The Collaboration Engine (MP3s)

This year marks the 20th anniversary of The Difference Engine, the landmark collaborative novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, who in one weighty book set the bar high for the steampunk genre. As two science fiction authors with significantly different voices and visions, they produced a book neither of them could have — or, perhaps, might even chosen to have — written independently. The novel’s unique, tandem narrative engine came to mind during a listen to Credence, the recent collaboration between Christopher McFall and David Vélez on the Impulsive Habitat netlabel. Collaboration is nothing new in music, certainly, not even in electronic music, which has more than its share of solo laptop proponents.

What’s worth paying attention to in the work of McFall and Vélez is the foundation of their efforts. There is no back beat to “Credence” (the album consists of one single, nearly 40-minute work), no riffs, no verse-chorus-verse structure. It’s a freely moving piece, wending its way between field recordings and what could, perhaps, be called “non-representational” sounds (MP3). The latter term is meant to combine synthesized tonal material and field recordings that have been manipulated beyond any easy resemblance to everyday sonic experience.

[audio:|titles=”Credence”|artists=Christopher McFall and David Vélez]

“Credence” has a strong sense of narrative, in part because the absence of song structure puts it, almost by default, closer to the realm of “program music,” in which music follows a predetermined story line. (It is thick with natural sounds, like water, and things adrift in water — or at least that’s what the imagination makes of it.) The other reason it feels story-like is because the piece sounds like the audio to a film, specifically the audio to a film during those moments when the foreground recedes, when dialogue is absent, when it’s all environmental (or foley — i.e., faux-environmental) sounds plus the imposed score. Halfway through “Credence,” for example, the mix is of rough rural noises and deep tones that sound like an orchestral section bleeding through.

Whether or not film is a reference point for the composers, it is one for the listener, who cannot help, when listening to Credence, imagining the silent story that is unfolding as it proceeds. It would be interesting to learn how the two musicians made the music, whether they had some sort of plot in mind, whether they employed some of the procedural tools employed by group improvisers (not the free-jazz kind, but the storytelling/comedy kind).

Get the full release for free download at More on McFall at, and Vélez at

Cranium Fortress (MP3)

Cranium Fortress is the moniker of a Washington, D.C.”“based musician who creates rhythmically enticing instrumental music that skirts the border between abstract electronics and pop-minded songcraft. The track “Organ Furnace” off Cranium’s recent self-titled collection, self-released last month at, typifies the approach. There’s an undeniable sense of forward motion, if not of outright melodic activity. The overall effect is more than sufficient to solidify the track’s general-listener approachability. But the subtlety is rewarding as well, the way the initial organ sound slowly accrues in layers before coalescing into a steady backing element — and how the percussion arrives, coming in as if from behind, soft but steady in a manner that brings to mind the band Low.

Get the full album for free download at More tracks at

Information-Age Industrial Music (MP3s)

The ambient subgenres of pre-existing genres is where the music often makes its most valuable contributions. In the hands of folks like the Boxhead Ensemble and the solo work of Boxhead member Scott Tuma, we get country music without the songs, in which rural sentiments are summoned up as mood, not stories. In the hands of people like Ben Neill and Grassy Knoll, we can get tastes of jazz without the riffs, in which improvisation is about tone and texture. In the hands of Eivind Aarset, we get fusion without the noodling, all about the jazz inherent in electricity.

And in the hands of folks like Sighup, aka Steve Hamann, we get industrial music without the production-line rigor, left instead with the sort of power-plant ambience that’s heard in “City Import,” the opening cut on his recent three-song collection City Passage (MP3). It’s not pure haze, not the imagined ambience that is entirely made up of ethereal layers — and, more to the point, entirely made up; the absence of vestiges of the physical is one of the most unnecessary norms in ambient music, one that Hamann is more than happy to disregard. “City Import” has weight and movement, like that of wires scraping against each other in a thin breeze. It’s the power plant after hours, when the crew has gone home. There’s no Disney/Pixar fantasia about the machinery coming alive, just the everyday noises of machines after dark. And just because the track doesn’t meander into anthropomorphism doesn’t mean it’s un-affectionate. This is Information Age industrial music, in which the sheer physicality of machines is enough to distinguish them from the near-friction-less gadgetry that has become the everyday norm, and to make them objects of fascination.

