Patrick R. Pärk – Sports Themes for Psychonauts

[Ethereal Mother Tapes, 2021]

Patrick R. Pärk’s newest release, Sports Themes for Psychonauts, is a self-described alternate theme for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. But this isn’t some background noise meant to drum up mushy feelings of a rah-rah, joyous celebration of the coming-together of athletes in a globally harmonious act of symbolism. No, this is something darker—murkier—its ominous sequences looping in on each other, evolving, dissolving into washes of noise. It’s the antithesis of the recent work (or recent unearthing of the previous work, based on whom you believe) of Kosmischer Läufer.

“Light the Lamp” doesn’t bring to mind an opening ceremony filled with rejoicing fans and open-armed embracing of a world united. Instead, it plays as an opening to a Wes Craven film, a dreary foreshadowing. “Mescalero Gambit”‘s discordant melodies bounce off each other, driving unease and a feeling of hesitancy. “Soul Court Press” brings to mind early Cure, with their simple, sad plucked riffs and understated gothiness. “Down to the Last Out” recalls some of GAS’s darker, late works; though punchier and less symphonic in nature.

When you consider the backdrop to those olympics—the fact that they came a year after a global pandemic had shut them down, and continued in earnest despite the ongoing struggle to contain said pandemic that had to that point killed over 4 million people worldwide—it makes sense this collection of songs isn’t in the mood to dance. It’s a soundtrack that highlights the true background of those olympics. It’s a transmission that aims to cut through the fallacies of what was being presented. It’s a well-produced, and sonically ambitious truth-sayer.

Listen to and order the album here. While you’re there, check out some of Pärk’s numerous other works.

Memories Will Remain: An Interview with Steve Smith from Negative Response

Released back in June of 2021, the excellent Submersion Therapy saw the reemergence of Steve Smith’s Negative Response, forty years after its initial inception. As I wrote in a recent review, despite the extreme gap, what is presented on Submersion Therapy is striking in its ability to capture the best of 80s cold wave while not sounding locked strictly to that era. To do this—as the modest Smith points out—without formal musical training, firmly establishes Submersion Therapy’s connection to its post-punk roots. It’s an album driven by gut, looking to boil down to its essence what is many times overanalyzed and over-thought. It’s quite an achievement, and one that displays the importance of inspiration, feeling, and taste in an industry that so often puts misguided weight on technical merit or clout within so-called important circles.

Not to say that there isn’t massive technical merit here… there is. Smith’s instincts for sound design and composition are clearly on point. And holistically, the record just sounds amazing and cohesive—all the more astonishing that this is his first release in about thirty-six years. So I was very interested to speak with him and get some background on how all of this came together, and he graciously agreed.

Your most recent release is quite an advancement on your sound since your earlier music. How have you spent your time between these active periods? 

The short answer would be living life I suppose. Negative Response began its life in 1981, so it’s been 40 years in the making. The last music I recorded before the new collection of songs would have been around 1984. But I did nothing musically between then and 2016. It was the uploading of a few of those songs onto YouTube with some bits of old video which must have brought Negative Response to the attention of Seattle-based Medical Records and Barcelona-based Manufactured Desire Records and they asked to release that earlier material. That, plus one of the 1982 cassettes sold on an auction site for over £200. Clearly it seemed that there was an appetite for the low-fi electronic sound of the early 1980s. That got me thinking about recording some new material and see how it went. And that is how we got here today.

What has changed, if anything, from your recording process in the 80s to how you record now? Do you still record to analog? Is it more of a digital process now?

The process is not that different. My 4 track Teac portastudio broke. I have replaced it with another 4-track cassette machine so that I can still recall those old recordings when needed. But I did purchase a secondhand Boss BR8 8-track zip drive recorder. It has more tracks and does have some useful onboard effects, so I do have more flexibility. But it is 25-year-old technology. I still have my old Wasp and Cat but for the new album have mainly used a secondhand Novation Mininova and a combination of DR550 and a few other sources of percussion. I don’t use sequencers or other DAW processes. It’s all played by hand or by arpeggiator. It’s still produced in the back room which is not a studio-type environment. I have no musical training or knowledge really and so everything is done by feel and what sounds right. That is what has always been the case and still is. Often the sounds are described as “eclectic” or “quirky” which is, I expect, a direct result of my lack of musical theory and a desire not to follow a particular trend or path. There is no plan to make an album that has an 80s sound or influence, it just comes out that way. 

