Review: Benoît Pioulard – Hymnal Remixes
450 CD copies, first 15 copies signed by BP, also digital (to be released January 21, 2014)
Remix label: http://losttribesound.com
Available at: http://losttribesound.bandcamp.com/album/hymnal-remixes
Artist website: http://pioulard.com Original recording label: http://kranky.net
CD 1 Remixes – 44:51: 1. Mercy (Fieldhead), 2. Margin (William Ryan Fritch), 3. Excave (Squanto), 4. Litiya (The Green Kingdom), 5. Homily (Cock and Swan), 6. Florid (Brambles), 7. Censer (Field Rotation), 8. Reliquary (Part Timer), 9. Margin (Zachary Gray), 10. Foxtail (Graveyard Tapes)
CD 2 Remixes – 53:29: 1. Hawkeye (The Remote Viewer), 2. Censer (Segue), 3. Knell (Widesky), 4. Florid (Loscil), 5. Foxtail (Radere), 6. Gospel (James Murray), 7. Reliquary (Benoît Honoré Pioulard), 8. Margin (Ruhe), 9. Gospel (Window Magic)
I want to note that sound quality and production are very important to me, almost as important as the music itself. So, given that statement, please read this review carefully. Comments seen as criticisms are not of the music or the writing, but largely on the choice of production methods and sound quality. I think very highly of the music penned and played by Tom Meluch (in his guise as Benoît Pioulard). With that in mind, please read on.
Hymnal – The Original
I’ve enjoyed Benoît Pioulard’s previous kranky releases as well as the more experimental vinyl EP Plays Thelma on Desire Path Recordings, so coupled with the early press accounts of Hymnal I was hopeful that it would be a great album…
I feel that there are many exceptional songs on Hymnal (Hawkeye, Reliquary, Excave, and especially Margin, and Litiya) along with some comforting drones (like Censer), but in general I feel there is a lack of presence in the recordings—they sound flat, out-of-phase and firmly entrenched in a claustrophobic mid-range (nothing at all like the sumptuous reverb of the intended muse “religious architecture”). Pioulard’s songs on this particular album are lost in a limiting boxy haze.
I’m a big fan of lo and mid-fi recordings and some musicians do it so well; East River Pipe (FM Cornog), more recently Will Samson and especially (one of my favorite albums of 2013) Bryan Ferry’s The Jazz Age (recorded in monaural with Jazz-era microphones). Granted, some artists and writers create works within strict limits and can be quite successful (shades of a single color, certain textures or excluding a specific vowel in a written work), but with all the praise I take a contrarian view on the technical execution of Hymnal. The quality and depth of recordings matter to me, unless there is a stated goal for why sound must be altered so dramatically.
I learned recently of Benoît Pioulard’s other off-label work, such as his 2011 digital EP Lyon (and in support of how I think Meluch writes some great songs). Have a listen to the gorgeous and unadorned song Tie:
It has some of the qualities of recordings by Nick Drake and Bert Jansch (think The Black Swan). I’m certainly not advocating that Pioulard chooses between one recording approach or another, I’m suggesting perhaps a sound somewhere in the middle, with the vocals higher in the mix and a fuller sound.
Hymnal – The Remixes
Original songs can find new life in covers or remixes. So, when Lost Tribe Sound announced this collection of Hymnal reinterpretations (by artists such as Loscil, Cock & Swan, Brambles, The Green Kingdom and William Ryan Fritch) I thought that some of the depth that I felt was missing in the original might be introduced or restored.
This is a really interesting collection, and the recordings in most cases have the clarity and sonic diversity that I had hoped for in the original album.
The two CDs are split loosely into two categories: 1) rhythmic with vocals and 2) more on the ambient side, largely instrumental. After a couple of listens I was quite surprised that I found myself leaning more towards the feel and sound of the more actively engaging CD 1.
As with the original album Mercy (I’ll call it track 1.1) opens the collection and it’s a bit of an assault on the ears (the original being a full-on harmonium before the vocals enter), but in the remix version the harmonium is tamed and a slow march beat is overlaid. The sound is far more spacious, as if entering a cathedral. William Ryan Fritch’s remix of Margin (1.2) is an almost frenetic orchestration compared to the original and Zachary Gray’s version (1.9), which starts off quite stark with lone guitar and vocal and gradually the instrumentation and soundstage expands—I think both are quite successful, and in Gray’s version the vocals are clear as the song develops (makes me wonder all the more why Meluch chose to shroud such a great song). Squanto’s remix of Excave (1.3) is a series of repeated fragments made into a rhythm and sounding very much like some of Peter Gabriel’s mid-career work.
