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John Diliberto

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Listen to the Essential CDs of 2008 show


25 Essential Echoes CDs for 2008
A study in confluence

by John Diliberto

It's always difficult to discern a trend or a theme when you're in the thick of it. But with the 25 Essential Echoes CDs for 2008, I'm afforded an opportunity to look back on the year and see the intersecting lines of influence and confluence that shaped the soundscape. The dividing line between the number one and number 25 selections has never been thinner. Along with that, the interconnections have never been more profound.

See the list: 25 Essential Echoes CDs for 2008
See the results of the 2008 Echoes Listeners Poll

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The 25 Essential Echoes CDs 2008:
Digitonal
Digitonal

What a Great Place to Be
Sumner McKane

River's Arms
Balmorhea

Almeria
Fernwood

Villa Galaxia
Saul Stokes

One
Jamshied Sharifi

Ahn Trio
The Ahn Trio

Eyes like Brontide
Lights Out Asia

Unspoken
Jami Sieber

3 Cities
Bombay Dub Orchestra

Holon
Nik Bartsch's Ronin

Soulful Filling

General Fuzz

Translucida
Qntal
A Lost Connection
Marconi Union

Maybe they will sing for us tomorrow
Hammock

Heaven and Earth
John Gregorius

The Bog Bodies
Gerry O'Beirne

Fordlandia
Johann Johannsson

Indigo Road
Ronn McFarlane


The 10,000 Steps
Biomusique
Our number one choice, Digitonal's Save Your Light for Darker Days embodied many characteristics you'll find in all the CDs on this list. It's a deeply personal album, fusing individual musicianship with electronic arrangements and a classical sense of form and structure. Like just about every number one CD we've picked on Echoes, it has a quintessence that is easy to discern. Neo-chamber and ambient chamber music dominated the Echoes soundscape in 2008 and Save Your Light for Darker Days was the most sophisticated, intoxicating and emotive ambient chamber music album of the year.

Listen to an Echo Location

Save Your Light for Darker Days






read a review
Johann Johannsson

But they weren't alone. Various forms of neo-chamber music dominated the list. Jóhann Jóhannsson,
an Icelandic composer born in 1969, has been working just under the radar.  But he's reached a peak with his album Fordlandia. In spacious, elongated sound fields that owe a debt to Arvo Pärt and Henryk Gorecki, he merges full symphonic strings and winds, as well as a string quartet, with ambient backings, electric guitar and pipe organ.

Listen to an Echo Location about Jóhann Jóhannsson

Arvo Part
Arvo Pärt is the patron saint of the new ambient chamber music. His contemplative themes, tonal shadings and spiritual underpinnings attract musicians with a penchant for Zen-like states.


Balmorhea
Balmorhea

Balmorhea Living Room Concert
Balmorhea
Living Room Concert
Balmorhea, a young band from Texas cite Pärt as well as Italy's Ludovico Einaudi as influences. You can hear it in the refined, but distinctly Americana moods of their album, River's Arms. It's an ambient Americana of plaintive guitars, tremulous strings and open plains landscapes.

Americana sounds inform the band called Fernwood as well. Headed up by Gayle Ellett and Todd Montgomery, they mix bouzouki with mandolin, acoustic guitar with sitar in an exotic quaintness on their album Almeria. Although they come more from rock than classical music, you can hear the relationship between these musicians and classically trained artists like Anja Lechner & Vasillis Tsabropoulos, The Ahn Trio and Ronn McFarlane. One group is effecting classical moods out of rock and folk roots, while the other is taking classical designs and making them contemporary.


Listen to an Echo Location with Fernwood
Listen to a sample from Balmorhea's Living Room Concert
Fernwood
Fernwood

Gayle Ellett
Gayle Ellett

Anja Lechner and Vassilis Tsabropolous
Lechner and Tsabropoulos's album Chants, Hymns and Dances redefined my aesthetic map for Echoes and was our number one Essential Echoes CD for 2004. Their perfectly pitched performances attained a nuanced expression that made me place many neo-classical wannabes in the reject pile. On their 2008 album, Melos, the addition of percussionist U.T. Ghandhi took away some of the purity and slowed the flow of their music and made it clumsy. But on most of the CD, they're on their own, weaving breathlessly beautiful, perfectly pitched duets between cello and piano like lovers (which they aren't).
Listen to a sample from their Living Room Concert

