Asuna: Organ Leaf

The changing of the seasons is a potent subject for musicians. Notions of cyclicality, decay and renewal lend themselves naturally to musical tropes such as warmth, coldness and repetition. It’s a challenge risen to with aplomb by Naoyuki Arashi, a young Japanese composer who lurks under the Asuna alias.

Asuna was apparently inspired to create the four pieces on Organ Leaf by the changing view from his window overlooking the hills outside Tokyo. As a result, the disc is a shapeshifting blend of sounds and textures, predominantly pastoral in mood. The titles indicate the time of year depicted by each track, along with imagistic hints at what was outside that window at the time. Thus, the opening “citrus trees, wheels paddle, azurite sea, July” is a light and sunny confection of organic synth washes, soft bass throb and liquid, bubbling drones. The piece’s carefully layered patterns and gentle propulsive motion work perfectly as an evocation of a warm summer’s day.

The second, much shorter track, “stray rabbit, morning fog, November,” adopts a slower, more wintry feel. Abstract metallic frequencies blur and melt into fuzzy, murky tones. This harsher mood is sustained at the outset of track three, “strawberry circuit, childhood, (sister, seasons, letter), October,” with its disorientating collage of voices and street noises. The piece modulates, however, into a beautifully extended reverie, with children’s voices and tinkling bells overlaying a silvery soundscape reminiscent of Tangerine Dream at their spaciest. Finally, Asuna depicts spring in “ten petals, small calm, May” as a time of fragile expectancy, suffused with softly chiming bells and floating, evanescent atmospheres.

Robert Fripp & Brian Eno: The Equatorial Stars

Not-so-hot on the heels of their ’70s collaborations No Pussyfooting and Evening Star, these two titans of English art rock have reconvened to produce a third album of superior ambient fare. Of course, we have come to expect music of high quality from the originator of ambient music and the legendary guitarist with King Crimson. Yet what is pleasing about this disc is the way in which Brian Eno’s gossamer atmospherics and Robert Fripp’s understated virtuosity combine to form a perfectly balanced and coherent whole.

While his work with Crimson has tended to focus on fret-melting explorations of rock dynamics, Fripp in solo mode takes a gentler, more painterly approach. Beginning with the method he termed Frippertronics in the ’70s, and evolving into the soundscapes he performs today, Fripp coaxes liquid, weeping notes from his guitar and loops and wreathes them in a haze of delay and sustain. On the disc’s opening suite of “Meissa,” “Lyra,” and “Tarazed,” these gorgeous washes of sound reverberate over Eno’s twinkling sound fields and somber, cocooning drones. Taking its cue from the track titles (named after stars and constellations), this music perfectly evokes a sense of drifting endlessly through space.

Things pick up slightly on “Lupus,” wherein Fripp’s fuzz-heavy distortions are nudged along by a soft, glancing rhythm. On “Altair,” Fripp—incredibly—sounds almost funky, as his taut chord patterns skip and swing nimbly around an irresistible Eno groove. Between the two sits the imposing “Ankaa,” on which Fripp issues sublime, serpentine guitar lines while Eno’s unobtrusive atmospheres throb and pulsate all around. The disc closes with “Terebellum,” a return to the lambent textures of the opening suite and a soothing, tranquil conclusion. Proving that mastery of one’s instrument need not equate to flashy technical riffery, the disc is quietly yet continuously striking, the perfect soundtrack to an interstellar journey.

Windsor for the Derby: Giving Up the Ghost

On their sixth album, the duo of Dan Matz and Jason McNeely inscribe a network of post-rock sensibilities. It’s the first time in the band’s 11-year career that its members have lived in the same city (Philadelphia), and the resultant recordings have a markedly more-organic, less-processed vibe than earlier releases.

The ten tracks mostly adhere to an attractive template of rippling instrumental textures, unforced percussion, and hazy vocals buried low in the mix. “Empathy for People Unknown” is a fine example of Windsor’s energetic, questing songcraft, its simple yet effective keyboard melody giving way to scything guitar work. Matz is not a gifted vocalist by any means, but his conversational, slightly strained delivery fits well with the tentative, exploratory feel of the song.

Both “Praise” and “Shadows” call up the ghost of Joy Division, the former with its juddering synth line and choppy percussion, the latter in its glacial sense of movement. Yet the production, here and elsewhere, has a scuffed, lo-fi quality that reinforces the sense of the provisional. Accumulating pace and urgency as it goes, “Giving Up” is electrified by slipping guitar, while the lovely, effortless “The Light Is On” skips along on a slinky bed of relaxed drumming and happy, undemonstrative riffing. Modest, unassuming, but quietly effective, Giving Up the Ghost more than makes up in elegant simplicity what it lacks in grand gestures.

Various Artists: Glass Cuts

According to the sleevenotes of this remix (or, more accurately, covers) project, Philip Glass is known as the “Godfather of Trance.” Not only was this title news to me, but it also displays a fundamental lack of understanding of Glass and his music. For while trance may use repetition as a means towards ecstatic release, Glass’s repetitive patterning is based on a different set of premises entirely. You can’t dance to it, for one thing. And while it’s entirely possible to derive a visceral thrill from Glass’s hypnotic arpeggios, it’s also important to keep in mind that his historical roots lie in the academic minimalism of ’60s art galleries, a world away from the dance floor.

