Zoned In: Quilt: Quilt

Boston's Quilt really couldn't have come up with a better name for themselves; the patchwork approach seems a fitting explanation for their electric and eclectic brand of Americana. In quilt-making, the final image of the art object differs widely from that of its individual squares. The same is true of their self-titled debut for Mexican Summer. Despite being composed of wandering guitar riffs, mantric drum repetition, and throwback folk vocal harmonies that paint a vast and vivid panorama, the end result is an accessible, smartly structured, coming-of-age pop record that brings to mind the more realist excursions of Galaxie 500 or Yo La Tengo.

That's not to suggest that the mesmerizing pedal tone jams that layer "Utopian Canyon" or "Children of Light" should be ignored-- Quilt readily confess that this album was birthed from weird improvisations, performances, and a mutual fascination with spirituality in music and the visual arts. However, it's refreshing to hear moments of real storytelling and progression in an era where the term "visual" is often misappropriated to delay-ridden drones of indistinguishable sound. The masterful pacing in longer, evolving epics like "Cowboys In The Void" or "Milo" makes moments like the explosive, harmonized yowl in the third minute of the former or the sharp tempo change around the second minute of the latter that much more exciting. Quilt is an open-ended drama where, fresh out of childhood, college, or an old phase of life, we're asked what we are going to do next. --Matt Sullivan, Altered Zones

Quilt is out now on Mexican Summer

Tags: quilt, audio, zoned in

Posted by alteredzones on 11/11/2011 at noon.

Zoned In: James Ferraro: Far Side Virtual

By Michael P. McGregor

What is noise at the end of 2011? The term is too narrow to encompass the evolution of the genre and its vast scope, but harsh skree remains the defining facet of its genetic makeup. Although, maybe not? This is one of the questions that James Ferraro's Far Side Virtual asks. The former Skater, who is largely responsible for moving peaked noise away from its dogmatic roots, eschews the tape hiss psych, gunk glam, and oozing new age in favor of digital compositions so clean, serene, and outrageous that its sure to hit purists in the gut. And it does.

Ferraro, who’s always merged consumerism with his work, has crafted a record that could sit at the absolute center of New York Magazine’s Approval Matrix. It's both high brow and low brow, brilliant and despicable, using 21st century bourgeois liberties to craft a record so entirely of the moment that it's almost inconceivable. It's as shallow as a power lunch at Jamba Juice and as visceral as a trip up-and-down the coast of California. In many ways, it's similar to Ray Lynch's 1984 platinum album Deep Breakfast, which stands in inter-dimensional relation to Far Side Virtual, both products of consumer-focused New Age. As with Deep Breakfast, many will have trouble getting past the ever-present "cheese"-- here provided by MIDI-sequenced compositions, many of which seem to have been recorded on, or with sounds from his new Mac Pro. The “everyone can make music” program Garage Band is just one of the many products made at 1 Infinite Loop that finds its way into Far Side Virtual-- be it in the album art, the song titles, or the various samples.

And this might be why Far Side Virtual is so far-out, so mindblowingly accessible, and, at times-- especially for those who've followed his warped, ultra no-fi output for years-- so difficult. As always, it’s Ferraro using consumer electronics, but this time around, they are those of the present (Roland Juno DI, Laptop, Soft Synths) rather than those of yore (Casio sampling keyboards, cassettes, VHS). The impression of pop cultural primitivism gives way to that of an insanely polished, seamlessly composed master work. Each note of Far Side Virtual is meticulously crafted, to the point where it almost feels as if it were produced by a team of engineers, branding strategists, or social media gurus trying to make a pass at the Post-Animal Collective/Altered Zones generation.

To virgin ears, it sounds like anything but  "avant," "experimental," or "psychedelic" music, and more like a collection created specifically to introduce power point presentations during board meetings at Pinkberry or Red Mango. And therein lies the LP’s most fascinating element: while it feels like it was crafted for the masses, Jim's outlandish but insanely "telling of the times" production is still just as biting, surreal and outrageous-- perhaps even more so than before. This is coming from a man who has released material under so many pseudonyms that there is no way his discography is correct, who released two different records with the same art (and more, or less, same sounds). He's a post-modern surrealist in the vein of Cory Archangel and Jon Rafman who featured logos for Best Buy, Monster Energy, and Cleatus the Fox Sports Robot on the cover an LP with a title inspired by Arnold Schwarzenegger's Last Action Hero, itself a satire of genre films and their indulgent cliches.

Once again his work pinpoints the state of consumer culture at large, so much so that you’re likely hearing warped sounds from your MacBook as you read this on your MacBook. (Note: Jim uploaded the entire record, track-by-track, to YouTube and posted them on his blog yesterday. Additional note: You should follow him on Twitter, where his handle appropriately includes the extension for the Zip File.) The most fascinating element of all this is that there is no trace of bourgeois Billyburg irony on Far Side, but rather an unbiased, clear report on the state of culture and society as we head into the year of the Media-created apocalypse. The joke isn't on us, it is us. Which makes you wonder, is James Ferraro our Geppetto, or is he simply telling it like it is?