The other main difference was getting some help in the mixing and mastering of the tracks and to get someone who would take a sympathetic approach and still allow the nature of the tracks to shine through. I was pleased with it, they both did a great job. The tracks are tighter and have some nice production features without going over the top.

Vintage Negative Response

Is there any carryover from the instrumentation or gear used on those earlier releases to these new releases?  

I did not carry over the gear used from the 80s, although I still do possess it. Part of the album was about discovering in a limited way what the new machines could offer. But I have not done a deep dive into them. They are capable of a lot more than I have managed to exploit to date.

It’s highly unlikely, as I’m American, that I would have had access or been aware of your music in the 80s. What are some pros and cons you’ve noticed with how the industry operates today? Do you find it generally easier to get your music heard or is there over-saturation?

The difference is huge. The advancement in technology has meant that everyone has access not only to a variety of instrumentation, mixing, and mastering processing but also distribution through online platforms as well as easy marketing through social media. A lot of it is free or at low cost. A plethora of online music stations, websites, and blog zines have also sprung up. 

The current situation seems to fulfill the consumer agenda of instant gratification. People often don’t want to listen to an album, but just pull a single track. Music also seems to have a short shelf life.

-Steve Smith

In the 80s the only real way to spread the word was to make cassette tapes of tracks and to mail them to various music magazines and fanzines, radio stations, and record labels. The process was time consuming and relatively expensive and did take a degree of effort with no chance of an instant reaction from the recipient. It would take many weeks or months. The current situation seems to fulfill the consumer agenda of instant gratification. People often don’t want to listen to an album, but just pull a single track. Music also seems to have a short shelf life. One of the things I’ve noticed as I’ve waded through the multiple zine sites is that they want new material. If it is more than a couple of weeks old, many of them are not interested, which I think is a shame. Surely it should be about bringing to the attention of the wider public the music that is out there, regardless of whether it is out in a month’s time or came out last week. But that appears to be the situation. 

How do you differentiate yourself from all of the noise and market saturation out there?  

I don’t deliberately differentiate myself from others. I do not have the musical ability to make those decisions. That may well be why despite the time difference in releases, listeners still pick up on that distinctive “sound” that I have. I cannot do things any other way. It is what it is. I also think that because I’ve taken the additional time, effort, and expense to produce a physical product, that too does set it apart from the many thousands of tracks that get uploaded every day on to Spotify or other similar sites.  

I have deliberately not placed anything from Submersion Therapy on Spotify. Whilst it’s great for consumers and it might be good for band profile, the rewards that the platform provides to the artists is paltry. I also took a long time to decide on the track running order for the album. Having it on vinyl and cassette meant that I had the additional issues of getting approximately equal lengths of music for each side. I would prefer the album to be listened too in its entirety, and whilst there might be a theme running through it in terms of sound, I do believe that the tracks are all different.

But yes, the market is very crowded, and it is difficult to stand out. Being constantly monitoring social media appears to be a necessary but often mundane task. People are obsessed by likes and follows. And there are gatekeepers and small groups that make it difficult to break into without the right contacts. But I guess it’s always been that way. 

One of the things that intrigued me the most was the handmade aspect of the vinyl and artwork. How has the response been from people who have received a hand-numbered, lathe-cut record? 

