Review: Porya Hatami – The Garden

Focused on “exploring the balance between electronics and environmental sounds”, Iran-based Porya Hatami has earned his colours through a strong and prolific schedule of releases; most notably with ‘Shallow’ from earlier in the year. Now he delves into the fascinating world of six small creatures who all play their role in nature’s rich tapestry.

Porya Hatami Album Cover

It may not be the obvious source for the morning sounds of nature but ‘Firefly’ is the aural equivalent of waking up to a hazy dawn; ambient washes and drone broken up by splashes of beats and samples. Just as the opening track threatens to become ever so slightly claustrophobic, the following ‘Spider’ releases its grip to reveal a gentler, more intricate approach; a perfect accompaniment to the delicate web-making skills of an arachnid, perhaps? ‘Snail’ is one of the most enigmatic pieces. No surprise that’s it’s a languid, slow-moving experience (all six of these tracks are) but its populated by warm, inventive crackles and melodic about-turns.

The most poignant moment is arguably ‘Ladybug’, which appears, initially, to be engulfed by rushing water and waves of melancholy before they evaporate to leave behind a minimalist mood piece. In contrast, ‘Bee’ begins like an irritation with an inevitable buzzing drone to the forefront as well as shrill bird noise but – just as with many offerings here – Hatami builds from the core subject matter into something which is mesmeric and seductive. The album then ends in appropriately busy fashion courtesy of ‘Ant'; thanks to the click-clack rhythms and patterns of beats the music resembles the sound of animals operating like machinery.

Despite the somewhat modest sources of inspiration, Hatami gives voice to ‘The Garden’ via some evocative instrumentals. Much like the animals and insects they portray, the pieces start as unassuming ambient experiments but they gradually flower into multi-layered works of depth and intelligence.

Web Sites:
Porya Hatami – The Garden
Dronarivm Label Site

Further Listening:
The Green Kingdom, The Angling Loser, Talk Talk

Review: Infinite Scale – Living Moments

London-based Infinite Scale has established a strong reputation in the field of electronica; proving himself very adept in mastering that elusive trick of making emotional and memorable instrumental music, which has led to excellent recent albums, 2009’s ‘Ad Infinitum’ and ‘Ekko Location’ from 2011. Harmi Palda’s latest release, ‘Living Moments’, is a collection of ambient works culled from recordings made between 2002 and 2010.

Infinite Scale Album Cover

At the beginning, ‘And So It Began’ and a disarmingly pretty ‘Across The Otherside’ present lonely piano melodies brought further into stark, haunting realms by the use of echo. Yet just when you think this is going to be a compilation of quiet, minimalist pieces, ‘Failure Of An Excuse’ then enters the fray with lurching bass and tabla contrasting with smooth synth lines. ‘Almost An Ending’ and the emotive strains of ‘Protect Me’ dip their toes into classical waters and the eerie samples used on ‘Hello Harry’ assist in adding to the chill factor.

A few of the instrumentals here are mere fragments; the kind which begin promisingly and then end just when you’re beginning to become involved with them. However, ‘Change In The System’, one of the lengthier pieces, unfolds from techno into Eastern rhythms and its meandering sinister melodies makes it a highly intriguing moment. The lovely ‘She Flies The Kite’ at once evokes a feeling of innocence, clear skies and freedom yet ‘Under Bright Lights’ arguably tops the lot with its moving, yearning melody built up by layers of stately piano, shifting synths and beats.

‘Living Moments’ is an evolving record which builds from spare piano-led moments into fully formed ambient pieces, often seamlessly merging into other genres. Far from this being a collection of off-cuts not considered worthy of previous albums, then, here is a collection of tracks which emphasise the depth and versatility of Palda’s oeuvre.

Web Sites:
Infinite Scale Official Site
Infinite Scale Bandcamp

Further Listening:
David Newlyn, Boltfish Recordings

Review: Azwel – From Now On

If Azwel had existed thirty years ago one could imagine him sharing a bill with Microdisney; crafting literate indie pop songs which might occasionally flirt with the lower reaches of the top 75. New York’s Jason Perillo is the talent behind the Azwel title and ‘From Now On’ proves that his prolific work rate (roughly an album a year) is matched in the quality stakes too.

