Cass.: Magical Magical
Home Normal

Christopher Hipgrave: No Greater Hero Than the Least Plant That Grows
Home Normal

Konntinent: The Empire Line
Home Normal

A trio of new Home Normal releases reflects the Tokyo-based label's stylistic range, with Cass.'s delicate songs at one end of the spectrum, Christopher Hipgrave's soundscapes at the other, and Konntinent's somewhere in between.

Niklas Rehme-Schlüter (b. 1991) is relatively new to the recording scene, as the Osnabrück artist only began self-releasing his Cass. music in 2010; though he's issued material on vinyl and cassette, Magical Magical signifies the first CD presentation of his work. Primarily written and composed by Rehme-Schlüter, the mini-album's nine songs include contributions from Altars Altars, Miriam Jolene, Emily Cross, Emil Hewitt, and Moritz Leppers. There's an appealing innocence to Cass.'s music, especially when its lustrous electroacoustic soundworld is filled with such entrancing detail. The magical wonder of childhood infuses every moment of the release, making for a refreshing listening experience unsullied by cynicism and despair.

On the serenading intro “You On My Mind,” Jolene's ethereal voice merges seamlessly with the delicate soundworld Rehme-Schlüter conjures from synthetic elements and children's laughter. That stage-setter is followed by the album's most song-structured track, “Lantern,” whose playful vocal melodies (memorably delivered by Hewitt) call to mind Death Cab For Cutie or Postal Service. Guided by a soothing bass motif, “Atlon” generates a quietly stirring effect in the languorous exhalations of its horns, keyboards, and electronic textures, and as gentle are “Love Lockdown,” whose tender lilt Cass. enhances with stately string melodies, and the softly shimmering outro “Let's Keep Us Close Until We Die.” Still, as fine as the release's instrumentals are, “Lantern” is so entrancing, it's a shame Rehme-Schlüter didn't include more of the same. Magical Magical is certainly deserving of recommendation, but a more equal balance between vocal songs and ambient instrumentals would have made it even stronger.

The Empire Line is apparently the final Konntinent album from Antony Harrison, and interestingly enough the release, conceived as a follow-up to 2010's Opal Island (also on Home Normal), was completed five years ago though only recently did Harrison consent to its release. Not surprisingly, the tone of The Empire Line is more in keeping with the late-night spirit of Opal Island than the unrelentingly dark Kiruna that Harrison issued as a stand-alone Konntinent outing on Hibernate in 2012. Put simply, he achieves on The Empire Line a slightly more satisfying balance between vocal and instrumental settings than Cass. does on Magical Magical. Like Rehme-Schlüter, Harrison includes guests on the release, namely vocalists Chantal Acda, Cuushe, and Lisa Madisson as well as cellist Andy Cordle and flutist Katie English, and doing so makes a significant difference. Harrison's own piano, guitar, electronics, and voice contributions figure heavily into the album's arrangements, too.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about The Empire Line is how gentle and restrained its fifty minutes of material often are. “The Bridge” inaugurates the album promisingly with a subdued electroacoustic meditation speckled with piano, electronics, percussive accents, and Cordle's cello phrases. More experimental in nature is “Fibula, Tibea” in the way it assembles clipped voice fragments into a flickering electroacoustic whole. But as credible as the instrumentals are, it's the vocal pieces that are once again the most memorable. Acda, whose Gizeh Records release Let Your Hands Be My Guide impressed as one of 2013's most beautiful outings, brings her stirring vocal gifts to the plaintive hymn “Tensile Strength,” while Cuushe, in keeping with her own musical style, adds an atmospheric and hazy vocal to the lullaby-like “Amongst the Islanders.”

At the more extreme end of the ambient-electronic spectrum lies Christopher Hipgrave's No Greater Hero Than the Least Plant That Grows. In contrast to the concept underpinning his debut album Day, which centers, naturally, on moments within a single day, the new collection—at least insofar as such a determination can confidently be made based on track titles—appears more epic in scope, with titles such as “Suggesting the Embrace of Chaos” and “The Quality of Not Being Explicable” suggesting a mindset grappling with grand topics such as Chaos Theory and metaphysics. It's not as if Hipgrave's spent the six years since Day's release navel-gazing: he released Slow, With Pages of Fluttering Interference on Low Point and Subtleties on Under The Spire during that time, and in addition has collaborated with Rie Mitsutake, Jason Corder, and Ben Chatwin, among others, on the group project Tiny Isles.

In keeping with a work titled No Greater Hero Than the Least Plant That Grows, Hipgrave's recording directs its attention to matters of the universe at both the macro and micro levels. The thirteen pieces composing the fifty-minute release are detailed ambient-electronic meditations that are more inclined to soothe than harrow the listener's nerves. And so while one might understandably expect something called “Suggesting the Embrace of Chaos” to present high-decibel noise, it turns out to be as peaceful and understated as anything else on the release. Hipgrave's recording shimmers, glistens, and sparkles as it wends its becalmed way through concise settings filled with granular crackle and electronic flickerings. Interestingly, his aromatic material, which would sound equally at home on 12k or Line as Home Normal, exudes an undeniably pastoral quality that's highly suggestive of the natural outdoors, despite the fact that the recording's presumably a wholly electronic creation. That that puts him in the company of someone like Taylor Deupree says much about No Greater Hero Than the Least Plant That Grows.

May 2015