Saito Koji: Wave
Somehow Recordings

MaCu: Vol 4
Somehow Recordings

Shaula: Non_rem_sleeps
Somehow Recordings

Established by the father-and-son team of Tim David Brice and Nico Brice in mid-2010 in support of ambient, drone, and field recordings, Somehow Recordings has rapidly attracted some well-respected artists to the label as an outlet for their work— Fukushima, Japan-born Saito Koji, for one, whose Wave recording is a natural follow-up to the Ocean album issued on SEM in 2009. The overall approach to the new release echoes the one before, as Wave, like Ocean, unspools without haste across a seemingingly limitless expanse and builds loop-based material into an enveloping, droning mass. Lodged at a single pitch, a central chord hums without interruption throughout Wave while an immense roar rises and falls just as incessantly. As a result, one's impression of the piece will depend to some degree on the attitude and expectations one brings to it: regarded as ambient music designed to merge with the environment, Wave certainly succeeds credibly enough in that regard; if, on the other hand, one comes to it anticipating some modicum of development or narrative arc, one will come away disappointed and conclude that, at an hour in length, the piece, being so static, is too long. In Koji's defence, the fault here perhaps lies more with the listener who brings to this thoroughly ambient material expectations about development or narrative arc that aren't appropriate to it.

The two other Somehow Recordings releases can be recommended without reservation, however. Japan-based Shaula, who's been issuing music under the name since 2009, makes a very strong impression with an eight-track suite of transporting settings titled Non_rem_sleeps. Working with a modest palette of guitar, piano, and electronics, Shaula produces meditations of fragile and melancholy character. In particular, the guitar, generally the most prominent instrument in the pieces, is liberally subjected to treatments, with it shuddering, looping, phase-shifting, and turning liquidy as a result. During the plangent “Macula,” a central synthetic episode is framed by delicate filaments of electric guitar, while ghostly guitar figures and piano whistle softly amidst tiny pops of static in “Origin of Mirage.” During “Opaque,” the guitar filigrees and electronics meld into a lulling waltz, the material breathing as gently as a classic Eno ambient piece. Spreading its wings for ten shimmering minutes, “Lepido” alternates between billowing clouds of guitar textures and the repeated voicing of a theme that's as melancholy as it is lovely. Throughout Shaula's splendid, fifty-minute release, hazy mists rise off of dreamscapes that are filled with spindly curlicues and plaintive melodies—ambient soundscaping at its most entrancing.

Lest anyone naively think that one ambient release is the same as another, MaCu's Vol 4 is a different creature altogether from Shaula's, even if the sixth album by MaCu (Austria-based Susanne Hafenscher) was created using some of the same kind of gear—guitar, vocals, field recordings, and sound processing, in this instance. Hafenscher collects six moodscapes under the two-part “Fall” title, with the album's dark ambient material oozing portent from its every pore. Hers is a plunge into the underworld that stays true to its venomous self for forty-three wholly immersive minutes. The rain-soaked opener cultivates a doom-laden mood via ominous rumblings and eerie atmospherics as hushed voices and machine rhythms emerge from the murk. Cavernous echo blankets her soft wordless voice during the second track, and the scratchy noises that punctuate the gloom call to mind a diseased creature deep within a darkened pit relentlessly picking at scabs covering its body. The level of violence escalates in the third piece as blasts appear alongside the low-pitched shudder of her voice, while in the fourth guitar elements are heard drifting through a thick cloud of fog. The final track brings us full circle as we find ourselves once again running for cover from a thunderstorm whose intensity is bolstered by a grainy choral wail that drones ghoulishly throughout. Despite the aggressive tone of that closing piece, the album, while suffused with dread, ends up being a more soothing than nightmarish listen, perhaps because Hafenscher, to her credit, chooses to keep the material at an even keel rather than have it alternate between immense dynamic divides.

February 2011