Michael Santos: Memory Maker
A good minute passes before a conventionally melodic sound is heard amidst the percussive pops and surges that initiate Memory Maker's opening piece “Alphaville”—a small detail but not an insignificant one as it points to a defining characteristic of Michael Santos's stylistic identity: the ‘white noise' that cloaks every one of the recording's seven settings—static, tears, ripples, smears, et al.—is as integral to his sound as are the melodic elements. The London-based Santos, whose work has previously appeared on U-Cover, Benbecula, and Baskaru, might use little more than guitar and sine waves as sound-generating elements for the material, but what results is anything but minimal. The turbulent “Cut Them Loose” writhes for over ten minutes like some sleeping colossus wracked by nightmares—until a ray of light appears eight minutes in to shoo away the goblins. The other long track, “Slowdance,” swells slowly, its glistens, rumbles, and wobbles growing ever more fiery as the behemoth advances towards its immense crescendo. Not everything's so intense, however, as the dream-like swirl of “Let Go,” for instance, makes clear. The tremolo shudder of the electric guitar is clearly audible during the tranquil “Magenta Dayline” but as often as not Santos obscures the material's natural sounds through the liberal application of production treatments (e.g., the gaseous fireworks that make up “Hollowing Out”). Listeners with a jones for deeply textured ambient soundscaping should definitely take a swim in these waters.
Sweden's Tobias Hellkvist is an ‘ambient' artist too, but one of an entirely different disposition compared to Santos, as Hellkvist's third full-length Evolutions makes clear. His is a considerably more natural sound—‘folktronic' in character and often suggestive of the natural outdoors—that sparkles magically throughout the recording's fifty-four minutes. Acoustic sounds of guitar, zither, accordion, and glockenspiel are present but so too are processing treatments and dense streams of electronics. In some of the recording's seven settings, the balance tips in one of the two directions while in others a balance is struck between them. “Fresh Start” presents a splendid kaleidoscope of folktronic sparkle, in contrast to “White Hole” which is more shimmering drone than song setting. The percussive strikes that dominate “Arms” naturally lend it a gamelan feel—before, that is, the elements are almost drowned in a thick cloud of ambient fuzz. “The Ladder” initially hints that it'll be a field recordings exercise, so suggestive are its ringing bells and clatter of the countryside, but then becomes a crepuscular drone that spreads into an incandescent sun shower so thick it could induce heat stroke. The bucolic acoustic guitar picking combined with an overall tranquility make “Patience” sound like a lost track from Greg Davis's Arbor, and in fact it wouldn't be stretching things to describe Evolutions as a sequel of sorts to Davis's much-admired set. There's a relaxed assurance about Evolutions that makes it all the more satisfying a listen and that encourages the listener to lie back, content to let the music take him/her where it will.
Speaking of Davis, the third Home Normal release finds the sonic magpie teaming up with Chris Weisman for the psychedelic song cycle Northern Songs. We're informed that Weisman recorded a batch of songs, and then passed them on to Davis for him to work his own particular magic on them. That modus operandi is consistent with how the music sounds, as stripped of the material's baroque instrumental touches one would be left with pop songs that are fairly straightforward in their structure. As a result, “Christalline” would otherwise be a charming enough folk tune were it not for the resonant bell strikes that resound and render it all the more memorable. Ear-catching too is “New Americans” which, following a psychedelic opening flourish of squeals and starbursts, eases into a dreamy vocal section before a mutant cavalcade of bleating horns takes charge. Elsewhere, a lunatic circus band briefly disrupts the otherwise laid-back trippiness of “Hat of Night,” but probably the most entrancing vocal melodies appear during “We Won't Survive” amidst field recordings of birds and a lovely clarinet cameo by Ruth Garbus.
The choice of album title is an interesting one for multiple reasons. On the one hand, Northern Songs refers, of course, to the company established in 1963 to look after for The Beatles' music publishing business. Certainly there is a trippy Sgt. Pepper-ish vibe to the songs but in truth the material evokes more the George Harrison end of the spectrum rather than the more familiar Lennon-McCartney (that the duo each owned 15% of the company's shares and Harrison just 0.8% prompted the latter to compose “Only a Northern Song,” which appeared in both the 1968 film Yellow Submarine and subsequent soundtrack album). That affinity is literalized in the choice of Harrison's “It's All Too Much” as Northern Songs' centerpiece, which Weisman and Davis re-create faithfully (trainspotters will also catch the lyric snippet—“with your long blonde hair and your eyes of blue”—that re-surfaces in The Mersey's 1966 hit “Sorrow,” also covered by Bowie on his 1973 covers disc, Pin Ups). Other influences suggest themselves too, never more so than when “Steaming Bowl” evokes the loopiness of The Beach Boys' “Vegetables” in particular and the Smile period in general. Production strategies and influences aside, Northern Songs is one of the most accessible collaborations Davis has issued to date and straight-up one of the most enjoyable too.