Reviews 02-04-2001

Ambient Visions logo header

Music Reviews 


Talking Heads Robert Fox album cover

Talking Heads 

by Robert Fox

Visit AD Music's Website


This British artist delivers ambient with a steady dance beat. It's what is usually called "techno-ambient;" not the dreamy kind that puts you into another dimension, but a harder, driving sort which wouldn't be out of place in a club or a trendy store. And in fact, according to the website, this music and other AD releases have been used in TV commercials and retail spaces.

It's a slick, professional sound, full of Vangelis-like synthesizer timbres and jet-propelled sound effects. The tonality is exclusively modal and minor, with the melodies usually running on modified acoustic or electric piano. You might call this modal style "mild Gothic," especially in those tracks which feature samples of church bells, Gregorian chant or "angelic" voices. Every track has a steady, slow disco beat which ties the album together in one long dance sequence.

Since it's called "Talking Heads," the album has a lot of modified and barely intelligible voice samples on it: British girls talking about their lives, a New Age guy talking about "energy," other voices in German or Russian, or inarticulate erotic sighs. There is a bit too much of this vocalization for my taste; seems like almost every ambient album I hear these days uses these half-heard, heavily modified, or whispering voices.

And that's the trouble with this album: I've heard it all before, whether from European artists like Vangelis and Jean-Michel Jarre, or especially from "Enigma," whose 1990 album MCMXC AD, shocking in its time, put holy Gregorian chant to a disco beat (the same rhythm that's on this album). Fox' s album goes through its pop paces without ever finding new places to go.

Reviewed by Hannah M.G. Shapero 2/4/2001


So Flows the Current Patrick O'Hearn album cover

So Flows the Current

By Patrick O'Hearn

Visit Patrick's website

Read the interview with
Patrick O'Hearn
in Ambient Visions'
interview column.


Patrick O'Hearn has been a master musician since about five years before he was born!  His musical heritage goes back to his days as Frank Zappa's bassist and his stint with Missing Persons.  (Chuck Wild, a.k.a. Liquid Mind, was their keyboard player.)

I readily confess to being a very recent convert to Patrick's style of ambience and space music.  I also, again quite readily, profess to be a Patrick O'Hearn fan.

That being said, I jumped at the chance to review "So Flows the Current," his newest release.  It came highly recommended by many highly respected experts.

Patrick's piece on "The Ambient Expanse" and his "in progress" work with Steve Roach seem to have opened a more mellow side for him.  While this CD bears little resemblance to that work in its structure, it DOES have a very similar attitude!  Patrick explores the symphonic synthesizer side of minimalism with acoustic instruments augmenting the textures.  His explorations uncover a gem!  The contemplative journey covers the gamut from dark atmospheres to light and airy new age sensitivity.

The emotional fervor is also at a high pitch.  This master electronician infuses his dense arrangements with feeling and purpose.  Patrick welcomed the "return to pre midi-centric recording" and "live and acoustic orientation."  The flow of the disc, sans sequencers and samplers, is faultless.  The sound design is flawless.  This is a masterwork from a master artist!

(I also find it ironic to note that the CD features Peter Maunu on lap steel.  I also reviewed Bruce Kaphan's masterpiece in pedal steel ambience this week.)

Reviewed by Jim Brenholts


Outfolding Saul Stokes album cover


By Saul Stokes

Visit Hypnos' Website

Visit Saul Stokes Website


Saul Stokes, according to the notes on this album, designs and builds his own electronic musical instruments. This accounts for his unusual sound, which sidesteps the slick pre-packaged product of commercial electronics. It also gives Stokes' textures a kind of "retro" feel, as if he were back in the '50s recording with an aggregation of old oscillators, rhythm generators, and ring modulators. But he's not, and he is quite up to date with this set of inventive pieces of rhythmic ambient.

He's got the "floating synthesizer washes" and the regular, pulsing rhythms - the standard vocabulary of ambient, but he's happily missing some of the cliché's, such as the endless vast digital reverb and the big layered wall of sound. His all-electronic rhythms remind me of the wry "bossa-nova" or "lounge" - inspired sound of Richard Bone. But Stokes' electronics have more bass; they have a kind of thumpy, deep sound that is somehow still light and airy.

