—I worked for several years with L.T. Leif and have a hard time staying objective about their work. But even with that qualifier, I’m sure I would have fallen for the charming concept and offbeat folk-pop of Newfangled Objects of Our Desires (NOOODS) no matter who made it. A follow-up to a 2010 cassette collaboration, NOOODS once again finds the duo of Laura Leif and Amber Phelps Bondaroff paying tribute to inanimate objects and the people who own them in a collection of lo-fi pop tunes. The doo-wop refrain of “Hewmidoo” is the EP at its most charming, but every song is brimming with the tender joy of creativity and collaboration.

Sessa – Estrela Acesa

Lovely, mellow Brazillian pop, recalling the glory days of tropicalia in its subtly psychedelic production and orchestral flourishes. Nylon-stringed and gently swaying rhythms evoke beachside hammocks and languid days, and while the lyrics delve into angstier territory, you wouldn’t know it from Sessa’s laid-back delivery—at least, not without a solid working knowledge of Portuguese. For the rest of us, those darker themes are a subtle undercurrent, adding shade to an otherwise breezy and balmy day.

Shintaro Sakamoto – Like a Fable

Shintaro Sakamoto’s lounge and surf-influenced sound doesn’t shy away from kitsch, but that doesn’t mean it’s a joke. The grimly funny cover of 2014’s Let’s Dance Raw is still maybe the best distillation of his approach — self-described “post-apocalyptic exotica” that’s at once nostalgic and entirely unexpected. Like a Fable expands the sonic palette of Sakamoto’s first few solo releases, and wisely downplays the vocal effects that made 2017’s Love If Possible a little harder to fall for. Trombone solos, surf guitar, disco beats and tropical grooves all find a natural home on the album, but behind it all there’s still an underlying dissonance, a subtle feeling that as bright as things may be, we might just be dancing to the end of the world.

Steven Lambke – Volcano, Volcano

Lambke doesn’t have what you’d call a conventionally polished voice, but the former member of the Constantines and Baby Eagle has always found a way to make it work. OnVolcano, Volcano, he uses confident arrangements to give a solid foundation, then lets his vocals sketch in the rest, more implying the melodies than fully singing them. Lead single “Every Lover Knows” epitomizes this approach, setting up a Neil Young-ish folk stomper with choral backing, then letting Lambke run ripshod through the arrangement, off-key and ebullient. It’s an approach rooted in well-deserved confidence, and one that lends unpredictabilty to an album anchored in rock-solid roots songwriting.

Yves Jarvis – The Zug

In his albums as Un Blonde and his first release as Yves Jarvis, Jean-Sebastien Audet seemed almost allergic to fleshing out ideas, preferring fragmentary melodies and momentary moods to conventional songs. The approach worked because of his seemingly endless stream of creative impulses and his obvious virtuosity, but it’s still been a pleasant surprise to see him shake a bit of that restlessness, first with 2020’s Sundry Rock Song Stock and now again with The Zug. His lyrics are still as inquisitive as ever, punctuated with Zen-like musings and personal/politicla reflection, and the extra space in his songwriting has only made room for more influences, adding Krautrock explorations and ’60s psych-folk hooks to the micro-gospel and acoustic soul of his early solo releases. If those earlier albums flowed on a river of creativity, the newer ones are drawing from a deep well of it—both are refreshing, but the sensation is different.

Music from the First Half of 2022 p.1: Electronic

Favourites from the first half of 2022

Part One: Electronic

Part Two: Folk, Pop, & Pop Adjacent

Part Three: Rock & Psych

Part Four: Jazz & Experimental

Part one of what will hopefully be a four-part look at some early favourites from the first half of the year. “Electronic” is a vague category, and even within that, there are albums here that hardly fit the descriptor, mixing live performance and organic instrumentation in with their synthesized sounds and sequencers. From minimal synths to new age visions, dystopian soundtracks and Eurorack explorations, these albums range from the accessible to the experimental, sometimes soothing and sometimes unnerving, but always engaging.

