Reviews 03-04-2001

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Walking the Cobra

by Baird Hersey

Baird Hersey's website



I've heard a lot of overtone-singing by Western vocalists lately. Ever since David Hykes and his "Harmonic Choir" brought this Central Asian technique to the world of pop and New Age music, imitations have sprung up wherever this music is made, both with choruses and solo voices - for instance, Innerstellar by Gordon Rhyne, which this album resembles.

So my first impression when I received and heard this album was, "Oh please, not ANOTHER overtone singer." And I felt the same way about its theme of the "seven rainbow chakras," a Yogic system which has become a standard, indeed, a cliché, of New Age doctrine. "Not ANOTHER rainbow chakra album."

I decided to forget the chakra theme and even the idea that this was vocalization, and just listen to it as I would listen to a "drone ambient" album done on synthesizers. How does it stack up simply as ambient sound? Well, after you get through the first few pieces, where Hersey is just crooning by himself, you find some interesting passages. Hersey multi-tracks himself like a Yogic Enya, and thus adds some pleasant harmonies to the otherwise stark drone sound. For instance, in track 14, "The Wheel," he multiplies his voice into a comforting choir of major-key chords.  In other tracks, he can make his voice sound like a synthesizer (perhaps using a little electronic sound-manipulation there) and it creates a nice mystical atmosphere for those inner temple moments.

Nevertheless, you will probably have to be a drone fan to like this album. And even with drone sound, in my opinion even a little complexity is better than just one tone, so for me Hersey's multiplied "choral" tracks, that is 14, 15, 16, and 18, are the most listenable. The rest of the album (most of it) might be better for the ashram than the living room.

Reviewed by Hannah M.G. Shapero 3/4/2001


Before the War

by David Rothenberg
and Douglas Quin

Visit Earth Ear's website



David Rothenberg is a contemporary Renaissance man: poet, philosopher, ecologist, and editor of an MIT Press book series situating environmental issues in the general cultural debates of our times, who also happens to have three previous releases featuring his jazz clarinet stylings.  Douglas Quin has had several soundscape projects performed at festivals and for radio broadcast across the world.  His previous releases include recordings from remote places like Madagascar, the Brazilian Amazon, and Antarctica.  On this disc, these two artists combine their talents to create a superb laid-back album of natural sounds, tribal rhythms, and melodic grooves.

The opening track provides an excellent indicator of what lies ahead. Unfamiliar jungle sounds merge with wooden flute (played by renowned Bay Area artist Bill Douglass) and percussion (Russ Gold) playing a world beat, with Rothenberg playing clarinet melodies.  The soundscapes are not simply decoration, but are an integral part of the music.  Gold's shakers blend perfectly with Quin's night crickets on Orchid Angels, and the rainforest merges with flapping bird wings and the wind instruments on the moving anti-war elegy Lines in the Sand.  Birds, the wind, and even elephants slowly overtake the melodic instruments in the album's closing moments.  Karelian Midnight features the addition of Finnish singer Mari Järvinen accompanying herself on the traditional Jouhikko (a droning stringed instrument), along with quiet electronics and soundscapes.  

In addition, three tracks feature Rothenberg's recitations, showing off his poetic skills in addition to his instrumental ones.  He enunciates clearly, with muted emotion, a story from Zimbabwe on how war came into the world (Murder in the World), a poem expressing a nostalgic longing for a better time (Before the War), and a paean against death based on Tlingit death songs (That's What Makes This World Dark).  The words provide a context for the instruments, providing ecological and cultural reference points which are only suggested by the music.  But it is the integration of the soundscapes that lifts this album above other worldbeat albums which use the environment only for atmosphere.  With Before the War, EarthEar is moving beyond decorative new age stylings and traditional jazz and more toward an open-minded and open-eared world music, with the sounds of the world participating in the dialogue.

Reviewed by Caleb Deupree for Ambient Visions 


Mirage at the Crossroads

by Biff Johnson




According to Mr. Webster, a mirage is "an optical phenomenon in which remote objects are seen inverted, as if mirrored in water, or suspended in midair.  Mirages are caused by an unusual disturbance of density in the atmosphere, and are often seen in deserts or over hot pavement."  Furthering this preamble (pre-ramble?), with the assistance of Mr. Webster, it is revealed that a crossroads occurs " at a decisive point (in a situation) involving a choice between two mutually exclusive possibilities."

