Reviews 02-18-2001

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Vine, Bark, and Spore

by Steve Roach
and Jorge Reyes

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The inscription inside the CD label says, "The music is the medicine," and this sums up the thinking and intention behind this collaboration between Steve Roach and Mexican pre-Columbian percussionist Jorge Reyes. We have heard this collaboration before (along with guitarist Suso Saiz) on two powerful albums, Forgotten Gods (1993) and Earth Island(1994). All of these albums, and many others by Roach, either alone or with collaborators, form a more than decade-long musical exploration of shamanism and the shamanistic experience. Each album illuminates a different aspect of this primordial spiritual path - from the Dreamtime of the Australian aborigines, to the songs sung by shamans, to chanting and the didgeridoo, and especially the use of drums and other percussion to induce what anthropologist Michael Harner calls the "shamanic state of consciousness."

In 2000, Roach and his collaborators brought us three major albums in this shamanic cycle. Vine, Bark, and Spore was the first, followed closely by Serpent's Lair and then Early Man. Serpent's Lair, the companion album to this one, was devoted to shamanic drumming, the "extroverted" noisy "technique of ecstasy." But Vine, Bark, and Spore, though it does have rhythm and chanting, moves into the more "introverted" aspects of shamanism, namely the voyage to the Innerworld which is often undertaken using what Roach and the shamans call "earth medicine," but what our own unspiritual world simply calls "hallucinogenic drugs." Thus the title, which comes from the natural forms from which these medicines are derived: ayahuasca vine bark, and psilocybin (mushroom) spores.

Before readers get all nervous, let me stress that this is NOT "drug  music." In fact, it is a way AWAY from drugs, providing a non-chemical way to experience the shamanic voyage. "The music is the medicine." Roach and Reyes create sonic environments which lead the imagination into the primal world beyond culture, the inner world of the earliest civilizations before the separation of "imaginary" and "real" became a standard part of our mentality.

The soundworld on this album is exceedingly rich. (I recommend listening to it on headphones if you want to catch all the little details.) There is percussion and rhythm, most of it rather soft. The drumming is also slow; it mostly moves along in a contemplative and restful way, especially the booming, almost heartbeat-like rhythms in track #4, "Night Journey." The many rattles, sounding stones, and rainsticks which are Roach's signature sounds are still here, along with Reyes' Mexican percussion, including clay pot drums, and pre-Hispanic wind instruments such as pipes and ocarina. Reyes also brings in environmental recordings from Mexico, adding in the chirping of crickets and birds or the sprightly recitation of a Native storyteller speaking an Aztec/Spanish dialect. There is a didgeridoo in one track (again #4, "Night Journey") and some chanting vocalizations in others. Interestingly, there are none of the familiar "Roach floating chords" here, though there is much electronic manipulation, looping, echo, and that trademark vast reverb.

The tonal, musical elements in Vine, Bark, and Spore are especially well-structured. Throughout the album, the percussion environments are tied together with a single, simple musical theme, that of a minor third, which appears at the very beginning and is developed throughout the album until the last track. This is carried by an artful blend of guitar and synthesizer, often so melded that you cannot tell where one ends and the other begins. Throughout his recent albums, Roach seems to be using more and more guitar and guitar-like sound to express his harmonic ideas. Here the guitar line is played by Reyes, with electronics by Roach.

The musical continuity of the album is re-emphasized by a repeat of the beginning of the first piece at the beginning of track 6, "Healing Temple." In the last track, # 7, "Gone from Here," which is also the longest, the minor third motif we have been hearing flows out into a beautiful, languid, drifting meditation  in which not only does the third switch to a comforting major interval, but is expanded (both major and minor thirds) into a tone-row just short of a melody. The guitar sound predominates here, though it is, as elsewhere, supported by synthesizer blending. Roach is accustomed to ending his albums on a peaceful, gentle note and this follows his pattern. It is an exceptional example of his ability to lead the listener out of the dark shamanic underworld, back into the light. 