James Ferraro: Far Side Virtual

Far Side Virtual is out now on Hippos in Tanks

Tags: James Ferraro, zoned In, audio

Posted by alteredzones on 10/25/2011 at 1 p.m..

Zoned In: Woodsman: Mystic Places

By Michael Powell

Earlier this year, Woodsman released Rare Forms, a full-length in which the band explored both the grimy industrial labyrinth of '70s German experimentalism and the rustic, bucolic light flights that resemble sunshine-saturated psychedelia. During my interview with the band in early April, Trevor Peterson revealed that Rare Forms did not, conceptually speaking, represent where Woodsman is now-- the culmination of the gestation period required to properly release a record and the band's never-ending creative stream. That was no hyperbole, as just nine months later, Mystic Places establishes Woodsman as a very different act.

Mystic Places is, in some ways, a harsher, less fluid effort, with more attention to texture, rigid song structures, and rhythmic intensity. The new sound careers into dark chasms at remarkable velocity while punching at the cave walls-- best evidenced on "In Circles," the first single from the EP. But as always with this band, that's only one side of the story. These more concise songs also beget a stronger sense of pop accessibility. More importantly, though the bliss-outs of Rare Forms are all but negated on the EP, the totemic quartet has perfected the type of aerodynamic, soaring choruses that would do early Floyd and Spiritualized fans quite well.

Some of Mystic Places is certainly a recognizable extension from Rare Forms, such as "View From the Vision Hand"-- a perfect complement to "Inside/Outside," a driving, tension-filled, mostly instrumental piece interspersed with telescreen-evoking vocal snippets. "Parallel Minds" and "In Circles" showcase a well-established dichotomy in Woodsman's music: one between ambient narcotic mystery tours and pummeling, skyward neo-kraut. The EP's highlight is "Specdrum," a four-minute interstellar overdrive that combines all of Woodsman's key elements in utterly top form-- snaky guitar melodies, celestial ambience, primordial dual rhythms, and gorgeous, shimmering canyon calls. Woodsman has always crafted arresting tribal motorik, but "Specdrum" takes it to some other, intangible level. They've hit a stride.

What hasn't changed throughout Mystic Places is Woodsman's metaphysical flavor. Like their previous albums, Mystic Places draws conceptual inspiration from with various mysterious American southwest environs-- the Earth Hum, the Marfa Lights, Roswell, and that oddity that is the Denver International Airport. With Rare Forms, Woodsman becomes both more enigmatic and easier to grasp. A monumental effort.

Woodsman: Mystic Places

Mystic Places is available now from Trevor Peterson's own Fire Talk

Tags: woodsman, audio, zoned in

Posted by alteredzones on 10/20/2011 at 1:23 p.m..

Zoned In: Rangers: Pan Am Stories

By Matt Sullivan

Back in the day, a flight on Pan Am was the stuff of legends. You were in the company of kings and queens, floating in a gilded jet stream with international or even interstellar ambitions, but more importantly, you were part of an adventure. Now that commercial flight has become standard and the size of the world has shrunk conceptually, that spirit is threatened by extinction. Luckily, Joe Knight-- the San Francisco-via-Dallas multi-instrumentalist behind Rangers-- has risen to the task of resuscitating and immortalizing those long-lost feelings of exploration in the form of his first double LP, Pan Am Stories.

It's honestly surprising that a character as humble as Knight has assumed such lofty ambitions; just a year ago, he was taking listeners on intimate, night-time detours through American suburbia in the backseat of a hot-boxed car. With all of the acclaim his debut LP Suburban Tours received in the blogosphere as a set of abbreviated Hypnagogic vignettes, it was easy to forget about the expansive psychedelia of Rangers' early sound collages. Those were risky, epic, and at times unwieldy, but in Stories, Knight is in full control, confidently refiguring those sounds into arena-sized rock epics in glorious lo-fi. What makes the album's centerpiece, "Zeke's Dream," a huge leap forward from, say, Low Cut Fades, is not necessarily any difference in structure, but an attention to detail that makes the progression of its varied dream scenes feel almost scientific in nature, not simply experimental.

In fact, that's one of Stories' biggest feats: making prog-- occasionally a dirty, four-letter word for elitist or just plain boring-- into something poetic and accessible. "John Is The Last of a Dying Breed," for example, unfurls slowly, opening with a sweetly strummed guitar progression that's been given a Cocteau Twins sheen. Knight's nuanced, dynamic playing allows the guitar to glide over the prophetic repetitions of the bass before all is suspended and silenced. As we start to wonder what clouds are peaking over the horizon, the song returns as a perpetually growing, funky groove with a winding, lyrical guitar melody as its backbone. But it's not always about adding layers until a fateful climax; "Jane's Well" employs a circular form where, after a similarly dramatic build-and-drop, and a bath of flanged, tremolo-picked guitar goo, there's a recapitulation of the A-section with an enchanting, echoing chime melody. The whole experience evokes something one would expect to hear if Stephen Malkmus led Pink Floyd, fetishized Chic instead of The Fall, and invited Curt Kirkwood to tag along on tour. It's spacious, stylish freedom grounded by a keen ear for melody and guided by a subliminal narrative.

