Caution: Now Entering a Headphone Zone - The Year in Atmospheric Music
However you define atmospheric music, the albums on this list make a powerfully impressionistic impression. Just don’t expect to find warmth or love in them.
Here, in no particular order are several bands that released some great atmospheric music in 2012. I don’t know what genre they are, though I try my best to mention some applicable subgenres, the fingerprints of which can be felt on the recordings, to help clarify things. Only one of these albums was greatly hyped, and only one received a lot of attention once it was released (with real people and not critics, I mean). But they’re all densely moody, like a midnight stroll through a creepy graveyard. I won’t say they’re the “best” albums of their kind, since such outrageous assertions are both silly and self-righteous -- I’ve barely heard a sliver of what’s out there. But if you’re in a pinch and need something to fill the aural void, any of these will do quite nicely. Just don’t expect to find warmth or love in these albums.
Album: The Seer
Label: Young God
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The cinematic pervasiveness woven throughout The Seer, Swans’ newest album, can be exhausting and punishing for those not familiar with Michael Gira’s unique brand of aural expression. Over the course of its 119 minutes, you can feel the solipsistic stoicism of Kubrick, the industrial dystopia of Lang, the ephemeral spirituality of Malick, the grueling suspense of Leone. It’s like listening to a montage of filmmakers having night terrors.
From the first round of pummeling drum rolls, “Tubular Bells”-esque pianos, and eerie chanting in the crowded opening track “Lunacy”, The Seer doesn’t offer breathing room; a dense and frequently difficult album, it never fully loses its serrated edge. But if you can make it through the album, you’ll be rewarded with a sense of enlightenment, or at least a sense of accomplishment.
In the 32-minute title track -- the first of three 20+-minute songs, though “song” is loosely used here as the album feels and moves like one continuous, relentless excursion towards an unknown destination, very likely somewhere near the fifth or sixth circle of Hell -- Swans run the gamut of post-rock experimentalism: the droning mechanical drudge and grind of gears rolling over each other sequentially, ethereally, undeterred; a Sisyphean determination and blue-collar workers getting their hands dirty; the droning moaning from some unnamed apparition or apparatus and the single bursts of guitar-like equipment on an assembly line stamping metal over and over. It’s the most beautiful kind of ugly: it makes you feel something indescribable, almost undesirable, but you go back again and again, like an addict to his dope-laced watering hole.
Because the band functions so organically (organic machinery? Now we’re veering into Cronenberg territory), with no one instrument soloing or breaking out of unison, the music moves along fluidly, like an oil spill slowly snaking along a linoleum floor. The Seer is a thinking album: Put it on while you read or write, while you take notes, when you’re taking a long walk at night (as long as you’re not in the seedy part of town), when you want to sit back pensively and allow the wonders of the world to gestate within you as the album churns like an electric mixer. It’s pervasive background music, a poetic juxtaposition of uncompromising noise and lucid affability.
Album: ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
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Godspeed You! Black Emperor
‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
When the ham-fisted anti-Bush rhetoric of 2002’s Double LP Yanqui U.X.O. drew more attention than the actual music, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, smart post-rock for the politically-conscious, decided to call it quits. For Yanqui, they substituted lethargic aural obscurity and a Canadianized view of America’s turbulent political pathos for the patient swell of Lift Your Skinny Fists like Antennas to Heaven. Instead of a 90-minute Constellation cacophony and volatile, manic swings of intensity, we got a post-rock emulation of “Bombs Over Bagdad,” at once bloated and diluted -- a different kind of pretension.
Now GY!BE has returned, as you’ve probably heard, with their fourth album, ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!. The collective’s proverbial comeback (though half of the album is comprised of songs that the band’s been playing live since the Yanqui days), ’Allelujah! offers no surprises, no shocks, no jarring departures or detours from the band’s established brilliance. The album pretty much ignores the anti-everything grandiosity of Yanqui and settles back into the music-first mentality of previous albums. And it's undeniably gorgeous, one of the best mass-distributed records of the year, though somehow, it doesn’t feel epiphanic or surprising. It’s as good as I’d expected, but it doesn’t do anything new. For all the anger and callous six-string detonations, it feels comfortably familiar.
