“Starlings and Crows,” the new album by Chloë March, is an autumnal song cycle full of rich electronics, dark honeyed vocals and startling touches, like crystalline piano chord progressions and shimmering autoharp strums. It’s richly atmospheric, full of nature imagery and Romantic (with a capital R) reveries. Everything note played or sung is placed with jewel-like precision. It’s a song suite, but there are highlights, like the tentative piano ballad “All Things Good” or the cinematic blur of “To a Place,” and “Remember That Sky” could be an Adult Alternative single. It reminds one of the misty electronic pastorals of Virginia Astley’s “Hope in a Darkened Heart,” though March has a plaintive alto compared to Astley’s boy soprano tones. Other references: “The Sensual World,” by Kate Bush, “Secrets of the Beehive” by David Sylvian or the 4AD era of folk singer Heidi Berry.
It oozed from speakers hidden in elevators and doctor’s office. A sound so placid that you could ignore it, the euphonious tones of strings, the wordless ahhhing of a choir of anonymous people who were, no doubt, the whitest people on earth. It was the sound of pop songs turned into background music, stripped of their words and passions. I’m talking about Muzak, that ubiquitous radio of the 60s that died in the 90s. I hear its mellifluous sounds and I’m immediately transported into a realm of balmy bliss. The world turns as soft as lace, gently colored by pastel tones. I can even taste the music itself. It has the chalky sweet flavor of Pez candy, oblongs of sugar that dissolve on the tongue. Colorful, but flavorless. It numbs like novocaine, that symphony of vibraphones and string swells. It was years before I found out that The Girl from Ipanema was an actual song, with real lyrics. Cry Me a River was a jazz standard, and not a vaguely somnolent lullaby.
I think I heard that music more than most people because I was a child of a dentist, and my father would play that music constantly, even on the car stereo. He would hum bits from the songs, a meaningless but soothing cascades of la-de-de-das as he worked on the yard or on his car. Hearing that music immediately takes me back to his office, with its motorized chairs that went up and down, heavy with the smell of dental plaster, its shiny cabinets full of gauze and cotton. I would hear Muzak when I visited his office, masking the sounds of teeth being drilled. Daddy’s office was in a particularly rough section of Northwest DC, full of liquor stores and sub-shops. There was an old movie theater that was converted into a church called Fishers of Men nearby. A fish shop full of aquatic carcasses on chipped ice was on one corner. A barbershop full of regulars, including members of Nation of Islam devotees, was on the same block. The alley behind Daddy’s office was full of people shooting up drugs and/or bullets. (One time, a stray bullet flew into office; luckily no-one was there). There was a homeless man in the neighborhood that everyone called Two Quarters, because he would ask, “Do you have a quarter?” And when you said “No,” he would reply, “Do you have two quarters?” Daddy’s office was an oasis, full of dental care pamphlets and syrupy-sweet Muzak.
There was a local station in nearby Silver Spring that specialized in playing that kind of music, mixing in such easy-listening giants as the Carpenters and Engelbert Humperdinck into the vast Sargosso of floating music. (To this day, the voice of Karen Carpenter haunts me, her placid contralto singing about masquerades and starlight). The station was called WGAY, which, of course, was a major joke among my elementary school friends. WGAY had a building proudly displaying its letters in Georgia Avenue in utter obliviousness. The word gay in the late 70 was in a cultural limbo land in the late 70s/early 80s. There were still people who stubbornly held onto the old definition and wrote Sternly Worded letters that objected to the Homosexual Agenda hijacking a word that described genial bonhomie. Perhaps because of this, Muzak and Easy Listening music is indelibly linked to my burgeoning, hidden sexuality. “Gay” meant the soporific, tranquil sounds of Carpenter’s voice and the perverted flamboyance of a shameful lifestyle. Is there a smidgen of a Pavlovian sexual response when I hear an instrumental version of What the World Needs Now? Maybe, maybe not.
This connection to Muzak is at the heart of my interest in ambient/quiet music. I remember hearing the Brian Eno Ambient series and having my mind blown. It was music that immediately put you into a mood, and those moods weren’t restricted to the anodyne end of the spectrum. They could be sinister and otherworldly as well as soothing. Sometimes, they could be both, like the dual meaning of the word gay. Ambient/environmental music is activates my Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. I feel like inside one of those glass paperweights, the kind with bubbles and streaks of abstract colored shapes frozen in them. I drift, I dream, enveloped in a sound bath. The ambient music I love is heavily textured, full of swirls and eddies and sound effects, full of obscurantist titles.
My profile name, across many different platforms, is ethereallad, a name that reflects my love of things beautiful and abstract. My writing tries to invoke the feeling ambient music inspires in me: vaporous, inchoate and hypnotic.
My Kofi link is here: ko-fi.com/craiglaurancegidney
I just got tickets to see the goth-world-neoclassical band Dead Can Dance in April 2020. This might be the seventh or eighth time since I’ve seen them. I’ve also seen solo tours from the Dead Can Dance members Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard. Their somber, majestic and beautiful music has been a constant in my life. I discovered their music (and Cocteau Twins) around the same time I found the writing of Tanith Lee. Lee and DCD are forever linked in my mind.
They are indirectly responsible for my official coming out. I remember back in the late 80s debating whether or not to attend the local LGBT youth group. I was still in the closet (but not to myself). Joining a youth group was a big step for me. I had stood outside the place where the weekly meeting had been held a couple of times and been too chicken to go.