[audio:|titles=”City Import”|artists=Sighup]

Get the full collection of three tracks for free download at More details at the releasing netlabel,

More on Sighup/Hamann, who is based in Toronto, at,, and In the past, I’ve referred to this kind of non-metronomic industrial music as “industrial industrial” music.

When Seams Are Showing (MP3)

The appearance of a seam in sample-based music is not, unto itself, a sure sign of sloppiness. It can be employed as a texture, as a beat, even as a full-blown compositional element — in other words, the signifier of an error can be used, quite the contrary, as a considered, purposeful musical tool. This ability to turn mistake into music is one of many reasons that hip-hop is often likened to jazz, even if the latter is inherently improvised and the former (the backing track, if not the vocals) is inherently frozen.

The “sample seam” is generally heard as one of two things, as either a sudden gap or as a harsh truncation. It’s either a momentary pause between two common elements, as when a looped tone is intended to sound continuously but leaves a small break, or a quick cut, as when a sound is brought to an artificial close for metric and, in capable hands, rhythmic effect. (Metric would be to match the beat. Rhythmic would be to do so with artful implication.)

The “sample seam” is born of studio production, but it is not without parallel in so-called “traditional” instruments: think of the flutist taking a quick breath of air, or the guitartist’s finger resonating on the surface of a string, or the woodwind’s keys heard fluttering. Of course, those examples still depend on the presence of amplification for the effect to be heard, but that requirement just firms up the parallel between those sounds and that of the “sample seam.”

This all came to mind during several listens to Learning to Draw, a new collection by a beatcrafty musician who goes by the name Hypoetical. The standout track is its second entry, titled “Meditation,” in which a guitar loop serves as the constant element for a feat of downtempo loveliness (MP3). Also appearing are drums, bass, and a tremulous xylophone, each of those distinct parts heard as a self-conscious loop whose artificiality is essential to its delectability.


Get the full album, seven tracks total, for free download at More on Hypoetical at He was previously featured here for pairing turntablism and koto.

A Marriage of Voice and Processing (MP3s)

It’s not a battle, per se. The two forces at work on the album Hex tend to feel like they’re seeking balance, even if it’s more often the case that one or the other takes clear prominence. These forces are the voice of Prophecy Sun and the electronic processing of Kristen Roos. Together the duo record as Spell, which isn’t an inappropriate name for an act that offers a fair amount of enchantment. Hex‘s first and third tracks, in particular, serve up a mysterious, haunting effect. And those, perhaps not surprisingly, are the ones where the vocals don’t so much take a back seat to the equipment as give themselves over to it, in “Forest” allowing for vowels to emerge slowly from a harsh thicket of white noise (MP3), and in “Fading Away” achieving a patina of madrigal-like antiquity (MP3).

[audio:|titles=”Forest”|artists=Spell] [audio:|titles=”Fading Away”|artists=Spell]

Both forces can be heard searching for a sense of solidarity, finding their most productive common ground when synthesis and voice merge into an attenuated aura. It isn’t just that the voice can overpower the vocals. There are moments, such as at the tail end of “Fading Away,” when it seems like someone turned on a video game, that it becomes clear the electronics are just as capable of imposing themselves on the process. The other two tracks on the recording, “Just a Matter of Time” and “Break the Speed of Light,” are ones where Prophecy Sun’s vocals don’t just take center stage, but the work of Roos coalesces into something more song-like.

What’s especially promising for Spell — this is their first collection of songs — is that the album was recorded live. The liner note explains: “All of the tracks were recorded in one take. There is no post-production, aside from equalization and mastering.” Additional time working together, along with some studio-based fine-tuning, could yield something remarkable.

Album originally posted for free download at More on Roos at and Prophecy Sun at