Every GY!BE album is an excursion into the unknown, a dizzying jaunt through the gardens of the mind and the communal corridors of the soul. You don’t know where you’ll land when you sign up for the expedition, but you trust your captains. The band leads with steadfast conviction and earnestness, more Nemo than Ahab.
Allelujah! is no different. For an hour, GY!BE offers paradoxical pretension: grandiose but tight, exclusive but accessible, like a wise old professor calmly explaining Schrodinger’s Cat. The song titles are reliably incomprehensible -- the perplexing nature of GY!BE’s philosophies and musings have always been part of the fun; the lyrical gaudiness, as brazen as (but more earned than) the Mars Volta’s post-Frances the Mute masturbatory prog-rock exertions, is only matched by how garish, hellish, and outlandish the nine-man band’s assault is. We’re greeted by feedback and guitar scratching and a single passerby sentence: “With his arms outstretched”; bells chime in around the 4-minute mark, joined by more guitars. Some almost-discernible notes cut in. Then a cymbal beat is established. Luridly eerie, like a child sitting uncomfortably in church for a funeral service on a rainy night, the cymbals and chimes ring-a-ling on, the guitar’s ubiquitous presence ascending almost spiritually. Drums come in harder, steadier, and the throat-punch of distorted guitars blooms, intimidating yet pretty. And the band cuts a groove deeper and deeper -- something like a Russian violin ala Ritual de lo Habitual-era Jane’s Addiction swoons and disperses. The static noise sounds like alternative elation secreting from the amps.
Simply because it clocks in around 50 minutes, Allelujah! feels a little less epic than GY!BE’s first two albums. Lift Your Skinny Fists percolates like a distant revelation slowly crawling across the forlorn sky, occasional bursts and slivers of pyrotechnics here and there, and then blam! lightning crashing on a mountain. Here, the Kantian awesomeness is funneled and compacted, more a passing storm. That doesn’t make it any less gorgeous, just less big. It’s a great album that unfortunately feels less great in the shadow of its predecessor, like Pink Floyd’s Animals, with its serrated solos and Orwellian lyrics, following in the wake of Wish You Were Here and its much overplayed title song. Let me repeat: THIS ALBUM IS GREAT. So you can’t say I “didn’t like it,” which someone will do, I guarantee it. Plus, it’s one of only two GY!BE albums on Spotify, so the uninitiated now have access to a fine introduction to the last decade’s premiere post-rock band. (Sorry, Grails.)
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ERAAS injects a dose of pop-sensibility into their atmospheric debut, but it takes a few spins to notice. The album’s background-ready accessibility and musical malleability become slowly vivid.
First listen: The spectral passerby of an album is all ghostly mood and atmosphere, songs of agreeable length but expunged of hooks and conventional structure. You probably won’t find it in the avant-garde section of your local record store, but its 40 pop-purged minutes don’t pretend to peddle in radio-friendly verse-chorus expediency. Like the Danger Mouse/Daniele Luppi collaboration Rome, a score to a western that doesn’t exist, ERAAS aspires to tell us a story through cinematic aurality, the sounds and score of a gothic horror film that might have graced small screens in seedy theaters in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s in the dark corners of New York, the floors all sticky and the film grainy and scratchy, the seat cushions torn. Maybe it’s because I watched The Innocents the night before the album came out and I had the supernatural permeating my mind, or maybe because it was the most ghoul-saturated month of the year when the album dropped, but a Haunted House quality pervades ERAAS.
“Black House”, the opening track, enters with chimes dangling in the wind. Strings drift as if dangling before an open window, riding a chilly breeze, a light airy whisper of not wholly innocent intentions circulating through a looming empty house of all grand staircases and garish chandeliers, busts of ancestors, and family portraits in oils. Phantom faces reflected in dirty mirrors right behind you dissipate when you turn around, and a candle flickers in a darkened room, present but not engaged. The second track, “A Presence,” features a barely-there bass that doesn’t want to distract you or break the aura, and then a simple driving, rhythmic drum beat, a bell jingling with a devout pulse, like an undead apparition of Will Ferrell’s cowbell player. The guitar materializes, playing a faint riff that an unobservant listener may not even notice. It’s subtle, two ascending notes, a pause, two descending notes, back and forth, a riff stuck in a rut like some nameless would-be heroine running from a villainous stalker only to trip and fall, get back up, and fall again. Faux suspense.