The Green Kingdom’s and Cock & Swan’s remixes of Litiya (1.4) and Homily (1.5) are quite enchanting. The sound of Litya softer, fuller and more comforting than the original—the soft electric guitar and cello overlays give the track such an easy feel, and Pioulard’s largely untreated vocals weave right in, so well. I have to admit that Homily is one of my least favorite tracks on the original album and Cock & Swan have woven their unusual magic, making it an ethereal journey (supplemented with Ola Hungerford’s vocals) while maintaining some of the original grit, and I assume that the crisp nylon guitar overlay is Johnny Goss’s. Brambles transformed Florid (1.6) into a (quite unexpected) “chill dance” piece—it has a languid vibe. Field Rotation put Censer (1.7) into a time machine and it emerged from an old modular Moog during Tangerine Dream’s Stratosphere era. The original version of Reliquary is furtive and mysterious, and Part Timer (1.8) stretched this concept further with his stark (and at time minimally orchestrated) interpretation.
The Remote Viewer’s version of Hawkeye opens CD2 (2.1) and its origins are deftly shrouded, and at first I didn’t care for it much, but it has grown on me—it’s delicately fragmented with some quirky treatments (very Boats-y!) and at times it sounds like Mark Isham’s early experiments from back in his Windham Hill label days (yes folks, I’m that old). My two favorite tracks on CD2 are Segue’s version of Censer (2.2) and Loscil’s (at times, visceral) remake of Florid (2.4). Curiously, Censer is given a gentle heartbeat, which despite the motion has a rather soothing effect to it. The remix of Florid somewhat belies its connotation, elaborate in its sonic depth, but not ornate.
Widesky’s Knell is an expansive fragmentation of the cathedral bells of the original and then all is absorbed into a rather compressed package of the experience (kind of like a snow-globe)—it’s a bit edgy for my ears. Sorry, but Radere’s version of Foxtail (2.5) just didn’t work for me—too strident. James Murray’s Gospel (2.6) meanders and bends with a broad color palette and is a contrast to Window Magic’s version (2.9) that is narrower, more primary shaded.
Pioulard’s remix of his own track Reliquary (2.7) shrouds the original even further; the furtive character is diminished—a curious approach. Ruhe’s version of Margin (2.8) is an almost unrecognizable adaptation of the original with only the slightest of rhythmic and vocal fragments remaining—in kind of a trance beat.
Sometimes sequels or remakes are better than the original, and that’s how I feel in this case on the production side of things. Despite my comments on the source material, I urge listeners to purchase a copy of Hymnal and judge for yourselves—some might disagree completely with my assessment on the sound quality. I’ll continue to look forward to Benoît Pioulard’s future recordings.
This is a solicited review.
Review: Will Samson – Balance *UPDATED with VIDEO*
Karaoke Kalk 69LP – Time: About 34 minutes (LP, CD & Digital Files)
Record Label Website:
http://www.karaokekalk.de/ & http://www.karaokekalk.de/will-samson-balance/
http://willsamson.bandcamp.com/ & http://wsamson.tumblr.com/ & http://willsamson.co.uk/
Recorded & Mixed By: Florian Frenzel & Will Samson Mastered By: Nils Frahm
Tracks: 1) Oceans Are Wilder; 2) Cathedrals; 3) Hunting Shadows; 4) Eat Sleep Travel, Repeat; 5) Painting A Horizon; 6) Music For Autumn; 7) Storms Above The Submarine; 8) Dusty Old Plane
Some may recall my review of Will Samson’s last album Hello Friends, Goodbye Friends (there’s a link to it on the right of this page, near the bottom of the list or use the Search box). HFGF was timely; it rang like a beacon of hope. It was a pretty special thing to think that a 20-something had such an affect on this 50-something, but there are all kinds of wisdom floating around and sometimes age really doesn’t matter. I don’t mind admitting this at all, as it has been music that has helped me at many times throughout my journey in this life. So, at the first mention from Will that he had another album in the works, I was excited; resisting temptation to listen to early previews, preferring to wait for its full and formal release. So, I ordered the LP, with the striking cover photo by Scott McClarin.
