Category Archives: Album reviews

Underwater checkMAtE: electronic sounds from Thessaloniki

Edgy meetings

Originally formed in 2011 by Adam Siagas (live electronics) and Thomas Kostoulas (drums), M.A.t.E [Meetings Along the Edge] have been established as one of the foremost electronic ensembles originating from Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city and a historically vibrant musical  and cultural hub.

M.A.t.E’s line-up took its definitive form when vocalist Maria-Elisavet Kotini joined the band during the recording of their self-titled debut. A follow-up album called Transitions was released In March 2016. As already signified by the band’s name, their music represents a meeting point of several diverse influences, styles and genres, ranging from drum’n’bass and dubstep to trip hop and electronica.

An eclectic and sonically rich album, Transitions stands at the crossroads between analog and digital, acoustic and electronic, while also balancing between Western tech frenzy and Eastern meditative sounds (see, for example, the Indian influences in Surya).

Along with drums, synthesizers, samples and Maria-Elisavet’s enchanting presence,  M.A.t.E also enhance their live performances with visuals in order to engage audiences and create a more interactive atmosphere. Their strong visual identity is also apparent in their excellent video clips, such as the video for RedruM (directed by Sideris Nanoudis), where sound and image blend artfully to tell a story in a powerful, engaging way.

Along the edge and underwater

Also hailing from Thessaloniki, electro-acoustic duo Underwater Chess (PP – guitars, bass, cymbals, programming / MV – violins, vocals) started out in the early 2000s by playing covers from artists such as Butthole Surfers and Björk, but soon turned to improvisation and began developing their own distinctive sound.

Following their debut In Joy Your Fear (2011), a kind of sonic collage of various improvisational recordings, their latest album Seriality (released early last year) is in many ways a remarkable achievement. A unique amalgam of electronic, ambient, rock, and dance elements, their sound is characterized by atmospheric and recurring motifs, rich dynamics, and rhytmic intensity.

Featuring imaginative guitars, loops, violin and vocal parts, Seriality is an impressive record not only musically but also in terms of production. Even from a simple hearing, it becomes apparent that a lot of time and effort have been devoted to the programming, mixing and sound engineering in order to produce such a well-polished and carefully crafted record.

Perhaps it is only natural that in a city like Thessaloniki, standing along the edge and next to the water, bands with fresh ideas and edgy sound constantly emerge, competing with each other like in a game οf musical chess – where, of course, there can only be one winner: music lovers, both from their hometown and beyond!

“A true miracle”: Metamorphosis by Alexia Chrysomalli

Introducing Alexia

Born in 1984 in Thessaloniki, Alexia Chrysomalli took her first music lessons at the age of 8, when she came in contact with Byzantine music. She went on to study the clarinet and classical singing, and has been a professional singer since the age of 19.

Alexia is a founding member of all-female vocal ensemble Stringless and has also been a member of Greek ethnic band Namaste. She has been steeped in traditional Greek music, mostly from Thrace and Macedonia, and has been singing in village feasts and playing with several distinguished traditional musicians in order to learn and delve into the traditional songs she loves so dearly.

The birth of “Metamorphosis”

All those songs had a major influence on Alexia’s compositions and singing and, along with an “internal sense and path of self inquiry”, are elements that found their way in her debut album Metamorphosis, which has just been released independently. In Alexia’s own words, the album is “a united concept and every song is a stage or level that a soul can experience during a deep transformative period”.

Although there was practically zero budget for the project, there was nevertheless a strong need and determination to make it happen. As Alexia puts it, the album’s creation was “a true miracle”, becoming possible largely due to the devotion and the open heart of all those who worked on it, including her friend and manager Helen Kontos, producer Kostas Kontos, sound engineer Kriton Kiourtis, and all the musicians who took part in the recording: Kyriakos Gouventas, Giannis Karakalpakidis, Thanasis Kleopas, Panagiotis Alepidis, Vangelis Maramis, Vasilis Karakousis, Anastassia Zachariadou, Kostas Chanis and Ermis Savvantoglou. Kudos also go to Daphni Kontou for the graphic design and Michalis Vlavianos for the cover photo.

The album features Alexia’s own compositions, with her magnificently rich and soulful voice radiating throughout. Metamorphosis is full of beautiful moments such as the vocal parts in the opening track Calling or the seductive melodic lines in Source. Another highlight is the album’s closer Helios, an ode to the greatness of life-giving Sun.

“New artists, fresh sound, open-minded audience”

Regarding the contemporary Greek music scene, Alexia feels that it needs “some refreshment from the side of the artists but also from the side of the audience. We need new artists with fresh sound and a more open-minded audience. During these times of crisis we do not invest a lot of money in culture. One of the results is that every year most Greek music festivals feature the same artists again and again. So there is not much space for the new, wonderful musicians who want to share their work with the audience.”

There are, however, alternatives: “Like an independent artist, I think is quit easy to make yourself heard through social media. People who resonate and get inspired by your work can easily follow you.”

Photo by Michalis Vlavianos

What if Alexia’s music library was set on fire? The first records she would run to rescue would be the albums of Dead Can Dance, Amália Rodrigues, Evros from the group Methorios (“a piece of art for the traditional music of Thrace”), as well as recordings from jam sessions she had with people she met over the last years.

As for the future, Alexia aims to give as many concerts as possible both in Greece and abroad. “I want to share my music with people that it means something to their heart and soul”, she says. “The last year I composed 14 news songs and I am looking forward to start recording again.”

