Switched On – Julianna Barwick: Healing Is A Miracle (Ninja Tune)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Julianna Barwick has enjoyed a near-constant stream of productivity in the last decade, but for many reasons Healing Is A Miracle feels like a defining moment. Apart from being her first album for the Ninja Tune family it marks the point where, after 16 years, she moves from East Coast to West, from New York to Los Angeles.

The title is a reference to the ability of the human body to recover itself after sustaining damage, Barwick marvelling at the way cuts and bruises heal themselves – and it appears to be a metaphor for the next stage of her life too. The recording methodology was also different, using monitors instead of headphones for the first time, which proved a revelation.

Healing Is A Miracle includes three collaborations, each with a close friend.

What’s the music like?

Barwick makes some of the most emotive ambient music you can imagine. While some producers opt for the distanced approach, allowing their music all the room it needs to operate away from human contact, Healing Is A Miracle offers further evidence of a rare ability to make ambient music right from the heart.

Despite the intimacy she achieves with the vocal material in particular, her studies in reverberation have resulted in enormous, cathedral-like textures. Inspirit, the first track on the album, is a softly recurring chant but with a big, surrounding echo, and when Barwick adds the bass sounds to the mix the music stops you in your tracks with its heart stopping beauty.

The collaborations are really nicely judged. Jónsi’s voice works in close harmony with Barwick on In Light, the Sigur Rós vocalist just below the melody but closely matched, before the big beats open the music outwards, seemingly toward the stars. Oh, Memory has a greater delicacy in the company of Mary Lattimore, its weightless vocals hanging on the wind, while Nod, with Nosaj Thing, builds layers on a breathy loop before adding beats, after which it pans out again to a consoling coda.

The title track has long, sustained keyboard sounds that hang on just a bit longer than the vocals, giving an even greater feeling of space. Flowers has striking sonorities, scaling mountainous heights but with an earthbound bass presence too, which grows to take over the track completely.

Does it all work?

Yes. With Julianna Barwick the listener really does inhabit a whole new world, and if escapism or mental clarity is what you are searching for then you have definitely come to the right place.

Is it recommended?

Wholeheartedly. Even within the output of one of the most consistent ambient artists, Healing Is A Miracle is a touchstone, an album where everything falls into its natural place. For an emotive out of body experience, you would really struggle to do better.

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On Record – Dan Michaelson: Colourfield (Village Green Recordings)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Dan Michaelson is known principally for his work as a respected Americana singer, with five albums to his name with the Coastguards, and two as a solo artist. More recently, however, his explorations have taken him towards descriptive instrumental music, with a soundtrack for the film Blowin’ Up in 2018, not to mention three seasons’ worth of music for the three series of underground TV hit Detectorists.

Working under a self-confessed influence from the music of John Adams, Steve Reich, Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Caroline Shaw, Michaelson started work on his own solo album of instrumental music, collaborating with violinist Galya Bisengalieva and Robert Ames, the violist who also conducts the London Contemporary Orchestra.

What’s the music like?

Very accomplished. Michaelson takes the name checked influences and works them really well, creating his own pictures that evolve slowly but very surely. The woodwind and piano colouring in Colourfield II is reminiscent – in a wholly good way – of Steve Reich’s work in his Variations for winds, strings and keyboards.

Coulourfield III has the most memorable theme, a suitably heroic horn line, while by contrast Colourfield IV has lovely dappled shades, with stately strings that gradually pick up more energy. Colourfield IV is atmospheric too, with shimmering harmonics and tremolo, a strong sense of the wood on these stringed instruments actually creaking.

Michaelson is equally at home in smaller and larger structures – and the second and fifth pieces extend beyond ten minutes with ease and control.

Does it all work?

Largely. Michaelson creates some vivid pictures but just on occasion the feeling persists that more melodic elements would raise the profile of the music. The textures are undeniably beautiful, as are the harmonic progressions, but it sometimes needs an extra line, such as a vocal or solo instrument, to elevate it to something truly memorable.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Even with the melodic reservation taken into account, there is some beautiful music here which really holds its own on repeated listening. Michaelson’s scoring is ideally weighted, and any of these numbers would be the ideal foil for visual material. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here.

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Switched On – Laurence Pike: Prophecy (The Leaf Label)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Laurence Pike is on the crest of a creative wave. After an impressive output as drummer with PVT, he has joined forces with Luke Abbott and Jack Wyllie of Portico Quartet as Szun Waves, releasing their self-titled debut in 2016. Since then he has reeled off three albums as a solo artist, and Prophecy, his latest, shows his love for instinctive working continues.

The record is his response to the deepening global climate emergency but in particular hones in on the destructive wildfires wreaking havoc across Australia. The cover art, Goldens by Australian artist Gemma Smith, reflects his concerns in a striking image.

What’s the music like?

Instinctive. Pike works a very effective blend of pre-prepared material and improvisation, striking a balance between the two that feels just right.

He has close attention to detail with the brushstrokes of his percussive work matching up to broader musical sequences. Death Of Science bubbles with tension, creating quite a foreboding atmosphere. Ember is evocative, with a slightly distorted vocal and a distant but reassuring piano. The title track has a nice ambient backdrop while percussion clicks and whirs around.

