Favourites from the first half of 2022
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.