Marc Barreca: Subterrane
Palace of Lights

K. Leimer: Degraded Certainties
Palace of Lights

Gregory Taylor: dua_belas
Palace of Lights

Three new releases from the laudable Palace of Lights imprint reflect the range of its artists' sonic adventurousness. By its own admission, the self-deprecating label might be currently celebrating “thirty years of obscurity”; even so, those with their ears to the ground are well aware of the sterling contributions the label has made to the ambient-experimental and electroacoustic music genres.

Electro-acoustic composer and field recordist Marc Barreca is catholic about the materials he uses to create his computer processed pieces with sound sources as varied as trains, subways, glass bottles, bamboo and bronze percussion instruments, rattles, accordion, electronics, and recycled bits from past live and studio recordings all drawn upon for the album's ten settings (“Twilight Reprise,” for example, recycles samples from his 1980 Palace of Lights album, Twilight). Barreca typically generates dense fields of semi-abstract sounds that resist easy identification and weaves the elements into restlessly mutating ambient-drone settings that hew to a fairly controlled range of dynamic contrasts. The sounds themselves range from glassy to rough-edged, shimmering to warbling, and pulsating to droning, and the moods extend from calming and ethereal to turbulent—sometimes within the same piece (e.g., “Jumbled”). Like many of the album's tracks, the twelve-minute “Fractured Bronze” travels fluidly through multiple episodes, including ones where thick industrial plumes dominate and others where shimmering bells and flute tones pierce the fog. Faintly audible is a muffled horn slithering in the background, a detail that lends the piece a Jon Hassell-like Fourth World quality. Elsewhere, “Allen's Strange Land” could pass for the synthetic re-creation of an ant colony's activities, “Near Greenwater” presents an electroacoustic sound world of hydraulic creaks and blossoming shimmer, and the industrial belch of machinery swims in an ambient-drone mix during the title track. Subterrane proves to be an apt title choice for a collection that exhumes micro-sound textural detail so far below the surface level.

An exotic Fourth World dimension is also sometimes evident on Gregory Taylor's dua_belas (Indonesian for “the twelve”), which the producer created using Max/MSP and “soft/hard analog/digital synthesis.” Vistas of natural and virtual exotic sounds play off one another—an organ-centric drone here (“Simon_petrus”), grinding pulsations and textures there (“Yakobus_anak_zebedeus”)—in twelve shape-shifting live and studio recordings. “Andreas” initiates the album with a vibrant and energized setting that exudes the forward momentum of a Steve Reich Ensemble piece—not surprisingly, given the metronomic percussion patterns that drive Taylor's piece so forcefully. Percussive pitter-patter also lends the later “Yohanes_anak_zebedeus” a similar train-like propulsion. While Taylor's pieces don't lock themselves into systems music formations, there does nevertheless appear to be a structural shape underpinning some of the album's pieces. Many of the tracks are restrained in character, such as the tranquil gamelan setting “Filipus_yang_melit” and the softly pulsating “Simon_si_patriot.” In addition, “Matius” intersperses the tinkle of keyboard patterns with the loud exhalation of gaseous washes, and “Anak_kembar_tomas” mixes the gentle swirl of electronic wisps with subtle percussive accents. There's a hermetic quality to some pieces (e.g., “Yudas_anak_alpheus”) on Taylor's understated collection that makes them sound like after-hours exercises worked out in the studio.

Long-time Palace of Lights contributor Kerry Leimer follows his The Useless Lesson (2007) and Lesser Epitomes (2008) with another superb chapter, Degraded Certainties, whose six settings are all, curiously, twelve minutes in length. Leimer is credited with digital synthesis and signal processing, and Gregory Taylor and Taylor Deupree also contribute treatments, processing, voices, and post-production to the recording. Apparently the tracks' material was generated via the layering of arbitrarily ordered tone clusters and by using signal reprocessing as the principal method by which to determine the music's timbre and form. Such production details are interesting but convey little, however, of how beautiful the six soundscapes are that Leimer and company have created. In the opening “Angoisse,” an occasional harp pluck appears amidst enveloping swathes of digital sound, while vaporous shimmer and hazy synth tones (“Homage”) and phased slivers and lilting string plucks (“French Opera”) dominate elsewhere. A connection to classical minimalism emerges during “Common Nocturne” when sparse droplets of acoustic piano playing appear alongside gentle synthetic swells. Strings and electronics swim leisurely in deep electroacoustic seas, and ethereal, elegiac, tranquil, peaceful, and placid are just some of the words that might spring to mind as you listen to the recording's time-suspending settings.

September 2010