Quaeschning & Schnauss : Synthwaves

Ulrich Schnauss is a busy guy. Not only has he released an excellent album already this year with fellow synth aficionado and Causa Sui guitarist Jonas Munk called Passage, but he’s also readying a new Tangerine Dream album called Quantum Gate, which marks the final concepts of TD founder Edgar Froese(who passed away in early 2015) and a new beginning for the Berlin School masters. You’d think that would be plenty for the year, but Schnauss seems constantly abuzz with ideas and creativity. He’s teamed up with Tangerine Dream band mate Thorsten Quaeschning and the two have made an album filled with analog synth heaven called Synthwaves. It’s a testament to the golden age of analog sounds and hazy oscillation that komische music gave us in both the pre-Watergate and post-end of the dream decade known as the 70s. It’s also a bit of a tribute to the mentor both Schnauss and Quaeschning had in Froese. The record is a heady sonic trip into the past, while keeping eyes firmly pointed to the future.

“Main Theme” feels like a proper announcement to the world of Synthwaves. It blankets you in a warm sea of analog waves and melodic, early 80s pop hooks. This track could have easily soundtracked a lost Michael Mann film. It’s the kind of song that grabs you immediately and doesn’t let go. “Rain On Dry Concrete” can’t help but feel like Tangerine Dream. TD is in Quaeschning & Schauss’ DNA. It puts me in mind of Le Parc with its bright synth structures and arpeggiated sounds. “Slow Life” crumbles into a beautiful abyss. It’s crystalline sounds and nearly 8-minute run time create an epic listen. Through headphones “Slow Life” becomes a hypnotic tome, prone to pull you from your existence and carry you into some other ethereal world. Likewise, “Cats and Dogs” paints an aural universe with oscillation and LFO frequencies. It’s playful and all-encompassing. “A Calm But Steady Flow” sounds like robotic resonance in a metallic cavern. Some kind of AI call from the center of a synthetic world. You can almost touch the square waves in the air.

Elsewhere “Thirst” recalls classic TD in the form of their Three O’Clock High score, while “Flare” has an ominous depth to it, like staring with your toes dangling into some great unknown. If you’re a fan of S U R V I V E and the Stranger Things soundtrack, this track will reach something inside you and not easily let go. “Prism” casts off into the great unknown, not really sure what will be caught. That’s the beauty of it, though. The unknown. Something just beyond the horizon.

That’s truly the beauty of Synthwaves. It’s an album of musical exploration. It casts a musical line into the ether and we sit to see what that line pulls up. Thorsten Quaeschning and Ulrich Schnauss have set out to create something exploratory but also something inviting and genuine. They’ve achieved that. I believe Edgar Froese would approve.

 

Beach Fossils : Somersault

Whenever summer rolls around you always hope to find that “summer album”. You know, that record you put on and open the windows to breathe in some of that fresh air. Free your mind of whatever’s been bugging you and just soak up some catchy, breezy tunes. It’s the the road trip album. The album you pull at least three or four songs off of and put on mixes for your less music savvy friends. And there’s at least two or three of those timeless songs that seem to live in their own little musical universe. They can exist within the times we currently live in, or 40 years ago in some other life. Maybe it’s not what you’d consider a classic, but it’s classic for the moment you’re existing in right now.

I have found that album, and it’s Beach Fossil’s excellent Somersault.

I wasn’t all that into Beach Fossils’ self-titled debut LP. You could hear the songwriting chops, but the production made the songs sound distant to my ears. But in 2013 Dustin Payseur and a new line-up released the excellent Clash The Truth. It was a warm and fuzzy collection of post-punk and early 80s alternative sounds, like old R.E.M. mixing it up with Joy Division. It was one of my favorite albums of 2013. Now, four years later we have Somersault. It’s a collection of tight, soulful tunes that often take the form of inner city confessionals. There’s something very modern and current with this record, yet there’s also this early 70s vibe that makes you think of gritty, Red Hook streets and Brownstones hiding a summer sunset.

