Elian: Harrowgate
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Hotel Neon: Hotel Neon
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Islands Of Light: Ruebke
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Fabio Orsi: Just For A Thrill
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Since its inaugural release appeared on the horizon in early 2009, Ian Hawgood's Home Normal label has maintained an exceptionally high quality level. Anyone wanting evidence in support of the statement need look no further than these four recent releases, each different than the others but all worthy of one's time and attention.

We'll begin with the prettiest one of the bunch, Ruebke by Islands Of Light, an alias of Vienna-based artist Dino Spiluttini. Apparently he issues drone-styled work under his birth name, but Islands Of Light is a different creature altogether, one gentle, even tender, in spirit and melodically oriented. While delicate piano playing is the primary focal point on most of the dozen pieces (created between 2009 and 2012), it's not the only element present. Spiluttini often wraps the instrument's notes in a gossamer glow, all the better to amplify the music's oneiric quality. His melodic gifts are amply displayed throughout, with the material's emotional impact heightened by the music's plaintive character. Ruebke is not an exercise in pianistic virtuosity, by the way; instead, the playing is stark, free of embellishment, somewhat like a prototypical Satie piece. It's a wise move on Spiluttini's part that enables the listener to appreciate all the better the fragile beauty of misty reveries such as “Bodil,” “Boris,” and “Gypta,” where time slows and reflection sets in. While the material is predominantly melancholy, there are moments of levity, too, as exemplified by “Schlump,” which exudes a kind of sweet sadness similar to that of a Nick Drake song. Despite the occasional application of treatments of varying kinds, the album is about as un-electronic a set as one could imagine Home Normal releasing. At times hymnal (“Honung,” “Heisternest”) and other times playful (the Hauschka-like “Muemmelmannsberg”), Ruebke is assuredly one to treasure.

Compared to Ruebke, Elian's Harrowgate locates itself within an altogether different universe. Five years on from his previous Home Normal release, Whispers, Then Silence, Michael Duane Ferrell returns with another bold foray into the Elian galaxy, this one a five-part, forty-five-minute plunge into deep space. Heavily synthetic and electronic in character, Harrowgate is many things: multi-dimensional, chilly, severe, mystical, and even, yes, harrowing. Waves of synthetic sounds ebb and flow whilst percussive noises of indeterminate origin punctuate the streaming flow with their alien presence. During “Harrowgate 2” (the first of two ten-minute-plus tracks), scabrous textures ripple across a droning, organ-like base until the pulsations swell into convulsive throbs and an ominously threatening wail. Some form of supraterrestrial derangement sets in during “Harrowgate 3,” and the listener experiences an even greater degree of disorientation as he/she gets drawn ever more helplessly into the vortex. But perhaps the fullest plunge occurs within “Harrowgate 5,” which writhes, shudders, and screeches for sixteen unsettling minutes like some distant galaxy slowly dying out. I resist describing Harrowgate as an ideal imaginary soundtrack to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, simply because the film's cited so often in such manner it's become a tired cliche. Yet there's no denying Harrowgate would at times make a perfect match for the film's deep space sequences, especially in those sequences when Elian's music is at its most barren and inhuman.

More in line with immersive ambient soundscaping is Hotel Neon's self-titled debut, which originally entered the world in summer 2013 in a 100-copy cassette edition before Home Normal got wind of it and decided to make it more widely available. Twin brothers Michael and Andrew Tasselmyer created the recording in Wilmington, Delaware using modest means: a two-track USB recording device, cheap guitars, effects processors, and computer. Though track titles such as “Dust and Drag,” “The Crushing Weight,” and “Deprivation” might suggest a downtrodden and despairing vibe, the mood throughout the fifty-six-minute album is closer in spirit to uplift albeit of a fragile kind. Rather than dragging the listener down, the opener, “A Lament,” for example, lifts the spirit—literally in its rising melodic motif and figuratively in the impact the music's soothing tone has on the listener. Modest gear notwithstanding, the Tasselmyers are also clearly attuned to the sonorous subtleties of their music, as evidenced by the cavernous reverberations resonating throughout the seven settings. It's the kind of music where the smallest of gestures, like the percussive accent punctuating the vaporous howl in “Dust and Drag,” assumes pronounced significance. While Hotel Neon's focus is more on enveloping atmosphere and sonic density than on melody, differentiating themes do emerge in their constructions, even if they're sometimes submerged by the towering immensity of the textural design-—“The Crushing Weight” indeed.

If Hotel Neon's name is new to textura's pages, Fabio Orsi's is assuredly not. You'll find coverage of the Italian composer-guitarist's solo releases in textura's archives (among them 2011's Stand Before Me, Oh My Soul on Preservation), as well as reviews of collaborative outings with Seaworthy (2009's Near and Faraway on Low Point) and pimmon (2013's Procrastination on Home Normal). At seventy-nine minutes the longest of the four releases reviewed here, Just For A Thrill nevertheless holds up extremely well. One of the primary reasons for that is that it's not an album of ambient pieces or dronescapes; instead, its eight settings are grounded in tender melodies that lend the recording a generally serene disposition and easy accessibility. That's made apparent at the very beginning when the first of eight untitled tracks threads a gently affecting, ten-note piano theme into its softly shimmering soundworld. Sourced primarily from keyboards (guitar also figures into some material, such as the peaceful penultimate setting, which also includes outdoors field recording details), Orsi's stately music unfolds at a slow pace that does nothing but bolster its dream-like effect, and interestingly, the music's meditative aura and the piano-and-electronics combination invite comparison to Eno's Music for Airports, which Orsi's material sometimes resembles and in certain instances could be mistaken for. A comfortable chair is recommended, however, as the album is lengthy and two tracks weigh in at fifteen and twenty minutes. If there's anything perplexing about Just For A Thril , it's why Orsi chose to leave the tracks untitled (more precisely, each uses the album title for its name) when such a move could be interpreted as indifference or imply an unfinished quality about the material; perhaps he simply didn't want to impose interpretive cues upon the listener by titling the pieces. Regardless, the material as presented indicates that great care was taken in its production, and indifferent is hardly the word one would choose to characterize the creator's approach. Dedicated and conscientious more naturally spring to mind.

February 2015