Reviews 01-28-2007


Music Reviews 



Inside Out
Vol. 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6
by Stephen Philips


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Stephen Philips is an idea man. He is always looking for new showcases for his wonderful drones – and he usually finds them. In early 2005 he conceptualized a series of CD’s of “environmental minimalism” – ambience that would reflect the environment in which it was created. He marketed the series – Inside and Outside – as a limited edition (25 copies). Listeners were required to prepay for the entire series.

Steve gathered new field recordings for July, August, September, October and November of 2005 and recycled some for December. He processed, warped, manipulated and mangled them and surrounded them with his signature minimalist drones.  

Inside and Outside, Volume 1:: August 2005 covers July and August of 2005. This is “dark heat” as only Stephen does it. It is desert ambience but for urban and suburban deserts. Listeners will feel the heat rising from the concrete and blacktop wastelands as the drones roll and crawl along. The field recordings are languid, befitting a slow day in a muggy summer. The dark atmospheres offer no respite from the heat and humidity.

The dark heat has begun! 

Inside and Outside Volume 2:: September 2005 starts with a swirling and coiled drone with hollow edges and a solid core. The gentle nature samples belie the dark heat of the long (74’) composition. The shifting depth of the drone is its essence and gives the piece integrity and strength. As the drone progresses, Steve alters the pitch and adds layers. While the field recordings remain relatively constant, the drones shift and define the diversity.

The dark heat swelters! 

It is time for an attitude adjustment as summer fades into autumn. Inside and Outside Volume 3:: October 2005 has a new feel to it. The drones are still deep and dark but the field recordings are industrial and blue-collar – not in the redneck sense but in their work ethic. The field recordings surround hollow drones and experimental sounds surround the field recordings. The hollow drones surround the experimental sounds. (It is a musical version of a Max Escher drawing.) While the music unfolds and crawls along very slowly, it has almost no tempo or pitch. It is just there – and then it is somewhere else and then it is there again and then it is here. It is shapeless music. The lack of definition is its definition. Stephen continues to define his craft on his own terms.

The heat is gone! Long live the heat! 

Inside and Outside volume 4:: November 2005 is its own symphony in six movements. (Indeed, one can experience it as a symphony within a symphony.) The coda is the deep drone. The field recordings are the scherzos. Steve’s experimental sounds are the plot and the denouement. There is no climax. There is neither an overture nor an underture. This symphony with no orchestration is pure minimalism. There is complexity in its simplicity and simplicity in its complexity. Stephen’s sound design is on the cutting edge of brilliance.

The heat is cold. It melts the atmospheres. 

Inside and Outside Volume 6:: December 2005 is a two-disc set. It is also a bit misleading and somewhat of a “trick.” Stephen recorded some outdoor ambience (about 75’ worth) back in the summer of 2001. He misplaced the recording until February of 2003 when he “discovered” it while organizing his studio. In his words, he was “taken to another time and place. He has used this field recording for the background of about 20 compositions over the years (none of which he has released). These two CD’s are the best of those pieces – as judged by the artist. He has released them in the winter to help his listeners feel a respite from the harsh winter.

The first disc has very subtle drones. The weight of the sample gives the piece a forest ambience tone. Deep listeners will feel and see the soft atmospheres of a lush landscape. The journey from the harsh winter to a gentle summer is a pleasant experience. The drones define the tempo – slow as they crawl along.

The heat is lush. 

Disc 2 surrounds those field recordings with ominous drones and foreboding atmospheres. It is the complete opposite of its sister disc. This is the prelude to a storm. The drones and atmospheres are the wind, rain, thunder and lightning as the journey back to summer takes an unexpected – and interesting – twist. The diversion is a welcome surprise.

The heat wavers and does not falter. 

This series might be Stephen’s finest hours as a musician. It shows his exponential growth as a composer and his diversity as a performer. At the same time he stays within the boundaries of atmospheric minimalism and dark ambience. It is his own skills as a master that allow him to redefine those boundaries on the fly.

Reviewed by Jim Brenholts for Ambient Visions




by Al Conti

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Al Conti is an actor and musician who's now released his debut album Shadows. Billed as a journey into the darkest corners of the heart where only you can go it's a collection of new age instrumental songs featuring piano, keyboards, drum effects, and some chanting vocals.