“This Year” is the grand entrance to the world of Somersault. It cascades through the speakers like the Byrds and Blue Oyster Cult hammering it out during an evening of watershedding ghosts and vices. It’s perfection. “Tangerine” slinks in quickly like a pleasant memory through an open window as you light up another cigarette. Payseur really shows his writing chops here, with a mix of angst-y rhythmic constructs and almost jazz-inflected chord changes. Yet despite the technical prowess the song flows like a classic from another time. It helps that Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell helps out in the vocal department. Another classic sounding track is “Saint Ivy”. Loping groove, tasteful strings, and Payseur’s sleepy vocal delivery bring to mind old label mate Wild Nothing’s Jack Tatum’s masterful turns on last year’s Life of Pause. There’s even one hell of a flute solo. Seriously, tasteful. This whole album feels like a well fussed-over summer classic.

Elsewhere “May 1st” might remind one of those New Jersey cats Real Estate. There’s a melancholy lean in there that Martin Courtney and company like to work up in nearly every one of their tracks, but Beach Fossils let the song breathe and roam as it may. It’s carefree, not fussed over. “Rise” is a quick number with Memphis rapper Cities Aviv taking the spotlight. One of the absolute highlights for me is the exquisite “Down The Line”. It pulls back a bit and lets the bass take the lead with guitar coming in for some tasteful accompaniment. It feels like an ode to the city streets that make the band what it is. It could be an ode to a lover, a friend, or the city itself. Regardless, there’s some real feeling here. “Be Nothing” is like a cross between Jane’s Addiction and The Church, with that bass leading the track into crystalline sonics. “That’s All for Now” goes back to the early days of Beach Fossils, but with a more confident vibe.

Fade to black.

Beach Fossils have given me that great summer album I’ve been waiting for(still digging you, Real Estate.) Somersault from start to finish is a beauty. It has that feeling of deja vu, as if you heard it in another life. Like some ghostly album delivered to you by a giving universe. Dustin Payseur has made his best record yet.

8.4 out of 10

 

 

United Waters : The Narrows

I won’t pretend to know much about Mouthus. I won’t because I don’t. I know nothing about the noise rock duo that hailed from Brooklyn, New York and who released close to 200 LPs in the course of 10 years(probably wasn’t that many records.) Well, I do know something. I know that Mouthus’ guitarist Brian Sullivan formed United Waters and released their first album Your First Ever River in 2011. I came into the United Waters world through their second album Sunburner back in 2014. That album was a gauzy collection of underwater-sounding folk grunge. It was like songs that had been soaked in gutter water and laid out to dry in the New York summer heat for days. They sounded like Carlton Melton decompressed and stretched out on an iron maiden. It was strange, claustrophobic, and oddly comforting.

United Waters are readying their newest album, the excellent The Narrows for Drawing Room Records. It continues to slowly clear the songs of vegetation and forest growth which allows Sullivan’s songwriting to shine even more. I wouldn’t call the record a pop album, but it’s a far cry from noise rock.

If it weren’t for Sullivan’s voice, The Narrows could pass for a quaint, indie folk album. The music is put together like jagged puzzle pieces, not quite fitting together perfectly but enough so that you can make out what is going on. But Sullivan’s voice adds an element of dark resonance that gives the proceedings a queasy feel. His vocals lie in subterranean spaces, like Mark Lanegan and Leonard Cohen having a conversation under a pile of mattresses. There’s melody and keys being conveyed in Sullivan’s vocal delivery, but not upfront. It’s assumed as you hear the music. As on Sunburner, nothing is obvious. The music feels muted and distant, like you’re hearing music playing in another room of the house. Or even in another house. But that’s the charm of Sullivan and United Waters. If it were easy to snag onto the melodies and songwriting, then this would be just another album you’d spin and put off to the side. But The Narrows is not that.

The songs are ramshackle and pieced together like a domicile in a shantytown. They should hold up in the rain and wind, but in case it doesn’t have an escape plan. “Move The Distance” is melancholy in its delivery. It’s like Sullivan’s version of musical desolation. It’s jaunty in its rhythms and the guitars sound pained while building the musical world that surrounds us. It’s like old Cure, but a sad and numb track you’d never heard before. Brian Sullivan chews lyrics like he’s chewing rubble. He gargles his words in weathered contemplation. “Ride The Midnight Home” is nearly early 80s pop, but done only the way United Waters can do it. There’s still lots of noise and confusion in the mix, but there’s a real subtlety here. “Even The Moon Remembers” rides on an acoustic guitar and wobbly electric guitar as Brian Sullivan emotes like Phil Alvin looking out over the edge of the universe. It’s a pretty track, and one that stands out in the United Waters catalog.

