by Allister Thompson
If you happen to be an avid reader of this site (I suppose such people must exist), you may have come across my roundups in which I do capsule reviews of recent releases that struck my fancy (I still have a plan to index those properly … someday). A regular fixture of those sections is Earlyguard, the musical nom de plume of German musician/composer Thomas Frühwacht. I do believe I’ve covered every release he’s done in the two years since I started this blog — that’s how much I enjoy his music. Well, 2015 sees the release of his most ambitious work yet, Nachtgedanken, so it behooves me to give him the proper treatment. I’ve liked all the releases I’ve reviewed, or I wouldn’t have reviewed them, but there has been an enjoyable development to chart over the course of these long-form recordings, from a more standard long-form ambient/dark ambient style to a form of modern, minimal composition that actually calls to mind more the giants of mid-2oth century, musicians whose electroacoustic work developed in tandem with Abstract Expressionism and other avant-garde art styles: Morton Feldman, Morton Subotnick, Lamonte Young, John Cage, György Ligeti. These composers threw the rule book out the window (and any rules about instrumentation along with it). Music was no longer about controlling listeners’ moods through certain set movements in a piece, like the movements of a symphony, or composing certain styles of pieces according to a rule book. The very purpose of organized sound was changed, and the ways in which a listener could “officially” enjoy it were too. The pieces of composers like Feldman breathe over long running times, with sparse instrumentation or voices repeating phrases or just sounds, creating a spacious, meditative state; exactly what ambient music does, but in a more challenging and less (typically) pretty way. Dark ambient is traditionally more challenging to listen to than the new agier version of the ambient genre (I like both), so I guess it’s only natural that Earlyguard’s music has developed out of what I would describe as dark, edgy ambient. He favours the longer format for pieces, one would assume so that like Feldman in pieces like Coptic Light and Elemental Procedures or Eliane Radigue’s heavy drones, the music is allowed all the space it needs to set the right mood and slowly develop its themes. I have included those capsule reviews (edited a little) below, but first, let’s talk about Nachtgedanken, which is actually comprised of three long pieces each clocking in at roughly just over a quarter hour. In that sense it’s similar to the bigger packages that Steve Roach has done, like Immersion: Three — related pieces but each with its own unique character. This almost 2.5-hour monolith is definitely redolent of mid 20th century composition in that the pieces are based on spartan piano, which is not played in a melodic style; it’s more clusters of notes, with the gaps filled in by eerie electronics. I’d say it rides the line between atonal “modern classical” (by which I mean actual modern classical, not … you know, that genre where people make gooey, pretty piano music that would once have been considered New Age, but they made up a fancier name for it) and experimental sound art of the sort that people like, say, Richard Chartier, Alva Noto or Kim Cascone do. In fact, there’s a very basic resemblance to the duo albums of Sakamoto and Alva Noto. Needless to say, it’s excellently done, a very immersive listening experience for listeners who like to be challenged (or who like to do zazen meditation). I’d say challenging the listener’s sonic assumptions concerning what is enjoyable for the ear and mind was one of the primary goals of the Feldmans and Cages of the 1950s, and this is music that not only draws on the best of that tradition but fuses it with the sounds of modern experimental sound art in a masterful way.
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PREVIOUS EARLYGUARD REVIEWS
(Note that these quote earlier reviews and hence may contain some repetitive language). Undefined Shapes Undefined Shapes is a very impressive single-track long-form ambient recording, based on an unobtrusive but cavernous drone that waxes and wanes over the course of forty-five minutes. The recording goes through various louder and softer permutations, with subtle shades of sound popping in and out of the mix before eventually developing into a lightly sequenced part with roots in the Berlin School. I love the mood this piece creates — this guy knows the subtle craft of drone music. Isolation Earlyguard is both prolific and consistently good, producing albums of longform spiritual ambient music that is very soothing (. Isolation is a quiet, subtle release with a mournful, hazy tone. Perfect for a fall day, I must say. Sustaining interest over 50 minutes is not easy, but Earlyguard is definitely a master of this kind of minimalist composition — you can put it on in the background, but if you listen closely there are small shifts in tone and shade and little pseudo-melodies that crop up, and you find yourself staring at the wall and blanking out while listening. Very nice indeed! I reckon Earlyguard is one of the best long-form ambient composers on the globe right now. Possible World Earlyguard is quite prolific in producing his series of long-form, single-track ambient albums, but the frequency of these releases in no way seems to detract from their quality. I’ve covered a couple of previous ones, and this one is just as impressive. Interestingly, Possible World has a positive title but I personally find the tone of this drone a bit more melancholy than the previous ones I’ve heard. Hence it’s my favourite. It’s a masterful drone of sonorous synths, sparse yet rich and ethereal. Definitely something Roach and Brennan fans should be chomping at the bit to hear, so get on that Earlyguard train right now! Long-form classic-style ambient does not get better than this. Abstraction No one asked me to listen to this, I just felt like it. Earlyguard and Scott Lawlor are two of the finer ambient composers kicking around these days, so a collaboration between the two was bound to be good. Earlyguard does a ton of great long-form work, while Lawlor is more of a dabbler with successes in a few ambient subgenres. This 45-minute long-form track is everything you want in a pure ambient piece, a nice bed of bass drone with shifting pads skipping in a shiny fashion over the top. About 3/4 of the way through, very Steve Roachy sequencing kicks in to provide a rhythmic element. Shimmery, shiny, lovely lighter ambient that I will be playing with regularity. A nice one indeed from the We Are All Ghosts netlabel. Alterations Earlyguard makes long-form ambient, and lots of it, but unlike many prolific sorts, the quality is always high and never watered down. His stuff in the past has always been elegant and melancholy examples of long-form drone ambient, pieces that subtly shift, change and develop during their length without losing the central mood or capacity to entrance. And believe you me, this is not an easy task, but Earlyguard is expert at it. This one is the same in that regard but very different to his usual work. In fact, it’s debatable whether this is an ambient album at all. I’m a big fan of mid-20th century avant-garde composers, and that’s what this most closely represents. By that I mean particularly two key composers, Feldman and Ligeti. The use of vibraphone- and bell-type sounds, dissonant but organized, is very redolent of Feldman’s gentle and spacious pieces like “Rothko Chapel“, which, if you’ve not heard it, you must right now (link provided). There are also some choral synth sounds very similar to Feldman or Ligeti’s ghostly choral arrangements (listen at about minute 40). However, classic ambient synth pad drones are also present in the mix. I was actually a little stunned by how good this is and how expertly it recalls the glory days of Abstract Expressionism melding with experimental music. You gotta hear this one. Largo Earlyguard just keeps on putting out long-form piece after long-form piece; many other artists would falter in terms of quality if they kept up that rate of production. However, Earlyguard’s stylistic choices just keep developing in fascinating ways. The previous album, Alterations, gives up ambient music for a fine example of Feldmanesque “indeterminate music” in that mid-twentieth century sense, and Earlyguard goes further into that territory with the very minimal Largo. This 36.5-minute piece is for piano and subtle electronics, with tons of room left for that Cage-esque moment of Zen contemplation in the space and time between notes. Earlyguard’s note selection is quite exquisite and the eerie electronic touches only enhance the experience. If he keeps this up, the classical music establishment might have to start taking him seriously!