This project is unfortunately hamstrung by licensing difficulties which meant that none of Glass’s major works for theatre or orchestra could be included. As a result, the pieces chosen come from the more obscure corners of his output. There are three piano études, three soundtrack excerpts, and two different versions of the same concerto. Highlights include a fiery interpretation of “Dance from Akhnaten” from project curator Don Christensen (as impLOG), on which Glass’s melodic pulse lurks dangerously beneath clattering beats. Dietrich Schönemann also impresses with the delicate tracery and sensuous percussion of “Thin Blue Line.”

Elsewhere, Kate Simko builds the momentum nicely on “Houston Skyline” with repetitive violin and touches of flute, while Hector Cassillo and Eduardo Larez bring unexpected textures to “Saxophone Concerto” with chunky guitar and a looming synth melody. Most other contributors attempt to overlay elements of trance, techno, hip-hop, and down-tempo onto Glass’s rigorously formal structures, and unsurprisingly come unstuck as a result.

The Birds: Birds Birds Birds in the World

A duo consisting of former Acid Mothers Temple vocalist Cotton Casino and Norwegian guitarist Per Gisle Galaen, the Birds’ first studio collaboration is a remarkably diverse yet coherent collection, lushly produced and beautifully performed.

Casino stamps her presence on all but two tracks with her astonishing vocal performance. Her wordless a capella singing on “Green To Me” provides a bewitching opening to the set, soon joined by distant, rumbling guitar. Gradually coalescing around Casino’s freeform vocals, Galaen’s effects are subtle and restrained. Things get a little shaky with “Fama Fama,” a throwaway and rather sickly ditty, but soon get back on track with “In the Name of the River,” in which Casino’s ethereal soprano floats in and out of Galaen’s imposing drones. Galaen also lays down beautifully clear, bell-like guitar throughout the track, adding to its sense of stilled wonderment.

This spell is abruptly broken by the mental mash-up of “Donkeys,” where Galaen ruptures Casino’s girly voice with shrill frequencies and blasts of angular guitar. After a brief vocal interlude, the lengthy “Human Play” is a rare lapse into formula with its feeble and needlessly extended soundscaping. The final track “Fireburner,” however, restores (dis)order with a delirious, frenzied assault from distorted guitar, jolting synth, and demented percussion. It’s a rousing finale to an album whose mind-scrambling psychedelic 3D artwork stands as an accurate representation of the delights contained within.

R: Under the Cables, Into the Wind

On his first proper solo album, Fabrizio Modonese Polumbo of Larsen forgoes the towering guitar structures of that group’s last effort, Play. Instead, Polumbo essays a more searching, low-key approach, with somewhat mixed results. While full of persuasive moments, the album lacks the powerful dynamics that made Play so memorable.

The standout track is “Love Song,” presented in two versions bookending the set. As an opener, it’s a slow aggregation of bass and synth, along with an inspired use of bells and cymbals. Energized by frequent stereo panning, the piece throbs and pulses with a lovely, unforced elegance. Reprised at the end, it becomes a vortex of infernal activity, with the chiming bells and sinister drones coalescing into a very strange kind of love song.

The rest of the album never quite reaches the same heights. “Landscape #1” is a pleasant, carefully layered accretion of sonic detail, with luminous harmonium waveforms gradually joined by an unfussy synth melody. It’s followed by “Ghosts Are Made of DNA,” a lengthy and somewhat inert slice of drone-based abstraction that’s lightened by warped guitar and percussion effects towards the end. Rounding out the set are “Shiny Camels & Rising Anacondas,” on which a slipping guitar riff makes itself comfortable amid shiny metallic textures, and an ill-advised cover of Avril Lavigne’s “I’m With U” that reinterprets the song as a dark folk trip, adding its own layer of inconsequentiality through Polumbo’s drained vocals and limp guitar work.

Aranos: Bering Sea

Aranos’ latest disc tells the story of Jiri Prihoda, a Czech who travelled to northern Siberia to undergo training as a shaman with the Inuit people. As part of his education, he supposedly spent up to three weeks submerged in icy water. The CD is a musical approximation of this chilly experience.

It’s a beautifully sculpted, hour-long piece, immersing the listener in its grinding metallic scrapes and slow, indeterminate drones: The glacial textures recall recent work by Aranos’ occasional collaborators Nurse with Wound. As the piece progresses, the sounds become ever more delirious. The increasingly hostile environment comes to resemble an inhuman, infernal machine, ensnaring its victim in a network of frozen tentacles.

In a vivid, warming coda, Aranos sings a short, playful song about the experience. We hear it twice, the first time played through backwards, the second time normally. It’s a quirky, oddly soothing end to a disc that has, until then, delighted in depictions of the murky and hellish.