The opening track “Faith” sets the overall tone for the rest of the album to come. A sassy percussive rhythm opens up before piano comes in to play an uplifting melody speaking of the positive and hopeful aspects of faith. String effect pads later round off the piece adding a hint of the symphonic.

Piano features throughout much of the album and Al is equally at home with the slower reflective pieces and faster upbeat tunes. Besides the new agey pieces with piano and strings we also find some electronic based numbers. On “Reflection” reverbing synths constantly slither around the soundscape against a backdrop of drum percussion and periodic sections including Gregorian style chants a la Enigma. Something like a whistle or recorder also comes in now and again adding a bright pointy edge to the music.

A feat that Al has pulled off and which even some established musicians do not always manage is to create an album of consistently enjoyable tracks. There's not one I dislike or want to skip over. Permeating the album is a lovely humanity and positive spirit. This is epitomised on the closing track “Longing for You” where cosy warm synth pads and gentle string chords form a backdrop for electric piano notes fading off into the distance. Even though this piece is about longing for someone special it creates a warm glow inside.

Accessible thoughtful new age melodies and a few foot tapping numbers make listening to Shadows a relaxing and pleasurable experience. It's a worthy debut sure to appeal to new age fans.

Reviewed by Dene Bebbington reprinted from on Ambient Visions



Out of the Darkness,
Into the Light

by Michael Stribling

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“Out of the Darkness, Into the Light” is multi-instrumentalist Michael Stribling’s follow-up to 2006’s chart-topping “Songs of Hope and Healing.” I haven’t heard Stribling’s earlier work, but I sure like this CD! Most of the ten tracks are ambient and spacious, but there are a couple of very rhythmic, uptempo pieces that make you sit up and take notice. The piano appears in several of the pieces, but this is much more of an electronic CD. Stribling’s mission is “ to help others in their journey toward wholeness through the gift of music, by creating works that inspire and uplift the human spirit” (from his website). Stribling calls his label “Leela Music,” and “leela” means “divine play,” so this music obviously comes from a rich variety of sources. Stribling has been playing the piano since he was seven, and was a percussionist for Johnny Mathis early in his career. After several years working as a studio musician, playing in musical theater, and radio announcing, Stribling went back to graduate school in 1981 and became a marriage and family therapist. After working in that field for many years, life changes brought him back to music in 2005. Lucky us!

The CD opens with “Driven,” a piece whose pounding beat and intoxicating rhythm I find completely addicting. In the car, I had the volume up to the point of being almost painful and kept hitting the “repeat” button on the CD player. My piano students could probably hear me coming from several blocks away! Sure to bring a smile and more than a few head bobs! From there, we get down to more serious business. The title track takes us on a journey that begins with the feeling of dark mystery that is non-threatening, but not entirely comfortable. As the piece unfolds, it explores several themes, gradually brightening until it breaks into the light as the darker theme fades out. “Northern Lights” gives the feeling of floating in darkness that is deep, but also very peaceful and beautiful. Various sounds suggest the changing colors of the Northern Lights as they melt from one breathtaking hue to another. Gorgeous! “Letting Go/Afterthought” is much more introspective and melancholy. The middle section of the piece is solo piano, personalizing it even more. One of my favorite tracks is “Longing,” which begins with a very simple but compelling rhythmic theme that suggests a plucked stringed instrument. That theme continues throughout the piece as string washes add fullness and color. Becoming more orchestrated as it evolves, the simple theme comes to the forefront from time to time. As feelings of longing are, the piece is tinged with sadness and loss, but is not without hope. Very effective! “Glory and Honor / A Glimpse Beyond” begins on a jaunty, upbeat note. More melodic than most of the works, it also has an infectious rhythm and a playful spirit that segues later to the ambient feeling of crystalline open space and of floating peacefully on air.

“Out of the Darkness, Into the Light” is a fascinating musical journey and one that I really enjoyed.

Reviewed by Kathy Parsons reprinted from Mainly Piano on Ambient Visions



Kindred Spirit

by Patrick Kelly

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Patrick Kelly's latest album Kindred Spirit continues his new age/ambient style heard on Beyond the Horizon but this time in a more relaxed and easygoing manner. As with the previous album there are interesting liner notes describing the inspiration behind some of the tracks. The gorgeous sounds are mainly created by synths, guitar, piano, drums, and strings.