ERAAS doesn’t so much sound like the score to a film never made, à la Rome, but rather evokes the sense of a long-lost film, a celluloid soul trying to reenter the world and regain relevancy: the ghost of a film about ghosts. The indecipherable vocals and dance-savvy thump of “At Heart” are great fun and almost inspire lethargic head nods or foot taps, a dance of the dead. The two songs before “At Heart” induce visions of haunted mansions and perpetual nighttime, entities more serene than insidious -- horror with a happy ending. The rest of the album balances atmosphere with gothic discotheque dementia, the kind of dancing that requires minimal movement but resonates deep in your core and creeps down your shoulders, a lustful gloom, like Robert Smith having sex and actually enjoying it.
Second listen, the next day: Then the pop emerges. It’s not immediately noticeable, but you can only stay oblivious to it for so long. Like the girl staring at you from across the crowded coffee shop, your eyes eventually meet (for better or worse). The music seemed to take on a strangely European quality. In particular, “A Presence” put me into the stone tunnels of France, descending into nighttime’s magnetic chasm. I’m in a Mini Cooper (stick, of course) and yellow flaring headlights float by in the dark like so many shooting stars in slow motion. In this imaginary escapade I’m not smiling, but I’m quietly happy, stylish stubble on my jaw line and my pant legs rolled up two or three inches, showing a stylish amount of ankle. The guitar’s lazy aptitude, the chill thrum of bass, that possessed cowbell player -- it’s all so cool. How ERAAS can evoke haunted houses and gothic horror one listen and nighttime Euro-cruising the next is baffling; the dancey tracks felt less out-of-place and more like the soul of the album on some listens, but on others I still pictured desolate staircases and grandfather clocks chiming at midnight.
This is music you get lost in. A deep dark abyss, not miserable or melancholic but moody and dancey; a Vincent Price voiceover wouldn’t feel so out of place.
Album: Night Within
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L A N D
The vocals waft through the headphones like smoke from a still-hot snub nose, the squeals of horn and erratic drum tap-tap-tapping not gelling or congealing. It’s unsettled and unsettling, David Lynch finding a dead body in his office and writing an album about it. Then it all settles into a grim groove. We’re sucked into a sordid slipstream of detectives and femme fatales, seven tracks of hero-worship and tough-guy mood.
L A N D, as accessible as avant-garde gets, fornicates Bitches Brew-era Miles with Angelo Badalamenti’s surreal score for Lost Highway and saturates the bastard spawn in noirish cityscapes, men in fedoras and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and tires peeling out in the distance as the bodies fall over and hit the concrete. Their debut album, Night Within, is a sometimes postmodern, homage-tinged hour of jazzy digressions and back-alley bathos, the seedy underbelly of some forlorn and decrepit city eating itself from the inside, all corrupt politicians and power-hungry police quick with the nightclubs and dim lighting. 2012’s essential night-time listening, the album transports you to dark and dangerous locales and decades-dead detective tropes like the best of Chandler or Hammett. L A N D (unrelated to the ‘90s experimental jazz outfit Land) displays its literary articulacy with references to Paul Auster’s City of Glass and Don DeLillo’s Cosmpolis. (The references are not very subtle, but the novels themselves aren’t very subtle, so it works.) There’s also a song called “Nighthawks”, which I hope is a reference to the Sylvester Stallone film, but more likely it’s referencing the Hopper painting.
Night Within is completely soaked with noir, and therein lies the fun. The band displays musical dexterity, they maintain a singular atmosphere without growing tiresome; they feel almost like a novelty for hardboiled fans at times, more Robert B. Parker than Chandler, but their target audience won’t mind. John Zorn’s abrasive, titular fist-frack track off Spillane has more life to it, a heart pumping legitimacy rather than projecting emulations, but it’s less accessible. Night Within is dark fun, a Marlowe adventure without the philosophy or moral conflicts. L A N D has created the musical equivalent of Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City, and noir fans will have a blast.
