Oval maneuvers in elliptical fashion between experimental and pop music. At one extreme, there’s methodology: Markus Popp (since 1995, the project’s sole participant) selects parameters and sees what they yield. At the other, there’s frame of reference: No matter how alien his sounds get, they make the most sense in relationship to pop music. Sometimes the constraints have involved hardware (source your sounds from vandalized CDs, or put away your Mac and work with an off-the-shelf PC) or software (write your own and let people play with it in an installation, or put exclusively store-bought stuff in that PC). But the material derives from Popp’s current perspective on a few decades of popular music.
When Oval started in 1991, nostalgia for prior phases of electronic music had not yet soaked into the mainstream. But now, a full-grown listener can program a playlist around the beats or synth sounds of their youth. Or their parents’ courtship. Or … So with Scis, Popp has riffled through his own back pages, drawing from his dalliances with glitchy and freeze-dried organic sounds, as well as fleeting memory prompts from the past few decades of dance-oriented electronic music. His compositional approach combines months of painstaking construction and real-time action in which he added samples during live playthroughs of the tracks. The results probably won’t get you on the dance floor, since Popp’s way too willing to interrupt the groove with a beat-free interlude. But they might set you to wriggling in your chair while you give it a good spin. Temporally unfixed and sonically unmoored, Scis is actually pretty psychedelic stuff.
Matthew Shipp has often applied the word “cosmic” to his music. While there’s nothing at all spacey about his bold touch on the piano keys, his approach does tap into a deeply submerged logic. Invisible Light, a live recording made at a Brazilian jazz festival in 2016, allows the listener to follow Shipp’s associative processes as he threads through 11 themes in a little more than an hour. He moves between self-penned pieces like “Blue In Orion” and “Gamma Ray” (which display his boundary-dispelling combination of classically informed structure and jazz-wise melody) and jazz standards like a practiced meditator plumbing the collective unconscious.
Sometimes the shifts are as sudden as a slam on the keyboard, other times as gradual as a natural awakening from that nap you didn’t know you were going to take. But when you string them together, you can see how “On Green Dolphin Street” and “Symbol Systems” connect on a cosmic level. In Shipp’s hands, each opens up to the sublime.
Joseph Allred is on a roll. In the last year, he has released a CD-R, two tapes and three LPs on various labels, and each has its own character. Traveler constitutes both an advancement of the goal posts and a reckoning with the Tennessee-bred/, Massachusetts-based Allred’s current place on the musical map.
A multi-instrumentalist and sound experimenter with a strong grasp of folk forms, he confines himself to voice and stringed instruments on Traveler. Each instrument serves a particular function. A pair of banjo instrumentals affirm the rustic roots of his music. Allred uses the dense sonics of the 12-string acoustic guitar to evoke mystery and induce reverie, working within a field cleared before him by Robbie Basho and James Blackshaw. On “Single Me A Stranger,” the lap-steel acoustic guitar tethers Allred to the bluesy heritage of John Fahey and Jack Rose. And the six-string acoustic guitar is a multi-purpose tool. On “The Giant Who Shrank Himself,” Allred uses it to pay tribute to another contemporary American Primitive elder, Glenn Jones, by showing just how much he has learned from the guy. On the title track, it’s a platform for his high, reedy voice, which Allred has never used with so much precision or confidence.
The instrumental music on Traveler acknowledges Allred’s place within the lineage of American Primitive guitarists; he knows the music’s foundations, and uses that understanding to make work that’s just as emotionally and historically deep as his forbears. But he also has things to communicate directly about belonging and displacement, and on Traveler, he puts those messages into words with similar fluency.
In the Old Testament, Absalom is a guy so good looking, popular and sure of himself that he gets away with just about everything—until he doesn’t. Donovan Quinn’s first solo album in seven years begins with a declaration that he’s not going down that road, then spends the rest of its playing time sifting through memories of the recklessness that has made such a declaration necessary. Quinn views bad relationships, bad band experiences and the substances that go along with such circumstances through a haze of self-justification. It’s no small thing to portray fuzzy thinking as clearly as Quinn does here, but that’s not his only accomplishment.
Backed by a small band that includes members of the Papercuts and Six Organs Of Admittance, Quinn has made an album that’s easy to listen to from start to finish. The San Francisco-based multi-instrumentalist has a catalog of great guitar sounds at his disposal, and he’s a master at arranging his tunes so that they echo a lineage—Dylan, Lennon, Big Star, T.Rex, etc.—accurately enough that you know exactly where he’s coming from. But then Quinn takes you somewhere new.
Enhet För Fri Musik (“Unit For Free Music”) is a quintet whose music will defy you to accurately date its origin, let alone know what the band is singing about. This is a sort of underground all-stars combo, and if membership in other groups like Neutral, Sewer Election or Blod means nothing to you, rest assured that Enhet för Fri Musik is nothing like the harsh noise and brutal songcraft of its members other outfits.
There are easy-to-track similarities with New Zealand’s Xpressway diaspora in the use of antique organs, rough analog recording and rougher editing. But the vibe Enhet För Fri Musik is going for may be more like an update of Sweden’s communal, anyone-can-walk-in-and-contribute vibe of hippie outfits from the 1960s and 1970s. The style jumps from folky strumming to churchy recital, from motor-skills-deficient free jazz to century-spanning sound collage, with Sofie Herner’s conversational, Swedish-only vocal delivery the main unifying factor on a record that is in constant flux. It all feels simultaneously intriguing and quite foreign, and in a shrinking world, the ability to create the experience of barely bridgeable distance commands respect.