Charbonneau/Amato – Synth Works Vol. 2

Pietro Amato and Matthieu Charbonneau have been making music together at least since their late 2000s run in the vastly underappreciated Montreal chamber-pop trio Torngat, and while the synthetic sounds of their work as Charbonneau/Amato are superficially quite far removed from that project, Synth Works Vol. 2 has the same warmth and imagination that has always made their work so compelling. The duo coaxes surprising variety from this set of chirping melodies and simple rhythms, keeping the arrangements minimal without sacrificing nuance. It’s a gentle album, but one that rewards repeated listening.

Cool Maritime – Big Earth Energy

New Age-y and ambient as it may be, Sean Hellfritsch’s latest release as Cool Maritime feels positively energetic compared to the coastal transcendentalism of his earlier albums. Big Earth Energy is billed as a soundtrack to an imaginary ecological-themed video game, and its mystical pulse certainly conjures visions of ray-traced vistas and point-and-click puzzling in the glory days of CD-ROM adventures. Fans craving long-form meditations will need to adjust their expectations, but even the tighter compositions still offer plenty of opportunities to expand your mind.

Ecotype – Civil Version

Released back in February, this Calgary duo’s sophomore release was better suited to the frost-covered streets of a Canadian winter than to our current mid-summer heatwave. Give it a couple months for the air to crisp up and the leaves to fall down, and Civil Version’s Boards of Canada-evoking blend of hip hop beats and haunted synths will be back in season. Like a midnight scene lit by campfire, it’s soothing and at least a little bit sinister.

Field Works – Stations

The conceptual heft of Stations certainly helps the album feel momentous—it’s built around samples harvested from ground-recording stations and billed as a collaboration between human performers and the voice of the Earth itself—but that highly cerebral concept would be weightless without the gravity of the actual compositions. A bevvy of collaborators help Field Works mastermind Stuart Hyatt flesh out the sounds, finishing on a note of joy and good humour with Laraaji’s infectious laughter. Don’t pass up the companion remix album, either. With mixes from Deantoni Parks, Green-House, Alva Noto and more, it turns out to be just as essential as (and even more inventive than) the proper album.

Green-House – Solar Editions

A welcome EP from the spiritual successor to Mort Garson’s Plantasia (a bit of a reductive comparison, but the recurring plant and fungal themes make it inevitable). Only four songs, but as the title implies, it’s a burst of sunshine, the playful new-age melodies radiating warm, revitalizing energy. Truly blissful stuff; as with the whole Green-House catalogue, it’s hard to imagine hearing more than a few measures of Olive Ardizoni’s music without cracking a smile.

Jilk – Haunted Bedrooms

Scarcity is something you rarely run into nowadays, but the Castles in Space label has cultivated its mystique through a refusal to cater to the whims of streaming services, and through consistently brilliant curation. As consistenly impressive as their catalogue is, Jilk’s Haunted Bedrooms still stands out as a highlight, a unique musical world with a sonic ecosystem blending discordant folk, pastoral post-rock, and unpredictable electronics, and still manages to be accessible despite its eclecticism.

Moat Bells – Bones of Things

A confident sophomore release from this London, ON electronic project, but then, last year’s debut was strong enough out the gate to justify that confidence. Bones of Things is a more cohesive album than its full-length predecessor, its five tracks exploring a narrower and more distinctive sonic range, drawing from downtempo, IDM, and ambient influences. “Circles in June” breaks that mold, indulging in four minutes of chopped vocal samples and chiming, vaguely post-punk guitar, but even that welcome digression just highlights how quickly this project is refining its sound and expanding its ambition.

Pneumatic Tubes – A Letter from TreeTops

Jesse Chandler of Mercury Rev and Midlake makes his Ghost Box debut as Pneumatic Tubes, providing a pastoral American spin that labels hauntological sound. Composed in response to the death of his father, A Letter from TreeTops is understandably contemplative, but also surpringly reassuring, its rural kosmische evoking the resiliance of the upstate New York landscape where Chandler grew up and where he returned to write these tunes. Synths and vintage keyboards mingle with flute and clarinet (hence “pneumatic tubes”), and the result is organic and hypnotic, a landscape of rolling hills, dense fog, and sterling vistas.

