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Sonic Fiction is back for 2017!!! I didn’t mean to leave it 8-9 months between posts but that’s how things worked out. As with 2016 there are going to be changes to the blog this year. I will no longer be trying to post weekly or every other week. Sometimes I might post something here or on Twitter 2 or 3 days in a row, other times you may not get a post for weeks at a time. While I can’t turn my brain off completely I think posts will be less like thought pieces and reviews, as with the posting schedule things are going to get looser. I Have been working on a couple of posts for a while now (I originally intended to post them in December 2016) and they should be ready to publish in the next week or so. Keep an eye on the site and my Twitter for new posts.
While Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith isn’t a familiar name she has been playing music from a young age, at 13 she was writing rock anthems using crude sampling techniques. Three years later she was paired with a mentor who was a film composer he taught to use Pro Tools and Kurzweil samplers her first real introduction to music technology, she has said of that period “My mind was blown by just how many textures you could get and how much control you could have”. However next move was to attend the prestigious Berklee Music College to study classical guitar and piano, while there she formed folk duo Ever Isles. After graduation she moved back to her childhood home of the Isle of Orcas were a neighbour lent her a Buchla modular synthesiser for a year. Initially she just used it to process her voice and guitar continuing to compose in the same way. Once she started to use as in the sales many other features she found a way to create the orchestral music she’d always wanted to compose. “EARS” (her second album after 2015’s Euclid” and many collaborative efforts) finds Aurelia Smith combining all her many experiences and styles into a cohesive and organic whole.
The album’s opening track ‘First flight’ begins with a bubbling synth arpeggios that fade in and are quickly joined by slow-moving thin synth chords. Then a short sharp riff joins in, things continue like this with the riff dropping in and out. There a saxophone rifff and third synth melody introduces themselves out of nowhere before everything drops away to heavily vocoded vocals with a synth melody and chords following them. Shortly afterwards we return to the previous synth heavy section, again that melody comes out of nowhere and gives way to the vocals. The song then stops abruptly giving way to the thin organic sounding synth chords and reverberant electronic percussion of ‘Wetlands’. The track has a relaxed atmosphere and more space than in the opening track. When he first section dies away there’s some borderline cheesy vocoder though it’s one that works organically within the mix like Boards of Canada or Black Moth Super Rainbow. These two references don’t seem to pop up a lot when Aurelia Smith’s music is discussed cheese compared to a lot of female synthesists such as Laurie Spiegel and Susan Ciani , these comparisons are without merit they are somewhat limited to one aspect of the music and the person making it. The album also regularly reminds me of the brilliant ‘Choral’ album by Mountains near the great marriage of the synthetic and the organic.
Next up is ‘Envelop’ which begins with a slowly ascending synth melody and thin wispy synth chords open this track. A second counter melody weaves its way through the track giving it a sad feel where before it been contemplative but neutral. The track shifts into a new section of the see-sawing synth melody and a flute-like counter melody playing call and response parts in the form of short riffs that help the track gain momentum again. Smith again enters with her vocals that this time they are more natural sounding there may be some vocoder but it’s very subtle if there is. The similar ‘When I Try I’m Full’ features a slowly ascending synth chord that rises before quickly turning into a chord progression that hangs in the air. The chords drop away and a light muted synth arpeggio plays, it’s joined soon after by a more digital almost video game-like arpeggio. Smith sings some light vocal harmonies and almost nursery rhyme like melody across the top of the synths. The third track with an ascending opening ‘Rare Things Grow’ is up next, the long held synth notes ascend over the top of drip drops of electronic percussion, at first the percussion is sparse before coalescing into a loop. A saxophone solos over the top all of this before the track breaks down with the sax and Smith performing a call and response. Then the bass drum and sax player alone before a new synth arpeggio and Smith’s vocals emerge.
Closer ‘Existence in the Unfurling’ combines a bubbling synth arpeggio and bulbous pulsing synth bassline to back Smith’s vocoded vocals. Woodwind synths cut in and out of the mix. The track is relatively fast when compared to the other tracks on the album and has an urgent feel. Things breakdown around four minutes in with pulsing mesmeric pads the only thing left in the mix, now feels as if watching blazing sun go down from a car or high-speed train. Then the section changes again with what sounds like a xylophone playing a simple rhythmic riff before being overcome by bold digital synth riff and a swarming high pitched flute-like arpeggio. These elements fall away around eight minute mark and the track is led by buzzing pad, high synth arpeggio and phat digital bass riff. The flute sound returns to the mix for the final push to the end of the track.