It was worth the wait.
From the first celeste (vibraphone?) notes and soft vocal harmonies of Oceans Are Wilder, I knew that there was a great synergy in Will’s work with Florian Frenzel and Nils Frahm—complementing the music and lyrics so well. As the album progresses it moves from a soft state of consciousness to a deeper meditation (with one brief diversion). There is a lovely balance of instrumentation, vocals, ambient sounds and the outdoors. These are songs of friendship, strange journeys, and visits to places real and imagined. The mix of six vocal songs and two instrumental respites is a bit like Nick Drake’s second album, Bryter Layter.
Samson continues to use his upper register (and falsetto) voices prominently, although there are times when full-throated harmonies are blended. Vocals are also fuller in the mix of this album, and the overall sound is different; the result of using venerable analogue equipment, tapes (old cassettes, a Tascam 8-track) and working with Florian Frenzel’s salvaged organs, analogue tape delays and old microphones.
The ambiance of the analogue equipment is strongly present in Cathedrals, it gives a misty quality to the sound, a sense of the ancient, like the foxed pages and deckled-edges of aged books or the opening title sequence to an old film. In particular, I think the layering of sound is particularly strong, starting with simple acoustic guitar, then unadorned vocals, then vocal harmonies added ending with the lyric “That spin so separately…” and then an abrupt and lyrical chord change into “Impossible became much easier…” and shifting to an electric guitar drone to the end—it’s mystical and soulful.
Hunting Shadows is an outdoor walk, and the music and treatments take the place of moving light, shadows and the lightly moving breezes of a new day. Eat Sleep Travel, Repeat has the ambiance of being aboard a ship at sea late into the night, composing (acoustic) music by candlelight and the stars, with slow swaying movements, as does the more electric (with broad vocal harmonies) Painting A Horizon. The trombone solo in Eat Sleep is an impeccable complement as are the banjo and cello on Painting. There are similarities with the more plaintive side two of Brian Eno’s album Before and After Science, the three tracks Julie With…, By This River, and Spider and I.
Eat Sleep Travel, Repeat (Premiere Video)
The second instrumental piece (again, with cello) on the album is Music For Autumn. It’s as if the sun is lowering in the cool night sky and as the track closes, Samson adds a warming chorus of voices. The brief diversion noted above is Storms Above The Submarine, which starts playfully, with furtive notes, sounding a bit like some sonic experiments of Raymond Scott. Then a somber throaty organ mixes with Will’s overdubbed voices (which are treated to sound a bit like a mournful saxophone) and altered guitars. Dusty Old Plane (and oh so beautiful, it is) closes the album, with practically a whisper of droning keyboard, reverberant electric and acoustic guitars and Samson’s harmonies. Listen carefully; there are birds in the background. This peaceful track is a sonic blessing, and a farewell of sorts. I also note that this album is dedicated to his father.
Please keep making music Will; you have a true gift.
A postscript: I have only one (hopefully received as constructive) comment on what is otherwise a brilliant album, and that is to recommend to not let the desire to use aged and lumbering analogue equipment for ambiance shroud the quality and beauty of the music too much.
Caught In The Wake Forever – Against A Simple Wooden Cross
Hibernate Recordings – HB43: Time: 41:27 – Edition of 250 – Cover photo by Chris Gowers
Record Label Website: http://hibernate-recs.co.uk
More background information on the album: http://hibernate-recs.co.uk/releases/caught-in-the-wake-forever-against-a-simple-wooden-cross/
1) Scottish Grief; 2) The Quiet Beauty Of The Northern Lakes; 3) Waiting Rooms & Chemists; 4) After The Blackout; 5) Western Medicine Failed Me; 6) Last Of The Heroin; 7) Point Sands
Caught In The Wake Forever is the nom de plume of Fraser McGowan, who lives in Paisley, Scotland where he composes and records his works at home. McGowan has been recording music in various incarnations since 1998. I recently became acquainted with CITWF’s work through a Hibernate Recordings collaboration with Yellow6 (Jon Attwood), entitled The Slow Manipulation Of Dying Light (now sold out, but digital files are still available for download). And so, I started to dig further…
McGowan’s latest album, Against A Simple Wooden Cross is a surprisingly open and stark account of his recovery from a lifelong affliction with chronic anxiety, and ultimately a complete mental breakdown in 2011. As is often the case, the crash was not only debilitating to him, but also to family and friends (and I suspect the title of the album is a reaction to those who don’t often understand all the circumstances; a feeling of guilt that can also hinder recovery).
