Introducing Tundra: The Perfect Oxymoron

In Introducing on 17 June 2012 at 13:29

Imagine stolen sounds, embezzled and reinvented into audio landscapes: where stillness meets anxiety and natural embraces industrial. Imagine a particular moment in music where electro joins acoustic to – oddly enough – make absolute sense. Imagine nature speaking in language of wires and cords. Is that even possible, you may ask. Let’s see – or rather listen – shall we? Ladies and gentlemen, here I present you Tundra: the perfect oxymoron.

Tundra is made of two: Dawid Adrjanczyk and Krzysztof Joczyn. Originating from the Baltic coast, it was – at first – supposed to be a self-titled, single record project, but seems like its authors already have something new planned for the future. The name itself enforces strong associations: you do not have to be great at geography to imagine how arctic scenery might look and feel like. Of course, we could concentrate now on the similarities between noise and nature and how individual instruments or devices translate into sounds simulating wildlife, but I consider it a bit too literal. And literal, my friends, is boring, while the work of Tundra – based on improvisation – is raw, fresh and surprising. There is no magical ingredient here though, the secret lies in the balance between the acoustic and electronic elements. They do not interfere, rather penetrate into each other: bells and flutes complement samplers and tapes, synthesizers accompany harmonica – all dipped deep in hypnotizing loops. While Dawid is a master of conquering space with layers of abandoned sounds and stolen noises, Krzysztof adds the necessary folk/ethno vibe with the wireless instruments and materials he uses to create bumps and jangles. This project is not only what electroacoustic is all about, but also superbly presents the definition of lo-fi. All tracks from the self-titled debut album have been recorded and produced by the guys themselves in a DIY way at home.

Obviously, there are many elements proving the project’s name was not chosen randomly –after all it was the seemingly dull yet demanding tundra’s territory that inspired Dawid and Krzysztof. The most interesting parallel here results from the restrictions imposed by musicians on their work, as well as by nature on the fauna and flora of the arctic region. There is a very limited spectrum of volume and intensity in which Tundra operates. Building tension in such challenging conditions requests enormously high level of musical sensitivity not only from the composers but also from the audience. Without spoken or sung stories it is our imagination that has to paint the picture, create those tales shot by shot, word by word. You have to let yourself into the infinite possibilities of associations, impressions and memories. At some point Dawid asked me what exactly it was I saw while I was listening to their music. As this is not the right place to share everything what comes to mind, I will use lines written by Ryan Adams in one of his poems to help me describe the vision: if you raced me home / you would end up / in the woods / woods – white / silent and scary / but you know that now / you know.

This sort of sound was avant-garde back in 1939, when John Cage let the world into his Imaginary Landscapes. Nowadays it might seem like yet another version of what was already done in the past. The word experimental suddenly lacks its originality. One has to remember though: while huge part of Cage’s – and his followers’ – work could be defined as sonic art, Tundra is heading rather towards the sonic architecture department. Fascinated by unlimited, unknown space, they build true music out of scratch. It takes some seriously beautiful minds to create such unique moods and tell captivating stories without saying a word.

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Brasstronaut, Mean Sun [2012]

In Reviews on 17 June 2012 at 12:12

Speaking of Canadian music, it is hard not to notice how underestimated it has been in the past. We often forget the country of the maple leaf has not only given us some major legends of singer-songwriting, such as Neil Young, Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell, but is also a serious part of the indie business today. It might be high time to let go the Bryan Adams’ joke, as Vancouver is the hometown of a band that might have just released the album of the year.

Brasstronaut started out sometime around 2005 as a duet: Edo Van Breemen [piano, vocals] and Bryan Davis [trumpet]. The list of members grew and changed in time, to finally reach its present shape, with additional Toriq Hussein and John Walsh respectively on guitars and bass, drummer Brennan Saul and – last but not least – Sam Davidson responsible for the clarinet. From the very first recordings on their EP Old World Lies, it was obvious the Vancouver six-piece aimed for something different and did not really fit any particular genre. Soon they have created their own little universe of sound, where experimental pop flirted shamelessly with jazz and this misalliance did not feel wrong. The eclectic approach has become their signature, at first as a patchwork-like mixture of different ideas and styles as heard on the critically acclaimed Mt. Chimaera. The charm of imperfection surrounded huge potential with variety of possibilities for the future. Now, two years later, we witness promises becoming fulfilled and what once appeared as an intriguing creature transforms into a complex, multidimensional excellence.

