Matt Borghi: December Impressions
Hypnos Secret Sounds

Sans Serif: Tones for LaMonte
Hypnos Secret Sounds

Saul Stokes: Villa Galaxia
Hypnos / Binary

VA: Message from a Subatomic World

Hypnos has lately become my ambient label of choice and this latest quartet of releases does nothing to alter that opinion. From the melodic electronica of Saul Stokes' Villa Galaxia to Sans Serif's immersive Tones for LaMonte, the four collectively achieve a level of quality and craft in execution and presentation that other ambient releases would do well to match.

Though Hypnos is primarily thought of as an ambient label, Stokes' Villa Galaxia (his eighth solo album and the first on Hypnos since 2005's Fields) is closer to melodic electronica than ambient—not electronica of the hard-hitting or dissonant type, however. Yes, there are beats (even funky and head-nodding ones) and the material is often uptempo but Villa Galaxia is more soothing and sunlit in tone and spirit than aggressive and angst-ridden. At times (e.g., “Embedded in Amber”) the material feels almost old-fashioned in its use of synth sounds that wouldn't sound out of place on an Eno or Tangerine Dream album but that merely adds to the music's charm. “Vapor Trails” kicks up some dust as it breezily gallops through sun-drenched valleys and wide-open plains. Funkily swinging rhythms drive the tune and a distorted guitar part even emerges amidst vibrant synths during the latter stages. Emblematic of Villa Galaxia, “Blaze” steps jauntily while taking in the multi-hued synthetic scenery that surrounds it and “Eta Car is a Massive Star” boldly explodes like a brilliantly coloured fireworks display. The sweetly funky “Embedded in Amber” pushes the aggressive vibe a bit further with resounding drum hits used as punctuation while the eleven-minute closer “Interrupted By Time” provides the most wide-ranging portrait of Stokes' artistry.

Arriving only months after Huronic Minor, December Impressions is the second installment in Hypnos Secret Sounds' Matt Borghi reissue series. Originally recorded during the spring of 2001, the forty-four-minute December Impressions presents eleven “sequences” that are sonically pristine and clean yet also gloomy and unsettling in spirit. As per the title, Borghi attempts to transcribe the steely, icy cold of a Michigan winter into sound and capture the frozen stillness of the city's landscape during the dark winter months. The composer himself asserts that December Impressions is less a conventional album that contains tracks of contrasting character than a “tone poem” whose “sequences” represent parts of the same whole, and he elsewhere likens the work's conceptual process to “painting with frequencies.” The material itself is stark and suffused with an air of foreboding when, in every “sequence,” deep bass tones rumble ominously while high-pitched tones searchingly waver up on high. Yet despite the “dark” undercurrent, the material's glacial unfurl is calming and the recording engrossing and its impact powerful.

Forrest Fang's Sans Serif release Tones for LaMonte obviously pays tribute to minimalist composer LaMonte Young in title and sound. Fang's not the most prolific artist—his last solo album (Gongland, Projekt) appeared in 2000—though he's contributed to others' releases and collaborated with Carl Weingarten on the album Invisibility (The Foundry) too. The forty-eight-minute Tones for LaMonte features six tracks, the shortest five minutes and the longest eleven, whose titles are based on five letters of the Greek alphabet and the infinity symbol. In essence, the settings are placid, slowly swirling drones that purposefully evoke the sustained tones that appear within Young's own work. Fang's immersive material isn't static, however; like waves, the tracks' multiple high- and low-pitched tones and shimmering washes swell, build in intensity, and then recede in cycles that grow ever more hypnotic the more they repeat. Fang maintains interest by subtly modulating volume levels from one track to another, and sometimes within a single track too; “Theta,” for example, begins softly and then blossoms almost symphonically throughout its eight-minute run. Tones for LaMonte is stylistically and sonically kin to Stephan Mathieu's recent Radioland, an equally satisfying set of crystalline drones that naturally complements Fang's superb Sans Serif release.

The Message from a Subatomic World compilation impresses too. This “mirror image” release to last year's Sounds of a Universe Overheard features exclusive pieces by ten artists who haven't appeared on a Hypnos compilation before. The title of the latest release clearly brings with it intimations of microsound and isolationism and some degree of both is definitely present. But there's ample contrast too, not surprisingly given the individuating styles of the contributors: multiple shades of light and dark abound with some tracks tranquil, some mysterious, and others unsettled and unsettling. In Austere's ten-minute opener “Crystil,” a soprano's wordless call, reverberant piano sprinkles, and a whispered voiceover float across soft synthetic washes that drift like immense, billowing cloud formations. Somnia label head Evan Bartholomew brings his ambient sensibility to Hypnos with the brooding electrical-organ drone “Sacrosanct” while Jason Sloan, Matt Borghi's Slo.Bor label partner, created “faded.forgotten [trace]” by scripting software that enabled him to generate audio from a photograph he found in a parking lot—not that you'd ever know such a thing from listening to its epic, cloud-like unfurl. True Color of Blood (Eric Kesner) and Norwegian producer Svartsinn respectively contribute a delicate, guitar-generated drone sculpture (“Choosing to Remain Blind”) and a cavernous dark ambient setting that swells into a consuming mass (“Cold But Strong”). Elsewhere one encounters ghostly field ambiance (“Distant Radiance” by Relapxych.0 aka Sweden-based Anders Peterson), waves of shimmering synth tendrils (Numina's “Nadir Ever Spirals”), and a polyphony of siren-like murmurs in Stephen Philips' lulling drone “Down Deep.” “Icelight,” a frozen atmospheric drone created from synths and bells by Italian producer Oophoi, brings the seventy-two collection to an appropriately hermetic close.

Collectively the four releases are classy material on an equally classy label.

November 2008