Stokes' thin textures, lighter "instrumentation," and passages of minimalism allow him to convey a kind of dry, ironic mood which is rare among ambient composers, whose tastes usually run more towards the bombastic and pretentious (none of that "the source of the music is my awareness of Being." stuff here!). But at the same time, Stokes can "unfold" delicate and beautiful abstract tone-clusters such as in track 4, "The Far Edge of Suburban Station." He keeps his sound from being too sweet by bringing in harsher, slightly chaotic elements - yet even these are restrained.

Outfolding is the work of a creative composer with an individual voice in a field where individuality is hard to find. In its quiet, understated, even cerebral quality, it is not either "comfort music for relaxation" nor pseudo-rock for wired cyber-fans. It's worth listening to this ingenious album which shows that in electronica, as elsewhere, less can be more.

Reviewed by Hannah M.G. Shapero 2/4/2001


Slider Bruce Kaphan album cover


By Bruce Kaphan

Visit Bruce's website

Visit Hearts of Space website.


Bruce Kaphan is a rock and roll veteran.  His work with American Music Club, an alternative rock legend, earned him much critical acclaim.  He has also performed with REM, Jewel, The Black Crowes, Chris Isaak, John Lee Hooker and David Byrne.  He has many film, sound design and production credits as well.

His first solo recording, "Slider," is an ambient treasure.  Now, Bruce is not a synthesist, bassist, fiddler or guitarist (in the classic sense).  Bruce is a virtuoso on - WHOA! - the PEDAL STEEL GUITAR!  The complete title of this amazing CD is "Slider: Ambient Excursions for Pedal Steel Guitar."  Indeed, Bruce takes us on several excursions for almost an hour.

Bruce's unique approach to using this unusual avenue is true genius.  There is no mistaking the sound for a synthesizer or a processor.  The music is clearly pedal steel.  Free from the constraints and expectations of the Nashville sound, Bruce's pedal steel takes on a delightful texture.  At times, the sound is almost symphonic!

The texture is not the dominant feature!  Bruce injects powerful feelings into the excursions making the excursions into experiences worthy of any minimalism or space music devotee!  The unique sound of the pedal steel evokes feelings of sadness or melancholia.  Bruce's arrangements play into that pathology and evoke images of darker paths.  The uptempo pieces feature world beat rhythms surrounding the ambient pedal steel.  "Country and Eastern" is a tongue-in-cheek delight that is reminiscent of the old symphonic concept of the scherzo (joke) inserted into a serious and somber work. 

I recall that Robert Rich has used the pedal steel to great advantage also.  I would not compare these two artists beyond that statement.  Bruce Kaphan has delivered a unique and qualified masterpiece.  The Hearts of Space catalog is much richer with the inclusion of this set.  To quote Stephen Hill, "Like water in the desert, these pieces were always there.  They just had to be tapped."

Reviewed by Jim Brenholts


Rolling Curve Kit Watkins album cover

Rolling Curve

By Kit Watkins

Visit Kit Watkins website


Kit Watkins is another digital electronician with his roots in the rock and roll scene.  His professional recording career began with Happy the Man, a prog rock cult favorite.  After five albums with HTM, Kit joined Camel, another prog rock cult band.  He performed with them from 1980 through 1982.

His solo recording career began in 1980.  He retired from live performance in 1982 to concentrate on composing and recording.  (His upcoming Gathering concert promises to be a major event!)  He has released 14 solo albums and contributed to several major works, including Djam Karet's classic "Collaborator." 

"Rolling Curve," Kit's newest release is an MP3 DAM CD featuring dark and somber works conceived between 1992 and y2k.  A live improvised collaboration with Brad Allen is included in the set.  Steve Roach contributes an eerie didgeridoo to the title track. 

The soundscapes are vast and expansive.  The sound design is murky (in the good sense) and ethereal.  Kit's soundworlds conjure images of clouds and threats of doom and disaster.  They are only threats.  While the dark overtones are predominant, the melody creates an undercurrent of light and hope.  After the dark, mysterious and ominous journeys, we end, appropriately at "EndPeace."  This very gentle minimalism turns that hope into promise and delivers salvation.  The reminder is there.  The only way to the Promised Land is through the desert!  This CD is an absolute winner!

(Irony is certainly dominant this week.  All three of the artists whom I reviewed have their roots firmly and finitely in rock and roll!)