Reviewed by Hannah M.G. Shapero 2/18/2001


Behind that Light

by Monica Ramos

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I could not help but be pleasantly amused to hear a lush ambient atmosphere, punctuated with caressing wind chimes and the ebb and flow of ocean tides, underpinning the spoken words of harpist Monica Ramos as the opening strains of "Para Uno Angelito" washed forth from the speakers.  A momentary prelude to the introduction of a "flanged", funky, slapped, bass line propelled beside an equally flanged, dance tinged, drumbeat.  This completely spun my head around as a synthesizer drop tone, straight out of Science Fiction sound effects, sets up the plucked, rounded, tone of the harp as the melody line is introduced.  Monica then begins singing the story line, in Spanish, to "For a Little Angel".  I was caught completely off guard as the first transportation occurred.  In grandest Déjà Vu style there I was, seated in one of those little boats, smack dab in the middle of the "It's A Small World After All" attraction at Disney World.  The room spun again, transporting me back to the present, as the multi cultural musical experience of "Behind That Light" renewed its journey.  After one more return to the land of the Mouse I settled in to continue this "E" Ticket Ride.

The Chilean born, Swedish-based, harpist Monica Ramos could very well be this new century's musical alchemist, or at the very least one of the architects, in perfecting the emergence of a true melting pot of cross cultural, multi styled and multi faceted musical styles.  Although reviewers should eschew the propensity for naming new musical genres I feel rather confident in calling this emerging style New World Romantic Pop music.  The amalgam of influences I hear in "Behind That Light" ranges from pure classical influence to the most exclusive underground dance clubs of the world.  There is even a sleight hint of the Phil Spector "wall of sound" pop influence at work in the production values of several of the tracks within "Behind That Light.

I alluded earlier to the first transportation while listening to the opening track and must therefore qualify that statement now.  Music has the capability of inducing near out of body experiences.  In that vein Monica and her producer succeed in spades.  The vast differential of musical styles invoked are easily likened to being placed in a spherical bubble, inside of which Monica's music spins engaging imagery and lifescapes portraying her musical growth and present state of calm and happiness, all the while invoking the imagery of stunningly diverse musical landscapes.  One literally feasts upon the music and instruments of the world in a pleasing and accessible pop production.  As odd as it may strike you I even hear tinges of Abba, Supertramp, Alan Parsons Project and the Miami Sound Machine interwoven within the various tracks.  This transportation within a sphere of music is a vacation, theme park, and escape of the mundane signal to noise ratio of life all in one tight package.

Monica is in very fine voice and complete control of the pace and melody of every track as she guides your journey, possibly the search for the answer to what is Behind That Light?  I found two answers, and I'm not telling, and I do recommend you give this disc a listen and find your own answer to that question, as ultimately, everyone's vision is different.  Who knows, your vision may be better than mine, you could find answers and visit worlds I've only glimpsed in the periphery of my mind within the enchanting realm of the sphere of Monica Ramos' music.  The journey often holds greater reward than the destination and getting there is often more than half the fun.  Take the journey, this really is a wondrous "E" ticket ride.

Reviewed by BEAR  02.18.01 

Audiophiles Note:  

On the whole a very mature and satisfying mix from this varied sonic palette.  The dance mix influence does not bare as much low frequency information as one might think.  Rather limited to the low "D and C" of a five string bass guitar and a few synthesizer rumbles.

Although the harp itself is a most dynamic, sometimes explosively percussive, at others light and lithe, instrument I am in a bit of a quandary trying to convey what I hear.  My belief is that the harp is excessively compressed, or victim of the pop production syndrome for headroom, and therefore lacks the air and definition around the upper frequencies and plucked passages.  This also introduces artificial dynamics.  I do recall that Monica's touch and technique were much more clearly presented on the previous release.

I can't help but wonder what this disc would sound like if the supporting instruments had been sculpted and produced around the full dynamic range, read the touch and sensitivity of Monica's playing the harp, and not the squashed compression employed to place the harp within the backing tracks soundscape.  There is nothing extraordinary about the sonic signature of this recording.  It does sound very polished and totally succeeds in the Pop panache vein.  I suppose it is at this point that I could mention the ties to the Wall of Sound production values that at times make a muddle of the mix and make it a plain vanilla, no delineation or character for individual instruments, production.  Many will not even notice it happening; it's just that being a musician I like and enjoy being able to hear the individual instruments supporting the piece.  I confess to not being a denizen of the dance and trip hop worlds but have it on reasonably good authority that this is "all good and where it's at" in the current music scenes for those genres.  If you are enamoured by the natural acoustic sound of the harp look elsewhere as this will not be what you would expect.  But if you are interested in the talent it takes to write and play innovative harp music by all means dig in for the feast.