Azwel Album Cover

Opener ‘Alone In The Park’ sticks to a similar indie pop template as previous album ‘Fact And Fantasy’ but there is an eerie edge to the song; the arrangement is haunting and a sense of moodiness prevails, not least when Perillo bemoans “I can’t stop this ringing in my ears”. Piano and strings provide a beautifully sad backdrop for the elegantly yearning ‘Convalescence’ as well as the Simon and Garfunkel-esque closer ‘In A Desperate Way’. ‘The Writing On The Wall’ offers a breezier form melancholy though. It’s an approach which Perillo follows regularly and rightly so on this form and – in a fairer world – the superb ‘Don’t Take It For Granted’ cries out to be a hit, thanks to its verses offset by lilting Orange Juice-style guitar which then burst into a wonderfully vibrant chorus.

Admittedly some of the later songs can be less substantial and at these times Azwel is a little too unassuming for his own good. The strength of ‘From Now On’ is that it impresses the darker it gets. Clearly, Perillo is establishing himself as a songwriter on his own merits and he is an imaginative arranger too; embellishing his reliably fine melodies with a plethora of instruments.

Web Sites:
Azwel Official Site
Azwel – From Now On on Bandcamp

Further Listening:
The Lightning Seeds, Skyline, Microdisney

Review: Engineers – Always Returning

Since beginning in 2003, London’s Engineers have done much to provide a crossover appeal for shoegaze/dream pop music. After the majestic mystery of their self-titled debut to the euphoric pop of 2009’s ‘Three Fact Fader’ and then the pleasant but somewhat underwhelming ‘In Praise Of More’ (from 2010), their new album is a welcome comeback.

Engineers Album Cover

At once, ‘Bless The Painter’ is indicative of a more strident approach. Incisive beats and synth washes are propelled to the front of the mix with breathy vocals forming an extra sumptuous layer. ‘Fight Or Flight’ is alive with bright busy melodies which seem to draw on Cocteau Twins’ ‘A Kissed Out Red Floatboat’ for inspiration and that cannot possibly be a bad move. A blissful experience and much the same can be said for ‘It Rings So True’ which sounds like aural wallpaper at first but this mesmerising track is populated by detailed unwinding hooks and ghostly vocals.

The original album was recorded alone by founder member Mark Peters but the ambient touches by Ulrich Schnauss add a sparkle and sheen and possibly the reason why Engineers are labelled as “nu gaze”. The second half is more diverse and less consistent but still punctuated by highlights. Even an instrumental ‘Innsbruck’ sounds confident and urgent; contrasting the gentler piano-led ‘Smoke And Mirrors’. Only on the overtly poppy ‘Searched For Answers’ and the straight-laced ‘Smiling Back’ do the band lose their way but the final title track is a brilliantly refined way to end the record.

Granted, ‘Always Returning’ works as background music; one can certainly imagine it unobtrusively soundtracking an art installation. However, the accompanying instrumental album only emphasises the fact there are layers of complexity here which prove that Engineers are always searching – and usually finding – intelligent and sumptuous ambient soundscapes.

Web Sites:
Engineers Artist Page at Kscope
Engineers – Always Returning

Further Listening:
Ulrich Schnauss, Delay Trees

Review: Andrew Espinola – Always Enough

After several years recording as A. Rex, in 2012, San Antonio’s Andrew Espinola released his most personal work to date under his own name; the reflective but never self-pitying ‘Into The Drink’. ‘Always Enough’ follows a similar path with the artist continuing his knack for writing memorable indie pop tunes.

Andrew Espinola EP Cover

‘No More Lonely Empire’ embraces a full, punchy production to follow on from ‘Into The Drink’. The drums and bass rattle along rapidly, providing a propulsive energy from which the songwriter assumes the role of protector for his “perfect ending for my beautiful Queen”. It’s a song that’s almost naively optimistic and upbeat and – on a purely musical level – second track ‘Taken By A Pro’ has a shiny outlook too but its lyrics are fuelled by being used in a relationship. Espinola reflects that “in her heart, the bags were always packed” and “she took parts of me, to make herself complete” but it’s the sunny tune and singalong chorus which turns what could have been a tale of self-pity into a cleverly-crafted nugget; comparing favourably to those fellow bittersweet graduates, Eels and Her Space Holiday.

‘Lazy Love’ balances the innocence of bird song samples and strings with further articulate tales of romantic regret; in this case not making enough effort to save a relationship. Yet just when Espinola is in danger of sounding bitter, ‘Love Is Always Enough’ provides an unexpected curveball. Based on what seems to be an enduring relationship in Texas, one must naturally assume this is a tale of a couple close to the singer’s heart so potentially schmaltzy lines (“She still loves how it feels when he says “You look beautiful”) become rather sweet and enduring.

