I was hoping to use the introduction to this month’s column to write a few lovely, pastoral sentences about the winter of February. Perhaps something about the gentle gleam of snow on canal bridges or the sharp, beastly wind making the cycle to work an elemental battle. But February had other ideas. It’s been a month filled with sun and heat, which most people annoyingly find brilliant rather than terrifying. But as the planet boils, at least you can go to the park on a Sunday three months earlier than usual. However, the multitude of great releases this month saw winter sounds in full flow. Many albums featured songs that perfectly captured the feeling of walking home beneath dark skies and stormy clouds, and somehow experiencing a kind of elation.
Album of the Month: Nivhek – After Its Own Death/Walking in a Spiral Towards the House
It was once remarked that Julianna Barwick was the White Witch of ambient and that Liz Harris, under her moniker Grouper, was the Black Witch. After last year’s pleasant field-recording Grid of Points, Harris dropped a surprise new album under the name Nivhek. Written as part of an audiovisual collaboration with Marcel Weber and split into two distinct halves, this is a record of shifting beauty and emotional scope.
Opener Cloudmouth is a densely layered track of dark magnificence. It begins with Harris’ icy vocal, where words are always on the cusp of articulacy but never become fully formed; instead the syllables enmesh to form one long harmony. The track is propelled by a brutal guitar, whose twisting and demented chords are filled with a penetrating ominousness. This is followed by the first Night-Walking (song titles are repeated in each half) which has a gorgeous, twinkling xylophone centre that sounds like the feeling of sunrise after the previous deathly dawn. This begins a central feature on this half of the record, soundscapes that swing from dark to light and back again with remarkable fluidity. Crying Jar’s sparse sound consists solely of arctic vocals and the sound of closing doors, which creates a song as spooky as it sounds. Walking in a Spiral Towards the House closes the first half; its dark reverb-heavy synth underpinning a freeform xylophone, with an off-kilter stop/start rhythm that makes for an unsettling sound. The record’s second half feels more plaintive, with less brutality and more consistency in the tones of the four tracks. Funeral Song is a somber track; the frayed mellotron synths throb and pulse, creating a melancholy haze. Thirteen is an intricate mix of piano and xylophone, with notes coming into constant collision. It’s done with such delicacy, and it feels relaxing rather than jarring.
After Its Own Death/Walking in a Spiral Towards the House is Liz Harris’ best record since 2013’s The Man Who Dies in his Boat. It’s a record fuelled by a desire to marry discordance with beauty, and it shows how intense and peaceful sounds can co-exist to form a cohesive whole. It’s another fascinating record by an artist who can very much claim to be one of ambient music’s few superstars.
Other Good Stuff
anthéne – Weightless
Weightless was one of two records released this month by ambient stalwart anthéne, written ostensibly as sleeping aid for his newly born daughter. This leads inevitably to an immersive, meditative record which feels like being cloaked in a soothing hug. Lead track Wake is gorgeous, its super lush central synth reminiscent of Apollo’s-era Eno. Its slow pulsations harbour a feeling of intense melancholy. Wind Catcher is another gem; a dense reverb backing is overlaid with synths that seem to stretch to infinity. Weightless is a record that could have been made in the 80’s but its beauty is such that doesn’t really matter.
Adele Fournet – Foremothers
Adele Fournet is a New York based composer who this month released the intriguing Foremothers. It’s a record which fuses modern composition with jazz improvisations to create an album worlds apart from most ambient. Andie is a light but intricate piano track whose improv stylings allow the listener an active engagement in its creation, while Omelas is a sweeping, full-band track with propulsive drums and screeching, twisting guitars that feel like the soundtrack to a Noir chase sequence. Closer I Love Jeannie is a lovely, solo piano track with flowing chords that are shot through with joy.
Glåsbird – Grønland
Grønland is the debut album by anonymous artist Glåsbird, released on UK label Whitelabelrecs and following last year’s debut EP Drift Stations. The record was written as a soundtrack to an imaginary documentary about Greenland, its glacial landscape permeating throughout the record. Opening track Gunnbjørn Fjeld sets the tone; piercing strings and discordant piano combine with the curving throb of reverb to create an acutely intense sound. While Norðurljós blends bubbling synths and strings that begin dissonant but morph at the end to an orchestral swoop. Grønland is a fascinating record that is perhaps not the soundtrack to Greenland but to the winters that no longer exist.
Bengalfuel – Pirsch
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Bengalfuel again this month, who in 2019 have released a colossal 12 hours of music. By comparison, Kevin Shields is still fiddling with the buttons on his boxers. The latest is Pirsch, an 8 and half hour long album not too dissimilar to Max Richter’s Sleep. Each of the eight tracks is an hour or so long and each is like an album unto itself. A particular highlight is Great White Shark, an intense track that uses freeform piano in a classic horror film style to create a sense of deep foreboding. I mean, the record is far, far too long, but that is entirely the point.
So that was February, another month of wonderful records and new discoveries. Let’s hope when I return at the end of March, there will be more great music and more importantly, some days when it’s actually bloody cold.