I found echoes of their sound in two other recordings this year, The Ahn Trio's Lullaby for My Favorite Insomniac and Ronn McFarlane's Indigo Road. Like Lechner and Tsabropoulos, they're seeking new expressions of classical form. The Ahn Trio mix original tunes written for them by Kenji Bunch with other contemporary compositions and then top it with remixes from DJ Spooky and others. The results were euphoric and expressive. Ronn McFarlane took a similar, though more conservative direction with Indigo Road, writing all new music for the Renaissance lute. The thing is, he actually succeeds in making it contemporary, while still retaining the plaintive charm of the lute's roots. Yet, no one here is as contemporary as Qntal, the German group mixing Mediaeval lyrics and instruments with electronics. Translucida transcends with powerful Valkyrie vocals and melodies from soprano Syrah (Sigrid Hausen) and the mix of ancient strings and modern electronics with propulsive rhythms.


Ahn Trio
The Ahn Trio

Ronn McFarlane
Qntal
Qntal
Syrah
Syrah

While most of these artists work in flowing lines and wind swept themes, Nik Bärtsch's Ronin is more architectural, with meticulous group interplay that has elements of minimalism, Bartok and a touch of funk. Their compositions on Holon converge and contract in midair like a perfectly choreographed puzzle. It's easily the most cerebral music on the list, but nevertheless, there is a visceral tug that draws you into the maze.

Listen to a sample from
Ronin's Living Room Concert

If Ronin is a puzzle, Jami Sieber is a Celtic knot as she weaves her cello in spirals of loops on the album, Unspoken (read a review). Jami straddles genres. Her looping, electronically processed cello puts her in league with Digitonal and Samy Bishai's electric violin. Her world music touches, including percussion and bansuri flute, aligns her with Jamshied Sharifi and her classically tinged melodies put her in the first cello chair of the ambient orchestra.


Listen to an Echo Location with Jami Sieber

 Nik Bartsch's Ronin
Nik Bartsch's Ronin

 Nik Bartsch
Nik Bartsch

Jami Sieber
Ronin
Ronin's Living Room Concert

Speaking of Jamshied, he's one of the few on this list holding up the world fusion side of the Echoes sound. His album, One, didn't quite have that shock of the new he accomplished on his solo debut, A Prayer for the Soul of Leyla, eleven years ago (our number 1 Essential Echoes CD of 1997), but nevertheless, it's a detailed and heavily layered fusion of vocals from around the world with virtuoso musicians and voices that are both earthly and heavenly including Paula Cole, Mamak Khadem and Hassan Hakmoun. I'm always struck by the supple lines Jamshied plays on his wind-controlled synthesizer. He's one of the few musicians who actually has a voice on this instrument, although he usually places it in the background in the service of his compositions.

Listen to a track from Jamshied Sharifi's Living Room Concert


read a review


Garry Hughes and Andrew T. Mackay

Listen to an Echo Location
Bombay Dub Orchestra travel a similar global terrain as Jamshied Sharifi. Their album, 3 Cities, is a further evolution of their Bollywood-meets-electronica themes. A fusion of lush strings and vintage synthesizers adds both an edge and a veneer to their music. As I wrote in my November CD of the Month review of 3 Cities, Bombay Dub Orchestra sound ancient and modern, ironically kitschy and cosmic all at once.

read a review


Greg Ellis and
Lisbeth Scott
Biomusique, like most of the music here, lives in many worlds. A collaboration between film soundtrack siren Lisbeth Scott and ex-Vas percussionist Greg Ellis, it's a global chamber album of hymns, laments and lullabies that read like haiku. Scott's caressing voice calls out amidst delicately sculpted percussion, piano, guitars, dulcimer and even a bit of trumpet. The 10,000 Steps is global chamber music of the imagination. Read a review.

Listen to an Echo Location
Lisbeth Scott
Lisbeth Scott


John Gregorius
John Gregorius

Listen to an Echo Location
A chamber music sensibility also informs some acoustic guitar albums. Interestingly, there are no solo finger-style guitarists in this year's list although Will Ackerman came close with his Meditations CD. Yet, that influence is all over the list in ways you might not hear right away. Although John Gregorius cites prog-rockers like Genesis' Steve Hackett and Anthony Phillips, there's no doubt that the open-tuning approach used by Windham Hill guitarists is also part of his sound on Heaven and Earth (read a review). Members of both Hammock and Balmorhea cite outright the influence of Ackerman, Michael Hedges and Alex De Grassi on their music.
There are no finger-style soloists, but that doesn't mean there aren't acoustic guitars, usually a bunch of them. The California Guitar Trio gets their progressive rock roots on with the album Echoes, on which they deploy their three interlocked acoustics across epic prog tunes like Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" and Pink Floyd's "Echoes" to stunning effect. Irish guitarist Gerry O'Beirne also takes a page out of the Mike Oldfield book, overdubbing himself on guitars, bouzouki, mandolin and other stringed instruments for the pristine sound of The Bog Bodies and Other Stories (read a review).

