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exponentiation ezine: issue [3.0:culture]

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Aphex Twin -- "Selected Ambient Works 1985-1992. Vol. 1" (2002 Pias America)

On volume one, it's a mixed bag between unplifting minimalist ambient techno and more rhythmically oriented club fodder. Songs here are clearly designed to meet pop expectations of electronic music, with incessant 4/4 beats, heavy repetitive bass lines, and airy synth patches now familiar to the genre all rendered in spacious clear production values. In other words, one might be inclined based on this description alone to totally dismiss this album as knob-twiddling tripe. Not so. While some tracks do verge toward populist, style-over-substance tendencies, the better ones here show micronarratives of thematic shift within the kind of consistent sonic patterning characteristic of ambient music. Most of these pieces consist of a pair of dominant melodic themes: one anchoring rhythmic structure and the other a tangentially developing phrasal pattern floating into aural space to carry the initial motion to its final conclusion. Minute details flush out the rest: pauses and subtle manipulations of timbre to provide the contrasts necessary to keep the listener's interest. Like the best ambient, it's about using details and subtly developing thematic counterpoints to give more depth and complexity within consistant mood as if going from viewing a two dimensional picture of a scene to actually being immersed in it. Highlights: Tracks 1-3, 9.

Aphex Twin -- "1994 Selected Ambient Works Vol.2" (1994 Sire/London/Rhino)

It isn't until this second showcasing that we see more consistency in quality along with some degree of aesthetic advancement from simple ambient techno. The bass-heavy techno rhythm tracks have largely been replaced with more subtle percussion, or often, a total lack of it in order to emphasis the newfound sense of negative space that brings us another dimension of musical expression.

Overall this is a more contemplative affair, featuring fluid melodic soundscapes of digital yet warm tones that gently ease their way into the listener's framework of perception. While still minimalist, this release employs somewhat more complexity in detail of layering. Prominent musical devices, as heard on tracks like to achieve this are delay and volume swells allowing fragments of minor key melody to overlap and momentarily express their significance in new ways while driving bass counterpoints may enter to resolve direction of mood under these shimmering textures of sound.

The mood of the album tends to be darker in comparison to the former yet there is still a variety to be heard, perhaps to a greater extent. Songs like Cliffs and this reviewers favorite, Z Twig are uplifting singular moments of musical ideas enwrapping each other in baths of echo. Other tracks like Hexagon and Weathered Stone weave gentle melodic phrasing with brainy bass riffs as if contrasting humanity's tendency toward the earthbound with their desire to aspire toward the higher yet less gratifyingly tangible. In fact this could be the common theme that unites all of Aphex Twin's best ambient works providing the conceptual ground for their composition and elevation above that which is merely wall paper being passed off as ambient. Highlights: 1,3,5,7 of CD 1 and 1,5,6,7,8 of CD 2. - No Fun


Ashtorath -- "Darkstorm Entwined" (2002 Independent)

Unheard of and celebrated only by underground dark ambient fans, Ashtorath is a unique ambient project coming out of Canada. While most ambient artists, at the time this album was recorded, used synthesizers and various technical editing to achieve an ambiental atmosphere, Ashtorath focused on physical instrumentation and thereby actively engaged with the music itself to form a coherent listening experience. With delicate and noble emotion, Ashtorath set out to form a concept of classical music meeting metal.

Ethereal and magical is the atmosphere found in these dark and romantic pieces that explore the romanticist side of life. Hanging ambiental key tones flow between high and low points, switching from far away to close distance, serving as leading melodies to inflict an emotional mood upon its own basic structure. The rasping sound of a nail shaking a guitar string with ease fill the sometimes wondrous void, as a communicator of magical worlds and immersive myths and legends.

Because this is what Ashtorath is a master at; creating magical moods and the ability to set the listener into a distant world where time is an illusion and romanticism is reality. The beauty stems, not only from the harmonies between ambient and metal, but also from the spirit of classical music that arises within each piece. The collaboration between the distant, fading sounds of guitar strings, blowing wind and soft church bells define each moment as special and unique, drenched in darkness.

