Reviews originally published in Issue 64 of Electronic Sound magazine, April 2020:
(Third Kind Tapes)
“You’ll be tempted to mention Wendy Carlos,” admits Nikmis. With his surname spelt forwards, he is Japanese-based Canadian musician William Simkin, and he is keen to pre-empt the comparison. “Don’t be ashamed, everyone does.” Alright, then: Wendy Carlos. It’s inevitable. What Nikmis creates are complex, classical suites performed on DIY modular synths of his own manufacture, so it would be almost perverse not to namecheck the woman who pretty much single-handedly invented the genre. But he’s right to be a little frustrated by the constant comparison. Because, make no mistake, Nikmis is his own artist. He has an originality of both composition and performance that isn’t so much him much ploughing his own furrow as cordoning off the entire field and declaring it his own, rather beautiful realm.
Jawbone is his eighteenth album. Eighteenth! It does have track titles: ‘Emma Jean’ is a soothing lullaby intended to calm Simkin’s baby daughter, ‘Onegaishimasu’ a stately, playful piece whose title derives from the formal, multi-purpose Japanese greeting, delivered – like the track itself – with unfailing politeness. But essentially Jawbone consists of two-half hour suites, both of which are so teeming with breathtaking melodic invention that they sometimes threaten to collapse under the weight of their own genius. The album soars and swoops, it ebbs and flows, it bloody well dances.
Simkin cites Dvorak as an early influence, and the opening side arguably wears the more overt classical influences. There is the playfulness of Mozart, the elegant poise of Beethoven; and let’s quit now while still appearing to know vaguely what we’re talking about. Side 2 occasionally has a slightly more reflective feel, and there are even field recordings of what is quite possibly the Tokyo Metro, alongside fleeting, subliminal hints of traditional Japanese court music. But then closing track ‘Vint’ explodes into wonderfully wistful tunefulness, and departs with a final musical joke from Nikmis: a snatch of the ukulele upon which he claims to have composed the entire, magnificent opus.
It’s glorious and transportative, a ray of mad, melodic sunshine. Never mind Switched-On Bach. This is Switched-On Nikmis.
Death Ship 2047
(Spun Out Of Control)
How to create the sound of an experimental spaceship emerging from a rip in the space-time continuum, bearing malevolent entities from a hell-like alternate dimension? With pitch-black synths and industrial-strength percussion, of course. Seasoned film buffs will recognise the plot of cult 1997 film Event Horizon, and a mooted TV reboot has prompted Andy Fosberry to create this pounding tribute to a dark sci-fi classic.
And good grief, it’s atmospheric. Epic opening track ‘A Decaying Orbit Around Neptune’ is filled with foreboding and a sense of helpless isolation. And while ‘Infinite Space’ sends deceptive layers of ambient sound drifting gracefully through the Solar System, ‘Meatgrinder’ provides a sucker punch of pulse-quickening, breath-stopping horror, the sound of unspeakable alien nightmares in claustrophobic corridors. “Liberate tutemet ex inferis” is the film’s sinister catchphrase – literally, “Save yourself from Hell”. Fosberry’s album occasionally drags the listener back to the brink of damnation, but it does so with thrilling, no-holds-barred gusto.
Veteran prog fans may sometimes be tempted to bemoan the modern dearth of fantastical derring-do in their genre of choice. But fear not! Magic Sword are here, and salvation is at hand. Comprising ‘The Keeper of the Magic Sword’ (keyboards), ‘The Seer of All Truths’ (guitar), and ‘The Weaver of All Hearts and Souls’ (drums), this masked and cloaked trio are reportedly from Boise, Idaho. But, in reality, they bestride a distant realm where the release of the Lord of Shadow from his ancient prison has, verily, rent the land asunder.
And, as a side effect, created a gloriously overblown concoction that sounds like the massed armies of Judas Priest battling the dark forces of John Carpenter on the ancient plains of Concept Album Valhalla. It’s terrific fun! There’s a thunderous opening track called ‘Depths of Power’, a windswept synth workout called ‘Shores Of Oblivion’, and ‘Ritual’ is the sound of the funkiest wizards in the kingdom invoking the spirit of Daft Punk. And check out the accompanying graphic novels by Shay Plummer – they’re genuinely beautiful.
THE HEARTWOOD INSTITUTE AND PANAMINT MANSE
(Castles In Space)
In which a trans-Atlantic collaboration between Cumbria’s Heartwood Institute and California’s Panamint Manse produces a ripping musical homage to that most 1970s of supernatural obsessions: Extra Sensory Perception. As the voices of po-faced academics drift from long-abandoned research facilities, perky synths evoke buried memories of Tomita, Jean-Michel Jarre and even Space’s ‘Magic Fly’. British listeners will be transported to Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers. US fans may recall Leonard Nimoy In Search Of…. Both are equally valid responses to such stimuli.
There’s almost a dual sense of nostalgia here. Later tracks – ‘Mesmercuria’ and ‘Precognition’ in particular – have the feel of the earliest Ghost Box releases, and fans of formative works by Belbury Poly or The Advisory Circle may find themselves transported to 2006 as much as 1977. Either way, it remains the perfect soundtrack to whiskery weirdos in generously-lapelled lab coats urging doe-eyed students to move chess pieces by the power of thought alone. Somewhere between the Lake District and Death Valley, an uncanny telepathic link has been forged.
Enter The Mirror
Maserati celebrate their 20th anniversary with an album that completes their musical journey from hushed post-rock to epic stadium anthems. Opening segue ‘2020 / A Warning In The Dark’ sets the tone, a moody collision of dystopian, distorted vocal and doom-laden synth-rock. And once founder members Coley Dennis and Matt Cherry set to work with thunderous Edge-style guitars, we’re into full-on 80s arena territory; the band have even cited Phil Collins and INXS as influences. Album closer ‘Wallwalker’ is the clincher: mighty and muscular, it’s Simple Minds in knuckledusters.
After Lights Out with Tom Harding
(This Is It Forever)
Insomniacs and arachnophobes alike may find this a little raw. International collective Capac collaborate with poet Tom Harding on a beautifully unsettling evocation of the troubled thoughts and sounds that accompany chronic sleeplessness. ‘Night Work’ pulses like an anxious heartbeat in the darkness; ‘The Spider’ suggests the patter of spindly legs across skirting boards. Horror soundtrack pianos tinkle, and Harding’s narration is wearily deadpan. “A book upturned on a page I’ve read, and re-read, a thousand times…” An album where the dawn feels perpetually out of reach.
(Third Kind Tapes)
With a human touch that belies its origins in fractal software, Strange Systems unfolds like a bright, May morning. Swiss-based Lally takes inspiration from the long-form minimalism of Reich and Glass to create a fresh, invigorating and utterly beguiling collection with an oddly rustic feel. ‘A Swarm Of Birds Off the Dorset Coast’ sets the tone, opening the album with nine minutes of algorithmic tenderness, but penultimate track ‘Mindscapes’ is the stand-out, an ambient, hallucinogenic experience on a windswept cliff edge. Dangerously mesmeric.
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