With the year and decade coming to an end, I rush with a flurry of blog posts. Shorter than most I normally do, there will hopefully be 22! done before the year is over , nicely tying up everything and clearing the decks before next years releases (which has already got close to double digits). Here are some releases from the Home Normal and Slowcraft labels.
It would be an under statement to mention the influence of Home Normal on my personal taste and various ventures over the last decade (yes, there have been things before and at the same time of this blog). Currently the label is entering a period of hiatus, but before we wait almost a year for new music we are treated with these from some of the class of 2019.
“Tony Obr (aka. tsone) sent me three full album demos back in 2012 to be released on our old Nomadic Kids Republic label which sadly closed at the end of that year. It arrived when we were still living in Japan, a year after the Tōhoku earthquake and a year in which our family suffered a period of great personal loss. It was an incredibly tumultuous time in my personal life and as I tried to look after my family as best I could between two distant countries and all the travel that involved, ‘pagan oceans’ became my guide on those long-haul flights and train journeys.
We went about working on the masters using an old Studer A80, and finally doing all three album mixes on reels directly before transferring back across for this release. The process of getting such wonderfully textured analog-ambient-noise just right for such a project took an age to say the least, and also required getting new reels sent to Japan periodically which was quite a task at the time. Beyond that we worked on the art with the brilliant Tobias Feltus, and after a few years ‘pagan oceans’ just came together slowly but naturally as all good things should.“
These three albums were issued separately as an eleven track and 2 seven track albums respectively, but are probably best experienced as a whole. Admittedly that is because, like the name of the blog and my getting older, I quite like to absorb and get involved in the drift of music, which submerging yourself in these twenty five tracks will help do the job. To my knowledge a version of only one track “Wind Tunnels”, has seen the light of day on the “Prototypes” cd-r compilation of 2014.
The minimal nature of the music largely makes individual track assessment redundant as they are cut from a similar cloth. But Obr, who describes himself as “a musician, sound designer, composer, visual artist and educator. He often works at the confluence of art, technology, and performance, focusing on innovative uses of sound in a non-musical context.” makes pieces which flirt with music structure, preferring to be on the liminal side of things. The tones are rather muted with an overall submerged quality that has a sense of not being able to actually reveal all it’s mysteries. On tracks like “Oblique Incidence” he moves into more purer ambient soundscapes, still through the Tsone lens, but in others such as “Echo Sandwich” he revels in the minimalist sound design which is prevalent throughout. I personally find pieces like “Kitsu’s Song” where both approaches are melded together and with a certain amount obscured, to be the nice balance of the two styles.
With just over two hours of material and twenty five tracks there is enough for anyone to drift of too and take their minds of problems in their lives. “Pagan Oceans I, II and III” are available separately on cd and digitally, or as a set.
“No Voices’ was recorded during 2018. I came across a pile of old tape in my garage back in Warsaw, and decided to try to salvage it. It ultimately destroyed an old Akai reel to reel recorder but not before I caught a few recordings of it as it slowed down to an eventual halt. I listened to the recordings for a while and just found the concept of such a beautiful old machine dying, leaving behind such unique tones and disintegrating textures, truly special.
After one of my regular chats to Stijn about our current recording processes and equipment, I shared the long-form recording with him, and thus began the path for ‘No Voices’ with Stijn’s rare ability to subtly create submerged and subtle melodies. ‘No Voices’ is a truly analog-ambient album, and the kind of music we’d always wanted to release on Home Normal. That it now quietly marks a long hiatus for the label is fitting in sound, development and nature.“
The current motto of Home Normal is “Auditory Minimalism” and no finer demonstration of this would be the “No Voices” album. In the times we find ourselves in we require art that either provides us a respite or something to kick out with in frustration. This particular release is for the respite where you look inwards with a soundtrack that is as soothing as it is introspective. The year for the label you could say was as much about Stijn Hüwels as it was label boss Ian Hawgood with Hüwels appearing on four of the full length releases of the year. I am fairly sure I have used the term Ambient mafia in the past to describe the crew that is at the heart of the label. Much like 12k, Home Normal is part of a group of musicians and friends that would so well together collaboratively. With the possibility of moving back to Japan (if I am correct) it will be interesting to see where the label goes from here (although they have promised releases from Silent Vigils, Chronovalve, Stefano Guzzetti, and collaborations by Pleq and Hakobune, Ian Hawgood and Stefano Guzzetti, James Murray and Mike Lazarev).
The opener “畳” aka “Tatami” starts off the album with gently coaxed woozy ambient tones that soothes the listener into their drift. Long drones and fuzzy tones coated with an echoic distance propel you into Hawgood and Hüwels’ temporal state which is neither past nor present, fixed nor moving. If you refer to the above press release you will see the process of the recordings, but while it has that similar Basinski-esque discovery it doesn’t merely ape its style. Instead it offers a quality to the music that while it has a decaying quality it never feels at any stage that it is broken.
“No Voices I” the first part of the trilogy that is the centre point of the album sees the duo move away from the abstract ambience of the opener and elevate it to higher planes. There is a glacial pace to the majority of the music without it sharing the coldness commonly associated with the music. There is a tightly wound drone that runs through the centre of the piece tightly oscillating and humming which gives the piece both its texture and heart as the other drones are lighter in feel and more melodic and emotional. in a recent review of Hakobune I mentioned about getting more from less in the music – ie: in the hands of very capable artists you don’;t need to go over the top to get such great results. This is a perfect example of this. The way that the piece continuously evolve and grow and a natural rate alongside it’s length of time, means that it is never forced and builds nicely with both artist holding back and edging forward when required. Haunting at times, it goes back to my earlier point of offering a respite, but by no means does it just become a soundtrack to the background.