That narrative is part of what makes this a great road trip record, in the tradition of American Water. The main difference-- the main reason we're traveling in a Boeing for this trip, and not a Volvo-- is the prevalent sense of fantasy. The scenes and settings are realistic, but the accompanying feelings are beyond this world. This Pan Am legend, unlike the ones of yore, transcends social status. It's a tale of the intangible luxuries of experience and discovery that the photo album can help re-kindle, but can't quite re-capture.



Pan Am Stories is available now on Not Not Fun

Tags: rangers, pan am stories, zoned in

Posted by alteredzones on 10/13/2011 at 1 p.m..

Zoned In: Ash Borer: Ash Borer

By Kim Kelly

Given that their first release surfaced less than three years prior, it does seem a bit remiss to refer to a band's newest LP as "long-awaited." However, those who have already been inducted into the cult of Ash Borer know all too well the agony of waiting for another infusion of swirling black chaos in their mundane existence. Sound a bit melodramatic? Then you clearly haven't heard Ash Borer yet.

The band's inception is marked at 2008, but given the dearth of information available online, the lines from their first practice to the release of their first demo are hazy at best. The quartet of members go by initials, interview requests are politely but firmly declined, and any photographs online are live shots. Ash Borer aren't much for self-promotion, preferring to stay in the shadows and allow only those who seek them out to enter their world. Of course, the handful of record labels with whom they've forged partnerships are a bit keener on getting the word out, which has resulted in a growing buzz around the band and their hard-to-find releases. A two-song demo recording surfaced in early 2010, quickly followed by the emerging classic split LP with like-minded doomed souls Fell Voices and another, tour-only demo. Now, the tail end of 2011 has given rise to Ash Borer's long-awaited debut full-length, and brother, it was worth the wait.

Sonically speaking, Ash Borer are truly a product of their environment. They and many of their peers understand that the ice-cold grimness of the Scandinavian hordes or the fetid jungle rot of the South American metaleros have no place in Arcata, California, so they’ve crafted a sound and aesthetic of their own, one that echoes the vast forests, rolling mountains, bitter air, and endless ocean of their home. The Pacific Northwest and, by extension, Northern California have been quietly tending the seeds sown by Weakling, Von, and Fauna and soaking in influence from European masters Enslaved, Drudkh, and Ulver. The so-called "Cascadian" black metal sound reaps the fruits of their labor.

Wolves in the Throne Room is the biggest name associated with this particular microscene, and one can easily see similarities in the way both they and Ash Borer compose their sprawling, blackened hymns. But with this new album, Ash Borer have entered a league of their own. Cathartic, hypnotic, and achingly honest, the three songs contained within this self-titled recording take the blueprints of black metal's Second Wave and gently break and tear away the most desolate, atmospheric moments, wrap them up tight in a shroud of Burzumic despair, and leave them to the elements to weather. A howling void of sound, paced slowly, deliberately, then lightning-quick, overlain by throat-mangling screams and guttural cries, driving melodies, shards of beauty, furious tremolo picking, primitive thrashing drums, moments of almost post-punk clarity, eerily twisted chords, and an overwhelming sense of urgency-- that’s what Ash Borer is made of. The production is appropriately raw, yet clean enough to allow the brightness of the guitars and carefully cultivated atmosphere to shine on through the abyss. This is no easy listen for a newcomer, yet a bit more accessible than what an acolyte of Revenge or Bone Awl would desire. Imagine Filosofem filtered through the biting sunlight of a coastal plain, dragged through the pines, left to burn bright and into ash as night falls. That's what Ash Borer sound like.

Ash Borer: "Rest, You Are The Lightning"

Tags: ash borer, zoned in

Posted by alteredzones on 10/11/2011 at noon.

Zoned In: Run DMT: Dreams

By Ric Leichtung and Emilie Friedlander

For just about two years, we've been hearing people in the scene buzzing about Michael Collins' Dreams. The album was rumored for release on Woodsist, and at that point the label had picked up a stable of talented artists that reflected a loose yet cohesive scene-- Real Estate, Kurt Vile, Thee Oh Sees, and Sun Araw. As luck would have it, Woodsist allegedly ended up passing, but put the Beach Boys-inspired Dreams track "Richard" on their Welcome Home compilation alongside one-offs from Ducktails, Moon Duo, and the Fresh & Onlys.

Collins gave away his first albums as Run DMT, Bong Voyage and Get Ripped Or Die Trying, for free on the Internet, and later in the form of an extremely limited cassette edition on Chocolate Bobka's Curatorial Club (also equally prophetic with its first releases from blog darlings Games and Twin Sister). But he kept Dreams decidedly close to the chest. With a hearty mention in a New York Times write-up about NY DIY staple Silent Barn, plus about 15 minutes of live footage on Pitchfork TV, the future seemed incredibly promising. But while Collins scrambled to find a good label to put out the album, time passed. Since then, the Barn closed, that video is no longer searchable on the Pitchfork mainsite, and some waste-of-space dubstep bros slapped Collins with a cease and desist after copyrighting the Run DMT name because of a waste-of-space Mortal Kombat compilation.

