The name Sontag Shogun has been on my radar, but it wasn’t till the release of the collaborative 7″ with Moskitoo on Home Normal (“The Things We Let Fall Apart / The Thunderswan”) that I actually got to sample their wares. With their new album dropping a handful of days ago on New York’s Youngblood label, I get to hear them in their own natural environment. To say that Sontag Shogun are the equivalent to a sound travelog is an understatement. They, on this album fuse electroacoustic sounds and techniques to field recordings which make you feel as if you are on a journey through various countries with them.
“Whereas Sontag Shogun’s critically acclaimed 2017 album “Patterns For Resonant Space” was an experiment in reverse-engineering and overdubbing improvised compositions, “It Billows Up” is a continuous, linear narrative captured and spliced to tape in real time, and presented as an accurate studio representation of the band’s dynamic live performance.
With Ian Temple’s painterly piano. Jesse Perlstein’s cascade of haunted vocals and found sounds, and Jeremy Young’s intricate manipulation of tapes and kitchen utensils, “It Billows Up” pieces together sounds of our waking life by crafting thick barricades of meditative, interwoven sonic collages”
The familiar notes of wet footsteps, gray clouds, perplexing rants of passersby, and purring motors of oncoming traffic confidently survey the outskirts of the album, each sound dripping with sparse piano melodies and drifting into its own grainy mist of synaesthesia.”
There is a natural and raw feeling to the sounds contained within these recordings. While some releases can feel purely synthetic, the seven tracks contained on “It Billows Up” have a real organic feel which alongside Rafael Anton Irisarri’s vibrant mastering, capture the essence of the trio quite clearly. I tend to listen to music initially while I am doing things and an album like this flows well between tracks to have a consistent feel which makes it feel as one giant work, rather than a collection of pieces compiled together.
Opening with “Medewi, After the Rain” which segues in nicely to “Aveyron” blends field recordings, fragilic piano, glitchy tones and flickers of sound scattering about. The piano has the ability to change the feeling of the piece that alongside the field recordings adds a wistful feel to the piece. Its as if the memories of a place are being thought about through the prism of time and looked back to as being fond memories, but with a sadness as to not going back to the place. Warped interviews/quotes from a street preaching filter in as more electronic manipulation takes hold. As the track merges to “Aveyron” you notice a difference in the composition as it becomes a more vocal oriented piece. Drones, voice, piano and skittering electronics form the basis and it builds upon the opener and expands on its remit. With the piano holding that almost melancholic tone in “In Medewi…” its the voices that inhabit this terrain this time ’round. In a way the texture of the piece is changed quite radically but still stays true to its core. Towards the end of the track home made beats and percussion enter the fray and changes the feel of the piece away from more electroacoustic territory to almost dance floor sounds. The piece has a great fluid movement between sounds and styles.
“Clstrs” beginning starts in the last fifteen or so seconds of “Aveyron” and we’ve returned to the field recording dominated soundscape of the opener. It has a collage feel to it contrasting string instrument recordings (maybe buskers) with manipulated dialogue and gritty soundscapes before melodic tones start to lead us through to a more experimental section (reminiscent of old Extreme Records releases) featuring cut up dialog and sounds mashed together. As the track winds down a peaceful section of more ambient related recordings emerges and flows into “Song no. 5” with Ian Temple’s piano and Jesse Perlstein’s voice being the focal points. There is a partial nostalgic feel to the music, largely brought together by the vocals and the pastoral field recordings. The sounds are clear and the music swells with melody and an abundance of emotion with Perlstein’s voice used as both in traditional singing style and also as an instrument. The title track emerges after the near silent finish of “Song no.5” with ripples of electronic loops blowing off into the atmosphere, while grounding piano of near post rock meets modern classical stylings as Perlstein’s vocals once more hang over the track with a ghostly presence. A bed of noisier electronics weave their way through the piece that because of the vocal sounds briefly reminds me of Sigur Ros. The piece changes to one where all the different parts are mixed up as the sounds evolve and smash into each other removing boundaries that once defined each other. A squall of sound bathes this mix up before the track takes a detour through the field recordings of dialog that leads into the darker chimes of “Kienast dans un parc”
Religious field recordings, warped dialog and field recordings all counterpoint each other creating a soundscape of disparate sources and an uneasy sort of feel. The main dialog feels like it’s recording of a street performer/preacher with some sort of possible mental illness which adds somewhat to the jarring feel to the piece. Interestingly the piece translates to “Kienast in the park” with Kienast being a Jewish name which means “extreme fortunes in fortune, health and spirituality” which when listening to the man talk, makes sense. The final track is the longest one on the album “Cages” clocking in at ten and a half minutes. Constructed using the familiar tools of the album it expands upon what has come before it, rather than just regurgitate it. It sonicly is possibly the most expansive piece on the record and shows the layering, composition and depth of sound that the trio can achieve. In lesser hands it could become muddled and a mess of sounds, but Young, Perlstein and Temple are able to interact in a way that there is much going on and much to discover. There is a space and time given to let the music organically grow. When the percussion comes in for the first time since “Aveyron” the listener is taken on a hypnotic trance-like journey as the electronics take hold, the piano becomes more expressive and ecstatic, while the vocals float around the edges.
