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.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.

Podcast: The AM, Mar. 7, 2022

This week’s episode of The AM (also streaming at CJSW.com):

Atmospheric sounds from Loscil and Earthen Sea, psych-tinged folk from Spencer Cullum and Alabaster DePlume, fuzzed-out guitars from Lorelle Meets the Obscure and Did You Die, and other soul-sating sounds for a Monday morning in March. Plus, Wordfest’s Shelley Youngblut joins in the third hour to talk about ImagineOnAir’s upcoming programming. Enjoy.

(Image by Chel Faust)

Podcast: The AM, Feb. 28, 2022

This week’s episode of The AM (also streaming at CJSW.com): Take a deep breath and submerge yourself in the oblique sounds of The AM, a three-hour respite from a chaotic world. This week is bookended by new music from Bitchin’ Bajas and Orange Crate Art, finding room for vintage soul, modern pop experiments, jangling guitars, desert psych, and other offbeat albums old and new.

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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.

Podcast: The AM, Feb. 21, 2022

This week’s episode of The AM (also streaming at CJSW.com): The holiday Monday made for a groggier-than-usual episode, but fortunately the music holds up even if the hosting is slightly off. After all, it’s hard to go wrong with new tunes from Cate Le Bon, Animal Collective, Exek, Ombiigizi, Congotronics International, Reptalians, and the list goes on…

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