Friday, March 23, 2012

Best Albums of 2011 #1 Ben Frost and Daniel Bjarnason - Solaris (Bedroom Community)

As predicted, this Best of 2011 list is wrapping up well into 2012. This blog has been on hiatus because of a trans-continental relocation but now hopefully (maybe) it'll get back on track. We'll see. But at the very least I had to finish the list. In the number one spot, we have a collaboration between two of my very favorite artists courtesy of the great Bedroom Community label which, despite regularly sporting some of the worst album art in the biz, consistently release some of the most exciting albums in any given year. Consider Daniel Bjarnason's Processions, my favorite album of 2010 - a dizzying, ferocious modern classical excursion; Or Ben Frost's By the Throat, my favorite album of 2009, a serrated, brutally intense swath of industrial noise and nightmare soundscapes. No surprise then, when the two join forces with Solaris, a reworked film score of sorts for Tarkovsky's eerie sci-fi masterpiece (note the album cover homage), the result is a brilliantly crafted and beautifully deep piece of work. Frost and Bjarnason get to show off their subtle side with this collaboration. It's a definite shift from their solo work, yes, but still deeply affecting and powerful, a consistently surprising and altogether brilliant melding of man and machine. Acoustic chamber music takes an excursion into the future into some kind of deep space nightmare, grappling with electronic and computer processing, conjuring images of flickering passageways winding through seemingly abandoned spaceships, the crew mysteriously vanished. Keening, mournful suites for skittering strings and warbling, off kilter piano are filtered through gauzey swaths of rumbling drone, bleared static, menacing creaks and piercing buzz. It's a quiet album, largely lacking the earsplitting mechanical terror of Frost's work and the dizzying crescendos of Bjarnason's. But quiet hardly means static. Solaris constantly surprises the listener. A rising piano attack suddenly fractures, fragmenting into splintered notes. Violins slide down in pitch woozily off-key. The whole experience is deeply unsettling and strange. Solaris is that rare musical collaboration where neither member dominates and where the music highlights the talents of each in a cohesive new whole rather than trading off moments where one takes the fore then the other. It's a taught, compact, and bleak piece of work and easily one of the most engaging and exciting released of 2011, one I happily call Best of the Year.

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Best Albums of 2011 #2 Ezekiel Honig - Folding in on Itself (Type)

 I generally write my own description of the albums I post here but the description from the Type website is simply too good. So here it is:

"Describing the musical output of Ezekiel Honig is always the hardest part. It’s related to techno, but the pulsing 4/4 beats are pushed so far into the background that they simply become another texture in the sprawling ambience. And that doesn’t mean to say the music is ‘ambient’ either – the structures are far deeper than musical wallpaper that achieves that label right now. New York-based Honig’s latest album and Type debut ‘Folding In On Itself’ doesn’t make his music any easier to describe but does a lot to clarify the mood. This is deeply melancholy music, and while it doesn’t revel in sadness, it conveys a sense that the things we grew up with and see disappear can never be recaptured. Memory and the corruption or distortion thereof is at the core the record, and like the cover which is made up of hazy family snaps of a changing Manhattan, Honig has tried to capture a sense of entropy in his quickly disintegrating city.
Using a palette of locally recorded environmental samples, decayed acoustic instruments and the unusual, clattering percussion that has become his signature, ‘Folding In On Itself’ is probably Honig’s most measured and defining record. Elements of his previous work are still present, heard most obviously the breakthrough ‘Surfaces of a Broken Marching Band’, but every tiny part has been trimmed and honed with a selfless attention to detail. From the lilting processed horns and clipped percussion on ‘Subverting the Memory of Your Surroundings’ to the noisy, slowly decomposing piano of ‘Drafting Foresight’, there is a sense that Honig has distinct story to tell, and that every track on the album is a unique part of the same object. Far from a random collection of tracks, ‘Folding In On Itself’ is an introverted collection of musings on change and loss, and is as softly spoken and moving as anything we have put out on Type to date. Handle with care."

Not much else to say. Folding in on Itself is fantastic. It's like nothing else I've ever heard. I was listening to it a few months ago while sitting on the PATH train heading into New York City. I was wearing earbud headphones with the volume set fairly low. As I was listening, I realized that the sounds of the train - the rattling, rumbling, whooshing, reverberating mechanical acoustic sounds - were filtering in, layering over and seeping into the music. It took me a while to notice however because those sounds, rather than distracting, simply fit perfectly into the pieces Honig presents here - not filtering under or over but within. When an album can work in radically different contexts - and not only work but offer up a new listening experience and even a new way of hearing other things - it's surely something special. Folding in on Itself is one of those rare albums.

Buy or Buy