Top albums of 2015 advent calendar: Day 11
Steve Hauschildt - Where All Is Fled
As a member of Emeralds, one of the most productive and retroactively influential 'electronic'/'experimental'/'ambient' groups of the 2000s, Steve Hauschildt was constantly bringing out new music - both with his bandmates, with other collaborators and solo. Since Emeralds' sudden demise in 2013 his former bandmate Mark McGuire has continued at a similar rate of releasing new music, while Hauschildt has remained relatively absent.
It turns out he was taking his time in creating Where All Is Fled, and the years that he's put into it shine through on an album so grand in scope yet so detailed down to every last synth blip, spawning a truly fulfilling ambient album. Each track floats on a bed of lightborne synth washes, gently tugging you into the song's current so that Hauschildt can fix your attention in his sights and then exploit it with burbling arpeggios of obsessively-textured synths or glistening overlays of chords that emerge and submerge themselves playfully in the mix.
Amidst all these subtle elements Hauschildt manages to cunningly manipulate your very biorhythms into his slow-sailing armada of beauty. Beats are eschewed for the vast majority of the album, and when there is a very slight click as on "Anesthesia" it's muted and distant, reminding you that you've mentally drifted far out from anything demanding. On "Vicinities" when Hauschildt does slightly raise the tempo a bit, the gurgling synths are more soothing than enlivening, encouraging you to settle in and allow a physical connection with the music.
As is most ambient music, Where All Is Fled is an extremely contemplative album. The tracks start slow and simple but often build up to become a skein of different sounds that compliment and emphasise each other, much like a good train of thought gradually building up a full head of steam. Hauschildt seems to want to encourage this thoughtfulness judging from the titles of the tracks. Where All Is Fled takes you to a place outside of time, and asks you to look at it from this perspective. "In Spite Of Time's Disguise" seems to take you back through deeply hidden memories, giving you access to them as if they were yesterday. "Sundialed" chops up sounds in the way that a clock cuts up the day, but then puts them back together in a naturally flowing and propulsive deluge. "Where All Is Fled" is built on piano and a gently seething crackle underneath, describing a barren landscape in a formerly fertile valley. "The World Is Too Much With Us" uses heightened synth pinwheeling to paint the crowds and scuffle of its title, but rather than focus on the stress of the situation, the underlying breeze focuses our attention on the beauty of this great mass of bodies.
The album ends with "Centrifuge," one of the shortest tracks, but appropriate for the ending of such a grandiose album. The song spins you gently, but fast enough for all the colours of all the previous songs to blur together into this final resounding piece, which will fill you with a sense of purpose, a mindfulness and an appreciation of the beauty of the world around you, as you go onwards after its final splashes delicately fade away.
Have I bought this album?: Sadly not yet!
U.s. Girls - Half Free
Half Free is the first album by U.S. Girls on 4AD, and as such their sole member Meg Remy has largely eschewed the bedroom styles and lo-fi production techniques of her previous releases in favour of more clarity and precision. This has paid off in spades as Remy's lyrics are clear and strong throughout, and she uses them to tell stories of oppressed and struggling young women in the modern world.
The album opens in full swing: "there were 4 of us in a real small space, sharing more than just a family name," sings the protagonist of "Sororal Feelings," before going on to detail how her husband-to-be has already worked his way through her sisters before landing on her, a realisation that's caused her to announce "I'll hang myself from my family tree." The gloom doesn't lift in the subject of second track "Damn That Valley," in which Remy plays a housewife at home while her husband is off at war, only to receive the phone call that she most dreads. Each song beholds a micro-drama, painting scenes of bereft women in a way that could play out on stage. "New Age Thriller" contains a back and forth tug-of-war between Remy's character and her man who tries to force her to submit to his bidding, though she fights back: "I won't provide it for you, even though you'll force me to"; a bold statement in a difficult situation. However, it's sung with an earworm melody and a rhythm in the production that will make your hips move despite the scene that's unfolding.
The songs are short and bouncy, belying the tension and tragedy that's going on within them. Despite the paralyzing lyrics, Half Free's songs all have a propulsive, seductive groove to them, with a rolling bass, a meaty kick and delicate touches of strings and piano for effect. When I saw U.S. Girls perform a few months ago at Corsica Studios - a venue more known for being a nightclub - I was unsure why she'd been booked in such a location, but the question was answered as soon as the deep and sumptuous bass rolled out of the PA and got everyone on the floor jostling with the infectious throb that underpins them. While this isn't so overt on the recorded versions, that urgent and vital pulse remains throbbing throughout, reminding you of the unbroken strength that lives within these women.
The album describes women in all sorts of compromised situations, sometimes from the first person perspective, and sometimes from outside looking in. Despite Remy's sometimes admonishing tone as she describes these women, you can tell that she feels like she is one of them, this is an album about women's freedom (or lack thereof) in the modern world, and takes a look at their strife and brings it to an accessible, cutting and expressive medium. This is best shown on the final track, "Woman's Work," where Remy is talking directly to a woman name Cindy who works herself to death for no reward, and her voice is her most impassioned on the album, really expressing the pain she feels for her female ally. She interjects with cutting whispers of "there's no reversal, you can't stop aging, it's always on the way," reminding us that over time she'll lose her youth, her beauty and eventually her livelihood. "You arrived in your mothers arms, but you'll leave riding in a black limousine," the final lyric on the album reminding us that ultimately we are all the same in death. But rather than being a depressing statement it seems Remy is telling these women that they only have one life to live, so don't let anyone make you do what you don't want to do - go and be a free, strong, important woman while you still can.
Have I bought this album?: Sure have, saw it on the shelf in Rough Trade and couldn't say no.