Jon Sheffield: Something Left is Never Far

Something Left is Never Far is Jon Sheffield’s fifth full-length release, a jaunty, amiable canter through a variety of electronically generated moods. Sheffield makes a virtue of brevity: none of the 11 cuts lasts longer than five minutes, and several are shorter than three minutes. There’s a playful, childlike quality to much of the music here, due in part to the presence of Sheffield’s infant son Gabriel on two tracks. The boy’s sampled voice appears on “Call Me Smoky,” and he contributes musical samples of his own to “Snake (In Four Parts)” as well as talking endearingly to his dad about “snake poop.” Shaping and organizing the samples into a vibrant collage, Sheffield’s sense of fun is infectious.

The rest of the set is divided between upbeat, poppy activity and more drifting, textural pieces. Of the former, “Reaching Kisses” is a short, warm bust of energy, while “Soda” skips along irrepressibly on a brisk, sunny beat. Sheffield knows when to take things down, too, with a number of tracks that trade beats for softer, lo-fi textures. “Things We Leave Behind,” for instance, carries a hint of regret in its title that is borne out by the track’s wispy static cling. Meanwhile, “That What Hair Song” twinkles and turns like a gently rotating music box. “Have The Fun Now, OK?” combines the two approaches, with its simple, memorable keyboard riff ebbing away in favour of sparkling synth tones. Its quizzical title could serve as a summing up of the album’s benign encouragement towards a gentle form of hedonism.

Lullatone: Little Songs About Raindrops

When does the childlike become childish? Or, to put it another way, how much leeway does one grant to a work of art that sacrifices complexity to present itself in a forum that can, whether intentionally or not, be readily understood and enjoyed by a child? These questions are hard to avoid when listening to Lullatone’s latest full-length.

On Little Songs about Raindrops, his third release as Lullatone, Shawn James Seymour abandons the sine-tone-based approach of his earlier Computer Recital and fills the soundfield with toy pianos and glockenspiels. Each of the ten tracks here is like a miniature symphony, bewitching the listener with tiny strands and clusters of melody, while every so often there is a little splash of colour from melodica, ukulele, or voice. As the title and cover indicate, the music is intended to depict rainfall, which it does perfectly with its pitter-pattering melodic presence and nurserry rhymes.

The album’s twinkling repetitiveness recalls the minimalistic orchestrations of Steve Reich and, especially, Raymond Scott’s delightful Soothing Sounds for Baby. Like Scott’s electronic lullabies, Little Songs about Raindrops retains an air of stilled wonderment that transcends its childlike surface. My one-year-old loves it, and you will too.

Current 93: Black Ships Ate The Sky

With Black Ships Ate the Sky, David Tibet breaks a six-year silence since the last Current 93 studio album, Sleep Has His House. That album was a highly personal, autobiographical work inspired by the death of Tibet’s father. This new record is a far more grandiose statement, focusing on Tibet’s obsessions with eschatology and the apocalypse. Tibet has stated that the imagery of black ships underpinning the record came from a recurring nightmare of his. Structurally, too, the album emphasizes notions of recurrence. Eight guest vocalists, plus Tibet himself, deliver versions of “Idumea,” an 18th-century Methodist hymn. Interspersed with these renditions are Tibet’s own apocalyptic ballads, each one tenser than the last, until the nightmare is finally realized on the terror-struck title track.

Of the guest singers, Will Oldham impresses most with his unassuming, sepia-tinted reading, sounding like a kindly preacher in counterpoint to Tibet’s feverish declamations. Clodagh Simonds strikes a note of glacial stillness with her harmonium-backed setting, while Cosey Fanni Tutti shimmers through a fog of harsh soundscapes (courtesy of Nurse With Wound’s Steven Stapleton) to deliver a version replete with seductive enticement. Tibet, however, makes a tactical error in opening the album with Marc Almond, whose queasy voice (recorded before Almond’s near-fatal motorcycle accident) tries but fails to reach the required heights of grandeur. Baby Dee’s cod-operatic rendition singularly fails to ignite, and Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons) continues the downward trend signaled by his recent solo work with a similarly overwrought reading.

Accompanied by the rich guitar work of Michael Cashmore and Ben Chasny, and the doomy cello of John Contreras, Tibet’s own ballads resonate with enormous power, each one edging the listener towards a clearer picture of Tibet’s haunted visions. Tibet delivers his texts in an eerie, half-spoken, half-sung recitative, its tone ranging from hushed and reverent to possessed and delirious. Musical highlights include the lovely, tumbling guitar motif of “Bind Your Tortoise Mouth,” the ominous drone of “This Autistic Imperium Is Nihil Reich,” and the barely discernible pulse threading its way through “Black Ships in the Sky.” The deranged chordal attack of the title track—reverberating around Tibet’s anguished plea “Who will deliver me from myself?”—resolves into the beatific quiescence of “Why Caesar Is Burning Pt II” and English folk-singing legend Shirley Collins’ hesitant, quavering but deeply affecting rendition of “Idumea.”

Ultimately, though, Black Ships Ate the Sky is a Gestalt in which the overall effect of the work is far greater than the sum of its parts. It’s anyone’s guess how Tibet will manage to top this, as he and his distinguished collaborators have created a kaleidoscopic and endlessly mesmerizing theatre of dreams.