Contrasting moods may be the order of the day on ‘Always Enough’ but this is an EP fuelled by the ultimate four letter word, love. Importantly, no matter how sumputous his melodies are, Espinola writes songs which make you pay attention to the words and that’s a rare quality these days.

Web Sites:
Andrew Espinola Official Site
Andrew Espinola Tumblr
Video for Andrew Espinola – ‘No More Lonely Empire’
CD Baby Page for Andrew Espinola – Always Enough

Further Listening:
Her Space Holiday, Eels

Review: Michael Flynn – Face In The Cloud

Michael Flynn will be known to a few as one half of Slow Runner, a pop rock outfit from South Carolina. Their bio boasts that their music has been employed to promote “useful products like cars and shampoo” as well as the oft-referenced Grey’s Anatomy (do they ever make room for dialogue in that show?). With his new solo album, though, Flynn has produced arguably this year’s guilty pleasure.

Michael Flynn Album Cover

An album which opens with a frenetic burst of military drums mixed with ambient music and ends with a trip-hop/film noir piece called ‘That Danny Glover Feeling’ surely has to be cherished. Unafraid of sounding brash when he needs to, ‘Winsome Lonesome’ begins with a burst of synths which wouldn’t sound out of place on the theme to Flashdance but the song then unfolds into soulful electronica; Flynn’s warm vocals urging “somebody take me home” to anyone who will listen. ‘Old Soul’ is Flynn in his most infectious mode from the catchy synth lines to Flynn’s unerringly melodic tones. It’s a glorious moment and ‘Face In The Cloud’ is full of these moments.

Exploring his darker side, ‘Holy Ghost’ moves into spooky circles both literally and musically, thanks to frosty beats and bleeps which chill to the bone. An appealing falsetto and further cheap but hooky synths distinguish ‘Pop Culture’. Further pleasures occur on the smooth ‘Bird In The House’ (“just let me run my fingers through your feathers”) and the “last song at the school disco” feel to ‘The Arrow At Your Feet’, whilst some forlorn digitised vocals on the piano-led ‘A Love That Bends’ imagines romance for robots.

No matter how cheesy and retro some of these songs may be in their approach, the constants are Flynn’s imagination and unfailing ear for melody. He also deserves great credit for creating a sense of intimacy with his emotive take on bedroom studio pop.

Web Sites:
Michael Flynn Official Site
Michael Flynn Bandcamp

Further Listening:
The Postal Service, Scritti Politti, Christian McKee

Review: Creation Myth – Always

Having recently suffered from a migraine, some gentle, soothing balm-type music was called for so it seemed entirely appropriate to revisit Creation Myth’s EP. Modestly publicised, modestly produced and modestly sung, ‘Always’ is a long way from perfection and yet there are plenty of indications this Brooklyn trio could be a special band.

Creation Myth Album Cover

Floating along like a gentle version of Cocteau Twins (think ‘Victorialand’ with a drum machine), ‘Savor’ is a subtle and elegant way to start this EP. Granted the singer is no Liz Fraser and the production is nowhere near as polished (to be honest, whose production is?) but there’s a definite mystery and ethereal quality on this track which runs right through the whole EP. ‘It’s You’ is simply lovely and the best offering here. A glacial, lilting guitar melody floats along the languid rhythms whilst the vocals caress the listener into a state of euphoria.

‘Hold Me’ provides the most distortion-heavy moment and initially comes across as rather abrasive but at its core is an unwinding, chiming motif which holds the key to a fine if somewhat messily produced song. The title track is distinguished by a steady electronic pulse pushed to the foreground whilst a menagerie of effects provide the requisite atmospheric shimmer as the song heads into darker, murkier territory. ‘Lower’ returns to the ambient approach from the beginning of the EP and even though the song drifts into nowhere in particular, it maintains the appealing warmth of ‘Always’.

The final three tracks aren’t quite so captivating as the first two and yet they are still mesmerising and chilling in their own way. Given the lo-fi quality of this EP, it’s exciting to think how good this band could be even if they’re a long way from being the finished article.

Web Sites:
Creation Myth Bandcamp

Further Listening:
Cocteau Twins, The Plague Monkeys, Annie Barker, Cranes


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