Collins didn't put out any new music, played less shows, and eventually withdrew from New York in favor of Baltimore. For a minute there, Run DMT slipped from the consciousness of an easily distractable scene. But last September, Collins opted to start his own cassette and home video label, Culture Dealer, and set Dreams as its first release. And it's good. Really good. Clocking in at just under 30 minutes, Dreams is composed of eleven tracks ranging from loop-based vignettes to a few more fleshed-out, traditional songs. It's easy to be wooed by the surprisingly meaty, stream-of-consciousness pop side of this album; "Romantic" recalls radio-ready '60s psych songs like "Crimson and Clover" and effortlessly captures the excitement and longing of young love, while the vaguely titular track, "Dreaming," unfurls with a sense of intimacy found in a drug-like euphoria. There are also other songs that're short and sweet, revolving around the development of a single loop, but fortunately they don't overstay their welcome.

Tracks like "Montana Mountain Groan," "Winn Dixie," and "Blondie Mothership" (the ending of which Collins pulled from the "Princess Bride" soundtrack!) harken back to Bong Voyage, where drone and noise wrestle with beat music a la J Dilla. Collins' psychedelic pallette culls from everywhere at once, and Dreams unfolds in non-linear fashion, mirroring at once the flux of dreams and the life of the mind in the age of the infinite archive. He bounces us between a series of perfectly self-contained musical environments, utopias and hells and purgatories as vivid as they are fleeting. This is music that drives home the schizophrenia and haphazardness of our world, but more importantly than that, it reminds us that just because possible worlds come and go all the time doesn't mean that they don't matter.

Run DMT: Dreams

Tags: run dmt, audio, zoned in

Posted by alteredzones on 10/05/2011 at 4:20 p.m..

Zoned In: Prince Rama: Trust Now

By Ric Leichtung

The once duo, then trio (with Michael Collins), now duo of sisters Taraka and Nimai Larson have spent the past few years making jaws drop with their Eastern-tinged avant-psych at DIY venues across the country. In 2010, at SxSW, they happened to play a show that was attended by Animal Collective's Avey Tare. They were invited onto the Paw Tracks roster alongside Black Dice, Excepter, Ariel Pink, and other AnCo brethren skilled at negotiating between experimentalism with accessibility and resonating with noise obsessives and armchair indie-ists alike.

With so many bands blurring into one another these days-- be it in genre, fashion style, or buzz-story (totally anonymous bedroom producer who's only 17 years old!)-- uniqueness is truly a rare thing. But there's still nothing out there that sounds quite like Prince Rama (yet). Their music is challenging. Lyrics are sung in a mix of English-- something once rarely heard on Rama records-- and another language penned by the duo's songwriter, Taraka Larson. Laugh all you want about the concept of a constructed language, but Taraka's abstract expression doesn't feel snobby like Hopelandic or sound like Klingon gobbledygook. In standouts like "Summer of Love" and "Rest In Peace," she sings with an unbridled emotion that bridges the gap between the languages as if they were one and the same.

Rama's followers know the sisters were raised Hare Krishna, and you can hear it in Trust Now's double harmonic and arabic modes. So while to some ears the Eastern scales will resemble a sound forced from exotic, far away lands, these augmented steps and minor 6ths come from an intuitive place. It's hard to ignore the entrancing vocal and synth lines on tracks like "Incarnation" and "Golden Silence," but you'll find most of the musical thrills in Rama's drums. Juggling tempo shifts and polyrhythms on a kit that includes every drum imaginable, Nimai delivers contrapuntal melodies with a subtlety that's usually heard from the human voice. There's a lot to digest on Trust Now, even at just six tracks; you can hear the blood, sweat, and tears that went into crafting the twists and turns of centerpieces "Trust" and "Portaling." It's likely you won't come across an album as engaging and challenging as this until Rama's next.

Prince Rama: Trust Now

Pre-order Trust Now from Insound

Tags: prince rama, zoned in, audio

Posted by alteredzones on 09/28/2011 at 12:34 p.m..

Zoned In: Sleep ∞ Over: Forever

By Chris Cantalini

When we (full disclosure) released the devastatingly gorgeous debut 7" from Austin's Sleep ∞ Over in early 2010, it was difficult to envision Stefanie Franciotti's hazy dream-pop project ever again scaling the lofty musical and emotional heights of absolute gems like "Outer Limits" and "La Rose," especially since two-thirds of the group defected shortly thereafter for reasons unknown. But on her debut full-length Forever-- largely a solo effort, with an assist from Christine Aprile of Austin's Silent Diane-- Franciotti delivers on the promise of those alternately shimmering and haunting early singles and then some, crafting a cohesive and immersive collection of spectral love songs.