The inspiration was the “Reunion” compilation album by Manufactured Desire Records, that was produced in this way and was well received and sold very quickly—in 24 hours in fact. The reaction to the Submersion Therapy vinyl, and indeed the cassettes and CDs, has been very positive and gratifying. I took the cover photo probably 3 or 4 years ago and knew that I wanted to use it. I also wanted to design and produce a cover, j card or insert that included as much information as I reasonably could get together with the complete lyrics for the album. The vocals are often heavily processed or are put through a vocoder and I wanted listeners to understand them. Each CD, vinyl, or cassette has a hand cut and folded sleeve and notes and although it’s clearly not a mass-produced, “professional” job, I think it is a nice balance. It’s all done with a home laptop and standard printer—nothing fancy or professional. In that sense what I am doing now isn’t that far removed from the early 80s. Letraset, a typewriter, and access to a photocopier was the essential kit back then.

I would like to think the human element of producing not just the music but being literally “hands on” throughout does add something personal to the overall package.

The other thing that has surprised me a little is that listeners all have their own favourite tracks, rather than coalescing behind an obvious track or two. That has been a nice feature for me. It indicates that it’s a decent body of work. Some have chosen “Dancing on the Head of a Pin,” whilst “Truth” and “Coral Pink and Candy Coloured Sky” have been popular. But “Changing Skyline,” “Rising Water,” and “Tears” have all featured on various radio shows. I let the show producers play what they want rather than offer them a single track.

Can you discuss a bit about what sort of things you were thinking about—or were influenced by—while recording Submersion Therapy

The same things that everybody thinks about, I guess. I was asked quite recently what track is most representative of Negative Response both emotionally and creatively. That’s a tough one and a question that I can’t really answer. The last four years have been unprecedented in the unpredictability of a lot of things that we all took for granted. The UK also left the EU after 40 years of membership, which left a lot of people (still) feeling aggrieved. Couple that with the concerns over the natural environment, war and conflict, and of the ongoing impact of Covid 19 and it’s bound to have an impact on thoughts and reflections. Then there are the things that are much closer to you such as situations that arise in both family and work which all feed in consciously or subconsciously. But as you rightly state in your carefully considered review, this is not a Covid 19 album. Most of it was conceived and recorded long before that began. The themes covered in the album are, I think, timeless and could have featured at any time.

What are your thoughts about the connections people may make to your music and ideas that are perhaps not directly related, such as this idea of a “Covid 19 album”?

I have stated in the notes accompanying the album that the tracks were recorded between 2016 and 2020, so there isn’t much more to say. The only track recorded during the pandemic was “Tears”, the rest were conceived and recorded before that. Most of the mixing and the mastering took place during the pandemic. I sat in on the mixing when it was allowed and safe to do so. But the mixing sonically was not influenced by the pandemic, except that it took a lot longer to achieve due to the restrictions. I deliberately leave the album open to interpretation. I have my own images in my mind, and I hope that listeners will have their own. I have ensured that buyers of the physical formats have the full lyrics of all of the tracks. I use a variety of effects on the vocals, including vocoders, and so they can be difficult to distinguish but I would like listeners to have a clear understanding of what they are.

Do you have plans to continue releasing new music? What else is on the horizon for Negative Response?

The “success” or at least the feedback has been encouraging.  I’ve a waiting list for the vinyl and rather than fans of it paying inflated prices through other online sites, I’ve decided to organise a small final reissue of the lathe cut version.  It can be preordered now and should be available from mid-January 2022.

It’s quite likely that there will be a follow up, but I think it will take time because of the composition techniques that I use. Submersion Therapy in all took the best part of 4 years to come together and then there was the mixing and mastering, which due to various lockdowns took longer than expected. I hope to get to grips to better understand the full array of features in the equipment that I do have—which might include working out what to do with a midi cable!

Submersion Therapy is still very much the focus now. I did not do the “big bang” launch that most bands usually adopt. I just released it when the time felt right and am adding blogs and radio plays as I go along. I would hope that the Submersion Therapy collection will have some longevity just as the older 80s tracks have today.

I have been involved in providing a cover version of a Pete Shelley (Buzzcocks) song back in 2020 and if there is a second compilation I would hope to get involved once again. 

