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Consciousness, and other Tricks of the Light by Ben Cox
- posted by Jonathan Widran on 7/24/2020
Consciousness, and other tricks of the light
In a true sign of this strange and challenging pandemic filled era known as 2020, recorded and livestreamed music has played an important role in helping us collectively mourn the old world, cope with the day to day “new normal” and find emotional and spiritual joy in the midst whenever possible.

Most of the recordings that have been released for our enjoyment and enrichment during COVI-19 were conceived and created before the universe shifted – but there’s a thought I’ve been writing over and over every time I feel an artist and album meet the moment in beautiful unanticipated ways.

As I wrap my conscious and subconscious minds around the inventive, sonically expansive astral journey composer and synth master Ben Cox takes us on with provocatively titled new collection Consciousness, and other tricks of the light, these words bear repeating because they apply: “There is something wondrous and inspiring about artists whose insight into the human condition, world affairs and our spiritual needs allows them to create works that serve to meet the moment.”

Up till now, I have mostly applied that sentiment to gentle, meditative new age works that were clearly designed to calm the nerves and soothe the spirit – a most helpful notion during a time of fear and uncertainty. But chilling out is only one way to venture beyond our present and all too problematic concerns. No offense to those artists and their excellent much appreciated projects, but the other option, and a much more fascinating and engaging one, is to create something that’s like an audio version of “Star Wars,” taking us to a far-off galaxy of unlimited sonic detail and creativity.

Cox’s rich and insightful understanding of Consciousness is one that allows our imaginations to run wild and create our own reality far away from the present world. That would be a powerful gift in any place and time, but it’s even more meaningful and necessary during a global pandemic.

As you listen, you’ll realize that the collection is best enjoyed as a full on 40 minute through-line, but the fact that each of the six tracks is crafted (or channeled, since these sonic concepts are truly otherworldly) via a blend of analog and digital synthesis helps us regress into a more innocent past even as we progress forward into uncharted territory fueled by our own needs and desires.

Perhaps because the ultimate spiritual result of Cox’s expedition is up to each individual listener, it’s best not to lead the witness. Yet a few humble comments might help guide your own path through this. “Einstein’s Cross” is organic synth funk with live sounding high hat and mind-bending echoing harmonics. It’s a fanciful adventure using soaring (and sometimes brassy) synth sounds grounded in the groove. It’s also notable for its spoken word vocal (something about gravity and symmetry) that may remind those of a certain age of Paul Hardcastle’s hypnotic mid-80’s hit “19.” The eight and a half minute “Delta Waves” is relaxing, spacey and atmospheric, but deeply core-vibrational and infused with sonic sparkles that rattle the heart and mind to make sure we’re not drifting too far off and can pay attention to the next stop on the astral journey.

Full disclaimer before commenting on the trippy and hypnotic six-minute gem “Just Begin Again” at the center of the excursion: I’m a big classic rock fan. So the minute I heard the spacey, “out there” riff patterns ping ponging in each ear – a foundational undertone throughout the piece – I’m thinking this is the kind of stuff Pete Townshend did to animate all our favorite classics from The Who. The tune picks up energy, speed and subtle bass tones, but the “Who without Roger Daltrey” effect endures mystically throughout.

“Now” plays similar aural tricks with the echoing effect of its hypno-chimes bouncing from ear to ear, and those keep going – artfully modulated for colorful variety - as Cox creates a dark bass driven counterpoint with moody, mysterious immersive energies. If that’s truly our “Now,” it’s a place we can exhale before we return to the stranger reality of present-day life on earth. As we try to figure out what the title “Chirality” means, we can let our mind’s eye soar along the ambient rock highway, where atmospheres provide intense backdrops for crisp, edgy electric guitar sounds.

At two and a half minutes, this is a nice respite leading up to the massive crescendo of the Consciousness experience, a 13-minute deep dive into a world of airy, breathtaking ambience, contrasting shards of darkness and light and curious and slowly crawling, synth generated creatures that tickle our ears as they wait for more shards of dawn to emerge. The press materials call these “tiny metallic tinkling echoes, perhaps in a huge dark cave well after midnight.” If you believe in such things, spending extended time in this arena of peculiar characters and textures may be your ticket to a past life regression or future life projection.