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Portishead’s multi-instrumentalist master-guru Geoff Barrow recorded Beak>’s 2009 eponymous debut in a single room, sans overdubs and mulligans. Beak> has innately felt like Barrow’s other, other band, one of many hobbies Barrow uses to occupy his time between Portishead albums. (And with seven years between recordings, Barrow has a lot of spare time to kill.) For his sophomore effort under the Beak> moniker, annoyingly titled >> (which is a pain to type on html), Barrow delves into deeper into ‘70s-derived alt-jazz-rock mechanics -- the album opens with grinding horns and a bass that flubs languidly like a flat tire. The cymbal taps and snare shots are quick and thin, not so much keeping a pulse but rather reminding us of the traces of life this song must have had before someone deflated it. The guitars drone on and some instrument that could be another guitar emulating a synth or vice versa weeps and whines, the life slowly spilling out of the track.
The second song picks up with a stroboscopic guitar chug, not so dirty but somehow sassy. A slight head nod to the rhythm feels appropriate. The vocals leak onto the track, like Barrow had his lyrics stored in a cup besides the recording and bumped into the table, spilling his voice and words all over. They’re virtually indecipherable. They spectrally waft in and out while a buzzing string hovers in the background, some unmanned drone waiting to drop a bomb.
The whole album is pensive, not abrasive or jarring, but it isn’t relaxed. An uneasy tension clings to each rap of the snare, each electronics-infected power chord riff. Akin to a reverse echo, Barrow’s vocals foreshadow some tragedy looming in the near future, the ghost of an entity that has yet to die.
The phantasmal, quivering organs of “Egg Dog” harken to a ‘70s horror film, a long strip of grainy celluloid being fed into a rickety old projector, specks of dusts drifting by the beam of light piercing the dark of the theater. Some kind of thrumming, like a cell phone vibrating in a pocket, keeps the song uncomfortable, while the even-prominent drums do their thing and the organ unleashes its own hellish serenity. Maybe the best song on the album, “Egg Dog” grows more kinetic as it slowly glides forward, down some unperceivable aisles, but it never explodes or erupts, never bursts or splits. It simply offers its chilling organ motif and rescinds -- no rupture, no rapture.
The album gets better the longer you stick with it. Like ERAAS, the mood is the aesthetic. Put on your headphones, kill the lights, sit in your most comfortable chair, and slowly, excruciatingly slowly, you sink, fall into some dark but not dismal or despairing abyss. Cavernous and claustrophobic in turns, a red beacon violently flashes in the furthest horizon of your mind, but you can’t reach it. Like swimming in an endless spill of midnight-black ocean, no stars, no moon. The lyrics are indiscernible, the music whacky. If you give the album a try and it doesn’t make any sense, or it leaves you feeling chilly and empty, you’re in the right place.
Label: Captured Tracks
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The Soft Moon
Zeros, Soft Moon’s sophomore album, feels like the sounds and scores of so many Reagan-era memories being thrown into a grinder, each guitar string burning through the air like a laser, each synth wash harkening to big hair and too much leather, like popular-culture seeping into a childhood subconscious, secreting into the record. The opening music for an ‘80s science-fiction action thriller, some B-rate knock-off of The Terminator: Humming, whirring, buzzing gears; grinding, like a cog stuck in the machine. The acid-etched nostalgia permeating the Soft Moon’s music channels the Cure, James Cameron, Depeche Mode -- the fever dream of a child who grew up on MTV.
Frantic machine-burst drum rolls cut through the deluge of static and whining, shrieking feedback. Claps and power-chords don’t simply echo and recede or dissipate -- they decompose. The vocals arrive in sharp sprays, the shards of a shattered voice flying at you from every which way. The whole album sounds like an aural war between man and machine. The inhuman apparatus beats and twisted metal-musak, while magnetic, is detached and frigid, as inviting as the long, desolate corridors of a submerged submarine. There is no personality on the record, no warmth or humanity; the only splinters of interaction we get are the broken vocal remains, incomprehensible and joyless. The short album begins and ends abruptly, with no ease, no closure. Just a snapshot of a futuristic hell. Just a blink, dystopia, and nothing more.