And just what, Mr. BEAR, does this grounding in reality have to do with a music review?  The case in point of course!  In this instance Biff Johnson and his "Mirage at the Crossroads" release from 1999.

So if I stop reading right now am I to assume that Biff Johnson is an unusual disturbance?  One who suspends his self in midair, over hot pavement, and reveals the nature of a choice he made between two mutually exclusive possibilities when he saw his own visage mirrored in nonexistent water in the desert? Uhhmmm, it's a possibility.  (o:}  But then you would be getting ahead of the experiences I have been presented with since receiving this deliciously dark and intensely tribal ambient recording.

Having never met Biff Johnson I cannot speak towards the source of or the effects upon him which the sounds within his music elicits.  But I can share with you my repeated engagements with what I imagine an out of body experience may entail.

The perspective, achieved during my listening sessions, is that of being suspended in air as the mysterious unknown unfolds around me.  The melange of sound sources presented feeds and regenerates within itself and in turn allows me to feed upon the innermost fertile processes of the imagination.  With full tactile senses afforded throughout a panoramic, 360 degree view of territory, and complete recall of each experience, each session was much akin to straddling a portal between the waking world and ancient spaces.  More precisely, for me, listening to "Mirage at the Crossroads" is an otherworldly visit to the ancient Anasazi Ruins and the Kivas of their history.  Even more precisely is to say that it is the perfect soundtrack for reading, I'm not kidding here either, Louis Lamour's "Haunted Mesa".  Should one perchance be enthralled by the appropriate chapter, and have the disc set on infinite loop, one may have the waking daylights scared right out of themselves.  The "not of this world factor" contained within "Mirage at the Crossroads" is conducive to some disturbing revelations of epic (your choice of creepy, spooky, eerie, or haunting soundscape goes here) proportions within the mind of the listener/reader. You could and should substitute any genre of Fantasy, Science Fiction, or deep subject matter as my guess is similar results, while reading, are obtainable by anyone.  The best part is you can create your own world within a world by just listening as Biff Johnson's music carries you away to another plane of consciousness.  An extremely rich and rewarding experience awaits you as "Mirage at the Crossroads" will surely offer you Ambient Visions of your own.

Many thanks to Michael for asking me to take the journey and revisit this Ambient Classic.

Reviewed by BEAR  03.04.01 

The Sound:  

I should begin this portion with the sonic origins of the disc and share a portion of the liner notes before detailing the sonic elements through a sound system.  "All source material composed, recorded, produced in the Boneyard by Biff Johnson, Sept. '97 - June '98 live to two track DAT.  Electric bass recorded at the Timeroom.  Final recording, processing, assembly, and mixing production by Steve Roach in the Timeroom June '98.

Although treated, looped, processed, and assembled, the purity of the two track DAT sources is unmistakable and intact.  There is an incredible amount of definition and air that survives the process when you listen to the infamous stones, bones, and archaics of Biff Johnson.  The usual sharpness and percussive impact imparted by tweeters, when listening to percussive elements, is lifelike and visual.  The detail contained enabled me to close my eyes and see the bones and stones turning and rolling as they were played and recorded.  The wetness of the reverb tails surrounds and supports the definition of the space around the sound unlike so many recordings that just set them awash in reverb and let them drone on for days.  The depth and soundstage achieved, albeit in a studio setting and not on a live stage, is nothing short of stunning.  It enables the soundscape to wrap itself around the room and creates a deep, cavernous, backfield that extends beyond the blackness at the back of a tunnel at midnight.  I suspect that this superbly crafted soundscape is wholly responsible for the 3-D imagery effect extolled upon earlier.  Sharply defined, yet delicate in nature, the attending layers of keyboards are meticulously crafted and hang within their own delineated space offering a compelling counterpoint and aural steering of the senses as each mirage unfolds into the room.

No attendant sub-sonic rumblings to shake your room, or headphones, with but a rather elemental appearance of the bass guitar on four of the tracks, played by Biff at the Timeroom, are very satisfying and supportive of the entire mix.  The requisite 40Hz or so of the bass guitar and keyboards was room filling and entertaining even through a recently auditioned pair of Roksan Monitors.