All in all I found “EARS” to be a beguiling bucolic album that more than lives up to the many names she is frequently compared to e.g. Laurie Spiegel, Susanne Ciani (with whom Smith will be releasing a collaborative album with in the future) and Julia Holter. Much music made on modular synthesisers in contemporary music is associated with nerdy white men making music that since more interested in the process this creation than the result. There is no such problem with “EARS” which is lively and demands repeat listening, highly recommended.
‘A Man Alive’ is the fourth album from Thao Nguyen with her project The Get Down Stay Down (she also records as half of Thao & Mirah) and is one of the most personal to date. A large amount the lyrics deal with absence specifcally her father’s absence. These lyrics are a stark contrast to the albums thrashy party music. There is a bittersweet sense throughout the album that binds it together and rewards the listener with repeated listens as their understanding deepens and the layers are peeled away.
Merrill Garbus (aka Tune-yards) is on board as producer and contributes a lot instrumentally and back with backing vocals throughout the album. There is a lot of similarities between Thao’s vocal delivery and sonic and stylistic choices when compared to Tune-yards back catalogue. The use of lo-fi and distorted fuzzy production and funky, tribal rhythms that have a hint of Afro be about them I just two similarities. However, these similarities don’t spoil a brilliant album and is like a more direct version of Tune-yards “Nikki Nack” that sometimes suffered from overstuffing every song with elements and thus could be a very overwhelming experience. Another useful reference point is that of Deerhoof who combine serrated indie/post-punk guitars with Afro beat rhythms and poppy vocal melodies and have a similarly lo-fi aesthetic.
The album opens with ‘Astonished Man’ with a down tempo beat and vocals opening the track, then heavy buzzing synth bass joins in and push the track forward. In the chorus there’s a cool hook played by what sounds like a badly tuned guitar. Everything is very raw and lo-fi in a good way and reminds me of Deerhoof. Though Thao can create a more complex melody. Continuing in a similar vein is ‘Departure’ with its opening minimal sound set just a drum machine some percussion and vocals but then we get stabs of guitar and a deep thick synth bass joining in. At points in the chorus vocals to become a little grating and recall that of Garbus’ wI personally I don’t have a problem with Garbus’ vocals but I understand how they can annoy some people. ‘Departure’ is also the track where the lyrical theme begins With the shouted line “Half of all my blood in vain,” standing out. ‘Guts’ with its down tempo sparse beats and organ the only things accompanying the vocals, continues the lyrical theme with Thao stridently declaring “I’ve got the guts/ I don’t need my blood.”.
Next up is ‘Fool forever’ which opens with a tightly wound guitar playing across fast skittering drums while the vocal moves steadily over the top. This then breaks down temporarily before the riff returns to be joined by another riff played on very distorted organ, the jittery feel of the track is amplified by these elements combining. The Ballard-like ‘Millionaire’ Recalls ‘Maps’ by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs with Thao playing the part of Karen O. That this time the word is not directed at a lover but her father, “Oh daddy, I broke in a million pieces/ That makes you a millionaire.” The song opens with a sparse guitar melody and held organ delayed chords backing an almost bare Thao. A bass drum keeps time far in the background. Around 20 seconds in with the guitar and organ making a musical change to play soaraway chords for Thao to sing a long reverberant melody over. This structure is repeated throughout.
‘Meticulous bird’ puts us back on the upbeat tip with driving drums kick in the track off. Screeching synths play, counter point to the vocals weaving in in and out of the verse and chorus. The track is little difficult to listen to at first but once you get used to it actually works very well. It also another example of contrasts of sweet and serrated views on this album.The album closes as it began with a down tempo track and also brings back the main lyrical theme on The album closes as it began with a down tempo track and also brings back the main lyrical theme on ‘Endless Love’ where Thao sings a simple melody (sample lyrics include “I’ve got an endless love/ no one can starve,” and the chorus'”I don’t want it/ I don’t want it/ Carve it on out of me.”) over a sparse bass line and beat its Garbus on backing vocals again. The track provides very mellow end to the album though this is offset by nasty fuzzy guitar solo wind its wonky way through the middle of the track.
Let me know what you think of ‘A Man Alive’ in the comments or via Twitter.