My opinion of the sonic signature being unremarkable means exactly that.  No spectacular fireworks or subterranean depth charges that show off a sound system are contained within.  The enjoyment and transportation factors of this disc are contained within the music and the playing itself; which after all is what it is all about to begin with.  Monica Ramos writes and plays original and enchanting music.

The listening sessions were performed in the following systems:

(1)Electrocompaniet EMC-1 CD player, Electrocompaniet ECI-3 Integrated Amplifier, Magneplanar MG1.6QR, & Sunfire True Subwoofer speakers.

(2)The Holo-System: Musical Fidelity A3 CD player, Belles XLM preamplifier, Belles 200 power amplifier and Altec Lansing 510 A speakers.  (A relatively large system in an extremely small room with only one small holographic listening sweet spot)  Additional listening done with Sennheiser HD 600 and Sony MDR 7509 Headphones and the Musical Fidelity X-Can v2 headphone amp.



by The Apiary

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"Descent" is an experimental ambient CD from The Apiary, nee M. Bentley, owner and creator of The Foundry label.  This long composition began as an accompaniment to an installation by Charles Browning titled "What are you afraid of?"  The project deals with the tensions between man and nature.

The structure of the album is symphonic.  There are five distinct movements, three of which are subdivided into to shorter passages.  The soundscapes are expansive and steeped in mysticism.  They surround and invite us with experimental overtones.  The invitation is to another journey to the darker realms of life.  While this CD is inspired by nature, it is neither maudlin nor syrupy.  It is uniquely melodic, minimal and dark.

Thus has M. Bentley accepted and met a challenge.  He has created a dark mystical journey filled with expansive pastoral soundscapes!  That oxymoronic coupling provides a genuinely pleasurable listening experience.

Reviewed by Jim Brenholts



by Brannan Lane

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"Troposphere" is another dense and deep "atmospheric" adventure from newcomer Brannan Lane.  Indeed, the source of inspiration for the lucid soundscape is Earth's atmosphere.  Brannan paints vivid portraits of the strata of our environment.  This adventure is both sublime and serene.

I reported to the transporter room as instructed by the liner notes.  I put my headphones on and prepared to beam to the spacial (sic) melodies" that Brannan created.  The notes also promise an excellent mix between those melodies and "organic third world inharmonic sounds."  That promise is fulfilled.

The journey is a slow ascent from ground zero through the layers of our atmosphere ("Mesosphere," "Thermosphere" and "Stratosphere").  Along the way we will stop and enjoy "Solar Winds" at the "Odyssea."

Brannan has done it again!  He has created a psychoactive delicacy that is worthy of those folks on his list of thanks (Richard Bone, Glenn Deardorff, Tony Gerber, Howard Givens, Mike Griffin, Gregory Kyryluk, Dino Pacifici and Robert Rich).  This CD is another recommendation from Lloyd Barde at Backroads Music.  Again, Lloyd proves to be accurate and astute with his suggestions.  Again, Brannan proves to be a talented electronician!

Reviewed by Jim Brenholts


Earth Story

by Temps Perdu?

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"Earth Story" is the first release from Temps Perdu? since 1996. This tribal ambient duo - Dirk Grutzman and Catherine Ledit - has long been known for their scorching desert ambience.  This album is no exception!  From the opening strains of "Woven Spirit" to the ends of "Eclipse," Dirk and Catherine create and embrace a dense terrestrial soundscape surrounded by primal rhythms.  The soundscape also delves beneath the surface.  "Subterranean Sources" is an eerie and melodic composition that speaks of safety and danger in the same breath.

That kind of juxtaposition dominates the entire CD.  The percussion is ominous.  The drones are sinister.  The sparse melodies are minimalist and light.  The album addresses the beauty and the dangers of the barren desert.  The dense soundscape brings the beauty of the desert to life!  The dark undertones remind us of the intrinsic dangers of heat and isolation. 

I was immediately struck by the timeliness of this landmark release.  Coming on the heels of Vidna Obmana's Subterranean Collective" and "Contemporary Nocturne," Steve Roach's "Early Man" and "Serpent's Lair" (with Byron Metcalf) and "The Inexplicable" by Robert Carty, this CD is a perfect compliment to the recent spate of tribal primal creations in the genre.  The compliment is dynamic!  This release joins Vidna's as a frontrunner for the best of y2k+1!

Reviewed by Jim Brenholts


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