The beauty of Mean Sun unfolds extremely slowly, allowing to appreciate every detail of the incredibly rich yet subtle arrangements. It might not be love at first sight, but there is something seriously addicting in those synth driven melodies carried by the vibrant beat right from the very beginning of the opening track. In spite of many layers, the sound remains spacious and is never overwhelmed by tapestry of the ideas. Dreamy Moonwalker stretches its blurry almost watery mood all over the place, while Falklands accelerate and sharpen repetitively. On the other side stands Mean Sun’s title track – synthetic heaviness taken underwater, with a feeling of liquid stickiness and solitude. The tracklist is practically faultless with two truly brilliant songs: my personal favorite, hypnotizing Hymn for Huxley and the very last, very beautiful seven minutes of the record – Mixtape.

It has only been two years since the release of the debut album and the diversity is still Brasstronaut’s strongest feature. But clearly not the only one. In a really short period of time they managed to achieve the equilibrium between heterogeneous influences and sophisticated cohesion. Sustaining this balance is a continuous process requiring maturity and wisdom, both of which Edo & co. seem to have plenty of. We will see what the future brings. As for now, even though it is only June, Mean Sun seems to be one of the best records released this year: luminous, flawless and coherent.

PS. And here’s a little acoustic something:

Michael Kiwanuka: Hackney Round Chapel Session [2012]

In Live on 17 June 2012 at 11:45

Earlier this year we have been treated with a delightful surprise: Michael Kiwanuka recorded and released his performance at the impressive Round Chapel. Landmark grade II listed building, situated in North East London, functions nowadays as a church as well as a vivid arts and community venue. Renovated by Hackney Historic Buildings Trust, the chapel perfectly suited Kiwanuka’s vintage styled soul.

Twenty five year old Londoner with Ugandan origins had been working both as a session guitarist and a supporting act until – some time  after his first solo show in Oxford – he signed to Communion Records. Young label, founded by Ben Lovett [of Mumford & Sons], Kevin Jones [former Cherbourg] and Ian Grimble [producer], released Kiwanuka’s first two EPs: Tell Me A Tale [June 2011] and I’m Getting Ready [September 2011]. His debut album under Polydor Records saw the light of day in March this year, with a title song Home Again as its first single.

While Michael’s first recordings as well as the acoustic sessions had a really unpretentious, unpolished soul vibe, Home Again tracklist abounds in extremely smooth, almost overproduced songs: dangerously close to radio-friendly pop tunes. The man behind the final result is Paul Butler of The Bees, who clearly has a thing for what I would call a faux retro sound. From Ottis to Curtis, with softness of early Van Morrison, sizeable portion of funk in style of Jon Lucien, maybe a bit of Gil Scott Heron influence even – the inspiration here is obvious. This is not neo soul – Kiwanuka’s debut album sounds like recorded in late sixties. Seems like nothing new or groundbreaking, but it is one hell of a pleasant and likeable piece of music. Easy on the ear, easy on the heart.  And when you listen to the live versions of those studio songs, especially the ones recorded at the Round Chapel, it is obvious how skilled and talented the author of Home Again is. Surrounded by high class musicians, he is able to put a new life into those tracks, explore slightly different arrangements and widen the variety of possibilities. The sound gets pretty amazing here: genuine soul vibes mixed with juicy saxophones, sharp jazz flute softened by strings and brought together by Michael’s mellow voice. Just take moment and listen to this breathtaking version of the opening track, Tell Me A Tale:

Round Chapel Session includes five tracks, all of them available on youtube. These are mostly songs from Michael’s debut album, but stronger, definitely more vibrant. In spite of being an enjoyable record, Home Again appears quite flat in comparison to the live recordings. Like sepia screen used to fake photographs into vintage, the filters used during studio production kind of deprived the sound of its original depth. Nevertheless, Kiwanuka remains one of the most promising talents of ambitious pop and his songs of simple words and crafty, delightful arrangements will surely please those who enjoy warmhearted soul music.