I’d also be hoping to play the infrequent live show. I’ve never been a regular performer—I like the idea of it, but it becomes quite stressful and I’m always extremely nervous whilst performing. But I enjoy it once it’s finished. As a solo artist it involves a lot of preparation and I use video as an accompaniment.

Do you film the video sequences yourself? What is the process there?

I make all of my own videos. They are pretty rudimentary, nothing fancy. They are often a mix of old black and white slides I used in the early 80s that I have now digitalised. Others are filmed in real time; some are taken from websites that offer free video clips for download and the remainder are excerpts taken from old movies and TV shows.  I then use basic software to edit the clips together. I have always used either slides or video when performing live. It offers a bit more interest for the audience to focus on. When I began to do it in 1981, it was inspired by a few acts that I had seen using it as an interesting accompaniment to the music which helped add to the atmosphere. It was not widely used then and was still regarded as a bit of a novelty. But nowadays it is pretty much normal and essential for an electronic act. But the balance is not for it to dominate but to complement.

Listen to and purchase Submersion Therapy here.

Kl(aüs) – Kl(aüs)

[Castles in Space, 2016]

Kl(aüs) is a project from Australian friends Stewart Lawler and Jonathan Elliott. I’ve just recently stumbled onto this group’s debut album, and took to this album immediately. With motorik beats, chugging bass synths, and gorgeous keys and orchestration overlaying bits of found sound and some additional odds and ends, this album fits nicely with the likes of Tangerine Dream, NEU!, Cluster, and Jean-Michel Jarre, while still maintaining a clearly defined sound of its own.

Where those artists’ albums can at times feel loose, meandering, or in some cases unpolished, Kl(aüs) is compact, deliberate, and focused throughout. These songs are driven by their underlying sequences, allowing the accompanying synths and additional effects to dance over the top. The songs remain rooted to the motorik aspects, working with a fully solidified foundation upon which additional instrumentation builds, layer upon layer, sometimes into beautiful, lengthy crescendos.

“Three Sheets” starts with such a sequence that never relinquishes its influence on the direction of the song until the very end, finally fading out in favor of gentle keys.

“Proof Portal” picks up where “Three Sheets” leaves off with soft strings surrounding a processed flute while hi-hat and a bass sequence slowly fade in. These touchstones of mid to late 70s electronica, including generous use of chimes, recall classic science fiction scores and works by Vangelis, Tangerine Dream, and Michael Stearns’ Planetary Unfolding.

The remainder of Kl(aüs) is much the same, however never approaching sameness to the point of being boring. The album is full of warm washes of beautifully-played synths and rhythmic sequences, with Lawler and Elliott in clear sync with one another. It’s an album best listened to actively and in full, but I’ve found that placing it on in the background is just as rewarding.

Since releasing this album, Kl(aüs) have produced a second LP (2020’s 2) and a live album, all for Castles in Space. The first two LPs have long since sold out, leaving people such as myself clamoring for repressings. As of this writing, there are still copies left of the live album, however. I expect that we’ll be hearing more from this group in the near future, and I am very much looking forward to it.

You can purchase the digital albums and additional merchandise on the band’s Bandcamp space: https://only1klaus.bandcamp.com/

Negative Response – Submersion Therapy

[Negative Products, 2021]

Negative Response, the minimal synth group which began in 1980, is back with its first new material since 1983. And it’s quite an achievement! The nine tracks found on Submersion Therapy instantly recall cold wave/minimal wave from that period, while still feeling forward-thinking and edgy. This is incredible minimal wave synth and post-punk you’d expect to find on a label like Dais Records or Sacred Bones, but is surprisingly (and amazingly) self-released by the artist. Each track glistens and warbles with a vintage iciness, with vocals laden with vocoder and murky effects. Equal parts John Foxx, late stage Joy Division, and ADULT.

Album opener, “Dancing on the Head of a Pin” kicks off with a Cold War-era-sounding synth sequence, quickly accompanied by some modulated strings. Vocals are run through a vocoder, and the effect is otherworldly—the song’s imagery suggesting rebirth of something not quite benevolent: “Emerging from the wreckage that lay scattered on the ground / A flaming cape of orange. A ruthless sense of right and wrong…. He was blessed. / Or just losing his mind.”