There seems to be a more nuanced approach on The Narrows. The dystopian haziness of Sunburner isn’t quite as prominent here. In it’s place is a more in-focus sound. Like the aperture has been tightened and the picture is much more in focus, but the sound remains mysterious. “Least Turn” and “Thunderings” benefit greatly from the noir-ish nature of the sound and songwriting. I could see Brian Sullivan reading old Jim Thompson novels and taking something from them.

Elsewhere, “Mile Wide” brings some of those “Out Of Flight” vibes to the proceedings and title track “The Narrows” ends the album like a lost industrial Leonard Cohen track. It sounds like murky pulp folk.

United Waters keep shedding more and more light on their albums. The Narrows feels like the most clear-eyed record yet, with Sullivan’s songcraft getting some much deserved attention this time around. There will always be an element of darkness and decay with Sullivan and United Waters, which is strangely reassuring to me.

7.8 out of 10

 

R. Missing : Unsummering

There’s both a quiet cool and a dark tension that permeates R. Missing’s EP Unsummering. Even in their promotional material it says “You won’t find love songs here. You’ll find unloved songs. You won’t find summer, you’ll find Unsummering.” Now if that’s not enough to convince you of something dark and mysterious what will? Maybe a bloodied, severed ear that would accompany the record? You know, cut off your ear to spite the record? Anyways, severed body parts aren’t needed because Unsummering stands on its own. It’s cool, calculated, dark, and foreboding like a night of sexual delights that you know will only lead to you alone in your bedroom on a Saturday night with The Cure’s Pornography playing on repeat. Phone off the hook and empy pizza boxes surrounding you like monuments to heartbreak.

I had to look. “Unsummering” isn’t a real word or adjective for that matter. It seems to be a doomed romantic ode to all things shiny and good going to shit. It’s the moment on a bright sunlit day when the black clouds roll in and hide that bit of brightness, turning everything a shade of melancholy. Who is R. Missing? The band consists of She and He Missing, and according to an Impose feature about the band “they’re ready to fight you.” Despite the faux mystery and possible threat of bodily harm they make beautifully doomed electronic music.

“Unsummering” seethes with dance floor promises, but this duo isn’t about release. They’re about holding those desires in and letting them eat you from the inside out. I imagine Wednesday Adams really getting into this song as she detracts any advances from unsuspecting boys. “Kelly Was A Phillistine” is delightfully groove-filled. Cold Cave wishes they could sound this good. Elements of Depeche Mode and New Order make this quite an addictive piece of ear candy. She Missing, whoever She may be, has a smokey voice. It’s dark and alluring and I’m sure will bite if you get too close. She adds just the right amount of charcoal grey to the proceedings. It accentuates the dark electro synth vibe in the music department. “Deeper Holes” has the vocals sounding slightly more vulnerable with the music having a nicely aged analog vibe. The mix of organic and processed works well.

Elsewhere, R. Missing pushes 80s nostalgia with “Birthright” while “Mostly Back” lights up slightly with a Chairlift vibe. “Mouser” closes out this biting EP with a sound like a pared down Human League.

Despite all the mystery and possible threats of fisticuffs, Unsummering is mostly bruise-free. R. Missing’s EP is an enticing shot of electro gothic synth pop. It veers on the darker side, which makes it all the intriguing. You may not find any love songs here, but you’re sure to find some songs to love.

7.5 out of 10

 

White Hills : Stop Mute Defeat

New York’s White Hills have been pushing their music forward with every album they’ve released since the mid-2000s. A mix of psych, post-punk, space rock, art rock, and pretty much anything forward-thinking that’s come out over the last 50 years, White Hills’ Dave W. and Ego Sensastion want to move you and your mind to the far reaches of the universe. With albums like Glitter Glamour Atrocity, Heads on Fire, White Hills, H-p1, and their most recent LP 2015s Walks For Motorists White Hills used fuzzed-out guitars, slinky bass, and heavy synth layers to paint dytopian visions, gothic undertones, and scenes set adrift into volumes of black space.