Wherever you go, it’s still the trip of a lifetime, limited only by the parameters of your own spirit and imagination and driven by an artist whose faith in the power of sonics knows no bounds.

As a bonus for the tech-heads, Mix magazine crowd and synthesizer nerds, in an interview about his methodology by music writer Robin James, Cox revealed his preferences for the My Eurorack modular, Moog Voyager (Anniversary Edition), Dave Smith Instruments Pro 2, Nord Modular G2, DSI/Oberheim OB-6, a pair of Moog Mother-32, Novation UltraNova, Moog Little Phatty, and a Roland JV-2080. Instrument used: Line6 Variax JTV-59, Helix Rack Software used: Avid Pro Tools, Plugins from u-he, Native Instruments, Eventide, McDSP, Waves, Lexicon, Arturia, iZotope, FabFilter, Csound Hardware used: Focusrite Red8Pre and Red16Line audio interfaces (DigiLink, Dante), Avid Pro Tools HDX, Artist Mix, Focal Trio6BE+Sub6, and a TC Electronic M3000.
Rating: Very Good +
Full of Life by John Gregorius
- posted by Steve Mecca on 7/24/2020
John Gregorius: Full Of Life
'Full Of Life' is ambient guitarist/composer John Gregorius's 3rd release on the Spotted Peccary label. Sorry I missed the other two, so this album is my only frame of reference for the artist.
According to the label promo sheet, 'Full Of Life' "...is a free-flowing, sincere set of compositions brought to life by the time-honored ensemble of guitar, bass and drums, all richly augmented by synth ambiences, electronic beats, and ambient guitar atmospheres. Moody and elegant, the album's melodic passages and tonal textures guide the listener on a delightful discovery of painted vistas and unfolding beauty." Yes, that's typical label flavor text, but what are we really listening to here? I'll get to that in a moment. First I should mention that Gregorius moved from his home in Southern California to the Sonoran Desert of Tuscon, Arizona (a place I've actually been, albeit briefly), after finishing his last album, 'Still Voice' in 2016. I imagine that kind of change really has an influence on one's outlook, as well as on their creativity. It must be an introspective, quiet and peaceful sort of effect that sets in after awhile. Such is the music on 'Full Of Life,' or life in the slow lane.

To be perfectly honest, I didn't much care for the album after the first couple of listenings. To me, it sounded generic, and too similar throughout. I could almost hear it being used as background music for The Weather Channel when no commentators were present as the screen flashed forecasts, temperatures and weather icons. I guess I wasn't really listening though, because after that, something happened that really made me like this album. The simple themes John was exploring just somehow broke through and massage the happy places in my brain. Yes, there is a degree of homogeneity running through the twelve tracks that clock in a little under an hour, but I think that's more due to the instruments and sounds used than the compositions. You can't really say that opening track "The Expansive Sky" with its downtempo shogazer atmosphere sounds anything like the Enoesque "Early Reflection" with its elongated ambiences and sparse melodicism.

Where melodic themes are presented, they are simple, but there is still a degree of wonder in that simplicity. Listening to the title track ("Full Of Life") I'm reminded of Pat Metheny, and how he could take something fairly simple and make it sound rich and complex. (And you know, Pat did occasionally have an ambient side in his music.)
Sometimes other musical elements appear, as on "Path Of Renewal" with violin and cello (courtesy of Kayla Applegate) playing the main theme while Gregorius fills in the spaces between. What initially struck me as "guitar noodling" is actually very adept but discreet soloing. And yes, there are ample examples of shoegaze atmospheres, such as on "Blanket of Stars" where gauzy guitar swirls in the piece filtered through the light streaming through echoey panes. There is also a definite emotional quality to 'Full Of Life'. Halfway through "Winds Of Change" when the sparse ambient section gives way to the fuller portion with the fingerpicked ostinato chords over a simple beat and some backing strings you could imagine Nick Drake (if he were still alive) singing a plaintive melody over it. "Wellspring" sounds like a pop song for a low key pop band, and there's a good chance that if a decent one had come up with this they'd have had a hit. Kimberly Daniels' wordless vocals on "Monsoon Clearing" are so subtle you're likely to miss them in the first listening of the album, but they do add quite a bit. It's little touches like this that make 'Full Of Life' extraordinary. It all ends fittingly enough with the amelodic elongated ambient piece "Rincon Fading Light" and here once again I'm reminded of Brian Eno. When you can amalgamate your influences into something that is a cohesive whole and yet sounds like no particular one as Gregorius does on this album, then you really have something.
Rating: Very Good +
Hidden Flowers by Masako
- posted by Artisan Music Reviews on 7/21/2020
Hidden Flowers
Masako
Hidden Flowers