Out of the haze and murk of opener "Behind Closed Doors" emerge fully-formed, utterly enveloping pop jams like "Romantic Streams" and lead single "Casual Diamond," teeming with the kind of unforgettable, heartbursting melodies that earned Franciotti all of those early Cocteau Twins and Kate Bush comparisons. These lovely, relatively straightforward numbers are interspersed with warped, beautifully ominous ambient pieces like "Porcelain Hands" and the bleak, Grouper-in-outerspace-esque "Crying Game," recalling the more free-form exploratory noise that Franciotti creates under her "psych murk" side-project Raga Chrome. She has no qualms with getting suffocatingly dark on these mood-setting soundscapes, but the eerie and occasionally harsh dissonance only serves to make the pop-focused moments on the record that much more affecting and cathartic.

The depths plunged on the aforementioned "Crying Game" set the stage for the highlight and emotional core of the record: the powerful, one-two gut-punch of "Stickers" and "Don't Poison Everything." It's here that Franciotti reaches her compositional and emotional zenith, definitively transcending any and all lazily dismissive "witch house" tags, and at the same time, cementing Forever's place as one of the most bewitching and essential albums of the year.

Sleep ∞ Over: Forever

Forever LP is out September 27th on Hippos In Tanks

Tags: zoned in, sleep ∞ over, audio

Posted by alteredzones on 09/20/2011 at noon.

Zoned In: Julia Holter: Tragedy

By Samantha Cornwell

After a slew of tape releases and notable collaborations with the likes of Linda Perhacs and Nite Jewel, Los Angeles composer Julia Holter has at long last released her debut LP, Tragedy. Holter is an alumnus of Cal Arts, alongside Ariel Pink and John Maus. While her music is far removed from the aforementioned Failure Popists, her approach to composition reflects a background in conceptual art. One of her more notable endeavors is her phonetic translations project, in which she covers a song in a foreign tongue and translates it into English based on phonetic sounds and the psychic impact of certain vocal inflections. In another ongoing project, Lady JJ, Holter and Berlin-based video artist Jana Papenbroock send each other independently conceived videos and music on a monthly basis, then mash the pieces together, creating a finished product that oscillates between the awkward and the sublime. Although Tragedy is a more cohesive and long-gestating project, it drives home her aggregate approach to aesthetics.

Leaning equally on her classical training and the kind of archival appreciation of the history of pop and world music that can only come from growing up in the Internet age, the album is as full of careful detail as it is grand in scope-- and it establishes Holter as one of the most distinctive composers working today. Its main inspiration is Euripides Hippolytus, a Greek tragedy that was first performed in 428 BC. In the play, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, smites the protagonist Hippolytus for worshipping Artemis, the noble goddess of the hunt, instead of her. At the story's outset, Aphrodite dooms everyone around her; most of the play's action is watching the disastrous events that she predicts come to life. While Tragedy is in many respects a concept album, it does not appear to unfold in narrative order. Holter culls much of the lyrical content from Euripedes' text, but her main focus seems to be using sound and excerpts of the source material to capture the story's overarching sense of doom.

Although there are some distinctly lyrical moments, much of the atmosphere and drama is established in long, slowly building instrumental passages. The album versions of "Try To Make Yourself a Work of Art" and "The Falling Age" enmesh the listener in noise and audio collage before introducing the melodic elements, functioning almost like the expressive scenic shots in the films of Antonioni or Malick. Whether we are hearing droning, dischordant strings, the crackle of old phonograph recordings, the buzzing of synths, or the rumble of human chatter, Holter's soundscapes play out like a kind of audio mise-en-scène, making the short passages of narrative songwriting all the more kinetic and rewarding. (It should be noted that this is much more pronounced in the digital version, as the LP seems to have been pared down, probably due to space concerns.)

Holter's vocals play an interesting role in this mix. While it is often tempting to interpret a vocal, particularly a female vocal, as a pop or singer/songwriter element, Holter's does not seem to correspond to any single category (or character). With the exception of "Try To Make Yourself a Work of Art," in which she seems to be singing in the voice of the goddess Aphrodite, she does not seem to be channeling the emotions of the actors in the story. In fact, the majority of the time, she sounds more like a machine age, vocoded observer à la Bruce Haack or Laurie Anderson. The cyborg persona is most pronounced in "So Lillies," where the Kraftwerkian main melody pushes through a wall of incessant chatter like a space age radio transmission. Here, we could easily align Holter’s character here to the narrating chorus so often associated with Ancient Greek Theater. However, as Holter the vocalist weaves in and out earshot, another figure might be a more intriguing fit. It is said that in the original production of Hippolytus, the two goddesses, Aphrodite and Artemis, were represented on stage throughout the play's action by statues. Perhaps Julia's character is a mechanical age version of this sort of figure-- part Greek goddess, part Maschinenmensch.

Julia Holter: Tragedy

Tragedy LP is out now on Leaving Records; vinyl copies are sold out, but you can grab the digital via Boomkat

Tags: julia holter, zoned in, audio

Posted by alteredzones on 09/13/2011 at noon.