With dystopia of Orwellian proportions bleeding into our everyday realities every time CNN is turned on, Dave W. and Ego Sensation have taken their songwriting from fuzzy existential drifting to stark focus on their new album Stop Mute Defeat. It’s their most concise album yet, painting a musical world that feels steely, mechanical, and cautionary. At times it feels like you’re riding through some futuristic factory with black and white TV screens mounted on the walls with subliminal messages running through walls of static. The grooves of Walks For Motorists have been replaced with mechanical structures and industrial precision.

“Overlord” opens with siren-like tones over a looping drum beat and distorted guitar. It’s a stark, cold musical world but one that White Hills wields with great ease. “A Trick of the Mind” sounds like early 80s alternative. A mix of Echo and the Bunnymen and the Cure with a bit of Love and Rockets thrown in for good measure. Dave W’s robotic vocals rattling the cage we’re all currently looking out of. “Importance 101” moves along on hazy synths and the band’s warning of “don’t rely”. “Attack Mode” rolls along like a steamrolling heavy metal machine. It’s the most “rock” song on the album, bringing to mind albums like Frying On This Rock and So You Are…So You’ll Be. 

There’s always a couple moments on a White Hills album where the genius of the band truly shines. One of those moments of Stop Mute Defeat is the excellent “If…1…2”. This hypnotic track seems to be channeling Suicide and Butthole Surfers through the filter of a William Gibson novel. It’s a menacing and captivating track that pulls together everything that’s truly great about White Hills. Another moment of White Hills’ excellence is “Sugar Hill”, which pulls some more of that early Cure magic into the fold with Ego Sensation’s propulsive bass line and the spidery guitar lines.

“Entertainer” and “Stop Mute Defeat” round out the album with dystopian glee, the former slinking along with robotic dexterity while the latter finds some post-apocalyptic grooves to finish the record out on. It’s like Devo and Gary Numan had a music baby and “Stop Mute Defeat” was that bundle of joy.

Stop Mute Defeat shows Dave W and Ego Sensation yet again pushing their sound to new heights. The album pushes and pulls and slinks and sways along like some steampunk machine trying to make sense of society and the current political landscape. White Hills have given us a musical statement on our current tumultuous times the only way they can.

7.8 out of 10

 

Moon Duo : Occult Architecture Vol. 2

I think it’s safe to say that Moon Duo’s Ripley Johnson and Sanae Yamada have found their groove. Not that they didn’t have a groove over the last several albums they’ve released since 2009, but with the release earlier in the year of Occult Architecture Vol. 1 they seemed to have found that little extra spark. There’s only so much groovin’ and motorik beats you can create over the course of 8 years before you begin to repeat yourself. 2015s Shadow of the Sun was yet another stellar collection of tunes by Johnson and Yamada, but you could tell things were starting to sound somewhat same-y. Great tunes we’ve heard before, but maybe in a different key or a different tempo. So before Moon Duo burnt out into exquisite oblivion, these two decided to rethink their approach and come at their songs with a new mindset. The concept of dark and light were brought in to create a double album that each part would be released a few months apart.

Occult Architecture was born.

Vol. 1 dealt with the darkness. It was the Yin. It was the feminine side of the coin that dealt with night and darkness. The music captured that perfectly, too. Driving rhythms and dark psychedelia pushed that album into new territory for Moon Duo without compromising their signature Kraut/Psych flavor. Occult Architecture Vol. 2 has arrived and with it comes what the band calls “the bright side of the hill”. It’s the male side of the coin; sun, light, and the spirit of heaven. I think Moon Duo have given us their best work yet with Vol. 2. It’s absolutely stunning.

“New Dawn” clears the dark clouds that Vol. 1s “White Rose” left us with. The song opens with some electric piano which then turns into big drums and that phaser-infused big riff we’ve come to know and love from Ripley Johnson. The vocals feel uplifted as Johnson and Yamada sing in unison. These two sound bigger than the sum of their parts. Two people shouldn’t sound this big. Even with the similar tones and grooves there’s an airiness here that I’ve not heard before. “Mirror’s Edge” could easily be a b-side from Achtung Baby. It’s a sly, funky rhythm that takes its time slinking and sliding into your ear. There’s a subtlety and nuance here that I’ve never noticed before in the Moon Duo canon. “Sevens” is a familiar vibe. It’s one we’ve heard before, but there’s a brightness to it. You can almost picture the sun peaking from behind the clouds ready to make its appearance.