Polypores – Hyperincandescent

Eurorack explorations spanning two 22-minute compositions, Polypores’ first album for the UK’s DiN imprint shuns conventional song structure for a more freewheeling approach. There are distinctive movements throughout Hyperincandescent, but as the title’s prefix implies, the music never rests for too long in any one place, preferring to shift between thoughts like a radio panning long-range frequencies. The second side is the more patient of the two, but both reward a slow listen, eyes closed, headphones on, adrift in the aural aether.

Sanctums – Neon Wraith

After a six-year silence, Calgary darkwave duo Sanctums return with an EP that reconciles the ambient leanings of their last full length with the IDM pulse of their earlier releases. Like 2016’s Migrant Workers, Neon Wraith is shrouded in dark clouds, but this time dystopian skies let in a little light, especially in the new wave groove of “Pattern Play” and in the breathy climax of album closer “Radiant Silver.” It’s not all sunshine — most of the tracks could still be the soundtrack to an impending apocalypse — but if this is the end at least we’re going down dancing.

Sankt Otten – Symmetrie und Wahnsinn

My original description of this one was “The spirit of Neu! lives on,” but that doesn’t seem fair to Neu! co-founder Michael Rother, who also released a quite-good album this year. But Sankt Otten’s strain of contemporary kosmische is the one I keep returning to, and Symmetrie und Wahnsinn is an impeccable collection. Opening with the pitch-perfect motorik of “Hymne der melancholischen Programmierer,” the album takes off on some moodier tangents, culminating in the 10-minute “Die Ordnung des Lärms,” but cinematic as it gets, it never loses a core of hard-won optimism.

Test Card – Patterns

Test Card is largely based out of Vancouver, but their music has always felt more of a piece with bucolic UK artists like the Hardy Tree or Ellis Island Sound than anything out of Canada. Patterns is no exception, blending folk and electronic influences into songs that seem inspired by rolling hills and old Roman roads. At its best when its acoustic and synthetic sides are given equal standing — as on the lovely and self-explanatory “(Seventeen guitars and one piano)” — it’s an excercise in low-key escapism, a sunset walk through idyllic fields.

Time Wharp – Spiro World

From chaotic future-jazz to blissful Terry Riley loops to woodwind kosmische, Kaye Loggins covers a lot of ground on Spiro World (or One Must First Become Aware Of The Body), but the result never sounds disjointed. Probably because each track is so fully realized in itself that it’s easier to let yourself get immersed than to worry about through-lines. It’s enough that the momentum of each composition pulls you into the next, making it impossible to turn away until the album dissolves in a cloud of delay.

tstewart – elysian

Travis Stewart’s first release under the seemingly more personal tstewart banner strikes a much lower-key pose than his work as Machinedrum. Inspired by a park in downtown LA, Elysian is every bit as Edenic as the title implies. Each track takes inspiration from a different nook in the park’s landscape, and between the triumphant peak of “Baxter Climb” the dulcimer shimmer of “Isle of the Blest” and the gentle meandering of “Cumulous,” Stewart has convincingly captured a slice of urban paradise.

Untrained Animals – Stranded Somewhere on the Planet Fantastic

After a five-year silence between 2016’s Obsolescent the Moment You Get It and 2021’s Good Vibes on Bad Acid remix compilation, Calgary’s Untrained Animals have seemingly been making up for lost time, with two LPs, two mixtapes, and another release due later this year. Stranded Somewhere on the Planet Fantastic is the newest of the those releases and also the strongest of the bunch — a slightly slower pace lets the melodies come into a clearer focus compared to some of the last few albums’ more manic moments. Moving from space rock to breakbeats to “beatless floaters” and acid freakouts in its 14-track run, the project’s creative restlessness can be disorienting at times, but that’s what happens when you sign up to explore the Planet Fantastic.