Zoned In: Wooden Shjips: West

After three albums and more than ten EPs and 7"s, San Francisco's hypnotic groove wranglers have handed over the reins to someone else. Not just one, but three outside individuals are responsible for shaping Wooden Shjips' new West LP into a towering behemoth of sound. The surprising part is less who these people are than the fact that the band has finally allowed outside forces to affect the final punch of a Shjips record after years of recording, engineering, mastering, and, in some cases, distributing their records themselves. West is also the first album from the band to be recorded in a proper studio (SF's Lucky Cat Studios, to be precise), and their debut for Chicago's Thrill Jockey.

Not surprisingly, their sound remains essentially rooted in a trusted amalgam of Sabbath's rolling thunder, Loop's hypnotic trance, and Snapper's balance of noise and melody. As for those new hands in the pot, they've chosen wisely. Phil Manley, a founding member of Trans Am whose credits include records for Alps, Arp, and Mi Ami, steps into the producer/engineer chair; mastering duties are handed over to Sonic Boom (of Spacemen 3 fame) and The Lodge's Heba Kadry, who has worked with Thrill Jockey labelmates Eternal Tapestry and Liturgy in the past. The first name doesn't come too far out of left field, as Manley also recorded this year's Mazes, the sophomore LP from Moon Duo, Ripley's other psychedelic project. In the same way that Manley lifted their melodies from the muck, he brushes some of the dust from Wooden Shjips' sound, letting Johnson’s vocals roll over top of the band's sonic whirlpool with a road-weary sigh.

This clarity pulls some of Ripley Johnson's vocals into focus, allowing lyrical themes of the American West and the Manifest Destiny to boil up to the surface while retaining just the right amount of delay-dripping obfuscation. The frontman brings out country grit and gunfighter cool, sounding like a Johnny Cash running on eight cylinders as the grooves roll on and on, as heavy and hot as the roads they are meant to evoke. The band rolled into this one with some of the most powerful, enigmatic, and entrancing songs they've ever laid to tape. With the expanded team, they've shaken the mountain of the Shjips' sound, thickened and polished it to a hard gleam, and set West loose down the Coast.

Wooden Shjips: West

West is out now in Europe, and drops next week in the US on CD and LP from Thrill Jockey

Tags: zoned in, wooden shjips, audio

Posted by alteredzones on 09/06/2011 at 12:15 p.m..

Zoned In: Future Shuttle: Water's Edge

By Michael P. McGregor

Scientists have long noted the vibrational patterns that emerge from the Earth's crust as well as the infinite nothingness we rightfully dub "space," capturing them with frequency detectors and other such modules. Water's Edge, Future Shuttle's first proper release, feels like what we might hear if we were to travel inside such gadget-- only it's the band's dazzling array of synthesizer, sampler, and flute sounds that create this sense of captured science.  Composed mainly of spiritual synthstresses Camilla Padgitt-Coles and Jessa Farkas, the Brooklyn-based group has been channeling the auditory connections between meditative mantras and nû-age primitivism since the Spring of 2009. While its members are longtime friends with fellow Oberlin College alums Teengirl Fantasy and Blondes (whose Sam Haar gets a producer's credit on Water's Edge), the musical similarities pretty much begin and end with their fascination with hi-fi warmth and lysergic kosmiche jams.

Water's Edge may lead you to imagine a far-off oasis where gypsy voyageurs ride synthesized mantras through an endless vision quest, but the tunes comprising the six-track EP are wholly constructed-- many of them birthed, and re-birthed, through repetition. Fragments of melody grow, sway, or veer far away, only to become whole in the recording process. Make no mistake, these are songs. But they are also living, breathing entities, nurtured slowly over time until they are ready to fly. Songs like "Fog Spelunk" and "Rain Source" sound more akin to the breathy, sound sculptures of acid house than the undulating, long-form improvisations of the kosmiche-era, recalling anything from Orbital's more mellow-tonin moments (the intros to "Halcyon" and "Belfast," for example) to The KLF's proto-Chill-Out LP, the aptly titled Chill Out.

Appropriately enough, what drives the Water's Edge is an ethos of groundedness-- a zen-like, "You-are-here, be-here-now" sentiment that Ram Das could get down on. It's introspective and outer-worldly at the same time, as far out as it is reigned in. Jessa, Camilla, and flutist/live member Lizzie Harper don't just provide us with some well-balanced fuel for a morning of celestial soda and deep breakfast; they zone in on the ephemeral paint sounds, and let the listener come to his or her own conclusions.

Future Shuttle: Water's Edge

Water's Edge 12" EP is out now via Intercoastal Artists/Holy Mountain, and comes with a digital download with three additional tracks

Tags: future shuttle, zoned in, audio

Posted by alteredzones on 08/30/2011 at noon.

