Arcana’s best of 2022

by Ben Hogwood

How has 2022 been for you? It has been a difficult year for so many, and I don’t know about you, but I find music takes on an even more important part of our lives when the going gets tough. This year we have been able to rely on a consistently strong line of releases, giving us extra resolve and relief from the day-to-day.

Arcana has reviewed a lot of music this year. What we tend to do on these pages is concentrate on music and artists that we know are likely to be good – and we assemble our thoughts on them so you can then make your own investigations. Classical music is usually our starting point, but from there we travel afar to the outer reaches of electronica, dance and contemporary music.

It was another strong year for electronic music of an ambient dimension. Switched On is the area of Arcana concentrating on new music in this area, and without putting too many musical names on these albums, we really enjoyed a good deal of slower stuff. Starting with a single instrument, Vanessa Wagner’s Study of the Invisible (above) made an understated but lasting impression, particularly with Caroline Shaw’s Gustave Le Grey at its heart. Vanessa plays with poise and expression, and this wonderfully curated selection worked so well.

Meanwhile long term favourite Erland Cooper charmed with his pure, still music written to soundtrack the Superbloom installation at the Tower Of London, Music For Growing Flowers (above). Speaking of earthy sounds, Sonic Cathedral gave us twilight wonders from Pye Corner Audio and, with a little more country in the mix, Sunset Dreams from Mark Peters.

At the hottest part of summer, Arthur King’s music was extremely evocative in Changing Landscapes – as was that of Deepchord, making a return to the long player from Detroit with Functional Designs. Steve Davis, meanwhile (yes, that Steve Davis!) was busy enhancing his reputation as part of the electronic trio Utopia Strong and their excellent album International Treasure

More studied electronica gems should also be shouted from the rooftops – we are lucky to have British artists of the calibre of Bibio, Gold Panda and Plaid, each returning with excellent new albums. Meanwhile Clarice Jensen took her cello as a starting point on new album Esthesis, making music of great colour and descriptive power to counter the onset of lockdown. Also facing the elements head-on was Daniel Avery, whose new album Ultra Truth was a powerful statement indeed:

There were some very strong releases on the classical side of things, as record companies dusted themselves down and started to include orchestral recordings again on their release schedules post-pandemic. Leading the way were the Sinfonia of London under John Wilson, a throwback to the golden age of orchestral recording in their challenging schedules for Chandos. With Hollywood, British and French music all covered, one in particular stood out, with the orchestral music of John Ireland given its rightful place in the spotlight:

Speaking of French music, a charmer from the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire and Pascal Rophé proved the ideal hot weather soundtrack as it explored orchestral versions of Debussy keyboard works. Their accounts of the Petite Suite, La boîte à joujoux and Children’s Corner were full of colour and character.

This year saw the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of the finest British composers of the 20th century. Somm Recordings made a memorable tribute by way of the undervalued string quartets, these lovely autumnal works given vibrant performances from the Tippett Quartet.

Contemporary classical music put in some very strong appearances this year, and few more than Stuart Macrae, showing off the quality of his chamber music on an album from the Hebrides Ensemble on the excellent Delphian label. We enjoyed a number of online and in-person concerts from the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods, which were capped by an outstanding recording of Adrian Williams’ Symphony no.1, a commendable raising of the flag for new British music

During 2022 we made a couple of visits to the outskirts of jazz, in the company of super group Flocktheir excellent self titled debut – and a triumphant and experimental return from Szun Waves.

On the dancier side of things, Heavenly Recordings excelled themselves this year with no fewer than six collections of remixes! We loved the first two instalments, which acted as a prelude to the utterly essential third and fourth volumes which brought together remixes from the much missed Andrew Weatherall.

The Haçienda celebrated 40 years since its inception with a handsome package from Cherry Red, while the best DJ mix honour goes to Cinthie – her contribution to !K7’s DJ Kicks mix series really was a thing of pure dancefloor enjoyment. So, too, was a John Morales-edited compilation devoted to the art of Teddy Pendergrass, vocalist for Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes.

Cultured music for the discerning dancefloor came our way from Au Suisse, a welcome reunion for Morgan Geist and Kelley Polar, and also from Hot Chip, who further explored their emotions with an excellent and heartfelt eighth album. Moderat, returning after a long absence, went more for the jugular with the thrilling More D4ta

With all that said and done, what would an Arcana album of the year look like? Something like this…the most listened to long player of the year in these parts, Fleeting Future – a vibrant offering from Akusmi which channelled all sorts of intriguing influences into something wonderfully original:

We will have a few more reviews to come over this week – but for now, we thank all our readers for your visits and wish you a happy, peaceful and regenerative Christmas holiday season. Oh, and a Happy New Year for 2023!

Switched On – Akusmi: Fleeting Future (Tonal Union)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Fleeting Future may be the title, but the debut album from Akusmi – aka multi-instrumentalist Pascal Bideau – was actually recorded between 2017 and 2019 in North London.

You would also be hard-pressed to guess the location of the recording, for Akusmi’s music falls heavily under the influence of gamelan writing. For his colourful scores, Bideau linked up with Berlin to include contributions from saxophonist Ruth Jelten, trombone player Florian Juncker and drummer / percussionist Daniel Brandt, of Brandt Brauer Frick.

As well as taking on gamelan principles, Fleeting Future draws on Japanese culture and art for its inspiration. Neo Tokyo is a reference to Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, set in a futuristic metropolis, while Yurikamome is an imaginary visit to Japan. Throughout, Bideau brings the worlds of fantasy and future reality into close alignment, writing in a style that suggests the influence of so-called ‘minimalist’ composers.

What’s the music like?

To call this music minimalist would do it a disservice, however – for there is a lot going on here, with bright colours and strong motifs blending in together.

There is also a genuine feeling of excitement coursing through this music, with the spirit of discovery at every turn. The pocket-sized melodies of the title track, placed first, are maximal rather than minimal, with a very strong forward momentum driven by the saxophone and trombone lines. Here Bideau evokes the shorter works of composers such as Michael Torke.

The multilayered Sarinbuana is more complicated, with a taught rhythm section under the watchful eyes of Daniel Brandt and long phrases from the saxophone stretching over the top. Divine Moments of Truth is guitar-based, its counterpoint expanding into more electronic guises, while Neo Tokyo begins with stop-start phrases, quickly picking up potential energy in the manner of a rapidly accelerating train. Longing For Tomorrow brings the rasp of the trombone to the front, while Cogito does the same with a cheery saxophone riff. Concrescence shows off some lovely colours, powered by marimbas but blossoming with rich woodwind.

Does it all work?

It works incredibly well. Bideau’s music has a vitality and verve about it that is all too often lacking with instrumental music, and the jazzy touches around the edges – which sometimes come to the fore – show that he can be relied upon to deliver improvisations of the highest quality too.

Is it recommended?

Yes. One of the freshest albums I have heard in a long time, with a great deal of infectious, positive energy.