"Mirage at the Crossroads" is a rare treat for any system and one of the top ten required listening discs for headphone aficionados.(Please don't E-mail me asking for the other nine as I just decided to start making the list.  Possibly a consideration for Michael to add under the Bio page eh?)

The listening sessions were performed in the following systems: 

(1) Belles XLM preamplifier, Belles 200 power amplifier with Magneplanar MG1.6QR, & Sunfire True Subwoofer speakers.

(2)The Holo-System: Musical Fidelity A3 CD player, Musical Fidelity A3 Integrated amplifier with 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.


Mystery Road

by Kamal

Visit New Earth Records website




The introduction, or hook, paragraph for any review is much like the journey down a mysterious road.  After several listening sessions, airing individual tracks on the radio show I host, and pondering how to begin this review it strikes me that Kamal's own words regarding this release are the best introduction possible.

"It seems there are two hearts beating in my chest.  One with the slow waves of silence and meditation, the other celebrating the infinite colours of this existence. "Mystery Road" celebrates the colours of life, like a rainbow of different flavours in sound, a kaleidoscope of all the influences that I experience.  In this age of information so many different cultures, technologies, arts, tastes, and sights touch me!  Travelling through Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Australia, movies, the Internet, TV, Friends, teachers, Gurus, madmen and women: it's all like the mysterious weaving of countless roads that merge inside me.  Something resonates, and is expressed in sound: a journey on the "Mystery Road"! Kamal, Byron Bay Nov. 1999.

"Mystery Road" is indeed an invitation to a celebration as one journeys forward on the road of life.  A veritable cornucopia of music gleaned from the sound palette of life itself awaits your pleasure as the well traveled and insightful Kamal acts as your guide on this World Tour through carnival like attractions in this universe fruitfully blessed with so many passionate and invigorating sounds.  No stranger to the world of recording the entire release has his sonic signature embedded within every track as he not only composed and played every track, guest artists and their instruments listed in the liner notes, he also produced, engineered and mixed all tracks.

I find myself hard pressed to identify a style or origin that is not present or layered somewhere within this recording.  What has been revealed is that Kamal is an astute listener as well as a world class player and engineer.  Tracks float with walls of delightful melodies and sustain the journey with very precise and articulated percussion elements.

Truly a culmination of all things relevant and impressionable through the musical realms and worldly visions encountered during his career as a musician on an enlightened journey are present within this disc.  No one instrument stands out as his chosen medium of expression as the flute, nylon stringed guitar, horns, keyboards and vocals all receive equal time in the melodic spotlight as Kamal spins his tales of the Mystery's of the World.

Rhythm and a passion for life ooze from every pore of every track contained on "Mystery Road".  Excitement and provocative percussion juxtaposed against serene, calming passages of gossamer delicacy present alternating focal points in almost every track which I find refreshing.  The soothing effect achieved while listening into this recording and picking out the astounding array of instrumentation employed is further testimony to the top 10 status attained by Kamal in my recent memory of World recording releases.

The utilization of dynamics in fleshing out the desired sonic effect is to be commended.  The myriad of sounds caress, surround and draw you into each track, all the while revealing yet another possibility for an enlightening encounter somewhere in the world as one travels the "Mystery Road".

Reviewed by BEAR  03.04.01 

The Sound: 

Hoo Boy!  There is something for everybody, sonically speaking, within the 0's and 1's contained on this disc.  The presentation of the tracks is definitely weighted within the realm of "Studio Playback Only" but the way they translate to a home system is uncanny.  There is a top to bottom homogenous continuity that is rare amongst recordings of this nature.  Great ears and the use of dynamics are one of the outstanding traits of "Mystery Road". Another is the precision with which the real world live instruments are blended with the world of samples and digital replicants.  Neither sound source draws attention to itself and melds seamlessly with the other.

There are a few low frequency excursions from the bolstered low end of the synths to delight bottom end dwellers however even though the disc maintains a significant amount of bottom end weight and authority it is mainly derived from percussion and Kamal's bass guitar playing. Hmmm&ldots; another bassists writing, producing, and engineering discs, just got to love that eh?