It’s a strong start to an album filled with such sentiments. Throughout, there is a sense of the unnatural awakening itself, fighting to control itself in its new environment. “Artificial”‘s narrator is a sentient being with “no emotion to speak of” and a borrowed personality. It is searching for itself in a foreign world, finds itself with “strange feelings taking hold.”

“Truth” continues this model, infusing a chugging bass synth, surrounded by a wall of strings and twinkling bells, with the narrator grasping at the existential “did you find your truth”.

However, for me, it’s the standout “Coral Pink and Candy Coloured Sky” that really melds these ominous sounds in the most exciting way. The song’s beginning throws the listener for a bit of a loop, accenting the counter rhythm with what could be described as ultra-modulated horn blurts before the song kicks into gear with some thunderous drums. It blends the best the album has to offer in terms of the depth of tones of the synths, robotic vocals, and metronomic drum machine—with a narrator, reacting to an alien-feeling, multicolored sunset, and who states “far from home this is a strange land, / Stranger than I’ve ever known.”

These are sentiments that are not uncommon to this genre of music, but they lend themselves perfectly to the mechanical, precise rhythms presented here. Perhaps not a direct connection to the pandemic, and for that I’m fairly thankful, it’s a great example of minimal wave/post punk in the 2020’s as we’ve become separated from the lives we once knew, only to find ourselves rebirthed in a new reality in which we’re searching for answers.

You can find the album for sale on Negative Response’s Bandcamp page, and the lathed, handmade vinyl is an absolute treat and highly recommended as well!

Purchase here: https://negativeresponse3.bandcamp.com/album/submersion-therapy-2

John Carpenter – Lost Themes III: Alive After Death

[Sacred Bones, 2021]

If you love John Carpenter’s past work as much as I do, you’ll already be aware of this album. If you are new to John Carpenter (dear god, how could you be???), know this: those late 80’s-90’s synth-driven horror soundtracks to films you grew up with are most likely inspired by him. His latest with his son, Cody and Godson, Daniel Davies is another fantastic entry into his non-soundtrack library. Although this time around, they are spreading their wings a bit more. “Dripping Blood,” “Turning the Bones,” and “Dead Eyes” are reminiscent of Carpenter’s more subtle work on soundtracks like Christine or Halloween III: Season of the Witch, while songs like “Vampire’s Touch” and “Cemetery” reach for the rawness of some of Carpenter’s more sonically invigorating pieces. Highlights include “Weeping Ghost,” “Skeleton,” and “The Dead Walk.” Grab a copy as soon as you can from Sacred Bones. Or, you know, don’t and miss out on some cool shit.

Buy here: https://www.sacredbonesrecords.com/collections/frontpage/products/sbr265-john-carpenter-lost-themes-iii-alive-after-death

Or buy here: https://johncarpentermusic.bandcamp.com/album/lost-themes-iii-alive-after-death

Imaginary Softwoods – Annual Flowers in Color

[Mineral Disc, 2020]

As a fan of late 2000s/early 2010s ambient/electronic group Emeralds, I was somewhat familiar with John Elliott’s work in Outer Space. Somewhere in the aftermath of Emerald’s demise, and in the midst of diving into each member’s solo and extended catalogs, I criminally leapt over his outstanding work in his Imaginary Softwoods.

This is happy, hopeful music. Drenched in the bittersweet chord progressions are swaths of glittering, plucking peaks; within the layers of symphonic chorus and floating, delayed swells of ethereal keys, oscillating arpeggios dance as if soaking in the late summer’s dawn.

It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and finds the beauty in late 70s sci-fi schlock scores as much as in contemporary neo-classical tomes of Max Richter and Steve Reich. There is as much Double Fantasy’s Universal Ave in these pieces as there is Harold Budd’s The Pearl and Reich’s tape loops.

