One of the real tests of instrumental music is its ability to convey narrative. Stripped of lyrics, and the natural focal point of a vocalist, the importance of the music actually putting across something concrete and captivating either comes to the fore; or, in the case of ambient music, is all-but disregarded. With Ceremony in the Stillness, the latest album from A-Sun Amissa, that challenge is not only embraced, but met in superb style. The combination of doom-drone influenced auras, post-rock soundscapes, and haunting dark ambience is loaded with emotion, and moves with a sense of story-telling that is too rare in instrumental music. Most records of this style hint at the idea of having a running theme; but on Ceremony in the Stillness, that sense of narrative is impossible to ignore.
There were points when I was listening to The Great Lake Swallows when I couldn’t help but question what the point of music is. A lot of music that is made can be lumped in to fairly large, understandable categories when it comes to motivation – the desire for self-expression, whether with or without words; the simple joy of playing with friends; or dreams of becoming a rock star or impressing someone you’re attracted to. But then, there is music that feels more serious, where motivations and meanings run deeper than what can easily be expressed. It is to this last category that The Great Lake Swallows belongs, with the collaboration between Canadian cellist Julia Kent and Belgian guitarist/tape machine manipulator Jean D.L. being a record that speaks of great things, that taps in to that sense of true meaning, expressing something universal that transcends words and culture. It is beautiful; it is captivating; and it is emotionally devastating.
Modern times are feeling increasingly fractured, with public life becoming split in to ever-more divisive categories. Whether it’s in politics or the media, recent years have been defined in large part by division – just look at the politics of Trump, or Brexit, and the rise in authoritarianism in countries like Hungary. It’s as if the world is, after a period of closer unity, moving apart in hostile ways. It’s difficult not to place The Shadows, the second album from Tomorrow We Sail, in this context. Their music blends post-rock with indie and folk sounds, creating something that feels as if it is longing for people to come together, to recognise all the things that unite us, and stop the slow descent in to war and disharmony that we all seem to be moving toward.
Recorded in a few short, improvised hours one day in May 2017 by the trio of Aidan Baker (Nadja), Simon Goff (Molecular), and Thor Harris (Swans, Thor & Friends), Noplace is an album that possesses the kind of depth that would never hint at the way it was created, even if it has been edited down from that improvised session. Hypnotic in the most wonderful of ways, Noplace is an album that creates a psychedelic haze, taking the listener to some place more relaxing and spiritually cleansing than whatever place you may find yourself physically within. This is music that is good for the soul.
Following on from Part I, which can be read here, here is the second installment of my favourite releases from this year; still in alphabetical order, and still full of awesome, wonderfully diverse music. The top five will follow soon, along with a few other reflections on the past year. But in the meantime, enjoy!
Nadja are a band that, whilst I’ve long been familiar with their name and general sound, I’ve never really engaged with before. I’m not too sure why; if pushed, I’d say that tackling their large discography is quite intimidating, and I wouldn’t know where to start. That feeling of intimidation is present in The Stone Is Not Hit By The Sun, Nor Carved With A Knife, their latest album. At almost eighty minutes long, and containing three gargantuan tracks, The Stone Is Not… is a real beast of an album. Yet as off-putting as it may initially appear, there’s a certain character to the ambient doom presented on the album that makes it captivating, and very easy to sink in to, blocking out the outside world as you isolate yourself within its depths.
It’s safe to say that there’s plenty of music I cover here that is, in some way, heavy. Whether it’s of a musical or emotional nature, heaviness (and, arguably, underground obscurity) is the key theme running through most of my reviews. Manchester duo Shield Patterns aren’t heavy in a musical sense. Instead, Mirror Breathing fits in with what I cover because of its undeniable emotional heaviness. The music may be graceful and almost ethereal, possessed of a lightness that sonically puts it at odds with most other records I review; but the impact it has is the equal of practically anything else you might care to name.