Zoned In: Balam Acab: Wander/Wonder

By Luke Carrell

Alec Koone is best known as the too-young-to-drink Ithaca undergrad behind the expressive sample work of Balam Acab. As helpful as that information is in establishing some context for the music, half of it won't even be true in a few years. And though already months in the past (or decades, in "blog years"), the underground musical climate surrounding the release of his See Birds EP, his first release using the moniker, was similarly perishable. The mono-mixed EP hit at a time when spacey, dark electronic music was a fresh phenomenon to many listeners and critics. Haters hated, and the buzz grew as artists struggled to differentiate themselves. Micro-genres began to proliferate, bud, bloom, fold in on themselves, die, and generally confuse and perturb. Balam Acab managed to dodge most of the shrapnel, and See Birds, with its arresting title track, continued to gain momentum and win fans with its brand of drone-heavy not-pop, even as Koone himself began to step out from behind his non-persona.

With Wander/Wonder, Balam Acab spreads his usual palette of atmospheres, twisted vocals, and tactful beats across a diverse range of song structures, creating an album that is at once cogent and constantly surprising. W/W carries more emotional weight than its predecessor, and speaks to complex, often contradictory sentiments. Twin tracks "Await" and "Expect" condense an afternoon of love-sick pining into two, convenient little 4'46" packages. "Motion," full of shimmering orchestral samples that would feel at home in a Swedish sample pop track, has a melancholic undercurrent strong enough to counteract its starry-eyed veneer. The homonyms chosen for the title of the album also express the same type of intentional, complementary duality that many of the songs seem to embody.

The much-discussed vocal sample manipulations have gained a heightened drama as well, with the producer opting for less chopping and more operatic flourishes, as exemplified by the slow-burning opener, "Welcome." His vocabulary of basic phrases and phonemes alternately calls to mind warbly pop and infantile cooing; it gives the songs a more distinct structure, and is responsible for the long-from '90s R&B pop tune feel of tracks like "Now Times" and "Oh, Why." The vocals and other breathy exhalations also offer an organic allure, simulatanesouly drawing the ear away from the simply rooted rhythmic and melodic elements, upping the atmosphere, and adding layers of hushed percussiveness. Likewise, the use of splashy reverb and samples of sloshing water complement the more rigid swells and breaks while invoking the liquid-based metaphors that are becoming so ubiquitous in attempts to describe this music. And the H2O only flows more freely as the album goes on. By the time hard-hitting closer "Fragile Hope" comes around, the slow drip has become a steady stream, outlasted only by a final, wistful vocal melody. To continue with the tired metaphor, this album can easily form itself to fill any space, be it a daily commute, special man/lady time, or an afternoon spent staring out a window.

Balam Acab: Selections from Wander/Wonder

Wonder/Wander drops August 30th in LP, CD, and digital formats via Tri Angle Records

Tags: balam acab, zoned in

Posted by alteredzones on 08/25/2011 at noon.

Zoned In: Sun Araw: Ancient Romans

By Michael C. Powell

Los Angeles-based sound architect Cameron Stallones, better known as Sun Araw, makes the kind of music that appeals equally to people on a spiritual quest and kids in need of a really wicked soundtrack for ripping that homemade gravity bong. Since 2007, he has ruled over his psychedelic sound kingdom with a sharp spear, and released a steady torrent of EPs, LPs, remixes, and singles unto the world. Stallones' forthcoming Ancient Romans, his fifth album and first for Drag City (via his Sun Ark imprint), feels palpably cinematic compared to his previous work. With nearly 80 minutes of high impact cosmic riddim from the outer reaches of the observable universe, Stallones makes his grandiose intentions clear.

Adopting Latin and referencing archeological sites, Stallones offers a loose concept album that traverses time and space. Antiquated mysticism wrestles with foggy electronic futurism across the LP's eight long tracks, yielding an eclectic cauldron of scorched ambient dub and psychotropic transmissions. Stallones dives headfirst into hypnosis on album opener "Lucretius," evoking space age environs while knodding to Roman times via a synthesized harp. As Ancient Romans progresses, its M.O. is revealed: masterful repetition, tension, and release, split evenly between minimal ambience and dense synth grooves. "At Delphi" blends ritualistic drones with pulsing signals for over 11 minutes, and would make for a perfect accompaniment to a "birth of the universe" sequence in the upcoming Cosmos remake.

Stallones knows when to employ murky, aquatic tones when he needs to-- and when a song's movement demands colorful, crystalline rhythms and sharply focused bliss treatments. His growth as a producer is hard to deny, especially when paired with the dynamic mastering skills of Sonic Boom. "Crown Shell" and "Crete" offer up a more expansive exploration of the dub-revisionist Scratch Perry-meets-Ummagumma space voyages that Sun Araw hinted at in the past-- but this time in crystal clear stereo. Likewise, the playful, carnivalesque joyride of "Lute and Lyre" lets Sun Araw's resplendent sonic palette shine though, rather than bury it under static-laden washes.

Toward Ancient Romans' conclusion, Stallones brings Djmbes, trumpets, saxophones, and live drums into his aresenal, building to a grand culmination on closer "Impluvium," a quarter-hour of tectonic bass and broken worldbeat rhythms that could soundtrack a subterranean Morlock rave. While Ancient Romans preserves the grainy and galactic analog dub sound of Sun Araw's own brief history, the concept and expanded instrumentation demonstrates exciting new directions, maturity, and ambition.

