Sverre Knut Johansen: Earth From Above
Spotted Peccary Music

Craig Padilla: Heaven Condensed
Spotted Peccary Music

With Earth From Above and Heaven Condensed, a new addition to the Spotted Peccary roster and a member of long-standing make excellent contributions to the label's discography. Norwegian musician Sverre Knut Johansen is the new face, but he brings to the release an impressive back-catalogue and decades of experience as an electronic producer. Releases such as Distant Shore and The Source of Energy extend back to the ‘90s, whereas a more recent album of note is 2013's Planets (all three of them Origo Sound releases).

Earth From Above, Johansen's maiden voyage on Spotted Peccary Music, lives up to its titular promise in presenting a symphonic-electronic set of encompassing stylistic range and scope. Yes, there are ambient elements in play, but the aggressive spirit and declamatory tone of Johansen's music put considerable distance between the album material and ambient proper. By way of example, the combination of beat-driven animation, ambient guitar textures, and synth washes in “Flying Birds” more calls to mind the expansive vision of David Torn's Cloud About Mercury than the retiring quietude of Music For Airports.

With twelve tracks alternating between moods and styles over the course of the album's sixty-seven minutes, Earth From Above assumes the character of an instrumental suite or song-cycle. Mood shifts, such as the one from the robust attack of “Flying Birds” to the melancholy contemplation of “Lost,” occur repeatedly and lend the recording something of a travelogue feel. With a muscular beat pattern powering its dynamic synth flourishes, “Frozen Sky” assumes the character of a full-band production, even though Johansen's the only one involved. Such sleight-of-hand is commonplace these days, but convincing simulations such as this one don't render the feat any less impressive.

A luscious array of musical and extra-musical sounds unites in the service of Johansen's vision, with the composer's electronic instruments, synthesizers, percussion, and guitar samples abetted by the guitar textures of guest artist David Helpling. An occasional chilliness emerges from the music to remind us that Johansen hails from the northern-central Helgeland region of Norway, just below the arctic circle, but there are moments of warmth, too. If there's a misstep, it's “#connecting#landscapes” for veering too far into an electronica style that by 2016 standards sounds dated, but such a lapse is offset by the stirring beauty of the closing “Found.” One shouldn't lose sight of the fact that, despite its oft-ethereal tone, the album's focus is earth, not the heavens, and in that regard it's only natural that a planet resplendent in vegetation and animal life should be evoked by the material. Earth From Above pulsates with barely contained energy, yet Johansen also does an effective job of balancing exuberance and control throughout this refined recording.

To a greater degree than Johansen, Craig Padilla's drawn to large-scale soundsculpting on his latest solo release. Presented in the form of a four-part work, Heaven Condensed juxtaposes two comparatively short pieces and two twenty-eight-minute behemoths on the seventy-four-minute recording. Padilla's been with Spotted Peccary for fourteen years, during which time he's released ten albums (including Heaven Condensed) on the label, and has issued more than forty releases over the course of his career. To say that he's an experienced hand at crafting electronic soundscapes is clearly a huge understatement.

Drawing for inspiration from pioneers such as Klaus Schulze, Vangelis, and Tangerine Dream, Padilla demonstrates a remarkable ability to maintain the coherence and over-arching structure of a setting for the full measure of its half-hour duration. Working with synthesizers (analog and digital), sequencers, and samplers, he uses the concept of Heaven as a creative catalyst for bringing abstract visions into physical form in real-time. While beats are absent, the music isn't without forward momentum, and Padilla shapes the material so that a constant flow is present, a flow sometimes abetted by a sequencer pattern. One of things that Padilla excels at in particular is effecting smooth transitions from one moment to the next; in fact, they happen so seamlessly, one hardly notices them until a conscious effort is made to monitor the music's unfolding.

Representative of the project's tone, the title track conjures the image of a celestial paradise where silken synth washes and gentle atmospheric sparkle strengthen the impression of peace and tranquility. Such a presentation is more than a little seductive, and it doesn't take much for the listener to willingly surrender to the soothing placidity Padilla's slow-motion reveries offer. That doesn't rule out an occasional episode of turbulence finding its way into the material, but when it does it's never so extreme that it floods the material completely with darkness. Equally transfixing is the second long-form setting, “Heavenly Sails,” which trumps the other in the grandiosity department. It's about as deep and glorious a plunge into space-ambient as you've probably experienced in many a light year.

March 2016