When I was a small child I used to go on walks with my mother and we would admire the flowers. She told me that flowers are “poor man’s jewels”. If this be so, then pianist and composer Masako’s latest album Hidden Flowers is an abundance of musical wealth. This 12 track album is blooming with contemporary piano music, some solo and others light, accompanied instrumentals. All are guaranteed to delight the senses. Masako started playing piano at age four, and composing a year later. An award winning pianist, Masako renders a velvet touch on the keys and in this case, her work is augmented by producer Will Ackermann and Master Engineer Tom Eaton. Joining her on the album are some talented musicians from Imaginary Road Studios.
When you exit the doors at Harajuku Station in the Shibuya District outside of Tokyo, the world opens before you in vibrant colors that dazzle the eyes and exciting sounds that defy description. Masako’s opening solo piano tune, Harajuku Memoir is an engaging song of treasured memories created in colorful tones and multiple moods; some sentimental, others as precious as diamonds. All are unforgettable.
There is something warmly nostalgic about Masako’s tune Age of Flowers. It is the soft fanfare on the first arrival of Lily of the Valley in that shady spot in the side yard. It is a quiet melody of long, dusty rows of nodding sunflowers under an azure summer sky. It is the sonic perfume of honeysuckle that grows wild and hangs on the fence like a leafy curtain. Premik Russell Tubb’s wind synth is just a buzzing bee while Eugene Friesen’s cello lends breezy notes to the scene.
Masako’s solo piano tune Remember the Rainy Day is melancholy, but it a good way. It’s the memories. The day you can’t forget where the weather person called for a light misty day, but the clouds opened up and you both got so wet. Still holding hands, you laughed all the way to the car. The positive power of Masako’s melody changes the calamity into a love story that was made in heaven.
Observing M31 became a favorite right away. Mixing Jeff Hayes thoughtful percussion, Tubb’s friendly horn, and Noah Wilding’s transparent background vocal, Masako’s piano voices an effortless, lively tribute to star gazing at its best. The Andromeda Galaxy never looked so good on that night. Sounds good, too.
Another of my favorites on Hidden Flowers is called Forgiving. Though bitterness and resentment may be carried about like a bag of rocks on your back, the grace of forgiving is like dropping that burden down a bottomless well. The tune is just Masako’s piano and the delicate voice of Wilding as they combine to make the act light as well as reverent. A beautiful tune.
Cello and piano blend seamlessly on the poetically balanced tune Suddenly Cherry Blossoms. You wake in the morning of a late spring day and there they are. The pink/white display of bud and petal, leaf and twig that is a feast for the eyes. Masako’s music touches the senses with sculptural notes of freshness and softness just like the annual spectacle of blushing blooming trees.
I’ve never been to New York City, but I now think that Central Park sounds like this. In the final tune, Central Park Retreat the meandering music puts me in mind of wide pathways, towering oak trees, and people in the landscape of everyday living. The music is the background to a brisk walk, but not without stopping to …smell the roses.
I found these dozen delightful tracks of instrumental music to be pleasing in every way. They are light, fluid, and fanciful. Masako creates a garden for the mind where thorns are banished and gentleness, warmth, and a plethora of daydreams greet you at every turn. Highly listenable all.
- R J Lannan, Artisan Music Reviews
Rating: Excellent
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