Then, one afternoon, I saw a guy wearing a homemade Dead Can Dance t-shirt. It was like a sign: I would be OK. I joined the youth group, and began the process of coming out.
Thank you, Brendan and Lisa.
I’m looking forward to seeing them live. This time, they’re delving deep into their catalog, performing older and rarely played tracks.
Back in the late 80s and early 90s, I was a fan of ‘goth’ music, particularly the brand of melancholic, elegant and often female-centered ‘etherealwave.’ I adored the music of Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance and This Mortal Coil—the whole 4AD label aesthetic of refined darkness. It was (and still is) a rarefied sound, full of poetic abstraction and shrouded in mystery. Azam Ali’s new album, Phantoms, recalls this dark and dreamy sound, though it’s filtered through the prism of darkwave, electronica and trip hop.
I’ve been following Ali’s music from the beginning of her career. She started out in the World/New Age duo Vas, where she put her own spin on glossolalia-styled vocalizations, a technique that Lisa Gerrard and Elizabeth Fraser mastered. Her next band Niyaz crafted elaborate electronic soundscapes using mystical Sufi poetry as lyrics. She also released an album of interpretations of sacred music (Portals of Grace), an album of Persian lullabies (From Night to the Edge of the Day) and was a member of the dark rock band Roseland (!) Ali’s voice is a beautiful instrument, a supple alto that can soar effortlessly into crystalline soprano heights. Her singing blends Persian, Indian and classical Western styles in a way that reminds me of the work of Sheila Chandra. An undercurrent of gothic melancholia runs through most of her work, even the more ‘world’ music pieces.
This gothic strain is front-and-center on Phantoms. (There’s even a cover of a Cocteau Twins song, “Shallow Then Halo,” from their gothiest first album Garlands). Ali’s lyrics are full of images of bleakness and regret, when you can understand them. Ali’s singing and enunciation treats English words as onomatopoetic devices, and she seems to be more interested in their phonemic qualities. Her use of her voice as an instrument really highlights the sleek electronic settings of the songs, which Ali programmed and produced herself. The sonic sculpture is as alluring as her voice, which is quite an accomplishment.
The duo Autumn’s Grey Solace has been staggeringly prolific. Since their debut in 2000, they have gradually moved away from their gothic pop roots, creating ambient music with traditional rock instruments. Their eleventh albumEocene is a tapestry of echoey treated guitars, heartbeat-like rhythms and ghostly voices. Instrumentalist Scott Ferrell uses a variety of techniques in layering stringed sounds—sustained notes that sound like bells, chimed, and harps. Singer Erin Welton uses her voice like a lead instrument, and whatever lyrics she sings are tumbled into the epic wall of sound, crafting a kind of sonic palimpsest. While the 38 minute digital album works as a whole, like a song suite, there are still individual songs that standout. The lovely melodic “Deep Wild” could almost be a single, as could the dark, driving “Extinction,” which flirts with progressive metal. Too tranquil to be “just” shoe-gaze pop, too dark to be New Age, this atmospheric mini-album has the perfect balance of tension and delicacy, like a spiderweb resiliently holding its shape beneath an onslaught of rain.
A collaboration between musicians Todd Tobias and Chloë March, Amiallumais an album’s worth of atmospheric ambient music that desultorily drifts between a whimsical and eerie tone. All ten compositions have a distinct hauntological ambiance. The soundscapes have the feel of the soundtrack to a forgotten children’s movie. Music box melodies, echoed bell-like tones and 60s Sci-Fi sounds are woven together, mostly in a halcyon mood that gets disturbed by the occasional dark chord progression. March sings, purrs, trills, murmurs and chants words in an invented language that manages to be both soothing and disturbing, like a feral child raised by nature. The resulting suite (which is how it is supposed to be listened to) reminds of me of the work of the English band Pram, (who share a similar tonal palette crossed) with the Cocteau Twins at their most tranquil.
As much as I like traditional pop music and classic song structure, I love instrumental music. It’s the stuff that I write to, and that gives me ideas for fiction and scenes. The field of electronica and ambient is as white, straight and male as you can get, so it’s always a pleasure to find artists from marginalized communities appear on the scene. I recently discover two such artists that make electronic music that’s disturbing and beautiful.
Both Arca (Alejandro Ghersi ) and Yves Tumor (Sean Lee Bowie, or not!) are queer men of color who infuse their electronic sound collages with a queer sensibility. Their ominous soundscapes, combine subgenres like EDM, industrial and hauntology, both of them play with genderfuck in their performances.
Prolific “ethereal-wave” Florida band Autumn’s Grey Solace just independently released their 9th album—the digital only “Windumaera.” The short album is kind of a mirror/sister album to “Monajifyllen,” released in 2014. Where that previous album was becalmed and angelic, this one is over so slightly darker. Sunlit melodies will suddenly turn sinister and menacing, resulting in a more dramatic sound.
AGS has drifted away from clearly delineated lyrics and song structures into something much more vaporous and atmospheric. It’s drifting ambient music made by electric guitars. Multi-instrumentalist Scott Ferrell manipulates his guitar into waves of chimes and ripples. The orchestrated guitar parts sound like bells and harps. Erin Welton’s voice soars over these soundscapes in coloratura swoops and swirls. For the most part, the lyrics are unintelligible, and though random phrases in English drift up, they are submerged by the virtuosic vocal technique.