I attribute the round, lightly compressed, feeling in the overall nature of the sound to the delicate balancing act performed due to the intrinsic nature of the instrumentation, samples and loops utilized within the recording.  Although the layers are bountiful, each instrumental voice retains its own space and is realistically balanced within the entire musical spectrum.  By this I am referring to the usual glassy sheen that abounds in today's pop recordings.  "Mystery Road" contains pleasurable dynamics and doesn't resort to the maximized compression and solid green waveform so prevalent in so much of the recorded music presented to the public.

Definition and faux "air" and individual instrumental clarity abound throughout the entire sonic palette presented and make "Mystery Road" a rare sonic treat for your listening pleasure.

The listening sessions were performed in the following systems:

(1) Belles XLM preamplifier, Belles 200 power amplifier with Magneplanar MG1.6QR, & Sunfire True Subwoofer speakers.

(2)The Holo-System: Musical Fidelity A3 CD player, Musical Fidelity A3 Integrated amplifier with 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.


Summer Town

by Spacecraft





"Summer Town" is the first Spacecraft CD on the SpaceForMusic label.  Tony Gerber, Diane Timmons, John Rose and frequent Spacecraft guest Giles Reaves performed this fifty-five minute piece during the Unity Fest 2000 Celebration.  The performance began at 8:00 a.m. as "more than 150 people did their morning yoga and meditation exercises."

The press release for the album states that it is more contemplative than their other CD's.  The liner notes suggest uninterrupted or continuous listening.  That is a wise suggestion.

I was most taken by the vocals on this CD.  Tony's wordless chants are absolutely guttural and Diane's chorale chants are truly heavenly.  The juxtaposition works quite well.  By using the human voice as instrumental accompaniment, Spacecraft took me to deep introspective levels of imagination and spirituality.

I am also enamored of the minimalism of this disc.  Spacecraft has recorded some very sacred - almost religious - space music in the past.  Indeed, "Kaleida Dreams" ranks alongside Constance Demby's seminal spirituality in its importance to the genre.  This CD gets me to the next level

The minimalism is surrounded by the vocals or the vocals surround the minimalism!  It doesn't matter.  The combination strikes timbres in my soul that few have reached!  This CD is an absolute necessity in my daily spiritual routine.  I use it with "Prayers to the Protector" by Steve Roach to get my spiritual juices flowing every morning!

Reviewed by Jim Brenholts



by Zero Ohms

Visit Zero Ohms' website

Richard J. Roberts records as Zero Ohms.  "Supreme - Infinite - Essence" is his newest CD.  Richard creates massive walls of ambient sound to define the imagery of an eclectic collection of concepts.  Those twelve concepts include catsitting for a friend, scientists in love and electrical discharge patterns.

Such incongruities might lead us to believe that the album might be disjointed or confusing.  That is not the case!  Richard's multi-instrument talents enhance his wind synth majestically.  The drone of the wind synth creates the minimalist scenario that is the constant.

The concepts become curios for contemplation.  I found it hard to believe that catsitting would be a meditative background, but it is!  That's the hook!  Richard's virtuosity and his sense of humor place this set in the zone!  It is FUN!  That always makes an enhanced listening experience for me!

Reviewed by Jim Brenholts



by Victor Cerullo

Visit Groove Unlimited's website

Several months ago I received an e-mail from Victor Cerullo regarding "Ludus," his 1998 CD from Groove Unlimited.  I told him that I had not heard the disc so he agreed to send a copy to me.  I was eager to hear the music, having received several wonderful discs from Italy over the past year or so.  They are all very special.  "Ludus" has a little something extra.

With definite acknowledgement to Stefano, Andrea and Fausto (Alio Die, Never Known and Etere-o, respectively), Victor has infused his heavy sequences and drifting atmospheres with some hot rock and roll overtones.  The extra attraction adds some oomph to this already delightful electronic marvel.

Victor was freely inspired by "Das Glasperlenspiel," by Herman Hesse.  I am not familiar with this work of Hesse but I have some recollections of his other writings from way back in my high school and college German courses.  The flow and timbre recall the angst and confusion of Hesse's existential points of view.  The highs and lows of the soundscape ask questions of no one and everyone.

I went on a very bumpy ride with this one.  While it is a great disc, it is not a relaxing set.  The album demands focused attention and deep listening!

Put it on the changer, hold on and buckle up!

Reviewed by Jim Brenholts


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