Despair and melancholy permeate this album. Recordings vary from a six month period when McGowan was heavily medicated to a time when more effective alternate methods of treatment were found. As a result those pieces are more hopeful as resolve and clarity develop. There is also an ancient and timeless quality to the album (similar to Cock and Swan’s album Stash and other works by Sparklehorse AKA Mark Linkous…oh, I miss ML). In this case, it is the concept that recovery takes time, time for a worthwhile cause—rebuilding a life worth saving, on one’s own terms.
I am also attracted to this album in a similar way that I admire self-examination in the works of East River Pipe (F. M. Cornog); although the songwriting and atmospheric approaches are quite different. In particular, the stark simplicity of penultimate song on the album, Last Of The Heroin. Not being fully aware of all the circumstances (and not wanting to speculate blindly), I have made some notes on some of the tracks, but I think that some interpretation is best left to the individual listener.
Scottish Grief opens with field recordings from a holiday before his breakdown. As the tragic nature of the events is revealed, the piece transforms into a dirge. Conflict grows represented by increasing dissonance and ultimately a shredding electric guitar. Despite dealing with conflicting feelings and thoughts, there is a determination to keep moving and not give up, even at this early stage. The track builds in layers slowly, perhaps symbolic of the pace of treatment, and closes with an excerpt from (what appears to be) a demo where it is evident that hopelessness still weighs heavily.
The Quiet Beauty Of The Northern Lakes opens with a simple rhythm and acoustic guitar, where re-building a life begins. The struggles are evident: “It’s hard to keep a light on…” Eventually, piano and keyboards layer with McGowan’s almost-whispered vocals and a chorus of a Gizmo-like (bowed) electric guitar. Waiting Rooms & Chemists is atmospheric with acoustic guitar, and the feeling of endless waiting and being alone. After The Blackout starts with melodic rhythmic blips and then blends acoustic guitar and vocals. The track is reminiscent of Recorded With You In Mind (from the 2011 EP All The Hurt That Hinders Home**). Western Medicine Failed Me is instrumental, with acoustic guitar and a veil of electric guitar reminiscent of Frippertronics in Robert Fripp’s 1979 album Exposure (that which simmers below the surface).
Point Sands closes the album, and it appears to look back on the beginning of the journey to getting well, and as I understand it, the title of this track is taken from the location heard in the field recordings in Scottish Grief; a pleasant memory perhaps held onto and another piece of the journey back. Some might feel that this album goes too far into the abyss of despair and is too personal, but it is also the case that music such as this occupies a space that seldom gets explored, or even understood, as it is often hushed with whispers.
**Recorded With You In Mind from the EP All The Hurt That Hinders Home:
This is a solicited review.
SRFélix – SRFélix
My Little Cab Records MLCR#031 CDr limited run of 100 (Review copy is #25)
Timing: 23:56 Mastered by Emmanuel Nogues
Website and Ordering: http://mylittlecabrecords.bandcamp.com/album/srf-lix
Tracks: 1) We Walk Until The End; 2) The Wind Dies; 3) Leaving Home; 4) A River In Winter; 5) Old Memories; 6) Until The End
S. R. Félix lives and records his works at home, between Lille and the shores of Brittany in France. His self-titled debut release on My Little Cab Records is an enchanting sonic novella that alternates between states of observation and contemplation. Most of the instrumentation is acoustic (piano, guitar, strings and treatments), and there are similarities with the instrumental portions of recent works by Will Samson and Gareth Dickson. There is deep sense of reverence for place and time.
We Walk Until The End announces a departure on a (perhaps imagined) journey with a layered and expansive beckoning, which gradually develops into an exultant march before fading. The Wind Dies shifts to a more introspective piano meditation. The recording preserves the ambient sounds of the inner workings of the muted piano*. Leaving Home continues the sense of reflection, this time with a solitary electric guitar lament. It starts quietly and grows more intense during the choruses. A River In Winter is a more outward looking and expansive sonic vision; a desolate scene encountered as the journey continues. Old Memories has a metronomic muted piano (layered with shimmering guitar). It expresses the passage of time, and gives the sense of viewing faded photographs. Until The End is perhaps the arrival at the destination, to a darker yet more serene realm. The sound is deeper and moves in waves to the close.