“Aura Show” opens with something that sounds much like a singing bowl. The calm and gently swaying waves soon give way to a deep undercurrent slowly churning up the surface before slinking back into the depths, leaving the sun gleaming off the bouncing wake. The song culminates in the light, its lasting impression a vision of sighing breezes on sheer curtains.

“Destination Stone’s” dreamy, echoing analog synths are bookended by a set of glitchy scratches, distant long-forgotten video game sounds, and off-key carnival ephemera. It’s like stepping though a shattered crystal door, into a hall of mirrors, then back through the crystal door.

All this said, the album is remarkable from front to back, whether actively listening or as a mood-setter in late afternoon—or actively listening in late afternoon, as I’ve found it to be most enjoyable. It’s also a solid notice that I have a lot of catching up to do on Elliott’s catalog. I’m starting right away.

Listen to or purchase the green and red vinyl editions here: https://imaginarysoftwoods.bandcamp.com/album/annual-flowers-in-color-2020-remaster

Protomartyr – Ultimate Success Today

[Domino, 2020]

Protomartyr is back with another blistering take on the current political climate, our failures as a species, and our dreary future. This feels intensely apt in the age of Coronavirus, but when one considers this album was written last year, it feels nothing short of visionary. Joe Casey’s lyrics remain as sharp as ever, getting to the disgusting heart of society’s issues. And as always, if you can’t stomach it, he is all the more happy.

The instrumentation has matured once again, this time adding saxophone, synths, and woodwinds—the drawn out woodwinds on “Michigan Hammers” is a particularly nice touch. This album rips… in more ways than one.

Listen and Purchase here: https://protomartyr.bandcamp.com/album/ultimate-success-today

Leif – Loom Dream

[Whities, 2019]

Found sounds, droney backdrops, natural elements, ethereal woodwinds, and sequenced chimes. Leif Knowles creates a feeling of pastoral mystery—the feeling you get when dusk hits, the fireflies come out, and fog sets in. There’s no dreariness to it. On the contrary, it’s an album overflowing with wonder and intrigue. Leif sounds excited as he weaves these songs together: all pinpricks and dopamine.

“Myrtus” is a standout, with its sequenced African xylophone and humming, softly ringing tones. I absolutely love this album and listen to it on repeat.

Listen and purchase here: https://leifsounds.bandcamp.com/album/loom-dream

Kate NV – Room for the Moon

[RVNG Intl., 2020]

Russian musician Kate NV’s new album, Room for the Moon, expands on the minimalist synth pop from 2018’s для FOR. As with that album, analog synths garble, bleep, and thump, but this time around NV is much more polished. There is an immediacy to this album that was slightly missing from her previous efforts. The growth is noticeable, her voice is more confident, and her songwriting skills are sharp. As with all Kate NV albums, there remains a level of quirkiness certain to delight fans but risk a widespread embrace. It’s what sets her apart, however, and it is what will ultimately allow her to build an enduring legacy. Check it out if you like Japanese minimalism, Yellow Magic Orchestra, or analog synth pop in general.

Purchase vinyl, digital, cd, or cassette here: https://katenv.bandcamp.com/album/room-for-the-moon

Tokyo Shoegazer – Crystallize

[299 Japan Records, 2011]

This long lost gem of shoegaze has finally gotten the vinyl release it so much deserved by Light in the Attic. The music here is quintessential shoegaze. They open with a bang. Crystallize begins by throwing what feels like all of the guitar pedal effects one can muster at the listener. It’s a dizzying experience, and can be disarming upon first listen, but listeners who stick around are rewarded for their effort.

From there, they launch into “Just Alright,” a much more subdued piece that leans heavily on dreampop.

The real star here is “Bright.” Tokyo Shoegaze combines the squall of My Bloody Valentine, the harmonies of Lush, the vocals of Elizabeth Fraser, and some tight drumming to create a sound that is instantly recognizable, yet wholly their own.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many places you can listen to this album in full other than YouTube. If you like what you hear there, I highly recommend purchasing the new pressing from Light in the Attic and Graveface.

Purchase vinyl here: https://lightintheattic.net/releases/5538-crystallize