New Normal is eerie both musically and in the fact its title was coined before the Covid pandemic, and it features clicks and brushes with a soft but insistent harpsichord motif.
Nocturnal noises continue into Born Under Saturn but with a softly voiced backdrop, before the musical camera pans out further on Rapture, the higher pitches suggesting we have taken to the air.

Pike’s use of percussion is never less than interesting but frequently sets vivid nocturnal pictures. Arguably the best is saved for last, with Echoes Of Earth underpinned by a steady but very sonorous chime, creating a rather beautiful epilogue.

Does it all work?

Yes. Pike’s uses the army of percussion at his disposal with a painter’s touch, and his brush strokes are commendably subtle at times. The way he combines the percussion instruments with subtle melodic loops or atmospheres is very effective, and the album works well both on headphones and surround sound.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. Laurence Pike’s work goes from strength to strength, and this particular episode is both effective and deeply felt.

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Switched On – Rival Consoles: Articulation (Erased Tapes)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Articulation is the fifth album for Erased Tapes from Rival Consoles, the name under which Ryan Lee West releases much of his music. The inspiration for this album is György Ligeti, not in an explicitly musical sense but in the art of making music from a graphic score. The idea behind this was to get away from the computer and start with patterns, shapes or structures drawn by hand. This would generate musical solutions. Two of the initial scores sketched out by West are shown below:


Articulation


Sudden Awareness of Now

What’s the music like?

Articulation has less obviously musical content than its predecessor Persona. There are admirable and often striking sounds and textures achieved through this music, which often creates powerful pictures and atmospherics. Yet while the chord progressions are strong there is not so much of a melodic strength in depth.

Opening track Vibrations On A String is a study in tonal colour, moving between distortion and a more consonant sound until a forthright beat kicks in. There is a tension between the energy of the beats and the slow four-note progression of the string itself.

Forwardism and Articulation follow similar paths, with relatively minimal means. The former strips back to beats and jagged atmospherics, while the latter takes a more active broken beat and spins threads around it. Melodica is much warmer, the beats retreating and the music panning out a little, the approach allowing for more improvisation, while Still Here resembles an extended peal of mid-range electronic bells, delivered without beats.

Most impressive and enduring is the final Sudden Awareness of Now. With a dazzling array of textures applied to its central riff it crackles with energy, sending out trance-like pulses but surrounded by a warm haze of sound.

Does it all work?

Yes, in terms of conforming to West’s blueprint, but the shift away from computer towards drawings has not necessarily given the music more emotion. If anything, it sounds more processed, a collection of sounds rather than melodies. It is very effective for mood-setting and creating colours but does not always leave a lasting impression.

Is it recommended?

Articulation is an easy recommendation for Rival Consoles devotees, but it does not yet come across as his strongest album. Time will tell if it has the same staying power as other Erased Tapes releases, but for now Articulation is easier to admire than an album with which to form a strong emotional bond.

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Switched On – Bing & Ruth: Species (4AD)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Species is the fourth album from Bing & Ruth, the New York-based project where the ever-present is David Moore. Previous album No Home Of The Mind was largely powered by flowing piano textures, but this time around the outlook is very different. As the cover art implies, the album was made in a hotter, drier climate, and this is reflected in the instrumentation. Moore wrote the music on a Farfisa organ, hooking up with friends playing clarinet (Jeremy Viner) and acoustic bass (Jeff Ratner).

What’s the music like?

This incarnation of Bing & Ruth feels more static than the previous model in terms of its harmonic and melodic movement. Yet it is every bit as compelling, and tracking the development of each track is a little like listening to the earlier Philip Glass of the Dance Pieces.

The colours are immediately appealing as Body in a Room and Badwater Psalm reveal. Time seems suspended in space as compact figures and loops oscillate on the Farfisa, spreading out over long, held pedal notes that support the framework. Moore sets out this deceptively simple material in a way that works really well, bringing out different and intriguing phasing effects from the mellow tones of the organ that prove very pleasing to the ear.

I Had No Dream emits a brighter light as Moore moves to the instrument’s upper register, but in response the short Blood Harmony gives out mellow, sonorous strokes. This prepares the listener for two tracks comprising half the album’s length. Live Forever develops a warm, reassuring loop of consonant harmony, blissfully layered and with beautiful mottled textures. The Pressure of this Water leads straight on with greater movement, its figures dancing in the mind’s eye.

Finally Nearer holds still, its relative lack of moment revealing a heart of greater substance, Moore’s simple bow strokes soft but emotionally penetrating.

Does it all work?

Yes. The longer pieces are the most effective, showing that Moore has really mastered the art of pacing a track that lasts almost a quarter of an hour while keeping it compelling to the listener. It is fascinating tracking the development of the material…but it is equally rewarding to zone out completely and allow the developments to take place in the background and set the mood.

Is it recommended?

Yes. David Moore has opened a fascinating new chapter of Bing & Ruth’s sound by switching to a different keyboard, one that wholly complements the previous piano-based work. Species is both intimate and expansive, so it will prove fascinating to witness it in a live environment – which, COVID-19 permitting, we should be able to do in the UK in December.

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You can read an interview with David on Arcana in the next few days…and in the meantime enjoy the playlist he put together for us