Switched On: Masayoshi Fujita: Bird Ambience (Erased Tapes)

masayoshi-fujita

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Until now, Japanese multi-instrumentalist Masayoshi Fujita could declare the vibraphone to be his ‘principal’ instrument. It would be top of a long list including drums, percussion, synths, effects and tape recorder. Fujita completed a triptych of vibraphone-based works for the Erased Tapes label in 2018, while continuing to record under his other alias El Fog, where he makes dub music, and in his improvisations with other artists such as Jan Jelinek.

Bird Ambience takes a decisive step to unify all those elements of his musical personality, but at the same time changes his principal instrument from the metallic vibraphone to the wooden percussion of the marimba.

What’s the music like?

Enchanting. Fujita’s ear for instrumental colour is once again immediately apparent when the music for this album begins, and he shows just how expressive the marimba can be, especially when played as softly as it is in Cumulonimbus Dream. He also shows the wide variety of sounds it is possible to coax from the instrument, using different levels of attack and sustain, both in real time and in production, to go with other pitched percussion, ambient melodic lines and carefully managed levels of distortion.

Often the music has an improvised quality, but the styles vary quite markedly. Thunder starts with crisp down beats applied to full chords, the track gradually expanding outwards to fill the headphone space. Stellar adds extra white noise to its beats, the raucous cymbals contrasting with the padded percussion elsewhere. Noise Marimba Tape goes a similar route, its ticking motif gradually taking on new lines and a firm beat, with the occasional distorted aside. Anakreon offers a complement, moving to gentle droplets of melody from the main instrument alone, while Nord Ambient and Pons remove the attack almost entirely for pure, glacial ambience.

Fujita’s judgment with the textures of his other instruments is unerring, and the music is always colourful but never crowded, and not afraid to turn towards discord and distortion as Gaia does. The lovely Morocco, meanwhile, contrasts the watery marimbas with a deep hum from a brass section, building small cells through a more classical method. Finally Fabric sets a lasting spell, sustaining bright textures in an exquisite orbit while time is marked by simple blocks.

Does it all work?

Yes. Bird Ambience is an album that demands your time as a listener for its spell to be wholly cast, since there is a lot going on here that you might miss if you choose the approach of a background listener. Only by listening closely will you appreciate the melodic cells Fujita works with, ranging from clipped marimba phrases to much longer sustained electronics. Each complements the other.

Is it recommended?

Highly. Masayoshi Fujita must have been a little anxious about moving over from the vibraphone, after such a thorough study of it over three albums, but his achievement here is rather special and often deeply moving. Bird Ambience can be relied upon as a cushion from a heavy day, an aid to thoughtful contemplation, or something to bask in as the different sources of sound rain gently on the listener’s parade.

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Switched On – Peter Broderick: Blackberry (Erased Tapes)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This is a surprise release from Peter Broderick, the Oregon multi-instrumentalist giving us his first vocal album in five years, since Colours of the Night in 2015. The release will not be as much of a surprise to Broderick’s followers, however, as they are used to his prodigious output on several musical levels. While more recently he has been lending violin to Tim Burgess‘ band, Broderick still finds the time to write his own classically-infused music and the sort of song-based material we find here.

The whole of Blackberry was recorded in Broderick’s home in south east London, an environmentally friendly album in concept and execution.

What’s the music like?

Subtle, meaningful, light-hearted and affecting. Broderick recognises the need of listeners to have something consoling in the times in which we find ourselves, but he offers a few witticisms along the way. Stop And Listen and But are both quirky songs littered with wordplay and wry observations, Broderick’s sonorous voice working well with the humour.

As the album progresses however so the music becomes more deeply affecting – and the thread of environmental awareness, which runs through the album, comes more to the front. Blackberry itself is a celebration of foraging, and is really nicely done, while the wordplay on The Niece is clever. Broderick’s voice has folk music inflections without directly using traditional source material.