Despite the heavy occult lean and goth-y undertones that Moon Duo have dabbled in for all these years, I’ve always had this feeling that Johnson and Yamada have always had a bright and beautiful, sun-soaked ballad in them. “Lost in Light” is that song. It hangs in the air as you listen to it. It’s most definitely a Moon Duo song, but it ascends to the skies bathed in ghostly synths and Johnson’s light touch on guitar. It’s a absolute stunner, and one of the best tracks on this album.

The album closes on the ethereal “The Crystal World”. It’s a mix of NEU!s penchant for looping and repetitive motifs with Harmonia’s dreamy existentialism. It’s actually a perfect way to end a near perfect record.

I’m not sure where Moon Duo can go from here. I feel they’ve achieved near perfection with their Occult Architecture volumes. They’d dabbled in the darkness in the past, but with Occult Architecture Vol. 2 they show that their black magic is equally, if not more, engaging in the light of day.

8. 4 out of 10

Delia Gonzalez : Horse Follows Darkness

Just by mere chance the one time in the last year I’m on Twitter looking through my feed I see a tweet from Death Waltz Originals guru Spencer Hickman talking about how great this album Horse Follows Darkness is by Delia Gonzalez. I believe the line that stood out to me was “pure blissed out synth heaven”. I couldn’t NOT slam my money down on the digital counter and buy it, so Bandcamp was visited and monies were exchanged. Well it arrived last week and Delia Gonzalez and Spencer Hickman did not disappoint. Horse Follows Darkness, the new album by the Cuban-American New York artist Delia Gonzalez and released via DFA Records is indeed pure blissed out synth heaven. It’s also cinematic in its relatively short scope. At just around 30 minutes in length and consisting of 5 tracks, Horse Follows Darkness blends both the concept of the American western and dystopian future into a compelling LP.

There’s a repetitiveness to the pieces on Gonzalez’ new record. A looping and loping feeling, like Steve Reich on an analog synth bender. Gonzalez likes to paint her musical pictures in analog paints and circuitry, giving her music an aged feel. “In Through The Light” lays out gauzy synth structures over a looping melody. It plays on both light and dark moods, covering the scope from Tangerine Dream to Steve Reich in the course of six minutes. “Hidden Song” sounds like dystopian disco. It’s propulsive rhythm, piano chords, and squiggly synth lines mesh into a blissed-out track. “Roulette” is built around another piano line that morphs into yet another looping piano melody with synthesizers slowly rising from the depths. There’s something hypnotic about this track. It seems to hold secrets within its musical walls.

The story behind the record is an interesting one, and one which is explained here:

The title is taken from a werewolf genre film her 8 year old son Wolfgang had created. At this time, Wolfgang also turned Delia onto a genre of cinema she had always resisted – the American Western.

Delia explains that what she observed “was all relevant – the album is based on our personal experience of moving back to America (from Berlin) and the journey that followed. The record is a manifestation of that, and what one creates for themselves under the given circumstances. Coming back to America, I felt like a foreigner and NYC / America felt like the Wild West. Most Westerns from the 1960s to the present have revisionist themes. Many were made by emerging major filmmakers who saw the Western as an opportunity to expand their criticism of American society and values into
a new genre.”

Listening to Horse Follows Darkness you do get a sense of journey. Returning to a place you once called home only to feel like a complete stranger to those things once familiar and inviting. “Horse Follows Darkness” puts some of the fear and uncertainty of being a stranger in a strange land into your head. It’s both beguiling and disconcerting. A lilting musical whisper into your ear. “Vesuvius” moves from the American west into the final frontier of space, all pulsing synth and dance floor percussiveness. It seems a fitting ending to such a moving musical journey.

Horse Follows Darkness is a stunning record. Delia Gonzalez has captured beautifully the uncertainty of the unknown and that fear in the pit of your stomach when starting over. It’s also, as Spencer Hickman so eloquently stated, “pure blissed out synth heaven.”

8.2 out of 10