Sun Araw: Selections from Ancient Romans

Ancient Romans is out August 23rd, and is available for pre-order from Drag City

Tags: audio, sun araw, zoned in

Posted by alteredzones on 08/16/2011 at noon.

Zoned In: TwinSisterMoon: Then Fell The Ashes...

By Ian Pearson

When TwinSisterMoon's Mehdi Ameziane divulges the parallels between his recently reissued Then Fell the Ashes... (2010) album and post-apocalyptic literature like Cormac McCarthy's The Road, I suspect that it is partly a study of eschatology, or the end of life as it is now. Conceived as a post-scriptum to the mourning of his father's death, Ameziane's fourth solo outing is, in a sense, its own fiction-- a series of vignettes one could "read in any order but that will have always the same signification," he explained to me over email. With a sound palette ranging from electro-acoustic drone to lo-fi guitar folk, he explores the idea of "maintaining the continuity of civilization through memory and transmission," of transitioning into a new era, with its different ways of living, thinking, and being. I believe one way of reading Then Fell The Ashes... is as a story of destruction and creation, death and (re)birth-- not only within the worlds we inhabit, but in the relationships that take root within us.

Opener "Black Nebulae" brings us into a scorched landscape of harsh drones, evolving with the precision of an orchestrated melody. Catharsis oozes from every dense layer of worldly yet whirring instrumentation, ceremonious and bloodcurdling. This should be a familiar scenario for followers of the French musician's primary musical outlet, Natural Snow Buildings (with Solange Gularte). This time around, however, the foreboding mood lifts quickly. After only five-and-a-half minutes, the noise gives way to a pair of breathy strum-and-hum melodies, recalling the warmth and safety of a campfire, or a nostalgic refuge in folkloric americana. Mehdi's curious mezzo-soprano, brought to the front on tracks like "Ghost That Was Your Life" and "Trailer," cradles us into a dreamlike state before sending us back out into the great unknown.

Ameziane's knack for stirring up a wide variety of emotions over the course of a single piece of music comes to the fore on the album's two longest tracks: "The Big Sand," which reaches well over the 10-minute mark, and the 25-minute title opus, which takes up an entire side of wax on the LP version. Both open with stretches of cacophonous noise and psychedelic torment. But while the former evolves into an ecstasy of choral rapture, the latter transforms into a melancholic ode to loss, culminating in a structured hymnal refrain, with the lyric taking central focus. It's this juxtaposition of textural devastation and melodic reprieve that makes Then Fell the Ashes... such a purposeful piece of storytelling. And in an age of economic collapse and environmental devastation, the tale of surving past end time-- and on into infinity-- is one to keep close to heart. Perhaps it is Cormac McCarthy who understands TwinSisterMoon best, for he seems to have anticipated it in The Road: "A formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called up from out of the ashes of its ruin."

TwinSisterMoon: Then Fell The Ashes...

Then Fell The Ashes... reissue is out now on Primary Numbers, and available from Forced Exposure (LP format) and Aquarius (CD)

Tags: twinsistermoon, zoned in, audio

Posted by alteredzones on 08/09/2011 at 12:30 p.m..

Zoned In: Bobb Trimble: The Crippled Dog Band

By Jenn Pelly

MP3: Bobb Trimble: "Live Wire"

What does it even mean to be an "outsider" musician in 2011? There's no denying that in 1983, when the little-known Worcester, MA songwriter Bobb Trimble recorded The Crippled Dog Band with a group of local 15-year olds, the answer was very different than it is at our Internet-driven present, when music's biggest pop-freaks are being chaperoned around by label reps and MTV funds a program called Weird Vibes. Musicians once pushed to the fringes now pedal their wares to niche markets, which is cool, but the proliferation of off-kilter sounds can make it increasingly difficult to distinguish actual outsiders from contrived ones.

Enter Bobb Trimble, the '80s psych musician who today celebrates his 53rd birthday, and has often been described simply as "real." And rightfully so. Though he's generated a cult following and influenced such rock and pop innovators as Thurston Moore and Ariel Pink-- with original pressings of his impossible-to-find LPs going for upwards of $1,000-- his influence remains generally obscure. (Ask your average Pitchfork Generation music fan about Worcester bands, and they'd be more likely to point to shaggy-haired party kids making slick pop-rock.) But a set of 2007 reissues from the Bloomington label Secretly Canadian-- 1980's Iron Curtain Innocence and 1982's Harvest of Dreams-- put his name on the American weird music map. At a time when the "Wormtown" scene was perhaps best known for its punk bands, Trimble's early albums offered emotionally raw psych-folk and pop-- pinned by his feminine falsetto and ghostly electronic washes, and influenced primarily by The Monkees and The Beatles. "Dear John, Paul, George and Ringo," read the Iron Curtain Innocence liner notes. "If I'm a good boy and work real hard, may I please be the 5th Beatle some day?"

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Tags: zoned in, bobb trimble

Posted by alteredzones on 08/04/2011 at 2 p.m..

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