The soft but compelling storytelling of What’s Wrong With A Straight Up Love Song leaves its understated mark, Broderick working really well with a longer structure of nine minutes on the album’s centrepiece. The soft brushstrokes of Let It Go are lovely, as are the autumnal strings on What Happened To Your Heart.

Does it all work?

Yes. The humour in the opening songs might not strike a chord with everyone but it is an essential part of Broderick’s carefree style, and works really well. His skill in orchestration and songwriting, meanwhile, comes through at every opportunity.

Is it recommended?

Definitely. Seasoned collectors of Peter Broderick’s music will be used to spending a bit of money to keep up with his prolific output, but that’s because they will argue the outlay reaps musical dividends. That is very much the case once again.

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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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New music and album from the Penguin Cafe

Photo credit (c) Alex Kozobolis

Good news for fans of the Penguin Cafe – the Arthur Jeffes-led ensemble have a new album setting foot on land in October.

For more than 35 years the Penguin Cafe name has stood for music free of constraint that looks to explore and embrace the colours of acoustic instruments around the world, enjoying the influence of classical music as it does so. The Jeffes name has been behind it from 1973, when Simon Jeffes began the group with cellist Helen Liebmann. More recently a second incarnation of the group, led by Simon’s son Arthur, was sealed by the 2017 album The Imperfect Sea.

At the core of the band’s message has been the state of the natural world, and as the press release details the new album Handfuls Of Night ‘began life after Greenpeace commissioned Jeffes to write four pieces of music corresponding to four breeds of penguins, to help raise awareness for the endangered Antarctic seas.

A fundraising evening at EartH in Hackney followed, where Penguin Cafe premiered the four songs named after their feathered counterparts to a sold out audience; the rousing contemporary folk inflected Chinstrap, the mournful and minimalistic Adelie, stoic and rhythmic The Life of an Emperor and the wistful, string-laden Gentoo Origin.

All appear on the new album, which has at its heart the soothing At The Top of the Hill, They Stood…, which you can hear below. Here the piano arpeggios are reassured by soft bass drum and woozy harmonium:

It bodes well for the long player. Handfuls of Night is out on October 4th on Erased Tapes, together with a set of UK live dates, ahead of a world tour in 2020. You can pre-order the album here

On record: A Winged Victory For The Sullen – Iris (Erased Tapes)

winged-victory-for-the-sullen

Summary

For their third album A Winged Victory For The Sullen, the duo of Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran, have turned to film. Given the deeply atmospheric music of their first two extended works this was perhaps an inevitable move, though was made at the suggestion of Iris director Jailil Lespert, who had discovered their music online.

The film Iris is a remake of Hideo Nakata’s mysterious thriller Chaos, and speaks of unexpected sightings and unexplained appearances. Ideal, you would think, for a moody soundtrack laden with menace.

What’s the music like?

The Prologue sets the brooding scene and establishes the duo’s sound, a combination of beautifully scored strings and subtly used electronics. The slowly oscillating harp and long chords set a wary atmosphere, which by the time of Retour Au Champs De Mars arrives has spilled over into outright threat.

There are no obvious melodies in this music, but as you listen more the harmonic movements become ever more inevitable, the conviction of the music increasingly strong. Galerie is especially effective, the sheen of strings broken by a striking, mottled piano, while in Le Renversement there is the effect of distant gunfire, a chilling effect over static held notes.

Does it all work?

Yes. The music is very slow moving, so is not ideal for every listening situation, but the quality of writing for strings and the ability to paint dark pictures make Iris an increasingly compelling listen.

The combination of subtly used modular synths and the strings is an effective one, especially on bigger sound systems, and the music has enough about it for each part of the soundtrack to stand on its own.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Once again A Winged Victory For The Sullen show their ability to create unique and rather eerie sound worlds, and while some might find their approach a bit too dark and foreboding, there is always a shaft of light to pierce the relative gloom.

Ben Hogwood

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