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Review Batch: Jeff Mercel / Cloud Diameter / VUM / M. Shutak

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Jeff Mercel – Lunescapes Volume One

Lunescapes Volume One, the debut release by Jeff Mercel (former member of Mercury Rev), is a beautiful record with glistening and articulate piano accompanied by strings, pedal steel guitar, and self-described “sonic manipulations.” The contributions to this album by Jonathan Talbott, Jane Scarpantoni, D. James Goodwin, and Matthew Cullen on the aforementioned instruments should not be understated. All of the melodic lines and musical exchanges that occur on this record seem to happen for a reason. This is not an ambient album of random notes: at the very least it doesn’t sound like one.

Upon listening to this record early in the morning I was struck with the technical proficiency of Jeff Mercel on the piano. I wasn’t surprised to learn he’s done extensive work for film and television. In my opinion, he could be playing classical concertos in concert halls if that was something he desired artistically. Some people just have a natural feel for the dynamics of a piano and some don’t: Mercel falls in the former category much to the enjoyment of the listener.

There’s something brooding yet hopeful about this collection of songs. It seems contradictory, but the music can be very somber and suddenly shift into a more upbeat melody only to descend back into bleak repetition. It makes for an engaging listen, and it helps that none of the tracks are too long. I think a lot of ambient musicians bite off more than they can chew in terms of song length.

Lunescapes Volume One is as much a contemporary classical album as it is an ambient one. With an admittedly limited knowledge of contemporary classical and ambient music, I’m reminded of Harold Budd’s work with Eno on the famous Ambient 2. Mercel sounds every bit as good a pianist as Budd on here and I think if this album finds the proper audience there’s a lot of potential for it. I’d recommend this album to anyone who enjoys classical or ambient music.


Cloud Diameter – S/T

The self-titled release by Cloud Diameter has really nice sonic textures and attention to detail. Just the right amount of glitch: not too heavy, but enough to scare the neighbors if you crank it. There’s a lot of beautiful synth sounds here that evoke the late 70s and early 80s experimentations of Manuel Gottsching. The key to interesting ambient synth lines in my opinion is achieving repetition without sounding dull. Cloud Diameter are more than capable of doing this and use this talent to create a vast soundscape that pervades the length of their LP.

Is this a straightforward ambient album? Perhaps a bit too engaging, but still subtle enough to function as background music for some activity. However, the minimalism here is not meant to be consumed as background music. There’s too much thought put into the bleeps and bloops of Cloud Diameter to write it off as just another glitchy lo-fi ambient record. The sounds kind of wash over you in the same way that a lot of Brian Eno’s material does. If this was made with digital and/or soft synths it sounds very warm.

A rarity for me with an ambient album is I was inspired to spin the record immediately again after my first listen. The depth here is what separates it from albums made by Cloud Diameter’s peers. Occasionally the synthesizers go into these fun quick runs but then dial back. I could definitely see Cloud Diameter doing soundtrack work.

I’d recommend the self-titled Cloud Diameter album to any fan of ambient or experimental music. It succeeds on a lot of levels and is clearly the product of skilled musicianship. Highly recommended.


VUM – Fractal Ladie (single)

Vum describes their new single, “Fractal Ladie,” as “a 7.5 minute banger for the love of Bowie and James Chance.” While I hear those influences in “Fractal Ladie,” I feel like with the keyboard lead the song takes much more influence from Neu! and the krautrock movement as a whole. Fans of krautrock will find a lot to enjoy here. Somehow Vum managed to recreate the synth sound from Neu!’s debut record and use it liberally over this jam, with minimal vocals and subdued guitar. Recommended for any fan of experimental music, especially for fans of krautrock.


M. Shutak – The Widow’s House

The Widows House, the debut release by M Shutak on Irish label Wow and Flutter is a beautiful record filled with some of the best piano playing I’ve heard on an ambient release. I was reminded of Brian Eno and Harold Budd’s Ambient 2. The record also isn’t very long so it doesn’t require too much of a commitment. The duo of Gregory O’Brien and Gary Morrison did a good job self-describing this album as “a record which sounds like an old creaking house in springtime with the windows left open.” It feels very appropriate for this time of year.

The combination of piano with strings and non-traditional sounds like toy piano creates an odd but relaxing atmosphere. I was reminded of the trip I took to Ireland my senior year of high school, and the gorgeous pastures I saw in the countryside. The Widows House isn’t a country record, but perhaps this is an Irish country record in a way? I’d recommend it for any fan of ambient music. A very promising debut.


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Author: Sam Wade

Classical violinist and piano player. Mostly self-taught guitarist took lessons with Vic Juris who was sampled for Gang Starr's Mass Appeal hit. Appeared in Music of the Heart with Meryl Streep (d. by Wes Craven.) Long-time home-recording artist.

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