Sharon O'Connell selects four standout albums to listen to this month, including a luminous collection of soundscapes from Jon Hopkins, a sombre yet cathartic release from musician Emma Ruth Rundle, and an affecting offering from Damon Albarn, inspired by the Icelandic landscapeTags: Music,
If the title of musician, producer and DJ Jon Hopkins' sixth studio album stirs memories of something else, it should: he chose it partly as an homage to Brian Eno’s Music For Airports and Music For Films, though Hopkins doesn’t regard his new work as ambient. Despite its longform, immersive nature and lack of beats, Music For Psychedelic Therapy is far more substantial and intense than that genre tag suggests.
Rather than a background wash of sounds, it offers a series of vivid and luminous compositions featuring synths, piano, treated violin, a crystal singing bowl, field recordings made during Hopkins’ trip to Ecuador’s storied Tayos Caves, and vocals - including an extract from a talk by the late American spiritual teacher Ram Dass. It’s also drenched in emotion, as you might expect of a record rooted in its author’s interest in and personal experience of both the creative potential of psychedelics and their consciousness-altering power.
Originally written as just two tracks and later divided into nine, it’s best listened to as a set piece. That being said, ‘Deep In The Glowing Heart’ is a highlight. Running at just under nine minutes, it spreads almost imperceptibly from softly burbling synth embers to a field of radiant, liquid light, before fading away on infinity’s drone.
Out now. Label: Domino
Musically, Emma Ruth Rundle has run the gloomy gamut from goth-folk to sludge-metal, both solo and in various band settings. Existentially and emotionally, the Portland-based artist has always repped for the dark side. Exposure to drug use as a child and decades of her own struggles with alcohol and drug addiction (she’s now sober) have inevitably shaped her expression, and nowhere is it laid more bare than on the somber and cathartic Engine Of Hell.
She’s described it as effecting "a great, magical transformation", achieved by returning to the piano of her teenage years, which compelled her to be still and reflect, stripping away everything except keys, guitar and her voice and recording most songs live.
Production is minimal and mistakes go uncorrected, which creates a strikingly intimate, non-performative feel, as if Rundle were right there in the room. Leaning in is an instinctive reaction to the whispered drama of 'Blooms Of Oblivion', which recalls Chelsea Wolfe or a stripped-to-the-bone Cat Power, and the elegiac, egg-fragile 'Dancing Man'. There’s nothing so glib as a signpost to a bright future here, but however anguished the air of closing track 'In My Afterlife', in the last line Rundle acknowledges that "now we’re free".
Out now. Label: Sargent House
Considering his membership of Blur, Gorillaz and The Good The Bad & The Queen, his steering of the Africa Express collective and collaborative busyness, it’s easy to forget that Damon Albarn’s CV also includes a solo album. Now, seven years on from Everyday Robots, he’s finally found time for a (very different) follow-up.
The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows is short, at just 39 minutes, and based on recording sessions in an Icelandic studio, where Albarn directed musicians to "play the landscape" outside. The ensuing pandemic meant he was left to work up those rough sketches into almost one year later.
It’s a big stretch to call these pop songs: they’re more suggestive compositions with improv roots, shaped by piano, detailed with synths, delicate strings and jazzy saxophone undertones and, when they’re not drifting in the ether, anchored by machine-drum beats.
Ineffable sadness has the upper hand, but there’s a span of moods and styles: the exquisitely billowing 'Esja' is the most abstract, and 'Combustion', which marries anxious sax squawking to a galumphing rhythm, then introduces a pretty, cocktail-bar piano refrain, the most perverse. Somewhere in between lie 'Darkness To Light', whose forlornly twinkling melody and shuffling beats recall Badly Drawn Boy, and the winnowing, Robert Wyatt-like 'The Cormorant'. Throughout, Albarn’s vocals work their sweet, touchingly bereft charm.
Out now. Label: Transgressive
Drummer and percussionist Guillermo E. Brown can currently be seen playing in the house band on The Late Late Show with James Cordern, but he spent his formative years in NYC under the mentorship of Phillip Glass, playing with free jazzers like William Parker and Matthew Shipp. He’s also collaborated with countless leftfield hip-hop artists and released music both under his own name and as Pegasus Warning.
Inspiration Equation is his debut album under that alias, and though not entirely solo, it’s very much a realisation of his experimental R&B vision, focused on both individual and shared BIPOC life experiences and the dream of a unified humankind.
That one interlude honours Breonna Taylor, who was killed last year by Louisville police and another Bree Black, a Black trans woman who was shot dead in Florida, points to Brown’s intentions. As the title suggests, though, these are songs built for nourishment, which ooze warmth as they update funk, soul and R&B conventions.
Electronic noise and synths are laid over some songs, warping their very structure, as on the dizzying 'Pheels', and forcing a sudden switch in style, as with 'Won’t Be Ashamed'. The guiding force throughout, however, is Brown's love of artists from Prince to Daft Punk, Animal Collective to OutKast, and his pop sensibility.
Out now. Label: Self-released