My Little Cab Records is a French DIY record label that has released mostly limited edition CDrs since 2004. The CD sleeve has an intriguing pine forest panorama spanning the front and back covers of the expressive and fully hand-lettered sleeve (with pressed dried flowers). S. R. Félix is working on his next album, to be released in 2013. Although this eponymous debut release is more akin to an extended EP than a full LP album, I find it to be a solid introduction to Félix’s work, and I look forward to the future release, as well.
*-Recording note: There is a slight vibration at the edges of the sonic peaks on this track. To be certain that it was not my equipment, I switched between multiple pairs of speakers and the vibration remained. It is not too distracting, but it is noticeable on certain equipment.
This is a solicited review, although I had already purchased a copy of the album.
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Will Samson – Hello Friends, Goodbye Friends – CD
2011 PLOP/NATURE BLISS Distributed in USA by Darla
http://willsamson.bandcamp.com/ & http://willsamson.co.uk/
Tracks 1) My Broken Mirror, 2) Panda Bears, 3) Meet me at Home, 4) Find me in the Ocean, 5) Violins and Polaroids, 6) Sleeping, 7) Friends, 8) Great Plains
I know very little of Will Samson’s prior project “Himalaya” other than some youtube video uploads, but I picked up his new album “Hello Friends, Goodbye Friends” after reading a description at online music merchant Darla.com, and I took a chance. After a number of years of searching for, acquiring and tweaking various pieces of vintage and new audio equipment, I have finally turned back to finding new music as well as revisiting old friends and their new material on both CD and vinyl. I like all sorts of music, except angry-man-head-bangin’ rap and heavy metal of a similar ilk.
Samson is of diverse national heritage (Chilean, Indian and Italian), born in England, lived in Australia and currently resides in Berlin, Germany. I was instantly struck by the power of this deeply personal album. It’s a real gem. Most music takes time to grow on me, often with eight or ten listens of an album, and even then, I might have only two or three favorite pieces.
It is evident that the young Mr. Samson is on a voyage of discovery—both sonic and life. I was also drawn to the story behind the music (journeying though Europe, Asia and the Himalayas at 19, one way ticket, self-doubt, celebration, loneliness & joyfulness), but only after hearing the album and wanting to know more. Some might classify his work as ambient, folk, indie and when loaded into iTunes it curiously comes up classified as “pop”. This music just takes the World and slows it down allowing for contemplation of the music and perhaps various issues that consume one’s own life. The songs are beautifully crafted, in a way, similar to F. M. Cornog’s (of East River Pipe), yet they lack the edgy subjects and politics that F. M. often explores.
The first piece on the CD, “My Broken Mirror” starts with a shimmering of acoustic guitar and what appears to be a light electric guitar overdub used almost like a horn, to beckon the listener mournfully “Ooo…it’s going to get easier…”. Yet the spirit of the music is uplifting and optimistic. Later on in the CD ,“Friends” is reminiscent of Anthony Phillips’ beautiful piece “God if I saw Her Now” from his first solo album “The Geese and the Ghost”. Every piece on “Hello Friends…” stands on its own, yet all function well together as a collective whole.
The recordings are stark (made with an eight-track recorder, a gift from his father before his travels and mixed by Samson) and there are many ambient sounds deep in the soundstage, footsteps across a room, the inner workings of a piano or the click of the recorder’s controls. Will Samson mixes his normal and falsetto voices in various pieces, almost chants of sorts and for some this may be bothersome, but stick with it. The supporting instrumentation appears to be parlor guitar, electric guitar with some effects, bass and piano with minimal electronic treatments and light percussion.
The album is an intimate personal meditation, yet is sonically broad like the mountainscapes depicted in the cover art. The CD’s jacket is a small gate-fold LP, typical of many Japanese releases. The album is little over thirty-eight minutes, which is far too short and leaves me wanting more, but one can be rewarded again with the replay button. This is the kind of album that makes me want to buy copies and give them to as many friends as I can think who would appreciate something as beautiful and rare as this album is.
Appeared in the September, 2011 Hifi Zine: http://www.hifizine.com/issues/september-2011/