Stem Stem Electro
In the recent years, there has been great steps forward in the nature of atmosphere in music. From the immaculate inflatable world of Dr. Dre and Timbaland, to the grit and creak and handclaps of Animal Collective and the rest of the free folk freaks, to the skittering beat and density of Tortoise and the rest of that whole ilk, music is retreating from the pop-power-punk-whatever-it-is recording scheme of making the drums too loud, the guitars so lost in the mix that they might not actually even be there and the singer only emerging as sound bites. And I am all the happier for it. Make art is stringy and complicated as the average rosebush, full of thorns and leaves and broken stems - those are the things the feed the flower at the top.
One modern master of The New Atmosphere is Montreal's Mike Moya, long standing guitar player for Godspeed You Black Emperor! and defunct former obsession-of-mine Molasses and every other cool band coming out that scar on the maple leaf (which thanks largely to the work of Constellation records, has replaced Washington DC as the hot primary source for intelligent independent music with unwavering integrity) His slow strummed electric and cicada drones are one of the most distinctive styles going now, and they have never been as highlighted as they are on his low-key cinematic new project HRSTA. (pronounced 'her-shta,' with the dots under the letters in a Hare Krsna influenced reversal of umlaut bombast of 80's metal) and their/his album Stem Stem in Electro.
Our hero emerges from a dust cloud of his own making on the chanting opener "...and we climb" with his guitar shooting off sparks and setting off charges in the distance where a doomsday cult choir of war torn voices describe their spiritual ascent
We climb, and we climb, to the Light, to the Light.
giving way into the equally apocalyptic in feel "Blood on the Sun" where his voice is cast in a haze like a lost transmission just coming in. I don't mean to paint this in too dark a tone, the gothic black gives way to sepia, with occasional snowy interruptions of interfering static. The numbers with French titles like "Quelque Chose?Propos des Raquetteurs" and the final "Une Infinit?" de Trous en Forme d'Hommes" are essays in modern instrumental elegance that would wedge in nicely with the work of other modern muted Cocteau siblings Rothko or Rachel's, wavering vibrations and distant guitar twangs floating untethered in space, hoping someone gets the signal before the oxygen runs out.
Its the vocal tunes that shine the brightest for me though. The psychedelic slow-mo groove of "Folkways Orange" is one of the best stoned sweeps I've heard in some time, and i hear a lot of them, while "Swallows' Tail" has a structure built around ominous ticks from the Clock of Fate while the vocals whisper out with an urgency that can only be whispered. "Heaven is Yours" doesn't really count as a vocal track, since the words are relayed in distorted tape loop at the onset of the track, but its a great exercise in menacing dynamics, where drones and scrapes and random clunks converge to create the tension sensation of exploring an abandoned spacecraft, knowing the alien is likely around the corner, ready to pick off another member of the supporting cast. I doubt this is exactly the scenario Moya had in mind, since the Hotel2Tango crew as a rule explores the smoking husks of a bankrupt society in their varied modern epics, But the metaphor still hold.
'Gently Gently" is a beautiful love song that comes to you like a ripple on a mountain lake dragging us offshore by the hand in "Une Infinite..." into sad uncertainty. There are so many cinematic images I get from this album, like the aforementioned space theme, or the meeting-at-the-river that comes with movie afterlife. The dream like pacing and wavering quality induces it, but Moya most electric sounding guitar (sometimes you get touches of the most pastoral parts of Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, but the PF word is a dangerous group to reference. In fact, Forget I said anything) keeps this from drifting off into a generic ambient cocktail. I had a friend who described his life somewhat accurately as living in a French Film (slow pacing, loads of ennui, and a startling amount of sad hot women wanting having sex with him) and were I touch with him, I'd send this beautiful piece of work to him, so it could become his personal soundtrack.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com