Listen to a track from the California Guitar Trio's Living Room Concert, Sonic Seasonings 2006

There's a psychedelic strain that courses through much of the music on the list. In the year in which we saw the passing of Pink Floyd's Richard Wright and Mitch Mitchell from the Jimi Hendrix Experience, it's interesting to hear the sound they pioneered transformed by musicians a couple of generations away from the Summer of Love.
Lights Out Asia
Lights Out Asia
Listen to an Echo Location
It emerges on 25 Essential Echoes CDs for 2008 in many of the guitarists we played. With Eyes Like Brontide, Milwaukee's Lights Out Asia created a masterpiece of layered and distorted guitars, keyboards and otherworldly songs. They look to shoegazer music like My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins as influences, and that sound has a direct, albeit distorted, line to psychedelic rock. Hammock has many of the same influences, all bowing to Robin Guthrie, using electric guitars drenched in processing and reverb to effect the roiling atmospheres of Maybe They Will Sing For Us Tomorrow.
Hammock
Hammock

Listen to an Echo Location

Kevin Bartlett and John Diliberto
Kevin Bartlett and John Gregorius both look to early progressive rock and psychedelic music as influences, filtered through Brian Eno's ambient aesthetics. Kevin's Glow in the Dark is a dynamic album of electronica orchestrations and morphing electric guitar leads, while on Heaven and Earth John Gregorius takes his acoustic guitar and puts it in ambient settings. It's an album that's comfortingly familiar, while still taking you to new destinations.


But topping them all was Sumner McKane's What a Great Place to Be, an album of Americana moods, new england landscapes and wistful nostalgia blown through acid-drenched and electronically processed guitar. McKane was a virtual toss-up for the number one CD. Read a review.

Sumner McKane

Sumner McKane

Listen to an Echo Location

Electronica seemed to be petering out earlier in the year when ambient chamber music was dominating, but it made a comeback in the second half with inventive albums from later generation players, although none of them are newbies.

General Fuzz
General Fuzz
Saul Stokes
Saul Stokes
Darshan Ambient
Darshan Ambient
Marconi Union
Marconi Union
Alu
Alu

The five electronica artists who made the 25 Essential Echoes list for 2008 reveal the diversity in that sound. General Fuzz continued his ambient lounge odyssey, successfully expanding to embrace ambient Americana and ambient chamber music on Soulful Filling. Saul Stokes takes a more purely electronic approach, referencing analog space ambiences while creating an entirely original and deceptively melodic album with Villa Galaxia. Darshan Ambient has been around since the vintage days of mp3.com, but with From Pale Hands to Weary Skies, he sheds his Patrick O'Hearn influences for an album of deep and trancey melodic ambient music. The glitch side of things was bent and distorted by England's Marconi Union who continue to make hypnotically ambient music. Let's make a special note here: their album A Lost Connection, coming in at #14, is the first download-only release to enter the Echoes 25 Essential CDs list. Finally there is Alu with her mix of cabaret and electronica, Kate Bush style vocal characterizations and lyrics that probe a dark, though often whimsical psychological interior. Her CD Lobotomy Sessions was one of the real joys and discoveries of 2008 for us.

Listen to an Echo Location with Marconi Union

What's telling about this list is that I can imagine any of the musicians on it collaborating with each other. It would be great to hear Alu immersed in the soundscapes of Digitonal while Sumner McKane laid down some morphing guitar riffs and The Ahn Trio jammed with Samy Bishai's electric violin as Anja Lechner and Vasillis Tsabropoulos wrapped their cello and piano around the melody. They might not do it in reality, but they all collaborated this year in the soundscape of Echoes.

See the list: 25 Essential Echoes
CDs for 2008

Listen on Monday December 15th, Sunday December 21st and Thursday January 1 and hear all 25 CDs
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Melos
Anja Lechner and
Vassilis Tsabropoulos
Echoes
California Guitar Trio
From Pale Hands
Darshan Ambient
Glow in the Dark
Kevin Bartlett
Lobotomy Sessions
Alu

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