At the top of this review I mentioned about how listening to this album while doing things gave me the feeling of a whole conceptual piece. As the press release that the release is a continuous linear piece, the end product is an album that is best listened to on the whole rather than isolating particular tracks. Initially I was thinking it was a travelogue, but now I am more on the train of thought that this is a dreamscape sort of piece largely because of it’s flowing connectedness and how it moves through movements with hints from where it has come. It most definitely has it’s feet in the electroacoustic experimental genre but also welcomes, post rock, ambient and pure field recordings styles into it’s overall aesthetic. It doesn’t hurt that it is one of the most dynamic recordings that I have heard in some time.
“It Billows Up” is available on LP (a version also contains an art book which is artists responses to pieces of the music) and Digital via Youngbloods.
While we are in Youngbloods territory it makes sense to cast a brief look over the label’s previous release, the self titled release from Hilsa. Hilsa are the Brooklyn – based electroacoustic duo of guitarist Kallie Lampel and Cellist Steve Goodwin (aka Skeleton Zoo).
“Through their solo projects, Lampel and Goodwin found a mutual affinity for peripheral melodies and ethereal soundscapes, and in 2016 the duo started developing a technique to sample and affect one another’s instrumentation as a framework for generative composition. By interweaving Lampel’s warm guitar work with Goodwin’s mini-orchestra of bells, music boxes, and cello, the two were able to delicately conjure a sense of amorphous familiarity and unplaced nostalgia, allowing rich patterns to be borne, dismantled, and remade.
While rooted in serendipitous pieces of improvisation, the recorded works of Hilsa offer the familiarity of motifs that only hint at a subliminal architecture. Balancing concrete and abstract structures while enfolding sparse contributions from the likes of Boston-based experimental musicians & vocalists Kira McSpice and Mercedes Aviles, each composition undulates as if caught in a bygone breeze.”
The album which comes out on Cassette (limited to 50 copies) and Digital combines blurriness with hypnotic guitar loops, electroacoustic sounds and shimmering electronics to create a somewhat murky, rusty and cinematic sound. The release was preceded by the single “Ilish”, the album is part experiment part constructive collaboration with the essence of the project being the duo “developing a technique to sample and affect one another’s instrumentation as a framework for generative composition. By interweaving Lampel’s warm guitar work with Goodwin’s mini-orchestra of bells, music boxes, and cello, the two were able to delicately conjure a sense of
amorphous familiarity and unplaced nostalgia, allowing rich patterns to be borne, dismantled, and remade”.
With this technique in play and with collaborators coming on board for three of the tracks, Hilsa create music that while it could be put into the drone category, is much more than this. There is a feeling of decay within the pieces due to the tones created and the murkiness/haze which adds a nostalgic feel to it, but also a distance. The pieces are not rushed, instead putting or pulling away layers of sound and either building upon or stripping back the sound. There is a ghostly presence which is best heard on “Cathedral” while “Glass Something” is as minimal and static based that the duo will get to being quiet.
There are times when this floating in and out of focus really works well like the previously mentioned “Ilish”, but after coming from the Sontag Shogun release with its impressive sound, I can’t help but think how a clearer soundscape would be able to shine more of a light on the components within these pieces, which are buried from time to time and could really reveal more of a depth to these pieces.
“Hilsa” is available on Cassette and Digital via Youngbloods.