Words by Sean Victory
When Sean Victory isn’t writing music or writing about music, it’s likely he’s listening to music. As a lifelong artist, his current projects are Nightmare Frontier and World Hum, having also contributed to the groups Famished Ghosts, Future Toys, and Owl & Swan.
Welcome to Far Out Sounds, a new column where we cast a wide net that covers music ambient, jazzy, electronic, or otherwise experimental nature. As an introduction in this first entry I revisit some notable albums from 2023.
Can an artist’s name be a phone number? Yes! Can ambient music be noisy? Well no, probably not. But the trappings of genres are as insufficient as the words we use to describe our inner realities and personal experiences. Neo Gibson is the person behind the telephonic alias, and NeoSeven seems to take aim at these same interior landscapes.
Using repetition to build dense clusters of psychic energy, a hall of mirrors rises, complete with fog machine. The album’s synthesized world comes together with slow crescendos, cresting, breaking, and silences that last just a beat or two longer than expected. Listening in on these spaces is refreshing because they feel truly dynamic. So much depth is compressed out of our contemporary listening, but here the trip from the lowest lows to the highest highs are a small-scale adventure in themselves. Following these paths as they repeat lend a great deal of emotional resonance to the music, and they do serve as a type of hypnosis. So, it’s that much more affecting when noise bursts shatter this trance. Like an intrusive thought derailing a quiet moment, bringing shame, guilt, regret, front and center. The music exists behind these interruptions of static, just the same as we exist despite the unexpected visitations from the ghouls of the past.
This record is a showcase of the monstrous talent in London’s jazz scene, as they celebrate the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis’s pioneering fusion record, Bitches Brew. Some of South London’s most idiosyncratic voices got together in 2020 for a 3-day session at The Church Studios to channel the spirit of Miles.
The entire process of performing and recording was steeped in intention. This relates not only to the sonic elements we hear on the finished album, but also in how the musicians improvise with one another. Before these performances, each musician was given individual loops from Bitches Brew to pour over, and once that was sufficiently under their skin they would set about finding their place in the 11(!) other voices present.
On the production side of things, the placement of the instruments in the mix, the room noise, the minute textures, the alien noises that come from familiar instruments drowned in effects, all whip up an atmosphere that sounds remarkably similar to the murky darkness of the original record. Dissonant stabs on a Rhodes keyboard punch through grooves, leaving an aftertaste of toasted ozone. McLaughlin-esque guitarpeggios wind and ascend into a screech of rhythmic ecstasy. The percussive elements can anchor the music as much as they can tear it to shreds and throw it to the wind. The songs drive forward relentlessly with bass and drums holding it all together while the groove barrels on. However, there’s also plenty of space for mood, and creating atmosphere. Individual instruments will breathe color into the cavernous reverb, and sometimes this is the artist’s literal breath, avoiding the reed of the sax and just tonguing a rhythm through the horn.
Despite the similarities, the music is a fresh creation all its own. It nods toward its inspiration no more than any jazz gives a winkcough to the sounds that preceded. London Brew is a beautiful tribute to the power of the music Davis created in his electric era.
As their name implies, Green-House brings the natural world into the synth studio. Though this is nothing too terribly novel, the execution is something wonderful to sit with, an intimate listen. The songs aren’t weaving a surreal space or presenting anything less tangible than your houseplants. To a certain extent, it exists in the same way the houseplants do. It’s a small wonder of life, and without being too precious about it, it’s a beautiful miracle of perfect peace. In this way, it hits very similar to music by artists like Visible Cloaks, or Hiroshi Yoshimura. It does manage to channel the aesthetic of Japanese ambient music in the intimacy of the sound. Nothing is too far back in the mix, or drowned in reverb or delay. There are also just as many tonal similarities to the electronic album that birthed this sub-genre of music, Mort Garson’s Mother Earth’s Plantasia.
Green-House allows songs to unfold in a way that does feel truly natural. Melodic elements crawl forward and take shape at their own pace. Small embellishments trill and trickle in the background, and ripple like a drop of dew growing as it slides down a leaf. Individual voices sprout and split from their melodic constituents. Though the songs often are connected to a central pulse, it doesn’t feel chained to a specific tempo. Everything simply unfurls. This gives the album its sense of being another living organism in a complex ecosystem.
Emosfere by Alessandro Cortini (self-released)
Whether he is working solo or collaborating with other artists, Alessandro Cortini continues to be the standard bearer for aesthetics in electronic music. The sonic fingerprint he leaves on recordings are very much his own, and on Emosfere he deep dives into spaces as songs.
Cortini has always been minimalist in his approach. A simple sequence of four notes will do, or even just the motion an LFO imparts on a patch. These are substantial enough to build a song around. The power of Cortini’s music lives within this stripped-down nature, and it shines brightly on Emosfere. Any one of these compositions could be used to great effect in film as they pull a great deal of weight in transporting the listener into the notional space of the music. Each song grows outward as the music’s constituent elements twist and morph.
A bass drone beats rhythmically on Seconda Emosfera, and side-chains away the upper harmonics. As the bass peaks the room is swallowed up by the drone, and as it recedes it exhales the space back into existence before gobbling it down again. This a perfect example of how Cortini layers multiple voices – and keeps them all under the sway of an individual element – in this case an envelope generator or LFO dictating: drone volume, reverb level, size of the reverb, noise, and equalization.
Another element that speaks to his skill as a sound designer, is the understanding that each voice needs its own space to maximize effect. Before adding anything else into a particular frequency range, there must be movement of some sort to accommodate this change. This keeps the compositions sounding full without sounding crowded, and allows a spotlight to shine on various features as he sees fit.
By focusing so singularly on the harmonic content of the music there are plenty of opportunities to manipulate the listener’s perceptions. Keeping them distracted with a midrange sequence, moving like a pendulum across the stereo field, he can pluck a filter’s resonance and send a ripple across the upper atmosphere. The ethereal element of Cortini’s music often sounds like a mixture of overdriven tape hiss pushed through plate and spring reverbs, further coloring any synthesizer he puts through this chain of effects. This reverberance may be the most consistent sound across his various albums, and whether he is droning his Buchla (Forse series on Important Records) or threading a 303 melody between kick drums (Bandcamp only release: Ritmo Series) this dusty sizzling environment seems to be the intracranial space where his brain is suspended. It is always a lovely place to visit, and Emosfere is another open door to his world of meticulously conjured environments.