Friday, May 30, 2014

New Music!

Going into Summer I've been lucky enough to stumble onto one amazing music release after another. Predictably, none of them are on major labels. Several of these artists have made their careers outside the major labels for a long time, so it's good to know there remains an outlet for quality music.

But I digress (and bitterly too!). Here is some first-rate new (or new-ish) music I'm recommending to friends for the summer:

MC Yogi - Mantras, Beats, & Meditation
I really wish I could remember how I stumbled onto this, because I would be sure to engage in the same behavior again and again! The music I love most is that which does something unique, which represents an approach or vision not to be found anywhere else. Northern Californian MC Yogi is unique because he makes religious rap music for Buddhists and Zen Buddhists. You're thinking: "No way!" but the religious aspects are completely credible, MC Yogi can spit rhyme, and the beats are solid. Further, traditional music is brought into the mix and the lyrics are steeped in Buddhist and Zen Buddhist philosophy. There are tracks about major sutras ("Heart Sutra", "Diamond Sutra"), the story of Siddhartha ("Buddha"), and parables of philosophy ("Ahimsa", "Ganesha and the Moon"). Judging Mantras, Beats, & Meditations independent of the subject matter, it's a great album from start to finish. It goes beyond great to become essential listening for a Buddhist or Zen Buddhist who wants to hear about our faith in a contemporary music setting.

Gillian Welch - The Harrow & The Harvest
This album is actually a few years old, but it's new to me because over the past several years I've found my musical interests slowly drifting towards what I call "roots music". This is music that is largely acoustic, focused on lyrical themes (or depth) one might typically expect from folk music, and is sonically free of the digital "wizardry" that has killed popular R&B, pop, and rap for the last decade. Musically, The Harrow & The Harvest is just Welch and collaborator David Rawlings singing while playing acoustic guitar and banjo. The spare musical setting, however, doesn't keep the pair from creating songs that are instantly distinguishable from one another, thanks largely to Welch's sophisticated sense of melody. While the feel of the album is like a lazy, hot summer day in a bayou, the evocative lyrics are often tinged with an understated darkness that stretches a thread of tension throughout. Even the album title reflects this lyrical ambivalence. Not depressing nor self-conscious of its intelligence, The Harrow & The Harvest sounds simple but runs as deep as you're willing to wade into it.

Thievery Corporation - Saudade
This Thievery Corporation release, dubbed as "the quiet sound of Thievery Corporation" came out of the blue for me. The content was equally unexpected. After several CDs of upping the urgency and political commentary of their material, Saudade is a hard left turn into surprisingly gentle territory. In fact, it's rather like their classic sound from the 90's. This was a good move creatively as it reinforces that Thievery Corporation is a duo with wide-ranging musical sensibilities unwilling to be pigeon-holed by music critics. The neo-South American vibe of Saudade is well-supported throughout by a veritable 'who's who' of talent from the ESL label. Federico Aubele contributes guitar work, Frank Mitchell Jr. works horns, and a broad roster of female vocalists (including Natalia Clavier and the ever dependable LouLou) croon with detached seduction. And that's just the names I recognize. The mood of the music reflects the album title, which is one of reflective longing and (kind of) nostalgia. While delightfully grounded in acoustic sound, some of the tracks admittedly have difficulty distinguishing themselves. However, I've found that Saudade rewards repeated and close listening. If I were to knock the album, it would be for the failure to include lyrics (with translations please!). Overall, Saudade is a very welcome and timely return to the initial Thievery Corporation sound, which is well-worth spending time with again.

Mirage of Deep - Northern Lights
I've been downloading material by Spanish duo Mirage of Deep for a few years now. On the Lemongrassmusic label, Mirage of Deep have delivered widely varied ambient soundscapes and consistently refused to sit still. The duo really seem to explore new sounds and evolve over time. I believe their debut was 2009's Deep Flow, which sported the lounge ethos of the period (albeit quite well done). My first purchase was the 2010 EP Talking To Stars, which found them experimenting with astral-sounding ambient. That same year the "Luxury Living Room" single kept their lounge side going. Lounge and ambient were merged for their 2011 full-length Talking Earth, which was followed by my next purchase from them: 2011's ambient and nature-themed EP The Garden of Gaia. This EP took their ambient sound into a more musical arena, while at the same time incorporating different instruments (of which I can't tell what - if anything - is acoustic vs. programmed). The increasing complexity and evolution of their sound did not prepare me for Northern Lights. I've only recently picked up this full-length, but my initial reaction is to be dazzled by the breadth of music, instrumentation, confidence, and styles. Listening to this music truly fires your imagination and takes you on a voyage. The album that immediately comes to mind as a point of comparison is Vangelis' ambitious, beyond-fantastic, and genre-bending El Greco. If you like ambient music, Northern Lights is an essential purchase. It's literally a tour de force, including a mind-blowing remix of "Cloudless Sky" from The Garden of Gaia as well as an album length continuous mix. Aside from the high quality, the sheer volume of music offered on this release is overwhelming.

Charles Bruffy & the Phoenix Chorale - Northern Lights: Choral Works by Ola Gjeilo
Coincidentally, this classical music CD has the same title as the Mirage of Deep album. An award winning and critically acclaimed release, Northern Lights is heavenly sounding Christian religious music. To think that it was written by a contemporary Norwegian composer/pianist in his mid-thirties rather than excavated from some five hundred year old Italian cathedral is amazing. This music is like light: it's open and expansive, pure and wondrous. While I know nothing at all about the chorale music genre and do not follow it in any way, the sense I get from this music is that the composer and arranger have preserved the feel of traditional Christian chorale music while at the same time adding a bit of contemporary gloss (i.e., there can be just a touch of Enya here and a good way). I learned about this CD via local classical music station WFMT. Probably the first time in over a decade that a radio station has introduced me to new music (which is a sad comment on today's music industry). This is uplifting, beautiful music that transcends spiritual persuasion.

Triptykon - Melana Chasmata
On the other side of the spectrum, black metal's Triptykon have released their latest album. As anyone in the black metal scene knows (and as band leader Tom Gabriel Warrior continues to remind us in his liner notes), Triptykon formed after an exciting, but ultimately abortive, regrouping of the classic band Celtic Frost. Triptykon's first release, 2010's Eparistera Daimones, made it very clear the new band - while different - was able to fill the void left by Celtic Frost. While this debut was phenomenal, I have to say Melana Chasmata is even better. Warrior no longer needs to prove his chops; he's clearly got the goods (and has had them for decades). So the improvement - this is me totally guessing - might be the result of the band having an even better feel for how to play together. The 2010 single "Shatter"is a good indicator of what to expect on Melana Chasmata. This music is dark, dark, dark. Sonically, it pummels like Godzilla on a rampage yet still manages to sound like oozing, Dantean sludge. Oddly, one of the reasons for this enhanced attack appears to be the inclusion of standard pop arrangements, notably on "Breathing" and "Aurorae". While I'm sure this thought turns the stomach of any true black metal fan, these structures make the music sharper and more evil sounding. It's like having a hurricane channeled into a PVC pipe before the floor drops out for a harrowing guitar solo of doom and despair. While fortifying their credentials for abusive thrash, Triptykon continue to push the envelope in terms of what black metal can do and be. The question one is left with is: how much better can this band possibly get?

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