“No Voices II” following on from slow and introspective ending of “Part I”, “Part II” continues in a similar sort of vein, but with a different tonal quality. There is more of a distant and darker quality to the track, sort of an impending storm is heading in your direction with a dark cloud over head and dust storm enveloping. While the storm never truly reaches you, you are left in an sonic environment that feels quit isolating and in some ways returns to the similar tones of the album’s opener. Just before the end melodic tones come into play takes us into “No Voices III” which open the piece but over time are consumed by a darker clouded ambience and light static that obscures the textures and engulfs the tones. Over time clarity is restored with a shimmering guitar like ambience that floats over the drones into…
“今” aka “Now” which initially rides the balance of the light and the dark before being feverishly engulfed by a noisy squall and whirr of machinery, while simultaneously removing the oscillating drones. This alien like whirr , which could be the final death knell of the real to real machine as it laboriously rolls the tape over the heads, carries through the bulk of “影” aka “Shadow” with the ambience finally slowly fading away just before the final stop and presumably death of the technology. It is a fitting end for a musical journey.
“No Voices” is available on CD and Digital.
“Fragmented Boundaries’ is an album that has been in development for almost exactly six years after Ian and Phil started sharing noisy synth patterns back at the end of 2013.
Quite unlike any other Home Normal release, the album is more focused on the bursts of randomness and melodic stabs produced by dying analog synths as well as carefully constructed rhythm and beats, edited almost exclusively in later cuts onto tape. The final mix of the album was done mixing a number of reels in real time; capturing their respective elements and worn textures, alongside the wonderful cello work of Aaron Martin on ‘Haven Returns’.
This isn’t really ambient music anymore, and we aren’t sure how to define it appropriately. It is our most musically ambitious work to date and we hope you enjoy the album in the entirety of its wild journey. An album of fragmentation, acceptance and returning to things that never really left us. Cover art has once again been provided by regular collaborator Eirik Holmøyvik to match the music and the depth of autumn perfectly; the perfect season for reflection.“
The worst thing you can possibly do with a label is place expectations on their sound because straight away you can pigeonhole them and their artists into a particular styke of feeling which narrows their scope. Not many Home Normal releases have beeats woven into them and this is one of the exceptions. Naturally, that I have said ‘beats” that word itself might plant a thought in the reader as to what it sounds like. Rest assured the label and Hawgood & Tomsett haven’t disappeared into a warehouse party of the 90’s with a Vix inhaler, rather they use broken up beats both as a rhythm device, but also as part of textures (and maybe just a little to through the listener on the opening track “Fever Dreams”).
I am going to repeat myself (something that if you’ve read these pages before is a given) and say that the releases is best listened in one sitting as the pieces are all part of one giant work that Hawgood and Tomsett have mapped out for the journey ahead. This is in stark opposition to the Tsone album simply because of his more varied tones, instrumentation and vibrancy. Like the “Pagan Oceans” release this album has been in development for some six years and for that it makes me think of the OHIO album “Upward, Broken, Always” not musically, but for the time taken to craft the album which then brings together such a dynamic release. In a way its rather uncategorisable as it mixes in electronic elements alongside electroacoustic ones, Ambient styles with Sound Art, all which tie in with album’s name. It’s as if those things that group things together, which in turn can limit peoples scopes, have been slowly dissipating and pollinating the music.
Like a journey you are taken through different environments, these include the experimental and electroacoustic (“Fever Dreams” and “Storm Returns”), the minimally mysterious (“Epiphany Ignored”) ,the more extreme and noisy (“The Halo of My Memory”), the purer pastoral drone (“Haven Returns” which features the unmistakable Aaron Martin – who has had a relatively quiet year, so may have a big 2020 up ahead), and large scale retro abstractions (“Fragmented Boundaries). Although they can be listened to and appreciated singularly, they together they work nicely as one big giant piece.
In this age of homogenisation it is always nice to hear artists that are still interested in pushing the (Fragmented) boundaries. “Fragmented Boundaries” is available on CD and Digital.
“Impermanence is a love letter to transience, fragility and the analogue machines Ian Hawgood persuades to articulate the poignantly brittle beauty of decay. After many years of in-demand mastering, label curation and collaborative focus Hawgood now offers us a definitive portrait of the technical expertise and personal integrity demanded by exemplary modern tape-based practice.
In studios between Tokyo and Warsaw walls of reel-to-reel tape recorders, analogue synthesisers, processed textures and degraded cassette recordings were all carefully coaxed into braiding together their hiss, wow, flutter and warmth into this beautifully flowing nine-chapter arc of delicately unpredictable sound. Impermanence is an understated, finely wrought work that honours process and outcome equally, exhibiting a rare tonal and conceptual elegance throughout and marking an assured return to solo composition from a true master of the analogue arts.”
And lastly before I sign off on this post I best mention this solo Hawgood recording for good friend and fellow Home Normal alumni Slowcraft Records James Murray. Having had a fascination with analogue technology in this largely computer/electronic age, Hawgood instead uses a bunch of Reel to Reel’s, a collection of synths and field recordings from his old Tokyo apartment to create nine tracks that create audio landscapes in drone form, moving through a series of moods from the likes of the calming “Ever Loved” to the mournful “Loneliness” and the claustrophobic “Never Gone”. The music is in equal parts an ode to degradation, to techniques and technology that are becoming things of the past, to time and memory and finally to capturing music in an honest fashion.
“Impermanence” is available on Cd and Digital.