Videodrones – After the Fall

Released on the always essential El Paraiso Records, the third album from Danish duo Videodrones expands their synthwave sound to include live guitar and drums. The result is as lively as you’d hope. ’80s film scores and heady psychedelia are ground up and recombined into Videodrones’ new flesh, but things aren’t as grim as the band’s cinematic namesake and the album’s post-apocalyptic title may imply. In fact, the stretches of beauty and triumph outnumber the darker moments. Whatever fall humanity suffered, it’s clear from the retro-futurist tones that we’re well on our way to rebuilding.

Time Wharp – Spiro World

A marvelously eclectic “full-length coming of age collection” from Brooklyn-based composer and artist Kaye Loggins, Spiro World doesn’t lend itself to easy categorization. There isn’t a clear overlap between the burbling melodies and spacious atmosphere of opener “East River Dusk,” the Brainfeeder-esque ambient jazz of “TOTP,” and “Mixo World’s” woodwind-laden kosmische, but the lack of an obvious throughline somehow doesn’t hurt. Despite the freewheeling approach, Loggins’ aesthetic judgement has the gravity to keep Spiro World from spinning off into the void.

The album’s eight-and-a-half-minute centrepiece “No Furniture/Tanagra” is also its strongest point, capturing the appeal of the album in its languid evolution. Looping guitar melodies and flittering woodwinds gradually coalesce around a pulsing bassline, sonic textures shimmering like dust in the starlight before drifting back into the void. It’s more a sculpture than a song, and while the second half of Spiro World does settle into a more consistent mood, the compositions still shy away from familiar forms. Instead, Loggins allows the elements to find their own structures, never forcing them together, drifting freely in acoustic space until the album dissipates in a cloud of delay.

Pneumatic Tubes – A Letter From TreeTops

A project from Mercury Rev and Midlake multi-instrumentalist Jesse Chandler, A Letter from TreeTops was written in the aftermath of his father’s death, its foundations laid in only a few days of solo recording in his family home. Knowing that, you can certainly pick up an undercurrent of melancholy in TreeTops’ meandering melodies, but it isn’t the dominant emotion by any stretch.

Take “Mumbly-Peg”, with its bubbling synths and gentle clarinet, a riverside walk propelled by quietly insistent drums; or the playful buzz of “Saw Teeth” and its overlapping melodies clamboring over one another. Both are album highlights, and both seem rooted in sun-dappled nostalgia. “Magic Meadow,” one of the few tunes to feature prominent guitar (and what sounds like maybe a singing saw?) perfectly captures the feeling of emerging from a dense wood into an open expanse; it’s a song to bask in.

With a variety that belies its rushed creation, A Letter from TreeTops is a gorgeous addition to the Ghost Box catalogue, a collection of richly textured, contemplative instrumentals.

Group Listening – Clarinet & Piano: Selected Works, Vol. 2 (PRAH Recordings)

The second full-length from Stephen Black and Paul Jones is another testament to the Welsh duo’s impeccable taste. That’s apparent in eclectic covers assembled here, including takes on two outsider Can-con classics in Syrinx’s “Hollywood Dream Trip” and Beverly Glenn-Copeland’s “Sunset Village,” one from new-age legend Laaraji (“All of a Sudden”), and an offering from unheard-of-outside-Wales New Waver Malcolm Neon, among a half-dozen others.

It’s also obvious in the arrangements, which generally feature the two titular instruments, embellished by occasional flourishes of keyboard, guitar, glockenspiel, and subtle percussion, but always given plenty of room to breathe. It’s clearly a labour of love, the sort of affectionate reinterpretations that can only come from a deep and respectful understanding of the originals.

Reverent and playful in equal measure, Selected Works Volume 2 is a work of beauty in its own right, a collection of thoughtful, inventive instrumentals. Better still, it doubles as an entryway into the catalogues of a diverse assortment of ambient, new age, and otherwise left-of-centre artists, a rich vein of sounds waiting to be unearthed.