If one could use the word "art", one would apply it to "Darkstorm Entwined", and that rightly so. The influences from classical music is at most times benevolent and real, and gives the music a clear vision of what it tries to present. Lively but ambiguous, this music works at both an emotional and philosophical level; there are no restrictions regarding the expression of the music itself, only endless possibilities.

The new guitar techiques found on "Darkstorm Entwined" were, at the time of the creation of this album, new and inspiring for numerous underground ambient and metal projects to come. As felt and heard when the finger rides on a string after a note within a larger melody is being played, these techniques are used to the advantage of the artist and turned into melodies themselves, voices of birds from afar.

The sound of icicles meeting, thunderstorms roaring and strings played upon by a creature unhuman, unknown, are but few of the ways in which Ashtorath keeps the overall mood going. This gothic monument is as ethereal as it is enchanting and moving; there is no lack of emotion and dedication to art in this album. Competent, but not the least, true to itself and its creation, the words trying to express the poetry found within each statement are mere attempts to reach the height of abstraction felt and lived by the music and creator. When day turns to night and time passes, there will be nothing left but the echoes of a dimension beyond this one, upholding experiences that transcend physical reality.

Breathtaking. - Alexis


Cocteau Twins -- "Garlands" (1982 4AD Records)

An adventure into the darker realms of ethereal music, this 1982 release from Cocteau Twins blends together elements of post-punk, punk and new wave to create endearing atmospheric music with a heavy Gothic sensibility. The music on Garlands is more straightforward and cut from the mold of the early post-punk scene than are later Cocteau Twins releases. Its atmosphere is less dreamy than future albums and is instead darker and grittier, however elements of this bands trademark sound can be found tucked away in nooks and crannies of this release.

The bass guitar is the dominant instrument on this album, it shifts tones in the Gothic rock tradition while a guitar that makes full use of arpeggios and pedal effects layers ambient and ethereal atmospheres behind it. Simple and metrical drumbeats add backbone to the swift and haunting guitar melodies, but they also have a tendency to degenerate into simplistic dance beats that cover up the beauty of the harmonic sections. This is a minor gripe, as it does not do enough to detract from the beauty of the music as a whole.

Of important note on Garlands is the wonderful vocal performance presented by Liz Fraser. Fraser's vocals are playful and unique and add dreamy qualities to the guitar created atmospheres. As always Fraser's vocals are one of the strongest aspects of Cocteau Twins' music. There are not many vocalists in the world that have quite the dynamic range and beauty of her voice and her presentation is one of the most unique in all of music; her vocals are less about making lyrics audible and are more about creating unique sounds and sublime verbal textures. While Liz's performances are always unique, her presentation on Garlands, though not her best, is one of a kind as she adds many laughs and giggles into the music that heighten its otherworldly qualities.

While a great album in many ways, Garlands exemplifies a young band still finding its own voice. Musicianship here is more than competent, but the relationship between the instruments is not as integrated and harmonious as later Cocteau Twins albums, this is in part what causes this album to be less dreamy. The repetition of harmonies, melodies and rhythms can be this bands strong point as these musical elements lend themselves to creating a transcendental atmosphere but they can also be a weak point, as they can grow monotonous if not integrated properly. For example the repetitive drum section on Garlands has a tendency to undermine the harmonics. It occasionally becomes too pronounced and drowns out the ambient and melodic sections. Luckily on future albums they improved and downplayed the role of the drum machine.

Even though this album has a few shortcomings in its structure and identity, it still lucidly expresses a band with a vision to create inspiring and atmospheric music. With Garlands, Cocteau Twins have successfully crafted a brooding and ethereal album that transports the mind to a mysterious realm. This is a top-notch album in the post-punk/gothic tradition and it is highly recommended. The music found here should appeal to fans of other 4AD bands such as Dead Can Dance and Bauhaus. - phantasm

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