Setting the scene for the rest of the album is the opener “Angel of Light”. Warm chords hinting at angelic realms lead into a gentle percussive rhythm, a calmly uplifting melody on bright notes then comes in. All this is rounded out with vocally tinged wafting ethereal pads. One of my favourite tracks is “Time to Heal”. Perfect for draining one's anxieties away it slowly builds up a well crafted collage of acoustic guitar, a flutey melody, heavenly soaring pads, and a cantering percussion in a brushing/drumming style. Though the piece has an almost solemn demeanour it's got a lovely sense of yearning and hope.

A few dramatic pieces are interspersed to offset the relaxing ones. In “Dreamscape” we hear the now familiar heavenly pads prominently breezing to and fro; a lolloping rhythm and bell like notes deliver a melody conveying a sense of the hidden world of dreams. All this is occasionally punctuated by syncopated synth sounds adding a slight sense of unease that can occur in dreams.

It's my opinion that the best music usually comes from personal feelings and emotions, as opposed to, say, abstract ideas. This is the case on this album which wraps the listener in velvety smooth and comforting sounds and melodies. Since my first listen to Kindred Spirit I'm convinced that it consolidates Patrick's position as one of the best new age artists out there creating warm and uplifting music for relaxation or just pure enjoyment.

Reviewed by Dene Bebbington reprinted from on Ambient Visions



It's About the Rose

by Karen Marie Garrett

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“It’s About the Rose” is Karen Marie Garrett’s fourth recording to date, and it is stunning! Her previous release, “The Allure of Sanctuary,” was also exceptional with its melodic emotional depth, but this is quite different. The pieces tend to be more improvised and come directly from the soul without a confining structure. Artists of this stature are able to freely yet cohesively communicate their musical thoughts, creating moods and wordless dialogs with their instruments. True artistry springs from this place, and if you’ve ever witnessed it, the experience is profound and mesmerizing. Most of these songs have a melancholy cast to them, with flowing left hand patterns combined with simple melodies and explorations on the right. Seven of the twelve tracks are solo piano, and the others feature Eugene Friesen on cello, Noah Wilding on wordless vocals, Jeff Oster on flugel horn, Derrik Jordan on percussion and violin, T-Bone Wolk on bass, producer Will Ackerman on percussion, Steve Schuch on violin, and Corin Nelsen on “piano string duding” - consummate artists, all. Garrett obviously took some major musical risks with this new release, but calls the time spent making the album the most creative period of her life - it shows. I don’t often listen to a CD for the first time and keep saying, “Wow!” but that’s what happened here. It’s not the pianistic flash, but the depth of feeling and personal expression that draws you in and won’t let go.

The CD opens with “It’s About the Rose in the Vase on the Table.” The title refers to a story about dealing with life’s little dramas. The notes of the piece aren’t complicated, but the nakedness of the emotions expressed clearly indicate what an artist we are experiencing here. Wow! “Tally’s Lullaby” was inspired by a letter sent to Garrett about a very special dog who had died and how one of Garrett’s previous songs had helped the family cope with the loss. Overwhelmed, Garrett composed this piece with tears in her eyes. A duet for piano and cello, Garrett and Eugene Friesen are truly a match made in heaven. “The Piano Called” is an improvisational piece that came about one night touching the piano keys and listening to what the piano had to say. Gorgeous! “Moon Night” is piano backed by djembe and violin. Stepping up the pace a bit, this piece has an exotic quality and a gentle energy. “Beethoven, Chopin, and the Rose” combines an essence of both composers with Garrett’s own simple melody, and the results are evocative and haunting. “Tip Toe Dancer and the Sea Pearl” is much lighter and is infused with childlike joy and innocence. “Cafe Espresso” is the most rhythmic and experimental piece on the album. Playful and energetic, it expresses a “happy buzz.” “Finale of the Rose” returns to the original theme for further discovery of its coda. An ensemble piece for piano, percussion, flugel horn, and violin, the musicians bring their passions to the point of heartbreak. I can’t imagine anyone not being intensely moved by this piece.

With “It’s About the Rose,” Karen Marie Garrett has established herself in the upper echelons of contemporary pianists. May she always wear her heart on her musical sleeve!

Reviewed by Kathy Parsons reprinted from Mainly Piano on Ambient Visions


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