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January 31, 2013

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Holly Herndon: Movement (RVNG Intl.)

The push-and-pull heard on electronic music artist Holly Herndon’s album Movement seems to reflect the geography and education of her life thus far, alternately absorbing and defying.  The Johnson City, Tenn. native was a late bloomer, technology-wise, finally getting Internet access as a high school senior, but she had an eye-opening (and ear-opening) experience as an exchange student in Berlin.  Since then, Herndon had immersed herself in the Berlin dance club scene and the musical academic world at Mills College in California and, currently, Stanford University, where she seeks to help legitimize the laptop as a musical instrument and compositional tool.

Movement features the intersection of several forces at work, including German electronic influences (think Kraftwerk), avant-garde compositional approaches, electro-acoustic recording and sound manipulation techniques, and an affinity for vocal improvisation.  The album begins with “Terminal,” introducing the release’s mostly wordless singing technique, with vocal samples pitch-shifted freely and sparse bass drum beats, providing the mere hint of a rhythmic anchor.  However, the following track, “Fade,” is by far the album’s most dance-club-friendly track, with four-on-the-floor beats, tremolo-treated vocal tones, and shorter samples with quick fades; its identity is a bit confusing, perhaps too dance-oriented for academics and too weird for rave-kids.

“Breathe” is one of the album’s most interesting tracks, using the sound of Herndon inhaling and exhaling to create unsettling tension, punctuated with deafening silence and manipulated to the point of sound disintegration.  Similarly, the album’s closing track “Dilato” is another high point, featuring radical treatments of singing snippets from Bruce Rameker, suggesting a good, satisfying release of pressure rather than the building of suspense.  Building upon decades of work from like-minded sound mavericks and electronically focused composers, Movement works best when it sounds unfamiliar and unfettered by the expectations of dance music.

Sir Richard Bishop & W. David Oliphant: Beyond All Defects (ChodpaMedia)

The new, collaborative album Beyond All Defects from the globe-trotting, astoundingly nimble guitarist Sir Richard Bishop (formerly of the genre-defying trio Sun City Girls) and way-left-of-center studio wizard and electronic sound sculptor W. David Oliphant (of Maybe Mental and Life Garden) takes its inspiration from the Dzogchen teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, and “Dzogchen” itself is translated to mean perfection, completeness, clarity, and total openness, in the context of nature.  The sprawling, mind-bending, and overwhelming 70+ minute album certainly captures the “openness” facet of Dzogchen, happily employing a massive bevy of sounds and instruments, radically altered electronically.  Other musical ideas conveyed were based on dreams that the two musicians had the night before the album’s recording session, leading the album down unexpected paths while still having a cohesive quality.

Ostensibly an ambient album, Beyond All Defects is too unusual and adventurous to be pigeonholed, with its mood changing dramatically between the serene and the disquieting.  The liberal use of reverb gives a murky quality to the pieces, and there’s a disconnect between sounds associated with Buddhism, such as bells, metallic rattles, the Tibetan long horn, chants and throat singing, and stranger noises produced as the result of computer tinkering.

“Sambhogakaya” features a drone aesthetic without actually strictly being a drone song, punctured with epic drum strikes and enhanced by distorted instrumental bleats and moans.  “Nirmanakaya” is a gloriously swirling cacophony with attention-grabbing clashes, while “Zung Ngang” is even more apocalyptic, carried by beats from tablas and occasional drum blasts.  The album’s shortest piece, “Longde,” centers on field recordings of a train ride apparently somewhere in Asia, and “Semde” is the meandering sound of being lost, which is one of the few moments on the album that isn’t completely engaging.  This is not a new age relaxation album—to capture the idea of “completeness,” Bishop and Oliphant know that you need both the light and the dark.

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January 31, 2013

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