Reviewed by Jim Brenholts


Shadowplay Tim Story album cover


by Tim Story

Visit Tim Story's website

Visit Hearts of Space website


Tim Story is about to release his newest offering on the Hearts of Space label, entitled Shadowplay.  

Tim's style is classical contemplative, his music is a reflection upon the linear flow of  time that lingers briefly making us wish that we could hold on to it for just a while longer.  Like looking at a photo by Ansel Adams, Tim Story fills the space between silence and sound with beauty.

In Shadowplay, I am reminded of a dancer on a darkened stage, with the only light a bright spotlight and his only partner being his shadow. The dance is between the extremes of light and dark, with the dancer and his shadow the uniting movement.  Each of the 10 tracks reflects that dance in some way.  He uses the piano, the synthesizer, the cello and the oboe to bring either light or dark to each piece and changes their part from piece to piece to show the versatility of the instruments as well as the musician.

Tim Story plays piano and synthesizers again with Kimberly Bryden on the oboe and Martha Reikow on the cello.  They work together well, achieving the balance of light and dark with the brilliance of one offsetting the darkness of the other. The addition of synthesizers is to sometimes bind them together, while at other times it is the separating element.  The opening track "map of the warm night" and the follow up "perhaps" are wonderful examples of this light and shadow balance.  

Tim's music is sometimes melancholy but never depressing.  It is always  light like air, and evokes the emotion of time passing as we try to grasp it before it gets away.  The track entitled "intemperate" is probably the best example of this, and it has a most playful air about it.  The addition of Dieter Moebius' electronics gives this piece a most surrealistic quality. 

Tim Story has always presented beautiful music with a classical touch to ambient electronica genre.  This CD is the most beautiful blending of his style to date and is a must for Tim Story fans.  It harkens back to his "the perfect flaw" CD and removes any doubt that Tim  Story is a master of this medium.

Reviewed by Margaret Foster for Ambient Visions


Orchid Shao Rong album cover


By Shao Rong

Visit Pacific Moon website


One of the most pleasant sounds to the ear is a well played pipa, or Chinese lute, a 2000 year old instrument that is just making itself known to the western world, but is well known in the orient.

Shao Rong is considered one of the top musical prodigies in all of China.  Playing piano since age 5 and the pipa since age 10, she was one of only 12 students taken into the new music school of the Beijing National Central Music Institute from among the 20,000 who applied.

She has won "The Artistic Excellence Prize" as one of the outstanding artists at the Shanghai Arts Festival.  She moved to Japan and enrolled at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, where she played pipa and was an actress in Madame Butterfly.  She has also performed as a soloist with the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra and as a soloist in the Sapporo Symphony.  She has played at numerous premiers of various Japanese and Chinese artists and is considered a master in her field. She has been part of such groups as the Li-Hua Ensemble and Tempyo-Gafu, an Asian ancient-music ensemble.

Now that you know who Shao Rong is, her CD "Orchid" introduces her to the western world on the Pacific Moon label.  She blends her piano skills with her pipa, which is played in the traditional Chinese style. The music is written by Seiichi Kyoda, part of Pacific Moon's recording team which also includes Kazumasa Yoshioka.  The only exception is the track "Precious Moon" which is based on an old Chinese classic song "Yue Er Gao".

The music is a blend of east and west, making this easy on the western ear yet just oriental enough to be distinctly different.  Each track offers the distinctive flavor of Oriental sounds worked skillfully into western classical music.  The best example is "True Love", which gives the feeling of a traditional love ballad but has the touch of cherry blossoms falling in a Japanese garden. 

The CD maintains the feel of being uniquely Oriental in flavor, though it crosses the cultural lines back and forth.  "The Land of Woods and Waters" is very distinctly Japanese, and we "feel" the traditional quality of the pipa in this track.  "Unicorn" gives you the full feeling of the crossover, working a soft jazz twist to the Oriental strains.  

The recording quality of this CD is excellent and presents us with a perfect introduction to the beautiful music of Seiichi Kyoda as played by Shao Rong. Even the packaging is original, with sticks of rich Japanese incense included in the spine of the CD case, which allows you to smell the orient as well as enjoy the music, which Pacific Moon executives felt was just as important.  

This is a wonderful addition to ambient music coming from Pacific Moon. We welcome more of this caliber of music to this genre. I also hope to hear more from Shao Rong and Seiichi Kyoda.

Reviewed by Margaret Foster for Ambient Visions


Ambient Visions copyright notice