Drawing the line of a new horizon

It all began two years ago, when Ewelina Chiu and Daniel Vlček first met as participants of DaDa Festival in June 2014. Following an impromptu performance with Dan on electronics and Ewelina on the mic, the two Prague-based artists decided to collaborate under the name ba:zel doing various acts such as exhibitions, “soundtrack” performances, and other conceptual projects .

ba:zel

The Prague-based duo ba:zel (Ewelina Chiu & Daniel Vlček)

After a productive 4-month residency in the Dutch city of Arnhem (where they worked in isolation inside an old 1980s army complex) the electroacoustic duo focused on making music and laid down six tracks, keeping the name ba:zel. Their debut album eye draw(s) the line, released earlier this summer, is the result of a 2-year process and the first release for both of them.

Vocals, piano, and flute parts were recorded at Faust Studios in Prague, while the album’s electronic parts were recorded at home by Daniel himself. The whole album was mixed by Slovenian producer Gasper Šantl, and mastered by Andreas “Lupo” Lubich at Calyx Mastering in Berlin.

The sound of ba:zel bears a wide array of influences ranging from free techno and hardcore electronica (drawing from Dan’s background as a DJ in the Czech underground techno scene) to classical music, which finds expression in Ewelina’s melodic vocal lines and piano playing. As the vocalist herself puts it:

I’ve never sung before, so when I write melodies and lyrics I’m influenced by classical forms like the sonata, waltz, nocturne, etc. Afterwards I end up deconstructing the melody when Dan and I put the whole thing together. When I write lyrics I’m influenced by literature and poetry, specifically the poet E.E. Cummings and authors of the beat generation, and also Czech authors such as Kundera and Hrabal. The texts play with language, are coded, and invite the listener to decrypt.

The combination of Daniel’s imaginative use of electronic sounds and Ewelina’s delicate, fragile vocals (which, at times, bring to mind Icelandic songwriter Sóley) makes eye draw(s) the line an absorbing, atmospheric album that indeed appears to draw the line of a promising new horizon for the two Czech artists.

From Iceland with love

While Kraftwerk were hitting up Paradiso for the opening night of of their epic 8-gig retrospective, a more humble event was taking place at Tolhuistuin, the vibrant new venue for arts and culture located in Amsterdam North, just opposite the city’s imposing railway station.

The line-up consisted of two lesser-known bands from Iceland, which has proved to be a consistently good source for creative new artists in constant search of diverse soundscapes.

Not just a pretty face

In 2011 Icelandic songwriter Sóley released We Sink, her first full length album, followed by Krómantík in 2014, which featured solely piano music. Having been noted for their “dark surrealism”, Sóley’s songs are characterized by strangely beautiful melodic lines and her subtle, delicate singing.

Her slight clumsiness/nervousness on stage only made her performance more attractive (at some point she asked the audience ”are you from Amsterdam?”), while her dream-like compositions (which included tunes from We Sink but also several new songs) quickly captivated the crowd and created the perfect setting for the act that was about to follow.

Low profile, high standards

Low Roar came to being after singer-songwriter Ryan Karazija moved from California to Reykjavík following the break-up of his old band Audrye Sessions. In Iceland, he recorded Low Roar’s self-titled debut album, which was followed by 0 (2014), a truly magnificent record that combines elegantly Karazija’s folk-style guitar playing and ethereal vocal lines with electronic loops and post-rock elements.

Low Roar’s silent dynamism and low profile combined with their focused, dedicated playing made for a great performance at Tolhuistuin; taking the music to various directions from reserved lyricism and atmospheric ballads to electronic and dance breaks, Low Roar offered the crowd a live show of the highest level.

 

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The ceaseless roar of a rock legend

The return of the rock god

Out of all the charismatic frontmen who rose to fame during hard rock’s golden age, Robert Plant stands out as one of the most significant and influential figures. His tenure as Led Zeppelin’s lead singer and lyricist earned him near-legendary status, while his unique singing style had a tremendous impact upon subsequent generations of rock musicians and vocalists. Besides, it was largely Plant’s looks, flamboyant appearance and powerful stage presence that gave birth to the “rock god” archetype.

Robert-Plant

Robert Plant in the 70s

But even more remarkable than Plant’s mythical stage persona has been his enduring desire to expand his musical horizons and explore new ways of expression. Throughout his solo career, Plant has experimented and recorded with several different bands (e.g. Priory of Brion, Strange Sensation, Band of Joy), while also collaborating with musicians from diverse backgrounds such as Irish folk songwriter Moya Brennan and American country singer Alison Krauss.

A sensational lullaby

Plant’s latest album Lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar is not so much a solo effort as a group project with his new band The Sensational Space Shifters. In some ways, it represents a recap of his musical wanderlust over the years, bringing together Plant’s eclectic influences ranging from bluegrass and Depression-era blues to Celtic and Malian music.

Echoes of Led Zeppelin can be heard throughout the album, from the playful allusion to the riff of Nobody’s Fault but Mine in Little Maggie (performed on the one-stringed African instrument riti with its characteristic high-pitch sound) to Pocketful of Golden, which shares its opening line with Thank You (the very first Led Zeppelin song Plant wrote lyrics for). Other album highlights include Rainbow with its driving rhythm and Embrace Another Fall, where guest vocalist Julie Murphy gives a beautiful treatment of the ancient Welsh song Marwnad yr Ehedydd.

With this exciting and inspired new record, Robert Plant proves once again he’s got far more to offer than worn-out, unoriginal repetitions brimming with nostalgia. The image of the long-haired, bare-chested, blond rock god may persist, but those who have been following Plant in his sensational post-Zep shift through time and space will no doubt find Lullaby to be a truly delightful stop in this long and unpredictable journey.